Review of Near Human: Border Zones of Species, Life, and Belonging. Mette N. Svendsen, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021, 230 pp.

Reviewed Book

Near Human: Border Zones of Species, Life, and Belonging. Mette N. Svendsen, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021, 230 pp.

Near Human: Border Zones of Species, Life, and Belonging. Mette N. Svendsen, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021, 230 pp.

Cover of Near Human (2021)

Elan Abrell

Wesleyan University

In the opening scene of the 2021 narration-less animals’-eye view documentary Gunda (Kosakovskiy), which follows the daily lives of several farmed animals, the sow Gunda gives birth in a hay-strewn barn to a litter of piglets. As her siblings make their way across the hay to their mother’s nipples to start nursing, one piglet lies on her side in the foreground breathing laboriously. Eventually, Gunda stands up and walks over to her struggling infant, pressing down on her with one hoof to euthanize her. This is one of many artfully shot scenes that collectively present a biographical sketch of Gunda’s first several weeks of motherhood as she cares for her piglets. Although not explicitly a multispecies ethnographic film, by centering the subjectivity of Gunda and her piglets the documentary realizes the potential of multispecies ethnography to illuminate animals’ social and biographical lives (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010). Similarly, Mette N. Svendsen’s theoretically sophisticated, multi-sited ethnography of a Danish animal research facility and the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) that depends on its research endeavors to bring multispecies ethnography into dialog with the anthropology of morality. While the book ultimately falls short of this goal and refrains from grappling with the experiences of the pregnant sows and premature piglets used in the research (p. 12), Near Human enriches our understanding of how human/non-human boundaries are navigated—and in the process continuously reconfigured—in scientific research.

Based on a decade of collaborative research, this ambitious ethnography traces the mutually influential connections between agriculture, medical research on pigs, multispecies migration and border policies, neonatal health care, and the Danish welfare state. Svendsen examines these connections through the juxtaposition of her two main field sites: the Newborn Pig Facility at the University of Copenhagen and the NICU at the university hospital. Researchers at the Newborn Pig Facility surgically remove premature piglets from their pregnant mothers to conduct research on the piglets to inform and improve medical procedures for caring for premature human infants. Following the introduction, the ethnography is divided into four chapters, the first two primarily focused on pig research and the latter two primarily focused on neonatal care. Finally, the timely conclusion reflects on the book’s arguments in light of the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Svendsen’s astute analysis is informed by her theoretical investigation of substitution practices (such as the use of premature piglets to produce knowledge applicable to premature infants) and how they reconfigure boundaries between human and nonhuman, life and death, and social belonging and exclusion. The book is at its strongest when Svendsen leans into her expertise in medical anthropology, like in Chapter 3, in which she deftly explores how Danish reproductive politics and ideas about patients’ relationships with the Danish welfare state inform life-or-death medical decisions about whether or not to discontinue treatment.

Svendsen’s resistance to considering the subjective experiences of the pigs used in research, however, limits the monograph’s contribution to multispecies ethnography. It also creates an impediment to theorizing the role morality plays in the research on pigs. This may be partly related to the animal ethics work that Svendsen acknowledges as influences, specifically early utilitarian (Peter Singer) and deontological (Tom Reagan) approaches that likewise failed to fully consider the sophisticated emotional and psychological subjectivities of nonhuman animals. To be clear, it is certainly a valid choice to focus on “morality-in-the-making” (p. 18, citing Mesman 2008: 11) through an examination of human experiences in the context of animal research. However, as Svendsen rightly observes, the moral principle that justifies the pig research is based on the same fundamental assumption that animals are resources for human benefit that underlies and justifies the Danish pig farming industry. Svendsen describes how researchers use kinship-related terminology to describe their relationships of care with the piglets and ironically blunt terms like “murder” to describe the violence they inflict on the piglets as means of managing what Svendsen describes as “moral discomfort.” Although her analysis provides a deeper understanding of how researchers deal with their ambivalent affective responses to their work, without a consideration of the subjective experiences of the pigs as well the researchers, Svendsen—like the researchers themselves—eschews engaging with the inherent moral contradictions underlying animal research. Put simply, Near Human enriches our understanding of the biographical lives of researchers navigating the ambivalence and discomfort resulting from their harming and killing pigs in their care, but it misses the chance to do the same for the pigs themselves. Unlike the opening scene of Gunda that wordlessly conveys the experiences of both the euthanized piglet and her euthanizing mother, we can only get a partial picture of euthanasia and other activities in the lab when they are framed exclusively through the human researchers’ experiences.

Despite its limitations as multispecies ethnography, Near Human makes important contributions to medical anthropology and the growing body of ethnographic work on the use of animals in laboratory research. This book will be of interest to scholars working on a wide range of topics from animal agriculture to reproductive politics, nationality formation, citizenship, European immigration and trade, and medical knowledge and technology production. It will also appeal to advanced undergraduates and graduate students in anthropology, sociology, geography, science and technology studies, and animal studies. In particular, it would make an excellent addition—either as a whole monograph or individual chapters—to course syllabi focused on reproductive and neonatal politics.

References Cited

Kirksey, E., and S. Helmreich. 2010. The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 24: 545–76.

Kosakovskiy, V., dir. 2021. Gunda. Mystic, CT: Artemis Rising Foundation.

Mesman, J. 2008. Uncertainty in Medical Innovation: Experienced Pioneers in Neonatal Care. London: Palgrave.