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'Let Ghosts be Ghosts': Reading Animals in the Academy and the Anthropocene (NeMLA 2020)

Boston, MA
Organization: NeMLA 2020, Temple University
Event: NeMLA 2020
Categories: Graduate Conference, Interdisciplinary, Popular Culture, Literary Theory, Aesthetics, Anthropology/Sociology, Classical Studies, Cultural Studies, Environmental Studies, Film, TV, & Media, Food Studies, History, Philosophy
Event Date: 2020-03-05 to 2020-03-08 Abstract Due: 2019-09-30

NeMLA 2020:

Boston, MA | March 5-8, 2020



In his article “Cultural and Literary Animal Studies,” Roland Borgard brings attention to the responsibility of animal studies as a theoretical genre to liberate animals “from their cultural reduction to mere objects and their literary reduction to mere signifiers” (156). Susan McHugh expands on Borgard’s call to action arguing that literary critics historically have “rendered the animal a non-issue,” and claims that “reading animals as metaphors, always as figures of and for the human, is a process that likewise ends with the human alone on the stage” (24). While Borgard and McHugh both push back against a kind of reading that consistently situates the animal in terms of the human, Michael Lundblad reminds us that the “representations of animals—including humans as animals—can seldom, if ever, be easily divided into ‘real’ as opposed to allegorical animals” (457). It is within this conflict of both recognizing animals as more than anthropocentric metaphors and understanding an animal outside of human experiences that the field of literary animal studies emerges. A session exploring the way we read animals in the Anthropocene is significant because of the contemporary relevance of this debate and the potential of its results to inspirie a significant change in the way we read non-humans within literature.

Stephen Best’s and Sharon Marcus’s work encourages a kind of “surface reading” that “sees ghosts as presences, not absences, and lets ghosts be ghosts, instead of saying what they are ghosts of” (Best and Marcus 13). Surface reading “deconditions” readers by giving them the necessary tools to resist a reading that sees the surface as hiding something. The interdisciplinary field of animal studies provides fertile soil in which studies using the method of surface reading can thrive by promoting a way of reading that sees animals as animals instead of metaphors for human concerns. Together, surface reading and the field of animal studies expose the problematic social preconditions of symptomatic and anthropocentric reading and, in doing so, provide a new way to read the non-human other.


Despite its scholarly view as an inquiry most commonly worthy of analysis when it relates to more celebrated fields of study, the interdisciplinary field of animal studies has worked its way into the view of various scholars, including the well-known Jacques Derrida. Animals have occupied a central position in the public eye for more than 30 years, though their literary value has been pigeonholed into a space where animals are only acknowledged as metaphors of anthropocentric concerns. By exploring methodological approaches, such as Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus‘s “surface reading”, this panel seeks to recognize animals as more than anthropocentric metaphors and respond to the constricting difficulties of reading and understanding an animal outside of human experiences. 


Please submit abstracts of 300 words by September 30, 2019 using the NeMLA portal:


Additional Information:

Contact: Jenna Sterling (jenna.sterling@temple.edu) or Maggie Villari (tuf04802@temple.edu)





Jenna Sterling