Monday, August 15, 2011
Justin E. H. Smith
[This is a short excerpt from my current book project, Language and Animals, about which you will be hearing more soon. --JEHS]
Some decades after M. F. K. Fisher, following Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, implored us to 'consider the oyster', David Foster Wallace asked us do the very same thing with a lobster. It was not at his request that I first did so, and neither was he the first to make the request. In the Essay on Classification of 1851, the Swiss zoologist Louis Agassiz also asked us to consider the lobster, but what he really wanted was something rather more radical: he wanted us to consider the lobster alone, to consider the world as if the lobster had no relatives, no exoskeletal cousins next to which we might be able to make some sort of sense of this odd creature:
[S]uppose, for instance, that our Lobster (Homarus americanus) were the only representative of that extraordinarily diversified type [the 'Articulata'], --how should we introduce that species of animal into our systems? Simply as a genus with one species by the side of all the other classes with their orders, families, etc., or as a family containing only one genus with one species, or as a class with one order and one genus, or as a class with one family and one genus? And should we acknowledge, by the side of Vertebrata, Mollusca, and Radiata, another type, Articulata, on account of the existence of that one Lobster, or would it be natural to call it by a single name, simply as a species, in contradistinction to all other animals? (Agassiz, Essay on Classification, London, 1859, 5).
If you think the lobster is peculiar, just imagine how peculiar, how utterly non-pareil, it would be if it were the only articulate (i.e., exoskeletal) animal in existence? How could we even begin to say what it is if there were nothing else like it?
We might ask something more radical still: Ecce homo. Consider the human. Next, consider the human alone, without any animal relatives, endoskeletal or otherwise. What would such a creature be like? Standing in relation to nothing that is like it, and at the same time not it, how would we know what sort of being we were beholding?
Agassiz wanted to say that without other articulates --without, so to speak, articulacy in the world-- we could not make any sense of the lobster as an articulate being. Now obviously Agassiz had in mind a very special sense of articulacy, but I am going to permit myself to extend this notion back to its ordinary usage, and to propose that, for us too, it is our existence alongside beings that are like us, but not us, that makes us articulate. We would not know ourselves if we did not know the animals; they are mute (it is said), but they give us voice. Language and animals are of a pair.
The connection I am proposing is sufficiently well attested historically for me to feel little need to argue for it. It is there in the naming ceremony in the book of Genesis, when Adam zaps into the very essences of the brutes and gives them the names, the real, proper, singular names, that match these essences; it is there in the medieval bestiary, where the emerging idea of the 'book of nature' seems to presuppose that if nature is a book, the animals are its lexicon, its thesaurus (which sounds like a lizard but in fact suggests treasure). It is there in Claude Lévi-Strauss's famous claim, to which we will be returning on multiple occasions, that the 'concrete logic' of 'primitive' peoples is based on a 'thinking with animals'; and it is there in Charles Darwin, who argued that it is our recognition of our kinship with animals, including the cognate nature of our mental faculties with theirs, that enables us to recognize that we are natural beings at all, whose capacities emerge over time, just like those of everything else in the world:
If no organic being excepting man had possessed any mental power, or if his powers had been of a wholly different nature from those of the lower animals, then we should never have been able to convince ourselves that our high faculties had been gradually developed (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, , Princeton University Press, 1981, 34).
If it were not for animals, we would misunderstand our higher faculties; we would take them to have popped into being suddenly and miraculously. We would take ourselves to be angels, and we angels would be deprived of the bulk of our metaphors, which is to say of the bulk of our language, as well as of any bearings or sense of situatedness within any broader community of beings. We would be lonely, inarticulate angels. Instead we are animals that won't shut up ('rational animals', is how this has sometimes been put), and, whether we care to admit it or not, we are not alone.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 08:53 AM | Permalink