Animals, Things, and Consumption: A Review Essay

Lucinda Cole
The University of Southern Maine

Despite the shared prominence of the word “animals” in their titles, the two books under review could not be more different.   The goal of Nathaniel Wolloch’s Subjugated Animals: Animals and Anthropocentrism (Humanity Books, 2006) is explicitly related to animal rights: to study the “pervading influence of the anthropocentric outlook on animals” in the early modern period (Wolloch, 13).   Mark Blackwell’s purpose in The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century English , ed. Mark Blackwell (Bucknell, 2007), is decidedly more literary and serves “to enrich and complicate the history of prose fiction” and to “advance work on eighteenth-century consumer culture and attitudes towards things” ( Secret Life , 14).   While both texts may be regarded as contributing to cultural history, Wolloch defines Subjugated Animals as a study in the “history of ideas” mainly concerned with “high culture” (Wolloch, 15), whereas Blackwell’s collection attends to now “overlooked” but then “especially popular” works ( Secret Life , 14).   Finally, Wolloch claims to differ from literary critics by treating “animals in their own right,” whereas many essays in The Secret Life of Things portray a lapdog, a wig, a watch, and a shilling as somehow interchangeable in form and function.   Had I not been asked to review these two books together, they probably would never have occupied the same section on my bookshelf.   Read side by side, however, Subjugated Animals and The Secret Life of Things raise some important questions about how contemporary literary criticism defines its proper objects of study, and how these objects help shape our social and natural worlds.

The Secret Life of Things contains fourteen essays by some of the more notable names in North American eighteenth-century literary criticism.   Given its avowed purposes–to complicate our histories of prose fiction and our ideas of consumer culture–it is a fine collection composed of solid essays on different aspects of what is variously called the it-narrative, the object narrative, or the novel of circulation.   Charles Johnstone’s Chrysal; or, The Adventures of a Guinea (1760) is perhaps the most famous of these, but Liz Bellamy lists 248 texts in her bibliography of the genre, all written between 1709 and 1900, their narrators drawn from pockets, stables, kitchens, boudoirs, and curiosity cabinets.   Either directly or indirectly, most of the critical essays pay homage to Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism.   All, following Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, do so by treating the eighteenth century as the “birth” of consumer culture.[1]   Blackwell reprints Aileen Douglas’s foundational argument about it-narratives and English commercial culture, and most of the essays may be seen as sophisticated riffs on the trope of commodity circulation.   Barbara Benedict, for example, writes about how the “spiritualization of commodities . . . betrays contemporary anxiety about the location of power” ( Secret Life , 38); Deidre Lynch, continuing the argument set forth in The Economy of Character , uses it-narratives to explore how ideas of character change within a developed market economy.[2]   Three essays–those by Christopher Flint, Mark Blackwell, and Hilary Englert–take on the topics of authorial concern about circulating books, hack writing, and copyright debates, respectively.   In addition, Ann Kibbie’s reading of Johnstone’s anti-Semitic Chrysal explores anxieties about nationalism and what Kibbie calls “the health of the nation’s currency” ( Secret Life , 254).

Within this theoretical and methodological context, many of the essays treat the issue of animals often by focusing on one of the more popular it-narratives: Francis Coventry’s The History of Pompey the Little: or, The Life and Adventures of a Lap-dog (1751).   This group includes Liz Bellamy’s “It-Narrators and Circulation: Defining a Subgenre,” for its argument about the origins of species narrations; Blackwell’s “Hackwork: It-Narratives and Iteration,” primarily for its compelling rereading of Laurence Sterne’s starling episode; Bonnie Blackwell’s “Corkscrews and Courtesans: Sex and Death in Circulation Novels,” which turns on an analogy between women and lapdogs; and Lynn Festa’s “The Moral Ends of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Object Narratives,” an interesting account of how non-human it-narratives transformed into the animated animals and objects of children’s books.   By far, the essay dealing most directly with animals, however, is Markman Ellis’s “Suffering Things: Lapdogs, Slaves, and Counter-Sensibility.”   Whereas many of the other pieces take for granted an analogy between lapdogs and objects in consumer culture, Ellis explores significant differences.   While the trope of the lapdog was increasingly “deployed in attacks” on luxury and therefore deeply “imbricated in a discourse on things,” Ellis admits, it “occupies a curious and fragile space” within both that and the discourse on sympathy ( Secret Life , 100-1).   Drawing upon art by Thomas Bewick, Jan Weenix, and Thomas Gainsborough, and reading their representations of animals within and against abolitionist rhetoric, Ellis does a nice job of demonstrating the relationships among anti-luxury sentiment, anti-cruelty discourse, and the way in which animals eventually began to be taken seriously as ethical subjects.

