Texas Tech University

Animal/Language: An Interdisciplinary Conference

Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX
21-23 March 2019

How are animals intrinsically linked to and bound up in (human) language? What is the meaning of animals in poetic language? How do human language and animal language relate to one another? Are animal languages, such as bat signals or dolphin calls, more complex than human ones? Is animal communication always intrinsically part of, and co-evolving with, an environment? Might human language, in fact, be a component of a broad spectrum of animal communication? The philosopher Gilles Deleuze famously wrote of birdsongs as what he called "assemblages" – a gathering or conjunction of forces or entities that, though tethered together, persist in their fragmentary multiplicity. What the term allows is a way to cut across the artificial – and very human – divide between animal and environment, Nature and Culture.

Animals and language have a complicated relationship with one another in human understanding. Every period of history evinces a fascination with the diverse modes of communicative exchange and possibilities of linguistic community that exist both within and between species. Recent critics of anthropocentrism are far from the first to question the supposed muteness of the "dumb animal" and its ontological and ethical ramifications. Various cultures have historically attributed language to animals, and we have developed an increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding of the complex non-verbal communicative systems that animals use among themselves. New research complements millennia of human-animal communication in the contexts of work, play, and domestic life.

Some people have extensive experience with real, live animals. Some primarily encounter animals as products of the food industry. Some focus on animal representations in text or image, or deploy the abstract figure of "the animal" as limit or counterpart of the human. These interactions condition different ways of "thinking with animals," including: using them in and as language or in experimentation, recruiting them as symbols and metaphors, incorporating them into idiomatic expressions, projecting moral values onto them, and ventriloquizing them for purposes of cultural critique. A vast archive of literary, artistic, philosophical, historical, religious, and scientific explorations testifies that the boundaries and complementarities relating animals and language have always captured the human imagination.

Animal/Language aims to create an interdisciplinary dialogue on the relationship between "animals" and "language" that considers both what connects and what separates these two key terms. It will shed light on both the category of the human as well as on the humanities themselves by using the animal (both in its real and symbolic dimensions) and its relationship to language as a key figure for understanding the distinct configuration of the human animal and the humanities in the 21st century. Animals, often seen as instinctive beings with presumably no access to language, texts, or abstract thinking (as Kari Weil writes), have functioned throughout the centuries as the unexamined foundation on which the idea of the human – and thus also of the humanities – has been built. As our understanding of animal language develops and changes, so must our view of the nature of the human and the humanities. The conference hopes to generate new scientific inquires and creative synergies by initiating conversation and exchange among scholars in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. We therefore invite researchers from all fields, periods, and geographical areas to propose contributions engaging questions such as:

  • What are the real, imagined, or potential relationships between animals and language(s)?
  • What are animal languages?
  • What spaces or functions does the animal occupy within human language and cultural representation?
  • What is the role of animals in aesthetic or artistic meaning-making processes?
  • What is Zoopoetics?
  • How do our interactions with animals shape our conceptions of animals and language?
  • How and why do we communicate with animals?
  • How and why do animals communicate with us?
  • How and why do animals communicate with one another?
  • What philosophical, ethical, and political questions are raised by different ways of affirming and denying connections between animals and language?
  • How should any of the above questions be historicized?
  • How does the question of animal language connect to issues of gender and class?

The conference will be held in conjunction with the 51st Comparative Literature Program Symposium at Texas Tech University and with the art exhibition "Assembling Animal Communication", featuring the work of artists Catherine Chalmers, Catherine Clover, Darcie DeAngelo, Lee Deigaard and Maria Lux. Scheduled events will also include live canine and equine communication demonstrations. The conference will have no registration fees.

Keynote Speakers:

Proposal Submission Deadline: September 30, 2018

Proposals for 20-minute papers should be no more than 300 words long and include 3-5 keywords identifying your discipline and topic(s). All abstracts will be reviewed anonymously; please provide author name(s) and affiliations in your submission email, but omit them from your abstract itself. Please submit all proposals (in .docx or .pdf form) and questions to animallanguage2019@gmail.com. Accepted participants will be notified in early November.

With many thanks,

The Conference Organizers

Dr. John Beusterien (Spanish), Dr. Belinda Kleinhans (German), Dr. Katy Schroeder (Animal & Food Sciences), Dr. Lucas Wood (French), Dr. Pamela Zinn (Classics), in collaboration with Joe Arredondo (Landmark Arts) and Dr. Kevin Chua (Art History)

This conference is in part sponsored by: