We tend to think that literature is all about human beings—after all, it is our species that imagines plots, narratives, and stanza forms. The poet Wallace Stevens might look at blackbirds in thirteen ways, but when was the last time a blackbird considered the being of a poet? (Actually, it happened exactly once, and the bird got bored.)
Animals show up in our stories some times—birds flit about in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure; some dogs cause trouble in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights—but these nonhuman beings are in the background. They're kind of like the setting in most stories. Come to think of it, most authors treat setting itself like a well-trained pet: sit, shake, roll over. Good boy!
For the most part, animals in our stories (and often in our everyday lives) just kind of pass us by. Think of those pigeons outside your window, or those pesky rabbits eating your Grandma's lettuce. Animal studies theorists respond to decades of criticism that assumes this has to be the case—who cares about our furry, finned and feathered "friends," anyhow?—and call all these assumptions into question.
Unlike most of us, animal studies theorists and critics take real animals (and imaginary ones) seriously. They think about their actions, feelings, and their relationships to human beings—animals become characters in the full sense of the term. They look at them in a lot more than just thirteen lousy ways. They care about what happens to them, and argue about the best way to read animals and even weigh in on how we should treat them.
Animal studies is like the Humane Society of Academia, but without the cute puppies to adopt. Animal studies believes that those birds in Hardy's novel have a lot to tell us about themselves and their fictional world, and Bronte's dogs are important characters too as they catalyze events and shape characters' understandings of one another.
Still seems weird? Fun fact: Emily's sister, Charlotte Bronte, wrote a first version of her famous novel Jane Eyre as a dog story—and we're not just talking about the fact that Mr. Rochester is a dog. Rochester: Woof! Woof! Jane Eyre: Bark, Bark!
Animal studies critics are interested in what human-animal interactions can tell us about human culture and how it is wrapped up with animality. Whoa. If that sounds deep, it's because it is.
Studying animals has been a mainstay of scientific disciplines for centuries, but "cultural animal studies" began to take off when feminist theorists like Carol Adams started talking about an ethics of care for other animals, Donna Haraway started writing about our relations with primates from an anthropological perspective, and Jacques Derrida spent the last years of his life thinking through our relationships with animals and animality. Some spend their retirement playing golf, some spend it theorizing animality—what can we say?
With these kinds of moments in mind, it starts to seem that not paying attention to animals is what's strange. For a quick illustration of how strange our world would be without animals, see Garfield minus Garfield. Seriously, go check it out—we're going to be referring back to it. Also, it's hilarious and weird and sad.
If we don't have other animals in our worlds (e.g. if Jon doesn't have Garfield to talk to) then nothing we think or do can really make sense. The human (or our representative Jon) is nothing without other animals—they (like Garfield) define and help make us who we are.
It's not just dogs that are (hu)man's best friend. It's the whole zoo.
Noah's game was weak. All those animals were rounded up and then never thought of again. And even today, most animals are seen as stowaways on the ark of literature.
Animals abound in literary works but we've pretty much always ignored them. And if we haven't ignored them, we've always been pretty sure what to think about them—next to nothing!
So what might we actually see animals doing in fictional worlds? The Animal Planet special on novelistic and poetic animals in their native habitat features David Attenborough cooing about such traditional behaviors as: functioning as metaphors (just check out Moby-Dick in Moby-Dick) and playing roles in an allegory (George Orwell's Animal Farm, Aesop's Fables).
But that's just for starters. Animals are doing more than just standing in for human ideas and dreams—more often than we think, animals are getting up to their own business—to put this in more theoretical terms, they act as agents. They possess agency.
Agency? Isn't that something only humans can have? Tell that to Lassie, Black Beauty, or Brian on Family Guy.
Animals do things. They make things happen. They affect others around them, sometimes with great consequences. In some texts this agency is front and center—like in H.G. Wells' chilling novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. But in most works animal "being" and animal agency is a subtle, complex, even buried element.
Like a hungry raccoon in a campground looking for food, animal studies can help us to uncover and unwrap a lot of animalistic elements of culture that otherwise go unnoticed.
Think back to that Garfield minus Garfield comic series. Without Garfield in the frame, Jon just sounds like some existentialist, humanist philosopher—he's an even sadder sad-sack than he is in the regular Garfield comics. He's a husk of a human being.
For centuries we've kept Garfield out of the frame of human thoughts and action—and, yup, our world is pretty sad. Perhaps this can explain our great confusion, and why we often seem to make no sense to one another—just like poor Jon without Garfield. It's as if our ideas and thoughts don't make any sense if we ignore the animality that fills the human and nonhuman world. Animal studies brings Garfield (and a lot of other critters) back into the frame. As you can imagine, it makes for some pretty interesting conversations.
Reading with animals in mind isn't just about learning to see the beauty of the natural world, though that can be super-important. To read with "animals in mind" is about realizing how the ways we read and interpret literary works change when we start to take animals and animality seriously.
Literary scholar and theorist Cary Wolfe is particularly adamant about this—animal studies ain't just another version of identity politics. To pay attention to animals in texts and in the world is not just an extension of studying race, class, and gender. Instead, animal studies is a field with wide-ranging implications that up-end the very ways we have been handling theory this whole time.
The animality implicit in humanity is kind of a big deal and it's time we start dealing with it like adults. We're all just animals.
It's hard because our "We're better than animals" shtick has been supported by humanism for so long. Our ways of reading and thinking have been shaped while ignoring an essential element of our own selves and the world around us—animality.