As science and environmental studies increasingly challenge us to rethink the nature/culture binary, they also place increased pressure on the traditionally defined institutional category of “the humanities.” It seems as though we have arrived at an “animal moment.”1 While the animals have always been with us, and we with them and we as one among them, over the course of the last few years several journals have published special issues on animals, including Mosaic, New Formations, Parallax, and TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies. Contemporary criticism seems to be confirming the oft-quoted Lévi-Strauss phrase that “animals are good to think with.”2 The question becomes this: What are the methods and parameters of such thought and are the animal invited to the table? If so, are they there as companions with whom we break bread, or are they flesh that is eaten, or do they work within some other modality of, perhaps, wildness? The animal poses for us a range of ontological and epistemological questions that is in part why so much is being written about them.
As posthumanist theory confronts the question of the animal, we might recall Bruno Latour’s characterization of modernity: that [End Page 1] it is predicated on the necessary fiction of separating nature as the realm of the nonhuman from culture, hereafter to be known as “the realm of the human.” Under modernity, the nonhuman enters the realm of culture only by paying tribute to the dominion of the human who reigns there. While modernity made possible a more democratic politics within the social realm, it did so only by reifying the myth of dominion, under which the natural realm was subjected to the rule of culture. What an ecologically alert posthumanism offers is what Latour might call a “nonmodernist” rethinking of the logic that underwrites such a separation.
Of special interest in the context of such an encounter between posthumanist theorizing of agency and an expanded ecological awareness of our place in the world is the “agential realism” of Karen Barad:
learning how to intra-act responsibly within the world means understanding that we are not the only active beings—though this is never justification for deflecting that responsibility onto other entities. The acknowledgement of nonhuman agency does not lessen human accountability; on the contrary, it means that accountability requires that much more attentiveness to existing power asymmetries.3
This seems to us an infinitely more satisfying and potentially more powerful account of our ecological location in the world than the old empiricist epistemology that we inherited with the trope of dominion. The notion of “world” in Barad’s philosophy of phenomena resonates profoundly with Jakob von Uexkull’s notion of umwelt, as recovered recently in Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal. A fundamental insight of the ecologist von Uexkull is the observation—at once strange and yet immediately self-evident—that we do not share a world with other creatures. Rather, other creatures who inhabit alongside us a shared environment, participate in that environment, both perceiving and responding to it via the mediation of sensory apparatuses so distinct from our own as to make our world and their’s quite different.
Overall, the essays in this issue provide the reader with ranging interests and possibilities opened by the animal question. As Derrida observes in “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” animal is our word and our generalization for all that walks, crawls, swims, and flies other than our selves—or at least that part of our [End Page 2] selves that is most rational.4 As a word, animal is an abstraction from the particularities of any singular beast or unique swarm; the word is used to cover over the very question of the “animal.” Once uncovered, this question spawns many others: How do we represent animals (as in Anita Guerrini’s essay on an eighteenth-century French Histoire des animaux and Jonathan Burt’s essay on animal, death, and film)? How do the real animals escape the “virtual menagerie” of such representations? How do we treat them (as explored through the fiction of...