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Durham University

Department of Geography

Staff Profile

Publication details for Dr Elizabeth Johnson

Johnson, Elizabeth R. Of Lobsters, Laboratories, and War: Animal Studies and the Temporality of More-Than-Human Encounters. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 2015;33:296-313.

Author(s) from Durham


For over two decades, geographers concerned with undoing what Judith Butler has referred to as ‘the conceit of anthropocentrism’ have brought animals in from the margins of thought. Geography's contributions to animal studies have been diverse, but a key consideration has been a retreat from thinking with animals toward a plural, more-than-human analysis. A recent privileging of ‘spaces of encounter’ with nonhuman others challenges the significance of animals altogether, equating them to other nonhuman entities—along with nonliving processes, the movement of molecules, viruses, forces, and affects that circulate and connect in ‘events’ and ‘sites’—on the terrain of ethical and political conflict. There is much at stake here in terms of how geographical methods are carried out and how response, analysis, and political action proceed. In what follows, I reflect on field notes from an ethnographic encounter with lobster experimentation in a neuroscience laboratory to contrast thinking ‘with animals' and ‘with encounters’. I assess the implications of each for transforming who and what we consider in ethical and political terms. I find that while the encounter moves beyond the limitations of more traditionally defined animal studies, a corresponding focus on the present loses sight of wider temporal and spatial relations—including the political economies—that are relevant to the elements in any encounter. Drawing on Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Astrid Schrader, I argue for a geography of the encounter that ‘expands the present’ rather than residing in it, with consequences for the ‘new materialism’ movement. In the case of the lobster experiment, this leads me to consider how scientific practices with animals are also immediately a part of ongoing trends in the US that ‘militarize’ biological life. In conclusion, I argue that concern for animals in the laboratory ought to expand to include concern for past and future political conditions of life, death, and the production of knowledge.