Study Guide

Animal Studies Critics

  • Martin Heidegger

    We can formulate these distinctions in the following three theses: [1.] the stone (material object) is worldless; [2.] the animal is poor in world, [3.] man is world forming.

    Like hierarchies? Marty Heidegger's clearly got one for you here. Heidegger was a German philosopher into thinking about "worlds" and ways of "world-making." To have "a world"' for Heidegger is basically just "having a life." Heidegger's stone clearly needs to get a life—it is "worldless." Poor little stoney.

    The stone is without perception of its existence or those around it. The animal, Heidegger tells us, is a little better off—"poor in world." The animal's social life needs a kickstart. Maybe they could get a boost from humans—for Heidegger, we're the masters of the universe. We're "world forming"—we create social, aesthetic, and political spheres of life. We're also, clearly, egomaniacs.

    At some level this hierarchy makes sense, right? Most of us probably operate with this kind of hierarchy in mind in on our everyday lives: that's why you insult someone as being "dumb as a rock" or, if they're slightly less idiotic but acting badly, they're "an animal."

    Animal studies theorists interrogate this kind of hierarchy for the way that it recreates the same logic of the Ancient Greek's Great Chain of Being, which organized the world on a rock-to-God spectrum. Our animal studies buddies charge Heidegger with being super outdated. In light of research into animal behavior and just basic observation of animal life, many have argued that Heidegger's claim that animals are poor in world must come arise from a humanist prejudice. Ol' Marty Heidegger just needed a good pet and a sense of dang empathy.

    Heidegger's claim for a stone-to-animal-to-human hierarchy (with humans firmly placed at the top) illustrates how we normally understand our place in the world: we're #1. But how can we be so "worldly" if we can't imagine the lives of animals and what kinds of interesting worlds animals inhabit?

  • Giorgio Agamben

    Animals do not enter language, they are already inside it.

    Whoa. This guy is a profound dude. What the heck does it mean to be inside a language? And what would an animal inside a language look like? Are we supposed to be thinking of a linguistic hamster wheel here?

    To say that animals are inside language is to say that animals have language and use it with more fluidity and less mess-ups than human beings do. How does this work? The key to it is that Agamben has a pretty large and loose definition of what constitutes language—Agamben thinks of "language" as any and all modes of communication.

    And he's not just talking about apes using sign language. Not just the prairie dogs that have been shown to make different calls to one another depending on whether a human approaching their homes is armed with a weapon or not (true story!). Giorgio's talking about the fact that all nonhuman animals are presumed to have language, the ability to communicate.

    The idea that it's only human beings who have language is just foolish. In fact, compared to animals, we're actually really bad at language. Our sign systems get us into trouble all the time. We have a hard time talking to each other—we have a bajillion different languages, not to mention a hilarious propensity to misuse autocorrect.

    The implications of such claims for literary study and the study of human-animal narratives are profound. What would it mean to think about language and communication not as a human specialty but as something we share with the animals, something they might be even more at home in than we are? It might sound nutso, but it's an interesting idea to ponder.

  • John Berger

    With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.

    Man's best friend? Try men, women and children's best friends. Donna Haraway floats the idea of a companion species but Berger means something different (and something more simplistic) here.

    Basically, what we think and say about animals is often about trying to figure out what we really think about ourselves, about the whole dang human species. Pop quiz: Look at this quote again. Who do we learn about here? Animals or humans? To us this quote has much more to tell us about Berger's ideas of humans than animals.

    Berger suggests that we are isolated and lonely—not just as individuals, but as a species. Cheer up, lonely humans! Berger suggests animals can console us because our ways of interacting with them are different from anything like "human exchange."

    This is all very warm and fuzzy (all we need is a bunny to cuddle with, and we'll be soooo happy), but the animal studies critic of today would look at Berger and say, "Hey buddy, not so fast—we're not isolated and alone. These critters are integral parts of our world whether we like it or not—human beings are not so poor in 'animal worlds' as you think (what's up, Marty Heidegger)."

  • Matthew Calarco

    Inasmuch as the notion of what constitutes animality has traditionally been figured over and against what is supposed to constitute humanity, when the notion of humanity is undercut, then the concept of animality suffers a similar fate. The effect of the displacement of the human-animal distinction is that, today, thought is no longer certain how to proceed in this domain. Should the human-animal distinction be redrawn along different lines? And if so, along which lines, precisely? Or should it be abandoned altogether?

