What is Zoogenesis (1)?

As the recent proliferation of academic texts, artworks, manifestos, political treatises and so on clearly demonstrate, the so-called “question of the animal” can no longer be penned within the traditional domains of biology and ethology. As a matter of life and death which always exceeds the lives and deaths of “mere” animals, the “animal turn” is rather central to contemporary thought and politics. Nevertheless, the multidisciplinary domain that has become known as “animal studies” and/or “posthumanism” is still very much a newly emergent and emerging discipline. The French philosopher and psychologist Vinciane Despret, for example, states that even as recently as 2006 her work would have been sidelined by way of a (gender-based) accusation of sentimentality—the same accusation which, far from coincidentally, had for so long served to bar women from access to the sciences.[1]

Even now, in 2011, thinking with animals outside of the natural sciences nevertheless remains largely a marginalised pursuit. Refused incorporation or assimilation, anyone who feels unable not to “bring up” animals, anyone for whom the right of putting to death sticks in their throat, who cannot not see industrial murder, who cannot not respond to the consumption of flesh, will all too soon become familiar with the dismissive reply: “Why bother?” In a sense, this nonresponsive question has already defeated every answer, insofar as it is a question which can only take place from within the privileged space of humanism. The animals in question, therefore, must always include human animals.

It is here, in fact, that the discourse of “animal rights” already falls down, moving as it does within the same or another humanism, redrawing again and again the same unthought lines of exclusion, the same metaphysics of either-man-or-animal. The utilitarianism of Peter Singer, for example, remains inevitably inscribed within the calculus of ends, a human mastery which thus views the animal only according to its enclosure within an ordered technological schema. Tom Regan’s neo-Kantian approach, in its turn, determines the place of the nonhuman animal only according to an essential human morality, and in so doing inscribes human subjectivity as the ground of the animal. In both cases then, it is man who must determine, and thus delimit, the animal.[2]

Instead, there is only one response to the question “Why bother?,” and that is to always again put “the human” itself into question. Such a response is not only required, but it is of the utmost urgency, even for those who dismiss animal concerns as perhaps laudable but nonetheless most definitely secondary, maybe even somewhat self-indulgent or sentimental. This is because the killing—rather than the “murder”—of nonhuman animals actually serves as the excluded support of all other structural excludings, namely those which exclude, extort, and distort others on the basis of race, gender, class, sexuality, and so on. A support, it is important to note, which is nonnecessary. All values constituted in and as the exclusion of their binary opposites must thus be understood as both historically contingent and mutually articulating, each one supprting the proper standing of every other.

The question of the animal, in other words, cannot await the answer of the human. It cannot, that is to say, await the inauguration of a utopian human community before being given its turn, the very impossibility of the answer to “the human” serving in such a case to condemn nonhuman animals to an interminable death. One cannot discharge oneself of the responsibility of thinking with animals simply by claiming for oneself a “more important” concern with human oppression—an all too familiar repose marked by the delusion of a nostalgic desire for a purely human anything. No one would suggest that one must unfortunately support racism, at least until the exclusion and abjection of women is undone, or that one is free to sexually abuse women, at least until racism has been eradicated. Nor would anyone suggest that politics can and must be limited to single issues existing in isolation. When it comes to speciesism, however, such opinions are not only generally tolerated, but are often explicitly celebrated.[3] However, it is only by tracing the interrelations and interarticulations of oppression that an affective genealogy becomes possible. One cannot, for example, put into question the privileged sexuality afforded to the ideal of whiteness, without an understanding of the speciesist machinery which devalorises people of colour by way of a displacement which shifts nonwhite sexuality towards “animality.”

Beginnings and ends: the human

We can thus begin to understand how the exclusion of “the animal” is inseperable not only from a determining of “the (properly) human,” but also from questions of autonomy and sovereignty, of the subject and of subjection. The exclusion of the animal, in other words, functions to inscribe properly human ends, that is, to inscribe stable human meaning and to ascribe stable meaning to humanity. Hence the link, as philosopher Jacques Derrida insists, between the impossibility of “murdering” an animal and “the violent institution of the ‘who’ as subject” (“Eating Well,” 283). One result of this interminable quest for the ends—and the end—of “man” is the privative determination of “animality” which, albeit variously and fabulously clothed, pads mutely throughout Western philosophy.

