Monthly Archives: March 2012

Animal Oppression and the Holocaust Analogy: A Summary of Controversy

 

There is no direct analogy, it should be noted straight away, between the intense pain and suffering undergone by those nonhuman animals, living and dead, within industrialised feedlots, slaughterhouses, and laboratories, and those human animals, living and dead, who were and are victims of the Shoah. Rather, what I would suggest is their necessary interrelation or reciprocity, that is, both their absolute historical singularity and their indissociability. While not an analogy, therefore, there nonetheless remains a relation—the relation of humanism and nationalism in fact—, one which I propose to mark here with the improper phrasing “animal holocaust” (and without proper noun status).

It is this which makes permissible, if not accurate, the holocaust analogy, insofar as the animalisation of Jews in Nazi Germany has as its operative condition the machine which reproduces nonhuman animals as killable. Taking a cue once again from Derrida, this strategy could be figured as plus un “Holocaust”: more than one / no more one “Holocaust,” insofar as the term recalls always more than one (and thus) no more one community (that is, no immanent or immune body), which is what must be learned if we are to ensure no more Holocaust(s). There remains, however, considerable controversy surrounding the use of the Holocaust analogy, which will be sketched out below. On my own part, I would argue that even if the relation remains implicit, the shock of its implied comparison is nevertheless strategically important (as too is the comparison with slavery) insofar as it opens “the question of the animal” to the related concerns of shame and guilt.

Proposed most notoriously by Martin Heidegger who, whilst remaining silent as to his own complicity, in 1949 compared the death camps to “mechanised agriculture,” the Holocaust analogy is most often condemned on the basis that its equation, in reducing humans to animals, in fact repeats the movement of animalisation which served to legitimise the genocide in the first place.[1] In response, however, David Wood acutely notes that, “while the apparent comparison of the treatment of Jews with the fate of animals … may be obscene, so too is the implication that these sort of practices would call for a quite different judgment if we were ‘just’ talking about nonhuman animals” (The Step Back, 49). He then recalls the strong argument that—

the architecture and logistical organisation of the death camps … was stolen, or borrowed from the successful designs of the Chicago stockyards, also fed directly by the railway system. If the industrialisation of killing was first perfected on cattle [sic], and then applied to humans, we have not an obscene analogy, but an obscene piece of history (49).

The analogy has been put forward at its most basic level by Elisabeth Costello in J. M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name, which Donna Haraway describes as “a common, powerful, and in my view powerfully wrong approach” (When Species Meet, 336n23). This is not to say, however, and as Haraway makes clear, “that the Nazi killings of the Jews and others and mass animal slaughter in the meat industry have no relation [emphasis mine],” but only that such an “analogy culminating in equation can blunt our alertness to irreducible difference and multiplicity and their demands. Different atrocities deserve their own language” (336n23). Carol Adams too, in rare agreement with Haraway, refuses the analogy on similar grounds, claiming that it rips “experience from its history” which thus “does harm to Holocaust survivors. We must locate our ethic for animals so that it does not hurt people who are oppressed” (Neither Man Nor Beast, 83). Finally, Susan Coe in Dead Meat (1996) notes that—

My annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that the suffering I am witnessing now cannot exist on its own, it has to fall into the hierarchy of a “lesser animal suffering.” In the made-for-TV reality of American culture, the only acceptable genocide is historical. It’s comforting—it’s over. Twenty million murdered humans deserve to be more than a reference point. I am annoyed that I don’t have more power in communicating what I’ve seen apart from stuttering: “It’s like the Holocaust” (72)

The clear link between these critiques is not that the comparison is inaccurate or irrelevant, but rather that the positing of an analogical equation is inappropriate—on both sides—only insofar as it effaces the specific differences between them. However, not positing such an analogy can equally result in blindness. As Wood writes, “[i]f there is a worry that the distinctiveness of the human gets lost in such a comparison, there is an equal worry that the refusal of such analogies perpetuates our all-too-human blindness to the systematic violence we habitually inflict on other creatures” (The Step Back, 49).

In addition, such a critique of the trope of analogy in general (reasoning from parallel cases) fails to address the chance imperative of an improper metonymy holding open the place by which previously effaced singular differences actually come to make sense. It is just such a chance imperative which adds weight to Wood’s warning that the “expression may well provoke the very resistance it seeks to overcome, but the expression is not used unthinkingly, or irresponsibly” (49).

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida famously—and carefully—refers to “animal genocides” (26), with the proviso that, “concerning the figure of genocide, one should neither abuse nor acquit oneself [ni abuser ni s’acquitter] too quickly” (26, trans. modified). He then proceeds to compare the “monstrous” suffering undergone by nonhuman animals with that of the Shoah, albeit ensuring, with all he has written on the subject of the prefatory “as if,” that there can be no simple relation of identity or analogy:

As if, for example, instead of throwing a people into ovens and gas chambers [dans des fours crématoires et dans des chambers à gaz] (let’s say Nazi) doctors and geneticists had decided to organise the overproduction and overgeneration of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being continually more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing numbers for the same hell, that of the imposition of genetic experimentation, or extermination by gas or by fire. In the same abattoirs (26).

Here it is clear that Derrida is not proffering a simplistic, reductive analogy between the millions of Jews exterminated in the Nazi death camps and the billions of nonhuman animals slaughtered in the death camps of capitalism.

All this is, however, noted only by way of a contextualising preface. In fact, I would argue that the necessarily blunted edge of any posited comparison is neither the sole, nor even the main, cause of controversy.

To begin with, it must be understood that the term “Holocaust,” referring to the extermination of the Jews during the Nazi period (“the Shoah,” from so-ah meaning “devastation” or “catastrophe,” is the Jewish term), is itself a trope. At once analogical metaphor and euphemism (in the strong sense of a palliative), it is one which moreover remains controversial to this day. Giorgio Agamben has traced this figure, and indeed, its “essentially Christian” history, in a number of his texts, and offers a convincing argument as to the “irresponsible historiographical blindness” of its positing, a blindness and blinding concerned precisely with the question of analogy (Homo Sacer, 114). Arguing that the term “holocaust” (from the Greek holocaustos, signifying “completely burned”) is “from its inception anti-Semitic” and thus “intolerable” (Remnants, 31), Agamben notes how it marks an attempt “to establish a connection, however distant, between Auschwitz and the Biblical olah and between death in the gas chamber and the ‘complete devotion to sacred and superior motives’” (31).[2]

It is here that the figure of analogy is identified as the origin of its intolerability: “the term impl[ies] an unacceptable equation between crematoria and altars” (31). Indeed, with this “wish to lend a sacrificial aura to the extermination of the Jews by means of the term ‘Holocaust’” (Homo Sacer, 114), it becomes clear that the term is if anything more appropriate as a figure for the extermination of animals for consumption, whether by gods or by men, than it is for the Shoah. And again, in terms of the meaning of the original Greek term, it is the industrialised genocide of nonhuman animals which most befits the adjective holocaustos, echoed by the industrial slaughterer’s familiar boast (a boast already worn smooth with overuse in the Chicago stockyards of the late 19th century) that they “use everything but the squeal.”

Returning to Agamben, the important and necessary desacralisation of the Shoah serves, as is well known, as the zero point—marked by the camp Muselmann—for his notion of “bare life.” Jews under Nazism, he writes, were constituted as “a flagrant case of homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed” (114). Bare life is, moreover, only actualised in its putting to death, which is “neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualisation of a mere ‘capacity to be killed’ inherent in the condition of the Jew as such” (114). There was, in other words, no “mad and giant holocaust” but rather only the actualisation, enacted only through extermination, of “mere” life, mere subsistence. That is, in being-killed “the Jew” is reconfigured as pure animal remains (“‘as lice,’ which is to say, as bare life” (114)), for which the mute Muselmann is the figure, the “staggering corpse” (Jean Améry) or “the living dead” (Wolfgang Sofsky) without the capacity to die, but only to be killed.

We can now begin to discern a more nuanced relation than a superficial equation marked by the phrasing “animal holocaust.” Under the Nazis, Jews are thus reproduced as walking dead flesh, a related, but nonetheless singular, transformation into “pure” corporeality, into bodily-shaped collections of dead zombie flesh ready to be disarticulated. Not into “meat,” however, as with so-called “food” animals, but into “mere” animal remains. In other words, by way of a structurally interrelated spectral disembodiment through mimetic displacement, we find here too the instrumentalised “walking ghosts” which reproduce a symbolic logic of oppression that ultimately serves to constitute subjugated beings who are precisely deserving of oppression. Not an analogy, therefore, but an inter- and intra-relation—a founding reciprocity.

Furthermore, the reciprocal relation of these singular historical genocides serves to highlight the specificity lacking in Agamben’s conception of “bare life.” As Andrew Benjamin clearly demonstrates, and in contrast to the “undifferentiated ontology” which founds Agamben’s “bare life,” such a reconfiguration always involves—

the violent imposition of identity. It is imposed in this way on Jews, thus underscoring the vacuity of the claim that such a position involves “bare life,” as though within such a life the particularity of being a Jew—that which prompted the figure’s work in the first place—was not itself already marked out. In being there originally, that mark would always have been retained (Of Jews and Animals, 186-7).

 

It is this ineffaceable mark which calls to the guilt which, according to Primo Levi, must bear upon “almost all” the Germans of the Nazi period, precisely because they failed to bear witness to what they could not not witness. The question—a related, even an analogous question—turns in a circle: Why do the majority choose not to see, to turn away and to refuse to hear, let alone to touch, taste or smell, the contemporary maltreatment of animals if not because of an unremarked sense of guilt and shame? An experience, in other words, that is the murmur of the always restrained yet retained mark of constitutive exclusion. One recalls here Elisabeth Costello, who cannot not conceive of everyone but as “participants in a crime of stupefying proportions” (Coetzee Elisabeth Costello, 114). This brings us to yet another important aspect of the holocaust analogy: in “Thinking With Cats” (2004), David Wood argues that the posited relation is nonetheless—

wholly justified even if politically divisive. The reasons for this are deep, and connected with the difficulty most of us have in coming to see that some social practices we take part in clear-headedly might be utterly contemptible. This contrasts with our shared condemnation of all Nazi genocidal activity. The attempt to connect these events produces extreme reactions (215n37, emphasis added).

Ultimately then, the impropriety of the metonymy “animal holocaust” discloses the sharing of community based upon the guilt of exclusion, and marked by a failure to witness that which cannot not be witnessed (this latter despite its euphemistic effacement in the concept of “meat,” an effacing figured by the sterile, plastic-wrapped tropes of flesh on supermarket shelves).


 

Notes

[1] Heidegger’s reference to the camps is quoted in the Der Spiegel interview “Only a god can save us” (23 September 1966), pub. Der Spiegel 31 May 1976. Reprinted in Gunther Neske & Emil Kettering (eds) Martin Heidegger and National Socialism (New York: Paragon House, 1996), 41-66.

[2] On this, see also Wood The Step Back, 50.

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The End of Humanity: Kant and the Death of God

 

As is becoming well known, the exclusion of the animal functions throughout Western philosophy to inscribe “properly” human ends. To begin, however, it is necessary that we concern ourselves with this invariant, as only by way of a rigorous engagement with philosophy might we come to understand finitude and history as the condition for every animal encounter, and thus counter the traditional operation that excludes nonhuman animals by dissolving their singular beings within the perfect identity of immortal, changeless species. Moreover, by distinguishing between two very different conceptions signified by the phrase “the end of man,” we discover that the proper end of man ultimately resides in the rupturing of humanism itself.

Readers familiar with philosophy will no doubt recognise the above reference to Jacques Derrida’s famous lecture “The Ends of Man,” first presented in 1968, wherein Derrida draws attention to the disjunction between the teleological and eschatological “ends” of man, that is, between telos and eskhaton.

Put simply, within the metaphysical tradition telos marks the end in the sense of the completion of man, of man’s end as his highest and most proper accomplishment in a transcendence of finitude that indissociably links metaphysics with humanism. In this way, what awaits humanity is humanity itself, that is, a fully human humanity. At the same time, however, the end of man in the eschatological sense of the destruction or overcoming of the human cannot be divorced from the thinking of the truth of man within this same tradition.

This problematic doubling of ends, suggests Derrida, can be seen most clearly at work in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the end of man as telos cannot come about by way of finite human knowledge, but only by way of the unmixed concepts of pure a priori reason. The end of man, in short, can only take place after the end of man, that is, only when every specifically human experience has been removed. Conversely, however, Kant simultaneously insists that this end is possible only because man is in essence a rational being, that is, because only man as man thinks the end, and in so doing raises himself above and beyond the absence of reason claimed to characterise every other animal. Hence, it is only the specificity of the human that opens up the possibility of the end as telos.

