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Antoine Traisnel, Capture. American Pursuits and the Making of a New Animal Condition

Françoise Besson
Bibliographical reference

Antoine Traisnel, Capture. American Pursuits and the Making of a New Animal Condition. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, London, 2020, ISBN 978-1-5179-0964-2

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1Antoine Traisnel’s Capture (354 pages including 202 pages of text) “is […] a theoretical, literary, and material analysis of the transformation of animal representation and its lasting biopolitical consequences” (5). The book, clearly written, contains a rich critical apparatus with interesting endnotes, a dense bibliography (25 pages) and a useful index of people, notions and works.

2The epigraph, a translation of a few lines from Jacques Prévert’s poem “To Make the Portrait of a Bird,” gives the tone of the book that will study the notion of animal capture as represented in literature and singularly 19th-century American literature and art, as the subtitle indicates (“American Pursuits and the Making of a New Animal Condition”). In the blurb, Tobias Menely, the author of The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice,” writes: “Capture is a major intervention in critical animal studies and an important rethinking of American culture during the period in which the romance of the frontier gave way to the routinized violence of settler biopower. Antoine Traisnel shows how the disappearance of animals generated a countermovement: new modes of representation—aesthetic, scientific, and political—dedicated to reproducing animal life as commodifiable vitality but also as fugitivity and finitude” (4th cover and​book-division/​books/​capture).

3The structure of the book is very clear: after a long introduction speaking about “a new animal condition,” the book is divided into two parts and five chapters: the first part is divided into two chapters and the second one, into three chapters, each chapter being devoted to one author or artist. The first part, “Last Vestiges of the Hunt,” is composed of a chapter devoted to “Still Lifes” and Audubon, and a second chapter about “Land Speculations” and James Fenimore Cooper. The second part, “New Genres of Capture,” is composed of three chapters: “The Fugitive Animal” studied through Edgar Alan Poe’s work; “Fabulous Taxonomy” studied through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun; and “The Stock Image,” through the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, before a general conclusion entitled “Life in Capture.” Illustrations in black and white and four reproductions of paintings in colour in a centrefold are added to the text.

4The choice to analyse the evolution of animal condition through American writers and artists, seldom studied together in animal studies, constitutes one of the originalities of Traisnel’s book. The question asked by the book is: “What is the ontological status of these animals left free and untouched while at the same time caught and held by their representation?” (1-2)? The introduction makes the distinction between the hunt and capture: “Unlike the hunt, which targets individual animals, capture attempts to seize something intangible, something presumably inherent to all animals: vitality, motion, states of change” (2). The author wants to show that “[t]he making of capture as the new animal condition […] is inextricable from the making of a new nation” (4) and this equation is something new.

