Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Animal Capacity and Vulnerability.

First an announcement: The interblog reading group on Bennett's Vibrant Matter is putting together the finishing touches on the schedule, but the key thing is that the discussion is likely to begin the week of the 22nd-29th. So, if you want to be following along at home --and you know you want to-- that should give you enough time to pick up the book. Now on to the post:

When it is time to write about the changing attitudes towards animals that is emerging, I think special attention will have to be paid to youtube (and online videos in general). It is one thing for science to talk about the capacities of certain animals, and even for you to know about it, and another to see an elephant painting a picture. As a matter of fact, watching youtube videos of animals have even become a methodology of scientific research (and oh yeah, some animals can dance to a beat as well). In short, what the constant stream of animal videos are doing is affectively proving to many us that everything we thought we knew about what divided the human from all other living beings-- THE animal-- is wrong. We are learning that the multiplicity of other animals are both more alien from us and more alike to us than we had originally believed. That is why it is always so interesting when we find out beavers have created a structure big enough to be seen from space or that chimps make and use tools (sorry Stiegler), and there is of course an youtube video of those chimps as well. All of this goes to support what Derrida claimed in Rogues, namely:
Although I cannot demonstrate this here, I believe– and the stakes are becoming more and more urgent– that none of the conventionally accepted limits between the so-called human living being and the so-called animal one, none of the oppositions, none of the supposedly linear and indivisible boundaries, resist a rational deconstruction– whether we are talking about language, culture, social symbolic networks, technicity or work, even the relationship to death and to mourning, and even the prohibition against or avoidance of incest– so many ‘capacities’ of which the ‘animal’ (a general singular noun!) is said so dogmatically to be bereft, impoverished (p. 151).
What is at stake here is what Derrida has frequently called the 'propers of Man', those capacities that Man believed she alone had access to. It is a system of anthropocentrism that is destabilized by all of these animal capacities. This focus on animal capacity or generally anti-anthropocentric capacity, however, seems to contradict another important theoretical development in the political, ethical, and ontological domains of animal philosophy: namely the focused on a shared sense of vulnerability.
This notion of vulnerability is found in thinkers as similar yet diverse as Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Cora Diamond, Cary Wolfe, and to some degree in Jean-Luc Nancy and his notion of exposure. It is a concept I have found particularly useful (you can see some of my public work on this here and here), and I am sure many other young scholars have as well. The concept of vulnerability seeks to reorient our philosophical commitments away from what we can do and more to our sense of precariousness or finitude (as an aside, in the back of my mind has been the thought that thinking vulnerability alongside Bruno Latour's notion of trial by strength, but it hasn't gone anywhere yet). Therefore, a focus on animal capacity seems to contradict (or at least is rendered to a mere curiosity by) the commitment to vulnerability. Indeed, Cora Diamond has remarked that the moral basis of vegetarianism is endangered by arguments that seek to confuse the boundary lines between the human animal and the non-human animal.
Now, I haven't been able to work through this seeming contradiction, but my gut impulse is that it isn't a contradiction, of if it is, it is a necessary one. Regardless, my thoughts are that both projects are important, and it is only by being brought in explicit dialogue with each other that either stand a chance of being more successfully forwarded.

Peter definitely puts my aside on Latour far more clearly than I did: