Monday, February 06, 2006

Inventing with Animals

Over the next week or so I'll post a few excerpts from an essay in progress, "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages." Delivered initially as a lecture last year, part of a series sponsored by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State University, I'm reshaping now for an edited collection that gathers these talks for publication. You'll see that this essay has much in common with the entry I composed for Erotic Animals a while back (see archive).

Here's the introduction, which tries to stay a bit informal.

The last few years have seen an outpouring of work on the interrelation of humans and animals. This scholarship mainly explores the precariousness of the divide which humans imagine separates them from other living things. My own pre-occupation with the animals of the Middle Ages comes in part from this critical efflorescence, but also from the fact that I have two children. At nineteen months old, my daughter Katherine self-identifies more strongly with monkeys than with homo sapiens. Her nursery is a rainbow-colored menagerie; her picture books burst with fantastic zoos. She resides in a hyperactive world of fauna. As the Disney megacorporation realized long ago, and Katherine is realizing just now, animals teach children how to become human. They also provide kids with a temporary, imaginative escape from that burden.

Over the past few years I've also been reading my eight-year-old son Alexander a nightly installment of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. The novels feature abbots and abbesses, armored warriors, perilous weapons, feasts, foundlings, tapestries, stained glass – the very substance of the medieval world. Yet the characters in these tales are mice, shrews, hawks, stoats, badgers, weasels. Even if the Redwall novels create an alternate universe where animals enact medieval dramas, through their speech and through their actions it is clear that these beasts inhabit a nostalgic fantasy of the lost British Empire. The Middle Ages becomes an imaginative space where the problems of a complex world can be simplified, where good and evil are as self-evident as the kind of animal flesh one dwells inside. For all its talking beasts, the Redwall books are ultimately populated by humans. Animals supply the fantasy bodies through which dreams of a better world are enabled.

In this essay I examine how animals offered such "possible bodies" to the dreamers of the Middle Ages, bodies as dynamic and disruptive as they are fantastic. In animal flesh were realized some potentialities for identity that escaped the constricting limits of contemporary race and sexuality. In a closing section I will ask if it was possible, at least implicitly, for medieval authors and artists to approach the animal non-anthropomorphically, to see in the beast not a mere semblance of the human, nor to dismiss it as fully and wholly other, but to grant to the animal its status as intimate alien.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS For the curious, here is the bibliography I had in mind for that "critical efflorescence":

Cary Wolfe's collection Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and his monograph Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Jennifer Wolch and Jody Emel, eds. Animal Geographies: Place, Politics, and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands (London: Verso, 1998); the second edition of Steve Baker's seminal Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001). Even Donna Haraway has traded in cyborgs for interminglings of dog and human in her wonderful Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly paradigm Press, 2003). Although I disagree with her central thesis, the materials Joyce E. Salisbury collects in The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1994) are excellent, as is her analysis of animals and sexuality. Also of use to medievalist are the collection edited by Angela N. H. Creager and William Chester Jordan, The Animal / Human Boundary: Historical Perspectives (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2002) and David Salter, Holy and Noble Beasts: Encounters with Animals in Medieval Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001).

I'd also add unpublished work by Karl Steel and Gail Kern Paster to this list.

Karl Steel said...

You’ll be working with fables?

Something to think about with fables, and since I’m writing this on a plane, I can’t test my hunch. Animals in fables can represent the whole range (or rather can function as a sign of plenitude that makes a claim to represent the whole range) of human professions so long as they are only with other animals. Sows can be monks in Ysingrimus, lions kings, foxes courtiers, wolves clerics (who--or that--cannot learn to say anything but ‘sheep’), and so forth.

First observation on this is whether or not this society of animals is only an imitation society. Because this society demonstrates certain useful moral truths about the human world, but which are also truths about the animal world, these truths are truths ultimately about the world in general. The ‘human’ being instructed by these fables recedes before the universality of the pedagogic applicability; the animals instantiate rather than imitate a community.

Second point: when a human intrudes (?) into this community, the animals cease to be ‘professional’ animals.* Oxen become only oxen. But this intrusive human—and here’s my hunch, which I might follow up on, but only after I post this—is never a high-class human. We have peasants (or maybe merchants? People who trade in animals?). The obvious explanation is that the only human able to enter into the story is one almost animal himself. But there’s got to be something else going on.

* And there’s a question here, too: is the lion a lion who happens to be a king, or is he compelled to be a king because he is a lion? Raymon Llull’s animal fables raise the (never fulfilled perhaps because unfulfillable) possibility of an herbivore king.