Forgive Us Our Skins: On Poliquin's 'Breathless Zoo'

By Anjuli Raza KolbSeptember 27, 2012

The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing by Rachel Poliquin

1. Eloquent Skins

IN HER MEMOIR Deep Blue Home, Julia Whitty describes a near collision with a young sperm whale as she swims, helpless among human companions, in the depths off the Galapagos Islands. She wonders if she will die. Calm and curious about her fate, she watches as he approaches full speed ahead, “with all the energy and incaution of adolescence.” Instead of ramming her, “he jackknifes his huge head downward,” she writes, “and I can see the sheets of cellophane-thin gray skin peeling off his body — the constant striptease one of the means by which cetaceans reduce their drag in the water.” This image captivates me: an empty whale skin, perfectly formed, floating gently up as its former contents shoot down in the water, all strength and purpose. The ghost whale unfurling itself and pouring outward on the surface of the water. I have since learned that whale skin releases in prosaic strips.

There is a quickening in this scene, a flush of longing, envy, and terror not just from the Melvillian symbolism of the whale, or the arresting account of a near-death experience, but, too, from the proximity to a living creature so other and so enormous. Whitty’s description is unmistakably erotic: the young whale’s shedding is a “striptease,” the “sculpted angle of his cheek and jaw,” his “tensile strength,” and his “arching upright” tail towering above her before he slides down into the dark waters. She writes of touching him, and it’s thrilling.

It is the trace, however, that struck me most. The oxytocin to the dopamine rush of first encounter, the strip of skin is like a lover’s token: prophetic, ontic, memorial, foretelling life lived together and the ways in which it ends. For those of us who love it and observe it closely, we are locked on a fast collision course with our natural world, tempting its wrath, waiting for it to fall apart or duck us, reaching for an acknowledgement of our presence in it, and, above all, enamored of its tokens and talismans. We pick up a feather, pocket a sun-bleached crab shell, a bolt of whale skin brushes a foot underwater. Whatever the object, to handle and hold these fetishes in a life so digital is practically psychotropic.

The power of these material traces and the desire to preserve and touch them animates the lifeless menageries of Rachel Poliquin’s beautiful new study, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. The book tracks the history of whole animal and animal specimen preservation, particularly taxidermy, which refers to the stretching and mounting of the skins of vertebrates, from the seventeenth-century European explorers to the present, with a heavy focus on Victorian practitioners and collectors. From a technical perspective alone, this history is fascinating; it begins with piles of feathers preserved in spirits, smoke-dried in ovens, and inexpertly stuck together in approximations of natural forms, and ends with slowly freezedried “perpetual pets,” lifelike inhabitants of a particularly uncanny valley. A fascinating section describes the innovation of wet clay placed under skins of animals for precision molding and a feeling of fullness, vibrancy, and weight.

Poliquin gives shape to this history by exploring a range of “incentives” and characteristics embodied in taxidermy, which are grouped under the category of longing after Susan Stewart’s masterful book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. In The Breathless Zoo, Poliquin moves through seven dimensions of longing, which she associates with epochs of wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory and remembrance — phases of knowledge production as much as of affect. Each aspect of longing is further paired with an exemplary animal whose personality, symbology, and history of collection illustrates the ways in which culture constitutes nature through representation, and the ways in which these representations change over time. Poliquin argues that taxidermied animals — from their locus of origin to the way they are stuffed and posed, to what kind of environments they are posed and displayed in — are a better index of a culture’s relationship to and projections of nature than they are of the natural world as such. Each chapter comes back to this idea repeatedly, connecting certain periods’ preferences for particular species (maritime explorers were enamored of birds, for example) and display techniques to concurrent advances in chemistry, anatomy, and taxonomy, as well as cultural fads, artistic movements, and political and economic shifts, particularly those related to imperialism, industrialization, and globalization.


Nineteenth-century hummingbird display case. Photo © Natural History Museum, London

This argument, a comfortable new iteration of constructionist cultural history, gets underway in an introduction that touches on the melancholic aesthetics of natural history and conservationism. One example is a recent exhibition of taxidermied polar bears culled from homes, museums, and collections around the U.K. Long a powerful symbol of strength and solitude, now a mnemonic for the losses wrought by climate change, the polar bears in the exhibition, “briefly together but solitary,” illustrate for Poliquin the emotional potency of preserved dead animals and the inexorable intellectual and cultural ideologies that determine how and why they are killed, prepared, and displayed. In this exhibition, she sees our attention drawn critically to both an outdated British cultural imaginary of conquest and mastery as well as to the uncanny displacement of the natural world, which serves as a reflection of the “wistfulness,” “waiting,” “loneliness,” and “absence” that filters our relationship to the environment in crisis. These two moments of history called up by the doubly displaced polar bears crystallize some basic questions of taxidermy as practice and artifact: is it symbolic or individual? Victimized or saved? Animal or object? Poliquin suggests that it is the polar bears’ “ambiguity that makes them such potent objects.”

