Blogger Chris Pearson of Sniffing the Past speaks with Peter Sahlins about Descartes, dogs, and animal politics. Click here to learn more about Sahlins’ book, 1668: The Year of the Animal in France. Click here to read the full interview. An excerpt appears below.
Q: “What was the relationship between politics and animals in 1668?”
A: “The book is about a phenomenon that scholars have on the whole ignored – the centrality of animals in the symbolic construction of the Sun King’s absolutist regime. It is not about all the animals at Versailles, including those that were eaten, kept as pets, hunted or hunted with. Rather, it’s mostly about the birds that were central to what the German sociologist Norbert Elias called the “civilizing process,” where ritualized, graceful, and polite forms of behavior replaced violent and “brutish” practices in a way that not only shored up the social hierarchy but was used in the service of absolutism. I’m expanding upon Elias, among others, in thinking about how animals were critical in the social and political ordering of the kingdom, the construction around 1668 of the symbolic foundations of legitimacy.
1668 was a watershed year because an elevated view of animals who shared the same cognitive and moral universe as humans – indeed, who were the very models of human beings – came to an end as Louis XIV passed his first decade in rule, and Descartes’s views of animals became widely disseminated. After 1668 artists, writers, painters, and others discovered (or perhaps better, rediscovered) the real animal – the beast – that resides at the heart of each man (and woman), especially the men of the lower classes.”