Against Animal Authenticity, Against the Forced March of the Now: a review of Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital

Against Animal Authenticity, Against the Forced March of the Now: a review of Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital

Karl Steel

In one half of a pair of critical reviews looking at recent titles in animal studies, Karl Steel examines Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital (Shukin reviews Steel in the other half). In particular, Steel looks at Shukin’s biopolitical framework, and considers how that framework challenges not only our conception of what constitutes the animal, but also–and more to the bone–our conception of the capacity of fields like animal studies.

Capitalism is life, or so it likes to imagine. Like life, capitalism finds, generates, and fills new spaces; it continually assumes new and more elegant forms; it perpetuates both itself and the field of all that is. Like life, it cannot or at least should not be resisted, because like life, it knows best. If capitalism is life, then the voice of the market is the voice of nature itself, and the voice of nature requires constant sacrifice of the weak for the health of the herd, without any exit but death and universal stasis. Here, “animal capital” marks the fantasy of a capitalism’s soul, its anima, which thrives with its “natural” desire to live and create, so that capitalism’s enemies are the enemies of life itself.

At the same time, capitalism likes to imagine that it has finally transcended mere “animal” capital by escaping nature’s supposedly brute materiality. This fantasy is that same supposed division between mental and material labor that, as The German Ideology observes, underlies all claims of spirit to be free from body (Marx 159); indeed, this is the same human fantasy that flatters humans by imagining that we, uniquely, have the free choice and ratiocination that all other, merely instinctual animals lack.

In the newest version of this old spiritual, humanist fantasy, capitalism imagines that the Internet and digital finance free it from factories, machines, heavy products, and, especially, workers, mostly now just consumers, as production goes on somewhere else in places not quite caught up to the fully human present. In this new present, power comes from the wind and sun, not steam and coal, while light transmits words and images effortlessly, without the strainings and sortings of printers and ink and scribes. When the animal rendering of the first (dis)assembly lines gives way to the portability and omnipresence of digital rendering, when stationary peasants give way to migrants, the soul of capitalism ascends from its dull carapace into a celestial glory infusing everyone fortunate enough to live in the true present.

Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital interrupts these contradictory fantasies: on the one hand, capitalism’s self-serving fantasy of an animal/animated capitalism that thoughtlessly and mechanically “knows best,” and on the other, capitalism’s purported abolishment of a presumptively bestial corporeality into a realm of pure, digital spirit. The first fantasy process “renders” life into being capitalism itself, while also rendering animal bodies into products, like film stock, one of Shukin’s key examples, and also the animals of advertising. The second “renders” animals in the sense of digital rendering, or so it thinks, by turning away from physical stuff towards the purely spectral existence of finance and discourse. Shukin’s book frustrates all these processes of rendering, by emphasizing alternately either the cultural existence of animals, to combat the notion of an inert, predisursive natural existence, or the corporal character of capitalism, which cannot be abandoned, whatever its dreams of escaping animality to become pure culture.

In particular, to split capitalism from its naturalist pretensions, Shukin goes after the simplistic equation of animals with timeless nature and unthinking instinct, since animals are the go-to avatars for advertising, and advertising is where capitalism thinks and sells itself. Shukin’s targets include cell phone advertisements using digitally rendered caricatures of Canadian Beavers, at once the jolly sign of natural nationhood and an ironically remembered and therefore freely chosen totem of Canada’s colonial origins; or Gregory Colbert’s “neoprimitivist” (195) Ashes and Snow, a blockbuster show of photographs printed on hand-crafted Japanese paper, featuring sepia images of big animals and some (sepia) people, festooned in flowing linens. Colbert is in the show too, its sole pictured white man, represented underwater with a pod of sperm whales, their flukes and his pony-tail languidly undulating together in the great, brown sea.

It’s satisfying to do ideology critique on crap like this. In New York City, Colbert’s show ended up in, of course, the Meatpacking District; and cellular communication founds itself on the cheap extraction of rare minerals from wartorn Congo, which is not the other of capitalist postmodernity but one of its foundations. More to the point, if the smooth glowing rectangles of cell phones didn’t conceal the labor that produced them, and if digital beavers didn’t stir up Canadian shoppers into nationalist amusement, ironically enacted but still enacted for all that, then designers and marketers just wouldn’t have done their job well. The embarrassing secret turned up in ideology critique’s reverse engineering is one that everyone, capitalists and its critics, would agree was stashed away right there all along, by design.

