Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Reconceiving the Enlightenment

by Patrick Smyth, PhD

At the outset of “The Concept of Enlightenment,” Horkheimer and Adorno present a brief statement as the fundamental premise of the movement:  “Knowledge obtained through such enquiry would not only be exempt from the influence of wealth and power but would establish man as the master of nature” (1). This is a fair summary of the Enlightenment’s fundamental value proposition, encapsulating the two main promises of the period: increased equality and material improvement. The unifying concept of the Enlightenment, and the tool by which these ends were to be achieved, was Reason, and Horkheimer and Adorno use Bacon’s heavily gendered language to represent this driving force: “Therefore, no doubt, the sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge. …  [N]ow we govern nature in opinions, but we are thrall unto her in necessity: but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her by action” (1).

Up to this point, Horkheimer and Adorno have presented the Enlightenment on its own terms, situating it with words from a pre-Enlightenment thinker that are clear, if somewhat unflattering. Immediately following, however, they make an interesting rhetorical move:

Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly masters. Just as it serves all the purposes of the bourgeois economy both in factories and on the battlefield, it is at the disposal of entrepreneurs regardless of their origins. … Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others, capital. The “many things” which, according to Bacon, knowledge still held in store are themselves mere instruments: the radio as a sublimated printing press, the dive bomber as a more effective form of artillery, remote control as a more reliable compass. What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.

With this passage, Horkheimer and Adorno carve a straight line through history, connecting the failures and shortcomings of the Enlightenment to the evils of their present moment. This stroke is universalizing and teleological—each present horror is coupled with an Enlightenment principle. Knowledge is paired with enslavement, and methodology with exploitation. The radio is a medium of unilateral control, and the airplane is nothing more than upgraded artillery. Finally, these marginal improvements—these “mere instruments”—are circumscribed, confined to two destructive and dehumanizing domains, the factory and the battlefield.

Having established this causal relationship between the Enlightenment project and modernity, Horkheimer and Adorno are able to distill this progression into a single axiom: “Enlightenment is totalitarian” (4). The horrors of 1947, including fascism, propaganda, and depersonalized murder, all stem from hubris, an overweening attempt by an inept Prometheus to steal the divine fire: “In face of the unity of such reason the distinction between God and man is reduced to an irrelevance” (5).

Unfortunately for the teleological arguments presented in “The Concept of Enlightenment,” history did not stop in 1947. While the previous decades had seen nuclear weapons and Zyklon B, the next enjoyed new antibiotics, antihistamines, and the polio vaccine. While the 30s and 40s saw new media used for oppressive propaganda, the 60s saw liberation fueled by LPs, LSD, and the pill.

Of course, our own time has its own set of horrors and wonders, and, in the balance, GoPro seems a poor trade for drone warfare. Yet it seems to me that Horkheimer and Adorno’s unalloyed condemnation of the Enlightenment is reductive. Technology, from teckne, means making or doing, and what technology enables, it enables for good and ill. Human nature, however, is constant. As Martin observes, “Do you believe … that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?”

