Category Archives: Kafka

Toward an Imaginary Animal Studies

Coming very soon:  a critical engagement with Boria Sax’s latest book (entitled ‘Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human’) (London: Reaktion Books, 2013) – to appear in  Humanimalia 6:2 (Spring 2015).

Better very late than not at all – here it is.

First published in Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies 6:2 (Spring 2015), 166-177

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Introduction

In common with both its subject and the sub-discipline of animal studies generally, Boria Sax’s latest book, Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human, cannot be easily assigned a suitable pigeonhole within the traditional segregation of genre and discipline. Sax, meanwhile, is very clear as to his aim: the founding of a brand new sub-field of study organized along the lines of animal studies but dealing solely with the realm of imaginary animals (25). While the success or otherwise of Sax’s project remains to be determined, at the very least Imaginary Animals is an exhaustive but in no way exhausting scholarly account of fantastic creatures and wondrous hybrids that are as diverse as the cultures within which they emerged.

Populated throughout with beautifully reproduced illustrations, Imaginary Animals is clearly aimed at both academic and popular readerships. Such a dual focus is always incredibly difficult to achieve, however, and results here in a text that is itself something of a hybrid, composed as it is of two distinct parts. The first six chapters plus the brief conclusion make up one part (pp.7-130, pp.249-254), with the second part consisting of chapters seven through twelve (pp.131-248). Whereas the second part tends largely toward an exercise in cataloguing, the first will undoubtedly appeal more to both academic and general reader insofar as it is by far the more exegetical and critical, and yet without ever becoming dense or difficult in the least. This is not, however, to take anything away from the sheer breadth of research and scholarship that is, if anything, even more in evidence throughout the later chapters. Nonetheless, I will consider this second part first, before engaging in more depth with the theoretical sections of part one, sections that make Imaginary Animals much more than simply an encyclopedic listing of fantastic beings.

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First, the Second Part

In the later chapters, various ‘imaginary animals’ are collated according to six basic classifications: wonders; creatures of water; of earth; of fire and air; shape-shifters; and mechanical animals. Here, one finds any number of fascinating stories ranging from Yahweh’s relationship with the Leviathan to the rise of the mermaid as a major modern mythic figure. At the same time, however, one must also undergo the chore of wading through lists that, because of their comparative nature, are at times somewhat repetitive. Moreover, and unlike in the first part, these lists are seldom relieved by provocative passages of analysis and speculation. That said, Sax does manage now and again to slip in some very interesting claims, such as, for example, that insofar as moral consideration in traditional Indian culture ‘is not greatly contingent on human form,’ the treatment of other animals is thus ‘generally better than it is in Western countries, but the treatment of people with low status is worse’ (143). On the basis of such a claim, the potential for rigorously contextualized accounts of a given culture’s mythology – including our own – to challenge ingrained and seemingly immutable habits of thinking about other animals would seem very great. While Sax does not pursue this argument here, such potential is clearly indicated in the strong sense of estrangement produced by the hugely diverse accounts of what ‘counts’ as human across various cultural traditions.

Two related issues are, however, considered in some detail in this part, namely those of plants and of consciousness – issues that, given their importance within animal studies and beyond, demonstrate a clear understanding of the larger stakes in play. Anyone working in the field of animal studies will doubtless have faced the following question in one form or another (and most likely in tones of mock incredulity): ‘So, if we must extend the ethical realm to include other living beings, are you suggesting that we should include plants as well!?’1 As Sax argues, such questions in fact depend upon a baseless yet powerfully normative assumption that human consciousness is ontologically distinct and superior. Such is the apparently self-evident ‘fact’ one finds throughout the West today that ‘animals have some sort of incipient consciousness, while plants do not’ (211; my emphasis). One can thus see how potentially important ethical debates around the issue of caring or otherwise for plants are blocked in forever being reduced to a question of consciousness that appears long since resolved. Similarly, the apparently absurd question of ‘plant ethics’ can be seen as raising the possibility of breaking down just such normative and reductive assumptions that so often organize our thinking.

To this end, Sax begins by demonstrating why the notion of consciousness in plants is anything but absurd. Viewed over an appropriate timescale, he writes, plants can be seen to act ‘with an apparent deliberation that rivals that of any mammal’ (211). Plants, he continues, explore territories, battle competitors, and surmount barriers between them and the sunlight that sustains them; they ‘recruit’ various other animals through bribery, coercion, deceit, and self-sacrifice, and some even launch deadly preemptive attacks against other plants (211). Even the slowness of response thought to characterize plant life can no longer be considered certain: leaves and stems, writes Sax, ‘may immediately emit poisons or even alter their chemistry when insects lay eggs on their leaves’ (213).

Shifting to focus more generally on the often vexed – and just as often irrelevant – question of consciousness and its attribution or otherwise to another, Sax argues that it is primarily a question of dominance. Given that there are quite simply no conditions or criteria by which consciousness can in fact be either awarded or withheld, he writes, the human’s justification for domination is rather an illusion based principally upon ‘a trick of perspective’ (247). Hence, we need only shift that perspective just a little in order to disclose its fundamental bias. Consider, writes Sax, the crows of Sendai, who place walnuts under the wheels of cars stopped at traffic lights, nuts which are then cracked open as the cars move forward on green. ‘Quite possibly,’ he continues, ‘these crows believe that cars and trucks exist for the express purpose of crushing shells’ (247). Among other things, displacing the anthropocentric bias in this manner opens the way to a far more nuanced understanding of the various ways in which human and nonhuman beings co-exist and co-evolve within symbiotic relationships, and not as a result of domestication (from the Latin dominus) conceived as synonymous with domination.

