Telling Tales in Troubled Times

The following is my review article on Donna J. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), which has just been published in Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies 9:1 (Fall 2017), pp.186-198.

The pdf of the article is here: http://www.depauw.edu/humanimalia/issue%2017/pdfs/iveson-haraway.pdf

The full issue is available at: http://www.depauw.edu/site/humanimalia/issue%2017/index.html

 

The Trouble

More than anything else, a particularly keen generosity of practice runs throughout Donna Haraway’s latest book, titled Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016). In this, Haraway shares in the same ‘curious’ methodological practice that she attributes to philosopher and psychologist Vinciane Despret, one that ‘is not interested in thinking by discovering the stupidities of others, or by reducing the field of attention to prove a point’ (126). Rather, such practice constitutes a kind of thinking that ‘enlarges, even invents, the competencies of all the players, including [one]self, such that the domain of ways of being and knowing dilates, expands, adds both ontological and epistemological possibilities, proposes and enacts what was not there before’ (126-127). Only with such a change in kind, suggests Haraway, do we become capable of changing the story – aptly described here as ‘the prick tale of Humans in History’ – that has captivated, and kept us captive, for so long. Such curious and generous practice, she continues, loosens the grips of cynical defeatism, allowing us to think outside of the ‘abstract futurism’ that currently dominates thought and steeps us all in ‘its affects of sublime despair and its politics of sublime indifference’ (4).

For Haraway, the prick tale’s current iteration can be approached most clearly by way of the work performed by the conceptual frameworks known as ‘the Anthropocene’ and ‘the Capitalocene.’ More or less commonplace in academic discourse today, Haraway convincingly argues that such terms readily maintain the prick tale with their ‘self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions, like the “game over, too late” discourse’ (56). However, to accept such deadening abstract futurism and thus its championing of supremely indifferent despair is as equally senseless – and brings with it exactly the same potential for catastrophic futures – as it would be to deny absolutely the seriousness, urgency, and magnitude of the problems that confront us today.

Neither willful naivety nor perpetually despairing quietism, Haraway advocates instead staying with the trouble, which she describes as ‘redo[ing] ways of living and dying attuned to still possible finite flourishing, still possible recuperation’ (10). We all, she insists, ‘require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles,’ a requirement that, in Staying with the Trouble, she aims to both argue and perform (4). In order to do this, she writes, we must first ‘look for real stories that are also speculative fabulations’ (10). A somewhat vague specification admittedly, this is quickly augmented by a list of ‘oddkin’ terms, all of which come under the order of the acronym SF: string figures, science fact, science fiction, speculative feminism, and so far. ‘Not in the world, but of the world,’ says Haraway, the ‘worlds of SF are not containers; they are patternings, risky comakings, speculative fabulations’ (14).

 

Initial troubles

Haraway’s narrative of composable and decomposable worldings brought forth through countless unaccountable multispecies players all ‘enmeshed in partial and flawed translations across difference’ is as compelling as it is necessary (10). Before we can address Staying with the Trouble in greater critical depth, however, we must first consider two troubling textual issues, the first aesthetic and economic, the second terminological.

1.The Market Demands of Celebrity. The influence of Donna Haraway’s work across an array of disciplines and inter-disciplines has long been undeniable. Indeed, she is one of very few thinkers working in English today whom one could legitimately – that is, in a positive, non-pejorative sense – describe as a ‘celebrity’ academic. Moreover, there are probably even fewer contemporary thinkers, in any language, who are as aesthetically and cognitively committed to design and pattern in the presentation of their work as Haraway. In the case of Staying with the Trouble, however, it seems that the demands of the latter have suffered somewhat at the hands of the former. Or, put in the language of political economy, we could say that the exchange value of ‘Haraway’ as the name of a commodity appears to have been privileged at the cost of the use value of Haraway as thinker.

Hence, what will likely strike the reader first of all about Staying with the Trouble is its obvious imbalance, with very nearly half of the total content being made up of largely extraneous material: namely, an incredible mass of end notes, an extended bibliography, and, lastly, a whopping – and largely redundant – 32 page index covering a main text that itself covers less than 170 pages and incorporates dozens of images along the way. The likely second thing to become all too frustratingly evident to the reader – after the first dozen or so pages – is that Haraway’s ‘new’ book is in fact a collection of six previously published stand-alone articles, and concluding with a hitherto unseen piece of fiction or ‘speculative fabulation’ entitled ‘The Camille Stories.’ All of this, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing – extensive revision coupled with adroit use of differently focused draft versions, for example, can indeed transform a set of related yet independent articles into a dramatic and coherent monologue. Unfortunately, however, that has not been the case here.

Rather, a great deal of the same statements and descriptions are repeated again and again, over and over in every chapter, along with the same names and same references, the same intellectual debts and the same points of collaboration. Indeed, the amount of repetition found within Staying with the Trouble is largely the reason why the endnotes stretch out over sixty pages, all of which is a lot less interesting than the actual work of staying with the trouble that Haraway is committed to here. The trouble, one assumes, is the consequence of stand-alone journal articles being forced too violently into the generic framework of book chapters. There are times, however, when the sheer weight of reiteration comes to sound less like an acknowledgement of comrades banded in their shared struggle and more like a branding of kinship onto others, a marking of names aimed more toward ownership and legacy. But then again, and as is well known, reiteration tends toward odd, unpredictable doings when left unchecked for too long.

With respect to repetition, moreover, the same question can be asked on a more general level, as Haraway herself makes clear: ‘It is no longer news,’ she writes, ‘that corporations, farms, clinics, labs, homes, sciences, technologies, and multispecies lives are entangled in multiscalar, multitemporal, multimaterial worlding’ (115). Rather, she continues, it is the details that matter, as it is the details that ‘link actual beings to actual response-abilities’ (115). Indeed, but this once again begs the question as to why Haraway spends so much of her latest book reiterating the former at the expense of the latter.

2. Posthuman/ism. Reiterating the position put forward in When Species Meet, Haraway again places herself in opposition to both ‘the Posthuman’ and ‘posthumanism’ – two distinct notions that, more often than not, she condenses into the single term ‘posthuman(ism).’ She does this first by retroactively invoking ‘companion species’ as conceptually opposed to ‘posthuman(ism),’ and then with the introduction of a new term intended to signify, among other things, its antagonistic distance from all things posthuman: compost.

Critters are at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile. We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters – human and not – become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthy worlding and unworlding’ (97).

Here, the trouble centres on just what Haraway is referring to with the term ‘posthuman(ism).’ First of all, the conflation of ‘the posthuman’ (considered as either an entity or an event) and ‘posthumanism’ (understood as a position subsequent to the deconstruction of the traditional discourse of humanism) strongly suggests that, for Haraway, the two terms are synonymous, despite both terms having long served to mark sites of intense contestation across a wide variety of positions and disciplines.[i] While the term for the most part remains without gloss throughout Staying with the Trouble, in the manifesto-type section that opens the first chapter there are signs that, for Haraway, ‘posthumanism’ refers above all to Heideggerian existentialism (11).

Here, Haraway tells of being ‘finished’ with both ‘Kantian cosmopolitics’ and ‘grumpy human-exceptionalist Heideggerian worlding,’ further claiming to be without any relation whatsoever to the ‘existentialist and bond-less, lonely, Man-making gap theorized by Heidegger and his followers’ (11). In contrast to the ‘world-poor’ condition Heidegger infamously attributes to nonhuman animals, she continues, the worlding of ‘the SF web of always-too-much connection’ is rather ‘rich in world, inoculated against posthumanism but rich in com-post, inoculated against human exceptionalism but rich in humus, ripe for multispecies storytelling’ (11). On closer inspection, however, would do well to wonder just how anti-Heideggerian we really are here. First of all, the strain of existentialism that, at least from this very brief description, would seem to ineluctably stain every notion of the posthuman, sounds far more akin to Antoine Roquentin’s world of nauseous isolation as described by Jean-Paul Sartre than it does to anything put forward by Heidegger.[ii] Yes, ontological difference for Heidegger does indeed constitute and, in so doing, privilege the human as Dasein and, moreover, it does so at the cost of relegating every other living being to the vaguely articulated status of ‘poor-in-world.’ On the other side of the coin, however, is that with his rigorous articulation of radical new concepts such as the structure of significance, of being-open, and of a calling forth into being that is simultaneously a being-thrown, Heidegger dramatically informed and transformed our understanding of being-in-the-world. Moreover, he continues to do so, as is the case here when, writing of the capabilities of pigeons that so impress and surprise their human kin, Haraway notes that human beings

often forget how they themselves are rendered capable by and with both things and living beings. Shaping response-abilities, things and living beings can be inside and outside human and nonhuman bodies, at different scales of time and space. All together the players evoke, trigger, and call forth what – and who – exists (16).

‘I am a compostist, not a posthumanist,’ Haraway declares, ‘we are all compost, not posthuman’ (101-102). A better idea, I suggest, would be to stay with all the troubling humus and hubris of the posthuman, would be to continue taking the trouble with posthumanism for some while yet – com-post, that is to say, with-post. At the very least, this ‘having finished with’ Heidegger (and with Kant before him) suggests a symbolic setting-free that accords rather with something like a ‘near-utopianism’ that can be sensed throughout Staying with the Trouble, of which more later.[iii]

 

Three Tales of Trouble

The heart of Staying with the Trouble can be found at the various intersections and crossings-over of three different stories that speak themselves in three mostly distinct genres. First, now as then, is the prick tale of Humans in History. Second, comes the nested narrative – and sublime quietism – of the Anthropocene. And, third, stories that somehow narrate outside the first and somehow think beyond the helpless despair of the second – stories of a living future for living in the Chthulucene, and where, in the end, we will ultimately encounter Camille.

1. The prick tale. ‘Tool, weapon, word,’ writes Haraway, ‘that is the word made flesh in the image of the sky god; that is the Anthropos’ (39). Much of earth history, she writes, is a Man-made tragedy ‘told in the thrall of the fantasy of the first beautiful words and weapons, of the first beautiful weapons as words and vice versa’ (39). This is the prick tale, featuring but a single actor in the role of hero and world-maker engaged throughout in murderous conquest that allows of space for nothing else and nothing more: ‘All others in the prick tale are props, ground, plot space, or prey. They don’t matter; their job is to be in the way, to be overcome, to be the road, the conduit, but not the traveler, not the begetter’ (39). In Staying with the Trouble, Richard Dawkins’s ‘later sociobiological formulations within the Modern Synthesis, The Selfish Gene’ (62) serves as an exemplary moment in its ongoing action-movie plotline.

