This post originally appeared in its entirety on the Meanjin blog on April 5 2012

In her new essay Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals, Anna Krien takes a look at the contemporary state of affairs between man and beast. Starting from the surely by now uncontroversial position that we are guilty of treating animals unjustly, she asks us how much injustice we are prepared to live with. Her method is to take her readers on a whirlwind tour of the various intersections between humans and animals in contemporary Australian life: she bears witness to slaughtering practices and the aftermath of hunts, gives us interviews and conversations with sundry animal testers and researchers, and presents us with a handful of case studies.

Krien comes off as a genteel, trustworthy tourguide; ever curious, rarely judgemental, offering her readers generous insight into her private reactions to the various things she witnesses and is told. But although she asks us how much injustice we can live with, she refuses to provide an answer. In fact she seems to studiously avoid making an essay-wide contention.

A mid-essay rhetorical ploy where Krien attempts to muster great chunks of her data into a speech by an imagined high school debate student on the back foot of a closing argument, ends up petering out to nowhere (which Krien good-naturedly and amusingly cops to). I sometimes found this frustrating, having entered the essay in an adversarial frame of mind, and on my first read through I was constantly on the prowl for some kind of contention to hang my hat on or ruthlessly demolish.

But it turns out that Us and Them is at its best when its at its most ethically vague, when it shows us the whole tangle of moral and practical considerations at the intersection of humans and animals in all its complexity, which it does to great effect in a couple of set pieces. One of these has Krien visiting a small Indonesian slaughter-house, where she first finds a startling kind of aesthetic experience in the killing of a cow, and is then thrust into the unlikely role of blood-thirsty spectator when a stunning goes wrong and the slaughter-house workers, overly conscientious in the presence of an Australian journalist, end up prolonging the cow’s stress in their attempts to slaughter it ‘humanely’. Another of these comes in Krien’s discussion of the role of the ‘apex predator’, and the sad, strange parable of America’s Yellowstone National Park, where the deliberate removal of wolves from the park led to the disastrous collapse of the delicate balance between the park’s remaining flora and fauna. Here Krien gently teases out the frustrating, unexpected, almost blackly funny complications arising from the intrusion of the ethical considerations of humans into the animal world.

In its passage through these disparate though related topics, from slaughtering to hunting, from pet keeping to animal testing, Us and Them accumulates an impressive degree of scope. Any one of the chapters in this essay might have made a complete piece on its own. I know I, like many of you I’m sure, have read long essays just on the ethics of eating animals, or just on the ethics of keeping pets. By putting these things side by side, and by quietly drawing out the connections and mirrorings between them, Us and Them turns out to become, for me at least, something like a State of the Union on human-animal relations; delimited in its scope, but compelling in its allusive power.

During her talk at the Wheeler Centre last night, I tried to prompt Krien from the audience for some thoughts about this, but in retrospect I might have posed it in an outrageously vague way; anyway, Krien seemed nonplussed, and suggested I re-frame the question. Re-posed as a query about the ambition of the piece, whether she had started with just one area, like the controversy over Indonesian slaughtering practices, before telescoping out to include all those other elements, Krien suggested that the scope of the essay had been consistent from its inception.

I found this to be a complex little exchange, and oddly embarrassing for me, but it occasioned a pretty stimulating discussion with myself on the walk home. I think I wanted Krien to own up to and justify the power of the essay, the way in which, despite the modesty of each chapter, it seems to tantalisingly offer us a comprehensive image of how humans and animals coexist today. But I see now that this kind of assessment, the ‘meaning’ that an interested reader can ascribe to a piece, is not necessarily something of which an author can be expected to be cognizant. Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author may be a cliched trope of first year lit classes, but it continues to hold true in myriad useful ways. When an essayist is focussed on getting her data and points and chapters on the page, she can’t be expected to concern herself with the various promiscuous ways her ideas are procreating with each other behind her back and in the mind of the reader. An author plants the trees, but the reader sees the forest.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that I found Us and Them, like all good journalism, be rich and meaningful in ways that belie the literal reach of the facts the author is presenting on the page.

Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals by Anna Krien is in Quarterly Essay 45, and is available in various bookstores, or on the website in several digital formats.

Krien also has a very fine website, which has several other works of journalism on offer. Of these I recommend:

Out of Bounds: Sex and the AFL A look at the Kim Duthie controversy of last year, and the various disturbing ways sexism and misogyny has infected AFL culture.

White Collar Dreaming Which examines drug use among white collar professionals.

Booze Territory: The Crisis of Alcoholism A look at the complexities of alcohol abuse in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. This includes the previously-unknown-by-me factoid that campaigns for increased civil and citizenship rights for Aboriginal people in the 50s and 60s also and inevitably included increased rights to buy and consume alcohol, and is thus a crucial part of the terrible damage wrought by alcohol abuse on Aboriginal communities. I found this Catch-22 collusion between equal rights and the right to get black-out drunk on goon so startling and complex and sad and ironic that I feel sure it could fuel six months worth of philosophy seminars. If I had to declare a common thread between the Krien pieces I’ve read so far it’s that she’s fearsomely good at teasing out the practical complications that follow ethical or moral interventions.