One or Several Literary Animal Studies? - Susan McHugh

One or Several Literary Animal Studies?

Susan McHugh
Department of English
University of New England
smchugh@une.edu

 

In a call for fiction reviews for the journal Society and Animals, Kenneth Shapiro and Marion Copeland express a desire that haunts literary studies of animals, namely that “a literary criticism perspective on animal issues is a point of view, a form of consciousness, a way to read any work of fiction” (343). But are there one or several ways of reading animals?1 New research in the field indicates that this kind of critical work comprises many methods, let alone perspectives, and even Shapiro and Copeland list many possible approaches: judging good (“robust and respectful”) from bad (“reductive, disrespectful”) representations of animals in literature; explicating the forms of animals in writing (i.e., symbols, voices, characters); and contextualizing literary representations of animals amid histories and cultures of human-animal relations (345). While some argue for a hierarchy of methods according to viewpoints,2 these examples suggest that ways of reading animals are far from mutually exclusive. Moreover, the proliferation of methodological differences constitutes a considerable achievement in the development of this (sub)field, which until recently had been stymied by a largely tacit agreement to consider animals as irrelevant to literature and other traditionally “humanistic” subjects.

For literary animal studies are framed by a paradox: animals abound in literature across all ages and cultures, but rarely have been the focal point of systematic literary study. When attended to at all, representations of animals have been seen first and foremost as dissembling humans, as at best metaphorically speaking. This situation presents a tremendous opportunity for recovering and interrogating the material and representational problems specific to these textual animals, but it also confronts literary critics with two basic questions: why animals? and why now? In other words, a systematic approach to reading animals in literature necessarily involves coming to terms with a discipline that in many ways appears organized by the studied avoidance of just such questioning. The textual politics of animals thus contain the potential for a thoroughgoing epistemic critique attuned to the poetics of species, and one that has gotten under way only through the development of multiple ways of reading animals.3

At least, this would explain why this work has taken off in response to animal studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that coalesces around questions of agency and the social and a field which insists that readings of animal representations inform and are informed by axiological and other “unnatural” histories.4 These representations emerge all the more clearly as sites of engagement for literary history and theory through investigations that chart their courses across the humanities, newly charged with the problem of expressing or reinforcing some perspectives at the expense of others. Developing through the identity debates of the late twentieth century, animal studies inherits an empirical obligation to hedge this theoretical work with a wariness of critical policing. Animal knowledges, in the broadest sense, are the stakes of the movement of animal humanities scholarship from any given perspective (or project) to animal studies as a discursive formation.5 It is well worth questioning what kinds of knowledge we as humans ever can have about other species, but not at the expense of discovering what happens when we move from studying animals from any established methodology to imagining ourselves working within (even against) a newly formulated discursive field that brings together complex and different constructions of and methods for studying animals. To varying degrees, the more comprehensive analyses of animals in literary form, whether metaphorical, sentimental, or even anti-representational, that have emerged in recent years undermine commitments to disciplinary ways of knowing even as they offer the best argument for the relevance of these institutions to the understanding of animals and (perhaps inevitably) human-animal relationships.

These concerns have come lately in part because metaphors have been the preponderant (if also most contested) form of literary animals.6 Two historical examples illustrate how this trend reflects in part the effectiveness of using textual animals indirectly to represent human conditions as well as the key role of this figure in the rise of literary studies as a distinct discipline.7 “A Poet is a nightingale,” proclaims poet Percy Shelley in his famous 1821 defense of poetry, at once citing the most famous animal representation of the Romantic artist’s transcendence of human society (John Keats’s 1819 poem “Ode to a Nightingale”) and limiting the literary animal’s value to a figure for expressing the Romantic artist’s largely alienated condition.8 However, it is not the interpretive stability but rather the extraordinary aesthetic flexibility of this literary device that accounts for the curious staying power of the animal metaphor.9

So, for instance, formalist aesthetics outline different reasons for prizing the same figure, namely through attention to the linguistic values for expression (i.e., the sonorousness of the animal’s name) as well as mimesis. A century later in an influential argument for formalist aesthetics, poet T. S. Eliot offers a different justification for prizing the selfsame poetic bird: “The ode of Keats contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale, partly because of its attractive name, and partly because of its reputation, served to bring together” (1096).10 The animal remains important as a reference point, again primarily to the work of the poet/ critic as gatekeeper of truth, but its literary significance inheres instead in its ability to mirror lived conditions in terms of aesthetic verisimilitude, if not scientific ethology. The changing poetics of animal form thus suggests a means of charting past continuities and contests of animal forms in literary history. Moreover, in recent years, extended analyses of these figures tell a far more complicated tale than the movement toward realism in literary history.11

