Animal Autobiography; Or, Narration beyond the Human
2. Approaches to Animal Autobiography
These animals [i.e., animals narrating their life experiences] often speak for us—allowing writers to discuss concepts like loneliness, alienation, or slavery, through the voices of animals—helping us understand what it is to be human. But speaking animals today are much more than simply allegorical devices. Increasingly today, animals are allowed to speak for themselves, demonstrating a new awareness of animal subjectivity, and a desire on the part of many animal lovers to give that subjectivity a voice.(, p. 4)
3. Nonhuman Narration Reframed: Finding One’s Footing in Animal Autobiographies
4. Case Studies in Cross-Species Speaking-For
4.1. Nonfictional Animal Autobiographies
My skin is green and slippery.I have four legs and webbed feet.I eat bugs and little fish.I can swim under water and hop on land.I am a...
I live in the ocean.I swim wherever I want.I sing to my family.I can breathe through a hole in the top of my head.I am a...
This narrative profile, like the ones emerging from the adult- and student-designed animal riddles, can be viewed as the product of trans-species co-authorship. Here too the crayfish’s attested display behaviors, habits of predation and self-defense, and recuperative powers contribute to an account that, although it is mock-voiced by a crustacean in dialogue with child readers who are cast in the role of direct addressees, remains within the domain of falsifiability. But note how the footings associated with this act of cross-species speaking-for change over the course of the ventroliquized self-profile. Some of the crayfish’s projected utterances can be taken as the result of chipping in on the part of the human co-author of the profile, whose positive face wants motivate him to infer and co-articulate, on the basis of the animal’s observed dispositions and behavioral tendencies, what he takes to be the crayfish’s preferences and priorities. Other utterances contained in the profile, however, including the interrogatives “Do you want to know something really cool?” and “Pretty neat, huh?” as well as the locution “Now, enough chitchat,” can be glossed as originating from a human—rather than hybrid—frame of reference. Such utterances can be construed as imposing upon negative face wants that may, given the evidence available, be more or less plausibly attributed to the animal. These elements of the profile extend beyond any extrapolation from observed behaviors, or for that matter any technique for modeling an animal’s experiential world; instead, they can be interpreted as strategies for enhancing readability through an engagement with forms of dialogic exchange anchored in humans’ own communicative practices.Do you know why I’m waving my giant claws?I’m warning you: Don’t come any closer.Snap! Snap! Snap!I catch my food with these claws. I also attack and defend myself with them.Snap! Snap! Snap!Do you want to know something really cool? If any of my legs gets hurt, including my giant claws, I can grow new ones. Pretty neat, huh? Now, enough chitchat. Back off!Snap! Snap! Snap!(, p. 4)
4.2. Fictional Animal Autobiographies
He also describes as hysterical and as “not showing the scientific attitude” a young female rat who has had a hole cut into her stomach and a plastic window inserted there so that scientists can use a strand of hair to tickle “the little ratlings as they grow inside her” (, p. 13).“Help, help!”“Please, young fellow, there’s no need to get so worked up about your little contribution to science. Have a bit of pressed biscuit before you die. Eat hearty and remember—death is freedom!”(, p. 4)
So I ask them in turn, can you use echolocation to know exactly what curves the ocean floor makes in every conceivable direction? Can you stun the creature you would like to eat using sound alone? Can you scan the bodies of your extended family and immediately tell who is pregnant, who is sick, who is injured, who ate what for lunch? The tingling many humans report feeling during an encounter with us isn’t endorphins, it’s because we’ve just scanned you to know you in all dimensions. We see through you, literally. Special case indeed. Perhaps you should be asking yourself different questions. Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals? And why do you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as humans?
