Presence and absence
Animals play a significant role in the human present and past. If animals disappeared, the economy and daily life would have to be fundamentally reorganized. Industry, commerce, households, the healthcare system and a substantial part of leisure culture would all be affected. Animals provided the foundation for building industrial societies and are today omnipresent in post-industrial societies with their work power and products. Apart from domestic animals and obvious animal products, such as meat, milk, eggs, leather, down, wax and honey, animal components are contained in foods, clothing, cosmetics, medication and cleaning agents. Dyes are nowadays mostly produced synthetically,1 whale oil has been replaced by other oils, and plastic has taken the place of baleen, ivory and horn. But elsewhere animal components are still found. Red wine is still fined with egg white, isinglass or gelatine, and many additives in the food industry, such as emulsifiers, flour treatments and preservatives, largely consist of animal fats.
We are often unaware of being surrounded by many dead animals, and living and dead animals are doubly invisible. One rarely sees the animals processed in feedlots and slaughterhouses. These processing facilities are shielded from view and spatially located at the margins of towns and settlements. The power of horses, donkeys, mules, cattle and dogs was replaced in rural and urban areas by machines during the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. By contrast, particularly in the urban context, the beloved pet often possess the status of a family member and, this is a second aspect of disappearance, are often unrecognizable as animals with specific needs and behaviors. While in modern industrial societies of the 21st century, particularly in cities, many animals have disappeared from the human sphere, pets as "companion animals" share the daily life and comfort of human family members.2 In this way, a relationship of proximity and distance, both spatially and emotionally, is created in which love for the "companion animal" and mercilessness toward industrial and lab animals are juxtaposed.
Genealogies and boundary crossing
To illustrate the relevance of the history of animals, Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006), who spoke of a "hippological turn" with "consequences in world history" in his essay of 2003, is often cited in the German-speaking sphere.3 Koselleck attributes from a social historian’s perspective a historical agency to horses so central that he proposes speaking of a "prehorse age," a "horse age" and a "post-horse age." According to Koselleck, the post-horse age, in which we live, begins together with modernity at the transition from the 19th to the 20th century. Only as the odor of horse sweat and road apples disappears from towns does the horse retreat to the fields of art, sports and leisure. In this classification of time, the horse age, which began with the first taming of horses – about 4,000 BC – is the longest and culturally most formative age. Even though horses have disappeared as means of transportation as well as draft and work animals in the post-horse age, they remain, as in former ages, status symbols and companions in sports and leisure. The end of the horse age goes hand in hand with the general end of the animal age. Animals gradually disappeared from the ordinary life of most Europeans as work companions and from use in individual consumption (e.g., chicken, rabbits and pigs) at the transition from the 19th to the 20th century. Pit ponies were still active in mining up to the 1970s and canaries still served as gas detectors. Draft dogs, who still transported and guarded goods in hundreds of thousands of towns at the turn of the century, have been replaced by motorized vehicles. Private back-alley slaughter operations in towns gave way during the 19th century to large public slaughterhouses located outside the town perimeters. While one group of animals, those "edible," were distanced from humans, others "non-edible," moved ever closer. It is a matter of course for humans to not only move in human company but also in that of animals.4 Paul Münch (born 1941) pleaded in 1999 for including the "participation of animals in the human environment" into historical research and to stop viewing the interest of cultural studies in the relationship of humans and animals as a marginal and exotic topic.5 At first, few historians heeded his call but lately a remarkably rapidly growing number of research projects and publications on the topic of animals can be observed.6
In recent years, the focus in animal history has been on pets, while interest in farm and wild animals is in its infancy and barely any research has been done on insects. A clear trend is evident in the growing research on animals as historical actors and their power to effect and act, after initial questions of representation and imagination initially held priority in the German language sphere.7 Thus, empirical, archive-based studies remain rare. Discussions at scholarly conferences revolve around theoretical reflections and methodological debates in which especially the theories and concepts of Bruno Latour (born 1947), Donna Haraway (born 1944), Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), Felix Guattari (1930–1992), Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), Elias Canetti (1905–1994)8 and Giorgio Agamben (born 1942)9 are discussed. As always, when fields of research are being established, new lines of tradition are created and scientific genealogies are reorganized. Thus, Haraway, Agamben, Derrida, Latour, Deleuze and Canetti virtually appear as the founders of "human-animal studies" and further fundamental research questions regarding the status of animals arise from confrontation with their theoretical approaches. There is growing interest in knowing which animals did exactly what, if and how they affected historical events, and what role individual animals, animal groups and genuses played in history.