In beginning with an analysis of a work of contemporary art that already undermines both nostalgic Victoriana and contemporary eco-aesthetics — rather than a piece of historical taxidermy — the book gives away some of its most subtle critical analysis in the first five pages, including the implicit parallel Poliquin draws between the late imperial nostalgia (that of the British empire for its own fading glory, as well as a current nostalgia for all things Victorian) and the biophilia of late capitalist culture. Each subsequent chapter anchors the historical work in a compelling and memorable way by focusing on an exemplary species that illustrates one kind of longing. The hummingbird flits through the chapter on beauty — the finely wrought jewel of the Romantic poetic imaginary, and much beloved by Edmund Burke as a paragon of the beautiful — while the lion is caught mid-pounce in the chapter on spectacle, a demonstration of the dangers and exotica of colonial encounters. The narrative chapter deals with hunting trophies, those spooky domestic herds of bodiless heads, allegory with anthropomorphic tableaux like Walter Potter’s famous kitten wedding, order with zebras, of whom we learn there are a surprising three different species, and remembrance on the family dog. While the book is carefully researched and documented, it is not written for an exclusively academic audience: the prose is accessible, and a wealth of well-chosen illustrations, anecdotes, and deft readings of individual pieces of taxidermy make The Breathless Zoo a rich study that will appeal to a variety of readers.


Walter Potter, The Rabbits’ Village School. Photo © Mark Hill / Alamy

Poliquin makes space for the lurid humor and inherent surreality of the dead, the stuffed, and the posed, including as the book’s first figure a kitschy photograph of one of the polar bears dancing through a doorway as he offers a basket of light-up plastic tulips in his inanimate hands. One story examines the role of anatomical expertise in taxidermy by comparing two ocelots, dainty jungle cats from Central and South America, mounted by different taxidermists: one looks perfectly lifelike, while the other grimaces atop triply long legs, a hilarious attempt by a man who received only a skin and some teeth as his atlas.Breathless-Ocelots (1)

Another story recounts Galileo’s suspicion toward the “curious little men” who collect dried chameleons and other curiosities in their cabinets only to wonder, unscientifically, at them. Anthropomorphic taxidermy, which Poliquin associates with allegorical longing, provides further material for what she calls the “unsettling drollery of dead bunnies doing sums.” Potter’s dead bunnies are joined in his other dioramas — and those of his imitators — by dead birds holding a funeral and dead kittens playing croquet. This cuteness, she argues, masks “a fable of human supremacy,” revealing what is perhaps the darkest motive of storytelling at the heart of the jauntiest theatrical taxidermy.

As evidently reverent and devoted to her objects as Poliquin is (her language sometimes gets away from her, as in the opening of the chapter on beauty which describes the Victorians as “quite literally and without the least exaggeration absolutely besotted with hummingbirds”), she retains from the beginning a sense of the pernicious histories of greedy exploration, imperial conquest, and self-aggrandizing collection in the name of science that subtend the practice and popularity of taxidermy. Woven throughout are cautionary reminders of the wealth and arrogance that enable, and are in turn expressed by, animal objects like exotic big game dioramas, in which animals pilfered from colonially appropriated territories are displayed, or hunting trophies gathered on the private hunting runs of European aristocrats. In a more contemporary art-market vein, there is a short discussion of the Damien Hirst’s bid to buy Potter’s collection of taxidermy scenes for £1 million, but it’s glossed quickly.

Notwithstanding these oblique critiques of the economies and social orders that uphold taxidermy and the broader realm of Euro-American naturalism of which it is a piece, Poliquin stops short of a sustained materialist analysis of her objects as commodities. Instead, she concentrates on the narrative and poetic capacities of taxidermy, calling animal displays “eloquent,” “metonymic of entire geographies, concentrating in animal form what made those distant landscapes so ferociously exciting, so exotic,” and so they are. Because they were made precisely to last, however, skins — emotionally persuasive and insistently literal — remain a stubborn material residue of the cultural and economic histories of the well-appointed interiors of bourgeois adventure consumers as well as the great European and American houses of learning.


2. Lazy Brains


Breathless-Eight-Legged (1)

Postcard depicting a Walter Potter eight-legged kitten creation.