    Hoo-boy. Let that one settle in a little bit.

    Calarco's flow is something like this: animality and humanity have been understood as opposites, as binaries, like "good" and "bad". You can't have one without the other. We define them with reference to the other—humanity is the lack of animality, animality is the lack of humanity.

    Calarco and other posthumanist philosophers are working to undercut the idea of humanity, and, he tells us, when this happens the idea of "animality" is also undercut. Since they're entangled like two threads of a single rope, the strand breaks apart when you mess with one of them.

    So if this is so, he suggests, we have some explaining to do—this whole human/animal divide has been pretty dang important to human society—politics, ethics, government, science, the medical system, heck even sports—that football is made of pigskin. Without a firm division between the human and the animal, some people might start to get antsy about, well, everything.

    So what to do? Must we just redraw the lines in a new way? Or can we dispense with them altogether? This is a big meta-question for animal studies. Because it's such a big question, we're not going to be able to answer this one for a while, if ever. In the meantime theorists will keep trying to pin the tail on this moving, live donkey (with blindfolds on).

    There is no doubt that we need to think unheard-of-thoughts about animals, that we need new languages, new artworks, new histories, even new sciences and philosophies.

    This quote suggests that we can actually really get excited about animal studies. No Stuffy Philosopher talk here! This quote reads like a manifesto, with big bold ideas for the future that we get to create by thinking about humans' and animals' place in the world.

    For Calarco, these new worlds and new ideas are going to be produced through the arts and culture. Check out how he calls for "new languages." Our language involves a ton of animal metaphors and figurative language derived from the nonhuman world—just think about the expressions "clever as a fox" or "dog-eat-dog world" or referring to mindlessness as "sheep-like." How can we build on this animal-heavy foundation to speak and write a language that enables animal agency to be given its due? How can we change the way we refer to animals?

    He also calls for "new artworks." Wait: does this mean more paintings of dogs playing poker? Nope, it refers to contemporary artists working in the realm of animality, like these guys.

    What about "new histories"? Environmental and animal historians are revising all kinds of ideas—see Reviel Netz's book Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity for an example of the intertwined history of humans, animals, and new technologies.

    Yup, Calarco wants you for the future of animal studies.

  • Cary Wolfe

    [The larger question is] how the internal disciplinarity of history or literary studies or philosophy is unsettled when the animal is taken seriously not just as another topic or object of study among many but as one with unique demands.

    "Internal disciplinarity"—sounds like the 'self-discipline' they taught us about in elementary school, right? What Wolfe is talking about here, though, is the way academic disciplines conduct themselves. When new theories come along—say Foucault's analyses of power, or new feminist theories—disciplines may decide that they have to change how they read and analyze texts or culture.

    And that very change is what ends up changing the dang world. It's a simple case of exposure leading to change. When people start to read LGBTQ subtext into literature or movies, for example, they start to realize that there are a whole lot of LGBTQ people in the world… and this realization can end up shaping policy, leading to things like marriage equality.

    Wolfe wants animal studies to be taken seriously—like Foucault, or feminist theory. Animal studies isn't just an extension of another area of study; it's not an offshoot of feminist theory, for example. It's a separate, distinct theory, and it deserves to be treated as such, dagnabbit!

  • Greta Gaard

    Indeed, the animal rights movement itself was catapulted to respectability, insofar as it has been, only when white male philosophers distanced themselves from kindness, empathy, or care, and theorized about the motives for animal liberation as legitimated by recourse to animal rights (Regan) or attention to animal suffering (Singer). Nearly thirty years later, Cary Wolfe echoes the Singer/Regan era in his claim that 'taking animals seriously thus has nothing to do, strictly speaking, with whether or not you like animals.

    Sounds like some infighting is going on here! Greta Gaard (do her friends call her GG?) is analyzing some of the internal politics of animal studies. But this isn't just about naval-gazing—these kinds of debates can really matter. Here the issue is the importance of early feminist animal studies theorists to the contemporary field of animal studies.

    Gaard points out that animal studies begins with feminist ideas about how we should relate to and think about animals—through an ethics of care, through empathy, and kindness. She's arguing that these ideas, considered "soft" or less serious than the "rights" arguments of people like Peter Singer, have been give short shrift and ignored.

