Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression.
This absorbing monograph creatively brings together animal and plant studies in a framework that considers eco-theory and bio-politics. Its overarching function is to create new avenues for both historians and literary scholars to think about human existence in parallel with, rather than superior to, other forms of life. The book opens with a consideration of memory and pain--the stimulus of the physical bound up with the emotional. The impression is exemplified through a Shakespearean character, Jack Cade, and his encounter with parchment and the sheep whose skin offered up this surface. In a reordering of surfaces, the parchment becomes a point of convergence between matter and metaphor. What unfolds over the course of the next few chapters is a stimulating philosophical narrative on the semiotics of material culture and the variety of ways of being and also of writing. Julian Yates's method 'consists of a type of a tracing or unfolding of tropes as they move between and among registers, discourses, and disciplines' (p. 13). Yates states that his aim is to erase 'ontological differences between animal, plant, fungal, microbial, viral, mineral or chemical actors' (p. 12). He achieves his aim by tracing points of contact between the differently configured groups. The choice of sheep, oranges, and yeast is arbitrary, but the point is that they are three differently scaled actors from different biological kingdoms (animal, plant, and fungus).
Part 1, 'Sheep', devotes itself to unfolding the biopolitical quotient of the sheep in relation to Jack Cade's memory of its skin. Yates attempts to inhabit 'the point of contact and separation between sheep and not-sheep humans' (p. 40). As he considers the idea of sheepiness he uses different tropes to uncover meaning. For example, one trope concerns Dolly the cloned sheep whose legacy includes making humans realize that at a cellular level our bodies are more flexible than we think. Chapter 1 ends with a question, 'What is pastoral?', which concludes a discussion through time that has rendered both sheep and human more 'sheepy'. The next chapter rewrites the pastoral in a manner that folds both humans and sheep together in unexpected ways. The shepherd can be seen as the go-between--the person who marks the connection and the boundary--writing the human through and by its un/likeness to sheep.
While the first two chapters examine a series of anthropo-zoo-genetic figures or tropes that derived from a cohistory of sheep, Part 2 aims 'to inquire into the texture of [...] vegetal substrate and explore how our discourses are marked by forms of vegetal being, calibrated by vegetal temporality' (p. 139). Yates begins with the escape from prison in 1597 of John Arden and John Gerard--and the small piles of orange peel that remained in the prison chamber. Here, oranges gain importance as an agent of escape through the invisibility of the juice in written missives. With the invisible writing transformed by heat, writing appears as vegetal growth. The notion of economics is linked to oranges in Chapter 4 with the humorous account of the inadequacies of a global economy. This is relayed through the notion that, while Norway cannot grow oranges but does manufacture refrigerators, this logic does not lead to an even global economy. Through a succession of logical steps, Yates relates an orange-focused economy to Sir John Peyton's (lieutenant of the Tower of London) efforts, mentioned in a previous chapter, to construct the warder with a liking for oranges as an impecunious, gold-wanting, Catholic sympathizer.
Part 3, 'Yeast', shifts to the barely visible world of this fascinating fungus and considers bread in conjunction with the yeast that bubbles through it. Yates creatively links yeast to his overarching discussion by noting that 'Bread anchors our notions of collectivity' (p. 227). Yates muses on why writers are fascinated with bread, returning to John Gerard who figured in the discussion on oranges in the Tower of London. Gerard describes in detail the bread he received there. The quality and abundance of the bread provided to the prisoners actually allowed Gerard to use his own money for oranges. The regularity of the bread's appearance reflects the commonality of the loaf in society and its role in security of the Commonwealth.
The book's conclusion returns to Jack and attempts to conjoin all the subjects considered throughout the book. Yates relates his project to the idea of a Renaissance painting of a supper that has lamb, bread, wine, and oranges. He dislocates the dining table, siding perhaps with the lamb, the bread, and the orange, offering the reader a blank canvas in which regimes of description are altered and blurred. This is an innovative work that stretches previous ideas on discipline boundaries, allowing scholars from many different fields to share this book as a point of contact in much the same ways that Yates bridged the world of material culture with historical and literary studies.
BRID PHILLIPS, The University of Western Australia
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2018|
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