Leather: towards a political ecology of animal skins (14457)
This paper discusses leather – its historical geography, animality, biography and cultural economy – as well encounters with those who make things from leather by hand. There is much leather in our lives for which origins or inherent animality is unknown. In other instances, provenance is upfront and animality overt – leather as the exemplar of luxury. Leather requires an absolute rendering of animals as inanimate, reducing diverse beings to a selection of material inputs for commodity production. But in discrete craft-based forms of making, animal skins continue to have affective power after death, rendering items as luxurious because of feel, smell, colour, texture, and compelling manual making practices for craftspeople that take decades of work to perfect. In this paper I retrace a research journey that began exploring cowboy bootmaking, a century old niche craft industry centred on El Paso, Texas, and that ended up somewhere entirely different—following leather along dark historical trading routes to tanneries and abattoirs, and confronting questions of the resonant agency of animals after death. Among these latter questions are: what are the moral geographies of using and wearing the skins of others, and how are these complicated by broader questions of political economy and sustainability? When does the material cease to be an animal, or a skin, and become ‘leather’, a production material, something else entirely? What kinds of ecological and material knowledges do we carry with us in everyday life; expressed in relationships we have with the things we wear? An initially unassuming research project on crafting and materials thus became more deeply entangled with the paradoxes of human-nonhuman encounters.