Working against this simplistic quest narrative, Haraway poses SF writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘carrier bag theory of narrative’ and what she calls the ‘Gaia stories’ of prominent social theorist Bruno Latour. As regards the latter, however, Haraway is right to maintain her reservations with respect to Latour’s reliance on ‘the material-semiotic trope of trials of strength’ (42), not the least of which being its obvious availability for appropriation within the prick tale quest narrative, and within that of neo-Darwinist sociobiology in particular. At this point, Haraway displays her talent for close textual analysis – albeit a talent far more in evidence in her early works – in tracing back Latour’s structuring trope to its foundation in the work of political theorist Carl Schmitt. As Haraway astutely remarks, ‘Schmitt’s enemies do not allow the story to change in its marrow; the Earthbound need a more tentacular, less binary life story. Latour’s Gaia stories deserve better companions in storytelling than Schmitt. The question of whom to think-with is immensely material’ (43).[iv] Also interesting here is that, while Haraway reiterates this last sentence any number of times over the course of the Staying with the Trouble, only here does it take on weight and meaning as only here it is sufficiently contextualized and, as such, become something more than a simple slogan.

2. The Anthropocene. According to Haraway’s excellent analysis, ‘the Anthropocene’ understood in terms of an epochal period of time on earth is essentially a continuation of the prick tale of Humans in History by way of a nested millenarian narrative that lends itself all too readily ‘to cynicism, defeatism, and self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions, like the “game over, too late” discourse I hear all around me these days’ (56). For all of that however, continues Haraway, the idea of imminent catastrophe is hardly new – and this is a hugely important point: ‘disaster, indeed genocide and devastated home places, has already come, decades and centuries ago, and it has not stopped’ (86). That we ‘stay with’ such trouble is at the very center of Staying with the Trouble insofar as resurgence ‘is nurtured with ragged vitality in the teeth of such loss, mourning, memory, resilience, reinvention of what it means to be native, refusal to deny irreversible destruction, and refusal to disengage from living and dying well in presents and futures’ (86). Such are the stories of living and dying in what, as a far better alternative to the misplaced but by now entrenched terms Anthropocene and Capitalocene, Haraway gives the name ‘the Chthulucene’.

With this in mind, Haraway is right to foreground the need to think of the Anthropocene not as the name of an epoch, but rather as a boundary event akin to the K-Pg boundary between the Cretaceous and the Paleogene periods. ‘The Anthropocene,’ she insists, ‘marks severe discontinuities; what comes after will not be like what came before’ (100). Of particular interest for Haraway, however, is just why it should be that the epochal name of the Anthropocene imposed itself in the way it did at just the time ‘when human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economics become unthinkable in the best sciences across the disciplines and interdisciplines’ (57). Could it … perhaps, just perhaps … be that the Anthropocene is not in fact a guarantor of the end of the world as a fait accompli but simply a last desperate fable along the prick tale of Humans in History, simply ‘the last gasps of the sky gods’ (57)? And again, what is simple sloganeering elsewhere here becomes a thing of weight and meaning: ‘It matters which thoughts think thoughts’ (57).

3. The Chthulucene. Despite Haraway’s claim that, as words go, the inelegant Chthulucene is in fact quite ‘simple’ (2), the term – all questions of pronunciation and catchiness aside – is not without its issues. As a term, ‘Chthulucene’ would seem to constitute a clear and obvious reference to the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft in general, and to his 1928 short horror classic, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ in particular. However, at the very outset what for Haraway must be made absolutely clear is that ‘Lovecraft’s misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu’ has no role to play here whatsoever (101, 174n4). In other words, it is imperative for Haraway that, upon the introduction and every subsequent reiteration of the term ‘Chthulucene,’ we somehow not allow what is its sole, blaringly obvious reference to impact upon our relation to the word. In a move that can hardly be described as helpful, Haraway signals this utter absence of relation by way of an extremely subtle change in spelling (a difference so subtle, it should be noted, that we must be parenthetically reminded to take note of upon each appearance). Hence, Haraway’s entirely discrete conceptual beast is properly the Chthulucene, as opposed to that founded upon the Lovecraftian term ‘Cthulhu,’ which would have yielded instead the noun Cthulhucene. There, it’s just so obvious now, right? Problem solved. All facetiousness aside, however, I am baffled as to why Haraway would select for a central concept of the book – perhaps the central concept, and most certainly it’s unifying term – a term that refers uniquely and explicitly to the Lovecraftian oeuvre, only to then deny the sole significance it necessarily brings with it? Just what is going on here? Is the shift from ‘Cthulhu’ to ‘Chthulu’ at once magical spell and magical spelling by which the monstrous anxiety of influence can apparently be rendered inoperative, or at least inapparent? It is difficult to understand exactly what is at work here, and what is at play. What appears and what disappears, and what is being made to appear and what is being made to disappear?

The story as Haraway sees it is that she ‘rescues’ the Cthulhu from Lovecraft in order to make it available for other stories, and marks this liberation from Lovecraft’s patriarchal mode ‘with the more common spelling of chthonic ones’ (174n4). In this way, she argues, are unveiled diverse undulating and ongoing ‘tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hine, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more’ (101).

