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First Space; Then, Maybe, Time: On Laurie Shannon’s Accommodated Animal and the Heterogeneous Then

University of Chicago Press, 2012

Karl Steel, 11-7-2013

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Since Descartes, humans have tended to think of themselves as distinct from everything else: uniquely rational, uniquely morally significant, and uniquely self-motivated. We alone are for ourselves, and all else is for us. But only since Descartes. Before the Cartesian break, humans knew that they were distinct, but they also knew that everything else was distinct too, each in its own ways. The world of living things was not one vast realm of human masters and nonhuman subjects, not as it tends to be now, but rather a motley collection of heterogeneous, overlapping kingdoms or even kinddoms. Elephants, deer, cats, humans, and oysters: each particular species had its own domain, its own ways of motion, and its own sympathies and vulnerabilities, sometimes shared with others, often not. We were among them.

The combined efforts of Descartes and the new experimental natural science radically simplified this zootopia. The oyster, mute and immobile, was Descartes’ paradigmatic nonhuman animal: if oysters, or dogs for that matter, could not talk to us, they must lack language altogether, and therefore reason, which meant, in turn, that they were little more than machines, bodies to be used by us for any purpose, like any other object. Meanwhile, England’s vivisectors theatrically cut off the pig’s squeal and dismembered the living creature in silence, talking over it to mostly adoring crowds. In other scientific spectacles, they plucked puppies from the wombs of their living mothers, and then noted how the mothers whined if the puppies were tormented in turn; they perforated lungs to demonstrate that respiration required not motion but rather, exclusively, fresh air. They did this repeatedly, with utter confidence in the results, long after they had learned all they could from any given experiment: in fact it was Galen, long ago, who learned how to cut off a pig’s voice. Such “disanimating” experiments, then, offered another proof, not new knowledge but old certainties – of an anxiously repeated and defended human rational supremacy exacted against the bodies of purportedly irrational beasts.

Before Descartes, in the writings of Montaigne and a host his English contemporaries, including, at times, Shakespeare, humans were more humble. Human mastery was a fragile thing, bounded by space and time. For, in early modern and medieval archives, good humans knew their limits; they found their unique need for clothing and built shelter a bit pathetic; they never forgot that they lived among a host of other things, many far less vulnerable and better suited for this world than us. Regardless of the confidence of the “homo erectus” topos, which claimed that our unique bipedality gifted us with eyes directed at heaven, many thinkers had to admit that other animals had their own ways of seeing that at certain times and in certain ways worked better than ours. As Montaigne observed, our eyes did not look up but rather directly out; and at night they failed altogether. Furthermore, the confidence of vivesectors had to fail when met with the “Anatomia Porci” tradition, whose deep roots in medieval medicine witnessed what any modern biologist knows, namely, how much porcine and human bodies have in common (O’Neill).

In this old dispensation, human mastery could also be a tyrannical thing, if exercised too freely, for nonhuman animals also had political orders, some entirely theirs, like ocean creatures, and some shared with us, like the quadrupeds, whether domesticated like cows or only quasi-domesticated, like the deer stocked in hunting preserves. Per several medieval law codes, animals belonged entirely to themselves until they were captured by humans, but if they escaped, they would recover their “naturalem libertatem” (natural liberty) (Bracton 2: 42). Even when captured, they still had their rights. Animals could not be made to suffer, or at least not to suffer unnecessarily (Crane 235 n2–3). Animals were also political subjects, for themselves and even, in certain circumstances, for us. At least then, they were not automatically bare life. Until Descartes.

So argues Laurie Shannon’s The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales. “Locales” rather than “texts”: the book considers Shakespeare mostly incidentally, in handfuls of pages at the ends of chapters. Texts include As You Like It on cat-tearing and the tyrannical killing of a deer in its own realm; King Lear on the pathetic inadequacy of humans; and The Merchant of Venice’s hang-dog look. Her French bookends, Montaigne and Descartes, are, respectively speaking, her hero and her villain. Shannon’s other texts and cultures are almost exclusively English or early modern English translations, forming what should be understood as a new, zootopic canon for early modern scholars interested in animals and the human more generally. The new territory includes William Topsell’s encyclopedia, the Geneva Bible’s Hexameral commentary, Sidney’s Arcadia, Giambattista Gelli's La Circe, George Gascoigne’s hunting manual (particularly its set of animal complaints), John Caius’s Of English Dogges, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, and, finally, Johannes Buteo The Shape and Capacity of Noah’s Ark and other attempts to calculate the actual number of species and their equivalence (one elephant equaled four cows in size and appetite, for example). Outliers include references or brief discussions of Martin Luther and the dog in Velázquez’s Las Meninas, whose indifference to the royal gaze Foucault somehow missed.

