September 28, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich
The philosopher Justin E.H. Smith has a new blog post up, this week, that turns largely on the experience of looking at the “pantheon of animals” at the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy. The piece itself is a bit dense, and wandering. But readers of this blog might find some interesting tidbits in it. For my part, I’ve been mulling over a passage in one of the later sections. He writes:
“I walked out into the Jardin des Plantes, past the exotic Araucania araucana tree at the Gallery’s exit, a spiky green jumble of branches colloquially known in parts of South America as the ‘Monkey’s Despair’. I went toward the menagerie of live animals. I found the enclosure of the dik-dik, and quickly managed to make eye contact with this diminutive antelope. I muttered, or felt as if I were about to mutter, something like: ‘Hail, creature of God’. The last two words of this silent salutation are strictly speaking redundant: to pick a being out as a creature is already to ground its being in a creation, performed by a creator. This is why ‘creature’ is not a scientific term. Now I am no friend of what is called ‘creationism’. But when I meet a deer in the forest, or a dik-dik at the zoo, it remains the case that this is an encounter with a creature. There is no other word for it.”
This is of interest to me, of course, largely because my dissertation research is entirely focused on the figure of the creature. I’ve trained myself to look for the term anywhere, and everywhere. When I’m reading a novel, and the author makes frequent employ of the term, my reading experience will quickly shift from leisure into analysis. I am like a sponge, soaking up different uses of the term, placing them into a very large database.
What interests me about his use of the term, here, is the assumption that the figure of the creature is automatically grounded in the theological notion of creation. He distances himself from the ideological position of the creationist. But, still, the creature remains firmly theological. These conceptual roots, in theology, then make the figure of the creature entirely non-scientific. Almost as if “creature” might be the religious cognate of the more secular (and scientific?) term “animal.”
I frequently encounter work in animal studies that utilizes the term “creature” (or the phrase “fellow creatures”) to evoke a sort of subjective commonality between humans and other animals. Animal studies work in religion & theology, we can assume, intends to use the figure of the creature theologically. But take a look, for example, at Kelly Oliver’s Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (Columbia University Press, 2009). If you were to look for the term “creature” (or “creatures”) in this text, you’d find it employed more than 50 times. Yet never is the term (which isn’t, to be fair, explicitly defined or discussed in this text) making reference to creation, in the theological sense. It seems, rather, a more pragmatic way of speaking about a form of life shared by humans and other animals.
It is also, of course, the case that evolutionary theorists make relatively frequent use of the term. Darwin, and in his wake the vehemently anti-religious Richard Dawkins, both find the term “creature” a useful category in their written work on evolution. Does this simply expose the more confessional aspects of their theories? Or is this simply the side-effect of their having been culturally conditioned by a Christian context? Or is there a sense in which the figure of the creature isn’t as thoroughly conditioned by theology as we might assume?
I do, of course, have my own tentative answers to these questions. But I’m interested to know what readers think about this term or category. How often do you find yourself using it, when writing about animals? How often does it, in the act of writing, strike you as you as a religious term? How often does this religious history give you pause, before using it?