Cary Wolfe
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Born 1959

North Carolina

Relevant Work "Human, All Too Human: 'Animal Studies' and the Humanities"


Biography Edit

  • Cary Wolfe (born 1959) is an English professor at Rice University (2003-present)
  • Served as the department chair (2010-12)
  • He is series editor for Minnesota Press's Posthumanities Series
  • He has written on a range of topics, from American poetry to bioethics
  • He has been a significant voice in recent debates in Animal Studies and advocates a version of the posthumanist position. He was born and grew up in North Carolina.
  • In 1984 Wolfe read Interdisciplinary Studies in English, Philosophy, and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill, where he received a B.A. with Highest Honors.
  • He later received an M.A. from the Department of English at Chapel Hill in 1986.
  • He received his Ph.D. from the Department of English, at Duke University in 1990.
  • At the University of Albany, he later served as Director of Graduate Studies, Associate Chair, Department of English, 1998–99, and was made a full Professor in 1999.
  • In 2003, he was offered an endowed professorship at Rice University in Houston TX.

"Human, All Too Human: 'Animal Studies' and the Humanities" Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Key Words and Terms Edit

Humanism: an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

Pluralism: a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.

Ethology: The science of animal behaviour, or the study of human behaviour and social organization from a biological perspective. Definition provided by the Oxford English Dictionary

Anthropocentric: regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals.

Key Quotations Edit

"Trying to give an overview of the burgeoning area known as animal studies is. . .a bit like herding cats.1 My recourse to that analogy is meant to suggest that"the animal," when you think about it, is everywhere (including inthe metaphors, similes, proverbs, and narratives we have relied on for centuries, millennia, even)" (564).

"...we take for granted the prior assumption that violence against animals is ethically permissible" (567).

"...the questions that occupy animal studies can be addressed adequately only if we confront them on two levels: not just the level of content, thematics, and the object of knowledge (the animal studied by animal studies) but also the level of theoretical and methodological approach (how animal studies studies the animal). To put it bluntly, just because we study nonhuman animals does not mean that we are not continuing to be humanist--and therefore, by definition, anthropocentric" (Wolfe 568).

"The full force of animal studies, then, resides in its power to remind us that it is not enough to reread and reinterpret--from a safe ontological distance, as it were--the relation of metaphor and species difference, the cross-pollination of speciesist, sexist, and racist discursive structures in literature, and so on" (569).

"My litany is meant to suggest some of the challenges involved in writing about animal studies, not the least of which is a daunting interdisciplinarity that is inseparable from its very genesis (one that makes the interdisciplinarity that obtains between, say, literary studies and history look like a fairly tidy affair by comparison)" (565).

"Scholars in animal studies, whatever their home disciplines, now appear to be challenged not only by the discourses and conceptual schemata that have shaped our understanding of and relations to animals but also by the specificity of nonhuman animals, their congeneric nature in the singular" (567).

"The problem for students of literature and culture is how to avoid the throughgoing ethnocentrism that such a realization invites, how to articulate what a critical view of such 'makings' might look like--a question that becomes all the more pressing in the light of the persistent compaison...of our systematic abuse and killing of animals on a massive scale and the Holocaust of World War II" (567).

"To put it bluntly, just because we study nonman animals does not mean tha we are not continuing to be humanist--and therefore, by definition, anthropocentric" (568).

"Violence against human others (and particularly radically marked others) has often operated by mean of a double movement that animalizes them or purposes of domination, oppression, or even genocide- a maneuver that is effective because we take for granted the prior assumption that violence against the animal is ethically permissible" (567).

"...the question of the animal is linked complexly to the problem of animals' ethical standing as direct or indirect subjects of justice—a problem that invites a critical not just descriptive practice of disciplinarity to assess how this newly robust entity called the animal is plumbed, repressed, or braided with other forms of identity, other discourses (race, gender, class, sexual difference) in works of literature and culture" (567).

