Animal Studies, a new academic discipline, explores the identities of our furred and feathered friends
You might think you know what’s going on in the academy. Maybe, just for a minute there, you even felt like you had a handle on it all. At intellectual parties, you know how to put the “post” before the colonial, the modern, the structuralist; how to append “theory” to queer, feminist, critical, race. But you’ve probably been too busy to notice the rise of an academic field of inquiry at once so stunningly obvious and so difficult to wrap one’s head around that the very mention of its name causes canapés to stick in throats: Animal Studies.
What could be more obvious? Animals are everywhere. I’m looking at a cat right now. Everybody’s interested in them. Of course they must be some important element of our reality.
But, hold on: whose reality? Ours, or theirs? Who is “us,” anyway? If reality only belongs to human beings, what do I do about the undeniable intelligence residing in the domesticated animal that has caused the kitchen bin to be knocked over three times today? When I stare into her eyes and ask her what the hell she thinks she’s trying to achieve, to whom do I think I’m talking? Already, we’ve stumbled into the questions that scholars working in Animal Studies are worrying at.
Over the past ten years or so, Animal Studies has begun to look at other species from department-bustingly multiplicitous angles: sociology, biology, political theory, anthropology, the list goes on. Intrinsic to a lot of Animal Studies’ scholarship, however, is the idea that animals are an interesting and hitherto underestimated Other. As Una Chaudhuri, a professor working on NYU’s pioneering Animal Studies Initiative, puts it, they are “the ultimate Other, in some ways.”
The “Other” is a big concept. At its core, the Other is that which is not the same, or the self. Philosophers like Emmanuel Lévinas have suggested that thinking subjects define who they are, their selves, in terms of what they are not: hence, the way we perceive Others is crucial to the way in which we understand ourselves and the world. In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said famously wrote about European imperialist mindsets in terms of racial Othering. In part, he argued that Europeans were in fact defining themselves when they depicted peoples from other cultures in works of art or literature: creating an image of the Other as ultimately different from the imaginer inevitably places the other in a position of political subordination.
In recent decades, cultural studies has sought to include traditionally excluded Others and to examine them in terms of identity: animals are the latest in a sequence of objects of study that began with gender and moved through race to disability to childhood to age, and so on. As Chaudhuri puts it, “Once you start thinking of them as the ultimately othered Other, you realise how much has been riding on or produced by the mechanisms of Othering, and how it folds back on the other identity discourses.” Animal Studies becomes “another way to go back and understand how sexism and racism have been in many ways underwritten by speciesism.”
So, Animal Studies rides the crest of the identity studies wave. But it is also part of a wider cultural moment. When we met in her very green office by Manhattan’s Washington square, Chaudhuri explained that “we are now in a late phase of the most recent and very powerful stage of the animal rights movement. The animal rights movement is an ancient movement—it goes back to Aristotle and before—but the most recent phase of it began in the 1970s with Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation.” The actual experience of animals at our hands is a topic it has lately occurred to human beings to notice.
The third cultural stream flowing into Animal Studies is posthumanism, a difficult-to-grasp attempt to decentre our obsession with human subjectivity, which is strongly related to poststructuralism. Jacques Derrida’s ten-hour lecture, The Animal That Therefore I Am (1997), which tackled Descartes’s gulf between human and animal “subjectivities” with crackling flair and good humour, is a good place to start with this difficult topic, followed by Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism (2009).
Crucially for Animal Studies, posthumanism—like ecocriticism (the study of literature and the physical environment), Object Oriented Ontology (proponents of which contend that no kind of existence, even human existence, should be privileged over another) and the related slew of competing theory pools—demands that human subjectivity be seen as merely one force among many at work in the world. The division implied in “Man versus Nature” is a fallacy: nature is itself a humanity-dependent conceptual conceit. The ongoing environmental crisis has thrown this idea into sharp relief for scholars like Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton. As Chaudhuri puts it in the introduction her new volume Animal Acts: Performing Species Today (eds. Una Chaudhuri and Holly Hughes, forthcoming from University of Michigan Press) “The impetus for [Animal Studies’] heightened attention to animals…is, of course, varied and complex, but its link to both the animal rights movement and to the accelerating environmental crisis of our times is undeniable.”
Chaudhuri recommends the “Animal” series, published by Reaktion Books, for those looking for a foothold in this perhaps unfamiliar intellectual terrain. Each named for a different creature, books in the series like Fly (2006), Kangaroo (2012) and Otter (2010) rummage deep into the cultural life of an individual species, with a particular leaning towards contemporary artists that engage with each. They have lovely colour pictures.
The tragedy of academic life lies in the slicing up of domains of thought from one another; the clanging down of portcullises separating smart person from smart person. If an evolutionary biologist and a sociologist drink a cup of coffee and watch a lecture in the same room at the same conference in the pursuit of Animal Studies, that is a little victory. In another ten years, let’s hope that this odd-sounding hotspot of thought will be spoken of with ease over wine glasses and triangular foods.