An elucidating collection of ten original essays, Making Animal Meaning reconceptualizes methods for researching animal histories and rethinks the contingency of the human-animal relationship. The vibrant and diverse field of animal studies is detailed in these interdisciplinary discussions, which include voices from a broad range of scholars and have an extensive chronological and geographical reach. These exciting discourses capture the most compelling theoretical underpinnings of animal significance while exploring meaning-making through the study of specific spaces, species, and human-animal relations. A deeply thoughtful collection vital to understanding central questions of agency, kinship, and animal consumption these essays tackle the history and philosophy of constructing animal meaning.
About the Author
Linda Kalof is Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University. She is also founder of the Michigan State University interdisciplinary graduate specialization in Animal Studies: Humanities and Social Science Perspectives.
Georgina M. Montgomery, an award-winning educator, is an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University with a joint appointment in Lyman Briggs College and the Department of History.
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MAKING ANIMAL MEANING
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2011 Michigan State University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnimal Writes Historiography, Disciplinarity, and the Animal Trace ETIENNE BENSON
Those of us who attempt to write about nonhuman animals are all implicated by the pun that appears in the title and throughout the text of Jacques Derrida's L'Animal que donc je suis. I follow or track (suis, from the infinitive suivre) the animals about whom or about which I write, and I also am (suis, from être) an animal—specifically, a writing animal. This doubleness of animal writing—its way of situating us simultaneously as subject and object, autobiographer and biographer, pursued and pursuer—is evocatively captured in the opening line of Philip armstrong's study, What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity, as is the powerful and pervasive assumption that writing is a uniquely human activity: "an animal sits at a desk, writing." To which we could add, "writing about animals," which is always a pursuit both of the other and of ourselves: the animal that I follow, the animal that I am.
Like any pursuit, writing about animals depends on tracks, trails, or traces—those material-semiotic remnants of whatever it is the pursuer hopes to catch, those often unintentional indexes of a now-absent presence. In this essay, I consider the relationship that is established in the course of writing, where "writing" is understood as a form of tracking and leaving tracks that is less specific to the human species than is usually assumed. I am especially concerned with the difficult case of historical writing, in which the "real" animal in whose gaze or body the author and art critic John Berger and many others have hoped to root an authentic, genuine, or ethical relationship has long since vanished. In the absence of the living animal body—in the presence of the dead, one might say—the animal historian must instead forge a (real, genuine, authentic, ethical) relationship with the embodied traces of past animal life. Doing so, I argue, requires jettisoning some of the assumptions about historiographic practice and disciplinary identity that have heretofore largely defined the scholarly field of animal studies and the narrower subdiscipline of historical writing about animals.
One of those assumptions concerns the nature of the sources from which the historian reconstructs past animal lives, whether human or otherwise. To the extent that historical sources are understood in conventional terms, that is, as textual or linguistic documents or records, the dilemma is clear. Such sources can provide rich descriptions and important insights into historical changes in human attitudes toward and relationships with animals, as the growing literature of animal history amply demonstrates. But they suffer a profound limitation from the perspective of the historian who wants to tell a multivocal, multiperspectival story in which the voices and perspectives are not exclusively human. Textual sources seem always to arise from the experience or activity of one particular kind of animal—the writing animal, the human. This is true even when, and perhaps particularly when, they claim to speak in the voice or see from the perspective of nonhuman animals. We might, as conservationist Carl Safina expresses it in his book Eye of the Albatross, want to use all of our human skills and resources "to draw out what the animals cannot tell us," to "give words to the wordless, and voice to the voiceless." But in doing so we are always at risk, as Donna haraway reminds us, of ventriloquism—of speaking for rather than allowing to speak, of talking before we listen.
Erica Fudge has argued that because human historians only have access to animal lives through human documents, a "history of animals ... Is impossible," strictly speaking. To the extent we continue to use the phrase, it must be sous rature—crossed out but still legible—in recognition of the fact that such a practice is impossible even as the desire for it shapes what we do. Instead, we must be satisfied, she suggests, with a history of "human attitudes toward animals," one that is, at its best, sensitive to the way "the human" and "the animal" have been co-constructed in theory and related in practice—that is, a "holistic" history combining attention to both discursive and real animals. My approach to historical sources and the possibility of animal history is somewhat different. The apparent impossibility of animal history is, I believe, precisely a result of adopting a strict, hierarchical division between the real and the discursive, things and representations, animals and attitudes toward animals. It becomes less compelling when those divisions are suspended.