The Romantic animal illuminates a richer cultural landscape through Christine Kenyon-Jones’s Kindred Brutes: Animals in Romantic-Period Writing (2001), which appeals to even as it purports to examine the emergence of literary animals as primarily significant in terms of metaphor. This book traces the resurgence of much older, theriophilic fable traditions12 in the British Romantic canon (particularly the poetry of George Gordon Byron) and its influence on more “straightforward” (educational, political, and scientific) writing of the period. Animal metaphors, Kenyon-Jones argues, not only say something about the artist but also perform another kind of cultural work, namely modeling ways of thinking outside of literary forms. While this argument serves the Romantic desire to secure the poet’s place at the vanguard of civilization, its implications prove far more unsettling. In the end, the question becomes not so much why this particular form appealed to the Romantics as how it failed to advance their cultural project. If, as Kenyon-Jones suggests, the Romantic approach to literary animals reacts directly against the didactic anthropomorphizing of animals in sentimental literature at the turn of the nineteenth century,13 then it might also prefigure the formalist aestheticizing of the metaphorical animal as a means of fending off Victorian morality and its insistence on a sentimental equivalency with the human by the turn of the twentieth century. While only glimpsed in this book, this longer reactionary historical transformation of animal metaphor, particularly the conditions in which representational forms can undermine as well as reinforce the authority of the poet as the arbiter of humanist expression, takes shape across several studies that (re)evaluate the status of the animal in successive schools of literary criticism.

Albeit indirectly, this literary history is both extended and challenged by Jennifer Mason’s Civilized Creatures: Urban Animals, Sentimental Culture, and American Literature, 1850-1900 (2005). Taking sentimental approaches to animals on their own terms, Mason offers an important corrective to the rise-and-fall history of animal metaphor. As in Kenyon-Jones’s study, literary historiography becomes both method and message, but here more specifically in a story of literature as the primary mediator of affective discourses and lived relations with animals in the increasingly urban contexts of nineteenth-century American fiction. Affection for actual animals is pivotal to Mason, who carefully compiles evidence of authorial petkeeping and other contemporary animal practices to establish the multispecies contexts of the production of texts conventionally associated with human rights histories like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.14 Mason’s central claim is that the development of affectivity in popular and critically acclaimed novels of the period established the conditions in which animals became agents of historical change, but I think that the more suggestive point here is more subtle, namely that fiction problematizes the human story inscribed in any animal representation. The politics of species and textual relations both gain complexity through engagements with narrative form, especially across emerging media.

Given this highly charged literary history, the retrenchment of metaphor in formalist aesthetics by the early twentieth century represents no simple backlash against this expansion of animal modes of representation. Recent analyses of modern and contemporary poetics challenge the notion that metaphor supports a limited range of animal aesthetics. Instead, suggest several studies, the problem lies in the constituency of the literary canon. Much of Randy Malamud’s Poetic Animals and Animal Souls (2003) is close textual analysis of animal metaphors in poetry, chiefly those of canonical American writer Marianne Moore and lesser-known Mexican contemporary poet José Emilio Pacheco. Malamud argues that these poets, working within different linguistic, cultural, and historical contexts, both engage with metaphorical animal interpretation in ways that ultimately question human knowledge structures and their relationships with social power. Alternately arguing that metaphor has a privileged access (via poetry) as “a literary portal into the worlds of animals” (59) and disdaining it along with all “cultural contrivances in which we have entrapped them” (83), Malamud’s study concludes not with a call for the development of new forms but rather the redeployment of existing models, specifically the use of literary metaphor as a tool for moral reform.15 Though deeply conflicted, this approach to metaphorical animals asserts their continuing relevance, if not quite the transcendence of these forms vis a vis the literary establishment.16

