by KARL STEEL
Nicole Shukin and I have now published reviews of each other's animals books over at The Electronic Book Review. This duel (dual?) format was the idea of the great Stacey Alaimo, and she deserves all the thanks in the world for the opportunity. Shukin's review of How to Make a Human is positive (thanks!) and also perfectly just about the bits that could be rethought. Here's a small sample:
Unsurprisingly, most scholars engaging with critical animal theory, and Steel is no exception, follow Derrida’s seminal critique of the symbolic violence that is enacted when one corrals a heterogeneity of living beings into the generic signifier “the animal.” But strangely, “the human” can begin to function as a dedifferentiated and homogenizing shorthand itself, something that is surprising in criticism devoted to deconstructing the oppositional categories of “human” and “animal.” Although Steel voices a clear debt to Butler’s work on sex, gender, and performativity, extending it to a critique of the performative and contingent character of the human, he doesn’t do as much as he might have in this book to keep the human in view as a differentiated, unevenly achieved category.She's exactly right! On the one hand, this is deliberate: because I started with the question of meat and who gets eaten and who doesn't, I was going to be examining how one abstraction ("the animal") was made food for another ("the human"). Whatever the hierarchies within humans, which are, of course, often very nasty indeed, women are, as a rule, not eaten by men. And yet, the other hand is work like that of Carol Adams, and also, at least, the way that women are often encouraged to avoid red meat in favor of poultry (why, for example, is the "steak house" such a bastion of dark-suited male capitalists?). Working through issues of gender and other hierarchized differentiations within the human, for example, will be key to my future work, even while pushing forward with my posthumanist projects (most recently, on the problems of agency).
My own review, of Shukin's Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (University of Minnesota, 2009), is massive and perhaps a bit creaky; I've never written in a scholarly venue about capitalism before, so it took some wrangling with myself to make sense.
You medievalists, however, may be more interested in what I did towards the end: I imagined the kind of story Shukin might have told had she been a medievalist. Here's a teaser, and an encouragement to visit and read the whole damn thing:
For what became and remains mainstream Catholic doctrine, the Eucharistic Host is literally the flesh of God. Except to the cursed eyes of heretics, pagans, and Jews, Eucharist doctrine and narrative held that it would generally not be perceivable as such: the outward “accident” of bread remained breadlike to perception, while the actual substance was transformed invisibly into Christ’s own, edible body. We can register the obvious, first, namely, that the Host is a cultural, manufactured object, more intensely so than many others. As Jared Diamond famously observed, grains are the particular foodstuff of settled, urban, highly stratified civilizations like that of Western Europe. The Host should therefore remind us of the system that bound most people to the land, as farmers, as overseers, as owners jealous of their privilege, as the daughters of owners, there to be made to tie one landowning family to another, and of a system that bred larger and larger horses and oxen for labor, rendering them over to dogs and their human masters as food once labor and time broke them. It should likewise remind us that this bread becomes flesh only in the ritual of the Mass: only the right person with precisely the right words could effect the transformation. And like any other treasured cultural object, the Host needed the guarantee of the natural. It needed animal witnesses.
Anecdotes proliferated about natural reverence for the consecrated host. These stories, advertisements of a sort, screened the material sequence that produced the Host as an object by presenting it as the eternal body of God, the very figure of inevitability. In the stories, Hosts left in hives found themselves the center of little, waxy churches, constructed by reverent bees. Hosts lost in trees caused unseasonal fruitings. In one story in John Mirk’s fifteenth-century Middle English sermon collection, which here will stand in for the whole genre, a priest taking “Godis body” to a sick woman stumbles, dropping the Host into the meadow. Horrified, he strips and beats himself, crying out “þou foule þef þat hast lost þi creature.” This means “you foul thief who has lost your Creator” or perhaps even “you foul thief who has lost your creature,” as if the priest at once remembers and forgets that he himself has made the Host and not the other way around. During his flagellation, he sees a pillar of fire stretch up from earth to Heaven, and finds about that pillar “al þe bestes of þe medow” (all the beasts of the meadow) kneeling and worshiping the lost Host. A black horse calls attention to itself by only half kneeling. When abjured by the priest, the horse confesses itself to be a devil, forced to join the other beasts in honoring God. The priest meanwhile worships on both knees, with the animals, and then retrieves the host and delivers it to his parishioner, whom it of course miraculously heals. Only the devil’s experience is mediated; only the devil might step back; but even the devil, in its resistance, has to be made to witness that this Host is something more than bread. Mirk’s pious beasts, there only as a crowd, have no individuality that could jam nature’s timeless animal operations. Through their pure affect and subrational recognition, the beasts are made to put on a show for us of what we should know so long as we stay clear of the devil’s hesitation.
The story conceals the actual production of grain and the ceremony of the Mass, itself necessarily generated in particular buildings that sprang up at particular times through relationships of exploitation and patronage, staffed by particular communities professionalized and licensed through the same. The story especially conceals the long intellectual history of debates over the character of the Host. Was it the actual timeless body of Christ, manifested here wherever the Mass was celebrated? Or was it was only a symbol and reminder? Was it impossible that the heavily, eternal body of God should come to our temporal earth “be uertu of þe prestis wordis” (by power of the priest’s words) to be “closid essenciali in a litel bred þat þei schewe to þe puple” (enclosed in its essence in a little piece of bread that they show to the people). The professional church in English in Mirk’s day would answer this question by intensifying its defense campaign, with anecdotes, sermons, screeds, surveillance, interrogations, trials, and eventually, within Mirk’s lifetime, immolations of anyone who persisted in skepticism.
Animals had their stations in these defenses. Because animal desire cannot be anything but sincere, what they felt had to be true. They had to be made to stand and listen to their master’s voice. Among the animals is a human professional, more able and aware than animals but still as innocent at heart as they are meant to be. He must also come think that his own “creature,” this Host, is instead his “creator.” With the animals, the priest learns to love the fetish, and, unless we want to be in the devil’s camp, we must learn to love it through him.