Discussion Questions for The Concept of Enlightenment

by Aramis Miranda-Reyes

  1. It is clear that at its core, The Concept of Enlightenment (1947) by Horkheimer and Adorno is a complete and utter rejection of the course and the aims of modern society as heralded by Francis Bacon in The Novum Organum. In their view, the aims of the Enlightenment have given birth to a status quo which is rooted in an ideology of alienation and domination and is thus “radiant with triumphant calamity” (1). Given their assertions and extreme characterizations, is it possible to find today some value in the Enlightenment as an intellectual or as a socio-political movement? Is it a concept at all worth reclaiming? If so, what positive aspects can we recognize? What is their dynamic in 21st century society?
  2. Enlightenment as we understand it today refers to an intellectual movement in which various figures of the 17th and 18th centuries sought to topple the existing hegemony of medieval law and church doctrine in favor of secular authority and new approaches to living based on scientific discoveries of the time. One of those figures was Francis Bacon whose Novum Organum Horkheimer and Adorno posit as the herald text of Enlightenment ideology. As a movement, it is understood that Enlightenment is in no way uniform or unified – or so modern social theory tells us. No one figure in the movement ever defines others completely. And yet The Concept of Enlightenment provides little or no mention of any additional Enlightenment writers, thinkers or philosophers to support their assertions regarding said movement. Where is Locke? Rousseau? Adam Smith? Doesn’t this lack of representation send an erroneous message that society has moved exactly in the direction Francis Bacon laid out in the Novum Organum, as if it were a script? Is such a conception of human culture realistic? Does this not stain Horkheimer and Adorno’s logos with the very dynamic they are attempting to deconstruct? e.g. “Whatever might be different is made the same. That is the verdict which critically sets the boundaries to possible experience” (8).
  3. Horkheimer and Adorno postulate that while the Enlightenment’s main goal was to eliminate the burden of ancient mythologies’ from modern societies, Enlightenment itself was a replacement mythology which operated in just as totalitarian a manner. They also state that ancient mythologies had inherent limitations which the Enlightenment “mythology” seemed to lack: “The magician [man] imitates demons; to frighten or placate them he makes intimidating or appeasing gestures. Although his task was impersonation he did not claim to be made in the image of the invisible power, as does civilized man, whose modest hunting ground then shrinks to the unified cosmos, in which nothing exists but prey” (6). In essence, primitive man in the role of magician imitated the powerful entities of the forest to protect himself from evil but never actually believed himself to have their power or authority over the universe so as to treat it as his own playground. What correlation, if any, can be made between this critique of Enlightenment ontological positioning and Utopian discourse? Are all creators of Utopias ultimately complicit in this dynamic of power hungry predators bent on world domination? Or is there perhaps a different way of considering this ontology?
  4. One of the more interesting points of critique Horkheimer and Adorno make relates directly to the utopian writer as creator of imagined societies. They state – “For positivism, which has assumed the judicial office of enlightened reason, to speculate about intelligible worlds is no longer merely forbidden but senseless prattle…For the scientific temper, any deviation of thought from the business of manipulating the actual, any stepping outside the jurisdiction of existence, is no less senseless and self-destructive than it would be for the magician to step outside the magic circle drawn for his incantation; and in both cases violation of the taboo carries a heavy price for the offender” (19). If systematic thinking has indeed limited artistic and creative possibilities to the degree they claim, what evidence of such constraints, in terms of affect or effect, have we, as students of Enlightenment Utopias, found in our readings?
  5. In Foundations of the Frankfurt School (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Professor John Abromeit states that Horkheimer, and later Adorno, “insist that nature and history are in and of themselves meaningless, and can be given meaning only through conscious human interaction. Any attempt to claim otherwise would be tantamount to post facto justification of past and present suffering. Although [neither] mentions Voltaire explicitly in this context, his merciless parody in Candide of Leibniz’s praise of the status quo as the best of all possible worlds, is a fitting example of [their] argument.” (Abromeit, 230). In view of this philosophy, which we clearly see brought to its logical conclusion in The Concept of Enlightenment, and the evident connection to Voltaire, I think it is worth engaging with the ongoing interpretation of the famous final line of Candide – “…we must cultivate our garden“. What can we speculate given this context?

by Carrie Hintz

Great workshop today.  Feel free as your project develops to do follow-up posts/ re-written proposals…not required but potentially helpful for follow-up workshops.

forthcoming exercises

by Carrie Hintz

Article-writing exercises/ activities

  1. Choose someone more or less at random from the class. Arrange to meet at least once in the next 2 weeks to talk about your papers.   Plan to exchange what you have written so far and arrange to help each other find at least 2-3 sources/ theoretical works of interest. You will then switch to another discussant after those two weeks, so that you have a chance to work with more than one person.
  1. Optional Analysis of a sample article [encouraged]

Choose an article that you admire—and one that represents the kind of work that you want to do (and that is the kind of work you are capable of doing).

In point form (either in the Dropbox or on the blog) answer the questions below (I encourage point form so that you do not labor too much on your answers…the key thing is to truly examine the article).

You might want to choose an article that is also serving as a secondary source for your paper.

