Category Archives: Animal Rights

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

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

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

It can be accessed here (HTML):

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

Or here (PDF):

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

 

‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization’ by Matthew Calarco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Admitting the Indifference of Dogs

 

Here is the third of my Parallax review articles, this one on Andrew Benjamin’s important book Of Jews and Animals (Edinburgh University Press, 2010). It was first published as “Negotiating Without Relation” in Parallax, 17:3 (2011), pp.105-108)

Also, previous readers of this blog will have noticed the format change – I received several emails mentioning the difficulty of cutting-and-pasting because of the white-on-black layout, hence the change to black-on-white text (although I’m not sure about the change as yet …)

 

 

Dogs run throughout Andrew Benjamin’s new book, both as figures and in their particularity. While Heidegger faces his dog facing him in the silence of indifference, another dog insists upon his or her presence before Goya. A third dog, meanwhile, forever awaiting a drowned human companion in a Turner watercolour, constitutes at once an icon of devotion and the moment of a “founding tear” – a rupture which opens the work to an unthought modality of friendship. Finally, in a doubling and displacing of the Heideggerian absence of relation, the indifference of the dogs of Piero di Cosimo announces a transformative co-presence which, incapable of being determined in advance, can thus only be lived. It is in running together, in this movement from indifferent silence to the in-difference of an undetermined co-presence which, Benjamin will argue, inaugurates not simply an importantly different philosophical project, but rather “a transformation of the philosophical itself” (p.19). In this, Benjamin’s latest work remains resolutely preliminary, in the sense of the tracing of a limit which marks both a closure of potential and the possibility of a radical new beginning and which, in the process, makes explicit the importance of the so-called “question of the animal” to the overlapping domains of philosophy, ethics, and politics. As a result, Of Jews and Animals is set to become a key text, alongside such works as Elisabeth de Fontenay’s Le silence des bêtes (1998) and Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006), in constituting a further and necessary move beyond the utilitarianism and neo-Kantianism within which “animal philosophy” has for so long remained mired.

Central to the book is how the “work of figures” institutes what Benjamin terms the “without relation.” Exemplary in this regard is the positing of the figure of “the animal” in a singular relation to “the human,” a positing which, unifying both elements in their absence of relation, serves to efface both the enormous diversity of species and the already existing complex of relations in the construction of an identity whose function is “predominantly external to the concerns of the identity itself” (p.4). Against this, not only does Benjamin disclose the insistent and originary presence of the animal with the human, but also the interarticulation of such figures which externally impose normative identities which then have to be lived out. It is this mutually-articulating “work” which both underpins the conjunction of Jews and animals in the title (an entitling which fully acknowledges the attendant risk which might appear at first glance to equate the one with the other) and at once serves to efface the working of this very conjunction.

By way of the naturalising construction of the other as “the enemy” within Plato’s Republic, Benjamin argues that, through the working of such figures, the threat of particularity comes to be excluded in the name of the universal; an exclusion, moreover, which, in its continuous reiteration, sustains that same universality. Hence, if this machinery is to be stalled, it thus becomes necessary to think a certain way of being just to particularity. One will recognise here, and in addition to the overlapping nexus of concerns with Derrida’s later work, the relation between Benjamin’s transformative project and that of deconstruction, a relation directly explored by Benjamin in this book both through Derrida’s notion of “play” [“jeu”] and through a critique of Derrida’s reading of Pascal in which, Benjamin suggests, Derrida fails to take account both of the doubling of “force” and of the link between justice and the figure of “the Jew,” both of which are integral to Benjamin’s own position. While never failing to acknowledge this indebtedness, Benjamin contends however that his argument for “a differential or relational ontology” necessarily leads in “another direction” (p.128). Indeed, by way of the notion of the “anoriginal” (which receives perhaps its most rigorous formulation in The Plural Event (1993)), Benjamin has been pursuing this project for many years. While the question remains as to whether the positing of a differential ontology can be so easily directed away from the founding gesture of deconstruction – a gesture which affirms the impossibility of a “finite living being, human or nonhuman, that wouldn’t be structured by [a] differential of forces”1 –, Benjamin’s new book, in seeking to systemically mark and in so doing move beyond the work of dualisms, nonetheless constitutes a highly original and provocative opening, the implications of which for the ecological and the aesthetic, as well as the philosophical and the political, cannot be overstated.

Beginning with the production of the absence of relation between the human and the animal, and by way of two fifteenth century paintings of St Michael’s slaying of the Devil, Benjamin marks an important distinction between the two determinations which figure the two dominant forms of the human-animal relation. In the first, the production 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 twin metaphysical configurations, one or other of which underwrites the great majority of contemporary Continental philosophy, work to continually reiterate the without relation, both fallaciously defining the nonhuman animal by what he or she lacks within a humanist teleological dialectic in such a way as to mark every nonhuman animal as therefore incomplete, as sub-human. As de Fontenay has argued, “this continuity and this fracture, always at work, this veritable obsession with the mending and correction of the animal by the human” can only function at the expense of the status of the animal.2

In the positing of a singular relation “without relation,” difference remains unthought insofar as “the ground of difference is itself internal to the definitions that establish it” (p.84). The work of figures, in other words, produces as absent a founding relationality – described by Benjamin both as combat and negotiation – which serves therefore to exclude any possibility of negotiation in the future, and in this way all too often succeeds in determining the mode of life in question. In contrast, were difference to be thought – a thinking which defines the important difference of Benjamin’s philosophical project – then “a relation would have to be introduced” (p.85).

To be just to particularity, however, does not mean that all such a counter requires is the introduction of a “with” in place of the “without.” Rather, what is needed is the forcing of a thinking outside of simple opposition, that is, neither negation nor supplement. In other words, the affirmative transformation of the philosophical cannot simply oppose its negation, nor simply add to it, without remaining caught within its opposition (the “simple extension” of (human) rights to animals, for example, only succeeds in further effacing difference whilst resituating the founding “without relation”). By contrast, another thinking demands instead the radical transformation of what exists already. It requires, therefore, an inventive rewriting or re-placing – by way of thinking the difference of difference – of the originary “with” marked and subsequently effaced in the positing of the without relation. In this way, argues Benjamin, “admitting” the animal into the philosophical, insofar as it reintroduces “an element whose exclusion was often taken to be foundational” (p.19), necessarily transforms the philosophical. Such a transformation, in other words, takes place in placing in abeyance the work of such sites of closure in attending instead to the originary presence of an insistent particularity which opens up to forms of relationality no longer constituted by the work of figures.

Here we begin to understand the centrality of the conjunction of “the animal” and “the Jew,” not only within this project, but also to a thinking which seeks to transform normative configurations of race, gender and sexuality more generally. Just as thinking the differences of singular difference insists that we do not remain unaware as to “the role of the animal within the history of philosophy and the positioning of the animal within a relation between universal and particular that resulted in the animal being essentialised […] and excluded in the name of human being” (p.10), the injunction of this thinking follows for every such essentialising exclusion, for all such work of figures. Hence, Benjamin affirms, such a reintroduction of relationality, which thus transforms the concepts and categories of philosophy itself, “can be reiterated in terms that would give a role of comparable significance to the logic of the synagogue” (p.185). This logic, explored throughout the second half of the book, refers to the figuring of the “Old Testament” (and thus the Jew) as blind to the truth it carries, a truth which only the “New Testament” can instantiate. As a result, “the exclusion of the Jews is fundamental to the operation of the very Christianity that they are taken to have enabled” (p.140). “The Jew,” like “the animal,” thus has to be included in order to be excluded. More than this, however, these two figures actually “work in tandem” (p.187), articulating each other insofar as they are both figures of that which is excluded but retained in the positing of a singular relation which effaces the pre-existing complex of relations.

Hence, what Benjamin seeks is a way of thinking relationality which would be just to particularity, with the latter understood as that which exists already but which “cannot be assimilated to a generalised and abstract sense of alterity” (p.191). Always more than the other to the Same – whether that Other be “the animal” or “the Jew” – particularity is that which exceeds every positing of the without relation. Outside of its opposition therefore, particularity introduces “a further determination of alterity […] characterised as existing without relation to the process of universality (and yet necessitated in order that there be universality)” (p.144).

To demonstrate this “outside” of alterity, Benjamin turns to the figure of the Jew as it functions firstly in the texts of Hegel, and then in an overlooked pairing of fragments – a pairing overlooked by Derrida above all – from Pascal’s Pensées. For Hegel, Benjamin writes, totality requires the elimination of the aberrant particular, figured by “the Jew” as a disease which must be effaced in being incorporated within the universalising conception of human being, and yet which, as “the mark of an insistent particularity” (p.105), nonetheless remains inassimilable – the nonhuman within the body of the State. In this way, “the Jew” thus comes to be doubled, split between the “good” assimilable and the “bad” inassimilable or, in Pascal’s words, between those who have “Christian feelings” and those others who possess “pagan feelings” (cit. p.143).

Nevertheless, it is this doubling of alterity which opens to the doubling of force. A doubling which, in its relation to actuality, potentiality, and justice – alluded to previously by way of canine indifference –, is central to Benjamin’s philosophical intervention. There is, on the one hand, the immediacy of force demanded by the presence of an aberrant – “inassimilable” – particularity and, on the other, force as the capacity to act justly, a force which, insofar as it remains always independent of its actualisation, therefore inscribes potentiality within justice itself. While it is impossible here to reproduce the intricacy of Benjamin’s argument, one which aligns the place of judgement with the force of potentiality, one can, in a very schematic fashion, say that the undetermined force of justice must displace the violence of an unthinking immediacy, a displacement which thus reintroduces “time, place and space within the relation between justice and force” (p.144). In this way, the “timing of judgment” thus continually holds opens the space and place of justice, so as to maintain – at the levels of both the philosophical and the sociopolitical – particularities “as sites of conflict and thus within terms they set and create to hold to the necessity that particularities have their own sense of self-transformation” (p.146).

