Originally published here.
On Friday, March 30, the Hermanns Lecture Symposium brought four scholars to UTA to discuss animals. While the types of animals discussed varied greatly, present in all of the talks were several common threads including the concept of contagion involved in the interaction between humans and nonhuman animals. The recurrence of this contagious discourse about the human-animal border in the Hermanns lectures raises the question of whether or not there is a way to discuss the human-animal border without resorting to discourses of contagion.
Dr. Peggy McCracken (University of Michigan) spoke on snakes and faciality in medieval texts. McCracken’s discussion of snakes in medieval French romances demonstrates how the shifting borders between human and snake can be read as “not transformation, but contamination.” The contamination occurs not only to the human, but to the snake as well since the snake is both denied of its own agency and subjectivity (its “snakeness,” if you will) and must be sublimated into the consciousness of a woman.
Associate Professor Dr. Neill Matheson (English) spoke about the differing notions of the animal and animality in Thoreau’s Walden. Matheson brought up Thoreau’s concern with the contamination of the human by the animal and the fact that the human is always already contaminated by the animal. For Thoreau, such contagious transference is unidirectional with the focus being on the pure human versus the contaminated animal.
Dr. Cary Wolfe (Rice University) spoke about the two genealogies of animal rights and biopolitics and how they inform understandings of humans and nonhuman animals. Concluding with the example of pathogens that result from the mass production of animals for food, Wolfe stressed how excessive use of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistant pathogens and how this threat is contained through more mass killings of animals to prevent the disease from spreading to humans. This threat of contagious transference can lead to increasingly violent and detrimental actions (both to animals and humans) in attempts to preserve the human-animal border and ward against contamination.
Visual artist Allison Hunter presented and spoke about a selection of her artwork involving animals. Hunter’s art contains visual representations of humans’ contagious influence on animals. Many of Hunter’s photographs show how removing the marks of human presence (itself a kind of contagion) allow viewers to see the animals in a different way. Other pieces show where the marks of human presence/contamination are still present, but are over-emphasized in a way that calls attention to how the animals are contaminated by human presence.