Can the elephant speak? Towards an ethics of ‘voice’


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IN 1988, Gayatri Spivak published a challenging article entitled ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ – the ‘subaltern’ being that individual or subjectivity beholden to, and therefore silenced by, the holders of power, whether economic or lingual. Spivak was addressing human imperialism, and more particularly the ways in which ‘western’ academic rhetorical structures continue – even as they study, valorize, and make claims for and about the subaltern ‘other’ – effectively to deny the subaltern ‘permission to narrate’. The subaltern remains subjected to ‘the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text’.

A parallel ‘epistemic violence’ – that is, an historical repression of the ‘other’s worldview and mode of self-expression – may be observed in the case of wild animals. For ‘subaltern’, I want to test the substitution of ‘elephant’. I will address this by focusing on the southern African situation, touching on three particular texts, and working with three inseparable levels of communication: between elephant and elephant; between elephant and human; and between human and human. In short, I want to explore the question of just Who is speaking to whom, how, and with what ethical implications?

Undeniably the elephant, like Spivak’s subaltern, has become radically subject to, broadly defined, imperial epistemic violence. Once European armaments, transport technologies, and novel inducements of monetary power arrived in southern Africa in the 18th century, the fate of tens of thousands of elephants was sealed: slaughtered for ivory, meat, or so-called ‘sport’. Only in the early 20th century, as local extinction threatened and wildlife sanctuaries like Kruger National Park and Addo Elephant Park were established, did anyone begin to speak up for elephants as creatures with some kind of intrinsic right to exist. But note: the emotional and social (not simply scientific or ecological) shift required here was one that occurred in only a tiny minority of South Africa’s population – the White, European, educated legislators of power.


No one, of course, ‘consulted’ the elephants, who were confined within fences, their migration routes cut off, their access to resources like water manipulated, their breeding opportunities massaged, forcible removals imposed, and ultimately numbers controlled by mass death through ‘culling’. Nor, in most cases, were the majority of South Africa’s human populations consulted: the congruence between South Africa’s imperial-colonial-minority government’s treatment of animals and of indigenous people has been well remarked upon, and its practical effects remain with us. The imposition and legal regulation of apartheid, and (most interestingly from my literary-critical angle) the rhetorical or epistemic dissemination of persuasive attitudes crucial to sustaining it, remain inextricable from the imposition, regulation and management of what we now call ‘fortress conservation’.

Currently, two philosophical and epistemic realms dominate that model: the eco-scientific (a term that admittedly conceals innumerable subsets and nuances), and animal-rights discourse (also internally divided). To generalize grossly, hard science – which some argue is now, and ought to be, the dominant ‘voice’ in the arena of elephant management – aims to be hard-edged, objective, experimentally repeatable, and culturally neutral. In animal studies, the tendency is towards species-based descriptors of predictable behaviours. On the other hand, animal rights language is predicated on assumptions of the sentience (mind, consciousness) of the individual animal, a subjectivity attracting rights, respect and compassion whose voice needs to be heard. According animals ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’, ‘intelligence’, ‘emotion’, or ‘culture’ – messy concepts even within human affairs – is often what the scientific voice seeks to exclude, precisely because such notions are not empirically verifiable.


One of the few commentators to dwell at length on this question of language, Eileen Crist, quotes Nikolaas Tinbergen’s ethological study The Nature of Instinct: ‘Subjective phenomena cannot be observed objectively in animals, [so] it is idle either to claim or to deny their existence. ... Hunger, like anger, fear and so forth, is a phenomenon that can be known only by introspection. When applied to another subject, especially one belonging to another species, it is merely a guess about the possible nature of the animal’s subjective state.’ (Crist 116)

Crist concludes, then, that since ‘the status of mental life can neither be legislated by ‘simple proclamations nor settled by appeals to indisputable evidence’ (7), science tends to adopt a technical language that forecloses the possibility of animal mind or agency – and this is ‘not only alien to an experiential perspective, but causally implicated in the production of behaviour’ (5). For instance, in the context of management/science-driven ‘culling’ of ‘over-populated’ elephants in South Africa, the clash of these discourses has deeply affected the practicalities of operations on the ground. In the accompanying rhetoric, emotional temperatures frequently rise, even as compromises are negotiated.


