The Chronicle Review

Animals Reconsidered

A series ponders humans' encounters with other kinds of flesh and blood

October 18, 2009

At the beginning of Moose, one of the most recent additions to the Animal series published by Reaktion Books, Kevin Jackson recounts the disappointments of a commercial moose-watching vacation he took years ago in Maine, in which hours of puttering around the waters of an ice-cold lake yielded a grainy, barely perceptible image through his binoculars.

The trek would end in disappointment, it seemed, until he noticed driving off that night the object of his animal-loving fancy munching foliage on the side of a road. "I have seen plenty of other animals in the wild—dolphins and whales in the Atlantic, porcupines and martens in Italy, wallabies and camels in Australia—but I have never experienced a sense of privilege and enchantment as I felt watching this peaceable she-creature. After about 20 minutes, she ambled away into the foliage and was gone. In the following days, we saw several more moose at close range, including a frisky youngster cantering down a roadside. But you never forget the first time." The epiphany leads Jackson into an extended reverie—what was the nature of that epiphany? Why did the search lead him on an extended trek all the way into the chilly climes of inland Maine? What made the moose into his own landlocked White Whale?

The sometimes unsettling encounter with a real flesh-and-blood specimen of an animal—or, for that matter, the absence of one—is a recurring literary conceit at the beginning of many volumes in the series. Beginning with Boria Sax's Crow in 2003 and extending to Hare, by Simon Carnell, Animal now comprises 34 volumes, each dedicated to a sort of hybrid natural and cultural biography of a specific creature. Some, like Dog and Horse and Cow, have focused on familiar, even cuddly animals, but the majority have spanned a more esoteric and exotic range of mammalia and avian species—with books devoted to bears, peacocks, falcons, and rats—as well as fish, reptiles, and insects.

In each of the books, the writers frequently mime the nervous roles of tiptoeing birdwatchers or greedy hunters lying in wait for the big game that may never appear. Prosaically, the device —whether it is a writer in Rhinoceros confessing that she has never seen a rhino in the wild and that her most intimate associations were with a stuffed one in the American Museum of Natural History, or the author of Crow startling upon a baby crow lying in the middle of the road near his home in White Plains, N.Y.—underscores that the books in the series are above all essays, and personal ones at that, penned less frequently by professional animal specialists than by interested scholars from literary and history fields; their tone eschews the dry cant and summary overview of the encyclopedia.

More than that, these opening stories subtly smuggle across a quiet moral about the animals in question—that what we come to experience and expect of the motley beasts, birds, and critters that are the stars of each book has been thoroughly mediated by our representations of them, whether in mythology and folklore, in literature and poetry, in cartoons and advertising campaigns and feature-length films, in corporate agricommerce and on dinner tables. "This cow moose did not look silly at all," Jackson writes, almost chagrined, after spotting his roadside version of what Ted Hughes called "dopes of the deep woods." Indeed, "she was anything but clumsy and sluggish and dumb. She was a beauty."

All of the books proceed from a common set of assumptions about the power and shape of overlapping cultural and natural histories and semiotic systems that each animal musters in our collective imaginary encounters with them. You might think of them as sample chapters taken from a bigger unwritten textbook put together by an editorial team of Konrad Lorenz, Clifford Geertz, Donna Haraway, and Walt Disney—a hodgepodge collection of multi-angled perspectives that constitute the loose set of disciplines that make up animal studies. In emphasizing that the story of the animal is always the story of animal-human relations, they are reminders of Claude Lévi-Straus's admonition that animals are "good to think."

"I've always had a template for the series, all the way back before it started," says Jonathan Burt, editor of the series, "and I've always tried to keep that shape for the whole series." The result is a uniformity of look and format across Animal: Each book clocks in at about 200 pages with a generous number of about 100 illustrations and photographs. They all are published in paperback format (in runs of 3,000 to 5,000 copies per book), bathed in eye-candy pastels and fluorescent hues and featuring a handsome matte finish (each title retails at a reasonable $19.95). The design imparts a familiarity and user-friendliness to each new volume as it becomes part of the series. "My oldest friend from school founded the Rough Guides," Burt, an independent scholar, says. "We always had a running joke that one day we could do a Rough Guide to the Camel, and that book would start off the way the Rough Guides always do—getting there, and visas, and red tape. That would correspond to the evolutionary-history section, and then after that you would have the history of science, the history of art." Each Animal-series title breaks down similarly: "Natural history-slash-evolutionary history at the beginning of the volume, then the cultural history later on."

Burt founded the series after his early exposure to the nascent world of animal studies. His academic background in Paleolithic archaeology led him to conduct research on the history of the London Zoo and brought him into contact with like-minded writers and scholars who were doing work in English literature, history, philosophy, and the natural sciences but who lacked a point of contact with one another, or at least common frames of references. In 2000 he co-founded the Britain-based Animal Studies Group with a consortium of interested others from anthropology, film studies, philosophy, art history, literature, and geography who were likewise convinced of the necessity of fostering more nuanced and diverse perspectives on research (the group wrote the 2006 title Killing Animals, published by the University of Illinois Press). While working on his book Animals in Film for Reaktion, which appeared in 2002, he began to conceive of a more far-reaching program that could apply the multidisciplinary mode of inquiry to the animal kingdom.

