As part of my endeavours to help capture what PhD life is like, I will be posting reviews of conferences which I am attending as part of my research. Hopefully, this will show how useful conferences can be for encouraging your creativity and helping you re-engage with your thesis topic. It is also worth noting that conferences are incredibly exhausting and will leave you with an overheated brain. So don’t forget to drink plenty of water and get lots of rest. Seriously, they are like the music festivals of academia but with nicer toilets.
The first conference I attended as part of my PhD was ‘Reading Animals’ which took place at the University of Sheffield. It was also the first conference that I have attended which was not rooted in a specific genre, literary trope, text or author. Instead it was centred around the growing field of Animal Studies and specifically, Literary Animal Studies. It was a lesson in applying theory to a variety of texts but also engaging with the purely theoretical in a way that reclaimed the animal from the anthropocentrism of literary studies. The conference took place over the course of four days.
Given that Animal Studies, and its partner Eco-Criticism, are relatively new schools of thought, the conference included keynotes from some of the leading thinkers within these fields. (Or perhaps it would be truer to say people who I have quoted and studied in my relatively brief career studying the representations of animals and nature within literature). The keynote speakers took an active part within the conference by chairing/ attending the other panels and making themselves available for wider discussion. The newness of Animal Studies means that there is not the heavy framework of definitive authors, theorems and thinkers that can stultify originality or freeze creativity when starting out in academia. The atmosphere of conference was incredibly supportive and encouraged the easy sharing of ideas. It also meant that the panels were very interdisciplinary.
Perhaps the stand out panel was ‘Reading Shapeshifting Narratives’. This panel had been proposed in its entirety for the conference so that the three papers intertwined. The papers explored the trope of shape-shifting, especially as it pertained to female characters. However the panellists were from a creative writing background so that the audience was treated to literary analysis, storytelling, and poetry – an engagement with the subject from the inside out (very suitable for the topic of shape-shifting). This panel exemplified the overall ethos of the conference which challenged the boundaries of animals and humans exemplified in simplistic, linear, humanised systems of reading.
A recurring theme was the tension between imagination as a positive means of bridging the physical and mental gap between animals and humans, and imagination as a negative force which reinforces the symbolic/ semiotic animal over the diegetic/ “real” animal. (It should be mentioned that this ‘gap’ is rooted not in fundamental, “real” difference but has been constructed, and reinforced, in order to deify the human in binary power structures). Language, then, has been used to denote the key difference between animals and humans – we have it, they don’t; to create the all-powerful human subject – the ultimate ‘I’ and “eye”; and to maintain this separation by exalting the signifier over the signified. How do we create the animal-subject? How do we read agency onto pre-existing literary animals? The conference perhaps posed more question than it could answer.
Werewolves were sparse on the ground, though dogs (domesticated wolves) were not. Interestingly there were a number of shape-shifters including human/wolf shape-shifters but as they were presented in a positive light and with no mention of werewolfery it cannot be said they were ‘truly’ werewolves. This seems to be a recurring difference: werewolves are figured as monsters and shape-shifters are presented in a more positive light. As I was not presenting I found that this conference could be used for brain-training. It challenged my ways of thinking and suggested how I can incorporate animal studies and criticism into my thesis in a more engaged manner. The final panel was specifically on Gothic animals and suggested new ways of looking at animals in Gothic texts. The term ‘dark ecology’ specifically in regards to the work of Timothy Morton was used – something which I hope to investigate in greater detail. Rats, vivisection and the anti-vivisection movement were looked at in the context of late Victorian narratives attitudes to animals. This was incredibly interesting and could certainly be brought into my thesis.
At the end of this conference I consolidated my notes into four A4 pages of points and reading lists, and wrote a poem. Which I think speaks highly of the inspirational quality of ‘Reading Animals’.