The Human-Animal Bind
California Italian Studies is now accepting submissions for Volume 10 (2021). Submissions may be for either the thematic or the open-themed parts of the volume,* in either English or Italian.
Deadline for submissions: February 29, 2020. Please direct inquiries to the editors.
Editors of CIS, Volume 10 (2021)
Deborah Amberson, University of Florida, firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrea Moudarres, University of California, Los Angeles, email@example.com
Questions regarding formatting and how to submit articles through our website should be sent to our managing editor, Leslie Elwell, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Submissions should be made directly through the California Italian Studies submission form: https://submit.escholarship.org/subi/directSubmit?target=ismrg_cisj.
All submitted articles must be original work not published or submitted for publication elsewhere. All submissions will be subject to double-blind review.
Bind is a slippery word. In its verbal form, it suggests the act of tying, capturing, making cohere, while, as a noun, it speaks to a quandary or dilemma. Bind also remains etymologically related to bond, a term which suggests affection or love. In fact, the uneasy intimacy between the human and the nonhuman animal encompasses all these facets and more. In “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger identifies an “existential dualism” that defines the life nonhuman animals have lived in the human sphere. “[S]ubjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed,” the nonhuman animal has provided physical and intellectual sustenance for the human, serving as food, material for clothing and shelter, companion in our solitude, and prop to our imaginings of the divine.
Modern Western thought has, with few exceptions, worked hard to fence the human off from the nonhuman. From Descartes’s denial of animal reason to Heidegger’s horror, expressed in his 1946 “Letter on Humanism,” at the bodily incarnation humans share with the nonhuman animal, philosophical thought has guarded human identity against any encroachment on the part of our nonhuman animal kin. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola is no exception. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico famously has God describe the human being as “a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal,” that has the “power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life [… or] to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.” For Pico, this ability to fashion themselves makes humans different from all other creatures, whose natures are divinely predetermined.
Somewhat ironically, however, Pico also goes on to compare this unique creature to another animal, a reptile no less: namely, the chameleon. Can we still take Pico’s anthropocentric partition of human and nonhuman seriously? Or, is the difference between so-called human nature and the natures of other beings as evanescent as the shades of a chameleon’s colors? Observed naked by his cat, Jacques Derrida is compelled to ponder the precipitous edges of the category of the human: “[T]he gaze called ‘animal’ offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human […] the bordercrossings from which vantage man dares to announce himself to himself.” Is there, then, any ground at all for a separation of humanity from all other creatures? Or is human exceptionalism simply a comforting falsehood with which we humans have tried to soothe our ontological anguish for millennia? And, if human nature is so unique, why is the human-animal relation such an uneasy one? Why does it have to be a bind as well as bond?
In contemporary Italy, philosophers Giorgio Agamben, Paola Cavalieri, Roberto Esposito, Rosi Braidotti, and Roberto Marchesini have been leaders in establishing the ethical importance of post-humanist thought, recognizing the danger of dividing “bare life” from “political life” (Agamben) and proposing that no truly meaningful distinction can divide the human from the animal. And what of Italian literature? What can literature, a form of knowledge grounded in fantasy, imagination, and empathy, add to such a wealth of philosophical inquiry? Perhaps the philosophers themselves provide the answer. Georges Bataille points to the inadequacies of philosophical method in grasping animal being as he suggests that the way to speak of a non-human universe “can overtly only be poetic.” In a similar manner, Derrida declares that “thinking concerning the animals, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. […] It is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of.” Indeed, a cursory glance through the centuries of Italian culture reveals that literature, long before philosophy, posed the question of the animal-human bind and bond.
From Dantean beasts and Boccaccio’s allegorical hunts to medieval bestiaries and the fables of humanists such as Luigi Pulci and Leon Battista Alberti, nonhuman animals have allowed authors to test the human character and seek to define its limits. More contemporary texts, from Verga’s “Rosso Malpelo” and Tommaso Landolfi’s racconti to Elsa Morante’s La Storia and Italo Calvino’s oeuvre, continue to probe, in a broad variety of ways, the spaces, experiences, and vulnerabilities shared by human and nonhuman animals. The nonhuman animal also features, to a not insignificant degree, in the literary and cinematic canons of the fantastic and of science fiction, where authors and directors explore the possibility of an encounter with the other and, not infrequently, the possibilities for the continued survival of all species.
Volume 10 of California Italian Studies aims to address the ways in which the complexities of the human-animal relation have been represented, reinvented, excavated, and celebrated in the Italian cultural tradition from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century. We welcome submissions that stem from various theoretical perspectives and explore alternative forms of otherness, including but not limited to questions of ethics, gender, metamorphosis, race, political or sexual identity, theology, new technologies and artificial intelligence, immigration, environmentalism, etc.
*The second, open-themed, issue of California Italian Studies, Volume 10 does not address the human-animal bind, yet welcomes:
a) interdisciplinary scholarly study that combines the practices of multiple disciplines, making significant use of the tools of one discipline in the service of another, or studies a cluster of scholarly works representing the approaches of various disciplines to a single topic
b) comparative work that relates the history, culture, society, artistic products or languages of the Italian peninsula, islands and diasporas to other geographical, cultural and linguistic formations
c) critical work that, in studying a given object, engages in theoretical or methodological reflection on its own approach and its implications within larger disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts.