The Bee and the Sovereign? Political Entomology and the Problem of Scale

Article excerpt

WITHOUT THE ANIMAL, there is no human. Or so recent work, often grouped under the rubric of animal studies, suggests. Given the bull market for animal studies across historical periods and national traditions, and given a wave of recent work that seems, at once, to consolidate a first wave of early modern animals studies and cry out for version 2.0, scholars of the age of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are left struggling with weighty questions. How can we best write about forms of life, their complex histories, and their relationships to the so-called human, which include, at a minimum, entanglement, indistinction, opposition, and indifference? What, precisely, is an animal and how useful is the concept as we consider the Renaissance?

The inadequacy of the term "animal" has been the subject of some conversation of late, most particularly in Laurie Shannon's "Eight Animals in Shakespeare; or, Before the Human," which contrasts the scarcity of use of the term "animal" in the works of William Shakespeare with "the ubiquity of those we conventionally shepherd into the enclosure of the term animals" in those works. (1) Much more common, Shannon points out, are terms such as "beast" and "creature": "In this pattern, he is typical. As the OED confirms, animal hardly appears in English before the end of the sixteenth century. What does the scarcity of this collective noun, despite the texts' menagerie, suggest about present idioms concerning the forms of life, idioms that habitually invoke a dualistic logic of human versus/and animal?" (2)

The "shepherding" Shannon refers to (itself an activity primarily concerned with animals or beasts, livestock, as opposed, say, to insects, birds, or fish), has consolidated various senses of an animal-human divide or dialectic that often makes "the animal" into "the organism against which human status was asserted" (3) or "the thing which the human is constantly setting itself against." (4) This often also implies the structure of a border or boundary in the work of Erica Fudge and of the divide or regime of distinction in the work of Bruce Boehrer and Andreas Hofele; these foundational accounts of human and animal witness the complex ways in which these borders, boundaries, divides, and distinctions are often simultaneously established and effaced creating what are often referred to as, borrowing terminology perhaps most notably deployed by Giorgio Agamben, "zones of indistinction." (5) Shannon and Hofele offer terms similarly spatial if more explicitly political in examining, respectively, early modern "zootopias" and "heterotopias." (6) To add to the list, Rebecca Ann Bach refers to an "animal continuum" while this special issue begins with the notion of a human/animal interface. (7)

And yet, neither the historical realities of terminology that Shannon describes nor the regimes of (in)distinction suggested by scholars quite explains a particular sovereignty accorded to terms like "animal" or "beast," which seem to capture all creatures while also implicitly dictating those forms of life to which attention will be directed. I would suggest not only that a complex interplay of scale and sovereignty structures the way early modernity imagined a rich world of cohabitant life forms but also that scale and sovereignty have structured the way scholars shepherd forms of life into schemas in which beast and animal constitute sovereign terms, a fact that should not be obscured by the important interrogation of human assertions of sovereignty over non-human life. To begin to understand how to unpack the claims of scale and sovereignty that often dictate to which creatures we turn our gaze, I begin with a representative moment in the works of Jacques Derrida whose writings have been central to animal studies.

When, in the first volume of his posthumously published lectures, The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida addresses a historically extensive "political bestiary," one with deep roots in Renaissance Europe, and he proposes, as a method, a "slow and differentiated deconstruction of the logic and the dominant, classic concept of nation-state sovereignty. …