Questioning Empathetic Responsiveness to Nonhuman Animal Vulnerability

Noninnocent Relations and Affective Motivations in the Animal Turn in Religious Studies


  • Wendy Mallette Yale University



Animal studies, feminist, queer, critical race, vulnerability, empathy, affect


The author uses critical theorizations of empathy, compassion, and epistemology in order to draw out the limits of appeals to respond to nonhuman animal gazes in religious studies. Taking Aaron S. Gross’s and Donovan O. Schaefer’s recent works as exemplary, the author argues that empathetic postures towards vulnerability deny the potential violences of empathy and inadvertently reproduce the scholar as an ethical, conscious, and knowing subject. Instead, noninnocent framings of the relation of a scholar to her objects of study might allow religious studies to think more critically about the affective motivations of our desires to recognize the nonhuman animal and our epistemic limitations—especially in ways that do not presuppose the human/animal binary as a master binary whose collapse will entail the demise of racism, sexism, and colonialism.

Author Biography

Wendy Mallette, Yale University

Wendy Mallette is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies (Theology) and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University.


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge).

———. 2008. ‘Open Forum Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the “New Materialism”’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 15.1: 23-39. Doi: DOI:

Bekoff, Marc. 2007. The Emotional Life of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter (Novato, CA: New World Library).

Bekoff, Marc, and Jessica Pierce. 2017. The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (Boston: Beacon Press).

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Doi: DOI:

Berlant, Lauren, and Lee Edelman. 2019. ‘What Survives’, in Lauren Berlant (ed.), Reading Sedgwick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019): 37-62. Doi: DOI:

Boisseron, Bénédicte. 2018. Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question (New York: Columbia University Press). Doi: DOI:

Buber, Martin. 1970. I and Thou (trans. Walter Kaufmann; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Butler, Judith. 2000. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press).

———. 2004. Precarious Lives: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso).

Chen, Mel Y. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). DOI:

Corbett, Rosemary R. 2017. Making Moderate Islam: Sulsm, Service, and the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ Controversy (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Curtin, Deane. 2014. ‘Compassion and Being Human’, in Carol J. Adams and Lori Gruen (eds.), Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth (New York: Bloomsbury): 39-57. DOI:

Derrida, Jacques. 2002. ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’ (trans. David Wills), Critical Inquiry 28.2: 369-418. DOI:

———. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (ed. Marie-Louise Mallet; trans. David Wills; New York: Fordham University Press).

Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Doi: DOI:

———. 2011. ‘Ever After: History, Negativity, and the Social’, in Janet Halley and Andrew Parker (eds.), After Sex? On Writing Since Queer Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press): 110-18. Doi: DOI:

Grewal, Zareena. 2014. Islam Is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (New York: NYU Press). DOI:

Gross, Aaron S. 2015. The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implication (New York: Columbia University Press). Doi: DOI:

Gruen, Lori. 2013. ‘Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Approach to Animal Ethics’, in Raymond Corbey and Annette Lanjouw (eds.), The Politics of Species: Reshaping Our Relationships with Other Animals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 223-31. DOI:

Haraway, Donna J. 2007. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press).

Hemmings, Clare. 2011. Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Doi: DOI:

Hughes, Aaron W. 2013. Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (New York: Oxford University Press). Doi: DOI:

Jackson, Sherman A. 2005. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection (New York: Oxford University Press). Doi: DOI:

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. 2020. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press). DOI:

Jakobsen, Janet R. 2003. ‘Queers Are Like Jews, Aren’t They? Analogy and Alliance Politics’, in Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini (eds.), Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (New York: Columbia University Press): 64-89.

Kim, Claire Jean. 2011. ‘Moral Extensionism or Racist Exploitation? The Use of Holocaust and Slavery Analogies in the Animal Liberation Movement’, New Political Science 33.3: 311-33. Doi: DOI:

———. 2015. Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age (New York: Cambridge University Press). Doi: DOI:

Kluchin, Abigail. 2016. Review of Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, by Donovan Schaefer, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84.2: 578-80. Doi: DOI:

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press). Doi: DOI:

Locke, John. 2013. Some Thoughts Concerning Education (New York: Dover Publications).

Mahmood, Saba. 2015. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Doi: DOI:

Miller, Patricia Cox. 2018. In the Eye of the Animal: Zoological Imagination in Ancient Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press). Doi: DOI:

Moore, Stephen D. 2014. ‘Introduction’, in Stephen D. Moore (ed.), Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology (New York: Fordham University Press): 1-16. Doi: DOI:

Morrison, Toni. 1987. Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).

Newkirk, Ingrid E. 2006. ‘PETA Addresses Anger Over Exhibit’, PETA. Online:

Salna, Carl. 2015. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (New York: Picador, Henry Holt & Co., 1st edn).

Schaefer, Donovan O. 2015. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Doi: DOI:

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Doi: DOI:

Taylor, Bron. 2010. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (Berkeley: University of California Press). Doi: DOI:

Tonstad, Linn Marie. 2015. ‘The Limits of Inclusion: Queer Theology and Its Others’, Theology & Sexuality 21.1: 1-19. Doi: DOI:

———. 2017. ‘Ambivalent Loves: Christian Theologies, Queer Theologies’, Literature and Theology 31.4: 472-89. Doi: DOI:

———. Unpublished manuscript. ‘The Impossible Other: Theology, Queer Theory, and the Temptation of Human Redemption’. Microsoft Word lle.

Viego, Antonio. 2008. Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Doi: DOI:

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology (ed. and trans. Peter Skalsh; Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing).

Weheliye, Alexander G. 2014. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Doi: DOI:

Wiegman, Robyn. 2012. Object Lessons (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Doi: DOI:

———. 2014. ‘The Times We’re In: Queer Feminist Criticism and the Reparative “Turn”’, Feminist Theory 15.1: 1-25. Doi: DOI:

———. 2015. ‘Eve’s Triangles, or Queer Studies beside Itself’, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 1.26: 48-73. Doi: DOI:

Wiegman, Robyn, and Elizabeth A. Wilson. 2015. ‘Introduction: Antinormativity’s Queer Conventions’, differences 26.1: 1-25. Doi: DOI:

Wolfe, Cary. 2009. ‘Human, All Too Human: “Animal Studies” and the Humanities’, PMLA 124.2: 564-75. Doi: DOI:

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—an Argument’, CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3: 257-337. Doi: DOI:



How to Cite

Mallette, W. . (2021). Questioning Empathetic Responsiveness to Nonhuman Animal Vulnerability: Noninnocent Relations and Affective Motivations in the Animal Turn in Religious Studies. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 15(2), 177–203.