Though Las Maninas appeared some six years after Descartes’ death, its dog is no machine. Herein lies my primary disagreement with The Accommodated Animal. By not pretending to know in advance what a human is, Shannon is able to attend freshly to how a set of early modern texts recognized animals as subjects, with their own ways of being, and valuable in themselves and for each other. She notices what the thoughtless, instinctual humanism of other scholars would never sense. But like other such arguments (e.g., Salisbury), Shannon’s argument for a temporal break tends to homogenize the cultures of the before and after, so that what Shannon calls the “early modern” generally looks like a better time for nonhumans, and the Cartesian dispensation, which may be our own, looks far worse.

This strong argument leads to claims that Ulysses' human chauvinism in Plutarch’s Gryllus, revived in Gelli's sixteenth-century adaptation, somehow “prefigure[s] Descartes” (152), and that More’s Utopia “prescient[ly] intimat[es]. . . the future” (23) when it demands both that butchers be slaves, because of the degradation of the labor of quotidian killing, and that butchery be located outside city limits or at least outside of public view. In one sense, of course this is the picture of a modern America, where arrest and possibly worse awaits any activist hoping to make public the secrets of feedlots and slaughterhouses. In another sense, this is not modern: Nicole Shukin describes how the famous slaughterhouses of nineteenth-century Chicago were a not-to-be-missed spectacle for World Fair visitors (92–104). Furthermore, medieval towns like London, Ferrara, and Avignon routinely banished butchery to their outskirts or at least demanded that slaughter be hidden indoors and that offal be sold more furtively than large, solid, meaty cuts (Steel 217–19). More is of his age, then, in his attitude towards butchers, who have a long history of being disdained or feared (Vialles). Or, more accurately, More is of our age too, and of the age of anyone who combines uncertainty about the decency of butchery with an unwillingness to forego it altogether. Arguably, this attitude does not belong more to one time than another; it is not temporally specific, but rather, if anything, territorially specific, dependent on how individual humans or groups of humans decide to draw borders around themselves and every other thing.

For an example, take Shannon's use of what has become a locus classicus of witnesses to Cartesian animal cruelty, from Nicholas Fontaine’s early eighteenth-century Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Port-Royal. Hundreds of others, like Shannon, have cited one passage from this book, from what seems to have become the standard translation, dating back to its appearance in Tom Regan’s 1982 All That Dwell Herein, a foundational animal rights text, who in turn seems to have plucked it from Loren C. Eiseley’s 1960 The Firmament of Time (Regan 5; Eiseley 28). In the anecdote, Nicholas Fontaine recalls that Antoine Arnaud, le grand, followed Descartes on the question of animals. When he relaxed among his friends, Arnaud often asserted that animals were nothing other than automata, little wind-up machines, and that consequently it was nothing to beat a dog, or to nail it to a board and cut it open to examine its circulation, because its cries were little more than the creaking of a displaced spring. And with that horror, we know we now are in the era of Descartes.

But virtually no one or, more correctly, not one single modern animal rights writer cites the following story, also from Fontaine’s Mémoires, and like the other also about Antoine Arnaud, le grand:

Mais puis-je oublier le plaisant entretien, où ce bon Seigneur ferma la bouche à M. Arnaud, tout savant qu'il étoit? On parloit de la philosophie de M. Descartes, qui étoit alors l'entre[c]ien de toutes les compagnies. M. Arnaud qui avoit un esprit universal & qui étoit entré dans le sistême de Descartes sur les bêtes, soutenoit que ce n'étoient que des horloges, et que quand elles crioient ce n'étoit qu'une roue d'horloge qui faisoit du bruit. M. de Liancourt lui dit: “J'ai là bas deux chiens qui tournent la broche chacun leur jour. L'un s'en trouvant embarasse se cacha lorsqu'on l'alloit prendre, et on eut recours à son camarade pour tourner au lieu de lui. Le camarade cria, et fit signe de sa queue qu'on le suivît. Il alla dénicher l'autre dans le grenier et le houspilla. Sont-ce là des horloges?” dit-il, à M. Arnaud qui trouva cela si plaisant, qu'il ne put faire autre chose que d'en rire. (Fontaine 2: 470)

But can I forget the pleasant conversation when this good lord closed the mouth of Monsieur Arnaud, as sophisticated as he was? They were speaking of Descartes' philosophy, who was then the subject of everyone's conversation. Monsieur Arnaud, a true renaissance man, had joined with Descartes' system on the question of animals, holding that they were nothing more than clocks, and that when they cried out, it was nothing more than clockwork making noise. Monseiur de Liancourt [Duke Roger du Plessis] said to him, "Down there [in the kitchen] I have two dogs who daily alternate turning a spit. One of the dogs constrained to do this hid himself when they where going to put him to it, and he had recourse to his comrade [another dog] to turn the spit in his place. The comrade cried out and signaled with its tail that he should be followed. He turned up the other in the attic and reprimanded him fiercely. Are these clocks?" he said, which Monsieur Arnaud found so pleasant than he could do nothing else but laugh at it.

