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  • The Vivisection of the Snark
  • Jed Mayer (bio)

As a popular writer for children, Lewis Carroll grew adept at subverting the paternalist logic which subordinated children to the whims of their powerful elders. This concern with the plight of the powerless extended into other areas as well, and in the 1870s Carroll became increasingly concerned about the use of animals as objects for study in English physiological laboratories. As public debate over the ethics of animal experimentation grew more heated, the Oxford logician turned his analytic skills to the subject of vivisection. Anatomizing the logic which justified the accumulation of scientific knowledge at any cost, Carroll made a significant contribution to the developing literature of animal rights. While Carroll was writing up his antivivisection pieces for the popular press, he was also engaged in the composition of his most ambitious nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark (1876). In this poem Carroll renders the scientific quest for knowledge and power as an absurd sea journey, in which an eccentric cross-section of English professionals set off in search of an elusive hybrid creature. There is much in the poem to suggest that Carroll's "Agony in Eight Fits" was his subversively nonsensical response to the agonies of the vivisection laboratory being vividly evoked in contemporary papers, journals, and pamphlets. While Carroll's mock-ballad has been read as an economic allegory, as a parody of the Imperial nations' "Race for the Poles," and even as an exploration of the rational philosophical tradition in Western thought, the poem has not been considered in relation to its most immediate social and scientific context, the vivisection controversy in which its author was so deeply embroiled.1 As with the eclectic language of the social critical tradition employed by other antivivisectionist writers, The Hunting of the Snark brings a variety of discourses and perspectives to bear on the allegedly disinterested disciplines in the burgeoning life sciences. In the process Carroll's poem exposes the close ties between professional advancement and the advancement of science, between the accumulation of knowledge and the accumulation of wealth and power.

In response to growing public concern over the morality of experimental operations on live animals, a Royal Commission investigation into the practice of vivisection was announced on May 24, 1875. Over the ensuing months testimony was gathered from laypersons and experts representing a diverse spectrum of opinion on the topic. While spokespersons of the growing British scientific community testified alongside theologians, medical practitioners, politicians, and animal welfare advocates, it was clear that, in many respects, [End Page 429] science itself was on trial. More specifically, the matter at issue was the right of scientists to pursue their research unhindered by State intervention or public scrutiny, even when the specific nature of that research was ethically questionable, and as such the investigation represents an important chapter in the history of scientific modernity. The closed doors of the physiological laboratory were opened to public inquiry in a way that implicitly challenged the purity of the scientific pursuit of knowledge. Bruno Latour has argued that "we live in communities whose social bond comes from objects fabricated in laboratories; ideas have been replaced by practices, . . . and universal agreement by groups of colleagues."2 In basing our social actions on knowledge achieved in controlled experimental environments designed to exclude human bias, we agree to live in "a world in which the representation of things through the intermediary of the laboratory is forever dissociated from the representation of citizens through the intermediary of the social contract" (p. 27). Central to the model of scientific modernity advanced by Latour is the space of the laboratory as site for the production of knowledge, a space that can only produce facts as long as its conditions remain pure and uncontaminated. In the life sciences, this prophylaxis is notoriously hard to maintain. While field studies in natural history and anthropology continued to be crucial to the advancement of British scientific knowledge throughout the nineteenth century, toward the latter half of the century the laboratory would come to figure increasingly in scientific rhetoric as a uniquely privileged site of biological knowledge, reserved for a more disciplined, professional class of...


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