As Haraway writes in Primate Visions, by way of explanation of her use of the term "material-semiotic," nonhuman animals "act and signify, and like all action and signification, theirs yield no unique, univocal, unconstructed 'facts' waiting to be collected.... Like words, machines, equations, institutions, generic writing conventions, people, and landscapes, the animals have specific kinds of solidity in the apparatus of bodily production." I take this to have a twofold meaning: first, that animals have a "solidity" or presence in written documents, scientific or otherwise, that goes beyond mere "representation"; second, that humans are not the only creatures who leave meaningful marks or traces on the body of the world (which has in turned marked them). A certain recent turn in scholarly understanding of human-animal relationships and the human-animal distinction makes it clear that to see even the most human of texts as nothing but human—as entirely devoid of particular animals, "the animal" in general, or animality—is to succumb to one of the most powerful modern humanist illusions. If we have never been modern, as Bruno Latour suggests, neither have we (or the traces we leave behind) been human, if "human" is meant to indicate a class of beings separated from all other living beings by an unbridgeable ontological or ethical abyss. Everything we do, including writing, is shaped by our long evolutionary history of interactions with other animals and our present lived interdependence with them.
That this is true has been perhaps most persuasively argued in studies of hunting and domestication. In books such as The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game and The Others, primitivist Paul Shepard argues that humanity discovered itself through embodied relations with wild animals, particularly those relations established through hunting. Studies of modern-day indigenous hunters, such as Hugh Brody's studies of hunters in the arctic, Tom Ingold's studies of Saami reindeer herders, Louis Liebenburg's study of South African hunters, or Rane Willerslev's study of the Yukaghir hunters of Siberia, have shown that the most successful hunters are adept at imagining themselves into the minds and bodies of the animals they seek to kill in order to understand, predict, and manipulate their behavior. This obligatory act of imagination, Willerslev argues, puts the hunter in the "paradoxical position of mutual mimicry," a position whose effects extend well beyond the practice of hunting to shape the hunters' social relations of all kinds (that is, its relations with humans as well as with nonhuman animals).
Even scholars who do not privilege hunting or share Shepard's belief that the disappearance of bloody worship from the lives of most modern humans has made us inhuman—a belief that differs from Berger's particular form of Marxist humanism mainly in its location of the prelapsarian among hunter-gatherers rather than among precapitalist peasants—have agreed with the basic premise that animals and animality are constitutive of the human. Take studies of domestication, which were once founded on the assumption that domestication was an example—perhaps the example par excellence—of human domination over nonhuman animals. That view has increasingly given way to the perspective popularized by Stephen Budiansky in his books The Covenant of the Wild and The Truth about Dogs, in which the central question is not how humans reshaped animals for their own purposes but "why animals chose domestication." In so choosing, the argument goes, nonhuman animals—the wolves who may have scavenged at the edge of human settlements or partnered with human hunters; the wildfowl who submitted themselves to the eventual ax in exchange for food, shelter, and a dramatic expansion of reproductive possibilities; and so forth—reshaped themselves for their own goals, while also profoundly reshaping human societies and cultures. That coevolutionary process continues today. Human society is not merely built on the backs of nonhuman animals; it is also built for and by animals.
This line of thought can be taken to absurd extremes. The intellectual and ethical contortions required to see the industrial production of low-cost chicken products as a mechanism of avian flourishing are not worth the effort, not only and not least because they require a conflation of the welfare of the individual and collective (or, more precisely, an erasure of the individual in favor of the collective) and a reduction of flourishing to mere numerical abundance and biogeographical distribution. We should hesitate to wish such a form of flourishing even on our enemies. But a more modest version of the thesis does obtain. As a result, to a limited but important extent, writing about human history is always-already writing about animals, regardless of whether the writer has any interest in or knowledge of dogs and chickens. Humans are a kind of animal that (like all kinds of animals) has been and continues to be profoundly reshaped by its interactions with other kinds of animals. Even writing and reading, those seemingly quintessential human activities, can be seen as having roots in animal signs, hunting, and tracking, as J. Edward Chamberlin has argued. All history is animal history, in a sense—that is, history written by, for, and about animals. The only question is which.
But of course there remains a difference between historical scholarship whose explicit focus is limited to the human animal, even if that includes the impact of other animal life on humans and recognizing the animality of (human) writing as an embodied practice, and historical scholarship that aims in some way to explore the history of nonhuman animals as subjects in their own right and for their own sakes. For this latter kind of history, human-authored texts can still provide valuable insights into the past that are not reducible to the human perspective. The same operation of intellectual judo that has made it possible to see domestication more as a partnership, however unequal, than as a simple case of domination or objectification can also make human-authored texts about animals seem more like the result of a collaboration or coauthorship—a collection of traces of the animal who writes through the human as well as of the human who writes about the animal.
