When the Refusal to Offend Offends: Philosophers and their Animals no.4, Elisabeth de Fontenay

 

 The following is the long (rather more polemical) first draft (75% of which had to be cut for reasons of space) of a detailed critical review of Elisabeth de Fontenay’s latest book Without Offending HumansA Critique of Animals Rights, published in the University of Minnesota’s Posthumanities series (I mention that this is an early draft in the hope that it will go some way to excuse the various errors, repetitions, word omissions, sudden jumps, etc. …)

First and foremost, Élisabeth de Fontenay is a philosopher. She is, moreover, a philosopher who has for decades committed herself to bettering the – all too often at once banal and utterly horrific – situation of nonhuman animals. Indeed, I have elsewhere referred to her encyclopaedic masterwork Le silence des bêtes (1998) as a key text in the emerging field of animal studies.[i] I mention this at the outset because, while reading Without Offending Humans, the latest offering in the influential “Posthumanities” series, not only did I find it necessary to repeatedly remind myself of this fact, but also because de Fontenay herself would do well to recall an equal level of commitment on behalf of a number of philosophers she deals with here. In another book in the same series, Kalpana Rahita Seshadri notes acutely that “the philosophical task of formulating coherent arguments and developing a sound logic to defend their moral perspective appears more crucial when the object is to problematise fundamental norms governing the value of nonhuman animals.”[ii] Picking up Without Offending Humans, I anticipated an original and provocative text that would perhaps finally shatter the lingering sociopolitical and juridical justifications of human exceptionalism. In this, however, I was disappointed.

First of all, a few words must be said about the title or, rather, about the translation of the title. Originally published as Sans offenser le genre humain: Réflexions sur la cause animale in 2008, this in its English version becomes Without Offending Humans: A Critique of Animal Rights. Given that animal rights theory is discussed in only one of the seven chapters, Will Bishop’s translation is obviously overtly polemical in intent, no doubt with an eye to a broader audience beyond those working within the Continental tradition. It is, however, unfortunate. Indeed, even the translation of le genre humain simply as “humans” is problematic. While de Fontenay is doubtlessly referring to the human species as that which she will not offend, it is equally doubtless that there will be a number of individual humans who will be offended by this book – Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri foremost among them.

As de Fontenay is a philosopher, however, let us begin with the philosophy, such as is found here only chapters one, two, and five – three chapters which alone reward the effort of reading. She opens with a consideration of the importance of Jacques Derrida’s contribution to the “question of the animal” along with its relation to her own work, which she claims to be “both parallel and asymptotic” (2). Thus distancing herself from accusations of epigonality, de Fontenay then offers a fine, if rather sedate, reading of the place of the animal in Derrida’s oeuvre, stressing a number of key but often overlooked points such as the fact that the trace necessarily extends beyond the anthropological limits of language, or again how Derrida aims to replace the indubitable aspect of the Cartesian cogito with the undeniable aspect of pity. De Fontenay’s reading comes alive, however, when she notes the insistence of two motifs: time and sacrifice. Here, she makes a number of crucial points, not least regarding certain problems inherent to Derrida’s notion of sacrifice as at once historical and metahistorical (10). Similarly, argues de Fontenay, the “limitless extension Derrida attributes to the domain of sacrifice” is all too susceptible to charge of both Eurocentrism and generalisation. Such a concept, writes de Fontenay, is “unavailable,” conflating as it does “diversity in place and time, the plurality of their functions, their singularity” (16). Citing as exemplary the works of Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Jean Soler, de Fontenay rightly insists that we must guard against “generalizing inductions” by insisting on “the singularity of the cultures and thoughts anchored in animal sacrifice” and by developing analyses “only through the commentaries produced within each culture” (14).

Indeed, de Fontenay then shows how the use of sacrifice as a “catchall category” risks a further fall into the trap of a vulgar, Durkheimian evolutionism, which posits Christianity as the “spiritual and social accomplishment of history” insofar as the replacement of sacrifice to the gods with the sacrifice of the Christic god represents “the growth of the spirit of sacrifice” (15). This is an extremely important point – and the high point of this book – that many working with Derrida’s “since forever” notion of the “sacrificial structure” would do well to pay heed. This is important too as regards the legacy of Derrida, insofar as if, as de Fontenay contends, “Derrida’s globalization, radicalization, and metaphorization of sacrifice do not completely escape this evolutionism,” it is an evolutionism “which his entire work in fact rejects” (15). What is required, she suggests, and which is lacking in Derrida’s (inevitably unfinished) work on this question, is a limitrophy, such as proposed by Derrida himself.

In this first chapter, de Fontenay notes that, of all the oppositions Derrida sets into place, “the one between man and animal is the most decisive” insofar as it “commands the others” (3), and it is this anthropological difference which de Fontenay says in the Preface constitutes the focus of Without Offending Humans. In fact, she only engages with this question with any depth and nuance in the two remaining “philosophical” chapters – “The Improper” and “They Are Sleeping and We Are Watching over Them” – which together form a pair.

Reading “The Improper” is, however, a frustrating experience, as it is difficult to understand what, exactly, de Fontenay is arguing about. Principally, this dissatisfaction stems from the fact that she appears to be either completely unaware of, or utterly careless of, the large number of important texts produced within what has become known as “animal studies” over the last two decades or so – a criticism that unfortunately becomes all the more urgent as the book progresses.