The ironies are almost too obvious to describe: though the Duke kept his dogs as literal machines, he knew them to have a sense of justice; though Arnaud beat and crucified his dogs, though he used them to study life itself—or to liberate “life,” whatever that is, from the body—he considered them, at best, mechanical puzzles to be solved. Even here, under Descartes, human confidence could go awry, with only a tickled, nervous, or uncertain laughter where we might expect to find cold reason. The mistake would be to take Arnaud’s laughter or the Duke’s proof as a vestige of an earlier zootopic dispensation, or even to take it as anticipating the so-called modern rise of house pets, the proliferation of eulogies for animals and animal biographies, and so on. Again, the mistake is that of understanding territorial divisions primarily as temporal. (For more on this mistake, see Fabian).

Another example, even more foundational: like Pierre-Olivier Dittmar, Shannon has stressed that medieval and early modern writers had no single word corresponding to the uneasily capacious modern category of “animal”; there was no word in this time that comprised all nonhuman, nonplant living things belonging to the kingdom animalia. For medieval and early modern writers, “animal” itself simply meant “living thing,” a category that included humans (Crane 94): for example, Albert the Great’s thirteenth-century De animalibus once refers to “homines et alia animalia” [humans and other living things] (2: 998). Dittmar observes that medieval Latin terminology instead tended to divide terrestrial animals into two categories: domesticated, pecores, and wild or dangerous animals, bestiae or ferae. Fish were their own thing, “of another nature,” according to an early medieval religious guide (Steel and McCracken 97), while still other taxonomies distinguished three groups from humans, jumentes (livestock), reptiles (creeping things), and ferae (Gervase of Tilbury 54–55), without combining them into a single oppositional category. Etymologically speaking, the closest term to the modern “animal” is the Old French “aumaille,” which, however, means only “horned livestock.” One final example, from Cicero’s Ad Verrem 2.1.42:

quid hoc homine faciatis aut ad quam spem tam perfidiosum, tam importunum animal reservetis?

What can you do with such a man? or what hope can you allow so perfidious, so ill-omened an animal to entertain?

Here, in Cicero’s contempt, “animal” functions essentially as “bare life” (e.g., Agamben), life at its absolute minimum, most vulnerable and disdained. In language at least, the “animal” did not exist.

But in their concentration on words and terms, literary scholars perhaps more than others risk the danger of strong Whorfianism, whose cure is close attention to practices rather than texts, if this precritical distinction can be momentarily allowed. While medieval and early modern people had no single word corresponding to animals, they nonetheless still treated humans with a respect or at least pleasure afforded nothing else. Dogs and horses are close domestic partners of humans, but they were also perfectly acceptable food in Northern Europe prior to the Christian conversions. Even in the later Middle Ages, humans freely ate dogs and horses during times of famine (Julia Marvin; Meens; Sigaut). Anthropophagy was never common, nor was the use of humans for the skin or fur. Furthermore, medieval accounts of bestiality, ritual or otherwise, are exceedingly rare in comparison to descriptions of other sex acts. (For one example, see the coronation ritual described in Gerald of Wales 109–110.) Of course humans might be treated instrumentality or indifferently, but still with nowhere near the severity other animals suffered; and, if they were treated this way, they might complain that they were being treated like livestock or wild beasts (William Perry Marvin 52; Steel 50–51), surely an index of how medieval people registered a difference between human and nonhumans. In sum, nonhuman animals were, at least in most practice, the paradigm of useful life (Steel 129–30).

Moreover, in mainstream Christian doctrine, God would resurrect all humans, while Paul’s seeming promise of universal salvation in Romans 8:19-23, which Shannon herself discusses, was in medieval exegesis summarily limited to rational creatures only, no “bestias” allowed (Steel 97, 100–101; cf. Shannon 43). As another twelfth-century medieval scholar bluntly asserted, “Non enim brutorum resurrectio credenda est” (the resurrection of beasts is not to believed in) (qtd. in Steel 104). Being limited to this mortal world, animals were, at least in Aquinas’s formulation, here only to be used by us, since charity could be properly directed only to others like us, blessed with the birthright of immortality (Aquinas 2a2ae, q. 25, a. 3). In short, in most instances, practically and doctrinally speaking, nonhuman animals were, as a group, not us.

