Karl Steel’s How To Make A Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages

Karl Steel’s How To Make A Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages

Nicole Shukin

In one half of a pair of critical reviews looking at recent titles in animal studies, Nicole Shukin examines Karl Steel’s How to Make a Human (Steel reviews Shukin in the other half). In particular, Shukin discusses Steel’s framing of “the human” in terms of medieval violence, and she considers what that framing can offer to today’s political and ethical conversations.

How many of us have been privy, voluntarily or not, to the post-dinner party joke – made by guests who have politely managed to eat an unusually grisly or “gamey” piece of meat – that their hosts must have slyly served them roadkill? Reading Karl Steel’s How To Make A Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (published in 2011 by the Ohio State University Press as part of their series “Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture”), it struck me that roadkill jokes might be one residual trace in the present of a medieval prohibition against eating carrion examined by Steel in his book, one of the many means through which humans in the Middle Ages sought to distinguish themselves from, and dominate, animals. Since my own approach to “the question of the animal” (Wolfe) is largely confined to twentieth and twenty-first century cultures of capitalismI examine how animals circulate as forms of symbolic and carnal capital in Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). (with this question referring, in the broadest sense, to a range of deconstructive challenges, inspired by Derrida, to anthropocentric traditions of western thought founded upon the absolute opposition of “man” and “animal”), I was intrigued by possible historical correlations between the violent “system of the human” that Steel brilliantly tracks through the medieval archive and modern forms of human sovereignty (244). It isn’t difficult to see how Steel’s critique of the “guiltless slaughter” (22) justified by humans in the Christian Middle Ages could be brought to bear upon the rationalization of factory feedlots and industrial slaughter in our present day; this is surely one example of the “long durée conjunctures between the past and the present” that his book tempts readers like myself to explore (Joy 292). The roadkill/carrion connection is more of a stretch, however, given that nowadays it is usually vehicles, rather than predation by carnivorous animals, that “accidentally” kill the creatures we are under a social interdiction to not eat. Steel’s careful reading of the carrion laws inscribed in medieval penitentials argues, after all, that they served to secure a human monopoly on violence by refusing “independent animal violence” (66). Such laws, as he shows, effectively refused other carnivorous animals their power to kill in order to reserve this right for humans.  

The critical core of Steel’s book lies in his radical proposal that “the human is an effect rather than a cause of its domination of animals; that the human cannot abandon the subjugation of the animal without abandoning itself; and that the human can therefore be said not to exist except in its action of domination” (19). He argues, moreover, that because the human is contingently constituted rather than natural or given, the violence which founds the human needs to be incessantly reenacted. Steel explicitly extends Judith Butler’s understanding of identity as a performative recitation to the category of the human when he proposes that because “the human never comes completely into being, it is always trying to justify itself …. [T]he supposedly foundational act of the human can never cease, since it can never be founded on anything but the act itself” (89).

The question of how continuous or not the present is with the forms of human domination Steel traces through the Middle Ages is one that I’ll return to below. But first, let me locate How To Make A Human at the vanguard of “an inter-disciplinary, cross-temporal, and theoretically interventionist medieval cultural studies,” as Eileen Joy puts it in postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (292). Steel’s book participates in an exciting movement to “bring medieval studies into mutually beneficial critical relations with scholars working on a diverse array of post-medieval subjects, including critical philosophies that remain un- or under-historicized” (Joy 292). Such critical philosophies include posthumanisms and new materialisms of various stripes, affect, thing, and object oriented theory, ecocriticism and critical animal theory, and theories of sovereignty and biopower. Steel’s book certainly brings the Middle Ages into intimate relationship with contemporary critical philosophies, particularly those philosophies devoted to deconstructing the sovereignty of the human and elaborating an ethics of co-constitution and co-existence. Derrida, Haraway, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Butler and Zizek, among many others, are invoked throughout How To Make A Human, as Steel hooks his reading of the medieval archive into some of the present’s most pressing ethical and political conversations. More, Steel contends that the human forged in medieval Christian times, far from being a relic of the past, lives on in discourses of modern humanism, and that challenging the system of the human therefore requires confronting “a persistent medieval voice” in the present (22). If there has been a recent turn in medieval studies to “the always-open (and hence, troubling) question of the relations between the medieval and modern in different times and places” (Joy 292), Steel probes these relations as they specifically pertain to the persistence of human exceptionalism. How To Make A Human raises a pivotal question for those of us who too infrequently query to what extent the conditions of modernity may have been laid in the Middle Ages: are the techniques, ruses, and reasoning of the human of a similar, sovereign order across medieval and modern times?

