Animal Studies, a new academic discipline, explores the identities of our furred and feathered friendsby Josephine Livingstone / December 27, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…