Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Durantaye's Agamben and animal rights

Leland de la Durantaye's new book, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction finally arrived on my doorstep yesterday. My first feeling upon getting the book is, "Damn! This book is huge." In a purely physical sense, coming in at 389 pages before notes, coming in at 463 with notes, bibliography, and index.

After flipping through this book for a while, my second reaction is, "Damn! This book is huge." And this time I meant it in philosophical sense. This book is likely to be the book by which all other analysis of Agamben is likely to judged for some time coming.

One of the things this book contains is an highly revised version of Durantaye's review of The Open, the original version can be seen here(.pdf). In the revised edition, Durantaye advances the following argument: "In this light [That being how The Open functions in the economy of Agamben's writing, very similar to my own arguments on the matter], to read Agamben in the context of debates about animal rights is, though illuminating for those debates, somewhat misleading as a frame through which to understand The Open. For Agamben, the point is not to locate a continuity or an interruption in the line of evolution, not to align himself with those advocates of continuity like Aristotle or those who see a fundamental break between man and animal like Descartes and Heidegger, and not to bring about a more just treatment of animals, but instead to glimpse a new and different paradigm for human life" (p. 333).

Now, I agree that Agamben still has strong levels of anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism in his philosophy. It is also true that the concept of the anthropological machine has been 'illuminating' for anyone advancing a critique of humanism. However, this is where my agreement with Durantaye must diverge. His argument above seems to indicate that while Agamben can be illuminating for us, but that when we utilize Agamben's work in ways that are anti-human exceptionalist, we are being misleading. I think Durantaye is missing the point on this one. The 'illuminating' doesn't have to be a one way street on this one. Indeed, most of us would contend that the critiques of humanism advanced by the poststructuralist tradition is only able to reach its radical and liberatory potential if are able to remove the vestiges of anthropocentrism contained within that tradition. What we are not advancing is a new and improved humanism, and if you are not concerned about bringing about a more just treatment of animals, that is all you have. It may be misleading to say that Agamben cares about animals, but our utilizations of Agamben are not to imply that, it is rather meant to advance a reading of Agamben that manages to radicalize his own critique.

As a sort of footnote, I find Durantaye's use of the term "animal rights" in this case to be rather unnuanced. He specifically footnotes the work of Matthew Calarco as someone who has sought to read Agamben through this "animal rights" lens, but clearly anyone who has read Calarco is aware of the amount of time and attention spent distancing his work from the concept of rights.