Symposium: Nonhumans and Sympathy

October 11, 2013
9:00 - 6:00 PM
2115 Tawes Hall

[Driving Directions to Tawes via Google Maps]

[Campus Visitor Parking Map. Nearest Visitor Parking: Union Lane Garage or Stadium Drive Garage]

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault says sympathy acts through the “principle of mobility: it attracts what is heavy to the heaviness of the earth, what is light up towards the weightless ether; it drives the root towards the water, and it makes the great yellow disk of the sunflower turn to follow the curving path of the sun.” The “play of sympathies” unearths undiscovered affinities. A desire to care for others and a need to be cared for in turn creates an identification of sameness.

This symposium will examine literature’s role in helping humans behold, understand, and sympathize with nonhuman animals, plants, and ecosystems. How do poetic and rhetorical devices of metaphor, simile, pathos, and affect identify with, mourn, or exalt the nonhuman? How do literary texts imagine sympathetic and antipathetic obligations to the nonhuman? And, ultimately, can literature incite the desire and will needed to author a new treaty between humans and animals, plants, and ecosystems including the most difficult, challenging, and hostile nonhumans?



9:15-10:30AM: Panel 1

1. Susan Crane (Columbia University), "Posthumanist Sympathy in The Knight of the Swan" (Abstract)
2. Karl Steel (Brooklyn College), "'A Charitable and Pitous Conscience': The Queer Prioress and
      Her Pets" (Abstract)
Moderator: Kellie Robertson

10:45-11:45AM: Panel 2

3. Danielle Allor (University of Maryland), "The Oak and the Allegory: Tree Disobedience in Early Modern
      England" (Abstract
4. Rob Wakeman (University of Maryland), "Vegan Shakespeare" (Abstract)
Moderator: John Holliday 

11:45-1:00PM: Lunch

1:00-2:15PM: Panel 3

5. Isabella Cooper (University of Maryland), "Animals and Antipathy in Wuthering Heights” (Abstract)
6. Mario Ortiz-Robles (University of Wisconsin, Madison), "Taming the Beast: Chance and Affect in Hardy
       and Zola" (Abstract)
Moderator: Rachel Vorona 

2:30-3:45PM: Panel 4

7. David L. Clark (McMaster University), "Animals in Spite of All:  On the Insentient Witness" (Abstract)
8. Nathaniel Underland (University of Maryland), "Orientedism, Buchenwald, and Nabokov's Upstate New
       York" (Abstract)
Moderator: Nick Slaughter 

4:00-5:00PM: Panel 5

9. Tim DeMay (University of Maryland), "Dark Sympathy: Wallace Stevens and Radioactive
       Material" (Abstract)
10. Haylie Swenson (George Washington University) "Being with Rico/Ratso: Disability and Animality       
       in Midnight Cowboy" (Abstract)
Moderator: Sarah Bonnie 

5:00-6:00PM: Reception 


  • Susan Crane (Columbia University), "Posthumanist Sympathy in The Knight of the Swan"

    Among the many posthumanist paradigms that deal with material relationships, I’ll concentrate on just two that explore the explanatory power of a certain kind of sympathy. Foucault’s Order of Things traces the organizing capacity of the “sympathies” that link sunflower to sun, or walnut to brain, in eighteenth-century nature writing. For Foucault, a constellation of alien taxonomies, ranging from this nature writing to Borges’s Chinese Encyclopedia, sustain his project of unsettling humanist rationality. Jane Bennett, in contrast, is seeking not only to unsettle humanism but also to promote material sympathies as a valid alternative to humanist views of materiality: “Sympathy names a material agency, a power of bodies human and nonhuman, a mode of impersonal connection, attachment, and care. . . .” My paper traces a medieval analogue to Foucault’s and Bennett’s sympathies in the fourteenth-century Chevelere Assigne (The Knight of the Swan).  I will argue for the historical importance of the concept, but against the validity of actually adopting, as our own conviction, the premise that organic and inorganic things are conjoined by agential sympathies.
  • Karl Steel (Brooklyn College), "'A Charitable and Pitous Conscience': The Queer Prioress and Her Pets"

    For at least the past century, critics have reacted to the notorious pet love of Chaucer’s Prioress with paternalistic indulgence, embarrassment, or contempt, while her few allies have tried to excuse her by finding other pet-loving nuns. In a way, I agree with all of them: the Prioress is embarrassing; she feels incorrectly; she fakes sentiments in a kind of “drag” of high society; her “tendre herte” is antisocial, of no possible benefit to the needs of the larger society. She refuses the straight time that requires her to develop into proper adulthood, with a proper family, proper lovers, appropriate sentiments. In short, according to any number of standard catalogs, the Prioress is queer. To keep the Prioress queer, my paper will refuse to normalize her or love in general, and will instead entangle her charitable and “pitous” conscience with the queer animal love of Kathy Rudy’s Loving Animals: Towards a New Animal Advocacy.
  • Danielle Allor (University of Maryland), "The Oak and the Allegory: Tree Disobedience in Early Modern England"

