Dickens’s Animals through the Lenses of Poverty Studies and Posthumanism

Olson, Greta (2012). “Dickens’s Animals through the Lenses of Poverty Studies and Posthumanism.” In: Dickens's Signs, Readers' Designs: New Bearings in Dickens Criticism. Ed. Norbert Lennartz and Francesca Orestano. Rome: Aracne. 281-303.

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  G RETA O LSON (G IEßEN ) Dickens's Animals through the Lenses of Poverty Studies and Posthumanism Inevitably, we look at texts through our own historical moment's set of anxieties and interests. In the Dickensian bicentennial year of 2012, I want to suggest that two lenses are particularly appropriate for approaching the author's work in new ways. These are the emergent fields of poverty and animal studies. I also wish to argue that they are related in ways pertinent not only to our own cultural moment but also to Dickens's time. Poverty studies are somewhat akin to the history from below movement that became  prominent in the sixties and seventies and altered the way we see the past. Rather than offering new versions of stories of great men and great wars, historians now gave us interwoven tales of common people and their everyday lives. Similarly, poverty studies seek to address a desideratum of cultural studies particularly in the United States: an address of poverty and class difference. One of the seminal voices in this field has been that of the provocateur Walter Benn Michaels who has criticized the United States for its confusing poverty and class with identity characteristics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The problem with this mental shorthand, Michaels claims, is that institutionalized practices of economic discrimination are understood as being analogical to individual prejudices. According to this logic, they simply need to be eradicated on a personal basis. Think of Oprah Winfrey working with a group of white and black racists and closing the show with a moving display of the former racists now holding hands. Such personalizing of systematic problems is antithetical to political activism. As Michaels writes, Classism understood as an identity issue "treats economic difference along the lines of racial and sexual difference, thus identifying the problem not as the difference but as the prejudice (racism, sexism) against the difference" (Michaels 2006, 106). Michaels's critique of particularly literary critics for their lack of attention to economic difference has many faults, including its insistence that endemic problems in American society such as race have to be ignored in favor of an interest in economic inequality. Moreover, his argument which was first voiced in 2006 feels less valid in a period of intense global anxiety about the future of the world's economies. In this moment, Dickens has particular salient things to say to us. His fictions address our middle-class fears about the loss of material privilege. We, too, are worried about money: The US and the EU are both in the midst of debt crises, and unemployment has remained  persistently high since the 2008 crisis. Might our lives then not also resemble those of the Dorrit family or Arthur Clennam? Might we not also lose our dressing up in a little brief authority and return to poverty? Or, do Dickens's scenes of childhood poverty affect us not only due to their virtuosity  2 G RETA O LSON  in eliciting empathetic responses but also due to their perceived genuineness? As scholars and readers, we have grown up in a period that eschews biographical criticism. Nonetheless, the knowledge of Dickens's time as a disaffected child in the  blacking factory, as told to us by John Forster in his The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-74), inevitably influences how we read his many scenes of childhood poverty. We cannot help but interpret Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Amy Dorrit, and Jo, the sweeper, as all in some sense being fictional renderings of a horrified re-imagined impoverished childhood. Through the intervention of Michaels and others, poverty studies has addressed questions about the politics of representations of poverty and the ethicacy of studying  poverty in the middle-class academic classroom. 1 These series of questions will bring me from poverty to animal studies, for I wish to argue that animal studies like poverty studies works to address aspects of experience that have gone unreported in literary and cultural studies. A foregrounding of the lack of attention to poverty in cultural studies has political ramifications for its practitioners as they negotiate their own class membership. Moreover, a recognition that poverty and class, words that are problematically used interchangeably, cannot be viewed as analogous to gender, sexual orientation, and race in intersectional analysis may also sharpen the tools with which we read and teach texts. With regard to animal studies, the articulation of the critique of the human may challenge the notion of the subject, knowledge, and subjectivity itself. Further issues concern questions about whether the poor depict themselves in the representations we study and how they wish to be portrayed; are dominant ideologies that naturalize social inequality furthered or resisted in these representations? Do the representations produce such aesthetic or horrific effects that they merely stimulate but do not incite to action? In "Dealing with Deprivation," 2 In some texts Korte describes a disturbing tendency to exoticize poverty both in its setting and through an aesthetics of endlessly repeated trauma. As with many strong representations, for instance those of rape or torture, these norms may encourage Barbara Korte describes Oliver Twist's desperate moment of, after weeks of hungering, asking for more food in the Workhouse as an Ur-szene in so-called 'misery memoirs' in the contemporary British literary market. Whether penned in Britain or in India, these memoirs make regular intertextual references to Oliver's request in a way that suggests that this scene has become seminal to generalized perceptions of poverty, just as Gustav Dore's images of the London poor provide a visual reservoir that still determines widely held ideas about how the poor live today. Whether taking place in Britain of the 1960s or in India, these memoirs refer to a presumably common image of poverty that Dickens's work so successfully disseminated. 