Hypatia Symposium: Disciplinary Becomings: Horizons of Knowledge in Animal Studies by CARRIE ROHMAN

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title: Disciplinary Becomings: Horizons of Knowledge in Animal Studies


Assistant Professor, dept. of English, Lafayette College

Read the full special issue here

Download a PDF of this Symposium

Recent work in animal studies and animal theory has sometimes coalesced around a kind of “primal scene” in which subjectivities that we call human and animal confront each other, retreat, respond, or otherwise intermingle. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Derrida’s naked-in-front-of-cat scene and, subsequently, Donna Haraway’s insightful reading of its limitations. I have been reminded of both my own scholarly “primal scene”— as a young scholar en route to a career in feminist theory who then turned to the animal—and of the disciplinary “primal scenes” of animal studies itself.1

The present moment in animal studies brings to mind the quite similar disciplinary “disputes” that went on within feminist theoretical circles in the late 1990s. Anyone interested in the way that high theory is regularly coming under suspicion in animal studies right now would do well to revisit the exchange between Susan Gubar and Robyn Wiegman in Critical Inquiry, for example, around the question, “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” (Gubar 1998; Wiegman 1999).

I was a graduate student at Indiana University when Gubar, Wiegman, and Cary Wolfe were all teaching there. Like many of my colleagues in animal studies, I had an ongoing interest in the ethical question of our relationship to nonhuman animals that preceded my scholarly career. That interest emerged roughly alongside my interest in feminist theory and gender studies when I was an undergraduate. As a graduate student, I set out with the intention of working in feminist criticism (and feminist literary criticism), but once I began to see the prominence of animals and animality in modernist literature, my scholarly energies migrated in that direction. At all points, however, I was keenly aware of the way that the feminist critique of the subject, to give one example, allowed for an opening onto similar troublings of the species barrier. Nevertheless, what remains a kind of fascinating and “primal” moment in my own turn from feminist work to species work was Gubar’s deeply suspicious response to my scholarly interest in animals. In one especially striking exchange over my use of Lyotard’s concept of the differend to discuss the animal as paradigmatic of the “victim” (the one who does not have the ability to register its injuries in the language of those in control), she asked me point blank if I was suggesting that animals were “more” victimized than women. Instead of seeing the interlocking structures of oppression that writers like Carol Adams, Marjorie Spiegel, and others had already pointed out at that time—and the productive theoretical analogies that might proliferate—Gubar experienced my discussion of animals as a threat: a threat, I can only surmise, to the political position she felt her own work had staked out for women, for a particular set of feminist claims, and perhaps for a semi-institutionalized prerogative that was roughly correlated to the suffering or affliction of women.

I find this anecdote instructive here because it not only demonstrates just how unpredictable a “feminist” response to animal issues can be,2 but also because it resonates with the way in which some scholars today view developments in “high” animal theory as threatening. As Wiegman pointed out in her own discussion, Gubar’s anxieties about various poststructuralist genealogies rested in part on the association between that body of work and certain European, masculinist “complicities” (Wiegman 1999, 368). We sometimes still hear protests against the “boys’ club” of high theory in work on animals because thinkers such as Derrida, Wolfe, and Agamben are seen as overshadowing the work of female scholars and of critics who are less theoretically entrenched. As a scholar of the modernist period, I am perhaps too keenly aware of how women have historically been excluded from “critical” practice. Despite some of the limitations that high theory might entail, however, I do not want to countenance a feminist or animalist disavowal of critical theory.

In terms of disciplinary primal scenes, there have been prominent disavowals of this kind at the heart of animal studies in its contemporary staging. It is worth mentioning one of the “founding” moments for animal studies here. The conference Millennial Animals: Theorising and Understanding the Importance of Animals, organized by Robert McKay and Sue Vice in 2000, took place in England. Carol Adams and Cary Wolfe were the two keynote speakers. Adams gave a presentation based on her 1990 book that was very interesting, but essentially ten years old. Wolfe, who was my graduate advisor at the time, gave a presentation that engaged a wide range of recent continental theory on the philosophical question of the species barrier. Throughout the conference, Adams made it clear that she was willfully opposed to almost any “theoretical” discussion of animality. Her resistance was extremely disappointing to those of us in attendance who considered ourselves “feminist” and who also felt that new theoretical work was opening up the field in a way that had profound consequences for “animal rights” or “pro-animal” intellectuals, and the real animals who motivated them.

