(a) a critical cliché. Quoting “a certain Chinese Encyclopedia” called “The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,” Jorge Luis Borges offers the following animal taxonomy:


(a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m) those that have just broken a flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies. (231)

Acknowledging the arbitrariness of this classification, Borges suggests that the attempt to classify the universe is speculative not because the results are inevitably imperfect; it is speculative because there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense we commonly give that “ambitious word” (231). Yet, far from being useless, Borges’s incongruous classification makes visible the difficulties inherent in our attempts to classify large groups of significant objects — animal, vegetable, mineral. Indeed, it has itself become something of a classificatory index, a sort of taxono-meme, that comes to signify, more than the impossibility of classification, the inevitability of its imperfection and thus the further affirmation of our desperate need for it as a means to both establish and unsettle the “order of things.” Michel Foucault’s celebrated study of the Human Sciences, Les mots et les choses (1966), in fact opens with an extended meditation on the psychosomatic effects of Borges’s taxonomy: an “uneasiness that makes us laugh” (xviii). For Foucault, the uneasiness inspired by Borges’s taxonomy is hard to shake off because it makes visible, as an uncanny double, the “pure experience of order,” a primary state anterior to words, perceptions, and gestures that is made manifest in the various practical modalities of classification (xviii). But in our own historical context in which the place of the more humanistic of the human sciences within the current order of knowledge is a contested space (if no longer necessarily a space of contestation), Borges’s taxonomy gives rise to an altogether different sort of laughter. By unsettling the distinction we routinely make between living and non-living, human and non-human, real and imagined, literal and literary animals, Borges’s taxonomy raises the more troubling prospect that our attempts to classify the multiplicity of the living under the rubric of the “animal” is itself something of a literary enterprise. 

(b) literary animals. Everyone knows that animals frequently appear in literature and that literature, from its very inception, has used animals in a variety of imaginative and figural registers. A historical classification of animals in literature — a properly literary history of animals — would include all sorts of imaginary creatures, fabulous beasts, and improbable chimeras as well as talking and non-talking animals that are recognizably “real”; it would not, that is, look very different from Borges’s taxonomy. But Borges’s fictional taxonomy invites us to entertain a more radical possibility: that animals are themselves fictional; that the entity we call “animal” cannot be conceived apart from its literarity; that animals, in short, are a literary invention. It might seem scandalous to make such a claim in a social context in which animal suffering is all too real, in an ecological context in which animals suffer from vastly increased rates of extinction, in a disciplinary context in which the biological sciences reign supreme, and in an ideological climate in which the theory of evolution is still, for some, little more than a fiction. Yet, to assert that animals are a literary invention is to draw attention to the logic of classification whereby the systematic accounting of the living also amounts to a categorical appropriation of nature in which the “pure experience of order” is also an ordering of humans’ mastery over the natural world. In Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1735), for instance, humans occupy a privileged position that falls just outside the categories under which all other animals are subsumed. Linnaean classification, as Harriet Ritvo has noted, constituted the “invention of tradition” among naturalists keen on proclaiming the triumph of science over nature, but it was also an invention in the more literal sense that it assigned, with the use of latinate binomials, a unique position to individual animals and plants within a comprehensive system (Platypus 15). Codified, standardized, regulated, and continually updated, Linnaeus’s Latin nomenclature is still in use today, providing the literary critic with a veritable cabinet of philological curiosities in which are mingled place names, proper names, trivial names, “epithets,” and various forms of morphological, physiological, and etiological stand-ins for taxon and type that make the task of classifying a new species an exercise in interpretative stylistics.

(c) anthropos. After visiting Lascaux, the cave system in the Dordogne that contains some of oldest human-created images of animals, Picasso is reported to have said: “They’ve invented everything!” Picasso may have been talking about artistic technique, but, read literally, his observation invites us to consider the extent to which animal representations are implicated in our invention of the entity we call the “animal.” If, as John Berger has argued, the first metaphor was animal, this is because we have always compared ourselves to other animals in order to establish what we hold in common with them and what we don’t (9). The fact that the earliest surviving traces of the act of figuration by humans involve animals — the paintings at the Chuvet cave in present-day France, painted some 35,000 years ago, which are 10,000 years older than those at Lascaux — suggests that the comparison between humans and animals is the comparison that structures all subsequent comparisons. To depict animals, as the ancient cave paintings so vividly illustrate, is to take stock of difference; difference among animals (those that are swift; those that are dangerous; those that run in packs; those whose hunches are in the shape of a palm full of pigment; et cetera), but also difference between animals and the humans who depict them. The comparison between animals and humans can thus be said to be the condition of possibility of literature itself insofar as literature is the giving of wing to metaphor.

Anthropomorphism, the name we give to the ascription of human attributes to non-human entities, will henceforth be given the role of adjudicating the human/animal divide as a literary exercise. Unlike metaphor, which operates on the basis of chiasmic similarity (the human is animal, the animal is human), anthropomorphism operates as a comparison in which one of the terms is posited as a given, as the ground for all figures. The term “human” (anthropos) in anthropomorphism is “epistemologically resolved,” as Barbara Johnson puts it (190). This asymmetry may well be inevitable, but it is perhaps only inevitable because it forms the basis of literature’s claim to fictionality: the animal fable as the index of literary fabulation, tout court.  And to the extent that we fashion literature as a uniquely human endeavor (can birds sing of singing?), literature both draws a stark contrast between human and nonhuman animals and, by virtue of its structural anthropomorphism, simultaneously undermines its claims to a figural plasticity of the sort that might allow one to entertain the possibility of an avian song of songs. As Jacques Derrida and others have shown, the history of Western thought proceeds by erecting a strict division between human and non-human animals that grants priority to the human by drawing a series of comparisons in all of which the human is epistemologically resolved: for example, the human is a political animal (Aristotle); an animal with soul (Descartes); a moral animal (Kant); a promising animal (Nietzsche); a time-keeping animal (Heidegger); a lying animal (Lacan); a nude animal (Derrida). 

(d) disciplines of animal studies. Animal studies is a new interdisciplinary assemblage within the humanities and humanistic social sciences concerned with the political, ethical, social, and cultural status of animals. Whether the aim is to expose the exploitation of animals by humans, to advocate for their welfare, or to examine the animality of the human, animal studies asks us to reflect on our inevitable anthropocentrism. The very name of the discipline, as Cary Wolfe has argued, suggests that, in studying animals, we, as humanists, are also reinforcing the division it is meant to unsettle (Posthumanism 99). Yet drawing attention to the anthropocentric nature of the enterprise by studying animals from the perspective of the so-called posthuman does not significantly alter the enterprise since the object of study remains, like the falcon from the falconer, at an ever widening remove from the one who studies it. Indeed, animal studies situates itself in the human/animal divide as a wedge that opens up to scrutiny the history of human-animal relations from different methodological perspectives and distinct epistemological domains, but it cannot for all that overcome the distance that separates the human from the non-human; it can only hope to map it.

Its academic provenance can be traced back to the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975, even as the ethical concern over the treatment of animals, as Singer himself notes, dates at least as far back as the late eighteenth century when Jeremy Bentham brought animal suffering to bear on political culture. We owe the term “speciesism” to Singer’s influential utilitarian argument against animal discrimination, which has served as the foundation stone for the work of an impressive disciplinary array within philosophy that includes the work of philosophers with as varied intellectual commitments as those on this list: Tom Regan, Mary Midgley, Thomas Nagel, Alasdair MacIntyre, Cora Diamond, Martha Nussbaum, Matthew Calarco, Brian Masumi, and Paola Cavalieri, among others. Animal rights discourse has gained less traction among continental philosophers, for whom the question of the animal has a longer intellectual tradition but a more recent moment of critical self-reflection. The work of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben, among others, represents a perhaps less overtly pragmatic, if no less political, engagement with the conceptual categories that have made not only possible but even permissible the manipulation of animals by humans than that of Anglo-American philosophy. The issue of animal manipulation is of course not only of philosophical interest; historians, anthropologists, environmentalists, psychologists, legal scholars, geographers, economists, artists, musicologists, and literary critics alike have made vigorous interventions in the field of animal studies over the course of the last two decades in a more or less concerted effort to understand the social, cultural, legal, and ethical implications of human-animal relations. These disciplines, which roughly belong to the disciplinary array that includes the humanities and the humanistic social sciences within the current institutional configuration of higher learning, do not aim to displace or supplant the biological sciences as the principal purveyors of knowledge about the animal world. On the contrary: animal studies seeks to supplement the scientific study of animals by offering different perspectives on a set of assumptions about our knowledge of animals that often lead to their instrumentalization.

 From this perspective, animal studies is a comparative venture that seeks to understand human–animal relations on the basis of a further comparison: the comparison between the so-called animal sciences and the so-called humanities. If, as David Krakauer suggests, science describes the world using numbers, the humanities can then be said to describe the world using words. (We leave to the side the plastic and performing arts, which, in this context, can be said to describe the world using pigments, sounds, lights, space, movement, solids, etc.) This is too neat a distinction, of course: recent work in the so-called Digital Humanities and the ongoing interest in and concern about language and narrative among scientists tends to blur this distinction, but to think of words and numbers as two distinct modes of looking at the world helps us conceptualize new models of inquiry and imagine new forms of interdisciplinary collaboration. This is one of the nodes at which I would situate a possible future for comparative literature, a discipline lately beholden to the debates surrounding the term “world literature.”

(e) literature of the world. As Franco Moretti accurately notes, “[W]e do not know what world literature is” (399). Nevertheless, we can posit four constructs to which the term “world literature” has been profitably applied. The first is archival: the sum total of literary texts written in the world up to the present. The second is conceptual: it refers to the critical enterprise that seeks to account for this vast corpus. The third is canonical: it groups those exceptional works of literature that have been deemed to speak beyond the local circumstances of their production and thus to belong, not to specific cultures, but to humanity as a whole. The fourth is referential: those works that make specific reference to the world (as urban literature refers to the city or nature poetry to nature). When they don’t conflate them, recent debates on the fate of world literature tend to emphasize one of the first three senses of the term. The fourth sense of the term is yet to be adequately theorized. This is surprising since all literature, no matter how fantastic, delirious, dicey, cerebral, abstract, or abstruse, is referential in nature and thus eminently of the world. Indeed, if we take literally the referential ambition implied by world literature, a term that, to be worth its conceptual salt, ought to be “universal” in scope (as the standard translations of Goethe’s Weltliteratur in the Romance languages suggest: littérature universelle, literatura universal, letteratura universale, etc.), then the problem of world literature, of world literature as a problem, becomes one of figuration. Borges is of course right to point out that the universe, that “ambitious word,” does not have an adequate referent in reality (it is, in this sense, a catachresis) and thus cannot be reliably represented taxonomically or otherwise. (231). (“Planetarity” is Gayatri Spivak’s preferred term for this impossible figure [72-3].) But, as ecocriticism has taught us, the worldliness of the world’s literatures — a referential structure that encompasses languages, peoples, and regions, to be sure; but also biomes, ecosystems, and the habitats that sustain the vast multiplicity of the living — can be accessed, can only be accessed, through literary figuration. Awareness of the relation between “place” and “planet,” as Ursula Heise has shown us, involves an imaginative exercise that is textually transacted, a form of figuration made all the more urgent by the persistence of ecological provincialism in the face of environmental events that put us at risk of global catastrophe. This does not mean that world literature must refer explicitly and exclusively to the globe, the planet, the world — literature is surely that which can refer to anything at all — but it does mean that in order to grasp the wordliness of world literature and situate its place in the world, we need to analyze the rhetorical means by which it reaches for the universe (whatever it might be) precisely because it is, as Borges notes, an “ambitious word.” Indeed, the impossibility of representing the universe is what ought to give the concept of world literature purchase on the critical practice of comparison: world literature as the impossible chronicle of the Anthropocene.

(f) representing animals. The representation of animals is as old as representation itself, but it is only until relatively recently that the question of animal representativeness — the rights of animals, broadly construed — has become part of our discourse about animals. Human-animal relations, as Harriet Ritvo and other historians have shown, underwent a radical transformation at the end of the eighteenth century when animals became significant primarily as “objects of human manipulation” (Estate 2). From the traditional use of animals in sacrifice and ritual, hunting and fishing, transport and labor, the development of zoological, biological, and ethological, and, more recently, genetic forms of knowledge have permitted the technological exploitation of the animal at an unprecedented scale. The growth and acceleration of animal manipulation by humans over the last two hundred years has led to a paradox of representation: on the one hand, animals have disappeared from view as a result of increased urbanization and the development of technologies for meat production and animal experimentation that tend to place animals out of the public eye; on the other, animals have never been as visible as they are today through a broad range of cultural practices, including zoos, circuses, natural history museums, nature shows on television, and, of course, animal literature.

Accompanying this paradoxical history of visibility and invisibility is the history of the attempt to grant animals a degree of legal and political representativeness. The legislative history of animal protections begins in the British Parliament, which passed the Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle (also known as Martin’s Act) in 1822. The first private organization devoted to the prevention of cruelty to animals, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), was founded in 1824, becoming the RSPCA in 1840 when Victoria gave the organization permission to consider itself a “Royal” charity. The scope and applicability of animal protection laws as well as the proliferation of animal rights advocacy organizations has considerably expanded since then, with most so-called advanced democracies having embraced some form of animal welfare legislation and animal rights activist networks now operating around the world.

The parallel development of these two histories — the acceleration of animal manipulation in visible and invisible forms and the slow accretion of animal rights through public and private means — offers grounds for suggesting that the relation between them is one of cause and effect.  The need to regulate the human mistreatment of animals occurs when it exceeds the state’s capacity to control it; the persistence of animal mistreatment, in turn, prompts calls for abolishing it; commercial and institutional interests then resist regulation in the name of progress.  But, described in these terms, the causal relation between these parallel histories can also be understood as just one more instance of the endless tug-of-war that characterizes parliamentary capitalism. And to understand the relation in this way is in fact to grant no representation to animals themselves. Animals, as Marx famously wrote of small peasant proprietors, “cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” (347). The confusion between the representation of animals in culture (Darstellung) and their political representation (Vertretung) condemns them to a form of spectacle that, in animating the animal (“Disney” might stand as a short-hand for this process), hides the more excruciating spectacle of the non-sacrificial putting-to-death of the animal (a more militant position against which is exemplified by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle [1906]). As Cary Wolfe puts it: “[W]e are all, after all, potentially animals before the law” (Before the Law 105).

