Animal Studies

There were so many good papers and interesting, accomplished people at the Living With Animals Conference at Eastern Kentucky University! One rarely finds such a collegial, kind, smart, and diverse group coming together around anything — much less the issue of animals in the academy.  So this meeting was truly a treat. I definitely can’t do the whole experience justice in this post, so I’ll just touch on the highlights: Every session I attended kept me riveted for the duration.  A “Living with Horses” session on Thursday addressed the subtle and profound issues of helping people and horses who fall on hard times through Equine Rescue services, as well as the changing paradigms and ethics of enlisting horses in therapeutic interventions for humans. The third paper in this session used Jane Smiley’s work, especially her fiction for juveniles, to consider the ways children and horses both function as “live property” in the contemporary United States.

Friday began with a wonderfully rich and entertaining presentation by Margo DeMello, about teaching “Human-Animal Studies.”  This theme carried over to the session where I talked about our blogging project. I also learned about how to incorporate animal studies into a first-year seminar with a service-learning component, how the occupational  therapy program at Eastern Kentucky University engages a broad spectrum of learners (and horses), and how inquiry-based learning (using the Project Dragonfly QUEST model) can be used in an animal ethics course. The afternoon was devoted to Animal Subjectivity.  Pamela Ashmore’s presentation raised many troubling questions about the often noble goals and incredibly high physical and monetary costs of taking non-human primates into the home as “pets.”  Even more confounding, was Lynn White Miles’ paper about the thirty year journey of Chantek the orangutang from research subject to enculturated child, back to research subject, and then (currently) to exhibition object (at the Atlanta Zoo).

The highlight of the day was a round table session about setting up Animal Studies programs featuring Bob Mitchell, conference organizer and founder of the Animal Studies major at EKU. This is the first major of its kind, and will produce its first graduates this spring.  The curriculum is rigorous, practical and elegantly balanced: Students develop in-depth competence in Arts and Humanities (courses such as Animals in History, Animal Ethics, Cultural Anthropology), they gain a solid footing in the sciences with coursework in zoology, ecology, comparative psychology, human evolution, etc., and they complete an “applied” concentration in conservation, animal science, and animals and the law.  Capstone coursework and options for field study and study abroad provide the flexibility and focus for an academic experience grounded in the three major elements of Animal Studies: study of the animal, study of human interactions with animals, and study of relationships between animals and people.

I had to leave mid-day on Saturday to avoid driving through the spring snow storm that swept off the flatland and into our mountains this morning.  I hated to miss the tour of the Kentucky Horse Park today, but was grateful for the chance to hear Ken Shapiro’s final keynote about the future of Human-Animal Studies and some very compelling papers before heading home. These included Jessica Bell’s analysis of how the new “naturalization” of the circus in major media outlets invokes discourses of conservation, animal protection, and domestication to legitimize the exploitation of animals, especially elephants. Jeannette Vaught’s presentation on the connection between commercial horse slaughter and private horse cloning raised a host of issues, none of which sit easily with popular conceptions of equine sport, biomedical advances, and the monetary “value” of individual horses.  The shifting sands on which equine capital is evaluated and which determine the fate of race horses at the end of their career received nuanced and sophisticated analysis from Tamar Victoria Scoggin-McKee, whose fieldwork with Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorse Rescue promises to produce a fabulous dissertation.

Scoggin-McKee also provided a thorough update on the conference via Twitter (#livingwithanimalseku).

Living with Animals

As academic conferences go, Living with Animals has been just fabulous.  A full update will have to wait until I am reunited with a full keyboard, but I can’t call it quits on the day without noting how invigorating and exciting it’s been to hear terrific papers, share ideas, and talk about our blogging project with a diverse group of kindred spirits. Thanks, UH3004 for taking on the “blogging domestication” project with me!

Living with Animals Program
Living with Animals Program

Book Lib / Dream Catcher

Spitzweg1850BuecherwurmWideEnh335pxw

I found it important and ironic that Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machine came into the world as a Janus-faced book (which the introduction to our reader id’s as a “codex.”  Cleaning off the real paper piles (after the digital drifts had been safely closed away) last weekend, I stumbled on this essay by William Cronon, who recently finished his term as president of the American Historical Association, an organization much interested in books (forever) and computing (more recently).  Echoing Walter Benjamin, a self-diagnosed and self aware bibliophile, Cronon offers an insightful meditation on how scholars (ok historians anyway) have not yet fully succeeded in extending the relationships we have with the curated collections of knowledge – embodied in bound volumes and physical  libraries — to the digital world.  Cronon, an early adopter and champion of ebooks and electronic preservation, does see the potential of expanding digital depositories and the incredible power of SEARCH.  But he also notes that the Romans’ invention of the codex, whose pages replaced ancient scrolls, “remains one of the most powerful random-access devices humanity has yet devised.”  As someone who routinely spends lots of time scrolling (and clicking) to find something in cyberspace, I appreciate his veneration of the physical book and his endorsement of the ease of finding and retrieving something quickly from it.  My physical books and manuscripts I work with are known to me and accessible to me in a way that searching and scrolling can’t quite equal.  At least not yet.