In tracing the repeated acts of violence that found the human, Steel references a stunning wealth of medieval texts, some canonical (such as Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica), some arcane (such as Ratramnus of Corbie’s ninth-century letter on cynocephali, or dog-headed people). Citing widely from an archive spanning ten centuries, How To Make A Human bursts at the seams with a dedication to archival research that, coupled with Steel’s eloquent traversal of post-medieval critical philosophies, makes this book an intellectual tour de force. Two of the earliest texts scrutinized by Steel are a late-antique parodic will (the Testamentum Porcelli, or the Will of the Little Pig) that became popular between the ninth and twelfth centuries, and an early medieval poem by Prudentius (written between 402 and 404) whose “complicated advocacy for asceticism” (177) is read by Steel as ultimately preserving the supremacy of the human. Among the later texts from the Middle Ages that he engages are fourteenth-century butchery laws requiring that the killing of animals in the medieval polis be hidden from the view of elites, whose performance of disgust for this murderous business functioned to “absolve” them of their complicity in the constitutive violence of the human (219).  

Much of the book is devoted to what Steel calls “marginal cases,” including a wolf-boy who runs on all fours and must be disciplined into the upright, bipedal posture of the human, so-called monsters like the cynocephali, and pigs with “fundamentally ungovernable” appetites (186), all of which confuse the distinction between human and animal. But the marginal cases he finds in the medieval archive also include confounding theological-material situations, such as how to square Christian doctrines that reserve resurrection for humans alone with the carnal complication that humans who eat animals incorporate animal flesh into their body, or that humans who have been eaten by animals become consubstantial with their bodies. Solving these dilemmas of the flesh to ensure the exceptionality of the human often resulted in ridiculously labyrinthine logics, as Steel shows. But he also notes that these marginal cases mark insoluble perturbances within the system of the human, sites where the contingent character of the human is most visible, and potentially friable. As he notes, “Monsters compel humans to confront directly the ‘founding crime’ of the human” (163).

Steel’s guiding contention that violence makes humans - that “the human can therefore be said not to exist except in its action of domination”(19) – has numerous implications. The first entails a consideration of what it would take for that violence to be renounced, or for the human to be un-made. As Steel asks in the book’s Epilogue, “What else might a human be?” (245) In his Epilogue he shifts from the dark record of human violence enacted upon animals and turns to a possible posthumanism that, while cautious of being joyous in the Deleuzian sense, affirms those rare texts in the medieval archive that protect the possibility of a “what else.” One such literary tradition, the Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgement, encompasses works that “describe the woes occurring on each of the last fifteen days prior to God’s destruction of the world,” and that pay particular attention to “the reactions of fish and other animals … especially to how they cry out to the heavens” (226). Steel seizes upon these depictions of what he calls “animal noise” as one place to begin the task of un-making the human. Yet he also insists that “increased vigilance before animal suffering may not be the best goal …. A worthy posthumanism must recognize both pathos and play” (233-4). For this reason Steel turns from texts of woe to stories that represent a radical love of animals far exceeding love of a pet. One such story by Paulinus of Nola depicts a peasant whose love for his oxen leads him “to give himself over to them entirely, without guarding himself from any injury they might do him” (236). Drawing upon Derrida’s concept of “hostipitality,” Steel reads the peasant in the story as “a perfect host, hostage to his [bovine] guests” (236). But finally, the posthumanism sought by Steel involves acknowledgement of what Ralph Acampora terms symphysis, an enmeshment in the world and a being-with fellow creatures that precedes love between discrete individuals of any species. Still, the precondition of this attunement to symphysis, for Steel, remains “an unwavering critique of violence inherent in the system of the human” (244). 

Unsurprisingly, most scholars engaging with critical animal theory, and Steel is no exception, follow Derrida’s seminal critique of the symbolic violence that is enacted when one corrals a heterogeneity of living beings into the generic signifier “the animal.” But strangely, “the human” can begin to function as a dedifferentiated and homogenizing shorthand itself, something that is surprising in criticism devoted to deconstructing the oppositional categories of “human” and “animal.” Although Steel voices a clear debt to Butler’s work on sex, gender, and performativity, extending it to a critique of the performative and contingent character of the human, he doesn’t do as much as he might have in this book to keep the human in view as a differentiated, unevenly achieved category. While he does touch on the castigation of Jews by virtue of their refusal to eat pork (throwing their humanity into question), it would have been particularly valuable to search for signs in the medieval record of men’s and women’s differential relationship to the violence that founds the human. Did women in medieval Christian Europe, by virtue of their own subordinate place within a hierarchy established by Church fathers, find themselves in a different position vis-à-vis animals and violence, and might their ambiguous position have protected unexpected sites of resistance to the system of human domination traced by Steel?   

