My two books are How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Ohio State University Press, 2011) and How Not to Make a Human: Pets, Feral Children, Worms, Sky Burial, Oysters (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).
How Not to Make a Human aims to account for nonsystematic thinking about nonhuman and human animals, largely from the Middle Ages. Its chapters follow a trajectory from minimal challenges to human particularity to a final wriggling free from the presumption that agency, free will, and rationality are the defining characteristics of the human experience. It begins with cats and dogs and the demands they make on our loyalty to other humans; moves to stories of children raised without spoken language and children raised by wolves; then to a pair of chapters on the edibility of the human flesh — a sustained engagement with the ecology of the medieval fascination with humans being “food for worms,” and a study of the surprising engagement with sky burial in Western Europe’s culture of inhumation; and finally a long treatment of oysters, which were, from Plato through to Diderot, the creature at the hingepoint of animal and plant life. Here is an early version of the book’s introduction.
How Not to Make a Human, my first book, is thoroughly rewritten version of my 2007 Columbia University dissertation. It identifies a key feature of mainstream medieval thought about nonhuman animals, namely, that the unilateral, legitimized domination of animals by humans resolves, or attempts to resolve, the various, shifting boundaries between humans and other worldly lives into a single line. These acts of boundary-making subjugation include the acts not only of eating, taming, and killing, but also categorizing, through which humans mark one creature as merely animal—as something that should be eaten, tamed, or killed, that is destined only for dust rather than for immortality—and mark another, themselves, as a life that deserves to be protected, mourned, and that should never be eaten (or, if eaten, only ceremoniously, sadly, or with the exuberance of reveling in the forbidden), a life that, in sum, should never be treated instrumentally. To put it simply, an animal is human when it can be murdered.
For a long review, see Nicole Shukin at The Electronic Book Review, where she writes
Derrida, Haraway, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Butler and Žižek, among many others, are invoked throughout How To Make A Human, as Steel hooks his reading of the medieval archive into some of the present’s most pressing ethical and political conversations. More, Steel contends that the human forged in medieval Christian times, far from being a relic of the past, lives on in discourses of modern humanism, and that challenging the system of the human therefore requires confronting “a persistent medieval voice” in the present (22). If there has been a recent turn in medieval studies to “the always-open (and hence, troubling) question of the relations between the medieval and modern in different times and places” (Joy 292), Steel probes these relations as they specifically pertain to the persistence of human exceptionalism. How To Make A Human raises a pivotal question for those of us who too infrequently query to what extent the conditions of modernity may have been laid in the Middle Ages: are the techniques, ruses, and reasoning of the human of a similar, sovereign order across medieval and modern times?