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Making It New: A One-Year Celebration

April 3, 2018 completes the one-year anniversary of our submission of After Coetzee: An Anthology of Animal Fictions to the printer. And we are proud of our accomplishment—that of our editor and of our contributors. We thank them, one and all. 

At the time of After Coetzee's inception, a literary project did not exist to reflexively made plain the ways that Western philosophy, science, and theology had failed nonhuman animals. None but that of J.M. Coetzee, over three novels and multiple works. Besides Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello, a literary project did not exist that also traced this failure back to the Cartesian moment—and countered it by offering something far more responsible. Rather, it's thanks to scholars that we have a clearly delineated understanding of the Cartesian legacy. 

Our anthology is further predicated on the understanding that literature itself had failed nonhuman animals, specifically by "aestheticizing" violence toward them [1] and by rendering them as projections of human desire and need taking the shape of animal bodies—or rather, of animal parts, of fluff and fur, of snout and tail. Literature, we maintained, had become the cultural apparatus of a society formed out of forced forgetting: a forgetting that our animal others are thinking, feeling, suffering, and joyous beings. We wanted otherwise. In creating the anthology, our one defining principle, from which flowed other principles, was that the use and abuse of other animals is a moral wrong. 

Our anthology constitutes a project born of a wholly new idea, and so one that only one model at its inception: J.M. Coetzee’s oeuvre, which served as example and invitation. Our watchword in creating the project years ago was literary “agnosticism,” what is otherwise called “multiplicity": our anthology does not offer a final, singular answer to “the question of the animal,” or rather the question of how to represent animals, of which humans are a kind. Instead, its stories, play, and hybrid experimental pieces offer something for everyone interested in a literature for and about animals. The narrative contributions give readers settings, plots, and circumstances, through which to witness, think through, and experience our failures and our successes in attempting what we call a "rapprochement" between "animality" and "humanity." The more conceptual works—the play, the prose-poem, and poem-documentary hybrid—use associative logics to effect that rapprochement.

In the years between After Coetzee's inception and publication, astounding work has been published in a genre that has no name, but that we would call "fiction for nonhuman animals." Foremost is Thalia Field's masterful Experimental Animals, Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and others.

We are excited for what's next. And we look forward to other literatures that make new our relations with our creaturely kin, kin who are kindred to the creatures we humans are.

1. Please see Houser's interview with Mariann Sullivan of Our Hen House. Houser wishes to acknowledge Josephine Donovan's "Aestheticizing Animal Cruelty." As Houser prepared a number of presentations and began writing about the tropological breakdown of nonhuman animals through, for instance, synecdoche, she found Donovan's work a helpful corollary. 

 

A personal reflection from the editor:

"[Our] time will come."

—Gregor Mendel, who articulated Mendelian inheritance and thus founded the modern study of genetics.[1]

It’s April 3, 2018 as I complete this post, and I am thinking of foundations. On April 3, 2017, the craft-digital printer that prints copies intended for U.S. domestic and education distribution received the final MS for After Coetzee: An Anthology of Animal Fictions. I had completed most of the introduction by 2015, but I continued to cull, incorporate, and order late-coming submissions, and our friend Okla Elliott, author, editor, and publisher, completed his proofreading shortly before passing away at 39. We miss Okla, a champion of literature that matters.

The first call for submissions went out in 2012. But the impetus for the project really began as far back as 1990, with my studies in environmental ethics and The Case for Animal Rights.

There’s been a refreshing resurgence of interest in that foundational book since another passing, that of Tom Regan, the author and philosopher who wrote The Case for Animal Rights and, in so doing, changed the landscape of ethics. But more than a philosopher’s treatise, Regan’s “case” is a document for revolutionaries, academic and activist alike. In the nascent days of the animal-rights movement, The Case for Animal Rights served to undergird the derided work of activists with an unshakable argument: other animals are the subjects—the feeling, thinking, and self-conscious centers—of their own lives.[2] 

An activist himself, Regan knew that revolution would be carried along the current of the cultural. And so, together with his wife Nancy, Tom Regan founded the Culture & Animals Foundation, which provides grants to change-makers whose creativity and research advances the cause of other animals. I was deeply gratified and humbled to be awarded a grant in 2013, not only because the grant jumpstarted the work of this anthology, and not only because I joined a roster of recipients I admired, but because Tom Regan’s letter constituted a kind of certificate of completion of dozen-year journeys. As a minor example, Regan taught at North Carolina State University, where my former mentor and employer in bioethics, Gary Comstock, now teaches. 