    Carey Wolfe has claimed that this whole idea of taking animals seriously should have nothing to do with whether we like animals. You might dislike animals—all those pesky dogs pooping all over the sidewalk, you know?—but you still have to pay attention to them and consider the repercussions of animals and animality. How we understand animality ain't just all about the critters. It impacts all of our ideas about how human beings work, how our society works.

  • Stacy Alaimo

    Rather than continuing to pose nature/culture dualisms that closet queer animals as well as animal cultures, and rather than attempting to locate the truth of human sexuality within the already written book of nature, we can think of queer desire as part of an emergent universe of a multitude of naturecultures.

    Gay animals? It's true—think of everyone's favorite literal lovebirds, the gay penguin daddies of the Kent Zoo. We double dog dare you not to "Awww" out loud when you check out that link.

    In fact there's a huge, encyclopedia-like book by a scientist titled Biological Exuberance that chronicles same-sex romantic and sexual activity in a bunch of species. In the fantastic article that this quote comes from, Alaimo puts these phenomena in context of both science and culture.

    Let's back up a minute—this word, "naturecultures" – what is that? Did someone leave out a space here? Since when do you get to run two wordstogether? Turns out this word comes from another of our theorists, Donna Haraway. "Naturecultures" is a useful term because it reinforces the idea that we can never think nature and culture apart. They are always together, like two sides of the same sheet of paper—tough to separate you know?

    That's what Alaimo is talking about when she talks about nature/culture dualisms in the first sentence above, and this idea that we should think of queer animals not in any particular way but as part of a plural, big world in which lots of things can happen—things we never expected, or things that seem to go against a lot of people's preconceived ideas.

  • Susan McHugh

    How do animal agents appear in literature, and with what material effects on the worlds around them?

    This quote is a nice summary of a lot of the questions we've been asking so far, especially as far as animals fit into literary studies. Note that McHugh uses the term "animal agents"—she's talking not just about animals, but animals that have agency—that do things. Almost all contemporary cultural animal theorists would agree to some version of this idea that animals do in fact have agency.

    Let's break this quote down a little more. It's simple, but not simplistic. Animals "appear" in literature in certain ways, and one productive way to begin reading texts for their animal traces (let's say animal tracks) is by asking questions about their way of appearing—are they part of the setting? Do they play lead roles (i.e. Black Beauty)? Are they in the background like supporting actors (i.e., the horses in a Jane Austen novel)? The answers to these questions matter both to how we read literature and to how we conceive of animals' place in the world.

    So we can imagine asking questions about how they appear in texts, and then as McHugh points out, about what effects they have on the worlds around them. In H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, for instance, the hybrid animal-human critters that the evil doctor creates have a profound effect on the ecology of the island and on their (doomed) human companions. That's a huge effect.

    In Wuthering Heights, the effect the animals have on the world around them is much less pronounced, but nonetheless still present.

    Animals don't have to have a massive, front-and-center, roll-out-the-red-carpet role in a text for us to be interested in what they do, and what importance their actions have on the plot.

  • Kathy Rudy

    I propose that all animals be placed on a subjective continuum based on our connection with them. This affective connection is constituted by stories we tell about them, by our affection for them and theirs for us, and by the various ways their characters inspire us.

    We're sticking with narrative here. This is a short quote, but there's a lot going on here. A lot of implicit assumptions to unpack.

    Let's start with this "subjective continuum" she talks about—whenever you see or hear the word "continuum" or a related term (scale, ladder, range, etc.) a thought bubble should immediately appear over your head—"Great Chain of Being!"

    That's right, our ancient friend the Great Chain of Being. Remember him? The Great Chain is an ancient but very durable idea that we can rank beings (stones, plants, animals, humans for instance) on a scale. We can place them on a hierarchy: stones at the bottom, Gods at the top. This idea is still very much alive, as we can see with Rudy's "continuum." This is not to discredit her idea—we're always drawing on ideas that the ancients pioneered—but it is helpful to be able to categorize this kind of thinking.

    Okay, so what's this scale based on? "Affective connections"—the emotional, sympathetic, and empathetic connections we form with other animals. Okay, sure, we connect more with some critters (dogs) and less with others (cockroaches). But so what?

    Rudy goes on to say that we can figure out the degree of connection we have with other animals based on the narratives we tell about them, and the ways their characters inspire us. So, this is pretty interesting—Rudy's idea is that we can make sense of human-animal relations in the real world much the like the way that we read and understand narratives and characters in novels.