I wished to possess all the productions of Nature, but I wished life with them. This was impossible.
—John James Audubon, Ornithological Biography
At the beginning of the nineteenth century in North America, one hunt ended and another began. Even as it was rapidly falling out of common practice, hunting did not disappear. A mode of pursuit that had long been associated with the acquisition of knowledge, hunting became all the more prevalent as a cultural and epistemological logic when new technologies of capture made it less urgent to gain or defend territory against animals and secure the dominance of Man—a category whose self-evidence will be one of this chapter’s driving questions. Less of an immediate threat, animals came to be subjected to increasingly more invasive and furtive forms of knowledge and control.
If we believe The Order of Things, the nineteenth century discovered the “fantastic new powers” of the animal after its “great threat or radical strangeness had been left suspended or as it were disarmed at the end of the Middle Ages, or at least at the end of the Renaissance.”1 The relative “peace” gained in the aftermath of this disarmament and secured during the classical period constitutes for Foucault the implicit condition for the emergence of the modern animal and its counterpart, Man. While convincing in the Western European context, Foucault’s chronology demands to be revised when one turns to North America, where the “great threat” of nature was hardly “left suspended” at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is not until the late 1830s, according to historian Roderick Nash, that the hostile and sublime wilderness—etymologically, “the place of wild beasts”—was converted in the American imaginary into a fragile wildness in need of protection. Nash makes John James Audubon the harbinger of this cultural transformation.2 And indeed Audubon’s Birds of America constitutes a fascinating document in which to track the epistemic shift charted in The Order of Things while attending to the continuities, sublimations, and residualities specific to the settler-colonial and frontier-oriented context of the nineteenth-century United States.
The hunt offers a compelling paradigm for reading this transformation in its colonial and transatlantic dimension. In the mid-eighteenth century, hunting was still commonly described as a form of war—a relatively equal contest between two opposing sides.3 A certain epistemophilia that emerged during this period—evidenced in Europe by Buffon’s colossal Histoire naturelle, Cuvier’s epic enterprise of classification, and Darwin’s 1831 zoological expedition on the Beagle (named after a hunting dog), and in the United States by the monumental collections of naturalists such as John Bartram, Charles Willson Peale, and Alexander Wilson—can be seen as the continuation of the hunt by other means. The shifting valence of hunting from martial to epistemological finds a burgeoning archive in the new prominence of natural history museums and science institutions, which depended on the products of the hunt—and on the elided labor of female, indigenous, and African American subjects—for their specimen collections.4 Yet this shift did not occur at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic, and the United States, which in the first decades of the nineteenth century did not have much institutional infrastructure to support scientific endeavors (with the notable exception of the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, founded in 1786), often relied on the expertise of European taxonomists.5 This transatlantic “lag” fostered a different breed of naturalists in America—men who scorned the derivative knowledge of “closet naturalists” and the abstraction of Cuvierian systematics, while at the same time seeking recognition from the European elite who patronized their work. No individual is more representative of this ambivalence than Audubon.
Born in Saint-Domingue in 1785, Audubon emigrated to France in 1791 to flee the Haitian revolution, then to the United States in 1803 to escape conscription into the Napoleonic Wars, taking up the management of his father’s estates in Pennsylvania. He began making a name for himself as a producer of scientific documents and works of art at a moment when the United States was eager to uphold and promulgate its intellectual identity. The famed naturalist and artist was—and purposefully fashioned himself as—a hunter (Plate 1). Elisa New notes that he was embedded in a culture “whose ‘views’ were . . . frequently composed through gun sights,”6 and his journal entries, observes Daniel Patterson, reveal “the symbiotic relationship between his gun and his paintbrush.”7 Audubon “engaged birds with the intensity (and sometimes the ferocity) of a hunter because hunting was the cultural frame out of which his encounter with birds emerged,” writes his biographer Richard Rhodes. “In early nineteenth-century America, when wild game was still extensively harvested for food, observation for hunting had not yet disconnected from observation for scientific knowledge.”8 Hunting thus composed the “cultural frame” of Audubon’s artistic and scientific practice, and the gaze of the artist-scientist was inextricable from that of the hunter. The haphazard, hands-on nature of his practice, however, was at odds with the systematic, objective, hands-off ethos of modern science,9 and it would rapidly become at odds with modern sensibilities.10 Just a few decades later, Henry David Thoreau would justify giving up hunting on ethical and epistemological grounds. “I sold my gun before I went to the woods,” Thoreau declares; “during the last years that I carried a gun my excuse was that I was studying ornithology, and sought only new or rare birds. But I confess