Disclosure: I am a dog owner particularly partial to big, scruffy Schnauzer-hound mixes.
Not too much gets betwen academics and our writing...
except for maybe our pets. The housecat’s love of curling up on computer keyboards is legendary, so much so that they have become familiar extensions of our digital media selves. And if the popularity of “I Can Has Cheezburger?”, a blog of cat snapshots superimposed with silly captions, is any indication, cats are now emblems of internet culture. Cats, however, aren’t the only ones with some fur in the digital game. “Doge” the Shiba Inu is such internet. so cool. And, no creature quite captures the always-connected feeling of the digital age like the bespectacled golden retriever who is a slave to his computer. Of course the traditional cat-dog divide has lead to some competing claims: if, as theoutline.com claims, “dogs are the internet’s favorite animal,” then PBS digital studios one-up’s them by proclaiming, “cats are the internet.” Species rivalries aside, how is it that our animals have become furry emblems of new media technologies? Far from a contemporary phenomenon, I’d like to suggest that changing attitudes towards cats and dogs during the Victorian period positioned these critters as the furry vanguards of intellectual, scientific, and technological experimentation in ways that resonate with our contemporary selves.
For a month in 2015, we had a regular kitty visitor. She showed up at the backdoor, open to let in the late-morning sun, and invited herself in for a Sunday visit. From then, our apartment was a part of her regular neighborhood rotation and she quickly made herself at home on couches, beds, laps, and inside sock drawers. At the time I was in the very early stages of dissertation writing, struggling to cough up the first chapter. Sucia (our name for her) soon became my familiar lap companion and her presence helped me finally get the words out. Reggie, our current full-time dog, didn’t arrive until the end of the writing process in 2017, as the dog days of summer were consumed by my final trudge through the dissertation. In Acknowledging Writing Partners, Laura Micciche turns an eye to the acknowledgements we write in order to explore how our writing processes are fueled by human-nonhuman relationships. Not simply confined to the pages of monographs, articles, dissertations, or theses, these public forms of praise and debt also play out through our everyday digital activities dedicated to documenting our academic labor. For example, on Instagram, #academicswithcats has so far garnered 3,231 public posts comprised mostly of cats peering around computers, perching atop papers, and purring with monographs. Coming in with a more modest 807 public posts, #academicswithdogs also shows us that our canine friends can’t pass up the feel of comfy office chair or the smell of a library book. Of the two, cats seem to be the more critical intellectual companions coolly appraising articles or theses, while dogs seem content to snooze or beg for schmackos. Regardless of our pet responses, writing with animals at least anecdotally contributes to productivity. As Erin Makenna writes in a 2013 opinion piece for The Times Higher Education Supplement: “More work gets done when people are not worried about leaving dogs (and sometimes cats) at home or having to run home at lunchtime to let a dog out. I am more likely to spend more time in my office when the dogs are there.” As far as the internet is concerned, cats and dogs are not just physical companions whose presences support intellectual output within a frame of human exceptionalism. A 1993 New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner features a pair of floppy-eared cartoon canines clacking on a computer; a black dog with a white muzzle sitting in an office chair informs his spotted colleague on the floor that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The sketch proffers a commentary on the how the internet produces both anonymous and democratic channels of knowledge that even a nonhuman animals can participate in.
The types of fruitful intellectual companionate relationships that Micciche and Makenna discuss and Peter Steiner’s cartoon visualizes, I would like to suggest, grow out the continually contested status of dogs vis-à-vis the human during the nineteenth century. In 1800, the first animal anti-cruelty bill was introduced to British parliament, and by 1824 Richard Martin founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which produced numerous welfare tracts calling for the cultural recognition and conservatorship of animals. Animal anti-cruelty legislation was fueled by increasing recognition that animals were sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and suffering. The animal anti-cruelty movement during the early-nineteenth century developed apace anti-slavery movements. By the late-nineteenth century, questions of animal welfare broadly encompassed not only anti-cruelty legislation but also vegetarianism, anti-vivisection, and anti-vaccination initiatives bolstered by concurrent feminist and socialist reforms. But even in the age of liberalism, animals still were not considered full citizens, but rather deputies or companions to humans. In 1877, J. Thompson published a translation of The Public and Private Life of Animals, a collection of beast fables with delightful illustrations originally written in French (1842.) Though translated over thirty years after the original, the Congress of “Lower” Animals calling for their own self-representation resonates with Victorian liberalism’s philosophical, political, and material practices that elevated the individual and self-governance. In their opening gambit, the animals resolve to cast of “the yoke of [their] oppressors, who, since the day of their creation, have rendered liberty and equality nothing more than empty names.” This process, though, is not without its interspecies struggles. By the late-nineteenth century, of all species, dogs were viewed as the “tribe of animals the most mixed up with man of all" (Charles Dickens, "Two Dog Shows" 1862). Rather than being honored in the eyes of other animals, dogs were leveraged as a cautionary tale, as a conversation between a Hare and a Magpie indicates in The Life of Animals: “I never make out why a strong, noble creature should, like a dog, consent to become the slave of man—to carry him to and for, and be whipped, spurred, and abused by him.”
