Since the appearance of Covid-19 in early 2020, our world has changed–perhaps permanently. Societies around the world have experienced major economic disruptions, health systems have become destabilized, both mental illness and chronic illness are skyrocketing, children’s education and socialization has become disrupted, politics have become more polarized and fascism is on the rise, and existing inequities–regarding morbidity and mortality, income and wealth, policing and more–are becoming harder to ignore. On top of all of this, we are living through a time of incalculable species loss.
While much of the world is focused on getting “back to normal,” I am proposing that, as a scholar who–like all of us who work in animal studies/HAS/anthrozoology–already works in the margins of academia, we do not ignore the social problems that have emerged or been exposed through the pandemic, but instead, we face them, and bring them into our work. I propose that we lean into, rather than away from, the uncertainty of this time, using the idea of the monster as our entry point.
Monsters are creatures that defy categorization. They include those animals who do not easily fit into the bio-cultural categories which we use to order and understand our world, such as pangolins, hyenas, and platypuses, animals which are, to borrow a phrase from Mary Douglas, “matter out of place.” These animals once evaded scientific classification, but through the codification of the natural sciences that was enabled through British exploration and imperialism, were ultimately incorporated into these systems. This process of discovering, naming, and classifying animal species is necessarily both reductive and decontextualized, and ignores the more subjective and relational knowledge of the indigenous people who have long coexisted with these creatures.
The root of the word “monster” comes from the words monstrum, monstrare, and monere, which translate to “that which reveals, that which warns” and “to show or reveal.” Monsters, by virtue of their existence at the intersection between human and animal, wild and domestic, science and myth, and between knowable and unknowable, offer an opportunity to sit with uncertainty. These creatures who stubbornly resist our efforts to control and discipline them can help us to live with the less comfortable aspects of our multispecies world such as violence, pain, and loss.
Monsters trouble not only our scientific categories, but our moral ones as well, and can and do expose our own monstrous nature. Humans are the deadliest species on the planet, destroying life when and where it suits us–but especially if there is a profit to be made. Monsters, because they resist classification, also resist becoming incorporated into a capitalist logic which demands efficiency, productivity, and that all things–including living beings–be useful.
This workshop will be, like monsters themselves, messy. We will use the idea of the monstrous to try to better understand our relationships with other species, but also to deconstruct those relationships, and to interrogate some of the assumptions that underlie them.
Finally, we will explore non-textual means of doing animal studies. Monsters demand that we do not limit our work to text. Working with monsters means meeting them where they exist: in folktales, songs, myths, and art–spaces where animals also exist. Bringing these unconventional materials into our research and teaching means making space for the uncertain, the hidden, and the speculative, and could, I hope, help us to better navigate these uncharted spaces and uncertain times.
This workshop is for graduate students, independent researchers, and scholars of human-animal studies who wish to explore some of the more troubling aspects of the human-animal relationship.
Bubandt, N. (2019). Of wildmen and white men: cryptozoology and inappropriate/d monsters at the cusp of the Anthropocene. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 25(2), 223-240.
Godin, G. (2022). Monstrous things: horror, othering, and the Anthropocene. Post-Medieval Archaeology, 56(2), 116-126.
Magnone, S. B. (2016). Finding Ferality in the Anthropocene: Marie Darrieussecq’s “My mother told me monsters do not exist”. Feral Feminisms, (6), 33-45.
The workshop will include a discussion of the readings as well as a hands-on component where we will consider ways to bring these issues into the classroom, especially via non-textual methods of instruction. Participants should come away from the workshop with:
An understanding of monster theory/ies and how these theories are applied to larger conversations regarding race, gender, class, and ultimately, humanity
An understanding of the ways in which culture constructs, classifies, and codifies ideas about the nature of humans, the human-animal border, and animality
Ideas to use in the classroom to engage students and to problematize many of the essentialist ideas surrounding animals and humans
This will be a 4-hour workshop, and will be open to a maximum of 20 participants. Anyone with an interest in human-animal studies is welcome, but the topic of the workshop demands that participants must have a good working knowledge of the field. Participants need not formally apply or submit materials before the workshop.