The Purpose of Humanimalia

I. The past twenty-five years have witnessed an extraordinary explosion of interest in human interfaces with non-human animals. The study of human/animal relationships is connected to questions ranging from postcolonial politics (land struggles among Western “animal tourists,” indigenous people in underdeveloped areas, and the endangered species), through philosophy (acknowledging how “the animal” has functioned as the other to “the human,” both historically malleable and politically charged categories), to the study of art and literature (examining how the animal image expresses cultural assumptions). As editors of Humanimalia, we believe there is a need for a journal that brings together scholarship on these questions from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives, and creates opportunities for further exchanges of ideas. We believe also that our knowledge about the intricate relationships among human and non-human animals should not be rigidly restricted to established conventions of scholarly study and polemical argument, conventions that in their exclusive claims to validity have contributed to the objectification of relationships in which human observers are profoundly implicated.. Since the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975 and the beginning of the movement for animal rights, human relationships with animals have become a focus of study in disciplines ranging from archaeology to literary studies, from sociobiology to postcolonial theory. This new attention recognizes that animal/human interfaces have been a neglected area of research, given the ubiquity of animals in human culture and history, and the dramatic change in our material relationships since the rise of agribusiness farming and pharmacological research, genetic experimentation, and the erosion of animal habitats. Our social and legal relationships with animals have become an object of scrutiny through increased animal rights activism, a shift from a discourse of “pets” to one of “companion species,” and the expansion of representations of animals through media, as animals increasingly disappear from our day-to-day experience in the West.

We are interested in research into human/animal interactions from a wide range of perspectives that include the study of material animals and their discursive representations. We welcome ethnographies of human/animal interactions in spaces such as shelters, veterinary hospitals, zoos and laboratories, farms and nature reserves, field work investigations of animal behavior, cultural analyses of how animals are represented in any medium, and philosophical considerations of the category of the animal. We seek papers that combine approaches, or at the very least draw upon research in other disciplines to contextualize their arguments. Our title aims to signify the many ways that humans and animals are connected: as the experience of animals is shaped by human constructions of them, so is our experience of humanity shaped by non-human animals’ constructions of us. Humans and animals have co-evolved, so that neither can be understood discursively or materially without the other. As well, we hope to inspire approaches that recognize that our reflection about animals depends not only on discursive practices, but on observation, co-operation, openness, and compassion with actual beings.

We hope also to encourage new syntheses and fusions, drawing on currents in literary studies and sociology such as Cary Wolfe’s Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory(2003) and Clinton Sanders’ and Arnold Arluke’s Regarding Animals (1996); philosophical investigations, such as those associated with animal rights activism, and the re-examination of the history of philosophy and the category of subjectivity from the point of view of the animal as that which is excluded from the status of the human, a new emphasis influenced largely by Derrida’s “That Animal Which I Therefore Am” (2002) and Giorgio Agamben’s The Open (2004); feminist and postcolonial scholarship that has recognized the importance of the category of the animal for the political oppression of women and non-whites, examined in works such as Carol Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990) and Helen Tiffin’s “Unjust Relations: Animals, the Species Boundary and Post colonialism” (2001); the attention of historians such as Harriet Ritvo, Erica Fudge, and Katherine Grier drawn to shifts in our conceptions of and relations to animals; the work of cultural scholars such as Steve Baker and Akira Lippit, who demonstrate how animals have newly entered the visual arts as they disappear from the material world. We are especially interested in the work of scholars such as Donna Haraway and Noellie Vialles in exploring material relationships to animals in spaces such as the lab, the home, and the slaughterhouse, and the geography that shapes human/animal interactions.

II. In contemporary philosophy and cultural studies, one hears this subject area referred to as “the question of the animal.” There is something disorienting about referring to the historical relationships between human and non-human in this way, for two reasons. First, under the sign of the definite article, it groups all non-human animals in a single class. As Derrida has remarked: “[W]ithin the strict enclosure of this definite article [...] are all the living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbors or his brothers. And that is so despite the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee.” Further, all these living beings appear almost as afterthoughts, a barely perceptible ripple in our routines of life-management, an academic problem we might return to when we have some leisure. On the contrary, one might write a global history entirely from the perspective of human-animal links — in terms both of natural evolution and social “second nature.” Non-human animals have been part of the human project from before the beginning. They have been the links of human society to the rest of creation — on a range from totemism to such central civilizational mediations as the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman’s role in supporting the world. Animals have been the slightly skewed mirror that has allowed aspects of human consciousness and life to appear as if they were somehow outside us, and hence observable and manageable — from animal fables to metaphysical fantasies like The Journey to the West and The Golden Ass. Animals are our “near abroad,” aspects of the world that are the closest to us as a species (itself a vexed and contestable term), yet different enough to embody significant (and hence illuminating) difference.

In our time of mass meat-farming, extinctions, and the dramatic diminution of the presence of animals in human social life and art, we have found ourselves without the companion that we have used from the beginning to think about our place in the universe, to imagine what life and sentience are in the first place. In the contemporary critical climate, post-modern, post-humanist, and indeed post-human, cultural studies and philosophy hinge on concepts of difference among human groups, and differential identity within them. This current necessarily turns every moment of self-reflection into a question about ethical and political responsibility. The tangle of human social difference and identity has become so dense that Cary Wolfe has called the animal/human difference “not just any difference among others; it is, we might say, the most different difference, and therefore the most instructive...” For Wolfe, animals achieve a new, special status because of the advent of post-humanist thought in the West.

One might safely argue at the present moment that cultural studies and theory are engaged in addressing a social, technological, and cultural context that is thoroughly posthuman, if not quite posthumanist, insofar as the “human” is inextricably entwined as never before in material, technological, and informational networks of which it is not the master, and of which it is indeed in some significant (though not yet exhaustive) sense the product.

It is this contemporary technocultural context that has inspired the Humanimalia project. The frequently iterated term post-humanism tends to be used in three distinct kinds of discourse, each of which impinges on our thinking about animals. First is post-humanism in the philosophical sense; that is, reflection that no longer posits the human species as the sovereign agent of the earth, privileged either as a metaphysical or evolutionary preference by its proven intelligence, rationality, technology, or whatever other explanation is provided for its demonstrable ability to shape and overpower other elements in the natural world. In philosophy, religion, and critical science this has led to the project of constructing non-anthropocentric, non-ethnocentric, and non-egocentric models of reality — best known in various forms of post-structuralism and deconstruction, but also neo-Darwinian sociobiology. The second discourse is post-humanism as a vision of technoscientific transcendence, in which the material limits of the human body are surpassed through technological upgrades. This vision is most familiar in the projects to supplement and to replace human beings’ organic functions with more flexible and durable ones based on cybernetic feedback systems like Artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, synthetic versions of depletable organs, etc. Technoscientific posthumanity’s historical agents will no longer be bound by the age-old limits of mortality and chance mutability; they will not only live differently and more fully, they will think, feel, and imagine differently. The third sense of the phrase post-human is drawn from radical environmentalism and animal advocacy. Here the post-human signifies a world liberated from human speciesism, one that exists not to serve human societies, but the reverse. For deep ecologists, Gaians, and other naturalists, post-humanism means dissolving humanity back into a super-organic natural world-system, where it will be one kind of animal on a level with others.

Each of these currents has produced immensely useful ideas, and also less useful ones. In each there is a tendency to stigmatize “the human” — slipping from historically specific “humanism” to hypostatizing the image of the human being or species, much like their humanist antagonists, only now with reversed values. Instead of being the pinnacle of creation, human beings are imagined as demonic usurpers. This confusion about the figure of the human being may be unavoidable, but it creates internal contradictions: notably, the belief that human thinkers can escape from themselves to view the world not only from a non-human perspective, but one entirely liberated from previous historical viewpoints. The history of post-humanisms has been an elaborate conversation about the impossibility of human beings ever transcending the aporias that may, after all, be the most distinctively human things about them. One comes back to Terence’s famous axiom: “nothing human is alien,” with the corollary “nothing alien is not human.”

It is safe to say that technological post-humanists are not interested in animals, including the human one. Their whole point is to transcend the animality of the human condition as classically conceived from Plato through Descartes. Katherine Hayles, in her How We Became Posthuman, provides the definitive critique of cybernetic/machine transcendentalism’s ignorance of the meaning of embodiment— the condition that we share with animals. Post-humanist philosophy has also been largely uninterested in animals, even when it has acknowledged the problem of embodiment for human thinkers. Post-humanist philosophy has been either language/text centered, which excludes animal agency a priori; or it has been profoundly anti-vitalist, dissolving animals along with humans in the contemplation of informational/ communicational structures; or, where it is pro-vitalist, as in Deleuze-Guattari’s nomadism, it exaggerates certain qualities, such as wildness, territoriality, asociality, to the degree that it no longer deals with actual animals in the real world. As for ecocritical anti-humanists, animals have often taken on the role not only of the prime agents for the re-education of human beings to become proper stewards and collaborators in the world, but also privileged victims of evil perpetrated by humanity. The political demands of critique sometimes leave unaddressed how a complex, enlightened green society would involve actual animals.

In her recent book When Species Meet Donna Haraway writes: “I never wanted to be post-human, any more than I wanted to be post-feminist.” We believe that the appreciative study of human/animal relationships does not require the pose that we have achieved a post-human consciousness, or indeed that we reject all the values that past humanisms held worthy. Our interest is in work that values the interlinked qualities of curiosity, complexity, and compassion. These qualities — the basis of scientific cognition as well as affective relation, of modesty and enthusiasm, of respect for difference and for shared joy — we do not assert as exclusively human qualities, but, in their own ways, as constituents of the continuum of animate, sentient life.

