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Introduction, Sloth Winter 2016

Working in fields ranging from philosophy and anthropology to literary and cultural studies, the to contributors our second issue model innovative and interdisciplinary ways of troubling and reconfiguring the boundary long presumed to separate humans from our animal kin. The authors embrace a long view of western intellectual and representational traditions to consider contemporary constructions and treatment of nonhuman animals. With foundations in Ancient Greece, the Enlightenment, colonialism, and twentieth century literature and advocacy, the essays in this issue highlight the legacy of the human/animal dichotomy. Just as philosophy, science, and literature have influenced historic constructions of animals, the development of these fields was influenced by questions of how human and non-human animals differ, as well as what to make of our shared embodiment and finitude.

To understand a perceived lack of empathy for non-human animals, Betty Stoneman first analyzes a different dichotomy—that between touch and sight. She explains this division as a gendered one: women are associated with touch and emotion, men with sight and reason. She argues this cultural preference for sight over touch is detrimental to the development of empathy because it fosters objectification, or in her words, “debeingization.” Her essay draws attention to the ways in which humans perceive other species and leaves one wondering about the possibilities of closer contact with animals. By extension, Natalie Cortez Klossner examines the tradition of pet-keeping—an activity tied directly to the ability and/or desire to touch, own, and tame non-human animals. Klossner looks at contemporary exotic pet-keeping as a legacy of colonization and interest in the “other.” Is it an expression of human superiority over animals and all non-western beings, or does it express a desire for closer connection with nature severed by modernization?

While both Stoneman and Klossner consider dichotomies between human and non-human, Caitlin Schwarz and Kevin McElhatton examine areas in which divisions between human culture and the animal world are obscured. Schwarz demonstrates how historical cases of feral, or wild, children in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, suggest a blurring of boundaries between the human and non-human. The people who took responsibility for children found in this condition used them to ask what exactly makes one human. The ability or willingness of feral children to adapt socially and intellectually to the norms of their adopted culture led to speculation about human reason and emotion, forcing examination of the definitions of savage and civilized. Kevin McElhatton’s essay suggests the ways in which animals have become so completely a part of human culture that their lives are no longer their own. Using examples of biological and behavioral changes in domesticated species, he demonstrates the harm done by artificial selection for consumption. In suggesting that domestication is unethical, McElhatton asks us to consider the ethics of creating species that, without our continued intervention, would go extinct.

Like McElhatton, Melissa Rose Alexander and Rochelle DéCoud explore the ethical implications of blurring the human/animal dichotomy. Alexander examines the ethics of representing animals in the work of J. R. Ackerley and J. M. Coetzee. She identifies two approaches explored in Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals: a rational mode that distances the animal from the human and a poetic mode that enables the human to inhabit (albeit imperfectly) the animal body via the sympathetic imagination. Ackerley’s earlier My Dog Tulip, Alexander argues, marks a shift from the rational mode to the poetic, thereby establishing Ackerley as an important precursor to Coetzee’s formulation of the sympathetic imagination. DéCoud promotes compassionate engagement across multiple markers of difference in her analysis of the contemporary animal rights movement. Noting the movement’s notorious lack of diversity, DéCoud demonstrates the need for leaders who critically examine their own positionality and promote intersectional approaches to combatting animal oppression as it intersects with other forms of injustice. This intersectional leadership, she argues, must extend beyond academic animal studies into mainstream animal rights organizations and networks. Increased attention to the entangled nature of social injustices, she argues, will result in more inclusive and effective advocacy.

The essays for this issue truly delve into the complicated cultural and ethical spaces animals occupy. They raise questions about the connection between culture and survival (or extinction). How might the dichotomy between animal and human be deconstructed? Is that dichotomy artificial, a relic of colonialism, or a product of western intellectual heritage? If we reject the dichotomy, how then can we undo centuries of habits humans have developed that have placed animals in subservient roles? For these questions to be coming from young scholars in the field is remarkable. They ground their arguments in rich interdisciplinary discussions that will lead them to further develop sophisticated understandings of our multi-species world.

Back to Sloth, Volume 2, No. 1

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