  1. Consider the title of the article. Does it work well? Did it motivate you to read the article in the first place?
  2. How does the article begin and end? How does it introduce its fundamental argument? How much of the article is given over to the introduction? Conclusion?
  3. How does the article marshal evidentiary support and proof? Do you see any flaws in the argument? What aspects of the article render it convincing to you?
  4. Evaluate the style of the article. What makes it well written? What would you change if you could?
  5. How would you describe the methodology of the article?
  6. Is the article interdisciplinary in nature and/ or rooted within the specific discipline of English?
  7. How does the article use/ draw on literary theory or philosophy? History?
  8. How does the article use secondary sources/ work of other critics generally? How does it stake out new territory?  Are you convinced of its originality?
  9. Anything else you’d like to say about the article?

The Political and Existentialist Dimensions of Utopian Discourse during the Enlightenment

by Aramis Miranda-Reyes

From the beginning of our course there have been three particular aspects of Utopian discourse at play in our readings which have fascinated me. First there is the political, second is the existentialist as it relates to the metaphysical and finally, there is the philosophical as it relates to the historical. The interplay between these expansive sections of Enlightenment “human sciences” as Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to them in his seminal work Truth and Method, are I believe the foundation of a type of literary discourse which not only satirized and criticized but also analyzed, prescribed and historicized in ways that are unique to this period in history.  My proposed examination of this interplay of “human sciences” will flow along the following lines: Political reality leading to author perception, conversation and understanding in the existentialist sense which then leads to authorship in the literary sense.  In essence, and just as Maurice Merlau-Ponty describes in The Primacy of Perception, Enlightenment authors like Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Voltaire (Candide) used social and economic realities influencing them to perceive and express their intentions in the world based on the humoral infrastructure (as secret affective moments) of their individual selves.  Consequently Enlightenment Utopian literature, as we will see specifically expressed by the aforementioned authors, can be seen and understood as a dialogue or conversation between the external (socio-political) and the internal (deeply personal) of human existence.

The examination of this “alternative cognitive comportment” during the Enlightenment as Lawrence E. Klein refers to it in his book What’s Left of Enlightenment? – A Postmodern Question, will be firmly rooted in the theoretical works of Gadamer (Truth and Method, Reason in the Age of Science), Merlau-Ponty (The Primacy of Perception), Sullivan (Political Hermeneutics), John Locke (The Two Treatises of Government), Hobbes (Leviathan), and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s Sensus Communis (1709).  Sensus Communis in particular is a central concept which deeply affects the writings of all these theorists and authors thereby expanding their frame of reference beyond the more typical scientific and oppressive concerns which are consistently attributed to the Enlightenment.  In many ways it is the tie that binds their philosophical conceptions and informs the literature of Swift and Voltaire to a great extent.  But what specifically is sensus comunis?  For his definition, Gadamer relies on the 1708 oration of Humanist Gianbattista Vico titled “De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione”, in which he states “what gives the human will its direction is not the abstract universality of reason but the concrete universality represented by the community of a group, a people, a nation, or the whole human race. Hence developing this communal sense is of decisive importance for living.” In simple terms, Intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity in its most generic sense is defined by British Sociologist Professor Clive Seale as the “shared meanings constructed by people in their interactions with each other and used as an everyday resource to interpret the meaning of elements of social and cultural life. If people share common sense, then they share a definition of the situation.”

Hence, from this informed perspective, we will examine certain scenes and aspects of Gulliver’s Travels (ex. encounters with the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms) and Candide (ex. Chapter XXVIII where Candide talks with Pangloss ) to come up with an expression of the Enlightenment as conversation which reveals the intellectual landscape of the time in terms of human nature. Other invaluable sources identified so far relating to this topic are: Enlightenment Contested by Jonathan I. Israel, Locke, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson by Daniel Carey and Reclaiming the Enlightenment by Stephen Eric Bronner.

Logic & Perfection

by Rachel Eckhardt

A question occurred to me while reading Candide: Is Pangloss only a critique of Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds tautology, or is Pangloss a walking critique of logical thinking itself? My current thinking is that Candide is a more ambiguous discussion of the nature of human existence, where physical suffering is used to debunk the so-called perfect world, but also human longing leads to the abandonment of the nearly perfect Eldorado.

