The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice

The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice

by Tobias Menely


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During the eighteenth century, some of the most popular British poetry showed a responsiveness to animals that anticipated the later language of animal rights. Such poems were widely cited in later years by legislators advocating animal welfare laws like Martin’s Act of 1822, which provided protections for livestock. In The Animal Claim, Tobias Menely links this poetics of sensibility with Enlightenment political philosophy, the rise of the humanitarian public, and the fate of sentimentality, as well as longstanding theoretical questions about voice as a medium of communication.    
In the Restoration and eighteenth century, philosophers emphasized the role of sympathy in collective life and began regarding the passionate expression humans share with animals, rather than the spoken or written word, as the elemental medium of community. Menely shows how poetry came to represent this creaturely voice and, by virtue of this advocacy, facilitated the development of a viable discourse of animal rights in the emerging public sphere. Placing sensibility in dialogue with classical and early-modern antecedents as well as contemporary animal studies, The Animal Claim uncovers crucial connections between eighteenth-century poetry; theories of communication; and post-absolutist, rights-based politics.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226239392
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/06/2015
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Tobias Menely is assistant professor of English at the University of California, Davis.

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The Animal Claim

Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice

By Tobias Menely

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-23942-2


The Significant Voice: Address and the Animal Sign

Books for young children teach animal names by relating them to the signature vocalization of the species: the woof or meow, bah or neigh. Thus they revise the hexameral tradition of Adam's naming by fiat by linking the word with a creaturely voice that precedes it. The animal vocalization serves as a transitional object, a kind of echolalia that is not intrinsically meaningful but provides an entrance to the symbolic, the domain of customary meanings. But there is another sense in which animals are known by their voices, not in taxonomic distinctness but in creaturely affinity. Rousseau observed that cattle low mournfully when brought to the slaughterhouse. A dog wags its tail and barks at its master, Henry More reminded Descartes. A wounded ox, Bernard Mandeville noted, will bellow, sigh, and groan in its suffering. Lowing, tail wagging, barking, bellowing, sighing, and groaning cannot be confused with the passions to which they give expression. Whether we characterize these vocal and gestural expressions as intentional or instinctive (an insecure distinction, in any case), they convey states of passion, fulfilling the canonical definition of the sign given by Peirce: "something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign." Particularly difficult to conceptualize, in the case of animal expression, is the issue of address, the implication that the sign is not just information adventitiously happened upon but directed, sent forth. Address implies an act of framing or facing. The animal gestures and vocalizations establish a relation, anticipate a reception, appeal for a response. To whom—to what "somebody"—are they directed? Even if we decide that the uneasy lowing of the livestock brought to slaughter is pure reflex, what about the bovine appeal to the husbandman, with clear implications of relation and obligation, described by Thomson in The Seasons: "The cattle from the untasted fields return / And ask, with meaning low, their wonted stalls"?

This chapter situates sensibility, as a semiology of creaturely affect and address, in relation to a number of canonical accounts of human obligation that contrast the imperatives given by the spoken word with those of the creaturely voice. To begin, I turn to three exemplary premodern considerations of creaturely proximity: the two cosmogonies in Genesis, the political and linguistic philosophy of Aristotle, and René Descartes's correspondence with Henry More on the animal sign. I focus on what these widely discussed episodes in the history of Western anthropocentrism assume about the situation of communication, the relation between addresser and addressee. I next offer a brief overview of eighteenth-century sensibility as a semiology of sympathetic communication and the vocal imperative that offers an explicit alternative to the Cartesian paradigm. What is distinctive about sensibility is its attribution to the animal of not only semiotic legibility but a capacity for address, a turning toward that elicits response. Finally, I locate one afterlife of sensibility in the writings of two twentieth-century philosophers, Levinas and Derrida, for whom the addressive voice of the animal presents an unrelenting theoretical and ethical impasse, suggesting that the enigmas of the animal claim are with us still.

