An interview with Garry Marvin about his mammoth new co-edited book “Human-Animal Studies”

Human-Animal Studies is a burgeoning multidisciplinary enterprise. Human-Animal Studies places the relationships humans have with other animals, and the relations other animals have with humans, at the centre of scholarly enquiry, artistic practice, and political critique. It draws from, and engages with, subjects across the social sciences, the humanities, and beyond, including anthropology, archaeology, art, biological sciences, cultural studies, environmental studies, ethology, geography, gender studies, history, literary studies, philosophy, religious studies, science and technology studies, sociology, and visual culture.

As research in and around Human-Animal Studies blossoms as never before, Susan McHugh and Garry Marvin, both leading scholars in the field, have worked together to co-edit a new four-volume collection to meet the need for an authoritative reference work that makes sense of a rapidly growing and ever more complex corpus of literature. The collection gathers foundational and canonical work, together with innovative and cutting-edge applications and interventions. In particular, the editors have fully incorporated masterworks from South America, Asia, and Africa to capture a truly global diversity of perspectives. The collection thus provides an essential database allowing scattered and often fugitive material to be easily located.

Garry Marvin & Susan McHugh

What follows is an interview with Garry Marvin where he discusses the book’s content and the impetus for its development.

I have a couple of questions about the content but also the context of the book as it seems to me that you’re trying to implicitly speak back to a certain version of human-animal studies that seems to be solidifying. So in some respects it’s a sort of speaking back and against that particular version of the field. Is that right?

This was a commission from Routledge and came after Susan and I had produced a handbook of human-animal studies for them.  For the handbook we commissioned original pieces from people. We asked them not to write what they thought what human-animal studies was, but to write a piece about what they were doing in terms of Human-Animal Studies. So that was all original. Routledge then came along and asked us if we would like to do something more akin to a survey.

Human-Animal Studies emerged in the 1990s and it’s now a well-known interdisciplinary field, so what would we do? We wanted to open it up, to reflect on its perspectives.

The real difficulty was to decide how on earth to organise four volumes! We decided to go for a geographical orientation and we didn’t call it North, South, East and West because we want that as an orientation, to keep it flexible, because you can’t have a west without an east and blah, blah, blah.  And then what we wanted to do – this was the hard thing – was a) to find what we thought were interesting early pieces which would not have been caught up in Human-Animal Studies as it is now configured and b) to get as much cultural diversity as possible.  The problem there was finding material that was culturally diverse but written in English because the publishers weren’t going to translate articles or chapters. That was not ideal, a limitation, and many fine scholars were excluded. We attempted to find pieces from Asia, Africa, South America etc.  That’s one of the problems with Human-Animal Studies, it tends to be British, North American, Australasian focused. So that was our attempt. And it was to recover pieces that we thought were important. And this was a purely personal/academic thing. Susan and I have long worked together and discussed human-animal things; Susan comes from literature, critical literary theory, philosophy, etc., etc., I do anthropology and I am focussed on ethnography. We’ve known each other for over twenty years. This is our take on the field.

Obviously, it’s – ahem – a mammoth book so how long was the process?

Two years. A bit longer.

In the introduction you talk about the ways in which human-animal studies has increasingly become institutionalized. I mean, obviously you talk about this radical potential of human-animal studies to challenge received academic conventions and norms, but do you feel like as it’s been institutionalized it has been domesticated (if you’ll excuse the pun). 

There is a key thing here about terms. I use the term Human-Animal Studies, others prefer Animal Studies, not much difference in orientation or perspective there, I think, but there is also Critical Animal Studies, which is very much advocacy driven. And neither Susan and I fall into that field, even though she has stricter views about animal welfare than I do in that she’s vegetarian, etc., and I’m not. And we have an intellectual position which is that we do not write in those terms. So there is a domestication of the whole thing with the agenda of ‘let’s make things better for animals’, putting it very simply. An admirable aim but neither of us research, write, etc. to an advocacy agenda.

How dominant would you say that is in human-animal studies?

It’s very strong. It’s very, very strong. And they’ve got some powerful intellectuals in it. My position as an anthropologist, and it’s one that Susan does support, is that I just want to understand how particular people, at particular times and places, interact with particular animals. I’m very committed to the best ethnography. As Donna Haraway says, ‘stay with the trouble.’ The things I work on, hunting, bullfighting, cockfighting are troubling things, but an anthropologist should be about to give an account of them from the inside following on from participant observation. For me the moral responsibility of the anthropologist is to the people with whom we study.  And to present them as fairly as possible.

So tell me a bit more about the collection itself then.

What we did was, we used money from Routledge and I went to stay with Susan in Maine and there we worked on how four volumes would work as an integrated collection. Once we sort of had an orientation, and it did not come easily or at once, then Susan came to the UK and spent a week with me thinking about possible pieces. We each developed a wish list, we discussed what we both thought was essential for inclusion and what we individually thought was essential for inclusion – we thrashed it out amongst ourselves.

Obviously, you would have to have got – or Routledge would have had to have got – copyright approvals.

That was the joy of the process. It was really fantastic.  All we did was we sent PDFs. We had to photocopy all the pieces we wanted and after that Routledge did everything. We had a few pieces sent back saying that the original publishers wouldn’t play ball and couldn’t include an important piece by a dear friend because the art work was too expensive. We had so much we wanted to include and we had to make horrible choices. So, the process was we selected. Routledge didn’t enter the process at all – we never spoke to our editor about content. We could do anything we wanted. Once we had our wish list we then worked it backwards and forwards to fit the word limit and to have balanced volumes. We also worked to make sure that our own particular interests were not too overrepresented.

And then it was the orientation. It was thinking very carefully through that we’re not talking about North, South, East and West as places – by putting the ‘ern’ on each, it sort of makes it fuzzier.  So, once we had the orientation, we thought about related terms – journeying, mapping, places, perspectives etc.  Ours is not a mapping of the field, an attempt to show what the field looks like, from above, nor is it a survey of a linear development, our concern was with juxtapositions and perspectives.

In terms of the content, what anthropological stuff specifically is in the collection?

I wanted a mix of theoretical pieces, So Tim Ingold’s ‘What is an Animal?’ had to be there as did Viveiros de Castro’s and Rane Willerslev’s pieces on animism. There is also a range of ethnographic pieces featuring snake charmers in India, rodeo, animal taxonomy in New Guinea, human-dolphin encounters, monkey tourism in Japan … a rich range. I certainly wanted anthropological pieces that showed what anthropologists do. Imagine it’s someone from history or English reading it, and I took pieces which the authors wouldn’t have regarded as Human-Animal studies, like Roy Ellen on dogs in Indonesia – he was writing an ethnographic study – and so we pulled in those sorts of things. Our thinking was what if I’m an anthropologist what would surprise me in the literature choice? If I’m an environmentalist, and I read something by a historian on the history of conservation in South Africa, what would surprise me? So, it wasn’t talking to any discipline. It’s really sort of trying to surprise someone.

Are they all the full articles or excerpted versions?

I think they’re full – that was why it was difficult to select for the overall word limit. But at least we did not have the horror of trying to trim pieces!

I can see it took a considerable amount of intellectual energy in coming up with the theme, but trying to select content must have been an enormous process as well.

Luckily, Susan and I have been in this field since the beginning and so we really have seen what’s going on. We’re both editors of journals and book series of Human-Animal Studies, we both review stuff, so we’re sort of clued-up on what is going on (in my case that has nothing to do with brightness, just longevity) – although that is getting more difficult as the field expands.

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