Logic, a favorite of enlightenment thinking, is what Pangloss is using in his assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds. Reminiscent of the contemporary new age assertion that everything happens for a reason, I am interested in the discussion as it highlight the impossibility of perfection, in fact it reveals the absurdity of the idea of a perfect society. Yet even as Candide comes up against example after example of reasons to question the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, he also experiences Eldorado, a tiny isolated utopia where the gems and minerals Europeans view as riches are not seen as anything special. Despite its peace and ease, Candide choses not to stay in Eldorado. We could conclude from his decision to leave that even the seemingly perfect garden is lacking something important, kind of like the way the initial paradise in Rasselas was unsatisfying.

So then I was wondering if Voltaire is using the three gardens, at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, to argue that at least happiness is possible in this world. Maybe seeking perfection is the enemy of happiness. Candide gets kicked out of the first garden, enjoys the Eldorado garden but chooses to leave, and finally is resigned to the third garden where manual labor allows for some contentedness and freedom from philosophical speculations.

Adorno and Horkheimer assert “On their way toward modern science human beings have discarded meaning. The concept is replaced by the formula, the cause by rules and probability. Causality was only the last philosophical concept on which scientific criticism tested its strength, because it alone of the old ideas still stood in the way of such criticism, the latest secular form of the creative principle” (3). The formulaic nature of the assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds is exactly where meaning is lost: Because this is the world that exists, it is better than any imaginary world.

Logic is central to utopian thinking because so much of utopian thought is about system building. The argument seems to be that if we could just be more rational, we would arrive at our destined perfection. But it is the emotional that is lacking, or maybe even the non-rational. It is certainly illogical for Candide to leave Eldorado, so why does he do it? Because the idea of returning to Europe with great wealth is irresistible, or the idea of living without his love spoils what is otherwise a paradise? Either way, it is not logic that he persues, and maybe the suggestion that while a perfect society is possible, it is not actually desirable.

What is most promising to me about this investigation is the question of alternatives to logic. If logic and perfectability fail us, what choice to do we have other than to be content with society as it is? Or to pursue non-rational approaches to living together as a society? This suggests other ways of knowing. Adorno and Horkheimer describe Bacon’s idea of enlightenment “The “happy match” between human understanding and the nature of things that he envisaged is a patriarchal one: the mind, conquering superstition, is to rule over disenchanted nature” (2). Investigating the irrational could suggest explanations for why we always leave the perfect garden. Contrary to Enlightenment thinking, the perfect society for humans would have to have space for the irrational, but is Candide’s abandonment of philosophy an argument for the non-rational society? It seems more like a survival tactic for all the the trauma he faced throughout the novel.

Pneuma: From Magic to Mechanism

by Patrick Smyth, PhD

In my readings of utopian texts this semester I have been sensitive to the aesthetics of science—that is, our subjective perception of science and the means by which this perception colors our interpretation of the world. By the nineteenth century, a scientific aesthetic had become relatively fixed, partly due to the obvious physical presence of a number of disruptive technologies such as steam power, electricity, and applied chemistry. As we have seen, however, subjective perceptions of science in the seventeenth century were much more fluid. Depending on the observer, natural philosophy could be a social force that upheld fixed hierarchies, as in Bacon’s New Atlantis, or could facilitate a more disruptive epistemology, as in Cavendish’s Blazing World. This indeterminacy is similar to the unfixed quality we’ve observed in discourses about race from the period, and differs profoundly from the relatively fixed stereotypes about “projectors” and “antiquarians” that emerge in the eighteenth century.

One central concept that might serve as a locus for these general observations is air. Natural philosophy in this period is deeply concerned with pneuma, a Greek concept that meant “wind” or “sprit” and was often used to describe the breath, as in our modern “pneumonia.” Early modern texts approached air in ways that often conjoined the spirit, as in “numinous”—and the element of air, as in the case of the New Atlanteans being taken for “a land of magicians, that sent forth spirits of the air into all parts, to bring them news and intelligence of other countries.” A similar conception of pneuma is given in the interactions between Prospero and Ariel in The Tempest, published about sixteen years before New Atlantis. By the mid-1600s, Cavendish is still clearly influenced by these conceptions of early modern magic—most clearly in her interactions with “disembodied spirits”—but this portrayal of air and spirit is elaborately justified by the scientific theories laid out in her Observations.

