Lucinda Cole: Five questions with Jenny Davidson

Lucinda Cole is Visiting Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois and author of Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Life, 1600–1740 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).

JMD: First I just have to say that I think this is an utterly brilliant idea for a book, and beautifully executed in both the research and the writing! You’ve said a few things on social media recently about how your childhood and early educational interests formed you; can you tell us again here how you came to be in a position to write so well about agriculture and animal husbandry, pest management, the biological sciences and all of the other fields Imperfect Creature touches on?

LC: Thanks for the compliment, Jenny, and thank you for your generosity in putting together this party. The three books featured here — mine, Laura’s, and Tita’s — show how diverse eighteenth-century science studies can be.

To your question, I mentioned on social media that my childhood desire was to be a veterinarian. I didn’t tell you that one summer I worked for the Kentucky State Veterinarian’s office, where my duties included driving smelly and potentially rabid dog heads from Frankfort to a testing facility in Lexington, and checking cattle at the state fair for brucellosis, a highly infectious and zoonotic disease. So I was always attuned to how humans and animals were “entangled,” to use a word from Karen Barad, in social, scientific, economic, and affective networks. I entered Auburn University as an Animal and Dairy Sciences major, which included taking science-based classes on food systems. Fast forward six majors and twenty years later — I never lost these interests, or the feeling that literary studies bracketed off forms of “life” crucial to its own operations.

I tend to blame Locke and Shaftesbury for removing the non-human animal from humanist work. Locke begins his Essay Concerning Human Understanding by isolating human intelligence — which, he writes, “sets man above all other animals and enables him to use and dominate them” — as the founding principle of inquiry. Shaftesbury’s aesthetics are built on a similar move, on what Bruno Latour would call a “purifying” gesture. Consider this passage from Shaftesbury’s private notebooks (about which I have long obsessed, so am thrilled to quote it here). ‘Life what?’ he asks:

To whom in common? volatiles, reptiles, aquatics and the amphibious kind, flocks, herds, and the herd of mankind. What is it in the foetus? what in a worm? what in the vegetables? …Those with their mouths up catching nourishment here and there; these with their mouths downwards, fixed to a place, and sucking their nourishment from the earth, what difference in the anatomy? Where is there any art of curiosity in the one more than in the other? Pipes and juices; and in that other sort, a more subtle juice; spirits that agitate to and fro, and strings and wires that move the engine.

In this meditation, Shaftesbury signals at least a general understanding of debates within natural philosophy about similarities and differences between humans and other animals, even speaking directly, if a little nervously, about human exceptionalism: “Are human bodies,” he asks, “of such kind that intelligence is confined to these, and can nowhere lodge besides? What if a worm should happen to have intelligence, would he not reason better?”

Ultimately, though, Shaftesbury defines philosophical inquiry in ways that shunt to the side of the rest of the animal world. Claiming that he “knows” men but not “other intelligences,” he asks, “Why talk of other minds?: If thou hast a mind thyself, be thankful that it has fallen to thee; make use of it that thou shouldst do, and this is enough.” Following Locke, Shaftesbury sets parameters for intellectual study: the proper study of mankind is man.

I was never comfortable with these purifying gestures, out of which Enlightenment aesthetics and our discipline emerged. When eighteenth-century studies began to take seriously connections among science studies, animal studies, and literary analysis, I saw a space for a book like Imperfect Creatures.

JMD: One of my favorite sentences in the book is the one where you assert “that the Aristotelian division between ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect’ creatures is as historically important, in its own way, as the Cartesian distinction that has shaped our philosophical analyses of subjectivity and identity” (16). Why is it so important to bring Aristotle back into the mix here, and how does your storytelling change the ways we should think about bodies and cognition in the eighteenth century and beyond?

LC: Many people in historical animal studies are flummoxed by what we perceive as the inordinate attention paid to Descartes, whose mind-body dualism was anathema to most British naturalists. I think it’s fair to say that, at least in Great Britain, seventeenth-century naturalists tended to borrow on Aristotle’s tripartite division of the “soul” into three processes: the vegetative (responsible for reproduction), the sensitive (responsible for mobility and sensation), and the rational (responsible for thought and reflection). Especially as revised by Gassendi, Aristotle’s sense of the soul as a set of verifiable biological processes served as a materialist alternative to the Cartesian model, which asserted, without any evidence, an absolute difference between humans and other animals.

