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Hunting high and low

About: Charles Stépanoff, L’animal et la mort. Chasse, modernité et crise du sauvage, La Découverte

by Jean-Louis Fabiani , 10 October
translated by Catherine Guesde
with the support of

Hunters are more concerned about nature’s fragility than most people realize. They are the first to witness it, and their relationship with animals is not just one of blind predation.

Love and exploitation of nature

Contemporary sensitivity to animal suffering, which seems to be increasingly common, goes hand in hand with the continuation of a relationship in which humans exploit natural resources—a relationship that environmental advocacy has not yet succeeded in changing. We can assume that change will only come when it is truly imposed by climatic disaster. It seems that the more we love the animals that inhabit the wild world, but also their biotopes, the more we indulge in the same resource extraction that jeopardizes the continuation of their reproduction. This observation is the starting point for the investigation of hunting that Charles Stépanoff outlines in a groundbreaking book, which draws upon a double ethnographic experience: that of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, which has long occupied the author and resulted in original works, and that of the hunters who live on the borders of the Beauce, Yvelines and Perche regions, a terrain that circumstances have imposed on him, but which has proved to be exceptionally fruitful. Although the comparative approach is not the crux of the argument, it does allow to account for practices located on the outskirts of the Parisian metropolis, while treating them no differently from those that take place in the context of a “non-modern” relationship with animals. The most widespread representation among nature lovers consists in contrasting, on the one hand, harvesting practices that seem to be integrated into the functioning of ecosystems, because they are both frugal and limited by the arsenal available to hunters (and also gatherers), and on the other hand, attitudes that are no longer based on the need for survival, and which only manifest the continuation of a predatory violence that has become useless and dangerous. While the industrial exploitation and intensive agriculture that mark our relationship with nature originate in the history of the West— just as the capitalist mode of production does—the anthropologist notes that:

It would be a mistake to imagine that the human groups who seem most foreign to this way of life maintain, by contrast, purely harmonious and contemplative relationships with the beings that surround them. To feed themselves, to make their clothes, to build their homes and heat them, indigenous peoples kill animals, cut down trees and destroy the environment (p. 7).

It goes without saying that the forms and, above all, the magnitude of predation are no longer the same, but it is necessary to recall this fact to shed light on the types of relationships to nature in the contemporary world, in which capitalism exists globally. Anthropology prevents us from falling into the illusion of an indigenous world perfectly integrated into the ecosystem, an illusion that lies at the root of many representations of popular ecologism or veganism.

The expansion of hunting in France in the mid-1970s gave rise to a number of sociological analyses that focused primarily on the rapid transformation of rural land use—a transformation that involved an increased competition between practices and the rapid decline of traditional farming methods: more and more hunters had to share an area that was less and less conducive to the maintenance of wildlife, which found its most favorable conditions of reproduction in the bocage areas that were then being replanted, and was suffering heavily from the mechanization of agriculture. More hunters for less game, and the sudden appearance of a previously unconceivable figure in rural areas: the anti-hunter. Many of these features can be found in the author’s ethnographic survey, even though in half a century the population of hunters has been reduced by more than half—and even by two-thirds in some areas—in contrast to their enemies, whose number continues to grow. However, the author does not confine himself to a geographically limited ethnography, which occupies most of the first part, but broadens the point of view in the second part, which goes back to the origins—and this obviously implies a conjectural dimension. Charles Stépanoff succeeds in delivering a general point of view on the superimposition of practical knowledge, intense affects, ethics and relations to power that constitute hunting, presupposing the fact that we can speak in the singular of a practice that has taken very diverse forms over the course of history.

The third part focuses on the compassionate relationship, of which the author clearly shows that it is not the monopoly of contemporary nature lovers, and was initially very powerful within the hunting world. The role of anthropology here is to challenge the binary divisions that immediately situate hunters in the world of predatory violence and cruelty. Throughout the history of hunting, ethical rules are a central topic: the fact remains that the practice is indeed constituted by the exercise of tracking and murderous violence. The end of the game is always the death of the animal, but this must be understood in the context of what the author calls a “metaphysics of predation”, within which the practices of tracking and killing animals only make sense if we identify the set of symbolic representations and moral rules that constitute them as a social fact in a given society.

