… watch this space …

We really enjoyed running Being Non/Human as a monthly discussion group this past year – a big thank you to all our presenters and all of you who attended!

Instead of continuing Being Non/Human as a discussion group, next year we will be holding a Being Non/Human conference.

We are currently planning the conference: we will be emailing those of you on our mailing list once we have designed the call for papers. We will also post the call for papers here as soon as it’s ready. Until then, have a lovely summer, and watch this space!


Found online: Call for Papers for Humanity and Animality conference

I came across this CFP and thought some of our group members might be interested in this conference:

Call for papers:

University College London (UCL)
Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies


15 September, 2014

This interdisciplinary conference takes up an important debate in a field of growing importance in the humanities, where animal studies, post-humanism, and eco-criticism have surged in recent years. The definition of mankind seems necessarily to pass through an understanding of what constitutes the animal. Philosophically, what distinguishes, or indeed brings together humanity and animality has been the subject of debate from Aristotle’s understanding of man as ‘zôon logon echon’ and from Kant’s view of man’s treatment of animals as an insight into the true nature of humankind, Derrida’s seminars on ‘the beast and the sovereign’, up to Agamben’s recent theory of ‘bare life’ as the breakdown of the barrier between man and animal. Artists, authors and filmmakers, such as Kafka, Dalí, Borges, Coetzee, Primo Levi, Margaret Atwood, Karl Appel, Paula Rego, Werner Herzog (‘Grizzly Man’), and Benh Zeitlin (‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’) to name but a few, have also grappled with the significance of the divide or symbiosis of humanity and animality. Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti and Andrew Benjamin are also redefining ways in which humanity and animality can be thought together, or apart. The violent upheavals of the 20th century, with its global wars, unprecedented genocides and totalitarian experiments led to a re-evaluation of notions such as humanism and humanity, which has made way for new hopes and anxieties relating to the subhuman and the post-human. By hosting a varied programme of papers and debates chaired by high-profile contributors to this emerging field of inquiry, this conference aims to establish a forum for researchers throughout the UK to discuss this important theoretical issue.

Topics of discussion may include but are not limited to the following questions/topics:

Is it possible, or even desirable to distinguish between animality and humanity?
In which ways does the dialectic of ‘human’ and ‘animal’ shape our identities, culture and morality?
Why is the comparison with animal world so important for our culture?
Shame, pride, sorrow, fear, anxiety, fascination, awe: how do emotions acknowledge the relation between humanity and animality?
How do literature, art, evolutionary theory, philosophy and other disciplines negotiate the changes undergone by the concept of the ‘human’ in the last century?
How have our perceptions of ‘humanity’ and ‘animality’ changed in relation to violent and extreme events such as genocide, widespread atrocity, world war etc.?
Are we really a Darwinian species, or do technology, morality and creativity separate us
from the rest of the natural evolution?
How can we rethink the binary opposition between humanity and inhumanity?
Have we entered into a post-human era?
Evolutionary theory and the human condition, Human-Animal studies
Humanity and Animality in Art, Literature, Science, Philosophy, Cinema, Religion, etc. What does the persistence of the fascination with animals suggest about specific cultural and historical moments?

Deadline for Abstracts:

Please send an abstract (300 words maximum) and a short biography (50 words maximum) to s.bellin.12 AT ucl.ac.uk by August 1st, 2014.

Report on June Meeting

A summary of our final meeting for the academic year!

Mariel Jana Supka discussed the concept of non-native animals, moving on to consider how such animals have been used in notable examples of performance art and outlining her use of non-native animals in her own performances. Given the previous meeting in which John Lock considered the alignment between the human understanding / treatment of deer in Richmond park and that of human societal minorities, it was interesting to hear Supka’s explanation of ‘invasion biology’ (a term coined by Charles Elton in 1958). The perspective offered by ‘invasion biology’ is that non-native animals are indeed ‘invaders’ – threats to the ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ ecosystem of a region. Such a perspective often acquires a nationalistic or xenophobic attitude, and it is striking how the treatment and description of certain non-native animals is similar to that of humans who are perceived as ‘others’. Responses to invasion biology tend to be that we should remove these foreign invading non-native animals and so maintain the status quo or original state of a region’s ecosystem. Such a response implies an essential divide between human and nature by promoting the idea that nature can remain relatively unaffected by human society, ignoring the fact that historically humans have frequently introduced different species or subspecies to environments (intentionally or otherwise). Arguing that non-native species force us to confront the illusion of the human / nature divide (i.e., force us to recognise that nature is and always has been affected by human society), Supka then considered how the use of animals – especially non-native animals – in performance art can highlight the mutual interactions between human and animal, nature and culture. For instance, Supka discussed the Chinese Mitten crab and the idea of constructing barrels on which performances could take place and within which the crabs could form their own dwelling – sites which are therefore determined by both the human and animal participants. For more info on Supka’s work, see her website: http://www.marieljanasupka.org/#!enter-en/ce18

