When I entered Professor Kari Weil’s new office at 41 Wyllys, I was greeted by both her and her dog Mathilde. After an initial burst of excitement at having a visitor, Mathilde retreated to a corner and slept through most of our interview. Despite her general lack of participation in our conversation, Mathilde’s presence played perfectly into our discussion of animal studies and the many ways that humans consider animals.
Weil is the director of the College of Letters (COL) and teaches classes within the department. She specializes in animal studies, feminist theory, and 19th and 20th century French and Comparative Literature. This past spring, she published a book called “Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?,” which has the same title as an FYI seminar she taught last semester. I sat down with Weil to discuss “The Wizard of Oz,” linguistics, and post-humanism.
The Argus: What are you reading right now?
Kari Weil: Let’s see if I can remember what I’m reading, because I’m always reading about five things at the same time. One book that I’m reading because I have to review it, but also because I love the title, is [Rachel Poliquin’s] “The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing.” It’s somewhat grotesque, but really interesting in terms of the history of taxidermy. One of the things that she points out, besides going into how it was done over the ages and so on, is the very different notions of what preservation is or what it could mean. For us, if we think of animal preservation or environmental preservation, we think in terms of trying to keep things alive, but taxidermy was about preserving things after they’re dead. In the early 19th century, this was common—to try to hold on to something, you made a taxidermied version of it.
A: Can you talk a bit about your newest book?
KW: It’s a book that I didn’t plan to write. I was writing a book on horses, going back to representations of horses in the 19th century, until I read this book called “Disgrace,” by [J.M.] Coetzee. I kept trying to figure out this novel and what I thought about it—there were so many questions of different kinds of abuse and empathy toward women, toward animals, racism, sexism, all kinds of things. The narrator is an interesting character. I didn’t like the narrator, but I was really drawn to him. And so I started writing about this book. One of the papers I wrote, I wrote because I was reading [animal science specialist] Temple Grandin at the same time. I tried to put some questions together that had to do with problems of language, which was in a way my own problem because I couldn’t put it into words. [Grandin] has a certain kind of language and also a certain kind of way of looking at things. I wrote a paper putting the two together, and an editor said, ‘Are you making a book out of this?’ I said, ‘Well, I wasn’t planning on it; I really had to figure this out for myself,’ and she said, ‘Let’s talk; maybe there’s a book in there.’
As the book manifested itself, it took a lot from the classes I’ve been teaching about animal studies—looking at what we think of as ‘animal,’ as well as history, questions of pets and pet relations, and the ways they intersect with gender and sex relations. And then there’s a whole section on animal death, which takes a lot from Coetzee and Temple Grandin and how we react to animal death. Questions of sacrifice come in there. It ends with “The Wizard of Oz” and Toto—on a lighter note—because I’ve always liked Toto. The whole “Wizard of Oz” story really happens because of Toto, and because of Dorothy’s love for Toto. Toto’s quite the savior, in a way. And there are also larger theoretical questions about what’s now understood as the post-humanities and post-humanism, which I think of in relation to things like the Tin Man. So “The Wizard of Oz” becomes a way to branch out into some other questions.
A: Can you explain post-humanism?
KW: Humanism is a way of looking at the world where humans are at the center—where we’re made in God’s image or that we’re the only species that has the ability to observe and know other species. We think of that as one kind of humanism. Post-humanism is an effort to consider a world where we’re no longer at the center. But it creates a problem, and this is something I raised in the book because it’s almost demanding that we jump out of ourselves to think of ourselves as the fly on the wall, rather than at the center.
A: Do you think we’re moving past this anthropocentric way of seeing the world?
KW: It depends on who “we” are. I think there are some of us in academics who are at least trying to begin to think in that regard. Yes, we’ve moved to the place where we can have courses on animals and not have people think that it’s just children’s literature. Certainly, environmental ethics, animal ethics, animal law—all this is becoming something that is being put on the table.
I think people are quick to say that [animals] feel, but there’s always the notion that they’re not conscious of their feelings, or that because they’re not conscious of suffering, their suffering is maybe less worthy than ours. It also seems that as our populations get bigger and bigger, and people think that the only way to feed humans is through something like a factory farm, there’s much more impetus to hide what might be animal suffering, or that there are ways to avert our gaze and not see it, or think that it’s a necessary evil. We can move one way in the academy and in a very different way when it comes to ways of sustaining our livelihoods.
