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The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications

Drawing from a recent book project, this presentation argues for a reconfiguration of the category of the animal in the study of culture and religion. Foundational theorists in the human sciences have almost without exception approached society, culture, and religion as phenomena that radically mark humans off from other animals. Against this paradigm, this paper shows how this foreclosure has marred the human sciences, especially their ability to productively describe and analyze non-western and non-Christian cultures. It matches religion more closely with the life sciences to better theorize human nature, the nature of life, and the structure of their study in in the academy. Drawing especially on Jacques Derrida’s theorization of “disavowal,” “war,” and “sacrifice" and on decades of debates in anthropology about the radical challenges posed by the study of hunter-gatherers, particularly the scholarship of Tim Ingold, the paper offers new resources for imagining the nature of nature, of human society and culture, and of the most jealously guarded of all claims to human uniqueness: religion. Specifically, it argues for an animal hermeneutic parallel to that of race or feminist theory that both exposes the longstanding insinuation of theological ideals in mainstream scholarship that claims relative neutrality, and also allows us to imagine social, cultural, or even religious subjects that are no longer simply human.   


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