The objective is to involve animals in the concept of historical change and to introduce a manner of reading the sources in empirical studies that assumes animals as central actors. In this context, reading "against the grain" must be mentioned, which in other historiographical fields, such as women’s and labour history as well as the history of children, the marginalized and other actors who have left few or no written sources of their own, has been practiced for a long time. The proposal that history should be "brushed against the stroke," which has become proverbial, is based on the seventh thesis of Walter Benjamin’s (1892–1940) posthumous essay Über den Begriff der Geschichte (On the Concept of History).10 In animal history, this may mean not subjecting the sources to readings that duplicate the view of their human authors but to filter out the influence of animals when they act, defend themselves, enter into relationships or affect humans by their presence and their actions. Older research on the history of economics, technology, the environment, the military, transportation and medicine already concerned itself with animals, but this preoccupation with animals, for example in animal experiments, usually was not associated with new theoretical claims but merely wanted to show and interpret the important role of animals in human history. Research has already been conducted on animal experiments, especially relating to the debates on vivisection and anti-vivisection that were eagerly fought in the 19th century.11
Reflection on animals as historical actors currently also occurs in an interdisciplinary context,12 with research in English-speaking countries taking a pioneering role.13 Cultural studies and the natural sciences have approached each other especially in the subject of "evolutionary history" in recent years, for example, with the plea to link biology and the humanities more closely to better understand historical processes of extremely long duration and the role of evolution in human history.14
The American biologist and student of the sciences Donna Haraway takes her cue from the oldest human-animal relationship, that of dog and human. She has developed an evolutionary history that removes humans from their privileged position, their uniqueness and an ability to act that was exclusively ascribed to them. Humans and dogs developed in a process of coevolution over millennia, starting in the Ice Age.15 During this period, the timber wolf (Canis lupus), the apex predator in Europe, began to migrate with ungulate herds and encountered humans in the process. During the course of the last glaciation, wolves and humans following reindeer herds joined forces. Initially, some humans presumably assumed the lupine lifestyle by also following reindeer herds. So the first contacts between wolves and humans probably had a mutualistic character. The oldest finds of dogs, that is canids who clearly differ from wolves, are about 100,000 years old and, therefore, older than any finds of goats, sheep or cattle. It is nevertheless difficult to speak of a domestication of dogs or of dogs as pets, especially since the humans with whom dogs initially lived did not stay in fixed homes while canids used sleeping dens before humans. Humans and dogs adapted their behavioral forms to each other and became sedantary together. In this process, dogs entered into close proximity with humans and became domestic animals at the latest when humans shared their campfires and sleeping quarters with them.
Recent approaches in animal history
By including biological knowledge, animal history makes possible the dissolution of the nature/culture dualism – Haraway speaks of "naturecultures"16 – and to update a perspective of an extreme longue durée.17 Animal history has become linked to already established approaches in cultural and social history, where most approaches have in common that animals have become understood as creative actors in history.18
It is beyond doubt that animals affect human activity through their actions as well as through their absence and presence. The transfer of animals has changed landscapes and people as well as the ecology and economy of entire continents. As Mieke Roscher (born 1973) writes, it is "the access to animals as historical actors that is ringing in a change in perspective and holds the promise of new results in historical research." Thus, animals participated in the conquest and colonial settlement of America, for example, when horses were introduced.19 Settlement of the continent in conjunction with animals actually started with whaling on the east coast, while the expansion of cattle herds at the expense of the buffalo can be considered its climax. The history of imperialism in India and Africa was also influenced by animals.20 Colonial rule brought with it the destruction and restriction of domestic and wild animals. In Australia plagues of rabbits and camels strongly affected society, while the industrialization of Europe was closely linked to animal power and the use of animal products.
