Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.46

Patricia Cox Miller, In the Eye of the Animal: Zoological Imagination in Ancient Christianity. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.  Pp. 280.  ISBN 9780812250350.  $79.95.  


Reviewed by Jessica Wright, The University of Texas at San Antonio (jessicalouise.wright@utsa.edu)

Preview

Early Christianity is held to be a central source of anthropocentrism in Western culture. In her balanced critique of this view, Miller argues that the common dismissal of animals as unreasoning, short-lived brutes in early Christian discourse was disrupted by strategies of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism that indicate the value of, and appreciation for, animals as models, collaborators, and participants in the fulfilment of the divine purpose for the created world. Miller acknowledges that early Christian discourse established a theological foundation for the hierarchy that positioned human beings over other animals, but argues that we might nonetheless look to moments of connectedness between humans and animals in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, the desert fathers, and their contemporaries for pathways to a non-anthropocentric account of the world, and our place and responsibilities within it.

Miller draws together three main disciplinary approaches: animal studies, with its ethical and political focus on the subordinated status of animals within Western culture; modern zoological writings, such as accounts of the feeding patterns of mosquitoes (177–178), or the dancing of bees (47–49), which Miller uses as a tool for digging deeper into early Christian sources; and the microscopic and imaginative philological analysis that is distinctive across Miller’s corpus. She also gestures at times to poems and anecdotal accounts that reflect the universal points that she wants to make, and in her concluding chapter introduces the new materialist concept of “vibrant materiality” in order to capture ancient Christian rhetorical and artistic strategies that sought “the very substance of God… through the earth’s creatures” (193). Interweaving these approaches throughout the book, Miller powerfully demonstrates the usefulness of animal studies as a lens for ancient and late ancient discourse about animals, and presses at the edges of conventional analysis, arguing for the usefulness of early Christian texts in contemporary constructive philosophical work regarding the status of animals, and for the relevance of contemporary zoological writings in contextualizing and analyzing early Christian texts. The result is a thoughtful and provocative book, rich in intellectual resources, and tightly structured around the key tension that Miller sees between the “rhetoric of domination” prominent in early Christian references to animals, and the ancient “zoological imagination” (4).

The introduction provides a substantive theoretical framework for the monograph, and repays close reading on its own account. Miller situates her analysis within a “turn to the animal” (5), highlighting especially the emphasis in philosophical writings, such as the works of Bailly and Derrida, on the “animal gaze” (5–9), a concept that “entails a shift in perspective and approach” (6, 9), hence its echo in Miller’s title. By probing beyond early Christian “rhetoric of domination and superiority—[the] rhetoric of human exceptionalism” (4), Miller argues, we can find a “shared ground of bodily, emotional, and ethical life” that promises paradigmatic transformation (“a shift in perspective and approach as well as an unsettling of disciplinarity” 9). Coining the term “zoological imagination” to capture the diverse “images, exegeses, and stories of the ancient Christian tradition” that incorporate or make reference to animals (10), Miller arranges her analysis thematically, focusing each chapter on a different aspect of zoological imagining that turns, in the middle, around the complementary concepts of zoomorphism and anthromorphism.

Chapter One focuses on birds and their various significations. Animal figuration, Miller shows, shapes human self-understanding. Ranging from Origen to Ted Hughes, and from Rainer Maria Rilke to Ambrose and Gaston Bachelard, Miller puts forward her case that when Origen dismisses the signifying power of birds, he “sweep[s] away an entire cultural system of meaning” (40)—not only the signification of augural birds, but the capacity of birds to signify human beings, and in particular human thoughts and human souls. Woven through this analysis is a broader theoretical argument: Miller raises the question of whether figural animals threaten to “lose the animal altogether” (18), by “harness[ing] cosmic meaning [including the meaning of animals themselves] for solely human purposes” (41). If birds signify only as representations of humans, then do birds themselves disappear? Miller argues, to the contrary, that “allegorical interpretation,” which constitutes much of early Christian engagement with animals, “can be read as relational rather than destructively hierarchical” (18). The ensuing chapters develop and illustrate this claim.

