Arrested Autonomy: An Ethnography of Orangutan Rehabilitation

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Arrested Autonomy: An Ethnography of Orangutan Rehabilitation

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Title: Arrested Autonomy: An Ethnography of Orangutan Rehabilitation
Author: Parreñas, Rheana
Citation: Parreñas, Rheana. 2012. Arrested Autonomy: An Ethnography of Orangutan Rehabilitation. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This dissertation is an ethnographic study about ecological displacement, affective encounters, the work of care, and human and animal subjectivities involved in rehabilitating endangered orangutans in Sarawak, Malaysia. Using participant-observation, interviews, archival research, and animal behavioral methods during seventeen months of fieldwork, this work exemplifies Donna Haraway's idea of 'zooethnography' by treating animals and humans as situated subjects. Specifically, I examine encounters between semi-wild orangutans, indigenous Sarawakian workers, Sarawakian Chinese and Malay middle-class managers of the semi-governmental corporation running the centers, and transnational professionals from the Global North who pay thousands of US dollars to volunteer their manual labor. I address the question, how do conflicting concepts of freedom and autonomy get produced at wildlife centers in which animals are restrained and managed for the purpose of an eventual freedom that is unobtainable? I argue that orangutan rehabilitation entails the production of affect between bodies, which in turn generates a global, postcolonial economy of human nostalgia. Despite assiduous efforts to train orangutans for a life of autonomy within the confines of forest reserves, I found that rehabilitant orangutans experience a permanently deferred independence. I offer the concept of 'arrested autonomy' as a way of understanding how subjects are forcibly made dependent while simultaneously regarded as potentially independent. This permanently deferred independence resembles the deferred promises and hopes of decolonization that have yet to materialize.
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