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  • Modern Violence:Animal Studies, Speciesism, and the Writings of John James Audubon
  • Eric Russell (bio)

In "The Mississippi Kite," John James Audubon fires upon but uncharacteristically misses a mother kite and her young; the mother then attempts to save her offspring by rushing it to another tree. The hunter-naturalist's reaction to this event indicates something that has preoccupied Audubon scholars for decades: "My feelings at that moment I cannot express. I wished I had not discovered the bird; for who could have witnessed, without emotion, so striking an example of that affection which none but a mother can feel; so daring an act, performed in the midst of smoke, in the presence of a dreaded and dangerous enemy. I followed, however, and brought both to the ground at one shot, so keen is the desire of possession!"1 The bird's actions strike Audubon sentimentally, which produces an anthropomorphic moment that narrows the ontological gap between human and nonhuman animal. Audubon kills the kites anyway because he wants them, even managing to brag about his marksmanship.

"In art and prose," Daniel Justin Herman observes in his history of American hunting, "Audubon appealed to the masculine and martial strain of American culture, whereas elsewhere—through depictions of nesting doves and delicate songbirds—he appealed to the sentimental and domestic," [End Page 470] a situation Herman characterizes as an "unresolvable contradiction."2 Similarly, Christoph Irmscher points out that Audubon by turns appears as birds' "ardent admirer as well as their inveterate destroyer" and notes that Audubon's "pervasive paradoxes" are what make him "a more interesting writer."3 Audubon's contradictions and paradoxes deserve further theorizing, and one could understandably view the naturalist as hypocritical, cognitively dissonant, or sociopathic; however, it makes more sense simply to call Audubon's actions modern. The ethical stance toward animals he presents in "The Mississippi Kite," with one foot in sentimental, anthropomorphizing sympathy and the other foot standing on a presumptive human license to kill other animals as he sees fit, fundamentally characterizes modern Western attitudes toward animals.

Bruno Latour's conception of modernity, consisting partly of "translation" and "purification" processes, helps explain the apparent paradox constituting Audubon's treatment of animals. The work of purification, observes Latour, distinctly separates human society and nonhuman nature; simultaneously, however, the work of translation highlights networks in which nature and society are intertwined. More specifically, we can conceive of networks as entanglements of agencies and forces in which all things, human and nonhuman, are connected and not always definitively separable. While networks that blur the lines between nature and human culture tend to be associated with non-Western cultures in the Western gaze, Westerners characteristically view their own societies as part of a nature-society divide even as networks perpetually emerge, often unrecognized as such.4

I argue here that Audubon performs the work of purification through violence toward animals, an exercise in dominance that emphasizes nonhumans' otherness, but that he also performs the work of translation through anthropomorphizing animals and sentimentally stressing [End Page 471] their resemblances to humans. What we might call Audubon's most modern writings engage concurrently in purification and translation. Resolving Audubon's contradictions and paradoxes through the lens of Latourian modernity makes clearer a more nuanced definition of modernity for animal studies and theories of speciesism, resulting in more complex, critically versatile considerations of the human relationship with nonhuman animals. The modernity of human-nonhuman relationships does not arbitrarily begin in a historical moment, nor does it consist merely of perceiving human exceptionalism or animality: the dynamics of human ethics and violence make modernity simultaneously a matter of speciesism and sentimentalism, brutality and compassion, exceptionalism and ecology.5

Before analyzing Audubon's journals and essays, I demonstrate the need for a firmer definition of modernity when it comes to human-nonhuman relationships, and I offer a brief history of Western ethical consideration of animals; I then examine scholarship on Romantic conceptions of violence and the nonhuman world in order to situate Audubon within his contemporary ideological and theoretical milieu.

the problem of modern violence

Jürgen Habermas defines modern as the expression of "consciousness of an epoch that relates itself to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 470-510
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-16
Open Access
No
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