First, just a “thanks” to aufs for hosting the livestream of our divinanimality conference at Drew this past weekend. While the event is still fresh, I also thought I might pose a couple of questions that began to gestate over the course of this four day conference. My ears are selectively attentive. So whatever I report will (naturally) be told a bit slant. But, nonetheless, I’m interested in broad questions, about how religious studies and theology might infect/intersect with the ever-expanding storehouse of scholarship in animal studies.
Of course there were theological questions, calling attention to the sticky relations between creatures, creators, creations. But I think one of the most fruitful conversations—one that kept coming up over the course of the weekend—was the ontological distinction between the “animal” and the “creaturely.” While the conference intended to foreground the challenges that animals and divinities pose to humanist orthodoxies, many pointed to the “creaturely” as a plane of engagement that seems to do something different. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question (and have a forthcoming piece about it, in the volume resulting from the “Metaphysics & Things” conference at the Claremont Graduate University last December). But it was interesting to hear this conversation broadening. Kate Rigby suggested that the creaturely is a more “democratic” conceptual space—inclusive of both humans and animals, as well as plants, monsters. Perhaps even machines. This space isn’t unlike that given to “actors” in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, Alfred North Whitehead’s “actual entities” or even OOO’s objects. But, of course, the creaturely has a theological genealogy. Which makes it easier to explore this concept in the field of religious ideas. In spite of the generic, egalitarian potential of the creaturely, however, Catherine Keller noted that the animal is a figure that’s visiting our world of ideas with particular intensity right now, and that this is worth further thought and attention.
There was also an open (and sometimes tense) question over the course of the weekend about the “boundary lines”. Species fences. What was it that speakers were trying to do with the “line” that’s said to exist between humans and animals? Were they attempting bring light to the abyssal and multiple differences, as Derrida claimed he was trying to do in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008)? Or was there an effort to blur distinctions and draw attention to our human animality? There was a hunger from those in attendance to see these questions unfold in closer relation to (for example) critical race theory, given the many violent historical collaborations between racism and animalization. In other words, that perhaps the fences between species shouldn’t be opened very wide unless we’re also prepared to do critical analyses of power relations.
We spent a good deal of time, additionally, talking about animals and the apocalyptic—the various ways in which these biblical narratives often seem to amplify and underscore (with extravagant animal imagery) the creaturely anxieties of our mortal fragility. Animals seem to have (historically) made us think the death of not only of the individual body, but the mortal fragility of the entire “creation.” They are something like terrestrial cousins who testify to a nagging intellectual intuition—that what we call animate is only tenuously, contingently so.
But animals also seem to be functioning, especially today, in a contrary manner, too. That the human is (without question) an animal seems to be a fact with the power to comfort. Especially now, when it’s so clear that the human world we’ve created has changed our entire planet for the worst. We’ve been incredibly bad housekeepers. Do animals seem, somehow, better at this? Or do they figure as the promise of a world that’s less divided? Philosophy has become newly excited about realism. So the almost utopian potency of animal figures raises questions for me. On the one hand: does the animacy behind all of this animality become an idealist liability? On the other: aren’t small utopian pulses of hope also necessary things (alternative energy sources) in our “real” or actual world?
At any rate, I’d be interested to hear further thoughts on all of these thoughts from aufs readers. Or other questions that might be coming up for you, at the nexus of religion/theology and animal studies. What can we talk about, in departments of religion or theology, that might not come up elsewhere?