In 1910, friend of doggos Robert Leighton asserted that Britain harbored a “national love of dogs” and the family dog “has become a respectable member of society.” However, the path from property to pet for the pooch was not so smooth. The status of the canine in society throughout the Victorian period, what Phillip Howell refers to in At Home and Astray as the “dog question,” was a vexed one—and one everyone had an opinion about. William Gladstone (when serving as the Chancellor of the Exchequer) noted “Mankind might almost be divided into two classes—the dog-lovers and the dog-hatesr. There was no medium. Every man either keeps a dog or hates it” (1839 Parliamentary Debates). As in former years, Victorian dogs were key players in agrarian and urban economies viewed primarily as laboring property responsible for hunting down vermin, herding livestock, and helping hunters sniff out prey, rather than standing in humankind’s best friends. But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also witnessed the domestication of canines, as they became lap accouterments for women, roving companions for outdoors folks young and old, and more generally bourgeois household fixtures. Victorian luminaries like Queen Victoria, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and George Eliot were all known for their canine affections.
Nineteenth-century animal welfare movements contributed to different imaginaries for animals that allied each non-human animal with personality traits understood by humans. Because of their proximity to humans, dogs became allied with nobility, loyalty, trustworthiness, and intelligence that bordered on servility. In other words, dogs were always good boys. Aesthetic critic and canophile, John Ruskin, composed an ode to his spaniel (Dash) that gushed:
But more than subjects to poetic paeans, the hearty, hale, and reliable demeanors of dogs made them companions and collaborators for Victorian naturalists. The long-nineteenth century witnessed a growth in natural history as a broad model for scientific inquiry; including various earth and life sciences like geology, paleontology, botany, mineralogy, and astronomy, natural history opened up the laboratory doors to make the outdoors a fruitful space for observation and research. Dogs fit into this scheme quite well. In his Chapters on Animals, Phillip Gilbert Hamerton frames the relationship between the naturalist and the dog as “that between the sun and planet.” Dogs, however, did not just act as furry friends, but were also enlisted as active producers of scientific knowledge in their own right. A love of sport introduced young Charles Darwin to a menagerie of pups: a stream of terriers (Nina, Pincher, Spark, Sheila, and Polly), Bob the retriever, Bran the Scottish Deerhound, and Dash his beloved Pointer. More than sporting companions, domestic dogs furnished Darwin with examples for developing theories of adaptation and inheritance in On the Origin of the Species:
How strongly these domestic instincts, habits, and dispositions are inherited, and how
In Darwin’s case, the dog serves primarily as discursive touchstone employed to explicate scientific theory. That is, the scientific labor of dogs in this case hinges on their transcription into text and abstraction into theory. The legacy of nineteenth-century paleontologist, Mary Anning (1799-1847), however, offers a different example of a human-nonhuman companionate relationship that advanced scientific knowledge. Anning grew up in Lyme Regis in Southwest England with a view of the region’s famed Blue Lias cliffs. She was fond of taking rambles of the cliff-sides with her ever-present terrier mutt, Tray (possibly short for “Thursday,”) who Mary rescued as a stray. As terriers were known for their indefatigable digging, Tray became Anning’s co-field agent and his pointing and digging abilities led her to uncover some of the era’s most important paleontological finds, such as the Ichthyosaurus platydon and Ichthyosaurus vulgaris in 1821. Alhtough overlooked in her time, Mary Anning's paleontological legacy lives on, as just recently the jawbone of an Ichthyosaur was found on the coast of Bristol. Instead of a byproduct of his human-like qualities, Tray’s paleontological successes emphasized his dog-ness. Moreover, tapping into the current cultural sentiment of a dog’s unwavering loyalty, stories abound of Tray stoutly guarding fossil specimens while Mary would go home to fetch the necessary tools to unearth and transport them. In 1833, after over a decade of fossil hunting together, poor Tray meant an untimely demise, as a landside buried him. A letter to her friend Charlotte Murchison, records Anning’s grief, as well as the still-precarious position of dogs in early-nineteenth-century culture: “Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me …” Even if, the “dog question” went unanswered throughout the Victorian period, Anning’s legacy depicted Tray was as an indispensible collaborator in his companion’s scientific discoveries. One of the few surviving images (and one of the most broadly circulated) of Anning is an 1847 painting by B.J. Donne that features Anning holding a pickaxe and cradling a woven basket. Anning points down either at a fossil or Tray, the black and white pup curled up at her feet. As a nineteenth-century #academicwithdogs, Anning too documented her relationship with Tray within the materials of her intellectual labor, as a doodling of her beloved terrier (curled up snoozing) appears in her field notes. In the painting, the Golden Cap outcrop of Dorset looms behind them, enfolding the relationship between Anning and Tray within slower moving, geological time.
What then, might these Victorian dog-human relationships, tell us?
I offer these examples not so much to answer the “dog question” of the nineteenth century. Rather, I suggest that they might serve as coordinates for plotting out how the “dog question,” the ongoing debates about the place of the dog in society, allowed for non-human-centered practices of making knowledge. And for those of us who write with our nonhuman or pet companions, we too might think about how they shape the practices that comprise our intellectual labor. But most of all, our Victorian ancestors assure us: yes, dogs are good boys.