Project Summary

Time is a politically malleable device and multi-temporality can be introduced to uncover new ways of reanimating epistemologically confined subjects. Focusing on Asian elephants, I explore how the concept of a poly-temporal animal temporality can expand understandings of animal agency. Viewing elephants as multi-chronometric beings, performing multi-temporal relationships with other-than-elephants, unveils a greater diversity of agential expression relational to an ‘elephant time’, viewed through three epistemic frames: The elephant’s individual experiences, its participation in trans-species histories and exposure to changing landscapes. 

Drawing from multi-disciplinary literatures across the humanities and elephant-related sciences, I explore ways ‘elephant time’ may serve as a more-than-human analytic that expands interpretations of nonhuman agency beyond the human and factors trans-species ecological knowledges and subjectivities, embedded within landscapes that are equally temporally fluid. Thinking of animal’s temporalities and critically applying ‘elephant time’ thus offers opportunities to understand how trans-species attunements are forged through time and further helps rethink concepts surrounding ‘wildness’, ‘tradition’ and ‘nature’ in human-elephant entanglements.



Towards an 'Elephant Time'

The present environmental crisis is in many ways ‘a crisis of time’ (Heubener, 2019). The environmental humanities face the threat of ontological reductionism from economic forces that regard nature as merely a means of production. (Sullivan, 2014, Castree, 2003, MacDonald and Corson, 2012). Cultural interpretations of temporality underline this tension. The commitment to a linear sense of progress makes for a ‘time-distanciated economy’ (Adam, 1998), resulting in an anxiety that propels consumption (Rosa, 2015), ultimately desensitizing Western societies from the comparatively slower pace of environmental degradation (Nixon, 2017). Late industrialism’s ‘distancing’ further facilitates the flattening of all other-than-human agents into mere ‘natural capital’ (Sullivan, 2017), inscribing ‘a new ontology of biotic subjects into capitalist modes of production’ (Yusoff, 2011, 2) and dismissing the consideration of other lifeways. We see this clearly in how contemporary finance’s hunger for resources ignores the reality that diverse ecosystems recover and flourish in temporally diverse ways (Bowsher and Reese-Evison, 2020).

There is great opportunity for political intervention in ‘de-naturalizing given perspectives on time’ (Girvan, 2014, 348) and expanding epistemology away from a single idea of temporality predicated on nature-culture dualities (Salleh 1997, Plumwood, 2006). There is now a growing interest within the environmental humanities in exploring non-linear systems to rethink the dynamics of time and specifically how these influence our conceptions of others and their expressions of agency (Boschman and Trono, 2019). Time is a politically malleable device and multi-temporality can be introduced to uncover new ways of reanimating epistemologically confined subjects (Fitz-Henry, 2017, Rifkin, 2017).

However, applications of critical multi-temporality in the environmental humanities remain focused on long-term environmental hazards such as climate change (Nixon, 2011 Adam, 1998) and landscape ecology (Bisonette and Storch, 2007, Manning, 2009). In canonical texts focusing on human and (typically domesticated) other-than human relationships (Tsing, 2015, Haraway, 2008), temporality is considered only partially, with very little animal ontology explored outside ‘the embrace of the human’ (Tsing, 2019, 223). The interest in time and animals has sustained the attention of researchers in recent decades (Ritvo, 2004) but the subject remains diffracted across many disciplines with different priorities, ‘taking up time in different ways’ (Boschman and Trono, 2019, 12). A dedicated study of multi-temporality and nonhuman animals remains unexplored, though its potential has been acknowledged (Bird Rose, van Dooren and Chrulew, 2017).

The thesis consequently forwards the concept of a poly-temporal animal temporality, focusing on Asian elephants. It is inspired by sociologist Dana Luciano’s concept of ‘chronobiopolitics’, which examines the temporal within Foucauldian biopolitics exploring where meanings ascribed to ‘life’ or ‘the body’ are manufactured through a number of temporalities, diffused across cultural narratives but ultimately suppressed by ‘overly linear historical frameworks’ (Luciano, 2007, 12). Following the precedent established by third wave animal geography that accepts animals as having subjectivity, histories and networks (Gillespie and Collard, 2015), the thesis traces the chronobiopolitics of elephants largely based on three components: i) The elephant’s eco-cultural identity, the ecological equivalent of sociocultural identity (Milstein and Castro-Sotomayor, 2020); ii) elephants’ individual experiences (individual here referring to specific single elephants, or the unique situational circumstances of a specific elephant community) and; iii) human-imposed time and how this impacts upon elephant agency. This triad views animal subjectivity, temporality and its materiality as inextricable. Understood this way, animal temporal dynamics go beyond theoretical abstractions and manifest materially in the real world, allowing for archival and observable research.

