Some brief Notes on the Philosophy PhD Proposal

If you are thinking of applying for a PhD in philosophy at some point, then you will first of all need to put together a research project. The following are a few brief tips as to how this might best be done. Hopefully they will be of some help.
First of all, don’t worry if you haven’t yet published anything. You are not expected to have published anything at this stage. What is necessary, however, is a commitment to reading slowly, carefully and with passion – this is the only worthwhile preparation for a PhD.
Be realistic about your future. Be aware both of the current state of the Humanities in general and of philosophy in particular within academia in the global North today, and of what has been, and continues to be, the massive overproduction of PhDs for profit by universities suddenly expected to function according to an alien business model – it’s not a pretty picture. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was actually the top 25% of candidates getting the small number of jobs around but this is hardly a level playing field, meaning that even the best early career philosopher in the world might still find herself unable to secure a position after completing a PhD. That’s why a passion for philosophy is absolutely key for your own happiness (far more so than for the potential quality of future publications). Put simply, don’t choose philosophy unless you cannot possibly do anything else other than philosophy!
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Crazy fees. In the end, it doesn’t really matter just how extortionate the fees are at this or that university in this or that country, simply because most people could never afford to pay them anyway, never mind being able to cover living expenses as well (incidentals such as food, rent and heat, etc.) and therefore require external funding. In other words, forget the cost as there’s nowhere so cheap that funding wouldn’t be necessary.
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On the proposal itself:
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A proposal does not need to be very structured and detailed as regards the various steps etc. Personally, that’s the last thing I want to see as it suggests a certain closedness towards – and hence a misunderstanding of – research as both process and encounter.
It is far more important to provide clear evidence of:
(a) a keen interest in, and familiarity with, background material;
(b) a clear sense of just what is at stake regarding the question;
(c) prior reading on the subject and an ability to read carefully and closely while still remaining with the text. Clear evidence, in other words, of both having read and been able to read.
(d) knowledge regarding the current state of your chosen area of study and of any articles published recently.
Try to keep the proposal sufficiently open so as to allow for those chance encounters along the way that will inevitably challenge your research to move in directions unforeseeable at the start (after all, where’s the interest in spending years on a thesis the conclusion of which you already know at the start?). Suggest potential lines of thought around the proposed subject that would be interesting to explore further (perhaps rooted in what Heidegger calls a guiding question rather than a fundamental question).
Before starting to think specifically about the where and the how, begin by putting together a paragraph or two that gives a clear sense of the proposed project. This does not have to be long, perhaps just a couple of sentences on each of the following:
(i) your guiding question(s) and what are the stakes of this question;
(b) current state of knowledge as to this question;
(c) why is this question important, why this/these thinkers/texts, and why now?
(d) what possible new avenues or directions of thought might be opened as your research progresses?

Between Queer Ontology and Political Indistinction

 

The following is the abstract of my paper to be presented at the Queering Paradigms 7 conference in the Cayman Islands, 11-12 June 2016.

 

Following a protracted hiatus, ontology and first philosophy are once again at the forefront of contemporary philosophical concerns. More importantly, in coming after the decades-long deconstruction of the binary pairings such as subject/object, living/nonliving, human/animal, man/woman, white/black and so on that for millennia have served as the unsupported foundation of traditional ontologies, the leading edge of philosophy is today queering a whole range of ontological paradigms in an unprecedented fashion. This queering of ontology, it will be argued, is crucial to the future of Queer Studies insofar as it offers a radical new direction, one that opens up previously unforeseen possibilities for future political engagement.

In different ways, both philosophy and technology are undoing the simplistic distinction between living beings and nonliving objects, inventing instead sites and bodies of unforeseen indistinction. Consequently, entities occupying this area of indistinction are increasingly becoming sites of intense political and ethical contestation. As a result of the queering of ontological paradigms, the battles over such ‘indistinct’ bodyings are, on the most fundamental level, set to become a crucial concern in the fight against Queer/LGBTIQ+ discrimination in the future.

Arguing that the very category of ‘life’ is in fact no longer operational, this paper will outline the political implications arising from a number of contested bodies, as well as why such sites of ‘indistinction’ will become increasingly important to Queer Studies and beyond in the years and decades to come. Lastly, I will then consider how today’s queering of traditional ontology has the potential to provide both academics and activists with innovative intellectual tools for empowerment.

 


Book Review: On Judith Still’s Derrida and Other Animals: The Boundaries of the Human

 

BOOK REVIEW: On Judith Still’s Derrida and Other Animals: The Boundaries of the Human (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 416pp.

To cite this article: Richard Iveson (2016): ‘Derrida and other animals: The boundaries of the human.’ Modern & Contemporary France, DOI: 10.1080/09639489.2016.1162142

Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09639489.2016.1162142

 

Well-known for her work on both subordinated economies and hospitality during the Enlightenment, feminist scholar Judith Still here turns her considerable talents to a close reading of the second volume of Derrida’s final seminar, The Beast and the Sovereign. While such a narrow focus can at times reveal nothing more than a lack of engagement with the oeuvre as a whole – something that befalls Derrida perhaps more than most – this is clearly not the case here. Rather, Still brings a deep understanding of Derrida’s philosophical project to bear not only on her readings of Derrida, but also on the core secondary texts addressed by Derrida over the course of the seminars.

As might be expected, Still’s concern for ‘other animals’ is here centered upon the negation of women in being constructed as ‘other’ to Man. While some previous attempts to read Derrida’s late works in this way have, as a result, entirely missed the point of Derrida’s critique, Still instead approaches the systematic exclusion of women through nonhuman animals, clearly cognizant that the latter’s systematic exclusion from sovereign protection is both the necessary condition of, and necessarily reiterated in, the constitution of savages, slaves and women as ‘less-than-human’ in the sense of subhuman. As such, this enables Still to extend, as well as clarify, several complex issues that are key to Derrida’s project.

For this reason, Derrida and Other Animals moves well beyond both summary and critical commentary. That said, however, if a reader is hoping to find a radical new interpretation of Derrida’s animal philosophy here, she will likely be disappointed; Still’s reading remaining comfortably orthodox, even pedestrian on occasion. Nevertheless, what raises this book above straight exegesis is precisely the way contemporary feminist concerns are worked through Derrida. In this, Still stays close to her plan ‘to supplement Derrida’s extraordinary thinking’ by opening it up to writings of the New World concerned with both savage and slave, while simultaneously expanding Derrida’s thinking of sexual difference so as ‘to incorporate women writers writing on or across the animal-human borderline’ (358).

Like savages and slaves, women too share subaltern status with nonhuman animals by sharing with them the fate of being ‘animalized as other.’ Deemed ‘other’ in this way is to be refused any capacity for reason and, reduced in this fashion to the status of a beast, excluded from taking part in the affairs of Man and thus no longer afforded any juridical protection. It is with the aim of further dismantling this instrumental construction of the subaltern that Still introduces into her reading a number of supplementary texts – prominent among which being those by Carol Ann Duffy, Marie Ndiaye and Marie Darrieussecq – that contrast sharply with those addressed in the first instance by Derrida, and which provide for a far more nuanced and subtle result than is often the case, most notably around the question of animal agency.

All of that is, however, until the final chapter, helpfully signaled by its title, ‘Wanting Conclusion.’ Focusing on Derrida’s bizarrely bêtise attempt to somehow raise Jeremy Bentham’s famous question ‘can they suffer?’ to the status of universal ethical principle, it appears that Still finds little in this move to concern her, suggesting only that the category of ‘suffering’ should be broadened to include ‘feeling, sensation and sentiment’ (370). At best, such claims are preliminary, contributing very little if anything insofar as it leaves the work of deconstruction only half done. Insofar as Still continues to identify animals with emotion in this way, her conclusion – irrespective of how inclusive an identifying category may or may not be – inevitably remains stalled at a simple reversal of value (the privileging of emotion over cognition); a reversal that is itself a negation insofar as it maintains an abyssal separation between the paired terms. As Derrida insists, however, the work of deconstruction is necessarily double, both negation and affirmation, as without the latter the former is nothing. Missing from Still’s conclusion is just this affirmative staging of multiple différance and differences, of such foldings and foliation as confound every tactical negation and strategic exclusion.

The wanting conclusion aside, Still carefully situates Derrida’s posthumous ‘animal’ texts are within, and against, the crosscurrent of contemporary feminist theory throughout. While broadening and deepening the dialogue between deconstruction, feminism and the nonhuman as well as clarifying and extending Derrida’s thinking, the real conclusion of Derrida and Other Animals is our significantly increased understanding of just what, exactly, is at stake.

 


Toward an Imaginary Animal Studies

Coming very soon:  a critical engagement with Boria Sax’s latest book (entitled ‘Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human’) (London: Reaktion Books, 2013) – to appear in  Humanimalia 6:2 (Spring 2015).

Better very late than not at all – here it is.

First published in Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies 6:2 (Spring 2015), 166-177

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Introduction

In common with both its subject and the sub-discipline of animal studies generally, Boria Sax’s latest book, Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human, cannot be easily assigned a suitable pigeonhole within the traditional segregation of genre and discipline. Sax, meanwhile, is very clear as to his aim: the founding of a brand new sub-field of study organized along the lines of animal studies but dealing solely with the realm of imaginary animals (25). While the success or otherwise of Sax’s project remains to be determined, at the very least Imaginary Animals is an exhaustive but in no way exhausting scholarly account of fantastic creatures and wondrous hybrids that are as diverse as the cultures within which they emerged.

Populated throughout with beautifully reproduced illustrations, Imaginary Animals is clearly aimed at both academic and popular readerships. Such a dual focus is always incredibly difficult to achieve, however, and results here in a text that is itself something of a hybrid, composed as it is of two distinct parts. The first six chapters plus the brief conclusion make up one part (pp.7-130, pp.249-254), with the second part consisting of chapters seven through twelve (pp.131-248). Whereas the second part tends largely toward an exercise in cataloguing, the first will undoubtedly appeal more to both academic and general reader insofar as it is by far the more exegetical and critical, and yet without ever becoming dense or difficult in the least. This is not, however, to take anything away from the sheer breadth of research and scholarship that is, if anything, even more in evidence throughout the later chapters. Nonetheless, I will consider this second part first, before engaging in more depth with the theoretical sections of part one, sections that make Imaginary Animals much more than simply an encyclopedic listing of fantastic beings.