That said, writes Sax, it is in fact technology, rather than other animals, which today more than ever is rendering the illusion of human dominance impossible to maintain. Indeed, he argues, an alien newly-arrived on Earth ‘might well think that computers were the dominant form of life, with human beings only present to build and service them’ (248). And how, the alien may well ask herself, might these human animals have come to be so utterly dominated in this fashion? Well, suggests Sax, the alien might very well conclude that humans must simply have been programmed that way, most likely set in motion by a series of automatic triggers of the most basic stimulus-response type (248).

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Second, the First Part

While retaining both brevity and simplicity of telling, the first part of Imaginary Animals concerns itself with the rather different task of responding in depth to a number of provocations that give each chapter its heading: namely, ‘Animal Encounters’; ‘What is an “Imaginary Animal”?’; ‘Every Real Animal is Imaginary’; ‘Every Imaginary Animal is Real’; and ‘Monsters.’

Focusing in the first chapter on the paradoxical figure of the ‘true unicorn,’ Sax clearly demonstrates why, should unicorns be discovered, no captured unicorn could ever be judged ‘authentic’ according to her species classification. From this, we can infer the impossibility of ever adequately defining and delimiting any species insofar as, if no newly emerging species can be defined, ergo neither can any existing or now-extinct species, including human beings. Sax dwells in some detail on this latter point and, while parts of the argument regarding human beings are interesting, some are nonetheless very problematic. He begins by arguing that to produce an adequate definition of the human species is, and always will be, impossible, simply because ‘the boundaries of what is considered human vary enormously by culture, by historical era and even in the course of an individual’s day-to-day experience’ (23). Thus, a bear in one place and time is thought capable of coupling with a human to produce a child while, in another, apes are assumed to be human while certain of tribespeople are not, or again, in another place and time, that the large cassowary bird is a human being is a fact blindingly obvious to all concerned. By any account, this is an important point to make.

However, writing now of the innumerable doomed attempts to define the human on the basis of an apparently unique property, be it tools, language, consciousness, death, etc., Sax seems to locate in this lack of a uniquely definitive property the very property it claims that humans lack. Human animals, in short, are ‘uniquely elusive’ insofar as they lack any uniquely human characteristic, but rather are always ‘disguised, airbrushed, rethought, hidden, exaggerated or otherwise altered’ (24). Given the inference that no species can ever be adequately defined and delimited, this is an extremely puzzling move indeed. Human animals, insists Sax, are unique because they elude definition, while at the same time insisting that unicorns, for example, also elude definition. Moreover, Sax’s definition of the properly human is almost as old as time, having been reiterated over and over again in myth and fable, most notably for us perhaps in the Greek myth of Epimetheus. Indeed, Western philosophy has depended for millennia upon just this notion of constitutive lack as proper to the human, before finally being taken to task by poststructuralist philosophy.

Immediately after making his claim for a properly human lack, Sax then states his desire to extend ‘the academic area called “anthrozoology” or “animal studies” … to the imagination, to myth and legend’ – a realm which, according to Sax at least, ‘has seldom been very anthropocentric’ (25). He attempts this, he writes, in order to ‘finally reveal our human claims to dominance to be illusory’ (25). That said, the claim that myth and legend are largely non-anthropocentric seems to me quite extraordinary, and the suggestion that in ‘folktales throughout the world, all forms of life, from human beings to foxes and trees, interact with something close to equality’ (25) would seem to fall prey both to a universalization of myth (which Sax rightly argues strenuously against throughout) and to a forgetting of that trick of perspectival bias that ultimately sustains an illusory belief in a global human dominance. Moreover, just such an anthropocentrism, precisely because it remains invisible and thus unquestioned, threatens to stall Sax’s project before it can even begin insofar as it potentially risks the silent extension of anthropocentrism – in the guise of its very expulsion – throughout the realm of animal studies. Instead, I would argue, it is necessary to engage adequately and repeatedly with anthropocentrism at every level, simply because it is something that can never be expelled, but only ignored.

Despite elsewhere acknowledging the importance of replacing dominance with symbiotic co-evolution, equally problematic here is a nostalgic regression of other animals to an illusory ‘primordial’ realm of ‘nonhuman cyclic time’ that, in typically Hegelian fashion, is imagined to predate the human world of names, categories, and concepts (31-32). Indeed, readers of animal studies will doubtless be familiar with this argument. Philosophical as much as physical engagements, however, have long shown the necessity of understanding the various controversies concerning temporality that, at the very least, mark it as a hugely complex and profoundly nuanced area of study. By contrast, such a simplistic opposition that pits an unexplored conception of linear time understood as properly human, against some equally unspecified kind of cyclic time said to universally characterize the massively divergent ways of being of all other animals, quite simply offers nothing; serving only to effectively obscure questions of temporality, the answers to which will inevitably bear heavily on the future directions of animal studies, be it an imaginary variant or not.

Here, one might well object to the reading being made here, pointing out that Sax is not, nor does he claim to be, a philosopher, and as such it is clearly unfair to reproach his work for its lack of philosophical rigor. In response, however, we should not forget that Sax’s explicitly stated aim with this book is to construct, or perhaps extend, animal studies so as to include imaginary animals of myth and fable within its remit. If we are to reasonably judge the possible success or otherwise of this endeavor – and, indeed, whether such an endeavor is necessary or even advisable – it is therefore necessary to engage with the work on the ground of contemporary animal studies, an area in which, in my opinion, rigorous philosophical and theoretical critique constitutes the primary component. Moreover, in this first part Sax himself explicitly intervenes in a number of philosophical controversies currently prominent within animal studies, an engagement which makes this part by far the more interesting of the two.

