Study Guide

Animal Studies Buzzwords

Language

We know humans have it, but some animals clearly seem to have it too—chimps using sign language, and humpback whales sound like deep-space nightmare aliens. Some theorists argue that animals are more at home in using language than we are. Caw! Caw!

Biopolitics

This is some creepy stuff. Michel Foucault (the big bald Daddy of literary theory) is primarily responsible for developing this idea. In the Modern Era governments and politicians become less concerned with securing territory and much more nitpicky about the biological health of its population. The state's power comes to reside not just in the ability to put lots of folks to death in war, but making decisions about life and death of its own citizens.

A number of animal studies theorists have been putting this concept to use in describing society's relationships with animals.

Humanism

A pretty dang old -ism (its Western form it originates in the Renaissance, 1400-1650) that puts human beings at the center of the universe. Human beings are the pinnacle of creation/evolution, and to be a humanist is to be invested in the development and betterment of the human species, all other species being less important. We're #1!

Posthumanism

A big, often confusing buzzword in animal studies. The idea here isn't that we're no longer human, or should no longer "be human"—some people do imagine an enhanced version of human beings, but they're called Transhumanists.

Posthumanism is more about getting past humanism than the human—so getting past the idea that "We're #1!" and start thinking of the fact that we're one species out of many.

Anthropomorphic

If you have cats or dogs and you sometimes treat them like they are people, or have human-like characteristics, you're anthropomorphizing whether you know it or not. Yup, when you tell Fido all about jerky John from IT after a bad day at work you're anthropomorphizing your sweet doggy.

Lots of people give human traits to nonhumans—whether to a dog, a parrot, or a (pet) rock. Usually people will tell you to stop doing it—your pet newt is a critter and can't possibly be feeling human emotions. But they're just being cranky—to call someone out for anthropomorphizing sets up a binary between humans and animals that a lot of animal studies theory (see posthumanism above) want to call into question.

So keep complaining to Fido about your work woes—just don't be surprised if he gets a little bored.

Theriomorphic

If an anthropomorphic representation is one in which human characteristics are given to animals (our friend Garfield is a great example), then a theriomorphic representation is one in which animal characteristics are imputed to humans: Wolverine from X-Men is a theriomorphic character.

Animal rights

The idea that animals have "rights" is relatively recent phenomenon. In the past most animal advocates thoughts animals were entitled to "good treatment," but that didn't entail rights. A lot of people are dubious about this whole animal rights idea—whether they're hunters or people who work in the animal industry.

Recently, some animal studies critics have begun to question the idea of "rights" as well, even though they think we should be treating animals much, much better. They do so because the idea of a right is always based on excluding someone or something else that can't have that right.

This is part of a larger critique that the idea of rights is founded on a strange, perverse
piece-of-the-cake" model—if we give X group a piece, that means Y group can't have that piece…and we're not making another cake because we're all out of flour.

Groups of human beings have been known to argue that they deserve rights because at least they aren't another group of even more marginalized humans or because at least they aren't animals. See how this works? Animals get stuck on the lowest rung of the ladder.