The British Animal Studies Network
The History of Animal Studies
Reviewed for H-Animal by
Sally Borrell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Middlesex University (PhD candidate)
Animal studies is a relatively new field of academic work, and one that is of increasing interest to academics from a wide variety of backgrounds. The term 'animal studies' is generally taken to refer to the study of human-animal relations, but the exact nature of this work remains in many respects undefined, due in part to its applicability in so many areas. The first meeting of the British Animal Studies Network was held in London on Saturday the 26 th of May1. 'The History of Animal Studies' began a series of ten meetings to be held over the next two years by addressing some of the questions surrounding this developing field.
By way of introduction to the British Animal Studies Network, Erica Fudge (Network director) explained that one of the strengths of animal studies as she sees it is its cross-disciplinary nature. Recent exchanges on H-Animal ('Ruminations') have seen it not as a discipline but rather as a field of study.2 The network is therefore designed to bring together academics working in various disciplines to facilitate the exchange and development of ideas on the subject of human-animal relations.
'Does Animal Studies Have a History?'
In this paper, Jonathan Burt suggested that a central question in the history of animal studies is whether it constitutes a new and different kind of knowledge, rather than an amalgam of ideas (he personally defined it as human-animal relations studied through the humanities, including science). Though of course animal studies does have a history, its appearance as self-conscious animal studies, rather than general writings about animals, is relatively recent, and still loosely defined. Burt observed that many of Ruminations' commentators have seen a link between animal studies and concerns such as feminism and ethnic issues because of the theme of oppression. While he accepts such connections, he notes that human-human and human-animal relations are not the same. He also observed that although to have a rubric eases the exchange of ideas, not everyone appreciates this approach. A suggestion from Cary Wolfe (made to Burt in an earlier conversation) is that animal studies be seen as a preoccupation within another discipline, working to disrupt humanist and speciesist structures of thought which might otherwise remain available for use against humans too. However, Burt feels that this makes animal studies a way-station en route to better human being. He explained that he tries instead to make animals take centre stage in his work, by focusing on cases in which they do not map onto the human. He concluded that the history of animal studies suggests that as disturbance, it can be more than the sum of its interdisciplinary parts.
David Matless ( University of Nottingham) offered a very different perspective by discussing the history of studying animals through fieldwork, such as natural history. He used landscape as a theoretical device for exploring this, explaining that a landscape is always a site of different values (emotional/financial, culture/nature, subject/object) and that it implies distance, making it relevant to studies of other species. Matless concentrated on different understandings of birds. He explained that when writing about birds from observations of them, humans create a landscape of bird presence from measurable traces such as bones, nests and sounds, but also from human spatial arrangements such as the county (even though this is not a meaningful ecological unit), and from their own understandings of those spaces. For example, he explained that Cley Marshes, a waypoint for migratory birds on the north Norfolk Coast, has been a focus for multiple human groups with different views of the animal presence, including birdwatchers, wildfowlers, ornithologists and conservationists. Therefore, Matless suggested, the area can be seen as a moral as well as a physical landscape because of the play of different human claims and codes of conduct in relation to birds. The politics of the area also raise questions about the scale of animal geography, showing that it can be meaningful at local, national and international levels. Thus, though Matless was discussing a different and, some would argue, a more direct approach to animals from that taken by animal studies, he demonstrated that in fieldwork too, different human valuations and interpretations significantly shape our understanding of animals, while animals' own perceptions remain unknowable.
'Following the Spoor / Writing History'
The construction of animals was an idea which the plenary speaker Nigel Rothfels ( University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) then pursued in relation to cultural representations of pachyderms. He took as a starting point 'The Killing of the Mammoth',3 a story in which a narrator, Henry Tukeman, learns about mammoths from native Alaskans, and then tracks and kills one, to his eventual shame. On its publication, Tukeman's narrative was received as if it were fact, rather than fiction. Rothfels observed that this story has resonances with several important themes. First of all, he discussed the question of why it is important to think about the history of animals. He referred to John Berger's argument that we can't look at animals,4 Harriet Ritvo's suggestion that animals are the beneficiaries of a 'democratising tendency',5 and Erica Fudge's observation that though we are limited to studying human representations of animals, the decentring of the human plays a key role in 'revisioning' ourselves.6 He went on to explore shifts in people's attitudes to animals as they have occurred in relation to pachyderms. He noted one view of the elephant has been as a noble and virtuous creature. When such elephants appeared in hunting narratives, such as those of Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming,7 they appear as worthy foes. They have also been construed as savage and warlike monsters. Samuel Baker's narrative of a hunt showed elephants as bent on human destruction.8 These alternatives show how changeable human attitudes to animals can be. Rothfels then explored modern attitudes by returning to mammoths, noting an underlying desire to understand their extinction. He described the discoveries of two frozen mammoth bodies in Siberia, and observed that the nature of their reconstruction and display showed a nostalgic attitude similar to Gordon-Cumming's admiring response to elephants. He concluded that we should be aware that our histories of animals are informed by constructed and transient perceptions of them, and that our views of extinct animals are inevitably fabrications.
The final section of the afternoon was set aside for an exchange of ideas. Erica Fudge set this in motion by underscoring some significant themes arising over the course of the afternoon. These were:
- Nature versus culture
- Maps versus territories
- Fact versus fiction
- Extinction and fabrication
- Contestation versus coherence
- Shooting versus studying animals
- Construction versus 'real nature out there'
- Spaces and animals' disruption of them
She linked these by noting that regardless of discipline, the question of difference in animal studies is necessarily a significant issue, but a productive one not just between species but between various animal studies academics.
The ensuing discussion provided a forum for exchange, and indeed debate. The concern mentioned by Fudge and Burt earlier in the day over the nature of animal studies again came to the fore here, as people expressed different opinions about definition. Some felt that a more coherent field would necessarily facilitate work and understanding within it, while others felt that to set limits would be artificial and unhelpful. A second point focused on the question of the relationship between animal studies and studies involving 'real' animals, such as the fieldwork discussed by Matless. Related to this was the question of what role, if any, personal attitudes should play in animal studies scholarship. Some people suggested that attitudes are an important part of scholarship and could be embraced, while others said that they can also be alienating, and wanted to keep their work 'open.' It was noted that of course some scholarship explores both objective and subjective sides to an issue, and then suggested that the answer must depend on what the reader would hope to glean from the work in question. By starting to examine present practices in this way, 'The History of Animal Studies' meeting was already setting the scene for those to follow, which will deal with various salient themes within animal studies and explore its possible future.
2 H-Animal (a division of H-Net or Humanities Network) appeared in 2006, managed by Susan Pearson.
3 Tukeman, Henry. "The Killing of the Mammoth." McClure's Magazine October (1899).
4 Berger, John. About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
5 Ritvo, Harriet. "Animal Planet." Environmental History 9, no. 2 (2004).
6 Fudge, Erica. "A Left-Handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals." In Representing Animals, edited by Nigel Rothfels. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
7 Gordon-Cumming, Roualeyn George. Five Years of a Hunter's Life in the Far Interior of South Africa. London: John Murray, 1850.
8 Baker, Samuel White. The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1854.
Review of The British Animal Studies Network: "The History of Animal Studies"
Date Published: June 8, 2007