1 For a recent overview of the issues see Korte 2010/2011; see also Butter/Schinko 2010; and Christ 2010. 2 Keynote address at the ESSE meeting in Torino 2010, quoted here in manuscript form with kind  permission of the author. Barbara Korte, " Dealing with Deprivation: A Figuration Approach to Poverty Narratives on the Contemporary British Book Market "  (2010).  D ICKENS ' S A  NIMALS  3 voyeurism in their readers while also eliciting their sympathy, and hopefully, their interest in social activism. Moreover, as she writes, misery lit featuring poverty runs a "danger of 'authenticating' poverty as cultural otherness" in its repeated references to historical tropes of poverty such as filthiness. Korte's remarks are important in two ways for the animal studies reading of Dickens's fictions that the rest of this article will undertake. In the first place, they stress that authenticity, truthfulness, or realism has traditionally been considered a hallmark of  poverty representations (cf. Fluck 2010, 63-93), however problematized realism has  become as a genre category. This presumed authenticity could be based on the author's experience of poverty, as in 'mis lit' narratives, or on the particularly 'honest' forms of representation, as Winfried Fluck reads them in depression era photography, or, as can  perhaps be read in Dickens's fictional renderings of poverty. Second, Korte makes an argument for the need to articulate a rhetoric of poverty representations, which, whether fictional or not, rely on or controvert certain prevailing genre stereotypes. This is political work in terms of addressing our own mentalities concerning poverty as well as the generic conventions with which we represent it. Before stating how Dickens's fictions address both these issues in their representations of animals and their use of animal imagery, I wish to offer the reader a thumbnail sketch of developments in animal studies. Literary and cultural studies have arguably never been devoid of an attention to animals. Classics such as Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea  (1936) or Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture  (1944) traced changing human perceptions and figurations of animals and nature. From today's perspective, however, these works may appear deeply anthropocentric. As of the 1970s, the claim was made by philosophers that the subjugation of nonhuman animals – note the new nomenclature and the political work it performs – can be viewed as analogous to older justifications for racism and sexism that were made on the basis of what was viewed as white man's supposed natural superiority. Peter Singer thus makes the powerful claim in his  Animal Liberation  (1975) that overcoming "speciesism" is a moral and political necessity: "The core of this book is the claim that to discriminate against beings solely on account of their species is a form of prejudice, immoral and indefensible in the same way that discrimination on the basis of race is immoral and indefensible" (Singer 2002 [1975], 243-244). His argument is made on the basis of Utilitarianism, a philosophy that grounds rational arguments for actions on the need to diminish suffering and increase happiness. Singer cites his eighteenth-century Utilitarian forerunner Jeremy Bentham's contention that animal's sentience, or capacity for suffering, versus their ability to reason or to talk is the basis for affording them protection (cf. Bentham 1907 [1789]). In a different kind of argument Tom Regan in   The Case for Animal Rights  (1983) makes a case for extending what had heretofore been seen as human rights to nonhuman animals based on deontology, the concept of intrinsic duties and obligations, a philosophical position associated with Kant. This is a different basis for ethical decisions about and behaviors towards nonhuman animals: "[A]nimals have certain basic moral rights, including in particular the fundamental right to be treated  4 G RETA O LSON  with the respect that, as possessors of inherent value, they are due as a matter of strict  justice" (Regan 2004 [1983], 329). In yet a more recent claim for animal rights, the  philosopher Martha Nussbaum has suggested that nonhuman animals have capabilities that need to be respected through a considered paternalism (Nussbaum 2006, 325-409). Such a stance should take into account their individuality, their claims to health,  bodily integrity, "areas of freedom," emotional attachments, and to the degree  possible, to control over their lives ( ibid  ., 396). On the basis of arguments such as Singer's, Regan's, and Nussbaum's, Spain became the first country to extend human rights such as "the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured" to chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos in 2008 (Glenginning 2008). Although the work of these animal philosophers has been lauded for its political efficacy, it has also been criticized for simply extending traditional notions of rights to what are seen as lesser subjects, beings who are unable to speak for themselves. Posthumanist philosophers – a term I promise to unpack momentarily – such as Cora Diamond and Cary Wolfe have argued that these philosophical positions do not fundamentally