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First, the Second Part

In the later chapters, various ‘imaginary animals’ are collated according to six basic classifications: wonders; creatures of water; of earth; of fire and air; shape-shifters; and mechanical animals. Here, one finds any number of fascinating stories ranging from Yahweh’s relationship with the Leviathan to the rise of the mermaid as a major modern mythic figure. At the same time, however, one must also undergo the chore of wading through lists that, because of their comparative nature, are at times somewhat repetitive. Moreover, and unlike in the first part, these lists are seldom relieved by provocative passages of analysis and speculation. That said, Sax does manage now and again to slip in some very interesting claims, such as, for example, that insofar as moral consideration in traditional Indian culture ‘is not greatly contingent on human form,’ the treatment of other animals is thus ‘generally better than it is in Western countries, but the treatment of people with low status is worse’ (143). On the basis of such a claim, the potential for rigorously contextualized accounts of a given culture’s mythology – including our own – to challenge ingrained and seemingly immutable habits of thinking about other animals would seem very great. While Sax does not pursue this argument here, such potential is clearly indicated in the strong sense of estrangement produced by the hugely diverse accounts of what ‘counts’ as human across various cultural traditions.

Two related issues are, however, considered in some detail in this part, namely those of plants and of consciousness – issues that, given their importance within animal studies and beyond, demonstrate a clear understanding of the larger stakes in play. Anyone working in the field of animal studies will doubtless have faced the following question in one form or another (and most likely in tones of mock incredulity): ‘So, if we must extend the ethical realm to include other living beings, are you suggesting that we should include plants as well!?’1 As Sax argues, such questions in fact depend upon a baseless yet powerfully normative assumption that human consciousness is ontologically distinct and superior. Such is the apparently self-evident ‘fact’ one finds throughout the West today that ‘animals have some sort of incipient consciousness, while plants do not’ (211; my emphasis). One can thus see how potentially important ethical debates around the issue of caring or otherwise for plants are blocked in forever being reduced to a question of consciousness that appears long since resolved. Similarly, the apparently absurd question of ‘plant ethics’ can be seen as raising the possibility of breaking down just such normative and reductive assumptions that so often organize our thinking.

To this end, Sax begins by demonstrating why the notion of consciousness in plants is anything but absurd. Viewed over an appropriate timescale, he writes, plants can be seen to act ‘with an apparent deliberation that rivals that of any mammal’ (211). Plants, he continues, explore territories, battle competitors, and surmount barriers between them and the sunlight that sustains them; they ‘recruit’ various other animals through bribery, coercion, deceit, and self-sacrifice, and some even launch deadly preemptive attacks against other plants (211). Even the slowness of response thought to characterize plant life can no longer be considered certain: leaves and stems, writes Sax, ‘may immediately emit poisons or even alter their chemistry when insects lay eggs on their leaves’ (213).

Shifting to focus more generally on the often vexed – and just as often irrelevant – question of consciousness and its attribution or otherwise to another, Sax argues that it is primarily a question of dominance. Given that there are quite simply no conditions or criteria by which consciousness can in fact be either awarded or withheld, he writes, the human’s justification for domination is rather an illusion based principally upon ‘a trick of perspective’ (247). Hence, we need only shift that perspective just a little in order to disclose its fundamental bias. Consider, writes Sax, the crows of Sendai, who place walnuts under the wheels of cars stopped at traffic lights, nuts which are then cracked open as the cars move forward on green. ‘Quite possibly,’ he continues, ‘these crows believe that cars and trucks exist for the express purpose of crushing shells’ (247). Among other things, displacing the anthropocentric bias in this manner opens the way to a far more nuanced understanding of the various ways in which human and nonhuman beings co-exist and co-evolve within symbiotic relationships, and not as a result of domestication (from the Latin dominus) conceived as synonymous with domination.

That said, writes Sax, it is in fact technology, rather than other animals, which today more than ever is rendering the illusion of human dominance impossible to maintain. Indeed, he argues, an alien newly-arrived on Earth ‘might well think that computers were the dominant form of life, with human beings only present to build and service them’ (248). And how, the alien may well ask herself, might these human animals have come to be so utterly dominated in this fashion? Well, suggests Sax, the alien might very well conclude that humans must simply have been programmed that way, most likely set in motion by a series of automatic triggers of the most basic stimulus-response type (248).

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Second, the First Part

While retaining both brevity and simplicity of telling, the first part of Imaginary Animals concerns itself with the rather different task of responding in depth to a number of provocations that give each chapter its heading: namely, ‘Animal Encounters’; ‘What is an “Imaginary Animal”?’; ‘Every Real Animal is Imaginary’; ‘Every Imaginary Animal is Real’; and ‘Monsters.’

Focusing in the first chapter on the paradoxical figure of the ‘true unicorn,’ Sax clearly demonstrates why, should unicorns be discovered, no captured unicorn could ever be judged ‘authentic’ according to her species classification. From this, we can infer the impossibility of ever adequately defining and delimiting any species insofar as, if no newly emerging species can be defined, ergo neither can any existing or now-extinct species, including human beings. Sax dwells in some detail on this latter point and, while parts of the argument regarding human beings are interesting, some are nonetheless very problematic. He begins by arguing that to produce an adequate definition of the human species is, and always will be, impossible, simply because ‘the boundaries of what is considered human vary enormously by culture, by historical era and even in the course of an individual’s day-to-day experience’ (23). Thus, a bear in one place and time is thought capable of coupling with a human to produce a child while, in another, apes are assumed to be human while certain of tribespeople are not, or again, in another place and time, that the large cassowary bird is a human being is a fact blindingly obvious to all concerned. By any account, this is an important point to make.

However, writing now of the innumerable doomed attempts to define the human on the basis of an apparently unique property, be it tools, language, consciousness, death, etc., Sax seems to locate in this lack of a uniquely definitive property the very property it claims that humans lack. Human animals, in short, are ‘uniquely elusive’ insofar as they lack any uniquely human characteristic, but rather are always ‘disguised, airbrushed, rethought, hidden, exaggerated or otherwise altered’ (24). Given the inference that no species can ever be adequately defined and delimited, this is an extremely puzzling move indeed. Human animals, insists Sax, are unique because they elude definition, while at the same time insisting that unicorns, for example, also elude definition. Moreover, Sax’s definition of the properly human is almost as old as time, having been reiterated over and over again in myth and fable, most notably for us perhaps in the Greek myth of Epimetheus. Indeed, Western philosophy has depended for millennia upon just this notion of constitutive lack as proper to the human, before finally being taken to task by poststructuralist philosophy.

Immediately after making his claim for a properly human lack, Sax then states his desire to extend ‘the academic area called “anthrozoology” or “animal studies” … to the imagination, to myth and legend’ – a realm which, according to Sax at least, ‘has seldom been very anthropocentric’ (25). He attempts this, he writes, in order to ‘finally reveal our human claims to dominance to be illusory’ (25). That said, the claim that myth and legend are largely non-anthropocentric seems to me quite extraordinary, and the suggestion that in ‘folktales throughout the world, all forms of life, from human beings to foxes and trees, interact with something close to equality’ (25) would seem to fall prey both to a universalization of myth (which Sax rightly argues strenuously against throughout) and to a forgetting of that trick of perspectival bias that ultimately sustains an illusory belief in a global human dominance. Moreover, just such an anthropocentrism, precisely because it remains invisible and thus unquestioned, threatens to stall Sax’s project before it can even begin insofar as it potentially risks the silent extension of anthropocentrism – in the guise of its very expulsion – throughout the realm of animal studies. Instead, I would argue, it is necessary to engage adequately and repeatedly with anthropocentrism at every level, simply because it is something that can never be expelled, but only ignored.

Despite elsewhere acknowledging the importance of replacing dominance with symbiotic co-evolution, equally problematic here is a nostalgic regression of other animals to an illusory ‘primordial’ realm of ‘nonhuman cyclic time’ that, in typically Hegelian fashion, is imagined to predate the human world of names, categories, and concepts (31-32). Indeed, readers of animal studies will doubtless be familiar with this argument. Philosophical as much as physical engagements, however, have long shown the necessity of understanding the various controversies concerning temporality that, at the very least, mark it as a hugely complex and profoundly nuanced area of study. By contrast, such a simplistic opposition that pits an unexplored conception of linear time understood as properly human, against some equally unspecified kind of cyclic time said to universally characterize the massively divergent ways of being of all other animals, quite simply offers nothing; serving only to effectively obscure questions of temporality, the answers to which will inevitably bear heavily on the future directions of animal studies, be it an imaginary variant or not.

Here, one might well object to the reading being made here, pointing out that Sax is not, nor does he claim to be, a philosopher, and as such it is clearly unfair to reproach his work for its lack of philosophical rigor. In response, however, we should not forget that Sax’s explicitly stated aim with this book is to construct, or perhaps extend, animal studies so as to include imaginary animals of myth and fable within its remit. If we are to reasonably judge the possible success or otherwise of this endeavor – and, indeed, whether such an endeavor is necessary or even advisable – it is therefore necessary to engage with the work on the ground of contemporary animal studies, an area in which, in my opinion, rigorous philosophical and theoretical critique constitutes the primary component. Moreover, in this first part Sax himself explicitly intervenes in a number of philosophical controversies currently prominent within animal studies, an engagement which makes this part by far the more interesting of the two.

It is in this vein that Sax evokes the famous bathroom encounter between Jacques Derrida and his ‘little cat’ as related by Derrida in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006) – a passage that, having being read both intensively and extensively, has rapidly established itself as a theoretical touchstone within animal studies. Indeed, Sax’s own reading would have doubtlessly benefitted from being clearly situated within this broader context. Lacking this wider engagement, however, what appears as an initially promising reading ends up veering off dramatically, ultimately losing itself insofar as Sax completely misreads Derrida’s analysis of the shared gaze. Entirely against Derrida’s account, Sax concludes by misinterpreting the encounter with the alien gaze of an (other) animal as being simply ‘an experience that takes us back to something pre-cultural’ and which thus awakens ‘primal responses’ that serve to remind those exceptional beings that are human of the arbitrariness of ‘civilization’ in which such pride is taken. It perhaps goes without saying that Sax’s Christianized conception of Nature – as a previously Edenic realm from which all other animals were subsequently expelled as a consequence of the Fall announced by the arrival of the time-bound and thus historical human – represents a complete anathema to Derrida’s thought. Indeed, in positing the existence of a mythic and timeless animal realm, particularly one that reserves for human animals alone the possibility of experiencing an authentic ‘primordial response,’ Sax seems to be suggesting that the primary function of “Nature” is in fact to humble a self-aggrandizing humanity that would otherwise be consumed by arrogance and hubris.2

At this point, Sax cites Donna Haraway’s equally well-known critique of the Derrida passage, in which she justifiably takes Derrida to task for failing to consider the actuality of the cat – that is, her singular, nonsubstitutable existence and specific ways of being – as being relevant to the encounter. Building on this, Sax argues that, by the end of his lecture, Derrida ultimately reduces his ‘actual’ cat to a mere philosophical cipher, further suggesting that, regarding the bathroom scene at least, Derrida had perhaps ‘been writing as a poet when he suddenly remembered that he was really a philosopher’ (35). Again, however, the opposition of poet and philosopher put forward by Sax sounds a very odd note, particularly given its application to Derrida, who must take a large part of the credit for the thoroughgoing deconstruction of just this pairing. Despite this, Sax finds in Derrida’s lecture the constant battle of poet and philosopher, with the former demonstrating a longing for transcendence in his repeated attempt to reach out toward the cat’s ‘alien presence’ while, with at least an equal persistence, the latter insists upon an understanding that transcendence remains forever impossible (35). Moreover, writes Sax, this internal conflict between can be discerned by way of the ‘simple contradiction’ to which Derrida is said to fall prey. This contradiction is, continues Sax, rather an obvious one, wherein Derrida insists that this being who gazes upon him ‘cannot be classified or named’ while at the same time continuing ‘to call it [sic] a “cat”’ (35). Once again, however, Sax’s would-be coup reveals only a lack of any serious engagement with Derrida’s philosophy, particularly as regards the notion of the trace and its implication for traditional conceptions of language.

Indeed, this absence of engagement is further highlighted by Sax’s suggestion that Derrida could in fact have very easily avoided the contradictory application of the concept ‘cat’ to a being who refuses conceptualization by way of a simple expedient, namely that, instead of employing the word ‘cat,’ he could simply draw a picture of the inconceivable cat. Somewhat worrying here, is that Sax does not appear to grasp that pictures too take place only as a result of habitually acquired and unthinkingly deployed concepts, with drawings of cats serving just as well as labels and names as might those attributed in word form or that of a poetic fragment or algebraic equation. To imagine otherwise would be to assume that pictograms are wholly idiomatic, and thus immune to the delays and difference that condition every making of sense or production of meaning.

In concluding his reading, Sax argues that philosopher-Derrida ultimately silences poet-Derrida by forcing him to read ‘a huge book’ (35). At the last second, however, poet-Derrida is said to force out a last gasp claim that ‘an animal transcends all attempts at conceptualization, even by learned academics’ (35). Sax, it should be noted, is not claiming a direct citation. Nonetheless, this apparently objective summation in fact constitutes a further serious misreading. Derrida’s actual statement reads: ‘Nothing can ever take away from me the certainty that what we have here [in reference to the specific little cat gazing upon his nakedness] is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized’ (9). Clearly, one finds nothing here in support of Sax’s reading according to which any given nonhuman animal necessarily transcends conceptualization, as what appears to be both consequence and property of a common animality from which humanity is excluded. Indeed, to say that a given existence refuses conceptualization is very different from saying that that same existence transcends conceptualization. In one case, such an existence refuses absolutely to be subjugated by the shackles of conceptual control, instead forever exceeding externally imposed boundaries and, in so doing, disrupting every attempt to impose upon it a dominate univocal sense. In the other, however, every organism currently contained within the commonly-accepted concept of ‘animal’ always already transcends not just this very conceptualization by which such transcendental beings are identified, but every such conceptualization insofar as actual nonhuman animals therefore exist upon some plane of being both higher and superior than that upon which humans, as sole possessors of language and thus concepts, are thus condemned to remain.

Moving on to a consideration of the obscure ontological status of ‘Imaginary Animals’ in the next chapter, Sax refers to recent research in a number of fields, including cognitive psychology, in order to demonstrate that, in our ‘postmodern era,’ experience and imagination can no longer be considered opposites. This, he writes, is because perception is never immediate, but is rather a largely imaginative process of construction, at once biological and cultural, built upon ‘conceptual frameworks, visual stimuli, sounds, memories, and so on’ (40). Perception, in other words, is always already apperception, from which Sax concludes that experience therefore ‘does much to determine what stimuli we notice, and prior beliefs affect how we implicitly classify and interpret them’ (40-41). Such a conclusion, however, simply does not go far enough, even despite the important critiques of Eurocentrism and anthropocentrism that follow it, insofar as it leaves itself open to a reinscription of the humanist Kantian subject – a reinscription this reconfiguration of perception as mediated process renders impossible.

That aside for a moment, Sax makes the point here that the experience of perceiving another animal is always in large part the process of constructing an imaginary animal.3 Furthermore, he writes,

animals are the major templates used in the construction of human identity, whether universal, tribal or individual. Imaginary ones in particular are a record of the changes in humankind, as we absorb, lay claim or try to disown features that we discover in other creatures. And because people constantly not only appropriate aspects of the appearance, habits and abilities of other animals but draw on their identities as well, in ways that are almost as various as the animals themselves, there is a great diversity among human cultures and individuals (46).

Clearly, Sax is making a big claim here: namely, that cultural difference – and thus culture ‘itself’ – is either, largely or entirely, reducible to the result and record of the humanity’s arrogation of the appearance, habits, abilities, and even identities of other animals.

This, however, raises a whole series of questions, not least of which being that, if the construction of ‘culture’ and thus ‘human identity’ (or vice versa) depends upon the appropriation of (other) animals, then is culture- and identity-construction an entirely human province? If so, then the animal ‘identities’ thus arrogated must be entirely imaginary and, if not, other animals must thus also take part in culture- and identity-construction. Here, however, Sax seems at no point to entertain the notion that nonhuman animals also possess culture, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Rather, it seems as if human metaphoricity at this point overwhelms and erases the existential specificity common to every animal, human and nonhuman, reinstating the privileged liberal Kantian subject as it goes. Only humans, in other words, are both biological and cultural, in contrast to all other, ‘merely’ biological animals. But what happens in that case to perception-as-apperception? The simplest perception, we recall, is a largely imaginative process of construction that is at once biological and cultural. What, then, becomes of nonhuman perception? It hardly seems likely that Sax would suggest that all other animals are incapable of experiencing their environment through their senses. This problem, I would argue, is a result of not working through further implications of the ‘postmodern’ understanding of perception, in particular as regards the possibility or otherwise of traditional biology-culture and nature-culture dualisms.

This too marks a concern I have with the notion of an imaginary Animal Studies such as Sax articulates here: namely, that it risks detracting from actual animals. No doubt, Sax himself would abhor such an outcome and, indeed, such an outcome is in no way necessary. What is perhaps necessary, however, is a reconsideration of the notion of the ‘imaginary animal’ which, according to Sax,

is a creature that seems to belong to a realm fundamentally different from, yet somehow allied with, our own … An imaginary animal is a sort of “second self” for an individual human being, an association of people or even the entire human race – something we might have been, might become, fear turning into or aspire to (47).

This is not to say, however, that such an argument is without merit. Indeed, in terms of a proposed new area of study, Sax could easily have strengthened his argument by paying attention to the specific construction of contemporary monsters beyond that of Sasquatch and the occasional brief reference to biotechnology. As it stands in its’ admittedly speculative and provisional form, however, it remains difficult for me to see how such a conception answers to anything other than a desire to find an academic home for the collection and collation of whatever might constitute the postmodern equivalent of the mediaeval bestiary. Of course, this is not to say that such an equivalent would therefore be without interest – on the contrary, a postmodern bestiary would doubtless prove fascinating. My point is simply that, if the remit of Imaginary Animal Studies is to be something other than this, as Sax himself clearly imagines, then it must seek its grounding elsewhere than in the hubris of the Kantian subject.

No doubt, part of the problem here results from the constraints imposed by an attempt to appeal to academic and popular readerships simultaneously. Even with these constraints, Sax nonetheless still manages on occasion to display his undeniable critical acumen to devastating effect, most notably in his rebuttal of both the humanism and universality of Steven Mithen’s theory of cognitive fluidity, and again during his engagement with Paul A. Trout’s argument that the fear of being consumed by predators constitutes the foundation of religious awe and thus worship.

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Conclusion: The Last Part

In the short conclusion, Sax returns to the limits of human concepts, and particularly in relation to what this means for rights discourse in the case of other animals. All animals, he reiterates, are ‘probably impossible’ to fit neatly within the categories of human thought. While this might seem rather banal at first glance, this is in fact an absolutely crucial point that so many concerned with other animals could do well to heed. For example, asks Sax, are other animals moral? Well, he answers himself, ‘which morality did you have in mind? … A Mafia don, a Viking warrior or a Confucian scholar?’ (251). What about a sense of time? Do other animals have that? Again, Sax answers himself, which time did you have in mind, linear time or cyclic time, time as conceived ‘by Buddha, Newton or Einstein?’ (251). After dealing in similar fashion with a sense of self, of consciousness, and of death, Sax makes the central point that most research inquiring into such questions ‘is not only anthropocentric but extremely ethnocentric as well,’ and constitutes an obstacle that is ‘true of all of … approaches to animal rights’ which seek to extend contemporary human concepts to other forms of life (252). As Sax notes, such approaches may – at best – afford some small protection to a very small number of other animals whom humans perceive as sufficiently similar to themselves. At worst, i.e., when elevated to a universal principle, the only possible result is that of an oppressive imposition of concepts serving only to deny ‘distinctness and autonomy’ (253). Instead of attempting to impose our world, writes Sax, we should rather try to enter theirs.

All of this, I believe, remains timely and important. I am, however, less convinced by the specifics of the alternative proposed by Sax, who maintains that to effect such an entry one needs only a heightened sensitivity and imagination whilst at the same time placing an increased trust upon our ‘poetic imaginations’ (253). Regardless of the degree of imaginative sensitivity, such encounters will always depend upon established patterns of human thought, and as such this would seem to amount to little more than the somewhat trivial suggestion that we humans be more open to other animals. What makes Sax’s approach different from so many others, however, is the priority he gives to imaginary animals (in the narrow sense of the word). Such animals are, he writes, ‘based on real ones,’ albeit with their common kinship and strangeness intensified to an uncommon degree and, as such, they constitute a human ‘mirror test’ (253). It is this, continues Sax, which makes them both good to think and good to dream. They remind us, he writes, of all which we do not know, and thus they warn against arrogance; in Gothic churches, they ‘caution against fanaticism’; in palaces, they recall us to the temporary limits of power; and in libraries, they provide ‘a check on both pride and cynicism’ (253). Because of all of this, he concludes, imaginary animals promise transcendence: ‘Fantastic animals direct us to, and then beyond, the limitations of normal routines, social conventions, religious dogma and perhaps even cosmic law’ (253-254). Perhaps. But perhaps such fantastic human constructions are themselves already mere instances of normal routine and social convention. Moreover, if transcendence is indeed at stake, one cannot help but question where, exactly, other animals are in all this and, indeed, how this alone might offer more than even the limited potential afforded by contemporary rights discourse.

