What was it like to be a Cow? History and Animal Studies
By Erica Fudge
The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies (Forthcoming) Edited by Linda Kaloff
Abstract: This essay outlines where the history of animals is now, and suggests where it and the historiographical issues raised by the inclusion of animals in a study of the past might go in the future. The essay traces shifts in the idea that animals recorded in textual documentation are always and only human representations, looks at the potential for animals to be historical agents and at the questions of animal agency and the possibility of recovering an animal’s point of view in historical work using the findings of animal welfare science. It also engages with the nature of the documents available to historians of animals, and uses some contemporary theoretical work —particularly that of Vinciane Despret — to think about new ways of engaging with the intraspecific and interspecific encounters of animals and humans in history.
Introduction: In The Utility and Liability of History (1874), Friedrich Nietzsche presents animals in seemingly contradictory relationships with history. In the first paragraph of the first section of the work he advises his reader:
Observe the herd as it grazes past you: it cannot distinguish yesterday from today, leaps about, eats, sleeps, digests, leaps some more, and carries on like this from morning to night and from day to day, tethered by the short leash of its pleasures and displeasures to the stake of the moment, and thus it is neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard on the human being to observe this, because he boasts about the superiority of his humanity over animals and yet looks enviously upon their happiness – for the one and only thing that he desires is to live like an animal, neither bored nor in pain, and yet he desires this in vain, because he does not desire it in the same way as does the animal. The human being might ask the animal: “Why do you just look at me like that instead of telling me about your happiness?” The animal wanted to answer, “Because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say” – but it had already forgotten this answer and hence said nothing, so that the human being was left to wonder.
‘Thus the animal’, Nietzsche writes in the next paragraph, ‘lives ahistorically, for it disappears entirely into the present, like a number that leaves no remainder.’ This ahistorical existence, he argues, is the nature of animals, a nature that the human ‘envies’: for the latter, forgetfulness is a state to be desired, as the past ‘weighs him down or bends him over’.
Later in the text Nietzsche uses animals once again in two images to explain what he regards as the destructive potential of history. History, he writes in the first, is dissection: ‘all living things … cease to live when they have been totally dissected, and they live a pained and sickly life as soon as we begin to practice historical dissection on them.’ He illustrates the outcome of such dissection by turning to the belief in the ‘healing power of German music among the Germans’. This, he writes, is destroyed when ‘men such as Mozart and Beethoven … are forced by the torture system of historical criticism to answer a thousand impertinent questions’. The questions and the ‘trivialities’ that emerge from biographical research do away with ‘those vital effects [which] are by no means exhausted’ by physical being: in short, the ‘historical sensibility … robs existing things of that atmosphere in which alone they are able to live.’