Saturday, January 23, 2010

David Bell's Wholly Animals: A Book of Beastly Tales

by KARL STEEL

Despite Bell's claims not to be writing an academic book, this anthology is a work of astonishing erudition, at least to this scholar, whose language skills fall well short of where he wants them: for Bell ecumenically collects and translates stories from the Latin, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Yiddish, and perhaps from the Old Irish. Freed from the obligatory (and illusions of) objectivity imposed by the reasonable, scholarly pose, Bell lambastes the human species for its cruelty and stupidity, Bernard of Clairvaux for his overrated intellect and religious bigotry, crusaders for being "brutal, barbarian, crude, uncivilized, evil-living, savage, and blood-stained," but somehow--wonderfully--finds a place in his heart for the great Egyptian father Shenoute, who once beat an acolyte to death for violating a small monastic rule.

Shenoute's animal moment? He rebukes a camel for rejecting her foal and nurtures it himself. In this, at least, Shenoute models a non-anthropocentric stance towards the right, the law, and life, in which what matters is not species but proper behavior. Most of the other animals in Bell's anthology, however, are treated as animals, which is to say, as fundamentally of less value than humans. They are thus often servants, recalling--as David Salter stresses--the animal obedience in Eden or the peaceful kingdom promised in Isaiah's eschatology; or apt targets of charity, whose natural degradation before humans all the better sets off the saint's great love (we have, then, yet another reminder that charity impedes a structural critique of resource allocation and what Zizek terms "objective violence"); or thieves, having to suppress their appetites before human agriculture, criminal for eating fruit, grain, sheep, piglets, or animal skins (that is, parchment) territorially marked by humans; or, finally, pets, singularly loved in an act of what Cary Wolfe calls "exquisite bad faith." Animals hunted and sheltered, dragons rescued from Arthur's heroism, cows resurrected when stolen for a lord's table: these are resources in political boundary disputes, which is, as Dominic Alexander argues, how most stories of animals and saints should be understood.

But neither the human production of itself as human by degrading animal being, nor the animal as a chit in political struggles, nor the animal as a symbol in some political struggle are all that these animal stories offer us. Shenoute's story is sufficient evidence of that. As Bell remarks, a wicked animal or an animal that could be excommunicated is an animal with responsibility and choice, or indeed an animal belonging in some way to the community of believers.

And what of the animal characteristics, their merely bodily existence and their irrationality? A great many stories describe animals as behaving "as if" (presumably sicut in the Latin originals) they had human reason, which recalls the "aussi com" of the Wild Herdsman's suppliant, battered oxen. Barring animals from language by confining them to bodies capable only of inauthentically imitating reason is the paradigmatic act of carnophallogocentrism. Yet Bartholomew of Farne rescues a duckling whose mother begged help in her specifically anatine manner; Benedict of Nursia and a cawing, circling raven struggle to communicate with each other; and a thieving raven hopes for Cuthbert's forgiveness:
one of a pair returned and found the servant of Christ digging. Then, with its feathers lamentably ruffled and its head bowed down to its feet, with humble claws and using whatever signs it could, it begged forgiveness. The venerable father understood this and gave it permission to come back.
By speaking with and through their bodies, these animals rebuke the carnophallogocentric (or indeed the outmoded AI) conceit that authentic language and community require disembodiment. This, far more than the charitable resurrection of animals--that, at any rate, will eventually die again, abandoned as immortal humans ascend to paradise or descend to hell--and far more than the frequent condemnation of carnivores for eating what they must, challenges the disembodiment sought after by Western metaphysics and the regime of the human this quest sustains. In an anthology assembled by a scholar himself so emotionally and bodily present to us (he complains, for example, of being unable to excommunicate pests from his garden), this may be the proper, best lesson.

6 comments:

Karl Steel said...

The elephant in the room is, of course, the humanity of the saints. The human is not one. See this discussion of Derrida's coinage 'carnophallogocentrism,' from Matthew Calarco's Zoographies:
He has coined the term 'carnophallogocentrism' to refer to this network of relations and in order to highlight the sacrificial (carno), masculine (phallo), and speaking (logo) dimensions of classical conceptions of subjectivity. What Derrida is trying to get at with this concept is how the metaphysics of subjectivity works to exclude not just animals from the status of being full subjects but other beings as well, in particular women, children, various minority groups, other Others who are taken to be lacking in one or another of the basic traits of subjectivity. Just as many animals have and continue to be excluded from basic legal protections, so, as Derrida notes, there have been "many 'subjects' among mankind who are not recognized as subjects" and who receive the same kind of violence typically directed at animals. This would position certain groups of human beings in a similar space of marginalization alongside animals" (131-32).

