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Can the Animal Speak?

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Organizer: Kaushik Ramu

Co-Organizer: Hande Gürses

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“Animals: if only they could talk!” writes Flaubert in Dictionary of Received Ideas (1913). The imagined silence of what we call the animal has founded human productions of species-difference. What could it mean to listen -- in texts, archives, films, elsewhere -- for the animal utterance? What hierarchies might come undone in such listening? What theories of signification, and what points of common sense, should we relax for the animal to escape its own categorizing?
Critical accounts of the animal have tended to recast it as a metaphor for human relations, and as shaped by human priorities: as in children’s books, in discourses of value and extinction, in practices of laboratory-testing. Yet such constructivism has come under pressure: from multi-naturalist thought, from transpersonal approaches to ecology and climate-crises, and from the possibility that ontological difference isn’t always exhausted by cultural difference.
This seminar imagines a landscape in which the animal is not confined to what Derrida, naked before his cat, identifies as its “[its] human concept”. Taking Philippe Descola’s work on ontological pluralism as a provocation, we aim to bring together a range of speculative approaches. What if the novel, for instance, were a mode of multiple life-forms? Or a forest a realm of multiple literatures? If such inversions of the natural and the fictional are latently cosmopolitan, what are the politics of such cosmopolitanism? Can these speculations illuminate — or do they always only obscure or mystify — the operations of sovereign power?
In this beastly spirit, we welcome talks that raise questions of form, homology, affect, and language. As indeed we do fixations on any single species: the Amazon’s jaguars, von Uexküll’s ticks, Lispector's cockroach, Herzog’s foxes and foraminifera.
Some preliminary questions include, but are not limited to, the following:
-- What impact has the animal had on language in the Anthropocene’s discourse?
-- How has the species-concept been taken up in literary criticism?
-- How have novels explored multiple scales and pluralistic temporalities?
-- When do cinema’s animals begin to speak -- or cease to speak?
-- Who sets the boundaries of a landscape that isn’t anthropocentric?
Email abstracts (200-300 words) to hgurses@umass.edu and kaushikr@sas.upenn.edu.

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