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Book Review: Pigeon Trouble: Bestiary Biopolitics in a Deindustrialized America

Hoon Song. Pigeon Trouble: Bestiary Biopolitics in a Deindustrialized America. 2010. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 262 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4242-3

Reviewed by Marcel LaFlamme, Department of Anthropology, Rice University (US)

On the first Monday of September, the townspeople of Hegins, Pennsylvania would assemble in the park to kill pigeons. Birds rounded up in the railyards of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were transported to Hegins by the crate, where they would be blasted out of the air by shotgun-toting sportsmen. By the early 1990s, when anthropologist Hoon Song began his fieldwork in Hegins, animal rights activists were descending on the pigeon shoot in droves; the apparent senselessness of the killing inspired in them a passion, Song writes, “unmatched by the plight of a million cows” (19). Yet the fervor of the protesters and the ensuing media circus seemed only to fuel the brutality: as the television cameras rolled, ecstatic onlookers decapitated the wounded birds with a flick of the wrist, squashed their bodies underfoot, and even smeared their children’s upturned faces with fresh pigeon blood.


[cc photo credit: Mohd Hafizuddin Husin]

The field, as Song finds it in Pigeon Trouble, is already mediatized, spectacularized, and Song’s informants are powerfully aware of their presence in the representations of others. The protesters have no illusions about winning converts in Hegins; rather, their yearly appearance allows them to gather visual and narrative “raw material” (33) for an audience of supporters who are understood to be elsewhere. The resulting newsletters and direct mailings make Hegins available for consumption as an otherwise inaccessible space of rural depravity. Meanwhile, the working-class hooligans who delight in baiting the out-of-towners also run home during the shoot to monitor the news coverage as it unfolds. Song emphasizes the lapse of time between the moment of being seen in the park and the moment of mediated seeing on the TV screen, a temporal lag that might have been eliminated if the shoot had continued into the smartphone era. As it is, the shoot was canceled in 1999 under threat of litigation, meaning that Pigeon Trouble is, among other things, a record of historically and technologically contingent modalities of “seeing oneself seeing” (205).

Anthropology, as a discipline, fancies itself particularly savvy about the politics of seeing oneself seeing, and the so-called reflexive turn of the 1980s did usher in a new attention to the positionality of the fieldworker. Yet Song is openly skeptical about reflexivity as a textual technique that, by offering some additional context, somehow renders representation unproblematic. “The gaze of power is confessed to have been…coincident with the anthropologist,” he writes, “and the reflexive anthropologist volunteers to capture the heretofore invisible anthropological eye ‘from behind’” (208). But where is this “from behind,” he wonders, and what are the ethical and ontological stakes of occupying it? Song’s rejection of such a space of transcendence both informs and grows out of his own experience of foreignness in Hegins: as a Korean in a mostly white community with little enthusiasm for immigrants, as a shy, birdphobic intellectual more at ease with “people of the kitchen” (68) than the gruff, homosocial world of the pigeon killers. Song does gain a remarkable degree of access to the private gun clubs and drinking establishments where the sportsmen would congregate. Yet he remains, irredeemably, an outsider, and he uses this experience of apartness to link the problem of the ethnographer to the problem of the animal.

Song acknowledges the appeal of a “representationalist” reading of the Hegins pigeon shoot, in which racial violence or economic malaise are displaced onto the body of the pigeon. This, in a sense, was the logic mobilized by then-candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he infamously suggested that people in small-town Pennsylvania “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them…as a way to explain their frustrations.” The line was political poison for Obama, but Song suggests that this line of thinking also reifies the very social formations that anthropologists are out to understand. To that end, Song sets out to ask “not what animals are ‘about’ positively and legibly but what they are negatively and illegibly; not the end product of how we render them legible with human meaning but the illegible gulf or difference that facilitates such a reading in the first place” (149). Indeed, Song concludes that this gulf may separate ethnographer and informant just as surely as human and animal. Therefore, for Song, sociality consists not in a shared experience of intersubjectivity or creaturely life. Rather, it consists in “a willing submission to dislocation and desubjectification, that is, a becoming-object to the Other’s gaze” (212). This radical renunciation of the subject’s sovereignty is, for Song, the beginning of ethics. It is a measure of what we owe one another.

Pigeon Trouble suffers, at times, from theoretical digressions that stray far from the lifeworld of Hegins, Pennsylvania. It is as though Song’s dense prose threatens to give way to the “ruins of speech” (119) that he ascribes to his conspiracy-minded informants. Still, the book remains an ethnographically rich and formally ambitious account of a rural community caught in broader webs of signification. It also comes as close as any book I know to offering a phenomenological account of a bird in flight, drawing on Song’s apprenticeship with an enigmatic pigeon trainer named Monk. Through Monk’s eyes, across the species divide, we glimpse the darkness of the trap into which the pigeons are placed, the murmur of the crowd, and then the release into a violent, dazzling brightness.