that I am now inclined to think that there is a finer way of studying ornithology than this.”11 Unlike Thoreau, who glorifies the experience of losing one’s self in the woods, putting himself on the level of the animals he studies, Audubon went to find his specimens in “nature” with the express ambition to bring them back.12 His practice is thus exemplary of what I call the hunt regime, in which animals appear fundamentally knowable. Whereas Thoreau actively sought to blur the frontier between culture and nature, Audubon extracted animals from their native haunts, a process that was synonymous with knowing them (as suggested by Audubon’s signature pun “drawn from nature,” which accompanied all his sketches).13 Yet his art also manifests an attention to something that necessarily eludes the hunter: Audubon despaired of not being able to endow his models with life. “The moment a bird was dead,” he laments in his 1831 Ornithological Biography, “however beautiful it had been when in life, the pleasure arising from the possession became blunted.”14 A journal entry recounts the epiphany that led him to invent a new drawing technique to animate his paintings: “One day while watching the habits of a paire of Pewees . . . a thought struck my Mind like a flash of light, that nothing after all could ever answer my Anthusiastic desires to represent nature, than to attempt to Copy her in her own Way, alive and Moving!”15
It is this irrepressible urge to instill his sketches with life that makes Audubon the pivot between the hunt regime and the capture regime, for while he highlights the labor (as an artist, hunter, and scientist) needed to produce his object, he desperately yearns to render an objective and lifelike image of the bird. On the one hand, he valorizes the hunt as offering a degree of intimacy and proximity with animals that makes his knowledge more authentic; on the other, this same hands-on approach disqualifies him as a scientist during a period when detachment was becoming the guarantor of scientificity. This ostensible delinking of the labor of the hunter from knowledgeable pursuits, I propose, signals an epistemic shift, which has epistemological and ontological consequences for both the object of knowledge and the knowing subject. Yet I argue that observation for hunting and observation for knowledge were not fully disconnected by the pressures of scientific standardization and specialization; instead, at the moment when science is said to have become objective, hunting simply receded from overt consciousness, instead lodging itself within the period’s epistemological unconscious.
In the foreground of Audubon’s Golden Eagle, a bird soars into the air, almost too large to be contained by the painting, holding a dead or dying rabbit in its clenched talon (Plate 2) and threatening to exceed the limits of the canvas. In the background, almost imperceptible on the immaculate coat of snow, the hunter (said to be a portrait of Audubon himself) is dwarfed by the majesty of the surrounding massifs. Golden Eagle (1833) is part of a series of works intended by Audubon to offer a reliable census and exhaustive representation of the then-exotic feathered fauna of the United States. “My ardent Wish to Compleat a collection of drawings of the Birds of our Country, from Nature all of Natural Size, begun about 15 Years since,” he writes to the governor of Arkansas in 1820, “and to Acquire by occular, or reliable observations of others the knowledge of their Habits, & residence; makes me wish to travel as far at Least as the Osage Nations on the Arkansas as also along the whole of our Frontiers.”16 While Audubon’s depiction of the golden eagle is informed by his careful scrutiny of the animal, the scene is imbued with a distinctively “unnatural” quality. Certainly, Audubon valued the golden eagle for its ornithological singularity, but the allegorical dimension of the scene is undeniable. The impeccable whiteness of the prey amplifies the fierceness of the eagle, which seems to have been recruited as a mascot for the American colonial project.17 In Audubon’s painting, the bird, “a permanent resident in the United States,” is soaring westward—like Audubon himself, seeking to travel as far as the Osage Nations—charting the course of the empire’s Manifest Destiny.18
As art historian Theodore Stebbins notes, Golden Eagle was likely modeled after Jacques-Louis David’s painting, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard (1800, Plate 3).19 Richard Rhodes details the commonalities between the two, namely their mirroring color schemes, the pointing gesture of Bonaparte’s hand that is reproduced in the eagle’s beak, and the upward trajectory of their nearly identical landscapes:
Light flooding into both pictures from the upper left illuminates the eagle and its white prey as it illuminates Napoleon and his white horse. The drop of blood sweating from the hare’s torn eye duplicates a red touch of embroidery at Napoleon’s waist. But the conqueror and his rearing white horse combine in the eagle into one magnificent raptor, urging upward: the eagle’s beating wings duplicate Napoleon’s golden, wind-swirled cape, while the eagle’s open-beaked cry is the horse’s open-mouthed whinny and the eagle’s glare of defiance is the horse’s bulging wild eye.20
The eagle occupies the position of Napoleon (and his horse), and Audubon positions himself as a simple, horseless soldier. Despite this seeming modesty, Rhodes observes, the two paintings are crucially different in one element of their representation: unlike David’s heroic model, the fictional Audubon has already climbed the mountain and is represented “shinnying down the chasm with his prize.”21 If Napoleon is the eagle, then what are we to make of the dead eagle on the hunter’s shoulder?
If we read this picture as a parodic rewriting of the Louisiana Purchase, it hails the naturalist in buckskins as victorious over the emperor adorned with all the attributes of sovereignty. Conquering the New Continent through hard work and firsthand observation, the humble hunter of French descent succeeds where the great Napoleon had failed; the hunter-naturalist affirms his new identity as an American by substituting for Napoleon’s elaborate semiotics of power the uncontrived natural aura of the bird of prey. Audubon’s painted triumph also has the flavor of personal revenge, for in 1803 (the year of the Louisiana Purchase), Audubon’s father had enjoined his son to flee France to avoid being drafted into Napoleon’s army. In an autobiographical sketch titled “Myself,” Audubon recalls that his father had frequently traveled to “that portion of our Southern States called . . . Louisiana, then owned by the French Government.”22 When Audubon landed in the United States, he forged his passport, changed his name from Jean-Jacques to John James, and indicated that he had been born in Louisiana. The Golden Eagle is all at once a scientific document, a work of art, a political pamphlet, a declaration of America’s artistic and scientific independence, and a self-mythology.
This emblematic reading of the painting invites a closer examination of the place occupied by Audubon’s oeuvre in representing and disseminating the U.S. imperial project.23 Replacing the figure of Napoleon with that of the fierce raptor enlists the motif of the hunt to naturalize colonial conquest and even perhaps to change its nature: the hunter-colonizer appears to be not a foreign power imposing itself by means of arbitrary and external violence but a modest huntsman whose conquest is sanctioned by the unstoppable violence of a boundless Nature of which he is but a part.24 The naturalization and, as we will see in the next chapter, indigenization of the hunter is characteristic of the insidious logic of settler colonialism.
The symbolic reading that Audubon’s painting invites underlines its unnaturalness, its patent lack of realism—a lack that is strongly conveyed by the rigid quality of the animals portrayed: the eagle and the hare appear to have just escaped from a taxidermist’s workshop. Although Audubon is known for the eidetic quality of his paintings, here he presents us with something more closely resembling a nature morte, or still life. And as it happens, it was indeed a still life. “My drawings have all been made after individuals fresh killed, mostly by myself,” Audubon explains, “and put before me by means of wires, &c. in the precise attitude represented, and copied with a closeness of measurement that I hope will always correspond with nature when brought into contact. The many foreshortenings unavoidable . . . have been rendered attainable by means of square of equal dimensions affixed both on my paper and immediately behind the subjects before me.”25 Though this method is reminiscent of long-established techniques for drawing real life models (Figure 5), Audubon does not use the grid to “allow for shifts in scale,” art historian Jennifer L. Roberts argues, but rather “to map out the precise details and contours for transfer from the bird to the page.”26 Less icons than indexes, Audubon’s drawings dreamed to present the thing itself.27 What Roberts calls Audubon’s “pictorial preservation” is a last-resort strategy—one premised, ironically, on the death of his models; Audubon killed his models in order to fix them, to stave off their disappearance.28
Despite its indexical fidelity—in fact, because of it—Audubon’s technique explains the pictorial rigor mortis of his productions. The paintings’ vivid colors and action-packed dramaturgy do not offset what Branka Arsić calls Audubon’s “mortification of nature,” which makes “his famous bird drawings appear as faces of death, with thick, continuous lines forever imprisoning the birds in their forms, as if those lines were thus themselves an immutable category enabling the setting of taxonomies.”29 Indeed, the violence that underpins Audubon’s attempt to capture and fix animals upon his canvas is played up by the contemporary American artist Walton Ford. In his 2004 Delirium, Ford (who specializes in large-scale animal watercolors) painted a kind of satire of Audubon’s Golden Eagle that foregrounds the destructive methods that Audubon’s paintings hide (Plate 4). With its smoking beak, its claw caught in a leghold trap, and a small metal dart piercing its heart, Ford’s raptor seems at first glance to have been taken from a book of fables. And yet, as we will see, Delirium is more historically accurate than Audubon’s original.