    According to the shepherd Thenot in “Februarie” of Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender, the Oak tree in the fable of the Oak and the Briar is a metaphor for old age. Critics read “Februarie” as an allegory of religious change, or of factional conflicts within the Elizabethan court; in either case, the Oak again does symbolic service. The Oak is in good company: literary trees are constrained by all kinds of rhetorical forms. The pathetic fallacy, personification, anthropomorphization, and prosopopoeia all may be mobilized to bring trees into a more intimate relationship with the human. Unfortunately, these relationships are defined entirely in terms of the human partner, leaving the lives and desires of the trees unrepresented. However, even the most allegorical trees can insert their own desires back into the text. Reading “Februarie” of The Shepheardes Calender alongside early modern husbandry manuals demonstrates that this pastoral episode is not merely another instance in which the biology of trees is ignored in favor of making a point about humans. Investigating the physical condition of the Oak in the poem, as it would have been read by Spenser’s audience, allows us to ask what old age means for trees in a culture of aggressive tree husbandry. Exploring the places where metaphorical trees depart from actual trees – usually in order to make the trees more human in function but simultaneously farther from the ways that humans themselves made trees through forest management and silviculture – reveals gaps in the logic of the pathetic fallacy even as it demonstrates human failure to rhetorically determine the environment.
  • Rob Wakeman (University of Maryland), "Vegan Shakespeare"

    The chef Tal Ronnen has a standard response for people who say they'd go vegan if not for bacon: "So be a vegan who eats bacon." My paper will take up the question of what it would mean if, following Ronnen, veganism was not defined negatively as a set of eating prohibitions or consumerist taboos, but as an affirmative, sympathetic, political mode of being with the world. My analysis will center on the political ecology of Jaques and Duke Senior in As You Like It. The paradoxical relationships between humans and the forest ecology of AYLI have generally been understood as representing the impossibility of having a "real" relationship to the nonhuman world, but I would like to recast the relationship in political terms: what emotional and ethical responsibilities are entailed in a political relationship to nonhumans? What does it mean for Duke Senior to politically enfranchise the deer of the Forest of Arden as "the native burghers of this desert city" and to hunt them? Is it possible for Jaques to earnestly, seriously mourn the death of a nonhuman animal while also reveling in the pleasure of his death "like a Roman conqueror"?
  • Isabella Cooper (University of Maryland), "Animals and Antipathy in Wuthering Heights

    Twentieth-century theorists of the novel have often situated the genre’s development in relation to the value it accrued in the Victorian era as a vehicle for awakening the sympathetic imagination.  This idea of the moral and ethical purpose of the novel deeply informs Victorian novelists’ aesthetics.  But this understanding of the novel’s role does not fit Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which seems to alienate readers from identifying with its characters,  who indeed seem to defy our efforts to sympathize with them. Wuthering Heights is in fact an antipathetic novel: Brontë refuses to awaken the capacity for sympathetic identification in her readers.  Brontë depicts a world where humanity is too complex, too various in its constitutions, aims, interests, and motives, to provide any basis for fellow feeling.  She achieves this feat largely through her use of animals and animal imagery, which create the impression that each human being is in fact its own species, so that the conception of a unitary human nature comes to appear a reductive and unnatural way of understanding our relationships in and to the world.  In this novel, there is in fact such variety within human nature that there is no fundamental common essence to human beings, no human nature at all, in which sympathy as traditionally understood can take root. Bronte creates a world in which even the most fundamental distinction—that between the human species and all other species—is rendered meaningless.  At the same time, the human species itself breaks down from its status as a unitary category, revealing itself to consist of as many species in need of classification as there are individuals.  The impulse to categorize people by species, employed relentlessly by the characters themselves, is fundamental to the novel’s project of destabilizing the human.  There is such a variety of species within human nature, Brontë suggests, that the very conception of a unitary “human nature,” and the sympathetic identification or “fellow feeling” that conception renders possible, is revealed as illusory.
  • Mario Ortiz-Robles (University of Wisconsin, Madison), "Taming the Beast: Chance and Affect in Hardy and Zola"

    This paper examines the role of chance and probability in the naturalism of Hardy  and Zola. It argues that the figure of the animal in the work of these two authors  helps articulate two parallel developments in nineteenth-century culture: the gradual erosion of determinism as society becomes statistical under biopower (what Ian Hacking calls the "taming of chance"), and the establishment of a form of literary rationalization (naturalism) that portrays society as a zoological assemblage subject to the laws of nature. Both Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) and La Bête humaine (1890) offer a view of human affairs based on probable outcomes, but they invest this view with forms of affect, centered on the figure of the animal, that  suggest resistance to the end of chance.
  • David L. Clark (McMaster University), "Animals in Spite of All:  On the Insentient Witness"