(g) wild child. Giorgio Agamben calls the discursive apparatus that produces an ontological difference between the human and the animal the “anthropological machine.” For Agamben, the anthropological machine creates a “zone of indifference” or “state of exception” within which the articulation of the relation between human and animal, human and non-human, speaking animal and non-speaking animal takes place on the basis of inside/outside inversions (37). The modern version of the anthropological machine animalizes the human by isolating the non-human within the human. Citing the French physiologist Bichat, Agamben argues that the distinction Bichat makes between vegetative life and relational life gives rise to a conception of the human as an animal whose separation from other animals already occurs within the human (14-5). Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, this animal-within-the-human becomes the focus of a new form of governmental rationalization whereby the State assumes responsibility for the care of the population’s life. The animalization of the human under “biopower,” Michel Foucault’s name for this new political dispensation, not only entails the statistical capture of life processes among the population (birth rates, life expectancy, infant mortality, illness, etc.); it also includes the creation of pseudo-biological categories such as race that now become the markers of difference within a population. The pre-modern anthropological machine, in contrast, humanizes the animal by producing quasi-human figures that occupy an ambiguous place within the chain of being since they are considered animals in human form: the slave, the barbarian, the foreigner, the enfant sauvage or Homo ferus (30). The two anthropological machines operate in symmetrical fashion using the same basic procedure: the establishment of an empty signifier — what Agamben calls “bare life” — that is neither human nor animal but which nevertheless serves in its emptiness to keep the human separate from the non-human. In its two versions, the anthropological machine creates, on the basis of false or empty comparisons, hybrid figures whose function is not the blurring, but rather the reaffirmation of categorical differences. How does literature, an institution whose modern disciplinary contours are defined during the age of biopolitics, reflect, install, or otherwise police the border separating humans and animals established by the anthropological machine?

(h) elective affinities. The discipline of “Comparative Zoology” is largely a fiction. It was invented in 1850 by Louis Agassiz, one of Darwin’s most implacable foes, for the purpose of showing how natural classification approaches the Mind of the Creator. Agassiz, an accomplished biologist working in Switzerland in the 1840s, was invited to deliver the Lowell Lectures in Boston in 1845. The lectures, titled “On the Plan of Creation in the Animal Kingdom,” pointed to recent findings in comparative anatomy, embryology, and paleontology that suggested that coherent relations of similarity among animal species could not be explained by material necessity alone (Winsor 2). Patterns of similarity, for Agassiz, were evidence of a planning mind, evidence for what we might now refer to as Intelligent Design. By investing the findings obtained using the comparative method with a spiritual message, Agassiz was able to persuade Harvard’s administration to appoint him to a new professorship. From this position, Agassiz created a new field of study, “Comparative Zoology,” and, in 1859, founded an institution that would be both the center and the instrument of this field, “The Museum of Comparative Zoology.” The spectacular failure of his enterprise as an intellectual endeavor in the wake of Darwin’s description of evolution, did not for all that seriously challenge the method he refined: classification. To define natural groupings of species instead of simply describing them became a permanent feature of the natural historical repertoire, however misguided his own goals were in implementing it as a method. In his 1857 essay, “Essay on Classification,” Agassiz argues that classification seeks patterns in the geographic distribution of species: a feature is homologous when the resemblance expresses deep-seated structural “affinities”; a feature is called analogous when the resemblance pertains to function rather than affinity (24-5). Despite his belief in the direct divine creation of species, his scientific practice as well as his program for the future direction of natural history was perfectly consonant with those of most of his professional peers. Agassiz parted ways with his peers, however, in insisting that evidence of thought, planning, and design was patently visible in the myriad correlations between species that he and his colleagues were discovering.  The museum that he built as a kind of fortress against the theory of evolution no longer shares its founding vision, but the specific methodology that it meant to exhibit by the way in which it organized its collection survives. The aim of the museum, then as now, was to provide material for scientific research based on the exploration of several dimensions of comparison. “The education of a naturalist,” he wrote, “now consists chiefly in learning how to compare” (Methods 4).

(g) only compare! The method of comparison was of course not invented by Agassiz; not even in natural history. The practice of comparative anatomy, for instance, can be traced back to antiquity, even as its institutionalization as an academic discipline only starts in the eighteenth century.  The five volumes of Cuvier’s “Lessons on Comparative Anatomy” (1800-1805) and Richard Owen’s 1837 “Hunterian Lectures on Comparative Anatomy” set the bases for the modern practice of comparison as an explanatory method. As Owen himself defines it:

Comparative Anatomy is that branch of Natural Science which treats of the Organization of Animals, and which considers it with reference to the Peculiarities of the Human Structure, or as it illustrates the functions, the laws of development, the mutual dependencies and coexistences of the different organs:  — or as it indicates the natural affinities of Animals, one to another: — or lastly, as it elucidates the doctrine of final causes. (83)

Darwin, newly returned from his voyage around the world aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, was profoundly influenced by Owen’s lectures since they allowed him to formalize what had up this point been the labors of somewhat of an amateur naturalist. The history of Owen’s impact on evolutionary theory is complex, not least because he became one of its staunchest opponents, but it might suffice to mention in the present context that the comparative method espoused and disseminated by Owen and other comparative anatomists was of enormous value to Darwin in his formulation of the theory of evolution. Here is Darwin in the closing chapter of the Origin (1859), writing on analogy:

I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number…. Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. (484)

Analogy may well be a deceitful guide, but it is instrumental in Darwin’s ability to posit a common origin for the extraordinary diversity of species. The difference between Darwin and Agassiz may well reside in Darwin’s insight into the perils of analogy (that is, in his reading ability) rather than in the method used to arrive at his insight. For Darwin, complexity in nature is not analogous to the work of a Higher mind not because there is no discernible patterns in nature whose elements bear comparison, but rather because the work of nature cannot be compared to reason. If anything, natural selection works by a “natural” practice of comparison: adaptation.

