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The Human Animal

Public lecture, Tuesday 29 May 2012

Prof Peter Sahlins (University of California, Berkeley), “A Story of Three Chameleons: The Animal Between Science and Literature in the Age of Louis XIV”

Professor Sahlins is an acclaimed historian of France whose interests are wide-ranging has written widely on include the social and legal history of early modern France and Europe. He has written on a range of topics, including the formation of national identities and frontiers (Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, 1989); forest governance, peasant culture and protest in the nineteenth century The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France, 1994); state-building and immigration in seventeenth-century France (with Jean-Francois Dubost, Et si on fasait payer les étranger? Louis XIV, les immigres, et quelques autres, 1999; and on the premodern history of nationality law (Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regimes and After, 2004). More recently he has turned his attention to the history of animals and their interactions and changing relationship with humans. In his talk he shared his new enthusiasm for nineteenth-century cameleons with the audience and explained why a microhistory of the cameleon can tell us something about nineteenth-century relationships between literature and the natural sciences.

In 1668, Claude Perrault and the Royal Academy of Sciences dissected a chameleon gifted to Louis XIV; in 1672, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, literary star of the Paris salons, offered her own literary ethnology of the two chameleons she had herself received as a gift. In his talk Professor Sahlins explored the relations between the "scientific" and the "literary" at the beginning of the Age of Louis XIV in the comparative microhistory of these three chameleons that moved back and forth between the two texts, and between the dissecting room and the salon. Shalin claimed that this discussions marks a critical moment in the reception within polite society of the "new science" and the contested figure of Descartes in France.

Symposium, “The Human Animal? Investigating the Boundaries of Being Human,” 30 May 2012- download the programme here

Humans have a long history of assuming a community of thought and feelings between themselves and a wide array of animals. There is also a long tradition of recruiting animals to dramatize, symbolise, and illuminate aspects of human experiences and fantasies. Until very recently humans' relationships with animals have been of interest to those whose primary aim has been the better understanding of humans' relationships with other humans. But this has been dramatically changing over the past decades. What one can observe is a new thinking (and rethinking) of animals and their relationship to humans. Among scholars and scientists the biology, ethics, anthropology, geography, hermeneutics, economics and sociology of animals are the stuff of a fast growing number of studies and surveys. Lifestock, laboratory animals, endangered species, and even pets are the focus of political activists. The rights of animals and the obligation of their owners are hotly debates topics in the civic arena and opened up a new area of practical morality with potentially enormous economic, political and social consequences. The symposium brings together scholars from the social, natural and human sciences to present approaches and problems in these new emerging areas of academic research.

Keynote speaker (with support from the Global History and Culture Centre): Dr Sandra Swart (Stellenbosch University, South Africa), “Its hour come round at last: Animal agency and social history’

The symposium will also feature papers from University of Warwick scholars researching human-animal relations: Prof. Nickie Charles (Sociology); Prof. Wyn Grant (PAIS); Dr Kirsten Greer (History); Dr Dita Wickins-Drazilova (Warwick Medical School); Dr Amy Kilbride (Life Sciences)

Kafka’s Monkey, Warwick Arts Centre

Part of the symposium was the performance of Kathryn Hunter as the ape-turned-variety performer Red Peter at Warwick Art Centre (partly sponsored by the Centre for the History of Medicine, Warwick). Hunter’s award-winning performance ‘Kafka’s monkey’ is based on the short story ‘A Report to an Academy’ by the German writer Franz Kafka, written and published in 1917. In the story – adapted for theatre by Colin Teevan -- an ape named Red Peter who has learned to behave like a human presents his transformation to an academic audience. Hunter’s performance was as physically impressive -- from the moment she lopes on the stage, every movement worked to convey a creature trapped between two states of being – as intellectually challenging. With every detail, Hunter’s narrative of Red Peter’s capture, imprisonment and slow acquisition of humanity becomes a stronger indictment of human savagery, selfishness and careless disregard of human value of live. Although a satirical comedy with lots of laughter, the allegory of colonialism, buried beneath the amusing lines, is deeply disturbing. Hunter’s extraordinary performance was followed by an interdisciplinary panel discussion, convened by Dr Chris Pearson, which included some of the participants of ‘The Human Animal’ symposium that had taken place earlier the same day.

Global History and Culture Centre