The chapter focuses on the “double difficulty” posed if one wishes to avoid the metaphysics of human exceptionalism. The human, she suggests, is surrounded only by absences (of the distant past of our species, the recent past of human historicity, and the uncertainty of our human future), whereas every determination of the proper of the human is necessarily based upon the ridiculous notion of presence. None of this is new, of course, but what marks de Fontenay’s position as somewhat unusual is that she clearly wants to reinstall some form that permits human animals to maintain both their priority and their superiority. She wishes, in other words, to better the position of other animals, but without offending humans in the process. This is different, however, from suggesting that human beings differ in countless ways from all other species, just as any other species differs in countless ways from every other. What de Fontenay wants, in short, is humanism without metaphysics, exceptionalism without reduction. To do this, she writes, a “decision must nonetheless be firmly maintained,” a decision to keep separate the “two heterogeneous interrogations” concerning the origin of man on the one hand, and the meaning of the human on the other (21). Put another way, continues de Fontenay,

one cannot allow the intersections of research from paleoanthropologists and primatologists, or discoveries in molecular biology and in genetics to destroy without remains the affirmation of the rupture constituted by anthropological singularity. And it is therefore not certain that we can do without recourse to philosophical tradition (21).

Here, then, de Fontenay is suggesting the purity marked by human exceptionalism must not be corrupted by incursions from other disciplines which, she argues, can never provide “the authorization to decide” (22), but must rather maintain its “affirmation” by recourse to philosophy. Of course, the very possibility of purity and separation are precisely what various recent philosophies have rendered naïve. Nonetheless, de Fontenay ploughs on as if oblivious, insisting that philosophy must affirm an ethics and a politics founded upon “the singularity and humankind, and thus on its unity, on the effective respect for the dignity … and on the claim for an uncompromising fraternity among all beings who come from a man and a woman, or even from a man or a woman, [which] far from being invalidated by this metaphysical neutrality, find themselves reinforced by it” (22). Prudent, she suggests, is a minimal declaration, a “zero degree of definition” (24), which she insists again as “a human being is a being born of the natural or artificially provoked union of a woman and a man” and thus avoid excluding any section of humanity. Such a definition, however, is circular, insofar as it presupposes knowledge of “man” and “woman” as (gendered) human beings; the definition is, in other words, a simple tautology: a human being is a being born of human beings.

At the end of the “purging” of “the human” by recent philosophy, writes de Fontenay, we must focus on the “little bit of sense” left over, which amounts to a refusal to allow that the signification of the human can be “deciphered solely from knowledge of the origin of humanity and its biological reality” (22). Put simply, we must avoid reductionist sociobiological interpretations. However, one such refusal evokes from de Fontenay a “call to order” is required once “a primatologist [Frans de Waal] attributes a moral sense to animals” as no criteria could ever provide the justification for such a claim (21). This, she argues, is bad philosophy. Interesting here, however, is Nietzsche, for example, argues far more persuasively – and far more “philosophically” if such a thing could be said to exist – that the unavailability of just such criteria is the very reason why we could not posit a moral sense as properly human.[iii] Even more confusedly, de Fontenay will claim recourse to this very argument later in the chapter, noting Nietzsche’s point from The Anti-Christ that every creature has reached the same stage of evolutionary perfection.

This reference to Nietzsche is not incidental. Despite the “zero degree” definition, de Fontenay is in fact positing what is, quite simply, an argument both for negative anthropology and for assumed knowledge. The question, what allows us to recognize a man is, she says, “indecent,” as “everyone knows right away ‘if this is a man’” (a reference to Primo Levi) (24). Along the way, de Fontenay notes both that deconstruction has thoroughly invalidated such binaries as nature/culture, innate/acquired, and man/animal, but also that, in addition, this deconstruction must also demonstrate “their eminently harmful character” (23). While why this should be so is unclear (although such harmfulness is easy to show), rather than allowing for the necessity of challenging beautiful Platonic fictions. Man (de Fontenay is keen on keeping this gendered universal, no doubt as part of her commitment to the philosophical tradition), in other words, has replaced the God of negative theology, and now it is the human whose very existence can only be implied by way of everything that he is not. This, in itself, is certainly an improvement on the “zero degree” definition but problems remain. While de Fontenay, after the first definition, then writes that the only possible ethical, political, and scientific approach is to “affirm the fact that man is a being who neither can nor must be defined,” she almost immediately adds that she “may” nonetheless “propose certain characteristics by which it would seem that we can recognize human difference” (24). Two points must be made here. Firstly, to suggest as a kind of preface that every human always already recognizes every other human is precisely the movement of exclusion de Fontenay claims to avoid, insofar as if one doesn’t agree that “the human” is thus “pre-recognized,” one is not, therefore, “human,” thus excluding all of those who deny such recognizability from the human realm. Secondly, the justification for de Fontenay’s future “proposals” regarding human difference (or exceptionalism) would seem to rest upon her apparent hesitancy – as if the appearance of hesitation or circumspection alone constitutes a sufficient preface and guard which thereafter permits the instauration of old or new “propers.”

After a brief dalliance with Antigone, in which de Fontenay recapitulates Heidegger’s argument in which man is the most uncanny, the violence-doer and the dominator, she quickly turns to Aristotle’s Politics, thus firmly establishing the importance of tradition for what is to come. As is well known, Aristotle defines man as the language-using animal, which alone allows for notions of justice, good and evil, and family and State. This argument, writes de Fontenay, “seems so irrefutable that no one has ever truly been able to surpass it by stating a more decisive criterion of humanity” (27). Again, there is that glaring absence of the huge amount of literature produced on just this subject in recent decades.

The most important question concerning “man” today is, claims de Fontenay, “what have we done to man and what are we going to do with him?” (31). Moreover, the sources of these two “moments” have names: Nazism and cloning. On the one hand, Nazism reveals the “impotence and hypocrisy” of “beautiful humanist and democratic ideals” (31). While positivists are criminally mistaken in situating humanity in the “natural order of animality,” it is necessary rather to “make it begin again, on the historical level, in Auschwitz” (31) – crimes which “inflicted us with “narcissistic wounds far worse than heliocentrism, evolutionism, and psychoanalysis combined” (31). Cloning, meanwhile, promises “to work not toward the emergence of a new humanity but toward the production of beings other than humans” (32). Yet, she continues, to speak of such “other-than-human beings” would require first of all a definition of human beings, which “must be avoided at all costs” (32). All of this is, however, hugely under-theorized, leaving only an apparent snap-judgement that “All our points of reference seem to escape us after National Socialism and in the era of genetic engineering” (32). Seem to? Do they, or not? Is de Fontenay following Adorno, only instead of poetry as being that which cannot be written after Auschwitz, it is now “Man”? And yet, it was precisely in this context that de Fontenay earlier invoked Levi’s writing of his experience of the Shoah to justify the a priori recognizability of one man by any other.

After several brief summaries of the place of the animal in relation to the symbolic in recent philosophy, de Fontenay abruptly halts the discussion to proclaim that, despite Derrida’s caution, “urgency” compels her to reiterate “the oft-rehashed criterion of a specifically human language” (39). Ultimately, we have never left Aristotle. Only the human, de Fontenay claims, possesses “declarative language” (speech produced to give information) or “ostensive language” (to show an object only to have it shown). Such a claim, again in the light of much recent debate on the subject, simply cannot be stated as if it is obvious to all. De Fontenay offers nothing other than her own certainty that the linguistic differences of humans compared with other animals is a difference of kind and not of degree. Here, despite writing of the numerous properly human bastions that have fallen, she simply doesn’t seem to consider this when positing declarative language as a final stronghold. To the declarative, moreover, she then adds “conversational language” (as this implies intersubjectivity and the ability to take an other’s mental state into account, which is thus perfunctorily denied to every other animal) and performative language (in the narrow sense), a claim that is perhaps even harder to maintain with any certainty. If this sounds all too familiar; indeed, all too human, that is simply because it is. As Aristotle showed, writes de Fontenay, “what animals are lacking in the final analysis is everything related to doxa, to belief, to persuasion, adhesion, and therefore to rhetoric” (40). More specifically, she continues, it is “the ethico-rhetorical more than the rational that constitutes the specificity of the human” (40). Indeed, might not it be in “metaphorical power that the difference may be situated” (40)? So, whilst of course refusing to suggest any definition of “man” other than a negative anthropology, de Fontenay manages to writes that all other animals lack the ability to impart information through language, lack the ability to converse, lack the ability to show in order to show, lack opinions, lack beliefs, lack performatives, lack intersubjectivity, lack representations of mental states, lack metaphorical language, lack ethics, etc. etc., and in so doing posits every one of these things as proper to mankind alone. Astonishingly, she then adds: “And we can all agree that deeming this, so close to the thought of the Sophists, what is proper to man has nothing metaphysical about it!” (40, my emphasis).

Given this exceptional “ethico-rhetorical” characteristic, which will be attributed to Aristotle in chapter five, one thus wonders were Nietzsche went, having been cited so approvingly earlier. The notion that only the human employs metaphorical language – which ultimately comes down to saying that only the human can lie, and thus tell the truth – has been explicitly deconstructed by Nietzsche.[iv]

After all this, de Fontenay then cites the primatology (already dismissed as we know) of Maurice Godelier, who argues that the specificity of human language cannot be maintained. Without comment, de Fontenay then suggests that – another definition – actually what is specific to mankind is the ability to “modify the global structure of the relations proper to the species” (41), and then again, as the ability to give oneself “a global representation of the organizing principles of society” (41). Again, all this is stated as simple fact – once again, as a difference in kind and not of degree. The reader may perhaps be mystified as to what de Fontenay is actually doing here, and, if so, it is a mystification I share. At times it seems as if she is just skipping from one traditional definition to the next, declaring each as a simple fact, briefly pointing out a single disputing voice, and then moving onto the next. The question I cannot help asking is, given all that has been said about the harmfulness of exceptionalism and the falling of the propers, why is de Fontenay exerting so much time, effort, and space to produce (or reproduce) anthropological difference? The only answer I can come up with is that she wishes, above all, to write a book without offending humans, or some humans at least – creationists, liberal humanists, and so on.

Anyway, the process continues, with de Fontenay now tackling newly-acquired knowledge concerning genetic plasticity. Only humans, she writes, can change the global structure or organizing relations of society because only humans pass along information epigenetically as well as genetically. Only humans, in short, are not programmed by their DNA – readers will once again get a strange sense of déjà vu. Only this non-genetic transmission ensures the nonsubstitutability of the human, that is, that the birth of a (human) child will be “unique every time” (44), whereas other animals are yet again reduced to substitutable representatives of their programming, with each individual thus identical to the species and thus endlessly exchangeable. This ideology, it must be noted, ontologizes all other animals as usable, and is one of the most noxious productions of the philosophical tradition. Again, if de Fontenay had perhaps read more widely in the field, she would be aware of this. Sociobiologists, writes de Fontenay, fail to account for the “epigenetic enigma” (42). While this is indeed the case, exactly the same charge can be laid against de Fontenay, insofar as epigenesis has been shown by biotechnology to function through all living beings, that is, through cell recapacitation.

