Cat Ladies from "The Curious Brain"
We sat down to talk with Monica Flegel about animal studies at VSAWC 2013. Her paper at the conference, “Becoming Crazy Cat Lady: Victorian Spinsters and their Furry Kin,” builds on her work on Victorian animal and children’s rights, with a particular focus on the construction of the spinster and her cat as a type of family.
We asked Dr. Flegel to describe the nature of her research. She noted that, in general, people are under the impression that children acquired rights before animals and thus animals had fewer rights than children, which isn’t the case. Dr. Flegel argues that “children’s rights were about making children less like humans and more like animals at the end of the century.”
She briefly discussed the difference between pets and wild animals, specifically the domestication hierarchy. Dr. Flegel argues that pets are outside the default human-animal relationship. She suggests that domesticated animals do not represent nor symbolise the “true” animal, that the comparison is too simplistic. Pets, she says, “have a place in human culture, and can trouble concepts of the nuclear family.” On a controversial topic, we asked about her stance on the concept of humans and other animals, and “nonhuman animals.” Dr. Flegel contends that the term “nonhuman animals” suggests a speciesist approach. “Materially we do not live in the way that animals do,” she argues, “as Derrida said there is an abyss between us and other animals,” but pointing out the divide between animals and humans is not meant to suggest that humans are “better, and other, and higher” than animals, but that our alterity cannot be bridged “by saying that we are animals too.” Moreover, we can still have “ethical relations with animals without [suggesting] that we are all animals together.”
Monica Flegel is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her research interests include Victorian Studies, Cultural Studies and children and animals. Dr. Flegel holds a Bachelor of Arts in Honours English from the University of Saskatchewan, a Masters degree in English from Dalhousie University, and a PhD of English from the University of Alberta. Her current research on Victorian pets is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.
– Sabrina Schoch, Constance Crompton, and Ruth Knechtel
For previous entries in this series, see our interview with Sarah Bull.