Study Guide

Animal Studies Basics

  • Beginnings

    Everyone loves babies, including animal babies. They're so cute when they're so little. So sleepy!

    Animal studies' adorable baby-phase began a long time ago with Aristotle and the Greeks. You may have heard of The Great Chain of Being. No, not the Texas hardcore band: that idea of the ancient Greeks that all beings exist on a linear scale, ranked from low (rocks, animals) to high (human beings, gods). Despite their clear penchant for hierarchy, the Greeks did think animals had some human-like traits.

    In a lot of ways the ancient Greeks were already pretty modern—there was even a resident vegetarian named Porphyry who was the Jonathan Safran Foer of his day. Proto-PETA Porphyry aside, while admitting some similarities between humans and animals, Aristotle made a really important division between these two supposed "categories" of beings—animals, he argued, do not possess reason.

    To have reason you need language, and because animals can't speak or write, well, they have no reason. Easy as that. Game over. Or, rather, game on—for using animals in ways that serve human ends without much consideration for animals' wants and needs. This is humanism par excellence.

    At the heart of this story is a key distinction based on language—who's got it; who doesn't. Animal studies in the sciences still operate with Aristotle's distinction in mind in the majority of its work. When scholars and thinkers in the humanities started to question Aristotelian distinctions between humans and animals in the nineteenth and particularly in the twentieth century, the foundation was being set for a new approach to literary studies. Darwin's revolutionary new way of thinking about the relation between humans and animals (guess what? we're related!) fueled a lot of this rethinking.

    In the decades following Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), Victorian feminists like France Power Cobbe who were lobbying for women's' suffrage also began to advocate on behalf of animals—starting dog shelters and arguing for better animal welfare standards. Turns out that it's not just Bieber who is into this sort of thing.

    Fast-forward to the 1970s and Peter Singer's path breaking book Animal Liberation. Singer argued that animals don't deserve just better welfare and treatment but actually deserved rights. This crazy 180 of a trajectory—from seeing animals and humans as entirely different, to seeing animals with a compassionate eye, to then seeing them as possessors of rights—marks the beginnings of animal studies theory.

    And all of the ideas within this trajectory are still very much in play and up for debate.

  • Big Players

    The first people to question the human-animal distinction and the idea that only human beings have language weren't literary critics. Charles Darwin's work on the theory of evolution was key to kick starting these debates, and in the latter half of the twentieth century the animal studies game really started to kick into gear:

    John Berger, the Marxist art critic, published an important essay titled "Why Look at Animals?" (1980), where he asked questions about our relationships with other animals in both art and life. The answer to the question "Why Look At Animals?" isn't just "because they're adorable."

    The feminist thinker Carol Adams wrote an important book looking at connections between gender-based and animal oppressions in The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990).

    Scientist, feminist scholar, and anthropologist Donna Haraway has written numerous books that have helped to initiate the field and continue to sustain and provoke it, including Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989), The Companion Species Manifesto (2003), and When Species Meet (2008).

    Haraway's theorizing includes a (sometimes too) generous helping of dog stories, especially about her canine companion, named Cayenne Pepper (which: aww).

    While Adams and Haraway are both feminists, they disagree about the way feminist theory can and should be applied to how we think about and treat animals. Haraway argues that instead of trying to avoid mucking around with animal lives, we really have no choice and we should embrace the ways in which animals and humans "co-shape" one another. The more we get together, essentially, the happier we'll be!

    Persuaded by Haraway's emphasis on companionship and "cooperation," many in animal studies have embraced these ideas. They do sound like good things to support, right? Everyone learning from one another? C'mon, guys—didn't we learn this in kindergarten? How come so many of us can't seem to follow this simple (and awesome) way of living?

    What do Bieber and Jacques Derrida have in common? Answer: Almost nothing… except they both used their fame to help the critters. The famous deconstructionist Jacques Derrida was a bit of a Johnny-Come-Lately to the field of animal studies but his celebrity status helped his ideas on human-animal relations to have a tremendous impact. In the last decade of his life he gave numerous lengthy lectures that have been collected and published, including The Animal that Therefore I Am (1997) and The Beast and the Sovereign (2011).

