Companions, Captives, Commodities

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ccc2By Neil Harrison

The Humanities in Public festival’s Animal Worlds strand ended last night in eclectic style. Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) academics from across three separate humanities disciplines came together to each deliver a short lecture on an animal-related topic. The resulting mix of themes, topics and approaches was a fitting – and engaging – finale to what has been a resoundingly successful and diverse series of events.

First up was Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes from MMU’s Department of English who, perhaps looking ahead slightly to the upcoming Gothic Manchester strand of the festival, delivered his talk, titled ‘The Slaughterhouse Novel.’ Dr Reyes’ paper examined the use of the slaughterhouse in fictional works such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Dr Reyes said,

“I’m very grateful to have been asked to speak as part of this panel as I don’t usually research animal rights. In a way, I encountered the topic by mistake almost – but I’m very glad I did. It has allowed me to think of slaughterhouses and meat-making as being tied to a loss of consciousness or subjectivity that I think is also interesting for the human beings behind the slaughterhouse machine.”

Gervase Phillips, Principal Lecturer in History at MMU, then went on to give a fascinating, highly charged and often emotional talk on the use of horses and mules during the First World War. Amongst other things, he postulated that British victory in the war may well have been decided by their capacity to use the animals in what is often, apparently incorrectly, perceived to be the first fully mechanized conflict.

Of course, along with the recent success of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse has come a greater interest in the role of Britain’s “equine soldiers.” Gervase, therefore, outlined his own rationale for engaging in this research,

“I would like us to think about this possibility: History, that most human-centred of disciplines, if it is to really maintain its commitment to recording what we naively think of as the truth about the past, then that includes animals.”

Gervase Phillips, Dr Wahida Khandker and Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes

Gervase Phillips, Dr Wahida Khandker and Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes

Rounding off the event in equally interesting fashion was Senior Lecturer in Philosophy Dr Wahida Khandker. Dr Khandker’s lecture, ‘Intersections: The Roles of Philosophy, History and Biology in Wolf/Human Conflict,’ presented a fusion of North American folk legend and evolutionary theory. In doing so, the lecture interrogated the way that human beings view their role as, after all, only one species among millions.

During ‘Companions, Captives, Commodities,’ then, the audience were presented with a real opportunity to begin to explore exactly what the human/animal relationship means to the so-called ‘higher species.’ As indeed have those members of the public who have been enjoying the past few weeks of ‘Animal Worlds.’

Before leaving the lecture, we managed to grab a quick word with both Gervase Phillips and Wahida Khandker, who, as well as delivering the evening’s talks, have co-convened the whole of the Animal Worlds strand. We asked how they thought this first part of the festival had gone and why they had each chosen to become involved in this particular theme. Gervase began,

“I think it’s gone extremely well. I’ve been really pleased with the support we’ve had from our colleagues, particularly [Humanities in Public Creative Programme Co-ordinator] Helen Malarky and [Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Science] Berthold Schoene. What success we’ve had is chiefly owed to them.

“In terms of my own involvement, for me, it’s a matter of sentiment. This is where my work – the things I do in the library and the classroom – intercede very strongly with my attitudes towards ethics and animals. This work is something that is deeply personal to me.”

Agreeing, Wahida added,

“I am personally very involved with animal rights and over the past few years I have included aspects of that in my own research. So, the [Animal Worlds] ‘experiment’ was about getting academics and activists in same space and talking to each other. I think, as we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, the talks that we have had and the Vegetarian and Vegan Fair that we held, I thought it went really well in that respect. But this was only the beginning.”

Animal Worlds has indeed proven that conceptual studies can engage and resonate with the public consciousness, particularly with such a relevant and emotive theme.

For upcoming Humanities in Public festival events and the best from ‘Animal Worlds’ please visit

Neil Harrison is Editor in Chief at Humanity Hallows and is in his third year studying History at MMU, follow Neil on Twitter @looseriver.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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