Literature for Nonhumans
The history of Illinois, more an idea than a state, is re-presented in the prose poems of Literature for Nonhumans. Illinois was once an ecoparadise teeming with indigenous species. Now it is, Gabriel Gudding tells us, a “notable absence of nonhuman animal,” and a starting place to turn inside-out the language of everyday slaughter. (“An Illinois,” he writes, “is any region that conceives of the river as a drain.”) Gudding’s historiographic prose poetry illustrates our changed relation to nonhuman animals. Over and over, we return to the legal torture of pigs explained matter-of-factly by slaughterhouse manuals of the present day. The extended poem-cum-expository essay displays the wild nonhumans of Illinois—birds, mammals, and more—renamed to parody the language of biologists, whose language is a different kind of animal cage. As Gudding tries to break the syntax and shape of language itself, he is fenced in yet again by impenetrable bureaucratic jargon on the slaughter (the “care”) of nonhumans. We even relate to rivers differently in “an apocalypse that cannot be seen” because we don’t want to see it. Humans hew forests, drain wetlands, make species extinct, and this poet mourns even through his jeremiad. Gudding’s afterword is plea and manifesto; every word of Literature for Nonhumans is crucial to a world in which even simple morality strains for life.
“Just as Sinclair exposed humanity’s lack of humanity in The Jungle over a hundred years ago, Gudding creates, in Literature for Nonhumans, a vivid lyric investigation of our society’s current slide from an age of destruction into a new age of extinctions. In this multidisciplinary & interdisciplinary text, Gudding notches every inch between lament and manifesto and intersects every topic from here (piglets, zombies, Illinois) to heaven where, upon arrival, we find ‘Christ as an anal robot-king we’ve set narratively running at the edge of history to serve as a reparator by vicarious redemption.’ Prepare to be horrified, crackled, poem-ed. Prepare to be schooled.” —Amy King
“In Literature for Nonhumans, Gudding indicts the carnivore’s apocalyptic appetite and nails his zoöpoetic theses to the door of pastoral: a manifesto for thinking poetics through ethics and both through the ecological understanding that links rivers, slaughterhouses, cars, buffalos, geology, churches, corn, defecation, piglet management, zombies, watches, sex, bicycles, OOO, furniture, ‘owls who look like headmistresses,’ and extirpated wild Illinois species. The book itself is a paean to and lament for the lost wetlands of ‘Illinois’—poetic essays that model a thinking in and through language embracing porousness and entanglement rather than specious eco correctness, while unwaveringly focused on the massive contradiction of the slaughterhouse. The optimism of such literature lies in what language and imagination can wander into and invent, flushing out future terms and connections (for a time when humans might no longer see the nonhuman through the telescope of meat), pulling the abject into the light of consideration, and calling readers to come out of the (merely) human political, to let the mortal art of poetry touch the diet.” —Jonathan Skinner
from Historical City of the Slaughterhouse
The pious lament for the bison and the simultaneous collective disavowal of the current slaughter, especially among those who think themselves educated and progressive, is to me one of the most remarkable things about modern life: that it can make such dupes and ethical misers of otherwise bright and generous people.
and fence and
in a who
rl of trash
a dell, a bank, or foam at ankles and
in fur, fur twin
ned in grain, grain ground
s, city found ed in
Copyright © 2015 by Gabriel Gudding.
I was born in Minnesota and spent my adolescence in Washington state, raised with five sisters, no brother, and for a while my mom was single after she divorced my biological father, whom I never really knew. Books were not a huge part of my life growing up, neither were art, money, travel, or education. After the public experimental school The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, I took degrees from Purdue and Cornell, and somehow wound up being an English professor, though I was never an English major, had previously little interest in literature, studied sociology as an undergraduate, and aspired as I entered graduate school to be a historian. For some non-good reason I wonder about to this day I left a PhD program in early American intellectual history after my first year and went to Cornell to study poetry with A. R. Ammons and Reginald Shepherd. I think I felt I could still write histories, or at least historiographically, through the writing of essays and poetry, and I guess in a very real way each of my books contains pronounced historical and critical dimensions. At Cornell I also studied Pali with James Gair and have for years sat and volunteered at vipassana retreats all over North America. It was these experiences in meditation that I think partly laid the groundwork for my interest in the sentience and exploitation of nonhuman beings.
