Traps and Tangles

Last week I attended a brilliant conference on the topic of “Traps” over at the Centre for Research into the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities in Cambridge. The purpose of the discussion was to consider the utility of thinking with traps to understand the technological mediations of human-animal relations, across different places and times. The papers took this starting point into some fascinating directions.

Throughout the conference the participants returned over and again to the anthropologist Alfred Gell’s article, “Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps”. I must confess, I had never even heard of this essay before the conference. But, having listened the discussion about it, I read it on my train home. It is a richly suggestive piece. While it is not really about the relationships between humans and animals, instead attempting to unpick the distinction made between artworks and artifacts, it offers some productive starting points. Not everyone agreed with it, of course. Nevertheless, it helped to clarify people’s own concepts.

For Gell, traps are works that embody a nexus of different intentions, those of both the hunter and the prey. For the hunter, the trap acts in their absence. It is a materialization of their desire, which they set in a suspended state in anticipation of an animal’s actions. In this way, traps must also represent the wants of the animal. This might be through the trap’s bait, placement or design, and, more often than not, all three. On the latter, Gell notes how traps must take account of the animals body, behaviours and way of perceiving the world in order to be effective. He writes, in a memorable phrase, that traps are a “lethal parody of the animal’s umwelt.”

I think this is a really insightful point which enables us to think about various technologies that attempt to render non-human world views in material artifacts. At the same time, it was apparent throughout the conference that not all traps discussed were deadly, nor were they designed as travesties of another creature’s subjectivity. This got me thinking about the entrapment of elephants in colonial Burma.

From G. Pfaff, Reports on the Investigation of Diseases of Elephants (Rangoon, 1940)
From G. Pfaff, Reports on the Investigation of Diseases of Elephants (Rangoon, 1940)

The “crush” was a wooden stockade designed to hold young elephants during training (and sick elephants during invasive treatments for illness). While trapped in the crush the animal underwent a painful process of breaking and training to become a working elephant. Punishment and reward were dished out to discipline the creature. At the same time, the would-be oozie (elephant driver) built a relationship with the elephant based on mutual trust and fear. These could be deeply affectionate relationships that may on occasions have lasted for the bulk of both the elephant and the oozie’s lives.

The crush can, I think, be thought of as a trap, although not as Gell thought of them. While the crush was designed taking account of the corporeality and capacities of the species, the intention was not to kill the animal caught inside. But the difference between the crush from Gell’s imagining of the trap is deeper than it not being a deadly devise. The crush is meant to initiate the elephant into a new umwelt, that of the timber industry.

It might be tempting to surmise, on this basis, that the crush makes possible a transition from an animal world to a human one. This would be, I think, a mistaken conclusion. The timber trade was a inter-species industry. This was true in the working of the crush itself. Trained elephants were also used to provide care and exercise control over the new animal. Moreover, the separation between the jungle camps where they worked and wild spaces beyond them was far from complete. The captive elephants interacted with wild herds, often fighting and breeding with one another.

The timber trade, then, created spaces of “entanglement”, as Donna Haraway and Karen Barad might conceptualize it. Humans and elephants were bound up in intimate relationships through working in the industry. Each had to take account of the actions and desires of the other. There was an uneven sharing of mutual responsibilities that involved care, as well as violence. So why traps and why not tangles?

I think that traps, or perhaps entrapment, might be a complimentary concept to the more widely popularized concept of entanglement. I haven’t fully worked this through yet, but perhaps traps are a particular arrangement that seek to order and discipline entanglements. Entrapment offers a way to think through the asymmetrical violence of certain human-animal entanglements. Perhaps traps are not lethal (human) parodies of a (non-human) animal’s umwelt. Maybe they are better conceived of as technologies that enable the violent entanglement of more than one species.

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