In so doing, argues Benjamin, one is being just to particularity, and he offers as an example of such a holding open of justice nothing less than a new practice of portraiture. Having located the Christian/pagan doubling of the Jew in paintings by both Albrecht Dürer and the School of van Eyck, Benjamin makes clear the contrast between, on the one hand, the faces of those Jews who figure, in their generalised alterity, the logic of the synogogue and, on the other, the “other’s face” of the inassimilable, and thus aberrant and untouchable Jew. Distorted and deformed, it is this “other’s face” which – “unable to be assimilated and thus […] positioned beyond conversion” (p.161) – opens up the potential of a new portraiture which seeks to affirm, rather than to recover, such sites. As such, this affirmation of sites marked by what Benjamin terms an “original tear” would in turn “yield a site where the tear was an opening to questions, both ethical and political, that the work staged” (p.172).

In order to maintain such sites of combat, it is first of all necessary, Benjamin says, to trace the ways that the imposition of singular identity via the work of figures, despite being external to the beings so identified, nonetheless constrains both the life and the identity of that group. Secondly, it is equally important to identify the failure of certain philosophical positions to engage with the figure, precisely as a result of an inability to think “an inaugurating sense of particularity” (p.185). In this latter category, for example, Benjamin offers an important critique of the undifferentiated ontology presupposed by Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life,” a notion which in fact erases the specific functioning of power by refusing “a relation of porosity and negotiation defining self/other and animal/human relations” (p.125).

Furthermore, this double critique in turn discloses a politics. In deconstructing the external imposition of the without relation, one opens instead the space of negotiation that is rather an internal conflict over identity. As one possible combative strategy, Benjamin thus proposes a potentially transformative “micro-essentialism” which, rather than posing modes of equivalence, posits instead multiple determinations which serve to extend relationality. While such micro-positions generally attempt to pose a univocal conception of identity, they nevertheless contrast with the essentialism of the work of figures insofar as they take place as part of an internal (re)negotiation of identity.

Equally important, is that such a politics can no longer be preserved as the proper of the human. Returning to the figures and the particulars of those dogs with which we began, the timely radicality of Benjamin’s gesture resides above all within the “founding tear” announcing a co-presence which opens a space of negotiation between the human and the animal. Benjamin locates this particular justice in the relay between the dogs of Turner and di Cosimo. In the former, a “tear” interrupts the otherwise unthought figure of the iconographic “loyal animal,” announcing itself in the latter as a co-presence which necessarily exceeds the figure: “The complementarity between the two emerges because this co-presence is there in the continuity of a coming into relation, a process that had been occasioned by the tear” (p.183). Turner’s watercolour, in other words, stages an already existent relation that suggests “a form of finitude” which both occasions, and is continuous with, the staging by di Cosimo of the absence of existing relation, gesturing therefore towards relations “understood purely in terms of potentiality” (p.184).

The consequences of all this cannot be exaggerated. Given the primordial relatedness of Benjamin’s differential ontology, not only are identities after-effects, but so too is particularity insofar as it is has as its condition an informal network of relations. Hence, “integral to human being [is] the continuity of living with an unending and self-constituting relation to an affective quality that can only ever be a site of negotiation rather than a site of exclusion” (p.107). As a result, what the suspension of the site of exclusion – of the without relation – gives is a relationality which necessarily extends beyond those which obtain solely between human animals. Beyond the without relation, there are instead relations of dependence between and within species which, insofar as all living beings are defined as networks of relations, thus offers neither essence nor primacy to the human. Instead, being just to particularities necessarily involves “the recognition that the interplay between human being, human animality and non-human animals involves divisions that are both porous and infinitely negotiable” (p.188). Indeed, although Benjamin does not say so explicitly (and which thus marks a direction which remains to be explored), nor can this stop at nonhuman animals, requiring instead the further exploration of such deformed and aberrant particularities as those which inevitably exceed, for example, the singular oppositional relations of “life” and “dead matter” and of the organic and the inorganic. Here, moreover, the ecological aspect of Benjamin’s philosophy – ecology being understood as a “network of non-intentional but nonetheless interdependent relations” (p.188) – comes more radically to the fore. In suspending the exclusive working of figures, the opening of negotiation marks nothing less than potentiality itself.

 

1. Jacques Derrida, “The Transcendental ‘Stupidity’ (‘Bêtise’) of Man and the Becoming-Animal According to Deleuze” in Derrida, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis, ed. Gabriele Schwab (NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp.35-60 (p.59).

2. Elisabeth de Fontenay, Le silence des bêtes: La philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité (Paris: Fayard, 1998), p.525.

