• August 29, 2015

Creature Consciousness

Animal studies tests the boundary between human and animal—and between academic and advocate


Vincent Musi, Aurora Photos

Critics of zoos usually compare them to prisons. Ralph R. Acampora, an associate professor of philosophy at Hofstra University, thinks zoo confinement is closer to pornography. "Both participants in pornography and inhabitants of zoos are slaves to other people's desire for viewing, for sight," he explains. All "have their real nature concealed through their exposure," with zoo animals "reduced to their shapes or colors or stereotypical behaviors."

Acampora's line of thought blends theoretical inquiry with strongly held ethical concerns about how we humans interact with nonhuman animals. He and other philosophers devoted to applied ethics—traditionally a marginalized enterprise, at least in American philosophy departments—are part of a growing number of humanities and social-science scholars involved in the field of animal studies. Bringing together many different species of academic research, animal studies has become a force to be reckoned with in philosophy, literary and cultural studies, history, and other fields with a traditionally humanistic bent.

"All too human": For these scholars, the phrase sums up the limitations of their disciplines. Why, they ask, should it be all about us, when we are only one link in the great chain of being? "Humans are animals, too, and a lot of our existence is shaped by our evolutionary history, our biology, our circadian rhythms, the very narrow climate bandwidth in which we flourish," says Cary Wolfe, a professor of English at Rice University and one of the leading theorists in animal studies.

Spurred on by a shift in consciousness that has been going on for several decades, beginning with the environmental and social-justice movements of the 1960s and 70s, scholars like Wolfe and Acampora are finding new ways to tackle "the question of the animal"—or, more accurately, the flock of questions that circle around the term "animal." These scholars want to break down the categories and distinctions that have defined how we think about our relationship to everything that is not us. Some of them see it as nothing less than a revolution in how to think and how to live.

"What you have is a whole new set of theoretical paradigms that cut across what were previously separate and discrete ontological domains," Wolfe says. "The question is, How does the nature of thought itself have to change? How does the nature of reading have to change in the face of this new object of study?"

Taken far enough, animal studies demolishes what Wolfe calls "the fundamental mechanism of humanism": the insistence on putting the human subject at the center of things. Humans' pride of place is reinforced by the separation of "human" and "animal" into separate, even opposed, categories. That model has prevailed, at least in the West, since the Enlightenment.

Dismantling that model takes animal-studies scholars in different directions depending on their home disciplines and the mix of theory and advocacy that they bring to their work. For historians and sociologists, it might mean investigating the roles assigned to animals in 19th-century Britain, for instance, or the use of canines as forced labor in today's dogfighting rings. For scholars with literary, cultural-studies, or philosophy pedigrees, animal-studies work clusters around questions of category and subjectivity—how to move beyond the anthropocentric outlook and anthropomorphizing tendencies of humanism in theory and in practice. Environmentalists and legal scholars have their own ecological or ethical or jurisprudential agendas focused on animals. (For scientists, of course, the phrase "animal studies" usually invokes laboratory experiments involving animals.) If there's one thread that ties together practitioners of animal studies, it's that the old ways of thinking about humans and (other) animals must be discarded or transcended.

Some animal-focused scholars in the humanities and social sciences describe what they do as "human-animal studies," but that term preserves the idea of a divide between "us" (humans) and "them" (all other beings). One school of thought considers animal studies a subset of posthumanism, a movement associated with Donna Haraway's 1985 essay, "A Cyborg Manifesto," which used the metaphor of the human-machine hybrid to push feminism away from its reliance on essentialist arguments.

From a posthumanist perspective, there's no reason that the questions raised by animal studies "have to be limited to carbon-based life forms," says Wolfe, whose forthcoming book, What Is Posthumanism? (University of Minnesota Press, December), explores what might be achieved by rejecting such "classic humanist divisions of self and other, mind and body, society and nature, human and animal, organic and technological," according to the publisher's description.

The book is part of the Posthumanities series Wolfe edits for the University of Minnesota Press, which in 2007 published Haraway's book When Species Meet. (Read an interview with Haraway, Page B12.)

Such boundary crossing is characteristic of animal studies. Many of its scholars, especially in philosophy and literary and cultural studies, feel a debt to Jacques Derrida. The French philosopher's essay "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)" is "arguably the single most important event in the brief history of animal studies," Wolfe wrote in a 2009 article for the journal PMLA. In the essay, Derrida writes: "There is no animal in the general singular, separated from man by a single indivisible limit. We have to envisage the existence of 'living creatures' whose plurality cannot be assembled within the single figure of an animality that is simply opposed to humanity." (Based on lectures given by Derrida in France in 1997, the article appeared in Critical Inquiry in 2002, translated by David Wills, who has also contributed a book, Dorsality, to Wolfe's Posthumanities series.)

