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  • Animals as subjects

    Posted on November 30th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    The readings this week argues animals have their agency and thus can be subjects of history from the perspective of animals’ life world, language, military partnership. Erica Fudge recovered cows’ order of their life world; Susan Pearson discusses the changing concept of language and mind to illustrate animals’ communication. Brett Walker, Chris Pearson and David Shaw put much attentions on the ideas of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory and Donna Haraway to legitimate the agency of nonhuman.

    This is my first time to think about animals as being subjects with agency and intentionality. While I realized this first-time experience, I wonder how I had not thought about it before. I always feel my cat has her own order of the world and I am her servant in her world, how could I not think about animals are subjects before reading the articles this week? For me, the questions are not whether animals have agency, but how to represent animals with agency in historical research.

    In this sense, Fudge’s piece about cows is an example of representing animals as this article shows cows had their order of the world and did play roles in the past. While the authors this week all argue animals’ agency and I agree with them, I eager to see more studies which actually writings about animals.

    What I don’t quite understand is Pearson’s piece about language. I know the issue of whether animals have languages (both oral and body languages) connects with whether animals have mind and self, the most important part of agency. However, just like Pearson describes, scholars try “to answer this question: what is the human mind without language?” (p.101) Thus, I wonder why animals must have the ability to “speak” in order to have agency. Is it necessary to build mind and self with languages? Or can we (human and nonhuman) be agents without language? Can we have “self” without communication? These questions have been discussed at least in psychology and anthropology. I think if the author can mention these question at the first to second part of the article, it can bring a boarder context of this issue to the audience before jumping into this symbolic approach of mind and self.



    4 responses to “Animals as subjects” RSS icon

    • I also really enjoyed Fudge’s piece regarding cows! I found her suggestion that, in order to understand animals, we (historians) might have to consider looking to others (not typically trained historians or scholars, OR other types of thinkers) to help reveal aspects of the thought processes of different animals, to be especially intriguing. I think this line of thought has parallels to Smail’s Deep Thinking, suggesting that in order to broaden our understanding and scope of our field, we must look for help from outside of it.

      In terms of Pearson’s piece on language, I found it to be the most dense of the readings. However, I am of the mindset that agency does not necessitate communication or language; the components that constitute viruses don’t communicate, and yet the effects of disease has altered the course of history throughout time. For me, I think these readings inspire a transformation of the typical understanding of agency and who or what possess or demonstrates it. Rather than necessitating language or intentionality, perhaps there are other forms or tiers of agency and actors that can reciprocate and work in tandem with human agency and in doing so, contribute to the historical narrative.

    • The issue of language is really important and somewhat intractable, no? We need to be clear about what we mean by language. Lots of animals have ways to communicate things like “run away from that lion!” or “there are tasty berries over here.”Some may communicate at a more abstract or symbolic level using emotions such as empathy or grief. And interspecies communication (i.e. between humans and dogs) can be very sophisticated. Like other markers of human “uniqueness,” such as tool use, the issue of language involves differences in degree rather than kind.

    • I had a similar experience with the readings–how had I never thought of this before? Fudge’s work on the cows was very eye-opening, and I do agree that cows must have an established world order within which they work. The difficulty I have, though, is ever understanding that order. While involving other disciplines can provide insight, won’t we always try to arrange their experiences through a human definition?

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