It is in this vein that Sax evokes the famous bathroom encounter between Jacques Derrida and his ‘little cat’ as related by Derrida in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006) – a passage that, having being read both intensively and extensively, has rapidly established itself as a theoretical touchstone within animal studies. Indeed, Sax’s own reading would have doubtlessly benefitted from being clearly situated within this broader context. Lacking this wider engagement, however, what appears as an initially promising reading ends up veering off dramatically, ultimately losing itself insofar as Sax completely misreads Derrida’s analysis of the shared gaze. Entirely against Derrida’s account, Sax concludes by misinterpreting the encounter with the alien gaze of an (other) animal as being simply ‘an experience that takes us back to something pre-cultural’ and which thus awakens ‘primal responses’ that serve to remind those exceptional beings that are human of the arbitrariness of ‘civilization’ in which such pride is taken. It perhaps goes without saying that Sax’s Christianized conception of Nature – as a previously Edenic realm from which all other animals were subsequently expelled as a consequence of the Fall announced by the arrival of the time-bound and thus historical human – represents a complete anathema to Derrida’s thought. Indeed, in positing the existence of a mythic and timeless animal realm, particularly one that reserves for human animals alone the possibility of experiencing an authentic ‘primordial response,’ Sax seems to be suggesting that the primary function of “Nature” is in fact to humble a self-aggrandizing humanity that would otherwise be consumed by arrogance and hubris.2

At this point, Sax cites Donna Haraway’s equally well-known critique of the Derrida passage, in which she justifiably takes Derrida to task for failing to consider the actuality of the cat – that is, her singular, nonsubstitutable existence and specific ways of being – as being relevant to the encounter. Building on this, Sax argues that, by the end of his lecture, Derrida ultimately reduces his ‘actual’ cat to a mere philosophical cipher, further suggesting that, regarding the bathroom scene at least, Derrida had perhaps ‘been writing as a poet when he suddenly remembered that he was really a philosopher’ (35). Again, however, the opposition of poet and philosopher put forward by Sax sounds a very odd note, particularly given its application to Derrida, who must take a large part of the credit for the thoroughgoing deconstruction of just this pairing. Despite this, Sax finds in Derrida’s lecture the constant battle of poet and philosopher, with the former demonstrating a longing for transcendence in his repeated attempt to reach out toward the cat’s ‘alien presence’ while, with at least an equal persistence, the latter insists upon an understanding that transcendence remains forever impossible (35). Moreover, writes Sax, this internal conflict between can be discerned by way of the ‘simple contradiction’ to which Derrida is said to fall prey. This contradiction is, continues Sax, rather an obvious one, wherein Derrida insists that this being who gazes upon him ‘cannot be classified or named’ while at the same time continuing ‘to call it [sic] a “cat”’ (35). Once again, however, Sax’s would-be coup reveals only a lack of any serious engagement with Derrida’s philosophy, particularly as regards the notion of the trace and its implication for traditional conceptions of language.

Indeed, this absence of engagement is further highlighted by Sax’s suggestion that Derrida could in fact have very easily avoided the contradictory application of the concept ‘cat’ to a being who refuses conceptualization by way of a simple expedient, namely that, instead of employing the word ‘cat,’ he could simply draw a picture of the inconceivable cat. Somewhat worrying here, is that Sax does not appear to grasp that pictures too take place only as a result of habitually acquired and unthinkingly deployed concepts, with drawings of cats serving just as well as labels and names as might those attributed in word form or that of a poetic fragment or algebraic equation. To imagine otherwise would be to assume that pictograms are wholly idiomatic, and thus immune to the delays and difference that condition every making of sense or production of meaning.

In concluding his reading, Sax argues that philosopher-Derrida ultimately silences poet-Derrida by forcing him to read ‘a huge book’ (35). At the last second, however, poet-Derrida is said to force out a last gasp claim that ‘an animal transcends all attempts at conceptualization, even by learned academics’ (35). Sax, it should be noted, is not claiming a direct citation. Nonetheless, this apparently objective summation in fact constitutes a further serious misreading. Derrida’s actual statement reads: ‘Nothing can ever take away from me the certainty that what we have here [in reference to the specific little cat gazing upon his nakedness] is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized’ (9). Clearly, one finds nothing here in support of Sax’s reading according to which any given nonhuman animal necessarily transcends conceptualization, as what appears to be both consequence and property of a common animality from which humanity is excluded. Indeed, to say that a given existence refuses conceptualization is very different from saying that that same existence transcends conceptualization. In one case, such an existence refuses absolutely to be subjugated by the shackles of conceptual control, instead forever exceeding externally imposed boundaries and, in so doing, disrupting every attempt to impose upon it a dominate univocal sense. In the other, however, every organism currently contained within the commonly-accepted concept of ‘animal’ always already transcends not just this very conceptualization by which such transcendental beings are identified, but every such conceptualization insofar as actual nonhuman animals therefore exist upon some plane of being both higher and superior than that upon which humans, as sole possessors of language and thus concepts, are thus condemned to remain.

Moving on to a consideration of the obscure ontological status of ‘Imaginary Animals’ in the next chapter, Sax refers to recent research in a number of fields, including cognitive psychology, in order to demonstrate that, in our ‘postmodern era,’ experience and imagination can no longer be considered opposites. This, he writes, is because perception is never immediate, but is rather a largely imaginative process of construction, at once biological and cultural, built upon ‘conceptual frameworks, visual stimuli, sounds, memories, and so on’ (40). Perception, in other words, is always already apperception, from which Sax concludes that experience therefore ‘does much to determine what stimuli we notice, and prior beliefs affect how we implicitly classify and interpret them’ (40-41). Such a conclusion, however, simply does not go far enough, even despite the important critiques of Eurocentrism and anthropocentrism that follow it, insofar as it leaves itself open to a reinscription of the humanist Kantian subject – a reinscription this reconfiguration of perception as mediated process renders impossible.

That aside for a moment, Sax makes the point here that the experience of perceiving another animal is always in large part the process of constructing an imaginary animal.3 Furthermore, he writes,

animals are the major templates used in the construction of human identity, whether universal, tribal or individual. Imaginary ones in particular are a record of the changes in humankind, as we absorb, lay claim or try to disown features that we discover in other creatures. And because people constantly not only appropriate aspects of the appearance, habits and abilities of other animals but draw on their identities as well, in ways that are almost as various as the animals themselves, there is a great diversity among human cultures and individuals (46).