Shukin’s other targets are more slippery, namely, the philosophers whose work unwittingly supports such kitsch. In the main line of philosophy, for, say, Descartes, Lacan, Heidegger, or Levinas, animals live in some pure natural state, unencumbered by the weight of language, culture, class conflict, and the anticipation of pain or death. At least for critical animal studies, this is the philosophical equivalent of Big Culture, the obvious criminals whose sin everyone already knows. Shukin thankfully leaves these thinkers alone, and instead mostly seeks harder targets, the more sympathetic philosophers for whom animals incarnate the escape from all rational, humanist, and identitarian pretensions.

For the surrealistic philosophy of animal mimics, Roger Caillois, mimesis is a pathology towards disappearance and nonexistence, a death drive best manifested in leaf insects and other similar critters but one universal to all living things. And like any universal tendency, it has no history except the deep and apolitical history of life itself. Deleuze and Guattari build on this to argue that animals manifest prediscursive, subrational affect without any pretense of lonely individuality. But, as Hardt and Negri counter, no matter how many thousands of times cultural critics laud “blurred boundaries,” these wild becomings do nothing at all to threaten the status quo. Capitalism is rhizomatic too, also a lover of blurred boundaries, as ambiguity generates desire, moves products, and drives us with an unfathomable delight to want more, more, more.

Finally, though Derrida’s now classic The Animal that Therefore I am, the key text of critical animal studies, calls the homogeneous concept of the animal a “bêtise,” an animal stupidity, his animal, as Shukin argues, remains in its own way the homogeneous other of logos. As a sign of mystery without logos, beyond or beneath signs, Derrida’s famously particular cat, “truly a little cat” (Derrida 6), not representing “the immense symbolic responsibility” (Derrida 9) cats have been made to bear, has nothing of the particular about it except just this fathomless mystery. Derrida’s cat needs more individuality than just this mystery. We need to know about the individual and species history that placed this cat in this particular house fed by some particular meat by this particular world-class philosopher; we need something like what we find in Donna Haraway’s discussions of dogs, agility, the practicalities of training, and the weight of history in her Companion Species Manifesto and When Species Meet.

So long as animals remain just a natural resource, beyond language, before socialized emotion, before political history, becoming animal means just being there, undislodgable, no thinking required, just naturally hanging out and doing its thing, sincerely and authentically. It means escaping from everything that implicates us in the violence that sustains our choices, or it means falling into an abyss without the security of ever making the right choice. Hence the suitability of animals, the wilder the better, for advertising and capitalist self-imaginings. Hence, also, the turn in cars from animal branding to what animal branding itself represents: with the Ford Escape or Fiesta, the Toyota Highlander or Tundra, and the Saturn Sky, shoppers like to picture themselves seeking out the great depopulated empty spaces, where life is at once pure style and entirely cleansed of culture, at once self-fashioned and entirely unpolluted, entirely natural, without excess. But if animals have their history, one often bound up with ours, then the natural witness no longer testifies so reliably on the side of thoughtless inevitability, purity and innocence, or, for that matter, natural freedom.

One reaction to such dreamy naturalism might be to expect the deadly return of the animal repressed. As Shukin points out, moves like this are familiar from popular representations of bird flu, mad cow disease, and other zoonotic diseases, or in fictional versions like the rage virus of 28 Days Later or even Aliens. I remember being at a theater in 1987 and cheering along with everyone when a xenomorph takes the yuppie: capitalism falls to what it hoped would be its new product. Shukin argues that this dread or hope or satisfaction itself reinforces the belief in animals as ahistorical operators, since the return of the repressed is just the flip side of the fantasy of the natural.

Moreover, the promise of return is nothing but the promise of new markets. Capitalism likes misery like it likes recycling. It can render this stuff too, like it renders everything, swallowing up whatever had been temporarily outside its borders. So, the horrid and useless effects of capitalism’s products are not its enemies but rather only the opportunity to generate new products. For example, sales of theraflu exploded during the bird flu scare, even though the drug’s so-called side effects drove many, mostly teenagers, to hallucination and suicide (even this is a product now: web searches for theraflu and hallucination now default to “how much theraflu to get you high?”). Sick and breaking bodies generate more markets: the proliferation of guidelines, managers, and surveillance, the development of antibiotics and whatever might come after antibiotics, and the marketing of consultants like Temple Grandin, who sells her own empathy with animals to the cattle industry, to help them design chutes to bring cattle more calmly to slaughter (Grandin 29-39). If something is as yet unincorporated in capitalism, if something resists or fights back, we can be assured that this repressed, whenever it returns, will too become a product. The rendering industry, Shukin’s figure of capitalism itself, draws the loop ever tighter in its recuperation of what we thought would be mere “waste” or what might have been the inassimilable “excess” that would finally break capitalism open.