These studies demonstrate how the influence of literary animals on other forms of thought and expression merits the reevaluation, even reformation of the literary canon. But the problems of metaphor especially point to the danger of arriving at the same old conclusions, namely that animals are only literary as human subjects. Putting the relationship between these forms of literary criticism and historical methodologies under scrutiny disturbs the sedimentation of these patterns of reading literary animals in western humanist traditions, and the interdisciplinary methods of animal studies prove particularly useful in launching this critique. In Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (2000), Erica Fudge elaborates how new historicist methods both guide and limit her study of animals in Early Modern culture, calling attention to the ways in which questions of authorship and authority plague interpretations of the artifacts of animal lives (which are human documents too).17 Moreover, she argues that these are not the anachronistic concerns of the literary scholar or historian but vital problems for understanding the specific cultural significance, for example, of the literary animal’s development as a humanist conceit on the English stage. So, for theatergoers (also likely baiting fans), “watching confirms the status of humans as animals” when they identify with a character like Ben Jonson’s Volpone, but, when they read him correctly as a symbol, they demonstrate how they are “being made truly human by humanism” (87). With this self-reflexive approach to methodologies and their mutations, the form of literary theory (particularly the relation of literature to historical methodologies) as well as expectations for literary meanings become the subject of analysis.

A more experimental approach involves fusions of literary methods, but these may be specific to other related fields. Combining methods of literary history with autobiography, Barney Nelson’s The Wild and the Domestic: Animal Representation, Ecocriticism, and Western American Literature (2000), focuses on the much narrower and relatively recently conceptualized (sub)field of American literary eco-criticism. Nelson provides a localized example of how reading animals leads one scholar to rethink the role of the literary canon in knowledge production. Taking eco-critical narratives on their own (largely autobiographical) terms, Nelson clarifies how her own work history on ranches and in southwestern universities informs her comparison of wild and domestic animal representations in the canon of American nature writers. Idealized identifications among writers, readers, and individual wild animals become not simply an aesthetic conceit (a trope of nature writing) but more importantly a political act through her analysis of the often subtle but consistently denigrating alignments of others, especially domesticated animals and people whose livelihood depends on them, in ecological narratives of the twentieth century. And these narratives relate to others in sometimes surprising ways. Nelson’s historical development of how the canonical focus on the imagined wild comes to displace representations of rurally lived human relations with domesticated animals not only complements Mason’s historical survey of similar effects in the rise of (sub)urban American life. She also directly implicates this textual pattern in the present economic divide of urban and rural people worldwide, connecting in particular the U.S. rangeland conflicts over land-use policies and their export as parks-management plans for impoverished nations. While her conclusion that contesting these meanings relegates writers to the literary margins may be self-defeating,18 her elaboration of these contests nonetheless clarifies how they intersect with the formation of environmental ideologies.

These interdisciplinary examples draw from the visual and verbal rhetorics of animal representation, which become all the more complex through the rise of narrative form in literary studies. For this reason, the deconstructive and more broadly poststructuralist work of recent decades has been crucial to changing the disciplinary conditions under which animals in literature for so long seemed only ever to speak of and for the human. These approaches proceed from the assumptions of the structuralist revolution of the mid-twentieth century, namely that meanings proliferate through acts of reading, which make texts dynamic forms and not static containers of messages.19 More than just opening up the literary canon to revaluation, animal narratives inspire concerns about the production of the story of literature itself, leading to new lines of inquiry about the ways in which social contexts vest the literary with the power of arbitrating species differences.

As Malamud’s conflicted stance suggests, attention to these structures frustrates mainstream advocacy arguments that nonhuman representational significance comes at the expense of the genuine/ authentic/ pure/ real/ etc. animal. But such attention also elaborates how literary animals become significant as such through structural relationships, for example, by destabilizing distinctions between the real and the ideal.20 More importantly, this poststructuralist turn is not automatically anathematic to “pro-animal” sympathies. Though eschewing it himself in favor of a return to sentiment, John Simons concedes in Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation (2002) that such work can “invoke the model of narrative as a way of understanding how power operates and how we might strive against its pressures” (193).21 Studies of contemporary animal narrative in particular suggest that, rather than guarding the limits of moral communities, such creatures gain significance when they rupture or puncture social boundaries, propelling the development of more nuanced ethics.22

