The war against animals: Dominic O’Key on Creaturely Forms in Contemporary Literature

By | March 9, 2022

Creaturely Forms in Contemporary Literature, by Dominic O’Key, is out now

Thank you for joining us today, Dominic. Tell us, how would you describe your book in just one sentence?  

Reading literature can help us think and rethink our relationships with animals; here’s how.

Could you unpack this a bit and explain the main topics and arguments of your book?

Sure. The main argument of Creaturely Forms in Contemporary Literature is that literary works can tell us a great deal about how we live alongside animals. I argue that things like plot, narrative, syntax, dialogue, characterization, images and intertexts all come to inform how a text “thinks” the problem of human-animal relations. By focusing on contemporary literature in particular, I make the case that there are many contemporary texts that reveal to us the fictions of human supremacy that undergird real-world relations between humans and animals.

This kind of argument is important, I think, because we are currently living through an environmental crisis that is raising many pressing questions about human-animal relations. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that climate change, for example, is partly caused by the mass production and consumption of some animals and is resulting in the mass extinction of many others.

In the book I suggest that it is instructive to think of this state of affairs as constituting a “war against animals”. I’ve gleaned this phrase from writers like Rachel Carson, Jacques Derrida, J. M. Coetzee and Dinesh Wadiwel. I think that if we want to stop the destruction of the planet then we also need to call an end to this war against animals, which means fundamentally changing how we share our planet with other species.

So how does this “war against animals” relate to contemporary literature?

One of the driving questions of the book is this: what is the role of literature in responding to the war against animals? If we agree that literature plays a cultural and hence social role in shaping reality, then we cannot say that literature is merely a bystander to this conflict. Instead we have to say that each work of literature is somehow participating in this war.

We can see how exactly certain texts participate in the war against animals through the work of literary scholarship and interpretation. There are many works of literature that take it for granted that humans have supremacy over other beings. We might say that these texts implicitly legitimize the war against animals. Yet we can find lots of other examples of texts that do things differently, that may simply notice that this war is happening or might even contain a vegetarian protagonist. I explore the many ways in which texts, through such acts of literary noticing, develop novel ways of narrating or “formalising” the war against animals.

Contemporary literature offers a unique insight into this topic. Contemporary authors are writing during a time of intensifying industrialised animal farming, staggering declines in biological diversity and the rise of pro-animal and environmentalist politics. This conjuncture is bound to impact contemporary writing, whether the authors know it or not. 

So what do you mean by the term “creaturely forms”? Are these works of literature which “notice” the war against animals, as you say above?

Exactly. Although some texts take for granted and hence prop up human superiority, there are other works that turn literature itself into a less humanistic art form, revealing to us in the process that we are creatures too.

My book offers close readings of three authors – W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee and Mahasweta Devi –  who, across their careers, developed these “creaturely forms” of writing as they sought to make sense of human-animal relations through literary creativity. I also write about novels by other authors such as Amitav Ghosh, Richard Powers, Arundhati Roy and Henrietta Rose-Innes. All of these authors have written works of fiction which differently utilise literary forms in order to narrate the war against animals. 

What drew to you writing about this war against animals?  

For over a decade now I have been convinced that animals are subjects, not objects. This conviction began as a straightforwardly moral position (“we should not harm animals”) and it led me towards the ideas of veganism, animal rights and liberation.

But through my encounters with Marxism I realised that moral absolutes were nothing without an understanding of how the dominant economic system of our time, capitalism, has transformed our relationship with animals – mostly for the worse.

Historically, Marxists haven’t been very concerned with the treatment of animals under capitalism. Nevertheless I found Marxist analysis to be incredibly illuminating when applied to human-animal relations. Factory farming, the rising consumption of meat proteins, zoological gardens and the pet industry, and biodiversity loss and the conservation agenda – these are all products of capitalism, and hence need to be analysed as such.

I was trained as a literary scholar in an English department. Throughout my early years studying literature I was constantly trying out ways to incorporate these ideas about human-animal relations into my work. I began to think that, by reading works of literature, we might get a special insight into how different people thought about and lived alongside animals in different times and places. I thus came to think that the practice of literary criticism could also help us understand that, today, our relationship with animals is not natural, timeless or inevitable, but historical and hence something that we could also change for the better, if we wanted to.  

How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?  

Creaturely Forms in Contemporary Literature began as a PhD project at the University of Leeds, UK. I researched and wrote it under the wonderful supervision of Helen Finch and Sam Durrant. But the manuscript has mutated considerably as I turned it into a book – for the better, I hope.

But as I say, the book takes on many of the questions that I began considering years ago. I’m grateful to my teachers who took these questions seriously, pointing me in the direction of fields such as animal studies, posthumanism and ecocriticism. This book is one outcome of my intellectual formation as a literary critic who cares deeply about animals.

What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?  

Animals are almost everywhere in literature. Yet to this day literary theory remains fundamentally humanistic in its outlook. In recent years the field of literary animal studies has challenged this status quo by exploring the many ways that animals are represented within literary works.

But in my book I wanted to question both the tacit humanism of contemporary criticism and this predominantly representational focus of literary animal studies. Doing so led me towards the idea that there is a relationship between literary forms and human-animal relations, a relationship that needs theorising and analysing. 

So do you think of Creaturely Forms in Contemporary Literature as speaking simultaneously to literary theorists and scholars of animal studies?

Precisely. My ambition is to reinvigorate literary form through animal studies, and thus to reinvigorate animal studies through literary form. I also hope that it convinces Marxist literary critics that animals are of real importance.

Have you read any Bloomsbury Literary Studies books? Which are your favorites, and why? 

I have dipped in and out of Alienation and Freedom, a gigantic collection of Frantz Fanon’s explosive essays, speeches, notes and scribbles. Elsewhere, Theodor W. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat – both reissued as part of Bloomsbury’s Revelations series – have been foundational to my thinking.

When I was writing my book’s chapter on J. M. Coetzee I found it very helpful to turn to Arthur Rose’s book Literary Cynics and the essay collection Strong Opinions, edited by Chris Danta, Sue Kossew and Julian Murphet.

And there are two Bloomsbury books that I am excited to pick up: Kate Rigby’s Reclaiming Romanticism and Samuel Solomon’s Lyric Pedagogy and Marxist-Feminism.

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