Susan Richardson performed several of her poems which concern human-animal interactions and metamorphoses, interspersing her performances with explanations as to how she researched and constructed these poems. By performing first one of her earliest poems on metamorphosis and concluding with one of her latest, the chronological structure of Richardson’s presentation highlighted how her use of language changed over time as she gradually altered her perception of physical transformation and attempted to become closer to the nonhuman through language. For example, whilst the earlier poem typically used regular sentence structure, this had broken down by the time Richardson wrote one of her more recent poems in which not only is the distinction between noun and verb sometimes unsettled but the voice of the subject becomes uncertain, shifting from ‘I’ to ‘us’. Richardson drew particularly on various myths and legends, from Welsh stories derived from the Mabinogion to Inuit myths and Norse legends. Richardson’s most recent collection of poetry, Skindancing, is due to be published in March 2015. You can read more about her work here: www.susanrichardsonwriter.co.uk 

In pairing these presenters together, it was interesting to see two different approaches to the concept of becoming or interacting with the animal (through language in poetry or through the body in performance art) and see how both presentations related to time: Richardson frequently draws on ancient myths and in some poems incorporates these past tales into the present day, whilst Supka defines her performance art primarily in contrast to the relatively recent concept of ‘invasion biology’. Both presentations are concerned with bridging or outright querying the existence of a gap between animal nature and human culture. One question that both presentations raised is when this supposed gap was imagined or introduced – is this supposed gap a recent phenomenon or has humanity always struggled between interacting with / transforming into the animal and dissociating themselves from the nonhuman?

In describing the process of physical metamorphosis and this recent approach to performance art, these presentations suggest the moment of suspension between maintaining the binaries ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’ and foregoing these categories altogether. They suggest the connection between the human and nonhuman – the non/human state.

Final Meeting of This Year: June 2nd

Our very last meeting of this academic year will take place on 2 June. The focus of this meeting will be on human-animal interactions in performances and performance studies. We will be listening to two speakers, Susan Richardson and Mariel Jana Supka, who will talk to us about what it means to ‘become’ or ‘become with’ the animal (see the abstracts below). The meeting will be held from 6.30-8 pm in room S2.39 at King’s College London.

We hope that you can all join us for this last meeting!


Susan Richardson (poet) – Writing on All Fours

Abstract: My next collection of poetry, to be published in 2015, is themed around human-animal metamorphosis and it explores our dys/functional relationship with the wild. My sources of inspiration include human-animal shapeshifting tales from a number of different cultures, from Inuit to Celtic, Native American to Norse, as well as the work of visual and performance artists including Marcus Coates and Oleg Kulik, and extensive personal experience of both shamanic journeying and shamanic trance dance. For the Being Non/Human discussion group, I will intersperse an overview of the research I have undertaken over the past two years with performances of new poems that explore a range of questions: where is the borderline between humanity and animality? What are the animal possibilities of the self? Is it feasible to believe that exploring the ‘becoming animal’ theme through poetry may help to reestablish the connection with the animal parts of ourselves and with the wider natural world, where we are just one animal among many, that Western culture has lost? Can revisioning myths and fairytales help to enable this reconnection?  My performance/presentation will aim to convey, too, how the human-animal metamorphosis theme can be reflected in the form and language of the poem. Linguistic transformations will take place, mirroring the subject-matter. Language will slip and slide and shapeshift, with verbs becoming nouns and adjectives morphing into verbs. Dramatic monologues, written in the first person, will transform into third person poems, and vice versa. Tenses that may trap a stanza in the present or past will start to loosen their grip.

Mariel Jana Supka (PhD Student, University of Roehampton) –‘Improv[is]ed Dwellings: Encounters with ‘Alien’ Animals in Performance Arts’

Abstract: Non-native animals are commonly described as harmful to the environment. Government bodies and other interest groups advocate their elimination, frequently using an aggressive and criminalising language, which adopts military metaphors and builds on xenophobic sentiments. This representation develops people’s sense of cultural and geographical belonging through an emphasis on differences, and a romanticised image of an unspoiled natural countryside. Although non-native animals in many cases do constitute a serious challenge to existing ecosystems, the current discourse in both lay and scientific contexts seems to a large extent informed by philosophical and political interests that originate outside the realm of ‘care for the environment’. In my PhD research project, I seek to unpick this discourse and investigate to what extent the presence of non-native animals may also facilitate a rethinking of cultural uncertainties about the ecological changes these animals represent. My project aims to develop new strategies to engage with live non-native animals in performance arts, building on a critique of prevailing concepts of nature-culture dualism and the dominating anthropocentric engagement with non-human agents. I will propose an artistic strategy to experiment with alternative human-animal relations in dwelling practices, which seeks to interrogate common hierarchical understandings of human-animal relationships. Building on Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘becoming with’ (2007: 3), which concerns a practice of interspecies engagement, I propose an exploration of possibilities for shared constitution of living conditions, by humans and non-humans. These explorations will take place in the form of different performance arts projects, which will take place in the habitats of non-native animals such as the Chinese Mittencrab. Human and animal performers will contribute to the creation of architectural artefacts.