Clearly, Sax is making a big claim here: namely, that cultural difference – and thus culture ‘itself’ – is either, largely or entirely, reducible to the result and record of the humanity’s arrogation of the appearance, habits, abilities, and even identities of other animals.

This, however, raises a whole series of questions, not least of which being that, if the construction of ‘culture’ and thus ‘human identity’ (or vice versa) depends upon the appropriation of (other) animals, then is culture- and identity-construction an entirely human province? If so, then the animal ‘identities’ thus arrogated must be entirely imaginary and, if not, other animals must thus also take part in culture- and identity-construction. Here, however, Sax seems at no point to entertain the notion that nonhuman animals also possess culture, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Rather, it seems as if human metaphoricity at this point overwhelms and erases the existential specificity common to every animal, human and nonhuman, reinstating the privileged liberal Kantian subject as it goes. Only humans, in other words, are both biological and cultural, in contrast to all other, ‘merely’ biological animals. But what happens in that case to perception-as-apperception? The simplest perception, we recall, is a largely imaginative process of construction that is at once biological and cultural. What, then, becomes of nonhuman perception? It hardly seems likely that Sax would suggest that all other animals are incapable of experiencing their environment through their senses. This problem, I would argue, is a result of not working through further implications of the ‘postmodern’ understanding of perception, in particular as regards the possibility or otherwise of traditional biology-culture and nature-culture dualisms.

This too marks a concern I have with the notion of an imaginary Animal Studies such as Sax articulates here: namely, that it risks detracting from actual animals. No doubt, Sax himself would abhor such an outcome and, indeed, such an outcome is in no way necessary. What is perhaps necessary, however, is a reconsideration of the notion of the ‘imaginary animal’ which, according to Sax,

is a creature that seems to belong to a realm fundamentally different from, yet somehow allied with, our own … An imaginary animal is a sort of “second self” for an individual human being, an association of people or even the entire human race – something we might have been, might become, fear turning into or aspire to (47).

This is not to say, however, that such an argument is without merit. Indeed, in terms of a proposed new area of study, Sax could easily have strengthened his argument by paying attention to the specific construction of contemporary monsters beyond that of Sasquatch and the occasional brief reference to biotechnology. As it stands in its’ admittedly speculative and provisional form, however, it remains difficult for me to see how such a conception answers to anything other than a desire to find an academic home for the collection and collation of whatever might constitute the postmodern equivalent of the mediaeval bestiary. Of course, this is not to say that such an equivalent would therefore be without interest – on the contrary, a postmodern bestiary would doubtless prove fascinating. My point is simply that, if the remit of Imaginary Animal Studies is to be something other than this, as Sax himself clearly imagines, then it must seek its grounding elsewhere than in the hubris of the Kantian subject.

No doubt, part of the problem here results from the constraints imposed by an attempt to appeal to academic and popular readerships simultaneously. Even with these constraints, Sax nonetheless still manages on occasion to display his undeniable critical acumen to devastating effect, most notably in his rebuttal of both the humanism and universality of Steven Mithen’s theory of cognitive fluidity, and again during his engagement with Paul A. Trout’s argument that the fear of being consumed by predators constitutes the foundation of religious awe and thus worship.

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Conclusion: The Last Part

In the short conclusion, Sax returns to the limits of human concepts, and particularly in relation to what this means for rights discourse in the case of other animals. All animals, he reiterates, are ‘probably impossible’ to fit neatly within the categories of human thought. While this might seem rather banal at first glance, this is in fact an absolutely crucial point that so many concerned with other animals could do well to heed. For example, asks Sax, are other animals moral? Well, he answers himself, ‘which morality did you have in mind? … A Mafia don, a Viking warrior or a Confucian scholar?’ (251). What about a sense of time? Do other animals have that? Again, Sax answers himself, which time did you have in mind, linear time or cyclic time, time as conceived ‘by Buddha, Newton or Einstein?’ (251). After dealing in similar fashion with a sense of self, of consciousness, and of death, Sax makes the central point that most research inquiring into such questions ‘is not only anthropocentric but extremely ethnocentric as well,’ and constitutes an obstacle that is ‘true of all of … approaches to animal rights’ which seek to extend contemporary human concepts to other forms of life (252). As Sax notes, such approaches may – at best – afford some small protection to a very small number of other animals whom humans perceive as sufficiently similar to themselves. At worst, i.e., when elevated to a universal principle, the only possible result is that of an oppressive imposition of concepts serving only to deny ‘distinctness and autonomy’ (253). Instead of attempting to impose our world, writes Sax, we should rather try to enter theirs.

All of this, I believe, remains timely and important. I am, however, less convinced by the specifics of the alternative proposed by Sax, who maintains that to effect such an entry one needs only a heightened sensitivity and imagination whilst at the same time placing an increased trust upon our ‘poetic imaginations’ (253). Regardless of the degree of imaginative sensitivity, such encounters will always depend upon established patterns of human thought, and as such this would seem to amount to little more than the somewhat trivial suggestion that we humans be more open to other animals. What makes Sax’s approach different from so many others, however, is the priority he gives to imaginary animals (in the narrow sense of the word). Such animals are, he writes, ‘based on real ones,’ albeit with their common kinship and strangeness intensified to an uncommon degree and, as such, they constitute a human ‘mirror test’ (253). It is this, continues Sax, which makes them both good to think and good to dream. They remind us, he writes, of all which we do not know, and thus they warn against arrogance; in Gothic churches, they ‘caution against fanaticism’; in palaces, they recall us to the temporary limits of power; and in libraries, they provide ‘a check on both pride and cynicism’ (253). Because of all of this, he concludes, imaginary animals promise transcendence: ‘Fantastic animals direct us to, and then beyond, the limitations of normal routines, social conventions, religious dogma and perhaps even cosmic law’ (253-254). Perhaps. But perhaps such fantastic human constructions are themselves already mere instances of normal routine and social convention. Moreover, if transcendence is indeed at stake, one cannot help but question where, exactly, other animals are in all this and, indeed, how this alone might offer more than even the limited potential afforded by contemporary rights discourse.

