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Mortal Bodies – An Approach to Representing Animals in Literature

by Melissa Rose Alexander


This essay undertakes a comparative analysis of two texts, J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999) and J.R.Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (1965), in order to explore a salient ethical question in contemporary animal studies: the problem of how to represent nonhuman animals in literature. By examining how My Dog Tulip experiments with the ethics underlying different modes of representing nonhuman animals, I demonstrate how Ackerley can be seen as an important precursor to Coetzee’s intervention into animal ethics. Secondly, I consider the concept of the sympathetic imagination, most famously put forward in The Lives of Animals, as it is developed in Ackerley’s memoir, revealing its limitations and its possibilities for re-thinking human-animal relations.

The concept of the sympathetic imagination has been considered by critics (e.g. Cavell et al. 2008, Gross and Vallely 2012) as an innovative approach to human-animal relationships, one based upon shared corporeal experience and vulnerability to death rather than upon “reason” or upon non-human animals’ similarity to humans. J.M. Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals is often regarded as one of the first works to fully develop and exemplify the ethical implications of such a stance (see Cavalieri et al. 2009, Leist and Singer 2010, and Cavell et al. 2008). However, this essay seeks to demonstrate how J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (a work that pre-dates The Lives of Animals by more than thirty years) can be read as an earlier engagement with the same issues Coetzee raises regarding the sympathetic imagination and the representation of non-human animals in Western literature and philosophy. Through a comparative analysis of these two texts, I will show that although they differ greatly – one a memoir and the other fiction, one about a living companion animal and the other haunted by the spectres of animals slaughtered for food and clothing – they both emphasize the importance of the non-human animal body and how its circulation in human space creates ethical crises that cannot be easily ignored. In My Dog Tulip, Ackerley acts out the transition from the rational mode to the poetical mode of speaking of the non-human animal body that Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist of The Lives of Animals, calls for as a means of de-centring human authority. Ackerley also develops, through the breakdown of fluent speech in the face of suffering, the idea (hinted at, but not made entirely explicit in The Lives of Animals) that the sympathetic inhabitation of the non-human animal body not only has its beginning but its limit in the shared experience of death. In this way, I suggest, Ackerley’s text can be considered, alongside Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, as a significant and formative contribution to animal ethics in the humanities.

In this essay I will first examine how The Lives of Animals sets out two different modes of speaking the non-human animal body: a rational mode that is characterized by detachment from its subject and a poetic mode that experiments with “inhabiting another body” (Coetzee 1999, 51). My Dog Tulip, I will argue, anticipates Coetzee’s argument by exemplifying this distinction, moving from the rational mode to the poetic mode of “rhetorical excess” (Webb 1998, 9). This “grammatical redescription” (Diamond 2001, 123) of the non-human animal body demonstrates Ackerley’s ethical approach to the non-human animal body as a presence in human experience that nevertheless exceeds human thought. Subsequently, I examine Costello’s assertion, in The Lives of Animals, that knowing what it is to embody the non-human animal is analogous to knowing what it is to embody a corpse, providing a shared “bodily sense of vulnerability to death” (Diamond 2003, 8) as the foundation for sympathetic ethics. However, when confronted with the animal/corpse, Costello confesses, “my whole structure of knowledge collapses in panic” (Coetzee 1999, 32). The two types of finitude evident in her analogy – the limit of the imagination, and the limit of death – initiate an ontological crisis. Ackerley faces this same crisis in My Dog Tulip and responds to it by discussing death and the suffering body through a sublime aesthetic, seeking to inhabit the non-human animal body while recognising that its difference exceeds articulation. This mode of representing the non-human animal Other rehabilitates imaginative identification with the non-human animal from its pejorative associations with excess and sentimentalism; instead it adopts excess as a formal strategy to reach “across the space where concepts and ideas flounder” (Webb 1998, 100) towards the non-human animal body.