Here, Kant is confronted with an antimony or aporia that must be dealt with: the telos of a fully human humanity demands both the specificity of the human and the eschatological elimination of that specificity. It is an aporia, moreover, which constitutes a rupture within every humanism insofar as every humanism is metaphysical.

Kant attempts to control this aporia with the notion of universal history. He argues that Reason organises the regular, teleological progress of humanity only at the level of the species, guided in advance by nature and indifferent to the free will of individuals. However, individual free will nonetheless serves to ensure the ongoing trial and ordeal of Reason’s telos, and thus the development of man’s original capacities. By contrast, nonhuman animals pursue their “natural,” i.e., irrational, teleology purely by instinct, meaning that the “law-goverened history” of every other species can be identified by a simple “internal or external” examination of any given animal, each of whom is identified with the species as a whole.[1]

Here we see how “the animal” functions as the constitutive outside of the properly human. On the one hand, humans cannot proceed by instinct, as this would reduce them to “mere” animals. Hence, man must have free will.On the other, the idea that man acts without an innate, divinely-instilled telos is simply unbearable for Kant, not least because this would reduce humans to something less than “mere” animals. This is Kant’s first antimony: the simultaneous free will and machinic programming of humanity. Hence, man’s free will must be subordinated to the guiding hand of history. Only then might man be free while simultaneously assuming his God-given superiority above the mechanical ordering of animal existence.

For this reason, humans alone are finite. Given the empirical specificity of every freely willing human individual, she or he cannot therefore be identical to the species, as Kant claims to be the case for all other animals. Instead, death is necessary to ensure that the germs of reason “implanted by nature in our species” not be squandered by foolish individuals but be passed along through the “incalculable series of generations,” guaranteeing the progress of universal history (43). Nonhuman animals, however, have no need of finitude, and no death in any real sense. Rather an animal is only the species, each example being identical to every other of the same species. Hence, if a particular animal ceases to live, nothing has been lost. An animal, in short, cannot die. Only humanity, while immortal as a species, consists of mortal individuals.

This conflict between selfish mortality and selfless immortality, Kant continues, is the motor constituting society, which is thus only ever human – other animals being ontologically incapable of a separation of individual and group interests. While Kant goes on to argue that bourgeois capitalist society in fact constitutes the divine vehicle to realise the telos of humanity, this should not distract us from our initial problematic, that of the teloseskhaton aporia that this idea of universal history hopes to circumvent.

As we have seen, the movement of history in general, that is, universal history at the level of the species, must once again bracket out every specific human experience. At the same time, however, universal history is for Kant necessarily human history, depending upon the gradual transformation of an incalculable series of specific individual moments. In other words, the divinely-ordained completion of humanity demands the transcendence of human finitude, a transcendence which at the same time has human finitude as its very condition. Here, the same telos-eskhaton aporia quickly reestablishes itself, this time at the heart of historicity itself.[2]

The positing of the telos of a fully human humanity, the continuous but gradual perfection of the species, requires as its condition that every individual human being dies, destroyed in an eschatological moment of transformative limit. Returning to our specific focus, what does this discussion of the ends of the human offer for an encounter with animals?

Put simply, it offers a specific example of how traditional philosophy must exclude other animals in order to inscribe “properly” human ends, that is, to circumvent the intolerability of purposelessness and godlessness. At base, the exclusion of other animals throughout Western philosophy enables the fragile human ego to deal with the anxiety of cosmological insignificance, producing instead reassuring myths of universal importance. With Kant’s particular ideology, moreover, we begin to better understand the importance of finitude and historicity for any thinking encounter with animals.

Finitude, as we have seen, is the condition for history and for the fulfilment of humanity as reasoning being. It thus comes as no surprise to find that, throughout Western philosophy, other animals are somehow reduced to immortality as a result. Our first task is thus to consider how this paradoxical reduction to divine status is accomplished, as this is intimately connected to that economy which opens the space for a noncriminal putting to death. This economy, which I have no hesitation calling genocidal, depends not simply upon the exclusion of “the animal” from “the human,” but simultaneously upon the finite bodies of nonhuman animals being paradoxically constructed as undying (be that as untouched by the Fall into self-awareness or as genetically-determined automata). By this I mean that “the animal,” functioning as both homogeneous category and constitutive outside of “the human,”  is necessarily defined as lacking the possibility of death and thus as sharing a transparent pathic communication.