Unfortunately, perhaps, Sax’s latest book is inevitably caught in a double bind, opening itself to criticism precisely in the moment that it dares to go beyond a straightforward cross-referenced encyclopedia to become something different and considerably more interesting. In this sense, a critical response such as this one proves above all that this work does not concern itself with interminable collection collated into terminable lists, but rather reaches toward something entirely other. In this sense at least, Imaginary Animals is indeed exemplary of the field of animal studies at its best.

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Notes

  1. The answer, by the way, is yes, of course we should. And considerably further too.
  2. As such, it is useful here to counterpoint Sax’s exegesis with a brief summary of the text it claims to elucidate. Thus, Derrida seeks to take account of a thoroughly disarming encounter with the ‘bottomless gaze’ of a feline companion whilst standing naked in his bathroom one morning. As both border-crossing and absolute limit, Derrida describes the encounter as ‘an instant of extreme passion’ that constructs a vantage from which man might, at long last, finally dare to announce himself to himself. Further, he continues, to encounter the gaze of the absolutely other is to lose one’s self in the apocalyptic event of absolute potentiality that, in the very same instant a vantage becomes finally attainable, announces nothing other than the ends of man.
  3. Here we discover a particularly interesting overlap of Sax’s major concerns with those worked through by Tom Tyler in his CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, published by the University of Minnesota Press in the same year as part of their influential ‘Posthumanities’ series.
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Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals Press Release

My new book, Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals, to be published officially on 15 July 2014

http://www.amazon.com/Zoogenesis-Thinking-Encounter-Richard-Iveson/dp/095714704X/ref=la_B00LNAFBXC_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404912339&sr=1-1

Press release:

Please email sophie@pavementbooks.com for contact details, review copies, photographs, and author biography

 

Disrupting the Economy of Genocide
Encountering Other Animals Amid the Necropolitical Exploitation of Life

Published by Pavement Books, Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals by Richard Iveson offers radical new possibilities for encountering and thinking with other animals, and for the politics of animal liberation. Arguing that the machinations of power that legitimize the killing of nonhuman animals are thoroughly entangled with the ‘noncriminal’ putting to death of human animals, Zoogenesis shows how such legitimation consists in a theatrics of displacement that transforms singular, nonsubstitutable living beings into mute, subjugated bodies that may be slaughtered but never murdered. In an attempt to disrupt what is, quite simply, the instrumentalizing and exploitative economy of genocide, Iveson thereafter explores the possibility of interventions that function in the opposite direction to this ‘animalizing’ displacement – interventions that potentially make it unthinkable that living beings can be ‘legitimately’ slaughtered.

Zoogenesis tracks several such disruptive interventions or “animal encounters” across various disciplinary boundaries – stumbling upon their traces in a short story by Franz Kafka, in the bathroom of Jacques Derrida, in a politically galvanising slogan, in the deaths of centipedes both actual and fictional, in the newfound plasticity of the gene, and in the sharing of an inhuman knowledge that saves novelist William S. Burroughs from a life of deadly ignorance. Such encounters, argues Iveson, are zoo-genetic, with zoogenesis naming the emergence of a new living being that interrupts habitual instrumentalization and exploitation. With this creative event, a new conception of the political emerges which, as the supplement of an ethical demand, offers potentially radical new ways of being with other animals.

“one of the most thorough and exhaustive treatments of philosophy’s recent encounters with animality … With both impressive scope and penetrating critique, Zoogenesis allows us to think through a comprehensive rearticulation of ‘the human’ in a radically subversive manner” – John Ó Maoilearca, Professor of Film Studies at Kingston University, London, and author of Postural Mutations: Laruelle and Nonhuman Philosophy (2015).
“Encounters between human living, and other living entities, and between fictive and imaginary, Aristotelian and Cartesian animals are here staged with respect to competing notions of life and value, of writing and of literature. … Richard Iveson reads a variety of sources with insight and discrimination, contributing highly effectively to this recently emergent and rapidly expanding new life form: zoogenesis” – Joanna Hodge, Professor of Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, and author of Derrida on Time (2007).

Richard Iveson is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has published widely on the “animal question” in contemporary philosophy and politics. His current project concerns the emergence of “posthuman” entities, the very existence of whom/which undermine traditional borders between the living and the nonliving.


Plasticity and the living dead: Malabou reading Freud

The following, incorporating extracts from a longer article to be published later in the year, offers an introduction to Catherine Malabou’s important notion of plasticité, which in many respects offers a welcome alternative to the more reactionary aspects of Bernard Stiegler’s work.

For nearly twenty years, French philosopher Catherine Malabou has been exploring the unpredictable terrain of metamorphosis, through which she has evolved the important concept of plasticity (plasticité) understood as the hermeneutic motor scheme of our “new age.” By this, she means that plasticity is a singular scheme or motive that opens the door to the current epoch by enabling the interpretation of phenomena and major events as they arise. In this way, argues Malabou, plasticity has displaced the previous motor scheme of writing (écriture).

In contrast to elasticity as the capacity to return to an original form, plasticity refers positively to both the donation and the reception of form and, negatively, to the formative destruction of form. It is this latter aspect, an aspect consistently shied away from by both scientific and philosophical discourse, which forms the subject of The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage.