It became quite clear in that crucible for the discipline that Adams was self-styling as specifically and adamantly anti-theory. Such stylings tend to reinforce the misperception that thinkers with a strong “theoretical” commitment in animal studies are not ethically engaged. But the reality is that almost all of the theoretically sophisticated scholars who have been at the forefront of this discipline, in my experience, have a serious eye on the ethical relationship humans have with real animals. And I don’t mean Derrida. I mean the ranks of folks in cultural studies, philosophy, literary studies, and many other fields who were not famous or even well-known at that time, and who saw theory as a meaningful way to understand and describe serious questions about animals and animality. These scholars were using theory in their work on animals long before the discipline got its name a few years ago. Put in theoretical terms, they always recognized the ethical link between the discursive animal and the material animal. To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that every scholar using animal theory has an “activist” predisposition. But I do mean that many, many important theoreticians in this field are ethically engaged. In fact, some of the best early scholarship in the field has shown how the work of iconic figures like Derrida and Levinas is essentially more pro-animal than either Derrida or Levinas would have us believe.

I make these claims recognizing that an “enforced” sense of activism in animal studies would be extremely problematic. But as Wolfe has pointed out in such detail in What is Posthumanism? (Wolfe 2010), we can also make distinctions between what work goes about its business without troubling humanist presumptions, and what work unsettles them. We should never be so naïve as to completely collapse scholarship with activism. On the other hand, trying to keep them utterly separate creates a false distinction. Scholarly work and activism in the classic sense operate along a continuum of knowledge-making and knowledge-challenging.3

But coming back to Adams’s work, I believe there are ways to acknowledge the (ongoing) role of such contributions, but also to recognize how certain theoretical developments have opened up broader aspects of animal theory. This is not to devalue or marginalize the work of “earlier” feminists/ecofeminists, but to be frank about the manner in which a discipline must inevitably expand and become complex. One way of putting this is that a discipline, like an event, is always in excess of its causes. Animal studies will (and should) inevitably be in excess of its “causes.” Although this may result in some generational anxiety, we should ultimately embrace the proliferation of knowledges that this excessiveness signals. Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the concept seems apt here, even though we are talking about disciplines: “a concept also has a becoming that involves its relationship with concepts situated on the same plane. Here concepts link up with each other, support one another, coordinate their contours, articulate their respective problems, and belong to the same philosophy, even if they have different histories” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 18).

What we could use at this juncture in the development of animal studies is a theoretically sophisticated inquiry into the role of affect in the feminist care tradition and in “high” theoretical discourses such as Derrida’s. This might help us clarify what these different methodological approaches can and cannot offer us in the way of intellectual openings, trajectories, and future work in affective engagement. Such a discussion might provide us a sense of where they overlap and where they diverge. For instance, how do we parse the following excerpts from Adams and from Derrida in a way that constructs future work for the discipline? Adams claims, “My own evolution toward animal defense was because of the sudden loss of a Welsh pony, and the feelings that I experienced when I tried to eat a hamburger the night of that pony’s death” (Adams 2007, 199). Derrida writes, “We all know about the episode in Turin … where [Nietzsche’s] compassion for a horse led him to take its head into his hands, sobbing … Now if tears come to the eyes, if they well up in them, and if they can also veil sight, perhaps they reveal, in the very course of this experience … an essence of the eye” (quoted in Wolfe 2010, 142). There would be a good deal to discuss here, along the lines of individual responsibility, mortality and finitude, sympathetic recognition of animal subjectivity, embodiment, the upending of visual domination, and we could go on. There are both striking similarities in these excerpts and significant divergences. And although theory can sometimes have what I consider a “sanitizing” role, here is nonetheless a moment in which the force of Derrida’s questioning is more than a bit affective. So how do these approaches open up or allow intellectual and ethical work to be done? That is the question we want to pursue.

It has also occurred to me that when women in animal studies decry the male-dominated “boys’ club” of high theory, this protest might be understood to function, at least partially, as an unconscious lament for a highly theoretically sophisticated female intellectual who has not fully emerged in animal studies at this time. We can think of the way that a Butler or Spivak have functioned as—perhaps not a girls’ club entirely—but as ultra-theoretical female scholars who are critically dominant in their respective fields. It remains to be seen whether or when such a female critic will come to occupy that kind of placeholder in animal studies.

It is also important to ask why theory might be an especially vital site for knowledge-formation in animal studies. There would be any number of responses to this question, but given the space limitations here, I’ll refer to my earlier discussions of the conundrum that the “animal” presents to the “human.”4 The animal is uniquely unsettling in its organic as well as subjective liminality. Where does it figure amid humans and stones? This is a question upon which Heidegger’s discourse so famously foundered. How do we understand this “fellow” creature who is both extraordinarily like us and yet the “strangest stranger”? We need theoretical tools to help us reckon with these questions. Moreover, although many animals most certainly have forms of language, respond to us, and communicate in various ways, they do not have a formal or even loosely associative representative voice. In other words, the animal cannot symmetrically “talk back” to our objectifying codes. Therefore, questions of language, the politics and dangers of representation, and even the seemingly benign postures of advocacy and the humane all require our philosophical caution.