According to Plato, for instance, nonhuman animals lack reason and thus an immortal soul. Aristotle then marks out the human as zōon logon ekhōn, “the living being possessing language” who, insofar as she is the only animal with the ability to form universal concepts, thus designates the site of teleological reason. Scripture thereafter delivers over every nonhuman animal into the hands and mouths of men, refusing them freedom and reducing them to meat. Descartes then transforms these “mere” bodies into clockwork, simple meat machines experiencing neither pleasure nor pain. After this Kant, in a renewal of Platonic ontoteleology countersigned by Aristotle, insists that only the rational being—by which he means the human animal—can think the unconditional law of morality. This is again repeated, mutatis mutandis, by Hegel, for whom only the human can possess an infinite relationship to self. Moving rapidly then through the twentieth century, while Freud avers that nonhuman animals are without conciousness and Heidegger claims they are without death and thus “poor-in-world,” Levinas in his turn refuses every nonhuman animal a face, and thus any claim to an ethical response.[4]

In fact, the list of what animals are alleged to lack is at once finite yet endless, depending as it does upon the ever-shifting requirements of what it means to be “properly” human. One can, nonetheless, offer in its place a short and brutal summary: throughout Western philosophy—albeit with some notable exceptions—“the animal” is constituted as an unfeeling object under the technical mastery of man and definable only by negativity. One cannot murder such an animal, only kill her over and over again, and moreover one can do so with impunity. It is this all too human construction of “the animal” therefore, which holds open the space for what Derrida describes as a “noncriminal putting to death,” be it the site of war, of capital punishment, or of the unprecedented subjection and subjugation of human and nonhuman beings all around us today.

Exploring the movement by which such a space is opened in which a human animal can be “legitimately” murdered, alongside and entangled with the exclusion of nonhuman animals, is thus a major preoccupation in the articulation of zoogenesis. This movement, in the “animalisation” of a specifically targetted human or human grouping—an identity the posited homogeneity of which is always imposed from outside—, functions to exclude the subject of its tropological displacement and, in so doing, constitute a non-subject that can be killed with impunity. By way of this reactive movement of sedimented traces—the solidified dregs of ressentiment and bad conscience—one can always again redefine the slave, the barbarian, the foreigner, or the immigrant as a “mere” animal. One thinks here of the Nazi demonisation of Jews as Saujuden (“Jewish swine”), but also of the photograph taken in the Abu Ghraib prison showing Private Lynndie England leading an Iraqi prisoner around on a dog leash. Indeed, to reduce a singular, nonsubstitutable living being to an essential identity which is in turn reconfigured as “animal” is nothing less than the economy of genocide. Excluded from itself through a murderous theatrics of displacement, a nonhuman animal or an animalised human is effectively rendered speechless, a subjugated body which may be killed but never murdered.

The interruption of this murderous logic is therefore of the utmost importance, not only for other animals, but also for those millions of “other” humans displaced and thus excluded by the regulatory norms of gender, sexuality, race, and/or class. We are thus faced with an extremely pressing question: are there perhaps tropes that function in the opposite direction, that make it unthinkable that living beings can be put to death with impunity? Whilst at the same time remembering that the question of what, exactly, is meant by “living being” is far from being resolved, it is this question which the thinking of zoogenesis attempts to answer.

Neither beginning nor end: the undying animal

“The human,” I have suggested, depends upon the exclusion of “the animal,” a logic which reserves the space for a noncriminal putting to death. This genocidal logic is, however, further complicated by the fact that this movement itself depends upon the finite bodies of nonhuman animals being paradoxically inscribed as undying. By this I mean that “the animal,” as a single undifferentiated body in opposition to the human, is defined both as lacking the possibility of death and as sharing a transparent pathic communication. With each of these reciprocally grounding the other, the murder of a nonhuman animal, as we shall see, becomes ontologically impossible, even as corpses are produced in exponentially increasing numbers.