Derrida's work "has almost single-handedly made the question interesting for people in lots of disciplines," says Matthew Calarco, an assistant professor of philosophy at California State University at Fullerton and the author of Zoographies: The Question of the Animal From Heidegger to Derrida (Columbia University Press, 2008).

Animal studies holds a special appeal for philosophers, like Calarco, who want to pursue ethics. Even with Derrida in his corner, a philosopher with an ethical bent begins at a professional disadvantage. "In the United States, the most powerful departments with the most prestige focus on M&E—metaphysics and epistemology," says Calarco. Subfields of applied ethics such as animal ethics or environmental ethics are considered minor subspecialties, he says. "If you want to write about anything hands-on, it's just considered weak."

So a philosopher like Calarco often looks to scholars in other fields as interlocutors. "If you're going in the animal direction, there's been a rich set of conversations going on throughout the humanities," he says. "Sociology, anthropology, comparative literature, religious studies—those are the ones where I see the most overlap."

Even in philosophy, though, the climate for such investigations is warming. Calarco has noted a new tendency within both the analytic and the Continental traditions, the two big strands of the field, "to start questioning a certain anthropocentric bias." In the past five or six years, for instance, people including Graham Harman, a professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo, and Ray Brassier, a professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut, have gotten interested in object-oriented philosophy and what Calarco calls object-object relationships. Harman, for instance, is engaged in what is sometimes referred to as speculative realism. In his book Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press, 2009), he writes that he "would even propose a new philosophical discipline called 'speculative psychology' devoted to ferreting out the specific psychic reality of earthworms, dust, armies, chalk, and stone." Such thinking (or rethinking) is congenial to animal-studies scholars who want to break apart the idea of the human subject as the center of things.

Thinkers on both the analytic and Continental sides "are beginning to say that this primacy we give to the human-mind relationship to the world needs to be displaced," Calarco says. "There's a kind of implicit anthropomorphism that dominates philosophy, and that is being attacked from different angles."

For Hofstra's Ralph Acampora, the goal is "trying to build a bigger sense of 'we.'" Instead of anthropomorphizing animals, he wants "to zoomorphize humans." He's interested in "a philosophy of body, what it means to be the sort of creature that's vulnerable to sickness and disease and death." Thinking about how we share such fundamental circumstances with other animals, Acampora says, is "where people's moral intuitions kick in."

Acampora is the author of Corporal Compassion: Animal Ethics and Philosophy of Body (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), and he has edited a collection of essays, Zootopian Visions of Animal Encounter: Farewell to Noah (Lexington Books, forthcoming in 2010), which focuses on the issues that zoos raise.

Like many scholars who feel the pull of animal studies, Acampora sees it as a way to combine an interest in theoretical questions with personal principles about how to live. As a child, he recalls, he grew up with many animals in the house. In college, he became involved in animal-rights advocacy. That intensified during his time as a graduate student at Emory University, where he protested research on primates. He helped organize a national animal-rights march on Washington in 1990.

"A good portion of animal studies does have an advocacy background," Acampora says. That can create tensions between scholars who embrace advocacy and those who believe in more dispassionate intellectual inquiry.

Acampora feels comfortable among the advocates. "I no longer feel embarrassed or apologetic about having commitments," he says. "Scholarship is not just concept chess." He says he remains open to opposing arguments but points out that "nobody puts a child psychologist in the doghouse for being a child advocate."

Leaving aside the problem of advocacy, there's no agreement on how to approach "the animal question" intellectually, either. For a scholar like Harriet Ritvo, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, animal studies means different things to different disciplines.

"There really is a difference between the way historians tend to approach this kind of topic and the way people in literary and cultural studies and philosophy do," she says. "Animal studies is more in the province of literary-cultural studies. Historians, myself included, participate in it, but we don't own the label in quite the same way."

A philosopher or a cultural-studies scholar might be more inclined to tackle categories: what "the animal" means. "Grouping all animals as one kind of 'other' in a sense reifies the stark division between people and everything else," Ritvo says. "Historians are addicted to particulars." Her book The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Harvard University Press, 1987), was an early example of a historian delving into "the animal question" as it played out in a multitude of ways in a specific time and place.

In the book, Ritvo connects Victorian Britons' concerns about social roles and status to their thinking about animals, including rhetoric about stock-breeding, hunting, the humane treatment of animals, and menageries and zoos. "In each case she demonstrates the ways in which animals produced and reinforced the boundaries between social classes and racial groups," according to a review in the journal Environmental History. Hence the breeding of prize cattle "reinforced the traditional hierarchies of rural society," while anti-cruelty legislation "was used to define and control working- and lower-class behavior," the review said.

That kind of work has really taken off among historians in the last 10 to 15 years, Ritvo says. "When I started writing this kind of thing, people thought it was funny. Now they don't. It has become, in many disciplines, one of a range of subjects that you can take up."

At the curricular level, courses with some kind of animal-studies emphasis are popping up almost everywhere, in law schools and in literature departments. But students cannot yet get a Ph.D. in animal studies.

Michigan State University is edging closer. It has had an animal-studies graduate specialization for about a year now. Linda Kalof, a professor of sociology, founded and directs the program. "We are the first doctoral specialization in animal studies anywhere in the world," she says. "We focus primarily on the question of how animals figure in human lives and how humans figure in animal lives, from a social-science and humanities perspective." The program attracts faculty members and students from beyond those areas, too. Professors from the school of veterinary medicine and from the law school take part, as do students from zoology and animal science as well as sociology, anthropology, and American studies.

From the outset, Kalof wanted the program to include a range of disciplines and politics. The toughest part, she says, was convincing people from the agricultural school that the program wasn't all about animal-rights advocacy.

"We have all ideologies represented," Kalof observes: scholars who support experimentation on animals and those who lobby against it, for instance. "We advocate all views because we think that conversation needs to be held in an intellectual environment and not on the blogs of particular individuals railing against PETA or against factory farming."

That leads to some complex conversations in the classroom. One of Kalof's research topics is the exploitation of dogs as labor—in dogfighting rings, for instance. But she remembers one student who grew up around cockfighting in Mexico and who was able to give his classmates a sense of a cultural tradition that supports such uses of animals.

Kalof may have succeeded in achieving a balance among advocacy and other perspectives in her program, but she thinks that any attempt to define animal studies more formally—through a scholarly society, for instance—runs the risk of excluding those who are not animal advocates. "I would very much like to see a professional society that is truly interdisciplinary and would not exclude folks on ideological preferences or eating preferences," she says. "The advocacy component may be the very thing that ghettoizes animal studies in the end."

Special sections or program committees within scholarly societies have been one means by which animal studies has been developing as a discipline. The American Sociological Association, for instance, has an Animals and Society section, whose mission is "to encourage and support the development of theory, research, and teaching about the complex relationships that exist between humans and other animals." Here, too, one hears a note of advocacy: "In the process, it is anticipated that the light we shed on these issues will increase the well-being of both humans and other animals."

As animals studies draws more scholars, the question of where to house it—what kind of institutional presence it ought to have—becomes more pressing. Measured by research activity, including book series and journals that explore human-nonhuman interactions from different angles, animal studies "is doing quite well," says Kenneth Shapiro, editor of the journal Society and Animals, which has been published since the early 1990s. "Where we're not doing so well," he says, is in developing "an institutional structure or an institutional presence for the field." Shapiro is executive director of the Animals and Society Institute, an independent organization whose mission is "advancing the status of animals in public policy and promoting the study of human-animal relationships."

The group has been talking with a handful of universities about setting up a more academic-focused institute where scholars interested in animal studies could find resources and support. Once established, the center "could spawn some kind of professional organization that's a resource for these scholars," says Shapiro.

One of the field's strengths—its truly interdisciplinary nature—is a double-edged sword, institutionally and intellectually. Its appeal relies in part on transcending disciplines, but universities are traditionally organized by discipline.

"Certainly the game would be easier if we were in, say, sociology," Shapiro says. "This is more creative, more challenging. That's what the field is. You could search for one field that would be the best home for it, but you'd lose a great deal." He hopes that animal studies will follow the path to acceptance taken by women's studies and black studies.

Other scholars, though, see risks along that road. "There's a danger of a kind of genericization and a kind of ghettoization," says Cary Wolfe. He would not like to see animal studies become "just another flavor of the month."

Matthew Calarco also believes that the risk of being sidelined is real. In a sense, the field still "doesn't know if it exists," he says. "There certainly are no jobs in it, and there are no full-blown departments." Calarco worries that "there's a general trend for it to become another one of these minority studies. I hate that phrase, but I don't know what else to call it."

The idea of finding a comfortable home within academe does not really fit with the most revolutionary goals of animal studies anyway. Take the "question of the animal" seriously, and "it starts to destabilize traditional boundaries of consideration—who counts and why we think they count," Calarco explains. "When you start thinking along these lines and you push and you push and you push, ethics is going to explode."