Compromises are possible, at times, because the barrier between the approaches is more porous than public confrontation might imply. Here is an example from the South African culling scene, from an article by elephant zoologist Rob Slotow:

For reasons of safety to operators and the public, the culling of elephants in Kruger was initially conducted using the drug Scoline (succinyldicholine chloride). This compound paralyzed the animal, rendering it immobile and harmless once it was recumbent until it could be dispatched by means of a brain-shot. It was shown by Hattingh et al. that the use of Scoline for culling elephants was inhumane. These authors showed that in elephants the locomotory muscles are immobilized initially, rendering the animal recumbent yet totally aware of its surroundings. A while thereafter the diaphragm is affected, stopping respiration. The heart muscle continues to function for several minutes thereafter and the animal eventually dies of asphyxiation if it is not brain-shot. The use of Scoline was therefore discontinued… (Slotow 357)

The distancing rhetoric here (operators, the animal, conducted, rendering, recumbent, dispatched, affected, function) is characteristic of ‘science-speak’. But what lies behind the phrase ‘totally aware of its surroundings’? Why aware only of its surroundings, and not also of its own internal processes, sensations, thoughts? Are confusion and terror not part of that ‘total awareness’? This case shows a certain reluctance to voice such ethically troubling attributions, to admit a close listening to the individual elephant. Nevertheless, an assumption is being made that some such inner world exists, underpinning the conception of what constitutes the ‘inhumane’ and therefore the pragmatic application of compassion. The allegedly two different worlds of science and the imagination, here, seem less than distinct. I would argue they cannot be, and need not be.1 


The linguistic manifestations, assumptions and values of ‘science’ do not occur in a vacuum, but feed via multiple channels into a slew of other genres and kinds of text: popularized reports, newspapers, novels, ranger memoirs, tourist brochures, television documentaries, photographic images, electronic social media, and (perhaps still most important) word of mouth. Regarding elephant representations, the actual dynamics of voice and persuasion, and their ethical implications, have scarcely been mapped or studied, let alone philosophically theorized, even where one might expect it. Wemmer and Christen’s Elephants and Ethics (2008), Scholes and Mennell’s Elephant Management (2001), Gaye Bradshaw’s empathetic Elephants on the Edge (2009), all imply but never detail the role of language. Even in the congenial ‘capabilities’ approach of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, ‘freedom of expression’ features amongst human morally-considerable capabilities, but does not appear overtly in her animal capabilities list (Nussbaum 2004).2 

It’s hardly surprising that ecologists and managers find it more manageable to avoid this almost limitlessly swampy terrain of opinionation, poetics and imagination. Yet it is unavoidable. Hence, it is precisely in that slippery area between transmission and reception – between the message and its interpretation, and the ethical implications of what happens – where certain techniques of literary analysis may prove useful. Key here is the discomfiting fact that even in optimal conditions, latitude for interpretation and misinterpretation is wide, if not downright unpredictable.


An illustrative anecdote: some years ago I was delivering a paper partly on South African writer Wilbur Smith’s novel Elephant Song, a popular text which I was incidentally deriding as ecologically unsound, covertly racist, and emotionally exploitative. An American woman I bumped into instead enthused about the novel: it had made her so sorry for the elephants that she now made an annual donation to Tennessee’s Hohenwald elephant sanctuary. Bad novel: good result.

What humans may be saying to one another, then, depends to varying degrees on who ‘reads’ elephants, real or represented. For, as Robert J.C. Young recently commented in riposte to Spivak, of course the subaltern (elephant) can speak; she speaks all the time, but mostly to other subalterns, seldom to the power brokers, and seldom in a language they follow. The real question then is, Who is listening?

Fiction, naturally, is an important vector through which scientific behavioural observations are amplified by an empathetic imagination.3 In a Zimbabwe-set novella for teens, John Struthers’ A Boy and an Elephant (1998), the first encounter between orphaned child and orphaned pachyderm initiates a crucial confluence of bodily presence, communication and compassion:

When Jamie awoke, he thought it was his mother’s soft hand exploring his face. Already so shocked, his system was slow to grasp the fact of it. This was the tip of an elephant’s trunk exploring the contours of his head. Moving down the body, slowly, to scent the groin area.