Fundamentally, early modern science was as much about explicating spiritual phenomena as it was about exploring physical laws. Indeed, Cavendish and others explicitly conflate the two, contending that the spirit was a material entity. Most interesting to me, however, is the alteration that takes place between this period and the early eighteenth century. Swift strives to explode the validity of both science and spirit in Gulliver’s Travels—literally, in the case of the dog fatally subjected to inflation by a set of bellows and left to be resuscitated “by the same operation.”

For my paper, I intend to trace these conjoined concepts of spirit and air. I’ll also be drawing on Hook and Boyle’s (often gruesome) experiments with vacuum chambers and the investigations of van Helmont, the originator of the term “gas,” into pneumatic chemistry and vitalism. I haven’t nailed down the exact angle I’ll take, but I’m starting to get a sense of the means by which this conception of pneuma changed from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, and I’m looking forward to investigating further.





Rabbit Holes and Shiny Objects

by Kate Eickmeyer

I haven’t decided which text to write about, but here are some concepts I’ve been thinking about:

I’m interested in the aesthetic environments (or lack thereof) in utopian texts and the implications of those aesthetics for subjectivity. Acknowledging some significant exceptions, I’m thinking about the parallels between early utopian asceticism and the current affinity for minimalistic, white- and beige-washed environments and fears of contamination from color and embellishment, or “chromophobia,” as David Batchelor puts it. I wonder if there is also something to do with the early utopian treatment of whimsy; the word “whimsy” is derived from 16th century words “whim-wham” and “flim-flam” (Houyhnhnms, anyone?); perhaps this was an appropriate moment for such terms for the extraneous and fanciful to come into being. Were lines drawn between feudalistic avarice and apolitical, innocent novelty? Or, was “whimsy” an entirely dangerous phenomenon in the context of a society where punishment was capricious and capital? Or something else entirely?

Obviously Gulliver’s Travels is chock-full of whimsy, but I’m more interested in how our expectations of exotic physical environments in the earlier texts Swift parodies are disappointed. And, while The Blazing World is so encrusted with jewels it makes the Magic Kingdom look like Bauhaus, jewels are children’s trinkets in More’s Utopia and mere rocks in the road in Candide. More and Voltaire are suggesting, of course, that the aesthetic appreciation for color and sparkle in our non-utopian world is driven entirely by the economic value of gold and jewels, with their value owing to scarcity alone. But also colorful, feature-rich physical environments are not part of the rational project, so how do these texts posit non-utilitarian environmental features as contaminants?

This idea is also tangled up with denial of subjectivity, and more recent dystopian works tend to either represent grey, colorless worlds of surveillance and oppression, or overly-embellished societies that conceal evil beneath shallow surfaces. Anxieties about frivolity, and how much of it to allow in the ideal environment, continue to prevail, along with cycles of indulgence and restraint. What is the difference between approved and unapproved types of whimsy? The Fohrmann piece, “From Literary Utopia to The Utopia of Subjectivity,” addresses the issue of subjectivity; he writes: “Utopia’s remedy is now quite simple: a new society should be created in a separated space, in which man’s inner nature is disciplined by a reason that organizes society as a perpetual recurrence of never-changing rituals” (290). Caprice and idiosyncrasy don’t fit, so their disorderly environmental manifestations don’t either.

On a separate note, is there more to make of modes of access to utopias: the portals or trials one must go through to get in or out of them, not just as a metaphor for imperialism and isolationism, but as a landscape beyond natural laws and the limits of reason? Getting to a utopia often requires travel through not only a physical portal, but also through a portal of experience caused by nature or the unknown. The shipwreck is the most common avenue in the texts we’ve read, and it entails not only the unreproducible nature of the event but also a narrative of death and resurrection in the new environment (why the resurrection component?). Animals can also be the catalyzing forces; the coneys in Rasselas show the prince the way out of the happy valley, and the bears in The Blazing World carry the empress into their society. While the requirement of accident precludes the possibility of anyone in the real world verifying the utopia and reinforces the idea of the utopia as elsewhere or nowhere, the invocation of such experiential portals renders the utopias simultaneously more exotic and more personal, or more accurately, promise such outcomes, even if they never come to fruition. The mode of access is irrational and unintended, yet the destination is the product of rationality and intention. Is there anything to do with all this?