5In the first part, “Last Vestiges of the Hunt,” the first chapter, “Still Lifes”, is devoted to John James Audubon. It starts evoking various points of view of philosophers and historians and first considers that, according to Foucault’s The Order of Things, “the nineteenth century discovered ‘the fantastic new powers’ of the animal” (33) while “[i]t is not until the late 1830s, according to historian Roderick Frazier 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;” and “Nash makes Audubon the harbinger of this cultural transformation” (34). After a short biography of Audubon, the chapter explains the role of hunting in his “artistic and scientific practice.” Comparing his perception of things and practice with Thoreau who tried “to blur the frontier between culture and nature,” Audubon “extracted animals from their native haunts” (36) but he would have liked to endow these animals with life. So, in order to animate his representations, he invented a new drawing technique. By describing the process through which Audubon changed his way of painting animals, Traisnel shows that it is his will of giving life to his drawings that made him “the pivot between the hunt regime and the capture regime” (36). The analysis of Audubon’s painting The Golden Eagle as modeled after the famous painting by David, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand Saint-Bernard, an idea suggested by the historian Theodore Stebbins—the two paintings being reproduced in the book, thus allowing the reader to see the parallelisms between the representation of the bird and that of the future emperor—is particularly interesting to show that animal representation is not simply a matter of natural history but can have a political dimension. The eagle becoming “a mascot for the American colonial project” becomes all the more political as the composition of the painting echoes the one of a future emperor whose symbol was the eagle, the emblem of imperial Rome. Traisnel asserts in a very clear formula that “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” (39). But a third painting introduces a parody of Audubon’s representation; Ford’s Delirium, also reproduced in the book, is a satire of Audubon’s composition. The painter of animals, who represented himself as the small figure of the hunter in the background behind the huge eagle, had in fact bought the eagle and decided to kill it by asphyxiation. Traisnel insists on the irony of an artist killing a bird to “reintroduce it pictorially, as if alive, in its natural habitat” (42). Traisnel evokes the dualism of Audubon’s representation, showing the eagle captured on the hunter’s shoulder and free as the bird occupying the greatest space of the painting. Dualism also appears in the fact that the eagle as a model has been killed whereas its representation shows the bird alive. “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” (43).” This gap between the naturalist chasing life and the artist killing life to represent it more accurately reminds us of Poe’s short story “The Oval Portrait,” in which the painter sacrifices his wife to obtain the perfection of his painting. A chapter is devoted to Poe and his depiction of animals in his short stories, but we can already see something of his vision of art in Audubon’s killing life to represent life in art. In Audubon’s perception, there is also a questioning of “the reliability of the naked eye as an instrument of knowledge” (53). This is what conveys Audubon’s “proto-photographic technique of ‘transfer from body to page’ [Jennifer Roberts]” (53). A “new ethos of objectivity” emerged; which may explain, according to Traisnel, why in The Birds of America, the hunter appearing in the original painting, Golden Eagle, has been deleted. Traisnel argues that “Audubon’s self-erasure would literalize the effacement of the figure that Foucault identifies as modern Man” and that, in the published version of Golden Eagle, Audubon negates the creative gap between the self and the world” (55).

