The History of Animals
English Literary Studies
In a recent article in the journal Critical Quarterly Francis Gooding challenges the traditional separation of the realm of the human from the realm of nature in the writing of history. In conventional work, he argues, the human, a creature with what he terms “thoughtful agency” (33), is perceived to exist in “historical” time, whereas the natural world has no such thoughtful agency and therefore exists in unhistorical time (a caterpillar does not will its transformation into a butterfly nor a cliff its own erosion). Gooding uses the story of the extinction of the Dodo as illustration. He repeats the accepted narrative, in which Dodos lived peaceful lives on Mauritius, until the sixteenth-century arrival of human predators, and were decimated by these new arrivals against whom they had no form of protection. He argues that this version of the story seems to reproduce the distinction of historical from unhistorical time: “human history is actually opposed to nature as if the non-human world was a passive background” (41). However, Gooding continues, “a model of events which makes ‘history’ and ‘nature’ ontologically exclusive categories is wrong, because formally—physically—speaking there is no special distinction, there are simply events” (43). The “epistemological division is found inside events.” The historical and the unhistorical, the human and the natural, are “coterminous within any human action; we can see the sense in which a man killing a Dodo is both a Dutchman of the sixteenth century taking an unpalatable and apparently extremely stupid and ugly bird for purposes of replenishing ship’s supplies during the ongoing voyage to Batavia, and also simply one particular moment during the contact events between one animal species and another, and nothing more” (44).
Gooding’s rereading of the nature of history serves as an important reminder that, whatever our special characteristics, humans, even those we encounter in history, are not separate from nature. “A human being is, after all, a wild animal in its environment, like any other (even if the form of its wildness is manifest as domestication)” (35). But what Gooding seems to be reproducing in his analysis is the sense in which nature, while it is coterminous with the actions of humans, is actually wholly distinct from it. Nature’s history is not willed in the way that humans’ history is, even if it is absolutely inseparable from that human history; humans have “thoughtful agency” after all. Gooding is, thus, breaking down a boundary from one side; he is pushing the human back into nature, but he is simultaneously reinforcing humans’ distinction from the “contingency” of unhistorical (i.e. natural) time. It is, in this sense, telling that the story Gooding uses as his example, the extinction of the Dodo, allows him to present the animal as utterly passive. The Dodos “just remained sitting allowing us to beat them to death,” wrote one sixteenth-century Dutch sea captain Gooding cites (39). In this model, while historical and natural time are viewed as coterminous, natural time remains as a passive, unthinking (“stupid” is a term used to describe the Dodos) background on which humans, the real makers of history, act.
What Gooding doesn’t comment on are the ways in which many historians of animals are currently working from a different point of view to challenge the absence of the nonhuman from history. On one level, humans live with animals, and thus this new sub-discipline is attempting to show how far animals are central to what is apparently human history. If we take the terms of Gooding’s discussion, historians of animals are placing nature into historical time, but not as natural history. Nigel Rothfels makes this clear when he argues that writing the history of animals is not a form of natural history but, in fact, of “unnatural history,” telling of animals’ “lives and afterlives not in their ‘native haunts’ but in such human environments as museums, books, circuses, and zoos” (6). The animals’ lives he records are as much a part of human culture as humans’ are.
In this assertion of the meaningful role of animals in making cultural meaning Rothfels’ work is moving away from an earlier form of history which focussed on human ideas about and attitudes towards animals in which animals were mere blank pages onto which humans wrote meaning: in which they were passive, unthinking presences in the active and thoughtful lives of humans (see Harwood, 1928; Turner, 1964; Thomas, 1983). Instead Rothfels’ work emerges from a tradition which traces the many ways in which humans construct and are constructed by animals in the past. Key texts here are Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate (1987) and Kathleen Kete’s The Beast in the Boudoir (1994).
But the “unnaturalness” of history, even of the history of animals, is not the end of the matter. The assertion of the entanglement of human and animal lives leads to another way of thinking about the past and another way of thinking about what we mean by agency. If history traces change, whether economic, social, political, cultural, intellectual, such might be a broadly acceptable conception of what it is that a historian of any stripe is looking at, then the beings that create the change would logically be central to those histories. In the past those change-making beings have been in particular those with the power to make changes: the kings and queens, presidents, emperors, generals who have controlled (or seemed to control) the mechanisms of state. More recently, workers, women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities have been recognised by historians as having roles in creating social change. But can animals be likewise recognised as change-making creatures; do animals, in short, have agency?