Taken far enough, animal studies ultimately points to "a revision of our most basic social institutions and our most fundamental intellectual assumptions," Calarco says. "There are no guideposts. You're on very experimental terrain."n

Jennifer Howard is a staff reporter for The Chronicle.


1. 11159995 - October 19, 2009 at 12:21 pm

To have an entire article written about animal studies without mentioning the name of Peter Singer boggles the mind. With all due respect to Jacques Derrida, it is not his 1997 essay that is "the single most important event in the brief history of animal studies." Surely, it is Singer's book "Animal Liberation" (1975) that deserves that place of honor. It is that rarity among books written by philosophers that have actually had a major impact on real-world politics, with its being recognized as the inspiration for the animal liberation movement. It was Singer's questioning of "speciesism" that really got the discussion of artifical boundaries between humans and animals going in a serious way, and his influence on the growth of bioethics and applied philosophy has been enormous. Her also teaches at a major university with one of the nation's leading philosophy departments (Princeton), a fact that might call into question the claim that this subject is not given serious attention in the "most powerful" departments. I suspect Prof. Acampora would not have been involved with animal-rights advocacy and the march in 1990 had it not been for the work of Peter Singer.---Sandy Thatcher, Penn State University Press

2. latino - October 19, 2009 at 01:09 pm

We animals confront each other in term of power. The extensions of our “human” actions are our machineries and our way of expressing "us" in front of "them" -that includes eating or manipulating them for the sake of “us.” So, frankly, the whole “human” narrative, including academicism, seems just a justification or our existence. Rejection of this existence requires all-including actions in our daily life that would mean a very close inquiry of our own environment as well as the understanding of its narratives. In the practical way, understanding this could lead, for example, to reduce the number of roadkill creatures, or to think why this little mouse should be dissected in this way.

3. jesor - October 19, 2009 at 01:53 pm

I find the prediction of implications for the field of ethics to be somewhat confusing. If the boundary between "animal" and "human" is to be eliminated (as appears to be a basic tenent of current animal theory), then ultimately, shouldn't a universal ethic apply to all living creatures? If so, what is the ethical difference between say a lobster in a tank at a restaraunt and a fly trapped in a spider's web? Do we murder each time a white blood cell destroys a bacteria in our bodies? What about the wholesale removal of the genitalia of Asparagus plants?
Do sentience and consciousness play a role in the ethical obligations of a species? Can a rabbit kill its young and not be ethically impacted, but the same not apply to a human due to differing levels of consciousness?
Ultimately though, my question is, what will the impact of this field be on society? Will it actually increase our knowledge of the world, or will it simply be another exercise in paying highly educated people to determine how many angels (or in this case protozoa) can dance on the head of a pin?

4. pturner - October 19, 2009 at 02:14 pm

It is refreshing to see an article like this appear in the Chronicle. The question of advocacy vs. objectivity is one that I've been contemplating recently, especially as it bears on administrative approval and curricular decisions. As someone who is interested in incorporating articles written from a more animal-inclusive perspective in my writing classes, I sometimes wonder if it's going to be viewed by the administrative powers that be as somehow pushing forward some agenda, and the ready-to-go response I have in the event I get called to task is that the majority of the topics that currently populate our writing texts (e.g., feminism, the environment) were once considered as pushing forward someone's agenda, as well. I've decided to stop treating animal-inclusive topics as off-limits. Acampora's comment - no one puts the child psychologist in the doghouse for being a child advocate - is right on. As long as advocacy is accompanied by a healthy engagement in scholarly inquiry, there is nothing wrong with it. That has been the stance academia's historically taken on a number of topics - why should animal-inclusive studies be any different?

5. _perplexed_ - October 19, 2009 at 03:15 pm

If one is going to make or endorse the comparison of child to animal advocacy, I would expect some attempt to describe why none of the apparent differences between children and animals matter in the particular context under consideration. That said, child psycholgists typically do distinguish between advocacy and inquiry, and wind up in the doghouse when they fail to do so.

6. hopeful_buffalo - October 19, 2009 at 03:32 pm

Perhaps the one question that should be asked about human behavior is, "Why do humans feel they have a right to disregard moral behavior to towards any living being?" or "Why do humans think that animals cannot suffer because they are animals?"

7. simple123456 - October 19, 2009 at 04:07 pm

As an educator, I'm not at all sure that the notion of introducing animal studies to curricula involves or even implies a disregard of apparent differences between children and animals.
As for distinguishing between advocacy and inquiry, the complex intermingling of these in some fields, in my experience, results in their being rarely, if ever, teased apart; in many fields, they are one and the same. That said, as animal studies as a field develops, it would appear that its tendency to be self-reflective with regard to the boundaries between advocacy and inquiry is one of its strengths.