6The logic of the structure, with Fenimore Cooper following Audubon, appears from the beginning of the chapter as Traisnel considers that the disappearance of the hunter on Audubon’s Golden Eagle has an echo in literature with the disappearance of John Fenimore Cooper’s hero, Natty Bumpo. This second chapter, “Land Speculations” is devoted to Fenimore Cooper’s work and especially The Pioneers. The chapter evokes a dispute between two characters, Judge Temple and Natty Bumpo, and the question is whether the animal killed on Temple’s land “belongs to the hunter who killed the deer or to the settler who owns the land” (57). This scene of fiction is an echo to reality and to the “early nineteenth-century legal debates over the ‘rule of capture’ that underwrites the privatization of resources perceived as unowned, or ‘naturally fugitive’ [Chad Luck in Body of Property]” (57). Moreover, Traisnel highlights the fact that Native Americans are excluded from the dispute, which reflects the exclusion of Native Americans from land treaties and also “sheds light on the process of ‘enclosure’ that worked to dispossess them of their territories” (58). Traisnel clearly shows that a hunting scene is much more than a hunting scene: it highlights historical facts concerning human communities and especially highlights the land policy and the way Native Americans were expropriated and their ground privatized. The killing of a deer in a fictitious hunting scene in Fenimore Cooper’s novel, leads Traisnel to analyse the process of deterritorialization and the way the economic system deprived Native Americans of their land. He reminds us that Locke modeled his theory of private property “after the ancestral practice of the hunt” (58). This chapter, through Fenimore Cooper’s series of novels, shows that the disappearance of the hunter “marks a critical transition in modes of colonial conquest and land management” (59). And there is also an important point as far as animal life is concerned: it “accounts for the systemic ‘disappearance of animals’ from the American landscape” (59). This appears in The Prairie: in this novel, the presence of a myopic naturalist suggests “the loss of a more embodied and immediate relationship to nature,” and Traisnel argues that the figure of the myopic naturalist stands for “new types of vision, scientific and economic speculation.” (59). Traisnel argues that “[a]s a romance, [The Prairie] exemplifies the temporality of capture” (60). Studying “the phenomenology of capture,” he evokes "the paradox of the New World” (70), a paradox as the novelty of this New World was “largely defined and conditioned by the Old World.” Traisnel argues that natural history is part of the imperialistic project and that animals as well as humans are “hostage in a coercive system of classification.” (70). As in all chapters, Traisnel’s reflection is sustained by philosophers like French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty or Michel Foucault. The reflection leads him to the conclusion that “taxonomic representation becomes an idealized form of capture” (72). Another kind of character appears in The Prairie: it is the trapper who replaces the hunter. The protagonist has grown too old to be able to hunt, and then his new method is to settle traps to capture animals. Yet in spite of his personal physical decline, he still plays a role “in domesticating the hostile landscape of the prairie” (73). Subtle text analyses show similarities between the representation of animal life in some of Audubon’s paintings and in Cooper’s descriptions, like the herd of bison bulls that Traisnel sees as reminiscent of Audubon’s depictions of flocks of passenger pigeons. In a subpart entitled “From Survey to Surveyance,” Traisnel refers to Deleuze and Guattari for their study of the concept of threshold, “which they oppose to the concept of the limit” (81), and he argues that “whereas the limit supposes the exploitation of a finite territory, the threshold marks the beginning of stock and reserve and supposes the exploitation of the land” (81). One of the originalities of Traisnel’s book is that, while dealing with works that have never been analyzed together to deal with animal representation, the author constantly highlights the relationship between the perception and representation of animals, the system used to capture them, and the land. Again referring to the models proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, Traisnel argues that in these models, “the earth appears respectively as territory and land, and animals […] appear respectively as prey and livestock” (82). Traisnel, always ending his chapters with a synthesis, explains that this chapter aimed at sketching “a critical history of settler colonialism through Cooper’s fictional account of changing technologies of conquest and management” (84). What is both very subtle and original is the analysis of land policies or policies towards Natives, by starting from hunting in a literary work. Violence, deterritorialization, enclosure, the transition from precapitalist to capitalist society, genocidal biopolitics, are tackled through the theme of animal capture. Referring to Marx listing sites of expropriation, showing “expropriative violence as anomalous” (85), the author eventually asks himself how violence justifies itself (85). And he gives Deleuze and Guattari’s answer: “by organizing a police state” (85), which consists, they say “in capturing while simultaneously constituting a right to capture,” (Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus, 448, in Traisnel, 85). And the author wants to understand how what he considers to be a “form of pacific violence” functions “biopolitically” (86).

7Every chapter establishes a clear link with the following one and in that case, as the author says that “capture is a specific way of being and knowing,” he wants to “investigate the paradox that makes its objects both preknown and unknowable at the same time” (86). According to him, it is Edgar Allan Poe who theorizes the role of the police. He adds in the conclusion of this chapter and transition to the following part that for Poe, “capture appears precisely as this system that naturalizes and presupposes the crime,” “bringing the criminal into being” (87). And he presents the fact that the criminalization of the ‘primitives’ and the animalization of those accused of a crime” are sanctioned in the same gesture, as “a strategy of knowledge and management” (87).

8The second part, “New Genres of Capture,” is composed of three chapters. The first chapter of this part, Chapter Three in the book, “The Fugitive Animal,” is centred on Edgar Alan Poe and “explores how animality becomes weaponized by this system of control” (87). This chapter shifts from Cooper’s natural open space to Poe’s modern city, and from romance to detective story. Complementing the “conversion of territory into land” as analyzed in the chapter devoted to Cooper, Traisnel explains that this chapter appears as a “transition from space to milieu” (92), the milieu apprehending “space as a habitat.”

9The reader can note from this precision and all the textual analyses pervading the book that Traisnel’s study of the notion of animal capture as linked with the “making of a new animal condition” is closely linked with space and all its variations: land, territory, milieu, habitat, environment, natural space and urban space, and all that is linked with such notions: deterritorialization, enclosure, reserve, parks, and so on. This gives the author the opportunity to give useful definitions, as when he explains that “in a milieu, inhabitants are treated not as legal subjects or as a people […], but as ‘a multiplicity of individuals who are and fundamentally and essentially only exist biologically bound to the materiality within which they live’,” he writes, quoting Michel Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population, and adding an emphasis on the biological bond to the material milieu.

10Traisnel always methodically guides readers by reminding them of the topic of the previous chapters before tackling the new one. After dealing with “a literal (capitalist, colonialist) case of deterritorialization and the imposition of a new visual logic,” in the chapter devoted to Cooper, he wonders “what happens to animals when we move (and move them) from the wilderness to the city” (92). Opposing Foucault, who considers the milieu as first a “problem of circulation” to Poe, who likes closed spaces “where nothing circulates between outside and inside” (93), he links his study of Poe’s work to that of Cooper through Walter Benjamin’s association of the hunter and the detective as the latter considers they have in common “an ability to decipher signs” that other observers do not perceive. By analyzing some of Poe’s detective tales, which, Traisnel reminds us, have often been studied by scholars of animal studies “to theorize the modern animal condition” (93), the chapter examines “how capture models a biopolitical mode of radicalized management and control” (93). The analysis of the metamorphosis of the hunter into the detective in Poe’s tales, leads Traisnel to reflect on “the aftermaths of slavery,” according to Saidiya Hartman’s words (96).

11Chapter Four, “Fabulous Taxonomy,” is devoted to Nathaniel Hawthorne and, as the author argues, unlike Poe’s animal emerging “from some unmappable elsewhere” (121), in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, it is no longer the animal’s place that matters, but its time, since in his romance, the animal “comes out of the depths of a time before the human.” Starting from Melville’s Moby Dick and its chapter on “the Fossil Whale,” in which the inter-relation between literature and science through references to Cuvier gives the romance a strong scientific background, the author claims that the mention of Cuvier served to highlight “the indecipherability of a beast said to be older than time itself” (124). According to him, “‘cryptic animals’— creatures that defy modern classification […]—seem to constitute the end of modern fiction in the double sense of its motivation and its ruin” (125). This association of a special kind of animal with the fate of fiction is quite interesting, as is the dialogue the book develops between artists. Exactly as there is logic in the theme of the hunter seen first with Audubon’s paintings and then in Fenimore Cooper’s novels, here he proposes to see Hawthorne’s romance “as a response to Poe’s detective story” (125). Through his analysis of The Marble Faun, Traisnel explains why the theme of animality as linked with knowledge, “whether ‘intellectual or sympathetic’” (127), is so pregnant in the 19th century and why the questions of knowledge and categorization are linked “with questions of fictional genre.”

12Traisnel situates Hawthorne’s romance in history and reminds the reader that it was published just before the Civil War, at a time when scientific discourses contained an important part of racism. So this romance “has often been regarded as a parable on the perils of miscegenation and the corruption of America’s racial and cultural integrity”(128). But the author sees something else in that work and proposes “instead to read the romance of the modern faun as an allegory of taxonomic knowledge—as a critical examination of how the prominent epistemology of capture altered the view and knowledge of animals” (128). As often in his book, Traisnel uses his reflection about capture and animal condition and relationship with humans to question some discourses and always places his reflection about capture in a historical and epistemological context at the same time. He adds that this does not mean that “the specters of racism and xenophobia” are absent from the novel, but he means that racial concerns shift “from classical to modern taxonomy” (128). There follows a useful and clear explanation of what classical taxonomy is and how it “assumes an immediate correspondence between knowledge and vision” (128), whereas, if modern taxonomy also relies on vision, it is “a vision that has lost the privilege of intimacy” (128). A textual analysis of some passages of The Marble Faun illustrates the idea in a very convincing way. By withholding from the reader some visual information about the main character’s body, Hawthorne invites the reader to accept superficial impressions, which does not mean “refusing knowledge” but rejecting “a certain type of knowledge, which the romance equates with the investigations of a genealogist,” explaining later that he means “genealogy (in Darwin’s sense)” (129).

13Traisnel shows how a romance can challenge a scientific discourse and argues that “The Marble Faun challenges the taxonomic presumption associated with Cuvier, whose name is a metonym for the rigid worldview that dominated biology and geology in Europe during the first half of the century and, later, the United States under the influence of Louis Agassiz” (129). Studying Hawthorne’s romance in the light of Cuvier’s systematics, he argues that “‘poetic’ speculation necessarily supplements taxonomic knowledge” (129). The analysis of Hawthorne’s romance, and especially of the reaction of the main character, whose ears provoke questioning whether he shares the characteristics of the faun’s “pointed furry ears,” and the fact that his friends ask him to “expose his ears to their scrutiny” (131) give Traisnel the opportunity to refer to human zoos, even if he does not pronounce the phrase, when he alludes to the treatment inflicted to Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was “exhibited as a curiosity in Europe” (133) at the beginning of the 19th century. The sad fashion of human zoos developed, and humans were exhibited in circuses or freak shows and other kinds of human zoos in big European cities as well as some American cities. After Saartjie Baartman’s death, the anatomist Georges Cuvier dissected her body, and Traisnel reminds readers that some of her organs were exhibited in the Museum of Natural History until 1974, and he also reminds us that Cuvier compared the young woman to an orangutan, “on account of a suspiciously selective set of criteria” (131). As elsewhere in his book, Traisnel uses the literary work he chooses to analyse to remind readers, through the evolution of animal representation in literature and art, of human abuse in history (colonization, racism and human zoos among others). To the historical references and scientific discourses, he adds connections to other literary works, and of these works to sciences. Thus he claims that French novelist Balzac was influenced by Cuvier as the novelist “claimed to have modeled The Human Comedy after his system of comparative anatomy” (132); and he quotes Balzac whose narrator in The Wild Ass’s Skin says that with that natural historian, “And suddenly marble turns into animals [les marbres s’animalisent], dead things live anew and lost worlds are unfolded before us!” (Balzac, The Wild Ass’s Skin, 40-41, quoted by Traisnel, 133, emphasis added by the author).

14Traisnel also highlights some troubling affinities between The Marble Faun and Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and he sees in Hawthorne’s work some anticipation of Darwin’s conclusions and "the applicability of his theory of 'descent with modification’ to humans” (140). Through a brilliant to and fro movement between the literary work under study and other American and European literary works, scientists’ theories, sculptors’ works of art and critical theory, Traisnel suggests that Hawthorne “glimpses the possibility […] of a knowledge that extends beyond—or rather between—the taxonomic confines of species determination” (152). Then after analyzing the “unity of life postulated by comparative anatomy “remaining, with Cuvier, “‘a sovereign vanishing point’” in which life “appears in its historicity,” the author ends this chapter wondering whether it is “possible to develop a positive image of this untimely animality that appears lost in and for modern life” (152).

15He tries to answer that question in the fifth and last chapter of the book, the third chapter of the second part, “The Stock Image,” which is devoted to the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer in the decomposition of movement in photography. It was after a controversy, when in 1872, a French physiologist, Etienne-Jules Marey, the pioneer of chronophotography, asserted in his book, La Machine animale, that a galloping horse never had his four feet above the ground during the extension phases, which was in contradiction with the way artists had represented galloping horses for centuries, that Muybridge decided to check and find the answer. By settling multiple cameras to capture the different positions in a stride, he demonstrated that Marey was right, since the horse had his four feet above the ground only during the gathering phase and not the extension ones. Traisnel claims that what is new in the fact that a team of Harvard scientists “encoded a movie,” which was Muybridge’s 1878 sequential image of a galloping mare, “in living organic cells,” is “the use of living matter as an archiving technology,” whereas the living had long been treated “as stock, matter to be reproduced for use of profit—” (154).

