Animals, agency, and history

Authored by: Philip Howell

The Routledge Companion to Animal–Human History

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138193260
eBook ISBN: 9780429468933
Adobe ISBN:


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Most of us who have written and taught animal–human history will have at one time or other encountered profound scepticism at the very idea that animals have agency, even before we come to whether such agency might be accessible to historians. These objections are usually conjoined. Thus the author of a 1974 spoof in the Journal of Social History asserted the ‘full historical power’ of the domestic animals he (she?) was purporting to consider. 1 This ‘strangely prophetic’ text now serves as an instructive prolegomenon to the subsequent development of animal–human history, to the extent that for many practitioners today the ‘full historical power’ – or the historical agency – of nonhuman animals is not in the least bit controversial. 2 Given the passage of time, it is as a result almost exponentially dispiriting to see the same gesture trotted out in the recent hoaxing of the German journal Totalitarianism and Democracy. In a ‘Plea against Academic Conformism’, ‘Christiane Schulte’ and her (his?) collaborators denounce what they see as the ‘anti-humanism’ inherent in ‘Human–Animal Studies’, singling out for opprobrium the ‘thesis of animal “agency”’. 3 Each burlesque, for all their forty years’ distance, attacks not merely the enterprise of animal studies, but the project of an animal–human history. They do this – from opposite ends of the political spectrum – by labelling the historical study of animal agency no more than a fad or a freak: condemning liberal-progressive pieties on the one hand, spurious radicalism on the other.

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