Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Really grumping. This time, about the poor quality of most cultural history and sociology of hunting. It's such an extraordinarily rich subject! Studying the history and culture of hunting is an opportunity to explore important questions about the ways cultures interact with the environment, with technology, with history, and with each other. Why is no-one exploring encounters like this? The cultural history of hunting is an astonishingly empty field. The numbers of hunting papers and books are small, and by gun, finding a jewel among them is rare indeed.
I got very excited about a blog a while ago. It was on the philosophy of hunting, and the author was a professional philosopher and amateur hunter! But it slowly mired itself in that tarpit of evangelical sociobiology that says: neolithic man is the be-all and end-all of what it means to be human. Soon the blog stopped talking about hunting, and started talking about how hunting makes you fitter and more toned and buff than cross-training because — wait for it — it’s what the human physiological machine evolved to do. Cue posts and posts and posts on the blogger’s own fitness training. Snoooooore. My loss, perhaps, but I have no interest in the hunting field as an outdoors gymnasium, and even less in using hunting as an apology for hard-wired versions of the human psyche. Complain, complain, complain....
Pah. And I get just as hacked off by the opposite end of the spectrum: cultural theorists who take 6,000 words to argue that all hunting is a cultural phenomenon. Of course it is. Using this as a counterargument to the ‘hardwired hunting human’ hypothesis is worse than boring; it’s lazy.
But the most depressing thing about scholarship on hunting? A few years ago I went to a conference at University College London. A fantastic place; it even has the stuffed corpse of Jeremy Bentham in a glass box in the hall. The conference was on the anthropology of zoology — and it drove me crazy with frustration. One chap’s talk on wildlife tracking consisted mainly of him showing slides of birds he’d tagged. I found this so irritating that I spent his entire paper copying out all the rather creative graffitti that years of UCL students had hacked into the lecture-hall desk in front of me.
Oh, hark at me. I sound so sour and horrible. But one of the papers I saw at this conference made the whole trip worthwhile. It was by a couple of cultural geographers at Nottingham University, David Matless and Charles Watkins. It was on the geographies of wildfowling and otterhunting in postwar Britain. It was superb. Thoughtful, nuanced, sophisticated, ambitious and occasionally very funny. If you have access to a university network, you might be able to read a printed version here or here.
What did the audience think? Well, the selfsame audience that had gone ‘ooooh’ when bird-banding man flashed a photo of a cuddly owl on the screen rebelled. When Matless and Watkins screened a photograph — which made a crucial, illustrative point — of a Master of Otter Hounds holding an otter pelt up above the hounds, a stir of disquiet ran through the audience. Someone even booed (quietly; it was, after all, an academic audience). Their censure seemed to be directed at the speakers.
I was amazed. If you work in the field of criminal psychology, people don't automatically assume you're a serial killer. If you, like many of my acquaintances, work on the history of atrocities in Nazi Germany, people don't assume you're doing it for crypto-fascist reasons. But if you work on hunting? It seems that unless your talk has explicitly moral ends, unless you tie your flag to the mast immediately by assuring your audience that you find hunting morally unacceptable, you're going to be on the sharp end of moral and academic censure.
This is crazy.
But I have recently read two excellent papers on hunting, and I’m so glad about it, I’m going to rave about them. The first is by Andrea Smalley, and it’s in a journal called Gender and History (Vol.17 No.1 April 2005, pp. 183–209, for those of you who like references). It’s winningly titled: I just like to Kill Things: Women, Men and the Gender of Sport Hunting in the United States, 1940-1973.
It argues—among many other things—that post-WWII antipathy towards women's hunting was a new phenomenon. Before the war, right through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women's hunting was considered not only entirely acceptable but as a restraining and respectable influence on male hunting.
But, it suggests, World War II forged a new, aggressively masculine construction of sport hunting in which the male-male social bonds forged in service played a crucial part. "Demobilisation and the loss of intense male relationships threatened to demasculinise men”, it argues, prompting a“post-war revival of 'virile' activities, such as violent sports" and "sport hunting, as one of these 'virile' and violent sports, offered men the chance to recapture at least some sense of their profound battlefield experiences”. Hunting became not merely recreational, but an “essential source of gender identification for men" who “constructed a masculinity based on what seemed to be universal male experiences on the battlefield and on the hunting field”. Thus women could “no longer be legitimate hunters in this intensely masculinised sphere”.
Interesting, huh? I think so. But it doesn't tell the whole story, not by a long shot. Hunting isn't all about hanging out with your service buddies, just about killing animals. The notion of protecting, identifying, and above all, interacting with wildlife and wilderness — all these things which connect centrally with questions of nature, culture and personal identity—these are as crucial in hunting as any of its more visceral and “virile” aspects, and it’s a lack of understanding of the subtle psychological and geographical interactions of hunters with their environment that academicians tend to miss.
But the next paper escapes all censure. It is the best paper I’ve ever read on hunting cultures. It’s also a powerful political statement. It's by Kenneth Iain at the University of Toronto. And it's called Global Hunting Grounds: Power, Scale, and Ecology in the Negotiation of Conservation. It considers a fairly new development in international conservation; one in which NGOs rely upon market-oriented interventions, such as trophy hunting, to achieve biodiversity protection and local development, but in so doing deprive local communities of their hunting traditions. Imperialism revisited. It’s a dense and well-argued piece. Anyone able to pick it up on an electronic resource such as JSTOR (Matt?) should read it.
Here is the abstract:
Increasingly, large international conservation organisations have come to rely upon market-oriented interventions, such as sport trophy hunting, to achieve multiple goals of biodiversity proteection and 'development'. Such initiatives apply an understanding of 'nature' — defined through an emerging discourse of global ecology — to incorporate local ecologies within the material organisational sphere of capital and transnational institutions, generating new forms of governmentality at scales inaccessible to traditional means of discipline such as legislation and enforcement. In this paper, I historicize debates over 'nature' in a region of northern Pakistan, and demonstrate how local ecologies are becoming subject to transnational institutional agents through strategies similar to those used by colonial administrators to gain ecological control over their 'dominions'. This contemporary reworking of a colonialist ethic of conservation relies rhetorically on a discourse of global ecology, and on ideological representations of a resident population as incapable environmental managers, to assert and implement an allegedly scientific and ethically superior force better able to respond to assumed degradation. In undertaking such disciplinary projects, international conservation organiseations rely on, and produce, a representation of ecological space as 'global' to facilitate the attainment of translocal political-ecological goals.
I said it was dense!
Perhaps too much choleric food has made my blood so het up. Here's a plea to all scholars working on hunting, myself included. Define your terms! Is it possible to use “hunting” as a category of analysis at all? How can one talk of subsistence seal-hunting in the same breath as foxhunting; driven pheasant shooting in the same breath as falconry? There are as many different forms of hunting as there are forms of marriage. And while certain forms of both I find rather distasteful, some might be what we are here for. Tally ho!