I want to move toward a conclusion by suggesting that feminist critics in animal studies embrace theoretical work as an important component of the discipline. Why? In part because there is an evolutionary logic to the development of any academic field. It’s simply not possible to become less complex or to remain in some imagined “originary” position. Does this mean we embrace complexity just for its own sake? No. Rather, it means that we remain interested in the movement or becoming of the field—of the way in which it invites ruminations from various critical perspectives—and that we move with that field, assimilating, questioning, yes, but, more important, engaging in an enlivened ethics of new working in the field. We need to say yes to new forms of knowledge, to the becoming-other and becoming-different of knowledges that open up future philosophical frameworks for the consideration of animal ethics, animality, and the human–animal or creaturely axis.

I am certainly interested in the ways that earlier work can be reclaimed if it has been overlooked or “lost” in more recent discussions. But I believe that recuperation should be incorporated into new work that energizes the field and creates horizons of knowledge. We also ought to be cautious about a desire for recognition as it tends to produce states of resentment, rivalry, or disaffection. As Rosi Braidotti suggests, “hope rests with an affirmative ethics of sustainable futures, a deep and careless generosity, the ethics of nonprofit at an ontological level” (Braidotti 2010, 217). Let’s not invest in the repetition of what we assume we know, but rather, let’s work with the claims and discourses we find productive as we strive for philosophical plenitude and ethical vigilance in our scholarly work.

  1. I am grateful to my colleague, Mary Armstrong, for our conversations about the “histories of disciplines.
  2. For a related discussion of the range of feminist responses to ethical vegetarianism, which includes a valuable overview, see Gruen 2007.
  3. Erica Fudge is quite good on this point in the recent forum on speciesism, identity politics, and ecocriticism. See her contribution in Cole et al. 2011
  4. See my fuller discussion of these questions in the introduction to Rohman 2009.

Author: Mr Cooper

I am a teacher. I love THINGS. THINGS are the doorway into knowledge and understanding.

14 thoughts on “Hypatia Symposium: Disciplinary Becomings: Horizons of Knowledge in Animal Studies by CARRIE ROHMAN”

  1. I’m particularly interested in pursuing the inquiry into affect that you mention in your essay and I find Judith Butler’s recent work helpful in this project.

    I suspect that the reason why theoretical analysis of the oppression of non-human animals is so often taken to be threatening to feminism (or other perspectives for analyzing social justice issues) is because moral concern (by this I mean something similar to what Butler calls recognizability) is taken to be a limited resource. Within this framework, caring about animal suffering means caring less about the suffering of human women, to use the example from your essay.

    A necessary step to moving away from an ethics of similarity to an ethics of difference is stopping to treat moral concern as a zero-sum game. This is part of what motivated my essay and Kelly Oliver’s comments are helpful on this point too.

    I’m curious if you could explain more about how the theoretical approaches to animality have been ethically oriented. I agree that many scholars working in this area are concerned with how we treat animals, but I think there is resistance to questioning the “killability” of non-human animals.

  2. Stephanie, I agree with your point that part of what’s happening here has to do with the supposed limited resource of moral concern. But when confronted with very resistant responses to thinking about animals, and in particular to taking their lives and deaths seriously, I often think about the themes Cora Diamond articulates in essays such as “The Difficulty of Reality.” For Diamond, to acknowledge and think about what we do to animals in any real way is soul-shattering, and most people do not want to breach that wall…

    For me, as a feminist scholar and in particular student, I think the issue is that I tend to have certain (higher) expectations of other feminist scholars, such that I believe/assume they are more willing to deal with the psychic and intellectual difficulties of thinking about and associating themselves with abject populations and with the culpability of power. Of course this is not always the case. And I also feel a certain responsibility when they don’t, as in, I must not be articulating the issues well enough…

  3. Emily: Yes, you are articulating this well! Thanks for your follow up- I agree with you about significance of the psychic threat and didn’t intend for my first comment to sound exclusive. Thanks for helping me clarify.