Report on May Meeting

Antlers, crazy cat pictures, arresting deer and dealing with rock (or rock-like?) people: we had a somewhat mismatched but interesting pair of papers this month from John Locke on the interaction between human and deer societies in Richmond Park and Karen Graham on the actual function and metaphorical role of mirrors in Gregory Maguire’s Mirror Mirror.

John argued that we can view our treatment of the deer, and the deers’ own social structure, as akin to that of a minority group (ethnic, or perhaps otherwise?) within London. This paper raised questions such as, to what extent do we run the risk of anthropomorphising animals when studying them, or to what extent can we deviate from an anthropocentric viewpoint in our  to animals? For instance, John pointed out that in the 1980s there was a rise in biologist feminism in which a greater focus was given to the importance of female animals in animal societies (the significance of maternal care, for instance). Although no doubt valuable, doesn’t this view of the animal suggest a greater concern for how we perceive the human species – aren’t animals essentially being used as a mirror to help define or support our concept of the human?

Mirrors and mirroring proved highly significant in Maguire’s reworking of the Snow White fairytale (Mirror Mirror) and in Karen Graham’s concept of fairytale retelling. Discussing Maguire’s depiction of the dwarves and how they relate to the idea of mirroring was somewhat intriguing. These dwarves, who describe themselves as either being rock or being like rock (and who are perceived as such by the Snow White character, Bianca) originally own the titular mirror (yes indeed, that well-known ‘mirror, mirror, on the wall’). But when the mirror is taken, forcing one of the dwarves to go on a quest to retrieve it, the other dwarves are shaken – until then, they had thought of themselves ‘as one’. What does this mean? Does the loss of the mirror threaten their sense of self? It clearly causes their fragmentation. But if we view the purpose of a mirror to accurately reflect and so to cement or define one’s sense of self, then what is the true nature of the dwarves? Is the true state of the dwarves not as individuals, or even dwarves (it takes an outsider, Bianca, to look at them and label them dwarves), but some sort of collective or morphed entity?

For me (Sophia), given my recent research into stone, this got me thinking about the dwarves’ descriptions of themselves as beings made of rock (or possibly beings that are rock-like), and imagining the various possibilities of rock being animate matter (Manuel de Landa describing people as walking mineralisation; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Roger Caillois thinking about the alternate temporality and mutability of stone; Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter etc). What does it mean for an entity to be made of rock? Does rock speak in a collective voice, as the dwarves initially seem to? And how does this rocky entity relate to mirror glass?

But the process of mirroring is, to a certain extent, unconcerned with matter. It is about reflection, the bridge between truth and reality, and questioning the reliability of this bridge. Mirroring, according to Karen, always provides minor alterations – it is never a complete imitation. In the same way, retellings of fairy tales are always slightly skewed versions of their predecessors. The dwarves’ loss of the mirror fragments their collective community – the loss of the mirror, apparently, threatens to destabilise their sense of identity. But how accurately did that mirror reflect the dwarves in the first place? Maybe instead of reading the dwarves’ fragmentation (‘we used to be as one’) as undermining their identity, we should read it as revealing the nature of ‘mirroring’ or the nature of storytelling and retelling. The dwarves in Maguire’s Mirror Mirror don’t simply exist in isolation – they recall into existence previous versions of the fairytale dwarves in both literature and collective consciousness (notably, the 1937 Disney film). And what of Bianca herself? Karen argues that Bianca acts as a mirror herself through whom other characters are defined. What are we to make of a central character who acts as a mirror? I’ll leave that to you.

Our thanks to the speakers and attendees, and we hope you can make it to our last meeting of the year, coming up on Monday 2nd June – see the ‘Schedule and abstracts’ page for more details!