We must not, however, affirm that medieval people were Descartes avant la lettre, nor should we cheekily see Descartes as somehow persistently medieval. Either option would grossly simplify medieval practices, as if non-instrumental relationships were never possible, or, for that matter, as if supposedly non-instrumental relationships were ever simply instrumental. Rather, again, we must know that Descartes exemplifies or intensifies ways of thinking and defending human particularity common to human thought of many eras. As delightful as it may be to claim Descartes or even Shakespeare as premodern, and therefore medieval (!), none of us, including medievalists, should make strong claims of temporal transformation until we have thoroughly mapped the heterogeneity of a given moment or even individual.

Period specialists have to believe their field differs in some fundamental way from other periods. The first problem, then, is deciding on borders. Though even (long) eighteenth-century specialists tend to have trouble figuring this out, the problem may be most stubborn for medievalists and early modernists. The middle of what? The start of what? We must invent our periods anew with every project, class, or grant application, justifying our utility to the present either by claiming to be absolutely other, and thus worthy of study, or much the same, but foundational, and likewise also worthy of study. Medievalists complain about being relegated to the merely antiquarian past, while early modernists, at least in the eyes of medievalists, too often claim an affinity, even a foundational affinity, with the present. (For one recent critique of this affinity, see the sixteen contributions to Exemplaria’s recent book review forum on Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve.) Perhaps more than others, we pre- and early modern scholars especially need still more of what Derrida called for, a limotrophic attention to “what abuts onto limits [and] also what feeds, is fed, is cared for, raised, and trained, what is cultivated on the edges of a limit” (29). And our colleagues, deans, and provosts might be reminded of this too before they relegate all of us to the misty zone of the insubstantial “before.”

I take my final full example from Genesis. In the first creation account, though God creates various creatures according to their kind and particular domains, he still forms humankind, uniquely, in his own image and grants them dominion over other animals, twice, in Genesis 1:26 and 1:28. Shannon stresses that this dominion indicates that Genesis 1 conceives a political realm shared by both humans and animals: not full separation, then, despite how the story has typically been read. However, medieval visual traditions countered the written tradition to promote a familiar distinction between humans and every other living thing. Two examples: one a Bible Historiale from the early fourteenth century, and the other a Bible moralisé from roughly a century later, respectively Paris, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, ms. 20, folios 1 and 5-6, and Paris, BnF, f. fr. 897, folio 1. Though the first creation story distinguishes temporally between the creations of birds and air (fifth day) and land animals and humans (sixth day), these medieval illustrations, like many others, jam all nonhuman animals into the same panel and reserve one and even two panels for the creation of Adam and Eve (Zahlten). The visual reduction of the story promotes God’s particular, unique concerns for humans above his concern for the shared and heterogeneous world humans and animals inhabit. In images like these, we can be assured that we matter more.

The second account’s narrative tends to be even more radically simplified in the visual tradition. Eve’s creation appears incorrectly in illustrations of the first story, while the second story’s own peculiar sequence – Adam first, then the animals, and then Eve – to my knowledge never appears in medieval visual art. No wonder, perhaps, as the second story is less about God’s gift of supremacy to humans than it is about companionship. It wriggles away from lonely anthropocentrism. In Genesis 2, God tries to cure Adam’s loneliness by providing him with living things “like unto himself,” “all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air.” Though Adam knows his new companions well enough to name them, God’s experiment still fails: Adam, malcontent, wants something even more familiar. Exegetes wondered how animals had proved unsuitable, and what else could have gone wrong, as Adam, when he first regards Eve, declares: “This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23).

This now: some exegetes imagined that God might have provided a previous, unsatisfactory Eve, while the eleventh-century scholar Rashi explained that “this now” meant that “Adam mated with (she-ba' adam) every [species of] domesticated animal (behemah) and wild animal (ḥayah) but his appetite was not assuaged (lo' nitkarerah da'ato) by them” (Lawee 50). Irrespective of his scholarly stature, Rashi’s interpretation disgusted both Christian and other Jewish exegetes: several Iberian Jewish commentaries on Rashi mysticize, deny, or strenuously ignore his reading of this point; thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Jewish converts to Christianity like Nicholas Donin used this tidbit in public debates against their former coreligionists; while others, more sympathetically, suggested that bestiality was an important step in Adam's emotional and mental paideia, in a response that at once sidestepped disgust and implicitly disdained animals.

