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  • Hermeneutics beyond the Species BoundaryExplanation and Understanding in Animal Narratives
  • David Herman (bio)

Is textual action (what we’re willing to do with words) where behavioral theory might begin?

—Thalia Field, Bird Lovers, Backyard

Although my epigraph is taken from the case study in narrative experimentation to be discussed in this essay—namely, Thalia Field’s reflexive, polygeneric text Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010)—it resonates with key contributions made by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur to the domain of hermeneutical theory. Specifically, Field’s formulation can be compared with the program for research outlined by Ricoeur in essays such as “Explanation and Understanding,” “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation,” and “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text.” In these studies Ricoeur argues that ways of engaging with texts provide a model for interpreting action, while also positing a dialectical relationship between understanding [End Page 1] (Verstehen) and explanation (Erklärung). Ricoeur follows the hermeneutical tradition in linking understanding to the top-down, pre- or non-deliberative use of available schemes for sense-making, and explanation to the bottom-up, deliberative modification of those schemes; such modification is required when default assumptions about how the world works fail to find purchase. He further argues that “rather than constituting mutually exclusive poles, explanation and understanding [can] be considered as relative moments in a complex process that could be called interpretation” (1991b: 126). Analogously, by intermixing fictional and nonfictional characters, layering narratively organized sequences with non-or anti-narrative accretions of themes and motifs, and shifting between forms of life writing and ecological-biogeographical discourse on how individual lives unfold within larger biotic communities, Field’s text demonstrates how storytelling practices at once reflect and help shape assumptions about the structure and meaning of actions-in-context. In other words, by exploiting a striking variety of textual formats, and thus making palpable its own status as a constructed artifact, Bird Lovers, Backyard simultaneously projects a storyworld inhabited by acting subjects and draws attention to the way textual designs can be used to project worlds of that sort. Field’s text thereby stages the dialectical interplay between truth and method—the movement between tacit reliance on and critical evaluation of frameworks for sense-making—that Ricoeur and other hermeneutical theorists locate at the heart of interpretive activity (see also Buck 1980; Gadamer 2004; Stueber 2012).1

It is important to underscore here, however, that the behaviorial theory mentioned in my epigraph centers on the behavior of nonhuman animals. Bird Lovers, Backyard (hereafter blb) points up interconnections between forms of textual action and ways of engaging with the nonhuman world in general, animal agents in particular; a fundamental issue raised by the text is how telling animal stories differently might translate into altered conceptions of human-animal relationships and hence of the human itself.2 Field uses a variety of genres and techniques to explore assumptions about animals’ qualities, abilities, and experiences; to interrogate the ontological as well as biological status of species categories; to map out animal geographies3 and show how they embody cultures’ tacit understandings of cross-species relationships; and [End Page 2] to model anthropogenic impacts on surrounding biotic communities, including diminished biodiversity and indeed total species loss. In this manner, by suggesting how literary writing can at once draw on and hold up for scrutiny available frameworks for conceptualizing animal worlds as well as human-animal interactions, blb foregrounds the relevance of hermeneutical inquiry for discourse practices—and modes of agency—that extend beyond the realm of the human. The text thereby resituates what Ricoeur envisioned as philosophical anthropology within a wider area of inquiry that might be called trans-species hermeneutics.4 This investigative domain focuses on how textual practices at once reveal and help constitute cultures’ procedures for categorizing and interpreting stretches of behavior—increments of activity—both within and across the species boundary.

The present analysis explores how Field’s storytelling methods in blb broach issues centrally relevant for a project somewhat more restricted in scope, namely, that of developing a narratology beyond the human. Centering on fictional as well as nonfictional narratives that include but also extend beyond the realm of the human...


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