Wolloch’s Subjugated Animals shares with the above essay an interest in ethics.   What Wolloch wants to emphasize, however, is that even views that appear to be “pro-animal” (or “theriophilic,” in the classical tradition) emerge from a deeply anthropocentric cosmology “which a priori limits their pro-animal implications” (Wolloch, 20).   Five subsequent chapters are devoted to analyzing the sometimes conflicting relationships between the fact and the value of representations of animals in philosophy (chapters 1 and 2), science (chapter 4), literature (chapter 5) and Dutch and Flemish painting (chapter 6).   In between is an entertaining and informative chapter about animals and the debate regarding extraterrestrial life (chapter 3).   Descartes, Bayle, La Mettrie, Swift–many of the writers under discussion are familiar to animal studies scholars, but it is refreshing to see them side by side with philosophers and artists less often under a critical lens such as Spinoza or Paulus Potter.

At first, Wolloch may appear to be splitting hairs as he distinguishes his terminology from that of Bruce Boehrer ( Shakespeare Among the Animals ) and Erica Fudge ( Perceiving Animals ), both of whom opened up animal studies in the early modern period.[3]   Soon, however, it becomes apparent that he is laying the conceptual groundwork for a very different historiography than the one to which most early modern scholars subscribe.   Many literary scholars–indeed, several in The Secret Life of Things –assume that conditions for animals improved during the eighteenth century, thereby promoting a history of “progress” leading from the Enlightenment to the twenty-first century.   Here, in contrast, is Wolloch’s view:

While modern pro-animal ideas have been influenced by eighteenth-century developments, to claim that there was a genuine change in the treatment of animals from the eighteenth century onwards is an exaggeration.   If anything, on a practical level, for every pro-animal development (e.g. the decline of European animal baiting) there has been a corresponding, if not larger, anti-animal development (e.g. the rise of the exploitation of animals in the modern meat industry). (64)

Indeed, the second part of Wolloch’s thesis is even grimmer: “The same early modern culture that produced various theriophilic expressions also produced an ever-growing exploitation of animals” (Wolloch, 173).   For example, empiricism influenced the realistic (and therefore apparently sympathetic) portrayal of animals in art, even as it derived from the same assumptions that gave us vivisection.   And while collecting animals in menageries could imply appreciation and even love, conditions for the transport and care of animals were probably “horrible” (Wolloch, 174).   In general, empathetic theriophilic expressions–such as those one might find in Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768)–denote not better treatment of animals but “a growing sense of remove from direct contact with them” (Wolloch, 136); the more one encounters “cries for a better use of animals” in early modern texts, the more one should “suspect . . . a general deterioration in their treatment” (Wolloch, 179).   Subjugated Animals ends with a critique of mainstream conservationism coupled with a call for a new theory of justice.

These two books may be distinguished by methodological and historiographical differences.   In many ways, for better or worse, they are typical of how post-structuralist literary critics, as distinct from many animal studies scholars–even those taking literature as their object of study–treated the question of animals in early modernity: as Wolloch expresses the difference, he wants to discuss “animals in their own right,” not how historically “the animal” has been used to define “humanity” (Wolloch, 17).   Yet the phrase “animals in their own right” begs the question of what constitutes an “animal” in the first place, and under what circumstances that identity came to be naturalized.   In practice, discussing “animals in their own right” often amounts to placing the representation of animals along a spectrum of attitude markers, from anti-animal to pro-animal, an ethico-political temperature-taking, which, admittedly, can sometimes be reminiscent of 1980s feminist criticism (is it pro-woman? anti-woman? both?).   Consequently, reading Subjugated Animals requires a methodological shift that many literary scholars of the early modern period are unlikely to embrace.

Yet bracketing the problems of representation and identity enables Wolloch to notice things highly trained literary critics ignore.   Take, for example, discussions of Coventry’s Pompey the Little .   At least five people in Blackwell’s collection interpret this text, however briefly.   For Lynch, the Bologna lapdog transported to England is a “circulating object,” like Thomas Bridge’s banknote, intended to create the illusion that the “economy really did rotate around a single axis in the reassuring way that the metaphor of ‘circulation’ implies” ( Secret Life , 74).   Here the dog stands in analogical relation to currency.   Later, playing off Nancy Armstrong’s thesis that Robinson Crusoe may be regarded as more female than either Roxana or Moll Flanders, Bonnie Blackwell argues that Pompey the Little, “a male Bologna Spaniel” petted and spoiled like a kept woman, is “more female than all three” ( Secret Life , 269).   In this case, the male lapdog stands in for femininity.   Wolloch, in contrast, focuses his discussion on parts of the text relevant to ethical questions about animals then and now: a discussion about whether or not animals have a soul, a section about the killing and poisoning of dogs, a scene in which Pompey narrowly escapes from vivisection in the course of a scientific experiment.   What Wolloch calls “treating animals in their own right” means attending to discourses whose relevance to animal issues is direct, easily recognizable, and symptomatic, in his view, of an anthropocentrism still manifest in most literary criticism (Wolloch, 54).

