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Multispecies Modernity

Disorderly Life in Postcolonial Literature

By Sundhya Walther
Subjects Literary Criticism, Environmental Studies
Series Environmental Humanities Hide Details
Hardcover : 9781771125208, 278 pages, July 2021
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781771125222, June 2021


Excerpted from the Introduction to Multispecies Modernity, by Sundhya Walther

While I want to stress the possibilities that emerge out of connections between these two fields, it is also true that the stakes of bringing them together are high for both sides. As Fanon demonstrates, the comparison to the animal has been pervasive in constructions of otherness — particularly in terms of race and gender — against which postcolonial thinkers and writers work. What would it mean, then, for these writers to abandon an attachment to the human? Would this also mean the abandonment of the struggle for recognition and equality? As Cary Wolfe observes, “it is understandable . . . that traditionally marginalized peoples would be skeptical about calls by academic intellectuals to surrender the humanist model of subjectivity, with all its privileges, at just the historical moment when they are poised to ‘graduate’ into it.” As Wolfe himself argues, and as I will expose throughout this study, “speciesism” is oppressive to human and nonhuman alike. But this contention is in itself problematic. Theorists in animal studies want to focus attention on the nonhuman animal, in particular on the ethical place of animals in the context of their systemic exploitation and domination by humans. The risk of a postcolonial approach to animal studies is thus to, once again, have the animal abandoned in favour of seemingly more pressing human concerns. The argument that attention to the nonhuman animal also includes attention to human beings who are other to the sovereign concept of the human crops up frequently to provide a commonsense justification for the importance of animal studies. This argument is a valuable one, but it also recentres the concerns of humans by assuming that human issues will be the “hook” that draws readers into the fold of animal studies. What a postcolonial animal studies would demand is attention to the alliances between subaltern human beings and nonhuman animals, as those groups whose positions are most politically and ethically important to postcolonial and animal studies. It would also refuse to abandon either the human or the nonhuman animal, but would rather engage in an intersectional analysis that considers the positions of both groups.

Throughout this study, I am attentive to the human–nonhuman subaltern alliances created by authors, while maintaining a scepticism about the degree to which these authors are able to do justice to the lives of nonhuman animals. I argue that utilizing animals as figures is an instrumentalization that, to a degree, undercuts the anti-colonial thrust of some of these texts (as does the use of disabled, gendered, or subaltern human characters as figures, as will be clear in my discussions of Ghosh and Desai). Yet I am also interested in the ways that the representation of animals can exceed a humanist representational politics. Do nonhuman animal presences in literature in some sense elude the attempts of texts and authors to contain and instrumentalize them? In what ways do they call up the presences of real animals and evoke the exploitations these animals face? If the writing of nonhuman animal lives is, in most cases, primarily about the human, is there a counter-discursive way to read these texts that refuses to read past their animals, such as, in the example of Kanthapura, by pausing to pay attention to the presence and voices of these animals? To say that literature, like other human institutions, exploits nonhuman animals is an important claim, but it does not go very far in exploring the emancipatory potential that is embedded in art, and in particular in postcolonial writing with its unique political investments. In this book, then, I take notice of textual spaces where this emancipatory potential opens up not just to human subalterns but also to nonhuman animals, and try to expand these spaces to consider their wider potential for important multispecies alliances.

(Dis)Ordering Modernity

This study brings together the concerns of animal studies and postcolonial studies by examining texts that already, to different extents, provide contact zones for these two fields. While each chapter focuses on an issue that has been of particular concern for animal studies, the postcoloniality of these questions becomes clear in the analysis. Considering narrative as an art that both concerns and creates spaces in which human and nonhuman animals meet, I look at the way even texts that are seemingly quite rigid in their postcolonial humanism open, and indeed depend upon, the possibility of alliances between human subalterns and nonhuman animals against the colonial, neocolonial, and capitalist powers that oppress them both. By seeking out these fleeting moments, I locate a contagion between the categories of human and nonhuman — a form of improper touch, or poor hygiene — that produces political and ethical potential and contests both postcolonial humanism and posthuman Westernism in a way that expands the scope of both theoretical fields, and of our interpretations of literary representation. Drawing on Haraway’s concept of “ordinary multispecies living,” to which I have already made reference, I call this improper touch “disorderly multispecies living”; each of my chapters examines what takes place when texts represent nonhuman and human animals sharing space, meeting, and touching in ways that transgress the “order” of Western modernity. In looking at the ways in which these meetings are represented in literature, I am alive to the fact that they are being used, by the texts, for their transgressive power — a usage that might, in fact, represent the imposition of a new kind of order. I argue, however, that they also offer ways to think about how such meetings occur, and might produce the potential for new forms of ethical relation, in real space.

Table of contents

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Disorderly Multispecies Living

2. The Wild: Tracking Tigers through the Discourse of Conservation

Provocation 1: Sakshi Gupta

3. The Body: Ahimsa and the Politics of Vegetarianism

Provocation 2: Sujatro Ghosh

4. The Home: Narrative Violence and Counternarrative Companionship

Provocation 3: Jagannath Panda

5. The City: Denizens of Modernity in Delhi and Mumbai

6. The Zoo: Postscript

How animals come together in the spaces of contemporary India


Multispecies Modernity: Disorderly Life in Postcolonial Literature considers relationships between animals and humans in the iconic spaces of postcolonial India: the wild, the body, the home, and the city. Navigating fiction, journalism, life writing, film, and visual art, this book argues that a uniquely Indian way of being modern is born in these spaces of disorderly multispecies living.

The zones of proximity traversed in Multispecies Modernity link animal-human relations to a politics of postcolonial identity by transgressing the logics of modernity imposed on the postcolonial nation. Disorderly multispecies living is a resistance to the hygiene of modernity and a powerful alliance between human and nonhuman subalterns.

In bringing an animal studies perspective to postcolonial writing and art, this book proposes an ethics of representation and an ethics of reading that have wider implications for the study of relationships between human and nonhuman animals in literature and in life.


Weaving a series of narrative interpretations of physical and conceptual zones of proximity, Sundhya Walther reads towards alliances that have been otherwise shunned and effaced by the structures and strictures of (postcolonial) modernity. Through readings of fiction, memoir, journalism, and art, Multispecies Modernity takes us through scenes of contaminating touch that offer us the promise of more ethical forms of living against the strangleholds of modernity. This book will be of interest to a readership that extends across the broad fields of postcolonial studies, animal studies, and literary studies. It is a beautifully written work with consistently clear and coherent prose, and always compelling inroads into texts that readers might not be already familiar with. – Julietta Singh, author of Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements