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  • Chicken Auguries
  • Susan M. Squier (bio)

Augury is “the art of divination by observing the behavior of birds.”1 The term comes from the word for the Roman officials, augurs, who were charged with watching “the pecking behavior of sacred chickens” whenever a military or political initiative was underway, to see whether the gods approved.2 For generations, the practice of augury was understood as a supernatural phenomenon, as a moment of divine inspiration during a trance, or the result of expert work by a skillful reader of signs. But by 1920, when scientific explanations had trumped spiritual ones, augury was redefined by British chemist and president of the Alchemical Society Herbert Stanley Redgrove as the supernatural seeming effect of natural phenomena:

Amongst the most remarkable of natural occurrences must be included many of the phenomena connected with the behavior of birds. Undoubtedly numerous species of birds are susceptible to atmospheric changes (of an electrical and barometric nature) too slight to be observed by man’s unaided senses; thus only is to be explained the phenomenon of migration and also the many other peculiarities in the behavior of birds whereby approaching changes in the weather may be foretold.3 [End Page 69]

Natural also, Redgrove believed, was the human impulse to find divine meaning in avian behavior, “to suppose that all sorts of coming events (other than those of an atmospheric nature) might be foretold by careful observation of [birds’] flight and song.”4 This attempt to replace a scientific explanation of such heightened awareness for the earlier supernatural explanation exemplifies what Ulrich Beck has called reflexive modernization, the process through which the production of new expert knowledges is always accompanied by the production of new modes of unawareness.5 These new modes of uncertainty or ignorance are produced by a framework that privileges technical, scientific, and rational approaches as the only ones capable of producing exhaustive and certain knowledge of the lifeworld.6

In contrast, we have the practice of foretelling the future by attending to the scratching of chickens, predicting the course of human affairs by attending to bird behavior, being surprised by a sudden insight or inspiration: augury. Augury is a type of knowledge-making (about the present and the future) that is in danger of disappearing in the twenty-first century: the knowledge gained by intimate relations with animals. As we have accepted chickens as animals farmed for their meat and eggs in a process of rationalized scientific management, we have lost the ability to see what they (like other animals around us) augur for our collective future. We have become unaware, deskilled of that very subtle ability, whether we think of it as supernatural or natural.

I mean “deskilled” in the sense used by Deborah Fitzgerald in her trenchant analysis of the rise of industrial agriculture, Every Farm a Factory.7 Labor historians understand deskilling as the process by which a worker’s ability, creativity, and autonomy are taken away by the introduction of sophisticated machinery into the workplace. Fitzgerald’s contribution is to extend the notion of deskilling to a broader set of technical artifacts and procedures. She sees deskilling in the process by which new farming technologies have shifted the nature of contemporary farming from the creative management of land and livestock, to the compliant application of pre-engineered products and practices. These new farming technologies are more [End Page 70] than merely machines: they are networks of practices, assemblages of artifacts, and standardized operations. And these assemblages carry out activities that were once the purview of the human beings working alongside them. They have usurped the mental and physical agency of the farmer even while promising to extend it by enabling a higher yield for less money.

To give some examples, such practices can include the creation of hybrid corn in lieu of a farmer’s experienced selection of the right corn strain for the farm’s specific soil conditions, the substitution of a milking machine for the skilled touch of a practiced milker, or the standardization of chicken-raising in large indoor poultry houses rather than the farm wife’s practice of raising chickens as one activity among many others on...


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pp. 69-86
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