The Future of Animal Studies: A Conversation with Lori Gruen

A portrait of Lori Gruen and the cover of Critical Terms for Animal Studies

Critical Terms for Animal Studies is one of those books meant to be shared, taught, and underlined with abandon. Divided into chapters ranging from activism to kinship to vulnerability, the volume offers many entry points into important and evolving debates about what it means to be human and how we understand our relationships with animals. The collection was edited by acclaimed animal studies scholar Lori Gruen, the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Science in Society at Wesleyan University. Gruen coordinates Wesleyan’s Animal Studies program and brings both a firsthand knowledge about the emergence of animal studies and a keen sense of the field’s future directions.

We spoke in May 2019 about how teachers, students, scholars, and activists will find this exciting new collection useful. We also covered her work to build the field of animal studies, why antiracist work is imperative for both animal studies scholars and animal activists, and how she thinks animal studies might be different in 100 years.

Contributors to Critical Terms for Animal Studies foreground how relationships with animals are simply an unavoidable fact of life, something that Gruen’s 2014 book Entangled Empathy also makes clear. That her dog chimed in with a quick bark at one point during our conversation only served to emphasize this point.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Laura Perry: I’m curious what first led you to animal studies. How did your career and your experiences lead you to the field?

Lori Gruen: There were multiple paths that led me to animal studies. The most prominent of the paths was that I studied animal ethics in one of my undergraduate philosophy classes and I found that topic really surprising. I had no idea about the ways that animals were treated in our society. And I also found it really moving. So, I thought about animals a lot after that and my career went in in various directions. I left graduate school to do animal activism and then returned to graduate school to do work in feminist philosophy, but animals have been a part of the work that I’ve done as a philosopher since my undergraduate days.

LP: You work on carceral studies as well. Is there a relationship between your work with incarcerated individuals and your work as an animal activist? How do you see those intersecting?

The cover of The Ethics of Captivity, a white background with a metal cell or cageLG: The work that I’ve done in prisons has been primarily pedagogical work, at least to start with. The very first person that I was teaching philosophy to in prison happened to be an incarcerated animal activist. I was contacted by a lawyer for Lauren, the first woman who was imprisoned under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which is designed to protect corporations from profit loss due to protests from animal activists. She was a member of the SHAC 7, SHAC being the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign, a campaign that engaged in economic protests against Huntingdon labs. She already had a bachelor’s degree and was interested in getting a master’s degree from Antioch. They were looking for somebody who could teach her political philosophy course for her master’s degree, and I agreed. As a result of that course, I became interested in organizing a more sustainable way of teaching. It turned out that some of the students at Wesleyan were interested in starting a more formal prison education program. So, I was able to help get the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan started, and I’ve been teaching political philosophy and other philosophy courses in prisons since we started the program in 2009.

As a result of that experience, I’ve been thinking more about questions of captivity. In 2014, I edited a volume called The Ethics of Captivity. It was the first book—as far as I know—that brought together a discussion of captivity for both humans and nonhumans. And a few chapters in the book are written by people who are incarcerated or were incarcerated, including one by Lauren.

LP: On another episode of this podcast, Dr. Bénédicte Boisseron described you as part of a growing group of scholars who are engaged in antiracist animal studies. How is antiracist work important to animal studies as a field—or how should it be? And how is antiracist work central to your work in particular?

LG: Antiracist work is absolutely imperative for animal studies scholars and especially animal activists. Some campaigns by activists have been really offensive and deeply uninformed in my view. Those campaigns that engage in a simple comparison between the plight of Black people and the plight of animals miss the complexity of these issues that is really important to have at the fore. What ends up happening is that we get caught up in this zero-sum mentality, and we end up having Black activists and Black scholars pitted against animal activists or animal studies scholars. And this is a real tragedy, because it continues to reinscribe white human patriarchal norms. So increasingly I’ve been teaching and working with activists that I know—and there are a lot of other activists who are doing this work—to make sure that these kinds of facile, offensive comparisons or parallels aren’t drawn.

There’s part of animal studies that has become really quite sophisticated in thinking about antiblack racism and the underlying ideology that constructs the very concept of the human as a white human and therefore the nonhuman and Blackness are seen as outside of the concept of the human. So, interrogating the concept of the human itself has been a centrally important new avenue for thinking about both animal studies and what we might call the critical philosophy of race or work on antiblack racism.