5. Conclusion: Toward a Narratology beyond the Human
Conflicts of Interest
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- 1As in Herman , I draw here on Gergen and Gergen’s definition of self-narratives as “the individual’s account of self-relevant events across time” (, p. 162). Resulting from persons’ attempts “to establish coherent connections among life events” (, p. 162), for Gergen and Gergen these accounts must be characterized in social and relational terms, since they are ultimately “symbolic systems used for such social purposes as justification, criticism, and social solidification” (, p. 163; see also Ritivoi , pp. 27–36).
- 3But see Section 4.1 for a discussion of how some animalographies demonstrate more complexity than Huff and Haefner  suggest.
- 4Here I draw on the work of Kohn [34,35] as well as that of analysts like Candea , Descola , and Viveiros de Castro  to define cultural ontologies as sets of orienting assumptions that specify, in the form of common knowledge, what sorts of beings populate the world and how those beings’ qualities and abilities relate to the qualities and abilities ascribed to humans. See also Herman [4,39].
- 5In Crystal’s formulation, realis is “a term used in the study of epistemic modality: in a realis (“real”) assertion, a proposition is strongly asserted to be true, the speaker being ready to back up the assertion with evidence or argument. It is opposed to an irrealis (“unreal”) assertion, where the proposition is weakly asserted to be true, but the speaker is not ready to support the assertion” (, p. 321).
- 6In Marcus’s account, part of the anxiety about autobiography’s instability and hybridity arises from a concern over whether autobiography is “a way of ordering and objectifying the self, and thus importing alterity into the self that engenders it, or [a form] mirroring [the self’s own] vacillations and alterations” (, p. 16).
- 7The website may be found at http://www.meddybemps.com/Riddles/index.html.
- 8The pervasiveness of animals telling riddles in educational and other material targeted at children speaks to issues raised by Degnen . As Degnen notes, at a time when they themselves are still in the process of acquiring the status of persons, “young children are actively encouraged to invert Western naturalist ontology (whereby human beings and all other living beings are segregated into radically different domains) and invest their imagination in a cosmos where human and nonhuman animals are commensurate” (, p. 677).
- 10See DeKoven on the concept of humanimals, or “oscillating characters who are neither/both human and animal” (, p. 20).
- 11As Norris  notes, because of illness Sewell was unable to walk and depended on horse-drawn transportation for most of her life.
- 12In her analysis of Paul Auster’s 1999 novel Timbuktu, Ittner  identifies some of the issues that are at stake in ironized or self-reflexive acts of butting in across species lines. For Ittner, Auster uses Willy G. Christmas’s relationship with his dog, Mr. Bones, to suggest how “by thinking of an animal, we construct it within our own consciousness and therefore what is reflected back to us is our own existence, irrespective of the point of view we choose to adopt...[Auster’s] approach acknowledges this impasse and integrates it into its inquiry on animal alterity” (, p. 182).
- 13O’Brien’s text won the 1972 Newberry Medal, awarded annually to books that contribute to American literature for children.
- 14Other echoes include Doctor Rat’s references to tattoos on rats’ bodies, as well as his accounts of scientific papers published on the basis of sadistic experiments involving castration, decapitation, exposure to radiation, the grafting of body parts removed from one rat onto the bodies of other rats, and other abhorrent practices, including placing kittens, fully awake, in a microwave oven, with their paws taped down to the tray (, p. 38).
- 15For more on the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, which has engaged in the documented use of bottlenose dolphins, Beluga whales, and sea lions for purposes of surveillance and which is reported to have used dolphins for “swimmer nullification” missions, see Casey (, loc. 733–36).
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Herman, D. Animal Autobiography; Or, Narration beyond the Human. Humanities 2016, 5, 82. https://doi.org/10.3390/h5040082
Herman D. Animal Autobiography; Or, Narration beyond the Human. Humanities. 2016; 5(4):82. https://doi.org/10.3390/h5040082Chicago/Turabian Style
Herman, David. 2016. "Animal Autobiography; Or, Narration beyond the Human" Humanities 5, no. 4: 82. https://doi.org/10.3390/h5040082