 


The Immense Work of Mourning: A Review of Jacques Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign, volume II

The following Review of Jacques Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign Volume II (University of Chicago Press, 2011) first appeared in Parallax 18:2 (2012), 102-106 as “Animals Living Death: Closing the Book of Derrida

Over the next few days I will post my other two Parallax reviews, one on Andrew Benjamin’s Of Jews and Animals and the other on Bernard Stiegler’s Taking Care of Youth and the Generations.

 

Death, Derrida informs us, will be the subject of this, his final seminar: the question of ‘death itself, if there be any’, and the question of knowing who is capable of death (p.290). These words, in closing the book of Derrida, thus also belong to the genre of ‘last words’ – death (if there be any) having ensured that Derrida’s life will always have been too short, and not only insofar as the seminar entitled The Beast and the Sovereign must remain forever incomplete.[1] Death, inevitably – in all senses – tempers every reading of this book, readings which become always so many works of mourning.

What then, do we learn here of death, of death ‘itself’ or death ‘as such’? Firstly, that neither science nor philosophy can rigorously ascertain the difference between a living body and a corpse. And secondly, that death, in its very futurity, is paradoxically always anterior, insofar as everything begins with the archive. One senses already then, that the voyage of Derrida’s last seminar is one which finds itself, with absolute necessity, ‘constantly going round in circles’ (p.6).

Most importantly for Derrida, however, is that with death go nonhuman animals. One thus understands why he remains haunted by the spectre of Heidegger’s undying animal, a figure he has already analyzed in a number of places.[2] Indeed, while throughout the first volume of The Beast and the Sovereign Derrida tracks the werewolf, the beastly being between wolf and man, here he finds himself haunted by the zombie, that fearful being or ‘thing’ hesitating between life and death. Here too, whereas he roamed widely across a huge variety of sources in the first seminar, Derrida is now much more focused, seeking instead a ‘new orientation’ that is ‘as independent as possible’ of what went before (p.13).

This is not to say, however, that the seminar devotes itself exclusively to the Heideggerian corpus. Instead, Derrida argues for the necessity – sometimes – of reading together two heterogeneous texts so as to ‘multiply the perspectives from which two vehicles can light up, their headlights crossing, the overall cartography and the landscape’ (p.206). To this end, he chooses as a companion text Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. The fecundity of the juxtaposition soon becomes apparent, further illuminating between them the world and the figure of the solitary Dasein, and of the ‘Robinsonade’, which links Crusoe to the Cartesian cogito, and both, via Marx, to the anticipation of imperialist bourgeois society and to the instrumental exclusion of nonhuman animals.

To understand Derrida’s hugely important critique of the dominant tradition that excludes animals both from philosophy and, indeed, from the ‘world’, it is, however, first of all necessary to understand what for Derrida constitutes ‘language’. From beginning to end of his oeuvre, Derrida has repeatedly attempted to rectify the misunderstandings of readers blinded by the very anthropocentrism that his notion of language seeks to contest, and this seminar is no exception. Language, he insists once again, is the constructed community of the world, simulated by sets of (more or less) stabilizing apparatuses, by ‘codes of traces being designed, among all living beings, to construct a unity of the world that is […] nowhere and never given in nature’ (pp.8-9). Language, in short, is a community shared by all living beings. Consequently, the notion of ‘world’ loses its ontological weight, becoming merely ‘a cobbled-together verbal and terminological construction, destined […] to protect us against the infantile but infinite anxiety of the fact that there is not the world’ (pp.265-6). In the place of ‘world’ there is only radical dissemination: ‘the irremediable solitude without salvation of the living being’ (p.266).

As evidence increasingly demonstrates, the idea that animals are incapable of learning conventions and are strangers to ‘technical artifice in language’ is, insists Derrida, an idea that is ‘crude and primitive, not to say stupid [bêtise]’ (p.222). Rather, while language need not be made up of words, neither are pre-verbal or extra-verbal languages therefore somehow ‘natural’. The traditional idea then, that nonhuman animals possess only ‘an innate and natural language’ is just one more example of such crude and primitive stupidity (ibid.), one that links Heidegger equally to both Descartes and Defoe and beyond: ‘What Robinson thinks of his parrot Poll is pretty much what Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and so very many others, think of all animals incapable of a true responsible and responding speech’ (p.278). Moreover, it is this same stupid idea that ultimately serves as the justification for the genocidal instrumentalization of nonhuman animals insofar as it refuses them the possibility of death ‘as such’. Once again, the kettle logic of Heidegger is exemplary in this regard, in that he simultaneously defines the essence of life by the possibility of death and denies the possibility of dying as such to other animals.