Our next meeting: May 12th

Oh no, we only have two more meetings scheduled for this academic year! The first of these will take place on Monday May 12thfrom 6.30 – 8 pm in room S2.39 at King’s College London. You are all invited to join us for two very different but hopefully equally interesting papers:

Karen Graham (PhD student, University of Aberdeen) – ‘“The eye is always caught by light, but shadows have more to say”: Reflections of the Non/Human in Gregory Maguire’s Mirror Mirror’

Abstract: There remains in popular culture a persistent appetite for adaptation, something particularly evident in the various retellings of fairy tales in literature and film. While the market is, it seems, saturated with these retellings, a change in the perspective of the original tale is evident in the most successful stories. These innovative retellings re-position the antagonist from marginalised other to the main focus of the narrative. It is a vital component of this new form of fairy tale in which the appeal is not aspiring to beautiful, demure perfection as in the Disney adaptations, but the identification of the audience with the ostracised individual who is not accepted by society. At the centre of these narratives lies the questions of what it is to be human, or what it is to be a person and how the two are not always necessarily one and the same thing. Drawing on the existing framework in fantasy, myth and fairy tale, author Gregory Maguire expands on such common tropes as talking animals to highlight the blurring of these boundaries between the human and the non-human to draw our attention to the insubstantiality of these categories. While this aspect of both Maguire’s Wicked series of novels and the Broadway musical inspired by them has been well discussed, his other works based on more traditionally canonical fairy tales have hitherto been largely overlooked in critical discourse. This paper proposes to begin to redress this imbalance by examining the non/human in Mirror Mirror, Maguire’s re-envisioning of Snow White. It will pay particular attention to the intertextual practices used by Maguire in the reforming of the familiar, both in terms of the narrative and the construction of the human within it.

John A W Lock – ‘The Dark Side of the Park: How Deer see People’

Abstract: Today Richmond Park is a National Nature Reserve and has many other environmental designations to its name. Historically it was a hunting ground and subsequently a finishing ground for fallow deer destined for the beneficiaries of the Crown’s Venison List. The deer were regarded as little more than carcasses-in-waiting, differentiated only by age and sex. This ‘establishment’ view of  the deer has only changed insofar as the animals are now regarded as a ‘resource’ to be ‘managed’ and harvested ‘scientifically’ through culling, achieved using formulaic strategies devised in Nazi Germany for the ‘final solution’. Casual visitors to the park see the deer rather differently, in terms of their cuteness (‘the Bambi factor’) while animal rights activists get very upset about the culling. I promote another view of the fallow deer in the park which sees them as a complex social network containing many de facto sophisticated social structures, essential for the successful conception, birth and rearing of young deer and for the education of the young bucks. This social order has much in common with many traditional or pre-modern human societies. I then turn my attention to how the deer see things – how they perceive themselves and the park, and in particular how they view and tolerate the people who daily invade their domain and how these views vary according to the demography of the deer. In short the piece examines the position of  the Richmond Park deer as an ethnic minority within a larger population. It looks at the resilience of an alien culture to the pressures of diaspora, integration, internment, population control and concepts of difference and race. It seeks to demonstrate that the deer in Richmond Park are as cosmopolitan as any of the other inhabitants of the metropolis.

We look forward to seeing you on May 12th!

Report on April Meeting

This month’s meeting raised a variety of different topics and questions.

Joanna Coleman introduced us to her research on becoming animal in contemporary fairy tales. She discussed the social value of fairy tales, the way in which these stories reflect human interactions with nature, and she questioned the way in which fairy tales present us with a more fluid boundary between man and animal. She further wondered whether the idea of young adults living with animals or becoming part of nature was a utopian fantasy (can you really sleep in the arms of a bear?) and whether fairy tales present a naive morality, but she pointed out that there are also stories which focus on the horrors of becoming animal and of living in the wild. A recurring theme was the story of Beauty and the Beast, where a beautiful young girl finds and animal companion or lover – although some tales focus on the need for the beast to become human whilst others argue that a happy ending is only achieved when the beauty becomes a beast herself. We discussed whether these stories presented an idea of escapism or whether they question if humans can ever espace their animal nature, we highlighted the fairy tales’ concerns with adolescence and growing up in a cruel world, and we wondered whether any human can ever truly write about the animal as a subject rather than an object.

James Lloyd told us about the medieval Germanic myth of Weland the smith, whose adventures are found in Norse, German, and Old English sources. Many aspects of Weland’s story deal with supernatural features, such as his marriage to a swan maiden, his sudden ability of flight, and his superhuman skills as a smith. James asked us whether this meant that Weland ought to be seen as a superhuman or maybe even god-like character, and he traced Weland’s stories through the different sources to find out whether or not Weland’s status as human or superhuman underwent any changes. We discussed the mix of influences from what we now see as more ‘pagan’ mythologies alongside stories from the Christian realm, the role of oral traditions and how unfortunate it is that some sources are now lost, and we wondered whether there was a kind of norm of what makes a ‘human’ or a human body and whether anything that deviates from this norm is automatically viewed as something nonhuman.

We thank both our speakers for their very interesting papers, and we hope that those who attended found the discussion as fruitful as we did!