Gathering multiple temporal dynamics together, ‘elephant time’ collects temporal forces that occupy, govern and are governed by elephant individuals, elephant communities, their collective lifeways and the fluid histories that course through their relationships with other-than-elephants. Gathering existing knowledge from diverse fields studying the elephant, the thesis will argue that thinking through ‘elephant time’ ultimately offers a new language in which to expand the interpretive possibilities of elephant agency. Recognizing elephants as multi-chronometric beings and tracing their multi-temporal relationships with their personal history and landscape are practices of attunement as they compel us to think of elephant action and encounter as richly relational, released from a time-locked approach and from the vacuum of a single discipline’s perspective (Carter and Charles, 2019).



Why does this study matter?

Examining temporal complexity in animals can be helpful in many aspects, especially for attuning to wild animals. It allows us to consider ‘the autonomy of the other’ (Cronon, 1996, 89) without the incrimination of our physical presence. One is compelled to think of the animal’s dialogues with its landscape as ‘becoming-withs’ among its own ‘others’, opening new spaces of agency (Oriel and Frohoff, 2020) that would have escaped analysis in controlled environments demanding compliance, predictability and a guaranteed ‘encounterable’ dimension (Collard and Dempsey, 2013). Animal temporalities bring us closer to recent concepts of wildness that recognise ‘a degree of choice and self-determination, in which beings have their own familial, social and ecological networks’ (Collard, 2014). This is significant when we factor how much cognitive ethology is reliant on captive elephants yet applies its findings to wild elephants (Whilde 2012; Plotnik and de Waal, 2014).
Additionally, considering temporal complexity offers ways of attunement that go beyond human interpretation alone. Recent contributions from philosophical ethology reframe the human body as engaged in ‘choreographic language’ such that it is ‘available for the response for another being’ (Despret, 2013, 70). But meaning from these embodied communications are derived only from present interaction and its affective results often rely on largely Western cultural interpretations (Ahmed 2004, Despret, 2004). Vigilance to chronobiopolitical dynamics, however, serves to remind analysis that all bodies testify to genealogies that are both cultural as well as ecological. Embodied communications are read instead as the confrontation of histories, remembered or forgotten according to the treatment of animal bodies and landscape.
Animal temporality may also help reframe current issues in wildlife rehabilitation, which struggles with animal commodification and inadvertently echoes binaries that have a capitalist influence, reducing animals to reversible, machine-like processes of ‘denaturing’ or ‘renaturing’ (Collard, 2013). Attentiveness to animals’ temporalities instead refines the idea of ‘nature’ as a spectrum, relational to an animal’s individual context, where one begins to think of animal ‘rehabilitation’ according to its proximity to a dynamic eco-cultural identity and based on its own web of multiple histories. It helps rethink the experience of confinement, temporary or otherwise: the deprivation a captive elephant suffers when torn away from its ecocultural identity helps link the sedimented traumas it displays in its body and behaviour (Bradshaw, 2005, Buckley and Bradshaw, 2010).
Spatially, animals’ temporalities also contributes a method of thinking about animals operating in landscapes that flourish multi-temporally (Manning, 2008). There is increasing urgency to read fragmented landscapes as a ‘multi-faceted reality’ where animals adapt with a plasticity that requires understanding the animal’s worldview (Manning and Lindenmayer, 2004). Ecological studies show how different animals respond to environmental factors at different temporal scales (Holling, 1992, Lindenmayer, 2000). Within a complex ecosystem, elephants respond according to their neighbours by evolving ecological knowledge, what it teaches its young, and its negotiations with other species over time. Animals’ temporalities may offer some cultural interpretations to the largely quantitative assessments in current discourse.
Ultimately, animals’ temporalities flesh out a detailed map of the epistemic confinements enacted by linear time. It becomes a way of framing the animal’s relationship with the world, with its own ‘others’ and most significantly, beyond the human. Complex animal time becomes an unexplored ‘contact zone’ (Haraway, 2008); a dimension of how animals constitute themselves in their relationships that is not reliant on human relationships as the chief narrative device. The human paradigm is unavoidable, but temporality, as the universal currency of all agents, becomes the mediator instead, allowing for other-than-human perspectives.



Contemporary art and the nonhuman animal

Currently there is a growing fascination for the animal question in contemporary art. How far can art unshackle its humanist roots to carry the visceral, often nonverbal and embodied methods that frame the nonhuman question in current academic research? 

Phases in my thesis require refining and reframing my research not only in academic terms but also in exhibition spaces (the idea of exhibition space here being as expansively understood as possible). The politics of display, of representation, materiality, affect and object phenomenology require a component in praxis as these structures, too, influence epistemologies. 

Outreach that offers a tactile, often nontextual dimension will also being historical research into dialogue with the present. 





Do you manage or are affiliated to an independent research unit, archive, or gallery pertaining to human-animal studies, ecology and/or anthropocene scholarship or Southeast Asian studies? I am always looking for opportunities for collaboration to share knowledge and explore new, public platforms such as exhibitions and reading groups to further enrich the research method and its questions.


Are you an expert in a related, intersecting or even completely opposing field that may shed new light into the above research territories? I'd love to hear from you. I encourage any one with an interest in my questions (from any axes) to share reading lists, questions and counterpoints.