However, the question of conceptualizing this "agency", that is animals’ historical ability to act, is one of the main problems of animal history. It is noteworthy that this is not primarily a problem of method or methodology. A large variety of sources from all periods and relating to virtually all relevant topics in cultural history is available to research and can be exploited using tried critical methods. To exaggerate slightly, it can be claimed that hardly any historical material exists in which animals do not occur in one way or another. This wealth of sources is juxtaposed by the problem of how to theoretically conceptualize animal "agency" as a historical force. Naturally, it is possible to describe how animals have defended themselves but should this be considered a particular form of the class struggle?21 A reason for the central position of the "agency" concept in animal historiography, which as conventional environmental or military history would have gotten by without this hypothesis, is probably based on a new need for a symmetrical anthropology. This assumes "that not only the symbolic systems of acting humans but a multitude of heterogeneous elements participate in constituting spaces of experience."22 It needs to be emphasized that the underlying concept of "agency," which takes its cue from "actor-network theory" (ANT), does not require any term of intentionality when describing the intermeshing of technology, humans and animals (assemblies). Even though Bruno Latour and other theoreticians of ANT were not primarily concerned with animals and their relationship with humans, animals can consequently be understood as actors just as much as objects and humans.
However, the central question of the historical ability of animals to act or the question of animals as historical subjects remains unsolved: Do animals make history by themselves? In this context, it is an obstacle to historical studies but not critical that animals do not write and speak. Indirectly, individual animals, groups of animals, genuses and species have left an overwhelming amount of tracks and trails in the archives. A handy example are the many ordinances and laws on handling and restricting animals in towns. They contain much information on urban human-animal relationships from a historical perspective. As sources they represent the actions of animals in many ways because animals cooperate, work and live together with humans in a limited space. They resisted and influenced human practice and thought. However, the "agency" concept bumps against limits and animal "agency" must be differentiated from that of humans. Humans do not always act intentionally when they make history, while animals as feeling, thinking and acting creatures possibly have ideas of the future but they do not have an awareness of history.23
The "agency" of individual animals is evident in direct relationships between humans and animals. This includes, for example, owners, animal keepers and persons responsible in other ways who shared their lives over longer periods with an animal. Toward the end of the 19th century, the genre of animal biography, analogous to the biography of great men, made the lives of popular animals its central theme, thereby providing information on the actions of animals.24 In the case of the African elephant Jumbo, who had become an attraction and publicity icon at the London zoo, his keeper Matthew Scott linked the story of Jumbo’s life to his autobiography.25 Biographies were also dedicated to "unknown," obscure animals, such as grizzly bears,26 to emphasize the exemplary significance of the described animal. In literary animal biographies, the animal tells its own story. As in the novel Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse by the English author Anna Sewell (1820–1878), these works were often designed as works of moral didactics.27 The animal could also stand in for humans and as a fictional author reporting on a historical event28 or a historical period, as for example in the children’s books Jock of the Bushveld (1907) by the South African writer James Percy FitzPatrick (1862–1931) or Michael Morpurgo’s (born 1943) War Horse (1982).29
By contrast, in historical animal biographies, the animal becomes an actor in a particular period, such as the rhinoceros Clara, who traveled in the 18th century through a large part of Europe. Colonial network history is illustrated in her biography.30 Clara arrived on July 22, 1741 in the port of Rotterdam on the ship Knabenhoe under captain Douwe Mout van der Meer. The captain had bought Clara from Jan Albert Sichterman (1692–1764), the director of the Dutch East India Company in Assam and wanted to turn her public display in Europe into a business venture. Clara had been raised by hand and lived in the salons of the colonial residence but had become too large to be kept as a domestic animal. The captain and the rhinoceros travelled for seventeen years in a specially constructed cart to the capitals of Europe until Clara died at age twenty in London. This rhinoceros was such an attraction – even clocks and china with her image were sold – because rhinoceroses had not been seen in Europe since Antiquity. The knowledge of Roman animal traders had been forgotten and, as Clara’s biographer writes, there were even doubts about the existence of these creatures. Clara’s appearance, often painted and drawn, shaped a new image of the rhinoceros that overlaid older European pictures and imaginings. This includes, for example, the tale of the special enmity of rhinoceros and elephant that was related by the text of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) famous woodcut.31
Old and new, literary and historical animal biographies assume that animals "possess" a biography, that is, their lives represent a story from birth to death (or their afterlife in the most varied media) and can, therefore, be told in a sensible manner. This raises the question whether animal biography should be conceptualized as a historical genre and an analytical approach rather analogous to the "cultural biography of things"32 or whether a loaded and assumption-rich concept of biography underlies it that understands an individual life, like history in general, as a goal-oriented sequence of events. The latter would conform to a concept of historical and biographical identity, which – as already noted – probably does not coincide with a potential self-perception of the animal.33
The view that animals as active entities participate in society is not done justice in the long run with an approach based on mere historical categorization. If the category of space is included, the participatory role of animals in historical processes becomes much clearer.34 Linking the histories of animals and spaces usually derives from the geographers Chris Philo (born 1960) and Chris Wilbert (born 1962). In their collection of essays Animal Spaces, Beastly Places, they emphasize that a view regarding animals in the city alone is insufficient because in this way animals appear as mere blank spaces and not as independent actors. It is more important to look at practices that first constitute a representative function. In particular, it is essential to understand how animals themselves emerge in these practices.35 Due to their demonstrable, historically changeable presence or absence in spaces, animals become a social dimension. Susan J. Pearson and Mary Weismantel counter a history that neglects animals with a redefinition of the concepts of "social" and "space." They want to have the material presence of animals in social life acknowledged more strongly and,36 for this purpose, call for the spatial dimensions of human-animal relationships to be determined more closely and for "spatial mapping" of human-animal relationships. With their concept of the "instantiation of the social dimension," they seek to counter the methodological problems of the absence of the animal voice because animals can be understood in this way as silent but still social actors without the questions of freedom of action or self-determination needing an answer.37 To analyse the (spatial) presence of animals in the premodern city, the concept of the "society of presence" or "association among those present," developed by Rudolf Schlögl (born 1955), is useful.38 The premodern city appears as a concentrated social space in which what happened among those present during interaction and in specific communications was socially relevant and structure-forming. Consequently, the principle of presence for acquiring the power of agency also makes animals into members of society.
Dogs were among the most popular domestic animals in the early modern period. They moved both in the geographical space of the city and in a number of social spaces in different performative associations. On one hand, as status symbols, representation objects, communication media and bearers of symbolizations, they should be factored in as extended bodies of their owners. On the other, they can be conceived as agents with their own bodies who participate in shaping spaces. Regulations demonstrate how society attempted to define spheres of action for dogs. Apart from bourgeois living rooms, dogs populated numerous locations in urban spaces. Contemporary governments considered the many dogs kept as "companion animals" such a nuisance that they prohibited them from entering certain spaces, such as churches, with numerous ordinances.
The specific spatial contexts of human-animal encounters include places such as zoos,39 slaughterhouses40 and experimental laboratories.41 Animals also appeared in this spatial dimension as significant members of society during the conquest of new territories, war42 and European expansion,43 where in writings on these spaces the respective uses of animals take center stage. European domestic animals introduced to the Americas took possession of their space in a special way, as Alfred W. Crosby (1931–2018) writes: "to the extent that these animals reproduce themselves, they are superior to any machine invented so far with regard to the speed and effectiveness that they transform their environment – even an entire continent."44 The reproduction addressed here was caused by both keeping and multiplying, such as breeding on farms, but also escaped "domestic" animals, such as the horses of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, which formed large wild herds. Their re-domestication fundamentally changed the lifestyle of the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains when they turned to hunting buffalo on horseback. The first cattle herds in North America were descendants of Spanish cattle that had been released or lost by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (1510–1554) on his way northward to the legendary Seven Golden Cities of Cibola.
