The Humane Society


Review of The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice, by Tobias Menely

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015

We may not know what Jane Austen thought about animals, but we do know what she thought about excessive feeling. “[N]ot every one… has your passion for dead leaves” Elinor Dashwood tartly remarks as her sister bewails the passing of the seasons in Sense and Sensibility. The poetry that feeds Marianne Dashwood’s tortured sensibility made the suffering of animals a recurrent theme. In eighteenth-century Britain, the anguish of mute beasts became not only—like Marianne’s dying leaves—an occasion for sentimental excess, but also an issue in its own right. “Admire we not in other animals” one late eighteenth-century author opined “whatever is most eloquent in man, the tremor of desire, the tear of distress, the piercing cry of anguish, the pity-pleading look, expressions that speak the soul with a feeling which words are feeble to convey?” (165).

Tobias Menely’s remarkable study tracks poetically rendered animal suffering from the drawing room into the public arena, including into debates over the first legislation—at least in the West—to protect the welfare of animals. The Animal Claim employs the fluid interplay between animal feeling and human sympathy (as mediated by the heightened feeling of “sensibility”) to pose searching questions about the limits of political recognition and ethical responsibility. As jam-packed with riches as the best eighteenth-century poems, this study makes its own claim on the attention of a diverse readership concerned with the uncanny proximity of animals to our thinking about the makings of a humane society and the role of impassioned language in shaping collective life.

The book’s initial concerns are philosophical, displaying a formidable range of reference from Aristotle to Jacques Derrida. Its opening chapter interrogates the status of the linguistic sign from which animals are putatively barred. Menely goes on to provide astute readings of Enlightenment thinkers from Hobbes to Rousseau that tease out their efforts to cordon off human understanding from animal feeling, semantic meaning from expressed demands. René Descartes, for instance, an early practitioner of vivisection, sought to preserve the autonomy of the thinking human subject and defiantly rejected the capacity of animals to feel by hammering the paws of a dog to a wooden plank. These are tendencies Menely sees redoubled in continuing efforts to claim the Enlightenment as founding an autonomous reasoning subject. “Do not dogs nod ‘yes’ with their tails, as we do with our heads?” (27) Henry More implored in his correspondence with Descartes. “No,” the great cogitator responded, shaking his own head; besides, even in their apparent distress, animals “cannot show that they are thinking what they are saying” so we should not feel bad about our indifference towards their suffering. (Descartes, in Menely’s subtle and counterintuitive reading, nonetheless remained haunted by the silent demands of animals, in a way he could not explain—even as he continued to show no outward sign of feeling bad about their plight).

But while animals have no voice in their own right, their capacity for expression, within a shared medium of embodied feeling, did allow for their “claim” to be heard. Derrida provides an inevitable and crucial interlocutor for the book’s concerns with the claims creatures make on each other. Derrida’s experiences feeding his cat the remains of other animals occasioned celebrated meditations on being human—as did, more obliquely, his experience of feeling strange when his cat saw him naked. Menely’s hardheaded analysis looks back to Derrida’s earlier work on the voice as an elusive marker of human primacy. Voice, non-identical with the linguistic sign, is defined by its ephemerality and unique timbre. My cries may be the most human thing about me. But what, then, for the yelps of dogs? Should the cries that reduce me to an “animal” condition not lead to my pity for all fellow creatures? (Elinor Dashwood, we may imagine, has by this point impatiently begun to tut and fix the hem on her dress.)