    Derrida's work on the animal is similar to the rest of his work in the very close attention it pays to language. For instance, he insists that our very language is abusive to other animals. And no, he's not just talking about "Bad dog!"

    The world is filled with so many different species and individual animals, but yet we talk about them (even here on Shmoop) as "the animal," as if they can all be reduced to a single category. To amend this issue, Derrida invents a new word (he loves doing this): animot. This is an adorable French word that when spoken combines the sense of the French word les animaux (the animals) and the French word mot (word), reminding us that there are animals in the world (not just a singular kind, the animal) and that even the idea of animality only exists in language, in words.

    Building on the work of Derrida and Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben, Cary Wolfe and Matthew Calarco have contributed important work that helps to distinguish the multiple threads of animal studies and the relationship between literature and lines of thought on the animal in Continental philosophy. We're all getting behind the animals, oops, les animot now. Woot.

    Other important contributors to the field include:

    Erica Fudge (literary studies, representation)
    Susan McHugh (literary studies, narrative)
    J.M. Coetzee (novelist, ethics, relationship of philosophy and literature)
    Una Chadhuri (literary studies, drama)
    Ursula Heise (literary studies, extinction, new media)
    Randy Malamud (literary studies, zoos)
    Stacy Alaimo (literary studies, gender studies, sea creatures)
    Helena Pedersen (critical animal studies)
    Vasile Stanescu (critical animal studies, ethics)

  • Key Debates

    Imagine putting a country music fan and a dubstep aficionado on a deserted island with one speaker system. A lot of the debates in animal studies play out as if they were taking place on that island—they're claustrophobic, heated, and full of rum. Hmm. Maybe not the rum part.

    There are a lot of debates in animal studies—some of the squabbling depends on how many academic disciplines are involved, some of it depends on debates about how to best understand human culture that have been going on for awhile (Literature vs. Philosophy, The Cage Match! Bout #567…), and some are just downright political. What we think about animals says a lot about what we think about humans—so a lot is at stake. Here are few examples of some specific debates:

    Merely metaphors?

    In cultural representations are animals always just mere metaphors for human ideas and feelings? Think back to Bronte's dogs in Wuthering Heights—scholars will disagree about the function of these animals in the novel.

    Some would say that they merely serve to shadow and heighten human dramas. Some will argue that the animals themselves are characters in the story in their own right, with actions and beings that matters in and of itself.

    Think of it this way—we tend to read human characters not just as imaginative figments in texts meant to represent abstract and possible human emotions but rather as "real," implied persons. Characters represent and actually embody aspects of real persons, and we feel things towards them: we love Jo in Little Women. We're annoyed by her sister Amy. We think Meg is a sweetie-pie, and we're sad when Beth gets sick. These characters have personhood, dagnabbit.

    The question is, then, what about Garfield and Odie? Do they have personhood…or rather "animalhood"? How about animals that don't speak in cynical thought bubbles?

    Companions or slaves?

    Some of the politics motivating animal studies comes down to fundamental questions about the relative freedom of other animals. Donna Haraway's concept of "companion species" (We're all buddies and chums here right? Now sit, roll over, and beg.) has been extremely influential in this debate.

    The idea that animals are our companions—starting with those we really do think of as companions, our cats, dogs, tortoises, pet monkeys—is an attractive one. Haraway sees relationships of cooperation between humans and other animals, even when we're putting animals to use for human ends, like workhorses. Other critics find these arguments bogus—they seem so self-serving to the human species!

    Sure, Skip is man's best friend… but what about the skylark in Shelley's poem? The tiger in Blake's poem? Or the cow in a dairy? Can we really talk about companionship with those critters? Aren't they relatively indifferent to us, at best, or exploited by us, at worst? Maybe we should stop trying to get all up in their business, and instead find ways to let them be?