Hunters, bookkeepers of biodiversity

The first part of this book, based on a remarkable field study report, is striking in that it expands on the observations we have been able to make as sociologists over the last half-century. Here, sustained observation and knowledge of the field are incomparable resources. The erosion of biodiversity, which is currently reaching dramatic proportions, is acutely perceived by rural hunters, who tend to see this rapid depopulation—which is far from being confined to the species they hunt— as “a disintegration of their familiar world”, according to the author (p. 25). The rarefaction or disappearance of flying insects, salamanders or tree frogs is experienced as the loss of everyday life companions. The interviews striking reveal how acutely aware hunters are of this depopulation, and of the solitude that ensues for humans. In a series of chapters focusing on specific species—partridges, swallows, wild boars, foxes, deer and dogs—but also on the changes in landscaping—whether it be hedgerows or game rearing techniques that have largely artificialized the conditions in which hunting is practiced—the author grasps the extent of the transformations that have affected rural areas, where the demands of intensive production are increasingly unfavorable for wildlife and, consequently, for hunting. Hunters are not responsible for the decline in biodiversity, but they are the best-informed witnesses to it. As a result, some farmer-hunters are turning to organic farming on the basis of their hunting experience, which enables them to see the scale of the disaster without having to resort to statistics. Along the way, the author precisely analyzes the “peasant cosmologies” that inform the inhabitants’ relationship with nature: they combine representations of a constellation of relationships with practical knowledge grafted onto the regular observation of natural phenomena. For example, the swallow, which is believed to have tried to pull out the thorns planted in Christ’s head, is regarded as a bird whose nest brings good luck, as it is deemed not to eat the grain in cultivated fields. What emerges most clearly is the importance of moral categorization and the insertion of the violent act into a network of justifications that make it acceptable to eat what one kills. The practice of hunting is limited by voluntary hunting restraint. Subsistence hunting, which today still is more than a persistence from the past or an anachronism, is governed by a logic of frugality. This has namely been obscured by the image of the “meat loving hunter”, which can apply to artificialized forms of hunting where farmed game is released shortly before being killed. The author never takes on the issue of justifying these practices on the grounds of their limited predation rate, or because of the depth of the implemented skills. He sheds light on them from the inside, because he takes their moral economy seriously, as well as the fact that they are embedded in a cosmology that urbanites cannot recognize as such.

The world of peasant hunting is a dying one: the practice of hunting declines steadily, and an increasing number of hunters abandon it during the course of their life cycle, whereas it used to be interrupted only when old age made it physically impossible. At the same time, the hunter is at the forefront when it comes to witnessing the death of a familiar form of nature, which is in fact only the doublet of his own death. The justificatory discourse of rural hunters is far removed from the official rhetoric of hunting institutions, centered around the idea that “predation is a mechanism of nature” (p. 217), which amounts to integrating the hunter into the ecosystem understood as a food chain. Conferring human traits on the animal is not a problem for rural people. The big stag is the grandpa, and the wild boar appears as the boss. And there’s more: animal behavior leads rural hunters to attribute to wild animals not only a social organization, but also intelligence and the ability to learn and transmit, as well as to display emotions—the most intense of which is undoubtedly the “stag’s tears”, when the big animal realizes that the game is lost. Charles Stépanoff sees in this the remanence of a pre-modern animism that likens the population of the Paris suburbs to the indigenous hunters of Siberia or Amazonia. However, the anthropologist does not abandon the findings of sociologists: with Jean-Claude Chamboredon, we had pointed out how a form of class struggle underlies the clashes around hunting. The author confirms this point, concluding that “the modernization led by the managerial revolution was a cosmological class struggle” [1] (p. 221).

Wildlife and power

The last two parts of the book, based on historical and ethical reflection, are undoubtedly less spectacular than the first, which are a delight to read, thanks to their ethnographic vigor and analytical power. By examining theories explaining hunting from its origins to the present day, the author takes us into a highly speculative universe where arguments are often informed by contemporary oppositions and modes of categorization, such as the opposition between the man-hunter and the woman-gatherer.

The association of hunting and power seems to be a more solid historical lead. The practice of hunting is consubstantially linked to the exercise of domination in a wide variety of configurations. It is an opportunity for the powerful to demonstrate their athletic qualities and their ability to perform feats unattainable for the common man. Hunting is the symbol of legitimate violence (and also one of the ways to exert it). The illegal practice of hunting constitutes a threat explicitly directed against the power of the prince: the author gives many examples of ferocious repression and shows the indignity of peasant hunting based on trapping, a vile activity that constitutes the underside, but also the mirror image of noble hunting, which draws its symbolic effectiveness from this opposition. This logic is echoed in the condemnation of popular hunting, at a time when the definition of the sovereign imposes the idea of a self-instituted society. After the French Revolution, the bourgeoisie takes over from the aristocracy in condemning the hunting habits of the people, in contrast to the social conquest that the end of the nobility’s monopoly on hunting had represented. The author reveals the astonishing persistence of the stigmatizing rhetoric based on the image of a predatory and devious peasant. This is a particular form of a very long-standing process, which goes back to the founding of the first city-states: “the protection of wildlife and nature was gradually taken away from the inhabitants and elevated to the status of a political prerogative” (p. 289). Is it mischievous to suggest that current environmental mobilizations are part of this long historical perspective? The hunters studied by Charles Stépanoff lose control over their practice at a time when a form of environmental policy, institutionalized throughout the Western world, emerges around 1970. The author does not mention it, but the imaginative reader must draw attention to this point.