The apparent “fact” that nonhuman animals do not know or “have” language, do not know or “have” death, is simply and precisely an ideology, one which, as feminist writer Carol Adams notes, “ontologises animals as usable” (Neither Man Nor Beast, 15). Whether as untouched by the Fall into self-awareness, or as absolutely determined by genetics and thus infintely substitutable automata, this figuration of the undying animal remains central to human exceptionalism. Moreover, the ideology of the undying animal must be understood as an entanglement of both material and symbolic economies. The “question of the animal,” in other words, is a question of and to Capital: a question of the literal rendering of animals’ bodies, and at once a demand which infinitely exceeds the democratic order founded upon, and conserved by, the semantics of an agent-centered subjectivity and of the sovereign human subject of rights and duties. That the ideologically undying animal, as well as presupposing human exceptionalism, simultaneously reproduces the machinery of Western patriarchy founded upon the illusion of a freely willing human subject, can be seen most clearly in the context of previous justifications of slavery. Indeed, the argument will no doubt be familiar: the white male oppression of people of colour depends upon the latter being configured as incapable of resisting their “natural” bodily inclinations—that is to say, incapable of overcoming their animal instincts—and thus, excluded from “pure” reason, are thereby fit only to be ruled.

With this example, I am simply suggesting that nonhuman animals cannot be overlooked when it comes to putting into question the humanist hubris which claims on its own behalf an inalienable free will or, at the very least, an ontologically exceptional status. Rather, the infinitely diverse ways of being—both human and nonhuman—irredeemably explode the illusion of a boundary dividing responsive Culture from reactive Nature. In this way, one hopes, the delusion of liberalism will finally be dispelled—a delusion constituted, as Spinoza maintained so long ago, in ignorance of the disposition of bodies, a delusion in which subjected bodies come to desire their own subjection.

Encountering posthumanism

Rather than seeking to prop up those tottering relics of reductive division, it is rather the case that to efface originary relatedness on the basis of the destructive yet empty concept of “the human” serves to severely constrain what animals—both human and nonhuman—might become. By contrast, it is an open relation to this potential becoming which for me defines what I understand by the term “posthumanism.”

Here, however, it is first of all necessary to differentiate posthumanist thinking from the notion of the “posthuman” or the “transhuman” as construed by a number of (mainly liberal) writers. For the latter, as philosopher Cary Wolfe writes, the “post-” prefix rather marks an “historical succession in which … the human is transformed and finally eclipsed by various technological, informatic, and bioengineering developments” (“Bring the Noise” in Serres The Parasite, xi). According to my understanding, however, posthumanism refers rather to both the interruption that always already takes place before and beyond every conception of “the human,” and to our historical situatedness as subsequent to the deconstruction of the delimited human subject, be it in terms of soul, cogito, ego, or body. In short, “posthumanism” is that which doubly marks us as “coming after” the interruption of the human, and as such demands a thinking which takes place beyond any humanist metaphysics.

I take here as the starting point for any genuinely posthumanist discourse a movement beyond the traditional (Christianised) forms taken by the relationship between the human and the nonhuman animal. These dominant forms, as philosopher Andrew Benjamin demonstrates, are configured by two “original and importantly different determinations” (“Particularity and Exceptions,” 76). In the first configuration, the emergence of the human is predicated on the death or nonexistence of the animal, whereas in the second the human remains in a constant struggle with his or her own animality, an animality which must be repeatedly overcome in being human. These two types or configurations endlessly reiterate a logic of dependence-exclusion. Moreover, insofar as both determinations fallaciously define the nonhuman animal by what he or she lacks within a teleological dialectic, every nonhuman animal is thus figured as incomplete, as subhuman. Consequentially, “the human” is not a site of ontological exception, but rather an effect of this reiterated exclusion of “the animal,” a reiteration which in itself presupposes a primordial relatedness.

Arguing that posthumanist discourse must interrupt such anthropomorphic hubris, however, is not to say that the movement of humanist exclusion should simply be inverted, positing instead some kind of homogeneous inclusive equality. While such a simplistic inversion would merely reinstate the human-animal dichotomy in its refusal, it is rather the case that a given human only “is” in an originary and complex relational network with nonhuman ways of being.

Articulating just such a posthumanist thinking is thus to explore the philosophical, ethical, and political implications of a rigorous deconstruction of the human-animal division, as well as some of its less-than-rigorous articulations within contemporary “posthumanist” discourses. Along the way, it becomes clear that the figuration of the nonhuman animal as undying is essential to the two determinations of teleological humanism and, by extension, to figuring it a human right to do whatever we like to other animals.

We can thus already begin to perceive why the giving of a death potentially interrupts such brutal, murderous hubris. Only initially paradoxical, such a gift returns to this nonhuman being his or her place, that is, the singularity of his or her nonsubstitutability. The “having” of death, furthermore, marks the exposure of every living being across an indissociably doubled abyss: on the one hoof, an abyssal technicity of language which necessarily exceeds any reduction to the verbal and, on the other, an abyssal embodiment which exceeds any delimitation of the organism. A rigorous posthumanist thinking, therefore, must concern itself with an exposition which already confounds every distinction between the interior and the exterior and the organic and the technical.

Zoogenesis: the apocalyptic arriving of monstrosity

“Zoogenesis,”  in short, names those potential tropes which make it unthinkable that living beings can be put to death with impunity. In contrast to the limited anthropo-genesis explicated by Martin Heidegger, such tropes trace the movements of an excessive zoo-genetic transport virtually promised to every living being by an originary technicity. This originary technicity of being is the condition of both that which for strategic reasons I am calling the animal encounter, and of the monstrous zoogenesis to which such an encounter gives rise. A priori excluding both vitalism and biological continuism, its difference as and at the origin of sense necessarily derails every judgment of absolute truth and value, undoing every hierarchy of proximity and any narcissistic notion of identity politics. (For more on this, see my “Animals in Looking-Glass World: Fables of Uberhumanism and Posthumanism in Heidegger and Nietzsche” here: http://www.depauw.edu/humanimalia/issue02/pdfs/Iveson.pdf.)

Instead, originary technics demands the affirmation of an encounter with another whose language “I” do not recognise, an “other” with whom or with which consensus remains impossible. In this way, “language” (in a narrow sense) ceases to be the privileged site from which one can sovereignly attribute to another only a mute bestiality. Instead, with Friedrich Nietzsche we discover the imperative of active forgetting which is, in short, zoogenesis—the call of which shatters the psyche in calling forth unheard-of and forbidden monstrosities. Ultimately, the promise of zoogenesis resides in the responsibility of a vigilant Nietzschean betrayal, a response which always again offers itself as a curative to the poison of a certain neoliberal notion of the transhuman. Such a thinking encounter with animals, in other words, seeks to replace reductive calculation with an ethics of emergence.


[1] As recounted by Florence Burgat in her preface to Despret Penser comme un rat (2009), 4.

[2] Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) and Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights (1983) are generally considered the founding texts of contemporary animal rights’ discourse.

[3] On this privileging of oppressions, see Carol J. Adams The Sexual Politics of Meat, 200-201. On the “intersectionality” of exclusions, see also Rosi Braidotti Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics (2006).

[4] For two excellent intellectual histories of “the animal” in Western philosophy, one crafted in meticulous detail and the other brief yet highly illuminating, see Elisabeth de Fontenay Le silence des bêtes: La philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité (Paris: Fayard, 1998) and Gilbert Simondon Deux leçons sur l’animal et l’homme (Paris: Ellipses, 2004). Interesting perhaps, is the fact that neither text has yet been translated into English, despite their quality and influence.

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About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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