Consider the Pigeon
It is now both a convention and also a joke to make the title of pieces about animals “Consider the __” where the blank is the name of the animal. This is because of a now famous essay that David Foster Wallace wrote called “Consider the Lobster”. So now: Consider the Pigeon. I would like to say that, in my exploration of English baroque in comparative context, that this was a deeply thought decision, to consider pigeons. I would like to say that I have brooded over Haraway and theories of the city in the Anthropocene and the now admittedly trendy idea of “animal studies”. This would be both a truth and a lie. A truth because I have been thinking about these things, but also haven’t had the ability to read them, not in any format other than in purloined pdf files. As we will tell our students someday, we’re all Auerbaching it now in academia; that is, if there is a someday and if I am in it, and if someday there are still students.
As with all things in uncertain times, academic text and space access is now uncertain too. Hence, my lack of citation. All our politics are necropolitics now, except it is the pigeons in particular that are starving, since we are not all in our offices leaving bits of Pret sandwiches in the squares and colonnade bottoms and pavers of London. I use the word necropolitics, both for pigeons and for people, because the queer theorist and philosopher Paul B. Preciado, whom I have been teaching lately, used it for precarious bodies in his work ca. 2013-17, but now it seems prescient and apt for a whole wider sphere. It is not just about which people the state and the markets allow to live or die anymore, and in fact it has never been justpeople, but now this also applies to animals, and not just ones endangered by the collapse of the global ecosystem due to global warming. It is now possible to genuinely conjure a necropolitics of London pigeons, starving in Bloomsbury, where the universities and museums have not been bailed out by the government. It is a bad sign when the pigeons go hungry. Their necropolitics is bound up in our necropolitics as the humanities writ large.
I live about a two hour one-way walk from the nearest city church designed by English baroque architect Christopher Wren, about whom I am more broadly writing. This means I haven’t really seen any Wren churches much in the past seven months. I have, however, seen lots of pigeons. I have noticed that the pigeons look like a little like watercolour studies, with the blend of greys and greens and the occasional flash of cerulean or a deep, Tyrian purple on their wings. On of the characteristics that foundational late 19th-mid 20th century art historian Heinrich Wölfflin attributes to the baroque as a style is that it is “Malerisch” – painterly. The pigeons are painterly. They look like the ink washes on the church drawings from Wren’s atelier, some done by Hooke or Hawksmoor. If you took an infinite number of pigeons and looked at their wings, you could find each Wren city church sketched out there in broad feathered strokes. It’s like Borges’ library, this hypothetically infinite collection of pigeons in which the Wren sketches exist in all their permutations. The pigeons would roost in a hutch which would be a Cantor pigeon hotel, as in Cantor infinities, ways of characterizing different scales of the infinite drawn from set theory in mathematics. This, too, is baroque: consider how infinities compress and expand in the Fundamental Theorem of the Calculus.
There were certainly pigeons in 17th century London, when the Wren churches were built, and they likely congregated outside them to eat scraps, even as they do now. Pigeons were probably even a broader part of the human sensorium than they are in the city today. They were used to send messages, and to compete in homing races. People ate them; this is what we now called squab, although I don’t think anyone would eat a London city pigeon unless the current apocalypse accelerates a bit; they are probably both very stringy and carrying many parasites. Of course, we also don’t have an Early Modern habituation to strong smells, close contact with masses of unwashed people, chamber music, or hand-cut brocades on furnishing. The sensorium, too, is a historically contingent thing. Pigeons, as I see the, are historically contingent pigeons.
Wölfflin’s baroque is not just “Malerisch”, it’s also pathological, deformed. It’s a warping of the perfect perspectives of what he thinks of as the High Renaissance in Italy into something stranger, more melancholy, but also in some innate way, diseased. I see proliferation, biological fecundity, ooze, where Wölfflin sees disorder. My own baroque is the kind of thing that accommodates the imperfection and difference of pigeons. I want ideas of the English baroque to include “objects” like pigeons, which are not objects but nonetheless exist in the architectonic space of the buildings people like to take in sterile isolation. Pigeons, like Tijou ironwork railings, or Gibbons wood altarpieces, are not in my view a pollution, but a facet, a point of interest, a locus of difference.
That said, no person makes pigeons. Although people did and do breed them for specific characteristics, which is a kind of making. Perhaps a techne rather than an ars? But then again, scholarly work on the English baroque often dismisses the contributions of Gibbons and Tijou to architecture we call Wren’s on just such grounds—that the decorative is merely craft and not art. The old fight and its wounds run deep.
I would have liked, here, to write about the Tijou iron screenwork at St. Paul’s or Grinling Gibbons’ almost lurid wooden fruit. In some other world, where a pandemic is not happening, perhaps I have. But we are at the same mercy of timeliness as pigeons are, in terms of history. I write now; conditioned by the now. Therefore, I consider pigeons.