A: The question of factory farming reminds me of Jonathan Safran Foer, who recently held an online video Q&A session. You helped coordinate a way for Wesleyan to tune into this global event. What did you think of it?
KW: It was short, but I really like the things he had to say. One of [his statements] I liked was that [vegetarianism] is not about identity politics. It’s not about claiming a label; it’s about doing what you can do from where you are. I think that’s a message that many people are able to embrace and take to heart.
I got a message last year that [participating in the Q&A] was a possibility, and I thought, well, so many people in my Thinking Animals class have said that that book was meaningful to them. I actually read it last summer, and I really like his writing. I thought it would be nice for the students to feel like they’re part of something bigger than just Wesleyan, and so I signed us up for it. I thought it was interesting. And of course we got a shout-out to Wesleyan! What did he call us, the hotbed of liberalism?
A: How do your interests in feminist theory and animal studies intersect?
KW: I think I came to animal studies through feminism, in a way, and through questions of language. Much of it for me revolves around questions of language. I guess in the early days of my feminist studies, people were saying, well, language itself is patriarchal—that we get language that is already skewed to reflect the male world—and so many of the theorists I worked with asked “How can we bend language to our own purposes and make it express something that has not already been said?”
There are certain ideas about women—and I don’t want to be essentialist, but there are certain ways of representing women that may take some bending to do. If you take that idea and apply it to animals, it’s also [a question of] how language can represent the world of another who doesn’t have language—or who may have other kinds of language. It’s about what we need to do and how we need to think in order to represent that which hasn’t been represented before. And of course, there are political questions and ethical questions that come up.
This weekend, for instance, Carol Adams was here—somebody who early on was putting questions of abuse of women and abuse of animals together, whether it’s in terms of rape or in terms of battering or even eating—treating somebody like a “piece of meat”—which could [colloquially] refer to women, or it could be literal. What I’m really interested in are questions of representation of language—what kinds of things can’t be put into words, and how can they be represented otherwise? This is where somebody like Temple Grandin comes in—somebody who is a visual thinker, rather than someone who thinks in words.
A: You collaborated with writer/composer/director Rinde Eckert in teaching parts of your Thinking Animals class last year. Can you talk about his play, “The Last Days of the Old Wild Boy,” which will be staged at Wesleyan this week?
KW: I’m really excited; I’m going to see it on Thursday. It actually has intersections with the class I’m teaching now because I begin the class in the 18th century with wild children—the idea of children who were raised by wolves, or who seem to be between human and animal. That’s basically what the play is about. Rinde is such a fascinating thinker that I think it’s going to be really interesting.
We started emailing [last year], and it was as if we’d each read each other’s minds. He had been thinking about all kinds of things that I had also been thinking about, but in very different ways, through different kinds of literature and ideas.
I saw his play in New York last spring, which was called “And God Created Great Whales.” It was amazing. This is a person who wrote it, directed it, acted in it, and sang in it, and wrote the music for it. He’s absolutely a Renaissance man, so we should be excited to have him around. I hope everybody goes to his play.
A: What are you working on right now?
KW: I’ve been asked to give some keynote lectures next semester. One will be on horses, and one will probably be taking from my book—more on questions of empathy and the positive and negative aspects of empathy in nonhuman animals. There are a bunch of French theorists I’ve been reading who I’ve found really interesting, and I want to try to combine them with these questions about empathy, especially. One is Dominique Lestel, and the other is Vinciane Despret. They both move between some scientific studies and some animal studies, and philosophy. Both are interested in the ways that in human-animal relations, as in human-human relations, we are always engaged in a process where we create the other as much as the other creates us. This is where I wish I had more of a neuroscience background because I’m also interested in the neurological effects of having an “other.”
You see, I’m getting her really bored. “Yeah, I know, you’re talking all about how I’ve made you and you’ve made me…” She’s heard this all before. But anyway, these are some theorists who I’ve started reading more of and want to think more about.
I wish we had a word for something like empathy that’s not focused on the pathos, which is often considered on suffering, but is focused more on joy. We don’t have a word for “em-joy-ment,” or something like that. So I need to think of creating a new word for that. It’s easy for us to bear somebody else’s suffering, but we often have a difficult time being happy for someone else or bearing their joy. I’m interested in that idea. With animals, too—how do we know how to help them be joyful? There are ways of expressing joy that are not linguistic.