For eighteenth-century readers, at least those in the mold of Austen’s keenly feeling Marianne, these were not matters for idle speculation, but pressing concerns that prompted familiar difficulties. We know slaves were treated like animals, Tom Hayden has noted: what of the ways animals may be treated like slaves? You can call someone out for treating a person like a dog. But what about treating a dog like a dog? And then what about horses? Horses had it pretty bad too. In fact, they were beasts that carried a particular burden in the eighteenth century—as Jonathan Swift may well have registered when he gave the master race that convinces Gulliver of human inadequacy equine form. But then what about me, says the hen? Chickens were “loyal subjects,” one tract proclaimed: don’t forget about us chickens. Eighteenth-century studies has been much concerned with stories about talking animals and objects; the field has at times resembled a haywire Disney parade, in which everything (and indeed, every thing, from talking banknotes to chattering stagecoaches) has clamored for attention. The Animal Claim does not concern itself with narratives and fables that personify animals with human voices; the exception of the talkative hen reflects the book’s uncommonly rich footnotes—a treasure trove of archival discoveries and informed commentary. Instead, Menely uses “voice” to pose far-reaching, subtle questions about political recognition.

Drawing upon the etymology of “advocacy” and Walter Benjamin’s thinking about our creaturely condition, Menely reminds us that “to advocate is to use the authority embodied in one’s own voice to speak for others” (125). In the fluid world of eighteenth-century sensibility, animals acquired special recognition through the “advocacy” provided by the intermediary figure of the poet. As Derrida reminds us, my voice is never solely or fully my own; the poetic voice hereby took this a stage further, becoming, strangely, at once more and less than human. Menely’s discussion of Christopher Smart—a madman who wrote a poem to his cat Jeffrey while institutionalized—provides a fitting introduction to the weird and wonderful world of eighteenth-century poetry. His writings may not immediately strike the readers of this learned forum us as a propitious basis for a modern ethics;  Smart’s bewildering biblical epic makes the insane cosmographies of William Blake look like the analysis of David Brooks. Yet as pious a moralist as original Rambler Samuel Johnson maintained that he would “as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else” (which, as Menely shows, means praying with and on behalf of animals).

William Cowper was ostensibly more orthodox, as one might expect from Austen’s favorite poet. Yet Cowper emerges here as couching his own unpredictable enthusiasms within his poetry, which in real life included a melancholic identification with his pet hares. (The detailing of his horrific depression finds at least some recompense in the delightful recounting of his antics with Puss, Tiney and Bess). Menely returns to view Cowper’s concern, within the delightfully rambling poem in which he also meditated about the growth of his cucumbers, with strenuous advocacy on the part of animals. “Advocacy,” Menely reminds us, is vocational: “the advocate is first called upon” (125). In the early biblical context, vocation was “a creatural condition, a matter of being directed by the divine voice” (125), which now takes shape as impassioned communication between—and on behalf of—creatures dispossessed from divine meaning and located in finitude. Advocates for welfare remain animated, in this account, by the quivering sensibilities of vulnerable creatures. (Elinor Dashwood has, at this point, taken her bible and retired for bed).

Sentimentalism and its promiscuous currents of feeling—and socially leveling propensities—have also had their modern critics. For Hannah Arendt compassion was dangerously flattening, recklessly ungrounded. The “nutty cat lady” and animal hoarders of reality television are social pariahs, who stand for affective excess and pathological blockages (though they are hardly recent phenomena, as Menely illustrates through such fascinating curiosities as a 1909 New York Times article declaring “Passion for Animals Really a Disease”). Yet such figures equally hint at the ways non-normative circuits of feeling might disrupt the status quo. No blinkered Marianne, nor befuddled half-naked Derrida, Menely stakes a powerful claim for the importance of seemingly exorbitant feeling.

Concerns with animal cruelty took shape in suggestive proximity to political reform movements, including calls for an expanded franchise and the abolition of slavery. Yet such concerns could become politically dangerous. During the period of the French Revolution, the “excessive or improper passions” of “sentimentality” were associated with “promiscuous social identifications” (168). Austen, having lived through the turbulent post-revolutionary decades, identified with these fears; Elinor Dashwood, whatever her own capacity for deep feeling, became a mouthpiece for the dangers of not keeping such feelings in check. (One minute, you may be pitying a dying animal or treasuring dead leaves; the next, you might be letting a mischievous wastrel into your affections, or opening your kitchen to gypsies). Such sympathies might intersect with demands to recognize the rights of working people and women, as Thomas Taylor noted when he satirized Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft in the title of his 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. For Austen and her fellow conservatives, the notion of working people—let alone women—having the vote was as ludicrous a proposition as having a turkey give a sermon.

Early landmarks in legislation for animal welfare—which looked back as far as the 1635 act that prohibited pulling wool off sheep as an example of “cruelty… to beasts”—provide The Animal Claim with its historical backbone. “What Laws are now in force? or what Court of judicature does now exist, in which the suffering Brute may bring his action against the wanton cruelty of barbarous man?” (10) Anglican vicar Humphrey Primatt asked in 1776 (his argument that every “creature” has a “Right to Happiness” providing, Menely notes, a “striking echo” of Thomas Jefferson’s formulation that same year). The book’s later chapters track developments over the subsequent decades which saw poets and reformers including Jeremy Bentham “call explicitly for new statutes that would protect the rights of animals” (10). The 1822 “Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle” presents a historical terminus, in this regard: at once a high watermark in sympathy for animal sympathy and mark of its governmental containment. Menely relates this measure to a moment of increasingly visible political tensions (as well as a large and shifting “emotive public sphere”) and the book’s close attention to these interlocking changes at the turn of the nineteenth century will serve as a crucial touchstone in further explorations of politics and feeling in this period. These debates also cast light on abiding legal predicaments. In this account, the “process of instituting law” promises to disclose “the law’s contingent foundations and the uneven distribution of its protection” (11). We ought to view rights, Menely contends, “as neither simply an intrinsic condition of nature nor a contingent condition of state recognition, but rather as a communicative transaction, a claim that begins before the law and yet is only realized in the law” (13). “Liberal polities” are thus “defined by a constitutive instability” resulting from these contingent appeals to feeling: “they seek to exclude the claims of passion from the realm of politics, and yet their formative definition of the person whose interests the state must protect is always already emotive” (173).

While advancing a coherent narrative about the transition into the nineteenth century, The Animal Claim is finally concerned less with accounting historically for the ebb and flow of political recognition for animals than with how these influxes of feeling and pressures on the limits of community continue to be felt--or rather, how they should continue to be felt. Alongside its emerging concerns with legislation and statutes, therefore, The Animal Claim maintains a passionate political focus throughout. Each chapter relates “sensibility’s rhetoric of the vocal claim to the justification of political authority, as it is defined with respect to the prerogatives of the monarch, the claims of the public, the vocation of the poet, the lawmaking power of the legislature, and the force of positive law itself” (9). Menely draws on Giorgio Agamben for his rather foreboding discussion of sovereign power in “post-absolutist” Britain. Agamben’s account of the “biopolitics”—whereby state power arrogates control over life as such—in turn opens the way to the book’s nuanced discussion of “biopower.” An excoriating conclusion valuably expands the horizons of biopolitical critiques centered on state governance to the free market, in which animals provide the fuel to the limitless capitalist engine. This trenchant discussion turns to the “incomprehensive suffering experienced by animals under industrial agribusiness” (12), whose horrors are masked by a regime at once biopolitical and exemplary of a dangerous new biopower, providing neither a sovereign from whom to seek redress nor an informed public to bear witness. The abbatoir—at least in the United States, if not elsewhere—leaves no one to hear the screams.

Unlike some recent assertions about the propensity for fiction to generate readerly sympathy for animal welfare, The Animal Claim does not provide easy answers; its burden is to compel our reckoning with sympathies that may have no clear endpoint or limit. The book, finally, comprises a fabulous meditation upon the political force of impassioned language, in particular the role of poetry as a medium which “endows creaturely loss with collective meaning, creating a common world out of the shared condition of corporeal finiteness” (16). Like the long poems that are at the core of its discussion, The Animal Claim holds its various concerns in dynamic equipoise, each animating and interfusing each other. Recovering myriad riches from the past while also turning a stark light on the present, this brilliant book compels the attention of a large and sympathetic audience.

Posted on 15 May 2017

JOHN OWEN HAVARD is Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University, where his teaching and research focus on the eighteenth century. He is presently completing a book about the origins of disaffected attitudes towards politics.