The choice of the term “ideology” is not fortuitous: the claim that nonhuman animals lack individual deaths is indeed precisely an ideology, one which, as Carol Adams notes, “ontologises animals as usable” (Neither Man Nor Beast, 15). 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 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.

While the kettle logic undergirding Martin Heidegger’s hugely influential philosophy is essential to grasping this process, for the moment it is sufficient to note that, with “the animal” thus constituted as both undying and transparently pathic, the murder of a given nonhuman animal becomes ontologically impossible, even as corpses pile up in exponentially increasing numbers. Our initial question is thus clear: do nonhuman animals “have” finitude? And, if it is indeed undeniable that all animals do in fact die, what does this mean as regards thinking encounter with animals?

 

Infamously, in The Gay Science Nietzsche declares the death of God. While this death undoubtedly occurs in time – with Kant on one side of the fire break, Darwin and Nietzsche on the other – this is not an event that can be simply consigned to history, but is rather one to which we must continue to attend. For us here, it concerns the very future of Kant: what becomes of of the ends of mankind following the demise of the divine?

With the death of God, philosophy is forced from the pale pre-dawn of Kantianism: humanity must leave behind its hubristic myths of transcendence, jolted from its childish dreams of a divinely ordained end (telos). No longer concealed behind the linear teleology of universal history, evolution reveals itself as an infinitely diverse multiplicity of trajectories and transformations. With Nietzsche, the end ceases to be that of a fully human humanity and becomes instead immanent to the creativity of existence itself. Such is the eschatological moment of delirious destruction (eskhaton). Requiring neither divine telos nor human privilege, the death of God thus irredeemably explodes the illusory boundary dividing culture from nature. Ultimately, humanism – theological and secular – necessitates its own demise.

Things do not end here, however. Rather, it still remains necessary to consider the further critique of humanism proposed by structuralism. This critique, as Derrida notes, consists neither in restoring meaning to the metaphysical system as ordered by telos, nor in simply destroying meaning and thereby leaving only that dismal reign of chance so unbearable for Kant. Instead, writes Derrida, “it is a question of determining the possibility of meaning on the basis of a ‘formal’ organization which in itself has no meaning” (“The Ends of Man” 134). The structuralist critique, in other words, centres on transformations in the conditions that produce meaning, and it is both within and outside this anti-humanist space of the structure, at the very limit of sense or meaning, that the eschatolgical encounter takes place. Not, however, as restoration or destruction, but as invention and revaluation.

Thinking such encounters, however, must first and foremost come to terms with a danger inherent in language, with “language” broadly construed here as a species-specific way of being. Insofar as it must “ceaselessly reinstate the new terrain on the oldest ground,” language can never free itself from the risk of repeating precisely that which it aims to critique (Derrida “The Ends of Man” 135). Language, in other words, is at once the condition of transformative critique and that which necessarily entraps us, forcing us in a certain way to remain always on the same terrain, to always move along the same path. Here, we discover the return of our original aporia, eskhaton once again constrained by telos, only now all the delusions of anthropocentric grandeur have been excised.

In direct contrast to the movement of exclusion characterising the genocidal economy, the route to be taken, following both Nietzsche and Derrida, must henceforth lead us to think creatively with animals from within this originary aporia of shared existence.

To think this return without end it is thus necessary to give death to other living beings. Only the giving of a death has the potential to interrupt the brutal economy of genocide. While it perhaps sounds simple, to include other animals within the realm of the finite has explosive consequences, not least for all those animals, human and nonhuman, currently being exploited to death all over the globe. Indeed, to give death means never having the authority to put life to death.

 


[1] “Idea for a Universal History,” 42

[2] The distinguishing within “history” of historicity and historiology was first proposed by Heidegger in Being and Time. At its most basic, historicity refers to the movement of time, whereas historiology refers the discursive construction of History as a discipline.

 

References

Adams, Carol J. Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (New York: Continuum, 1995).

Derrida, Jacques “The Ends of Man” in Margins of Philosophy trans. Alan Bass (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 109-136.

Heidegger, Martin Being and Time trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962).

Kant, Immanuel Critique of Pure Reason trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1996).

Kant, Immanuel “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” in Political Writings 2nd Ed. Trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 41-63.

Nietzsche, Friedrich The Gay Science trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

Nietzsche, Friedrich The Will to Power trans. Walter Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968).