Report on Re-imagining Biopolitics and Biosecurity, RGS-IBG 2011

A report by Krithika Srinivasan, King’s College London

I presented a paper entitled ‘Controlling dogs, protecting turtles: Contemporary biopolitics in more-than-human India’ in the HPGRG session ‘Re-imagining biopolitics and biosecurity’ at the RGS-IBG AC 2011. This paper stems from my PhD project, and examines two cases of public debate around human-animal relationships in the world’s largest democracy, India. While one case deals with conflicts around the control of street dogs (animals that are considered ‘pests’), the other explores conflicts relating to the protection of ‘vulnerable’ Olive Ridley turtles.

The paper starts by pointing out that we now live in a world in which the sovereign human right to do ‘what you will’ to nonhuman life is no longer unquestioningly accepted. This shift is seen in discourse around environmental issues and animal welfare and rights, and in policy and daily practice as well. In such a context, how can we understand power in human-animal relationships? How can we understand the always difficult issue of how humans share physical, moral and political space with nonhuman animals? It is in pursuit of these questions that the two cases of public debate are examined, in particular, focusing on the ‘how’ of power, and looking at how humans affect animals. All through, the paper works with the Foucauldian concept of biopower, and adopts a Foucauldian understanding of discourse and practice as co-constitutive.

After a brief overview of Foucault’s original work on biopower, the paper discusses some key aspects of the data in order to identify the manners in which these animals and their relationships with human beings are (attempted to be) managed in the contemporary world. It interrogates discourses about human and nonhuman well-being articulated in these situations, and points out that that the different discursive positions are bounded by conflicting normative objectives in each case. The debates, then, are about how the manage the human-animal relationships so as to achieve these objectives.

After this, the paper deploys Foucault’s methodological and conceptual work on power to critically examine the different configurations of human-animal relationships that are explained, advocated, and practised in these contexts. In doing this, it question the strategies and techniques of (bio)power that infuse human-dog/turtle relationships in an era in which human indifference to nonhuman ill-being is no longer considered legitimate, even while human exceptionalism pervades mainstream ethico-political imaginations. The paper then demonstrates how this theoretical toolkit clarifies densely entangled discourses and practices of care and harm that characterise the ways in which human-animal relationships are fostered and regulated in the effort to secure and improve human lives. Finally, it discusses how this empirical examination develops Foucauldian analytics for the study of more-than-human assemblages, and how such analyses, in turn, help query what is considered normal-natural-right in the context of human interactions with our nonhuman co-inhabitants of this world.

The presentation took around 15 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions. The questions related to the role of culture and religion in public debates around animals in India, and to the shifting categories of ‘good’ dog and ‘bad’ dog attributed to dogs depending on the kinds of human spaces they occupy. The presentation helped me clarify some of my thoughts about the data, thus enabling the sharpening of the analyses I am undertaking for my PhD.

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