That such traces cannot be reduced to their human authors is perhaps most evident when one moves away from strictly linguistic textual records toward other sorts of "animal traces," such as the early wildlife photographs whose history Matthew Brower has recounted, in which animals are present in ways that clearly exceed the intentionality of their human authors. It would be mistaken, however, to see only such pictorial, photographic, cinematic, or sculptural (for example, taxidermic) productions, which have an iconic as well as indexical relationship to the animals they depict, as being coproduced by their subjects. Because writing in any existential mode is a practice embedded in a real world of which nonhuman animals are an integral part, even avowedly fictional texts may contain traces of nonhuman animals. Pamela Banting has suggested that certain practices of attentive writing—she focuses on several late-twentieth-century Canadian writers who write about nature and wild animal life—are particularly amenable to revealing the trace of the animal. Attentive reading may also bring to light the traces of nonhuman animals even where their (human) authors did not intend to make them visible. John Simons, in his Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation, suggests that "my apprehension and analysis of what is going on in a cultural text and specifically a piece of literature should be quite different if I read it not for the signs and traces of human struggle but rather for the tracks of the animals with which we share the planet." Human writing in a world where human life is so intricately intertwined with nonhuman life will inevitably reveal the traces of the other.
In practice, however, even if it is both possible and critically important to look for the traces of the animal, animals, or animality in even the most human of texts, the challenges for animal history can seem of a different order than those for the history of humans who have not left textual records. One may use techniques to look for the traces of nonhuman animals in human archives that are superficially similar to those one uses to look for the traces of subaltern, poor, or disenfranchised humans in the archives of the powerful, but there seems to be a deeper divide. As Fudge has noted, the project of animal history raises questions about the necessity of intentionality and temporal consciousness (or, as she puts it, a "concept of historical periodization") for history. Even when sources about past animal life are abundant, animal history faces an ontological challenge that can be expressed as a variant of Wittgenstein's much-cited hypothesis that if a lion could speak we would not understand him; namely, that if lions could leave historical records they would not reveal a history that we understand as such—that is, a progressive, linear history in which the essence of what it is to be a lion depends on where and when a particular lion finds himself or herself.
The kind of agency required for such a progressive history—which remains history proper, despite efforts to produce "nonlinear" or deconstructionist histories—seems to require something more than offered by relational theories of agency such as actor-network theory, in which the agency of any particular entity arises from its network of relations to other entities. When Timothy Mitchell asks whether the mosquito can speak, he means to ask whether nonhuman entities can exceed and confound human intentions, the answer to which must surely be affirmative. But that mosquitoes themselves might have a history worth telling remains beyond the pale. This widely shared if rarely explicitly stated hypothesis rests on two assumptions. The first is a theoretical claim about the minimal properties required of an entity before it can be considered a legitimate historical subject or actor, which usually center on intentionality, language, and consciousness of the past and future, including the consciousness of death. (These properties may be assumed to be held in general or by the collective, rather than by the individual.) The second assumption is a factual one, sometimes supported by casual reference to the scientific literature—namely, that these are properties held by humans but not by other animals.
My argument here rests on two interrelated counterassumptions. First, whether animals are properly historical subjects or actors is an open, empirical question, not one that can be answered from the armchair. The answer may vary—is highly likely to vary, I would argue—according to the particular historical situation and kind of animal in question. To assert that animals have no history, properly speaking, is to assert a transhistorical truth, an operation perhaps appropriate for metaphysicians but not for historians committed to a rigorous historicism. it does not matter whether we see the historylessness of animals as a gift, as Friedrich Nietzsche and Rainer Maria Rilke did; as a lack, as Martin Heidegger did; or as a messianic promise, as Giorgio Agamben does. In all of these cases we would be assuming in advance what should be the result of our research. Second, the answer to this question and the methods that are necessary to answer it are within the professional domain of the historian. Though historians might need to draw on natural science and other fields outside the traditional purview of history—and in fact I argue below that they must—scientists no more than philosophers can tell them whether it is possible to tell the history of a particular subject. It is for historians to decide what is properly historical.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Making New Animal Meanings
Animal Writes: Historiography, Disciplinarity, and the Animal Trace Etienne Benson 3
Mobility and the Making of Animal Meaning: The Kinetics of "Vermin" and "Wildlife" in Southern Africa Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga 17
Cannibalism, Consumption, and Kinship in Animal Studies Analía Villagra 45
Part 2 Applying New Animal Meanings
The Renaissance Transformation of Animal Meaning: From Petrarch to Montaigne Benjamin Arbel 59
On the Trail of the Devil Cat: Hunting for the Jaguar in the United States and Mexico Sharon Wilcox Adams 81
Animal Deaths and the Written Record of History: The Politics of Pet Obituaries Jane Desmond 99
Golden Retrievers Are White, Pit Bulls Are Black, and Chihuahuas Are Hispanic: Representations of Breeds of Dog and Issues of Race in Popular Culture Meisha Rosenberg 113
Interspecies Families, Freelance Dogs, and Personhood: Saved Lives and Being One at an Assistance Dog Agency Avigdor Edminster 127
Animal Meaning in T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats Stacy Rule 145
Animals at the End of the World: Notes toward a Transspecies Eschatology Casey R. Riffel 159