Tag Archives: Animal studies

David Whitley on The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation

Posted by Emily Ferro, Marketing Coordinator

The Idea of Nature in Disney AnimationThe Idea of Nature in Disney Animation by David Whitley has been chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our Literary Studies list. The following is a guest blog post by the author, reflecting on his motivations for publishing his book and the experiences he’s had with it since its publication.

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I was delighted to be asked by Ashgate to contribute a few reflections on The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, even though – as may soon become apparent in this piece – I may well be the world’s most inexperienced blogger. There’s a pressure to keep moving forward all the time in academic life – producing new perspectives and keeping up with developments in your area – so that the opportunity to reflect back on a book that occupied a lot of time and energy over a significant period in my life (and even changed my outlook on many things in the end) is really welcome.

So – looking back, what was it all about? The idea behind the book was really quite simple – in some ways simple-minded, even. Like many other people in our uncertain times, I’d become preoccupied with trying to understand how our relationship to the natural world was changing and what kinds of positive response we might be able to make to what was widely viewed as an impending environmental crisis. As an academic whose field was literary and film studies, with a particular orientation towards children’s literature, I was especially interested in the kinds of stories and images we produce to make sense of our complex relationship to nature. Watching Disney films with my own kids over a number of years, I realized (this is perhaps what Simpson’s argot would describe as a ‘Doh!’ moment) that these movies had been centrally preoccupied with animals and nature from the time Disney started making feature length animations in 1937. Millions of children all over the world watched these movies repeatedly as they were growing up. So the Disney tradition constituted one of the most significant cultural repositories of imagery and stories connecting children to nature in the world. A great project for a book, in other words, trying to make sense of this connection and the different ways it had been developed in the history of Disney’s filmmaking.

So that was the simple bit – and, to be honest, when I thought about it, I was amazed no one had written a book-length study on such an important topic from this perspective before. The complication lay in that word ‘connecting’ children to the natural world, though. Most of the academic writing that existed on this topic (which was surprisingly limited, actually – most critics choosing to take Disney to task on issues of race and gender, rather than environment) critiqued the films on the premise that their effect on children was to disconnect them from, rather than connect them to, the natural world. The images of nature that Disney offered were considered to be sanitized, sentimental and cute, peddling a false and potentially damaging view of nature to vulnerable young minds.

There was a certain stringency and deconstructive force in adopting this kind of stance, but, the more I thought about it, the more one-sided this also seemed to be. Where Disney criticism focused on images of nature it tended either to read through the animals figured in the films immediately – seeing them as thinly veiled ciphers for human types that embodied culturally conservative agendas – or to upbraid the filmmakers for making the animals too cute and anthropomorphic. This seemed to me to be only half the story, though. So I came up with an alternative kind of strategy for reading the films, which I suppose you could say is close to what the anthropologists call ‘thick description’. In other words I tried to take the surface detail seriously – without being naïve about the distinctive lens through which nature was seen in the movies – taking account of the degree to which the animals retained elements of their ‘animalness’ in the films, and teasing out the implications of this in relation to a wider range of ideas about the environment that seemed relevant. What I hoped to do was to open up the films in some fresh ways and to see what their potential might be for speaking to some of the most important issues facing us in the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly as seen from perspectives to which a child audience could relate.

I don’t know how successful this was but the first edition of the book got generally appreciative reviews, as well as stirring a degree of skepticism and debate in the media. Ursula Heise, whose important work has both challenged and moved forward my own thinking on the idea of a global environmental imaginary, was kind enough to say that the book had opened up sophisticated ways of thinking about popular animation’s potential, which she was developing further herself. In 2012 Ashgate wanted to publish a paperback edition, and this gave me the opportunity to update it with a new chapter on WALL*E, which I think has significantly extended the scope of the book’s arguments.

What has become apparent to me since the second edition was published is that there are a lot of unexplored perspectives in this area that a number of scholars now seem to be working on. My book focused on images of wild nature in Disney, as a way of cutting a potentially huge topic down to size.  I now have a PhD student who is working very interestingly on images of urban environments in popular animated films. Her work problematizes a number of the issues I was trying to address from a quite different perspective. Consideration of the various ways we are entangled with the natural world in our urban environments is now being explored by cultural geographers and in important strands of new nature writing too, of course.

Quite a few significant Disney films also focus on domesticated animals or pets, as opposed to wild animals. A number of writers have written very insightfully about the problematic role pet animals play in contemporary society and there are some fine analyses of both Disney and Pixar films on this theme in Zoe Jaques’ recent book on children’s literature and the posthuman. Clearly there is an enormous amount of vital new thinking going on currently in the areas of animal studies, theories of place and environment, and ecocriticism more generally. The usefulness of considering these in relation to the Disney-Pixar traditions is that the issues come into focus in the context of narratives that engage and fascinate so many children and young people worldwide. I suspect this will continue to be a richly significant vein for scholars to explore, and I’m pleased to have been able to make a small contribution to the ensuing debates.

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About the Author: David Whitley is Lecturer in English in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, UK.