Here, Malabou places the “profiles” of psychoanalysis and neuroscience side by side, a long-overdue articulation that reveals a surprising specularity between the two, seemingly incommensurable discourses. According to Malabou, moreover, if psychoanalysis is to move forward, it must be forced to come to terms with what she calls the new wounded (in contrast no doubt to its “old,” hysterically wounded). Exemplified by the victims of catastrophic brain lesions, the new wounded are those subjects who, transformed completely by trauma and oblivious to affect, find themselves utterly indifferent to everything around them. In short, contemporary psychoanalysis must risk a – potentially destructive – encounter with a new wound and thus a new form: that of the embodiment of the death drive itself.

What neuroscience shows psychoanalysis is that, while the cerebral subject always risks being utterly destroyed, psychic life can, even then, survive the damage inflicted upon the brain. By recognizing this, writes Malabou, contemporary psychopathology breaks absolutely with psychoanalytic practice, insofar as the personality changes that result from brain damage cannot be interpreted as a regression to an earlier stage of an organism’s being – an interpretation fundamental to psychoanalysis. Indeed, the very notion of regression depends upon the indestructibility of unconscious traces, that is to say, that earlier stages of development persist and are subject to return or revival at any time, a return which defines mental illness. Neurology, by contrast, recognizes that severe brain trauma has the potential to bring into being “a new, unrecognizable person,” that is, “a new identity with loss as its premise” (48). An identity, in short, without a past, without childhood. Given this, psychoanalytic forms of treatment are clearly without relevance.

The welcome that arrives as a farewell

In what is a provocative and highly original move, Malabou posits the existence of a neuronal death drive that both mirrors – and goes beyond – the Freudian death drive. She begins, however, with an important proviso: if we are to think the work of a destructive, “postlesional” plasticity, it is also necessary to postulate the existence of an internal process of destruction that “responds to the traumatic stimulus and welcomes it, in a sense, facilitating its work of annihilation” (New Wounded, 70). The possibility of an external accident that arrives to destroy the self, in other words, requires an internal process that prepares for – welcomes – its own farewell. As such, argues Malabou, there must be a link between cerebral auto-affection understood as constituting “a continuous annunciation of finitude,” and the traumatic, intrusive event that destroys this same continuity, thus killing psychic identity (71). This, she continues, is the neuronal drive toward death, albeit a death that precedes death.

To clarify the distinction between the neuronal and the Freudian death drives, Malabou turns to the question of reflexivity. According to Freud, the opening of the psyche “to the horizon of its own relation to itself” begins with the anticipation of death (130). Hence, writes Malabou, the anticipation of death necessarily “pertains to the structure of anticipation that every form of anxiety – internal or external – has in common. By the same token, it is the apparatus of psychic openness to all types of events and accidents” (130). As such, the event for Freud arrives to affect a structure of anticipation founded upon “the originary possibility of leaving oneself behind” (130). This structure, moreover, is the very form of the unconscious. With this, we reach a crucial point in Malabou’s reading of Freud, insofar as, for the latter, trauma is therefore caused by “remembered or future separation; it is the cause of separation that sees itself coming” (132). Ultimately, what this means is that the anticipation of separation, that is, the structure of the effacement of the subject – the unconscious, in other words – “is the indestructible substrate of destruction,” with the result that “[n]ever, for Freud, does separation separate from itself” (132). Put simply, the anticipatory structure of the psyche cannot be destroyed by the trauma it anticipates. Hence, for psychoanalysis the formation of a new identity can never be presented as a discontinuous process. For Freud, the cut is never absolute prior to death.

For contemporary neurology, however, the anticipation of death – which is the process of cerebral auto-affection itself – is not insulated from danger, but rather always risks being overwhelmed. As Malabou puts it, “the neurological horizon of the anticipation of destruction is destructible” (133). For neurology, there is always, and for every one of us, the possibility, the risk, of being deprived of the possibility of seeing or feeling ourselves die (133). The absolute cut, complete separation from itself, remains always a possibility.

Daphne fleeing Gregor

Given that the traumatic event cannot, according to neurology, be the cause of a separation that sees itself coming, the psychic past cannot therefore function as a resource for the present. Rather, in contrast to psychoanalysis, the pathological force and destructive plasticity of such an event necessarily “creates another history, a past that does not exist” (New Wounded, 151).

This distinction is hugely important, insofar as the “specificity of the traumatic event thus inheres in its metamorphic power. The traumatic event, in a certain sense, invents its subject. … a new subject enters the scene in order to assume this past that never took place” (152). With this, we reach the crux of Malabou’s entire argument: “Separation can no longer be anticipated but it does occur, precisely, in metamorphosis” (152, my emphasis). Indeed, it is the “radical rupture,” more even than disaffection, which defines the new wounded. However, while we indeed owe to neurology our understanding of this rupture that leaves in the place of identity only the form of its absence, Malabou argues that neurological discourse nonetheless joins with psychoanalysis in fleeing its – barely glimpsed – theoretical implications. Both neuroscience and psychoanalysis, in other words, and in different ways, recoil from the idea of destructive plasticity.

To think destructive plasticity, however, is to contend with a radical form of metamorphosis: that of a biological metamorphosis born of the wound. Indeed, it concerns the very transformation of metamorphosis itself. By far the clearest illustration of this can be found in Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident (2009) wherein she argues that, in the traditional conception of metamorphosis “transformation intervenes in place of flight” (Ontology, 10), as exemplified by the mythical tale of Daphne who, being chased by Phoebus and unable to outrun him, instead transforms herself into a tree. The impossibility of flight that lends itself to such a transformation, however, is by no means the same as a metamorphosis forged by destructive plasticity. However paradoxical it may seem, writes Malabou,

the being-tree nonetheless conserves, preserves, and saves the being-woman. Transformation is a form of redemption, a strange salvation, but salvation all the same. By contrast, the flight identity forged by destructive plasticity flees itself first and foremost; it knows no salvation or redemption and is there for no one, especially not for the self. It has no body of bark, no armor, no branches. In retaining the same skin, it is forever unrecognizable (12).