Sounding a little vague and somewhat utopian at first, Haraway begins to articulate the new contours of the Chthulucene by first making very clear just what it is that we must not be doing, or must not continue to do, if we are to have any hope of staying with the trouble: this is not an argument for cultural looting; it is not about raiding situated indigenous stories for their use as resources for harnessing the ‘woes’ of colonizing projects and peoples; and it is not ‘a way to finesse the Anthropocene with Native Climate Wisdom’ (87). From the other side, meanwhile, it is not the answer to anything and everything: it is not about playing games for ‘universal oneness,’ and it is not a ‘posthumanist solution to epistemological crises’ (87). Finally, it is not a general program that, if followed to the letter, promises a solution to any given particular: Staying with the Trouble, as is the case also for any one of its exemplary narratives, is not a general model for collaboration. It is not ‘a primer for the Chthulucene’ (87).

So, after learning of all that it is not, what exactly is going on here? How might we set out ‘to learn somehow to narrate – to think – outside the prick tale of Humans in History’ (40)? The answer, posits Haraway, is sympoiesis.

 

Staying with the Trouble: Sympoiesis

Demon Familiars. In a move that will be familiar to readers of her previous books, Haraway narrates the story of the Chthulucene by way of figures that are at once real and imagined: material-semiotic. Christened ‘demon familiars’ here, previous figures of Haraway have included a certain post-gender cyborg, a Harvard mouse with an activated oncogene and, more recently, a protozoan by the name of Mixotricha paradoxa. In Staying with the Trouble, however, the importance of such figures to the ongoing ebullience of worlding feels immeasurably greater, as too does the urgency with which they are required (the latter, no doubt, playing a major role in the former): ‘We need another figure,’ she writes, ‘a thousand names of something else, to erupt out of the Anthropocene into another, big-enough story’ (52).

Perhaps, then, Haraway can be forgiven for the somewhat obvious instrumentality in her use of another demon familiar and fellow North Central California resident – the spider Pimoa cthuluhu – as a stepping stone on the way to the latest figure of privilege: ‘Bitten in a California redwood forest by spidery Pimoa chthulhu [note spelling],[v] I want to propose snaky Medusa and the many unfinished worldings of her antecedents, affiliates, and descendants’ (52). From the Greek Μέδουσα, meaning ‘guardian’ or ‘protectress,’ Medusa is a powerful winged being with living snakes for hair and possessing a gaze with the power to turn its recipient to stone. Moreover, as the only mortal member of the race of Gorgons, Medusa is a chthonic being without proper genealogy, of ‘no settled lineage and no reliable kind (genre, gender)’ despite being ‘figured and storied as female’ and with a reach that is ‘lateral and tentacular’ (53-54). In this, Medusa is a figure and the figure here – one of a thousand names – of sympoiesis.

Perhaps, just perhaps, writes Haraway, Medusa might ‘heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock’ (52).

Sympoiesis. Haraway offers less a rigorous accounting of ‘sympoiesis’ as a concept, and more an exuberant surging and outpouring of synonyms, likenesses, kinships, and recursive patternings. We can, however, pick out three key aspects of sympoiesis. First, and most important, is an underlying relational ontology: entities are constituted by ‘an expandable number of quasi-collective/quasi-individual partners in constitutive relatings; these relationalities are the objects of study. The partners do not precede the relatings’ (64). Second, and following on from the first, any research that takes substance as prior to relation will necessarily fail in any attempt aimed at ‘studying webbed inter- and intra-actions of symbiosis and sympoiesis’ (64). And third, the generative nature of sympoiesis is made possible by its recursive structure – it is the passing of ‘relays again and again … that make up living and dying’ (33).

Familiarly Demonic. With all the talk of ‘abyssal and dreadful graspings, frayings, and weavings’ (33), of sympoiesis understood as ‘alignment’ and not inheritance, and of chthonic entities as beings lacking proper genealogy and settled lineage, one cannot help but wonder at the glaring absence of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari throughout Staying with the Trouble, and in particular their hugely influential notions of alliance, genealogy, becoming, demonic animals, and assemblage. Haraway, for example, proposes that we replace the term ‘beings’ with ‘holoents’ (or ‘holobionts’), meaning ‘symbiotic assemblages at whatever scale of space or time, which are more like knots of diverse inter-active relatings in dynamic complex systems’ (60). At this point, one can only assume that Deleuze and Guattari are still a little too demonic – or differently demonic – as yet for Haraway, given her brief but scathing dismissal in When Species Meet and elsewhere. That said, one hopes that Haraway’s renowned generosity of practice might well return her to Thousand Plateaus at some time in the future – a sympoietic engagement that would likely prove to be extremely productive indeed.

In the same vein, one might well wonder as to potential results of a closer engagement with both Nietzsche’s will to power and Spinoza’s conatus. In opening the chapter on ‘Sympoiesis’, for example, Haraway suggests that critters become-with each other perhaps ‘as sensual molecular curiosity and definitely as insatiable hunger, irresistible attraction toward enfolding each other is the vital motor of living and dying on earth’ (58). At present, the text is very unclear at to whether or not what is being described here is in fact a drive – especially given the use of terms such as ‘insatiable’ and ‘irresistible’ in this context, as this would seem to return us to the deeply problematic issue of the instinctive, the driven, and the mechanistic, of the vitalism of program and instinct and of the paradoxical entity that would be a ‘vital motor.’

Material Semiotics and Life at the Limit. This paradox of a ‘vital motor’ possibly plays an obscure role in Haraway’s extremely important notion of ‘material semiotics,’ insofar as the latter would seem to open up the idea of ‘living’ far beyond its traditional restriction to that of individual biological organisms. Material semiotics, she writes, ‘is exuberantly chemical; the roots of language across taxa, with all its understandings and misunderstandings, lie in such attachments’ (66). For Haraway, ‘critters’ are always dynamic multipartnered entities across every scale and time, and theoretically without privilege. Hence the need to ask how multicellular partners in the symbioses affect the microbial symbionts, and not just vice versa: ‘at whatever size, all the partners making up holobionts are symbionts to each other’ (67).

