Defining The Animal Turn with Harriet Ritvo – ASI’s Defining Human-Animal Studies 28


[Music] My name is Harriet Ritvo and I’m a
history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My field is some
combination of British and British Empire history, environmental history,
animal history, and the history of zoology. I’ve been asked to talk about
the animal turn, which has taken place within most disciplines of the
humanities and social sciences within the last few decades. What it basically
refers to is the recognitions by scholars in these varied disciplines
that their research can, and at least in many cases should, encompass or even
emphasize non-human animals. And I should emphasize myself that this represent –
this recognition represents a significant change. A talk I gave earlier
in my career, that is some time ago, was introduced as many weird things have
been coming out of the humanities lately but I think this is the weirdest. Now
other animals have been an important component of human experience for a very
long time, millennia rather than centuries, indeed more or less forever. So
it’s worth asking why this kind of academic attention has been so
relatively recent. One important reason reflects the fact that since like
everyone else, scholars inhabit their particular time
and place, the topics they choose to explore often reflect contemporary
issues. Animals can thus be seen as the latest beneficiaries of a democratizing
tendency within academic research. As the labor movement, the civil rights
movement, decolonialization, and the women’s movement inspired sympathetic
scholars, so have in their turn the advocates of hunted whales, poached
tigers, abandoned dogs, and overcrowded pigs. Even in fields where animal topics
have been more or less routine, for example the history of agriculture, the
farmyard creatures have become less likely to be abstracted or only
abstracted through quantification and more likely to appear as individual
creatures or at least groups of individual creatures. The most ambitious
proponents of the animal turn have attempted to take things still further
by retrieving the perspectives of the animals they study, although the
limitations of available evidence have made this goal elusive. But what the
animal turned has done and what it continues to do is to take respectful
account of the omnipresent and the significance of the other animals with
whom we share our own time and space. [Music]

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