In The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello distinguishes between two modes of speaking the non-human animal body, each mode carrying ethical ramifications for our engagement with non-human animals. The first is a detached, rational mode in which reason, rather than compassion, is the basis for “interspecies morality”; a non-human animal’s right to ethical treatment depends on its possession of “morally relevant” intellectual attributes (Acampora 2006, 23,4). In Western philosophy, as Costello summarizes it, “animals, lacking reason, cannot understand the universe but have simply to follow its rules blindly…. [U]nlike man, they are part of it but not part of its being…. [M]an is godlike, animals thing-like” (Coetzee 1999, 23). Bodily being-in-the-world is considered to be necessarily different for humans since the universe “is significant for a consciousness which knows it” – and by such knowledge, can transform experience into self-reflexive, rational order – “but not for a thing which rests-in-itself” (Merleau-Ponty 1983, 159), that is, the non-human animal which is construed as having “only” bodily experience. Conversely, Costello suggests that we should speak of non-human animals, not as embodying a fundamental lack that fails to be integrated into “reasoning systems…of totality” (Coetzee 1999, 2), but as exceeding reason. Consequently, the appropriate mode of describing the equally rich quality of a non-human animal’s existence is poetic, since poetic conventions – hyperbole, metaphor, aesthetic and sensual pleasure (Furniss and Bath 2007) – stand as an alternative to more prosaic, or “rational,” modes of communication.

The poetic mode identifies Costello’s body with the emotive and the animal: “If I do not subject my discourse to reason […] what is left for me but to gibber and emote and knock over my water glass and generally make a monkey of myself?’ (Coetzee 1999, 23). Such excess is allowed for in the poetic mode, which dispenses with detachment in favour of “inhabiting another body”’ (Coetzee 1999, 51): “[P]oetry […] does not try to find an idea in the animal […] but is instead the record of an engagement with him” (Coetzee 1999, 51). Embodiment and engagement as a mode of animal ethics is further highlighted by Coetzee’s decision to narrativize the Tanner lectures. While Parry argues that Coetzee’s use of fictional characters to promote ethical arguments “diverts and disperses the engagement with political conditions” 1993, 20), The Lives of Animals‘ focus on the “cost of exposing convictions, beliefs, doubts and fears in a public arena” (Attridge 2004) invites the reader’s participation in the text, not as a detached intellectual exercise, but as a lived event. Costello calls herself ‘an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting, to a gathering of scholars, a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak’ (Coetzee 1999, 26), drawing attention to her speech as rooted in corporeal, not intellectual (or rational), experience. The narrative process and the interventions of other characters – John’s defense of Costello, ‘she’s old, she’s my mother’ (Coetzee 1999, 36) and Norma’s hostility, ‘now she’s getting really close to the bone’ (Coetzee 1999, 42) – return Costello’s speaking and wounded body to language.

Narrative and the poetic mode produce different ethical responses than rational argumentation. Derrida argues that reducing ethics to a ‘calculable process’ of rationalization over-leaps “the ordeal of the undecidable” (1992, 24). The significance of any ethical choice regarding non-human animals, he suggests, recognizes the ordeal of the embodied experience of living with non-human animals and the complex decisions this relationship inevitably entails. Narrative not only allows the reader to vicariously experience the process of “ordeal” by focusing on the experiences of bodies through time, but also serves a second ethical purpose of making the non-human animal immediate and important in a way that rational argumentation cannot. Ricoeur writes that “‘now’ in the sense of an abstract instant” is different from the “existential now” which is constituted by “concern [that] tends to contract itself into making-present” (1980, 173, my emphasis). Rational or theoretical approaches to animal ethics allow the reader to retain a detached and critical perspective (Aaltola 2010) that renders the non-human animal abstract, yet when the non-human animal is contextualized as the subject of narrative concern its body becomes “now” – a present and immediate existence for the reader.

While Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals can be seen as a theoretical exploration of the ethics that underlie different modes of representing non-human animals,  J.M. Ackerley’s earlier work My Dog Tulip shows a transition from the rational approach to non-human animals and their representation to a more poetical and emotive approach which reveals the complex ethical and corporeal bonds between humans and companion animals. At the outset of My Dog Tulip, Ackerley’s complacent emphasis on their exclusive affection – “she had given her heart to me […] mine, and mine only, it was to remain forever” (1965,27) – tends to cast doubt upon the altruism of human-animal relationships because of the primacy it gives to the human. The narcissistic foundation of Ackerley’s relationship with Tulip is underscored when he notes, “it satisfied in me, too, some profound psychological need” to be the object of her “fierce flattery” (1965,25,26). His description of Tulip as “my royal bitch” (1965,91) with a ”caste-mark” (1965,8) on her forehead suggests that he conceptualizes her as a personification of his feelings of superiority to the working-classes, who acts out his condescension by leaving a “gift” to “uplift their hearts,” i.e. defecating on their doorsteps (Ackerley 1965,40). Furthermore, his love for Tulip is pet-specific rather than species-love (Shell 1986); determined to mate Tulip with a thoroughbred for the “rational” reason that “so beautiful a creature as Tulip should certainly have children as pretty as herself” (1965,64), he nevertheless plans to drown her new-born puppies. Again, when a fellow dog-walker remarks, “‘she [Tulip] wouldn’t get away from my dogs once they’d got a grip on ‘er’” (1965, 87), Ackerley draws attention to his lack of empathy by describing this brutal account of animal mating as “tantalizing” rather than ominous (1965, 87).The detached, self-reflexive and satirical tone of these passages disrupts the reader’s identification with Ackerley and creates a critical distance between the reader and the human-animal relationship.

However, as the plot unfolds, Ackerley’s register shows a considerable shift to the poetic, signaling an emotional effect of co-habiting the nonhuman animal body, “feeling-with” rather than rationally “thinking-about.” Two passages describing Tulip in heat can be contrasted:

I could see how much larger [her vulva] had grown and the pretty pink of its lining. Then there were spots of blood on her silvery shins. She did not bleed much, nor did she smell; I should not have minded either. I was touched by the mysterious process at work within her and felt very sweet towards her. (Ackerley 1965,71)

Here, the “I” of authorial presence is markedly evident, ranging from an impersonal and objective discussion of Tulip’s symptoms to the sentimental admission that he “felt very sweet towards” his “pretty” pet. Critics note that both the scientific register and the language of sentimentalism (in its pejorative sense) are ethically suspect, since the former risks “turn[ing]animals into ‘its’” (Donovan 1990, 353) – mere biological objects – while the latter is often perceived as weak, naïve, and based upon a fundamental misapprehension of the non-human animal. As Webb notes, sentimentalism – such as Ackerley demonstrates in the above passage – may not be a language of excess (one of the many criticisms levelled against it) but rather a language of inadequacy that substitutes glib, naïve  identification with the non-human animal for “concrete moral practice” (Webb 1998, 100). Ackerley’s understated language does not betray an “excess of anything; it is a deficiency of the imagination” (Barzun 1983, 68) that fails to lead to action, revealing the empathetic gap between them.

By contrast Ackerley later writes,

Soon the flower will close, the door will shut, will lock; we shall be free, we shall be safe… How beautiful she is in her shining raiment, her birch-bark body, her sable bodice, her white cravat, her goffered ruff. Exquisite the marks on her face, her turning, turning face, like the wing of a Marbled White butterfly. Perfection of form. Perfection of grace. My burning bitch, burning in her beauty and heat … (Ackerley 1965,165 original ellipses)

In the first extract, the narrative “I” is split from the experiencing “I” in order to reflect upon experience in the past tense: “I should not have minded,” “I was touched.” However, in the second extract, the omission of the “I” heightens the “dramatic immediacy” (Furniss and Bath 2007,336) of Tulip’s body and allows Ackerley to co-habit her subjectivity through the sympathetic pronoun ”we.” Ackerley moves from analytical observation to an emotive poetic register, utilizing nature imagery – “flower,” “birch-bark body,” “butterfly” – to speak the animal body.  Although these nature metaphors may serve to “naturalize” the suffering inflicted on Tulip by Ackerley’s “tampering” (Ackerley 1965,163), their emotional impact serves the ethical purpose of “enhancing the internalization” (Isbell 1985,285) of Tulip’s beauty and suffering. Additionally, repetition evokes a range of emotional and sensual responses to Tulip’s ”turning, turning face” so that the non-human animal body proliferates but each time with a difference. The two iterations, “Burning bitch” and “burning in her beauty and heat” evoke varying responses to a non-human animal that is herself variable, so that repetition is not just a hypnotic reiteration of the same but, as Deleuze and Guattari state, a “means of escaping from old territories and forming new ones” (Deleuze and Guattari 2004,344).