According to Heidegger, however, turning within such circles of contradiction in fact marks the very condition of thinking, opening thus onto the question of the circle that constitutes a third thread of this seminar, one that orientates itself in orbit around questions of death and ‘the animal’ by way of the search for pure ‘remains’. Once again, Crusoe and Heidegger run rings around each other as Derrida considers circles of all kinds, from vicious circles, benumbing circles, and hermeneutic circles to wheels and wheeling metaphors, from circles of footprints to the recycling of the metaphora of the I that ‘carries or transports the dreams of being oneself […] pulling the body and the incorporated relation to oneself, in the world, toward the return to self around a relatively immobile axis of identity’ (p.75). It is, Derrida argues, precisely this turn of a trope – the structural auto-deconstruction of which he first explored in ‘White Mythology’ (1971) – that opens both the possibility of unheard-of chances and at once the threat of what elsewhere he terms ‘auto-immunity’. It is the movement, in short, of iterability.

Remaining within this movement, Derrida thus turns to the fourth organizing thread of the seminar: the notion of Walten – provisionally defined as ‘prevailing violence’ – as it increasingly comes to determine Heidegger’s philosophy. In an extraordinary reading that traces a complex chain of displacements moving between Triebe (drive), Mischlinge (hybrids), and Ersatzbildungen (prostheses), Derrida demonstrates that, for Heidegger, physis and Walten, ‘as autonomous, autarcic force, commanding and forming itself, of the totality of beings’, are thus synonyms of each other and of everything that ‘is’ as originarily sovereign power (p.39). While initially appearing to constitute a thorough Destruktion of the nature/culture binary, this is, however, later qualified by Derrida as being in fact limited to a deconstruction only of the post-Cartesian natura, thus leaving intact the oppositions maintained by the Greeks between physis and teckhnē, physis and nomos, physis and thesis, and so on (p.222). With his ‘quasi-concept’ of iterability, however, Derrida seeks to rectify this erroneous restriction, and does so by showing how the prostheticity of language necessarily involves an extension of physis to include all of its ‘others’ within itself. Here, inter alia, Derrida highlights the potential that such a deconstruction holds for an analysis of ‘all the fantasmatics, all the ideologies or metaphysics that today encumber so many discourses on cloning’ (p.75).

The appearance of the ‘fantasme’ or ‘phantasme’ here is by no means fortuitous, turning the seminar once again to Robinson Crusoe, whose fundamental fear is also his greatest desire – that of being ‘swallowed-up’ alive by the earth or sea or some beastly living creature (p.77). This fearful desiring of dying a living death is, says Derrida, the great double phantasm: that of being ‘eaten alive by the other […] [to] decease alive in the unlimited element, in the medium of the other’ (p.94).

Moreover, writes Derrida, it is not only ‘Robinson Crusoe’ who fears-desires living death, but also Robinson Crusoe, the narrative attributed to Defoe. And not only ‘Crusoe’ and Crusoe, but every autobiography insofar as ‘it presents itself through this linguistic and prosthetic apparatus – a book – or a piece of writing or a trace in general’ and thus ‘leaves in the world an artifact that speaks all alone and all alone calls the author by his name […] without the author himself needing to do anything else, not even be alive’ (pp.86-7). In other words, the book – and the auto-bio-graphy that is the trace of every living being – is already a dead-but-living artifact that calls forth an author who need be neither living nor dead. Every autobiographical trace is, like Crusoe’s parrot Poll, a zombie, just as The Beast and the Sovereign too survives the death of its author whilst continuing to call him forth. A zombie and a parrot then, but also a eulogy.

Clearly then, to distinguish between life and death ‘as such’ has become all the more obscure. To this end, Derrida offers an alternative ‘pre-definition’ of ‘being dead’: that of being ‘exposed or delivered over with no possible defense […] to the other, to the others’ and thus to ‘what always might, one day, do something with me and my remains, make me into a thing, his or her thing’ (pp.126-7). Given the place of this text within Derrida’s oeuvre, this might equally sound a plea for clemency and an exhortation to move beyond mere epigonality. It is, however, simply the irresistible injunction of iterability ‘itself’. And of course, as Derrida adds, this disposal of remains need not wait for death. Far from it – the other, in exercising his or her sovereignty, can always put one to a living death.

Such, writes Derrida, is finitude, is survivance: that ‘gestural, verbal, written, or other trace’ entrusted ‘to the sur-vival in which the opposition of the living and the dead loses and must lose all pertinence’ (p.130). Every artifactual trace, every living being, is a living-dead machine, a dead body buried in material institutions and yet resuscitated each time anew by ‘a breath of living reading’ (p.131). Finitude, from its very first trace, is thus the work of the ‘archive as survivance’ – this archive with which we both begin and began. Moreover, this is necessarily the case for

everything from which the tissue of living experience is woven […]. A weave of survival, like death in life or life in death, a weave that does not come along to clothe a more originary existence, a life or a body or a soul that would be supposed to exist naked under this clothing. For, on the contrary, they are taken, surprised in advance, comprehended, clothed, they live and die, they live to death as the very inextricability of this weave (p.132).

In short, finitude – the archive as survivance at work – is the active, radical dissemination that constitutes the originary forcing of ‘life in general’.