16If Traisnel takes the example of Muybridge for his last chapter, it is to demonstrate “the defamiliarization and denaturalization of life and time effected by Muybridge’s protocinematic experiments can be mobilized to ethological and biosemiotic ends” (156). Traisnel refers to the ethologist Jakob von Uexküll’s use of the chronophotographic method when he wanted to represent “what the milieus (Umwelten) of various organisms might look like from the organisms’ own point of view […] to penetrate ‘worlds [that] are not only unknown [but] also invisible’” (quoting Uexküll’s book Foray into the World’s of Animals and Humans, 156). Reversing Lamarck’s proposition and contesting Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ “by advancing something like a ‘natural election,’ Uexküll argues that “a living being does not merely survive in or adapt to a given milieu but actively configures its milieu” (156). He considers that not only humans but other animals “experience the world from their own subjective capacities and interests” (157). His work on movement gives another perception of animals. “By disjointing time from motion, Muybridge’s proto-animations expose the uncanny temporality of the becoming-real of animal movement” (165). Traisnel argues that Muybridge “turns space […] into a gigantic trap” (165) insofar as he tries to capture the horse’s motion “through time that is visually condensed in the trip wire lines across the track” (165).

17The grid (the aim of which was different from the system of grids used by Audubon, meant to ensure the accuracy of proportions), in Animal Locomotion, “was an anthropomorphic instrument” (166). Traisnel reminds us that this system, which had been used by ethnologist J.H. Lamprey “to assist in the production of categories,” was a “tool to scientific racism” (166). Always linking artistic representations of animals, scientists’ methods and flaws and dramas in human history, Traisnel claims that “Muybridge’s images of Bailey remind us how post-Reconstruction African Americans came to be routinely criminalized and pathologized” (167). Analysing the trapping motif in Muybridge’s technique, Traisnel puts in parallel several of the artists he studies in his work: “The gridification at the level of the body intensifies a larger cultural logic that extends from grids that mapped dead and disappearing animals onto representations (as in Audubon’s techniques) to speculative techniques for the occupation of uncharted territories (as in Cooper’s The Prairie), to the gridded layout of city streets (as in Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’)” (167).