The metamorphosis born of the wound, in other words, is a transformation both without change and at once utterly unprecedented. Put simply, when no possibility of transcendence, flight or escape remains, destructive plasticity constitutes a form of alterity “where the other is absolutely lacking. … The only other that exists in this circumstance is being other to the self” (11).

How might we imagine such an impossible figure? Malabou’s answer is superb: recall the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself inexplicably transformed into a large and ungainly beetle. However, rather than accompanying Gregor into the nightmare of having his human essence captured within an alien form, let us imagine instead “a Gregor perfectly indifferent to his transformation, unconcerned by it. Now that’s an entirely different story!” (18). Such, then, would be a new figure of metamorphosis and an entirely new form of life: indifferent to anxiety and mourning neither loss nor lack.

A beyond of the pleasure principle

In the last instance, Malabou’s critique of psychoanalysis comes down to its inability to think this new form of life, an inability that is a direct result of its “failure to admit the existence of a beyond of the pleasure principle” (New Wounded, 189). Indeed, she argues, Freud’s selection of sadism and masochism as “representatives” of the death drive serves only to demonstrate this failure, it being a simple matter to show that neither escape the love-hate dyad, and thus the “intrigue of pleasure” (191). This failure, continues Malabou, is inevitable because inherent in the Freudian death drive is the incapacity to form forms. Freud, in short, lacks the necessary conception of destructive plasticity. With nowhere to go but to the safety of positive plasticity, Freud thus “softens” the problem of the death drive and, as a result, is unable to extricate it from the life drives.

The specific form of the psyche produced by the presence of death or pain becomes available to us, argues Malabou, only with the idea of destructive plasticity, as only the latter makes possible the embodying of the death drive. By this, Malabou means those “living figures of death” who “purely and simply inhabit a space beyond the pleasure principle” (198). Such, then, are psyches beyond love and hate, utterly deserted by pleasure: the new wounded.

All around us today, such forms or figures of trauma, argues Malabou, constitute a “worldwide psychopathology” that forces a rearticulation of psychoanalysis even as it consolidates its thinking of the death drive. In place of a sexual etiology, disclosed instead is a “traumatized subject who has gone beyond the pleasure principle” and in fact bears “sacrificial witness” to the deconstruction of subjectivity in the very form of her psyche (206). As such, Malabou asks, “Isn’t it time that philosophy discover the cerebral psyche as its subject?” (206).

In The New Wounded, psychoanalysis as a discipline is offered a stark ultimatum: metamorphosis, or death. This is, however, a work of critique in its most rigorous sense: Malabou is by no means championing the demise of psychoanalysis, but seeks instead to recall the reader to the introjective openness of its original incarnation. In so doing, she explores two, interrelated questions: First, what, exactly, would a new psychoanalysis look like? And second, upon what ground might one begin to elaborate an emancipatory politics capable of responding to our new era of violence?

Central here is the vulnerability to psychic rupture, understood as both an existential possibility and a condition of being-alive. More specifically, the two questions engage critically with the core Freudian concepts of regression and transference. First of all, if it is to even begin to account for contemporary psychic suffering, psychoanalysis must, despite the risks to itself, actively address the “new signification” of traumatic violence by recognizing its link to destructive plasticity. As we know, however, insofar as the new wounded live on in the form of absence, the notion of regression is no longer germane, and this in turn means both that “the force of trauma, whether political or lesional, never derives from lifting repression,” and that “illness does not in itself constitute a form of truth with respect to the ancient history of the subject” (New Wounded, 214). Psychoanalysis, as a result, finds itself tasked with its own transformation.

Similarly, the notion of transference too cannot survive the encounter with neurology: existing in a beyond of the pleasure principle, and thus beyond any feelings of love or hate, the affective indifference of the new wounded leaves them constitutionally incapable of transference. Hence, the role of the analyst too is correspondingly transformed, he or she now having to somehow “‘become the subject of the other’s suffering’ without thereby entering into transference” (215). Moreover, the stakes of such a “nontransferential” relation, one which demands the metamorphosis of both analysis and analyst, far exceed the disciplinary confines of psychoanalysis and neurology. Instead – and this is Malabou’s “wager” – such a relation would open the door to the possibility of a response, at once responsive and responsible, not only to the “worldwide psychopathology” that marks our contemporary era, but also to the senseless violence, be it “biological” or “social,” that manufactures it. This, argues Malabou, is both the future and the promise of neuropsychoanalysis.


Why, despite the taming of Kafka, Jean-François Lyotard’s cat does not exist

 


In order to merely indicate (in a very schematic fashion) how nonhuman animals retain the potential to enact a critical rupture – or at the very least open up a vertigo-inducing void – in contemporary discourse, one could take as an example Jean-François Lyotard’s later text The Inhuman (1988), in which a cat serves as both a marker and a wound of an anxious anthropocentrism.[1] Within its introductory polemic against the contemporary ‘restoration’ of traditional, metaphysical humanism, Lyotard argues that the human is buttressed—and undone—by inhumanity on both sides of its subjection. On the one side, the inhuman is the infans, that amorphous pre-discursive being that, in a certain sense, is yet to exist. On the other, there is the inhumanity of the materially institutionalised conditions that produce the ‘human’ as such; this latter is exemplified by all forms of education, none of which happen ‘without constraint and terror’ (4).