In dismissing the “curious little men” who collect natural wonders, Galileo looks unfavorably on the way they delight in objects “that have something peregrine about them,” an archaic use of the word meaning foreign or outlandish. Descartes, too, even as he praises the creative energy inspired by wonder, remains skeptical about the ways in which wonder might shade into naïveté, or worse devolve into “a lazy brain.” Wonder, especially where it intersects with foreignness, appears to be a subtype of longing that doesn’t necessarily promote rigor.

At a number of points in The Breathless Zoo, Poliquin identifies poetics as a tool for reading taxidermy. It’s not entirely clear what she means by poetics, at least in the strict sense, but she does name two approaches more precisely: “a poetics of animal order,” and “a poetics of strangeness.” The latter is a term she adapts from the sixteenth-century commentator Francesco Patrizi, who extolled the emotional impact of strange juxtapositions and the friction between belief and disbelief as poetic devices. While Patrizi saw wonder as an end in itself, Descartes saw it as an inspiration to knowledge that could easily go off. Descartes uses the language of pathology, warning that runaway wonder could slip into “the malady of those who suffer from a blind curiosity.” Poliquin parses this beautifully as an “awestruck loosening into unknowing,” which seems to be a perennial hazard of the translation of science into public spectacle. What’s more, a “poetics of strangeness,” even as applied to animal specimens, begins to look more and more like an extension of vast stretches of literature and social science that have been successfully read, by Edward Saïd and others, as the cultural manufacture of strangeness.

One of Poliquin’s primary methodological touchstones is Susan Stewart, an accomplished poet and literary theorist whose work shimmers with the peculiar beauties of the natural world. Like Descartes on wonder, however, Stewart is skeptical of nostalgia, characterizing it in the introduction to her book On Longing as a “social disease” (though in Stewart’s expert hands, the moral evaluation of such a pathology is far from one-dimensional). Can there be other kinds of longing? Emily Dickinson, poet of the dark arts of longing and wonder, priestess of the New England forest seen from her bedroom, wrote of sharing life:

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –

 Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –

I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s gaze down – […]

The shelves of Dickinson’s verse, as in a cabinet of wonder, show us specimens of longing embodied in the fragile objects of life and death: cracked, quaint, feminine, and held always at a distance — over there, after waiting. With an unsettling yearning, the speaker refuses to bridge the abyss between You and I, Our Life and His Porcelain, One and the Other. Instead, she holds these subjects apart over a cannot and a could not. We take these distances, as a kind of poststructuralist orthodoxy, to be the lucunae of desire and meaning, as well as the space of ethics. The cracked cup, our life, is someone else’s memento mori or souvenir, one such object amid a graveyard of others. Holding these treasures, if we follow Dickinson, is a responsibility as much as a pleasure.

Breathless-Birds (1)

Birds Division at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, D.C. Photo © Chip Clark / Smithsonian Institute

The preservation of real animal bodies invites a lot of questions about identification and difference. Who are these animal others — firmly on the far side of the human/non-human divide — that we have objectified in this way? Do the glass eyes of taxidermy shut our gaze down? Do animal encounters model other kinds of ethics? Does anthropomorphism call for a particular kind of responsibility toward the other? On the one hand, as Poliquin aptly writes, “animals are literally animals, obviously.” On the other hand, the cultures of longing that express themselves in taxidermy also intersect with the cultures of ethnography, biology, anthropology, and the morbid theater of these disciplines in forms like the so-called human zoos that were popular for centuries, right up through the second world war.

A good deal of work has been done on the subject of human displays, including the impressive new book by historian Sadiah Qureshi, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain, in which she repeatedly signals the slippage between animals and people in categories like “race,” “character,” and the ways they were studied and communicated during Britain’s golden age of science-as-spectacle. Qureshi discusses a dizzying number of human displays and the economic and aesthetic logics that made them popular. In a footnote, she touches briefly on the story of Ota Benga, the Congolose man whose brief residence at the Bronx zoo in 1906 lead to an outcry among black clergymen of New York. As outlandish as such an idea may now seem, there remain fraught instances of human or quasi-human display in all kinds of forms, but especially in the peculiar genre of museum infotainment. Religious leaders, for example, also raised an outcry over the Body Worlds / Bodies exhibits, whose first iteration opened in 1995, on the information that the plasticized human remains on display were those of Chinese prisoners from whom there was no documented consent. The exhibition organizers would neither confirm nor deny. At the recently renovated, ultra sleek Museum of Natural History in Venice, as in many other such collections around the world, visitors encounter a room in which cases upon cases of taxidermied animals — ducks, chickadees, small woodland mammals — are followed by a pair of cabinets showing “Scienze della Terra” and “Etnologia.” “Ethnology” displays the clothes and tools of African people.

