Animals have prowled literature from its beginnings in the ancient world through medieval bestiaries and out from the margins of the novel in the modern era. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, animals’ literary presence has generated increasing critical interest. Animal studies, a relatively new interdisciplinary field, calls attention to the accelerating exploitation of animals in the period of industrial modernity and questions what it is possible to know about animals’ own experiences. Foundational theoretical approaches to understanding the historical and philosophical condition of thinking about animals—John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1972), Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and Jacques Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002)—propose a fundamental aporia or gap between human and animal experiences, and they caution against the projection of anthropocentric categories onto animal lives. Many novels from this recent period likewise treat animals as charismatic strangers. Yet other contemporary literature sometimes reimagines human-animal relationships to insist on affinity and continuity. In such novels, animals prompt diverse and often experimental stylistic choices that put pressure on the novel’s traditional association with everyday life, the individual self, the boundaries of the nation, and empirical observation more broadly. Still, many recent novels remain essentially committed to a realist tradition. Some of these—most notably by J. M. Coetzee—depict relations of care between humans and often vulnerable or dependent animals that prompt reflection on the meaning of ethical action. In novels that purport to narrate from animals’ own perspective, writers likewise meditate on the ethics of interspecies relations as they use language innovatively in an effort to realistically evoke the sensorium of another species. Pushing the boundaries of realism, other novels reinvent the animal fable, using varying degrees of fantasy to imagine wild or domesticated animals as tropes that reflect upon human embodiment, community, and politics. Whether realist or fabulist, the novels of contemporary postcolonial and world literature particularly explore the power and limits of mapping histories of human belonging and domination onto animal figures, even as they often highlight the limitations of these comparisons. Not all of these approaches are equally invested in creating a literature that could materially impact the lives of animals in an era of diminishing biodiversity. However, uniting this varied and ever-growing array of novels is a question of how literature can represent the lives of intimately entangled bodies in a globalizing world.
The diversity of scholarly contributions to the interdisciplinary fields of animal studies and posthumanism defies summation. As loosely assembled areas of inquiry, however, these fields contest the exceptionalist elevation of humans above animals on the basis of the latter’s alleged lack of language and reason, their exclusion from the political, their inability to experience pain or to understand death, and their absence of a moral sense of right and wrong. Posthumanism also stresses that species difference warrants an ethico-political attentiveness that eschews automatically reducing animals to figurative representations of gender, sexual, or racial difference. While theses hierarchies are no doubt sustained in part by exploiting the metaphorics of species difference, the urgency of dismantling the human/animal hierarchy has inclined animal studies and a number of cognate fields toward the literal, resulting in non-allegorical readings of texts by authors such as George Orwell, Henry David Thoreau, and Toni Morrison. This preference for literality is also shared by continental philosophers working in speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (OOO), as well as by literary critics who advance the enterprise of “surface reading,” which eschews the notion that texts contain “hidden meanings.” The nonhuman turn has emerged in conjunction with a preference for literality because posthumanism tends to stress immanence rather than transcendence. This ethos engenders a flattening effect that places humans, animals, plants, and things on same ontological level (OOO); resists interpreting literary animals in human terms (literary animal studies); and rejects the role of the critic as a hermeneutic decipherer of texts (surface reading). The “literal turn” thus poses a number of questions for literary theory. Literal meaning is definitionally uniform, but can univocal sense be maintained? In the 1960s, Jacques Derrida radicalized the Saussurian notion of the arbitrary nature of signs, arguing that the isolation of a literal or proper meaning presumes the arrival of signified that would escape the chain of signification. If proper meaning never fully is itself, however, then one can never determine what is properly literal or figurative. Metaphors are typically defined as figures of resemblance that transport the name of one thing to something else. But this definition remains fatally inadequate because “resemblance” itself is metaphoric. In addition to overlooking the equivocality of the terms “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “allegorical,” the literal turn also risks reducing interpretation to a volitional act: a practice of choosing among different available approaches over which the human governs. To what extent do readers who believe they are performing literal readings disavow textual agency: that is, the conditions that texts establish for their own reading? To apply to texts what are often too loosely called “methodologies” is always to find interpretative approaches foiled by textuality’s uncontrollable effects. Does the literal turn thus reinscribe the humanist subject insofar as it presumes the reader’s power to wrest control over the feral force of language? Does it ironically restore human mastery under the guise of surrendering it?
T. Hugh Crawford
Actor-network theory (ANT) is a methodology developed in the 1980s by scholars working primarily in the sociology of science and technology. It is a novel approach as it attempts to redefine actors not so much as willful or intentional agents but instead as any entity—human or nonhuman—that in some way influences or perturbs the activity of a techno-social system. Most effective when examining limited systems such as ship navigation, electrical network failures, and the like, ANT resists large generalizations and categories, including the very notion of the “social” which, according to actor-network theorists, is never an explanation but instead is that which must be explained. Well into the 21st century, practitioners have both embraced and critiqued ANT, but it remains a useful form of inquiry.
Ecocriticism describes and confronts the socially uneven encounters and entanglements of earthly living. As a political mode of literary and cultural analysis, it aims to understand and intervene in the destruction and diminishment of living worlds. A core premise is that environmental crises have social, cultural, affective, imaginative, and material dimensions. Although ranging in its critical engagements across historical periods, cultural texts, and cultural formations, ecocriticism focuses on the aesthetic modes, social meanings, contexts, genealogies, and counterpoints of cultural practices that contribute to ecological ruination and resilience. These include myths about frontiers, progress, and human mastery over animality and nature; capitalist modes of valuing, devaluing, and radically transforming lifeworlds; and biopolitical and racialized inequalities in health, risk, development, and disposability. Ecocriticism also involves broad theoretical engagement with discursive formations and semiotic significations, including the interrogation of crisis frameworks and apocalyptic representations, considering their histories, scales, and temporalities, while also asking how any particular socioecological arrangement comes to count as a matter of concern, for whom, and in which contexts. The concept of nature is a long-standing theoretical topic in ecocriticism. While nature may seem, rather straightforwardly, to be the domain environmentalism seeks to protect, it is a concept on which hinge crucial and contested claims about ontology (the nature of something, such as assertions about human nature as an inherent, often determining set of shared qualities) and epistemology (how we know what is real, such as the scientific practices through which credible assertions can be made that the planetary climate is changing), claims whose modern authority has rested on positioning nature as a domain outside culture. While structuralist and poststructuralist theorists have destabilized the binary opposition of nature to culture, the political and epistemological imperative to engage with nature as simultaneously material and semiotic has spawned an array of theoretical developments, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg figure and other “natureculture” assemblages to new materialisms. Meanwhile, nature circulates as a commodity form and spectacle animating digital, film, and television screens as well as many other consumer products and experiences. Cultural studies approaches to ecocriticism raise questions about the relationships of visual, narrative, and sound representations to economic power, media technologies, and the material and social ecologies through which they are produced and which they form and transform.