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An interview with Professor Danielle Celermajer

Our guest this week is Dr. Danielle Celermajer, a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Danielle’s research stands at the interface of theories exploring the multidimensional nature of injustice and the practice of human rights. Her publications include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge, 2009), Power, Judgment and Political Evil: Hannah Arendt’s Promise (Routledge, 2010), A Cultural History of Law in the Modern Age (Bloomsbury, 2018), and The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach (Cambridge, 2018). Danielle is now moving in to work on the relational intraspace between human and nonhuman animals.

       Hello Danielle, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds. Recently, you have shifted the focus of your work towards multispecies relations broadly defined, and multispecies justice more specifically. What are some of the epistemic and ontological challenges (and/or opportunities) you have faced in transitioning from thinking about justice in a human context to thinking about justice in a morethanhuman context?


The obvious answer one might expect to give to the ontological dimension of your question is that dominant conceptions of justice in the human realm are based on the assumption that the basic subject of justice is the individual human, and that once one moves to the morethanhuman context, it becomes difficult or problematic to conceptualise all morethanhuman subjects in such atomistic terms. In my own work on human-centric justice, however, I have also come to the point where I see this atomistic ontology as inadequate, in the first instance to understand the nature of injustice, but more importantly to think through and design interventions to prevent and address injustice. More simply put, if the morethanhuman requires that we think about justice in terms of ecologies, relationships, co-constitutional beings, so too does the human.


With respect to the epistemic challenges and opportunities, again, one might assume that the basic impediment that arises when one moves beyond humans is the difficulty of coming to accurately know what the interests, aspirations or perspectives of the morethanhuman are. And no doubt, there are challenges of representation and communication, given the primacy that human language has had in representing justice claims and negotiating settlements. From my perspective though, the epistemic challenge of knowing others is one that we ought to treat with considerable care; not resorting to the arrogance of claiming the blunt unknowability of all beings who are not human, but rather critically reflecting on our habitual insensibility. As one of the characters in Richard Powers’ astonishing novel The Overstory puts it, “What frightens people most will one day turn to wonder. And then people will do what four billion years have shaped them to do: stop and see just what it is they’re seeing.” We can expand that ocularcentrism by including hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting, touching and perhaps other ways of perceiving, but the wonderous invitation is to the possibility of discovering how beings other than humans convey what it is that they need to flourish. At the same time though, we need to bring to this possibility of an epistemic relationship both humility and respect for what remains radical distinct about other beings, not assimilating them into our schema (as Levinas taught us).


        In your most recent book, The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach, you develop a new, ecological framework for mapping the worlds that produce torture, and thereby develop prevention strategies. Looking beyond the human, what kind of work – intellectual and practical – might the concept of “torture” do in helping us rethink and reshape our relationship to plants and/or animals as commodified lifeforms


In working on torture, I came to think about torture in quite expansive terms. The definition in international law requires that an act of violence only be defined as torture where it is committed by the state or state agents, although more recently, feminists in particular have insisted, rightly in my view, that this definition encodes a gendered division of public and private violence, and as such excludes much of the violence experienced by women. A more expansive definition would then include violence committed in contexts of asymmetrical coercive power within the private sphere, such as domestic violence. At the same time, there is a common view that only the most heinous forms of violence count as torture, whereas other, apparently less grave forms might be better called ‘police violence’ or ‘the improper use of force’. Again, I’d reject that restriction, given the deleterious effects of all forms of coercive asymmetrical violence on individuals, on communities, on social and political trust, on the integrity of institutions and on the rule of law.  

I also found that in many contexts, for the people operating within the institutions in question, and also those around them, forms of violence that constitute torture from a human rights perspective occur to them as ‘business as usual’ – nothing remarkable, certainly not torture. If we take those two thoughts – the need to expand how torture is understood, and the fact that torture doesn’t show up as torture to many of those who perpetrate it, I think we can trace important implications for human relations with plants and animals. The basic definitional components – asymmetrical power, coercion, the deployment of violence to produce outcomes that are solely in the interest of the preparator and institutions they serve, objectification of the tortured, deprivation of voice or the capacity to resist – all seem to well describe much of what passes as standard operating procedure, at least where animals and plants enter capitalist production and logics. 

If then, we see the prohibition of torture as an absolute ethical obligation, and freedom from torture as a non-derogable right - one that cannot be suspended irrespective the circumstances - the implications for how we humans need to change our relationships with the morethanhuman are vast. This is perhaps obvious in cases like factory farming, where the torture of animals is evident, but I think the demand is far more extensive. 

In saying this, I want to flag a slight caution about transposing individualist models of rights from the sphere of human justice to the sphere of the morethanhuman. This is not because I see humans as meriting special treatment or opportunities reserved from others, but rather because, as I said above, I think atomistic conceptions of justice have limited reach when it comes to understanding the structural underpinnings of systematic injustice, and those assumptions can have us fail to see that justice and the capacity to flourish essentially lie in the quality or organisation of relationships. Nevertheless, I think that the imaginative act of recognising that it is not only humans who are torturable and tortured can do very important work in shifting our ethical compass. And perhaps institutionally, prohibiting torture across all life would also provide some inroads into addressing various taken for granted forms of human-morethanhuman violence and abuse. 


