An Essential and Critical Overview of Animal Studies 

A book called Critical Terms for Animal Studies sets the agenda for future work.

Posted Nov 13, 2018

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A caged gorilla
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Why "human-animal studies" should simply be called "animal studies" and much more

"Lori Gruen has created an intellectual cafe in which leading scholars offer their insight and wisdom, in incisive and stimulating entries, on topics central to animal studies, all the while incorporating intersections with feminist, postcolonial, disability, environmental, and anti-racist scholarship. Richly textured, inviting and empowering, this is a dream book for students, academics, and activists alike." (Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat and Burger)

I've eagerly been awaiting the publication of Dr. Lori Gruen's new transdisciplinary edited book titled Critical Terms for Animal Studies. She is the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University and has made major contributions to many different fields of inquiry. Critical Terms for Animal Studies is a very unique collection of essays and is a major contribution to the field of Animal Studies. As such, it is a must read for everyone interested in the nature of nonhuman animal (animal)-human interactions in all of the diverse arenas in which they encounter one another. Dr. Gruen's introduction, that can be read in its entirety here, lays out the many reasons why it is essential to critically review what is known about the different disciplines that are central to the rapidly growing multidisciplinary field of Animal Studies. 

I wanted to know more about this seminal collection of essays, so I asked Dr. Gruen if she could answer a few questions, and I'm glad she could. Here is our interview. 

Why did you decide to edit Critical Terms for Animal Studies?

Interest in Animal Studies is growing so fast and I really wanted to create a text that grounds the interdisciplinary field.  There are some other collections that have recently come out that are really good, but they tend to be in one area of study, like animal ethics, or animals and politics, or animals and literature.  Critical Terms for Animal Studies contains contributions from philosophers, from political theorists, from literary scholars, from anthropologists, from legal scholars, film scholars, historians, scientists, and cultural theorists.

Lori Gruen
Cover for Critical Terms for Animal Studies
Source: Lori Gruen

The University of Chicago Press Critical Terms series is one of the most innovative conceptual drivers of the fields it covers, so it was really exciting to be able to include a volume on Animal Studies in such a high profile series.  All of the books in the series, including Critical Terms for Animal Studies, contain chapters written by well-respected scholars who use their own perspective to bring their critical term to life.   I asked each of the authors to feel free to push the boundaries of thinking, to uncover what might be unexpected, as well as to situate the term in the larger field of Animal Studies.  I am overjoyed by the result.  I couldn’t be more excited about the book.  It was a lot of work, as these things are, but I am really happy I decided to do it.

How did you select the terms to be included, given that there really are countless items that could have been included? 

After the editor at University of Chicago contacted me about the prospect of editing the volume, I told her I would think about it, and that night I came up with a list of 50 terms and almost 50 names of people to write on them.  I knew that I wanted to take on this project given how quickly I was inspired by the idea.  I submitted a proposal that narrowed the number to 30 terms and the proposal was sent out for review to 8 people, all of whom proposed some additional terms.  Some of the original terms the referees and I proposed seem to be more or less covered by other terms, so that provided some justification for not including them. For example, “Agency” is explored in the chapters on Behavior, Mind, Personhood, Rationality, and Sociality; “Analogy” is explored in various ways in chapters on Difference, Law, and Sentience; “Domestication” is explored in the chapters on Captivity and Sanctuary; “Consciousness” comes up in chapters on Pain and Sentience; “Race” is analyzed in chapters on Abolition, Biopolitics, Empathy, and Postcolonial. This could have been a multi-volume work, but I only had one volume to edit (for now) and that put a constraint on the number of terms that I could include (and some of the people who I had hoped would contribute were unable to give their prior commitments).  I encouraged the authors to try as best they can to include real animals in their chapters.  It is one of the complexities of doing animal studies that we can never have animals author their own essays.

I really like how transdisciplinary your book is. Why is this an important part of the rapidly growing field of animal studies?