Only gradually did his eyes focus beyond this rough, dark, sinuously-bending thing, upward. To a curving white tusk and the long lashes of an eye, behind. A great ear lifted, cutting out even more of the early morning light. And, into his newly aroused consciousness, the giant seemed to be soundlessly speaking.

‘Doing here, what, little brother?’ he thought he heard the elephant say, ‘Happened, what?’

‘My father...’ Jamie began.

Then, realisation of what had happened hit. And, with it, the agony of it all began to flood through his system.

Instantly, Gerry’s exploring trunk stilled, as his senses absorbed these new messages of the boy’s distress.

‘Yes?’ he seemed to ask solicitously.

Jamie put a hand up. Heedless of what he was doing – somehow, without fear – he grasped the roundness of it, pulled himself up onto his feet. For a moment, he rested his forehead against the wrinkled skin. Then, his arms went around Gerry’s long, immobilised nose, and he clung to it tightly, sobbing.

‘Little one, right, all,’ Jamie heard in his mind, after a while. ‘Too, loss, know I...’ (19)

This telepathy, captured in a kind of stuttering pidgin, is supposedly not depicted as English language as such: it is only how Jamie registers his interpretation, and is more akin to the infrasonic rumbles that are ‘read’ by the boy’s whole body, then ‘translated’. As a narrative device, this is awkward and ultimately unpersuasive, but locating the basis for compassion in some form or forms of communication, including, crucially, the trustfulness of touch, is profoundly important. Struthers thus indicates that ‘caring’ for animals in some kind of distant, abstracted sense, however scientifically, ecologically or economically supported, is deeply inadequate. Explicitly countering the doctrine of ‘use them or lose them’ (75), Struthers expresses what Ralph Acampora, in his philosophical study Corporal Compassion, calls symphysis – ‘cross-species compassion ... mediated by somatic [bodily] experiences’ (Acampora 23).


Scientists too, of course, have been ‘listening in’ on elephant communications, doing the hard science and then communicating their findings in what might be called the ‘popular scientific memoir’ – a genre that to varying degrees allows itself to ‘anthropomorphize’. In the elephant context, such accounts include those by Cynthia Moss, Raman Sukumar, and Joyce Poole. Following Katy Payne’s Silent Thunder, Caitlin O’Connell’s The Elephant’s Secret Sense (2007) relays her nifty experiments to determine how much Namibian elephants may be communicating with each other through ground vibrations and the soles of their feet.

O’Connell is listening, although she still cannot specify what elephants think or experience. Yet she has no doubt that they do possess experiential inner worlds, and that these are communicable to other creatures, including humans. Note the language used in the following passage, describing vibrational experiments with a captive elephant: ‘During some of the more difficult trials, Donna seemed to transform suddenly from a jolly elephant, happily sucking her treats and making what elephant trainers call ‘rasberry’ sounds ... into a toothless, bearded hag, all hairy and cowardly, tentative trunk lips quivering as she reached towards the ‘yes’ target, then kicking the heel of her foot into the plate when she got it wrong and didn’t get a treat. She blossomed and withered, flourished and soured, depending on her success. ... As we watched her swell and shrink, her suffering made us want her to succeed all the more.’ (163-4)

O’Connell’s metaphors (jolly, blossomed, soured) search for an expression of elephant umwelt that takes her beyond sentimentalised anthropomorphism. She qualifies her reading with seemed, and notes carefully the outward signs of inner states. Whether or not her interpretation is deemed ‘accurate’ or credible, O’Connell is using the resources of narrative progression, colloquial language, dialogue, metaphor – the commonplaces of fiction, in fact – obviously with a target audience in mind.


