Animal Perceptions of Literature Language

Perceiving-Thinking-Writing: Merleau-Ponty and Literature

Animal Perception and Literary Language

Now available here from Palgrave Macmillan

Palgrave Macmillan is an imprint of Springer Nature, whose head office is in Switzerland.
Number of pages: xxiv, 327
Number of illustrations: 1 b/w
Chapter Downloads are available from Palgrave Macmillan’s website: As an example, Chapter I, 40 pages long, costs $29.99 to download.

The book is published in hardcover (ISBN 978-3-030-04968-3) and as an ebook (ISBN 978-3-030-04969-0).
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A Short Description of Animal Perception and Literary Language

This book shows that the perceptual content of reading and writing derives from our embodied minds. The being that tracks physical and mental movement in sentences is us, humans evolved from animals. After Chapter I specifies terms and questions in animal philosophy, and Chapter II surveys recent work on perception, the middle Chapters (III, IV) of the book describe attributes of multispecies thinking and define a tradition of writers in this lineage. Finally in Chapter V literature comes into full focus with readings of 12 works of many types. Overall, Donald Wesling’s book offers not a new method of literary criticism, but a reveal of what we all do with perceptual content when we read.

Summaries of the Chapters of the Book: Preface, Chapters I-V, Afterword

Short Descriptions of all the Elements of Donald Wesling’s Palgrave Macmillan book,
Animal Perception and Literary Language
Chapter I  
Chapter II  
Chapter III  
Chapter IV  
Chapter V  
Preface: Animalist Perception and Interpretation

This book asks: how can we re-think the human-animal relationship, in order to rescue the animal inside ourselves from thousands of years of anthropo-centrism? This Preface declares the book’s contents: Donald Wesling offers a critique of our inherited rhetoric about all things human and animal, and defines “animalist perception and interpretation” (phrase from philosopher Jacques Derrida) as a focus for the emergent animal studies field. On the positive side, Wesling invents a tradition of animalist thought in the history of ideas, and then gives a practical plan better to know what we know from our senses, when we read. Wesling ends the Preface with the overall claim that literature is the home territory and performance space of animalist perception, and that literary criticism can be a major contributor to animalist interpretation.

Chapter I: Imbroglios of Humans and Nonhumans

The intent of Chapter I is to rectify the existing, human-centered discourses on the human-animal relation. If we ourselves are nature, as Bruno Latour, Gernot Böhme and some others allow, then we may study the unities and not the oppositions between humans and animals. First Donald Wesling proposes new concepts and terms for an animalist mode of interpretation; then he considers radical multispecies writers in science fiction (K.S. Robinson) and in the prose-poem (László Krasznahorkai). Last in Chapter I he sets up Maurice Merleau-Ponty (d. 1961) as our best guide on the animal and human body as moving agent of perceiving and thinking. With terms from this phenomenological framework, literary readers may better attend to attention and may read more successfully for perceptual content.

Chapter II: Perception, Cognition, Writing

Chapter II threads an intellectual story about hearing as a sense through a line of examples, both scholarly (example: Michel Serres) and literary (Gerard Manley Hopkins). Perception-into-writing is the focus. The point is that in language, we replace and re-enact an enormous range of movements within the material surround that perception has needed in order to perform. That is how we bring the instinctual, which is invisible, up into the visible, which is the legible. In this book the sentence, and the stringing of sentences called scene, are the carriers of animalist perception. Art sentences, in a novel by Louise Erdrich or in a poem by Ted Hughes, make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, the planet.

Chapter III: Attributes of Animalist Thinking

In Chapter III, Donald Wesling explains four modes of thought that are shared by all eight of the example-figures, that he brings forward in Chapter IV. These attributes of animalist thinking are: Creativity, or the idea that the senses continually bring in new materials for cognizing, feeling, and saying; Embodied Mind, or the idea that the body, as part of nature, participates in the showing of things; Dialogism, or the idea that ordinary thinking is a continual performance of the many betweens, including me-other, perceiver-perceived, feedback-calibration; and Amplification of Affect, or the premise that in living beings change is everything, and involves a series of interruptions, which are discontinuities in perceiving. Wesling concludes Chapter III by analyzing Annie Dillard’s essay on being startled by a wild weasel.

Chapter IV: Animalist Thinking From Lucretius to Temple Grandin

Chapter IV is long because each of eight major thinkers receives his or her own exposé, and each of the essays is preceded by pages that survey one work or many works, combing through to find how each animalist thinker shows the four attributes of Creativity, Embodied Mind, Dialogism, and Amplification of Affect. In the first instance, those attributes taken as a set are what identify the thinkers Donald Wesling puts forward as animalists. This is to invent a tradition where, apparently, no tradition existed. Wesling shows that Lucretius (ancient world), Michel de Montaigne (renaissance), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (romanticism), John Muir (the 19th century), Alphonso Lingis (with the next three, contemporary), Laurie Shannon, Brian Massumi, and Temple Grandin were always there with the attributes of membership.

Chapter V: Perception and Expectation in Literature

In Chapter V the keynote is movement, which has been a theme in every Chapter but is now essential to analysis of texts that show how the embodied mind is alive in time. The point is that changes of posture and changes of mind are changes in the division of our acts of attention. The array of a dozen works analyzed has a range of eras, types, lengths, structures, languages, including a best-seller hard-boiled novel, a classic French lyric about art-speech, and a mid-length meditation in Romantic blank-verse. (Here the book’s only Diagram is a grid showing focus-changes in perception and emotion in the array.) Donald Wesling concludes the whole book with a rationale, unfashionable but unapologetic, for taking every opportunity to name the prosodic and linguistic forms in these twelve items.

Afterword: Alphabet For Animalists

The Afterword and Bibliography are “For Animalists,” using a term defined in the Preface and in Chapters III-IV, because of the author’s wish to recruit the reader of this book to the ranks of a new kind of person. The Afterword extends and concludes the book in a space closer to political action, by these means: mini-stories on topics from alphabets to zoos; direct argument with friends and antagonists; striking statements on the animal question from a careful selection of recent writings by scholars who push further the theme of the book.

Three Comments on the Book

“Animalist perception: it’s a radically new topic, carved out of existing theoretical literature. Donald Wesling has chosen to write on difficult philosophers, and he gives to them clever and understandable readings. He brings together a tradition out of scattered writings. He synthesizes an array of perspectives. Last not least, his titles and subtitles are always witty.” (Enikö Bollobás, Professor of American Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest)

“The most challenging companion animals are microbes (by billions inside us) and (symbolically) the truly wild animals: tapeworms, wolverines, head lice, krill, rattlesnakes. The idea that the megafauna are our animal companions, when the biomass is practically entirely bacteria, seems spent. What I want to read is a radical animal argument bound to perception and feeling—Donald Wesling’s project. Is ‘animal’ better than Wesling’s ‘animalist’ as either/both adjective/noun? It felt good to use two sentences back. What would Derrida say? For then the human being wouldn’t have to be a human being, if it ever could, although it is an animal.” (John Granger, Lecturer in Literature, University of California, San Diego, USA)

“The book puts perception at the heart of thinking the trio: animality, reading, writing. It extends animal studies by focusing on the phenomenology of perception as event and process in literary and philosophical texts. It discovers and develops a notion of ‘animalist’ thinking and gives examples and demonstrations of how one might read in that tradition. It insists on and clarifies links between motion, sense, feeling, thought and writing…. It’s [also] nicely-written, zingy but serious…. This will be of interest for years to come as a substantial work of thinking.” (Sarah Wood, author of Without Mastery: Reading and Other Forces (2014))