Of particular interest to Derrida, here as elsewhere, is the attempt to displace the dominant tradition that determines ‘man’ over against ‘the animal’ according to a criterion of power. Rather than defining living beings on the basis of ‘the “being able to do” or the inability to do this or that’, he argues instead that it is ‘from compassion in impotence and not from power that we must start’ (pp.243-4). We must start, in other words, from vulnerability, indeed, from suffering. Once again, Derrida’s own starting point is Jeremy Bentham’s argument that the question is not whether the animal can speak, reason, or die, but whether the animal can suffer.[3] Part of the reason for this reiterated reference to Bentham is that it permits Derrida to further distance himself – despite a certain ‘sympathy’ – from the problematic notion of animal rights. This latter, Derrida insists quite rightly, remains structurally incapable of dissociating itself from the Cartesian cogito, and is therefore helpless but to reiterate an interpretation of the human subject ‘which itself will have been the very lever of the worst violence carried out against nonhuman living beings’.[4] Here, however, I remain similarly uneasy, and for similar reasons, about Derrida’s own invocations of Bentham. Just as rights discourse inevitably remains tied to the cogito, so too Bentham’s discourse cannot free itself so easily from the ties of utilitarianism, and thus from all those questions, unasked by Derrida, as to the complicity of its founding gesture with the instrumentalization of animals, in particular with justifications of vivisection, and of its relation to the utilitarianism of Peter Singer’s flawed but hugely influential theory of animal rights.

While I agree it is essential that humans engage other animals from a place of shared finitude – and thus of shared passivity, of com-passion – I also find myself particularly wary of the Derridean injunction that we simply must start with suffering, a gesture which suggests the impossibility of sharing possibility with other animals, a possibility or ability that does not insist on a translation into power (for which Derrida takes Heidegger to task). While Derrida’s move is both important and understandable, its founding rhetoric of shared impotency – of powerlessness and passivity – is less so.

Indeed, it is with the important notion of survivance that the problematic injunction toward a Benthamite passivity becomes most apparent, insofar as survivance must inevitably interrupt every such distinction between active and passive tenses. While Derrida clearly understands this, his insistence upon starting from passivity, rather than from sharing which is both active and passive at once, serves only to obscure this originary priority of life-death.

Given this originary indissociability of finitude and life, however, it nonetheless becomes clear that one can no longer deny the possibility of dying to nonhuman animals. Hence, insists Derrida, it is imperative that we break with the dominant Western tradition that – along with and prior to everything else – therefore also denies to every other animal even the redemptive possibility of the phantasm, the spectrality of which necessarily undoes the reductionist view of ‘mere’ life as mechanistic. As Derrida writes, ‘I don’t know’ is ‘the very modality of the experience of the spectral, and moreover of the surviving trace in general’ (p.137).

Ultimately, Derrida proposes a new definition of the ‘phantasm’, one no longer restricted to the arenas of fiction or psychoanalysis. Rather, the phantasm marks the braiding of the intolerable, the unthinkable, and the ‘as if’ – that uncanny zombie, in other words, of a living death that can be affirmed only in and by its endurance as a phantasm. Hence, writes Derrida, any reflection ‘on the acute specificity of the phantasmatic cannot fail to pass through this experience of living death and of affect, imagination and sensibility (space and time) as auto-hetero-affection’ (p.170). One affirms, in short, only by enduring the undecidable, and thus undergoing its apocalyptic ordeal. Similarly, such affirmation must affirm finitude as the condition of every living being, rather than being the right of man alone.

The contrary of this, Derrida argues, is that ‘poor, primitive, dated, [and] lacunary’ gesture which speaks of ‘the animal’ as some homogeneous ontological unit, and in so doing ‘authorize[s] itself to say the same thing’ on the subject of animals as vastly different as, say, infusoria and mammals (p.197). This unfortunately all too common gesture – one which again places Robinson Crusoe together with the Cartesian and Heideggerian Robinsons – is, continues Derrida, simply a bêtise resolutely entrenched within the archive, and as such ‘neither natural nor eternal’ (p.198). Rather, we disclose here one of the limits of this world, and thus ‘the very thing that one must try to cross in order to think’ (p.198). To limit the world to the human, insists Derrida, is to remain, with Robinson, upon his island, conforming to ‘the limits of a Homo Robinsoniensis’ who interprets everything ‘in proportion to the insularity of his interest or his need’ (p.199). Such then, is that all too human Family Robinson who ‘dream on the basis of Robinson’ – the Cartesian, Kantian and Husserlian Robinsons, the Robinsons of Rousseau and Joyce, and ‘of all the transcendental subjectivisms and idealisms’ (p.199).

