Animal Intimacies is organised around a clear and straightforward idea: we need to pay heed to the multiple registers in which animals mingle and live and interact with human beings. The book suggests that for too long we have ignored the affective ties that bind human and animal together, and argues that they are kin in the specific modes that the title of “intimacies” suggests – love, care, attachment, romance, and sex.
The stakes of this claim too are clear: if we admit to affective (rather than only practical or logistical or employable) ties between animal and human, then that puts pressure on the idea of human exceptionalism. Who is human might not be as clear-cut as we might like it to be. The book narrates “encounters that forced people to recognize that their different lives had come to be inextricably connected in ways that made it difficult to sustain the fiction that humans belonged in one place and wild animals in another no matter how deeply people wanted that fiction to be true” (12).
The project of making kin with other species thus entails an unsettling of what constitutes the physical and emotional boundaries of the (human) body. This is an important subject to tackle politically because it injects humility where there currently there seems only to be arrogance. It unseats human beings from the pinnacle of the universe. And it suggests that we are not the only worldly inhabitants that matter.
Such a project could in many ways be termed queer.
In its ability to challenge categorisation, and in its desire to question hierarchies in the world, Animal Intimacies employs the powerful edge of queer critique to undo our sense of absolute being. The book takes seriously Judith Butler’s early reminder, that “the question of who and what is considered real is a question of power, and ‘power often dissimulates as ontology’” (17). In other words, the project of determining who counts as a human being is never an innocent one. Since it tends to reinforce the perspective of the ruling ideology, the project of “being human” disregards species and types that do not conduce to furthering this ideology. Thus it is that Jews and gypsies and homosexuals could be dehumanised in Nazi Germany, and that casteist India can dehumanise those it deems to be “untouchable.” So a book that calls attention to the violence of boundary formation, especially boundaries that rely on the alleged superiority and inferiority of different species, is an urgent need of the hour.
I am just not sure this is that book.
Take, for instance, the book’s explicit focus on ideas of queer desire in the chapter provocatively titled “The Bear who Loved a Woman: The Intersection of Queer Desires.” The argument starts out well enough, noting that “[p]olicing women’s desire, in particular, is an important part of maintaining the boundary between nature and culture, and the human and nonhuman, with all its attendant hierarchies and norms of control” (245). Then we hear about tales that circulate in the Kumaon region, about bears who kidnap women and have sex with them, and about the women who would rather remain with their bear lovers than return home to their human husbands. Govindrajan reads these stories as being “radical”: “Bhalu ki baat imagines another, radical, world in which these norms separating the human from the animal are undone, and the shared tug of animal desire becomes a mode of relatedness between human and animal” (245). Indeed the word “radical” recurs at frequent intervals to describe “queer stories that hold out the potential for an as yet unrealized world saturated with pleasure and desire” (244). And again: “I was enthralled by the fundamentally queer nature of the pleasure that women articulated in their imaginings of the infinite horizon of sexual possibility that would open up to them through sex with the bear” (232).
But how might sex with a bear be queer? On the one hand, the answer seems obvious: sex with a bear breaks the division between human and animal, and thereby queers our sense of who is and is not an “appropriate” sexual partner. Equally, however, it is important to remember that none of these women in the book actually has sex with a bear or has even seen or interacted with one – the closest they come is seeing fresh bear scat. Instead, the bear is always invoked in metaphorical relation to their human husbands as potentially being more sexually adventurous and available, with bigger penises that will satisfy the women more fully. The bear provides the template for a sexual frisson that the women want from their husbands rather than with the bear. They want their husbands to be animals in bed rather than wanting to have sex with an animal bear.
In this regard, it is useful to remember that it is the Asiatic black bear that roams the foothills in Kumaon, and provides the fodder for these women’s fantasies. As this description of the bear suggests, such fantasies partake of an old colonial narrative in which the black male figure threatens the innocent (white) woman with his insatiable sexual thirst. Black bears bear the weight of this bare-faced colonial fantasy, which is actually more rather than less powerful for being a fantasy. But in this instance, logging into black male animal sexuality actually has a provenance that does nothing to disturb the status quo, and indeed, actively participates in maintaining it.
This is not to say that stories don’t matter, but rather, that we need to be cautious before attributing “radical” potential to stories that are fascinating precisely because they are so conservative. Indeed, the weight borne by stories in this book seems rather un-bear-able. Story after story is attributed a significance that it cannot really sustain. Part of this is the anthropological method of piling anecdote upon anecdote to drive home a thesis. But it is almost as though no one challenged the apportioning of weight to these anecdotes. The “radical queer” potential of stories of women having sex with bears is really neither radical nor queer. It uses colonial tools to fantasise about an aspirational future in which sex will be “all that.” In doing so, the book forgets its own lesson, articulated elsewhere, that “relatedness always entails some kind of violence” (256). This is an important idea to remember – sex is never just sex, it is also always violence. Sex can never be founded upon happiness and mutuality and consent – all those aspirational and sentimentalized misnomers we attribute to it. Instead, sex highlights all that is horrific about intimacy – it makes us anxious, restless, and bigoted. But the trick is to remember that these might actually make sex more rather than less pleasurable, i.e., we might want to be anxious, restless and bigoted. Sex brings out the animal in us (and not necessarily in any pornographic way). Perhaps this is how we need to think about “animal intimacies”? As a phrase in which “animal” is the adjective associated with “intimacies” rather than the noun in relation to which intimacies are produced? Perhaps a book that manages to take on board both these grammatical and sexual possibilities will begin to approach what it means to be radically queer.
Book Review: Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas, Radhika Govindrajan. Penguin Viking, 2019.
Madhavi Menon is a professor of English at Ashoka University, and writes on desire and queer theory. Her latest book, ‘Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India’, brings together ideas important to queer theory with centuries of thought, philosophy, literature, art, and politics in India.