If the apocalyptic hope that the animal repressed will rescue us from capitalism believes the animal at once is our future and, especially, our historically prior foundation, the hope also fails by reaffirming the received narrative of capitalism’s history. This narrative is Shukin’s second target. For her, materiality does not come first, with symbolism following and then eventually overcoming materiality. Production continues, somewhere, at the same time as elites imagine themselves translated into the freedom of a digital paradise. All this work is coeval with its supposedly superseded or even anticipated other, a point Shukin develops from Johannes Fabian; and every moment has in it the characteristics of its so-called future or past. For Shukin, Fordism is already post-Fordist; or Fordism continues despite the dematerialist claims of the so-called new economy; or the invention of dematerialized capitalism begins not in the now but in the nineteenth century’s development of photography and imitation ivory or in the seventeenth-century spectacular twitchings of dismembered frogs. Through her counternarratives, Shukin infests the smooth workings of capitalism at every stage with the material noise of production, while always reminding us that, of course, this noise is itself liable to further rendering.

Even if the animal could return and save us, Messianically, it could not return, because it has always been here, at the beginning, in the now, and especially at those moments where technology and capitalism has imagined itself to break free of brute existence. Shukin reminds us, for example, that Galvini’s early experiments with electricity were experiments in animating animal parts and that Galvini’s nephew electrically set the faces of recently executed criminals twitching. She also reminds us of what followed, centuries later, when in one spectacular event Edison destroyed both his rival Westinghouse and a homicidal elephant. At New York’s Coney Island, Topsy is led obediently to the place of execution; she stands; smoke rises from her feet; she stiffens, and falls, her legs jutting out from her corpse. And the film ends. With this, Edison inaugurated a new era of supposedly dematerialized death, offering to the future the methods of torture used by South African security forces under Apartheid, who employed waterboarding and electric shock to murder without leaving any visible marks of trauma on their victims. Shukin reminds us that the name Topsy itself, coming as it does from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its traveling minstrel shows, is a sign of the racial exploitation that generated America’s vast wealth and, by extension, Edison’s fortune. And she reminds us that before Edison stepped in with his new method of execution, Topsy’s keepers at first wanted to lynch her. Here as elsewhere, race, colonialism, animality, and the politics of time all work together to produce the supposed dematerialized inevitability of the capitalist now: with one great electrical upsurge, the past, we like to think, falls away.

Finally, Shukin observes that the film of the film recording this event would have been a thin coating of a rendered animal byproduct smeared over flexible celluloid: the stuff of dead animals, once properly rendered, records the passing of others. The animation of film has its analogues and perhaps even historical origins in the developments of, first, industrial slaughter and then the Fordist assembly line, for industrial slaughter is a disassembly line where the moving image of the carcass gradually changes and alters as it speeds through the factory, manhandled by the Taylorized motions of man-machines. The slaughterhouses, far from being hidden, were a not-to-be-missed attraction for visitors to Cincinnati and especially Chicago. There capitalism managed even to sell the pig’s scream, the paradigmatic unsellable, unrenderable, authentic non-product. The slaughterhouses featured prominently in promotional materials for the World Exposition of 1896, in the early marketing of Kodak cameras, and in the peculiar Visitors [sic] Reference Book of Swift and Company of 1903, which Shukin discusses in detail, where a well-dressed white family follows their roughly pig-sized daughter through the plant as she delights at the sequence that chops a pig into pork.

While a slaughterhouse tourist, Henry Ford discovered the model for his own plants. The inexorably linear narrative of fast-moving images, assembled or disassembled, is also how film works, and this model in turn is the very image of the closed capitalist model of time. For whatever the circuitous byways of the filmic narrative, the procession of images remains as fixed to the material, mechanical sequence of the actual, physical film as any industrial line. In the time of capitalism, every moment has been accounted for, rendered, and turned to profit, and the so-called digital era, far from freeing us from brute materiality, has instead ensured that nothing of time is left unsold.

And if anything should run out, then the market will always turn to renewables – from oil to animal fats, for example – to ensure that the capitalist line loops around to sustain itself unceasingly. What’s being recycled is not our waste, but capitalism itself.