Unfortunately, perhaps, Sax’s latest book is inevitably caught in a double bind, opening itself to criticism precisely in the moment that it dares to go beyond a straightforward cross-referenced encyclopedia to become something different and considerably more interesting. In this sense, a critical response such as this one proves above all that this work does not concern itself with interminable collection collated into terminable lists, but rather reaches toward something entirely other. In this sense at least, Imaginary Animals is indeed exemplary of the field of animal studies at its best.

.

Notes

  1. The answer, by the way, is yes, of course we should. And considerably further too.
  2. As such, it is useful here to counterpoint Sax’s exegesis with a brief summary of the text it claims to elucidate. Thus, Derrida seeks to take account of a thoroughly disarming encounter with the ‘bottomless gaze’ of a feline companion whilst standing naked in his bathroom one morning. As both border-crossing and absolute limit, Derrida describes the encounter as ‘an instant of extreme passion’ that constructs a vantage from which man might, at long last, finally dare to announce himself to himself. Further, he continues, to encounter the gaze of the absolutely other is to lose one’s self in the apocalyptic event of absolute potentiality that, in the very same instant a vantage becomes finally attainable, announces nothing other than the ends of man.
  3. Here we discover a particularly interesting overlap of Sax’s major concerns with those worked through by Tom Tyler in his CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, published by the University of Minnesota Press in the same year as part of their influential ‘Posthumanities’ series.

Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals Press Release

My new book, Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals, to be published officially on 15 July 2014

http://www.amazon.com/Zoogenesis-Thinking-Encounter-Richard-Iveson/dp/095714704X/ref=la_B00LNAFBXC_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404912339&sr=1-1

Press release:

Please email sophie@pavementbooks.com for contact details, review copies, photographs, and author biography

 

Disrupting the Economy of Genocide
Encountering Other Animals Amid the Necropolitical Exploitation of Life

Published by Pavement Books, Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals by Richard Iveson offers radical new possibilities for encountering and thinking with other animals, and for the politics of animal liberation. Arguing that the machinations of power that legitimize the killing of nonhuman animals are thoroughly entangled with the ‘noncriminal’ putting to death of human animals, Zoogenesis shows how such legitimation consists in a theatrics of displacement that transforms singular, nonsubstitutable living beings into mute, subjugated bodies that may be slaughtered but never murdered. In an attempt to disrupt what is, quite simply, the instrumentalizing and exploitative economy of genocide, Iveson thereafter explores the possibility of interventions that function in the opposite direction to this ‘animalizing’ displacement – interventions that potentially make it unthinkable that living beings can be ‘legitimately’ slaughtered.

Zoogenesis tracks several such disruptive interventions or “animal encounters” across various disciplinary boundaries – stumbling upon their traces in a short story by Franz Kafka, in the bathroom of Jacques Derrida, in a politically galvanising slogan, in the deaths of centipedes both actual and fictional, in the newfound plasticity of the gene, and in the sharing of an inhuman knowledge that saves novelist William S. Burroughs from a life of deadly ignorance. Such encounters, argues Iveson, are zoo-genetic, with zoogenesis naming the emergence of a new living being that interrupts habitual instrumentalization and exploitation. With this creative event, a new conception of the political emerges which, as the supplement of an ethical demand, offers potentially radical new ways of being with other animals.

“one of the most thorough and exhaustive treatments of philosophy’s recent encounters with animality … With both impressive scope and penetrating critique, Zoogenesis allows us to think through a comprehensive rearticulation of ‘the human’ in a radically subversive manner” – John Ó Maoilearca, Professor of Film Studies at Kingston University, London, and author of Postural Mutations: Laruelle and Nonhuman Philosophy (2015).
“Encounters between human living, and other living entities, and between fictive and imaginary, Aristotelian and Cartesian animals are here staged with respect to competing notions of life and value, of writing and of literature. … Richard Iveson reads a variety of sources with insight and discrimination, contributing highly effectively to this recently emergent and rapidly expanding new life form: zoogenesis” – Joanna Hodge, Professor of Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, and author of Derrida on Time (2007).

Richard Iveson is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has published widely on the “animal question” in contemporary philosophy and politics. His current project concerns the emergence of “posthuman” entities, the very existence of whom/which undermine traditional borders between the living and the nonliving.


“Whether There is Life or Not”: Triangulating Matter with Derrida, Meillassoux, and DeLanda

 

The following is a copy of the paper I presented at the Derrida Today conference in New York last month.

 

In its starkest formulation, for Derrida there is no being as such without a living being. From the first, Derrida installs an abyss between the living and the nonliving when, in Of Grammatology, he posits the emergence of the trace – as the new structure of nonpresence that is the unity of the double movement of protention and retention – as synonymous with the emergence of life. This, for Derrida, is the denaturalizing movement oflife, the originary technicity of living being, its structural unity accounting for the originary synthesis that is the becoming-time of space or the becoming-space of time. Put simply, in order for an entity to endure in time and thus appear on the scene of presence, this very appearing necessarily recalls the trace of both past and future elements, and as such depends a priori upon its relation “to what it absolutely is not,” in that, as Derrida writes, an interval or spacing “must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself.”[i]

This formulation of the trace, as the bedrock of deconstruction as practice, remains central to the important and ongoing deconstruction of the human-animal dichotomy. Indeed, Derrida’s insistence throughout his work that the structure of the trace is constitutive of all living beings is itself reason enough for any rigorous thinking with animals to continually return to the “quasi-concept” of the trace. However, it is just such a rigorous engagement that compels a further question: if the trace is the constitutive condition of everything temporal, that is, of everything that endures, then why, exactly, does Derrida equate the trace with “life in general” while innumerable finite entities continue to endure without the “genetic description” supposedly regulative of life? Why, in other words, does Derrida set limits on the trace when, in so doing, he simultaneously imposes limits on the living?

In the posthumously published The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the long history of Western philosophy has been dominated by the recurrence of an invariable schema, one in which everything deemed the exclusive property of “Man” derives from an originary fault or lack that constitutes “the imperative necessity that finds in it its development and resilience.”[ii] This schematic default, in short, bestows upon the human its exceptional ontological status, ring-fencing everything from technology, language, and time, to society, politics, and law, while at the same time continuing to ensure the human’s “subjugating superiority over the animal.”[iii] Is it possible, then, that Derrida himself remains blind to, and thus complicit with, an even more basic philosophical schema, that of a dominant zoo-centrism that bestows exceptional ontological status upon the living,a dogmatic dominant that Manuel DeLanda calls “organic chauvinism”?[iv]

Our question, then, concerns Derrida’s desire to put an end to life, that is, to place limits on “the living” through the reiterated construction of an abyssal border separating living “beings” from nonliving “things.” Such a question moves Derrida’s thought beyond his own examples of amoeba and annelid to such complex beings as viruses, Martian microbes, quanta and silicate crystals and beyond, to every potential material existent. Perhaps, then, it is not by chance that, in his final seminar, Derrida finds himself haunted by the figure of the zombie, that fearful thing-being hesitating between life and death. More importantly, it is only by refusing to impose contingent limits upon “life” that a materialist and posthumanist praxis becomes possible, one that affirms the potential of “bodyings” that are truly radical.

Returning to the schematic domination of Western philosophy, irrespective of whether they concern human hubris or organic chauvinism, the questions such schema are constructed to counter are basically the same. Today’s humanist descendents of Darwin, for example, lacking the fall-back position of a divine Creator, must nonetheless be able to account for the emergence of the human as both coming from the animal and yet no longer being animal. Perhaps surprisingly, Derrida’s organic chauvinismis staged to counter this very same problem, albeit with a shifting of terms that is essentially superficial. Thus, Derrida, similarly lacking a divine fall-back position, must also be able to account for the emergence of the living as both emerging from the inanimate and yet no longer being inanimate. He must, in other words, address the precise historical moment in which the living presumably “emerges” from the nonliving. This problem, for the secular humanist as for the organic chauvinist, is, in short, that of creation ex nihilo. Ultimately, such dominant – nearly but not quite invariable – historical schema are not constructed to solve but rather to dissolve such problems, that is, to obviate the question.

Derrida, as we know, refers to the movement of the trace as “an emergence.” Okay, but as an emergence from what, exactly? Presumably (Derrida himself does not say), the trace, as a “new structure of nonpresence” synonymous with “life,” could only emerge from and within a world composed entirely of inorganic, inanimate entities – beings that nonetheless somehow endure. This has serious consequences, as not only does this contradict the logical structure of the trace, but it also opens deconstruction as a whole to the negative charge of “correlationism” as defined by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude.

According to Meillassoux, the problem of correlationism can be seen at its clearest when considering ‘ancestral statements,’ that is, statements made about reality anterior to the emergence of ‘life.’ Such statements, Meillassoux argues, are impossible for the correlationist philosopher for whom being is co-extensive with manifestation, in that the past events to which ancestral statements refer could not, by definition, be manifest to anyone. As such, ‘what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is,’ meaning that manifestation is not the givenness of a world, but is instead an intra-worldly occurrence that can in fact be dated. In other words, to make the emergence of life synonymous with the worlding of world is to evoke the emergence of manifestation amidst a world that pre-existed it. Hence, insofar as Derrida makes the emergence of the trace synonymous with the emergence of living beings, deconstruction too, as Meillassoux clearly implies, has no answer to the challenge the ancestral poses to correlationism – namely, ‘how to conceive of a time in which the given as such passes from non-being into being?’ This challenge concerns not the empirical problem of the birth of living organisms, but the ontological problem of the coming into being of givenness as such.

If, as Derrida maintains, the trace is the constitutive condition of existence itself, then how can the double movement of the trace emerge from out of anything? Rather, only the nothingness of the endless void could possibly precede its “emergence” insofar as its apparently “new structure of nonpresence” at the same time constitutes the condition for the appearing or enduring of any entity whatsoever. Hence, “life” as synonymous with the trace ultimately results in a return to the theological, demanding as it does creation ex nihilo.

Things are very different, however, once one extends the logic of the trace beyond its zoocentric privilege. As Martin Hägglund states with admirable clarity: “Everything that is subjected to succession is subjected to the trace, whether it is alive or not.”[v] With this deceptively simple sentence, Hägglund launches – at least potentially – a radical and far-reaching critique. While I will consider what I see as the major difficulty with Hägglund’s position shortly, it is useful first of all to briefly consider possible reasons as to why Derrida sought to put an end to life. Returning to Of Grammatology, we find Derrida pointing to the “essential impossibility” of avoiding “mechanist, technicist and teleological language at the very moment when it is precisely a question of retrieving the origin and the possibility of movement, of the machine.”[vi] Remembering that this is his first major work, I think that, above all else, Derrida wants to avoid exactly those accusations: namely that, underneath it all, he is in fact positing a rigid, mechanistic universe. To this end, however, he succeeds only in offering a late form of vitalism in its stead, that is, a form that rigidly separates the worlds of organic life and human consciousness, where innovation is possible, from the realm of the merely material, where repetition of the same is the rule.[vii]

Further, Derrida may well have imposed these restrictions upon the trace as a result of concerns related to any would-be “retrieval of the origin,” concerns reflected in the fact that Derrida here offers nothing whatsoever in regards to the utterly extraordinary – but still presumably historical – event of the trace’s emergence. More important, however, is the fact that the structure of the trace, in accordance with its own logic, could quite simply never have been “new.” This obscure “locating” of the origin of “life in general” is both odd and paradoxical, an oddness that only increases in that, while Derrida refuses to engage with some of the more radical implications of his own thought, these same implications are nonetheless perfectly consistent with contemporary interpretations provided by both neo-Darwinists and synthetic biologists as to how nonlife “invents” life and how the inorganic “creates” the organic. Moreover, what in their turn all these latter interpretations lack is precisely that which deconstruction provides, and which renders eliminative materialism impossible.