To be sure, this potential for literary animal studies has not always been clear. Deconstructive approaches trace how animal stories have been enmeshed in the metaphysical presuppositions of humanism, but their primary concern with language can defer exploration of the ways in which poststructuralist approaches to animal literatures confront metaphysics with questions of multiplicity. Margot Norris’s groundbreaking Beasts of the Modern Imagination: Darwin, Kafka, Nietzsche, Ernst, and Lawrence (1985) outlines a short-lived “biocentric” tradition in which writers and artists inspired by the formal implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of the mutability of species experimented with anti-representational texts that successfully critiqued anthropocentric aesthetics, yet failed to launch any sustainable alternatives.23 To account for this problem, Norris contends that “the question of the status of the animal” negates the animal in humanist thought (21). Relating this argument (after Jacques Derrida) to the logic of sacrifice inherent in language, Norris further suggests that this negative valuation is central to the modern trope of the animal’s disappearance. More recent studies suggest that this linkage of language and signification, though informing the collapse of the biocentric tradition, may say more about humanist philosophy than the potential for animal representation in literary forms.

Cary Wolfe’s Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003) takes a broader view of western philosophy in the twentieth century to arrive at a similar conclusion. Intriguing in hindsight for its striking absence from the identity debates, Wolfe suggests, the intellectual appeal of animality again remains restricted to its status as deconstructive element within the human.24 But there is another key difference: Wolfe’s mid- and late-twentieth century narrative examples illustrate how something akin to bio-centric experimentation continues, attesting to still more ways in which animal representations have become purposeful fictions of and for human (here “posthuman”) beings. Although, like Mason, Wolfe approaches literary animal representations as what he terms “off-sites” for grappling with the problems (here internal contradictions) of human identity, he stakes out a strikingly different position concerning the political expediency of animal rights philosophies based on post-humanist models. Animal representations thus inform the breakdown of the humanist subject, not just its formation, and taking their various rhetorics into consideration opens up different ways of thinking about animal signification.

More directly addressing the visual forms of animals taking shape through cinema in the twentieth century, Akira Lippit’s Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (2000) takes a different kind of poststructuralist approach to the dynamic of animal “disappearance.” Lippit reads this trope in terms of an ongoing dramatization of erasure that pointedly conflicts with any formulations of animals as fundamentally incorporated by the human.25 The problem as he sees it is this: although discursive acts materialize animal traces, the singularity of the human persists, a problem that Derrida once characterized as a fiction, a fantasy of “cutting up a subject” (“Eating ”). Lippit further elaborates Derrida’s insight in terms of a more dynamic origin story than the human (subject)’s primal incorporation of the animal (object).26 Visual media like cinema, introducing another order of rhetoric, volatilizes the transformations of literary modes of animal subjectivity, in the process becoming all the more distinctly narratives that concern (and never simply resolve) negotiations of form and meaning.27

In this configuration, animal traces weave textual structures that require more complex models of sociality than the singular being of human identity (or the model of the isolated and thereby individuated subject) can bear. Animal representations that fail to achieve or perform this kind of subjectivity also meaningfully frustrate processes of signification, possibly giving rise to new meanings or forms of social agency in much the same way perhaps, as Ian Watt once argued in The Rise of the Novel, that the Enlightenment humanist subject first gained cultural currency.28 Taken together, the formal implications of these poststructuralist arguments are that literary animal studies must cast a wider net than traditional literary history allows, for it is not only canonical novels but also nontraditional forms (visual artists’ books, short stories, autobiographical writing, film, even contemporary bestsellers) that allow for the mutations of these narrative forms and social conditions of species.

Traditional literary appeals to the values of metaphor and canonicity remain a driving force in literary animal studies, but even these evince an increasingly fragmented literary history of nonhuman representation. It seems inevitable that in these conditions the meanings of literary animals should remain contested. Some critics argue that animals become important with modern authors’ conception of themselves as literary beasts,29 while for others the key factor is the shifting human perception of animals, for instance, as heroes,30 victims, or even conspicuous absences. Perhaps the more important lesson for future research lies in their growing sense of a responsibility to relate these interpretations to the (inter)disciplinary consequences of taking literary animals seriously. Semantic concerns (what are the meanings of literary animal representations?) are now more deliberately connected to formal and contextual considerations (what do animals do in/ as/ to/ etc. literary representations? and when/ how/ to what ends do these patterns shift?). Consequently literature becomes one of many locations for negotiating the representational problems of animals. As these developments force new questions about the ways in which animals have been bound by linguistic forms (like metaphorical chains of substitution) to the terms of human individuals, animal representations appear all the more clearly to function as intersections of various schools of thought.

