An interview with Hayley Singer
Our guest this week is Hayley Singer, an Associate of the Melbourne node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, and an early career researcher and teaching associate at The University of Melbourne. Hayley’s research traverses the fields of creative writing, ecofeminism, and animal studies. Currently, her primary research focus is on developing and articulating a concept called the fleischgeist, a cultural condition that acknowledges that everywhere the production of animal death occurs there is also the potential for people to feel haunted by the violence inflicted upon animals. Increasingly, Hayley is committed to experimenting with ways creative writing techniques can be used to bend and even break the boundaries of scholarly writing practices. Her creative methodology is driven by a desire to treat the ‘essay’ as a form composed of philosophical investigations while acting, in certain ways, like a history, a work of life-writing, cultural criticism and theory as protest. To date, Hayley has published scholarly papers, literary and eco-cultural critique on carnist narratives, meat and masculinities, feminism and flesh, love and extinction and the intersections where flesh, fiction and vanguard writing practices collide. Most recently, she has been commissioned to write a series of columns on cultural ecologies of meat for the popular culture journal The Lifted Brow.
Hello, Hayley, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in the intersections of creative writing, ecofeminism, and animal studies, both personally and intellectually?
Thank you for inviting me into this conversation Sophie!
This intersection has always been magnetic to me. I want to know what happens when writers sustain their focus on the lives and deaths of multi-beings. What kind of imaginaries will be created if / when writers listen, really listen, to other species? What happens when writing is instrumentalised for multi-species liberation, dignity and the articulation of kinships?
When I read Alexis Wright, Evelyn Araluen, Billy Ray-Belcourt, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Jo-ann Archibald and other First Nations writers, I am reminded that this storytelling work, which is life-making work, has been happening forever. And I am looking for the ways that I can contribute to that life-making work as a queer white settler person living on unceded lands. What are the ethical complexities that I need to work towards, and what inheritances get in the way of that vital work? Working at the intersections of creative writing, ecofeminism and animal studies demands that I approach these twinned questions, which just can’t be avoided.
In the last few years I have been trying to push myself to hold natural-cultural intimacies, kinships and enmeshments together in my writing in ways that shift something in the geometry of my attention and understanding. For example, I’m writing an experimental essay at the moment which is trying to hold the insurgent possibilities for certain kinds of poetry alongside the Moon to Mars Mission alongside the work of poets in academia alongside the toxic nature of the Anthropocene Academy (by which I mean the version of academic institutions that are based on cultures of speed, invested in replicating existing power relations and in which workers are sent on robotic missions in uninhabitable atmospheres). In writing this essay I am learning so much about poetry and the moon, the colonial-capitalist obsession with the moon and Mars, and how the neoliberal academy intersects with these beings and logics. As an aside, did you know that there is no poet laureate for Australia, but there will be one for Mars?
Writing teaches me about the way dominant / dominating narratives operate. And by writing I try to re-map or un-map them, to find sources of life still hanging on inside of them.
A large part of this work is in tracing deadly clichés and tropes about multi-beings to
understand what complexities are hidden or ignored by them. I often think about the
concept of ornière, which I learned from Isabelle Stengers. Ornière conveys something
like a rut, track or groove. Clichés are grooves, says Stengers, they can guide thinking.
By tracing certain grooves you can get to where you want to go quickly but you don’t
get to deviate, get lost, loop around, spiral or dwell in unfamiliar terrain to get there.
As a writer I feel breathless and panicked when I find myself in familiar grooves of thinking and writing. I also feel like writing dies when I assume that I know where I’m going. This means that when I plan to write something I need to have only the thinnest of ideas about where, exactly, I am going. I write because I am , to quote Trinh T. Minh-ha, “a sentence thinker” and the practice of creative writing is a form of research.
You are currently writing a monograph that considers the concept of the fleischgeist. Could you explain the concept of fleischgeist to us and how you deploy it to explore the politics of animal slaughter in factory farming?
To speak of the fleischgeist is to speak of a social and cultural phenomenon wherein humans are haunted by the violence of intensive animal agriculture. What goes on in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and abattoirs ghost people with a deep philosophical disturbance and so they struggle between acknowledgement of the violence that produces meat and a refusal to look at the conditions in which “food” animals are born, raised and killed. The term was first offered up by Amy Standen and Sasha Wizansky, editors of the short-lived magazine meatpaper.
