Learning With Animals: Anthropomorphization and the Animal Mind

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
contact email: 

While it is considered dubious to anthropomorphize animals to learn about them, learning with animals asks scholars to consider both animal and human ways of being and knowing, as well as where those epistemologies might overlap or diverge. Attempting to learn with animals requires consideration of the value of anthropomorphization. Drawing on the burgeoning field of animal studies, we invite literary scholars to consider how literature imagines animals and their ways of being and knowing—whether alternate or familiar.


What would it look like to learn with animals, as Vinciane Despret suggests, and take them on their own terms (146)? In other words, to borrow the question in Despret’s book title, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? This session is focused on navigating the multifaceted ways animals are imagined in literature is significant both because of, as Eileen Crist asserts, “the powerful role that language use plays in the portrayal of animals,” as well as literature’s ability to inspire progressive change in the way we read nonhumans inside and outside of texts (1).

Learning with animals may not be so simple, though, given the limits of human ways of being and knowing. In their book Knowing Animals, Philip Armstrong and Laurence Simmons remind readers of the danger of anthropomorphizing, suggesting that “finding human qualities in nonhuman beings” is an “epistemological vice, a symptom of knowing animals mistakenly” (3). Yet Jane Bennett argues in her book Vibrant Matter that anthropomorphism reveals “similarities across categorical divides,” which “can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings...but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (99). These conflicting views demand meticulous attention, which is why a session exploring them might inspire readers and authors alike to be mindful of the complexities embedded in presumptuous forms of literary animal representation.