Another dream – the dream of Derrida and of an increasing number of others, including myself – is to finally leave this island, to leave this solitude of world. This is not, however, simply a case of admitting ‘the animal’ access to (human) ‘world’ – a gesture typical of animal rights discourse. Rather, cautions Derrida, one must never forget that ‘the autos, the ipse, autobiography is Robinsonian’ (p.199). Every living being, in other words, is Robinson, shared together in being always deprived – a deprivation that is at once the greatest gift – of the as such.

Finally then, with what words does Derrida take his leave? Well, fittingly, with nothing less than a declaration of war. The ‘superarmament’ of ideology and idealism that dominates Western metaphysics is, he argues, shot through with a violence that must still be recognized: ‘It is through war that idealism […] imposed its interpretation of Being, a war for the victory of an idea, of the idea of idea’ (p.290). All at once paraphrasing, translating, and appropriating Heidegger, Derrida ultimately returns us to death: ‘There is only one thing against which all violence-doing, violent action, violent activity, immediately shatters. […] It is death’ (p.290). Our opening question thus remains entire: who is capable of death? With this, Derrida takes his leave. Leaving us all with the immense work of mourning.

 

Notes


[1] As the seminar draws to a close, Derrida refers to its ‘promised’ continuance on several occasions.

[2] Derrida explores, with varying degrees of thoroughness, the Heideggerian animal in Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question [1987], trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp.47-57; Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p.75; and The Animal That Therefore I Am [2006], trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp.141-160.

[3] On this, see also Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, pp.27-29, 81, 103; and, with Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.70.

[4] Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue, p.65.

 

Richard Iveson

Goldsmiths, University of London

E-mail: richard.iveson@ntlworld.com

 


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.


The Wrongs of Animal Rights

 

One might perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the proponents of rights for animals are the only ones left who have not yet heard about the challenges posed to the liberal subject of right from all sides. While this is not strictly true, neither is it particularly false.

A large part of the problem centres upon the fact that the so-called “fathers” of contemporary animal rights theory absolutely refuse any truck with possible alternatives, dismissing them out of hand as without relevance. As a result, a great many activists today – having inevitably turned to animal rights discourse in the first instance due to its privileged media position – believe that rights theory is not so much the best as rather the only position from which to address animal concerns. This is part of a retrograde and, at times, extremely bitter defensive battle concerned only with preserving that privileged position. While this is of course an all too human reaction, it is, however, just such anthropocentric conservatism that must be done away with.

Here then, the discourse of “animal rights” must be contested from both sides, that is, as regards both animal and right. Ironically perhaps, this can best be illustrated by way of its two greatest proponents, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, whose books, Animal Liberation (1975) and The Case for Animal Rights (1983) respectively, are generally considered the founding texts of contemporary animal rights theory.

According to Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, it is insofar as nonhuman animals are sentient, and only by virtue of this, that they are therefore entitled to have their interests taken into account in any utilitarian calculation. In this, however, Singer is not – as he himself makes clear – making a case for animal rights, but rather only for the necessity of including sentient animals in the determination of morality by utilitarian calculation in order to avoid falling into contradiction and thus irrationality. Singer’s basic position, in other words, 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. A schema, moreover, within which any oppression of a minority for the sake of that judged – by human standards – as the “common good” can all too easily be justified.

While Singer is not strictly proposing a theory of animal rights, Tom Regan meanwhile is not proposing a case for animal rights. Rather, Regan attempts merely to demonstrate that certain privileged nonhuman animals are the “same” as humans insofar as they too are “subjects-of-a-life,” that is, that they, in common with humans, possess interests and desires regarding their own individual existence. In other words, Regan’s neo-Kantian liberal approach 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. As philosopher Matthew Calarco notes, “Regan’s work is not a case for animal rights but for rights for subjects, the classical example of which is human beings.”[1]

Already then, we see how the notion of “animal rights” necessarily moves within the same or another humanism, redrawing again and again the same unthought lines of exclusion, the same metaphysics of either-man-or-animal. In both cases, it is man who must determine, and thus delimit, the animal. Similarly, the bourgeois liberalism upon which rights theory rests is clearly evident in the shared privileging of the individual – of individual consciousness (Regan) and of an individual capacity for suffering (Singer) – at the expense of wider considerations. In short, for both Singer and Regan it is only ever sentient animals who count, that is to say, it is only the most human animals who matter.

Here then, it is not only the anthropomorphising of the animal that renders rights theory hugely problematic, but also the liberalism that necessarily inheres within the notion of “right” itself. As Jacques Derrida insists, insofar as rights theory remains structurally incapable of dissociating itself from the Cartesian cogito, it necessarily finds itself condemned to helplessly reiterating an interpretation of the masculine human subject “which itself will have been the very lever of the worst violence carried out against nonhuman living beings.”[2] This inevitable contamination of the notion of “right,” as well as the refusal of its principal theorists to consider other possible avenues, has resulted in the alienation of several potentially sympathetic groups from thinking with other animals, feminists chief among them.