I’m also interested in utopia and Enlightenment philosophy as “poor man’s Buddhism” per our discussion of Rasselas, as well as utopian visions of the ocean and oceanic cultures. I’m also interested in writing the paper on Cavendish and the Kabbalah.

As a somewhat tangential aside, I’ve been researching the history of immersive/themed/place-based entertainment, starting with Dyrehavsbakken, a Danish amusement park that opened in 1583 (a mere 67 years after More’s Utopia was published!). Most of what I’ve found on this subject is all about hyperreality and debunking Disney, and I think there’s more to do from the utopian perspective. I haven’t really worked out any connections to our texts so it doesn’t really pertain to this paper, but I thought I’d throw it out there in case anyone happens to be brimming with ideas or has friends in high places who might be interested in the project.

Utopian Narration

by Amber Chiac

“There must always be a certain effect of hardness and thinness about Utopian speculation. Their common fault is to be comprehensively jejune. That which is the blood and warmth and reality of life is largely absent; there are no individuals, but only generalized people” (Wells, quoted in Ferns, 9-10).

For my final paper, I am interested in exploring the implications of the seventeenth and eighteenth century utopian narrative paradigm. One similarity among all the utopian narrators we’ve encountered throughout the semester is their lack of psychological complexity. The utopian story is always communicated scientifically or poetically but never with personalization. The narrator functions mainly as a mouthpiece to convey the utopian elements of society from a universal standpoint and the nuances of his/her character are unknown/irrelevant. Some questions are: Why are readers not supposed to psychologize the narrators of these utopian texts? What impact does it have when readers attempt to psychologize them? What are the ideological implications of this narrative mode?

I think there is a connection between the flat one-dimensional narrative style and the theme of nowhereness in utopian texts. I am thinking of Haraway’s argument about objectivity and the “god trick,” which is the “gaze from no where.” The “gaze from nowhere” represents the enlightenment ideal of disembodiment and transcendence, and is particularly masculine. This seems well suited to the utopian narrator who is predominantly male, and to utopia itself, which is imagined as universally desirable. This universalism, or what Wells calls “meta-utopia” opens readers to “multiple and contradictory readings” (Ferns, 9). This keeps texts open and ambiguous and allows authors to mask their intentions. This would have been especially important during the 17th/18th century because of the possibility of political and religious prosecution.

Utopias tend to have a dream-like quality and to be ahistorical (perhaps this has something to do with a utopian dream of immortality?). For example, there is always very scant information conveyed about the formation of utopian islands. This absence may suggest “a reluctance to confront the nature of the relation between the real world and the utopian dream” (Ferns, 27). Ferns argues that a sense of time is lost in utopian narratives because the utopian encounter is always positioned in the past. Since the traveller is always recounting his time in utopia, he is always detached from the experience. Also, because this experience is over, utopia is presented to readers as “whole, static,” and “complete.” Due to this “elimination of time,” there is no sense of “process” (21). In a book called Narrating Utopia, Chris Ferns describes the narrative consequences of this:

In a context where time and historical causation have lost all meaning, the concept of individual character likewise becomes meaningless. Where the birth, life, death of the individual make no difference, individual distinguishing characteristics become insignificant; in narrative terms this tends to result in the replacement of the individual by that more durable construct, the typical citizen (p. 21).

There is a lot of good information in this book but I am struggling to find other sources. Perhaps I could use Bahktin or Foucault to elaborate on these concepts. During my research, I came across Foucault’s work on heterotopias. He uses the mirror as a metaphor for utopia – as a place where one simultaneously exists and does not exist. It is like utopia because what one sees in the mirror does not really exist but it is also heterotopia because it changes the way one relates to his or her image. Looking in the mirror “you find yourself missing in the place that you are.” I think this could be relevant to my project but I need to do more research!