In Imperfect Creatures, I explore Aristotle’s continued relevance through Thomas Willis, the so-called “father” of neuroanatomy and Locke’s one-time tutor. Willis rejects Descartes’s human-animal divide in favor of a systemic, differential analyses of brains from a wide range of animals: from worms and lobsters to sheep and apes. In his Pathology of the Brain and Nervous System (1664) and Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes (1672), Willis treats the “soul” as a mechanical system or, more precisely, as a series of systems. Willis’s project was typical of scientific programs designed to explore biological distinction rather than ontological difference, distinctions that then became the basis of comparative anatomy.

One story in my book, then, is that Aristotle helped Gassendi, Willis, and others provide the Great Chain of Being with a biological scaffold. And because there’s always slippage between the biological and the moral, Aristotle’s distinction between “perfect” and “imperfect” creatures had real political and ethical implications for animals and humans alike.

I’d like to think, though, that Imperfect Creatures does more than supplement existing materialist accounts of natural philosophy. Its spirit animal is Michel Serres, who suggests in The Parasite that, as populations of pests, we can disrupt whole systems, for better or worse. Serres’ biopolitical model of collective agency moves, depresses, and inspires me.

JMD: I had no idea that there was a genre of “flea searcher” paintings, a context that provides important background for Donne’s “Mark but this flea.” What’s your favorite of these paintings, and why?

LC: The genre is cheeky and sometimes a little creepy, isn’t it? Flea searcher paintings are nakedly voyeuristic. The most famous one, Gerard van Honthorst’s “The Flea Hunt,” is typical in this regard. Like Crespi’s “Searcher after Fleas” (discussed in my introduction), “The Flea Hunt” structures a range of human activity around an omnipresent but, to the viewer of the painting, invisible life form.

Both paintings serve as a kind of emblem for my approach in Imperfect Creatures and, I think, for animal studies more generally: human desires — here, the lustful peeping Toms, the seductively coy young woman, her helpful servant — are entangled in a creaturely world over which we try and fail to have absolute control. Instead, vermin create new intimacies.

My favorite flea searcher painting though is Gerard Ter Borch’s “Boy Removing Fleas from His Dog.”

Shaftesbury might focus on what the boy is thinking (“why talk of other minds?”) but I see three creatures from different places on the scale of perfectibility engaged with each other in ways that undermine any clear distinction between a “subject” and an “object.” And look at the dog’s eyes. Is the dog exercising patience with a routine act of hygiene? Or do the eyes suggest pleasure in what is experienced as an act of love? In any case, this painting aligns the flea searcher genre with a history of pet culture, its disciplinary and affective technologies.

JMD: What are your favorite three or four theoretical texts in animal studies?

LC: Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, which is now almost thirty years old, opened up interdisciplinary research in ways that would later become “animal studies.” I much prefer it to When Species Meet, Haraway’s popular book about dogs. Admittedly, Primate Visions is a little tough to read now, because much of the theory seems so 80s, but it raises issues about race, science, animals, and colonialism with which we still grapple. In fact, such concerns seem more crucial now than they did in the 80s.

Latter-day Derridean Cary Wolfe taught animal studies people how to read closely and write rigorously. I love What Is Posthumanism? (2010), but have taught with considerable success Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and the Posthumanist Theory (2004). Wolfe endowed literary animal studies with a new kind of intellectual heft.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed Neel Ahuja’s Bioinsecurites: Disease, Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species (2016). This book is a game changer in the sense that it brings together animal studies, critical race studies, postcolonial studies, and the medical humanities. If animal studies is to remain relevant, in my view it will have to think globally and in ways that genuinely demonstrate the porous nature of disciplines.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t also acknowledge the work done in historical animal studies by, among others, Erica Fudge, Bruce Boehrer, Karen Raber, Richard Nash, Ann Milne, Laura Brown, Donna Landry, Jonathan Lamb, Nathaniel Wolloch, and — more recently — Tobias Menely and Heather Keenleyside. And I am still wading happily through Anita Guerrini’s books.