[Calarco's of course not the only one to make this observation: see also Carol Adams, Cary Wolfe, and this book.] To avoid the allegorical, moral, and political capturings of nonhuman life typical of many studies about animals (see the Salter and Alexander), I have avoided talking about the discursive interrelationships between nonhuman life and certain human groups, whether degraded and therefore piglike, or admired and therefore, say, sheep-, eagle- or lionlike. But the saint, positioned as human, but more than human because of its perfect realization of humanity, but more than human, also, because of its participation in divinity, disarranges the binary of human/animal. Where to begin? In relation to a saint, what is the humanity, for example, of the pagans discomfited by Columba's taming of what some credulous folks think is the first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness monster?

Karl Steel said...

, disarranges the binary of human/animal
Which, I should repeat, is constitutively disarranged, as impossible to sustain or achieve as any binary. The saint, then, is yet another disruptive force, or one that arranges the ideal human/animal binary along different axes, or even renders a binary unthinkable. It certainly seems so to me right now.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: thanks for this post on David Bell's book and for your provocations to thought here; out of curiosity, since this is not an "academic" book, who is Bell's intended audience for the book? Also, could you say more about your phrase "the outmoded AI conceit" [where you also link to Hayles's book "How We Became Posthuman"]--can you unpack just a bit why/how this conceit is outmoded, and how further, it is related/connected to the also supposedly outmoded carnophallogocentism? I know what the AI conceit is and I have read Hayles's book, but I just wanted to hear from you as to how these conceits rest upon the notion, as you put it, that "authentic community and language require disembodiment."

Karl Steel said...

Bell's audience? Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose animal lovers of all sorts, but particularly religious animal lovers. To his credit, Bell, although pious, is ecumenically pious: he draws in stories from Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, and is happy to let his praise land just as ecumenically (as cited above, he's contemptuous of Bernard of Clairvaux--which, given the publisher, might explain why the book's gone out of print!--and praises Rumi enthusiastically). But he does the translations himself, and he provides citations and notes, so it's still well suited for classroom use. Or it would be, were it still in print.

"outmoded AI conceit," namely, that information is disembodied, that consciousness is the foundation of life, and that life can be put willy nilly into any bodily container or transmission device without alteration, and that the development of Artificial Intelligence requires only a development of proper calculating power/networks (see, e.g., 18-19 and 238 in Hayles). AI is now, as least so far I understand it, more cognizant that the body and its mechanisms also have cognitive power. See, for example, the MechaRoach II:

"The locomotion principles that allow cockroaches to make these transitions have been studied and mechanisms using abstractions of those principles have been developed for the robot. These principles include usage of features of leg and foot morphology, leg compliance, gait adaptation, and body flexion. MechaRoach II has a single drive motor, a motor for steering, and a motor to actuate a body flexion joint. The single drive motor powers all six legs, and each leg uses 4-bar mechanisms to recreate cockroach-like foot trajectories."

There's no need to program the MechaRoach II to 'think' through its interaction with its environment/body: the build of the body itself does much of the necessary thinking. Outmoded AI, with its disdain for bodies (a disdain it shares with Western Metaphysics), could never have arrived at this solution.

Karl Steel said...

And I should make it clear, just in case, that I don't see Hayles as a proponent of the outmoded disembodied AI: on the contrary!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Nice little post Karl. Thanks, too, for the comment explicating carnophallogocentrism in its relation especially to human others.

It's interesting, there are some saints whose proximity to the divine diminish their humanity (Celia, for example, relentless in her drive), and others whose foibles keep them grounded in the human (Columba, maybe, who can be as perturbed at the coming spilling of his inkpot [which he foresees but cannot prevent] as he can with battles and invasions. As one of the credulous I have to say that I find the pagans here in general not especially dehumanized or different from Columba -- his mission, after all, is often to proselytize them, and they seem worth saving (though no big deal if they are not).