Animals’ lives are touched in so many different ways by what we humans do and our various relationships with other animals can be discussed through so many different lenses that I feel to get a more complex understanding of these relationships and a more genuine sense of other animals, many disciplinary perspectives are needed.  The mutli-disciplinarity that provides this variety of perspectives is then enhanced when we have different scholars, with different backgrounds, talking together.  That is when we can get interdisciplinary understandings.  Thinking about animal minds, behavior, and pain, for example, three areas that have benefitted from scientific, psychological, and philosophical study, help us to better represent animals, in politics or in the law or in literature.  Scholarly discussion about captivity or biopolitics or empathy is enriched by activist work for animals.  These growing transdisciplinary conversations, as well as conversations between scholars and activists (and activist scholars or scholar activists), deepen our understandings.

Something about which I've been thinking for quite a while concerns the use of various phrases to describe what seems to the same field of inquiry to which most people refer as "human-animal studies" or HAS. I prefer to call it "animal-human studies," or like you, simply "animal studies." So, I was pleased to read what you wrote in your introduction (page 13) about the term anthrozoology. Can you please tell readers why you're hesitant to embrace its use, a point with which I totally agree.

“Human-animal studies” was introduced after “animal studies” a few decades back because there was a confusion with using “animals studies” which was still thought to refer to scientific, medical, or behavioral studies, particularly experiments, that used animals.  But I, and many others, think that this nomenclature, Human-Animal Studies, still privileges humans and separates the human from other animals.  One of the many exciting developments in animal studies is work that intersects with critical race studies, feminist studies, and disability studies that problematize the idea that the “human” is a given category.  As I note in the introduction to Critical Terms for Animal Studies, the very distinction between human/animal is a site for theorizing.  The racial and gendered social history of both the human and the animal are important topics for critical study.  And the relationships among the various beings that are seen to fall into one or the other category, both as groups and as individuals, as well as the conceptual roles these relationships play in social, cultural, practical and theoretical knowledge, are precisely the objects of Animal Studies.

There are many gems in the essays in your book. One that really caught my eye is Kristin Andrews' noting, "The question whether there are other minds is ultimately a question emerging from our human curiosity, loneliness, and our complex desires to be unique and at the same time connect" (page 24). I see this a forming the very basic reason for the field of animal studies. What are your thoughts on this?  

As you know, my work over the last decade or so has been aimed at helping us reimagine our relationships with other animals, including other human animals, across various dimensions of difference, in order to begin to make these relationships better.  I think one exciting dimension of Animal Studies is that it provides us with both theoretical and practical tools for working across difference and for thinking about the ways that constructed differences form a basis for distorting our relationships with one another.  Given the violence of our politics at the moment, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and the real impacts of climate change here and now, and the almost unimaginable horrors human industries inflict on other animals globally, Animal Studies can help us think about how some of our human anxieties have lead us to this tumultuous time.  

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

As someone who has been an activist and scholar for decades now, it is really gratifying to me that so many people are paying attention to the ways that other animals matter and are concerned not just to end suffering but to try to figure out how we all might make our lives and relationships more livable and sustainable.  I’m hoping Critical Terms for Animal Studies will generate more of these conversations.

"The subject of animal studies is at a crucial stage, still being mapped out and defining itself, and this volume is very useful, given its conciseness, its all-star cast of contributors, and its breadth in providing a guide to some of the key ideas. Taken along with the editor’s introduction, which nicely situates the history of animal studies and lays out some vital strands and debates, I think many animal studies scholars will see this book as an anchor text." (Colin Jerolmack, New York University)

Thanks, Lori, for such a stimulating and important interview about your stimulating and important new book -- a goldmine of information in anyone interested in Animal Studies. I hope this volume will be used in all courses that focus on the interrelationships of nonhuman and human animals in the diverse disciplines in which this topic is considered. It also will be of value to people who want to learn more about the study and nature of animal-human relationships. I thoroughly agree with New York University's Dale Jamieson when he writes, "Lori Gruen, who is herself at the forefront of animal studies, has rounded up the leading scholars in the field, and together they have produced a text that will define the field for the next generation" and that your book sets "the terms of the language used in the field."  I look forward to further discussions about many of the topics about which your contributors wrote such thought-provoking pieces. 

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