The term fleischgeist also acknowledges that there is a frenzied spirit in the air and in our collective consciousness – a meat mania. With articles that examine meat art, the rise of meat glue, whole-animal butchery challenges, rock star butchers, and the way globalised meat markets identify nations as either ‘dark meat’ or ‘light meat’ countries, meatpaper stands as testament to the fact that the flesh of other species is used as a metaphor for violence between humans, as art objects, food source, and symbol of national, sexual and gender identities. To read the magazine’s twenty issues is to come face-to-face with the world as a meatscape. Riffing off Hegel’s concept of the zeitgeist, Standen and Wizansky define the term fleischgeist as the dominant spirit of our times, characterised by a ‘meat consciousness’ fueled simultaneously by ethical considerations and instrumental logic.
Novels that write the fleischgeist illuminate these contradictions and complexities without trying to resolve or dissolve them, and that’s really important to acknowledge.
Writing about the fleischgeist is a form of narrative detective work. The evidence for it is everywhere and I’m participating in the evidence gathering.
Much of your scholarship seeks to push against the bounds of conventional narrative forms and instead develop creative methodologies that enable more capacious forms of cultural criticism. In what ways does the nature of the topics you explore – for instance, factory farming, meat cultures, love, and extinction – demand such creative methodologies and forms of story-telling, and what challenges or opportunities have you encountered in this process?
I think that the topics I approach demand experimental forms of writing. It’s important to me to refuse to give into dominant / dominating logics when I write. So I am kind of forced to develop forms of writing that ask why, why, why and hold off on making resolutions or conclusions. I draw a lot on the strategy of repetition and variation. This strategy unpacks and re-assembles the questions and assumptions that I turn up with at the scene of writing.
More and more I am working to pull traditional academic forms into new, queer, contexts and forms. This feels reparative as I currently work in an environment that feels increasingly corrosive to creativity. So I try to work with forms of knowledge production that are traditionally aligned the logics of limitations, efficiency and argumentation in ways that resist neutrality, are partial, speculative, messy, immersive and relational. Most recently I’ve been engaging with the beautiful inefficient mapping methodology articulated by Dr Linda Knight, and that’s been really rich.
You recently co-authored an article with Paula Arcari and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey on invisibilized animals, urban nature, and city limits, published in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space. What forms of care, justice, and ethics – or lack thereof – does this article identify in the context of contemporary urban natures?
That’s an incredible article and I want to say up front that I was learning a lot from Paula and Fiona when working on that article. I admire those two thinkers so much and it was incredible to work with them.
The article points out that beings used in service of human ‘needs’ are invisibilised in broader discourses around the construction of biophilic cities and environmental healing. Paula brought together an incredible amount of research regarding urban biodiversity regeneration and identified that beings who disappear into abattoirs, and other spaces of violent instrumentalisation, also disappear beyond the limits of consideration. As one example, this is evoked by the sorts of interactions that can and have taken place between animal liberation groups and other environmental communities. For example, here and in the UK animal liberation movements have been accused to trying to ‘hijack’ the climate movement for their ‘own cause’. And it has been said that working for animal liberation is alienating to people. A significant point the article makes is that the normalized culture of eating animals hampers the project of environmental - city ‘healing’ since eating food of animal origin is, to quote the article, “contributing most to the accelerating loss of nature and biodiversity in the first place…”. The article questions some of the dichotomies imbedded in discourses of urban nature care, and it advocates for more care-full relations.
Finally, Hayley, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
Gosh. Ok. The advice I give myself is to not compromise on what my creative / intellectual
intuition tells me. My intuition now is to avoid the canonical voices who might be dominating
a topic when I first start researching something. The idea of citing ‘big’ canonical thinkers
regardless of whether they are doing the best or most appropriate work is often where people
start. It’s like a homeostasis thing – a self-regulating process by which a system tries to maintain
stability while adjusting to changing external conditions. That’s where I started. It felt wrong, but
it felt like I had to start in those places. And that’s Ok. It’s important to know what the canon says but, moving beyond canonical literature is crucial. I had to go way beyond it in order to understand it. So, my advice would be to let your researching, thinking and questioning move around and in-between voices. If you read the canon, read it for what is and isn’t said. Go looking for what’s been left out, what’s marginalized, invisibilised. This isn’t a new idea, and it isn’t my idea. This is a research methodology that writers like Saidiya Hartman (see Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments), Cathy Park Hong (see Dance, Dance Revolution and Minor Feelings), Robin Wall Kimmerer (see Braiding Sweetgrass), Alexis Wright (see everything) and Paul Preciado (see Testo Junkie) and so many others have taught me in various ways.
There are so many other things I could say, and I worry that not writing them all will seem reductive but I think I’ll leave this here.
"Writing teaches me about the way dominant / dominating narratives operate. And by writing I try to re-map or un-map them, to find sources of life still hanging on inside of them."
"If you read the canon, read it for what is and isn’t said. Go looking for what’s been left out, what’s marginalized, invisibilised."