Science, Religion & Creaturely Life

7

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?

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7 thoughts on “Science, Religion & Creaturely Life

  1. Molly Mullin says:

    Your dissertation sounds very interesting. I was oblivious to the religious origins of “creature.” It’s not a word I have used in print, but I have recently noticed myself using it while teaching. I think sometimes it seems more inclusive than “animal.” “Creature,” to me, could apply more easily to insects, spiders, fish, snakes–but also includes humans… When I say “animal,” I think my students mostly imagine mammals that are not human. Write more on this, please!

  2. For my part, the word creature has an important history–tied to the spectral, the incalculable, the misbehaving, the indecipherable. These are all things I value greatly in ethical conversations, and are, in my opinion, other sorts of face-like qualities. To that end, I think creature is an excellent term if and only if it does sets itself apart from its historical lineage and no longer acts as the Other of the human. In other words, I think “creature” is not a good pseudonym for “animal,” as though replacing one word with the other makes that much difference. I think the creaturely needs to begin to contain us all. Further, I like the Whiteheadian or OOO (object oriented ontology) connotations of the word. A creature is certainly etymologically and grammatically implied, but that creator is itself. I like the agency highlightlighted when we refer to any body as a creat-or/ure. However (and finally, I draw my long comments to a close), my own work tends to refer more to bodies instead of creatures. Perhaps a justification of this is not appropriate at the moment, but I certainly think the term bodies gets a lot closer to something personal for the human (since we can dissociate from creature but cannot dissociate from body). I also think it highlights the non-duality and precarity (or simultaneous strength and frailty) of the shared fact of being embodied. There can be no more or less bodied. It gets around many of the distinctions that even “creature” allows and instead implicitly and exclusively references any and all things that might be (or always and already are, as everything is) embodied. Those are my two cents.

  3. When I think of the word creature, I recall Dr. Frankenstein’s response to the success of his experiment: It’s alive! So my immediate association is literary rather than religious. Of course, if you consider the Bible a great work of literature, as I do, your association is akin, but mine is perhaps more apt in terms of Animal Studies since our views of other animals are or at least have been so culturally conditioned. My hope is that the interdisciplinary perspectives coming together in Animal Studies make our views more animal-centric and less anthropocentric. Perhaps avoiding the word creature in favor of more neutral words–being, neighbor, mortal, even nonhuman animal–may help in the process of escaping our self-imprisonment?

  4. Interesting that none of you seem to think of the term as inherently conditioned by the theological (although, perhaps, I was implicitly inviting this sort of commentary in my post?) And I would express agreement with what each of you have also suggested: that there is a sense in which the category of creature is more generic than the animal (more readily evoking insect life, or simply life itself). Although, as Rebekah notes, this doesn’t mean that as a generic category it isn’t conscripted by its own limitations. Reflecting on the generic nature of the category, I’m surprised, Marion, that you suggest it’s a more anthropocentric term than even “neighbor”. I suppose I could see “neighbor” being read as radically generic in a strictly ontological sense. But it does seem to me, also, a term that’s built very deeply into an ethical code that concerns (above all else) those in the human community.

  5. I find myself using “neighbor” in referring particularly to the wild animals and birds who come and go through our backyard. And certainly we think of the dogs who live nearby as much (if not moreso since we hear from them with some frequency as they converse with our own 4 dogs) as neighbors as their two-legged cohabitants. So I guess I have just come to use the term in my writing and teaching as well.
    I did want to say that I liked the thought that creature included other life forms besides mammals which I guess is what “animal” means to some–plants and trees need to be included too, I think. But they are all neighbors as well, aren’t they?

  6. Ieva Zadina says:

    The interesting discussions above make me think about how creative and animated our words (our creations) can be, always open to new shades of meaning and leading us on to new thoughts, like a dog on a leash eager to explore.

  7. I received the following call for papers today and remembered this blog topic: CFP special issue on “modern creatures” of the European Journal of English Studies (2015)(deadline Nov 1)
    Call for Papers Date: 2014-11-01
    Date Submitted: 2013-09-29
    Announcement ID: 207092

    We are looking for proposals for contributions to a special journal issue that explores the viability of the notion of “the creaturely” for an understanding of the relations between different natural and supernatural forms of life.

    The notion of “the creature(ly)” has historically played a decisive but underinvestigated role in negotiating the flexible borders between the supernatural and human and animal life. This issues proposes to focus on the literary, cultural, and material histories of the creature(ly). It wants to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the contested zone where the natural and the supernatural meet in the modern age; it also aims to develop the notion of the creature(ly) as a powerful tool for future analyses of the affects, affinities, and anxieties that have marked this zone since the advent of modernity, and especially since Darwin.
    Contributions can explore, but are not restricted to:
    – how the notion of the creature(ly) has shaped and reflected changing gender relations and legal institutions of personhood, and has cut across the binary human/animal.
    – the affinities between the notion of the creature(ly) and the diachronically related term “creativity,” which places the notion at the heart of modern conceptions of authorship and anxieties about artifical creation.
    – the religious resonances in the notion of the creature(ly); its relation to religious notions of Creation and the Creator and political theological approaches.
    – postcolonial and gender dimensions of the ways in which the notion of the creature(ly), like that of the monstrous, has historically served to police the borders of Western subjectivity.
    – the relations between animal, human, and supernatural life in popular culture and children’s literature.
    – the ways in which these relations have been shaped (and often triggered) by scientific discourses and practices, and have been sedimented in a broad range of material practices (like zoos).

    Detailed proposals (500-1000 words) for articles of c. 5000-6000 words, as well as enquiries about this issue, can be sent to the guest editors: Virginia Richter and Pieter Vermeulen .

    Virginia Richter (Bern, richter@ens.unibe.ch)
    Pieter Vermeulen (Stockholm, pieter.vermeulen@english.su.se)
    Email: pieter.vermeulen@english.su.se

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