Except for a few sallies against the prehistoric pieties in the rendering industry’s promotional materials, Shukin’s historical narrative goes no further back than the Renaissance. In other words, the main line of her narrative begins with what’s generally thought to be modernity. My students – here standing in for average citizens – come into my classes assuming the Middle Ages was nothing but animal nastiness, sincerely and embarrassingly tethered to faith and local custom, and they assume just as unfoundedly that their own period is quite the opposite: lifestyles instead of culture, spirituality instead of religion, and with humans finally liberated from the filth of sleeping in the same homes as the family pig. For them, the worst excesses of the present are fought best as a return of “feudal” exploitations, where the present at its worst is “getting medieval.” Shukin’s particular historical scope implicitly continues to support the self-satisfaction of epochal thinking (for similar critiques, see Cohen and Warren). Shukin’s focus is likely only an accident of disciplinary training. But opening up this forgotten time to Shukin’s methods helps Animal Capital go further to trouble the smugness of modernity while also suggesting that her book’s demesne concerns far more than just capitalism. For if Shukin gets medieval too, her book fully refuses the capitalist demand that we always orient ourselves towards the future and understand the past only as either embarrassing or simply lost.

With what I presume is Shukin’s approval, I will tell the kind of story she might have told had she been a medievalist. For what became and remains mainstream Catholic doctrine, the Eucharistic Host is literally the flesh of God. Except to the cursed eyes of heretics, pagans, and Jews, Eucharist doctrine and narrative held that it would generally not be perceivable as such: the outward “accident” of bread remained breadlike to perception, while the actual substance was transformed invisibly into Christ’s own, edible body. We can register the obvious, first, namely, that the Host is a cultural, manufactured object, more intensely so than many others. As Jared Diamond famously observed, grains are the particular foodstuff of settled, urban, highly stratified civilizations like that of Western Europe. The Host should therefore remind us of the system that bound most people to the land, as farmers, as overseers, as owners jealous of their privilege, as the daughters of owners, there to be made to tie one landowning family to another, and of a system that bred larger and larger horses and oxen for labor, rendering them over to dogs and their human masters as food once labor and time broke them. It should likewise remind us that this bread becomes flesh only in the ritual of the Mass: only the right person with precisely the right words could effect the transformation. And like any other treasured cultural object, the Host needed the guarantee of the natural. It needed animal witnesses.

Anecdotes proliferated about natural reverence for the consecrated host. These stories, advertisements of a sort, screened the material sequence that produced the Host as an object by presenting it as the eternal body of God, the very figure of inevitability. In the stories, Hosts left in hives found themselves the center of little, waxy churches, constructed by reverent bees. Hosts lost in trees caused unseasonal fruitings. In one story in John Mirk’s fifteenth-century Middle English sermon collection, which here will stand in for the whole genre, a priest taking “Godis body” to a sick woman stumbles, dropping the Host into the meadow. Horrified, he strips and beats himself, crying out “þou foule þef þat hast lost þi creature.” This means “you foul thief who has lost your Creator” or perhaps even “you foul thief who has lost your creature,” as if the priest at once remembers and forgets that he himself has made the Host and not the other way around. During his flagellation, he sees a pillar of fire stretch up from earth to Heaven, and finds about that pillar “al þe bestes of þe medow” (all the beasts of the meadow) kneeling and worshiping the lost Host. A black horse calls attention to itself by only half kneeling. When abjured by the priest, the horse confesses itself to be a devil, forced to join the other beasts in honoring God. The priest meanwhile worships on both knees, with the animals, and then retrieves the host and delivers it to his parishioner, whom it of course miraculously heals. Only the devil’s experience is mediated; only the devil might step back; but even the devil, in its resistance, has to be made to witness that this Host is something more than bread. Mirk’s pious beasts, there only as a crowd, have no individuality that could jam nature’s timeless animal operations. Through their pure affect and subrational recognition, the beasts are made to put on a show for us of what we should know so long as we stay clear of the devil’s hesitation.

The story conceals the actual production of grain and the ceremony of the Mass, itself necessarily generated in particular buildings that sprang up at particular times through relationships of exploitation and patronage, staffed by particular communities professionalized and licensed through the same. The story especially conceals the long intellectual history of debates over the character of the Host. Was it the actual timeless body of Christ, manifested here wherever the Mass was celebrated? Or was it was only a symbol and reminder? Was it impossible that the heavily, eternal body of God should come to our temporal earth “be uertu of þe prestis wordis” (by power of the priest’s words) to be “closid essenciali in a litel bred þat þei schewe to þe puple” (enclosed in its essence in a little piece of bread that they show to the people). The professional church in English in Mirk’s day would answer this question by intensifying its defense campaign, with anecdotes, sermons, screeds, surveillance, interrogations, trials, and eventually, within Mirk’s lifetime, immolations of anyone who persisted in skepticism.

