Spring 2014: Monahan Abstract

Casualties of Modernity: Road­killed Animals and the Question of Sustainability
Linda Monahan
Ph.D. Candidate, American Studies Program, College of William and Mary

Killing animals is not a uniquely modern development. The modern processes of industrialization, urbanization, and commodification, however, have had unprecedented effects on the methods and scope of human-assisted animal death since 1850. The realization of factory farming arguably represents the pinnacle of these modern ambitions. Human-regulated animal death, such as industrialized slaughter and lethal experimentation, therefore carries the modern hierarchy of subjectivity – which holds the rational, thinking human at its apex – to its logical end. But how does modernity understand animal killings that exist outside these systems? What about animal deaths for which humans have responsibility but not control?

Animals that have been hit by cars, widely known as “road kill,” present a challenging limit case for modern understanding of animal death. Road-killed animals are, for the most part, unintended casualties of modernity. These animal deaths are neither useful nor pleasurable, and therefore do not fit neatly into modern rationales for killing – yet, they are an exclusive product of modernity. Furthermore, the public deaths of road-killed animals transgress modern politics of sight that keep animal killing hidden from public view. Road kill’s lingering physicality subverts modernity’s compartmentalization of animal death, resisting the invisibility upon which much of commercial animal exploitation depends.

This talk will explore road kill as a contact zone between modernity and its animal others. Situating nonhuman animals in the interstice of sustainability and modernity requires a reworking of modern humanist understandings of subjectivity as well as discourses of sustainability that privilege abstract species over individual animals. Using several recent artistic explorations of these questions as they relate to road killed animals, this talk invites the audience to take seriously the detritus of their daily commute.

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