Compiled by Gabriel N. Rosenberg
Animal Studies queries the relationship between nonhuman animals (or “animals”) and human social orders. It is an interdisciplinary field, encompassing scholarship from across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences and emerging primarily in the past three decades. Drawing generalizations about such a diverse body of scholarship can be tricky, but three related commitments are shared, to varying degrees, by most scholars who actively publish in animal studies. Broadly, all three commitments should be understood as a critical response to speciesist assumptions embedded in the Western humanist tradition.
First, rather than taking the boundaries between and among humans and other animals as pre-political or biological givens, the field emphasizes the ways in which speciative difference is socially constructed, contingent, and connected to hierarchy and power. Who or what counts as an animal, how species are distinguished, the meaning ascribed to those designations, and the taxonomies that organize relationships among different forms of life — animal studies interprets all of these as deeply political and inadequately resolved by appeals to biological difference or nature. Second, Animal Studies complicates human exceptionalism in the conceptualization and narration of the social field. It encourages scholars to consider nonhuman animals as agentive subjects of the world around us and not merely passive objects of human science, economy, and politics: animals do things in the world, and what they do matters. Indeed, it holds that accounts of human societies that neglect nonhuman actors will be fundamentally damaged and incomplete. Third, not only does Animal Studies contend that animals play an important role in the social field, it also contends that there can be ethical and political advantages to trying to understand the world without privileging human language, perception, and thought. Inquiry into nonhuman lifeways may not only be important from an explanatory perspective (as the second commitment suggests); it may also yield valuable normative insights and disclose radical ways of being in the world.
All three of these commitments owe, in no small part, to the historical connections between Animal Studies and the activist project of animal liberation. Emerging alongside and within radical environmental activism since the 1970s, animal liberation seeks to undercut and reverse what it identifies as the systemic oppression and exploitation of animals by humans. Many scholars publishing within Animal Studies understand their work, implicitly and explicitly, to be connected to this project and, indeed, the pioneering work of philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan continue to play an important role in some of the scholarship. Scholars have developed sophisticated accounts of how the oppression of animals relates to other forms of oppression on the basis of race, religion, class, gender, and sexuality. Beginning in the late 1980s, scholars working on animals also began to draw critical insights from post-humanist and biopolitical theory and, as a result, the works of philosophers Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben have been particularly influential on the recent trajectory of the field.
Some of this work has proceeded by means of what I call an “analogic frame.” Scholars use the human/animal difference to frame what they consider parallel differences such as man/woman and white/black that similarly structure axes of oppression. This approach has frequently argued that, because of the centrality of dehumanization to both, speciesism is fundamental to racism and sexism. The analogic frame sometimes optimistically contends that, by opposing the human exploitation of animals, one can also oppose racism and sexism (and vice versa) and, similarly, to oppose racism and sexism one must also commit to ending the systematic exploitation of animals by humans. This analogic frame invokes through comparison events of mass dehumanization and violence, such as the Holocaust and slavery, to make sense of systemic violence directed at animals. These invocations have, in turn, drawn criticism from scholars of both the Holocaust and slavery and, more broadly, from scholars within critical race and feminist theory, all of whom caution against conflating different forms of oppression and neglecting the degree to which the category of the human has never been accessible to all humans. Following this line of criticism, I offer a bibliography drawn from works, both foundational and cutting edge, that resist the temptation of analogy and, instead, work to unravel speciative difference without reducing it to other forms of difference and the analogic frame.
The Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll was a pioneering figure in the field of biosemiotics, which, in turn, influenced cybernetics and systems theory. His most influential academic work is a highly technical text called Theoretical Biology (1926), but he wrote Foray (1934) for a general audience to encourage nature appreciation. The result is a text that is readable, charming, and elegant, and, at once, a magnificent illustration of how to decenter human cognition and sensory perception in ecological and systems analyses. For Uexküll, living entities are fundamentally defined by how they receive signals from their surroundings and how they affect those surroundings in response. As a result, Uexküll argues that the world (Umwelt) of any given entity is dependent upon the feedback loops formed between sensory and processing capacities (Merkorgan) and the organism’s capacities to change its surroundings (Werkorgan). Things we take as the universal baseboards of reality–how we experience time, space, and causality, for example–are actually specifically tied to our own perceptions and effects, our human Umgebung, and are not an objective account of a single reality. Uexküll contends that to appreciate and study nature is to attempt to reconstruct the Umwelt of other beings, and he does so in the book through imaginative engagements with dozens of creatures (most famously, through an introductory, mesmerizing analysis of the Umwelt of the tick). As foundational as these insights have been to cybernetics, they also disclose the intellectual challenges–and joys–of thinking with radical alterity, a defining task of Animal Studies.
