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Poor, Bare, Forked: Animal Sovereignty, Human Negative Exceptionalism, and the Natural History of King Lear


Human exceptionalist thought has always been with us, in one form or another. But when Lear observes, “thou art the thing itself[;] unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art,” each human specification he offers refers comparatively to the bodily forms and natural capacities of non-human animals. By drawing upon a natural history tradition that was dedicated to inventorying the diverse riches of animal forms, Lear’s zoographic calculation of human estate proceeds in a strikingly privative mode; this humanity is defined negatively, by lack, rather than by the singularizing, positive attribute that typifies human exceptionalist accounts. Lear’s unaccommodated man, then, is a negative exception to a pre-Cartesian, natural historical rule of animal integrity or “sovereignty.” An intellectual archaeology of the zoographic resources of Lear’s familiar lines suggests an antiexceptionalist tradition and evidences a historical vision of humankind placed in a wider, “zootopian” milieu. In assessing this vision, the reduced dualism of animal lack and human sovereignty that undergirds our habitual reference to a “human-animal divide” simply cannot be taken for granted, because a different cognizance of the varied presence of animal forms marked period thought indelibly.

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