Animal Stories: The Stakes of Narrating Entangled Lives

Wednesday 14 - Friday 16
July 2021

The University of Sydney


Animal stories tell us about the lives and deaths of real and fictional animals, past and present animals, human and nonhuman animals. They come in many shapes and sizes: from rock paintings, traditional stories, and fables, to graphic novels, nature documentaries, legal rulings, and scientific studies. Emerging out of diverse historical and cultural contexts, animal stories captivate and enthral us. They draw us into different worlds—or, perhaps into our own world, differently.

This multi-disciplinary conference takes animal stories as a site for the exploration, enactment, and unsettling of entangled human and nonhuman lives. Our particular focus is the complexity and stakes of narrating histories and futures of shared, even if always uneven, lives and possibilities. Animal stories are frequent sites for the working out of the uniqueness of the human, as well as what and who will count as such (Ritvo, Kim, McInerney); as Donna Haraway has noted, “stories are technologies for primate embodiment” (1989). We hope to place these questions at the centre of our discussion—in both their historical and contemporary forms—without losing sight of the (nonhuman) animals themselves. As such, we are particularly interested in narrative practices that cultivate a keen interest in and attention to the ways in which animals experience and craft their own worlds (Crist, Lestel, Chrulew). As Vinciane Despret and others have asked: do animals engage in morality and hierarchy, do they make art and practice statistics, and what can we learn from the endless stories that circulate on these topics? In some cases, these stories are efforts to explore how animals might themselves be storytellers; or at the very least, how they might inhabit meaningfully storied-worlds.

At our present time, what might it mean to narrate animal lives well? Perhaps, as Susan McHugh asks, to tell “human-animal stories against genocide and extinction”? These are the broad questions that animate this conference. Discussions will come together around a common focus on the forces, commitments, and assumptions that shape animal stories; the institutions and regimes of knowledge and expertise that underlie them; the ideologies that articulate themselves through these accounts and their silences; as well as the responsibilities and limitation of telling others’ stories, human and not (Birch, Wright, Haraway). In short, we aim to ask: what are the ethical, political and epistemological stakes of narrating animal lives and worlds? If, as Deborah Bird Rose and others have argued, the stories we tell can powerfully shape our shared world, then what makes a good animal story, for whom and at what cost?


Julia Kindt is Professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Revisiting Delphi: Religion and Storytelling in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 2016), and Rethinking Greek Religion (Cambridge, 2012).

Thom van Dooren is Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. He is the author of The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (Columbia, 2019), and Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (Columbia, 2014).



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