- Introduction:Putrefaction and the Ecologies of Life: Enter the Vulture
Thom van Dooren’s book Vulture begins with a description of dokhmenishini, the Parsi funerary practice in which the human body is left on altars for vultures and other scavenging birds to consume.1 This practice has been threatened if not “broken down” by a rapidly disappearing vulture population. The culprit in this event is diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory veterinary drug ingested by the vultures who feed on animal carcasses. Since diclofenac causes kidney failure in vultures, several species in India—“once one of the most thriving vulture populations in the world”—may be headed toward extinction.2 By telling the story of the vulture, van Dooren hopes that his Western audience “will get to know these feathered scavengers a little better,” ideally “so that we all might be able to develop more caring and, ultimately, more sustainable relationships with these feathered birds.”3 He has an uphill journey. The ability to perceive the vulture as a necessary part of a sustainable system is deeply embedded in Indian culture in ways that distinguish it sharply from European descriptions. These differences may be explained in many ways, but what makes the vulture so despised by some is precisely what makes it valuable for others: its capacity to feed on carcasses, to seek out decay and rot.
In the leather-producing economy of early modern Spain, for example, carrion-eating vultures helped contain infection generated [End Page 137] by masses of flayed animals.4 Reporting on such practices in his Natural History of Birds (1771), the Comte de Buffon accuses the Spanish policies of having “multiplied this disgusting kind of turkey,” which is now found, he says, in Guyana, Brazil, and New Spain, or Chile.5 Far from appreciating the role of vultures in thwarting disease, then, Buffon lambasts these globally reproducing animals as “voracious, slothful, offensive, and hateful; and, like the wolves, … as noxious during their life, as useless after their death.”6 In the emerging discourse of polite Western science, precisely what makes the vulture ecologically valuable—its capacity to feed on carcasses, to seek out decay and rot—guarantees its abjection
The vulture serves as kind of spirit animal for this special issue of Configurations, a guide to and through the many paradoxes of putrefaction imagined in its material, political, and affective manifestations. Putrefaction, regarded as both a process and a stage in organic decomposition, is a crucial part of living ecologies. The scientific name for the turkey vulture, Cathartes, as van Dooren reminds us, means “purifier” in ancient Greek; carrion eaters help cleanse the land of rotting human and animal bodies that can serve as breeding grounds for disease.7 The queen of putrefaction, the vulture is deeply entangled, to use a contemporary locution, in a shared history and world. But, as Buffon exemplifies, to be “entangled” does not mean to be valued, and vultures—like rot and decay—are often met with irrational disgust through which their ecologically valuable functions become obscured, their role in a complex system overshadowed by what can be regarded only as an affective response. Buffon, for example, treats vultures as outcasts of the creaturely kingdom; as he puts it, “[C]orruption and infection, instead of driving them [vultures] to a distance, are to them powerful attractions.”8 Unlike the “generous” eagles (whom he wrongly assumes never scavenge), vultures are “incited” by what he calls their “low gormandizing instinct,” seldom attacking “living animals when they can satiate their voracity on the carcasses of the dead ones.”9 Worse, when they do attack, they “combine in flocks, like base assassins, and are rather [End Page 138] robbers than warriors, birds of carnage than birds of prey.”10 Collecting in numbers “to pour upon the forlorn individual,” vultures tear “the mangled carcase to the bones,” in what Buffon imagines is “the bitterness of unprovoked rage.”11 Vultures sink to the bottom of his creaturely taxonomy, which defines species feeding practices in moral and behavioral rather than ecological terms.
In contrast to Buffon, the authors in this special issue seek to examine the positive role of rot in the performance of systems, variously...