Discussion Edit

A Case for Animal Studies Edit

The connecting point Wolfe makes "is how internal disciplinarity of history or literary studies or philosophy is unsettled when the animal is taken seriously," it is "not just another topic or object of study among many, but as one with unique demands" (566-67).

Wolfe argues that the idea of the animals perceived as separate entities from humans “is better seen as marking a brief period ... bookended by a pre- and posthumanism that think the human/animal distinction quite otherwise” (564). He does not want animal studies to turn into cultural studies as connections to humanism by “the sort of ‘pluralism’ that extends the sphere of consideration (intellectual or ethical) to previously marginalized groups without in the least destabilizing or throwing into question the schema of the human who undertakes such pluralization” (568).

Establishing Legitimacy Edit

Wolfe's "Human, All Too Human" aims to legitimize the field of animal studies by comparing it to the multitude of other studies within the humanities: gender, race, and cultural, etc (Wolfe 569). Wolfe points to the concept of "othering," which is of particular importance within these fields, as evidence for the legitimacy of animal studies. He contends that the divide between man and animal, that is the binary that places man separate and in opposition to what is animal, is the most fundamental, and perhaps, primordial case of "othering."

However, Wolfe also discusses the problems that may come along with making animal studies simply another "study" within cultural studies. He points out that it is important to consider not only the content of what we survey but, more importantly, the theory and methodology behind our practices. According to Wolfe, it is possible to study animals while still "othering" them and treating them as objects available to fill human needs. Instead, Cary argues for a treatment of animals as equals, deserving of rights and respect.

Animal Rights Edit

Wolfe brings up an interesting connection between how society views rights toward humans and how it views rights toward animals. He mentions that caring about animal rights, the conditions they're living in, animals studies, etc, has nothing to do with "whether or not you like animals" (567). He compares animals and their slaughter to the horrors of WWII. By illustrating this, Wolfe is comparing how animals rights have been shoved aside, much like how sexual rights, minority rights, etc, have been pushed aside for years and years. He is bridging the gap to be able to make people think, to really get them thinking about how "we" frame arguments regarding people and how they are vastly different than how we frame arguments regarding animals. And what he is arguing is that there needs to be a change in ethics, and that the only way to do that is to bring animals to the same level as humans. 

Human-Animal Divide Edit

Cary Wolfe looks at the divide between animals and humans in a particularly interesting way. He suggests that as humans many of us are speciesist, a concept similar to racism. Many people believe they are above animals and that animals do not have any rights. He attributes the animal rights movement to being alongside cultural studies. Wolfe's work perfectly aligns with the concepts of both Peter Singer and Tom Regan (both of whom are mentioned in Wolfe's piece), but he also brings his own unique perspective to animal rights and studies. He claims that "animal studies is only the permutation of a socially and ethically responsive cultural studies working to stay abreast of new social movements (in this case, the social movement often called 'animal rights'), which is itself an academic expression of a larger democratic impulse toward greater inclusiveness of every gender, or race, or sexual orientation, or--now--species" (pg. 568). This particular quote seemed to embody the thought process throughout the entire reading. Furthermore, Wolfe goes into the idea of suffering, and if suffering is an indicator that animals should have rights. People tend to separate humans from animals because of our ability to communicate and assert power and dominance over animals, however, Wolfe suggests that maybe we should actually be assessing a beings ability to suffer as an indicator that they deserve to be treated better. He concludes that we need to "locate the animal of animal studies and its challenge to humanist modes of reading, interpretation, and critical thought" (pg. 572) and examine ourselves internally in order to fully examine which rights animals should have.  

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

Related Works Edit

  • Rosi Braidotti: "Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others."
  • Christine de Pizan: "Christine's Reaction to Jean de Montreuil's Treatise on the Roman de la Rose."
  • Karl Marx: Capital Volume 1
  • Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own
  • Edward Said: Orientalism
  • Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights.
  • Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation.

References Edit

Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and the Posthumanist Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Nominated for the James Russell Lowell Prize, Modern Language Association, 2004