Wednesday, January 09, 2008


The “H” listservs (H standing for Humanities) are a group of respected ways for people of specific disciplines to communicate informally. They have become increasingly important as journals and conferences seem to proliferate at the same time than they decompose. One of the new ones is H-Animal, where I have already come a cropper -- partly out of overdone bravado at finishing my dog-catcher book and familiarity with some of the people involved which led me to be what was called “snarky” and partly because I am “outside the box,” therefore not academic.

Here’s their formal declaration: “H-Animal aims to serve as an on-line home for the growing number of scholars across disciplines who are engaged on the study of animals in human culture. H-Animal welcomes scholars from across the humanistic and social science disciplines -- historians, sociologists, literary and film scholars, anthropologists, philosophers, geographers, and so on. Because scholars who study animals as parts of human culture are scattered across disciplines, H-Animal aims to be both an intellectual forum and a clearinghouse of information. Its discussion list serves as a place to post CFPs, bibliography and research questions, and initiate broader discussion. It's [sic] book reviews and journal round-ups help keep scholars abreast of new writing about animals. The network's home page, meanwhile, provides links to teaching syllabi and other scholarly resources.”

In what way am I out of this box? The academic world exists through institutions and precedents. I understand that institutions exist to create structure, certification, and continuity. I’m clearly no longer part of a formal institution.

I grow increasingly impatient with precedent, which is also very much a part of “law” as we do it in this country, because law and universities have been linked since the first colleges in the country, founded to prepare lawyers, doctors and clergy. As I’ve remarked before, these are the “gentry” of a democracy, not privileged by land ownership, inherited, but privileged by “learning,” the mastery of a body of knowledge meant to effectively maintain order. Each new generation of scholars learns what the previous one knew, assuming always it was THE knowledge, eternal and unchanging. That’s where the train went off the tracks.

The world changes. We don’t just learn more, we come upon new knowledge that completely overthrows what we thought we knew. Academics have a very hard time with this, because then who is certified to teach the new knowledge? How do we keep from tipping into chaos? Sometimes we just don’t. We go ahead and tip as we did in the Seventies. Or more likely, the forces that had been dissenting take the occasion to revolt and seize the helm, as slightly after the Seventies. Some have better reason to do so and better evidence for their arguments than others.

What I see in animal studies is pretty much stuck and scattered, and I assume that’s the reason for this list, although the forces that want order and predictability are coming up against old renegades like me who are looking at the world in quite a different way, one that can be interpreted as vulgar and non-academic. My view comes from living on a reservation for a long time and from being an animal control officer. I've been recommending a dazzling video made by a Blackfeet grad student in Missoula: I also recommend an account of dogs in Nepal as posted at These “essays” appreciate dogs that have their own lives, moving in and out of human orbits to suit their own purposes.

Many Animal Studies people seem to be thinking that people are indispensable to animals, one way or another, in deliberate ways. That’s why they call it Animals in Society. There are no biologists or natural history people mentioned in the description: no representation of what the animals think and do. But maybe the animals themselves only think of humans as a convenience. Or maybe a nuisance. And a lot of animals aren’t in human culture at all, except that they ingest industrial poisons and suffer displacement. First the breast milk of polar bears begins to contain pesticides -- then their ice melts. What we do to ourselves, also happens to them. What we do to them, also happens to us. Boria Sax of H-NILAS (Nature in Legend and Story) would rightly say animals are indispensable in tales and dreams. But as we become ever more urban we have less and less actual physical experience of animals. All we know are pets and icons.

I’ve been reading about species genomes (the close relationship between the dog genome and the human genome, for instance) and mammal brain anatomy. Evolutionary evidence is fine stuff and I love fossils, theories and imagining back to the very first ocean one-celled animals. I love the reaching out across the cosmos to the black holes and the star nurseries. But that’s not the same thing as realizing that WE are animals, that our lives are woven into the lives of animals, that viruses and larger parasites constantly move through us (see the recent NYTimes article called “Tiny Specks of Misery, Both Vile and Useful”). Our companions bring both minor and culture-changing effects. We ARE animals, we are ANIMALS, we contain reptile/mammal/primate to say nothing of billions of tiny symbionts.

Most people (not just list people) think without reflection that the rest of the world is just like them, but to be in another place is to be in another culture which might not share the same assumptions at all. We are not all grad students or professors in university towns but thinking can go on in other places. Whole swaths of “animals in society” are invisible from the ivory tower enterprise of finding an ideal “way” of treating all animals, very like the religious enterprise of finding an idea “way” of relating to other people, which lately seems to be universally botched.

People have had a hard time dealing with the idea that humans are just big talented animals with very little to distinguish them from the rest of living creatures. The one aspect some have grabbed onto as a sign of superiority is a kind of co-dependence on animals, the idea that only THEY can relieve animal suffering and really understand them. They have a child's inability to come to terms with the whole problem of suffering in general, that it is inevitable. Even anesthetics cause damage. Maybe to some extent focusing on cruelty to animals keeps these people from thinking about human suffering, which Christians of some kinds believe is imposed as deserved punishment anyway. Others see it as something like a sacrifice that can be “offered up.” And Asians have alway recommended detachment, not possible for scholars -- or is it?

On the H-Animal list the comparison is explicitly made to scholars of the “other” humans: the black, the female, the Native American, the queer, the handicapped, etc. This is the track that many scholars have been on since the Seventies: reversals and challenges to what was once the status quo of social power. By now the dynamics of change have made a difference but those young revolutionaries are now in power and see no need to change. It has become a dogma in a pun-like literal way: “underdogs” must be cherished and saved. But university management have moved on -- these departments are closing.

So far no one has talked about the incredibly challenging information arriving from genetic research -- the plain fact that all life is continuous, connected, interwoven, symbiotic, conjoined and that the slightest change in the helical 4-molecule formula can create a whole new animal. The evolution of life from the slime level is never referenced. The terrifying prospects of extinction aren't mentioned -- just sadness at loss species-by-species like objects missing from the cupboard. (Surely someone has written about the relationship between animals and the “cabinet of curiosities?”) There is no notice that we, as complex high-on-the-food-chain animals, will probably be extinguished rather early. It may have already started with the march of malaria northward and subtle poisons creating autoimmune and diabetic disease, small but deadly molecular ecologies gone awry. There's been no talk about zoonoses like AIDS changing our civilization, a way of remote places defend themselves that we have ignored.

Maybe the grad students who initiated H-Animal are using university as a place to hide. How’s THAT for snarky?


cg said...

Hello Mary, I came across this really interesting and perceptive post on animal studies. I am the Associate Editor of the Journal for Critical Animal Studies and am going to be linking this blog entry to our

Please feel free to join that discussion group if you wish, as we would like to see more of you.
Also please see our website about our organzation and journal, you might be interested in contributing an essay. Please feel free to email me at or at

I look forward to hearing from you.

cg said...

Please see our site.
Institute of Critical Animal Studies

Chas S. Clifton said...

And to think that is is the academics who use "transgressive" as a positive term.

Perhaps some animals are permitted to be more transgressive than others.