(h) on the origin of literary species. The origins of comparative literature are well known. The term first appeared in print in 1816 when it was used in the title of a series of French anthologies used for teaching literature (Cours de littérature comparée). The concept of “comparative literature,” as Susan Bassnett notes, was most likely derived “from a methodological process applicable to the sciences, in which comparing (and contrasting) served as a means of confirming a hypothesis” (12). The comparative study of literature is thus intertwined at its origins with the comparative study of animals by virtue of the methodology used to compare members of otherwise very different sets of objects. Whether the method begets the object of study or the object of study the method is not entirely clear since the use of comparison in comparative literature is based on an analogy between literary forms (meters, figures, plots, genres) and biological forms (vertebrae, organs, species, genera) that seems to suspend their differences in “nature.” Indeed, this analogy may be “deceitful” in Darwin’s terms, but it can nevertheless make a compelling historical claim since it can be traced at least as far back as Aristotle, who famously compares a well-constructed plot to a beautiful living creature in the Poetics:

 A well-constructed plot … cannot either begin or end at any point one likes…. [T]o be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature, since our perception becomes indistinct as it approaches instantaneity; or in a creature of vast size — one, say, 1,000 miles long — as in that case, instead of the object being seen all at once, the unity and wholeness of it is lost to the beholder. Just in the same way, then, as a beautiful whole made up of parts, or a beautiful living creature, must be of some size, but a size to be taken in by the eye, so a story or plot must be of some length, but of a length to be taken in by the memory. (Barnes, 1450b, 33 – 1451a, 6)

Aristotle’s analogy, which bears comparison with Borges’s taxonomy in its attention to scale and perception, makes visible an intrinsic feature of comparison that, though seemingly obvious, is oddly absent from traditional accounts of the origins of comparative literature: its interdisciplinarity. To compare plots to living organisms does not exactly advance the cause of science: literature is not only an unreliable (perhaps even deceitful) source of knowledge of the natural world; it is also an unworthy institutional partner in an age in which so-called STEM subjects overshadow the humanities. But to compare animals to texts could well advance the cause of literary studies by giving a new purchase on what comparison might signify for students of literature around the world without making its practice archaic, vestigial, or, worse, extinct. We may yet learn something about the nature of the discipline of comparative literature by attending to its constitutive figuration as the literarization (the making literary) of animal comparison. Without a reconsideration of its literariness comparative literature could go the way of comparative zoology: a museum housing the fossilized remains of a discipline.

(i) the great pyramid of learning. The use of figures or analogies derived from natural history to describe comparative literature is so pervasive as to suggest itself as the very mechanism of the discipline’s own evolution. Indeed, a history of comparative literature could be written using the invocation of “crisis” as an index of its multiple transformative mutations and the disavowal of its affinity to the biological sciences as the surest sign of its adherence to the protocols of comparison derived from them. In his 1959 essay "The Crisis in Comparative Literature," René Wellek writes against a certain tendency in comparative scholarship to dwell on the history of “sources and influences, causes and effects” so as to argue in favor of a more robust theoretical engagement with the literariness of the literary object:

The old certainties of nineteenth-century scholarship, its ingenuous belief in the accumulations of facts, any facts, in the hope that these bricks will be used in the building of the great pyramid of learning, its trust in causal explanation on the model of the natural sciences, had been challenged before: by Croce in Italy, by Dilthey and others in Germany. (162)

In attacking the “old certainties” of comparative scholarship, however, Wellek also disavowed the origins of the very impulse that made possible the disciplinary instantiation of comparative literature. This is a curious disavowal of the “natural sciences,” not least because he tends to use figures or analogies reminiscent of Darwin to vouch for the success of the discipline, which can rightly pride itself in “its conception of a coherent Western tradition of literature woven together in a network of innumerable interrelations.” It is to philology, the science of language, that he turns in a later essay, “The Name and Nature of Comparative Literature” (1965), to describe the historical development of comparative literature:

“Comparative” occurs in Middle English, obviously derived from Latin comparativus. It is used by Shakespeare, as when Falstaff denounces Prince Hal as “the most comparative, rascalliest, sweet young prince.” Francis Meres, as early as 1598, uses the term in the caption of “A Comparative Discourse of Our English Poets with the Greek, Latin and Italian Poets.” The adjective occurs in the titles of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century books. In 1602 William Fulbecke published A Comparative Discourse of the Laws. I also find A Comparative Anatomy of Brute Animals in 1765. Its author, John Gregory, published A Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man with those of the Animal World in the very next year. (1-2)