That’s all I have so far. Please let me know if you think there is anything worth pursuing here : )

Speciesism in The Blazing World

by Stephen Spencer

For my research project, I will be investigating the representation of animals in Cavendish’s New Blazing World. I’m thinking about this in two ways. First, there are the human-animal hybrids (bird-men, bear-men, fish-men, the list goes on), who are often made the butt of satirical jabs at experimental science (the poor bear-men, for example, whose microscopes are the object of the Empress’s lampooning). Second, there are horses, who the Empress observes in England with the Duchess, with great fascination. When she returns to the Blazing World, the Emperor has established a whole infrastructure for breeding horses. My motivating question, at the outset, is simple: why are horses a privileged animal in this text? Why are they not held to the same kind of animalistic representation (i.e. instruments of satire) that bears, fish, worms, etc. are?

The minimal amount of research that I’ve done suggests, simply, that Cavendish loved horses too much to consider them “animals” in the same way that maybe a fish, or a worm, is an animal. Her husband, William Newcastle, literally wrote the book on horses — A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses and Work them according to Nature… (thanks, Carrie!). I’ve only begun to skim the surface of this text (it’s pretty intense), but initially, I’m struck by a few things. First, William’s stable of horses, upon being observed by nobility in Antwerp during his exile from England during the Civil Wars, were deemed “Reasonable Creatures,” only in want of “Speaking.” This is an interesting take on the tradition in 17th century philosophy that did not consider animals to be in possession of rationality (as far as I know). Also, the horses are often categorized in terms of nationality (Spanish, English, Dutch horses), class (some horses are for princes, some for gentlemen), color, and what I’m calling right now “specialty” (leaping horses, race horses, war horses, etc.). I think my interest is in William’s taxonimization of horses — I want to put it in dialogue with Margaret’s taxonimation of humans (race, class, gender, etc.).

Of the English horse, William says the following:

“The English Horse is Less Wise than the Barb, Fearful and Skittish, for the most part; and Dogged and Rebellious to the Mannage, and not commonly so Apt to Learn: But those they call English Horses, are so Compounded of Horses of all Countries, that they always Participate something of their Sires; and so, that may somewhat alter the Case.” (58-59)

English horses are presented as somehow elect, curiously, because of their nationalistic hybridity. But, the payoff is not so noble; their elect status consists in the idea that, because of their hybridity, they are loyal to their “sire.” In short, their hybridity allows for them to be easily manage, servile. This allows them to be “useful” for all sorts of endeavors, whether it be pulling a cart or riding. I think it might be a stretch to map English horses on to English men/women (although I guess maybe one could — the English “race” as Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, French), but nevertheless, there’s a strong sense that horses have national identities, and that it shapes their phenotypic and genotypic makeup. I need to read more of this text, especially the bits about the other kinds of horses.

My early answer to the question, “why are horses not quite animals?” is that they have all sorts of use value. Unlike other animals in the animal kingdom (who, according to proto-science, succeeded each in one skill or art — think of spiders spinning webs, bees harvesting honey, etc.), horses can excel at manual labor, recreation, and warfare. I see a link between this idea of “specialization,” as it pertains to most animals (i.e. one animal, one skill) and horses (i.e. one animal, many skills). I can’t help but want to turn my focus to the human-animals, who, to me, are examples of the specialization of intellectual labor that comes along with experimental science. Is it prudent of us a society, I imagine Cavendish asking, to have a bunch of bear-men looking through microscopes, or worm-men digging through the earth, without having a larger kind of “knowledge” in mind? What will happen to intellectualism if we divvy it up into work, instead of treating it like a more humanistic tradition that necessitates a lot more reading? (late October as a grad student, the life of a bear-man suddenly seems appealing…)

Writing this has helped me to see that, perhaps, I am looking at a relationship between representations of animals and labor. I think this inquiry intersects with notions of class, race, and gender, but it’s very messy to me right now and I think the trick will be picking and choosing my spots, as opposed to talking about it all. I would appreciate any reactions or thoughts, as I fear my thinking might be a bit big at this point. Cheers!


Skip to toolbar