We are all animals.
—Karen Morin (2018, 146)
We are all animals. On one level, this claim points us towards an understanding, uncontested from the vantage point of science and other naturalistic approaches to life, of what we are as humans. Like all other life forms on our planet, our own species has evolved, through time and space, into the beings that we find ourselves to be today.
On another level, though, this claim hails us into an array of pressing insights that are, indeed, contested—by the capitalist logics, forms, institutions, practices, and relationships all around us that together are the objects of inquiry of Karen M. Morin’s Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals. It’s the first phrase in the book’s title that is especially useful here. “Carceral space” refers to the interlocking systems that work to objectify, control, surveil, exploit, imprison, and kill nonhuman and human animals. By insisting that we are all animals, Carceral Space refutes the central premise of “animalization” that serves as the rationale for the violence and exploitation across these systems. As Morin explains,
The day-to-day embodied experience of captivity and incarceration, of being identified with a number, a tattoo, a brand, and other forms of bodily modification; the emotional and psychological strain of knowing the approach of death or of the testing apparatus or whip, are all interwoven into the day-to-day carceral spaces of the prison, the lab, the farm. (2018, 15)
As a book that brings carceral geography together with animal studies, Carceral Space is also a concrete examination of the processes and practices by which “animalization” occurs. From zoos, laboratories, and slaughterhouses to prisons and death row, each chapter brings us into the spatial, operational, embodied, and relational dynamics by which nonhuman and human animals alike are turned into objects or commodities or so-called “criminals.”
And so, on a third level, by reminding us that “we are all animals,” Morin draws us into the interlocking processes across differing carceral systems and spaces. Each chapter demonstrates, powerfully, the ways in which “animalization” secures the legal (and quasi- and extra-legal) exploitation of humans and nonhuman animals. What emerges from this set of transdisciplinary analyses is a deeply compelling non-anthropocentric ethics and politics. In contrast with projects that seek to reform rather than abolish carceral institutions, this book is in conversation with abolitionist projects from across political science, critical race theory, criminology, philosophy, and geography. The problem of what counts as “human” or as “animal” is itself a pressing question throughout the book. Morin’s key thesis, that these distinctions are made through encounters with carceral spaces, holds tremendous ethical and existential significance, raising the questions: who (whether human or nonhuman animal) enjoys the protections that secure their value and worthiness? And who falls inside the category of “animal”?
Each participant in this symposium engages with these questions directly, extending the book’s central thesis in a range of transdisciplinary directions. The first response, by Chloë Taylor, takes the form of an elegy for a beloved kitty, an animal who tried his best to navigate a world organized around “pets” and “pet owners” in dissident ways. By taking up Morin’s call for justice for incarcerated humans and captive animals via a first-person narrative, Taylor insists upon the quotidian and unavoidable significance of the book’s argument for each of us, in our own daily lives and relations.
This attentiveness to the affective valence of the book is made even more explicit in Jennifer Turner’s contribution. Turner reflects on the subjective and phenomenal experience of reading the book. In this analysis, the brutality and viscerality of the chapters’ descriptions yield the kind of sympathies that are essential for abolitionist and anti-carceral work. As Morin points out, in response, Turner’s own work in carceral geography is enormously helpful, especially in terms of foregrounding the “micro-mobilities” of bodies in carceral spaces.
Carol Wayne White brings an additional set of methods and questions into the conversation, inviting us to think about the interplay between materialist and naturalist presumptions in carceral and anti-carceral thinking. More specifically, White draws attention to the racialization of “nature” itself, in the form of systems of classification and hierarchy that sustain the exceptionalism of carceral spaces. Religious naturalism, on White’s intervention, becomes a rich resource for redressing and refuting such exceptionalist logics and practices. The stakes of such analysis are tremendous, given what we learn from Morin’s book—namely, that human and nonhuman captivity and disposability take place within many regimes of violence, including the prison, medical, and agricultural industrial complexes.
As a way to summon responsiveness to such devastating violence, as Nekeisha Alayna Alexis puts it, the book invites “all anti-incarceration agitators to reexamine the systems they struggle against and to consider collaborations they may not have before.” Such agitation holds existential import, implicating each of us in the task of “mapping the menace found in bricks and bars, patterns of thought and orders of operations.” Alexis’s contribution exemplifies what such mapping might look like, as it queries the structure of the book (its outline, the order in which specific sites of inquiry are laid out) as well as some of its key formal aspects (the role of metaphor and analogy, in particular). Taking up these queries, Morin’s response in turn demonstrates the pluralistic ethos that seems so essential to these kinds of projects. As a whole, this symposium asks each of us to reflect on the attachments and solidarities that might yield anti-carceral actions and commitments.