Bizarrely, the final “philosophical” chapter begins with de Fontenay noting that deeming other animals as “lacking in reason and in articulate word” and thus excluded from the logos proved “profitable” as it “allowed them to be used and abused as tools, as personal property” (96-7). This is shown, she continues, most clearly throughout Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Without irony, de Fontenay then seeks to continue Adorno and Horkheimer’s project, only this time by focussing on three philosophers who refused the “separatist vulgate” in favour of continuism, that is, who “were able to resist the process of rational hegemony by refusing to dig out an unsurpassable ditch between the intelligence of man and that of certain animals” (99), all of this without any apparent reflexive awareness of her own philosophical position along the line of this “separatist vulgate” she condemns.

The three philosophers chosen to represent continuism will probably come as something of a surprise to many: namely, Aristotle, Leibniz, and Husserl, and the specific question addressed to them concerns the difficulties presented by the event of anthropogenesis given the argument for continuism.

De Fontenay considers Aristotle firstly, and first of all, noting again that the latter ascribes the logos to man alone. De Fontenay offers the following summary of Aristotle’s paradoxical position regarding what is “characteristic” [idion] to nonhuman animals: “Benefitting only from phantasia aisthētikē, the persistence of an impression, which nonetheless already supposes time, the animal does not have the capacity to stop and develop the reasoning that pushes it [sic] to act in the direction of the future” (101, my emphasis). This is particularly interesting in relation to the question of memory, necessary in Platonic thought for the possession of virtue. De Fontenay, however, apodictically concludes that, lacking the middle term necessary for syllogistic reason, nonhuman animals are thus incapable of both judgment and opinion. While the details are contested, there is a well-known tale which, discussed by a large number of Ancient Greek philosophers and attributed originally to the Stoic Chrysippus. Chrysippus, according to Plutarch and then Porphyry, and then again by Philo, Sextus Empiricus and Montaigne among others, tells of a dog who, when faced with a choice of three paths (or two, depending on the source) and having sniffed without success the first two, runs off along the third path without further hesitation.[v] This, the various authors conclude, precisely demonstrates the dog’s capacity for disjunctive syllogistic reasoning. Interesting here is that Porphyry, in discussing the notion of animal syllogisms, invokes Aristotle in order to support the claim. “[I]f it be requisite to believe in Aristotle, he writes, “are seen to teach their offspring … the nightingale, for instance, teaches her young to sing. And as he [Aristotle] likewise says, animals learn many things from each other, and many from men …. For how is it possible that he [that is, anyone who from ignorance “rashly” refuses reason to other animals] should not defame and calumniate animals, who has determined to cut them in pieces, as if they were stones? Aristotle, however, Plato, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all such as endeavoured to discover the truth concerning animals, have acknowledged that they participate of reason” (On Abstinence III:6, 100-1). None of this is mentioned by de Fontenay, who simply uses this as a springboard to repeat, more or less word for word, what she writes in chapter two, namely, that animals thus lack “everything related to doxa, belief, persuasion, adhesion” (101), once again marking the human animal as exceptional insofar as only he or she has access to the rhetorical register, and who is therefore “ethico-rhetorical” (102). Once again, it must be noted that this question of language – as well as memory, judgment, and opinion – forms the core of much of what has become known as animal studies, of which there is simply no trace here whatsoever.

Despite what appears to be an abysmal anthropological difference in de Fontenay’s reading of Aristotle, she then suggests that this difference in Aristotle is simply that of degree and not of kind. How the lack of the various genres of language listed earlier by de Fontenay, as well as the lack of both memory, judgment, and opinion, can be conceived of as positing anything but the most traditional – and facile – difference of kind is simply baffling. Indeed, no evidence is offered on behalf of this claim, but only evidence as to its absence. Aristotle, writes de Fontenay, inscribes other animals within the register of the “like” (i.e., resemblance by analogy) and of the “as if”: animals have something “like a kind of thinking,” appearing “as if … they calculated time and difference” (102). In short, de Fontenay offers evidence as to Aristotle’s difference in kind, while nonetheless insisting that the human-animal distinction is “ambiguous,” having been “hastily established as a foundational opposition” (102). This is not to say that de Fontenay is necessarily incorrect in locating just such an ambiguity in Aristotle’s philosophy, and particularly when one reads his texts on what might be termed “natural history” against the more philosophical texts, most notably the Physics. Indeed, one wishes she had focused on this apparent ambiguity but, unfortunately, “[w]e will not be able to answer this question here” (102).

With this, de Fontenay turns to Leibniz. As is well known, for Leibniz anthropological difference centres upon the relationship to God. In The Monadology (1714), he writes that the difference between the “ordinary souls” of nonhuman animals and human “minds” is that, while creaturely souls are “living mirrors or images of the universe of creatures,” human minds in addition are “images of the divinity itself … capable of knowing the system of the universe” (§83). As a result, only human minds are “capable of entering into a kind of society with God, and allows him to be, in relation to them, not only what an inventor is to his machine (as God is in relation to the other creatures) but also what a prince is to his subjects, and even what a father is to his children” (§84). Despite this seemingly unsurpassable exceptionalism, however, de Fontenay locates a crucial conflict – one with clear implications for Aristotle’s persistence of impression – between a continuous and a discontinuous hierarchy of being within Leibniz’s conception of perception, insofar as there can be neither a purely passive substance nor a perfect absence of perception within Leibniz’s schema, all living beings therefore exist in a state in which there is “a multitude of murmuring solicitations that await only ‘a tiny occasion for memory to awaken, to go from being enveloped by the unclear to developing the distinct’” (Leibniz Die Philosophischen Schriften, cit. de Fontenay 103). It is precisely these imperceptible and yet uninterrupted thoughts, writes de Fontenay, which “ensure the faultless continuity between sensibility and understanding, between apparent inertia and the living” (103). The multitudinous murmurings, in other words, threaten the hierarchy of being from both sides, rendering obscure not only the line dividing animal from man, but also that which divides the “least living” from the nonliving.

