Openings into Intimacy
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Animal Intimacies
As we stood by the side of the highway, surrounded by monkeys on all sides, I suddenly noticed a juvenile female creeping up to us and flinched. "Hat," shouted Bubu. The monkey cowered, but continued determinedly toward us. As she came closer, I looked instinctively at Bubu’s cane, but it had not moved from his side. I was stunned when the monkey touched Bubu’s leg with her delicate brown fingers. She was close enough now that the flecks in her hazel eyes jumped out at me. When she closed her eyes, I saw that her lids were almost blue. She looked up at Bubu with an expression that could not be described as anything but searching . . . [Bubu] was uncharacteristically quiet. Finally, with an air of obvious embarrassment, he picked up a fallen pear and handed it to the monkey.
—Radhika Govindrajan, Animal Intimacies
Such quietly affecting moments abound in Radhika Govindrajan’s monograph, Animal Intimacies (University of Chicago Press, 2018), disrupting larger species narratives about cows, monkeys, pigs and other animals in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand. Govindrajan’s insistence on the particularity and work of relations foregrounds the ethical entanglements of concrete others among her interlocutors. While Govindrajan situates these interspecies engagements with specific reference to relatedness (Carsten 2000), making kin (Haraway 2016), and love (Berlant 2011), the concept of intimacy retains an openness which allows it to take shape from within her ethnography. Indeed, this theoretical openness offers readers fresh pathways into the study of intimacy. Perveez Mody (2019) has suggested that one strength of anthropological studies of intimacy derives precisely from the manner in which ethnography is conducted. That is to say, intimacy takes shape most vividly as the object of those anthropological studies where it also constitutes the method of research. Following Mody, I suggest that Animal Intimacies offers conceptual insights into the contours of intimacy as both object and method.
Govindrajan tracks the mutual nurturance between caretakers and animals throughout her book, and how “practices of care and labor led them to be open to the joy, anxiety, suffering of the other” (9). The labor of raising animals often incurred physical marks on the women who engaged in this work—the painful scratches and sores somatically registering the toll of care.
When Neema described the scratches on her body received from crawling into thorny thickets to rescue a goat, it was this intimate, routinized, arduous, and affective labor that she was invoking. This daily entanglement of lives creates bodies that are open to being affected by one another, and it is this porosity that allows different beings to come together in relationships of proximate intimacy. (36–37)
Underscoring this approach, Govindrajan employs the term “affective intimacies” (81) to demonstrate the ways in which daily encounters with specific cows, in other instances, attune caretakers to their material proclivities and capacities. One of her interlocutors, Rekha chachi, describes how she has developed a clear intuition about her cows: “I’m with them from morning to evening cleaning them, taking them to graze, feeding them, cleaning out their gobar (dung), milking them, and just sitting with them. I know when they are hiding milk for their calves, and I know when they stop giving milk because somebody has turned the evil eye upon them” (80). Here, the long hours and hard work spent with her cows produces a level of attunement which allows Rekha chachi, in turn, to perceive the invisible pressures of the other relations in which her cows are enmeshed. There is a picture of intimate knowledge here—of knowing why cows stop giving milk—which is cultivated through embodied participation in another’s affective life.
Govindrajan’s descriptions are also attentive to the humble “gestures [which] are often small and fleeting, like Neema’s tears on the occasion of her beloved goat’s killing. Small and perhaps even insufficient though they may be, they open up the possibility for ethical kinship and love in the interstices of violence” (37). Sensitive to the searching look on a baby monkey’s face or the quiet tears which escape Neema’s eyes, Govindrajan renders the ambiguities and excesses of the embodied affects which tug on humans and animals alike. Through these ephemeral gestures Govindrajan offers glimpses of the affects which pulse through everyday life.
Indeed Govindrajan’s attention to embodied affects—through the labor of care, intimate knowledge, and ephemeral gestures—offers anthropologists both methodological approaches to intimacy, as well as an analytic stance which foregrounds the dramas of everyday life. This is a politically situated approach, where each chapter turns on specific encounters and the traffic in affects between her interlocutors—and which catches her, as an ethnographer, in these affective swirls (Das 2015). The pressure of these affective encounters, which interpolate Govindrajan, channels the analysis of abstracted, political narratives—of undifferentiated humankind in the Anthropocene, or of Hindu nationalist constructions of gau-mata (the cow mother), preyed upon by the figure of the barbaric Muslim or Dalit Other—into precisely how it is that these discourses and processes of exploitation, hierarchy, and displacement are reworked in everyday life through engagement with concrete others. Govindrajan underscores that “a decolonized anthropology is one that must not only seriously engage but also be driven by the multiple points of view of its interlocutors (Nadasdy 2007; TallBear 2011; Biehl 2013)” (6). To counter other visions of politics in transcendental registers, centering animal intimacies insists upon a politics which is situated in lived, embodied relations—and a method of writing ethnography driven by the force of these relations. The work of intimacy is not taken for granted here, but entails all of the quotidian dramas of everyday life, “tracing the trajectories and outcomes of individual animal lives to see how they love, loathe, grieve, play, crave, and, indeed, relate” (21). Govindrajan offers some of the most promising and necessary approaches to the study of intimacy through her participation in, attunement to, and careful description of embodied affects. At the same time, she demonstrates how ethnography may resist constraining definitions and leave room for a concept to live.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. “A Properly Political Concept of Love: Three Approaches in Ten Pages.” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4: 683–91.
Biehl, João. 2013. “Ethnography in the Way of Theory.” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 4: 573–97.
Carsten, Janet, ed. 2000. Cultures of Relatedness: New Approaches to the Study of Kinship. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Das, Veena. 2015. Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty. New York: Fordham University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Mody, Perveez. 2019. “Contemporary Intimacies.” In Critical Themes in Indian Sociology, edited by Sanjay Srivastava, Yasmin Arif, and Janaki Abraham, 257–66. New Delhi: Sage.
Nadasdy, Paul. 2007. “The Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human–Animal Sociality.” American Ethnologist 34, no. 1: 25–43.
TallBear, Kim. 2011. “Why Interspecies Thinking Needs Indigenous Standpoints.” Fieldsights, November 18.