But despite the disgust, despite the dissatisfaction of our sex-mad progenitor, despite what looks to be yet another abjection of animals on the path to adulthood, this sex, prior to Eve’s interrupting arrival, might be taken as an almost effaced site of lost possibilities. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has observed how some medieval writers saw in animals “an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory" (55). Adam's bestiality might be seen as a possibility for an anti-narcissistic relation to the other, a desire that does not seek satisfaction in "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." Even better, it might be seen as a narcissism that radically reforms the self, leaving it something other than human. And whatever else Genesis’s second creation story is, it must be recognized as a creation account whose fundamental assumptions of human and animal relations and distinctions differ radically from that of the first, just as these two accounts differ in turn from the chaoskampf of the third creation story in Psalms 73/74:12-17.

Again, these accounts should be understood as spatially arranged, a set of various simultaneously existing alternatives for thinking humans, some of which are more sympathetic than others to Descartes, to Shakespeare, to Montaigne, or to any number of other thinkers. One story concerns separation and dominion, another thriving and cohabitation and the weird narcissism of desire, and the third a great oceanic conflict. Animals come first, or Adam does, or perhaps “the dragons in the waters” do. Despite the organizing efforts of the Bible’s ancient editors, no story has clear priority, and none is the clear endpoint.

I say all this partly in defense of the complexity of middle ages and indeed of any given moment, and partly against any strong altericist reading of the present or past. At least practically speaking, strong altericist claims burden scholars with the need to know the before and after of their “breaks” with insights as keen and correct as their claims about their own proper period, and so on infinitely for all adjoining times, stretching impossibly out into the past and future. Strong altericist claims will always be knocked about by disgruntled period specialists. Eighteenth-century scholars, for example, with their attention to lapdogs and the rise of societies opposed to animal suffering, may have their own hesitations with Shannon’s narrative.

So I say all this, too, both in defense of and in sympathy with Shannon’s book, which shines with learning and insight beyond my hesitations about its larger historical narrative. The Accommodated Animal radically complicates premodern histories of the humans, not least of all claims that Shakespeare or some other early modern “invented” the human as we know him. Or it. As a medievalist, I thrill at any work that troubles the present with a seismic upswelling from what the present has comfortably supposed to be its steady or forgotten foundations.

Her book therefore merits happy inclusion alongside Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies, Kelly Oliver’s Animal Lessons, and other classics of Anglophone critical animal studies. It should be read with any other literary study that takes nonhumans as something other than merely human symbols. It should at least be taught with the animal biopolitics of Cary Wolfe and Nicole Shukin. And, finally, it should at least give pause to persistently humanist readers of Agamben and Foucault, or, for that matter, to the Venerable Bede himself, who thought the dominion granted newly carnivorous humans in Genesis 9 meant that only animals, not humans, were meant to be ruled (203–204).

With Shannon, we have to know that present too is another country, not because we have lost our foundation, but because, if we think with enough sensitivity, we know that we should never have quite got our bearings. In this zootopia we have responsibilities and allegiances that “poor, bare, forked, animal[s],” so limited in time and space, can imagine only with the greatest possible effort.

Bible Historiale (1320-1337). Paris, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, ms. 20, f. 1 (detail)

Works Cited

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Meens, Rob. “Eating Animals in the Early Middle Ages: Classifying the Animal World and Building Group Identities.” The Animal-Human Boundary: Historical Perspectives. Ed. Angela N. H. Creager and William Chester Jordan. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2002. 4-19. Print.

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Shannon, Laurie. The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print.

Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.

Steel, Karl. How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011. Print.

Steel, Karl, and Peggy McCracken. “The Animal Turn: Into the Sea with the Fish-knights of Perceforest.” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 2.1 (2011): 88–100. Web.

Various Authors. “Book Review Forum: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” Exemplaria 25.4 (2013): 313–370. Web.

Vialles, Noëlie. Animal to Edible. Trans. A. Underwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.

Wolfe, Cary. Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print.

Zahlten, Johannes. Creatio mundi: Darstellungen der sechs Schöpfungstage und naturwissenschaftliches Weltbild im Mittelalter. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1979. Print.

Karl Steel is Assistant Professor of English Literature at Brooklyn College, CUNY. A medievalist, he has published mainly on animals; three recent projects include considerations of spontaneous generation, medieval hunting law, and quantum mechanics. He blogs occasionally at In the Middle.

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