In Praise of Dinosaurs

Dinosaur VisionYesterday my colloquium students worked in teams on their research projects.  While “Team Ungulate” discussed the similarities and differences of reindeer, horse and donkey evolution, “Team Fowl” (ultimately dedicated to the chicken and the pigeon) became immersed in the miracles of dinosaur vision.  Like other reptiles, dinosaurs saw the world in technicolor, and many of them had full binocular vision that could capture minute details in a landscape a mile away.  We might assume that extinction was a just desert for a life form that proved unable to adapt to climate change, but I was struck by how central vision — or at least the visual imaginary — was to Augmenting Human Intellect and the Memex.  Douglas Englebart and Vannevar Bush both sought to capture, store and extend (augment) associative trails of information that humans use to order, synthesize, and create knowledge.  As Englebart’s initial vision of the word processor suggests, the apparent “magic” of  the CRT is its ability to replicate both the shape and speed of what we “see” in our “mind’s eye,” and to quickly summon the associative trails we stash in its remote corners.

memex_headcam

The modes of augmenting human intellect that have emerged from these mid-20th century visions have revolutionized our ways of knowing, modes of being, and social interactions in miraculous and often disturbing ways.  Yet their initial inspiration and enduring touchstone is the kind of symbolic reasoning intimately bound up with visual perception and the organization of space.  Dinosaurs, with their eagle eyes, may have been way ahead of their time:

“Dinosaur eyes take in a wider view, bending in at the edges like a glass globe filled with water. Nothing is gray or drab or dull; rather they see swimming particles of color, a moving mosaic of dancing colored specks. As we would see a starscape in the night sky, they see a sparkling “lifescape” in the woods by day, a world teeming with life.

Some humans see with dinosaur vision, Bix explained: artists, poets, and children. But for the rest of us, as we grow older, the mammalian part of the brain clouds over the reptilian part, and drains away a little glory of the world.” –James Gurney, “Dinotopia”

Historical Perspective and Paleofantasies

I enjoyed our discussion of canine-human evolution yesterday, and wanted to circle back to our fascination with the paleolithic past.  Chris gave us excellent context on the appeal of the “edenic / authentic paleo” in current health and fitness trends, and I think we all appreciated the nuances of his post and questions. What I wanted to come back to here are the connections between historical thinking and how we invoke an imagined past to help us move forward in an increasingly fraught present.  I appreciated how Marlene Zuk’s recent article reminded us that efforts to get back to a more “pure,” “healthy,” or “natural” lifestyle invoke a static ideal that never existed. Evolution isn’t over.  Like domestication, it is an ongoing process. Paleolithic people may have had less heart disease and lower cholesterol, but they weren’t necessarily more “healthy,” or “better adapted” to their environment than we are. Like other organisms they were making their way the best they could. Some of them eventually domesticated grains and abandoned hunting and gathering for a settled lifestyle that we see both as the beginning of “civilization” and the end of a naturally healthy lifestyle. At the same time, though, many other people became and remained nomadic pastoralists, with all of the dietary and cultural baggage that entailed. As historians, we need to remember that utopias are just that — imagined, idyllic, impossible communities.  We invoke them into being to validate our analyses of the present and legitimize our agendas for the future. I’m quite sure that many of us would benefit from exercising more and eating less processed food. But to imagine that paleolithic people had a more “natural” lifestyle than their contemporary descendents is to take them out of history and deny the continuity of evolution.

Why so Sirius?

I’m interested in the intersections between new and old media, and the interfaces between humans, other animals, and technology. My blog title references my car radio, the magnitude of the digital revolution, and the dogs the Soviets sent into orbit to pave the way for human space flight.

SiriusXM Logo

Drink Your Kumis – Or Fermentation as Humanity’s Best Friend

The discussion about Erica’s terrific post about (among other things) milk and the Mayan apocalypse reminds me that fermented beverages are important, not just to the social lives of contemporary college students, but to the ancient and enduring practices of pastoralism on the Eurasian steppe.  For many people of Turkic and Mongol origin, kumis an alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk was (and still is) a dietary staple.

For those of you who are wondering about the logistical challenges of milking mares, here is captivating, contemporary account. mare milking in Kirgyzstan

(BTW, the foal in this image has the same kind of leopard spotting found in the Pech Merl image on our mother blog!) And fear not, city dwellers, and others who don’t have access to their own mares, can also imbibe kumis from a bottle.

Kumis bottle with glassKumis’s relative from the Caucasus, kefir, is made from goat, cow or sheep’s milk, and I have fond memories of scouring the stores of Moscow for it in the hungry days of the collapse of Communism.

Kefir cartonUrbanization and industrialization did cause many problems in terms of maintaining a supply of healthy milk. It’s doubtful that we would have traded beer for kumis, even without the advent of Pasteurization, but it’s worth remembering that Ghengis Khan’s warriors drank their kumis.