One needs to read the promotional text that accompanied The Birds of America to know the backstory of Audubon’s acquisition of his model for Golden Eagle. We learn from his Ornithological Biography that Audubon did not hunt the bird, as the painting suggests. He bought it from the proprietor of Boston’s Columbian Museum, Ethan Allen Greenwood, who had asked him to identify a live eagle purchased from a New Hampshire fox hunter who accidentally caught the bird in his spring-traps. Audubon, having brought his new acquisition home, confesses to his fascination with the bird, introducing it to his readers as his “captive” and “royal prisoner”—a regal descriptor that supports the insurgent reading of Audubon’s repudiation of French Empire and allegiance to American democracy:
The bird was produced [by Greenwood], and as I directed my eye towards its own deep, bold, and stern one, . . . I determined to obtain possession of it. The Eagle was immediately conveyed to my place of residence, covered by a blanket, to save him, in his adversity, from the gaze of the people. I placed the cage so as to afford me a good view of the captive, and I must acknowledge that as I watched his eye, and observed his looks of proud disdain, I felt towards him not so generously as I ought to have done. At times I was half inclined to restore to him his freedom, that he might return to his native mountains; nay, I several times thought how pleasing it would be to see him spread out his broad wings and sail away towards the rocks of his wild haunts; but then, reader, some one seemed to whisper that I ought to take the portrait of the magnificent bird; and I abandoned the more generous design of setting him at liberty, for the express purpose of shewing you his semblance.30
The “little voice” that tells him to execute the animal, which he attributes to his scientific instinct, may also be a product of Audubon’s uneasiness with the gaze of the animal, who defiantly returns the naturalist’s observing gaze. Unlike Ford, Audubon renders the eagle’s face as distinctly anthropomorphic, and in this passage, the pronouns he uses to describe the bird tellingly shift from “it” to “him.”31 Audubon genders the bird male—a decision that seems not the outcome of a careful anatomic examination (in his notes, he describes the specimen as an adult female) but of an irrepressible rivalry between humans and animals, one that Audubon often dramatized in his paintings.32
Resolved to “take the portrait of the magnificent bird,” Audubon found the specimen too challenging to draw from life. He first considered electrocuting the eagle but decided instead on asphyxiation, deeming this method “the easiest for ourselves, and the least painful to him.” He shut the bird in a small room with a pot of burning charcoal. “I waited, expecting every moment to hear him fall down from his perch,” he writes, “but after listening for hours, I opened the door, raised the blankets, and peeped under them amidst a mass of suffocating fumes. There stood the Eagle on his perch, with his bright unflinching eye turned towards me, and as lively and vigorous as ever!” He repeated the operation several times, but the animal refused to die:
We were nearly driven from our home in a few hours by the stifling vapours, while the noble bird continued to stand erect, and to look defiance [sic] at us whenever we approached his post of martyrdom. His fierce demeanour precluded all internal application, and at last I was compelled to resort to a method always used as the last expedient, and a most effectual one. I thrust a long pointed piece of steel through his heart, when my proud prisoner instantly fell dead, without even ruffling a feather.33
This violence that lies behind the image is what Ford brings to the fore in his satire of Audubon’s composition. Yet Ford does not simply capitalize on the irony that made Audubon kill the animal in order to reintroduce it pictorially, as if alive, in its natural habitat; he also satirizes Audubon’s self-mythology and revisionist tendencies. Indeed, it is not just the material event of the bird’s putting to death that Ford’s painting exposes but rather the specific (transactional) form of violence that Audubon’s painting artfully conceals by presenting himself as a hunter. In Golden Eagle, the naturalist dressed in hunting gear proudly carries a dead eagle on his back, although we remember that Audubon purchased the bird from the director of a museum, who himself had bought it from a poacher who accidentally caught the bird in a trap set for foxes.
The mise en abyme is all the more remarkable because Golden Eagle is the only painting of Audubon’s to include a human character, and all the more intriguing because Audubon is not usually regarded as a particularly self-reflexive painter. In Ford’s watercolor, the figure of a hunter lies in the snow, as if dead. In Golden Eagle, the hunter is very much alive and active. He appears comically small, almost irrelevant, yet the whole scene is depicted from his perspective. Audubon’s hunter sees the world from below, but Audubon-the-painter adopts a God’s-eye (or bird’s-eye) view—an omniscient perspective. The painting literalizes the problem that representation poses to objective knowledge, which posits an irreducible distance between the knowing subject and the object known. If the hunter depicted in the margin of Audubon’s painting is intended to represent the painter himself, then the scene that he observes both from above and below exposes the irreconcilable dualism of the modern observer. This dualism is also seen in the image of the eagle itself, the object of the painting. Audubon renders two versions of what appears to be the exact same eagle, simultaneously captured (on the hunter’s shoulder) and free (as a bird). The fact that the eagle is at once dead and alive in the picture, like Schrödinger’s cat in his box, implicitly correlates the killing of the empirical animal and its transformation into a representative specimen. In Golden Eagle, Audubon is simultaneously the naturalist fascinated with apprehending the live creature and the painter who must sacrifice the object for the sake of his own artistic execution: “I wished to possess all the productions of nature,” he confesses in his biography, “but I wished life with them. This was impossible.”34
The Execution of the Subject
How are we to understand what Audubon experiences as a representational aporia? How are we to read his confessional impulse in Ornithological Biography (a title that binds life-writing with the study of birds) and his autobiopictorial impulse in Golden Eagle? What is the relationship between subject formation, animal death, and representation? This section is an implicit engagement with Derrida’s claim that the “calculation of the subject”—who in Western modernity is traditionally male, adult, white, and carnivorous—rests on a foundational “sacrifice” of animal and animalized others.35