There is, then, a conflict between a continuous and a discontinuous hierarchy of being within Leibniz’s thought, a conflict which is resolved, writes de Fontenay, through an engagement with three possible theories of anthropogenesis: miraculous creation, wherein God intervenes at conception to transform an animal soul into a human soul; miraculous transcreation, wherein souls, preexisting incarnation, await for “their” particular human bodies to be conceived, whereupon they take their rightful place; and natural translation, which states that certain animal souls already possess the seeds of reason within them as an aptitude that is actualized when its time is right. It is this latter which resolves the conflict of anthropogenesis, permitting both separation and continuity between humans and other animals.

Here again, de Fontenay begins by suggesting a continuity of being in Husserl’s notion of “animality” as the preconstitutional realm, thus allowing for a hierarchy of being to be established based upon degrees of watchfulness or otherwise (the “more evolved animal” being analogous to the “insufficiently watchful man” (107)). She then lists all the things that Husserl then goes on to deny “the animal,” which includes consciousness of the unity of their lives, consciousness of the succession of generations, anticipatory images of the future, memory, and language, thus reducing them to “simple blind modes of instinctual life” (Husserl cit. 109). All too clearly, as de Fontenay notes, this dogmatic denial of “the animal” is “barely compatible with the construction of animality” (107). Once again, however, de Fontenay locates a glimpse of possibility emerging between Husserl’s universal animality and the rigorous Husserlian “as if” that authorises a human-animal “transfer” by way of the empathy [Einfülhung] characteristic of a “restricted anthropomorphism,” albeit only towards the more “highly evolved” animals (109). Empathy, writes de Fontenay, is for Husserl “an action proper to the transcendental attitude,” meaning that Husserl can give “a rigorous status to the ‘as if’” (109). Hence, “[a]nalogy, intropathy, and the process of the ‘as if’ have nothing arbitrary and naïve about them, inasmuch as the level of crude and instinctual intentionality that, with varying degrees of complexity dependent upon the species composes animal consciousness and its surrounding world, is not foreign to the original psychic layer of those who would give the world to themselves and to one another. Is it not an imaginary projection that creates resemblance; it is an analogy that motivates the transfer” (109).

From this brief unfolding and infolding of the three philosophies singled out here, a fascinating glimpse of possibility thus emerges on the border between Husserl’s universal animality and the rigorous Husserlian “as if” that authorizes a certain human-animal “transfer.” This transfer, writes de Fontenay, takes place by way of empathy [Einfülhung], although this latter must be understood in the specifically Husserlian sense of “an action proper to the transcendental attitude,” one which allows Husserl to give “a rigorous status to the ‘as if’” (109). Through their various institutions of the analogous “as” and the intuitive “as if,” she continues, Aristotle, Leibniz, and Husserl potentially offer an invaluable resource against reductionisms of all kinds. Such a project would indeed be fascinating, and it is perhaps unfortunate that this book was not the result of just such a sustained philosophical exploration.

Chapters four and six, dealing with the rhetorics of animalization and bioengineered animals in art respectively, feel somewhat incidental. Beginning with the important point that the claim that there is a necessary link between zoophilia and racism is a “logical, historical, and moral inanity” (73), de Fontenay offers a historical summation of animalization from its roots in the physiognomy of the Renaissance. This, she rightly notes, is the primary danger of a posited human-animal continuity (although, of course, animalisation can functions just as well on the basis of metaphysical discontinuity), focusing her reading on the nineteenth century, and in particular upon Alphonse Toussenel’s largely forgotten notion of “passional analogy.” Naturalizing the sociohistorical crises that traverse the nineteenth century by way of an analogy contrasting “harmful beasts” to “innocent” ones, Toussenel thus sets about animalizing social categories, that is, a “passional analogy” that “lends order to a reciprocal reading of the animal world and human history” (84-5). At the same time, however, it lends credence to Toussenel’s anti-Semitism. As such, writes de Fontenay, “should we add Toussenel’s name to the repertoire of acceptable friends of the beasts,” and if so, do we not then become complicit in the “inane” linking of zoophilia with anti-Semitism (88)? It is with this question that de Fontenay concerns herself in the remainder of the chapter. Most interesting, perhaps, is the choice of Toussenel, insofar as he orders the taxonomy of his “passional analogy to a large extent from the basis of his love of hunting, as de Fontenay too is a keen hunter according to the brief biography that heads the translation of one of the chapters of Le silence. Hunting, it is obvious, offers a very specific operation of analogy.

