Monday, July 6, 2009

Species Trouble

First, Greg, over at his new digs Animal Obscura (make sure to add it to your RSS feed/blogroll/whatever if you haven't already) makes an interesting post, that in fine Greg style manages to move from some thoughts about the movie Rachel Getting Married to Agamben to the proper way to historicize vegetarian/vegan politics. It is the last part of his argument I want to engage with this post.

To quote Greg:
That is: removed from the class of animals where carnivorism might make sense for humans qua their animality.

This is in no way an apology for blue collar workers, or workers of any stripe, rolling out the hot dog and hamburger parade (this is the 4th of July). I am saying that if we can imagine a condition in which humans are on par with real animals, then we can imagine, as a subset of that, a social condition in which eating meat makes sense. The condition of humans among the rest of the animals is the starting point from which a non-negative ethos toward animals must emerge. Reconciling this with sumptuary politics is not impossible but it does require a proper understanding of historical method.

This is not an unfamiliar argument, that if we are to destroy the anthropocentrism that justifies so much violence against animals we might have to allow humans to eat flesh because many animals eat flesh. I clearly don't agree with this position, and I believe this disagreement has some broader theoretical implications I want to explore now.
Species may be real, but they are not actual. That is to say the construction of species has obvious material consequences, and the policing of the boundaries of species are all very real. Species are therefore real, the effects of this reality is felt from animals in factory farms to the transatlantic slave trade, but this reality is virtual. That is to say, it doesn't exist even if it is real. As Craig likes to point out "According to Grene and Depew's textbook on the philosophy of biology, there are at least twenty-three distinct concepts of species presently being discussed in the literature." So, just as Derrida in The Animal that Therefore I Am points out that the problem with a term like the animal because it makes it seem as if all animals exist generically on one side, and that humans exist completely outside of the animal, arguments that privilege the coherence of "species" are certainly problematic. The result is that critical animal scholars are put in a similar position of earlier critical gender and race theorists (hence, the title of this post).
We cannot reduce difference. We cannot simply reject the constructed nature of species in return for some sort of generic animal. There are a wide variety of differences and commonalities among all animals (humans certainly included) and difference cannot be subordinated. As always we have to struggle for an egalitarianism that also doesn't reduce difference. So, while it is true that some animals eat flesh, it is also true that some animals don't. It is also true that some animals, like the gorilla, are fairly vegetarian (and I mean that word, not herbivore). There is obviously among other animals a strong degree of difference when it comes to flesh eating, and that certainly does not mean that a rejection of anthropocentrism means we have to act like certain other animals and eat flesh. I think that path follows a certain reductionism that we also need to struggle to avoid.