KEYNOTE: Animal Studies: The Ends of Empathy and Beginnings of Reading

Kari Weil, Wesleyan University

Why do Animal Studies?: for everything from challenging anthropocentric views and exposing the dangers of human exceptionalism, to trying to better understand our place as a species among species who compete and collaborate for life on this planet. In this talk I will consider what has often been referred to as both a means and an end of animal studies, the capacity for empathy. From Barbara Krueger’s huge installation, “L’Empathie peut changer le monde” (Empathy can change the world, 1994)) to Franz de Waal’s The Age of Empathy (2010), artists, scientists and theorists alike have turned to empathy as that which can help us understand and repair our broken relations to other humans and non-humans alike. Some understand empathy as a specifically human, if not humane capacity; others understand it as an automatic process of mirror imaging that extends across many species, especially as it bypasses the need for cognition or reflection. I will examine a range of literary and theoretical texts in which the capacity for empathy is alternatively figured as human, animal or machine in order to question whether and how empathy’s ethical force might be contradicted by suggestions of its automaticity or bodily genesis. Indeed, I want to suggest that the ethical impact of empathy across species is less a function of affect than of a kind of reading, if not of translation between incommensurable languages.


Animal Labor and Colonial Warfare

James Hevia, University of Chicago

This project involves a study of the use of animal laborers — camels, mules, donkeys and horses — in the colonial campaigns of the British in Africa and Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Its central concern is with the transformation of warfare during this period and the refiguring of pack animals as managed populations.  This change was part of a process by which scientific management of animal populations was becoming an established practice in Britain.  Laboring animals, as opposed to those produced for the market, posed special problems concerning the relation between the fitness of certain species for the environments in which military campaigns were undertaken (arid drylands, mountains, tropical forests).  For a conference presentation I would like to provide an overview of the emergence of the notion of “animal management,” an early twentieth century phenomenon, and the key role of veterinarians in establishing the concept of scientific management of military animals in the British empire.  For a workshop presentation, I would like to focus specifically on camels, and the problems empire posed to their livelihood, not the least of these being fantasies the British had concerning the nature of the camel.  One of the questions I would like to explore has to do with what sort of Orientalism is produced when the focus shifts from humans to animals.


Animal Welfare and ‘Halal’ Slaughter in Islam

Nurfadzilah Yahaya, Washington University in St. Louis

This paper examines how the animal has been treated in Islamic studies from a historical perspective. How have animals been treated in discourse on Islamic slaughter of animals? Religious discourse often relegates the animal to a secondary concern. But the issue of animal suffering began to garner more attention in its own right from the early twentieth century onwards due in part to the efforts of animal-rights movements such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Towards Animals (SPCA). This paper will specifically investigate how the animal became the focus of debates following an historical event in the Muslim world.  In 1929, an Indian Muslim shopkeeper in Penang, off the coast of Malaya, was fined in a British colonial court for causing unnecessary cruelty to a fowl, despite his protest that he had slaughtered the animal according to proper Islamic rites. This paper examines British colonial attempts to regulate the slaughter of animals for food in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Singapore and Malacca during the early twentieth century. This brief episode sparked off intense debates in both the English and Malay presses about the viability of Islamic method of animal slaughter. Certain colonial authorities argued that Islamic method caused excessive suffering to animals. More importantly, the method was perceived to be potentially unhygienic and especially harmful in the immensely crowded urban settlements. Consequently, both animal welfare groups and the municipality robustly advocated stunning by electricity as a more effective method of slaughter, which was deemed more sanitary and humane since it resulted in quicker death and less pain for the animal.  Debates focused on how technology, electrical stunning, transformed religious conceptions of lawful slaughter. The British colonial government also came under pressure from the Cold Storage Company based in Australia, which was extremely keen to export frozen meat to the Straits Settlements at the turn of the twentieth century, since this option was argued to be far more hygienic and cheaper than the usual importation of live cattle and fowl into the Straits Settlements by sea. How did these other concerns detract parties concerned from animal suffering?


