Ron Broglio, Beasts of Burden: Biopolitics, Labor, and Animal Life in British Romanticism

Ron Broglio, Beasts of Burden: Biopolitics, Labor, and Animal Life in British Romanticism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017) xiii + 163 pp. $80.00 Hb. ISBN 9781438465678

The latest work from Ron Broglio probes the ways that British “Improvements” of the Romantic era –changes to the Poor Laws, reactions to food crises, labor regulation, and the Highland Clearances for wool production – met with resistance in artistic and literary creations. In particular, Beasts of Burden illuminates the tensions between biopolitical projects (largely defined as the Foucauldian variety) and laboring bodies such as the slaughtered cow, the lost sheep, the trusty working dog, and homo juridicus, the subject of law. In looking at creatures “in the landscape,” this author modernizes a field of inquiry previously worked by the likes of John Barrell, Ann Bermingham, and Raymond Williams. Broglio’s most direct touchstones, however, are from the theory-heavy literary analysis; his text pinballs between references to Cary Wolf’s Before the Law: Humans and Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (2013) and Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (2009). Historians of science unfamiliar with these debates will still recognize and appreciate the subject matter (a chapter on the illustrations of Thomas Bewick and George Stubbs, for example) and will find Broglio’s treatments of living beings useful and illuminating.

In a chapter on the ways that agricultural poetry and the picturesque treat the slaughter of farm animals, Broglio makes a careful and compelling argument that the state’s intrusion into the management of farm labor – statistics, surveys, etc. – valued the bodies of animals over those of laborers. That agricultural improvement came at the expense of “hands” is no surprise, but Broglio’s examination of it through the lens of bodily vulnerability brings new depth to the ways in which human and non-human bodies are connected. Burns’ “To a Mouse” receives, here, a profound contextualization.

Another chapter considers stories from James Hogg’s Shepherd’s Calendar (1829). Best known for his tall tales of Highland fairies, the writer known as “the Ettrick Shepherd” is typically read as a source of rural nostalgia. But Broglio uses Hogg as a lens into the rich wisdom and moral order of the Highlands before the Clearances, when the work of a few men and their border collies was greater than the sum of their parts. Juxtaposed with Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), Hogg’s stories describe the power of the “invisible hands” that govern the Highlands – a strong storm, a witch’s spells, a dog’s invaluable sense of smell. Unlike his contemporary Walter Scott (1771-1832), Hogg resisted England’s “improvements” to Scotland by presenting living texts which invited the reader not into a nostalgia-laced Scotland of auld, but into one alive with possibility. At the same moment that the area is “cleared” so land and labor can be productive for the nation, Hogg repopulated the Highlands with forces which could be neither quantified nor controlled.

Each of Broglio’s chapters features ways that artists and writers commemorated nature slipping beyond culture’s grasp. While he acknowledges the Latourian rejection of nature/culture dualism, this author’s arguments depend upon the contrast of nature with culture and, at times, art with science. This might bother some readers, but his argument is justified because he seeks in several places to capture the moment at which nature becomes culture. In Man Proposes, God Disposes (1863), for example, painter Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) portrays the imagined ruins of Captain John Franklin’s ships, the Erebus and the Terror. Franklin and his crew became icebound in the Canadian Arctic in 1845 while seeking the Northwest Passage. In his commemorative piece, Landseer painted two polar bears feasting on human remains in the shadows of a ruined whaleboat. In this piece Broglio identifies the shift from the northern antipodes as “no place” to the Arctic as “place.” “Every venture and representation,” he writes, “becomes a scaffolding of history by which that ‘out there’ will come to be known as the Arctic and so enter in to culture . . . (96). Broglio’s choices of subject matter illustrate these entrances, but not before capturing the contests through which cultural scaffolding is constructed.

Beasts of Burden ends with a treatment of haunting, post-human scenes from Romantic poetry and prose. In a book that concentrates on the parallel developments of modern agriculture and the Romantic emphasis on the “self,” this reversal of subject matter is the exception that proves the rule. In landscapes devoid of labor and generation, what could have been invigorating sublimity turns into abject annihilation. To cite just one example: Victor Frankenstein follows his Creature into the barren Artic after the destruction of its female companion, and the retaliatory murder, by the Creature, of Victor’s bride Elizabeth. By preventing reproductive proliferation of a monstrous race, Frankenstein actualizes Malthusian principles; Shelley’s politicization of bodies becomes, when pressed to limits, the end of culture. But as in Shelley’s novel, the world without us is already here; it is in that which resists human ends; it is that which will go on long after we cease to be a part of it.

Because many of the paintings and poems interpreted by Broglio portray “idealized” and “paradigmatic” moments, a reader might wonder if rejection of the biopolitical happens only “at the limits.” Readers might also wonder about contemporary pieces that corroborated or even celebrated the politicization of laboring bodies. Analysis of such pieces would have been revelatory in Broglio’s hands. All-in-all, readers questions are more likely to be the result of their invigorated thinking, not of frustration with this author, who writes with care. Indeed, this volume makes such satisfying connections between concerns of the Romantic period and its literary output that it will be helpful for both the lit scholar needing to historicize poems as well as the historian trying to grasp the literature. Others who will find chapters of this volume particularly useful include those interested in Highland culture, the prints of Gillray and Rowlandson, animal domestication, uses of the image of the polar bear, and the politics of food production.

Cornelia C. Lambert, University of North Georgia