Dominion: Voice and Speech

The foundational scriptural accounts of creaturely relation, the two cosmogonies in Genesis, confront the unsettling likeness of animals by staging man's unique relation, at the moment of his creation, to the divine speech act and the name. After he brings forth the "living creatures" that move through the air and sea on the fifth day, God's speech alters from primordial creation to blessing: "And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth." The divine blessing imparts the creative faculty of generation to the living creatures. It does not imply that the animals are answerable in a linguistic sense, but it does recognize that animate beings are uniquely subject to both spoken imperatives and earthly depredations. As Rashi explains, "Because they are decimated, captured and eaten they required a blessing." On the sixth day God forms the land animals and then "man in his own image." Two aspects of this likeness are made evident when in the next line the function of divine speech again changes. God addresses man and woman: "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion [radah] over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." The introduction of the direct object ("unto them") indicates that human community with God will be linguistic. Human beings are addressed by God. Not only the form but also the content of this inaugural communication signals humankind's unique place in the creation, for God's very first statement is, in Augustine's words, the "divine ordinance" that establishes humankind as God's regents on earth. At this point the difference between humans and the other living creatures has no clear ontological content. All creatures are nephesh chayah (living, breathing beings), all partake of God's blessings and the imperative to procreate. The difference is political. The Hebrew word radah (literally, "to tread") characterizes a sovereign's rule over his subjects. The implications of the dispensation have been variously interpreted as a justification for absolute exploitation or as imposing an obligation of stewardship according to which human beings are answerable to God for their treatment of animals. In either case, however, God, having allocated the fruits of the earth to man and beast alike, authorizes human dominion with a verbal command, an address to which humans are uniquely subject. Why does he do this? Why is the relation between man and beast so clearly political, not the natural consequence of innate difference but the result of a command constitutive of the relationship it describes? Animals, we might conclude, are the living beings whose subjection requires a performative speech act, whose relation to human beings is the first concern of political speech.

What precipitates the creation of the animals in the second telling is God's recognition of Adam's solitude: "And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet." Having come into the world before the animals, Adam is incomplete, and he is offered the possibility of discovering companionship among the other living creatures, who, like him, are formed of the blood-colored earth (adamah): "out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." As the animals parade before him, the question of community is held in suspension. Though Adam seeks society among the creatures, he discovers only autonomy, his unique faculty for knowing and naming. Adam, after all, names the animals before he has anyone, besides God, with whom to converse. As Hobbes writes, Adam, a "philosopher alone by himself," employed words as "marks" to serve his memory rather than as "signs" for communication. Or, as William Cowper characterized Adam in a late poem: in granting to "all creatures" a "name significant," he "learned not by degrees, / Nor owed articulation to his ear." In his first distinguishing act, Adam accepts his linguistic being in his capacity to discriminate, in his own mind, among the manifold living creatures. The action of naming appears to establish his relation to the animals as one of difference ("there was not found an help meet for him," necessitating the creation of woman), which is why Genesis 2:18–20 is widely read as continuous with 1:26–28. Authority is made immanent to Adam's speech, as the act of denomination confirms the original dispensation, providing "a sign and a proof of dominion," in the words of Bishop Bramhall. There is a long-standing debate about the source of Adam's names—whether it is to be found in divine inspiration (onomathesia) or experience, whether the names are necessary or arbitrary—but the implication of his naming is clear. As Hegel writes, "Adam's first mediating action in establishing his dominion over the animals consisted in his granting them names; thus he denied them as independent beings and he transformed them into ideals." Naming is an act of mastery continuous with God's first command (which supplies the transcendental origin of law), the moment wherein Adam achieves self-presence, and not community, at the expense of the animals whose passionate being is occluded in the ideality of the name.

Political communication in Genesis is nonsymmetrical. Adam and, by extension, mankind are God's representatives, endowed as his magistrates by his prior voice and answerable only to him. Aristotle, by contrast, characterizes political communication as a matter of formal equivalence, the categorical symmetry between addressor and addressee. This model of communicative reciprocity provides the theoretical basis for contract theory, even though Aristotle's polity is noncontractual. It is in the Politics, not his writings on natural history or semantics, that Aristotle establishes the crucial distinction between voice and speech:

Now that man is more of a political animal [zoon politikon] than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal who has the gift of speech [logos]. And whereas mere voice [phone] is but an indication of pleasure and pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and the inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is characteristic of man alone that he has any sense of good and evil, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

What distinguishes the instinctual association of gregarious animals like ants, bees, and baboons from the political relations formed among human beings is communicative reason: spoken deliberation about matters both practical and philosophical. The polis is a community (koinonia) of rational speakers, a domain of justice that develops historically, extending outward from the family to the state. By contrast, animal communities, mediated by mere voice, are forever circumscribed in time and space. Speech supplies the grounds for inclusion in a just community, a community that can speak of justice, because according to the principle of reciprocity only beings capable of dialogue, of addressing and being addressed, are due justice. Like the hierarchical relation of the rational soul to the passions, the human relation to brute animals is nonreciprocal: "When there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals ... the lower sort are by nature slaves" (Politics, 10). Or, as Aristotle states in the Nicomachean Ethics, "Neither is there friendship toward a horse or an ox, nor to a slave qua slave. For there is nothing in common to the two parties." Because the horse or ox is a means to end, a "living tool," rather than an end in itself, and is unable to enter into the circuit of discursive reciprocity, the communicative exchange that facilitates common life, neither friendship nor justice may be extended to it.