Animals and Humans in an Equal Partnership: the History of Guide Dogs for the Blind

Monika Baár, University of Groningen

My proposed case study focuses on the history of guide dogs for the blind (in the US also known as seeing eye dogs) and my theoretical contribution addresses the very special human-animal partnership which exists between guide dogs and their owners; one which is based on mutual trust and represents the highest degree of cooperation known between animal and man. In this relationship dogs are not in a subaltern position, but act as agents in their own right, who are capable of making independent decisions. In my paper I wish to reflect not only on the general question why the study of animals has recently received so much attention, but I would also like to point to a shift in the natural sciences which may well have made an impact on the humanities: whereas earlier on emphasis was placed on ‘intelligence’ and thus apes were the favorite subjects of research; latterly the new emphasis on cognitive abilities and ‘social skills’ rendered dogs as one of the preferred animals. I argue that this change may also have to do with the recent ‘emotional turn’ in the humanities.

Further, I will show that studying the history of animals in general, and that of the guide dogs in particular often allows us to revisit old themes in a new light and thus has an invigorating impact on several other fields. To this end I first argue that the establishment of professional guide dog training in Germany in 1916, in response to the mobility needs of blinded veterans, placed the human-animal bond onto an entirely new ground. I then proceed to illustrate various interdisciplinary ways in which the role of guide dogs can be perceived, including the dog in the role of a ‘domestic servant’ (from an economic point of view), that of a ‘nurse’ (providing comfort and companionship), and prosthesis (replacing the eye of the blind person). Devising successful training methods required scientists (inasmuch such a thing is possible) to think from the animals’ point of view, adjusting the dogs’ personal space to that of the blind person. The exceptional nature of partnership has rendered the study of guide dogs particularly relevant for the emerging field of biosemiotics. In this context, I illuminate that when scholars were seeking to devise training methods for guide dogs, the degree of interdependence between basic science and applied science was so high that it nearly blurred the distinction between these two fields. My overall aim is to show how studying the history and work of guide dogs can contribute to changing our views about what animals are and what they can do.


Atmospheres of Extinction

Neel Ahuja, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In his classic essay “On Violence,” Frantz Fanon writes that an “atmosphere of violence” surrounds the colonized. Unfolding an account of the affective context of settler-colonial friction, Fanon employs a metaphor of atmosphere to describe the sedimentation of violence in bodies as an accumulation of spatial constraints that emerge as violence interrupts the predictability and linearity of colonial time. In this presentation, drawing on recent analyses of race, species, and affect by Renisa Mawani and Mel Chen, I suggest that Fanon’s figure of atmosphere may be a useful concept as animal studies turns to theorizing the ongoing extinctions accelerated by climate change. Exploring the productive tension between the geophysical and affective notions of “atmosphere,” I propose a theory of interspecies intimacy based on the fact that Earth’s current mass extinction event connects far-flung bodies of many species through a shared atmosphere. Atmosphere in turn becomes a site both infused by the violence of carbon amplification and a site of ethereal touching between many bodies, living and dead. This geo-affective understanding of atmosphere unsettles what I call a gravitational model of the political, which takes the lithospheric vision of large, ground-roaming mammals (like the human) as the privileged spaces of interspecies encounter and violence. Turning to some contemporary narratives of mosquito-borne disease under climate change, I conclude by arguing that the fluid postcolonial relations of humans and mosquitoes in a warming world demonstrate that metaphors of human sovereign agency are insufficient for understanding the intimate forms of violence that emerge from the neoliberal carbon economy.


“The Cry of Nature”: An Alternative Basis for Art History

Stephen F. Eisenman, Northwestern University

From its origin, the word humanities expressed an anthropocentrism incompatible with current ecological understandings. According to ancient and Renaissance writers, Studia humanitatis were the disciplines essential to the cultivation of the male, urban citizen. Ecology (“oecologia”) by contrast, a term coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, was genderless and holistic, comprising “the sum of the relations of organisms to the surrounding outer world [and] to organic and inorganic conditions of existence.”