  4. Hi Stephanie and Emily: I realize now that one of the implicit points of my commentary is that many scholars have taken the work of thinkers like Derrida and Levinas to what might be called its logical and ethical “conclusions,” even when those original theorists may have completely or initially resisted the granting of straightforward moral status to nonhuman animals. So for instance, Derrida’s ideas about the logic of sacrifice that undergirds human “identity,” for lack of a better term, are very much centered around the idea that animals are construed as killable in our cultural systems. (This is what he calls the “non-criminal putting to death” of nonhuman animals). While Derrida may have been somewhat late in putting a finer ethical point on these ideas in his own work, many animal studies scholars saw the ethical implications of these ideas right away. We could say similar things about Levinas, who sort of waffled philosophically about animals, but whose work has been used by many scholars to discuss the “face” of the animal as calling us into the ethical relation, as such. And then there are lesser known or cited works by thinkers like Bataille, that when you look carefully, very clearly challenge our objectification of animals as killable (as “things” in Bataille’s lexicon, or objects rather than subjects).

  5. These are all interesting points that should remind us that neither feminism nor affect are one. One form may impel us towards our abject others and implore us to do something, another may add to our repulsion, our need to disidentify and prove our greater strength. I remember how surprised I was once to walk into a local restaurant and find a woman with a tee-shirt that said, “real women eat meat.” This was a full embrace of the killability of animals, articulated within a kind of feminism, (albeit not academic).

  6. That t-shirt is really interesting. It seems like a co-opting of a traditionally masculine power or privilege to act (in this case to kill and eat), that is being re-articulated as feminine power (as you point out). Makes me think of people like Sarah Palin, who uses the discourse of hunting to create a persona linked to domination, etc., and that is a very specific and exaggerated, politically charged version of female “power.” I think in its way, Palin’s version is especially performative for this very reason, in that she is demonstrating how she can display these behaviors of “real men” for the public to consume. Of course, there are other ways that feminism has resulted in women adopting “male” positions or behaviors in order to achieve “equality” or even basic public recognition, and so this particular extension of that idea perhaps isn’t altogether surprising!

  7. Hi Kari. Thanks for raising that point about the messiness of affect (or its unpredictability maybe?) especially when it triangulates with issues that are simultaneously deeply personal and political, like feminism (or one’s understanding of one’s self as a woman — i don’t think Palin would call herself “feminist”), and, as well, like our attitudes and behavior towards animals.

    I keep thinking about the sex/gender/species conference and the repeated critiques of Cary Wolfe’s statement that confronting speciesism “has nothing to do with whether you like animals.” I don’t find that statement particularly provocative or problematic given the paragraph it’s situated in, and the larger point it’s part of (which is essentially about the intersectionality of oppression). But some feminists who were at the conference, and I’m sure beyond the conference attendees, are *so* bothered by it and I really wonder more about the reaction to that statement than the statement itself. It seems to me that the statement’s simultaneous gesture towards affect (and “like” is a pretty watered down affective experience, also pretty hard to define, which is perhaps part of the issue here) and dismissal of it is maybe what’s at issue? I know some scholars understand it as a rearticulation of a kind of mind/body, reason/emotion dualism, but I don’t see it; or, I don’t see it as a problem. Confession: I am not a huge animal person. I don’t “like” animals writ large. I certainly like some animals very much, and I care about our treatment of all animals. So I appreciate the idea that there is not or does not have to be a necessary connection between that kind of affect (liking animals) and confronting speciesism. I also know many smart scholars who are not all that into animals; I would like them to understand that their personal feelings towards animals do not exempt them from intellectual and ethical responsibility to think through these issues. Cary’s statement seems a pithy and direct way to get at that point. It seems in the service of Animal Studies, and animals, frankly. And yet, many feminist scholars whose work I deeply respect find it very problematic.

    There is certainly something triangulating there, on my end, and I believe on theirs, which deserves analysis.

  8. I think you are raising a really interesting point Emily. Historically, of course, Peter Singer and Tom Regan both explicitly stated you don’t need to have an emotional connection to animals in order to have an ethical commitment to them. They were making a stark division between reason and emotion and so part of the feminist reaction to Wolfe, I think, is that he is perceived as doing the same thing (many years after the feminist care critique of Singer and Regan had been articulated — Kari and I touch on this in the introduction to this Hypatia volume, but Carol Adams and Josephine Donovan do a thorough job in the introduction of The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics).

    I think one thing that may be at the heart of the responses (and I think it is certainly misplaced in the case of Wolfe, but not in the case of others who are writing on animals) is the view that you don’t need to care about animals, the actual lives of actual animals don’t need to be a concern, or to put it more bluntly, that one doesn’t need to attend the the ethical nature of their relationships with other animals in order to do work in animals studies. If the personal is political (and I think it always is) then a dis-affected stance raises questions for feminist animal studies.