“A Manifesto for Cyborgs” put Donna Haraway on the map as a social theorist and cultural critic. It originally appeared in the pages of Socialist Review, a periodical then known for its staid, Trotskyite Marxism. Haraway positions herself against social forms, epistemology, and ontology based on purity and narratives of a return to a prelapsarian state of grace, a tendency Haraway identifies in the Marxist fetish of the “authentic worker” and the essentialist feminist fetish of “universal woman.” Such purity politics, in Haraway’s account, are based on structuring dyads that contemporary capitalism has rendered obsolete: human/animal; animal/machine; and physical/non-physical. Rather than basing politics on shoring up of these dyads, Haraway urges us to embrace the mess and, instead, to make radical forms heterogeneity–the animal and machine that we already are–the basis of solidarity and political formation. The blazing text inspired a generation of Animal Studies scholars, many trained by Haraway herself, to consider animals less as representative of a pristine nature in need of saving, and more as complex, lusty, and agentive entities who might yet save us. Haraway developed these ideas more explicitly in later works such as Primate Visions (1989), When Species Meet (2007), and Staying With the Trouble (2016), but she laid the groundwork in “Manifesto” and it remains a thrilling and mind-bending read.
Most scholars of Animal Studies would benefit from closely studying the work of Sylvia Wynter. This is not because Wynter is necessarily “doing” Animal Studies, but, instead, because Wynter offers a critical theory of species more analytically robust than the “great theorists” of Animal Studies, Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. Wynter is a poet, playwright, and social theorist who, over the course of fifty years of essay writing, articulated “the Human Project.” The Human Project is a critical renarration of the last thousand years of history that places the “genre of Man” at the center of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. By “genre of man,” Wynter means the history of white Europeans appointing their own ways of being in the world, including their aesthetic, political, and ethical sensibilities, as the most completely human, a judgment which established other ways of being as subhuman. Wynter’s theoretical stakes are huge. Like C. L. R. James and contra Marx, she argues that the roots of capitalism are in colonial exploitation and the middle passage, not the European agrarian transition. Contra Foucault, she argues that disciplinary technologies were perfected, not in the European workhouse, but on the New World plantation. Underwriting all of this, she offers accounts of speciative taxonomy and hierarchy that are imbricated with colonialism and slavery. Because her corpus is vast, it can be hard to know where to start. Several of her essays are excellent places to dive in, but beginners may also benefit from the additional context provided by Sylvia Wynter (2015). This edited volume features a number of essays engaging, contextualizing, and explicating Wynter’s work, as well as a fantastic conversation between Wynter and the volume’s editor, the Black Studies and feminist theory scholar, Katherine McKittrick.
Eva Hayward writes about strange Strangers and other Others–octopi and spiders, to name just a few–that are far from the cuddly charismatic megafauna you see in PETA ads. Strange and alien creatures provide a counter-intuitive but extremely productive angle of entry for Hayward’s thinking on sex, embodiment, perception, desire, and subjectivity. Hayward generates exciting work that traverses (and confounds the boundaries among) animal studies, science studies, queer theory, transgender studies, and disability studies. “More Lessons from a Starfish” (2008) uses Anthony and the Johnsons’ 1998 track, “The Cripple and the Starfish” to launch a meditation on both the reproductive and healing capacities of starfish and transfeminine “bottom surgery” (such as penile inversion vaginoplasty). Hayward writes against interpretations of “bottom surgery” as injury and internalized self-hatred, and argues instead that it should be understood as fleshly, generative refolding and becoming. Hayward’s point of navigation is the asexual reproduction of starfishes in which the lost limb becomes the basis of a new starfish. But rather than collapsing this detail into an analogic frame–the starfish’s missing limb is metaphor for the human penis–Hayward explores a metonymic analysis: humans are not like starfish; they are starfish and starfish them; there is no “starfish flesh” and “human flesh”; only flesh arranged in difference. In this work and others, Hayward rejects the comforting speciative boundaries shored up by analogic comparison in favor of a far more challenging and fruitful approach to confront the aesthetic, ethical, and political possibilities of reckoning with the generative, liveliness of flesh.
Multispecies ethnography has been a hot method in Cultural Anthropology and Animal Studies as of late. No one does it with the sophistication and rigor of Juno Parreñas, and her book Decolonizing Extinction (2018) is essential reading for anyone with the ambition to do multispecies ethnography well. It’s also a beautiful and moving book that struggles with the ethical weight of ethnography as a mode of knowledge production. It questions the ethics of biodiversity and conservation from the perspective that saving creatures from extinction cannot be separated from the violent forces of colonialism and capitalism that have driven them to extinction in the first place. This analytic insight emerges from Parreñas’s description of an orangutan rehabilitation facility in Malaysia where she conducted long term ethnographic research. The facility aims to “rehabilitate” orphaned orangutans for release back into a “wild” long devoured by the forces of colonialism and racial capitalism. Those same forces also unleash racial, gendered, and classed violence on all of the creatures in the facility, human and animal alike. For Parreñas, the labor of rehabilitating the orangutan often extends colonialism and racial capitalism, a recognition that spurs a challenging ethical dilemma. What does it mean to no longer think of conservation and biodiversity initiatives as a kind of resuscitation or repopulation, but as hospice? Parreñas’s meditation on these questions is proof of concept for multispecies ethnography, but it also suggests that animal studies will contribute vital insights to rising political and ethical controversies that have too long been dominated by humanist frameworks.
Gabriel N. Rosenberg is the author of The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and is currently writing a book that traces the links between industrial livestock breeding and the human eugenics movement. He is Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies and History at Duke University.