Domestication as Narrative and Politics

Domestication Gone Wild: Politics and Practices of Multispecies Relations, edited by Heather Anne Swanson, Marianne Elisabeth Lien, and Gro B. Ween (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

Reviewed by Juan Javier Rivera Andía, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos

This book discusses two dimensions of domestication: as a hegemonic narrative and as a politics of human difference. The discussion of the first issue is linked to the (arrogant) myth of human control over nature. The introduction, for example, invites us to revisit and avoid taking “as the natural way of things” (234) both “domestication as destiny” and “domestication as control” (122). Therefore, this book proposes that we need to prevent domestication (as narrative) from engulfing all multispecies relations in order to maintain “the ability to see the historical force of forms of interspecies dependence” (232). Second, its contributors jointly argue that we should accept that, as Anna Tsing puts it, domestication is not just “one element in the description of human interspecies relations,” but in fact “a standard to which not many interspecies relations can rise” (237). Each chapter revisits diverse practices of other-than-human engagement obscured by popular domestication narratives, located at the margins, or situated beyond the relations conventionally thought of as domestication. The contributors further challenge assumptions that refusals of domestication are the consequence of “human ingenuity or a species’ unwillingness to form relations with humans” (233), instead of problems of political ecology.

The editors assert that, instead of “complete mastery” (9) (which is rarely if ever achieved in interspecies relations), domestication involves transformations that are unintentional and unforeseen. This unpredictability therefore require ethnographic study, to give priority to issues such as “complex boundary work, unexpected intimacies, ontological uncertainties, and bodily coconstitution” (20). The chapters dealing with more conventional animal companions of humans illustrate this point. Examining the relationships between breeders and breeding birds, Sara Asu Schroer intends to show that control (here, over animal reproduction) is not exercised by humans alone. Comparing two different ways of being with dogs―in Australia and Mongolia―both deprived of categorical boundaries between the domestic and the wild, Natasha Fijn is pushed to search for “much more nuanced differences” (74) in human-dog relations and comes to the conclusion that “[d]ependency, asymmetry, and control… make little sense” (87) as categories for thinking about canines cross-culturally.

In methodological terms, giving priority to the unintentional and unforeseen would involve, as Marianne Elisabeth Lien suggests, “shift[ing] the scene of domestication from one-to-one relationships between people and single species to landscape configuration” (124), that is, to relational fields that are more extensive than those that are often assumed to be at work in domestication. Adopting landscape changes as an analytical unit would allow us, according to Heather Anne Swanson, to acknowledge that “some forms of domestication are not contained on the farm” (141) and to rethink “how we tell stories about domestication’s wide-ranging effects” (150). This shift is illustrated by Knut G. Nustad’s description of the introduction of trout from England to South Africa as the transposition of, not just a species of fish, but a whole and highly moralized set of human-environment relations (elite relations with the wilderness in opposition to industrial pollution). Jon Henrik Ziegler Remme provides another example in the case of Ifugao relations between pigs and humans, which spur him to consider domestication as an ongoing and shifting multiplicity of relations between humans, animals and plants. Finally, Tsing proposes that the replacement of domestication (and its assumptions of “intelligence test,” “progress,” “alienation,” and “accumulation”) by concepts such as “cospecies landscapes” (237) and “multispecies engagement” (247) could lead us to what she calls “the Cospecies Accommodation Revolution” (249), in which no species can be said to be in charge. In sum, domestication is no longer situated as a singular control-producing sign of progress, but rather as a rediscovered complex landscape. That is one result of this critique of domestication narratives.

Another dimension of this critique of the Euro-American story of domestication focuses on its naturalization of “a specific and dominant way of life” (2) based on the hegemony of sedentary agriculture, private property, coercive husbandry and extractive industries. In other words, this book also explores how “situated relations with animals and plants” are intertwined with colonialism, the rise of industrial agriculture and racial and gender hierarchies. For instance, Lien points out that, for people in the subarctic, “the narrative of domestication as a story of human progress has served as a tool of oppression, a colonializing device in its own right,” a set of “boundaries that have… rendered indigenous and local landscape practices invisible, illegal, or severely restricted in scope” (118). Plants and animals serve to illustrate how, in Swanson’s words, “home makes the wild not only through binary opposition but also through material practices” (154). Inger Anneberg and Mette Vaarst care about the meaning of “animal welfare” (96) in the contemporary cattle industry, and argue for the creation of new “homes” and new relations between farmers and animals (112). Regarding plants, Rune Flikke describes the plantation of eucalyptus trees in South Africa as a product of a colonial process, including the attribution to the air of material aspects of a wild and contagious “otherness” that needed to be controlled and domesticated. Considering both animals and plants, Tsing reminds us that “the hegemonic forms of today’s domestication complex —the plantation and the feedlot— make it difficult to even imagine multispecies life, much less enact it” (246). Finally, the editors assert that contemporary “politics that are justified through idioms of domestication” have also “shaped the margins from which anthropologists conventionally think, such as the nomad, the pastoral, the indigenous, and the remote” (4). Therefore, not only humans, animals and plants, but also the history, practices and views of anthropology itself would be implicated by the intertwining of domestication with this “politics of human difference” (2).

However, critiquing domestication as a narrative of control and practice of colonialism is considered to be only part of the required task by Tsing, who is in fact skeptical about the possibility of “unfasten[ing] domestication and progress merely by telling a different story” (232). She suggests an ambitious and speculative approach to domestication as a set of “world-historical” actions that “change the world for everyone” (235), “a world-making process” that is mainly “a feature of the political economy” (233). For instance, if domestic plants “followed state expansion and long-distance commerce,” domestic animals (such as cattle and horses) “spread war machines” and actively excluded other “social arrangements” (233). In fact, “Colonizers backed by states have often used the same tactics: taking advantage of the mobility of horses and cattle to spread their violent claims across the landscape,” letting “the animals define colonial territory, [and] forcing native peoples to retreat” (242). If violence is present in Tsing’s equivalence between “domestication as progress” and “the power of states and capital” (240), it becomes explicit when Swanson states that “wildness is something made through the violences of colonial settlement” (152). Indeed, violence is intrinsic to Swanson’s reimagination of domestication as a “process of disorientation, a process of disrupting humans’ and nonhumans’ ties to landscapes” (152).

Finally, this fascinating and much needed critique of domestication as a narrative of control, a colonial device and a key dynamic in human history has also the virtue of producing interesting questions. Are domestication narratives so persistent and pervasive mainly because they are functional for hegemonic politics? If landscape configuration is to be taken as the main analytical unit, what methods allow us to develop “means of communicating with other species, across difference” (123)? In sum, not only this collection’s varied perspectives, but also its emerging questions, form a welcome contribution to the study of human/non-human relationships in our troubled times of extractivism and anthropogenic climate change.