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Marvelous Extinctions: Melville on Animal Suffering

Branka Arsić, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University

November 17, 2021 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm EST · Zoom

Department of English; Humanities Council

Branka Arsić is a Class of 1932 Visiting Fellow in the Council of the Humanities and the Department of English and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Beginning with Melville’s remarks left in his Encantadas concerning the Galapagos tortoises this lecture examines the scientific and historical archives to which he had recourse, from Cuvier and Broderip to Porter and Delano. On that basis it seek to reconstruct exactly what, in the early 19th century, prompted scientists, doctors, and naturalists, as well as traders and ordinary seamen, to obsess about the tortoise as a life form, one that was brought to the brink of extinction by the middle of the century.

Prof. Arsić argues that the reason why both physiologists in Continental scientific laboratories, and whalers traversing Antillean waters in trade ships, chose this particular animal to answer the question of what life is, derived from their ideas about what constituted pain, suffering, and cruelty. By rehearsing such debates over the presumed expressions of suffering, apathy and indifference on the part of the tortoise, she works to suggest that what scientists understood as apathy towards pain licensed the production of a bizarre taxonomy of life forms based on a creaturely capacity to resist violence. She, therefore, pays significant attention to the differences that science advanced between biologically – as opposed to psychologically – rational and irrational life forms, which leads to her concluding analysis of why, as a consequence, the irrational was designated as available for experimentation and vivisection.

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