Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pluvialis, grumping

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!


Matt Mullenix said...

Great post and really fine point this: "Is it possible to use 'hunting' as a category of analysis at all?"

The word itself carries so much baggage (for the writer and reader both), and could mean so much or little as to be without meaning at all. The same could apply to "fishing," which might lump my girls' angling for 4-inch catfish with their Barbie-doll rods, with longline commercial swordfishing...

pluvialis said...

Can you tell that I'm stroppy because I've not been out hawking yet this year? Roll on Saturday...

Happy to hear of your kids catching catfish with barbie-doll rods. Pictures! Post pictures! (unless they are shy of media exposure :)

Matt Mullenix said...

Also on another point: My friend, who is a falconer and a raptor biologist/policy-maker has often observed some to criticize his decisions and "motives" on raptor management, simply because of his un-secret status as a falconer; yet they make no such criticisms of the duck, deer and other "game species" biologists----who are typically hunters!

My take is that a typical raptor biologist (today--not so much in the previous generation) is more often an urbanite, non-hunter with a non-game bio-research background. Different demographic.

Agency game biologists are still most likely to be hunters of the species they study.

Matt Mullenix said...

I will email you a great pic of the girls and their mighty catches. :-)

pluvialis said...

I met some young raptor biology MSc students from the US in 2001. One told me he hated falconers because they kept raptors in captivity. The other asked me if raptors could see in colour or just in black and white. I wanted to cry.

Steve said...

A specific: in that first study you cited, the researcher might have missed some "class' aspects. In the upper classes, or what passes for them in the US, female hunting has always been acceptable (I have known both New England WASPs and several of the Hemingway women and no one thought hunting by women was even unusual, even in the benighted Fifties).

This may well be true at the opposite end of the spectrum-- poor country folks, Indians-- but i have less evidence.

T erguar American middle classes after WW II behaved exactly as the study suggests. My Dad was a serious and conscientious hunter, but imagining him inviting my mother into a duckblind-- or her accepting!-- boggles the mind.

Both the late Betsy Huntington and Libby, "WASPs" from opposite coasts, came from families where female hunting was considered quite normal.

And now the more important thing: theoretically, I CAN COMMENT. Thanks, P!

pluvialis said...

Hooray! Steve is back! And with a very, very important point. Would you or Matt be interested in reading the second paper? I can send you an electronic copy...

Matt Mullenix said...

Yes please send!

pluvialis said...

Um, can't find it now. Give me a day or so to dig it out... :)

Steve said...

Yes -- definitely.

Russ London said...

The issue of "imperial" hunting is very interesting.

In the U.S. the "user fee" concept of liscense fees, wildlife management "permits" and in the private sector "leases fees", clubs, "resorts" and manditory "guides" have made hunting of any kind too expensive for far too many.

In the south there is already a sort of informal class system where duck hunting is practices by the upper and middle classes (the french "cajun" areas excluded), deer hunting except in the "resorts" a blue collar calling, and rabbit and squirrel for the lower classes. There are cultural reasons but cost and access are also major factors.

The recent reforms in trespass laws passed due to intense lobbying by timber and other corporate landholders effectively excluding access to a majority of private but unused lands is another example. We also can not ignor the recent attempts by a Louisiana Governor to grant exclusive hunting rights in a state wildlife refuge to a private "conservation" organization whose membership including himself and upper management for several large national and multi-national corporations.

The issues are, of course, far more complicated than stated above but I fear that as a result, hunters may become, as my teenaged son noted of Porsche and other sport cars owners, exclusively fat bald old men who have the money to pay.

Matt Mullenix said...

"...hunters may become, as my teenaged son noted of Porsche and other sport cars owners, exclusively fat bald old men who have the money to pay."

Well that's fine for them, Russ, but what are the likes you and me (young, svelt, and Fabio-esque yet of humble means) to do??

jakeallsop2003 said...

What about fat bald old men who don't have the money to pay? Worst of both worlds, you might say!

pluvialis said...

FABIO. Now there's a name I've not heard for a while. Didn't he get knocked out by a goose while on a ferris wheel, somewhere?

Heidi said...

oh my gosh, I am so glad I read all the way to the bottom despite my total lack of knowledge in this subject...

Russ London said...

Matt, I won't speak for you, but as you well know, I'm far from Fabio (who is still alive and well and doing "I can't believe its not butter" commercials).

The comments is my son's not mine, I hope to drive a porsche one day before my gut is too big to get in.


pluvialis said...

Hang on — is knocking out a canada goose with your head, while on a ferris wheel, hunting?


Russ London said...

the article you cited called the incident "an unpredictable freak accident". They also were careful to note that such an incident had never occurred before at the park. We would hope so.

Legally (the only area expertise that I can claim to be certified)hunting is the intentional seeking out or taking of game. Accidents are the result of unintentional conduct. For example you can not accidentally steal or murder someone.

In any event, Favio clearly fared better than most airplanes struck by fowl at high speeds, pity, however, the poor goose observed dead and "floating in the river".

heidi said...

Well I hate to be the one to break the "Fabio takes out bird with his tanned forehead" thread...

Here's something form my text book, "Horse Business management; Managing a Successful Yard" by Jeremy Houghton Brown
(discussing the different sectors of the British horse industry):

Hunting is as old as mankind but is frowned on by much of the urban population, which makes up the majority of the British population....Hunting is a country sport which is supported by the majority of farmers and country people. All field sports, which are those that include the killing of an animal, bird or fish, cause controversy..."

Of course this is about fox hunting specifically. It even mentions that "some people hunting wear clothing that makes them appear elitist."

Keep in mind that fox hunting is one of the few sports where men and women compete equally.

I'm so far removed from this world, I don't even have any business commenting...although as a farm kid, I know how irritating some of them cute little varmints can be. I think shooting them would be more humane than some of the other ways they're gotten rid of. And that's all I got to say about that.

Steve said...

So much to comment on!

Russ-- there is still an enormous amount of land for a poor man (or woman!) to hunt in in the American and Canadian west-- National Forest, BLM. We are talking areas larger than some eastern states! That doesn't stop the rich and/ or hapless paying ridiculous sums to be guided, mostly on private ranches, but I'm not sure they do any better than a determined 'real' hunter on public land. I know a poor Montanan who got a sheep-- the elitist trophy-- on a wilderness hunt, by himself, near Yellowstone. I know a Canadian writer and biologist based in the Yukon who hunts thenm (and moose, and caribou) for meat!

It matters where you choose to live but everything does.

Pluvi: a preliminary report re Global Hunting Grounds. While I found its language and terminology irritating and started with no particular sympathy for its viewpoint, I found it not only fascinating but ultimately convincing! I annotated it and am now considering its relevance to the Arctic, Alaska, Kamchatka, the Russian Far East, Kazakhstan,the fields where Gulf Arabs reign (also pakistan among other places like the Sudan) Northern Burma (where I think outside intervantion is needed if only to counteract the ravenous Chinese market-- see Rabinowitz) and-- gulp-- HERE, New Mexico, where I am more or less an indigene. As I said, so much to think about. Thanks-- I think.

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