Here’s a passage from the intro to the book, Multispecies Salon, by Eben Kirksey, Craig Schuetze, and Stefan Helmreich…
As cultural anthropologists became focused on issues of representation and interpretation, ethnographers interested in plants, animals, and microbes began asking: Who should be speaking for other species? Arjun Appadurai has raised similar questions about the ability of anthropologists to represent other people. “The problem of voice (‘speaking for’ and ‘speaking to’),” he writes, “intersects with the problem of place (speaking ‘from’ and speaking ‘of’). . . . Anthropology survives by its claim to capture other places (and other voices) through its special brand of ventriloquism. It is this claim that needs constant examination.”10 Such critical scrutiny should be redoubled when anthropologists speak with biologists, nature lovers, or land man agers about the creatures they represent.
As multispecies ethnographers speak for members of other species—or even attempt to speak with them, in some cases—we certainly still run the risk of becoming ventriloquists.11 Bruno Latour seems unaware of this risk with his playful call for scholars in the humanities and social sciences to build new speech prosthetics: “subtle mechanisms capable of adding new voices to the chorus.”
Echoing Lewis Henry Morgan’s early writing about clever animal mutes, Latour suggests that “nonhumans” have “speech impedimenta” that must be overcome so that they might more fully participate in human society. In Politics of Nature, he proposes bringing democracy to nonhumans by drawing them into parliamentary assemblies, where they will be represented by human “spokespeople.”12 Questioning the ability of other organisms to hold their human representatives accountable initially led us to ask, rhetorically, “Can the nonhuman speak?”13 But after further reflection, we realized that this question was not quite right.
“Nonhuman is like non white,” says Susan Leigh Star. “It implies a lack of something.”14 While lacking speech should not be the defining characteristic of a broad category of beings, Latour’s notion of the nonhuman has another problem: It assumes too much about the very thing it opposes—that is, the human.”