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Redeeming Icarus: Human / Animal Attributes and the Rise of the Microscope

A Themester Lecture by Laurie Shannon

Thursday, November 15, 2018, 4:00pm

University Club, Indiana Memorial Union

Redeeming Icarus: Human / Animal Attributes and the Rise of the MicroscopeThough humans have worked tirelessly to distinguish ourselves from non-human animals, the nature of the “slash” we use to divide us from them varies profoundly over time. This talk will explore an important pivot in the history of that “slash” by considering the state of affairs around the rise of the microscope (c. 1600). It will also calibrate these two, before-and-after regimes of vision to more broadly philosophical developments, particularly the Cartesian dispensation between human and animal. Montaigne and Shakespeare, Thomas Moffett’s The Theatre of Insects: or, Lesser Living Creatures (1658), and Robert Hooke’s meticulous recordings of “minute bodies” under the microscope (Micrographia, 1665) will be considered.

More specifically, the notion that an upright posture indexes human privilege seems perennial; the vertical vector of the human body has long been said to assure our ascendancy over other creatures. But this traditional conceit sidesteps a basic logical and physical glitch: the human incapacity to fly. While human theorizing made an uneasy peace with birds, appropriating their flight as an allegory of the (human) soul, this lecture will analyze an early modern revolution in our attention to winged insects. For a lay observer like Shakespeare, flying insects were very admirably borne on “slender gilded wings.” But when insects began to be scanned with the newfangled microscope in the seventeenth century, what new challenges did they pose? In a rising technoscientific regime of visibility and mechanism, how did the tiniest of insects, the “fabrick” of their wings, and the dizzying new micro-scale they revealed affect conceptions not only of the human, but of the very “empire” humans constantly claimed over other creatures? Viewing flies under the microscope, as we will see, sent human claims to exceptional status in a new, more extreme direction.

Laurie Shannon is Franklin Bliss Snyder Professor of English Literature and Chair of the English Department at Northwestern University. She has written two field-defining books: Sovereign Amity: Figures of Friendship in Shakespearean Contexts(University of Chicago Press, 2002) and the award-winning The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Winner of the Robert B. Cox Undergraduate Teaching Award and the Dean’s Award for Graduate Mentoring at Duke University, Professor Shannon is an innovative scholar and engaging speaker who brings her legal training (J.D., Harvard University) to bear on studies of how pre-modern literature imagined persons as subjects and envisioned cross-species relations as part of the political realm.

The lecture will be followed by a roundtable discussion featuring Constance Furey (Religious Studies), Abby Ang(English), and Domenico Bertoloni Meli (History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine).

Laurie Shannon’s visit to Bloomington is made possible through the support of the College Arts and Humanities Institute, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of English, the Department of Religious Studies, and Themester 2018: Animal/Human. The event will be followed by a reception.