    Jacques Derrida invites us to consider the unsettling prospect of falling under the gaze of the animal other.  My remarks shift the focus from the animal gaze to the complex roles that animals are made to play as witness–in particular, as witness to atrocity.  In the wake of mass killings and state-sponsored violence, how do animals act as testamentary remnants, speaking transitively and perhaps unwittingly of unregarded deaths and useless suffering?  How does an animal testament to murder make irrefutable demands on the present and on the future?  Holocaust atrocities in particular compel us to consider what, if anything, makes human beings human.  The uncanny presence of animals in accounts of these atrocities contorts that question interminably.  My remarks will be routed through a terrible archive, namely rare motion-picture footage of SS executions of Latvian Jews in which a small dog makes an unexpected and complexly affecting appearance.  What is visible in these disturbing photographic images is not all that is seen.  In this film maudit, the animal is the impossible witness whose presence at the scene of the crime—at once accidental and irrepressible—marks the impossibility of bearing witness.  The cinematic memory of the “insentient” witness testifies to the insentience of witnessing.
  • Nathaniel Underland (University of Maryland) "Orientedism, Buchenwald, and Nabokov's Upstate New York"

    Graham Harman defines his Object-Oriented Ontology as “non-relational,” by which he means that things have an unknowable heart withdrawn from any Deleuzean flux of becoming. In literature, he suggests, we arrive at the heart of a text by “decontextualizing”: we imagine counterfactual material circumstances that allow us to appreciate a text’s je ne sais quoi. A similar decontextualizing technique is the list or litany, which equates syntactically each item’s thingness. This essay finds a middle ground between Object-Oriented Ontology’s via negativa and negative dialectics in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel, Pnin, which exemplifies the presentation of an object both as withdrawn and as historically determined—specifically, a triangle of fictional upstate New York is both mysterious beech forest and Buchenwald concentration camp. In fact, as the moral core of Pnin, this moment stands for the novel at-large: Pnin’s self-reflexive satirical mode presents a “non-relational” aesthetic that simultaneously refuses Harman’s fetishization of unfamiliarity. Thus, the quality that makes Pnin a “minor” work, its tonal unevenness, also makes it an exemplar of posthumanist sympathy and a laboratory for the encounter between the hair-raising height of the administered world, the Holocaust, and the so-called “Latour litany.” 
  • Tim DeMay (University of Maryland), "Dark Sympathy: Wallace Stevens and Radioactive Material"

    In Foucault's archaeology of the term, sympathy is a force of attraction and identification, a power of creating similarity between objects. As the sciences uncovered other, more empirical forces between objects in place of sympathy, the term leapt from its original material roots into its more primary use of emotional or affective affinities. Sympathy transitioned from a physical to a moral power, and with that change, it was relegated as a more specifically human capability. Since the 1950s, however, we have discovered materials whose powers of creating similarity - or at least changing the identity of others - readily falls within the Classical definition of sympathy. Namely, I want to bring this term to bear on radioactive materials and their ability to make radioactive other objects, to mutate and create. Writing in the light of the first nuclear blasts, I hope to have Wallace Stevens' apocalyptic Auroras of Autumn provide a sounding board for the very real play - meant both as 'free action' and the 'theater' - of sympathies that occurs in a nuclear age, play that has changed, is changing, and will change our relation to a nature that might better be called, again, "creation." Stevens will also aid us in remembering the crucial twin to sympathy in Foucault, which is the antipathy necessary to prevent sympathy from overriding all difference. What might a knowing antipathy offer philosophies and perspectives of a nonhumanism?
  • Haylie Swenson (George Washington University) "Being with Rico/Ratso: Disability and Animality in Midnight Cowboy"

    Midnight Cowboy
    , John Schlesinger’s 1969 film, centers on the unlikely friendship of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a wannabe hustler, and Enrico Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), his sickly roommate. Abjection clings to Rizzo’s failing, disabled, indeterminately queer body throughout both the film and James Leo Herlihy’s novel, to which the film closely hews. One of the major ways this happens is through naming: Rizzo’s despised nickname, “Ratso,” is used throughout both the film by nearly everyone he comes in contact with, including Joe, and the novel’s narrator uses “Ratso” almost exclusively. Insinuating as it does that Rizzo—or Rico, his preferred nickname—in some way resembles New York’s despised rodent, “Ratso” increases Rico’s abjection. And yet, in spite of calling him Ratso nearly all the time, and in spite of his keen awareness of his abject status, Joe does not abandon Rico. If anything, Rico’s moment of bodily failure and subsequent abjection creates space for an enjoyable, if not painless, intimacy. In an act of what I read as radical care, Joe makes Ratso laugh by emphasizing rather than ignoring his sick friend’s abject status, a status that the film’s conflation of Rico and Ratso reinforces. In conversation with—among others—Darieck Scott, Douglas Baynton, and David Mitchell, I ask what we might learn from the way the film understands Ratso’s abject status. Inspired by Mitchell’s desire to “explore how disability subjectivities create new forms of embodied knowledge and collective consciousness,” I suggest that an attention to Rico’s abject animality—an attention, that is, to Rico as Ratso—reveals overlooked alternative modes of being in the film. Furthermore, I argue that by embracing the abject animal, these alternative modes point out the limitations of those practices of disability politics that are still largely invested in the category “human.”        

Co-Sponsored by:

 This event is sponsored in part by Graduate Students' Activities Fees. The event is free and open to the public. All are welcome.


For more information contact: Rob Wakeman (