Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Kari Weil's "Precarious Partners"

Kari Weil is University Professor of Letters at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now and Androgyny and the Denial of Difference.

Weil applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Precarious Partners: Horses and Their Humans in Nineteenth-Century France, and reported the following:
As fate would have it, page 99 does bring readers to one of the central questions of Precarious Partners and which gets to the very precarity of human-horse relations in the nineteenth-century: why is it that at the very moment when the popularity and presence of the horse as worker, prized possession, and even pampered pet were at their height, horsemeat was legalized for human consumption. To answer that question, I refer to Derrida’s essay on “Eating Well,” in order to raise the idea and desirability of “carnivorous virility.” But meat was expensive and the prevalence of horse carcasses in the city made it a far less expensive meat than beef. Hence, I suggest, the legalization of horsemeat could be regarded as a generous extension of such virility to the working classes, if of a distinctly lesser order signaled by the mandatory horse head above all horse butcheries.

To complicate even further the importance of eating animals for virile subjectivity, the page then moves to Walter Benjamin’s essay on “Gloves,” and his suggestion that eating animals may be a way of overcoming the fear of being like them, of sensing our animality. In contrast to feminist thinkers who have celebrated the reciprocity of touch, Benjamin adds that disgust for the animal-other begins with touch and ends with a reaction whereby “may not deny his bestial relationship with animals… He must make himself its master.” Benjamin thus adds a new perspective on the postcard image with which the chapter opens, where a man in full equestrian attire is seen standing in line at the chevaline or horse butcher shop. Might it be, I ask “that in nineteenth-century France, the horse was that animal who most revealed man’s intimate and bestial relationship with animals, such that activities like pleasure-riding required subsequently a drastic means of separation, sending our post-card equestrian immediately to the “Chevaline” in order to eat his disgusting mate and so prove himself its master?”

To be sure, eating and virile mastery over the horse is not the whole story, nor are Benjamin and Derrida the only theorists considered to help understand horse-human relations at the time. Other chapters of the book move between literature, painting, writings in natural history and sport manuals to examine the rise of the woman rider or “amazone,” conflicts between animal protection and worker’s rights, ideas behind domesticaion along with connections between race and the breeding of horses, and the various aesthetic, cultural, physical and affective pleasures and power achieved through partnerships with horses whether on the streets, in the parks, in the hippodromes or circuses, and, unfortunately, at the slaughter yards.
Learn more about Precarious Partners at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue