Allison Turner

Society of Fellows in the Humanities
Columbia University

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Course Description

Today, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is most famous for having developed binomial nomenclature, the system we still use for naming living organisms. What many people do not know is that Linnaeus’s taxonomic method divided the natural world into three kingdoms. There were the two kingdoms of plants and of animals, as we might assume. There was also a third kingdom of minerals—rocks, fossils, and ores. What might have motivated “the father of modern taxonomy” to use the same method of identification to designate both living and non-living things? Why do human beings classify natural things at all? And what work do these classificatory systems do—not only scientifically, but also politically, socially, aesthetically, and conceptually? In this course, we explore these questions by looking back to the periods of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. We’ll look at philosophical and scientific texts, as well as novels, poems, and travel narratives. In the imaginative literature we read, we’ll find that creative writers were just as capable of developing complex approaches to challenging questions. Our archive of literary texts will reveal to us a variety of ways that human beings might encounter, or dwell alongside, other creatures and entities.

Course Objectives

At the end of this course, students will be able to

  • Identify approaches to natural classification in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods;

  • Analyze representations of nonhuman nature in scientific, philosophical, and literary texts;

  • Explain how European colonialism affected the views of nature represented in eighteenth-century and Romantic-era writing;

  • Engage in interdisciplinary modes of research and analysis to develop the framework for an independently driven creative project; and

  • Formulate sustainable arguments in writing and discussion. 

Course Overview

Unit One: Taxonomy, the Human, and Colonial Natural History

In this unit, we’ll explore the impulse to classify the natural world as Linnaeus and his contemporaries did, and we’ll turn to some of the thinkers whose empiricist methods laid the groundwork for his taxonomy. As we work to understand the epistemological shift that produced this modern way of knowing, we’ll also refer to the work of more recent critics—Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Lorraine Daston, and others. We will see how the work of natural history and the views of nature it produced were also shaped by colonialist views of the New World.

Unit Two: Animal

In our second unit, “Animal,” we’ll begin by asking what animal life is. What, if anything, makes it different from human life? And how do human beings coexist with other animals? We’ll read philosophical works by René Descartes, John Locke, Jacques Derrida, and Donna Haraway, as well as fiction and poetry by Jonathan Swift, James Thomson, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, J.M. Coetzee, and others.

Unit Three: Vegetable

Our third unit is “Vegetable.” Here, we’ll take a closer look at the practice of botany that was becoming increasingly popular in the eighteenth century. We’ll ask what makes plant life different from animal life, and we’ll think about how plants are pictured in writing by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Erasmus Darwin, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. We’ll compare these approaches to plant-life with texts that represent West-Indies agriculture, such as James Grainger’s georgic poem The Sugar Cane and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Essay on the Slave Trade.”

Unit Four: Mineral

From the plant world, we’ll turn to “Mineral.” As we explore literature’s many rocks and caves and mountain landscapes, we’ll ask why, in this period, hostile geologic formations were becoming sites of sublime aesthetic experience. Authors will include Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, Henry David Thoreau, and others.

Unit Five: Monster

The course concludes with a coda on the topic “Monster.” Taking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein our guide, we’ll venture out beyond the framework of classification, to the place of the unclassifiable. We’ll end, finally, with Jeff VanderMeer’s recent work of “weird” fiction, Borne—a retelling of Frankenstein for the twenty-first century.