Teach with Leech (guest post, book review by Laura Stark)

In 1799, on a long march across Egypt, Napoleon’s army quenched its collective thirst with water that, soldiers later learned, was filled with little stowaways. En mass, soldiers’ throats and bellies swelled; few ate or slept; they vomited; several died. Water-borne eggs had hatched into microscopic worms that bit and hung onto the inside of soldiers’ mouths, noses, and throats, where they gorged on men’s blood and grew into full-sized leeches.

This is one among many stories that stick from a remarkable new book by Robert Kirk and Neil Pemberton. Readers here know the virtues of Hartigan’s Aesop’s Anthropology,  and I want to add another winner to the list of multispecies must-reads: Kirk and Pemberton’s Leech.

In the spring of 2015, I taught a course for the first time called “Healing Animals.” I work in the liberal arts college of a big research university that has a medical school, but within a liberal arts program organized around the topic of health. The upshot is that I identify with the humanities, but my courses have to bear some relation and appear relevant to our bread and butter: the health professions. Secretly, I am interested in questions of agency and find recent moves among the multispecies crowd to be some of the most exciting endeavors in the area. Happily, the course title intrigued enough pre-vets and pet lovers that the course fully enrolled and I was allowed to give it a shot. In January, I walked into my Animals classroom for the first time with Aesop’s Anthropology in my own back pocket (lecture prep) and Leech on the syllabus as a multispecies primer for students. (The syllabus is available under the “teaching” tab on my website.)

A book on leeches may seem a curious recruitment strategy for a first-time undergrad course offering. But this book is concentrated, intelligent fun. In eight short chapters, the authors portray the leech as a tragic figure: its greatest strength (its bite) is also its greatest downfall. But where others have seen blood-sucking, Kirk and Pemberton ask why we don’t instead see kisses.

The authors’ aim is to take leeches seriously as companion animals—a counterintuitive and useful premise. Beyond this, the authors have no perspective to push. Instead they spin the high-theory themes of multispecies scholarship into vernacular language. They demonstrate how to get traction with concepts like cyborg, capital, and co-constitution, and show what can be gained—politically, intellectually—by doing so. I felt like I was feeding students brownies with broccoli secretly baked inside. The book is delicious and good for you.

The long history of human-leech relations points to the weakness of claims that there is something biologically determined about feelings of fear or disgust about certain animals. “In the entangled history of human and leech, we have repeatedly accepted and rejected, partnered and separated, loved and loathed each other, each generation thinking the relationship to be new and forgetting that our predecessors have been through it all before. What a human story,” they write. “Or is it a leech story?” In short, Leech makes the case against the seemingly intuitive sense of tenderness towards Lassie or of terror towards Jaws. To do so, Kirk and Pemberton consistently foreground relationships, and treat relating as a dynamic, iterative process—a state without stasis. With leeches, there is a tight connection between how people learn to feel in a tactile sense and to feel in an emotional sense that is apparent in the flux of centuries. Leeches prove to be a productive limit case, pushing multispecies approaches to their outer reaches.

The authors are historians, and their basic story is that for most of Anglo-American history, people regarded leeches as useful and good. Leeches were living tools that physicians used during the long age of humoral theory—when the remedy for most problems was to bleed a patient. In the nineteenth century, entrepreneurial leech-breeders pitted different leech species against each other—in part to buoy the reputation and the sales of medical leeches. Some types of leeches were tagged as gentle, others as gross. And the authors show how the wars of the wordsmiths had a paradoxical affect. Leeches, and specifically medical leeches, remained part of everyday, household life in the nineteenth century. Yet leeches in general developed an unsavory reputation, which came to register at a visceral level.

A person’s feeling of squeamish in the present-day, the authors show, is part of a longer history of capitalism: Leeches were removed from their original habitats, sold, and used on the capitalist market place at the same time that the worst traits of people (and specifically capitalists) were transposed into the figure of the leech. “Leeches, ironically, came to represent that which had exploited and oppressed them.” Sucking the life-blood out of people was therapeutically prized but morally suspect. Leeches were “victims and symbols of capitalism.”

By the twentieth century, their habitats were decimated and reputations shot. Yet leeches were—and continue to be—a tradable commodity, subject to government taxation and regulation. Leeches were essential, internal parts of the “tempest prognosticator,” an instrument for weather prediction that garnered great public interest when displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. In medicine, leeches remained useful for their healing touch. In the present day, leeches are approved medical devices under the US FDA for use in skin grafts and reattachment surgeries.

With good humor, but real sincerity, the authors treat this confluence of high market value and low reputation as something of an injustice. They point out the asymmetry in the ethical concern for some animals over others: for example, public concern for the horses whose wading legs were used to collect medical leeches from lakes in the nineteenth century, without regard for the leeches who were ultimately harvested.

In the spirit of Timothy Mitchell, Donna Haraway, and others, Leech unsettles the ground of classical anthropocentric social theory. In ways massive and modest, human-animal relationships have affected the course of political events that have conventionally been attributed to humans alone. Some effects are physical (Napoleon’s dead soldiers); other effects are linguistic, but nonetheless powerful. Artists and audiences built the codes of anti-semitism, misogyny, and other social pathologies into the figure of the leech in film and literature. Kirk and Pemberton document this process over the past two centuries and explain why such metaphors matter. “Naming another ascribes character as it describes character. It should not be undertaken lightly. The name ‘parasite’ is already laden with values, and values can do dangerous work. Labelling leeches as parasites legitimates human disgust for these creatures. Having othered the leech, it is then a simple step to other groups of humans who are made to take on this name.” By shifting from sharp examples to tight theoretical reflection, they made Michel Serres manageable for my undergrads.

The writing is fantastic, and the book is a lovely product, too. Published by Reakton Press as part of its Animal series and distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press, it is pocket-sized text that nonetheless has many color photos, a solid chapter-based bibliography, a historical timeline of all things leech, and a good brief index. For anyone teaching courses or craving a personal crib sheet of examples for multispecies approaches, Leech is a great primer.

I am hoping to teach “Healing Animals” again—and to continue to learn about multispecies approaches. I would be grateful to know about other scholars’ favorite texts and resources in our multispecies moment.


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