Four Legs Good: Animals and the Posthuman

As Claude Lévi-Strauss famously stated, “animals are good to think.” For the last ten years, scholars have been thinking about animals very seriously, particularly about the place of non-human creatures vis-à-vis the “posthumanities” (a new field of academic studies which goes beyond the traditional limits of the “humanities”). This scholarly interest is gradually trickling down to the level of undergraduate studies. Michigan State University offers an interdisciplinary Animal Studies program; undergrads at New York University can minor in Animal Studies, and Brock University in Ontario offers students the option of an Animal Studies concentration. Other universities—Wesleyan being maybe the best example—offer Animal Studies courses that consider the human-animal question from a variety of approaches within the broad auspices of the posthuman. What these areas of study have in common is their regard for animals as beings-in-themselves, separate from our knowledge of them, or our use of them. This regard is consistent with the philosophical approach of journals like Society & Animals, Antennae, and Anthrozoos, as well as on public listservs for the field such as H-Net’s H-Animal.

Obviously, animals have always been part of the curriculum in veterinary colleges, agricultural institutes and departments of biology and zoology. Since the 1970s—the decade that saw the publication of Peter Singer’s seminal book, Animal Liberation— animals and their rights have also been the subject of study in departments of law and philosophy, especially in the fields of bioethics. The current wave of Animal Studies, however, is emerging from the posthumanities; most of the prominent voices in the field have a background in literary and/or cultural studies. In fact, the March 2009 issue of Publications of the Modern Language Association devotes over 100 pages to the convergence of animal studies and literature.

Foremost among these prominent names is that of Cary Wolfe, author of, among other works, Animal Rites (Chicago 2003), and the edited collection Zoontologies (Minnesota, 2003). Wolfe, who has a Ph.D in English and is the Chair of the English Department at Rice University, champions the posthumanism displacement of the Renaissance idea of man as the proper object of study, setting human beings into context alongside other, nonhuman beings. Another important figure is Randy Malamud, author of Reading Zoos (NYU Press, 1998) and Poetic Animals and Animal Souls (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), Professor of English at Georgia State. Malamud’s work reinforces the idea that we are, by nature, an imperial species, whose “interest” in other animals is always bound up with ideas of hegemony, repression, and representation. Another important player in the field is Erica Fudge, Professor of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde and author of Animal (Reaktion 2002) and Brutal Reasoning (Cornell 2006). In her work, Fudge deconstructs the connections of people and animals, demonstrating that our complex relations with non-human creatures are, in fact, central to our construction of ourselves.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this new wave of Animal Studies today has a strongly posthuman bent; after all, scholars in the humanities and posthumanities have long been accustomed to speaking out for relatively voiceless constituencies. Since the cultural studies / critical theory boom of the 1980s, it’s been customary for English departments to encourage students to consider texts from the perspectives of various marginalized groups, including women, African-Americans, the working classes, and the disabled. For scholars who’ve spent the majority of their academic careers trying to understand the world through the eyes of the oppressed, the question may very naturally arise: why should we concern ourselves only with human others? Surely non-human others, similar to us in so many ways, provide the most marginalized perspective of all. We may be prejudiced against other humans based on their gender, race or class, but this is nothing compared to the way we treat animals. “They don’t have syntax, so we can eat them,” is how philosopher Richard Sorabji puts it. What could be more oppressive?

However, in his influential essay “Human, All Too Human,” Cary Wolfe warns us against turning animal studies—a term that aligns it too closely, he believes, to cultural studies—into merely another branch of posthumanism by making it a site for “the sort of ‘pluralism’ that extends the sphere of consideration (intellectual or ethical) to previously marginalized groups without in the least destabilizing or throwing into question the schema of the human who undertakes such pluralization” (568). Wolfe believes that the question of the animal goes beyond all other questions posed in the posthumanities in that, to consider it fully, we most dethrone human sovereignty instead of leaving it and untouched in its ontological fortress.

On another level, the humanities and posthumanities are traditionally the home of literature and creative writing, and writers, of course, are often experts at identifying with marginalized perspectives. In The Incredible Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera’s narrator states, [m]ankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.” Such moments in literary works serve to remind us that, in this sense, fiction has long anticipated many of the recent developments in contemporary thinking about nonhuman animals. Forefront in this would be the work of Kafka, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Rilke, as well as more contemporary authors like Vicki Hearne and J.M. Coetzee. In Coetzee’s 2001 book The Lives of Animals, part of which is a lecture in the voice of an imaginary feminist novelist Elizabeth Costello, the animal question is raised in relation to empathy. It’s writers of fiction, claims Costello, that have the responsibility above all others to speak for animals, since such authors are experts in imagining themselves as the other; they’re accustomed to imagine themselves into different bodies, times and places, even to imagine intercourse with the divine. For the writer, embodiment and inwardness are essential tools, and also the best way to know—or to imagine—what it’s like to exist in a posthuman body, to think with a posthuman brain.

Mikita Brottman is a psychoanalyst and a professor in the department of humanistic studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

1 Response

  1. November 7, 2012

    […] Four Legs Good: animals and the posthuman […]

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