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Future Anterior: How Nineteenth-Century Institutions Framed the Future of Animals

September 19, 2022 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

A 19th century poster for the Barnum circus featuring an illustration of Jumbo, an elephant with many children on his back being lead down a street in a parade.Mario Ortiz-Robles

Senior Fellow (2021-2025)

Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor and Nancy C. Hoefs Professor of English, UW–Madison


Zoos, natural history museums, circuses, and other animal institutions in Western Europe gave nineteenth-century audiences the opportunity to see wild and exotic animals for the first time as objects of public interest. By capturing, displaying, domesticating, and classifying animal specimens, these institutions made significant contributions to the development of the biological sciences, but, in doing so, they also helped legitimize an imperialist program whose modernity was symbolized by nothing so much as the commercialization of nature. In this talk, I track the story of Jumbo, an African elephant whose larger-than-life presence in different institutional settings turned him into a household name, in order to show how public animal institutions place wild animals in a temporal bind, portraying them as historical objects frozen in time or as freaks of nature existing outside of human history. In telling the story of Jumbo, a term now familiarly used to describe unusual size and technological gigantism, I also hope to shed light on the narrative and rhetorical transformations that, in abstracting animals from nature, contribute to cast our collective future into doubt as we approach the sixth extinction event.


Mario Ortiz Robles is the Nancy C. Hoefs Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His work is situated at the intersection of nineteenth-century European literature, literary theory, and the environmental humanities. He is the author of The Novel as Event, Literature and Animal Studies, and co-editor of Narrative Middles. He has published extensively on Victorian literature and culture, animal studies, and literary theory. He is currently at work on a book-length project on literary naturalism.

*Events currently open only to 2022-23 fellows due to space concerns; please contact IRH at info@irh.wisc.edu to be added to a cancellation list for in-person events.*


September 19, 2022
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States
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