Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Vectors of a Flea: The Convergence of Species in Victorian Animal Autobiographies

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Vectors of a Flea: The Convergence of Species in Victorian Animal Autobiographies

Article excerpt

This essay examines three late-nineteenth-century novels--The Autobiography of a Flea, Black Beauty, and Beautiful Joe--that muddle the pornography and animal autobiography genres, revealing how representations of inter-species violence and sexuality were used to narrativize evolution and dissolve the ontological divide between human and animal.

The porosity of the boundary separating human and non-human becomes especially evident in autobiographical literature, which performs the work of ontological definition for both self and species. Gillian Whitlock, editor of the recent special issue of Biography devoted to this topic, argues that autobiography is central to the "constant and relational making of 'human' and 'nonhuman'" because the autobiographical self is "persistently haunted by its non-, in-, and sub-human other: the monstrous, the animal, the dead, the irrational, the primitive, the mechanical" (vi). In other words, posthumanist critique needs to account for the subjectivities engendered through autobiography. In some cases, as Cynthia Huff and Joel Haefner suggest in their reading of "animalographies"--life narratives given from the perspective of animals, which exploded in popularity at the end of the Victorian period--the genre reinforces discrete human subjectivity through an anthropomorphic appropriation of other species. In other, more empathie works, a troubled, chiasmatic subjectivity flickers into shape, formed out of the desire to write from the perspective of animals, which "would seem to be a posthumanist impulse: a longing to cross the species divide" (154). Although Huff and Haefner analyze contemporary texts, in this essay I suggest that this posthumanist impulse begins much earlier, with the late Victorians. Writing in the wake of Darwinian evolution, which fostered the imaginative infusion of human and animal, Victorian animalographers unraveled human autonomy through a series of violent and sexual encounters with other animals.

Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am has become a foundational analysis of the relationship between autobiography and human/animal identity and galvanized interest in animal studies more generally. (1) One of Derrida's central claims is that autobiography--the textual act of demonstrating and demarcating identity--is intimately bound up in sexual tension across species lines: "This self-engendering act of the 'I am,' this autobiographogenesis, is in its essence an act of seduction" (67). By emphasizing seduction and "following," which connotes both stalking and evolutionary sequence, Derrida suggests that narrative self-constitution is always deferred along vectors of violence, sexual allurement, and the differentiation of species. The frequency with which these themes appear in fin-de-siecle animal autobiographies makes sense given their historical context. The nineteenth century marks the highpoint of what Derrida calls an unprecedented "war" (29) between humans and animals, as the latter are increasingly subject to violent scientific investigation (including vivisection, a frequent target of these autobiographies) and mass production for human fashion and consumption. In addition, evolutionary theory in general, and Darwin's theory of natural selection more specifically, helped to erode the ontological divide between humans and animals and shift conceptions of the animal from the mostly pleasant metaphors of the Romantic period to the notion encapsulated in Tennyson's famous phrase, "Nature red in tooth and claw." As Elizabeth Grosz has shown, Darwin's theory of sexual selection also undermined the distinction between humans and animals--for example, Darwin insists in The Descent of Man (1871) that there is no fundamental mental difference between humans and animals, while language, typically seen as exclusively human, "begins as a form of sexual allure, a mode of enhancement and intensification, as a musical form that only gradually develops itself into a language [. …

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