Monday, April 13, 2009

Victoria de Rijke's "Duck"

Victoria de Rijke is principal lecturer at Middlesex University and director of the CD-ROM and website “The Quack-project.” She is also author of Nose Book: Representations of the Nose in Arts and Literature.

Dr. de Rijke applied the “Page 99 Test” to her recent book, Duck, and provided a short introduction, which is followed by an extended commentary by her alter ego, Dr. Quack:
Victoria de Rijke: Page 99 of the duck book shows a lovely photograph of Henri Fabre’s seaplane ‘le Canard’ flown by its inventor over the Mediterannean sea at Martigues, France, in 1910, plus some written text on duck idiom [see inset, below left]. It’s pretty representative of the study of the animal as also the study of eccentric invention: whether in language, mechanical or animated duck, toys, architecture, domestication & hunting, myth & legend, or the visual & acoustic arts.

Dr. Quack replies:

I see a book has been published on Duck. (Victoria de Rijke, Reaktion Books, 2008). My subject. No-one asked me, but I certainly have an opinion.

Well, my ducks, it could be so much braver, so much more than the sum of its careful, scholarly parts. I should explain at this point that I offered my expertise at several early draft stages and though Dr. de Rijke originally gave me the right to reply in the early versions, any improvements I made have been firmly ironed out, by the Great Editing Machine, no doubt. Truth be told, it should either have been a debate between us, or, still better, I should have written all of it.

There is no doubt that Duck presents nuggets of interesting facts. However, given it is ludicrously insecure to imagine any animal study is definitive, why isn’t fiction offered as proper evidence in a democratic discussion of ideas? Why so little on the great Thomas Pynchon’s use of Vaucanson’s duck as the magical unreliable little European automaton challenging what counts as real in an age of Enlightenment and Reason? Why so little on Leonard Woolf or Muriel Spark’s extremely disturbing use of the word ‘quack’? (The quack of the fascist and the adulterer?) Even more seriously, why are children’s books given so little space? Is it possible that the importance of that masterpiece Farmer Duck to world literature has simply not been recognized? Why are there so few jokes? Though the book touches on how many man-made things are formed in duck shape, did humans fail to notice how funny ducks are in themselves; what masters of farce? I despair: are they looking, or listening at all?

Duck book’s final chapter “Quackery Unmask’d” is by far the best. By examining zoonoses, duck sociability and hybridity, the ‘mobile vulgus’ of being-together, duck oil holding up the world and so on, proper parallels between unreliable species and narrators are drawn. This is the chapter that might have begun the book had Dr. Quack written it.

I might imagine Reaktion Books regretted getting involved with ducks at all: a species as quintessentially cute as puppies and kittens (which is curious, given ducks are not really pets and you eat them). And you can dress them up as anything, especially doctors. Ducks are not really part of the ‘noble animal’ project of the series as a whole; their symbolism’s so plural it’s manic, they’re so silly they cock a snook at prestige–worse!- they’re popular, populist. Are our publishing houses all so petty bourgeois, ducking risk by making authors write within the same cautiously inoffensive scholarly confines? Oh the pity of it! Dr. Quack says: Let them go wild! Let them dive in!

The illustrations throughout the book are rewarding. Nice picture editing job. A hefty bill for the author (as everyone knows publishers no longer pay for anything). Don’t get me started on copyright. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that tax payer’s money pays for public collections such as museums, galleries, and so on. Why are writers then billed again to reproduce pictures from national collections? Private agencies acting for artists can charge the earth for something the artist might have offered for free were they allowed to engage directly with individuals. It doesn’t have to be like this. Example: like the Bach family (where children were produced for musical accompaniment) Stockhausen-Verlag, run by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s son, is precisely this positive alternative to profit-making private agencies. You can approach directly, explain your project and receive clear instructions on exactly what conditions the avant-garde composer requires the work to be seen or heard. Copies need to be sent to them; there is no charge. Perfect. And what of all those so-called ‘amateur’ naturalists or ‘hobbyists’ out there making meticulous observations, taking superb photographs of ducks, pasting them into Wikipedia or in open source and allowing writers free reproduction? These are the true scholars, teachers, artists. They are out in the field all over the world producing masterpieces for love of the subject and Bless Every One of ‘em for a Duck of Diamonds, I say.

My major quibble with Duck is because (like almost all animal analysis, radio, TV and film) it is written from the perspective of people. Don’t we all agree a new term is needed for what humans still call comparative psychology? How about ‘experimental biology’ used to describe Douglas Spalding’s work; a man who, untrained and instinctive himself, was therefore qualified to make claims for the same when he observed it in animal life. Too much effort goes into arguments about relative species intelligence and most of it fails to recognize animals are staged as relative to humans in order to maintain the Great Human Superiority Complex. It’s a set-up. Four hundred years of anti-instinct controversy, and still humans analyzing animals suggest pretty much everything they do is out of instinct. Whose action patterns are really fixed?

And what of animal agency? Whilst de Rijke attempts to understand the connections (historical and otherwise) among the categories ‘duck’ or ‘representation’ and the book explores some political or policy ramifications that ensue from complications of human and animal agency (such as rape and hybridity), why wasn’t she given word space to explore how representations of ducks undermine or complicate the boundary that supposedly differentiates ducks from human? (Good to see the word ‘rape’ used in the book, by the way, instead of mealy-mouthed bogus scientific terms such as ‘enforced copulation’). Surely it’s time for humans to exercise the intelligence they are supposed to be born with and deepen the debate about animal culture. Time to build on what is known about genetics and basic behaviours to what lies beneath and beyond: animal attitudes, emotions, values, ethics, authority, persuasion, coercion, play, creativity, agency and so on.

So, Reaktion Books and Dr. de Rijke, why the hesitancy of the ‘Ducks R Us’ argument? It is staring us in the face, not least with that image of Konrad Lorenz playing with his duck on a stick. The ducks line up to play too. Who is toying with whom?

Duck is all very well, as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. Suffice it to say, should there be any publishers out there brave enough, Dr. Quack is ready, quill poised, to start the definitive book. I promise you, it would be the duck’s quack.
Learn more about Duck at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue