New Books Network

“What makes song sparrows, Verdi, medieval monks, and minstrelsy part of the same taxonomy?” So asks—and answers—Rachel Mundy, who is Assistant Professor of Music...

“What makes song sparrows, Verdi, medieval monks, and minstrelsy part of the same taxonomy?” So asks—and answers—Rachel Mundy, who is Assistant Professor of Music at Rutgers University–Newark. In her book, Animal Musicalities: Birds, Beasts, and Evolutionary Listening (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), Mundy shows how the history of the humanities is intimately connected with the lives of animals.

Focusing on animal musicality, with a particular emphasis on birdsong, Mundy recounts dozens of twentieth-century encounters—in North America, Europe, and Africa—between animals and human researchers working in a variety of fields, work we now recognize as belonging to the disciplines of evolutionary biology, anthropology, ethology (the study of animal behavior), and ethnomusicology.

Carefully attending to the value that was assigned to animal life in the lab and in the field, Mundy relates the story of how lives that were figured as non-human or less-than-human shape the received accounts of human and animal behavior in these disciplines. Crucially, the moral calculus that this research enacted has had lasting consequences for how all kinds of critical differences are figured in the contemporary postmodern humanities, including those of race, gender, class, and sexuality.

Not only a collection of diverse and deeply-researched vignettes into the ethics of research into animal musicality during the long twentieth century, Mundy’s book culminates in a powerful and timely call for a reappraisal of the “human” at the heart of humanities and the human sciences at large.

In this episode, we discuss the book and how it sketches the ambit of a notional field of the “animanities”: a new scholarly formation that problematises the long-standing reduction of life to a mere term in the exchange of animal vitality for human knowledge.


Eamonn Bell (@_eamonnbell) is a postdoctoral Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin in the Department of Music. His current research project examines the story of the compact disc from a viewpoint between musicology and media studies.