COMMENT | Animal Remains (Sheffield, April 2019): A Report by Sarah Bezan

Exploring how animal remains function in and beyond the realms of politics, literature, natural history, and aesthetics.

Following the Animal Remains conference, Sarah Bezan, Newton International Fellow at the University of Sheffield, writes about the event.

From April 29-30th 2019, ShARC was host to nearly ninety delegates and visitors from across the UK and abroad. The Animal Remains Conference, a biennial conference held jointly between ShARC and BIOSEC (a European Research Council-funded project under the administration of School of Politics Professor Rosaleen Duffy), explored how animal remains function in and beyond the realms of politics, literature, natural history, and aesthetics.

As co-organizers, Robert McKay and I sought to open up the parameters of ‘animal remains’ to explore its murky underbelly and its multiplicitous associations across the interdisciplinary interstices of the arts, humanities and social sciences. In keeping our original call for papers open to interpretation, we were rewarded with a truly multidisciplinary meeting that redefined the matter and meaning of ‘animal remains’ in important ways. From an examination of petrocultures (or energy humanities) to analyses of industrial commodities, extinction narratives, aliens/androids, osteobiographies and zooarchaeologies, de-extinction, taxidermy, dinosaurs and natural history museums (to name a few), the conference contributions illuminated the less apparent but nevertheless urgent ways in which nonhuman animals and environments figure into the planetary past, present, and future.

All of a superbly high quality, the presentations delivered by our conference participants confirmed what we already proposed in our call for papers (that animal remains are ubiquitous), but also — and more importantly — provoked a targeted set of responses to how and why animal remains continue to confound our understanding of the life, death, and afterlives of species. In Steve Baker’s Fieldwork exhibition (a collection assembled by Steve Baker in his role as artist-in-residence), we were invited to reflect on the absences of particular species, along with their delicate traceries (from spider webs to crushed roadkill), which complicate straightforward temporal narratives and conceptions of animals and environments.

Likewise, the keynote addresses by Thom van Dooren and Lucinda Cole (both vibrant and intellectually rigorous in their approach to animal remains) proposed innovative sets of questions for how we apprehend wider systemic practices and histories. Colonialization (particularly in island ecosystems) became a focal point for us as we considered the extent to which phenomena like mass extermination, zoonotic disease, and conservation practices like assisted colonisation might widen the scope of our scholarly inquiry to include an awareness of the nonhuman animal lives lost or recovered in and through the intervention of humans over the last few decades, and even centuries.

Contributions by our plenary speakers Jane Desmond, Mario Ortiz-Robles, and Michelle Bastian also contextualized how animal remains intersect with, and transcend, institutionalized or disciplinary approaches to the life and death of nonhuman animals. Jane Desmond’s sensitive and thoughtful treatment of animal cremains (namely of companion animals) in terms of the performance of bereavement addressed the symbolic and affective bonds that are formed within the human-animal relationship after death. Meanwhile, Mario Ortiz-Robles offered a diachronic reading of the natural history museum and a critical analysis of its future in light of the acceleration of anthropogenic species losses. Navigating through animal remains as they appear in an oceanic context, Michelle Bastian asserted that death (particularly in the form of whale falls) can establish collectivities that in turn support life in ecosystems typically bereft of sustenance (like the depths of the ocean floor).

At every turn, Robert McKay and I were impressed by the sophistication of the conference contributions, which were richly layered in terms of how they both conceptualized and reconfigured the meaning of animal remains. The contributions as a whole challenged our own presumptions about what animal remains do, how they make meaning, and in what ways they matter.

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Stay tuned for a forthcoming edited volume on Animal Remains!

Podcasts with keynotes Thom van Dooren and Lucinda Cole are below, as well as a conversation with Steve Baker, the Artist in Residence. If you missed the keynotes from Thom van Dooren – ‘Moving Birds in Hawai’i: Assisted colonisation in a colonised land‘ and Lucinda Cole – ‘Plagues, Poisons, Dead Rats: In Search of A Medical Posthumanities‘, you can watch them again below. More details are available on the ShARC website.