Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Diss (Ideas)

Is it a good idea to blog about my unwritten dissertation? Will someone else steal my plans? I'm not sure but I'm doing it anyways.

So, I started reading Bruce Boehrer's book Shakespeare Among the Animals and it's really great. He's a good writer--funny, self-effacing, and smart. I need to take a class with that guy. Not next semester, though; he's teaching at 9:30 and, y'all, I am usually sleeping then. Oh, also I'm reading for prelims next semester, so NO CLASSES. I gotta stay firm on that. No classes.

He breaks down the early modern view of animals into three (not mutually exclusive) classes of: absolute anthropocentrism, relative anthropocentrism, and anthropomorphism. The first view is characterized by believing that humans are completely different from animals, that the difference constitutes our innate superiority to nature, and therefore all of nature is at our disposal, to be used by us. Relative anthropocentrism works on the same basic principles, except that not all humans are as "human" as others, i.e. those who are female, Catholic, Jewish, African, Spanish, children, mentally handicapped, etc.

The third view, anthropomorphism, supposes that humans and animals aren't all that different. But this has two pitfalls. The first, Boehrer notes, is that what makes humans different from/superior to nature is our reasoning faculty and our moral choice, and that if we reason poorly or make poor moral choices, we become, in essence, lower than beasts. Beasts keep to their own sphere; we alone can "devolve." The second pitfall Boehrer doesn't speak to but it is something I've often thought of when teaching sci-fi/fantasy*. A lot of sci-fi stories anthropomorphize aliens, making them think and feel like people; a lot of fantasy anthropomorphizes animals, doing the same thing. The alien feels rage, jealousy, or kindness; the animal feels guilt, love, a sense of honor. It's an example of the pathetic fallacy and, I think, is a kind of condescension on our part, assuming that the only problem between animals and humans is that they aren't smart enough to understand us, never considering whether the problem is that we don't understand them.

The great thing is that the book looks at just the things I want to look at. What distinguishes animals from humans? What is "natural," and "unnatural"? Is hybridity, the mixing of two normally separate classes like human/animal, male/female, always monstrous? And where do the essentialist distinctions we draw among ourselves--gender, sex, race--come into play on the human-beast spectrum? A lot of those distinctions, at least in early modern discourse, are written about in terms of bestiality. Moors are beasts and devils; Jews are dogs; women are horses and falcons, ducks, kittens, and livestock.

The bad thing, of course, is that the book looks at just the things I want to look at. And is already published.

But I'm going to add a twist, a (pardon the pun) carnival spin to it. I'm going to ask if monstrosity and hybridity always has to be negative. Could the upending of the human/animal hierarchy be part of the celebration of the grotesque, the acknowledgement of our lower selves, the eternal biting-of-the-thumb, that is carnival? Could it be, rather than a reinforcing of old binary classes, a way to see at once both the unity and the multiplicity in the world?

I'm gonna go ahead and say, Yes. Yes it could.

*He actually does mention it in his second book. Oops.

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