Similar techniques are applied in Lawrence Anthony’s The Elephant Whisperer (2009), the wildlife manager’s equivalent of the scientist’s memoir. Over a long, turbulent period of mutual habituation on his reserve, Thula Thula, Anthony developed a particular relationship with one relocated wild elephant he named Nana. This progressed from potentially murderous hostility on her part, via a breakthrough ‘spark of recognition’ passing between them, to mutually respectful touch. Here he relates one stage of the developing rapport:

I was intensely focused on this magnificent creature standing so close to me. All the while Nana kept glancing across or staring at me. Every now and then she would turn her massive body slightly towards me, or move her ears almost imperceptibly in my direction. Her occasional deep rumblings vibrated through my body.

‘So this was how she communicated ... with her eyes, trunk, stomach rumblings, subtle body movements, and of course her attitude. And then suddenly I got it. She was trying get through to me – and like an idiot I hadn’t been responding at all!

I looked pointedly at her and said ‘Thank you’, acknowledging her, testing her reaction. The alien words echoed across the silent veldt. The effect was immediate. She glanced across and held my gaze, drawing me in for several deep seconds... (194-5)

Recognition of the mere existence of embodied communication between sentient individuals is an act of empathetic imagination; it transcends ‘direct’ translation of ‘alien’ languages, and bears specific ethical consequences (see Bradshaw 174-85).


In imagining elephant mind and voice, both O’Connell and Anthony challenge what it means to be both ‘human’ and ‘communicative’. But they recognise that others’ perspectives are radically different, even hostile, ranging from elephant-threatened peasant farmers in the Caprivi to government appointed conservation officials, hunters, poachers, rangers, and tourists – all behaving and imagining within economically fractured and politically fractious landscapes. And who is really listening to the impoverished Mozambican poacher, the diplomat-smuggler, the crime-syndicate boss, the religious ivory-carver? Yet to ignore their stories, as a foundation for truly persuasive interventions, is surely proving literally fatal to elephant survival.4 

Through the relative clarities of scientific experiment, ecology-derived management decisions, and economic balance sheets, seeps that world of misinterpretation and misinformation, of cultural dispositions, prejudices and histories. Crucial to elephant conservation, ultimately, is understanding better how these infinitely messy networks of communication function.



1. I am emphatically not disparaging good science: its methodologies and rhetorics are undeniably powerful and valuable. Nevertheless, as scientists know, the reality is often very messy indeed: data can be faulty, patchy, or partial; bias can invade; arguments over interpretation regularly occur, even when, ideally, errors are quickly rectified by further study. Messiness is particularly high when dealing with open-ended phenomena such as climate, or complexly variable and porous ecosystems, or indeed complex animals like elephants that appear to have a mind of their own.

2. Lori Alward does without difficulty add language and communication to Nussbaum’s list (2008:217).

3. Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone (1998) is probably the most ambitious project to imagine the inner culture of elephant-world, in which elephants communicate richly with one another, and also with other creatures.

4. My colleague Ruth Kruger (pers.comm.) has noted how her research team gathered stories of elephant affected villagers near Kruger National Park, only to have them excised from reports submitted to government – thus exemplifying Spivak’s point about a new wave of ‘approved’ language re-inscribing subaltern status on already marginalized people.


Works cited:

Ralph Acampora, Corporal Compassion: Animal Ethics and Philosophy of Body. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2006.

Lori Alward, ‘Why Circuses are Unsuited to Elephants’, in C. Wemmer and C. Christen, Elephants and Ethics: Towards a Morality of Co-existence. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008, pp. 205-24.

Lawrence Anthony, The Elephant Whisperer. Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 2009.

G A. Bradshaw, Elephants on the Edge. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009.

Eileen Crist, Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1999.

Martha Nussbaum, ‘Beyond "Compassion" and "Humanity": Justice for Non-Human Animals’, in Cass R. Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum (eds.), Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, pp. 299-320.

Caitlin O’Connell, The Elephant’s Secret Sense. OneWorld, Oxford, 2007.

Christen Wemmer and Catherine Christen (eds.), Elephants and Ethics: Toward a Morality of Co-existence. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008.

Rob Slotow, ‘Lethal Management of Elephants’, in R.J. Scholes and K.G. Menell (eds.), Elephant Management: A Scientific Assessment for South Africa. Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2001, pp. 370-405.

John Struthers, A Boy and an Elephant. SCE, Uniedal, 1998.