The two most common types of comparison in this philological account of the word “comparative” are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the comparison of literary texts and the comparison of living creatures, but, as the last entry suggests, the terms of comparison maintain the distinction between them as a categorical difference. Comparative literature, from this perspective, can be said to be complicit in maintaining and reaffirming the human/animal divide by acting as a cog in the “anthropological machine.” This is of course true of many comparative studies that came into being at more or less the same time period and for which religion, law, language, and, of course, literature come to represent, brick by brick, the most human of enterprises. But, as the persistence of tropes derived from the natural sciences that are used to account for the variety, multiplicity, and interrelation of the textual objects it studies shows, comparative literature as a disciplinary formation would also seem to blur the distinction erected between texts and living creatures even as it endeavors, with Wellek, to disavow its debts to science.

(j) literary evolution. Nowhere is this more clearly visible than in the use of evolution as a model for literary history. The first theory of comparative literature to appear in English, Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett’s Comparative Literature, a volume he wrote in 1886 for a prestigious series of scientific monographs, was also the first to use evolutionary science to explain the “secrets of literary workmanship” (86). For Posnett, comparative literature offers a general theory of literary evolution that follows the social history of literature as it passes through stages of inception, development, culmination, and decline. More than 100 years after it was first proposed by Posnett, the view of literary history as literary evolution finds expression in two very different contemporary versions: one which compares literature and evolution by means of analogy and one which compares them as two members of the same set.  Franco Moretti’s innovative use of an evolutionary model involves an account of the development, success, and ultimate extinction of specific novelistic genres in a cultural environment he suggestively calls the “slaughterhouse of literature.” For Moretti, Darwin’s evolutionary tree provides a good explanatory model for representing the diversity and complexity of literary forms and, especially, their transformation over time. But Moretti is not wedded to this particular analogy; he is ready to use other abstract models (maps, graphs, world-systems) to explain the literary field as a whole. In contrast, other exponents of literary Darwinism such as Joseph Carroll read evolution literally, arguing that the adaptive advantage of storytelling selects for specific features expressed in the themes and forms familiar to students of literature but now explained by the literary cognitive capacity developed over time in humans (54). Jonathan Kramnick is right, of course, in arguing that this literal form of literary evolution may tell us little more than that humans tell stories, which we already know, but something else is also at stake in this type of analysis (345). By exalting humans’ capacity to tell stories, the sociobiological view of literary evolution tends to reaffirm the strict division between humans and animals in such a way that restores the sort of hierarchical difference that the theory of evolution was meant to upend in the natural world. Analogy, it turns out, is a better guide for thinking about difference and diversity in nature than scientific literalism is for thinking about form and function in literary ecologies.

(k) felski & friedman. In their introduction to a special issue of New Literary History devoted to "Comparison,” Rita Felski and Susan Friedman suggest that, as a methodology, comparison seems to have lost much of its institutional vigor:

Scholars of comparative literature and of anthropology, especially, are often anxious to disavow their disciplines' entanglement in comparative methodologies, citing the complicity of these disciplines with colonialism and Eurocentrism during their formative years. Comparison, in this light, is seen as a homogenizing process rooted in the encyclopedic ambitions and evolutionary models of nineteenth-century thought—an approach that distorts the uniqueness of the objects being compared, reduces them to variants on a common standard, and relies on a downgrading of certain cultures in relation to others. (v)

Comparison, as the invocation of “evolutionary models” in this passage suggests, can be too rapidly assimilated into structures of power whose outcome is predetermined by the asymmetrical binaries that comparison compares. In this view, comparative literature is both the effect and the cause of social inequities and geopolitical imbalances that cannot be disregarded when we appeal to the universality of literature or to the particularity of specific texts as value-neutral phenomena. Yet, as Friedman and Felski freely and perhaps even friskily acknowledge, comparison is itself impossible to dismiss as a mode of analysis: “Comparison is a mode of thinking, an analogical form of human cognition, that is indispensable to understanding and creativity and that depends upon principles of relation and differentiation. Not just a cornerstone of analytic thought, comparison pervades everyday life as one of the fundamental ways in which we organize and make sense of the world around us. Forms of comparison are built into the deep structures of language and constitute the basis for ubiquitous figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, and analogy” (v-vi). For Felski and Friedman, the challenge is to find new grounds for comparison that take into account the political stakes of relational thinking. They do not mention animal studies explicitly, but animal studies provides new models for interdisciplinary comparison that do not take for granted the benefits of comparison, not least because non-human animals have been historically denigrated by unfair comparisons to human animals. Indeed, animal studies has devoted much of its founding energies to the analysis of the explicit and implicit comparisons that enable, instrumentalize, and justify the manipulation of animals by humans. To the extent that comparative literature can be said to have a program, it surely ought to be that it makes possible comparison across differences of form, scale, and disposition. In this sense, it is ideally suited to make comparisons between animals and humans, animals and texts, and animal texts and other texts.