More fundamentally, Regan’s work offered a foundational primer and intervention to the ideas environmental ethics used to favor. Prior to working for Gary, I studied with Baird Callicott, earning a B.A. in philosophy (and in English, as well as a minor in ecology). Though Callicott taught a portion of The Case for Animal Rights, and I am forever grateful to him for doing so, ultimately he argued against Regan’s position. Now, environmental ethics is shifting in step with the “animal turn” in academia, and there are those few, such as Dale Jamieson, who had already attempted a rapprochement between animal liberation and environmental ethics. Callicott himself has reconsidered some of his prior arguments.[3] 

But as I describe in the introduction to After Coetzee, the typical environmental-ethics position had been, and often enough still is, oriented toward “a wide-focus view of the pastoral” and other “biotic”[4] communities. Such a view “prizes certain tableaux—the wooly geometrics of bison bent over a hill” with a concomitant “concern not for the suffering individual, but for the transorganic, unsuffering whole: species, ecosystems, the planet.” I meant “unsuffering” in two senses: the lexicographic sense and the sense that is carried by how the word sounds—that is, as “without suffering.” Until recently, scientific inquiry and disciplines that drew from it were allergic to any whiff of “anthropomorphism.” And so they compensated to a degree many find unreasonable by questioning whether other animals had minds at all. (What is meant by “minds,” indeed of consciousness, is debated, but certain accepted features include what’s known as mental time travel.)

During my studies those years ago, The Case for Animal Rights, which I purchased and read and re-read in its entirety, became my dog-eared bible[5], a go-to text to quote, chapter and verse, when speciesist arguments inevitably cropped up in barroom debates and zoology lab. (I refused to dissect, instead rescuing a “lab rat”—Ralph, my beloved friend—from certain death.) In a broader sense, Regan’s formulations helped solidify and concretize my lifelong intuitions, and they emboldened me as I continued studies in English literature and creative writing. Why, I consistently asked of my graduate program’s faculty, did literature (particularly the androcentric narratives of writers like Hemingway) have such an aversion to representing nonhuman animals as beings with “projects” and “prerogatives,” beings who exist “in themselves, for themselves”? For the most part, nonhuman animals have been metaphorically press-ganged into literary service, transmogrified into tropes—that is, as I articulated in calls for submissions and discuss in the introduction, turned into symbols and metaphors.

And not only literary: the flattening of the lives and subjectivities of nonhuman animals is rife throughout culture. I grew up noticing that, as John Berger identifies in Why Look at Animals?, other beings were shunted off from the flow of built environments[6] and boxed into freezers and zoos. I noticed that they are returned to us as outlines of being rather than as being itself: in illustrations on nurses’ scrubs (frogs and ducks), in plastic lawn ornaments, in cartoons. But as I became a reader of canonic literature, I also noticed that it’s simply not true that literature has always failed to be on the side of our animal kin. I think of Montaigne (“For why shall a gosling not say thus: ‘All the parts of the universe have me in view...”); I think of Wordsworth (“we murder to dissect”); I think of Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature. Sporadic and often slight, but nonetheless there in the archives. (And I must make it clear that I am not speaking of literature the world over, but of literature written in English.)

After Coetzee: An Anthology of Animal Fictions was not just an idea years in the making. It was an idea a lifetime in the making, born of studies in philosophy meeting studies in literature and finding both wanting—and, for me, heartbreakingly so. I waited years for both gates to break open. They weren’t opening, not until Coetzee released The Lives of Animals and, especially, Elizabeth Costello, and then the Elizabeth Costello short fiction after. So with Coetzee’s example, we opened the gates further. And then waited years for submissions. And when we finally had enough contributions, and I had an introduction written, the moment of completion was beautiful. We have some ways yet to go, of course. The new is a beginning. We began.

Yes, at the very least, what can be said of our anthology is that we began. And that we began with such talented contributors. 

Whom on this day, I thank again. 

—A. Marie Houser



Footnotes Probably Unnecessary to Informal Notes
1. Mendel actually wrote, “My time will come.” I have always loved the complicated and controversial narrative of Mendel and his inheritance studies with peas, even as I retain a healthy skepticism of the substitution of religious fanaticism with scientific fanaticism.
2. Other approaches to animal ethics, such as Adams and Donovan’s care ethics and Gruen’s “entangled empathy,” have since provided pivotal directions.
3. He has written convincingly against conceptions of “wilderness,” “nature,” and “invasive species” and has modified his positions on nonhuman animals, influenced by the work of moral philosopher Mary Midgley. Yet Callicott did speak as a representative of environmental ethics for sometime, most especially as the inheritor of Aldo Leopold’s legacy. As such, scholars such as Dale Jamieson consider his earlier work responsible for environmental ethics’ hostility toward animal rights and liberation. Though Regan called Callicott a friend, the two did not mince words about each other's professional work. 
4. ”Biotic” is Aldo Leopold’s word. I focused on the idea of the “pastoral” because, as Callicott notes in an early book, Leopold generalized his ideas about farming from farming to other “biotic” communities. But the line about bison refers to Callicott’s absorption (or appropriation, as has been the criticism) of, for instance, Ojibwa ethics. 
5. As my studies went on, feminist and critical-race theory texts joined Regan’s to become a part of a formative canon of thought. Now, my bookcases are filled with, in addition to Adams and Donovan, and Gruen, as well as a bevy of CAS scholars, Moten, Glissant, Bersani, Haraway, Taylor (Sunaura), Kafer—a list I will probably edit as I glance at my books—and too many more to count. But I’m also mainly reading literature of all sorts these days, from genre noir to cross-genre hybrids.
6. Or so it appears; but we do not notice the animals who teem in soil beneath our feet or in cover of darkness among the trees.