Introduction: Multispecies Fictions and Their Acoustic Contact Zones

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature book series (PSAAL)


The present book charts how early twenty-first-century writers represent the multispecies soundscape, and it reflects on the relations between human and other animals as they are mediated by an array of competing sonic media, the novel especially. It is primarily aimed at three audiences: students and scholars of literature and culture who want to learn more about sound and the human-animal interface; students and scholars who work on animals and the environment more broadly, and would like to understand how nonhuman sounds acquire cultural meaning, in a literary context especially; and students and scholars investigating sound and listening who want to broaden the remit of their research beyond the scope of the human. But I hope the book also caters to the interests of a more diffuse group of readers, who may simply be fascinated by the noisy creatures who inhabit its pages, including echolocating Irrawaddy dolphins, loud Tasmanian devils and quiet Tasmanian tigers, musical crickets, birds, frogs, rumbling African and Asian elephants, laughing and signing chimps, injured dogs and horses with racing hearts, threatening vampires with silent bodies, and several deafened marine mammals, including Cuvier’s beaked whales—not to mention numerous talking and roaring humans. Alternatively, general readers might be drawn to the book’s account of distinct communities of listeners, who experience the sounds of other creatures in ways inflected by their professional status as scientist, recordist, hunter, composer, linguist, vet, doctor, cowboy, submarine captain, or sonar technician—or by more personal, less specialized exchanges with nonhuman animals. As I explain below, this book is not an introduction to biosemiotics or bioacoustics, the two scientific disciplines that study animal communication systems, nor is it an ethnographic study of actual listeners, which summarizes observations of and interviews with anonymized real-life informants. But it tackles related topics in comparing divergent human responses to animal sounds, the changing cultural meanings ascribed to nonhuman vocalizations and other creaturely vibrations. Approaching these topics through the lens of contemporary novels appears strange at first, because literature is conventionally believed to be entirely silent, fictional, and anthropocentric. That is why this introduction clarifies the conception of literature, animals, sounds, and media that underpins my approach, and that explains why this traditional view of the novel is not the whole story, not today, and not in earlier times either. If we adjust our approach slightly and retune our ears, as listeners and readers, we will find that this flexible literary genre provides vital resources for social debates on human-animal relations and the urgent interdisciplinary conversations of the environmental humanities.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for the Study of Civilisations, Arts, and Letters (INCAL)UCLouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium

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