“The Dignity of Mankind”: Edward Tyson’s 'Anatomy of a Pygmie' and the ape-man boundary

Mennell, Nicole (2018) “The Dignity of Mankind”: Edward Tyson’s 'Anatomy of a Pygmie' and the ape-man boundary. In: Bezan, Sarah and Tink, James (eds.) Seeing Animals after Derrida. Ecocritical Theory and Practice . Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland; London, pp. 87-105. ISBN 9781498540599

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In the “Eleventh Session” of The Beast and the Sovereign: Volume I, Jacques Derrida focuses on the autopsy of an elephant conducted under the sovereign gaze of King Louis XIV in 1681. He conjures the scene of the “enormous, heavy, poor beast, dead or killed […] among doctors, surgeons, or other armed butchers, impatient to show what they could do but just as impatient to see and give to be seen what they were going to see, trembling with lust for autopsy”. The subjection of the elephant’s body to this “autopsic” gaze emphasizes not only the sovereign power of a king but also the assumed sovereignty of humans over animals. For humans to gain knowledge, the animal is reduced to an object of scientific research, making animal autopsies an enactment of human power. Ultimately, Derrida asserts, “[k]nowledge is sovereign” because it suggests “possession and mastery of its object.” However, as Kelly Oliver observes in her analysis of Derrida’s ‘Eleventh Session’, the animal looks back at the living because “the secrets of life itself, do not yield to the autopsic gaze. Rather there is always something beyond the limits of human seeing, something exorbitant, beyond the limits of human understanding.” The inability to gain complete and certain knowledge of the nature of life and existence through the ocular apparatus, prevents the animal, subjected to the autopsic gaze, from being fully possessed and mastered by the human. The elephant autopsy at the center of the “Eleventh Session” occurs at a particular moment in the history of scientific enquiry and human-animal relations; a moment characterized by an exceptional drive to understand and hierarchically systematize nature through anatomical studies of numerous life forms, many of which were newly discovered. The “Eleventh Session” can therefore be used to reassess how animals, especially those regarded as curiosities, were dissected, analyzed and categorized by anatomists in the early modern period in order to gain knowledge. Taking this into consideration, the present chapter will place Derrida’s discussion of the autopsic gaze alongside that of the work undertaken by Edward Tyson, a physician, fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a pioneer of early modern comparative anatomy, who took a particular interest in rare animals. The focus of this chapter will be on perhaps his most significant text, Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: Or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man.

Item Type: Book Section
Keywords: Animal Studies, Derrida, Apes, Pygmies, Human-Animal Relations.
Schools and Departments: School of English > English
Research Centres and Groups: Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General) > B2430.D48 Derrida, Jacques
P Language and Literature > PE English > PE0814 Early Modern English
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0045 Theory. Philosophy. Esthetics > PN0045.5 Relation to and treatment of special elements, problems, and subjects > PN0056.A-Z Other special. Topics A-Z > PN0056.A64 Animals
P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR2199 English renaissance (1500-1640)
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Depositing User: Nicole Mennell
Date Deposited: 13 Feb 2018 15:50
Last Modified: 13 Feb 2018 15:50
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/73553

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