JMD: You are in an unusual professional position: you’re the author of a prize-winning book and a distinguished scholar of eighteenth-century literature who gave up tenure because of a “two-body problem,” as academia coyly refers to the difficulty of two people in a couple finding jobs in the same geographical location, and you are now teaching off the tenure track. Having been on both sides of the tenure/NTT divide, what advice can you give for non-tenure-track faculty trying to protect their own sanity and research-writing time against the kinds of uncertainty and overwork that are likely to characterize such positions? And what can tenured faculty be doing better to help their NTT colleagues?

LC: What a can of worms you’re opening! I should begin by saying that my experiences on both sides of the tenure line have been unusual. I spent most of my career at the now-AAUP-censured University of Southern Maine in Portland. While writing Imperfect Creatures, I saw fifty tenured and unionized colleagues fired or forced out by a conservative and activist Board of Trustees. It was not an atmosphere conducive either to research or to faith in tenure’s ability to protect academics from administrators’ whims. At Illinois, as an NTT, I have more time and better library resources. My teaching load affords opportunity for scholarship and, after four years, I’m well on my way to a second book. Some tenured faculty at other places have a higher teaching load than I do. In terms of having time to work, then, I’m better off here than at USM.

Having said that, you’re absolutely right that a crucial piece of publishing-while-contingent is maintaining one’s sanity in ways that differ radically from what most tenured faculty face. Scholarship is part of the job description for most tenured faculty and is tethered to a system of rewards. What I didn’t understand before giving up tenure is that my subject-position as a scholar would be severely compromised. I was prepared to deal with the loss of sabbaticals, for example, but was a little shocked to realize that most internal grants are open only to tenure-track faculty. (That’s true of many external grants in the humanities as well.) I had to fight, hard, for conference money, and — despite the SEL prize — saw a campus-wide merit raise distributed, in our department, only to tenured and tenure-track faculty. After four years, my scholarship has yet to be evaluated in a systematic way. No matter how many books I publish, for budgetary and bureaucratic reasons, I am unlikely to be considered for promotion. When I complained to a sympathetic administrator that I felt like a second-class citizen, he said, matter of factly, “You ARE a second-class citizen.”

For administrators — and often for other faculty — all NTTs are necessary afterthoughts.

Under such circumstances, my best advice for NTTs who want a scholarly life begins with a negation: refuse to become identical with the caste system of the institution you serve. Don’t accept your second-class status as your professional identity. Instead, teach well and develop a protective exoskeleton against everyday indignities. Act collectively. Join a union, read your contract, fight for long-term appointments, and ask for more. If necessary, make a pest of yourself. I did.

But don’t let your role as institutional being completely take over your position as writer.

Set up an author platform. (Devoney Looser is brilliant on this). Recognize that more and more of us now exist in this liminal space. Surround yourself with people who understand and legitimate your intellectual desires. Create or join a scholarly web, a culture of affiliation. Seek out other NTTs — and TT faculty, if they allow — to establish new venues for holding onto your writing self. (Tita Chico manages a welcoming and lively one.) Turn your outsider position into something different, and new.

As for tenured faculty, especially those at Research 1 universities and Ivies, acknowledge that NTTs are not a different species, but structurally alienated labor on whose exploitation, to varying degrees, your subject position as a “scholar,” a disinterested reader and writer, depends. Recognize that, given the drop in TT positions nationwide, tenured faculty will be increasingly dependent on NTTs to buy books, read essays, and populate conferences. Embrace your choices. It is possible to jettison protectionist policies, maybe even share some privilege. If NTTs are unable to apply for grants, change the rules. Bring them — us — in. Ask NTTs — not just your graduate students — to share texpertise in the classes you teach. (With few exceptions, today’s graduate students are tomorrow’s NTTs.) Promote their work through campus invitations. Recommend their manuscripts to your publisher. If there are merit raises, see that they’re spread around. Create scholarships for travel to conferences (kudos ASECS Women’s Caucus!). Consider establishing a sabbatical for which NTTs can apply. And please have a serious conversation about the number of graduate students you accept. English departments are producing far more students than the job market can equitably and humanely absorb.

Mostly, though, just be aware of your structural privilege, and use it well. I wish I had done better when I had the chance.