Finally, although poetic language is instrumental in bringing the non-human animal body into focus, the ellipses in this extract seem to reveal that Ackerley regards language as an “event marked by an irreducible finitude” (Allen 2007,93), in which the represented subject always exceeds its linguistic signifier. Ackerley portrays how the “urgency and difficulty of animal otherness” (Kuzniar 2006,4) exceeds human control over non-human animal bodies, and over language itself, by repeatedly using sentence fragments and ellipses to mark where language and the sympathetic imagination have failed. Thus, Tulip is represented as more than merely a mirror for Ackerley’s “narcissistic contemplation” (Deleuze and Guattari 2004,40) or an example of sentimental anthropomorphism. Her gaze reveals that the non-human animal stands in excess of what humans can imagine, “something too clear and too near, too dignified and direct, a steadier look than my own. I avert my face” (Ackerley 1965,161). Although here Ackerley retreats again to the security of the “I,” the poetic excess evident in the passages quoted from Chapter 6 shows how the confrontation with the Other of the non-human animal body may bring the human to the limit of the self and language. Such an encounter both instigates the “we” of the sympathetic imagination and, simultaneously, marks the human’s inability to fully imagine the dissolution of the “I” that occurs when the human is united with the non-human animal through our shared vulnerability to suffering and death.

By contrast, in The Lives of Animals Costello claims that “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination” (Coetzee 1999,35), arguing that we can imaginatively inhabit a non-human animal’s perspective because knowing “what it is like to be a corpse” is analogous to “thinking our way into the life of a bat” (Coetzee 1999,32,33). This analogy bears closer scrutiny since, although Costello utilizes it to suggest boundless imaginative (and sympathetic) potential, its exposition actually marks two types of finitude. The first is “the bodily sense of vulnerability to death” (Diamond 2003,8) we share with non-human animals. The Lives of Animals continuously posits this vulnerability as the intersection of human-being-in-the-world and animal-being-in-the-world, through its invocation of the Holocaust as comparable to the meat industry and meat eating (Coetzee 1999,19) and the coming death of the speaking animal, Costello, who smells of “old flesh” (Coetzee 1999,69). Costello argues that “the knowledge we have [of death] is not abstract […] but embodied. For a moment we are that knowledge” (Coetzee 1999,32 original emphasis) just as a non-human animal’s knowledge of death is experienced with “the wholeness, the unabstracted, unintellectual nature of the animal being” (Coetzee 1999,65). Furthermore, the corpse/animal analogy recalls how sympathetic ethics depend on living with non-human animals, not as objects – a reduction evident in the philosopher O’Hearne’s rationalization that, for an animal, “death is the breakdown of systems that keep the physical organism functioning, and nothing more” (Coetzee 1999,64) – but as embodied “presences that may unseat our reason” (Diamond 2003,74). By implying that “embodied” knowledge survives the moment when “my whole structure of knowledge collapses in panic” (Coetzee 1999,32), Costello suggests that – contra Descartes, who argued that irreducible proof of being lies in “I think therefore I am” (1637, in Williams 2014,57) – the body and feeling, rather than reason, form the existential and ethical link between non-human animals and humans and is, therefore, the basis for interspecies morality.