It is precisely at this point that the animal is introduced—and, despite Lyotard’s warning against a haste that crushes heterogeneity, rapidly sacrificed—in order to articulate the a priori interruption of humanism: ‘[i]f humans are born humans, as cats are born cats (within a few hours), it would not be … possible, to educate them’ (3). It is education then, or rather its possibility, which—in an anthropocentric gesture familiar throughout philosophy from Aristotle through to Heidegger and beyond—marks out the human as responsive over against the animal that only reacts. This difference and this possibility, writes Lyotard, ‘proceeds from the fact that [children] are not completely led by nature, not programmed’ as nonhuman animals are (3), but rather that there exists for the child an ‘initial delay in humanity’ which makes of him or her a hostage to the adult (‘instituted’) world. A cat therefore, programmed by nature within a few hours of its birth and thus existing already and without delay in its essential being-cat, cannot be ‘educated’—precisely the same fallacious argument previously used to justify slavery and, indeed, which analogously grounded the putative ‘animality’ of nonwhites.[2]

Here, the choice of the cat is probably not fortuitous: common sense dictates that (domestic) cats cannot be trained—that is, educated—but instead remain forever and always ‘only’ and ‘instinctively’ cat. The question remains, however, as to how can it be that a cat, lacking any such delay in which being-cat can be instituted, is incapable of hunting for food in a ‘reasonable’ fashion without having been taught to do so during its (comparatively lengthy) period of infancy? An education which, whether performed by an adult cat or a human, similarly ‘does not happen without constraint and terror’?[3] At the same time but from the opposite direction, can one simply exclude the human from what might be called an ‘instinctive-education’ such as is apparently undergone by cats, that is, can the human be so easily divorced from the inheritance of something like ‘species-habits’?

Perhaps then, rather than being taught an ‘instinct’ (such as hunting), education for Lyotard consists only being constrained to think, behave, or perform ‘instinctively against instinct’ according to a system of order words drilled by repetition. The concept of ‘education,’ in other words, considered only in its most common form of Victorian imperialism. Given that the constitution of the subject is only ever an effect, however, it is precisely the distinction between instinct and the contrary-to-instinct that can never be rigorously maintained. What, one might wonder, would it mean for a nonhuman animal to be described as ‘domestic(ated)’ according to Lyotard’s schema? And what of those cats trained from infancy to perform handstands on tightropes, among many other things, in the Moscow cat circus, to say nothing of lion taming?

If, however, we rightly refuse of Lyotard’s hasty refusal of any ‘initial delay’ to the animal, this in turn raises serious, and increasingly bizarre, questions concerning the ‘obviousness’ of the humanist distinction between human-response and animal-reaction. Is there, for example, therefore a nonanimal-animality at (or prior to) birth, an ‘inanimality’ which then requires institutionalised conditions of production (education) in order to become the particular being that it already apparently is? And what fantastic nonbeing-being might the ‘inanimal’ be? Is it the same non- or pre-being as the inhuman infans which is not-yet ‘human’? Or is it rather, as has been variously and repeatedly proposed, that the pre-discursive being-prior to its ‘humanizing’ is in fact ‘man’s’ animality—in the sense of unchecked drives and desire—and which normative structuring must exclude, co-opt, or subject in its instituting of the ‘human’? If that is the case, however, we find ourselves quickly overcome by a dizzying series of questions: Does inanimal normativity therefore exclude, co-opt or subject that other inanimality, and which is itself animality, precisely in order to construct the ‘animal’—and thus the animal (already) ceases to be an animal precisely in the moment of its becoming-animal? Already then, simply by taking into consideration a casual reference to another animal, Lyotard’s reasoned philosophical discourse suddenly begins to spin out of control.

For Nietzsche, who attempts to answer these questions, the line which marks the animal out from education and the institution of ‘proper’ behaviour is one which cannot be drawn. As he writes in Daybreak, ‘all we designate as the Socratic virtues, are animal: a consequence of that drive which teaches us to seek food and elude enemies.’ Not only is all putatively human ‘social morality’ found everywhere, but ‘even the sense for truth, which is really the sense for security, man has in common with the animals’. Other animals too, he continues, will check their drives and constrain their desires: ‘the animal understands all this just as man does, with it [sic] too self-control springs from the sense for what is real (from prudence). It likewise assesses the effect it produces upon the perceptions of other animals and from this learns to look back upon itself, to take itself “objectively,” it too has its degree of self-knowledge.’

To this we might add the lesson of Kafka’s fable (written perhaps with Montaigne in view) concerning a fantastic kangaroo-like animal.[4] This peculiar animal has ‘a tail many yards long and like a fox’s brush’ and a flat face that is ‘almost like a human face’ albeit ‘only its [sic] teeth have any power of expression’—a description which already puts into question the traditional ethical discourse centred on the properly human face, replacing its ‘flatness’ with the orificial expressiveness of the mouth. According to the fable, he or she repeatedly offers his or her tail towards a human touch, only then to withdraw it the moment someone makes a grab for it – giving Kafka’s human narrator the uncanny feeling that the animal is, in fact, trying to tame him.

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Notes

[1] For a more extensive critique of the anthropocentrism underwriting Lyotard’s philosophy, see Cary Wolfe ‘In the Shadow of Wittgenstein’s Lion’ in Zoontologies, especially pp12-19.

[2] While I am by no means proposing the oversimplification of an isomorphic or directly analogous relation, the glaring contradiction within which so many humans live—human animals who justify eating flesh in general whilst at the same time counting specific nonhuman animals as members of their family—can at least be placed alongside that of the slave owner for whom the essentialist denial of reason and educability to nonwhites in general used to justify his exploitation was contradicted by every specific encounter, and by those who opposed the vote for women in general on similar grounds but who nevertheless were forced to recognise specific women as intellectual equals or betters. This same general/particular distortion, as is well known, serves to maintain racist, sexist, and speciesist ideologies (any contrary being dismissed as the exception proving the rule).

[3] The adult cat similarly cannot be excluded from (re)education in that, if instinct essentially determines the animal from ‘within a few hours’ of birth, thus making it wholly captured (programmed) by its specific environment, how is it possible that, within a single generation, animals are able to adapt to human, technological, or ecological transformations—transformations which, quite literally, produce new worlds?

[4] In Dearest Father, and reproduced in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings (1974: 17-18).