My writing about the suffering of nonhuman animals is probably also informed by the fact that I’ve struggled for years with some debilitating health issues. I think the health problems have affected me for the better in two ways. One, they’ve just kind of made me less complacent about damage and trauma in others, human and nonhuman. Two, the few ways I’ve chosen to mitigate these problems, mostly through vipassana and daily training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (which I also teach), have changed in unanticipated ways how I relate to others. Even though the effects of vipassana are now widely documented in medical literature, it still surprises me how much meditation has helped me. It’s mostly, though, the benefits of BJJ that I’m flabbergasted about to this day. Often called “physical chess,” BJJ is a competitive and rather technical grappling sport that allows small and weak people to protect themselves against larger and stronger aggressors and training partners. The thing is, it involves exceedingly intimate full-bodied touch – intimate in that the contact is not only sweaty and close, but, because of the risks of being choked unconscious or having limbs hurt, one also entrusts one’s personal safety and health to training partners, men and women of all ages and backgrounds. There is something about the combination of force mitigated by technique and creativity in the context of mutual bodily vulnerability that is surprisingly therapeutic. Strange as it may sound, grappling has not only markedly changed how I interact with people and other animals, it’s changed my writing, although how exactly I’m really not able to articulate.
I suppose the only other activity, aside from fatherhood, that has markedly shaped me is volunteering in prisons. I’ve started creative writing programs in prisons in upstate New York, Mississippi, and Illinois, and I’ve especially learned from working with women inmates, because, more than any other group I’ve taught, they seem to see creative writing as a modality of intimate connection: many of them express that the classes help them better connect, through writing, with their children and extended families.
Photo of Gabriel Gudding by Kristin Dykstra.
Literature for Nonhumans arose from an increasing realization that nonhuman animals think and feel and perceive and have families and love much as we do, and that consequently what we are doing to farmed animals is, in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, an eternal Treblinka. This realization was fostered by personal encounters with wild, farmed, and domesticated animals, while growing up in a farming family, volunteering in no-kill shelters, touring CAFOs, kayaking on many rivers, outings with field biologists, a year aboard a ship visited by thousands of exhausted birds during storms, backcountry camping and hiking, and the reading of contemporary ethology and neurobiology.
I’ve heard the argument that the comparison of the systematic per annum slaughter of 60 billion land animals, and trillions in the seas, to the holocaust, a word whose original meaning refers to animal sacrifice, is offensive. Hardly. Countless contemporary Jewish thinkers, from Adorno to Derrida, Élisabeth de Fontenay to David Sztybel insist not only that this comparison is vital but that to not make the comparison is an affront both to taste and to truth. The animal-industrial complex, whose Chicago railway systems inspired the architects of the Konzentrationslager, is, with the eating of animals being entirely nutritionally unnecessary, the single greatest driver of climate change and global human malnutrition and food insecurity worldwide. The intersection of countless oppressions, human and nonhuman, pivots on the backs of farmed beings.
Much of my thinking about the clear relation between aesthetics and ethics stems from teaching feminist moral philosophers over the last half dozen years. The innovations they’ve brought to a field dominated by game theory and gedankenexperiments about rational actors consist in great part of a focus on the ethics of care and the importance of the role of emotion and affiliative relation in moral decision. I’ve especially learned from the work of Marcia Homiak, Susan Wolf, Martha Nussbaum, Marilyn Friedman, Annette C. Baier, and Elizabeth Jaggar in moral philosophy, Gillian Hewitson and Nussbaum in economics, Keri Weil, and Lynn Worsham in critical animal studies, and A. Marie Houser in disability studies. Tobias Menely in literary intellectual history and influential vegan thinkers such as Carol J. Adams, Matthew Calarco, and Gary Francione have helped clarify the ways human supremacism is directly tied to other human-on-human oppressions. Agamben has helped somewhat. Deleuze too has been somewhat influential, but mainly in the degree to which his focus on minoritarian art stems from Volkelt, Lipps, and Worringer and the German empathy theorists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Favorite journals that have blown my mind and heart open are Journal of the History of Ideas, differences, JAC, and Cambridge Journal of Economics. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and its deft and nuanced explanation of the natural connection between aesthetics and ethics is a mainstay.