However, if recognition of bodily finitude (i.e. mortality) enables the project of the sympathetic imagination – inhabiting the non-human animal body – the body of the corpse also seems to mark the “absolute limit of the sympathetic imagination” (Durrant 2006,120), the finitude of what we can imagine and, consequently, inhabit. This second type of finitude is evident in Costello’s assertion, “What I know is what a corpse cannot know: that it is extinct” (Coetzee 1999,32 my emphasis), which problematizes her claim to fully embody the Other because it articulates a border between “I” and “it” that remains uncrossed. Costello’s reaction to “knowledge” of death – “I shy away from it, refuse to entertain it” (Coetzee 1999,32) – parallels Ackerley’s desire to “avert my face” when confronted with the “too much” of the suffering animal body (Ackerley 1965,161). Kristeva notes that the “shattering violence” that accompanies the presence of death is followed by automatic rejection: “‘I’ do not want to listen, ‘‘I’ do not assimilate it, ‘I’ expel it” (1982,3). Despite Ackerley’s attempts to “attend” to Tulip’s point of view (Ackerley 1965,44) and Costello’s desire to avoid “willed ignorance” of animal suffering (Coetzee 1999,20), they nevertheless resist the sense of finitude that the corpse/animal conveys. The corpse puts “me at the border of my condition as a living being” (Kristeva 1982,3) and points the self towards the other, the “not-me” that marks the cessation of being. Consequently, the finitude of the sympathetic imagination lies in how the “recognition of the limit of death is always through another and is, therefore, at the same time the recognition of the other” (Beardsworth 1996,118) as that which exceeds our imagination.

It is evident, then, that The Lives of Animals calls for a mode of speaking the non-human animal body that recognizes our shared corporeal experience as well as how the non-human animal body is “resistant to our thinking it… painful in its inexplicability” (Diamond 2003,46). The aesthetic concept of the sublime responds to both of these preconditions; indeed, Heyman argues that inhabiting the non-human animal body is structurally similar to the sublime (2012,88). Both involve a confrontation with otherness that initiates a crisis experienced through “physiological reaction[s],” showing how the sublime is “determined to root itself in the simplest, empirical levels of human [and non-human animal] existence; basic sensory responses, pain and pleasure, the body” (Stokes 2011,67). This crisis is “triggered by the subject’s inability to represent reality’s perceived chaos and fragmentation” (Heymans 2012,88) and results in a mode of speaking that serves the ethical purpose of causing the human to become animal, “not in a literal sense but in a taxonomic sense” (Heymans 2012,82), taking on the ”sufferance, a passion, a not-being-able” (Derrida 2002,396) which has traditionally characterized the Western philosophical conception of the non-human animal.

Although My Dog Tulip was written more than thirty years before The Lives of Animals, Ackerley’s representation of Tulip’s suffering and eventual death is an example of the type of approach that Coetzee’s novella advocates. Ackerley’s focus on Tulip’s pain – “I cannot bear it, I cannot avoid it, she obtrudes it constantly upon my sight” (Ackerley 1965,160) – more explicitly recapitulates the two types of finitude laid out in The Lives of Animals, the imagination and death. The refrain, “soon it will be over” (Ackerley 1965, 163,164,170, 173) – also the concluding sentence of The Lives of Animals (Coetzee 1999,69) – rings pervasively through My Dog Tulip‘s final chapter, inducing a sense of melancholy fixation and linguistic constraint. The ambiguity of the “it” in this phrase suggests that Ackerley can only register the experience of incapacity and suspense, “Soon it will be over. Soon it will be too late…“ (Ackerley 1965,170), but cannot rationalize or control it. Like the sublime, Tulip’s suffering body cannot be explained away by ingenious arguments – “It was good for a bitch – so spoke the general voice – to have one litter in her life, and one was enough” (Ackerley 1965,150) – but can only be physically experienced, “pressing against me, staring up into my face” (Ackerley 1965,161). The obduracy of Tulip’s presence, “dodge it as I may” (Ackerley 1965,158), leads Ackerley to discuss his relationship with Tulip as fated: ‘Whatever possessed me to possess her!’ (1965,44). This sense of human (and non-human animal) insignificance before fate becomes increasingly evident through the interjections of “Nature” that act as a second refrain in this chapter, “‘You shall mate! You shall bear! And now!’” (Ackerley 1965,161, 164):

Nature will not be cheated, fooled, bribed, fobbed off… A fire has been kindled in [her womb], and no substitute pleasure can distract, no palliative soothe, no exertion tire, no cooling stream slake, for long the all-consuming need of her body. (Ackerley 1965,158)

This passage uses hyperbole and periphrasis (diffuse and verbose language [Shaw 2006,14]) to speak of human incapacity, positing the non-human animal body as a site of excess that provokes “a consuming experience of sympathy” that Ackerley “is impelled to share” (Stokes 2011,66). Just as Tulip is ”enslaved… possessed” (Ackerley 1965,158) by Nature, so Ackerley’s imagination is enslaved to repetitive refrains and hyperbolic metaphors, generating a sublime effect of de-centring the human from a place of primacy and linguistic power in the natural world.