The discipline of art history emerged in the 18th Century as a branch of humanities with all the limitations that lineage entailed.  But there also arose at that time a minority artistic discourse that took as its subject the breadth of the organic and inorganic world and their inter-relations.  Though it was relegated to the lowest rung in the hierarchy of genres, it should now be viewed (in the era ecological crisis) as prescient.  I am referring to animal painting (but also intaglio printing and the new medium of lithography).

A surprising number of artists and writers from c1750 to c1820 – the best known are Hogarth, Stubbs, Gericault, and Blake — provided logical models for rejecting the humanities. They embraced the nascent liberation struggle that aimed to grant protection and even rights to non-human animals and to understand the earth as a living totality. They used printmaking and the illustrated book as primary means to propagate their ideas. Their movement may be named — after Rousseau’s phrase and John Oswald’s manifesto – the “cry of nature” — and their influence would be felt by generations of artists who followed.  The pictorial motif of the outcry, of wounded animals and a damaged earth demanding justice, challenges the model of art history as a branch of the humanities and offers to put the discipline on an ecological foundation.


Human Language, Animal Communication, and the Question of Beeing

Sean Meighoo, Emory University

In this paper, I want to question the distinction between the human capacity for language on one hand and various forms of communication among nonhuman animals on the other by talking about bees.  More specifically, I am interested in the discussion of the honey bee’s “dance language” in the work of two key figures in structuralist theory, the Syrian-born French linguist Émile Benveniste and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.  The theoretical discourse of structuralism that came to dominate twentieth-century French intellectual culture certainly posed a challenge to the classical philosophical tradition of humanism insofar as it rejected the definition of the human being by the capacity for reason.  Yet this antihumanist discourse maintained the classical philosophical distinction between the human and the animal, redefining the human being, however, by the capacity for language.  Structuralist theory thus rendered the human capacity for language irreducible to the rational goal of communication.  Indeed, within the antihumanist discourse of structuralism, contrary to the classical philosophical tradition, the nonhuman animal was now defined as a rational being, while the human subject surpassed any such definition.

It is in their discussion of bees that the structuralist thinkers Benveniste and Lacan establish the distinction between human language and animal communication.  In his essay “Animal Communication and Human Language,” Benveniste critically addresses the Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch’s research on communication among honey bees, or what von Frisch calls the honey bee’s “dance language” (Ger. tanzsprache).  Benveniste argues that what appears to be the honey bee’s complex form of communication constitutes a code rather than a language as such: “[T]he manner of communication used by the bees… is not a language but a signal code.”  Similarly, in his essay “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis,” Lacan briefly refers to von Frisch’s research on communication among honey bees as well.  Lacan reiterates Benveniste’s argument that the honey bee’s complex form of communication constitutes a code rather than a language: “[The] code or signaling system [of bees]… is distinguished from language precisely by the fixed correlation between its signs and the reality they signify.”  Although both Benveniste and Lacan concede that bees are capable of communication, they nonetheless maintain the classical philosophical distinction between the human and the animal by making a theoretical distinction between language and code.

What I want to suggest in my paper, then, is that far from limiting itself to ethology or zoology, the emerging field of animal studies concerns the very question of being as it has been posed both within and beyond the classical philosophical tradition.  Although the theoretical discourse of structuralism seems to have dislodged the human subject from its privileged status in relation to being, it has only reinstated this privileged status of the human subject by way of language.  To pose the question of “beeing” as I have posed it in this paper is thus to call into question the fundamentally humanist presuppositions that continue to inform even the most radical discourses of antihumanism.


Meat Tourism and an Intersectional Animal Studies

Jessica Carey, University of British Columbia

The methodological framework of intersectionality continues to energize recent work in critical animal studies. Exploring the co-constitution and co-articulation of different forms of oppression has become crucial to our shared project of theorizing the conditions for interspecies justice. Yet there remain institutional, epistemological, and strategic obstacles to the intersectional analysis of interspecies power relations: as Claire Jean Kim has recently argued in the special “Species/Race/Sex” issue of American Quarterly, there remain “advocates of every stripe—race advocates, feminists, animal activists, disability activists, LGBT activists—in this camp of folks who systematically foreground their own issue and background others. For them, concepts that emphasize articulations are anathema because they threaten to decenter the axis they believe is most salient” (469). The particular institutional pressure upon critical animal studies—specifically, the pressure of being in an inherently insecure or absent relationship with institutionalization—perhaps predisposes the field to a somewhat defensive position vis-à-vis intersectionality. Certainly, I have witnessed the threat from both angles: at an “environment” conference, I have been interrogated for not focusing my animal paper on race or gender instead, and at animal studies conferences, I have encountered those who worry that any focus on human problems inevitably leads us away from a material focus on real, actual animals.

