Michael Lundblad (ed.), Animalities: Literary and Cultural Studies Beyond the Human

Michael Lundblad (ed.), Animalities: Literary and Cultural Studies Beyond the Human, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017) vii + 256 pp. £80 EPUB, PDF, £80 Hb. ISBN: 9781474400022

Michael Lundblad’s edited collection, Animalities, is a timely intervention in literary and cultural criticism, appearing at a moment when, as Lundblad points out, the burgeoning interdisciplinary fields of animal studies, critical animal studies, human-animal studies, and posthumanism are becoming increasingly prominent in mainstream academia. In his illuminating introduction to the volume, Lundblad pauses to reflect on the usefulness of a wildly varied area of study that incorporates wide-ranging, and often contradictory, methodological approaches and ideologies. This variety has an immediate impact, as Lundblad indicates, on the ever-evolving classificatory apparatus that is deployed to define interest in the animal, the human, and animal-human relations – in addition to those mentioned above, Lundblad also describes animality studies, humanimal studies, and species studies as producing a proliferating cloud of terminology (1). One aim of this book then, is not to contribute further to any diffusion of common interest, but instead to focus on ‘a set of dynamics that move beyond the human […] that construct animals, on the one hand, or humans in relation to animals, on the other hand, or both’ (1–2). Lundblad identifies three primary ‘forms’ scholarship takes, human-animal studies, animality studies, and posthumanism, and proceeds to provide a valuable distinction between the three. This introduction lays out a clear and precise context for what follows, but is not didactic in its operation – as Lundblad wisely emphasises, he has ‘resist[ed] the impulse’ to label the work of his contributors (11).

The succeding chapters form a diverse but comprehensive whole, covering many aspects of literary and artistic output, from poetry to early film to sculpture and art installation. Cary Wolfe’s remarkable chapter on ‘the poetics of extinction’ kick-starts the collection and is both an evocative eulogy to Martha, the last known passenger pigeon who died in 1914, and a critical contemplation of the meaning and significance of extinction ‘events’, drawing on sources as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper’s, The Pioneers, the naturalist writing of John James Audubon, Jacques Derrida’s mediation on death, and, crucially, Michael Pestel’s artistic tribute to Martha, Requiem: Ectopistes Migratorius. This thoughtful piece is followed by a further consideration of extinction from Neel Ahuja – in place of an individual death, here we have a detailed critique of how the much-touted concept of the Anthropocene allocates blame to a universalised ‘human species’, failing to account for ongoing divisions and inequalities between human groups. A definitive link can be forged between this chapter and Wolfe’s evocation of Fenimore Cooper’s description of white American frontier settlers slaughtering pigeons en masse and not according to demand as befits the individual hunter.

Chapters Three and Four both explore notions of animal-human hybridity. Frida Beckman performs a chronological analysis of J G Ballard’s work to demonstrate how depictions of ecology and nature are not imbued with universal meaning, but instead become nuanced and multifarious, the central theme of metamorphosis standing for both the topic of hybridity and becoming a means to chart literary form. In the following chapter, Sara E S Orning draws on nineteenth-century freak shows to evaluate the sculptures of the contemporary artist Patricia Piccinini, evoking a more positive and affirmative notion of hybridity that necessarily implicates the viewer as well as the viewed. Chapter Five, ‘“Sparks Would Fly”’ by Anat Pick, also uses a historical event to evaluate contemporary practices: here, the brutal, filmed execution of Topsy the circus elephant, electrocuted in 1903, is movingly detailed to show how electricity has become a means to control and manipulate both animal and human agency. Chapter Six is Lundblad’s own, a piece that he considers linked to Pick’s previous chapter, and the successive one, by an interest in ‘discourses and mutual constructions that cut across species lines’ (15). While a relationship is thus forged, this does not prepare for the sheer diversity of these chapters: Lundblad’s work also pivots on the central theme of death (in this case, terminal cancer), yet his research differs dramatically to Pick’s, in sources and direction. A bird-like animality is used to explore illness in the memoirs of the conservationist Terry Tempest Williams; here, individual death again proves a lens for a multiplicity of events, from the wholesale destruction of environmental habitats to the US's ‘War on Terror’. Following this, Robin Chen-Hsing Tsai takes as his focus Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide, and in his critique of both human and nonhuman violence and the association of the neo-imperialist project with global warming, recalls other chapters in this volume. Again though, nuance is called for in these analyses; the Sundarbans of Bangladesh are not solely to be celebrated with a naïve romanticism, just as Pick argues that agency is not necessarily attributed or removed in the ways that we automatically expect through electrical execution and electroconvulsive therapy.

Violence is a theme that forms an undertone in the final three chapters. Karen Lykke Syse’s ‘Looking the Beast in the Eye’ is a timely critique of the way that Nordic and ‘hipster’ food cultures promote a nostalgic image of humanity’s cave-dwelling heritage, idealising a primitive machoism that simultaneously endorses the imperative to respect and capacity to slaughter the individual animal – while this is not solely a man’s game, mainstream media presents it as such. As Syse indicates, despite the easy pastiche these trends permit, reflective meat-eating that celebrates the reconnection of the ‘real’ animal with food should be commended. The last two chapters, perhaps inevitably, deal with human relations to the animal that are considered ‘abnormal’, where animal love exceeds the parameters of the acceptable. Taken in combination, Colleen Glenney Bogg’s chapter on the ‘love triangle’ between the two early twentieth-century poets, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (known jointly under the pseudonym ‘Michael Field’) and their dog Whym Chow, and Greg Garrard’s illuminating and detailed exploration of bestiality in both legal and fictional discourse, provide a challenging, but indisputably thought-provoking way to culminate this volume.

The publisher's blurb for this collection states that it focuses on ‘twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, art and film’, but this undersells the achievement of the text and the diverse material incorporated. An emphasis on singularity and multiplicity resounds throughout the volume, just as it combines concern about the future with echoes of a long-distant past. As Lundblad’s introduction demonstrates, the critic takes his or her place as both individual and part of a broader collective, contributing to an ongoing project that continues to re-evaluate and re-formulate both how we think about non-human animals and how we think of ourselves as animals in time.

Harriet Newnes, Lancaster University

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