The title of chapter six, “The Pathetic Pranks of Bio-Art,” leaves little doubt as to what is to come. Nonetheless, her argument for why such exhibitions of “bioengineered art” – i.e., of animals that have been genetically modified in some way, the most famous example of which is Eduardo Kac’s glow-in-the-dark rabbits through the addition of a jellyfish gene – cannot qualify as “events” is very interesting. Indeed, she is basically accusing bio-artists as failing in their function by being content simply to consent to what already is and what will be, rather than an exile, or a waiting, of an encounter with the incalculable. In short, de Fontenay writes that bio-art is simple calculation, and that whatever art is, it is not that (114). According to Kac, insofar as bio-art implicates other living beings, it becomes unpredictable – and this space of dialogue is what the work is, not the rabbit (116). Beyond this quote, however, de Fontenay allows Kac little or no space in which to argue his point. While she agrees with Jens Hauser that these arts “effectuate a détournement of utilitarian discourse,” for them to be pertinent that must be “a minimal disproportion” between the cells, molecules, DNA sequencing given to the artists to play with, and “the incommensurable effective possibilities being created in laboratories” (115). As de Fontenay points out, here is art used “as a kind of surplus value” (116) Yet the main political question concerns the stance – do they condemn the solely profit-inspired practices of biotechnology which seeks to patent life? At the very least, they form a consenting advert and help to further develop market logics – the opposite of the “new form of ecology” so often proclaimed (116). She is right too is pointing out the apparent critique of anthropocentrism in Kac’s Genesis barely conceals a Promethean or Faustian anthropocentrism and demiurgic humanism “that appropriates all rights over the living, including the right to exhibit its transmutations as if we were a circus” (119). Right too in noting that animals should never be treated “merely as a means or as material, as a sample for postmodern experimentation” (125). Perhaps more than anything, de Fontenay is clearly infuriated over Kac’s claims to philosophical rigour. While Kac’s philosophical pretensions are clearly just that, artists attempting to justify their work through cod philosophy backed up by poorly-understood decontextualised quotes is, however, far from an uncommon occurrence. In conclusion, de Fontenay argues on behalf of researchers for the three R’s when dealing with animal experiments: replacement, reduction, refinement – noting that the creation of a fluorescent rabbit breaks the first two rules “in a shocking way” (124)

This notion of philosophical rigour leads us directly to the chapter entitled “Between Possessions and Persons” purportedly dealing with animal rights discourse. De Fontenay is once again enraged, this time in relation to Paola Cavelieri’s Great-Apes Project, which seeks to establish (human) rights for great apes. It is a project that certainly seems to upset certain French thinkers – one thinks of Elisabeth Roudinesco’s reaction in the dialogue with Derrida entitled “Violence Against Animals.” Dialogue, however, is something sadly missing from de Fontenay’s text. Nonetheless, she begins by questioning, quite correctly, whether the rights claim made on behalf of great apes might rather “inspire political mockery and ethical exasperation. Outrageousness loses more battles than can be won through patience and measure” (47). This may well be true, but how much patience does one need – given that it is forty years since the notion of animal rights was replaced on the political agenda by the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, with no discernible results, it is rather time for a different approach entirely, of which outrageousness may well be a key component. Secondly, the fact that de Fontenay considers the great apes rights claim to be outrageous reveals just how conservative and “patient” is de Fontenay’s own thinking on the subject.

She begins by accrediting to Claude Lévi-Strauss the criticism of the notion of the rights of man as being too “strongly anchored in a philosophy of subjectivity” – the critique more famously having being reiterated by Derrida. Further, addressing “the question of the animal” means to commit oneself to a “fundamental debate” which, she argues, has been ignored by Continental philosophy that dogmatically situates the human condition in opposition to animal nature (47-8). Again, while this accusation is largely true, de Fontenay here nonetheless ignores the extensive literature within the Continental tradition deconstructing – in many cases with admirable philosophical rigour – just this dogmatic opposition. De Fontenay’s concern in this chapter is to refuse the refusal of politics to nonhuman animals, exemplified by the privilege of the hand which, as a philosophical invariant, marks a certain humanist tradition going from Anaxagorus to Heidegger via Engels, and which serves to disqualify animals from “struggles from emancipation” insofar as it “scientifically” shown that animals are non-subjects of non-rights (48).

Once again, however, de Fontenay advises caution: uncritical continuism inevitably results in a dangerous reduction, all too easily appropriated by racist discourse. On the notion of rights too, she rightly suggest, one must distinguish between rights understood “on the basis of a metaphysical, transcendental-immanent conception of natural law” on the one side and, on the other, of rights understood as performatives “invented, declared, and proclaimed, proceeding from the history of men [sic]” (50). It is in this context that de Fontenay turns to Cavalieri’s work, linking it straight away to the dangerous reductionism characteristic of socio-biology and against which she argues for a far more attentive and nuanced approach capable of comprehending “the complications of conflicts and the undialectizable event” (51). Somewhat naively, to say the least, de Fontenay then asks herself “how can one not recognize” that advances in genetics and the cognitive sciences, coupled with the “irrevocable nullity of metaphysically oriented validations,” have lead “more and more to the ‘imperative of responsibility’” that compels concern for those living beings who “will have been mere objects of appropriation” (51). Here, the least one say is that, first, the proclaimed death of metaphysical thinking is premature and, second, to imagine that advances in bioengineering and related fields will inevitably result in a beneficial concern for other animals, rather than creating ever more advanced forms of appropriation requires just such an attentive and nuanced approach (one thinks here of the production of transgenic animals – also known as “bioreactors” or “pharm” animals – whose bodyings contain man-made genetic modifications, as well as the “creation” of so-called “extremophiles”). Again, much has been written on this topic, most famously perhaps by Sarah Franklin, but nothing that would indicate a familiarity with this literature is discernible here.