In this paper, I join many other thinkers in our field by making the case for situating intersectional analysis at the heart of critical animal studies, with reference to a case study from my current research on the representation of “meat adventures” in popular culture. Specifically, I will illustrate how, in the case of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s food-tourism television shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown, it becomes impossible to separate economic privilege, racial privilege, and species privilege—but moreover, that this co-imbrication of naturalized structural inequalities produces more than a mutually-reinforcing narrative of power; it also spectacularly reiterates the assumption that to criticize any one of the privileges at work in scenes of meat tourism effectively and automatically deepens one’s complicity with the violence of the other apparatuses of privilege operating at the scene. In other words, while Bourdain implicitly acknowledges and represents the reality of economic, racial, and species privilege, his particular mode of displaying these inequalities militates against interrogating how they work together; instead, critical focus upon any one of the vectors of privilege is coded as a violent lack of respect for the struggles inherent to the other forms of inequality at work, and thus, an intersectional critique is foreclosed no matter where the viewer might look. This obstacle to intersectional theorizing transcends the genuine strategic anxieties experienced in social justice movements, pointing toward the overriding fact that it is in the interests of power to discourage robust intersectional critique, and that real, actual animals are bound to continue suffering in its absence.


The Need for Genuine Pluralism in Animal Studies

Gary Steiner, Bucknell University

In recent years an increasing proportion of scholarly work being done on the cognitive abilities and moral status of nonhuman animals has had a pointedly postmodern character. Indeed recent years have seen a strong tendency to dismiss or marginalize approaches to animals that are opposed to postmodernism, particularly approaches that seek to defend and apply classical liberal conceptual tools such as individuality, agency, and principles. This tendency in contemporary animal studies has drawn inspiration from an increasing sensitivity to the limits of traditional conceptions of animals and their moral status; we have become increasingly aware that the traditional claim of human exceptionalism is seriously problematic, both in terms of the endeavor to ascribe certain capacities to human beings that no other living beings possess, and in terms of the traditional anthropocentric claim that putative differences between humans and nonhuman animals confer a fundamental moral superiority on human beings over nonhuman animals. The pioneering efforts of thinkers such as Derrida to carry out Heidegger’s program for a “destruction” of traditional ontology have done a great deal to facilitate more sophisticated approaches to the study of animals and their moral status. But these postmodern efforts themselves are beset with some very clear and fundamental limitations, and the rapid marginalization of more traditional approaches to animals and ethics has left contemporary animal studies with the prospect of a very real if entirely undesired and unanticipated paralysis. In Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism (Columbia U.P., 2013), I argue that the focus of thinkers such as Derrida notions such as the undecidability of meaning and irreducible différance undermines, if only against these thinkers’ own intention, the prospect of arriving at anything like clear principles that can guide and govern the concrete moral choices that we make; this limitation of postmodern (or, more specifically, poststructuralist) thought has serious implications not only for the moral status of animals but for the notions of ethics and justice more generally. In the absence of classical liberal notions such as agency and determinate principles, ethics unavoidably devolves either into paralysis or into the kind of decisionism with which Carl Schmitt’s politics of the exception is beset. Contemporary postmodern thinkers seem unwilling to confront and accept these implications of the turn to différance. What is needed now more than anything else is a direct and active confrontation between poststructuralism and classical liberalism, rather than the endeavor of either approach to silence the other. Let us not simply substitute one dominant discourse for another.


