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Modernism in the Animal Trap?

From: Criticism
Volume 55, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 331-337 | 10.1353/crt.2013.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It's interesting to observe how animal studies, or, to be more precise, critical animal studies, occupies a more and more significant place among what is broadly called human sciences. This is a part of a massive twentieth-century tectonic shift, where the very core of human sciences, i.e., the human itself, meets its limit. The human subject bids farewell to its dream of autonomy and attempts to define itself from without, through various figures of the nonhuman, the latter thought of in terms of radical alterity. This move tries to embrace the unstable domain beyond the border of humanity and, among nonhuman others, the animal is the most insistent and striking. The animal accompanied humanity, as its mirror twin, from its very birth in Paleolithic caves, and the animal is still here, still promising to reveal something that humans cannot grasp about themselves.

Long after the Cartesian formula, linking the subject and the thought, the philosophy of animality turns to the question of how to think about this mode of existence that supposedly does not think itself. As opposed to the classical philosophical tradition characterized by an almost general disregard towards animals as a being deprived of thought, language, consciousness or subjectivity, contemporary thinkers working at the crossroads of animal studies, critical philosophy, and human and natural science are mainly trying to think about animality as another kind of subjectivity either by pragmatically locating this question in the domain of ethics, politics, and science or along the lines of a theoretical and critical deconstruction of classical philosophy and the metaphysical tradition. The animal turn in human sciences, most generally inspired, perhaps, by Peter Singer's practical ethics and animal liberation movement, but also by the theoretical interventions of Deleuze and European post-Heideggerianism, shapes a peculiar crossing point between philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis, literature, and other arts.

Carrie Rohman's Stalking the Subject is a good example of interdisciplinary academic research in this field. It applies posthumanist theory to literary studies—namely, to studies in British modernist literature. Rohman thus does not speak about modernism in general, or the subject in general, or the animal in general; her work consists of critical analysis of works by T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells, and Djuna Barnes that focus on the figure of the animal or animality. Such a clear framework, however, allows the author to make rather deep observations about so-called human nature as it is represented in this specific historical and cultural context, and to interrogate the most universal questions about the limits of humanity as tested by various experiences of sexuality, violence, poetry, etc.

Rohman emphasizes that her work is mostly inspired by Gary Wolf's philozoophy, but work by Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek, Gilles Deleuze, George Bataille, and Jacques Derrida—authors who deal with the human rather than with the animal, properly speaking—are other primary references. If Gary Wolf is searching for a "proper" nonhuman animal, Rohman addresses instead the experience of the human animal, exploring the thresholds and the borders, the places whereof the human and animal encounter each other within the world of the human rather than in the realm of the supposed animality per se. The question here, then, is not about what constitutes the animal, but how the animal makes humans think about themselves. Literature is taken as a place of such encounters because as the world of words, the domain of an extremely cultivated language, it tends to meet its opposite, the nonspeaking animal, as its very ontological limit.

Modernist literature gives especially wide room for rethinking subjectivity through its relation to the animal. As compared to a classical canon, in which animals generally serve as representations of human merits and defeats, modernism takes animals seriously. Doing so creates another form of cultural sensibility and new modes of expression, different from those found in classical humanist universality. Modernism establishes a kind of imaginary space, inhabited by and crossed by transitional, monstrous figures, in which human beings hardly recognize themselves. These are figures of the retreat of the human, of the failure of the humanist project, or the end of the anthropic perspective...


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