Too, readings in Bargh’s The New Unconscious have really helped me understand the ways we overestimate the quality of our own sentience. A host of well-known and established findings in social and cognitive psychology attest to the fact of our own automaticity and our possession of mechanisms of self-delusion that trick us into thinking that we have a self and know why, or indeed believe that, we make decisions. And at the same time that we overestimate our own sentience, we underestimate the sapience of nonhuman animals. We are as much automatons as Descartes once considered nonhumans to be. Yet we fear and love, as do they.
Much of my thinking on poetics can be found in the afterword of Literature for Nonhumans. My poetry has been heavily influenced by Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Cesaire, and Juliana Spahr, each of whom is, in a very real sense, a historian. César Vallejo and many Cuban and Latin American poets have been remarkably instructive. My tastes in fiction are unremarkable: Beckett’s Molloy is maybe my favorite novel, with Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation of Waterhouse’s Language Death Night Outside a close second. I admire Kafka and Coetzee for the ways they write about and advocate for the sentience of nonhuman animals. Many contemporary poets who manage to write about nonhuman animals in extraordinary ways, Oni Buchanan and Aracelis Girmay among them, have inspired me greatly.
I remain surprised by the quietistic, sometimes smug, reactionary pronouncements made by some past and contemporary self-described avant-garde writers who insist that poetry in particular and art in general has no ethical valence. I’ve never understood how anyone could construe the current or past avant-garde as progressive: the a-g has been historically, and still is apparently, allied with the right: there is a distinct lack of affiliativeness and careful ethical consideration, and consequently aesthetic vibrancy, in, for instance, some contemporary Conceptual poets. Bourdieu’s reminder that the struggle for distinction in the field of cultural production tends to drive salubrious and helpful social content out of art is apt. This is especially true in those arts like poetry that have low economic but high symbolic capital, where the effort to distinguish oneself leads to an increasing tendency to focus on formal innovation at the exclusion of any content that is not facile.
I feel the job of true experimental art is to bring, as I say in the book, the meaninglessness of the mortality of sentience to the pity of sentience. I think it’s not inappropriate that art clarify the reality of suffering manifest in all sentient creatures such that the effort and effect of pity can be brought to bear beyond the human community. I relate to Tolstoy’s insistence that great art unites the human community in deep fellow feeling, but I’d like to insist that it’s time we expand our sense of art’s scope into a community that doesn’t just include our human selves—in all our trans, racial, sexual, gender, body, and class alterity—but extends also to the mothers and daughters, sons and fathers caught and killed in CAFOs and on farms, and indeed to all sapient beings everywhere. There is no reason why bringing relief to the enslaved and farmed, advocating a steady change of diet and clothing, with the unquestionably inevitable liberation of both human and nonhuman persons, should not be a worthy use for literature. In fact, given the intersectional nature of these oppressions, there’s no way we can truly try to ameliorate or even understand suffering in humans to any practical degree without ceasing to purposefully cause it in the lives and families of other animals.
My profuse thanks to Janet Holmes, a genuinely (and I think anyone in the industry knows this) visionary editor and poet, and several of my colleagues: Christopher Breu, truly a brilliant thinker, whose essays drove me to correspond and argue with him; Duriel Estelle Harris, whose work blew things open for me; Kirstin Hotelling Zona, whose editing and conversation were vital; Curtis White, curmudgeonly and wrong about so much but right-hearted and good-energied. Finally, this book would not exist without my daughter, Clio Byrne-Gudding, our conversations, and our many trips to, down, and across rivers, without question the single most inspiring and interesting person I’ve ever known, and one awesome vegan.