Qureshi’s account shares with Poliquin’s project an interest in the use of animal parts in costuming “natives” as hyperbolic others; feathers and skins piled on brown bodies manufactured the appearance of authenticity — a concept freighted with a surplus of meaning in the period of mass industrialization — at the same time as it blurred the line between person and beast by layering metonyms of difference on top of one another. It is now more or less a matter of consensus that these dehumanizing displays were part of the cultural scaffolding of racist and larcenous colonial policies. So when Poliquin speaks of the ferocious excitement of the exotic, the rapt gaze that lingers on the musculature, expressions, colors, and textures of dead animals from far flung lands, she is also implicitly critiquing the eroticized gaze that, especially in the nineteenth century, naturalized the subjugation of other peoples.

Literary theorist Robert Young has called this aspect of the modern racial imaginary “colonial desire,” which, he explains, is a hair’s breadth from disgust; ethnographic descriptions of the hideous physiognomy of non-European people, especially of Africans, were regularly followed in quick succession by elegiac descriptions of the beauty of some particular tribe, often designated as noble or pure. Skin plays a particular role in this breathless commentary: Young cites Thomas Hope’s description of “the glossy black of marble or jet, conveying to the touch sensations more voluptuous even than the most resplendent white.” Young comments that the “sudden voluptuousness of gleaming blackness” registers the erotic preoccupation of the nineteenth century racial imaginary. Situating this observation within an expanded field that includes the luxurious pelts and resplendent feathers, teeth, and claws of taxidermied animal objects, we can see how important Hope’s projected “touch sensations” were in creating vivid, full-bodied pictures of both human and animal others. Such pictures, however, in spite of their richness or because of it, deflect understanding and instead feed amusement to the lazy brain.


3. “From the cat it takes its head and claws, from the lamb its size and shape”

While Poliquin’s book is largely interested in querying skin within different archives, another way of thinking about skin is as an archive. In his lauded reading of the Odyssey, Erich Auerbach points out the narrative dilation made possible by a scar on Odysseus’s thigh, a signal of his self-ness that has no chance of escaping the notice of his nurse, whom he has strategically deceived until this scene. The dilation is this: in the midst of the tense moment of discovery — the nurse is washing her master’s feet and is about to know who he is, that he has returned after decades to clean up the sloppy suitors’ mess and reclaim his wife — the poet cuts away, flashback style, to the hunting accident that caused the scar. The story is written on Odysseus’s body: an inexpungible archive of his personal history. The scene stands together with Odysseus’s arrival in Phaeacia, upon which he spends nearly 20 lines of poetry exfoliating his weather-beaten skin, as well as the more challenging scene in the Iliad in which Odysseus leads a group of Greeks, whom he camouflages in elaborate animal skins, in a blood-soaked midnight raid that violates, spectacularly, the rules of humane warfare. These Homeric examples are not alone; historically speaking, skin may be the most persistent sign of the relationship between the biotic and the semiotic.

The kind of medium that skin is, however connected and continuous it may be with other media, is singularly intimate, auratic, analogue, and vulnerable. It’s the first warning of mortality, the largest and most obsessively cared-for organ for civilizations around the world and through time, the extraordinary barrier to disease, the alarm system for irritants, and the uniquely persistent locus of political status (think rights, adoption, bloodbanking) and social status (think soft hands, different types of tans). In this last sense, it seems important to historicize skin as a point of contact and continuity between people and animals.

In many ways, Poliquin takes up this challenge, articulating something like colonial desire as a serious aspect of the longing for contact with animal others — and for consecrating animal death within human life — that she unfolds in The Breathless Zoo. She draws the connection most pointedly in the chapters on spectacle and order. In the latter, for example, Poliquin notes the shift from colonially-minded displays that highlighted the drama and danger of exotic animals — a lion sinking its teeth into the back of a camel and the leg of its Arab rider — to the scientific row and grid arrangements that stood as proof of a natural order, whose unfortunate extension was the invention of race as a tool for oppression, violence, and disenfranchisement. In the former, she aptly engages the critics who have given shape to our understanding of exoticism and Orientalism in painting, theater, literature, and the sciences.