Beginning with a very simple example of the “ancestral,” long before bacteria first “appeared” there existed on Earth large, relatively simple crystals, described by neo-Darwinist Daniel Dennett as virus-like beings who or which, while lacking a host, are nonetheless capable of self-replication. These ancient crystals thus depend on repetition for their very survival, that is, upon an ongoing reiteration that, if successful, brings about accelerating feedback loops and, if not, results in their decomposition.

In order to understand this notion of accelerating feedback loops, it remains to briefly introduce DeLanda’s notion of nonlinearity.While Derrida insists that without life there can be neither affect nor event,[viii] DeLanda argues that affect and event are part of the space of the structure of possibilities of every entity. The being of a given entity, he argues, can never be separated from its future possibilities, and thus must be considered in terms of its properties, capacities, and tendencies. Taking “knife” as an example, its properties – such as sharpness and solidity – exist independently of its relation with other entities. Capacities, meanwhile, consist of an entity’s potential affect, the knife, for example, has the capacity to cut, a capacity that is always double insofar as it requires a relation, that is, requires other entities capable of being affected in their turn. Thus, a knife’s capacity “to cut” is always the mark of a relation: to-cut – to-be-cut. Moreover, capacities are potentially infinite insofar as they depend on affective combinations with other entities, combinations that are theoretically without limit. Finally, every entity possesses certain tendencies understood as possible states of stability toward which it tends. Hence, while our knife tends to be solid, given different conditions it could equally tend to be liquid or even gaseous, with every such transition being actualized as an event.

As such, potential affective combinations characterize the being of every entity – an affectivity that ensures the nonlinearity of history understood in its broadest sense. For DeLanda, innovation, and thus nonlinearity, occurs in any system “in which there are strong mutual interactions (or feedback) between components.”[ix] Moreover, when it comes to the nonlinear, it is entirely irrelevant whether the system in question is composed of molecules or of living creatures or refers to “pre-cellular” or “post-cellular” evolution, since both “will exhibit endogenously generated stable states, as well as sharp transitions between states, as long as there is feedback and an intense flow of energy coursing through the system.”[x] Dynamic, nonlinear phenomena thus fracture Darwin’s original strictly linear conception of evolution, presupposing instead only what DeLanda terms “gradients of fitness,” wherein a gradient functions only so long as there are differences of fitness to fuel a selection process favoring the replication of one kind over another.[xi] Gradients, once again, apply as much to “molecular replicators and their different capacities to produce copies of themselves” as they do to “the differential reproductive success of embodied organisms.”[xii]

Important here is the fact that both nonlinearity and neo-Darwinism presuppose with every replication the structural logic of iterability and, as such, the movement of the trace. For Derrida, we recall, iterability is the very possibility of repetition, while simultaneously determining that every reproduction is necessarily subject to variation or mutation – what Derrida calls dissemination or “destinerrance.” It is right here that deconstruction must shed its “late-stage vitalism” in order to reconstitute itself as a fully materialist practice. Indeed, Derrida is in full agreement with DeLanda as to the importance of history in this respect, describing iterability as “historical through and through” insofar as it allows both contextual elements of great stability and the possibility of transformation, which is to say history, for better or for worse.”[xiii]

Once one understands that the trace functions whether there is life or not, a suitably revised notion of iterability thus has the potential to radically transform the practice of deconstruction. Not the least of which concerns the impact that a deconstruction of the living-nonliving division would have on a number of related pairings, namely, animal-human, instinct-intelligence, and reaction-response.

However, simply to extend the trace in this way by no means guarantees a productive mutation, as we can see with Hägglund’s “radical atheism.” Regardless of how important his critique of Derrida undoubtedly is, its radical potential is quickly muffled insofar as Hägglund almost immediately reinstates what is perhaps the most traditional of all metaphysical oppositions. Arguing for a continuity between living and nonliving beings in terms of the trace,[xiv] Hägglund begins by proposing survival as the condition of every finite entity who or which endures in timespace. Survival is, in short, synonymous with being. All well and good, except that Hägglund immediately follows this with a rhetorical question: “What difference is at stake, then,” he asks, “in the difference between the living and the nonliving?”[xv] His answer is simple: while nonliving beings like Meillassoux’s radioactive isotope survive insofar as they endure and disintegrate over time, they are nonetheless “not alive” because they are “indifferent” to their own survival.[xvi] For Hägglund, then, to be alive is to be concerned with one’s ongoing survival. However, such an ontologically definitive “concern” would seem to imply, at the very least, some minimal form of consciousness or degree of intentionality. As such, a host of beings once again join the (very long) queue for judgment: are ants concerned with survival? Are microbes or extremophiles? What of antibodies? Artificial Intelligence? What of viruses? Indeed, what of urine? Is urine a “living” or a “nonliving” material? Is it, in other words, concerned or unconcerned about survival?[xvii]

By once again defining the living over and against the nonliving, Hägglund not only neutralizes his crucial point concerning the trace, but also in fact reintroduces the well-worn metaphysical opposition between the mindful (i.e. concerned with survival) and the mindless (and thus unconcerned about anything). For Hägglund, only the living constitute an open and closed system, but with no explanation as to why entities deemed nonliving do not also constitute an open-closed system that is in some sense concerned with survival understood as enduring. Indeed, as Derrida himself writes, the iterability of the trace ensures that nothing can remain absolutely stable. No system, in other words, can be absolutely closed, as this would imply full presence.[xviii] It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the most radical deconstruction of the limits imposed upon life by Derrida should itself end up reiterating a metaphysical distinction between response and reaction.

Until we insist on including everything that endures as subject to the logical structure of the trace, we find ourselves not on Crusoe’s island, but on Derrida’s,[xix] with access to the latter depending upon the apparently simple criterion of suffering which Derrida, following Bentham, argues should stand as the foundation of a newly inclusive ethics. As such, any claim for citizenship would seem to depend upon the possession or otherwise of a central nervous system at least comparable to that of the human.

To limit the world to the human, writes Derrida, is to forever remain with Crusoe, helpless but to interpret everything “in proportion to the insularity of his interest or his need.”[xx] Such limits placed upon the world, he continues, are “the very thing that one must try to cross in order to think.”[xxi] To follow Derrida then, means trying to cross the very limits that Derrida imposes upon the world, insofar as such limits once more make over the world as an island. In this sense, Derrida’s island is poor-in-world indeed and, it would seem, incapable of supporting either an ethics or a politics insofar as Derrida himself maintains that any “principle of ethics or more radically of justice … is perhaps the obligation that engages my responsibility with respect to the most dissimilar, the entirely other, precisely, the monstrously other, the unrecognizable other.”[xxii]

At issue here is not the living and the nonliving, but rather the necessary consequences of the trace as the unity of protention and retention – one such consequence being that the living-nonliving opposition must be broken down, and a differential relation installed in its place. Tables as much as tigers become living-nonliving entities insofar as the coherence and persistence of both depend upon matter, energy and differential gradients. In other words, if “life” consists of varying combinations of forces, then a table is alive: stabile yet finite and subject to abrupt phase transitions as a result of its being subject to the logic of the trace. Similarly, if a single RNA microbe is not qualified as “living,” then neither is a tiger, whose finite existence too is composed of stable combinations of forces whilst remaining subject to critical phase transitions.

None of this, however, implies some variant of vitalism or even animism. Nonetheless, only by engaging with the issues of vitalism and determinism in relation to an expanded notion of the trace does it become possible to conceive of a “mechanistic materialism” that in no way presupposes a reductionist view of life. And, once again, it is Derrida who provides the necessary theoretical tool with his notion of spectrality.

According to Derrida, the trace is entrusted to a survival wherein the opposition of the living and the dead loses and must lose all pertinence[xxiii] – to the domain, in short, of the specter. It is this trace-as-specter, as a surviving for whom life or nonlife is neither here nor there, which ensures that deconstruction can never be reduced to an eliminative materialism for the simple reason that, in Derrida’s words, “I don’t know” is “the very modality of the experience of the spectral, and of the surviving trace in general.”[xxiv]

Following our argument here, the spectral modality of “I don’t know” must therefore be extended to all entities. As a consequence of the structure of the trace, in other words, the spectral modality of “I don’t know” presupposes a position between the two extremes of eliminative materialism on the one side, and complete indeterminism in which causality and historicity play no role on the other – what DeLanda calls an “intermediate determinism.”[xxv]

Here, then, is a materialism that nonetheless has “I don’t know” as its way of being, a modality that, instead of reducing life to clockwork cause and effect, instead ensures the emergence of a nonlinear history in which every existent is subject to abrupt phase transitions at critical points, and without a transcendental factor in sight. At last, then, we humans can and must take our place within worlds that are fully-populated, worlds within which Martian hyperthermophiles and the image they evoke find their rightful place alongside the eon-long compression of volcanic rock and the blinding flash of lightning – such placings and spacings that, for as long as they endure, take place in accordance with the nonlinear modality of “I don’t know.”

 

 

 

[i] Derrida “Différance” (above, n. vii), p. 13.

[ii] Derrida, The Animal (above, n. i), p. 45.

[iii] Derrida, The Animal (above, n. i), p. 45.

[iv]Manuel DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum,”TechnoMorphica 1998, no pagination, available at: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/manuel-de-landa/articles/the-machinic-phylum/

[v]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p.119.

[vi]Derrida Of Grammatology(above, n. v), pp. 84-85.

[vii] DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum” (above, n. iv).

[viii] Jacques Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign Volume 2 trans. Geoffrey Benning­ton (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 149 (emphasis added).

[ix]Manuel DeLanda A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Swerve Editions, 1997),p. 14.

[x]DeLanda A Thousand Years(above, n. xxix), p. 14.

[xi] Manuel DeLanda Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason (London & New York: Continuum, 2011), p. 48.

[xii] DeLanda Philosophy and Simulation(above, n. xxxii), p. 48.