In the same way that the non-human animal body is repeatedly associated with the finitude of death in The Lives of Animals, Tulip’s fiery “septic womb” (Ackerley 1965,189) is associated with “inexorable fires” (Ackerley 1965,169) on the sublime Common in which they roam, the giant birch whose crotch is blackened with ‘the thin trickle of blood … the repulsive white fungi … He is sick, the great tree, he is doomed” (Ackerley 1965,173), and the homosexual suicide. The way in which Ackerley combines one image with another, merging the separate categories of “I” and “Other” (Holland, Tulip, the doomed tree), provides another link between the sympathetic imagination and Burke’s theory of the sublime which, Meaney suggests, “is predicated on a collapse (or perhaps an infinite expansion) of Narcissan internality into an Other”  (2012,194). This total identification with the Other fills Ackerley with feelings of inadequacy before the magnitude of suffering, another affect of the sublime: “I stamp and stamp along the devouring edge, puffs of ash spurt up beneath my feet. Out! Out! It is out… But when I glance back the wisps of death are rising once more” (1965,169). Similarly, when he contemplates Holland’s suicide he writes, “Again the choice was made. Who made it? … Who? Why? The failed, the frustrated lives pass on, leaving no trace” (Ackerley 1965,172), underscoring the vulnerability and ephemerality of being-in-the-world. By interlinking these images with Tulip, Ackerley recognizes the shared suffering of nature, animal, and humankind – “The birch bleeds red, like us” (Ackerley 1965,169) – that is a key component of the ethics presented in the later text, The Lives of Animals.

In My Dog Tulip, Ackerley says Tulip’s face, “the tall ears, the long nose, the black streak down the forehead and the little vertical eye-brow tufts,” is “not merely interrogatory but exclamatory also: it said both ‘What?’ and ‘What!’” (1965,16). The first section of this essay has explored how both The Lives of Animals and My Dog Tulip are concerned with the non-human animal body as a “what?” – a presence that causes the writer/speaker to interrogate the ethics that underlie rational and poetic modes of representation. Secondly, I have discussed how the non-human animal body is also inscribed with exclamatory imperatives (the “what!”) – not only the imperative to represent the non-human animal’s violation and suffering, but the imperative to recognize how our shared vulnerability to death “places the one haunted by it literally beside himself” (Kristeva 1982,1) and in proximity to otherness. While The Lives of Animals suggests that the otherness of the non-human animal body can be addressed through poetry and imaginative embodiment, it also reveals how the “exclamatory” nature of death provokes a crisis that causes the human to reject embodying the animal/corpse and, consequently, fail to exercise the sympathetic imagination. Durrant argues that “this failure is the precondition for a new kind of ethical and literary relation, a relation grounded precisely in the acknowledgement of one’s ignorance of the other [and] the other’s fundamental alterity” (2006,120). This position de-centres the human subject and unsettles the self-certainty of Cartesian rationalism. My Dog Tulip illustrates this change of relation, through its form and its content, using poetic excess and sublime aesthetics to describe how the affective significance of the non-human animal body exceeds our articulation. As such, Ackerley’s work can be seen as a significant precursor to Coetzee’s, and an important contribution to debates around animal ethics and the sympathetic imagination. Reading these texts alongside one another reveals how both writers utilize excess to mark “the site of the animal’s presence” (Webb 1998,98), a literary strategy that is informed by post-humanist ethics as well as by the embodied experience of living with non-human animals and the excessive love and suffering such relationships can bring.


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