       Your research cross-pollinates theoretical insights derived from an array of different disciplines – from political theory to philosophy, through theology and law. In your view, how does interdisciplinarity help us understand and inhabit the world differently as humans, and in relation to other-than-humans?


I’m driven by questions - questions that I feel I need to come right up close to, like ‘how do we find a way of transforming the way in which humans experience the morethanhuman?’ Or, ‘how do we transform the occurring of the morethanhuman world?’ So for me methodologies are means, not to be fetishized. I’ve moved amongst and between a number of disciplines because each of them offered a set of perspectives or ways into questions, and combined, they allow us to answer questions with more integrity, in the literal meaning of that term, that is, in ways that are more whole and complete.


One of the principal interventions I am trying to make by suggesting an ecological model for understanding injustice, is to draw our attention to the multidimensionality of the causal field within which violations occur. Torture, for example, or factor farming, are enabled, facilitated, legitimised and normalised by a range of legal, cultural, political, economic, social and discursive factors. Our disciplinary training tends to have us focus on one portion of that multidimensional field, and accordingly to design interventions in that fraction of the whole ecology only. So, for example, we might focus on law and the inadequacy of existing regulations, and then introduce stricter laws, but in the absence of action across the multidimensional field, those laws are likely to remain epiphenomenal to the production of the violations. The most effective justice interventions will work across all dimensions in a coordinated way, so we need the epistemic perspectives of the different disciplines that have themselves been forged so as to help us better understand their operation.


As I have moved further into the field of multispecies justice, I have come to recognise that the knowledge produced in the natural sciences - biology, ecology, ethology and so on - are both absolutely critical, and beyond my reach. So, I am trying to learn to work collaboratively with natural scientists. This, I am discovering, much to my delight, is presenting a whole new set of challenges and possibilities. Our approaches, the logics that underpin our research and what you might call the ‘aesthetics of our work’ are so radically different. I feel like a child who has been taken to a new planet though – so much to discover, including how to play with these new playmates.


       Finally, Danielle, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?


Ah goodness, I feel ill equipped to be the fountain of advice given that I am such a newcomer as a scholar in this field. It does seem to me though, that here, more than in any other field, interdisciplinarity is going to be a sine qua non of producing meaningful knowledge, and especially knowledge that will make the type of difference we need to make in our shared world. I’ve discovered that there are certain aptitudes that are helpful when one is trying to be an interdisciplinary scholar. These include curiosity, humility, permeability and a sense of wonder. If we hang on too tightly not only to what we know, but to how we know, we can’t authentically work with those coming from other disciplines.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is those same qualities that I think are the ones we need to nurture if we are to collaborate with the morethanhuman. I say collaborate and not study because one of the most fundamental shifts we need to make is one from seeing the morethanhuman as the object of our study, to seeing morethanhuman beings as other subjects who are knowing and experiencing worlds. Studying them then means coming up alongside them, metaphorically, and seeking to discover, always of course recognising the mediation through our own epistemologies and the particularities of our embodiment, how the world occurs for them. Hence curiosity, humility, permeability and a sense of wonder. 


Speaking with a somewhat bolder voice, one piece of advice I would give scholars coming in, is to make sure you do not fully coordinate yourself with the culture and system of the academy. While there is much to be admired about academic worlds, they are, we need to appreciate, systems that tend to validate and thus incentivize certain types of knowledge. In the contemporary context of the neo-liberal university, which channels academics towards researching, writing, publishing, collaborating, teaching and ultimately thinking in very particular ways, we need to find material and embodied strategies for keeping ourselves open – available to the radically new and other. By keeping at least one foot out, in the humus of a forest, in poetry, listening to birds, hanging out with different animals (human and more), we are perhaps better able to immunize ourselves from becoming completely steeped in the sense-making and value system of what is, after all, just one part of the world. 


That’s not so easy when junior academics have to meet certain benchmarks to keep their jobs, and when we are constantly rewarded, and even more insidiously valued, according to particular criteria of success - publishing in top journals, getting grants, and so on. What most helps me in this regard is remembering what most matters to me. When I am in the final moments of my life, will it be the publication in that A* journal that I recollect, or will it be that I was able to use the privilege of my position as a scholar to transmit to others the wonderous and complex worlds of pigs, as distinct from pigs going on occurring as no more than cuts of meat? That might seem like a dark place to end, but I find it trueing. Truth has perhaps been the ultimate academic value, and I think that this sense of truth – truth in one’s orientation towards the aspiration of all beings flourishing – this is a truth worth holding close. 


"The epistemic challenge of knowing others is one that we ought to treat with considerable care; not resorting to the arrogance of claiming the blunt unknowability of all beings who are not human, but rather critically reflecting on our habitual insensibility."





"One of the most fundamental shifts we need to make is one from seeing the morethanhuman as the object of our study, to seeing morethanhuman beings as other subjects who are knowing and experiencing worlds."