Hunting ethics

The book concludes with a reflection on the ethical confrontations that characterize the world of hunting. In keeping with its method, the book does not confine itself to the current developments of a conflict in which the legitimacy of hunting is increasingly questioned, while the electoral weight of those who practice it seems to be holding firm. The question of the ethical nature of hunting has deep historical roots. Relationships with animals are never reducible to the logic of simple predation: the whole book is built against the functionalist vision of hunting. The author concludes his investigation with a study of the philosophical and sociological foundations of hunting. During the High Middle Ages, many hermits saved animals from the pursuit of hunters: incidentally, they were often fed by animals, deer as well as eagles. The author views this as a sacralization of the wilderness through the protection of a religious figure who is able to halt the course of predation and sometimes eliminate the hunter himself. The opposition between hermit and hunter is not unique to the West. Another type of religious person opposes the hunter’s activities, but for entirely different reasons: the monk. The monk clears land for hunting, thereby shrinking hunting grounds. He exploits animals for the economic resources they offer, particularly wool. Clerics therefore oppose seigneurial power insofar as they reject the valorization of the wilderness by men of power. As a result, they developed an anti-hunting rhetoric that turned hunters into bad Christians, because they practiced their mad passion at mass time. Charles Stépanoff sees the antithetical figures of the hermit and the monk as “the original archetypes of two ways of dealing with the wilderness that flourished in the modern age” (p. 318). The hermit embodies both a mistrust of civilization and the protection of the wilderness from human predators. The monk is the bearer of a project to exploit nature as part of a perspective of civilizational progress.

There are other historical forms of hostility to hunting. The hunter may embody the excess of murderous passion, as in the story of the hunter who falls in love with a fearsome animal-woman who kills him after seducing him (p. 324). The hunter can be assimilated into the wilderness, or inadvertently kill a human whose body takes on animal form.

The conclusion of the book returns to the field survey to note the similarities between the discourse of hunters and that of anti-speciesists. Both “put themselves in the place” of the animal (p. 367). The former insist on the need to know the animal’s habits and its interactions with the environment. The latter claim to perceive the suffering of animals in concrete terms. The hunter must constantly control his empathy, which is necessary to know the animal, but which can also paralyze him at the crucial moment. The anti-speciesist bases his relationship on sympathy: the emotions I attribute to the animal are contagious. The anthropologist does not choose one form of relationship against another. To do so would be to go beyond his mission.

The great merit of this book, beyond its obvious anthropological quality and the stamina demonstrated in the dialogue with great authors (Philippe Descola, Bruno Latour and even Claude Lévi-Strauss), is to reopen the game and loosen the grip of binary oppositions, even though the historical perspective shows their weight in the moral configurations that characterize our relations with nature. Readers may wonder about the actual content of the injunction to “inhabit the world of living beings and be nourished by them” (p. 378), which closes the book. Feeding on living things: our research has shown that eating living things is always a complex affair, bounded by prohibitions and moral regulations. So how can we feed on it in a way that puts an end to the fragmentation of social space and the impoverishment of lived worlds that characterize our present condition? It’s up to readers to do the work. Charles Stépanoff has done his admirably: his book on hunting gives an account of the symbolic (and sometimes physical) confrontations that structure our relationship with animals. It has become an essential reference if we want to understand a practice that is both distant and close, combining a direct relationship with the wild with the most complex forms of symbolic organization.

Charles Stépanoff, L’animal et la mort. Chasse, modernité et crise du sauvage, Paris, La Découverte, 2021, 388 p., 23 €.

by Jean-Louis Fabiani, 10 October

To quote this article :

Jean-Louis Fabiani, « Hunting high and low », Books and Ideas , 10 October 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1J.-C. Chamboredon, « Les usages urbains de l’espace rural. Du moyen de production au lieu de recréation » (“Urban uses of rural space. From means of production to the place of entertainment”), Revue française de sociologie, 1980, 21-1, p. 97-119. J.-L. Fabiani « Quand la chasse populaire devient un sport. La redéfinition sociale d’un loisir traditionnel » (“When hunting becomes a sport. The social redefinition of a traditional leisure activity”), Études rurales, 1982, n° 87-88, p. 309-323.

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