Aaron M. Moe

Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame

Toward Zoopoetics

sparrow[PLEASE NOTE: Between this post and the present, I have written and published three articles and a book on zoopoetics. I leave this post here, though, as a record of the first stirrings of the concept.]

So much of my work deals with words.  Words that open upon and close off simultaneously.  For the past couple of years, the word ecopoiesis opened up vista after vista into the intersections between ecology and poetry…into what it means to dwell imaginatively within the earth (to use Bate’s definition [199-200; 258-66]), exploring the possibilities and limitations of what it means to exist embedded within the ecosystems of the earth.

So often, though, I found myself gravitating towards poetry on animals.  I thought I was doing ecocriticism, and in a sense, I was.  But the problem is that ecocriticism, by and large, lacks the energy and focus of what animal studies does a great job of exposing.  In ecocriticism, we have human-environment interactions, and the animal is subsumed into the “environment.”  This creates a blind spot, for it glosses over the fact that animals also dwell imaginatively within the earth.  They communicate not only with signs, a zoosemiotics, but also with signs that are always already embedded within what George Kennedy calls the “rhetorical energy” of the gesture.  In their ability to communicate with gestures and signs, nonhuman animals have created social structures and relationships that is all too obvious to anyone who has watched Planet Earth, or read any of the articles on animals in popular magazines such as Time, Newsweek, or National Geographic.  Even when listening to a casual conversation about animals, full of personal anecdotes, I hear observation after observation about the social aspect of a nonhuman animal’s dwelling within the earth.

I agree wholeheartedly with Helena Feder who, in “Rethinking Multiculturalism:  Theory and Nonhuman Cultures,” argues that we in the humanities need to expand the notion of the “social” to include the social dynamics and therefore the cultures of nonhuman animals.

I suggest that the term zoopoetics can help contribute to this endeavor.  I discovered the term while reading Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I Am.  He speaks of Kafka’s “vast zoopoetics.”  His use suggests simply a text or a series of texts that have an abundance of nonhuman animals.  True enough.  However, I suggest that the term also connotes a further exploration of the intersection between (non)human animals and language (particularly poetry).

In light of what I have written above, a zoopoetics gravitates towards texts that explore how nonhuman animals also dwell imaginatively on the earth; texts that highlight the social interactions of nonhuman animals; texts that expose the shared “rhetorical energy” between (non)human animals; and text that (though this is not yet mentioned) expose and unravel the prevalence of what Cary Wolfe and others have called speciesism.

In future posts, I plan on exploring various poems that epitomize, in my mind, what a zoopoetics is all about.  The questions it asks.  The vistas it can open.  The conversations it can generate.

Works Cited

Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Ed. Marie-Louise Mallet. New York: Fordham UP, 2008. Print.

Feder, Helena. “Rethinking Multiculturalism:  Theory and Nonhuman Cultures.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 17.4 (2010) : 775-777. Print.

Kennedy, George A. “A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 25.1 (1992) : 1-21. Print.

Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites:  American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. Print.


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