Answers to this question might lead us to consider the possibility that agency can be a category that exists separately from thought, something Gooding’s reading does not allow for. Where Gooding emphasises thought as a pre-cursor to history (and with thought the “non-genetic transmission of abstract information” ), other models of history entertain the possibility of animals’ presences in human lives/texts/technologies as crucial in alternative ways. Thought is not so central. For example, Jonathan Burt has shown how important animals were in the development of early film techniques. The desire to capture animals on film pushed the technology beyond its established limits. Animals may not be aware of the changes they are creating, but those changes are no less real for that. Burt was the first to point out to me the importance of the distinction between subjectivity and agency, between what might be termed a sense of self-in-the-world, and a capacity to shape that world. The two can, of course, co-exist (that would be our most conventional assumption), but they can also exist separately. As Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert have argued, “Resources, technologies, animals, and so on, all actively participate in, refine and frame. . . processes of interaction.” Using Actor Network Theory they propose that “agency is conceived of not as some innate or static thing which an organism always possesses, but rather in a relational sense which sees agency emerging as an effect generated and performed in configurations of different materials. This means that anything can potentially have the power to act, whether human or nonhuman” (17). Animals may not have a sense of self-in-the-world that is easily accessible to or recognizable by us, but they can certainly have an impact on the ways in which humans live, think, and represent in that world. In my forthcoming study of concepts of rationality in early modern thought, for example, I argue that, without realizing it, the animals created significant shifts in human thinking and thus human history.
Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s recent study, Creatures of Empire, offers another fascinating glimpse of such animal agency in action. She uses the different relationships to animals of the English colonists and native peoples in the seventeenth-century New World as a way of understanding the political and economic development of the English colonies. She notes that in previous histories of colonization animals “serve as part of the scenery rather than as historical actors” (1-2) and states that her aim is to show instead how “the lives of Indians and colonists alike were often shaped in unexpected ways by the activities of animals” (3). These animals, she argues, were not simply property, they were “living property—agents as well as objects” (89); they were not simply an index of human civility, but they altered the landscape in ways that impacted on human lives (32). Animals were, in fact, the unwitting “agents of empire” (211). By implication, if Anderson is right, and she certainly presents a compelling case, then the history of North America was shaped as much by animals as by humans; indeed, it is the human history that becomes, as she notes, a contingent one. If animals can shape the landscape, of the New World as well as of the past itself, then human control over that landscape is limited and subject to animal actions.
And so we can say that history without animals is unthinkable. The new sub-discipline is very different to the histories in which animals were merely blank pages onto which humans wrote their own perceptions (in which the animals were the textual equivalent, you might say, of the Dodos simply sitting and allowing the Dutchmen to beat them to death). This new history is a history in which we are being asked to look at the ways in which animals and humans no longer exist in separate realms; in which nature and culture coincide; and in which we recognize the ways in which animals, not just humans, have shaped the past. Sadly, such a history won’t bring the Dodos back from the dead, but it might challenge the meaning of such extinctions as we continue to encounter them in the future.
Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.
Fudge, Erica. Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality and Humanity in Early Modern Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.
Gooding, Francis. “Of Dodos and Dutchmen: Reflections on the Nature of History.” Critical Quarterly 47.4 (2005): 32-47
Harwood, Dix. 1928. Love for Animals and How it Developed in Great Britain. Rpt. Lampeter Edwin Mellon Press, 2002.
Kete, Kathleen. The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Philo, Chris and Chris Wilbert. “Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: An Introduction.” In Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations. Eds Philo and Wilbert. London: Routledge, 2000: 1-34
Ritvo, Harriet. 1987. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Rpt. London: Penguin, 1990.
Rothfels, Nigel. Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Thomas, Keith. 1983. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800. Rpt. London: Penguin, 1984.
Turner, E.S. 1964. All Heaven in a Rage. Rpt. Fontwell: Centaur Press, 1992.
Further work on the history of animals
Brower, Matthew. “Trophy Shots: Early North American Photographs of Nonhuman Animals and the Display of Masculine Prowess.” Society and Animals 13:1 (2005): 13-31.
Donald, Diana. “`Beastly Sights’: The Treatment of Animals as a Moral Theme in Representations of London c.1820-1850.” Art History 22: 4 (1999): 514-544.
Fudge, Erica, ed. Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, And Other Wonderful Creatures. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Fudge, Erica. “A Left-Handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals.” In Representing Animals. Ed. Nigel Rothfels. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002: 3-18.
Fudge, Erica. 2000. Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Basingstoke: Macmillan)
Guerrini, Anita. 2003. Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press)
Haraway, Donna. 1992. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (London: Verso)
Kean. Hilda. 1998. Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800 (London: Reaktion Books)
Lansbury, Coral. 1985. The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England (London: University of Wisconsin Press)
Mizelle, Brett. 2005. ‘Contested Exhibitions: The Debate over Proper Animal Sights in Post-Revolutionary America,’ Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 9:2, 219-235
Salisbury, Joyce E. 1994. The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge)
"The History of Animals"
Date Published May 25, 2006