This chasm is further broadened in that, insofar as the Western human male constitutes the measure of everything, rights theory fondly imagines that the inferior status of nonhuman beings can be fundamentally challenged by way of the legal and political institutions of that same Western human male. As a result, as Calarco again points out, animal rights activism is left with no other choice than to adopt “the language and strategies of identity politics.”[3] which in turn serves to further isolate animal concern from other arenas of political activism that are similarly seeking to challenge structures of oppression such as ecofeminism.[4]

Moreover, there are further, less directly related problems regarding the underlying liberalism of rights discourse. Consider the political and ethical issue of veganism, for example. The individualism inherent in animal rights, itself dependent upon the liberalist idea of the free human subject of will, results in the ethico-political praxis of “enlightenment.” Politics, in other words, becomes for the adherent of animal rights the ethical practice of enlightening others through the power of that very will.

As a result, it becomes very easy to understand the widespread negative perception of veganism as the last pure, proselytising religion. Indeed, in a book written with Anna Charlton, rights theorist Gary Francione and even attempts to defend animal rights on the basis of its reduction to a “belief system,” that is, to a religion.[5] It thus comes as no surprise that animal rights activists tend to believe that “active inclusion in the movement carries with it certain proscribed beliefs such as the assertion of the moral righteousness of the movement and the necessity of spreading that revelation.”[6] Or, as Tom Regan puts it, one must – with all the moral superiority that this entails – enlighten “one person at a time.”[7] Here then, the focus is once again returned to the human “believer,” with animal concern being displaced onto a human concern serving what Jamison, Wenk and Parker describe “as an alternative expression of ‘repressed transcendence’” – a repression that is itself characteristic of modernity.[8]

It should be noted, however, that all such people in need of moral “enlightenment” in fact already know about the almost unspeakable horrors, about the intense suffering and resolutely quotidian cruelty undergone by other animals every minute of every day all over the world – a systematic and systemic torture-slaughter machine which, transcending every geographical boundary, carries on regardless. Where then does this leave the righteousness of “persuasion”? Presumably waiting either for a much more effective art of rhetoric, or for a messianic (re)incarnation. In the meantime, how can a proselytising practice founded precisely on liberal or neoliberal individualism ever result in the cessation of exploitation and consumption?

Intimately related to these Christo-capitalist foundations of contemporary animal rights theory is the all too frequent recourse to the rhetoric of moral innocence as regards nonhuman animals. At the same time as reinstating a very traditional human-animal dichotomy, this conservative yet unfounded rhetoric again serves only to burden animal concern with religious overtones – activism thus becomes penance for the moral culpability of the fact of being human. In this way, human exceptionalism finds itself once more safely inscribed within a Christian teleology as the only animal to Fall into sin and thus in need of salvation.

By contrast, the priority of animal liberation resides instead in disclosing an epistemic shift that, already underway, ultimately makes eating flesh simply unthinkable. In this sense, the issue of veganism is both subordinate to, and a necessary consequence of, a thorough deconstruction of speciesism, itself dependent upon the dismantling of the various mutually-articulating structures of oppression. Without this, veganism all too easily risks becoming merely a pious operation of ressentiment.

One way to think about this is through Carol Adams’ concept of the absent referent understood here as that which solicits – in the double sense of both shaking and importuning – that unacknowledged knowledge of the global torture-slaughter machine. Not, however, in the staging of a one-to-one dialogue – itself an all too human, all too individualist, all too egoist privilege – but by way of an undeniable manifestation of an habitual and constituent refusal to think and to see, one with the potential to solicit on a far larger scale. From this we can begin to understand why the future cessation of exploitation and consumption of other animals does not rest with the persuasive power of the minority of “enlightened” humans, but with the return of the repressed. A return which, as that which is most real, quite simply can no longer be denied at the level of our very being. Only then will consuming other animals become unthinkable in an absolutely literal sense.


 

Notes

1. Matthew Calarco Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p.8.

2. Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.65.

3. Matthew Calarco Zoographies, op.cit., p.7.

4. It would seem that, forming a group dedicated to exposing connections between sexism and speciesism, ecofeminists Carol Adams and the late Marti Kheel sought perhaps to “queer” the associations of rights theory by naming the group Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR). This, however, only confuses the issue, which is that of removing the focus on “rights” entirely.

5. See Francione & Charlton Vivisection and Dissection in the Classroom: A Guide to Conscientious Objection (Jenkintown: The American Anti-Vivisection Society, 1992).

6. Wesley V. Jamison, Caspar Wenk, & James V. Parker “Every Sparrow that Falls: Understanding Animal Rights Activism as Functional Religion” in The Animal Ethics Reader 2nd Edition. Ed. Susan J. Armstrong & Richard G. Botzler (London & New York: Routledge, 2008), pp.609-614 (p.611).

7. Tom Regan “Preface: The Burden of Complicity” in Susan Coe Dead Meat (New York & London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995), pp.1-4 (p.4).

8. Jamison, Wenk, & Parker, op.cit., p.610.