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Studying the Dog
A friendly pack is scaling ivory towers on campuses worldwide
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Spinoza defines far and near like this: far he said, is the constellation of the dog in the night sky, and near is the animal who barks—the distance between abstraction and reality, the ideal, elevated theoretical realm and our earthly, immediate lives. So it is surprising to find that, at colleges and universities—bastions of abstract thought—scholars are closing the gap on what dogness means, both the far kind and the near. Not one but several dogs are barking at the foot of the ivory tower, and a friendly pack is scrambling up the stairs.

As the subject of human-animal interaction is now deemed worthy of serious scholarship, efforts to understand dogs in depth are emerging on college campuses around the world. It wasn’t that long ago that when one thought of dogs and research, shudder-inducing visions of laboratory animals with implanted electrodes came to mind. While some of that still exists, increasingly, scholars are focusing on the ethical treatment of animals, and taking a hard look at university practices along the way.

Changing the Canon

The interest in dogs as thinking beings has been on the rise since the 1970s when Peter Singer, the Ira W. De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, published Animal Liberation (1975), exploring a range of human-dog interactions, including dog fighting, and their resulting ethical dilemmas. The book has since become the bible of the animal rights movement. Singer expanded on his original position in Animal Rights and Human Obligations (1989), even taking on such illicit subjects as canine-human sex and the Kinsey studies (Heavy Petting, Nerve 2001). Soon after, Cary E. Wolfe edited Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (2003), with essays by intellectual heavyweights such as Jacques Derrida and Alphonso Lingis that fostered critical discussion. Wolfe, a professor of English at Rice University, also wrote his own treatise that year: Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and the Posthumanist Theory (2003), while Giorgio Agamben pursued his theoretical exploration of “human being” through our interaction with animals in books like The Open: Man and Animal (2003).

 

Another player in this fundamental shift was Marjorie Garber, the director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard, who published her book Dog Love a decade ago. Exploring the portrayal of dogs in film and literature, and the roles they play in American culture, her work signaled a trend in literature courses and seminars, and at national conferences in many humanities fields. Animals and dogs—as ideas and in reality—were suddenly ripe for exploration.

From Trend to Mainstream
In the fall of 2005, Teresa Mangum, a noted English professor and activist at the University of Iowa, co-hosted a semester-long seminar titled “Articulating the Animal.” She and Jane Desmond invited several of the researchers doing the most interesting work in various departments to collaborate on a weekly exchange of ideas about animal life at UI’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. In their individual classes, these researchers used their work to foster a fresh dialogue with students about animals and humans and how they interact. Among Mangum’s colleagues was a bench scientist who used animals in his psychology lab; a theater director interested in equestrian theory; a museum director with a penchant for paintings of cows; the head of the Rhetoric Department, who was fascinated with bonobo language; and Desmond herself, an American Studies professor interested in the way animals extend human bodily capabilities.

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