Reviewed by Thomas G. Andrews (University of Colorado)
Published on H-Environment (October, 2016)
Commissioned by David T. Benac
The Historical Animal, edited by Susan Nance, assembles sixteen essays on human-animal relationships across time, space, and species into a collection that is at once eclectic and uneven, perplexing and provocative. In the introduction, Nance claims ecumenicism as one of the greatest strengths of the emerging field she calls “Animal History.” The substantive essays that form the heart of The Historical Animal make a compelling case for Nance’s argument about the virtues of variety. In the process, they raise troubling but fruitful questions: Can a field that examines so many different kinds of creatures in so many times and places using so many methodologies actually be said to constitute a field at all? Or to put it more bluntly: Is there—and should there be—one animal history, or many?
Featuring original work by scholars based in North America, Europe, and Africa, The Historical Animal examines each of these world regions, as well as Latin America. Apart from David Gary Shaw’s “Horses and Actor-Networks: Manufacturing Travel in Late Medieval England” and Zeb Tortorici’s “Animal Archive Stories: Species Anxieties in the Mexican National Archive,” the collection focuses mostly on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Equines star from the second essay, Abraham H. Gibson’s “Beasts of Burden: Feral Burros and the American West,” to the last, Courtney E. White’s “Tony the Wonder Horse: A Star Study.” Primates, big cats, barnyard animals, cetaceans, and canines also receive extended attention, as do less studied animal subjects, including quaggas, muskoxen, tortoises, salamanders, and even a tiny Appalachian insect called the adelgid.
Though some authors highlight the stories of individual animals—the aforementioned Tony the Wonder Horse, a Galapagos tortoise nicknamed Port Royal Tom, a gorilla known as Michael who presented an account of his mother’s slaughter by Cameroonian poachers after learning American Sign Language, and a tubercular dairy cow whose tissue and fur still adhere to an ear punch held by the Ontario Veterinary College’s collection of historical artifacts—most focus on groups of animals defined by species, habitat, or category of human regard and use. Wildlife, animal performers, and work animals dominate the collection, with meat animals and companion animals playing supporting roles. Not surprisingly, some of the most stimulating essays in The Historical Animal examine creatures who transgressed or threatened to transgress such human-imposed categories: muskoxen introduced to Norway from Greenland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, for instance, who began in the 1960s to trouble farmers and hikers in the Dorve region, or the liminal equines produced through a campaign led by German-born South African taxidermist Reinhold Rau to restore the quagga (rendered extinct in the 1880s) by backbreeding plains zebras. To make sense of how various humans have historically related to this menagerie of animals, the authors draw on methods from material culture studies; science and technology studies; zoology; performance studies; and environmental, social, and cultural history. To the credit of the essay authors and Nance alike, the essays remain approachable to general readers even as they demonstrate the growing scholarly significance of animal history.
Ultimately, The Historical Animal makes two main contributions to the historical study of relationships between humans and other animals. The first centers on the thorny epistemological dilemmas that hamper our efforts to “know” historical animals, while the second stems from the conceptual and interpretive challenges that inhere in casting nonhuman animals as subjects and agents in historical narratives and arguments.
Several essays follow the call by Etienne Benson and other scholars for historians to seek out sources capable of documenting “animal traces.” Tortorici, for instance, draws on Sarah Kay’s notion of “‘ghostly imprints’ in the archives” to cast the repositories of parchment and vellum that document colonial Latin America’s past as “a complex biopolitical and necropolitical space that challenges us to be fully conscious of how animal life supports and complicates the archive stories we tell” (pp. 83, 86). Concepción Cortés Zulueta, meanwhile, posits that “nonhuman animal testimonies,” such as videotape of the gorilla Michael telling the story of his mother’s death, should remind historians that “there is yet another side to some stories, a nonhuman side that mostly we have not taken into account” (p. 129). In the end, though, it is Sandra Swart who most concisely articulates this volume’s broader call for scholars to look beyond documents and testimony, urging scholars to attend to “the tactile, the auditory, the aromatic—even the malodorous. Clearly, what is needed is an incorporation of the history of the senses as a part of the animal-sensitive historian’s analytical armoury” (p. 70). “Looking at animals,” Swart asserts in a concluding riposte, “is not enough, since they are more than just their skins” (p. 71).
The perspectives advanced throughout The Historical Animal on the much-discussed issues of nonhuman subjectivity and agency are similarly broad and bold. A couple of essays examine what contributor Andria Pooley-Ebert terms “species agency.” While Pooley-Ebert employs “interdisciplinary exploration” to reveal the “species-specific behaviors” of rural and urban horses in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Illinois (p. 149), Nicola Foote and Charles W. Gunnels IV adopt a more explicitly zoological approach. “Galapagos animals,” they emphasize, “were not always passive. Instead, multiple species demonstrated notable responses in reaction to first contact with humans, such as displaying phenotypic plasticity by quickly learning to recognize and resist human efforts to kill and trap them” (p. 204). David Gary Shaw, meanwhile, harnesses the actor-network theory (ANT) pioneered by Bruno Latour, John Law, and others to mark out the limits of the agentive roles played by horses (and, by extension, other nonhuman animals). Because of the “‘flatness’ of ANT’s ontology,” Shaw notes, “animals’ historical importance is capped, pretty much like the importance of everything else” (p. 147).
Nance wraps up her helpful introduction by meditating on the interesting tension between her volume’s singular title—The Historical Animal—and the multiplicity of historical animals her contributors trace. After posing the obvious question—“should any one goal unite the field?”—Nance contends that “Animal History is about diversity and inclusion, whether of species or perspectives.” Thus “to require some kind of ethical purity test that might exclude researchers or readers would seem counterproductive” (p. 16). Compared to the endless battles over turf, status, and theoretical purity that continue to consume so many scholars, the broad-mindedness Nance expresses seems refreshingly positive. Such pluralism, in fact, may well offer the only sensible solution to a fundamental tension exposed by The Historical Animal and so many other efforts at synthesis. Given the fragmentation of history as a discipline, on the one hand, and the insufficiency of “the animal” as a category of analysis that simultaneously lumps together all the world’s creatures while reifying the exceptional status of one species—human beings—vis-à-vis all others, can “animal history” ever become something more than the sum of its parts? Or is the field destined to posit a unity and coherence that remains underdeveloped even in works as thoughtful and stimulating as this one? Food for further thought, as both Nance and her contributors understand only too well.
. Etienne Benson, “Animal Writes: Historiography, Disciplinarity, and the Animal Trace,” in Making Animal Meaning, ed. Linda Kalof and Georgina Montgomery (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 3-16.
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Thomas G. Andrews. Review of Nance, Susan, ed., The Historical Animal.
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