[xiii]Jacques Derrida “‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida” trans. Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby in Acts of Lit­erature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York & London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 33-75 (pp. 63-4).

[xiv]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123(emphasis added).

[xv]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123.

[xvi]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123 (emphasis in original).

[xvii] Urea was in fact the first “organic” compound to be synthesized from an “inorganic” substance (ammonium cyanate), way back in 1828.

[xviii] Jacques Derrida “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject” trans. Peter Connor & Avital Ronell in Points … Interviews 1974 – 1994 (Stanford: Stanford Uni­versity Press, 1995), pp. 255-287 (p. 270).

[xix] For Derrida’s discussion of Robinson Crusoe, in which Crusoe’s island isolation serves as a particularly fertile figure of human exceptionalism, see The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), passim.

[xx] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 199.

[xxi] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 198 (emphasis in original).

[xxii] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign Volume 1trans. Geoffrey Benning­ton (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 108.

[xxiii] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 130.

[xxiv] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 137.

[xxv] DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum” (above, n. iv).

 

 


Plato Between the Teeth of the Beast: full text of LSE public lecture

Plato between the Teeth of the Beast: Animals and Democracy in Tomorrow’s Europe

 

(This is the full text of a public lecture given at the LSE in February 2014; it offers an extended consideration of the issues explored in my earlier post ‘Cannibals and Apes: Revolution in the Republic’)

 

Introduction

The question I would like to consider today concerns the relation between nonhuman animals and the constitution of a democratic community, with “democracy” understood both as an ideal theoretical concept and as an ongoing social practice. Traditionally, both philosophy and politics have tended to exclude other animals, deeming them irrelevant to what are claimed to be entirely human affairs. Over the past few decades, however, philosophers have increasingly challenged this assumption, beginning with Peter Singer and Tom Regan in the 70s and 80s, and then, from within the Continental tradition, by Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Andrew Benjamin, and David Wood, to name just a few.

It is with this in mind that I have chosen as the subject for this talk a passage from Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, which I will read in full in a moment. While the reasons for choosing such an ancient text may not appear immediately evident, not to mention the fact that Plato was particularly scathing in his dislike of democracy, this passage is nonetheless key to understanding the possible role of other animals to a transformed notion of democracy. Moreover, it will soon become clear just to what extent we are already living within Plato’s supposedly ideal polis, be that as either citizens or labourers. As such, this will force us to re-consider a basic question of our existence, that is, whether – in fact – we live in a democracy at all.

First of all, however, we must consider the traditional use of “republic” to translate the title of Plato’s dialogue. Plato’s original term is “politeia,” which is better understood as “constitution” or “government.” Plato’s dialogue, in other words, is concerned with the various possible ways of governing, that is, with various constitutions or constituencies. To this end, Plato, in addition to his own ideal aristocratic form (glossed by Plato as “government of the best” and which I will continue to call the Republic for the sake of simplicity), examines four other forms of governing: timocracy (government of honour or government by the warrior class), oligarchy (government by the rich), democracy, and, finally, tyranny. Importantly, all these five constitutions are said to take place on a continuum, that is, while the aristocratic Republic is the best possible government, it is also the case that timocracy “arises out of” aristocracy. Similarly, oligarchy, while completely different and “teeming with evils,” nonetheless “naturally follows” from timocracy, just as democracy too arises from oligarchy and, lastly, tyranny – “the worst disorder of the State” – leads on from democracy. In short, Plato begins with the best and ends with the worst, noting that each form of government arises out of the previous one and permitting any number of intermediate forms along the way. Regarding the transition from democracy to tyranny, however, Plato is emphatic: democracy inevitably leads to tyranny. The future of every democracy, in other words, is always that of the most extreme nonfreedom, a future of abject slavery labouring under a tyrannical dictatorship. Given this slippery slope from best to worst, we can also understand why Plato spends as much time on the question of how his ideal Republic might be conserved once it takes power, as he does outlining its specific constitution.

Here, I will consider Plato’s critique of democracy on the one hand and, on the other, his proposed techniques for conserving power on behalf of the aristocratic “best.” This in turn will allow us to address the following series of questions:

1. How might we understand the claim that the inclusion of other animals is in fact a prior condition of any fully democratic community?

2. What is the relation between nonhuman animals, today’s ever-expanding proletariat-precariat, and the founding of a truly democratic constitution in terms of (a) control understood as force-feeding and (b) freedom understood as shared nourishment?

3. What are we to make of the renewed concern with other animals in which concern is based neither on animal rights nor on neo-Kantian notions of pity or compassion? Can a “post-humanist” notion of co-constitutive entanglement nourish a democratic idea or ideal of the communal?

4. If so, what might this mean for our democratic, economic, and ethical relations with other human beings in the era of neoliberalism and beyond?

Plato argues that nonhuman animals share with humans a special relation to democracy. All animals, he writes, possess an “instinct” or an “urge” for freedom that is synonymous with an “instinct” or “urge” for democracy. Moreover, the repression of this urge from the social body is of the utmost importance for Plato, who fears above all else that an increased sensitivity towards just this shared possession inevitably risks igniting a revolution that will ultimately overthrow his ideal aristocracy. Clearly, then, the role of animals within democracy is far from that of mute, passive endurance. Instead, Plato acknowledges a revolutionary relation between the freedom of nonhuman animals, the uprising of the working classes, and the founding upon the ruins of oligarchy of a democratic city always plagued by the double threat of anarchy and tyranny.

Plato goes on to argue that humanity must, and for political rather than economic reasons, harden its heart to the ongoing exploitation and suffering of “other animals” (this latter forming a group that, in times of crisis, includes all those forced to exchange the labour of their bodies in order to survive). By contrast, I suggest that a rigorous understanding of democracy requires that we pay heed to this dangerous “instinct” for freedom revealed in the first instance by the intimacy of our animal relationships. Only then do we begin to gain a sense of an explicitly democratic inter- and intra-relation of human and nonhuman beings.

 

This will lead us to consider the role played by the mouth in the constitution of bothPlato’s Republic and the democratic city, as well as the institutional role of the Platonic “Guardians” put in place to protect and conserve what turns out to be perhaps the most cynical of oligarchies by ensuring the closed mouth of the worker, a corporeal suppression that philosopher Georges Bataille describes as “the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude.” By contrast, only the wide open mouths of human and nonhuman animals alike permit the potential articulation of a fully democratic socius. Unwittingly no doubt, what Plato’s discourse on the ideal Republic lets slip is that sensitivity to the freedom of other animals is an essential first step in the constitution of a truly free society. Such is the sensitivity for shared nourishment, for eating well. Animal others, then, become fundamental to any understanding of community. Such a sensitivity forces the formerly closed mouth wide open, preparing to devour any social pact founded upon gross inequality, slavery and injustice.

 

 

Animals in democracy

Here is the passage from Book VIII of the Republic, which finds Socrates talking with Adeimantus. I will for the most part skip over Adeimantus’s replies insofar as they simply accede to the points expressed by Socrates:

Democratic freedom, says Socrates, makes its way into private households and in the end breeds anarchy even among the animals.

What do you mean? asks Adeimantus.

I mean that a father accustoms himself to behave like a child and fear his sons, while the son behaves like a father, feeling neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, in order to be free. A resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen, and he is their equal.

A teacher in such a community is afraid of his students and flatters them, while the students despise their teachers or tutors. And, in general, the young imitate their elders and compete with them in word and deed, while the old stoop to the level of the young and are full of play and pleasantry, imitating the young for fear of appearing disagreeable and authoritarian.

The utmost freedom for the majority is reached in such a [democratic] city when bought slaves, both male and female, are no less free than those who bought them. And I almost forgot to mention the extent of the legal equality of men and women and of the freedom in the relations between them.

At this point, Adeimantus asks Socrates about the animals such as are found in a democratic city.

No one, Socrates replies, who hasn’t experienced it would believe how much freer domestic animals are in a democratic city than anywhere else. As the proverb says, dogs become like their mistresses; horses and donkeys are accustomed to roam freely and proudly along the streets, bumping into anyone who doesn’t get out of their way; and all the rest are equally full of freedom.

To sum up: Do you notice how all these things together make the citizens’ soul so sensitive that, if anyone even puts upon himself the least degree of slavery, they become angry and cannot endure it. And in the end, as you know, they take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all.

This, then, is the fine and impetuous origin from which tyranny seems to me to evolve.

The same disease that developed in oligarchy and destroyed it also develops here, but it is more widespread and virulent because of the general permissiveness, and it eventually enslaves democracy. In fact, excessive action in one direction usually sets up a reaction in the opposite direction. This happens in seasons, in plants, in bodies, and, last but not least, in constitutions.

Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city.

Then I don’t suppose that tyranny evolves from any constitution other than democracy—the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom.

 

For Plato, then, democracy inevitably results in tyranny because the democratic citizen becomes so sensitized to anything even remotely resembling control or coercion that ultimately he refuses to abide by any and all laws, including those he imposes upon himself. Anarchy thus displaces democracy, leaving the way open for the tyrant to seize power and thereafter inflict upon the democratic citizen the most cruel and severe constraints. It is, suggests Plato, simple social physics: every action having an equal and opposite reaction.

As a result, a key concern in the formulation of Plato’s ideal constitution consists of its ability or otherwise to ensure that any hint of democracy is immediately stamped out, lest it fall victim to that hateful slide towards the “worst.” Thus, the rulers of the Republic must be permanently on the lookout for signs and symptoms that point to the emergence of anything even resembling a democratic sensitivity. Most telling and most dangerous in this regard, insists Plato, is sensitivity towards the enslavement and exploitation of other animals. Indeed, democracy and domestic animals would seem to arrive together, the latter only becoming visible, that is, recognized as material entities capable of willed physical encounters, when allowed the freedom of the democratic city. By contrast, Plato’s animals are invisible labourers employed in tasks that – while tedious, unpleasant and “lowering” – are nonetheless necessary to the conservation of the Republic and thus to preserve the benefits it allows for the privileged “free” – this latter synonymous for Plato with the “best.”

Animal freedom, therefore, is both a symptom of an emerging democratic “sensitization” within non-democratic constitutions, and a sign of the impending arrival of tyranny within democratic societies.

Plato also points out a clear link between the democratic freedoms of animals and those of slaves, women, and workers.Animal; slave; worker: put simply, these are the three – ideally invisible – groups that together constitute what is necessary for the Republic to function as the ideal dwelling of the best. Moreover, the boundaries between these three groups are extremely porous. Women, for example, belong to all three groups at different times and, during times of crisis spurred by the democratic urge for freedom, the three groups merge together, becoming an undifferentiated horde of wild animals – wildness being, for Plato, synonymous with the absence of justice.

Hence, essential to the conservation of the Republic, that is to say, as a technique to prevent such crises, is a continued “insensitivity” and thus “invisibility” towards all those who provide the labour necessary for its continuance. As such, and as an explicitly political imperative, Plato expressly maintains that the souls of men must therefore be hardened in its relationships with nonhuman animals, a hardening achieved by propagating callous indifference to their daily enslavement and exploitation. We can still witness this imperative functioning today with the continued mainstream dismissal of animal concern as something irrational and sentimental – terms all too often mere synonyms for womanly. Without this calculated insensitivity towards other animals, insists Plato, the masses will inevitably become sensitised to the democratic notion of possible freedom for all. Democracy, in other words, right at its origin, necessarily includes freedom for other animals. Indeed, animal concern can be considered a democratic imperative.

Crucial, then, for the survival of Plato’s Republic – and we will hear soon whether this Republic is in truth an aristocracy, a meritocracy, or rather something much closer to a human zoo – is some foolproof method that somehow ensures that the “necessary” 99% continue to invisibly serve and service the privileged 1%. To this end, Plato introduces into his polis the Guardian of the Law, a spectral being whom from birth and even before the 99% is forcibly given to swallow, coerced into accepting its body within their own – often to the point of being unable to distinguish between them. The role of the Guardian, moreover, is not to protect the general population; nor is its role even to control the Republic’s human inhabitants. Instead, the Guardian is expressly installed to tame animal behaviour, an installation that goes by way of the mouth. Along the way, Plato introduces into his Republic two entirely new beings: first, the worker-ape and, second, a psychoanalyst to ensure his continuing social fitness.

 

 

In another dialogue, Plato argues that the purpose of what he calls the human mouth’s “current arrangement” is to serve as “the entry passage for what is necessary, and as the exit for what is best.” Necessary in this respect refers to the nourishment required by the body in order to function – the intake of oxygen, food, and water, basically. Exiting from the body, the “best,” meanwhile,refers to what Plato describes as the “stream of speech that flows out through the mouth, that instrument of intelligence, [which] is the fairest and best of all streams.” Necessary material nourishment thus enters through the mouth, whereas the best exits the mouth in the form of spoken language. Key, here, is Plato’s description of the mouth in conjunction with language as an instrument of intelligence. It is, in other words, an instrument, a tool, to be employed in the constitution of what is intelligible.

The mouth, of course, does not have to function in this fashion – if it did, there would be no need for Plato to insist that it do so. Instead of a stream of speech exiting from the mouth, for example, we might experience instead a stream of vomit. Vomiting, often a necessary purging of the body, thus consists of a reversal of the mouth’s “proper” employment, an impropriety or a corruption as far as Plato is concerned.

At its most basic, then, a reversal ofthe directionsof what is necessary and what is best would represent the total corruption of the mouth’s proper purpose. What form of government might we find, then, in which the best enters through the mouth and the necessary exits? Plato’s answer, of course, is democracy, a world turned upside down insofar as, as we shall hear, in a democracy it is rather the necessary – that is, the body of that chimerical beast of worker-slave-animal – which enslaves the best, that is, the language of the masters. What is clear, however, is that the mouth, be it in the Republic or in the democratic city, is the instrument of enslavement. Plato’s claim, however, is that the rulers of the Republic enslave the necessary workers, slaves, and animals to a lesser degree than the free worker-ape enslaves the best under democracy.

As we have heard, for Plato, democracy, the urge or instinct for freedom, and the arrival of tyranny, are inseparable. Together they consist of a disease of the mouth, a disease which enslaves the very best instruments of Plato’s Republic.

The workers, the slaves, the animals, says Plato, are fit only to perform those invisible tasks necessary to the ongoing smooth running of the polis and, as such, are fit only to feed the body, that is, to materially consume. Those readers of Karl Marx will no doubt recognize this description only too well. The necessary 99% being fit only to exchange labour power for the means to subsist and thus be able to turn up for work the following day. The aristocratic 1%, meanwhile, are fit only for the task of the best, that is, fit only to reason and to teach, and who must not be distracted by the necessity of actually having to work for a living. Just in case we missed it, Plato spells it out for us: the “leonine spirit” that is the mark of the best is lacking in the labourer because the latter is forced to attend to the necessary appetites of his beastly body, becoming accustomed “from youth on to being insulted for the sake of the money” – the money needed to satisfy those appetites.

Diseases of the mouth are thus better understood as aberrations of consumption, that is, the result of not consuming “properly” according not to the dictates of the State but rather, as we shall discover, according to the dictates of the market. At the extremes of Plato’s Republic, then, we find at one pole the elite 1%, made up of esteemed, “purely” ascetic citizens such as Socrates and Plato who have eliminated entirely the desires of the body and whose mouth, unsullied by its necessities, thus serves purely as an exit for the best. At the other end of the spectrum, separated by all those whose bodily desires are weaker or stronger, are located those who have utterly abandoned themselves to the desires of the body, the mouth having become solely an orifice of immoderate entry. Standing at this latter pole, says Plato, we behold an odd, almost Kafkaesque creature – a hybrid that is instinctively despised by the good citizens of the Republic. This creature, declares Plato, is the worker-ape: why else, he asks, “is the condition of a manual worker so despised? Is it for any other reason than that, when the best part is naturally weak in someone, it can’t rule the beasts within him but can only serve them?” As we heard a moment ago, those who are compelled from youth onwards to undergo the insult of having to labour for money necessarily lose their lion-like spirit. Now, Plato makes the link explicit: it is the insultof having to labour for money that transforms the labourer into an ape instead of a lion, and it is precisely because of this transformation that the labourer is a being to be “despised” by the best.

This notion of a Platonic labour exchange shifts the would-be aristocratic hierarchy of the polis dramatically. Now the line is not between those whose natural disposition of the mouth is that of an exit for the best and those whose natural inclination is to abandon themselves to every shameless act of the body, but rather between those who need not concern themselves with the necessary satisfactions of the body, and those that must work to survive. The independently wealthy, therefore, are akin to private zookeepers, putting their ape colony to work in order to ensure their own leisurely comfort.

In the freedom to seek satisfaction for bodily desires, marked by the open, all-consuming entrance of the mouth, Plato thus equates the democratic urge with the “despised” character of the manual worker. Plato is, moreover, absolutely terrified by this chimaeric spectre he evokes – the very personification of a world turned upside down, the world of a revolution in which all that is good is stood on its head. The worker-ape, half-man half-beast, appears as the frightful figure of the masses. The personification, in short, of democracy.

Here, then, can we still claim with any certainty that we are, in fact, citizens of a democracy? Or are we rather part of the heart-hardened masses whose labour ensures an idyllic, republican existence for the lucky few?

As we know, tyranny for Plato is the consequence of democracy, in what is an unequivocal sequence of cause and effect. Moreover, democracy-tyranny is the perfect inversion of the perfect Republic, and is thus the natural – absolute, perfect – opposition of the incumbent government.This carefully constructed ideology of a monstrous democracy and of the democratic monster – and it is an ideology, nothing more, as Plato himself would probably agree – thus automatically casts the Government in the role of Guardian against tyranny, always on the lookout for even the merest stirrings of freedom, protecting its citizens from an insidious enemy that is all around us. The masked democrat, with her irrational empathy for other living creatures, could be anywhere – your neighbour, your teacher, your paperboy or -girl – ready to explode with her terrifying bodily desire for freedom. While apparently based upon sound philosophical logic and precise scientific method, this construction – the framework of which will no doubt be familiar to you all – is in fact a narrative of almost infinite self-legitimation. The agents of government must thus be permanently on the lookout for the emergence of democratic practices, constantly scanning the polis for signs and symptoms marking the origins of democracy. Most important for Plato, then, if this dangerous notion of democratic freedom is to be stamped out at its very source, is not to keep an eye on the attitude of the 99% towards the 1%, but rather to keep close tabs on the way in which the ordinary man or woman in the street engages with other animals, that is, how she shares her life. At the very grassroots of democracy, in other words, Plato locates an instinctual freedom of which each and every animal possesses an equal share.

 

 

There still remains for Plato the question of how, exactly, to repress this democratic urge or instinct from within the boundaries of the Republic. While the 1% is said to naturally exist within the moderating light of reason, the 99%, by contrast, are necessarily unreasonable beings inasmuch as they remain too strongly bound to their bodily desires – some of which, aligned with “unnecessary pleasures,” are considered by Plato to be “lawless” and that together make up, of course, the desire for democracy which, given its ultimate refusal of all laws, is indistinguishable from anarchy.

Even within the ideal Republic, however, Plato acknowledges that lawless desires – desires which are at once the desire for lawlessness – cannot be entirely suppressed, no matter how effective the Guardians turn out to be. Where, then, might such terrible, terrifying desires emerge? Nowhere other than in our dreams. Only then, says Plato, might the soul be caught napping, a nap the potential consequences of which are truly horrifying.

Fired up by its lawless dreams of freedom, of revolution, the body wakes abruptly to discover itself entirely under the sway of its “beastly and savage part,” casting off sleep and concerned only with finding “a way to gratify itself.” At such times, insists Plato – and here I quote directly from Book IX of the Republic – “there is nothing it won’t dare to do …, free of all control by shame or reason. It doesn’t shrink from trying to have sex with a mother, as it supposes, or with anyone else at all, whether man, god, or beast. It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness.” Hence, despite even the worker-ape’s own best intentions, beastly and savage libidinal desires will attack him when his defences are down. As such, one can never count on any of the 99% to remain within the Law, as the entire existence of the masses is marked, at the level of their very being, as prone to periodic explosions of terrifying democratic violence at any moment.

Interestingly, during this description of a mouth abruptly set free of all reasonable control, the male worker-ape abruptly ceases being a gendered being, the grammar of the passage shifting from a “he” to an “it.” It is a shift which offers itself to a specifically psychoanalytic reading, especially in the context of Plato’s remarks about repressed anti-social desires emerging through dreams. Sigmund Freud, as is well known, divides the psyche into three separate domains, the ego (which could be roughly described as “everyday consciousness”), the Super-ego or Ego-Ideal (as the authoritarian voice of social conscience), and finally the id (which consists of the seething mass of unconscious desires). In Freud’s original German, the Ego is the “I” (das Ich), and the “id” is “das Es,” that is, the “it.” Plato’s grammatical shift could thus be said mark the shift from the ego to the id, from the “I” to the “It”: the rampaging worker thus becomes a rampaging it, a seething mass of hitherto repressed desire. Moreover, reduced thus to an “it,” the worker-ape is rendered both inhuman and animal, that is, he has being dehumanised and animalised by Plato’s narrative. Simultaneously, the dominance of the mouth as entrance becomes absolute: every desirous act is mistakenly considered as “food” for the body: incest, bestiality, sex with gods; patricide, matricide, infanticide, regicide; cannibalism – no act, as Plato makes clear, can be omitted.