  9. This is an amazing discussion. Two quick things:
    (1) The discussion of the real women eat meat shirt is kind of interesting. I live and work in rural Georgia, where feminine hunting is very much a thing. There is sold pink camouflage (actually, pink most hunting accessories), variations of “Real women hunt” bumperstickers are not uncommon, as are various other pro-hunting bumperstickers are trucks (always trucks) that are clearly owned by women. This isn’t a particularly theoretical point, just a comment that the overlap between hunting and being a woman isn’t all that small, at least around here.

    (2) I think Lori is making a good point. Peter Singer’s and Tom Regan’s rejection of the need for emotional concern about animals and ethics were always problematic. And it is clear that is how Cary’s comment has been read. However, I have always read in an almost exactly same vein as a comment Maria Lugones once made to me about her work. She was explaining about how certain decolonial feminists were fighting with male decolonial philosophers, and that the point of her work was to explain to them that decolonial feminism was important, even if they didn’t care for women at all. Cary seems to be making the same point–even if you hated other animals, there are good reasons to care about animals for self-centered reasons. But I understand how Cary’s comment is read as being parallel to Singer and Regan.

  10. Hi all, again. I like what you say about the “messiness” and “unpredictability” of affect, Emily, and I wonder if the point–perhaps building on Singer, is also about the particularity of affect (You may like animals, or some of them, I may not), as opposed to the potential universalizabilty of ethics. And, to pick up on my previous comment to Stephanie, is this not a distinction between Foucault’s notion of ethics (which puts the freedom and desires of the self at center stage) and that which is more Kantian in origin?

  11. Hi everyone… I was traveling the last few days and didn’t realize this discussion was still ongoing! It’s fantastic, though. I wanted to follow up on Emily’s comments and note that there does sometimes seem to be a “policing” of affect or of one’s “personal” involvement with animals in the field. (And this would dovetail nicely, I think, with some of Traci’s concerns about a vegan identification as revealing one’s inner ethical status). I was once on a day-long job interview years ago and at the end of the dinner, which was at someone’s home, a young professor realized that I was not “raised on a horse farm,” which he admitted he had been assuming all day. It occurred to him that the question of animal sentience, and suffering, and of our relations to nonhuman animals was something much broader than just an affective connection that came from personal “experience” or from being an “animal lover” or pet keeper. Of course, this is not to devalue such personal experiences, but as Emily points out, it is to frame the question of our concern for animals in broader intellectual and even ethical terms. So I have to agree that this isn’t always a bad thing to do… very important point.

  12. To Carrie Rohman:
    This is a bit off the thread of the above conversation—or maybe not. I’m concerned about the erroneous allegation in your piece that Carol Adams is or ever has been “adamantly anti-theory”. Anyone who has read her voluminous and brilliant work would know that this is not the case. Indeed, it is preposterous.
    As you provide little evidence of having read much, if any, of her work, nor of having read and/or reflected on the articles in The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics or in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, both edited by Adams and myself, I have to wonder where this strange notion came from. It is not enough to pick up an offhand comment Adams may or may not have made at a conference some twenty years ago to support your thesis.
    So I hope you will reconsider this serious mischaracterization.
    Josephine Donovan
    Professor Emerita of English
    University of Maine

  13. Hi Josephine– Thanks for this comment; I really appreciate it, actually. I should have mentioned in my piece that Adams’ more recent work, especially in the co-edited volume with you, is more open to theoretical developments, and even engages with them at times. My reference to the conference in 2000 is meant truly in its specificity, as a “primal scene” for the discipline that I believe still has certain reverberations. At the time, I discussed this “anti-theory” attitude with many of the emerging scholars who were present at the conference in Sheffield. It was a rather robust stance that characterized Adam’s participation throughout the conference, in nearly all the discussions of others’ papers, etc. At the time, it was quite polarizing for those of us in attendance, in large part because it seemed to repeatedly shut down discussion. There was a sense that “theoretical” views about animals or animality somehow didn’t attend to “real” animals. Many of us found this extremely unproductive and perplexing. And that’s why it seems relevant to the present discussion, which addresses similar discordant views about the role of theory, affect, the personal as political, etc. However, I think it’s possible that Adam’s own views of theoretical approaches may have changed very rapidly after the fact, which could explain the more open tone of the 2007 collection. I hope it’s clear in my paper that I have a great deal of respect for Adam’s groundbreaking work. What I was interested in here were the ways that certain skeptical views of theory seem to emerge and re-emerge, even over the span of twelve years in this case, as the discipline has been developing.

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