Despite this, however, it nonetheless remains unclear as to whether Haraway includes within her definition of critters – holobionts, holoents – such multipartnered relatings as would traditionally be defined as nonliving entities, that is, ‘simple’ material objects, mere ‘things.’ At times the answer appears to be yes: ‘Critters – human and not – become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthy worlding and unworlding’ (97). At other times, however, it would seem not to be the case: ‘Plants are consummate communicators in a vast terran array of modalities, making and exchanging meanings among and between an astonishing galaxy of associates across the taxa of living beings. Plants, along with bacteria and fungi, are also animals’ lifelines to communication with the abiotic world, from sun to gas to rock’ (122).

Blueprint for Global Change, Salve for the Suburbanite, Academic Ego-Aggrandizement. In the end, Staying with the Trouble offers its readers an almost endless series of fascinating, inter- and intra-linked stories – of the Crochet Coral Reef, of the Madagascar Ako Project, of the console game Never Alone, and of many more stories and of so many still to come. However, one question haunts every one of these stories: Can such necessarily local commemorations ever translate into global change? Take the tale of the Melbourne pigeon loft, for example: can and do such tales ever amount to more than self-serving narratives of middle-class philanthropy? Can and do they escape charges such as idealism and naivety given the notion of staying with the wider trouble, such as the fate of aborigines? Or are they only pocket utopias, mere academic compositions? It is a question, moreover, of which Haraway is fully aware: ‘the municipal pigeon tower certainly cannot undo unequal treaties, conquest, and wetlands destruction, but it is nonetheless a possible thread in a pattern for ongoing, noninnocent, interrogative, multispecies getting on together’ (29). Such a practice of ‘cultivating response-ability,’ she further argues, ‘is not a heroic practice … is not the Revolution … is not Thought. Opening up versions so stories can be ongoing is so mundane, so earth-bound. That is precisely the point’ (130).

Quite so. But this still does not answer our question: can such a resolutely mundane, so decisively earth-bound a practice, ever bring with it potential for change on a global scale? Or does it rather narrate the impossibility of any such practical potential? Responding to the question of a self-serving salve, Haraway claims instead that the processes of symbiogenesis or sympoiesis are necessarily infectious (64) – an infectiousness that therefore has the potential to be world-changing. But are they really, in fact, infectious, as Haraway claims: ‘Companion species infect each other all the time. Pigeons are world travelers, and such beings are vectors and carry many more, for good and for ill. Bodily ethical and political obligations are infectious, or they should be’ (29). They are infectious, or they ought to be infectious? To be, or to ought to be: that is indeed the question, but on this point, at this point, Haraway hesitates. Only at the very end, with the introduction of ‘The Camille Stories,’ does Haraway at last engage with this question of the relation, or otherwise, of local and global.

Camille began life at a writing workshop at a colloquium at Cerisy in 2013, in which participants were collectively asked ‘to fabulate a baby, and somehow to bring the infant through five human generations’ (134). The first iteration (‘Camille 1’) is born in 2025 and the last (‘Camille 5’) dies in 2425, during which time the global human population continues to increase to a high of ten billion in 2100, before then declining to a stable three billion by 2400. As one of the conditions for a sustainable global future, Haraway writes, this massive reduction in the overall number of human animals is initially made possible through a ‘new’ collective practice among small, close-knit communities of birthing babies bonded with animal symbionts. Camille 1 is one of the first of these, born in symbiosis with a Monarch butterfly and, at least in one of our futures, ushering in a new age of kinship, intimacy, and response-ability.

Ultimately, the potential for global change from local commemoration can be located here, in this speculative account of a future history. A ‘story, a speculative fabulation,’ and, according to Haraway, ‘a relay into uncertain futures’ (134), the stories of Camille offer an account of – and attempt to account for – a four-hundred-year period bearing witness both to the end of capitalism (and thus the Capitalocene) and the inauguration of the Chthulucene. Camille, writes Haraway, ‘is a keeper of memories in the flesh of worlds that may become habitable again. Camille is one of the children of compost who ripen in the earth to say no to the posthuman of every time’ (134). A story, then, a fabulation; but also manifesto and blueprint.

And so, in the end, it matters more how we might we read this new genre of manifesto – it matters, in Haraway’s words, which thoughts think thoughts and what stories we use to tell stories. Is this utopian SF? Does it bespeak of Idealism, of naivety and of the Ego? Do we see in Camille the vision of Haraway as New (Age) Earth Mother? And is this even fair criticism? Or else prick thinking? And can this even be answered in accordance with the framework that Haraway sets out – a kind of unfalsifiability that it itself denounces as irrelevant?

‘Tool, weapon, word,’ we recall, ‘that is the word made flesh in the image of the sky god; that is the Anthropos’ (39). And ‘Camille’ too is of course tool, weapon, and word, one purposefully aimed at crafting – at creating, speculating, constructing – a word and a world to be made flesh in the image of the chthonic god. But does Camille offer anything beyond a simple change of name alone? Is this perhaps a change of genre, but not of narrative structure? And how can we be sure that Haraway’s tentacular ‘Chthulu’ is not, in the end, Lovecraft’s deeply patriarchal prick? After all, the sky god too has a thousand names.