Of Mad Dogs and Men: Race, Gender, and Animality in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

Karalyn Kendall-Morwick, Washburn University

In critical race and gender studies, animal figures are frequently dismissed as mere metaphors for the dehumanized status of marginalized others whose ostensible proximity to “the animal” has served historically to naturalize their subordination and exploitation. Yet as a number of scholars in human-animal studies scholars have pointed out, an antiracist and antisexist politics that rejects outright the fact of human/animal kinship—though understandable given the exclusion of nonwhites and women (and especially nonwhite women) from fully human status and the systematic violence enabled by that exclusion—risks reinforcing the humanist disavowal of animality that underwrites racist and sexist discourses. Disavowals of animality within critical race and gender studies, in other words, leave unchallenged the humanist structure of subject formation that relegates human and nonhuman others alike to a realm of abjection that defines through negation the fully human (i.e., white male) subject. In order to illuminate how an acknowledgement of human animality can instead work to undermine this structure of exclusion, this paper examines the figure of the mad dog in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The figure of the mule has received a great deal of attention in scholarship on Hurston’s work—unsurprising given its titular position in her folktale collection Of Mules and Men, in which mules function as trickster figures whose resistance to human mastery allegorically affirms the agency of slaves. The significance of the mule is compounded in Their Eyes Were Watching God, where it becomes an explicit symbol of the doubly excluded position of the black woman. Comparably little attention has been paid to the mad dog who appears near the end of the novel when protagonist Janie and her third husband, Tea Cake, are caught in a flood. The mad dog approaches Janie on the back of a swimming cow who unwittingly comes to her rescue. When Tea Cake likewise swims to her aid, the dog bites him, transmitting the fatal virus that later forces Janie to shoot him in self-defense. I propose that one reason for the relative lack of critical attention to this patently bizarre scene is that the dog occupies a much more vexed position than that of the mule in both the history and discourses of race in American culture. In the context of the post-Reconstruction South that forms the backdrop for Hurston’s novel, the dog functions simultaneously as a tool of white power—serving historically to hound escaped slaves—and as an emblem of black bestialization. This troubled legacy complicates the celebratory fantasies of posthumanist becoming that characterize some representations of the human/dog relationship. Yet Hurston, I argue, refuses to disavow animality, instead employing the figure of the mad dog to critique the white supremacist and patriarchal structure of subject formation that Tea Cake and Janie’s two previous husbands replicate in their respective efforts to occupy the role of master. The dog-cow-man-woman assemblage stages an eruption of the animality that remains at this structure’s core, problematizing rehumanization as the goal of antiracist and antisexist politics.


Revisiting Comics’ “Funny Animals”

Alex Link, Alberta College of Art + Design

One of the most recognizable characteristics of American comics narrative, or sequential art, is the presence of “funny animals,” from the cat dog and mouse trio of Krazy Kat, to Disney’s menagerie, to Snoopy.  Historically, animals have featured in comics as instruments of humor and, more importantly, as analogs of the human.  It is difficult to look at animals in comics without seeing an anthropomorphic form generalized enough so as to allow them to serve as a site for individual reader identification.  Indeed, one could argue that Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a graphic novel of the Holocaust told with cats and mice, exploits the availability of the drawn animal form for reader sympathy.

More recently, however, some comics narratives have experimented with reversing this human-animal relationship, considering the manner in which the human is, has been, or may be a variation on the animal; and the limits of human-animal communication and identification in a genre that has, historically, presupposed them.  This presentation will consider two graphic narratives that re-examine the role of the animal in comics and, consequently, in their respective narrative worlds.  Duncan the Wonder Dog, by Adam Hines, posits a similarity where, historically, comics have located humor in animal difference and, in doing so, politicizes the role of animals in comics that also speaks to comics’ roots in racism and caricature.  We3, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, interrupts the ease with which readers might identify with the animal, in comics, by introducing distancing mechanisms that underscore the animal’s otherness, an otherness which, ironically, renders the animal a compliant object for the projection of anthropomorphic qualities.

