Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Physics and Metaphysics of Caging: The Animal in Late-Nineteenth-Century American Culture

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Physics and Metaphysics of Caging: The Animal in Late-Nineteenth-Century American Culture

Article excerpt

Darwinian thought changed how human interiority--the architecture of the self--was imagined. Frank Norris and Jack London, two American naturalist authors, represented human interiority through a metaphysics of caging, in which an animal was inscribed within the human self. This metaphysics of caging is more fully understandable when analyzed alongside the urban zoo and its physics of caging.


Intuitively, one might expect that late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century American culture would record the retreat of the animal alongside the rise of the urban and the triumph of the machine. Certainly the machine, urbanization, and modernity have been the dominant tropes through which the histories of this period have been told; however, while "real" animals were becoming rarer and less important features of everyday life, animals proliferated in new and newly popular representational and cultural forms. Rather than disappearing, animals multiplied within systems of representation governed by cultural rather than biological reproduction. In fact, late-nineteenth-century America was crawling with representations of animals--in literature, in scientific and social scientific writings, and in visual and material culture. But what was new, in post-Darwinian America, I argue, was the significance and the urgency that attached to the concept of the animal. During this period, representations of animals were used to rethink the human--in particular the structure and nature of human interiority.

Here I should briefly note that I am not interested in the "animal" as a biological entity, but as a historically and culturally constructed concept. Rather than containing the animal within a single definition, I am interested in recovering how the concept of the animal was, at this time, an urgent question. When I use the term "animal" I always intend it to stand in implicit relationship to the human, as it did, in new and urgent ways, at this time.

After Darwin, the animal was no longer a biological given, neatly separated from the human, but a question, a problem that drew the human and the animal into new and at times uncomfortable relationships. Darwin saw "no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties" (35); thus the human was a peculiar sort of animal rather than a higher being with a distinct ontology and teleology. Darwin's theories challenged older ways of conceptualizing the animal and the human and spurred broad interest in the often uncertain dividing line between the two. This led to new understandings of the human self, its genesis, and how it could potentially disappear back into the animality from which it had evolved. The Darwinian self was thought to be a complex and stratified structure that had evolved over thousands of generations, and contained a core of animal vestiges.

While advocates and opponents of Darwinian theory discussed the relationship between the animal and the human, these debates attained a broader visibility in literary and popular cultural representations of animals. The urban zoo and the writings of literary naturalist authors Frank Norris and Jack London most clearly illuminate these changing articulations of the animal and the human. Both the zoo and literary naturalism were new and popular cultural forms for which the status of the animal and its relation to the human were recurring, foundational concerns. The zoo and literary naturalism also both represented the animal through the trope of the cage, which was both physical and metaphorical or metaphysical. The zoo, the most important urban site where live, wild animals were encountered, relied on the architectural structure of the cage, which I term a physics of caging. I use this phrase to designate the zoo's complex machinery of display, which produced the compelling spectacle of the wild animal body. Norris and London relied on internalized and dematerialized tropes of caging, on a metaphysics of caging, whereby an animal, a relic of our evolutionary past, was imagined to be contained and inscribed within the human self. …

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