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Domesticating the Victorian dog: a public life for a private animal

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This paper follows work on the cultural geography of domestication in order to understand the place of the dog in Victorian Britain. Domestication, or interspecies association, has been one of the central themes in natural and social science, animated by arguments over evolution and natural selection. Recent discussions in cultural geography (and also in animal studies) have complemented and challenged these traditional perspectives with a focus on the domestication of nonhuman animals in a range of societies including the modern West. Such arguments have considered domestication in terms of multiple and sometimes contradictory acts of animal enclosure, ‘making animal domestication a rich subject for inquiries into the dynamics of power and possession, at scales ranging from local to global’ (Anderson, 1998). This paper considers ways in which canis familiaris was domesticated within Victorian culture, ideally taken off the streets and enclosed in family homes as pets. Such domestication may be considered in a number of registers, ranging from the geographies of Darwinian science to those of religious sentiment. At the same time, however, emphasizing the proper place of the dog raised a series of questions about human society, particularly about gender and class; the process of disciplining the dog revealed uncomfortable aspects of the disciplining and domination of human beings. Like all discussions of domestication, arguing about the proper place of the Victorian dog was thus also an argument about what it meant to be human.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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