Academic journal article ARIEL

"Animal Tracks in the Margin": Tracing the Absent Referent in Marian Engel's Bear and J. M. Coetzee's the Lives of Animals

Academic journal article ARIEL

"Animal Tracks in the Margin": Tracing the Absent Referent in Marian Engel's Bear and J. M. Coetzee's the Lives of Animals

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper considers Carol Adams' notion of the absent referent in Marian Engels Bear and J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals. I argue that both texts call for altered notions of reading and criticism that treat animals as presences but also contend with the difficulty of representing animals. Engel and Coetzee use different techniques to point to the impossibility of textual presence, in Adams' sense, while also stressing the necessity of striving for a form of presence that represents animals beyond the logic of the absent referent.

Keywords: Coetzee, Engel, ecocriticism


In The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990) Carol Adams argues that

   animals have become absent referents, whose fate is transmuted into
   a metaphor for someone else's existence or fate. Metaphorically,
   the absent referent can be anything whose original meaning is
   undercut as it is absorbed into a different hierarchy of meaning;
   in this case the original meaning of animals' fates is absorbed
   into a human-centered hierarchy.... The absent referent is both
   there and not there. (53)

Against this system of representation in which animals function as absent referents she proposes a method of critical reading based on a "vegetarian's privileging of the literal" (117). In this practice meat loses its fungibility as a signifier and is reconnected to the literal death of animals. Adams' call to return to the literal meaning of texts and representation is simultaneously compelling and puzzling. What, after all, is the "original meaning" of a subject both within and outside of discourse? How can critics claim to know the literal meaning of a sign? Does this claim to represent literal meaning occur from a place somehow beyond language and discourse? Is Adams guilty of what Michael Riffatere calls the "referential fallacy" (231), wherein the critic claims to bypass textuality and interpretation and access the extra-discursive object itself? As critics, what hermeneutical approaches might we use that pay heed to Adams' privileging of the literal without abandoning the import of metaphor, metonymy, and the act of critical interpretation altogether?

Adams' theory of the absent referent, and the questions that dog her theory, inform my reading of Marian Engel's Bear (1976) and J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals (2001). Both texts are concerned, in their form and content, with representing animals beyond the logic of the absent referent but are also skeptical about any claim to literality. Despite both texts' struggle to represent animals, however, critical readings of the works reveal an unnerving consensus that interprets animals strictly as absent referents. Louis Tremaine, for instance, argues that "Coetzee's personal interest in and respect for the conscious lives of animals are quite genuine, but the insight these passages hold for a reader of Coetzee's novels bears more importantly on human experience, on the human condition of 'embodiedness'" (598; emphasis in original). Marjorie Garber suggests that a central question for readers is "[w]hat ... the emphasis on animals tell us about people" (75; emphasis in original). She notes that "we thought John Coetzee was talking about animals. Could it be, however, that all along he was really asking, 'What is the value of literature?'" (84). Tremaine's and Garber's interpretations rely on the logic of the absent referent to argue that animals matter only insofar as they signify for humans. Michael Bell goes even further; he suggests the discussion of animal subjectivity in The Lives of Animals is "a Trojan horse designed to deconstruct the nature of conviction in relation to all fundamental life issues" (176). There is a virtual unanimity amongst critics that The Lives of Animals is not actually about animals but rather that the text's discussion of animals must be a metaphor for something else. Laura Wright is perhaps the only critic willing to acknowledge that the text might truly be concerned with animals. …

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