Chapters Two and Three are labelled “The Pensivity of Animals,” parts I and II, with Chapter Two given the subtitle “Zoomorphism,” and Chapter Three the subtitle “Anthropomorphism.” Accordingly, Chapter Two explores the comparison of human beings to animals (for example, bees), while Chapter Three examines the attribution of logos to animals in early Christian texts. Through this unfolding parallel, Miller evokes the symmetry between humans and animals that she seeks to draw out from under the surface of early Christian texts.

At the center of Chapter Two is Miller’s rejection of the argument that Christianity, being the central source of anthropocentrism in Western thought, is disproportionately responsible for ecological devastation (the “Lynn White thesis,” 51). Through analysis of zoomorphism in early Christian texts, she demonstrates that early Christian texts “offer ways of imagining human/animal relationships” beyond anthropocentrism, and perhaps “just as effectively as modern ethology” (51). As she concludes, “zoomorphism connects human and animal to the point of identity, a fact that is surely a surprise in the face of the contempt shown toward animals by the rhetoric of superiority and domination. In my view, there is much in ancient Christian zoomorphism that anticipates contemporary ethologists’ call for finding continuity in behavior with other animals” (74).

Yet, Miller does not reject the idea that early Christianity was a source—perhaps even an important source—of anthropocentric thinking. She is concerned, rather, to nuance this argument, through recognition of the internal contradictions and dissonances that mark human–animal relationships in early Christian (as in modern) thought: “My argument,” she writes, “is that the anxiety that arose at the thought of comparing human beings and bees (as well as other animals) and the concomitant possibility of finding humans wanting, together with trumpeted assertions of human superiority, constitute an early Christian version of ‘anthropocentrism and its discontents’” (43). Early Christian discourse did seek to naturalize the animal/human binary, with human beings in the superior position; yet, that binary “has always been and remains unstable, disputed, and negotiated” (43, quoting Aaron Gross).1 Ancient Christian texts asserted and also challenged the conceptual and ontological binary between animals and human beings.

Chapter Three, examining the ascription of logos to animals in early Christian texts, is framed around Derrida’s question: “The animal that I am (following), does it speak?” She offers two responses to this question out of early Christian texts: both yes and no. In some contexts, animals appear endowed with logos, or associated ethical behavior; in other contexts, animals are defined by their lack of logos, or their transformation into quasi-human beings through the gift of speech. Rational animals, Miller argues, pose a direct challenge to anthropocentrism—except, ironically, for when they do not, when the leopard’s prayer to gain human form pushes “anthropomorphism…uncomfortably close to anthropocentrism. Kinship is about to give way to ontological sameness” (95).

Chapter Four introduces affect theory into the analysis. Focusing in particular on the relationships between desert ascetics and their animal companions, Miller argues that these relationships were transacted through a ‘circuit of intensities’ (125), or a ‘living flow of transactional energies’ across species” (131, quoting Mark Payne) that involved desire, touch, the gaze (as Miller points out, a form of touch in ancient thought), and shame.2 Through her analysis of these narratives, Miller draws to light the “ancient Christian zoological imagination” (138), and its role in “meditating on morality” (149) or serving as “a meditative sounding board for powerful human emotions” (152).

Chapter Five turns from affect theory to the new materialist concept of “vibrant matter.” Drawing on the feminist philosopher of science, Jane Bennett, Miller argues that Christian attention to “small things” (worms, flies, mosquitoes, frogs) reveals a view of matter as active, rather than as passive (155). By this, Miller means in particular that small animals are upheld as vessels of divine substance in early Christian texts: vibrant materiality becomes manifest “when the very substance of God can be sought through the earth’s creatures” (193).

Miller concludes, in the Afterword, with a compromise: she has examined whether there was room in ancient Christianity for animals and humans to live in community with one another, and she finds the answer to be “yes”; but this is not a radical yes that “attempts to ‘save’ Christianity for the animal rights movement” (192); instead, Miller acknowledges that Christianity was characterized predominantly by an anthropocentric rhetoric that “sanctions human violence against other life-forms.” She seeks to show that Christianity has the resources to imagine human-animal relationships differently. In keeping with the currents of late antique studies, Miller finds ambiguity, not closure, in early Christian discourse.


Notes:


1.   Aaron Gross, “Introduction and Overview: Animal Others and Animal Studies,” in Animals and the Human Imagination: A Companion to Animal Studies, eds. Aaron Gross and Anne Vallely (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 2.
2.   Mark Payne, The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010), 8.

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