Indeed, de Fontenay reiterates her contention that the work of ethologists, zoologists, and paleoanthropologists is “inadequate” to the task of “unbinding” us from our attachment to something proper to man, for which only philosophy can save us, despite the fact that it is precisely such work which, she claims, has lead to the “barely conceivable question: must we not extend the rights of man to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans?” (52). Why such a question might be “barely conceivable” is not explained. Indeed, in what follows the question that imposes itself above all is somewhat different: the question of philosophical rigour, or its absence and, with that, the question of academic responsibility. First of all, Cavalieri’s “claims” – which, writes de Fontenay, are legitimized by the utilitarian theory of Peter Singer – are dubbed “outrageous” (53), thus extending the “outrage” both to Singer’s work and to utilitarianism in general. Singer, she continues, presents “a truly extremist hypothesis” (53) that places himself in opposition to rights’ theorists such as Tom Regan and Joël Fineberg insofar as Singer sees the “vocabulary of rights” as merely “a convenient political shorthand” (53). This is indeed the case, and as such begs the question as to why, therefore, de Fontenay in the remainder of the chapter sets up Singer, and not Regan (who is not mentioned again), as the prime exemplar of contemporary animal rights theory. Indeed, de Fontenay will, bizarrely, reduce animal rights discourse – with all of its various steams, philosophy, heritage, and positions – throughout to what she calls the “utilitarian offensive” (63). More than that, it is unclear as to whether de Fontenay has even read Regan and Fineberg, insofar as she refers only to a secondary source nearly two decades old, that of Jean-Yves Goffi’s Le philosophe et ses animaux (1994), a text upon which she also relies for her summary of Singer’s – in places “staggering” (54) – philosophy. In the most reductive fashion imaginable, de Fontenay takes from Singer’s work only then argument that, if vivisection is morally acceptable, then so too are experiments performed on mentally-handicapped humans. While it is all too clear that Singer is not advocating experiments on human beings, but rather arguing that humans have no moral right to experiment on other animals, de Fontenay deliberately misreads into Singer’s argument what amounts to an apology for Mengele. Such a tactic, writes de Fontenay, is “scandalous” and “offends humankind,” and thereafter Singer’s, and by extension Cavalieri’s, status as philosophers is revoked, the distinction now placed within the inverted commas of disbelief (56). Again, without any apparent reflexivity or irony, de Fontenay goes on to accuse Singer of displaying an obvious “lack of civility” (56).

While I believe the contemporary discourse of animal rights, in both its utilitarian and neo-Kantian varieties, is inherently flawed,[vi] I nonetheless find de Fontenay’s treatment of the subject to be superficial and at once deeply offensive to those philosophers who have for so many years committed themselves to the betterment of the – largely abominable – situation of nonhuman animals. Indeed, the confession of an apparent “outrage” concerning the use of disabled humans as limit cases masks a shockingly conservative timidity on de Fontenay’s behalf (who can talk about the Holocaust in relation to human-animal indistinction, but not a brain-damaged infant), one which she ultimately “justifies” with utterly empty statements such as “[t]hat’s just the way it is and no argument is needed” (52), and propped up with a equally empty rhetoric of “nobility” and “dignity” (56, 59). Also, de Fontenay seems quite unconcerned by a vague but repeated invocation of “morality” and of “moral status” and “moral contracts,” without any question or clarification about what constitutes such a morality. Again, what is lacking is philosophical rigour. Indeed, de Fontenay even criticizes the use of the term “nonhuman animals,” the express intention of which is simply to draw attention to the fact that humans are one species among a great number of others, but which de Fontenay reads as “the Schadenfreude of abasing some as a way of elevating others” (52).

Ultimately, writes de Fontenay, Singer and Cavalieri suffer from a simple lack of style along with a rhetoric of bad taste, which should be proposed more artfully to gain followers (57) – thus overlooking completely the huge impact Singer’s Animal Liberation had, and continues to have. Given all we have heard in the previous chapters, it comes as something of a surprise that de Fontenay then confesses to having made a similar “risky” point, although – and thus apparently in direct contrast to Singer & Cavalieri – from the “wisdom of love” in the first chapter of Le silence in hope of making criteria less dependent on the criteria of competence (57). Then, in a further confusion, de Fontenay adds that, actually, the urgency of stopping horrendous psychic and physical torture “excuses” Singer’s & Cavalieri’s methods “to a certain extent” (58).

This urgency, however, is insufficient to prevent de Fontenay from deeming Cavalieri’s work as being done in an “inappropriate way” (60), as “indecent” (60), as misanthropic and “saddening” (59), and as nauseating (62). Similarly, Singer does not discuss, or argue, or theorise, but rather “makes fun” of his adversaries (60). All this, writes de Fontenay, is because they fail to recognise the “minimal moral contract” and fail to respect the “nobility” and “dignity” of Man (59). This very (humanist) notion of “dignity” is of course hugely problematic itself,[vii] as de Fontenay herself notes in Le silence: described by Lévi-Strauss as “the myth of a dignity exclusive to human nature,” it is this myth of a human value beyond “merely” living which, in whatever historical guise, “suffered [a fait essuyer] to nature itself its first mutilation from which all other mutilations must inevitably follow” (cit. de Fontenay Le silence 47). What then might such mutilations be which, insofar as they inevitably follow, are therefore structurally or genetically implicated in this ideology of a “nature” which is exclusively, properly, human? As to what has to follow, in other words, from the positing of an inalienable dignity of whatever stripe or mark which both constitutes, and consists in, a single animal species, an infinite transcendence which thus marks out one species, even before birth, as not-animal (rather than non-animal), Carl Schmitt offers one answer when he asserts that the ideological construct that is this notion of the human’s innate and universal humanity brings with it nothing less than the end of the political, its displacing and thus depoliticization of the site of politics providing instead only an “especially useful” instrument of imperialism.

