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American Quarterly 56.4 (2004) 1125-1134

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The Animal Question

Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory . By Cary Wolfe. Foreword by W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 240 pages. $49.00 (cloth), $18.00 (paper).
Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal . Edited by Cary Wolfe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 203 pages. 10 halftones. $56.95 (cloth), $18.95 (paper).

Peter Singer's call for animal rights in 1975 began with a bold statement in Animal Liberation that linked the "tyranny" of animal oppression with slavery: "This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white humans over black humans."1 The practice of "speciesism," according to Singer, must therefore be condemned as analogous to racism and sexism. Whether these explicit links are plausible or not continues to be debated, but the last quarter century has certainly seen increased attention to the plight of animals in American culture. Only recently, though, has this ethical impulse gained currency within the humanities. The time may seem right, then, for similarly bold statements from critics such as Cary Wolfe, whose two new books call for interventions into the question of the animal. In Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, for example, Wolfe suggests that "much of what we call cultural studies situates itself squarely, if only implicitly, on what looks . . . more and more like a fundamental repression that underlies most ethical and political discourse: repressing the question of nonhuman subjectivity, taking it for granted that the subject is always already human" (1). Wolfe's approach is a far cry from that of Peter Singer, a figure who comes under critical scrutiny in Animal Rites, and the form of posthumanist ethics advocated by Wolfe is not likely to be found in the rhetoric of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) or the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), two organizations created in the aftermath of Singer's landmark book. But Animal Rites, along with Wolfe's edited collection Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal, offers provocative [End Page 1125] grounds for rethinking such fundamental issues as subjectivity, language, and even humanism itself, particularly through a range of theoretical frameworks that should be of interest to scholars from a variety of fields, including American studies, ethics, science studies, animal rights, and ecology, as well as literary theory and criticism.

Wolfe's work is not alone in calling attention to the animal in recent years. A growing number of humanities and social sciences scholars have continued to explore questions related to animals and the human-animal binary, although few are as wide ranging or perhaps field defining as Wolfe.2 What might also be surprising, as Wolfe points out in his introduction to Zoontologies, is that theorists not otherwise known for their interest in animals have also been exploring these issues for a number of years, including Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, Stanley Cavell, Georges Bataille, René Girard, bell hooks, Michael Taussig, Etienne Balibar, Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles, and Evelyn Fox Keller (ix-x). While decades of research in animal cognition and ethology have undermined any attempt to define the "essential" difference between "the human" and "the animal" (tool use, language, altruism, and so on), the larger question for scholars in American studies, in my view, would appear to be whether "species" can simply be added to race, class, gender, and sexuality as an equivalent identity category, or even whether all of these traditional categories are founded upon a larger framework of speciesism or discrimination against nonhuman animals. Many theorists stop short of what might be called a species critique, suggesting instead that the site of "the animal" is crucial most importantly in the formation and negotiation of human identity and power structures. But the intersections of these arguments provide rich grounds for further inquiry.

Wolfe's Animal Rites is a particularly useful place to...


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