In his own animal biography, The Animal That Therefore I Am (Following), Derrida borrows the motif of the hunt to expose the disavowed violence that founds the Man/animal dyad and to challenge the right “men have given themselves” to say “I.” Derrida exploits a semantic ambiguity in the French language in order to challenge the grounds of an anthropological ontology—surreptitiously sustained by a hunting logic that, elsewhere, I have called “huntology”—that frames an untold multiplicity of living beings in the homogenizing concept “the animal.” Western thought, Derrida asserts, has from its inception sought to secure an ontological difference between Man and animal by peremptorily annexing the right to say “je suis” and systematically depriving animals of the capacity to respond. The title of his essay, “L’Animal que donc je suis,” plays on the double meaning of this “je suis,” which can mean both “I am” and “I follow.” Derrida tricks language and forces his reader into identifying with the animal (“I am the animal”) while simultaneously recognizing the distance maintained by the one who chases or goes after the animal (“I am following the animal”). The phrase “l’animal que je suis” maddeningly collapses the assumed atemporality of the utterance “I am” with the sequentiality of “I follow.” The conceit lays out how the animal pursuit tacitly shapes Man himself. Derrida thus allows us to apprehend anthropogenesis—the making of Man—as a relational economy that disavows its relationality and rationalizes or naturalizes its predatory constitution. He dramatizes the elision of relation, the erasure of the animal’s exclusion, which conditions the emergence of “the human”—and a fortiori modern Western Man, this figure that arrogates to itself the right to “call itself human.”36 Derrida’s formulation strongly echoes Wynter’s critique of European Man’s overrepresentation of itself “as if it were the human itself.”37 And while Derrida does not explicitly engage racism and colonialism in his work on the animal, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson notes that his project remains useful for theorizing the animalization of racialized subjects insofar as it seeks to unsettle “Man’s exceptionalism and epistemological grounding, his own claim to dominance and legitimation.”38 Bringing his analysis of sacrificial violence to bear on “the American racial scene,” Jackson argues that the “heteropatriarchal manhood that Derrida questions arises out of and is consolidated under the conditions of antiblack slavery and its afterlife, such that blackness itself qualifies one for sacrifice.”39 This added dimension is all the more compelling in Audubon’s case given recent speculations about the painter’s own biracialism (Audubon was officially the natural child of his father’s chambermaid Jeanne Rabin, but some speculate that his mother might have been Sanitte Bouffard, who was mixed race).40
I do not dispute the thesis that a general “noncriminal putting to death” (Derrida’s definition of sacrifice) underwrites the erection of the Western subject and underlies the right to say “I,” but I wish to pause on Derrida’s use of the word sacrifice, which in principle implies a minimal degree of ritualization.41 What kind of subject is produced when putting-to-death becomes systematized, deritualized, and concealed (as is the case in Western secularized societies, where the consumption of animal products has never been higher but where the slaughtering of animals takes place out of sight)? What do we glimpse when we read Audubon’s image for what it cannot or will not show when it comes to animal death, and what do these elisions reveal about the making of its maker? In modern criticism, it is now commonplace to denounce the murderous practices that underwrite Audubon’s oeuvre, pointing out that it is only historical amnesia that today makes his name synonymous with conservation and species protection.42 Of course, Audubon belonged to a time before the notion of species extinction became widely accepted as a scientific reality, although he (rather belatedly) came to realize—and publicize—the fact that his dear birds were becoming endangered, in part because of overhunting.43 My interest here is not to adjudicate his hypocrisy or culpability; instead, I wish to reflect on the exceptional position occupied by the observing subject in his work, which, I argue, is the source of the seeming contradiction between violence and conservation, between his proclaimed intention to render his subjects “with life” and the fact that his “birds are rendered at the moment of the kill.”44
To account for the predatory character of Audubon’s ornithological pursuits, many have turned to a passage from Audubon’s journals. In this autobiographical meditation, titled “Myself,” Audubon recalls an incident from his youth in Saint-Domingue “that perhaps did lead [him] to love birds, and finally to study them with pleasure infinite”:45
My mother had several beautiful parrots and some monkeys, one of the latter was a full-grown male of a very large species. One morning, while the servants were engaged in arranging the room I was in, “Pretty Polly” asking for her breakfast as usual, “Du pain au lait pour le perroquet Migonne [sic],” the man of the woods probably thought the bird presuming upon his rights in the scale of nature; be this as it may, he certainly showed his supremacy in strength over the denizen of the air, for, walking deliberately and uprightly toward the poor bird, he at once killed it, with unnatural composure. The sensations of my infant heart at this cruel sight were agony to me. I prayed the servant to beat the monkey, but he, who for some reason preferred the monkey to the parrot, refused. I uttered long and piercing cries, my mother rushed into the room, I was tranquillized, the monkey was forever afterward chained, and Migonne [sic] was buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one.46
This excerpt stages a competition between two archetypally anthropomorphic animals, representing the two “sides” of man: the talking parrot—on the side of logos, ethereal grace, innocence, freedom—versus the ape—on the side of mimicry, brute force, criminality, captivity. Between its erotic and Oedipal subtexts, and the racial, gender, and social tensions that animate it, this scene—which is uncannily redolent of Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”—is ripe for all kinds of allegorical interpretations.47 Indeed, Walton Ford gives at least five different pictorial renditions of the episode (Figure 6). According to Christopher Iannini, who attends to Audubon’s anxiety about uncertainties surrounding his birth and racial identity, this episode is an emblematic “recasting of the Haitian revolution”;48 along similar lines, Nicholas Mirzoeff sees it as “a primal scene of the white supremacist imagination;”49 and Christoph Irmscher and Michael Ziser interpret it as a veiled confession of Audubon’s deep-seated ambivalence, asking whether the painter kills to represent or represents to kill.50 All, however, concur that this scene, in which the autobiographical and the historical collide and interanimate one another, is key to understanding Audubon as a representative subject of his time.
The self-cogitations articulated in this autobiographical vignette are also on display in Golden Eagle. The painting replays the same racial paranoia: a dark, wild beast swoops on a defenseless white hare, and the hunter heroically intervenes to right this wrong. If Audubon represents himself as a bird killer, however, his beautiful rendition of the eagle distinguishes him from the uncouth hunter, and from the simian “man of the woods” (a phrase that curiously invokes Audubon himself, who sometimes went by Jean-Jacques La Forêt), who violently ends the bird’s life.51 In the painter’s hands, death is rendered beautiful; it appears continuous with nature—and, paradoxically, with life itself.
In fact, it is precisely this representation of death-in-life (or life-in-death) that enables the painter’s strange omniscient subject position. According to Ziser, in Audubon’s work, death “is present not as a hidden, vitiating subtext of historical violence but rather as an emphatically present point of reference from which the condition of mortality, shared by bird and man, as enabling subjective perception is acknowledged.”52 The dynamic of the hunt engages the life not just of the hunted but also, dialectically, of the hunter. Their destinies are deeply entwined. Indeed, one may go so far as to perceive the hunter as himself “becoming bird,” perched as he is on a fallen tree—a dangerously precarious position, balanced over a precipice. Yet if death is everywhere present in Audubon—if, in fact, it is the condition for representation itself—the putting-to-death in Audubon’s journals is not as explicit as it may seem. Ziser, for instance, detects a subtle concealment of violence in Audubon’s journals: “It is more than a curious fact that, even though he did a fair amount of his own hunting, Audubon rarely used the pronoun ‘I’ with the verbs ‘killed’ or ‘shot’ in his journal. . . . This is true, at least, when the animal killed is an insectivore or herbivore. When a raptor or carrion feeder is involved, however, Audubon does tend to use the ‘I.’”53 The subject is more likely to assert its (grammatical) sovereignty when opposed to a worthy challenger.
Audubon’s selective dissimulation of violence is perhaps less curious when we approach his work through the lens of what I have in the introduction called the “biopolitics of vision.” What tends to disappear in biopolitical modernity, we recall, is not death itself so much as the deliberate and conspicuous action of putting to death; it is not the fact of death but the sovereign right to kill—what Achille Mbembe calls “necropower”—that is repressed, rationalized, or naturalized.54 This does not mean that sovereignty’s old right “to take life or let live” suddenly ceased to be exercised, only that it came to be supplemented by a new type of “power” that “does not erase the old right but which does penetrate it, permeate it.”55 Foucault traces the emergence of this new power to transformations in the “theory of right”—though he carefully distinguishes it from the legal lexicon of “rights,” which construes its subject as citizen. According to Foucault, these transformations originate in the seventeenth-century theories of contract insofar as they postulate subjects that enter into a contract “in order to protect their lives.” Perpetually anxious, always under threat, the contractual subject abandons his right to kill in order to stay alive. Taking the example of Hobbes, Foucault explains that the Leviathan’s power can no longer be a power to take life because the sovereign’s mission is precisely to guarantee that its subjects will not kill one another. Insofar as the sovereign is constituted—Hobbes writes “authorized”—by subjects who give up their individual sovereignty, life must “remain outside the contract to the extent that it was the first, initial, and foundational reason for the contract itself.”56 Henceforth emancipated from sovereignty, power addresses not just a citizen (a subject of right), nor even just “man-as-individual,” as it does with disciplinary apparatuses, but “man-as-living-being,” or “man-as-species,” through “a ‘biopolitics’ of the human race.”57
Audubon’s enterprise can be read within the terms of this transformation insofar as his bird census is a requisite for registering the decline or extinction of certain avian species. Audubon is a biographer of birds, but he is also a demographer reporting on their “habits” (mating rituals, migration patterns) and providing information about the milieu in which they thrive. Even though we remain far from the precise technologies measuring fertility and mortality rates that Foucault describes, we can see how The Birds of America participated in this development. What interests me here, however, is Audubon’s persistent trouble with the question of “life,” which he consistently frames as a representational problem. If the act of representation is equal to the act of killing, it raises the question of how the painter should represent himself to his readers. I suggested above that fashioning himself as a hunter did not merely gratify Audubon’s European patrons’ stereotypes of the U.S. frontiersman (although it did). It also served to authenticate Audubon’s scientific enterprise: contrary to the myopic view of European scientists (from whom he actively dissociated himself while courting their approval and patronage), the hunter-naturalist could claim a more intimate and situated knowledge of his object. Posing as a hunter also enabled him to justify the violences he committed in the name of scientific progress. A true man of nature, the hunter naturalizes his right to kill—in the case of Golden Eagle, he converts it into self-defense, a right to protect his own life (in the painting, the miniature hunter appears as a potential prey for the gigantic raptor). If he occupies the sovereign position of knower, this position is strategically made to appear precarious, unstable, contingent, and thus legitimately earned.
We can also understand Audubon’s selective effacement of the predatory “I” in the terms of Foucault’s analysis of the inception of the modern subject of biopolitics. Foucault’s study of Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting, Las Meninas, which opens The Order of Things, offers a reading of classical perspectivalism, which is founded on an irreducible invisibility. Of the epistemic model presented by Velázquez, Foucault observes that “the profound invisibility of what one sees is inseparable from the invisibility of the person seeing—despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits.” Something—the author, the beholder, the viewing subject—is necessarily left out of the frame: “the function of that reflection is to draw into the interior of the picture what is intimately foreign to it: the gaze which has organized it and the gaze for which it is displayed.”58 If the entire world were captured in the representation, it would not be a representation but the world itself—or the world would be pure representation. This impossible coincidence between the subject and its representation heralds the modern excision of the human observer from the world it represents precisely so that the world can present itself, without human intervention—in other words, objectively. Velázquez insists upon this representational divide, but, as Foucault suggests, the separation is also an elision of the subject, which cannot know itself (or for which self-knowledge is not a question). This subject will only be fully emancipated from its object, Foucault claims, in the nineteenth century. This emancipation underlies the birth of the modern subject, who comes to be simultaneously subject and object of knowledge. What happens in modernity could be characterized as the elision of the classical elision, a second-degree invisibilization, a naturalization of the unrepresentable sovereign position that is occupied by the knowing/representing subject. As life becomes this “sovereign vanishing-point, infinitely distant but constituent,” modern Man appears by disappearing; Man, quite fundamentally, creates himself by abstracting himself from the world he seeks to describe—just as he creates “the animal” by capturing it.
In her critical reading of The Order of Things, Sylvia Wynter insists that Man composes only a small fraction of humanity—a white, male, bourgeois “ethnoclass” that passes for “the human species as a whole.”59 If Man is indeed a recent invention, as Foucault claims, this invention is but a “mutation” that perpetuates the co-option of the status of “full human” for a dominant minority.60 The discontinuities registered by Foucault’s archaeology of the human sciences, Wynter claims, are subtended by the unquestioned continuity of a “cultural field” that maintains a racist “order of existence.”61 Foucault’s Man is little more than the biologized and economized iteration of the Enlightened subject of rights, who itself is a rationalized and secularized avatar of the Judeo-Christian subject. Not only has Man consistently erected itself in contradistinction with non-Western and nonwhite others, but it has actively foreclosed the emergence of other “genres of the human” by “overrepresent[ing] itself as if it were the human itself.”62 At issue is thus the colonization of truth itself by and through representation: the truth once believed to be “supernaturally ordained” has been secularized into an ostensibly supracultural “objective” truth.63 One “cannot ‘unsettle’ the ‘coloniality of power,’” Wynter asserts, “without a redescription of the human outside the terms of our present descriptive statement of the human, Man, and its overrepresentation.”64 We must take “overrepresentation” literally, as it names a problem of self-presentation: the problem, namely, of a representation that does not offer itself as representation but seeks to pass for the thing itself.
