Davé, Naisargi. Indifference: On the Praxis of Interspecies Being. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2023.

Davé, Naisargi. Indifference: On the Praxis of Interspecies Being. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2023.


Keywords: ethics, animals, care, relationality, queerness


During the suicide epidemic of the Inuit in Nunavut, the RCMP cared for them by removing them from their families (Stevenson 2014). The Indian state, meanwhile, shows care for Kashmir by occupying it (Varma 2020). In an effort to save the species from extinction, conservationists cared for the whooping crane species by encouraging chicks in captivity to “imprint” upon crane-costumed humans (Connolly 2018). In other words, where has this contemporary biopolitical imperative to care gotten us, asks Naisargi Davé in Indifference: On the Praxis of Interspecies Being. Instead, Davé calls for an ethic premised on “not acquiring, not desiring, not in thrall, not hankering, not assimilating, not repairing, not consuming, not anthropologizing, not staring,” an ethic premised on living “side by side, rather than face to face” (1).


Each chapter of the book presents a reading of a different ethical act as undergirded by generative indifference. Chapter 2 narrates the lives of three queer figures through their indifference to the end of the world. Chapter 4 investigates the tenuous relation between speech and political representation, and counsels indifference to words for a more expansive moral world. Meanwhile, in Chapter 6, Davé recounts a particularly exhausting day spent at a slaughterhouse, after which she returns home and falls asleep in her bloodied outfit, unintentionally indifferent to the rituals that keep apart the world of “excrement, blood, and illness” from the world of “home, leisure, and writing” (113). And from here, she critiques analogous rituals of differentiation, such as those that seek to keep apart Hindus from untouchables.


Davé’s arguments are most forceful in her calls for indifference to ethical consistency and moral categories. In Chapter 3, Davé observes that ethical consistency has routinely been used to delegitimize ethical practices. If one does not engage in all of ethics, one is not qualified to engage at all, the reasoning goes. The chapter begins with a graphic scene of Dipesh, a volunteer for “Welfare for Stray Dogs,” pulling maggots out of a dog’s ass. Once the maggots are out, the dog straddles into heavy traffic, nearly getting hit by a car. To this, Dipesh only shrugs, saying, “she’s old” (56). While it is easy to perceive Dipesh’s indifference here as ethical inconsistency, Davé argues that it is only because Dipesh is indifferent to the fact that the dog is old and may die at any moment, and indifferent to the fact that he is not saving the maggots inside the dog’s ass, that Dipesh is able to engage in his ethics at all. As a finite being, he cannot do everything. On the opposite end, Davé recounts Timmie Kumar, the director of “Crystal Rogers’s Help in Suffering,” who illustrated the “tyranny of consistency” poignantly: “I have to stop now, I just have to. I didn’t want to do nothing. But somehow, nothing became everything, and I started to drown” (58). Timmie tried to do everything and ended up unable to do anything, and thus “drowns in infinite responsibility” (59).


Meanwhile, in Chapter 7, Davé and her co-writer Alok Gupta proceed from the opposite direction, showing how indifference can transcend boundaries that are taken for granted. They recall an ethnographic scene where members of a sex education workshop were asked to list as many sexual acts as they could. When one of them wrote “dog tongue in vulva,” the others laughed and said “No, only consensual acts!” to which another replied, “We wine them, we dine them. It’s not like we do it just like that!” The rest agreed: “you get them in the mood; it’s romantic; you can tell they like it by how they wag their tail” (144).


This ethnographic scene is juxtaposed with a discussion about the legal separation between interspecies sex and animal husbandry. While the former is considered both illegal and immoral, the latter falls within the bounds of “permissible violence.” But what is the difference here, Davé and Gupta ask? It certainly can’t be premised, as Indian law dictates, on animals’ inability to consent. As they rightly observe, the animals’ preclusion as a full subject—unable to consent to sexual acts—also justifies their slaughter as food. With provocative, if slightly lurid, detail, they go on to illustrate the very sexual nature of animal husbandry, throwing the moral boundaries into question: “The farmer recognized the animal in heat, rectally palpates the uterus, and manually inseminates their cow” (142).


Davé and Gupta are also right in drawing a connection between the status of cows and that of Hindu women. The same logic that distinguishes a realm of permissible violence (husbandry) and perverse violence (bestiality) for cows is also the one that distinguishes between permissible violence done to one’s wife and perverse violence done to other women. They conclude at the end of the chapter that cow protection, like the protection of Hindu women, protects neither cows nor women, but “the exclusive Hindu anthropatriarchal right to bestial sex” (145). In other words, differences that are asserted and then taken for granted serve political interests. Indifference to such moral categories help us think our (interspecies) politics anew.

The two examples I have chosen from Davé’s book, however, also show how uneasily some of her arguments come together and speak to the rather disjointed and occasionally contradictory nature of the book as a whole. In one case, she seems to call for the dissolution of boundaries to practice a better form of politics; in the other, she stresses the importance of establishing boundaries that make ethical practices possible. This is not itself a problem if she has the conceptual resources to distinguish between them.


In Chapter 3, Davé tries precisely to distinguish between vital contradictions, which are generative, and sterile ones, which are not. The former exemplifies the contradictions inherent in reality; one inevitably fails, for example, to take on infinite and non-contradictory responsibilities, as Timmie tried to do. The latter, on the other hand, is “being all cramped up with concerns about structure, boundaries, and the proper relationship between concepts” (67). A sterile contradiction may therefore usefully describe the distinction between permissible and perverse violence explored in Chapter 7; the distinction between the two violences, as she tried to argue, is a distinction in the logical and moral relation between identical acts, rather than the lived reality of the acts themselves.


I do wonder, however, if logical contradictions aren’t also constitutive of lived reality. Doesn’t the way we structure the world cognitively affect how it appears to us too, how we react towards what is going on in the world, what we and other people are doing? In Chapter 7, Davé admits that technicians engaged in artificial insemination do so without expressions of intimacy. Davé interprets this phenomenon as an “intimacy beyond the sayable” (143), that is, an act that hides what is really going on, that hides the similarities between husbandry and bestiality. But what if the technician’s refusal to express intimacy is precisely his social reality, and what makes it possible for him to act in the world? To do his job while, perhaps in his non-work life, denouncing bestiality? Would this not then be a form of vital contradiction?


These slight skepticisms aside, Davé’s book is a provocative intervention in the anthropology of ethics, moving beyond critiques of care, to what might be possible once we are able to live without a will for difference; to live side by side, rather than face to face.


Works Cited:

Connolly, William E. “Extinction Events and Entangled Humanism.” In After Extinction, 27–50. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Stevenson, Lisa. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Varma, Saiba. The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.


Jack Jiang is a PhD student at the New School for Social Research in the cultural anthropology department. His doctoral project is centered on the anti-natalist movement, and he is broadly interested in ethics, kinship, ecology, religion, and philosophical anthropology.



© 2024 Jack Jiang

Jack Jiang