In the Politics the categorical distinction between phone and logos secures the horizon of community by separating human from animal. In his more analytical writings, however, Aristotle accepts a mental continuum between humans and other animals and finds it difficult to maintain any categorical distinction between voice and speech, both of which signify. Indeed, even in the famous passage in the Politics voice is said to disclose pain or pleasure, a foundational dichotomy that will organize any discussion of expediency or justice. The Greek word denoting the vocal intimation of pleasure and pain in the Politics is se¯mainein: to give signs. Se¯ma, from which we get both "semantic" and "semiotic," is for Aristotle a general term that may refer to a signal, symptom, mark, or symbol. The principle of meaning in the se¯ma is, first and foremost, associated not with its origin but with its conscious interpretation. A sign is anything from which a thinking being might derive information. Hence voice must signify in a specific way to distinguish it from merely evidentiary signs, such as thunder. In De Anima, Aristotle characterizes phone as originating in a sentient being's imagination: "Voice then is the impact of inbreathed air against the 'windpipe' and the agent that produces the impact is the soul resident in these parts of the body.... What produces the impact must have soul in it and must be accompanied by an act of imagination [phantasia], for voice is a sound with a meaning." Phantasia is the cognitive faculty, shared by humans and animals, that mediates through time between sense impressions and internal images or between images and ideas. Imagination enables a living being to perceive meaningful information in an environment, to compare experiences, and to transform information and experience into purposeful activity, including communication. To apprehend meaning in a vocal sign, then, is to recognize the one who emits it as a sensing, imagining being—as an interpreter and creator of signs. Aristotle, in other words, ascribes to vocal expression a quality he does not ascribe to signs in general: a directedness, an intention to mean.

In De Interpretatione Aristotle turns specifically to semantics, the significance of words and sentences, although here too he stresses the inseparability of voice and meaning. "Logos de esti phone semantike": speech is a signifying voice—or, "a sentence is a significant spoken sound" (De Interpretatione, 16b). Indeed, his most explicit statement on linguistic meaning in De Interpretatione does not depart greatly from the definition of vocal significance in De Anima: "Spoken sounds [phonai] are symbols [sumbolon] of affections in the soul [pathémata tes psyches], and written marks symbols of spoken sounds. And just as written marks are not the same for all men, neither are spoken sounds. But what these are in the first place signs [semeia] of—affections of the soul—are the same for all; and what these affections are likenesses of—actual things (pragmata)—are also the same" (16a). Here Aristotle introduces two important distinctions, departing from Plato and establishing the triadic model of the sign that would be developed by Augustine and the scholastics. The symbolic relation of the signifier, whether spoken or written, to what it signifies is conventional, whereas the mimetic relation between a mental impression (a signified) and the things of the world (referents) is natural. It is the conventional quality of human voice, its availability for arbitrary signification, rather than any mental origin of meaning, that introduces the distinction between symbolic speech and animal expressivity: "I say 'by convention' because no name is a name [ónoma, also translated as "noun" or "word"] naturally but only when it has become a symbol. Even inarticulate noises (of beasts, for instance) do indeed reveal something, yet none of them is a name" (De Interpretatione, 16b). It is more difficult to establish the difference between human and animal with regard to any natural dimension of meaning, the relation of mental impressions to objects, for pathémata encompasses a range of cognitive phenomena, from sensations to opinions to phantasia (De Cuypere and Willems, "Meaning and Reference," 321). It is only if we substitute for pathémata the preexistent knowledge (nous) of a being with a rational soul—if, in other words, we presume the prior categorical identity of the human as a rational animal—that speech (logos), which in itself never fully transcends the passions and the voice, can be understood (tautologically) as the source of human exceptionality. It is not that in Aristotle's analysis of meaning there is no difference between animal voice and human speech, signs and symbols, phone and phone semantike, but that these phenomena meet at a point of semiotic indistinguishability, such that any absolute distinction between them appears arbitrary.


Excerpted from The Animal Claim by Tobias Menely. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Significant Voice: Address and the Animal Sign
Chapter 2. Creaturely Origins: Enlightenment Naturalism and the Animal Voice
Chapter 3. The Addressive Animal: The Augustans and “Tyrant Custom”  
Chapter 4. Creaturely Advocacy: Poetic Vocation in the Age of Sensibility           
Chapter 5. Sensibilities into Statutes: Animal Rights and the Afterlife of Sensibility
Afterword: The Law and the Factory           

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