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Human, All Too Human: “Animal Studies” and the Humanities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Trying to give an overview of the burgeoning area known as animal studies is, if you'll permit me the expression, a bit like herding cats. My recourse to that analogy is meant to suggest that “the animal,” when you think about it, is everywhere (including in the metaphors, similes, proverbs, and narratives we have relied on for centuries—millennia, even). Teach a course or write an article on the subject, and well-intentioned suggestions about interesting material pour in from all quarters. In my field alone, there's not just, say, the starring role of bear, deer, and dog at the heart of William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses and the futility of trying to imagine Ernest Hemingway without his fraternity of bulls, lions, and fish or Marianne Moore without her menagerie of pangolins and jellyfish. There's also King Kong, Babe, Charlotte's Web, Seabiscuit, The Silence of the Lambs, The Horse Whisperer, and The Fly. There's the art of Damien Hirst, Joseph Beuys, Sue Coe, William Wegman, Bill Viola, Carolee Schneeman, Lynn Randolph, and Patricia Piccinini. And all those bird poems, from Percy Shelley's skylark and John Keats's nightingale to Edgar Allan Poe's raven and Wallace Stevens's blackbird. As any medievalist or early modern scholar will tell you, the question of the animal assumes, if anything, even more centrality in earlier periods; indeed, recent and emerging scholarship suggests a picture in which the idea of the animal that we have inherited from the Enlightenment and thinkers such as Descartes and Kant is better seen as marking a brief period (if the formative one for our prevailing intellectual, political, and juridical institutions) bookended by a pre- and posthumanism that think the human/animal distinction quite otherwise. So there's also William Hogarth and Hieronymus Bosch, The Faerie Queene and Beowulf. And, of course, there is the central place of the animal in non-Western literature and culture, written and oral, which would require another essay altogether.

The Changing Profession
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2009

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