Peter Sahlins is professor of Early Modern European History at the University of California – Berkeley since 1989. He received his BA from Harvard University and his PhD from Princeton University. He is the author of four books, including Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (1989) and Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and After (2004). Until recently, his work has focused on immigration, nationality, and citizenship in early modern France. He is currently writing a book entitled The Symbolic Lives of Animals and the Making of French Modernity. This work explores the representation and uses of animals in the construction of absolute monarchy, the problem of mechanism and motion, and the constitution of a distinctly French idea of the human in the early reign of Louis XIV.
My proposed research project is a study of the political, literary, artistic, and scientific display, representations and uses of animals during the first decade of Louis XIV’s reign. The project considers the varied uses and debates about animals and their representations in the construction of French absolutism; in the scientific constitution of a mechanistic (and Cartesian) universe; in the natural history inquiries of the Royal Academy of Sciences; and in the production and uses of a Classical aesthetic in literature and theater (La Fontaine, Racine, Boileau, Molière, and others). My approach is multidisciplinary, drawing on work in cultural history, science studies, literary criticism, and art history. My focus is on the unusual conjuncture of representations and debates about animals around 1668, including those in the gardens of Versailles (the menagerie and the labyrinth); the anatomical dissections and publications of the Royal Academy under Claude Perrault; the representation of animals in literary texts and theater; the visual culture of animals by court painters; and the debates about Descartes’s “beast-machine.” The multiple and contested uses of animals in politics, literature, art, and science at this moment helped crystallize a distinctively French conception of the human subject and citizen in the late seventeenth century – one that has had an enduring if contested life in French culture down to the present day.