- The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice by Tobias Menely
The Animal Claim impresses its reader on several accounts. Eloquently executed, this work of strong erudition brings together an extraordinary array of writers. Tobias Menely investigates Henry More, Hobbes, Hume, Rousseau, Bentham, Thomson, Shaftesbury, Pope, Cowper, and Smart, all with the same rich attentiveness. His theoretical texts range from Aristotle to Benjamin, Agamben, and Derrida. He revisits issues important for the eighteenth century through the lens of animal rights, namely the discussions about the origins of language, the cultivation of sensibility, and the rise of a public sphere or Öffentlichkeit. He covers significant ground—moral and political philosophy, public periodical culture, as well as poetry’s influence on the political community. Rare is the study that sees eighteenth-century poetry as critical material for current debates concerning animal rights. Should a book about the eighteenth century ever attract readers in contemporary affect theory, The Animal Claim will take this place of honour. It provides a justification of why the rich field of animal studies should matter to affect theory today.
In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida pointed to the widespread assault on compassion: “War is waged over the matter of pity” (1997; [New York: Fordham University Press, 2008], 29). Even Derrida’s contemplation of the otherness in his own pet cat has led major thinkers in the field of animal studies to belittle him. Nicole Shukin finds his attitude “deeply idealistic” (Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009], 37), while Steve Baker remarks that Derrida “seems to move surprisingly close to an uncritical humanism” (The Postmodern Animal [London: Reaktion, 2000], 186), as if Baker himself shared with the postmodern artists he investigates the “fear of the familiar.” The general assumption about compassion and pity is that they indulge in sentimentality; they are charged to be inauthentic, inappropriate, and invariably mawkish. They threaten to feed off anthropomorphizing impulses, which is why Baker invokes the derogatory term humanist against Derrida, possibly the worst designation any scholar can give another today. The accusation of anthropomorphism and humanism, however, assume that what is human is distinctive and clear-cut, as if we know from the start what divides humans from animals. The charge itself is deeply anthropocentric.
By the close of The Animal Claim, it becomes clear that this very suspicion of sentimentality and compassion has its own history. The [End Page 746] attack begins to be formulated by conservative factions in the British Parliament around 1800 in order to stymy animal welfare legislation. The conservative offensive painted animal welfare advocates as indulging in ethical relativism and an overwrought sentimentality inappropriate to the realm of political deliberation. As Menely copiously demonstrates in his wide-ranging investigation of the animal in the Age of Sensibility, emotion and compassion were not always so dismissed. The marginalization of pity and sympathy can hence be archaeologically retraced.
Menely’s starting point is that eighteenth-century writers conceptualized sensibility as a pre-linguistic form of communication involving the voice as much as the body, the human as well as non-human animal. This affective exchange was the basis for an open community where entitlements could be apportioned not only among human beings but also across the species barrier. Moreover, this pre-linguistic immediate expression, shared by all, formed the basis for sympathetic identification. The cry of the distressed animal needed no translation and demanded urgent response. For several thinkers of the eighteenth century, it was never questioned that animals had the ability to express states of agitation and suffering; additionally, humans had the intrinsic capacity to understand creaturely feelings. Eighteenth-century semiotics, desiring to recover the transparent and legible sign, found in this affective relationship an originary form of communication. And insofar as poetry comes closest to reproducing this direct utterance, it was the perfect vehicle for representing the other’s voice, becoming its advocate, and intervening on its behalf in custom and law. Such an immediately comprehended bond with animal...