Our Children and Other Animals – Unlearning Our Concept of Animals

Posted by Michael Drapper, Marketing Executive

This article originally appeared on Ruby Roth’s We Don’t Eat Animals blog. Ruby’s three illustrated children’s books, That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, Vegan is Love and V is for Vegan, are discussed in Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart’s Our Children and Other Animals. You can read Ruby’s full article here.

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I am boggled and honored to have my children’s books academically analyzed by two university lecturers, Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart.  Their book, Our Children and Other Animals: The Cultural Construction of Human-Animal Relations in Childhood, includes quite a discussion of my work—the imagery and representation of animals, my illustration techniques, compositions—how they all help young readers conceptualize their relation to animals. I’ve taken many art history courses and have always been leery of my teachers’ analyses of artworks. As an artist, myself, and having drawers full of unfinished work I’d never want anyone to see, I imagine that maybe even Degas would have scoffed at the heavy meaning assigned to any one of his works—maybe a painting he would’ve wanted to throw in the garbage. Having my work in the hot seat, though, I have to say, Cole and Stewart shocked me with their accuracy. I was stunned at the clarity with which they perceived not only my intentional illustrative strategies, but subconscious decisions, too.

They captured emotions I felt while painting these books, unspoken messages I wanted to relay to my potential young readers, and they beautifully articulated many of the underlying, tacit motives for designing the book as I did—from the animals’ eyes to the composition of racing animals running to an implied, but invisible end.

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If you love sociology and the study of veganism, too, this academic book is a fascinating look at how we come to relate to animals and what we need to address in order to change the status quo. It’ll exercise your mind and help you discuss veganism even more intelligently with others, too. Especially kids.

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Our children and other animalsOur Children and Other Animals focusses on the socialization of the human use of other animals as resources in contemporary Western society. The book explores the cultural reproduction of human-nonhuman animal relations in childhood with close attention to the dominant practices through which children encounter animals and mainstream representations of animals in children’s culture – whether in terms of the selective exposure of children to animals as ‘pets’ or as food in the home or in school, or the representation of animals in mass media and social media. As such Our Children and Other Animals reveals the interconnectedness of studies of childhood, culture and human-animal relations.

New series: North American Literature and the Environment, 1600-1900 – call for proposals

We are seeking proposals for a new book series, North American Literature and the Environment, 1600-1900, edited by Matthew Wynn Sivils

Building on the growing interest in the environmental humanities, this series focuses on pre-1900 American literary culture – the themes, figures, and issues that emerged during this vital period.

Proposals are welcome for monographs and edited collections on nature writing, animal studies, environmental fiction, natural history, print culture, natural theology, ecocritical theory, gender studies, Native American culture, life writing, captivity narratives, slave narratives, maritime accounts, and other topics and approaches associated with the range of cultural production that stretched from Native American oral traditions to the dawn of the twentieth century. We especially encourage interdisciplinary projects, as well as those that take transnational and hemispheric approaches.

For more information on how to submit a book proposal to the series, please contact Ann Donahue, Publisher, Literary Studies.

About the series editorMatthew Wynn Sivils is Associate Professor of English at Iowa State University. A founding editor of the journal Literature in the Early American Republic, he is the author or editor of six books, including American Environmental Fiction, 1782–1847 and an edition of Alexander Posey’s life writing, Lost Creeks: Collected Journals.

Ann C. Colley on Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain

 

Ann C ColleyPosted by Ann Donahue, Publisher

Ann C. Colley (pictured) talks to Ann Donahue about her new book, Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: Zoos, Collections, Portraits, and Maps

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

I had just finished my Victorians in the Mountains: Sinking the Sublime, which had not only appealed to my love of landscape and admiration for climbers, but had also taken me to libraries and clubs on both sides of the Atlantic. It was when I entered the Wellcome Institute on Euston Road that something clicked. The Institute had launched a special exhibit on “Skin” that I found absolutely fascinating. I recall seeing pieces of tattooed skin taken from sailors in the nineteenth century and wondering about the role of skin and identity. Knowing that the role of skin in human portraiture during the Victorian era has been well rehearsed, I turned my thinking to animal skins and portraiture. Before I knew it, I was launched.

Wild animal skins in Victorian BritainYour book connects to so many areas of current interest in the humanities, including animal studies, museums, collecting, sensory studies, and the history of science. Were you surprised at the multiple directions in which your research led you?

No. Indeed I was drawn to the subject because it would do just that. Cultural studies are appealing because they engage so many intersecting disciplines and take one into unusual archives and libraries not open to the general public. Once I began accumulating materials, I immediately saw that the project would fit into the current interest in animal studies, museum studies, theories of portraiture, British colonialism, collecting, theories of touch and skin, as well as in history of science.

You came upon some fascinating characters in the course of your research, including the Earl of Derby. Can you say a few words about him as a collector and his association with Edward Lear?