"I've worked in animal studies for a long time," Burt said, "but there were very few books kicking around in the late 90s, just around the time that animal studies really took off in Britain and the States. Sometime around 2000 I was having lunch with some friends, and we thought it would be great to do a series of little histories of creatures that no one ever writes about. I wanted to do this series about marginal creatures, writing cultural histories and not on the dog, the horse, that already had some sort of purchase in history."

Though more familiar animals did indeed become part of Animal, the emphasis on the marginal is echoed throughout the foundation of the series. Reaktion Books, founded in 1985 as a publisher focusing on art history, contemporary art, and visual studies, had since dedicated itself to books that examined histories and cultural topics on the fringe of various disciplines, so it provided a good fit for Burt's idea. (Reaktion Books is distributed in the United States by the University of Chicago Press.) The consumer group for whom the books are produced is itself a hybrid, which Burt describes as "semiacademic, semipopular." But he was also drawn to the niche status of animal studies itself, which lacked then and now the institutional standing of established fields and enjoyed a measure of freedom and curiosity.

"I felt that when I started in the 90s there were three or four people around the world doing the same stuff," he says. "That was quite a nice time in a way—we were able to enjoy the marginality of what we were doing." It isn't hard to imagine that in his "marginal creatures," Burt and his Animal-series authors—most of them early on drawn from English departments rather than, say, doctoral programs in biology—saw these critters as totems of the field itself.

The heterogeneous composition of animal studies is reflected in the content of the books. Bee considers the apian contribution to the history of husbandry, honey making, and mead production, and its place in contexts as diverse as South American myth, Virgilian poetry, and Indo-European philology. But the insect's paradoxical semiotic trajectory—it is hailed at various times for its ingenious social structure, its nonhuman communication systems, and its reputation as nature's workaholic while feared for its mindless, horrifically violent swarm of mass behavior—opens the book up to a consideration of how multiform are the ways of mapping human behavior onto the lowly bee, "from the first Greek poetry to the latest Hollywood horror film."

The sources drawn on for Salmon include the writings of the medieval philosopher Boethius and the novelist Sir Walter Scott, the eating habits of the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, attempts to market salmon-skin apparel, and the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (the British poet laureate pops up in many of the Animal volumes). The book grazes gingerly through a riot of detail and trivia while laying out a cogent history of the rise of the canned-salmon industry and the nostalgic images spawned by the advertising imagery for a creature that had disappeared from many rivers in England during the Industrial Revolution and had become a symbol of unfettered wilderness associated with the northlands of Scotland.

In When Species Meet, her influential study of human relations with companion species, Donna J. Haraway writes of animals as being ordinary "beings in encounter," met in the house, lab, field, zoo, park, office, prison, ocean, stadium, barn, or factory. "They are always meaning-making figures that gather up those who respond to them into unpredictable kinds of 'we.'" Asking complex and unsettling questions about the epistemological categories concerning "what are named nature and culture" is philosophy's cornerstone contribution to animal studies. Burt's own contribution to the Animal series, Rat, harnesses those concerns onto an animal that has been seen as "an apt figure for horror and the target of so much hatred and loathing." The rat, well before its epidemiological role in the transmission of plague was established, has long been associated with excess, with superfecundity, with obsessions over hygiene and fears of urbanity and circulation (it is a commonplace in population studies to tie its geographic distribution to the trade routes of the preindustrial world).

The rat maps perfectly onto human history and our deepest cultural anxieties, and in fact Burt puts particular emphasis on a "confluence of networks" in the last decade of the 19th century in christening the rat in fact as a "totem animal for modernity." (Consider, in the two-decade period at the end of that century and the beginning of the next, the virulent outbreak of plague in Guangzhou in 1894, which would eventually kill more than 10 million people in India after its spread there in 1896; the creation of the first breeding lines to standardize the production of albino laboratory rats in 1906; the mushrooming of maze-learning behavioral-psychology experiments during that same decade; the first public "rat fancy" shows among breeding aficionados in 1901; and Sigmund Freud's publication of his seminal case "The Rat Man.")

Handmaiden to modernity's pressure points, the rat emerges a century later as scientific "superhero"—a creature that is a critical cog in the industrial machinery of research, bred with genetic manipulations to make all manner of medical and biochemical testing possible. The "superhero rat" is a creation in fact of the biogenetic industry, an animal whose "evolution" has moved in lockstep with the scientific interests that have changed alongside it. Can we still think of it as an animal? As natural? Whatever the issues raised by the history and culture of the furry little rodents, Burt's essay, like the other books in the Animal series, muddies a simple picture.

The muddied picture seems particularly contemporary against the backdrop of the Darwinian bicentennial and at a time of considerable public concern over the ecological effects of industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, and the safety of the food supply. The human relation with and treatment of animals seems at least impressionistically to be a source of growing anxiety, an angst that the popularity of the Animal series reflects (and its appeal has attracted prestigious forthcoming contributions —the acclaimed naturalist writer Desmond Morris's Owl appears this month, and the camel title that jump-started Burt's own thinking for the series is being written by the noted Middle East scholar Robert Irwin). The series could theoretically expand to hundreds of volumes, but there are limits imposed by what species fit best—Burt emphasizes creatures that have wide geographical distribution and a global presence in mythology, religion, and legend and that offer a plethora of interesting images. But when the series has at last exhausted its interest, Burt does have one final animal he'd like to assign to bring the Animal series full circle. With an impish smirk, he names it: "Man."

Eric Banks, a former editor of Bookforum, is a writer in New York. He last wrote for the Review on the linguist Derek Bickerton.