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Animal Language: An Interdisciplinary Conference

March 21 - March 23

How are animals intrinsically linked to and bound up in (human) language? What is the meaning of animals in poetic language? How do human language and animal language relate to one another? Are animal languages, such as bat signals or dolphin calls, more complex than human ones? Is animal communication always intrinsically part of, and co-evolving with, an environment? Might human language, in fact, be a component of a broad spectrum of animal communication? The philosopher Gilles Deleuze famously wrote of birdsongs as what he called “assemblages” – a gathering or conjunction of forces or entities that, though tethered together, persist in their fragmentary multiplicity. What the term allows is a way to cut across the artificial – and very human – divide between animal and environment, Nature and Culture.

Animals and language have a complicated relationship with one another in human understanding. Every period of history evinces a fascination with the diverse modes of communicative exchange and possibilities of linguistic community that exist both within and between species. Recent critics of anthropocentrism are far from the first to question the supposed muteness of the “dumb animal” and its ontological and ethical ramifications. Various cultures have historically attributed language to animals, and we have developed an increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding of the complex non-verbal communicative systems that animals use among themselves. New research complements millennia of human-animal communication in the contexts of work, play, and domestic life.

Some people have extensive experience with real, live animals. Some primarily encounter animals as products of the food industry. Some focus on animal representations in text or image, or deploy the abstract figure of “the animal” as limit or counterpart of the human. These interactions condition different ways of “thinking with animals,” including: using them in and as language or in experimentation, recruiting them as symbols and metaphors, incorporating them into idiomatic expressions, projecting moral values onto them, and ventriloquizing them for purposes of cultural critique. A vast archive of literary, artistic, philosophical, historical, religious, and scientific explorations testifies that the boundaries and complementarities relating animals and language have always captured the human imagination.

Animal/Language aims to create an interdisciplinary dialogue on the relationship between “animals” and “language” that considers both what connects and what separates these two key terms. It will shed light on both the category of the human as well as on the humanities themselves by using the animal (both in its real and symbolic dimensions) and its relationship to language as a key figure for understanding the distinct configuration of the human animal and the humanities in the 21st century. Animals, often seen as instinctive beings with presumably no access to language, texts, or abstract thinking (as Kari Weil writes), have functioned throughout the centuries as the unexamined foundation on which the idea of the human – and thus also of the humanities – has been built. As our understanding of animal language develops and changes, so must our view of the nature of the human and the humanities. The conference hopes to generate new scientific inquires and creative synergies by initiating conversation and exchange among scholars in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.

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