For several years I have been buying Lear’s watercolor sketches as well as lithographs of his natural history paintings. Through this interest, of course, I knew that between 1831 and 1837, he was employed by the 12th Earl of Derby and later by the Earl’s son to sketch and paint portraits of the wild animals and exotic birds kept on the estate, which was the site of England’s largest private menagerie. To amass their amazing collection, the 12th and the 13th Earls commissioned collectors and agents from all over the world. The resulting correspondence between the 13th Earl of Derby and these agents makes for incredible reading. Lear was privy to this world and to those who worked for and were related to the Earl of Derby.

I was fascinated to learn that collecting animal skins was not just the prerogative of the privileged classes as I would have thought that collecting these specimens would be extremely costly. How common was this form of collecting among working- and middle-class individuals?

There are several studies of the working class and their interest in science, particularly those that discuss the fact that mill owners and manufacturers often encouraged their employees to learn as much as they could about the sciences so as to create a more knowledgeable workforce. Jane Camerini, John M. MaKenzie, E.P. Thompson, and Katie Whitaker, among others, have all written on the topic. For me, the most convincing and vivid evidence came from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton in which she makes a point of mentioning that the working-class men of Manchester were “warm and devoted followers” of the “more popularly interesting branches of natural history.” They “knew the name and habitat of every plant within a day’s walk from their dwelling.” Her character Job Legh, a self-educated spinner, who has access to the Liverpool docks where sailors would return with exotic specimens, is one of these “warm and devoted followers.”

In some ways, the interest in animal skins strikes me as analogous to the Victorians’ passion for travel writing. What was it about these specimens that was so appealing?

I, myself, travel to exotic places and write accounts of my sometimes disastrous adventures and have found that the wild life of a place is what defines the experience for me. When I was working on Wild Animal Skins, I discovered a similar impulse was at work among the Victorian public, who were fascinated by exotic birds and animals in faraway lands and would go to great lengths to see exhibits of these, to collect them (though I hasten to add I do not own any taxidermy specimens!), and to learn as much as it could about them. As I say in the introduction to my book “skin was not only a basic ingredient of portraiture but also the site of encounter with the exotic world.”

Many people would find a home adorned with animal skins from so-called exotic locales shocking and collecting such specimens is often illegal. Was the collecting of wild animal skins controversial during the Victorian era?

No. Unlike many, perhaps most, people today, the Victorians experienced little sense of guilt in looking at, owning, arranging, and admiring stuffed birds and animals. They rarely, if at all, thought about extinction. Even Darwin shot the last fox on the Galapagos Island. For them the distant world was full of plenty. That is not to say the Victorians were insensitive to the pain inflicted on animals. One has to remember that it is in the Victorian period that the antivivisectionists were active. I am not sure why, but taxidermy is coming back in style. One can go to a booth at a market in London to learn how to remove the skin of a bird or a mouse and stuff it. At a wedding recently I met a person from Brooklyn who practices taxidermy in her apartment. Skin will always elicit pleasure, disgust, and curiosity.

About the Author: Ann C. Colley is a SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University College of New York at Buffalo. She has published numerous articles and books, including Victorians in the Mountains, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination, Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture, The Search for Synthesis in Literature and Art: The Paradox of Space, Edward Lear and the Critics, and Tennyson and Madness.

Between apes and angels, animals and Ashgate: authors to attend animal studies conference at University of Edinburgh

Posted by Ally Berthiaume, Editorial Assistant

Animal Studies is a trending topic in academe with an increased production of literature across the disciplines. Ashgate is positioned within this rising canon, having contributed at least twenty titles to this growing body of animal-studies scholarship. Among these is Ashgate’s newly published collection, Animals and Early Modern Identity, edited by Pia F. Cuneo.Animals and early modern identity

Animals and Early Modern Identity spans the globe, including works from scholars in the United States, Europe and Africa. Apart from the range of the contributors’ geographical locations, there is also great diversity among the animal species appearing within these essays – from horses, dogs, and pigs to rhinoceroses, sea monsters, and other creatures. As Cuneo succinctly puts it in her introduction:

The wide array of disciplines, geographies, and species represented in the volume speaks to the vigor of intellectual inquiry into the subject of animal and nonhuman animal interaction in the early modern period (1400–1700).

Holding it all together, she asserts, is the issue of identity. This collection investigates what kinds of identities were developed by the interaction between human and animal; how these were expressed, for what reason, and with who were they shared. Each essay centers on the ways in which humans use animals to say something about themselves.

The expansion of ‘animal studies’ as a field, and the extent of the range of inquiry contained within it, is evidenced not only by the number and variety of academic publications, but also by a proliferation of conference panels – and sometimes whole conferences –  dedicated to the theme.  The past year or so has seen a number of these, crossing multiple disciplines and time periods, culminating this week with:  Animals and Critical Heritage and Between Apes & Angels: Human and Animal in the Early Modern World.

The latter conference features several contributing authors to Animals and Early Modern Identity as speakers, thus underlining the timeliness and significance of the volume.

Pia F. Cuneo is Professor of Art History at the University of Arizona, USA.  Her current work focuses on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century hippology, and she competes locally in dressage.

To see other Animal Studies titles click here.