In this way, animal representations also foster uncertainties about the future of literary studies as disciplinary ways of knowing, and more basically the relationship of reading to maintaining institutional structures. Literary animal studies likely will continue to foster unpredictable (and often conflicted) positions on animal rights and welfare, establishing no clear foundations of political let alone epistemological solidarity among researchers. Within and across just the few examples I have addressed here, conflicting answers to the most basic questions abound, frustrating those who want this work to resolve the pressing problems of animals in human society. The dream of a shared method or interpretation therefore may be deferred, but in these conditions I find the most hope for reading animals. The emergence of new scholarship explicitly focused on animals in literature not only attests to longstanding discursive problems with species difference, but also presents these problems as pressing concerns for literary study in the twenty-first century. Particularly by furthering the investigative work of animal studies into the presence of animals in human subjects, literary animal studies can realize an empirical potential to develop terms, methods, and concepts of species relations, and so the means to address the looming epistemological crisis of disciplinary ways of knowing.

 

Notes

1 Here I am referencing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s narrative critique of Sigmund Freud’s Wolf Man case study, in which the question “One or several wolves?” directly menaces the analyst’s reductive retelling of the dreamer’s animal pack through its interpretation as one wolf/ man. For Deleuze and Guattari, “the important thing” is not (as it is for Freud) that the threads of the Wolf Man’s story connect to create one narrative, “normal” subject of the case history, but rather “the position of the subject itself in relation to the pack or wolf-multiplicity: how the subject does or does not join the pack, how far away it stays, how it does or does not hold to the multiplicity” (29). I elaborate this point in my discussion of animal studies and questions of subjectivity and social agency below. back to text

2 Literary scholar Julie Smith describes more polemically her own “‘pro-animal view’ that maintain[s] that animals are knowable as opposed to a ‘pro-use’ view that [holds] that animals can never be more than what we construct them to be” (295) to clarify her distress that animal studies questions the terms of animal rights (i.e., Tom Regan’s “subject of a life”). John Simons and Randy Malamud more clearly link this animal rights view to right (while also elaborating what each considers wrong) methods of literary interpretation, as I discuss later in this essay. back to text

3 Clarifying how the focus on individual human subjects is not natural or incidental but purposeful, Michel Foucault’s analysis of the (human) subject as produced as social agent (through “anatamo-politics” or disciplinary regimes of the individual) not in a vacuum but in relation to what Foucault conceives as a dynamic of biopower, through which alternate forms of human and other species relations take shape through the “bio-politics” of irreducible populations (147). back to text

4 See Nigel Rothfels, who articulates this point through the difference of natural and cultural histories of animals, the former working to situate them in their “native haunts” and the latter to clarify their positioning in “such human environments as museums, books, circuses, and zoos” (6). On the characterization of agency as the generative center of animal studies, see Erica Fudge’s essay for H-Animal titled, “Animals in History.” back to text

5 Although “discursive formation” also is Foucault’s term, here I more directly borrow Stuart Hall’s argument (via Raymond Williams) about the formation of cultural studies to elaborate what I have witnessed in the rise of animal studies, namely that its conflicted origins, histories, materializations, and discourses converge decisively if unstably in what Williams called “a common disposition of energy and direction,” which for Hall stays relevant only through a productive tension between “simply pluralist” (anything-goes) and singular (dogmatic) politics (1899). back to text

6 In the earliest book on the subject, Mary Allen observes that “the metaphorical far outnumber the literal animals in literature” (6), but opinions vary widely about this situation. For instance, whereas Shapiro and Copeland lament metaphor as the ultimate means of reduction, a kind of final frontier on which animals are obliterated from literary significance, in the notorious essay “Why Look at Animals?” novelist and critic John Berger suggests the opposite, namely that metaphor alone is a hedge against obliteration in current power structures: humans internalized “the essential relation between man and animal” that until the nineteenth century “was metaphoric” (5), in a process that according to Berger also involves an animal act of disappearing, of becoming the “last metaphor” (24) that secures the singular status of the human subject not simply in science but more broadly the “culture of capitalism” (26). Incidentally, the notes to Allen’s introduction provide an early comprehensive listing of dissertations on literary uses of animals dating from 1955-75, which likewise focus on canonical writers (16-17). back to text