8. racampora - October 19, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Sandy Thatcher (comment #1) is right to reassert the enormous contribution of Peter Singer. Three caveats, however: 1) Singer's success is not representative of status for (esp. applied) ethics generally in the field of philosophy; 2) it's Cary Wolfe and Matt Calarco who lionize Derrida, not me (or the Chronicle's reporter); 3) in point of actual fact, in joining/organizing the first major animal advocacy march in DC in 1990, the philosophic and personal influence of Tom Regan motivated me more than Singer (who was removed at a greater ideological, not to mention geographic, distance).
--Ralph Acampora, New York

9. racampora - October 20, 2009 at 08:22 am

Commenter #5 seems perplexed by the analogy between animal and child advocacy. The relevant similarity is, of course, that of speaking up/out for relatively voiceless constituencies. Most of the "apparent differences" are actually irrelevant; the burden of proof for citing ones that might matter in context is on critics, not the analogy maker or user.
--R. Acampora, NYC

10. tridaddy - October 20, 2009 at 09:28 am

It will be truly interesting to see if any of the "thought experts" in this area can live out their beliefs to their logical ends. I suspect they cannot simply because of the overwhelming despair that results.

11. _perplexed_ - October 20, 2009 at 11:39 am

Mr. Acampora, the applicability "consitituency" (see #9 above) is what is at issue-- the burden of proof that this is indeed relevant is on me somehow?

12. laoshi - October 20, 2009 at 11:42 am

Derrida? I supppose his pages can be used to wrap up pieces of tasty meat for the freezer, but hardly to read whilst at the butcher shop or on a hunting trip.

Animals are not people. Period. There is no need to study this obvious boundary.

13. aldebaran - October 20, 2009 at 01:09 pm

While any questioning of humanism and anthropocentrism is most welcome, it is not a promising sign that academics are laying their dead hands on this subject.

Serious scientific research on this topic is one thing, but academics in the humanities who specialize in "theory", and who brandish the blather of Derrida before them, like palm-wavers announcing the advent of the Messiah, should take their eternal quest for tenure folder material elsewhere.

14. thomaswaite - October 20, 2009 at 01:13 pm

Good Lord people and loashi -- thank God for you -- you are right time and effort studying this boundry is like pouring money and time into the study of how a child can drown by sticking their head in a bucket of water -- to say nothing of hungry children, little and diminishing respect for life, our failure to create more energy versus turning lights off and doing away with our future for Al-I am not and never will be a scholar-Gore, racing to socialism, an end to teaching United States history and now this. Time to leave higher ed and go open a donut store. Thomas Jefferson would be so proud of all of us -- not! Oh and make that a "green" donut store so no one is offended by the killing of innocent sugar.

15. racampora - October 20, 2009 at 09:58 pm

Following up on Perplexed #11: even if one wishes to reserve the term "constituency" for reference to a voting public, the underlying rationale of the analogy at stake remains sound -- because neither children nor animals vote, and yet both have welfare interests that can and should be represented and promoted. No?

16. richardtwine - October 31, 2009 at 02:20 pm

I think we should forgive the article author for omitting Singer. Regan and Francione were also omitted. However a little more research would have revealed an academic organization for animal studies that, contra Kalof, stresses advocacy-scholarly links. This is the Institute for Crtical Animal Studies (ICAS).

17. rwmitchell - November 27, 2009 at 10:47 am

Animal Studies includes a diversity of disciplines, not just the humanities. It is important that we not split the knowledge of animals that has been gained in science and applied areas from that gained in the humanities. Through a coalition of faculty in diverse departments at Eastern Kentucky University, we have been developing an undergraduate Animal Studies major that includes courses in sciences, humanities, and applied areas (e.g., agriculture, conservation). We are hoping that this major will appear in Fall 2010. So far faculty at all levels have shown support and interest. We hope this interdisciplinary major will create possibilities for interdisciplinary research, as well as support the engaging conversations that, as Linda Kalof notes, emerge when all ideologies are represented.

18. resource - December 22, 2009 at 03:01 pm

Is it possible for humans to NOT view the world through their cognitive structures and perceptive equipment, both physical and mental? Seems unlikely, and how would we know if we ever werent?

Seems like it reduces to belief systems -- whether one accepts that humans have dominion over the earth or not. Of course, there are cultures that give non-human creatures full equality in spirit and even cognition -- but that doesnt stop members of these cultures from killing and eating their animal peers.

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