Duncan, by Adam Hines, extends human qualities to seemingly all the animals in the world, without explanation.  We are thrust into a narrative in which animals are self-organizing politically, and seeking violent and non-violent means to secure political rights.  As a result, Duncan uses animals to raise significant questions concerning the past non-human status of some political groups, such as African Americans; current definitions of the human in relation to movements to extend human rights to apes; and the impediment the alterity of the animal poses to understanding the rights of the animal.  This political understanding of the animal human-analog typical of comics takes it further, I will argue, than Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions, in which a flock of birds develops philosophical and religious responses to trauma.

We3 is a complex science fiction narrative about three weaponized pets on the run.   While Duncan considers the relationship between the animal and the human, We3 poses the question of where, in the intersection of animal body and technological apparatus, identity is located.  In relation to comics history, it also attempts to establish a boundary that recognizes the impossibility of understanding the animal without projecting recognizably human behavior onto it, a recognizability on which, in Duncan, the possibility of political recognition is predicated.


The Teeth and the Venom of Empire: Animal Protagonists and the European Settlement of Australia

Krista Maglen, Indiana University

The hazards of Australian fauna have long been cited as contributing to the perfect natural prison of hostile bushland and shark infested seas that surrounded the early penal and free colonies. Yet this narrative has been largely assumed rather than examined. This paper situates Europeans in Australia within a landscape of creatures that helped to set the spatial boundaries of settlement but did not always respect the creation of ‘civilised’ domains. Most of the scholarship that explores imperial human-animal interactions has focused on large carnivores, such as lions, wolves or crocodiles. But in this paper I examine the small, scuttling and slithering creatures that hid in the woodpiles and under the floors of European homes and workplaces. These animals were not celebrated in representations of colonial exploits, nor did they become symbols of European dominance over the environment. They did not seem tangible or ‘knowable,’ inviting attempts at understanding or anthromorphization. And yet, they were more numerous, ubiquitous, and often in closer proximity to colonists as they built the homes and towns that helped consolidate claims to land throughout the world. Insects and reptiles were anonymous and non-specific, disappearing back into the dark holes from which they emerged, and yet they were often agents of great change in the human lives they encountered. This paper interrogates not only the responses of Europeans to these animals but also considers how these creatures disrupted and contravened colonial endeavours to tame and clear the landscape, continuing to inhabit the new environments that were being created. The paper asks whether historical agency and intent can be found in these less sympathetic and less ‘knowable’ creatures, and how this might contribute to our understanding of the past.


Which Animal, What Gaze?: Discourses on the Method

Giovanni Aloi, Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture / Queen Mary University of London

Discounting the abilities of animals as “programmed” and “unconscious” is something ingrained in Western culture; to force specific human abilities onto animals in order to relentlessly produce skewed evidence of human superiority is a typical anthropocentric disease. Famously, in order to confirm animals’ inferiority, Descartes argued that their behaviour is instinctive, that they lack adaptability, and of course language. Similarly, Heidegger’s idea that animals are “poor in world” saw them lacking the ability to conceive of an object as something more than a functional entity, while man is seen as “world forming” and therefore capable of creating art out of what the animal clumsily, “simply makes.”

The optics through which we have been producing knowledge of the natural world, have over the past twenty years dramatically shifted, providing new and challenging perspectives—however, some old conceptions are hard to die. As the constructedness of wildlife documentaries becomes more and more common knowledge, and animals invade the gallery space, it seems appropriate to more carefully evaluate the specific productivities peculiar to different disciplinary approaches.

This paper poses questions on the epistemological methods adopted by the disciplines of natural history, art history and philosophy. Ultimately, at stake, is no longer the correct positioning of the live animal between “operating tables” and gazes, but the possibility to adopt different epistemological approaches that may do justice to different animals.

Focusing on the chapter “What is Art?” by art historian Laurie Schneider Adams (from her book The Methodologies of Art), a selection of natural history documentaries produced by David Attenborough, and the famous “spider passage” from Giorgio Agamben’s The Open, this paper will expose the limitations peculiar to each optic. It will also simultaneously ask if the productivities intrinsic to the implementation of a scientific optic should be regarded as indispensable to the formulation of grounded as well as challenging new animal perspectives in human-animal studies and the arts.