In other ways, however, she ducks the uncomfortable resonance of the human dermis as a medium and taxidermy’s particular cultures of longing; there is no mention, for example, of the contemporaneous exhibitions of human beings and the relationship between the kind of longing that motivates interest in animal taxidermy and that which sustained displays of human beings — especially as denizens of some lost natural world — in the exhibitions, fairs, and zoos of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In describing the wholesale burning of a Sussex museum’s taxidermy collection in 1960, and the London Natural History Museum’s newly self-conscious presentation of historical pieces of taxidermy with apologetic captions explaining their provenance from a less-enlightened time, Poliquin argues that taxidermy, with its half-hidden seams and political incorrectness, now “makes people squeamish” and has “fallen from grace.” Even so, she registers the resurgence of taxidermy as an accoutrement for homes and places of worship of the young, educated, and well off (bars, locally sourced restaurants, handmade clothing boutiques, curated curio shops). I would add to this a weird uptick in practicing taxidermy as a hobby — an arts collective in New York, for example, has sold out multiple practical courses in anthropomorphic mouse taxidermy over the last year.

The antlers, cursive, wellingtons, and heraldic insignias of a certain brand of luxe, nerd-cute culture has been parodied enough that even those who aren’t surrounded by its purveyors will recognize the aesthetic as being far from unpopular (in fact, it seems safe to say that mounting antlers, pounding South American beetles for homemade bitters, or “putting a bird on it” have been shopworn tropes of hipsterism for a few years again already). In some ways these interests, and the Anglophilia and/or D.I.Y. frontierism they imply, represent a politics that strives, albeit through consumerism, against the big-label soullessness of mass-produced fashion, music, and design. I am not the first person to say this, nor the first to say that it is a failed endeavor, as a politics. Poliquin talks about the new market for antique taxidermy over the last decade as an expression of “disenchantment with sameness and reproduction.” Antique taxidermy represents “memory and longing” in a wilderness of modern functionalism, and carries the “moral theatricality of old furniture,” a citation she offers from Baudrillard. What’s more, preserving antique taxidermy can be a gesture of kindness, a way of honoring the animals themselves, instead of discarding their bodies in the dustbins of history.

To me all of this seems true. But it also seems worth pointing out that the historical moment or moments for which antique taxidermy expresses longing, now, in our time, are violent and unjust — both in terms of our regard for the natural world and in terms of the exploitation and dehumanization of people. Poliquin, though cognizant of the connection, skates over the way in which this current nostalgia, as opposed to the more varied and intricate forms of longing she identifies within her history, expresses a softer side of North American cultural conservatism that has taken hold in the last decade or so.


Angela Singer, Thorn, 2004.

Taxidermy is a great bad object: ludicrous, cruel, splashy, quirky, sometimes unselfconscious, and often extremely beautiful. Poliquin calls taxidermy “troubling” and “ambiguous,” in nearly every chapter, reinforcing her argument for the poetics of strangeness. A story from Kafka illustrates the poignancy of such a poetics. “A Crossbreed [A Sport]” describes a hybrid creature, “half kitten, half lamb,” which the narrator says is “a legacy from my father.” The life of the creature is sad and amusing: a terrified stalker, a sinister skipper, it prefers to feed on milk, and, “though it has countless step-relations in the world, has perhaps not a single blood relation.” The kitten-lamb is full of longing, belonging, in a sense, in neither one of its skins. “Sometimes,” the narrator says,

it jumps up on the armchair beside me, plants its front legs on my shoulder, and puts its muzzle to my ear. It is as if it were saying something to me, and as a matter of fact, it turns its head afterwards and gazes into my face to see the impression its communication has made. And to oblige it, I behave as if I had understood, and nod. Then it jumps to the floor and dances about with joy.

What do taxidermied animals say when they gaze into our faces? Is this a question worth asking, or does it skitter into the realms of the mystical? Kafka, never content to let us live unproblematically in the company of our others, shuts the gaze down immediately. In the lines that follow the kitten lamb’s joyful dance, the narrator muses,

Perhaps the knife of the butcher would be a release for this animal; but as it is a legacy, I must deny it that. So it must wait until the breath voluntarily leaves its body, even though it sometimes gazes at me with a look of human understanding, challenging me to do the thing of which both of us are thinking.

The story ends with these lines. For the creature’s sake, maybe, we hope softly for the breath to leave its body. Poliquin’s breathless zoo is like this; a crossbreed, a sport, part human, part animal, full of longing that is equally ours (for it) and its own (for things we can’t know), challenging us for release, ineradicable because it is a legacy.


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LARB Contributor

Anjuli Raza Kolb is a lecturer at New York University and a doctoral candidate at Columbia, where she is writing a dissertation about epidemiology, horror, and terror. She has taught literature and theory at Bard College and Columbia University, and is faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.


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