Bruce Boehrer, Molly Hand, and Brian Massumi, eds, Animals and Animality

Bruce Boehrer, Molly Hand, and Brian Massumi, eds, Animals and Animality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) x+383 pp. £84.99 Hb. $88.00 Pdf. ISBN: 9781108429825

Animals and Animality is a title under the umbrella of Cambridge Critical Concepts, and is comprised of a collection of essays by specialists in the field of animal studies who each approach the subject from radically different starting points spanning fiction, philosophy and film, hagiography and ecology, mammoths and mice to give but a few examples. The essays are arranged roughly chronologically and so, although each is a stand-alone piece, cumulatively they give an excellent overview of the development of animal studies across the centuries and the changing attitudes towards non-human fauna and the perception of species difference. The chapters encompass a broad range of materials ‘philosophical, biological, fictional, historical, poetic, dramatic, cinematic, televisual, digital, sociological, popular-cultural, ethnographic, and folkloric’ (17). This is a reference book indispensable to any self-respecting academic library, but it is also a publication that sits well in the personal collection of any student or lay person interested in the discipline. It is at times challenging, since even the most erudite scholar is unlikely to be widely read in all areas covered, but it can easily be dipped into to access a particular period, critical approach, or milieu. It is also a stimulating cover-to-cover read, well worth the investment of time and energy to enter comparatively unfamiliar territories such as Disney animation for a Medievalist, or Shakespearean drama for someone more accustomed to studying the nineteenth-century sentimental novel. 

The only slight negative to the volume is the opening part of the introduction, which for a few moments made this reviewer hesitate about whether or not to carry on. From the first sentence and then for several pages afterwards, the editors discuss an ephemeral 2016 television documentary on puppy play on the fringes of the BDSM community. This subject matter, while connected to the arguments appearing towards the very end of the book, seems arbitrarily provocative at the beginning of it. The concept of performing species is well presented in the foray into cosplay, and it is not through any especial prudishness that the reviewer was put off, but more that it appears a somewhat inelegant attempt at seizing attention. Eroticised ways of ‘becoming animal’ would sit more comfortably as a separate piece prior to the afterword. In the introduction, once the Soho sex shops are put to bed, the reversion to Pythagorean philosophy and the transmigration of souls comes as something of a relief. The book then gets on with what it does very well indeed, which is entering into a combination of literary-historical and theoretical engagements with the animal and animality as well as addressing ethical concerns of species difference and animal rights.

The first five chapters come under the heading of ‘Origins’ beginning with classical antiquity and travelling across the long Middle Ages to the early modern period.  By way of opener, Pieter Buellens discusses the influence of Aristotle’s zoological treatises on medieval natural history, their influence on bestiaries, and their application by preachers as instructional and devotional resources.  The focus of Luuk Houwen is on monstrosity as an embodiment of divine will arising from the teaching of Saint Augustine. William Perry Marvin then considers the culture of the medieval hunt as pragmatic, prestigious and performative. David Salter examines the function of animals in late-medieval romance and hagiography to elicit ‘aesthetic, affective and religious responses’ (75). Gillian Rudd studies neo-Aesopic and neo-Chaucerian beast fables and contrasts the fabular, emblematised function of the talking animal with its unaccommodated natural behaviour.        

The second section on ‘Development’ covers the period from 1500-1900. Molly Hands considers witchcraft and the freighted symbol of the animal familiar, and she offers a zoocentric reading of pamphlets and the plays of Rowley, Dekker and Ford. Bruce Boehrer highlights animal entertainments informing Shakespeare and his near contemporaries, and he embraces quasi-theatrical violent spectacles such as bear baiting, and also light-comedic dog-and-clown acts. Lucinda Cole considers the eighteenth-century categorisation of the animal ‘other’ and the Enlightenment discourse of verminisation applied by Swift among others to denigrated humans. In the use of imagery that is both biopolitical and ethnographic, ‘soulless insects help ground a chain of differences’ (142). Matthew Senior’s chapter on the intertwining of speciesism and racism follows on naturally from Cole’s contribution to the volume. Senior examines the plant and animal taxonomical classifications of Linnaeus and Cuvier, and their appropriation by theoreticians who purport to present a biologically informed ‘gradation of animality within human ranks’ (167). Deborah Denenholz Morse considers the first person, equine, gendered narration of ‘Black Beauty’ discovering in the novel the rhetorical tool of an animal consciousness being used to deconstruct Victorian masculinity and to highlight animal abuse. The final chapter of the section moves on from primarily literary examinations of the animal to philosophical anthropology and addresses Nietzsche’s anti-humanist theory in which ‘animal and plant life are constitutive of human life’ and how homo natura is translated back into nature (202).

The third and last section of the volume is the self-explanatory ‘Contemporary Perspectives’.  Michael Lundblad discusses Roland Barthes, spatial distance, and physical intimacy and their relation to intra and inter-species relations. Alanna Thain considers the roles of animal ‘unfamiliars’, experimental subjects, and semi-companion species in time-travel cinema. Matthew Calarco interrogates the philosophical theories of Heidegger, Derrida, and Agamben on abyssal divides between species, complex metaphysical oppositions, and the perpetration of biopolitical violence arising from the denial of commonality or continuum between human and animal. Brian Massumi looks at how Deleuze’s concept of ‘becoming animal’ is manifested in excursions both real and literary in which empathetic animal imitation challenges anthropocentrism and dehumanises personhood. Thomas Lamarre shifts the conversation into the realm of animation and animism in which occurs the ‘personation’ of the nonhuman (290-292). David Jaclin explores how scientific manipulation artificially installs appealing habits and appearances in domestic animals and how it supports fantasies of the de-extinction of lost species such as the mammoth. Peter Kulchyski in the last chapter of the collection adopts a determinedly non-western, non-capitalist perspective and returns to the psychic interconnectedness of aboriginal humans and wild animals in the bush. Finally, all eighteen chapters are topped off by an afterword which pulls them together in an analysis of Disney’s adaptations of Beauty and the Beast.

Limited by word-space, this review can only give the briefest indication of the plethora of concepts covered, but it is keen to demonstrate enthusiastic support for the stimulating spectrum of approaches to animals and animality in this volume.

Janette Leaf, Birkbeck, University of London