Animals had their stations in these defenses. Because animal desire cannot be anything but sincere, what they felt had to be true. They had to be made to stand and listen to their master’s voice. Among the animals is a human professional, more able and aware than animals but still as innocent at heart as they are meant to be. He must also come think that his own “creature,” this Host, is instead his “creator.” With the animals, the priest learns to love the fetish, and, unless we want to be in the devil’s camp, we must learn to love it through him.

I describe this scene not to flatten out the difference between medieval and modern economies. Certainly there are similarities: the fantasy of “painless communication” Shukin discovers underlying cell phone advertisements arguably originates in medieval Christian imaginations of angelic communication, which could be effected with the equivalent of a mere nod to open a circuit, effortlessly, between one mind and another (Kobush). In our sublunary world, some monks tried to emulate this silent celestial communication by speaking only in sign language, much to the consternation of some, who complained that the practice stripped humans of their voice, and, with that, a key feature of their distinction from other animals (Bruce 50). It would be almost automatic work for a cultural critic to trace links between these fantasies and modern capitalist fantasies; but it would be a mistake, too. The sheer scale and speed of production, the weirdly simultaneous immanence and transcendence of our contemporary market, and its increasing effectivity in rendering all time and effort for its own sustenance, has effected a quantitative change between medieval and twenty-first century capitalism. I’m relatively convinced of this.

So, with all that in mind, I offer up John Mirk’s scene of the host, finally, as a kind of counter to my own book. I conclude How to Make a Human by falling into an ahistorical call for responsible communion that owes more than a little to Derrida. The animal other emerges as the salvation from the lonely pretensions of humanity. It would be simple to look at Mirk’s story and imagine the priest worshiping with the animals as somehow representing what we should be if we “ceased to defend our human selves” and to imagine, simultaneously, that the devil’s obdurate refusal to participate itself represents everything we should no longer be. Or, better, I would likely have argued that we needed to give up on the pretense of coming together around the Host and to simply be with these animals in this community, all of us, particularly the humans, without ever forgetting our responsibility to the others. A posthuman moral allegory can continue to flow smoothly out, but only by forgetting the historical specificity of the Host, of this open field (which would be closed off to most human and animal traffic during the enclosure movement of later centuries), and of the human and animal labor, including the cultural labor of the priest and the academic too, to produce this object and scene as holy.

The trick, which I take from Shukin, is never to settle on any one answer. Joining with the animals in a moment that lasts as long as it needs to, aimed at no profit or product – for the animals, unlike humans, get no benefit from their piety, as they will never resurrect – does stop the clock. And that can be good, or not. Whatever my hesitations, this scene may offer a grace that cannot be rendered for the sake of the human community and the social inequities that sustain it. On the other hand, focusing on the particular historical details of the fourteenth century and worrying over the homogeneous representation of animals could presumably be taken up by the market too.

In a larger sense, critical animal theory, as a “new thing” in criticism is, arguably, just another product, and, like all products, its time has already slipped away, almost from the moment of its introduction, in favor of still newer critical modes like critical plant studies and object-oriented ontologies, whose pieties claim to outdo anything else to date in their sensitivity to the wholly other. The delight in reviewing a book from 2009, five years on, is that of refusing the market’s demand always to be of the moment. The past, whether medieval or more recent, has its resources. It offers us a way to stop the smooth flow of capitalist time. And with Shukin, we must aim to be as adaptive as capitalism itself, always seeking some “counterhegemonic” (one of her favored words) purchase to whittle away at its fantasies and satisfactions, always looking for some way to get off the clock and to live on terms and in times other than what capitalism sells back to us, without ever imagining that we have got free of our obligations to our animal selves.

Works Cited

Allen, Valerie. “Road.” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 4.1 (2013): 18-29.

Bruce, Scott G. Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition, c. 900–1200. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “In the Middle of the Early Modern.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 13.3 (2013): 128-132.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal that therefore I Am. Ed. Marie-Louise Mallet. Trans. David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Grandin, Temple, with Catherine Johnson. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Harvest, 2005.

Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: The Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.

–—. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Hudson, Anne, ed. Selections from English Wycliffite Writings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Marx, Karl and Freidrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker. London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978.

Kobusch, Theo. “The Language of Angels: On the Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity of Pure Spirits.” Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry: Their Function and Significance. Ed. Isabel Iribarren and Martin Lenz. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. 131-42.

Mirk, John. Mirk’s Festial. Ed. Theodor Erbe. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, 1905.

Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Warren, Nancy Bradley. “In Praise of Messiness, or What is Gained by Losing Strong Periodization?” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 13.3 (2013): 138-143.