While the notion of a specifically psychoanalytic reading of Plato’s Republic will probablysound somewhat anachronistic, in fact in various places throughout the many dialogues Plato himself outlines something very close to a “new science” of psychoanalysis, with specific focus on the discipline of dream interpretation. In the Timaeus, for example, Plato suggeststhe need for external interpreters to pass judgement on the divinatory quality of dreams. Such judges, who are thus “expositors of utterances or visions communicated through riddles, must analyse any and all visions … to determine how and for whom they signify some future, past or present good or evil.” We should perhaps not be surprised, however, to discover that Plato ultimately proposes an inverted or reverse Freudianism.

Returning to the slumbering labourer within the Republic, we know her dreams are the province par excellence of the lawless desires of worker-apes. According to Plato, then, the dreams of the worker have the potential to reveal the future, a future both lawless and desired. Such, in short, are the dreams of revolution. Given the stakes, it comes as no surprise, then, that Plato wants exactly these dreams to be interpreted by “competent judges” – just one of the techniques Plato installs to protect the 1% from the desires of the remaining 99%. Techniques, moreover, which are explicitly psychoanalytic in practice.

As we know, the mouth remains central to the techniques of control. In this, the mouth is for Plato a pharmakon, that is, something that can serve as both remedy and poison at the same time. Hence, he argues, for all those apes in whom law and reason are either weak or absent, the danger of the animal mouth which poisons the Republic with its urge for freedom must be “cured” by the mouth as pure exit. The language of the rulers, in other words, must somehow function to place within the body of the worker “something similar to what rules the best.” Put simply, Plato suggests that, through the forced imposition of the language of reason andlaw, an external Guardian can therefore be installed directly within the worker – a highly-efficient Super-Ego expressly conceived so as to make of the latter an amenable slave.

Even more importantly, it is an enslaving of which the worker-ape knows nothing: “It is better for everyone,” Plato writes, “to be ruled by divine reason, preferably within himself and his own, otherwise imposed from without, so that as far as possible all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing.” This, he continues, “is clearly the aim of the law, which is the ally of everyone. But it’s also our aim in ruling our children, we don’t allow them to be free until we establish a constitution in them, just as in a city, and—by fostering their best part with their own—equip them with a guardian and ruler similar to our own to take our place. Then, and only then, we set them free.” Given this explicit programme of taming – Plato’s word – one can only assume that, in contrast to its visceral democratic counterpart, Plato here uses the notion of “freedom” somewhat ironically.

Despite the installation of the Guardian within her own body, it is essential that the worker remain ignorant as to the existence of this intimate instrument of control. In order to understand this mechanism for taming the urge for freedom, we need to take on board two more important technical concepts from psychoanalysis: introjection and incorporation. While the roles and even the meanings of these terms varies significantly depending on which analyst one consults, most will nonetheless agree that they refer to specific ways of interacting with, indeed, of coming to terms with, the entities that are all around us. At its simplest, introjection and incorporation are the different ways in which the psyche takes something of the external world within itself and, in so doing, nourishes itself.

As the psychoanalyst Maria Torok makes clear, introjection always involves growth, a broadening of the ego by way of the mouth in which the external is assimilated with the internal, a process through which both beings, the internal and the external, are positively transformed along the way. Such an open, enhancing technique of engagement serves no purpose in the polis of Plato’s Republic. Indeed, in order for the Platonic Guardian of the Law to function, it cannot be introjected by the worker-ape, that is, it cannotbe worked-over by the worker, for the simple reason that the language of the rulers serves principally to conceal the desires of the workers from the workers themselves.

Instead, then, all those labourers necessary to the Republic must rather incorporate the Guardian of the Law. Incorporation, explains Torok, is “the first lie” and “the first instrument of deception” – a trick, in other words, which leads the ego to mistake its external enslavement for an introjection of its own making. As such, the incorporation of the Guardian overwrites the worker-ape’s inherent desire for freedom by splitting the ego of the worker-ape into subject and object, the Guardian having being forcibly consumed, devoured, and installed as an “other-in-me.” The instinct for equal freedoms is thus corralled by security guards within the animal body that is quite simply the imposition of language itself. The 99%, in short, are forced into articulating their existence through the language of the 1%.

All of this, insists Plato, is a matter of justice for everyone. The Republic is not tyrannical like a democracy, he says, but is rather a just city for all who dwell within its walls. However, in speaking of the labourer as someone to be despised simply because he or she has to suffer the insult of being forced to sell her labour in order to survive, Plato ultimately gives himself away. It is this very insult – the insult we know today as the ever-increasing exploitation that is the very raison d’être of global capitalism’s pursuit of surplus value – this very insult which necessarily shelters the dreams of revolution, that is to say, the dreams of democracy shared by every animal, human and nonhuman, who are exploited for their labour. This, in short, is Plato’s great fear, the great fear that is the secret motor of his – and of our – Republic. Plato thus speaks not from a position of justice for everyone, but rather seeks to impose upon the poor the rules of the rich. We must, he insists, be governed by the same Law – the Law that money is power. The Guardian incorporated within the body of the worker is, in simplest terms, an explicitly normalising discourse designed at the outset to protect the wealthy from the dreams and desires of those forced to live hand-to-mouth.

In this context, it is instructive to read the EU Directive appended to the extract from the Republic accompanying this talk. Attitudes towards animal concern, the directive acknowledges, vary from nation to nation throughout the European Union and, while the EU will set the minimum level this concern may take, it will nonetheless allow for a certain flexibility should a given nation wishes to insist on a greater care be taken of their nonhuman inhabitants. There is, however, an extremely important coda: any insistence on better care being taken must “not affect the functioning of the internal market.” Here, we find a clear example of the “language of the masters” serving to ensure that concerned relations with other animals are not allowed to interfere with the market. At the same time, it exemplifies too the ongoing depoliticisation of the sovereign nation, with the EU ensuring that national governments can blithely claim irresponsibility while the market ensures on its part that we continue to harden our hearts to the exploitation of our animal kin, or at least ensure that their horrifying labours remain invisible.

Meanwhile, in our respective Republics, ancient and modern, not a single worker-ape may be permitted to escape this normalising operation. To allow even one worker to articulate the unlawful desires of the masses could be catastrophic. To this end, incorporation in the psychoanalytic sense is in fact the only possible remedy, insofar as only incorporation forecloses even the possibility of articulation: the words of desire, of revolution, the articulation of the insult, literally cannot be voiced due to the presence of the incorporated Guardian. For Plato then, to “eat well” is cannibalistic through and through: in being prohibited from consummating the lawless democratic urge, the worker-ape must be forced to consume an effigy of the rich, to incorporate an external Guardian in a process of auto-cannibalism through which the worker ultimately consumes himself, burying his dreams and his desires deep within himself. Only in this way is the insult prevented from erupting into an instinct for freedom, into a revolutionary consciousness – the “cure” of incorporation being, according to Torok, precisely that which protects against the “painful process” of reorganisation, of introjection, of growth and transformation. Incorporation, she adds, implies a loss that occurred before the desires concerning the object might have been freed, whilst the very fact of having had a loss is simultaneously denied. This, writes Torok, “is an eminently illegal act,” creating or reinforcing “imaginal ties and hence dependency.”

Things, however, don’t end here. The incorporated object – here the Guardian of the law – installed in place of, and to guard against, the desires quelled by repression inevitably recall that something else was lost – the incorporated object itself helplessly marks and commemorates the site of repression. Moreover, and here Torok and Plato are in agreement, these dangerous libidinal desires, while foreclosed in the light of day, nonetheless return in the dead of night, coming closest to the surface in dreams. The “ghost of the crypt,” writes Torok, “comes back to haunt the cemetary guard,” subjecting him to “unexpected sensations.” For Plato, in dreams the purity of the world of Ideas is lost, replaced by bastard configurations that retain the potential to betray those terrifyingly lawless desires. As a result, says Plato, the Republic must, in order to ensure the conservation of its status quo, remain ever vigilant to the slumbering desires of its worker-apes. To do this, he even goes so far as to suggest that every sign and symptom betrayed by the actual dreams of workers should be analysed as a preventative measure in a kind of inverse Freudianism.

If we read Plato with Torok, we discover that the site of repressed desires, commemorated by the Guardian itself, is typically signalled by way of a fantasy of ingestion such as imagined by Plato. While there may be no food that the rampaging worker-ape – consumed by a wild democratic urge – will not eat, this will never sate the actual and persistently active hunger for introjection. The offer of food, as Torok notes, is only ever an attempt to deceive, an attempt to fill – and thus close – the mouth of the labourer with something, anything, else. It is not this rampage of consumption that Plato fears might erupt within his Republic. Rather, such a rampage is both symptom and substitution of the hunger for introjection, a mark of the existential need for progressive libidinal nourishment.

In a sense then, Plato’s fear of the rapacious starving worker is certainly justified, constituted as it is by the very mechanism of incorporation meant to suppress it. In this crisis of the polis, the mouth of the worker – empty, open, teeth bare – calls out in vain to be filled with a language that permits introjection, that permits the articulation of what has been suppressed.

In conclusion, then, we are left with two related questions: first, how might one introject that which has been suppressed by incorporation? Still reading Plato with Torok, this would amount to an ongoing process of growth and transformation by which the entire social terrain would be reorganised according to the libidinal relations of freedom characteristic of a genuine democracy to-come. Second, insofar as this question of freedom for all concerns, at its very origin, a sensitivity to the enslaving and exploitation of other animals, might one not say that a sensitivity to the consumption of animals – understood as a cannibalistic consumption of flesh – is a principal condition of any authentic democracy-to-come, as Plato indeed fears?

Ultimately, we are brought back to the question of instinct. Plato understands the potential abandonment of the labourer to the democratic instinct as an abandoning of the human self to the animal realm. He, of course, can see in this abandonment of the properly human only an illness, a madness of the body that is both consequence and cause of the disease that is democracy, requiring the vigilance of a power simultaneously diagnostic and repressive. The Platonic Guardian, in short, ensures the closed mouth of the worker.

For us, however, things are perhaps different. Contrary to the entire Western humanist tradition, what we are tracing here is an unlikely and unruly privileging of instinct. Rather than excluding other animals, instinct here is essential to the revolutionary articulation of a fully democratic socius that necessarily includes other animals. Philosopher Georges Bataille gives us a sense of this when he writes of how “terror and atrocious suffering turn the mouth into the organ of rending screams. … the overwhelmed individual throws back his head while frenetically stretching his neck in such a way that the mouth becomes, as much as possible, an extension of the spinal column, in other words, in the position it normally occupies in the constitution of animals. As if explosive impulses were to spurt directly out of the body through the mouth, in the form of screams.”

 

 


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