Audubon worked on The Birds of America during the transition to the new relationship between observing subject and the world that Foucault describes. Thus, his work reflects the classical episteme just as it was being challenged by the modern episteme—the logic of the hunt precisely as it was shifting into the logic of capture. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison firmly situate Audubon in a time before “mechanical objectivity” became the predominant epistemic virtue, noting that his “bird drawings were printed on double elephant folio paper in order to approximate life size as closely as possible” but “did not preclude mannered compositions . . . or anthropomorphic stances.”65 They remind us that Audubon’s paintings were “criticized by some contemporary naturalists as falsifications of nature” (although a similar artistic method had won English naturalist George Edwards the Royal Society of London’s Copley Medal in 1750).66 Ann Shelby Blum also contends that the “ethos of objectivity, expressed in the technical language of systematic description of generic and specific types, was deeply at odds with Audubon’s celebration of the observer as participant and his recording of singular events whose actors were individual creatures.”67 Branka Arsić likewise compares Audubon’s epistemological orientation with that of his collaborator, English zoologist Thomas Nuttall, positioning Audubon within the classical episteme, in a time when “life itself didn’t exist”:
Even though Audubon and Nuttall collaborated for many years and on many projects, their approaches to ornithology are different, indeed so much so that one can claim their methodologies belong to different centuries. Audubon’s is from the eighteenth century. Following eighteenth-century models of natural history—the classicist belief in allotting to each creature its proper category, trusting that the world can be exhausted through extensive descriptions—Audubon seeks to distribute life into fixed tiers or, as he puts it, to organize specimens “according to [his] notions.” Since the specimens are more likely to fit notions when dead, Audubon contrives and ideates method of representing birds, rendering them as programmable automatons.68
Audubon’s drawings, which (in the words of Arsić) forever imprison his birds in “immutable categor[ies] enabling the setting of taxonomies,”69 reveal that he represents the epistemic regime that Daston and Galison call “truth-to-nature,” whose ambition is to reveal “the one and only ur-form of a plant, animal, or crystal.”70 While I do not contest this categorization, I wish to mark how painfully aware Audubon was of the changing demands of a discipline that he “had entered as an inexperienced, if enthusiastic, autodidact.”71
While Audubon willfully emphasized his firsthand observations of animals, he also questioned the reliability of the naked eye as an instrument of knowledge. Jennifer Roberts argues that his adamant commitment to actual-size representation stems from a deep-seated distrust in “eyeballing.” For Roberts, this distrust—which he shares with a character in Cooper’s The Prairie whom we will meet in the next chapter—was primarily meant to safeguard the American landscape and wildlife against the logics of abstraction and exchange to which they were increasingly subjected in the first decades of the century.72 Yet Audubon’s “near-indexical” method, his proto-photographic technique of direct “transfer from body to page,”73 also betrays his wariness toward the naked eye’s susceptibility to deception, a wariness characteristic of the representational regime Daston and Galison call “mechanical objectivity.”74 The classical “truth-to-nature” model, in which Daston and Galison situate Audubon, relies on the selective observation of the experienced artist-naturalist, who aims to represent the fundamental “type” of the species; conversely, the “mechanical objective” paradigm wishes to completely disarticulate the knowing subject from the known object, for in the mechanical objectivity model, the self qua subject is identified as the source of error and thus must be eliminated.75 The emergence of the new ethos of objectivity may explain why, when The Birds of America was published, the hunter in the original Golden Eagle painting had disappeared from the background (Figure 7).
“Whether on his own or on Audubon’s instruction,” Rhodes notes, the printer “Robert Havell removed the little woodsman from the plate he made of the Golden Eagle, . . . removing along with it a level of meaning that only the original watercolor has sustained.”76 Something is lost, as Rhodes laments, but the elision itself is meaningful. We can only speculate as to why the figure of the hunter was excised from the painting’s background. It could be, as Irmscher surmises, that Havell eliminated it “for reasons of consistency: in The Birds of America, humans are only represented metonymically through buildings in the backgrounds of plates featuring, as a rule, waterfowl or shorebirds.”77 Or we could read this erasure of the toiling self, as I have suggested, as a retroactive disavowal of the violent extraction on which the self is unavowably premised and as a negative guarantee of the painting’s objectivity.78 Audubon’s self-erasure would literalize the effacement that constitutes the figure Foucault identifies as modern Man—which in the eighteenth century, Foucault writes, “did not exist (any more than life).”79 Unlike Las Meninas, whose ingenious composition is always chasing its subject out of the frame, forbidding it from being at one with the world it represents, Audubon’s elision surreptitiously reconciles the observer and the observed.80 Whereas Velázquez insists on the dilemma of the spectator/subject, exposing their impossible coincidence, Audubon—in the published version of Golden Eagle—negates the creative gap between the self and the world; the observer born out of this elision is left to proudly contemplate its own image in the representation of the animal.