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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Talking apes : the problem of anthropomorphous animals Varsava, Nina Britt


This thesis examines the human/animal binary in the Western tradition. I analyze in particular the dominant configuration of the human as the speaking, thinking being against the animal as mute and dumb. This configuration informs cultural conceptions of humans and animals in the West, and determines the accordant distribution of ethical worth. To this extent, my project is an ethico-political one: it seeks to disrupt the production of the human/animal binary in order to make space for a posthumanist ethics, which would at its best conceive both intra- and inter-species difference nonhierarchically. My work is situated theoretically in the field of animal studies, with posthumanist, poststructuralist, and materialist leanings. I build upon the work of Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Cary Wolfe, among others. The literary-critical portion of my thesis focuses mainly on three recent American ape novels—Laurence Gonzales’ Lucy (2010), Benjamin Hale’s Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (2011), and Sara Gruen’s Ape House (2010). Each of these texts features apes who are capable of both language and rationality, and who, to this extent, are provocatively “humanlike”; such representation is political insofar as it raises questions concerning the legitimacy and viability of the human/animal binary. Alongside the literature, I discuss representations of apes in Western primatology, and the parallel debates around anthropomorphism that unfold there. I seek here to unpack the politics of both anthropomorphism and “anthropodenial” (the rejection of anthropomorphism) in order to reveal the speciesism and speciousness of the human/animal binary, which both anthropomorphism and its denial ultimately depend upon and reinscribe. Although I engage discussions around anthropomorphism, I ultimately take apart the term itself in an effort to unearth the assumptions underlying it: this move is necessary if we wish to expose the “human” as an ungrounded concept, and the “moral” code that revolves around it as in turn dubious.

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