challenge notions of human privilege. Rather, they continue to posit humans, human subjectivity, and voice as the measure of all things, thus failing to address them in their own right or to move beyond an anthropocentric context that is  based on Enlightenment humanism (cf. Wolfe 2003, 36; Wolfe 2010, 77). Thus animal studies historians such as Erica Fudge, amongst many others, have worked to deconstruct the supposed stability of the animal-human binary that has been used in constructions of the human from antiquity onwards. Instead, Fudge calls for an animal studies that "allows us to think about animals who are creatures who are objects of human analysis (such has ever been the case) but also as beings in the world who may themselves create change" (Fudge 2004, 3). By stressing that animals and humans co-evolve, animal studies attempts to demonstrate how animals have affected the humans who so often have dominated them. The animal-human histories these scholars write redress the failures of older natural histories. They claim that human history has never been divorced from the environment and its relations to other living animals. Indeed, humans have co-evolved with their non-human counterparts. Rats and dogs, for instance, have structured human cities as much as have rivers (see Burt 2005). Thus rather than simply defining themselves through the trope of the animal as Other, a pervasive historical pattern, animals are newly regarded as agents in history. In the words of Fudge: "This new history is a history in which we are being asked to look at the ways in which animals and humans no longer exist in separate realms; in which nature and culture coincide; and in which we recognize the ways in which animals, not just humans, have shaped the past" (Fudge 2011). In posthumanist critique, explorations of nonhuman animals are understood in new ways. An effort is made to cease seeing animals as metaphors for (human) otherness and as abstractions but in their specificity. In his essay from 2002, "The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Follow)," Derrida points out that it is "asinine" to speak of the animal (Derrida 2004, 124). He goes on to point out that the projection of animal otherness has been at the basis of the human's conception of itself and has grounded human violence to nonhuman animals:  D ICKENS ' S A  NIMALS  5 Such a subjection, whose history we are attempting to interpret, can be called violence in the most morally neutral sense of the term and even includes a certain interventionist violence that is practiced, as in some very minor and in no way dominant cases, let us never forget, in the service of and for the protection of the animal, most often the human animal. (Derrida 2004, 119) Addressing animals then in their specificity belongs to the critique of humanism. This critique concerns the human animal and the mores of humanism itself: How do we know; what are the objects of our analysis; how do we define subjectivity. Another critique on post-enlightenment understandings of human subjectivity and essentialism is performed in Deleuze and Guattari's chapter on "becoming animal" from  A Thousand Plateaus  (2004 [1980]). Here, the idea of becoming interrupts traditional static notions of identity, which are always based on negations as in the human/animal binary. Accordingly, traditional essentializing oppositions between culture and nature and substance and subject may be overcome. The notion of 'becoming animal' has been taken up by Rosi Braidotti as well. In her interpretation, Braidotti calls 'becoming animal' and 'becoming minoritarian' a fundamental step in  political work: Becoming animal consequently is a process of redefining one's sense of attachment and connection to a shared world, a territorial space. It expresses multiple ecologies of belonging, while it transforms one's sensorial and perceptual coordinates, to acknowledge the collectiveness and outward direction of what we call the self. The nomadic subject is immersed in and immanent to a network of human and nonhuman (animal, vegetable, viral) relations. (Braidotti 2009, 530)   This is part of a far larger project on Braidotti's part that also has to do with her being a feminist philosopher and recognizing that animal, like woman, has always been the devalued other in binarisms that have shored up constructions of male subjectivity. Thus a position of non-belonging – a not trying to adopt the subject's position but to actively take on marginality – or minoritarianism – can be the basis for activism (cf. Braidotti/Butler 1994). For Donna Haraway, dogs, for instance, may teach her and us about forms of companionship that humans are poor at. Figures she has thematized in her work include those of the cyborg and the coyote, both of which functioned to deconstruct traditional identity boundaries between human animals, nonhuman animals, and machines. The 'companion species' is a similar attempt to overcome simplistic binary thinking. In her The Companion Species Manifesto  from 2003, she argues in an allusion to Althusser that, because they have been subjected to our ideologies of dominance, dogs hail us into experiencing "significant otherness, through which the  partners come to be who we are in flesh and sign" (Haraway 2003, 25). These are no static identities but ones of fluid becoming. She also critiques philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari and Derrida for thinking about animality in new ways but failing to address specific individual animals. What I hope has become visible in this admittedly quite abbreviated overview of  positions in animal studies is that animal rights philosophy addresses in the first place the unjustly subordinate position of nonhuman animals. It also assesses historical
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