The domination which God gave people over all living creatures is implicit throughout all Bestiaries. Names and their etymology are very important parts of [Bestiary texts]. It is a well-known psychological concept that to give a name to something is a way of controlling it.—Christopher de Hamel, Introduction, Book of Beasts
On farms where cows were called by name, milk yield was 258 liters higher than on farms where this was not the case (p < 0.001).—Catherine Bertenshaw and Peter Rowlinson, “Exploring Stock Managers’ Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship”
The emerging field generally known as “animal studies” is vexed by a problem familiar to medievalists: the reference of general names. Among scientists, names for species and genera have been subject to debate and revision at least since Charles Darwin undermined the assumption that organisms can be assigned to stable categories. More fundamentally, many contemporary scholars echo the medieval debate over the most general names, universals, with their challenge to animal itself. The most widely cited version of that challenge is central to Jacques Derrida’s L’animal que donc je suis (2006), edited and translated as The Animal That Therefore I Am. Derrida opens the lecture on which the book is based by acknowledging his embarrassment when naked before the gaze of his “little cat,” who is, he insists, a truly singular creature, not “the exemplar of a species called ‘cat,’ even less so of an ‘animal’ genus or kingdom.”1Animal epitomizes the “general singular” name, he argues, with which we claim “to designate every living thing that is [End Page 1] held not to be human.” Even to use that name constitutes an “asininity,” a “bêtise.” Derrida exposes the bêtise with the brilliant spotlight of another coinage, l’animot—a “chimerical word” signifying that “animal” is not a biological reality.2 Throughout the book, however, Derrida continues to use “animals” and “the animal.” And the many writers who take up his attack on the “general singular” seem similarly unable to dispense with it.3 Semantic disputes are of course common in academic fields, but animal studies (like its variants, including critical animal studies, human/animal studies, animal cultural studies, and animality studies) may be the only discipline unable to dispense with a self-designation that it finds wrongheaded and even unethical. Animal unsettles the field’s practitioners as much as the gaze of his cat did Derrida.
Many writers who express this discomfort seem to regard it as both admirable and recent. That is, they imply that earlier thinkers had no scruples about “homogenizing” animals.4 Derrida “venture[s] to say that never, on the part of any great philosopher from Plato to Heidegger, . . . have I noticed a protestation based on principle, . . . against the general singular that is the animal.”5 Medieval thinkers in particular are said to have affirmed a separation of “man” and “beast” ordained when God invited Adam to name the other animals.6 In the [End Page 2] passage with which I open this essay, Christopher de Hamel suggests that medieval writers emphasized the names of animals to reassert human control. Nor did onomastic dominion weaken, according to a common metanarrative, until the modern or even the postmodern era: Darwin and other nineteenth-century scientists undermined the Christian paradigm of “superiority and dominion”; in the twentieth century, philosophers have at last challenged the view maintained “throughout Western civilization” that the animal existed to serve the human.7 In a pattern familiar to medievalists, the metanarrative casts premodern positivism as the Other of postmodern questioning.
Like most such self-congratulatory stories, the notion that we are only now rattling the semantic cages constructed by premoderns rests on oversimplifications, both historical and theoretical. Naming practices in medieval animal texts are hardly uniform. Derrida is right that medieval writers do not criticize animal explicitly, but they certainly scrutinize it. Moreover, some use this term, or beast, with destabilizing inconsistency, alternately including and excluding human beings. And many medieval texts name and rename nonhuman creatures dynamically, mixing levels of abstraction to suggest an interplay of generic and singular...