Code: Twenty-First Annual Conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts
Review of Animal Presentations
November 1-4, Portland, Maine
Reviewed for H-Animal by
David Dillard-Wright (DavidD@usca.edu)
I first arrived at the SLSA conference in Portland, Maine with a fair amount of hermeneutic suspicion, excited about the many connections between humans, animals, and machines expressed in the abstracts but a bit concerned that some valuable distinctions might be lost. The theme of the conference, “Code,” suggested that living and non-living organisms could be described as collections of information, as though ones and zeros somehow accounted for the whole of life. The theme could have easily become reductive, a pair of neo-Pythagorean spectacles for viewing the universe. Reality, of course, does not always reduce to a bundle of discrete messages passed from sender A to receiver B: the immense complexity of both living and non-living systems means that the code metaphor falls short of accounting for situated existence in the world. Even inserting the word “complexity” or its cousin “emergence” into the discussion doesn’t account for the texture and vitality of lived meaning: saying that a symphony is composed of separate notes might be superficially true, but it cannot capture the experience of sitting next to the cellos in a concert hall. I also wondered about the terms “wet” and “dry” that littered the casual and formal dialogue at the conference: these terms re-inscribe the very dualisms that they attempt to undermine. If theorists on the borderline between the humanities and the sciences seriously want to question the once-firm dividing lines between humans, animals, and machines, the wet and the dry must inhere within one another on the level of theory just as they do in the surrounding world.
The sessions in the animal stream of the conference, by far the largest number of panels on animals at any major conference I have attended, showed a large degree of sophistication regarding the issues raised above and demonstrated a sense of being at home in the interstices between traditional ontological categories. The conference as a whole was like attending a freak show with a group of very literate friends, and I mean this in the best possible sense. Panel presenters examined various queer phenomena at the crossroads of species, race, and gender, interrogating the politics of representation, performance, and identity. Without attempting an exhaustive description of the many wonderful panels (abstracts available on the SLSA site), some highlights will reveal the zoocentric plenitude of the conference and the breadth of intriguing analysis offered by the presenters.
Rebecca Onion’s paper on sled dogs in Alaska at the turn of the twentieth century described the ways in which the human-dog relationship as well as the inhospitable wilderness of the region served as a trying ground for white males to construct their gender and racial identities. By describing natives as cruel to their dogs, white transplants could re-affirm their own civility while coping with the elements demonstrated their virile masculinity. Through works of popular fiction as well as newspaper and magazine accounts, both white Alaskans and their observers in the contiguous states could re-affirm their superior status by showing a superior understanding of the capabilities of the sled dog. White Alaskans portrayed themselves as besting the natives at their own game by using the sled dogs in novel ways, as epitomized in the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, in which teams of sled dogs delivered antitoxin during a disease outbreak in the remote town. The discourse of compassion (both for dogs and for the victims of the outbreak) became a vehicle in which whiteness and maleness were privileged over and against the animal/native other. Onion’s skillful treatment of literary materials that might seem innocuous at first glance (and that is exactly their power) revealed that even compassion and mercy can become tools for domination.
The “Animal Noises” session on Friday morning, affectionately dubbed “The Doctor Doolittle Panel” by attendees, had people knocking at the door of the conference room because the whale / clarinet duo played on loudspeakers by David Rothenberg vibrated the hotel floors. Rothenberg’s paper attempted a new, improvisational approach to the mystery of the meaning of whale song. Rather than categorize the song by transcribing it onto graph paper and mathematically analyzing it, Rothenberg asked, why not go along with it? The paper raised questions about what “counts” as meaningful and called attention to the ways in which science privileges quantifiable information above other modes of representation. Una Chaudhuri’s paper on bird song and artistic portrayals of birds similarly called to attention the ambiguity of bird song and the limits of human knowledge. The artworks, “avianworks,” she described put the observer into the bird’s shoes (feet?) through technology, whether by donning a bird suit and participating in a virtual reality game or by listening to bird song on speakers mounted in trees. Lucinda Cole completed the panel with her paper, “Renaissance Physiognomy and Animal Speech.” The paper explored the category of Natural Magick, the precursor to modern science which seriously investigated the possibility of teaching quadrupeds how to speak. The paper provocatively asked what the history of Western thought might have become if it had not been so influenced by the Aristotelian / Thomist hierarchy of species. The more esoteric, Neo-Platonic, approach evidenced by alchemy and natural magick shows that alternative visions of human-animal relationships have historically existed and can still exist today.