7 Metaphor is the keystone of what Terry Eagleton terms “the rise of English”—the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British nationalist and imperialist consolidation of vernacular literary study as an academic subject—because it contains both the mystical, sublime elements of writing central to Romantic aesthetics as well as the puzzling quality that distinguishes (and thereby elevates) poetic from ordinary language in formalist aesthetics. back to text

8 Shelley’s complete sentence merits further consideration on this point: “The Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why” (699). For it clarifies that the precise relation within the Romanticist aesthetic of author (“Poet”), readers (“auditors” or “men entranced”), and text (“sweet sounds” or “melody of an unseen musician”) is of primary concern to Shelley, and not the bird’s (sexual, territorial, even aesthetic?) interests in singing. back to text

9 Clarifying how this image troubles the representational narrative of literary history itself as the in/significance of the poet as Romantic animal comes under scrutiny, Raymond Williams relates Shelley’s formulation of this special (paradoxical?) status accorded poets at the margins (“darkness” and “solitude”) of the culture to which Shelley argues that they are central to a sense of both obligation to and “helplessness” within “a culture now dominated by science and industry[, which fails] to bestow upon poets the ‘acknowledgement’ that they merit.” back to text

10 Eliot’s reasoning echoes Edgar Allen Poe’s 1846 account of choosing the eponymous species for “The Raven” (1842): In addition to the sound of the animal’s name, Poe’s formula for creating a successful poem requires “a pretext for the continuous use of the word ‘nevermore.’ [. . .] Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forewith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone” (746). back to text

11 Elaborating the conditions of “crisis” for this kind of criticism in the 1980s, Fredric Jameson argues: “Traditional literary history was a subset of representational narrative, a kind of narrative ‘realism’ become as problematic as its exemplars in the history of the novel” (11). back to text

12 Kenyon-Jones defines theriophily as both a “long classical and Renaissance tradition” and “a philosophical stance which satirizes human pretensions by reminding us of our kinship with animals, and contrasts overweening human folly with animals’ instinctive wisdom” (12). back to text

13 Kenyon-Jones makes this argument explicitly about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “metaphorical self-identifications [. . .] with [. . .] especially birds” (66). See her reading of his 1798 poem “The Raven” as an expression of children and animals “united in seeing themselves at the center of the universe” (72) in pointed contrast to Sarah Trimmer’s popular 1786 book The History of the Robins, “a fable to teach children how to behave correctly in life and society at large” (56). back to text

14 Mason clarifies, “[M]y position is not just that we cannot understand the ideas about the human social order located in these texts unless we understand their authors’ ideas about particular kinds of nonhuman animals; I am arguing that such ideas have been shaped by the presence of actual, animate nonhuman bodies that circulate in and co-create with this thing we call culture” (22). See Fudge (below), for whom the human sources of the textual evidence of this co-creation might mitigate Mason’s central claim. back to text

15 With otherwise similar motivations and conclusions, John Simons rejects poststructuralist theory in favor of “feeling” (or “an emotional response to texts”) that he acknowledges “has not been at the center of the critical enterprise for a very long time” (70). Cast thus in terms of a return to Victorian faith in literature as a crucial means of moral reform, disdain like Malamud’s for the tools of formal, historical, and cultural analysis in literary criticism of animal representation—characterized here as in his earlier book Reading Zoos as “temptations” that all must “resist” (46)—in favor of “the righter path” (52) appears more clearly connected to twenty-first-century reactionary politics. back to text

16 This problem emerges early with an attempt to articulate this “transcendence” or transport to “a higher cognitive/ experiential/ epistemological realm” (12) in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becomings-animal, which for them involves instead exploration or reconceptualization of social relations outside psychoanalytic structures, and pointedly involves displacing the hierarchical foundations of being through attention to the immanence of dynamic encounters. So, for instance, animals “with which one can [. . .] play family” can also “draw us into an irresistible becoming,” an “irresistible deterritorialization that forestalls attempts at professional, conjugal, or Oedipal reterritorialization” (233). Again I think that Malamud’s misprision here reflects a feeling (and feelings about feeling) more clearly shared by Simons in the latter’s pointed rejection of poststructuralist theory. back to text

17 Fudge characterizes the problem of the human author (or filter) of animal texts as, strictly speaking, irrelevant to historiography: “In historical terms, the animal can never be studied in isolation, it is always a record of and by the human” (3). back to text

