Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination, Mark Payne

One interesting and disturbing aspect of Holly Tucker’s Blood Work was the 17th-century research that used animals extensively, often in experiments that caused them great suffering and led to their agonizing deaths.

[Source: from Elsholtz, Clysmatica nova (1667), Wikimedia Commons]

Tucker notes the distress of some of the men who carried out or observed these experiments, and some of the arguments they used to justify them. I don’t know if there’s a history of scientists’ personal responses to the cruelty involved and how they experienced this in light of their philosophical and religious ideas, but I would love to read it….

I had the subject in mind lately as I was thinking about Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal, and had just read Mark Payne’s The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination:

I would recommend The Animal Part to those with a serious interest in the topic and a high tolerance for academese (a characteristic phrase: “abandoned the early modernist fetishization of the inorganic for a Hipponactean biopoetics of abjection,” KL 583-4) and Derrida references. I’m at something of a disadvantage in critically reading his arguments about poetry as I’m little familiar with several of the specific works he analyzes,* but I found the general discussion of poetic human/animal encounters very interesting. I especially liked the discussion of Melville, and the book was my introduction to David Foster Wallace’s 2004 essay “Consider the Lobster.”

Much of the work seems to deal with the sympathetic imagination of and identification with other living things – its opposition to an “inorganicist” and destructive vision, the ways in which it’s accomplished, and the role poetry has played in its development. At one moment he expresses his wish to move beyond the superficial crisis-driven “appreciation” of endangered species, “to consider instances of such perceptual change that are not provoked by the prospect of total annihilation of the objects of perception in order to consider how everyday appreciation of the lives of other animals might reduce the need for such emergency thinking” (KL 789-790). “Under what circumstances,” he asks at another, “does interrupted identification with self-image produce sympathetic attentiveness to what interrupts it instead of narcissistic destructivism?” (KL 781-782).

These are important questions, but it seems to me that in answering them Payne makes unfounded implicit comparisons between the capacities of science and poetry in the achievement of the sympathetic imagination. I realize the subject is the poetic imagination,* and can hardly fault an author for not writing the book I personally would prefer. At the same time, I was intrigued by the brief mentions of science, and disappointed when they weren’t carried through or science seemed to be misrepresented.

At moments, as when Payne recognizes Rachel Carson as “one writer who has given careful thought to the special difficulties involved in imagining nonmammalian marine animals" (KL 235), he appears to acknowledge science and scientific writing as potentially contributing or overlapping with poetic literature (it’s also possible that he simply categorizes Carson as the latter rather than the former). Elsewhere he suggests that destructivism “would seem to be a good counter-term to what E. O. Wilson has called biophilia” (KL 757-8), thus drawing a connection between Wilson’s concept and the sympathetic imagination.

Many of the conditions and actions he talks about as conducive to sympathetic imagination formation - solitude, observation, interaction, understanding nonhuman histories and forms of communication and sociality - are characteristically scientific, and he refers several times to Aristotle’s History of Animals. But Aristotle’s is left as the sole ‘scientific’ voice – on animal communication, for example [!] – and science generally appears to be linked in his view not to the sympathetic imagination the references to Carson and Wilson would seem to suggest but to “existential homelessness, biocidal destructiveness” (KL 703-4), and the construction of an ultimately inhumane - because based on ignorance of other organisms - world through the ruin of other life.**

In presenting poetry’s virtues in this context, Payne turns to Heidegger:
In "What Are Poets For?" Heidegger glosses this movement from first person observation to poetic reflection as a progress from "the work of the eyes" to "the work of the heart.” Because poetry eschews the "covetous vision of things" that is present in technological understanding, and "does not solicit anything to be produced" in its encounters with other living things, it enables humankind to apprehend itself as one kind of being among others, and so offers it an adumbration of Being that philosophy labors in its own way to articulate. (KL 907-910)
Payne’s reference to Heidegger here appears as a defense of poetry that identifies science with narcissistic and destructive “technological civilization” and imputes to it the limitations of philosophy. What about scientific reflection?

This sense of science’s limitations and unfavorable contrast with poetry is even stronger when he brings up Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish,
"a journey into the 3.5-billion year history of the human body," that promises to teach its readers how "our hands actually resemble fish fins, and major parts of our genome look, and function, like those of worms and bacteria." On the cover, Oliver Sacks explains that the book "will change forever how you understand what it means to be human," and a full-color flap entitled "Your Body as You've Never Seen It Before" that appears between the cover and first page proclaims the joys of evolutionary knowledge: "learn to LOVE your body for what it really is: a jury-rigged fish," says Discover magazine…

Can one experience one's body in a way that is cognizant of its deep historical continuity with the physiology of fish, and, if so, would such knowledge take the form of love? (KL 1639-44)
I don’t know, but I certainly think it's possible (whatever "love" might mean here). An understanding of our evolutionary kinship with all other living things, gaining scientific knowledge of nonhuman histories, relationships, and communication, can lead to profound perceptual changes characteristic of the sympathetic imagination he seems to have in mind and very much in contrast to “biocidal destructiveness.” And poetic writing can only do this to the extent that it’s grounded in real knowledge and not pure imagination or projection.

I just don’t understand what appears to me to be a false opposition between science and the poetic imagination or the notion that science is incapable of bringing about deep change in our emotions and consciousness. It’s a difficult read and, as I said, I lack some knowledge which may be crucial for evaluating his arguments, but this is my preliminary reading. I’d appreciate any insights.

*(some of the work, like “The Sparrow,” quite beautiful)

**The insinuation is also present in the implicit contrast with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ explicitly religious ecological vision: “Humanity finds itself in a vicious circle: the more of the earth it ruins, the less understanding it has of the heartfelt care it ought to show for Creation, and the less understanding it has of this care, the more of the earth it ruins.” (KL 830-832)

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