Other implications follow from Steel’s stringent equation of the human with violence, as well. They return us to my opening question of how continuous or not the medieval is with the modern when it comes to the techniques, ruses, and reasoning of human exceptionalism. To invoke the challenge Foucault gives to the repressive hypothesis, one perhaps unwitting effect of Steel’s position is to encourage us to see the human as founded solely through exercises of sovereign domination, at the risk of exploring how forms of productive power might also, even simultaneously, serve to constitute the human. In Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978, Foucault traces a genealogy of pastoral power, that is, “politics seen as a matter of the sheep-fold,” back to the early Christian church and its tropes of Christ as a shepherd and the human flock as sheep (130). As Foucault writes in this lecture series:

[O]ver millennia Western man has learned to see himself as a sheep in a flock… . Over millennia he has learned to ask for his salvation from a shepherd [pasteur] who sacrifices for him. The strangest form of power, the form of power that is most typical of the West, and that will also have the greatest and most durable fortune, was not born in the steppe or in the towns… . [It] was born, or at least took its model from the fold, from politics seen as a matter of the sheep-fold. (130)

While Foucault strives to distinguish a power of care, cultivation, and management of individuals and populations from the sovereign power to put to death, he himself failed to consider how other animals may have been subject to forms of pastoral government. Nonetheless, if Steel had drawn upon Foucault’s lectures on pastoral power, he might have been led to explore how the human may be founded by more than just violence, and to differentiate between types of power in the repertoire of means available to the human.

To be fair, however, Steel does explicitly engage with Foucault in the book’s Introduction, where he consciously delimits his work to the study of violence rather than power, in the Foucaultian sense. “As Foucault explained,” writes Steel, “a relationship of power acts upon acts themselves, whereas violence ‘acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks on the wheel, it destroys, or it closes the door on all possibilities’ ” (16). He indicates that his concern in this book “is with human acts against animals and with human attitudes towards their own and animal acts: not power, then, but capacities, which, in Foucault’s terminology, modify, use, consume, or destroy things” (16).

That said, there are moments in the book, particularly when Steel is engaging with signs of sympathy or of kindness in the medieval archive, that his analysis might have benefited from testing whether forms of productive or pastoral power may have operated alongside, or possibly even against, an order of human sovereign violence. Because he so firmly equates violence and the human, Steel is led to read various signs of sympathy as cloaking, or clothing, an underlying reality. Consider, for instance, his reading of a “dubious sympathy for animals” in various texts of the Middle Ages, including a poem by the aforementioned Iberian Christian poet Prudentius which promotes asceticism (and vegetarianism). Against Prudentius’ horror of human carnivorousness and his identification with sheep - the “traditional image of sheep representing both Church and Christ” (177) – Steel determines Prudentius’s sympathy to be a false expression of kindness toward animals. As Steel writes, Prudentius and his farmers “stand serene and innocent, their human supremacy and ravening appetites cloaked in sheep’s clothing” (178). Again, when he trips across “incidental acts of kindness” toward animals in the odd medieval text, Steel is perhaps bound to see them as examples of false pretense because of his strict equation of the human and violence; in his reading, such incidental acts “allowed humans to profit from the constitutive violence of the human while screening their complicity in it” (169). Although his close readings are careful and convincing, Steel’s decision to focus on violence rather than power leads him to perform a kind of ideology critique upon signs of sympathy in the medieval archive, reading them as symbolic smoke-screens concealing the material reality of human domination. Yet around signs of sympathy, especially, it would have been interesting to explore the possibility that a non-sovereign modality of power - another set of techniques for making the human - might also have been afoot in the Middle Ages. Again, such an exploration might have opened up an alternate genealogy revealing that the conditions of modern biopower were also being laid in medieval Christian Europe.

Since publishing How To Make A Human, Steel has in fact turned to precisely this kind of exploration by approaching the medieval forest as a space of biopolitical management. In 2012 he presented a talk at Columbia University entitled “Biopolitics of the Forest: On Lively Deer, Lively Carcasses, and the Appetites of Lepers.” He is opening up the Middle Ages to the study of what Elizabeth Povinelli, in a very different context, has termed the “catachresis” between sovereign violence (putting to death) and biopower (making live) (511). Listen, for instance, to an entry on forest husbandry that Steel contributed to the group blog, In the Middle:

…thinkers in biopolitics should look to forest husbandry, in particular, because of its thorough and precocious intermingling of sovereignty and life management. When Foucault states that “man is to population what the subject of right was to the sovereign,” or Esposito explains that biopolitics aims not only at “obedience but also at the welfare of the governed,” they might have said that biopolitics treats humans like livestock, or, more particularly, like the sovereign’s livestock, which is to say, like venison. (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012).

Steel’s on-line activity reveals that, despite the seriousness of his subject matter and the scrupulousness of his scholarly work, he’s not averse to ironic jokes that undercut the system of the author, as well as of the human. Entering a pithy review of his own book on Google, Steel writes: “I wrote this book and I think it’s awesome.” Well, I think it’s awesome, too.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. Ed. Michel Senellart. Trans. Graham Burchel. Intro. Arnold Davidson. New York: Picador, 2007.

Joy, Eileen. “The Traherence of the Past.” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 1.3 (2010): 291-298.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. “The Child in the Broom Closet.” South Atlantic Quarterly 107.3 (2008): 509-530.

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

Wolfe, Cary. Zoontologies: the Question of the Animal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.