By Bethany Robertson
Pets, the animals that Western culture invites across the threshold of the family home, occupy liminal spaces. In particular, my research found that the relationships between university students and their pets (mainly dogs and cats) are an example of the way in which the threshold between humans and animals is unsettled in everyday life.
The research I conducted aimed to understand how university students make sense of a long distance relationship with their pets, with reference to how social and spatial proximity is expressed and managed. I challenge the assumption that pet owners live within the household that their pets are located, as shown by students living away from home. Given that intimacy is often equated with physical proximity and relationships with pets are formed over the threshold of the home, being a pet owner is often a liminal position for university students. If they cannot meet face to face on a regular basis, how do they maintain a relationship and ‘do’ their identity as a pet lover?
Pets are defined as such due to the spatial and emotional closeness they are afforded within a household, according to Thomas (1983) and more recent scholars have examined their inclusion in kinship, such as Charles and Davies (2008). In my research, students expressed that their pets were a meaningful part of their everyday lives and identity practices, both before and during university. In the experiences of students’, a pet’s status is elevated to family member as a result of their embodied presence and embeddedness within their routine. Interactions with their pets are deemed reciprocal because intersubjectivity is accomplished from getting to know a pet’s traits and understanding their bodily cues. Therefore, pets are associated with the intimacy of family and the home as a space in which a relationship is typically established. Pets cross the threshold of the home and spaces occupied by family, such as by sharing a bed and dinner time. So it was made clear that students valued physical closeness and practices of intimacy such as cuddling and carrying their pets.
Pets are a source of unconditional love, as quoted by the majority of participants, due to a lack of conversational etiquette. A distinction between pets and humans is drawn upon by deeming the inability to talk as a positive attribute which elevates pets’ status. While human conversation tends to be complex, interspecies communication is understood as a non-judgemental outlet by students and they find comfort in the consistency of the support. Similarly, for homeless people, pets are a “silent witness” or confidante during difficult times according to Irvine (2012). However, ambivalence arises when the consistency of support is challenged by love being conditional on sharing personal space and care-giving.
As students state that love manifests in embodied interaction, the absence of a physical presence on a daily basis reinforces pets’ liminal position in the lives of students. Students consider that the love from their pets is conditional on care-giving so the emphasis placed on ownership draws attention to the boundary space between human and animal. The inability to care for your pet first hand whilst at university means that the responsibility is deferred to others. Students felt that their pet would direct their affections at a new care giver which breaks the expectation of reciprocity so the fluid nature of relations challenges the construction of a consistent identity as a pet owner.
In light of navigating the threshold between closeness and distance, it struck me that the ambiguity of student/pet relationships resonated with Georg Simmel’s work. He states that The Stranger embodies the seemingly contradictory qualities of “nearness and remoteness”, which is also applicable to the liminal position of pets in this instance. For example, pets are near in an emotional sense as they remain part of students’ identities by their inclusion in conversations to establish friendships, yet they remain distant in terms of the absence of embodied interaction across space. Pets are attributed personhood and irreplaceability, yet it is assumed that pets do not miss their caregiver who is replaced by another family member. Similarly, Simmel notes that the shared attributes in a relationship could resonate with anyone in the group, so in terms of care-giving this means that the role of feeding or walking is replaceable. The dependency of pets that students highlighted creates distance, like in the position of the stranger. So pets tended to occupy a part-time role, such as the light relief of their comedy value, compared to before university when they were deemed full-time companions.
The fact that the stranger’s view is valued for their objectivity is similar to the way in which pets are valued for their listening ear and the unconditional love it signifies. Like the duality of The Stranger, we attach meaning to pets by negotiating their sameness and difference to ourselves. So, Simmel’s account of the mundane and fragmented identity of the stranger resonates with the fluidity of the categories of pet and pet owner. Living away from pets is an ambivalent position, given that the relationship is made meaningful through closeness and care-giving, which becomes elusive at the threshold of separation.
Bethany Robertson, University of York