In the end, our question can be further concentrated: is it possible to propose – to speculate – a figure of sympoiesis? Or is it not rather the case that sympoiesis is the very impossibility of being named, of being figured (out) in advance?

   

 

 

Notes

[i] Oddly, elsewhere in Staying with the Trouble Haraway appears clearly cognizant of the need to differentiate between the two distinct concepts, noting that ‘posthumanists’ constitute ‘another gathering altogether’ than those of the ‘Posthumans’ (50). Just why Haraway should abruptly bestow capital letter status upon the latter term remains unclear.

[ii] See Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness [L’Être et le néant] (1943) and Nausea [La Nausée] (1938). Sartre’s telling philosophical tales is also germane to the issues in Haraway’s case of inheritance, alliance, alignment, and legacy.

[iii] The notion of ‘a near-utopianism’ in relation to Haraway’s oeuvre comes initially from Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s review of When Species Meet entitled ‘After Species Meet’ in which he writes of ‘the erstwhile Human’ becoming for Haraway ‘a dynamic, tumbling network of living relationships’ that includes ‘a near-utopian web of scholars and fellow-teachers constantly supplying new energies to each other’ (n.p.). In Humanimalia: A Journal of Human-Animal Interface Studies, Vol.1, No.2 (2010).

[iv] In my book Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals (London: Pavement Books, 2014), I argue that Schmitt’s Friend/Enemy dichotomy as and at the origin of the nation-state is nothing short of the political logic of genocide in its purest form, 220-230.

[v] And note the perceived need, on Haraway’s part, to note the spelling correction/impropriety.

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Matthew Calarco ‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization.’ A Review of Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals

The following article ‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization’ by Matthew Calarco is a review of my book Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals (2014) recently published in the open access journal Humanimalia 9:1 (Fall 2017), pp.152-159.

I would like to sincerely thank Professor Calarco for taking such time and effort in order to produce such an insightful, in-depth and generous essay.

It can be accessed here (HTML):

http://www.depauw.edu/humani…/issue%2017/calarco-iveson.html

Or here (PDF):

http://www.depauw.edu/…/issue%2…/pdfs/calarco-iveson-pdf.pdf

 

‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization’ by Matthew Calarco

The growth of animal studies from an emergent field of inquiry into a mature set of discourses and practices over the past several years has been marked by two particularly welcome developments. First, concerns and questions about the status and nature of animals and animality have penetrated ever deeper into the core of disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. This trend has helped to call into question some of the most stubborn dogmas in these disciplines and to provide the space for important intellectual and theoretical transformations. Second, extant approaches and frameworks among animal activists have increasingly come to inform the work being done in animal studies, enriching its ethico-political sensibilities and providing practical support for its enrichment and evolution. What has perhaps gotten lost in the rapid growth of animal studies, however, are deeper questions about what is ultimately at stake in the field. Although the multiplication of disciplinary perspectives on animals and animality is no doubt important, we might ask ourselves: Are some frameworks  more critically insightful than others in terms of trying to discern violence and disrespect aimed toward animals and animalized others? Similarly, we might also wonder: Which perspectives are most fecund for transforming those relations and ultimately arriving at alternative forms of life?

Richard Iveson’s book, Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals, seeks to frame and address these important questions. With this ambitious, wide-ranging, and erudite book, Iveson hopes to provide nothing less than new critical and affirmative groundings for future work in animal studies. On Iveson’s account, unless we understand the deep sources of violence toward animals, we will never arrive at a place from which we might begin to contest those sources and eventually reconstitute more respectful relations with animals. In this review, I will track some of the basic elements of Iveson’s fascinating and powerful argument before closing with some questions about some of its possible limitations.

Rejecting the Institutionalized Genocide of Animals. Iveson’s overall project begins from the premise that animals matter for themselves — which is to say, in and of themselves — and not simply in view of how they might shed light on certain questions concerning human nature or human sociality. That the study of animals and animality might illuminate certain aspects of how power circulates among human beings is, to be sure, something worthy of our attention for Iveson; but his primary emphasis is placed on ensuring that animals are seen as beings who have value beyond their instrumental usefulness to human beings. As he writes in the introduction, to accept the chief premise animating his work is

to accept that humans do not have the right to do whatever they like with other animals. It is to accept that our given state of affairs is unacceptable and must be radically transformed. Put simply, it is to no longer accept the economy of genocide into which we have all been thrown. (25)

The overarching aim of his project, then, is to find ways to allow animal lives to matter, that is, to count and become salient in those disciplines, institutions, and practices that have traditionally excluded animals from the circle of concern. Given Iveson’s philosophical background, the natural place to look for allies for such a project is the analytic philosophical tradition, populated by luminaries such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Paola Cavalieri. The standard gesture in this discourse is to extend ethical consideration to animals by way of analogical reasoning, demonstrating that animals are sufficiently similar to human beings as moral patients so as to warrant similar moral standing and consideration. Iveson, though, takes a critical stance toward this tradition, as it tends to gloss over the radical singularity and alterity of animals and to neutralize human-animal differences by way of conceptual and practical schemas. In so doing, he joins philosophers and theorists in the pro-animal feminist care tradition, who seek to ground animal ethics in caring relations between and among human beings and animals. And yet, despite Iveson’s proximity to this tradition, his deeper philosophical commitments derive from the Continental tradition, with Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Nietzsche being among the primary sources of inspiration. From Nietzsche and Derrida, Iveson borrows the notion that the denial of animal finitude and singularity lies at the very heart of the current crisis in human-animal relations. As such, the task of Zoogenesis can perhaps best be read as a meditation on the sources of that denial as well as what it would take to acknowledge and affirm animal finitude and singularity. The latter, affirmative task would not be so much a matter of granting animals their uniqueness and relation to death but of discovering and encountering it in various ways in the shared spaces in which human-animal relations emerge and are sustained. I will track the main thread of this critical and affirmative analysis in Iveson’s work by examining some of the key themes in each of the five main parts of the work.

From Animalization to Zoogenesis. The bulk of Iveson’s book provides a condensed but rigorous reading of the history of philosophy and theory in view of animals and animality. In Part One, he argues that the guiding thread linking together thinkers as diverse as Plato, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Blanchot is a denigration of animality (both human and nonhuman forms) and a denial of death to animals themselves. In a close reading of Plato’s Meno, Iveson shows how Platonic dualism (the reigning metaphysical system in much of intellectual and Western culture for over two millennia) teaches us to seek the highest truth, beauty, and the Good by leaving behind the sensible world and preparing for a disembodied life beyond death. Although this non-finite mode of human existence is disavowed by post-metaphysical thinkers such as Blanchot and Heidegger, both of whom return the human to its irreducibly mortal mode of existence, such mortality is not understood to be shared between and among human beings and other animals. Instead, mortality and the “capacity” for dying one’s own death come to be seen as  something proper only to human beings. As such, Iveson notes, the post-metaphysical decentering of the human subject that throws the subject outside of itself and toward its singular being-toward-death is insufficient to displace the anthropocentrism at the heart of the philosophical tradition. In order to accomplish this latter goal and to continue the post-metaphysical task of thought require giving finitude back to animals, or rather catching sight of the shared mortality at the heart of all human and animal life.

Failure to recognize the finitude and singularity of all living beings creates the conditions for what Iveson calls animalization. Lives that are animalized are lives that do not matter; such lives are reduced to deathless objects to be annihilated and consumed with impunity. In view of this reduction, Iveson argues that it is

imperative to disclose another way to give death, and to the giving of dying, to animals. To give death to other animals: the gift of and the giving that is the shared finitude of living beings. Only then will the monstrous hubris of an unthinking utilization and consumption of fetishized corpses itself become unthinkable. (94)

If we are to acknowledge the death of animals, Iveson suggests we must begin with the recognition that all singular animal life (whether human and nonhuman) emerges in a process he names zoogenesis.  Zoogenetic relations emerge from a shared, ex-propriated site of encounter. In Part Two, Iveson tracks such animal encounters in literary form with Kafka (“Investigations of a Dog”), in ethico-poetic form with Derrida (in his much-discussed naked encounter with a cat in The Animal That Therefore I Am), and in ontological form with Nietzsche (with the theme of a form of life beyond nihilism). The key to Iveson’s notion of encounter is that it does not ultimately stem from an act of ethical will (which is to say, conscious responsibility for another animal) or a desire for spiritual perfection (understood as seeking out animal encounters as a way of improving oneself and expanding one’s consciousness). Rather, on Iveson’s reading, these thinkers and writers all point toward animal encounters as events, that is, as something that one undergoes — beyond full understanding, presence, and mastery. Thus, animal encounters testify to the ways in which animals are more than a given subject can think. Animal encounters are ways of naming the manner in which animals announce themselves in their singularity and finitude, beyond the strictures of traditional philosophical and theoretical discourses that would seek to strip them of their radical alterity. For Iveson, such unpredictable and astonishing encounters speak to a way of life beyond the nihilism of life-denying transcendence and the incomplete nihilism of the “last man,” a relational encounter with a world that Nietzsche describes in The Gay Science as “over-rich” in all that is “beautiful, strange, questionable, terrible, and divine.”

In Part Three, Iveson explores how such encounters cannot be delimited either to the realm of the inter-human or to one’s preferred forms of animality and nonhuman otherness. As for the former delimitation, he argues that this sort of restriction of the ethics of encounter is at work in Judith Butler’s writings on the recognition and mattering of vulnerability. As with Heidegger and Blanchot, Iveson suggests that Butler’s post-humanist ethics fails to go far enough to displace anthropocentrism. Conversely, he argues that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of becoming-animal, while radically non-anthropocentric, re-establishes its own zoogenetic limit in the manner in which it configures the outside of the human as populated only by pack-like, feral, and untamed animals and forms of life. In configuring the outside of the human in this manner, Deleuze and Guattari run the risk of missing precisely the kinds of encounters with animal singularities that Kafka and Derrida track and ending up in a kind of undifferentiated, deep ecological holism. While Iveson’s reading of Deleuze and Guattari will be somewhat contentious for some readers, there is certainly merit to this concern with their work and with the manner in which their notion of becoming-animal has sometimes been put to work in pro-animal and ecological discourses.

In Part Four, Iveson tracks this same failure to think zoogenetically at the level of the socius, a restriction that has led to an anthropocentric delimitation of the boundaries of community and the political. Through an analysis of a host of political thinkers, Iveson convincingly demonstrates that no politics based on humanism — no matter how widely or generously the concept of the human is defined — will suffice to constitute a genuinely post-anthropocentric sense of community. Rather than being a neutral designation, on this analysis “the human” nearly always functions in the dominant culture of the West in a performative manner to circumscribe a group of beings considered to be properly human and properly part of the society over and against those who are sub- or non-human. Commenting on this anthropocentric logic in the humanism of Susan Buck-Morss, Iveson explains:

Buck-Morss misunderstands that humanism is only insofar as it sets up a limit between the human and the animal. Such is the demand for line-drawing which humanism can never avoid, and which ever again founds that animalization of the other which is the very condition for those political collectives she imagines her humanism will overcome. (244)

For Iveson, it is only with the more radical Nietzschean and Derridean affirmation of more-than-human life that we can arrive at a conception of community and being-with that overcomes this humanist closure and violence. To say yes to life (and to the finitude at the heart of life) is to affirm that one is always already encountered by singularities that are shared in and with others, that communities and relations pre-exist our encounters, and that community with animals only happens in the midst of these ongoing relations. In Iveson’s words, a community beyond the human is a

“community without limit” … an infinite commonality of singularities which shares and in which is shared all finite living beings. (258)

It is important to note that community and relation, if they are understood in terms of Derridean différance and Nietzschean will to power (as Iveson’s account is), will not issue in a hands-off, rights-based, non-interference ethics and politics but will instead entail considerable transformation among and between those beings called animal and human. Such transformations might even involve a fundamental transformation in the species heritages of human and animal beings, whether through biotechnological transformation or other similar kinds of interventions. In the final section of the book, Iveson explores the question of how his ethics, politics, and ontology both feed into and challenge certain animal biotechnological research. Here, in a complex reading of Bernard Stiegler and related thinkers, Iveson acknowledges that animals and relations can and will change over time and that biotechnological interventions cannot be ruled out a priori; the question is rather one of which relations and transformations to undertake. Iveson suggests that the key limitation with the transhumanist technological project is that it is based on an attempt to master animal life and finitude more generally, seeking to guide zoogenetic becomings along a single dimension or axis (largely structured by the demands of capital). By contrast, Iveson outlines a notion of technicity that is open to becomings that unfold in a variety of un-master-able and unpredictable directions.

On the Scope and Limits of Zoogenesis. The potted overview I have offered here of Iveson’s book fails to do justice to the complexity and intricacy of his arguments as well as the charitable and thoughtful engagement he offers with each of the major figures he analyzes. His book is to be highly recommended for any reader who hopes to gain a deeper understanding of how a critical animal studies perspective might thread its way through the hegemonic history of the West as well as the contemporary theoretical scene. In this closing section of the review, I want simply to pose a couple of questions in view of Iveson’s project for those of us who might take up portions of it in various ways.

Given Iveson’s attempt to think relation and singularity zoogenetically, one wonders about the broader scope of his project. How does the path of thought outlined in the book help to negotiate relations and singularities with non-living beings, systems, and so on? Here the question is not so much one of how mortality and finitude figure in the constitution of living human-animal singularities, but rather one of whether ethics and politics might be extended beyond this particular set of relations. In other words, how should we read Iveson’s call for a “community without limit”? The only example of an ethic of non-animal others discussed in Iveson’s work is deep ecological holism, which is rejected precisely because of its tendency to override singularity in favor of relational wholes. But what if one sought to construct an ethic that recognizes a wider range of singularities, both living and non-living? In other words, how might Iveson’s zoocentrism either be supplemented by or be in opposition to phytocentric, biocentric, or multi-centric environmental ethics? Likewise, how might his project be situated in view of an ethics of the more-than-human world that aims to displace any and all centers in favor of a form of life lived in view of “all our relations”? With Iveson’s close relation to both Derrida and Nietzsche in mind, one can see how such questions and possible tensions might arise. Derrida does not rule out the possibility of thinking through the ethics and politics of such a broad set of relations, but his overwhelming focus is on how différance constitutes the matrix through which living singularities emerge and maintain some semblance of sameness. Nietzsche’s thinking, by contrast, casts a much wider ontological and relational net. He thinks will to power as properly cosmic, insists that the Apollonian and Dionysian agon emerges primordially from nonhuman nature itself, and teaches us to be wary of thinking that life is anything but an exception in the planetary and cosmic order of things.

Such questions arise not simply because of the zoocentric nature of Iveson’s project; this delimitation is entirely understandable given the need to work carefully through the human-animal boundary in particular and the unique forms of violence and becoming that occur along this axis. Rather, what prompts one to consider the scope of Iveson’s framework is his tendency to present zoogenesis as the intractable, sole (“only” is a frequent word deployed by Iveson when considering the necessity of a zoogenetic thinking) site from which to contest the established anthropocentric order and constitute an alternative socius. Were zoogenesis understood as a partial but important aspect of a form of life beyond animalization, there would be no need to pit zoogenesis against ecological or planetary holism. Rather, the latter ethical and political frameworks might come to be seen as supplementary forms of normative consideration, which would themselves be nested inside a host of micro- and macro- singularities and relations that exceed the economy of the living. Of course, to do justice to such a wide variety of singularities and relations, one would have to do away with the desire to privilege any single ontological or normative framework and allow thought to enter into a realm in which plural ontologies (which are rather different from a single pluralist ontology) proliferate in view of doing justice to all our relations. Such questions hover on the edges of Iveson’s project, and it will be of considerable interest to see how Iveson’s forthcoming work on posthumanism and the path of thought he has opened up for his readers will unfold in view of these additional ontological and normative considerations.


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.

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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.


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