The era of powdered wigs may have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean you won’t still see costumes at government hearings. In her new book Governing Animals, Kimberley K. Smith tells the story of animals rights activists who were seeking a way to best represent the interests of wild animals. How could they bring concerns specific to animal welfare into a public debate over a proposal to construct a semiconductor chip plant in the middle of a self-sustaining habitat? This conversation, which began with the premise that to speak about animals from a purely human perspective is cocky and wrong-headed, ended with one activist striding into the meeting in a butterfly costume, delivering an in-character pitch for leaving her home alone.
Ultimately, the wire wings were a kind of a non-starter in the chip plant dispute, and that particular technique hasn’t exactly gained traction nationwide. But it does speak to some complicated questions about how best to include in a public conversation those who cannot advance their interests on their own. Officials and scholars having these debates often employ terms that pop up in literary conversation as well: representation and voice.
We typically think that democratic societies function well (at least in broad-brush theory) because the phenomenon of representation gives everyone some input as to which laws to make and how best to enforce them. That is, if you can vote to put an official in office, and then periodically vote to retain or remove her, you can have input into how the government runs. Within this system, of course, you have to have the vote to have a voice.
To that end, Smith details how some nations and municipalities have tried affording a voice to animal interests by deputizing a human (or group of humans) to vote and agitate on their behalf. One Dutch political party, for example, asks its members to elect representatives whose central platform is animal welfare, citing this strategy as “the most effective way of getting animal interests onto the political agenda.” Another party in England functions similarly.
For this tactic to really work, of course, we need some way of knowing, to some uncertain degree of certainty, what it is that animals actually want. Smith’s book quotes from the writer and animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin, detailing her approach to formulating a best guess: “I use my visual thinking skills to simulate what an animal would see and hear in a given situation. I place myself inside its body and imagine what it experiences.”
This isn’t a description of the process of writing fiction, but it very well could be. It may be that literary representation and democratic representation sometimes pose the exact same challenge: how to speak with another voice and do it justice, without being presumptuous or corny or just wrong? These two endeavors might have a good deal to learn from one another when it comes to the uses of imagination in helping us listen to voices that we, on our own, can’t quite hear, but nonetheless want to speak in.