(l) anything is possible. Elizabeth Costello, J. M. Coetzee’s character in Elizabeth Costello, suggests that, unlike reason and philosophy, literature is uniquely capable of giving us the ability to image the lives of animals (96). By reaching for a different way of being-in-the-world, the sympathetic imagination allows us to embody the flesh of an animal and to glimpse the world from something like their perspective. Literature, in her view, is the record of that engagement. Referring to Thomas Nagel, who famously argued in his 1974 essay “What Is it Like To Be a Bat?” that we are restricted in our ability to know what it is like to be a bat for the bat, Costello suggests that there are no bounds to what we are able to imagine in literature. Literature, we might say, is precisely that which knows no bounds; that in which anything is possible. The animals in Kafka’s stories, for instance, may not act exactly like real animals (what kind of “vermin” is Gregor Samsa anyway?), but, in giving voice to the experiences we might imagine they have, Kafka is asking us to put ourselves in their place. We might learn how to listen to animals from Red Peter, who, in giving his report to an academy, is placing himself in the position of the chimpanzee that he once was. We could say, more generally, that talking animals — animals that are conspicuously literary — make visible literature’s capacity to imagine other lives; talking animals might be said in this regard to be the emblems of literature’s literarity.  And, even if Nagel were right, who is to say that animals don’t in fact talk? Literature may be said to be that place where we await the animal’s response. It will probably be a very long wait, but listening attentively for the animal to talk would in the meantime allow us to think anew our relation to comparative literature’s signature protocol of reading literature in its original language. Imagine what it would be like to be a translator of dolphin or a reader of gnu.

(m) the elephant in the room. Like the proverbial elephant, comparative literature in its current form is inaccessible in its entirety to any one of its practioners. But rather than feeling anxious about this state of affairs as we grope in the dark for coherence, we might consider making a virtue of this necessity. Distant, close, medium, surface, symptomatic forms of reading might all be deployed according to the characteristics of the animal-text in question and new protocols devised to cope with movement, flight, extension, multiplicity. In the animal sciences, it would of course be absurd to expect that the anatomical description of a mollusk (or better, the comparative study of barnacle morphology of the sort Darwin himself conducted) would invalidate the biophysical description of the sodium-channel physiology of the tiger mussel. It would be equally presumptuous to suggest that elephant ethology is somehow divorced from its habitat or that the history of the ivory trade has no impact on the population dynamics of the species. But comparative literature cannot expect that its diverse protocols corroborate each other, not because its methods are flawed, but because it is designed (it is part of its DNA) to tackle difference on a large scale. In short, comparative literature ought to embrace complexity but not, for all of that, seek consilience. Living in the dark would also prompt us to reconsider, among much else, the differences on which comparative literature has heretofore thrived: national literatures and “natural” languages.

The history of human-animal relations does not occur outside the geopolitical vectors that have been determining factors in the production, dissemination, and reception of texts the world over. Literary history and the history of animal manipulation by humans in fact overlap to a significant degree in the making of book objects. It is not an exaggeration to say that parchment, velum, glue, ink, pigments, leather, “very fine camel’s-hair brushes,” and many other animal products made literature possible. And they also overlap in suggestive ways in terms of dissemination and circulation. David Damrosch has persuasively argued that literature becomes world literature once a work that has been read as literature at its point of origin enters into global networks of circulation that consecrate it as world literature (6). It is instructive in this context to consider the history of the circulation of animals around the world. Zoos, aquaria, circuses, and other live-animal spectacles, as Nigel Rothfels has argued, became symbols of geopolitical ascendancy in an age that roughly corresponds to Goethe’s “epoch of world literature.” Damrosch uses the figure of the “insect” to argue that the concept of world literature, like the class Insecta, can be cognitively grasped without having to be bitten by the sum total of all the insects in the world (4). But it is world animals, those that circulate within what, paraphrasing Pascale Casanova, may be called the World Republic of Zoos, rather than (the vast majority of) insects that offer the best parallel. (Novels, in this context, may be thought of as the charismatic megafauna of world literature: always brought back from the brink of extinction by principled readers who can’t imagine a world without literature.) To most animals the concept of “world” is of course meaningless, not because they are “poor in world” as Heidegger argued, but because their “natural” circuits occur in geographical configurations that do not always correspond to human’s political mapping. Indeed, new ways of reading the world (of animals, of texts) may need to be imagined in order to attend responsibly to the relations between the history of literature and the history of animal manipulation by humans, not the least of which might be those that have kept them systematically apart. Are talking animals preventing us from talking about animals?