A few other papers in the Friday afternoon sessions deserve mention. Stephanie Turner’s paper, “Code-breaking Cryptids,” told the heartbreaking story of the Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, thought to have gone extinct in the 1920’s or 1930’s. The photos that Turner showed of the last remaining captive tigers had a haunting quality, while her analysis of cryptids, those difficult to categorize quasi-members of taxonomic trees, showed that the very idea of species imputes too much stability and familiarity when it comes to the vast array of animal forms on the planet. The existence of cryptozoology and the massive extinctions of the past century demonstrate that most life-forms will never be categorized and that living creatures will always elude taxonomic schemes. The thylacine photos provided a complement to Eva Hayward’s discussion of her photos of whale flukes. The photograph, Hayward suggested, should not be viewed as merely an imperialistic tool that converts living flesh into dead artifact. Photographs should rather be seen as ethereal extensions of animal agency: the whales extend themselves through human technology for their own preservation. Finally, Susan Nance’s paper on rodeo bull, Bodacious, further demonstrated the agency of animals in using human technology and culture for their own ends. Bodacious became a bull-superstar and even had his own agent; his stats were listed in rodeo publications much like the stats on the back of a baseball card. Bodacious also developed his own unique way of throwing riders, a dangerous (to the rider) vertical twist that merited him fame as well as retirement.
To mention one more panel before closing this all-too-brief review, the “Animals and Ethics” panel Saturday morning continued the fruitful discussion on the intersection of animals, technology, and culture. Annie Potts discussed body modification in the British documentary Animal Tragic, which features such personalities as CatMan and Lizard Man, people who have modified their bodies through tattoos and implants to become their animal avatars 24 / 7. Aside from the general shock value of these human / animal hybrids, the paper demonstrated that each performer viewed his or her transformation differently. Lizard Man viewed the project as merely aesthetic and had no real need to sympathize with other creatures, while CatMan desired to become a cat. In fact, CatMan felt himself to really be a cat and found a feline kinship that he could not put into words. This segued nicely into Cary Wolfe’s paper, “(Un)thinking Animals.” Using Derrida’s later works as well as Coetzee’s novel The Lives of Animals, Wolfe questioned the idea that philosophers and other animal theorists must justify concern for animals via logical propositions. The paper nicely summarized the shift that has taken place in animal philosophy from the animal rights or animal liberation perspectives of Regan and Singer to the Continental perspectives prevalent today. Finally, Jonathan Burt and Jennifer Boyd analyzed the anti-vivisection movement in late 19th century Great Britain, showing how this movement, intended to reduce cruelty to animals, had the paradoxical effect of moving science out of the public eye. The restrictions placed on vivisection also had the unintended effect of making the issue disappear: the public and policymakers alike could wash their hands of the issue because the treatment of animals had been codified in law.
The conference as a whole demonstrated that scholars from a variety of disciplines no longer need to apologize for writing about animals. What might have seemed like a topic of marginal interest a few years ago has hit, if not the mainstream, at least a sizable niche. The SLSA has become a very good venue for animal studies, and the interdisciplinary nature of the society actually supports this work very well. No one can write about animals without also writing about the all-too-human histories and assumptions that go into the description: talking about “animals” is talking about “humans” and vice versa. Since the SLSA carries its own disciplinary hybridity, the members of the society are uniquely situated to investigate the borderline between animal and human cultures. So the code metaphor has its problems, but what metaphor doesn’t? The best that academicians can do is to probe the implications of using this or that lens to describe the phenomena, a task which the panelists undertook with alacrity.
Review of Animal Stream at "Code: 21st Annual Conference of the SLSA"
Date Published: December 19, 2007