18 Nelson argues that, in spite of Mary Austin’s historical significance, literary eco-criticism marginalizes her primarily because she violates these expectations of the literary meanings of animals, for instance, by sympathetically portraying the same Basque shepherds and their flocks in Yosemite that were villainized in her day by environmental hero and canonical nature writer John Muir. back to text

19 Eagleton’s argument about the history of literary theory, which, although explicitly not about animals in literature, nonetheless uses an animal example—“Dogs must be carried on the escalator”— to question the self-referentiality of literary language, “that ‘literature’ may be at least as much a question of what people do to writing as of what writing does to them” (6). back to text

20 For instance, Marian Scholtmeijer sees the capacity for “animal victims” to “impress their reality upon narrative, not by the stability but the instability of their presence” as crucial to the way in which, unlike prior traditions, “modern literature treats animals as a genuine problem” (8). Also, through this dynamic, animal histories become all the more clearly elusive through modern novels at the center of her study: “By its very nature, literature cannot help but grant some degree of autonomous identity to animals,” yet as fiction these representations fail (for Scholtmeijer) to “create the pure animal, the animal without reference to human constructions of the world” (87). back to text

21 As I suggested above, Simons’s concern with truth and feeling makes him deeply suspicious of the envagination of poststructuralist theory, which to him demonstrates only “the totalizing effect of theoretical discourse per se,” and “has the effect of closing off thinking rather than liberating it” (66). back to text

22 Pointing to the influence of poststructuralist philosophy on, for instance, Ursula LeGuin’s “narratives which model what a nondualistic engagement with the world might look and feel like,” Karen Seago and Karla Armbruster argue, “In this way, literary beasts can provide us not just the option of policing the boundaries of our moral communities but also with the ability to throw them open” (viii). back to text

23 Careful to delimit the concern with this “biocentric tradition” as rooted in a shared sense of the “ontological nature of the animal” that “evolved dialectically out of its difference for the exclusively human aspects of culture,” Norris clarifies the logical boundaries of the attempt to access “unmediated experience”(3): “The questions of the status of the animal has meaning only in the context of the social realm, the Symbolic Order, in which it is negated as a value and in which it enjoys only negative prestige” (21). back to text

24 Wolfe’s point about the institutional problems of speciesism is informed by Derrida’s later discussion “the asymmetrical material effects of these [species] discourses on particular social groups” (6). back to text

25 Starting from Berger’s influential claim that animals are “disappearing” as a part and parcel of industrial capitalism, Lippit posits that animals gain significance through modernity as “phantasms” that mark an ideological shift: “Animals once contributed to the constitution of a human ontology; now their absence contributes to a dehumanized ontology” (21). back to text

26 As Lippit explains, it is instead “the sacrificial cut that implements subjectivity” and that positions animality as the cutting tool inevitably “lacerat[ing]” not neatly edging “the discourse of the subject” (16). back to text

27 Lippit argues for an extremely literal interpretation of this dynamic through cinematic media, which “can be seen as the simultaneous culmination and beginning of an evolutionary cycle: the narrative of the disappearance of animals and that of the rise of the technical media intersect in the cinema” (197). Like Norris, Deleuze and Guattari, and others, he reads the animal stories of Franz Kafka as forerunners of these contemporary concerns. back to text

28 On the failure of literary animal signification, see Robert McKay, who elaborates how the expectation that these representations bear meaning becomes problematized in a contemporary experimental literary intertext, one that casts the fictional domesticated animal as a site neither of merely consumption or projection but more importantly production of “new corrupted meanings” (167). By way of suggesting yet another line of inquiry, I will add that much of my own work has been to trace the development of shared human-animal and other cross-species forms of social agency in literary and visual texts. back to text

29 In defining this term, Norris is careful to distinguish her central interest in the authorial effort to “create as the animal” from what she sees as less historically significant attempts to imitate or be “like the animal” (1). back to text

30 Allen focuses on the absence of sex, language use, and “otherworldly concerns” (198) in poetic and novelistic depictions of animals from the 1850-1950s to pursue the thesis, “A tantalizing view is at play in American literature that animals are better than people” (196). back to text

 

 

Works Cited

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Ruminations 3 
"One or Several Literary Animal Studies?"
Susan McHugh 
Date Published July 17, 2006