(n) futures of comparative literature. There is already a considerable body of work in literary studies that treats the representation of animals in different literary traditions and historical periods.  Scholars such as Cary Wolfe, Erica Fudge, Ron Broglio, Susan Crane, Anat Pick, David Clark, Colleen Boggs, Kari Weil, Carrie Rohman, Susan McHugh, Nicole Shukin, Ivan Kreilkamp, and Akira Mizuta Lippit, among others, have explored the complex entanglements of human-animal relations as they become processed in textual form. To the extent that their work is about animals, they are all already comparativists in practice if not always in name. The future of comparative literature might well depend on the opening up of the categories it employs to classify its work (period, language, nationality) to the possibility of an animal perspective that would, in enjoining us to read differently, to also make us think differently about literature and about comparison. Animal studies, of course, is not the only way to pry open the categories of comparative literature. Other recent interdisciplinary initiatives — environmental humanities, disability studies, queer theory, biopolitics, food studies, and digital humanities, among others — force upon comparative literature a redeployment of theoretical and critical resources to better negotiate the terms of comparison: point of view, agency, matter, affect, diversity, etc. The work of classification would not cease, but it would need to acknowledge and situate historically the discourse on the animal within a literary taxonomy that shows animal-human interactions as always already mediated by, or suspended in, an exclusionary mode of signification that underwrites philosophical as well as scientific treatments of biological difference. By reading animals as literature, moreover, a future comparative literature would be forced to revise traditional critical protocols in literary studies premised on referential transparency and form/content dichotomies in order to put into practice more responsibly a logic of figuration that would resist the anthropomorphic animation of the animal and respond more forcefully to species being and biodiversity.

(ñ) gato por liebre. The rhetorical coherence of the human/animal divide relies on the fact that we are habituated to naturalize catachresis as metaphor: we posit an entity, say the “animal,” and then we accord it the consistency of a metaphorical concept. When Jacques Derrida coins the awkward neologism “l’animot” in order to draw attention to the fact that humans use a single word (“mot”) to name all animals (“animaux”), he is also suggesting that the term “animals” is a figure of speech with which we name the vast multiplicity of the living and, in doing so, arrogate to ourselves the right to determine the fate of the world (41). To erase the difference between humans and animals (the rhetorical logic of “rights”) will not undo the coherence of this figure; rather, we must insist that difference is what there is: humans are as different from “suckling pigs” as “stray dogs” are from “those that at a distance resemble flies.” These “animots” invite comparison not because they are members of the same set but because they are incongruent. Already living in that strange literary biome inhabited by animots that roam outside in the nature-text, comparative literature might yet be that discipline that learns to read difference differently.


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man and Animal. Trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004. Print. 

Agassiz, L. Methods of Study in Natural History. 4th ed. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868. Print.

---. Essay on Classification. 1857. Ed. Edward Lurie. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962. Print.

Aristotle. Poetics. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Volume Two. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984. Print.

Bassnett, Susan. Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. Print.

Berger, John. About Looking. New York: Vintage, 1980. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “John Wilkins Analytical Language.” Collected Fictions. Ed. and trans. Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 1999. 229-32. Print.

Carroll, Joseph. “Three Scenarios for Literary Darwinism.” New Literary History 41.1 (2010): 53-67. Print.

Coetzee, J. M. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Damrosch, David. What is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. 1859. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Ed. Marie-Louise Mallet. Trans. David Wills. New York: Fordham UP, 2008. Print.

Felski, Rita and Susan Stanford Friedman. “Introduction.” Comparison. Spec. Issue of New Literary History 40.3 (2009): v – ix. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. 1978. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

---. The Order of Things. 1966. Trans. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

Heise, Ursula K. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Johnson, Barbara. “Anthropomorphism in Lyric and Law.” Persons and Things. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Krakauer, David. “Thinking Science across Disciplines.” Mendota Seminars. Madison, Wis. 25 June 2013. Oral presentation.

Kramnick, Jonathan. “Against Literary Darwinism.” Critical Inquiry 37.2 (2011): 315-347.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” 1852. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Moretti, Franco. “Evolution, World-Systems, Weltliteratur.” Studying Transcultural Literary History. Ed. Gunilla Lindberg-Wada. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006. 113-21. Rpt. in The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature. Ed. David Damrosch, Natalie Melas, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. 399-409. Print.

---. “The Slaughterhouse of Literature.” MLQ 61.1 (March 2000): 207-227. Print.

Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be Bat?” The Philosophical Review. 83.4 (1974): 435-450. Print.

Owen, Richard. The Hunterian Lectures in Comparative Anatomy: May and June 1837. Ed. Phillip Reid Sloan. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. Print.

Posnett, Hutcheson Macaulay. Comparative Literature. London: Kegan Paul, 1886. Print.

Ritvo, Harriet. “Our Animal Cousins.” Man and Beast. Spec. issue of Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15.1 (2004): 48-68. Print. 

---. The Animal Estate. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.

---. The Platypus and the Mermaid. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.

Rothfels, Nigel. Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008. Print.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. 1975. New York: Ecco, 2002. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. Print. 

Wellek, René. “The Crisis in Comparative Literature.” Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Comparative Literature. Ed. Werner P. Friederich. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1959. 148-59. Rpt. in The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature. Ed. David Damrosch, Natalie Melas, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. 161-171. Print.

---. “The Name and Nature of Comparative Literature.” Aspects of the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Earl R. Wasserman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.Rpt. in Discriminations: Further Concepts of Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970. 1-36. Print.

Winsor, Mary P. Reading the Shape of Nature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. Print.

Wolfe, Cary. Before the Law. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013. Print.

---. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.