Jun 16, 2011

A zoogrammatology of literature

Having recently been to a major international conference here in Brazil on the interfaces between animality and literature (the name translates to "Animals, Animality and the Limits of the Human"), I'm beginning to feel even more the urgent need for the very thing my talk was about - a zoogrammatology of literary texts, literary theory and literature in general.

While I acknowledge the difference in focus between me and most of my peers (I have a BA in English Language and Lit, which brings me closer to an Anglo-American strand of criticism), I have a tendency to think that most of what passes as critical and theoretical engagements with literary texts in Brazilian academia betrays some kind of naïveté and an uncritical, ellitist, perfunctory celebration of literariness.

This is certainly not only the case in Brazil, but since the vast majority of scholars I know who analyze what Spanish-speakers call "el giro animal" (the animal turn) exclusively in literature are indeed Brazilians, I tend to think that it's safe to assume that this is a problem endemic to literary animal studies (what some people have started calling zooliterature).

The name itself is confusing - is zooliterature the name for specific literary texts which depict, represent, problematize and give voice to animals, or is it the name of a type of critical and theoretical alignment and criticism within literary thought? I'm afraid many people would say the former.

Personally, I have little interest in revisiting, discovering or revealing authors who have written texts whose contents depict new, daring, exciting or outright posthumanist views on animals. Most of the times this kind of mapping goes little beyond pointing out where specific literary texts echo liberal and eco-friendly philosophical views. This concern for some kind of "literary translation" of animal philosophy always has me wondering whether anyone would care if I were to paraphrase Derrida or Lévinas or Bataille on a Post-It and stuck it to the refrigerator door. The fact that when literature does it, it matters, just leads me to the conclusion that many of these thinkers are going along the lines of "if a writer wrote it, it's hot!" (Luckily I am proud to say that my advisor is not one of them!)

As for me, I believe that the mere thinking of animals when dealing with literature should disrupt many things we take for granted about literary texts. If animal "presences" in texts are valued for their potential of disrupting traditional ideas of mind, language and representation, it seems contradictory to me to read the language in which the text is written in any direct and transparent way when one will show the textual representation of such animal. This is clearly paradoxical, but that's why it's so intoxicatingly interesting.

When a scholar points out that an animal is being represented in a new light in such and such section of such and such text, I always feel like asking "But how do you know that? How can you be so sure of what these words mean? How can you treat literary language as description or narration when this animal staring you right in the face is precisely telling you this can't be done?" Because that's what I think animals do in literature and that's what really draws me to this issue in the first place - animals reveal that literature relies on very specific linguistic functions in order to work at all (things like the sign, syntax, mimesis and objectivity come readily to mind) precisely by presenting themselves as evidences of it. For it is clear to me that most of the metaphysical bases of many literary concepts are the same which have created the animal when the human/animal boundary was established (think signifier/signified, form/content, code/utterance, system/instance). Going into "animal lands" feels like traversing an imaginary line beyond which literature threatens to stop working, or at least start working in an entirely new way or foregrounding entirely different things.

In short, the animal short-circuits literary functioning by plugging literariness directly into the metaphysical concepts of animality which have engendered it. But happens after that is what I think a zoogrammatology of literature should be able to find out (and that's exactly the argument of my dissertation). I would risk saying that, in zooliterature, there can be no stable, graspable meaning and "animal presences" can be found only as the conditions for the very signification and literariness of texts.

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