18The author’s echoes between the works studied, between literature, arts and sciences, between animal representations and human history, give this book a real strength. Traisnel also evokes the influence of Muybridge on 19th-century realist painters, and even on 20th-century painters and filmmakers. In the following subpart, the author evokes the “age of mass slaughter and manmade extinctions,” industrialized breeding and factory farming, and he reminds the readers of all that has been written on the “coeval development of cinematography and the relentless exploitation of animal life” (175). Referring to Akira Mizuta Lippit, to Nicole Shukin and Walter Benjamin, and to Michel Foucault, Traisnel offers two insights “about the lot of animals in the age of their technological reproducibility” (179). First with mass-production in factory farms, “animals must be dis-located from their natural habitats.” Moreover, with industrial slaughter, animals have lost their aura “which, for Benjamin, is an intrinsic attribute of ‘natural objects’” (179-180). This leads him to Foucault’s notion of “biopolitical governance,” biopower and biopolitics (180). Explaining Cary Wolfe’s idea about “the ‘fundamental ambivalence’ of Foucauldian biopolitics” (179), Traisnel underlines the fact that the “entrance of life into the domain of politics […] has allowed the management, regulation, control, exploitation, overproduction, and extermination of the living at an unprecedented scale, but it has also afforded different ways of caring for and relating with the living” (181). He sets up a dialogue between philosophers, critics and himself. Even if he shares some of Wolfe’s ideas, he shifts “from the ontological and legal economies of ‘enframing’ to the epistemological and representational technology of what [he has] called capture” (181). His aim is “to understand what new animal figures emerge, what becomes newly visible, and how this crisis in representation might indeed ‘change everything’ about the question of the animal” (181). He evokes the change from animal photography as “an art of the still life” to “the likeness of life” through animation “paradoxically requir[ing] that the living be stilled” (182). To the comments seeing a “reifying moment” in Muybridge’s snapshots, Traisnel opposes a different perception of his sequential images in which he considers that what is gained “is the sense that every still is the fragment of a gesture that in turn expresses the technohistorical milieu in which it took place” (183). Taking the example of Uexküll’s “snail’s moment” after Inga Pollman, he evokes the opposition between a conception of things in which the animal’s body is seen as “energetic machine” (Marey) and another one, which is Uexküll’s, in which the animal’s movements are analyzed not in terms of their function and efficiency but to “explore the animals’ ‘ability to organize and reorganize [their attitudes] depending upon the circumstances in which they find themselves’”’ (185). This comes from two conceptions of time as linked with the milieu since, Traisnel asserts, Marey “posits time as the shared, objective milieu of all living beings, whereas Uexküll refutes the idea of a homogeneous concept of time” (185). Analyzing the perception of the animal through philosophers’ various perceptions (Merleau-Ponty or Deleuze, later Donna Haraway), he shifts from the notion of “a taxonomic form of knowledge” as seen in Hawthorne’s romance to the questions asked by ethology. Traisnel ends this chapter by reminding us that the western world conceives their relation to the living chiefly in terms of reproducibility, but he adds that “[r]eproducibility does not erase material or historical consciousness, nor does it freeze the animal in some kind of times formalin or embalming fluid […].” (190)

19The conclusion of the book, entitled “Life in Capture,” takes the example of the disappearance of the passenger pigeon in North America and of the last specimen of the species, a female pigeon living in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. That female pigeon, according to him, “was not just the last representative of her species, she was her species, a metonym of herself, the tragic culmination of the move from animals to ‘the animal’” (192). He claims that “capture defines a new epoch in the history of animality, [and] it also provides the basis for an ethics of life in capture” (193). The structure of capture reveals “a new conception of the disappearing animal” (195). The analyses of the works tackled in the book, the numerous examples taken from scientists’ or philosophers’ works lead Traisnel to assert that “[a]dvocating for an ethics of capture” means “the acknowledgment of distance as the ground for a new ethics of care and knowledge, as the condition for regarding other animals as well as ourselves” (195-196).

20Through a journey into the works of five American writers and visual artists, mingling subtle text analyses and reflections of philosophers, economists, naturalists, critics and artists, Traisnel offers a pregnant survey of the evolution of the notion of capture and its relationship both with human history and the shaping of a new America, and of a new perception of the animal condition and even, as the title mentions, of a “new animal condition.” Starting his book with the mention of the invention of the folding camera and of what it owed to the gun, thus associating, through the history of an object, capture through images with the violence of weapons, Traisnel’s book ends with the history of the passenger pigeon in the United States, a bird that, whereas it constituted nearly half the bird population in the United States in the early 19th century, had become, less than a century later, a vanishing species and the symbol of threatened nature since the only specimen left was in captivity. From the camera to the cage, this book shows capture as an image of the history of the world, from colonization to the vanishing of numerous species and the attempts to preserve them, and it also shows the evolution in the perception of animals. This book is teeming with ideas and a deep sense of connections between animal representation and human history through various literary genres and artistic forms. Not only does it constitute a subtle analysis of the authors evoked, but it is a deep, fascinating reflection on the link between human history, space and the evolution of animal representation and animal condition.

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Françoise Besson, “Antoine Traisnel, Capture. American Pursuits and the Making of a New Animal ConditionMiranda [Online], 25 | 2022, Online since 22 April 2022, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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