    So many questions. It's still very much an open and heated debate.

    Can literature make an argument about animals and how we should live with them?

    Literature isn't political theory. It's not ethics. It's not psychology. It's not philosophy. But can it show us the way? Can it make arguments for how we should live? Is it actually better at doing this than these other, seemingly more practical fields?

    We're not suggesting you visit a literature professor for therapy or ethical guidance—although they might be awesome at it—but there is a healthy debate about the best way to think our way into some of the debates regarding humans and animals. J.M. Coetzee's novella The Lives of Animals foregrounds such a discussion.

    Go ahead and check out our section on Key Texts for more books that will blow your mind and broaden your horizons when it comes to questions about furry/feathered/finned creatures.

  • State of the Theory

    Animal studies is alive and well. In fact it's generating so much new work and debate that it's cursed with the reputation of being a faddish thing to do. But we won't let that get us down. After all, some fads stick and become part of the conversation. And animal studies isn't Rick Astley; it's Madonna. It's not Orbitz; it's Redbull.

    While generating a lot of buzz and new ways of reading texts, a test for the field will be whether major claims for its relevance win over enough converts to make its arguments and debates stick. Will the ideas of Animal studies seep in deep enough for us to really start analyzing the characters of—whoa—animals?

    After all, so-called faddish theories like Feminist Literary Criticism made political and thematic claims, but they also changed how we read literature at large. We're not just tooting the ol' Lit horn here (well, sure, we're doing that as well): when people start analyzing books a certain way, you know that that theory has entered the consciousness. Think of the Bechdel test, an example of Feminist Lit Crit that has hit the mainstream. When an example of Feminist theory shows up in an article about Oscar nominees, you know that it's there to stay.

    Animal studies is still just an adorable baby kitten/puppy/duckling/joey. It's too early to tell. Will Animal Studies find ways to make its readings transcend those texts that are explicitly about animals? Will it enter the public consciousness? Our money's on yes.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Literature is written by humans, for humans. We might even argue that it is one of the things that is essential about our humanity—to be human is to tell stories, to engage in narratives. All cultures have literature in some shape or form.

    Yet at the same it is not just all about us. Literary works engage with all kinds of nonhuman things—landscapes, ecosystems, and of course, animals. From Beowulf to comic books (as you'll find in our Key Texts section) the literary world is literally crawling with critters.

    For animal studies, the interplay of these human and nonhuman forces is exciting and needs to be taken seriously. Literature isn't just about us—it's about our interactions with all of these other beings and it can really give us insight into how these other beings live and what their relation to language, myth and storytelling is.

    What is an author?

    First things first—all authors are animals. Animal studies begins and ends by reminding us that human beings are animals. Jane Austen. Herman Melville. Amy Tan. Toni Morrison. Every single one of these authors is an animal. The novels, poetry, and plays they write are like so many "animal noises."

    So an author is an animal writing about other animals—including both human and nonhuman animals. Writers and other language users leave "traces" of things, according to deconstruction theorist Jacques Derrida.

    Traces are like animal tracks, but in language. In these tracks we can see elements of our animality, sometimes repressed, sometimes made explicit. Authors are human animals and in their texts they leave marks of their humanity and their animality.

    What is a reader?

    Readers are similar to authors—they are animals reading about other animals, human and nonhuman. Animal studies scholars tend to be interested in readers for the ways that they respond to the depiction of animals in culture.

    For instance, the fictional author Elizabeth Costello in The Lives of Animals is interested in the ways that readers respond to animals in a Ted Hughes poem, or to descriptions of animals undergoing abuse. To be curious about these responses is to be curious about human empathy.

    Do we, as readers, care or not about what happens to animals? Are we affected by literary language to engage with animals? In the case of a novel like Moby-Dick, with its chapters on the technical details of whaling, readers better be engaged and fascinated by human-animal interactions… especially because there are so many pages devoted to the specifics of whaling in that brilliant book.