We have raised these concerns to get at one of Humanimalia’s distinctive goals, which is to approach animal/human interfaces without relying on stigmatizing critique of philosophical, political, or cultural antagonists — especially to avoid facile constructions of the human and humanism. Derrida muses that acknowledging the philosophical significance of animals would not be a matter of ‘giving speech back’ to them, “but perhaps acceding to a thinking, however fabulous and chimerical it might be, that thinks the absence of the name and the word otherwise, as something other than a privation...” This sort of thinking is not at all fabulous or chimerical for those who do not conceive of meaningfulness and its conditions of possibility exclusively in terms of language and textuality. Meditation traditions have no problem with this lack, and arguably the Buddhist doctrines of anatta and sunyata (selflessness and the plenum-void) demand precisely this understanding of all sentient beings. This openness to not naming, or to seeking the “true name,” leads to exposure — to the experience of observing, to the varieties of categorizing, to the extension of sympathy, and to pleasure in the activity of fiction, of naming without taming.

For this reason, we wish particularly to give space not only to established conventions of scientific and philosophical research, but to modes of attention that have been undervalued in scholarly work in animal/human relations, in which the implicatedness of human participants is actively engaged without receding into reflective infinities on the subject of human consciousness. Two examples, at different ends of the spectrum. One is close observation of animal behaviors in changing habitats of contemporary life, in areas where human activity normally abuts natural environments — the garden, the woods, the hedgerow, the fields, but also the new environments created by development and urban decay. The genre of amateur nature observation, which inspired and evolved into some of the most important field work in biology, has been eclipsed by professional scientific observation, which is perforce guided by specific purposes and ceteris paribus clauses. We believe there is an important place for careful, well-written amateur naturalism that is sensitive to the daily encounters of human and animal agents. At the other end of the spectrum is speculation, careful thought experiments and speculative analogical models. These imaginative practices are best embodied in science fiction. Sf writers as diverse as H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler have imagined radically different ontologico-ethical meetings of species— from Wells’s tragic scenario of animal “uplift” in The Island of Dr. Moreau, Dick’s imagining a world in which animal life is so scarce that even artificial animals make the same demands on human compassion in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Octavia Butler’s medusa-like intelligent alien slugs, the Oankali, who travel the universe splicing new hybrid species by combining their genetic material with those of other intelligent species in her Xenogenesis trilogy.

We cannot ignore that our interfaces with animals occur in great part in, and via, our imaginations. We endorse Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s view that “the imaginative intimacy of human with animal in myth, totem, fable, and fantasy is no less profound in origin or, I think, significant in effect than the forms of kinship indicated by the observations of ethology or the deductions of moral theory.”

A recurring topos among [...] writers is what could be called the ontological thrill of the animal: that is, the sense of a sudden intensification— quickening or thickening— of Being, as experienced, for example, at the sighting of a large bird or animal (hawk, deer, bear, or snake) in the wild. Comparable sensations attend the hunting, and indeed (or especially) killing of animals, as well as riding them, wearing their skins, or consuming them as food, and are also involved as fantasies of coupling with, being, or becoming them. It would not be a simple matter, I think, to disentangle these primitive sensations and animistic identifications from the impulses that constitute our most intellectually subtle and ethically potent intuitions of animals or, thereby, our most reflective and respectful relations with them. (“Animal Relatives, Difficult Relations,” in Smith, Scandalous Knowledge)

Vigilance against ideology should not mean the rejection of all fables and myths. Fiction is not a lie, but play, and many of our relationships with animals can only be imagined through fiction, whose origin may be inextricably bound to our need to mediate our connections with animals. In all, we hope to explore issues as various as matters of authority in animal/human relationships, of diversities (bio-, cerebro-, and cultural), of animal resistance and animal collaboration, animals and aliens, religions’ construction of animals and animal religions, of art by animals and human animal fables, species companionship, biophilic journalism, animal happiness and collaboration, “animation,” the niche, artificial lives and evolutions, inter- and intra-animality, and indeed inter- and intra humanimality in what Haraway names naturecultures. We are guided by the vision that:

once again we are in a knot of species co-creating each other in layers of reciprocating complexity all the way down. Response and respect are possible only in those knots, with actual animals and people looking back at each other, sticky with all their muddled histories. Appreciating the complexity is, of course, invited. But more is required, too. Figuring out what that more might be is the work of situated companion species. It is a question of cosmopolitics, of learning to be “polite,” in responsive relation to always asymmetrical living and dying — and nurturing and killing. (Haraway, When Species Meet)


Sherryl Vint and Istvan Csiscery-Ronay

Salamander King