By Mary Grabar
English professors have long been straying far afield from literary studies, expanding into women's studies, disability studies, ethnic studies, even fat studies. Recently they have migrated into animal studies.
An ambitious professor might be working on a paper for "Cultivating Human-Animal Relations Through Poetic Form,." a panel scheduled for the November South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) meeting. She may have been inspired by the quotation by Alice Walker that opens the panel description: "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men."
She may be working toward a PhD in English with a dissertation on "The Limits of Sympathy: Animals and Sentimentalism in British Literature, 1750-1810." Or she may be preparing a paper for a regional panel of MLA that the organizer tells submitters “explores how literature represents human subjectivity through interspecies relationships, to investigate how we produce ourselves by producing the animal producing us.”
If she is writing a paper for the December issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies themed “Animals and / in Romance,” the professor would consider the editor’s questions posed like, “How and why do animals mediate, complicate, or facilitate romance narratives? What role do animals, both real and imagined, play in courtship rituals or the articulation of sexual desire?” Examples given range from “the leopard in Bringing Up Baby and the dogs in Jennifer Crusie’s novels to the werewolves and dragons and undefined ‘Beasts’ in fairy tale and paranormal love stories.” Questions concern larger issues like how “historical changes in pet-keeping or animal rights activism [are] reflected in romance media” and what “it means to be human in a narrative world filled with animals.”
The temptation is to dismiss such scholarship as trite and irrelevant. But there is more here than a dilettantish fad. At last December’s MLA meeting a panel focused on the work of Cary Wolfe, department chair and Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor at Rice University. Wolfe’s early work was on literary figures . Then he began writing about animal studies and “posthumanism.” His 2010 book, “What is Posthumanism?,” according to the conference program, drew discussion from “literary scholars working in the fields of critical animal theory, human rights, feminist theory, continental philosophy, and disability.”
As Wolfe reveals, the significance of “animal studies” is that it makes us rethink our intellectual standards and categories. “The full force of animal studies—what makes it not just another flavor of ‘fill in the blank’ studies on the model of media studies, film studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and so on—is that it fundamentally unsettles and reconfigures the question of the knowing subject and the disciplinary paradigms and procedures that take for granted its form and reproduce it,” he writes. The reconfiguration of the “knowing subject” (i.e., the human) is what makes us “posthuman.”
How did we get to this point where the major professional organization in the field of language and literature convenes a panel at its annual conference on a professor who specializes in Posthumanism? And how did an aggressive advocacy program like “Critical Animal Studies” gain a beachhead at the MLA?
Adherents of Critical Animal Studies generally look with contempt on animal-welfare organizations and “animal studies” not preceded by the word “critical.” The Institute for Critical Animal Studies says the movement “advances a holistic understanding of the commonality of oppressions, such that speciesism, sexism, racism, ablism, statism, classism, militarism and other hierarchical ideologies and institutions are viewed as parts of a larger, interlocking, global system of domination." Furthermore, it “rejects apolitical, conservative, and liberal positions in order to advance an anti-capitalist, and, more generally, a radical anti-hierarchical politics. This orientation seeks to dismantle all structures of exploitation, domination, oppression, torture, killing, and power in favor of decentralizing and democratizing society at all levels and on a global basis.”
In the introduction to his book, Wolfe traces the development of the breakdown of species distinctions. Although he claims that this term “posthumanism” “seems to have worked its way into contemporary critical discourse in the humanities and social sciences during the mid-1990s,” its “roots go back, in one genealogy, at least to the 1960s and pronouncements of the sort made famous by Foucault in the closing paragraph of The Order of Things.” There the pioneering poststructuralist Michel Foucault radically questions “’the fundamental arrangements of knowledge.’” These arrangements are as fundamental as an assumed meaning to a word or grammatical construction. The project of the poststructuralist movement was to put into question the entire hierarchy and structure of language. Foucault is among the theorists, cited by University of Texas philosophy professor Steven Best, whose project was to break down the “structure” of the West, its institutions and language.
So now we have a multi-cause all-embracing, radical activism, obsessed with oppression and hierarchy, making itself at home in English departments, among others.
Shedding light on the agenda of Critical Animal Studies is a 2009 article in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies by Best. In “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: Putting Theory into Action and Animal Liberation into Higher Education,” Best describes the field as growing exponentially over the last three decades and foraying into literature among other disciplines, like the one he teaches, as well as anthropology, sociology, history, and others.
Indeed Best, a self-described “philosopher, writer, activist,” calls for the advancement of “anti-Capitalist” and “anti-hierarchical: politics, by “openly engage[ing] in controversial radical politics and militant strategies used in all kinds of social movement, such as those that involve economic sabotage and high-pressure direct action tactics.” The goal is to build “new forms of social consciousness, knowledge, social institutions that are necessary to dissolve the hierarchical society that has enslaved the life forms on this planet for the last ten thousand years.”
For the more than two decades I’ve spent in the academy, beginning with graduate school, I have noticed that much of the focus on animals has evolved from the radical critique of Western culture. Believe it or not, the discussions in seminars and journals often revolve around how rule-based grammatical structuring of language upholds the rule-based hierarchical nature of a patriarchal Western culture. I’ve observed a former professor evolve from a harsh critic of Western culture proponent T.S. Eliot to a champion of those without Eliot’s and other like-minded poets’ presumed sins of misogyny, classicism, and anti-Semitism. The professor’s premises are wrong, but if we accept them then we work our way to his conclusion that animals and those incapable of language use offer a more just form of communication.
This development is also part of the rush to embrace the primitive and the popular in order to undermine the Judeo-Christian ethic of man’s dominion and the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and reasonable discourse. This is just one of the ominous aspects of Critical Animal Studies.
Mary Grabar is an English instructor in Atlanta