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  • HuntologyOntological Pursuits and Still Lives
  • Antoine Traisnel (bio)

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Now the hunter steps aside . . . and the naturalist comes forward.

— Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon

At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Western Europe and North America, one hunt ended and another began. A form of pursuit long associated with the acquisition of knowledge,1 hunting became all the more prevalent as a cultural and epistemological logic when technological advances secured the dominance of the human and made it no longer necessary to ensure the gain or defense of territory against animals. No longer a threat to humans, animals became objects of study and exhibition.

While the analogy makes little sense today, in the mid-eighteenth century, hunting was often described as a form of war. Diderot’s Encyclopédie defines hunting as “all the sorts of wars that we wage against animals” (toutes les sortes de guerres que nous faisons aux animaux). J. M. Coetzee’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello further explores this analogy. The title character describes a time when humans were still at war with the animals: “We had a war once against the animals, which we called hunting, though in fact war and hunting are the same thing (Aristotle saw it clearly),” Costello explains. “That war went on for millions of years. We won it definitively only a few hundred years ago, when we invented guns. It is only since victory became absolute that we have been able to afford to cultivate compassion.”2 The very possibility for humans and animals to be at war with each other implies a relative symmetry and supposes that they share a common political territory. Costello proposes a history in which they cease to cohabit by imagining the conditions under which the humans’ victory became “absolute.” She nevertheless states that some animals remain unaware that the war is over (rats, we are told, have not surrendered). The problem that Costello raises is not so much that the hunt is a war but that this war is thought to be over. And that we are at peace. The supposedly absolute victory of the hunt resulted in a “distribution of the sensible” that demands to be reassessed.3

What has this fantasized victory effected in the West, both for (what we call) humans and (what we call) animals?4 The human’s exceptional status proves but a recent development and one that emerges out of a predatory relation to other animals. Costello provocatively suggests that the introduction of guns had a profound impact on how the human’s status as überpredator has been naturalized to the point of invisibility.5 How and when has it been it possible for some humans to envision their victory as “absolute”? With technological progress, the dominance of the human over (other) animals became more pronounced, almost self-evident. Before this apparent victory, the war of the species could be perceived as ongoing, and even interminable.6

This essay argues that this “event” took place at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the human-animal relation underwent a profound transformation in the West. The hunt offers a compelling paradigm for reading this transformation. A certain epistemophilia that emerged during this period—as evidenced by Buffon’s colossal Histoire naturelle,7 Cuvier’s enterprise of systematic classification, and Darwin’s 1831 zoological expedition on the Beagle (named after a hunting dog)8—can be seen as the continuation of the hunt by other means. The shifting valence of the hunt from martial to epistemological [End Page 5]

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Figure 1.

John James Audubon GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos), 1833 Watercolor, pastel, graphite, and selective glazing, 38 × 25 1/2 in.

Collection of The New-York Historical Society. Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions.

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Figure 2.

Walton Ford DELIRIUM, 2004 Watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper, 62 5/8 x 43 1/8 in. 159.1 × 109.5 cm.

Courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

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finds a burgeoning archive in the emergence of natural history museums and science institutions, which depended on the products of...