Nonhuman Empire and Its Afterlives


Panama Roy (UC Davis, English)

Naisargi Dave (University of Toronto, Anthropology)

Ezra Rashkow (Montclair State University, History)

This panel will explore the various linkages between South Asia and the nonhuman. The nonhuman–whether animal, vegetal, telluric/elemental/mineral/topographical, extra-terrestrial, monstrous, or spectral—has called into question colonial and postcolonial imaginative circuits, political formations, and bodily registers, creating new forms of ethical engagement and analysis. Participants in this panel are invited to confront the non-human in all its capaciousness. We are interested in papers that explore, through a range of methods, how the non-human helps us to grasp the coordinates that structure(d) empire and its afterlives through, what Etienne Balibar (1991) calls, “the systematic ‘bestialization’ of individuals and racialized human groups” (53). Yet, such a reading, as Naisargi Dave (2014) reminds us, could itself be “a sign of humanism’s triumph,” requiring we ask, Dave continues, “is seeing humanism everywhere only a capitulation to its colonization of imagination and thought?” The nonhuman, in other words, is not an invariable proxy for the human, nor is the management of men, for example, the sole objective of empire or the postcolonial state. Therefore, we will also consider how centering the non-human undoes the partitions of the “anthropological machine,” centered on divisions between subject/object, sameness/difference, spectator/participant, inclusion/exclusion, by attending to how the nonhuman questions and surpasses given forms (Agamben 2002, 33).

In this framing, participants are invited to reflect on the ethical implications of their work, taking into account the broader historical, cultural, and political dynamics of the non-human, including its colonial and post-colonial contexts, while also remaining attuned to movements “toward the determination of new forms, or variations on existing forms” (Massumi 2014, 44). We will ask many questions, such as: What does the nonhuman offer us, and how might we engage with its analytical resources without privileging the contours of human animality? How does the nonhuman decenter and provincialize the analytical privilege often accorded to humanism by suspending the normative registers, for example, of postcolonial theory? By asking such questions in the social, political, intellectual, and religious landscape of colonial and postcolonial South Asia, our goal is not to exhaustively map the non-human within South Asia, but to facilitate a discussion around theoretical and methodological quandaries scholars face when considering the nonhuman in our troubled times through a particular focus on the subcontinent.

The panel’s rubric and the questions posed above are neither fixed nor exhaustive; they serve instead as a common point of departure. Through the panel, we hope further creative configurations and collaborations will take shape.