LP: Let’s talk about your latest book, Critical Terms for Animal Studies, which is a collection of chapters that each address a critical term to the field, like life, extinction, kinship, personhood, biopolitics. Contributors include some of the most exciting people working in animal studies today like Thom van Dooren, Colin Dayan, Claire Jean Kim, and Eduardo Kohn, and too many others to name. How did you pair contributors and terms? How do you imagine the volume as a whole, or the chapters in particular, fitting in to courses?

The cover of Critical Terms for Animal Studies, with two primates on a treeLG: It’s a super exciting project. I’m really pleased with the book. Critical Terms for Animal Studies is part of the University of Chicago Critical Terms series. It’s a stellar group of scholars. I asked each of them to not just describe the term but instead to take it in whatever direction they felt was exciting and important for animal studies. And so that’s what they did. There’s scholars from a variety of disciplines: philosophers, historians, cultural theorists, literary theorists, anthropologists, scientists, and lawyers. Chapters and terms include kinship, written by anthropologist Agustín Fuentes and his colleague Natalie Porter, Colin Dayan’s chapter on personhood, and chapters on postcolonialism, pain, sanctuary, species, and more.

I recently taught the book in my Humans, Animals, and Nature course, an undergraduate course at Wesleyan. I used various chapters to set up tensions or issues or problematics. The chapters are meant to evoke some of the excitement around the term, but they’re not meant to just provide an overview, on the one hand, or get too far in depth as we might do in our own work. I asked all of the authors to include suggestions for further readings and references. So, there’s just lots of different possibilities for teaching. I’m also thinking of it as a resource for scholars working in animal studies, so I’m hoping that it is something many scholars will find helpful.

LP: You contribute an introduction to the volume, as well as your chapter drawn from your work on empathy. Your introduction had me thinking in a speculative mode about both the past and the future of animal studies. In 100 years, how do you think animal studies programs might be different?

LG: That’s so interesting. It’s also so optimistic. Sad to say. What will the planet itself look like in 100 years? Hopefully there will still be people studying things in a hundred years. But let’s hold that aside and go with the imaginative here. It’s important to think about field formation, which is partly what I was doing in the introduction to Critical Terms for Animal Studies. Twenty years ago, animal studies wasn’t really a thing. There was animal ethics, for sure, and there were people thinking about other animals, but there wasn’t really animal studies. Over the last many years, I’ve been involved in trying to build the field. And part of what that field building involves is looking to other fields that haven’t been there since as long as, let’s say, literature or philosophy has—interdisciplinary programs that are now very much a part of our institutional lives at universities, like environmental studies, women’s studies or gender studies, African American studies, queer studies—looking to what kind of contestations occurred, what the debates were. So, that’s one model of thinking about how animal studies might go forward.

Interrogating the concept of the human itself has been a centrally important new avenue.

What’s exciting and rich about animal studies in particular is that it brings out interdisciplinary instincts that a literary scholar might have or an anthropologist might have, because what we’re doing is trying to figure out how to address this being who isn’t in the academy and who can’t speak back to us. We’re really trying to think hard about how that animal might be taken seriously within our scholarship and that pushes all of our disciplinary boundaries.

I would really like it if animal studies was able to be fully incorporated in universities. Right now, there’s an animal studies class here, there’s an animal studies class there. What we need to do is help more people know who is doing what in different departments and different places. Hopefully Critical Terms for Animal Studies will help with that project.

Featured image: Portrait of Lori Gruen via Wesleyan University / cover of Critical Terms for Animal Studies via University of Chicago Press.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Lori Gruen is the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University where she coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies. She is also Professor of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Science in Society. She is the author and editor of eleven books, including Critical Terms for Animal Studies (University of Chicago, 2018), Animaladies: Gender, Animals, and Madness (Bloomsbury, 2018), Entangled Empathy (Lantern, 2015), The Ethics of Captivity (Oxford, 2014), Ethics and Animals: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2011). She is a Fellow of the Hastings Center for Bioethics and a Faculty Fellow at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Animals and Public Policy and was the first chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan. Gruen has documented the history of The First 100 chimpanzees in research in the US and has an evolving website, The Last 1000, that documents the journey to sanctuary of the remaining chimpanzees in research labs. Her research lies at the intersection of ethical theory, political philosophy, and social practice. Her current projects include exploring ethical and political questions raised by captivity and carceral logics. Website. Contact.

Laura Perry is the Managing Editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests include animal studies and the public humanities and she is also an organizer of the interdisciplinary research group Environmental Justice in Multispecies Worlds. Twitter. Contact.