Our students at the Reading Animals Conference
Our students Kerstin Grunwald-Hope and Chao Xie attended a major four-day conference this summer, Reading Animals, at Sheffield University. Chao, also known as Percy, actually presented a paper (from his dissertation research) entitled ‘The Extended Sympathy: An Ecological Reading of Hart-Leap Well’ – well done! Kerstin has also written up her experience of the conference below, and needless, to say, we’re delighted to be able to support our students at such events.
From 17-20 July 2014, Percy and I attended the Reading Animals Conference in Sheffield which was organised by the School of English at Sheffield University. We had the opportunity to meet over 100 fellow academics ranging from Masters and PHD students to published researchers and lecturers from all over the world including Brazil, Australia and the USA. Over four jam-packed days of fascinating presentations and stimulating discussions we were introduced to a wide range of research interests and specialisms in relation to animals in literature.
Keynote speakers included renowned academics such as Susan McHugh on modern narratives about indigenous hunting practices, Kevin Hutchings on the relationship between animals and indigenous people as portrayed between 1770-1860, Tom Tyler on the history and concept of anthropocentrism, Laura Brown on the role of the lap dog in eighteenth-century literary culture, Cary Wolfe via video link on Wallace Steven’s bird poems, Erica Fudge on invisible cows in early modern culture, and Diana Donald on equine biographies and autobiographies such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty,
The rest of the conference was divided into nine sessions spread over the four days. For each session, we had a choice between four to five differently themed panels. My personal favourites consisted of a reading of the reciprocal relationship between a camel and a human protagonist as a re-evaluation of the animal as equal companion rather than inferior object. Another fascinating paper dealt with the importance and yet the paradoxical absence of the blood frog in a novel set in Haiti in order to argue the case for amphibians as indicator species for environmental degradation. In a panel on genetic narratives, an eye-opening presentation on the animal welfare implications of industrialised breeding practices for pigs and race horses in the USA made a strong case for the need of improved transparency in the relevant industries worldwide. In the same panel, a creative writer raised interesting questions on the increasing replacement of real animals as pets by technology such as robotic puppies. A session on literary slaughterhouses demonstrated how the concealment of places of meat production in literature aided in the dissociation of the animal from food in Victorian London. In a panel on shape-shifting narratives, international fairy-tales were shown to celebrate humans transforming into animals rather than perceiving the process as a crisis to be remedied. This was followed by a professional story-teller bringing to life a Welsh myth about a woman being created out of flower petals. A lyrical finish to the panel was provided a poet’s recital of her metamorphosis into a polar bear. In a session on violence and encounters, connections were made between the visual engagement with animal cruelty and the consequent barbaric enjoyment of bear-baiting in early modern England. Another fascinating thesis juxtaposed literature and art in which animals rise up to an upright stance with texts in which women either choose or are forced to walk on all four. In a panel on animal others, a personal highlight included a reading of the marginal status of dogs and ghosts in one of my favourite novels, Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, against the emerging biopolitics of the era in which the text is set, namely the formation of the welfare state in post-war Britain.
This conference was an invaluable experience and a fantastic enrichment of my MA studies. Moreover, it has inspired me to explore various new research interests and has motivated me to attend more conferences and hopefully even present my own paper next time.