A second major difference is historiographical.   As I indicated, Wolloch, like many animal studies scholars, does not believe that the histories of animal rights and civil rights are easily mapped onto one another.   Moreover, in the face of cultural anthropocentrism and in the absence of a coherent notion of justice, he maintains that non-human animals have suffered rather than benefited from the discourse of conservationism; though animal welfare laws have mitigated some of human society’s devastating effects on non-human animals, in general our exploitation and abuse have reached a horrific proportion in the factory farms and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) designed to supply cheap and plentiful meat.   In Wolloch’s view, one can trace the origins of such exploitation back to the seventeenth century, to seemingly pastoral paintings, for example, featuring what appear to be happy cows in a field, cows that in fact were being fattened for slaughter (Wolloch, 174).   Whether or not one agrees with his analysis of animal painting–and this chapter could have been shored up by recent studies in late Renaissance agricultural reform–it remains true that literary scholars are only now beginning to think in systematic ways about our food supply, a decidedly unaesthetic topic.   McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb’s The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, which still exercises considerable force in literary criticism, mentions neither “food” nor “meat” in the index.   It does, however, mention “pets,” thereby giving rise to a cottage industry reflected in the last two decades of criticism and apparent in Blackwell’s collection.   Lapdogs are easily accommodated to a Whig-like history of sensibility.   Cows, alas, are not.

And here, Subjugated Animals and The Secret Lives of Things are usefully read in relation to one another.   On the one hand, Wolloch’s decidedly more polemical book makes one recognize the extent to which our modern anthropocentrism turns on the portrayal of animals as objects, nowhere more quietly and viciously than in the food industry.   The breeding, slaughtering, and selling of livestock so fundamental to the emergence of consumer society, in other words, are deeply imbricated in how we have come to define a “thing.”   Taking seriously our place within what Wolloch calls “anthropocentrism,” what Jacques Derrida describes as a “carnophallogocentric economy,” and what Cary Wolfe terms “speciesism,” means being willing to examine the relationships among humanism, animals, and “things” as mutually constitutive.[4]   From this perspective, the methodological consistency of The Secret Life of Things is both a strength and weakness: a strength because the essays demonstrate how powerful and enabling the trope of commodity fetishism continues to be, a weakness because its relevant objects of consumption are too often interchangeable and too easily defined in advance.   Coins, wigs, lapdogs, and pincushions lend themselves to urbane playfulness, even borrowed glamour, in ways that donkeys, chickens, pigeons, and deer do not.   If Wolloch, Derrida, and Wolfe are right–and I think they are–cultural critics need to adjust their focus to take into account the feeding practices naturalized by Judeo-Christian culture, along with the economies, moralities, identities, and “things” such practices engender.   We should take the anthropological turn and examine how our work derives from our own feeding practices, and explore the relationship between our tools, our tastes, and our stomachs.

On the other hand, books like The Secret Life of Things can help foster a much needed ontological skepticism among certain branches of animal studies scholarship.   The best of the essays in The Secret Life of Things never takes the category of “thingness” for granted.   This is certainly true of Jonathan Lamb’s ” The Rape of the Lock as Still Life” that, without raising the question of the animal at all, opens up a conceptual space where “thingness” and “personhood” are questioned rather than assumed.   Another of Lamb’s recent essays–“The Crying of Lost Things” –has attended more directly to topics owned by animal studies, suggesting how closely critical animal studies and poststructuralist philosophy are, or could be, allied.[5]   One can understand why subjecting animals to post-structuralist disarticulations may strike some animal studies scholars as being philosophical gamesmanship irrelevant to effective political practice.   Yet ontological skepticism cuts both ways.   If the great apes, for example, are slowly beginning to be included under the umbrella of “personhood,” that is not because the apes have changed (although they have), but because the category of “personhood” is being broadened to include cognitively– and genetically–similar mammals.   Literary criticism probably can’t take credit for that success, but its stubborn refusal to accept the pre-given contours of inherited ontological categories is doubtless part of the same intellectual movement as The Great Apes Project.   From this perspective, for animal studies scholars to return with literary critics to the question of “thingness” is imperative, “thingness” being the most common trope by which we carve the world of intelligent beings into friends, family, foodstuffs, property, and pets.


[1]   In his introduction, Blackwell claims that his collection will “advance important work on consumer culture and attitudes towards things,” work “begun” by Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb’s The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Bloomington, Ind., 1982), 14.

[2]   See Deidre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago, 1998).

[3]   See Bruce Boehrer, Shakespeare Among the Animals: Nature and Society in the Drama of Early Modern England (New York, 2002); and Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern Culture (Chicago, 2000).

[4]   See Jacques Derrida, “‘Eating Well,’ or The Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” Who Comes After the Subject? , ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York, 1991), 96-119, 113; and Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago, 2003), 6-9.

[5]   Jonathan Lamb, “The Crying of Lost Things,” ELH 71 (2004): 949-67.