Apart from groups of animals that characterized and participated in shaping spaces, individual animals repeatedly gained fame by being present in an extraordinary way and being used in different ways by humans. Elephants, giraffes and rhinoceroses have been displayed in Europe since the Middle Ages. In the 20th century, outer space was added as an area in which animals were used. This included, for example, the Russian female mixed-breed dog Laika, who left Earth as the first living creature in a space capsule. In 1961, the "chimponaut" Ham was sent by NASA into orbit around Earth. This use of dogs and apes in space research and their deployment as astronauts or chimponauts are examples of animals participating as actors in shaping space.
History of interactions, praxeology
Examining the specific actions of animals first leads to those humans that the animals have an interactive and reciprocal relationship with. Thus, dogs also share in shaping cultural developments, as Donna Haraway has found. Their actions and being are related to those of humans in multifaceted ways so neither animal nor human can be viewed in isolation but a history of relationships must be written. Assuming the relationship of humans and animals as the lowest unit of historical study in no way denies the active, shared formative role of animals living closely together with humans. Rather, it takes into account the problems of animals not leaving us with artifacts crafted on their own as sources. In this interactive, reciprocal research unit of human and animal, only humans are the authors of sources and the producers of all sorts of remains. This circumstance can be met with praxeological approaches. A change in perspective comes about when social actions are not reduced to intentionality but their performative character is emphasized.45 Not only the bodies of the acting parties but also new groups of actors, that is animals, come into play. With this "embodied agency", from which praxeological approaches emanate, animals attain a status of actor that is clearly demonstrable in the sources, for they interact with humans and consequently directly affect their actions. Following theories in the social sciences, the relationship of humans and dogs can even be described as a duo of actors. The "doggie walk" constitutes an example. The cultural technology of the walk arose at the same time as keeping dogs could no longer be imagined as absent from bourgeois life. At the same time, authorities imposed nuanced concepts of hygiene to restrict dogs from straying without accompaniment. Dogs had conquered certain (nocturnal) spaces by freely roaming around in towns and joining into temporary packs. This new potential for action entered the new cultural technology in a two-fold manner: It was the starting point or trigger for regulations but also constituted an example of the cooperation between dogs and humans.
The shared travels of humans and dogs illustrates that social practices of humans and animals are due to shared practical knowledge and skill. For example, dogs usually accompany their keeper without a leash on their walks but both know what needs to be done. It is important that the dog knows its name so its owner can call it. For this communication and the natural togetherness while strolling together to function, dogs also have to know the rules on which the shared practice of walking is based. In this way, a potential for action and influence can be ascribed to dogs in this cultural technology of walking.46
The doggie walk as a routine activity of the urban bourgeoisie increasingly gained in significance during the course of the 18th century. Keeping dogs for pure pleasure spread parallel to it.47 Walking and keeping dogs – two cultural practices associated with enjoying nature – became very popular among the bourgeoisie at the same time. If dogs are considered partners in an interactive relationship, it appears plausible that keeping dogs and walking didn’t just establish themselves by chance as an urban leisure pastime, the need for dogs to go outside has affected the rhythm of the lives of their keepers.
Animals are part of a shared history in a threefold way. Animals are changed in the course of history, they are the products of historical processes, as the longue durée of co-evolution, domestication and breeding demonstrates. Humans and animals adapt to each other in the process. Thus, research assumes that it was wolves who first moved humans to become sedentary because wolves lived in dens when humans roamed about as nomads. Secondly, animals change history by their specific presence or absence, they are bearers of history because without the participation, for example, of cattle and horses, colonial conquests would not have been possible or would have been completely different. Industrialization would have also sought different pathways without the labor of animals. Thirdly, animals play an important role in history and as sources of human self-understanding. They are part of the historical record and actors in historical periods. They are involved in an indissoluble history of relationship with humans, the smallest unit of which is the animal-human relationship.