Despite the charge of misanthropy, however, de Fontenay then immediately sets herself against those “who morally and politically recuse all defenders of the beasts by declaring them enemies of the human species” (61). She does this by way of a confusing – not least given her support for, and earlier fine reading of, Derrida – declaration that the “institution of a rights of animals” [itself an odd formulation] is “one of the legitimate struggles of our time” (61). So then, does de Fontenay agree with rights for animals, or not? Well, yes, on condition that such rights are “not awkwardly mimetic” (62), that is, not attributing the rights of Man to other animals as a sort of appendix, but instead to apply an individual and international ethical codification of “moral status” (62). This, however, all seems rather simplistic, and would ultimately result in it being precisely such an appendix, given that it is a categorisation applied by Man, when what is needed is a complete sea change in the relation with and between animals, which includes man. De Fontenay does make the important point, however, that the extension of human rights to the great apes is far too narrow and constricting (based as it is upon an unabashed anthropocentrism and requiring the construction of a – presumably “scientific” – hierarchy of animal beings). She then appears to immediately contradict this point by suggesting that we make great apes “the first among beasts rather than the last of men” (62).

De Fontenay does credit “the utilitarians” on two accounts: “the idea of interest and the idea of ‘moral patients,’” although quickly adding that they should only be “taken up after a final, philosophical clarification” (67). To this end, she calls upon Schopenhauer, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty to support her own notion of pathocentrism understood as “a centrality of undergoing or suffering shared by all living beings” that has no need of recourse to law or contract theory (67). As is well known, we find a similar argument posited by Derrida in his later work, and which is itself somewhat problematic. While de Fontenay is right in suggesting all vertebrates have specific worlds and specific cultures, its focus on shared suffering is a problem, ironically, precisely because of its implication within a Benthamite utilitarian heritage. Problematic too, is the fact that for de Fontenay it is only the possibility of empathic human understanding with such animals that marks them out as somehow worthy. One can only wonder, then, how far de Fontenay herself strays from a narcissistic contemplation of her reflection, especially given her overriding concern not to offend “humanity.”

Ultimately, de Fontenay is correct to criticize the notion of rights (although it would apply more to Regan’s position that Singer’s) for acting as if Nietzschean genealogy and Derridean deconstruction had never existed (64). She is correct too to write of the necessity of thoroughly deconstructing the notion of natural right based on rational beings able to enter into a contract (66); correct too in suggesting any rights discourse requires a deep and nuanced understanding of the philosophical, historical and juridical problematic (66). One might add, however, that any critique of rights discourse similarly requires just such a deep and nuanced understanding, advice that de Fontenay would do well to heed. First, she should have read Regan or Wise – who do have a deeper understanding of the problematic than Singer, which is not to criticize the latter, as Singer’s utilitarian position is precisely not a rights-based argument. Hence, when she suggests it necessary to substitute a new thinking of law as an alternative to the utilitarian position, this just comes across as an asininity. Indeed, her plea for deconstructionist thought in thinking human-nonhuman relations – which a number of people, myself included, have been engaged with for quite some time – will only serve to aggravate people against such an approach, especially if they think this is typical of the kind of analyses such an approach produces.

Condemnation is right and necessary, as is the link between industrial and technological savagery and economic rewards, even the detrimental effect of the images of mass killings on “our” humanity, but it has been done much better and in far greater depth elsewhere.[viii] Ultimately, de Fontenay’s claim that we need to make “the animal question” into a “social question” (when was it anything else? although “social” in a much more radical sense than de Fontenay prescribes it) and that we need to “find a place in international law that facilitates the existence of a community of the living that can counter human omnipotence and the horrible fraternity of contamination … legal reforms [which] can only be undertaken if the meaning of pity is reevaluated” (132) sound both naive and empty, or perhaps naive because empty and vice versa. While she condemns rights for animals, she offers nothing but the need for “pity” to – somehow – take on a new meaning that will – somehow – completely revolutionise politics, economics, philosophy, law, etc., etc., at a stroke. This, in itself, is indeed a pity.


[i] See my “Negotiating Without Relation” in parallax 17:3 (2011), 105.

[ii] Seshadri HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language, 11.

[iii] Cf “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense”

[iv] See my “Animals in Looking-Glass World,” which deals extensively with this question.

[v] See Daniel Heller-Roazen “The Hound and the Hare” in The Inner Touch, 127-130. Porphyry III: 6, 99-101.

[vi] See my short paper “The Wrongs of Animal Rights,” which can be accessed at: https://zoogenesis.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/the-wrongs-of-animal-rights/

[vii] On the concept of “dignity,” one should also see Giorgio Agamben Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999), especially 68-72 in which the intertwining of the economy of animalization and the logic of the slaughterhouse are rendered explicit in the camps.

[viii] See, for just one example among many, Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital, published as part of the same Posthumanities series.

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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

3 responses to “When the Refusal to Offend Offends: Philosophers and their Animals no.4, Elisabeth de Fontenay

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