Sunday, July 5, 2009

The role of 'phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis' in CAS

I'd like to thank both Levi Bryant and Graham Harman for their generous responses to my "10 questions for speculative realists." (If anyone else has responded and I have missed it, please let me know!). There are many potential blog posts I want to make in response to their responses, but for now I am going to stick to the role of 'phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis' in critical animal studies. But let me begin by retracing the parts of Bryant's arguments that matter for this post.

Bryant, in explaining what holds together the real but non-existent speculative realist movement he argues:
In short, all of the SR positions share the thesis that the human and human phenomena have no special place within being and are opposed to the thesis that we must start with an analysis of something pertaining to the human (mind, history, language, power, signs, etc.) to properly pose questions of ontology.

It seems to me this rejection of anthropocentrism is also the starting point for critical animal studies (And I should add I find Bryant's formulation elegant. Philosophy can always use more elegant formulations.), even if (most) CAS heads in some very different directions than (most) SR after this rejection of anthropocentric ontology. I think one of the ways to understand this difference is by examining another common opposition that Bryant posits for SR:
On the other hand, I think all of those in the speculative realist camp are deeply exhausted by styles of philosophy that begin from the standpoint of critique (in the Kantian sense), the phenomenological analysis of experience, hermeneutics, and textual analysis. There’s a sense that these approaches to philosophy, as powerful and valuable as they are, have exhausted their possibilities and are standing in the way of engaging with the sorts of questions demanded by our contemporary moment. For example, its difficult to imagine something less relevant than phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis to the sorts of issues posed by the ecological crisis. Ecology just requires a very different set of conceptual tools. Moreover, we are living in the midst of one of the most remarkable periods in scientific and mathematical development and invention, yet we have a group of philosophers continuing to pretend that the Greeks said it all and that philosophy largely ended at the beginning of the 19th century. It is also simply bizarre to think that these developments are adequately thematized through the resources of textual analysis or semiotics. We need to become a bit more pre-critical again, I think, to adequately discuss these sorts of issues.

I am, in many ways, very sympathetic to this argument. In many ways also in strong agreement (this odd obsession with Greek as origin, and origin as the authentic and true seems relatively useless to me). But if we replace ecology with the systematic exploitation of animals (and of course, recognizing that the exploitation there is deeply implicated in the present ecological crisis), I doubt highly that "phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis" have exhausted themselves in changing the status of the animal. Not only have phenomenological moments with nonhuman animals been crucial for many people changing their views regarding animal exploitation, but it seems that humanism and speciesism are strongly powerful in maintaining the systematic exploitation of animals. If we are to change things, I feel that confronting how this humanism and speciesism is maintained from their roots to their present formulation is a necessary move, which means critique is a necessary tool for CAS. This critical element needs to be centered not just on political and philosophical texts, but also on present media and scientific texts. At the same time, I agree we need to pay more attention to some of the present movements in current scientific discourses. Indeed, CAS is also interesting as a philosophical movement because of its strong interest in things like current evolutionary discourses, primatology, cognitive ethology, etc. (And indeed, one of the few major continental philosophers that seemed to be particularly interested in these things was Derrida).
I should have a conclusion here, I know. But I don't, not really. I don't think my argument is against SR, and I don't think SR invalidates CAS. I am merely trying to create a dialogue with another intellectual movement that begins with a similar anti-anthropocentric position.