Publications

Here are excerpts from my three most recent academic publications:

The Palgrave Handbook of Animals and Literature (ed. McHugh, McKay, and Miller) is now out, with an august cast of animal scholars (Susan Crane, Erica Fudge, Nicole Shukin, Tom Tyler, and of course many others!). My chapter is “Huntings of the Hare: The Medieval and Early Modern Poetry of Imperiled Animals.” In it, I identify a genre? theme? concern? in (mostly) poetry from the late antique Testamentum Porcelli to Margaret Cavendish’s two hunting poems, in which animals lament their own deaths in their own voices. Mostly parodic — with the notable exception of Cavendish — these works nonetheless create a space that calls us on to imagine the lives of animals as mattering, independent of the uses we might want to make of them. I write:

It would be simple…to take the medieval hare-hunting poem as only an absurdity, a literary exercise, or a bit of fun for the armchair hunter anticipating his next outing, because nothing in dominant culture could imagine animal ownership of their bodies, or complaints over their fate, as anything but absurd. Yet the very existence of animal complaints betrays an ongoing interest in animals as living beings with their own, independent existence and concerns. These works, in which animals bear witness to their enforced submission, are always works in which animals, despite it all, bear witness.

A book review in Speculum, where I conclude by going after a bad habit in literary criticism:

Both Langdon and Warren take as an axiom that categorical strain, instability, openness, and “blurred boundaries”—still such a persistent metaphor—are good, and that constriction, understood broadly, is bad. Each believes, then, that its analysis somehow frees their objects of concern from constraint. I find this logic at least vaguely supersessionary, participating as it does in a language of freedom inherited from, among other places, the Christian scriptures. We ought to be more suspicious of the enthusiasm for “blurriness” or its accompanying fantasies of liberation.

I deal with some of this as well in a long book review essay in Postmedieval, whose opening paragraphs include the following:

What dominant humans imagined themselves having, above all, is freedom. Whatever reason’s many advantages, its best and most general one was the gift of a kind of unimpeded existence. The body constrained, as do all material forms of thought; but the rational subject was supposed to be free: guided by its own decisions rather than instinct, unhampered by its attachment to merely superstitious belief, not driven by unnecessarily distracting emotions, and not enthralled to merely sensory appetites or the compulsions of the material world.

The corollary to that fantasy of freedom was the answering fantasy that others stolidly endured, more or less unwittingly, a condition of unfreedom. The earliest Christian scriptures (Romans 6:14, for example) argue that the new dispensation of grace liberates its beneficiaries from the burden of sin that had been placed on them by the yoke of the Law. Medieval European Christian thinkers often thought of Jews as particularly unfree: as unchanging and sclerotic, as trapped in a kind of perpetual animal obedience, incapable of true thought. I’ll offer but one typical example of this Christian collapse of Jewishness, animality, and the accusation of bestial exegesis, from the twelfth-century autobiography by a convert to Christianity who calls himself ‘Hermann, the Former Jew.’ Hermann says of his former coreligionists that ‘the Jews, like certain brute beasts of burden, are contented, in these things, by the letter alone, like unto chaff, [while] Christians, as men who use reason, may be refreshed by spiritual understanding, like unto the most sweet kernel within the chaff’ (qtd. in Kruger, 1992, 155). Christians want to believe themselves to be truly rational subjects, and thus as dissatisfied with merely material things; to realize that faith in themselves, they imagined that others lacked freedom of thought; imagining yourself as a free actor requires imagining that others are merely instinctual. They needed to believe that Jews were content to live like cows, and, in Hermann’s case, they needed to believe that their choice to apostatize was an act of true freedom.

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