CFP AAG 2017: The Contact Zone II & II: Where Species Meet

Call For Papers
AAG 2017 Boston (April 5-8, 2017)

Session title: The Contact Zone II & II: Where Species Meet

Co-Organizers: Jenny R. Isaacs (Rutgers University) and Kathryn Gillespie (Weslyan University)

The goal of these sessions is to reflect upon the influence and continued relevance of the concept of the “contact zone” in “more-than-human”/posthuman research, political ecologies, and other multispecies geographies. Twenty five years ago, Mary Louise Pratt coined the term “contact zone” to describe spaces where “cultures, meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today (1991, 1992)”. With the animal turn’s interest in hierarchy among animals/species (Emel & Wolch 1995 & 1998, Plumwood 1993), Pratt’s concept was soon applied to critical discussions of encounters, meeting spaces, and uneven multispecies power relations– prompting reflexive investigations within animal writings/research/ethics (Sundberg 2006, Haraway 2008, Kirksey & Helmreich 2010, Ogden 2011, Collard 2015). The concept continues to have purchase today as always unfinished cosmopolitical projects demand a furthering of the arts of the contact zone in order to understand, learn from, and more fully allow political agency for the nonhuman “other”.

This conversation follows previous AAG sessions attentive to ethical concerns, critical and creative methodologies regarding the problem of where and how to engage with and let the “animals themselves” be heard in ways that do not reflect, rely upon, or reinscribe anthropocentric, asymmetrical, Western humanist structures of power and control. This is necessary because debates continue around shifting norms in human-animal relations within contact zones; including expanded rights, personhood, citizenship, grievability, access and privacy, conservation measures, and humane care standards/certifications.  For example, in everyday contact zones hegemonic human institutions of “science,” “food,” “pet-keeping,” and “entertainment” routinely subordinate nonhuman animals– displacing, violating, and often killing them to advance human ends; these institutions and their embodied effects remain controversial and continue to be directly challenged by scholars and activists who view these mundane, daily encounters as violent violations of animal lives. Conversely, power is exercised when certain endangered animals’ lives are labelled as more valuable than others, including humans, such as those on IUCN Red Lists and those surrounded by legal, protected area boundaries (Neumann 2004, Collard 2014, Braverman 2015a &b, Benson 2015).

The contact zone, then, is a site where ambivalent encounters occur between humans and other species, and often where violence and uneven power relations continue to be enacted. It is in these contact zones that humans and other species are made visible and where they encounter each other in an embodied way. Collard explains, “to look at animals and to be looked upon by animals often entails accessing an embodied proximity to them. Depending on the animal, this proximity may demand a degree of control over and manipulation of the animal,” concluding that the concept of the contact zone is an “apt frame for this reciprocal looking” (2015:4). This “reciprocal looking” demands ethical reflection and suggests a politics at the heart of geographical analyses of multispecies contact zones. Further, as zones of co-constitution, for Pratt and others, (Ahmed 2004, Haraway 2012, Collard 2013), meetings in the contact zone should be examined for their productiveness and transformative effects, without a priori assumptions.

In these sessions, we seek to intentionally “map” or focus on the spatial aspects of human-animal contact zones– transcultural zones, natural-cultural borderlands, frontiers of biological discovery, and places of witnessing–to investigate the locations, terms, affects, and conditions where species meet.  We seek to foster critical discussion about and share researcher experiences addressing the following questions:

  • Why is the concept of contact zones useful for geographers and other scholars who study relations with nonhumans? What have/can/should animal, post/more-than-human, and environmental geographers add/ed to discussions?
  • What are the trends and new places, spaces, and locations of multispecies contact, and how are these impacting norms of exchange between humans and nonhumans?
  • What ontologies and theories of science are enacted in multispecies research in contact zones, with what effects? How and where does more sophisticated technology affect interactions in this zone? How and where does indigenous and traditional knowledge challenge or better inform institutional knowledge?
  • Have the affective, speculative, nonhuman, and emotional turns transformed relations in multispecies contact zones? How do grief, rage, and other emotions operate within these contact zones as modes of politicizing the multispecies encounters occurring in these spaces?
  • As an alternative to biologists and ecologists acting as proxies for nature, how have/might the humanities served as a bridge between species? What genres and forms have or are being used for co-witnessing and to facilitate transductive learning (see Kirksey & Helmreich 2010, Gordon 2014)?
  • What are the disparate, sometimes contradictory human-to-animal ethics within contact zones? How have these shifted over time and how are these changing today in research, law, and practice? Where might these ethical framings be headed in the future?
  • How is cosmopolitical citizenship negotiated, configured, denied or more fully realized at the contact zone/site (Stengers 2010, Donaldson  & Kymlicka 2011, Gabrys 2016)?
  • How does scale function or collapse in the contact zone? Does the contact zone as research site represent or serve as a nexus point to study extended networks– for instance, lively commodity chains– or does it problematically reduce/oversimplify complexity and the myriad connections to more distant geographies? (Whatmore 2002, Collard 2013, 2014, Collard & Dempsey 2013)
  • Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him” (1968:223). If contact zones are places of always imperfect translations, what are the limits and burdens of researchers dedicated to multispecies exchange, conflict resolution, and solidarity?
  • What can the “contact zones” framework contribute to enacting more radical,  liberatory relationships between humans and other species? In what ways do the fraught power relations emerging in multispecies contact zones inform our understanding of animal life and commodification in late-modern capitalism? What does it demand politically of the researcher-as-witness (Sundberg 2015, Gillespie 2016)?
  • How do encounters within the contact zone transform parties, create “hybrid zones” and hybrid forms? How might these contacts lead to positive and/or negative mutual transformation? What are the productive aspects of contact zones for better or worse? Do we see and/or anticipate effects of appropriation and/or assimilation between species?

We would like to have one panel and one paper session on this topic. If you are interested in participating in either a panel discussion or presenting a paper on this subject, please get in touch and specify whether you are interested in being a panelist or presenting a full paper. For papers, please send an abstract; for the panel, please send a short description of how you are thinking about the legacy and continued relevance of “the contact zone” within Geography as well as within the context of your own research, with particular attention to what you might contribute to the conversation. Please send to Jenny R. Isaacs ( and Kathryn Gillespie ( by October 20, 2016.



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Braverman, Irus. (2015a).”Is the Puerto Rican Parrot Worth Saving? The Biopolitics of Endangerment and Grievability.” In Lopez, Patricia, and Kathryn A. Gillespie, eds. Economies of Death: Economic logics of killable life and grievable death. Vol. 199. Routledge, (2015: 73-94)

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