Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts on Bennett, ch. 7

Sorry for missing making comments on a couple of chapters there, but I don't want to backtrack too much. So, some comments on chapter 7 now, and then later this week some comments on chapter 8 and the book as a whole. Also, before I get into this make sure you read APS's post on this chapter (and the discussion, featuring Adrian among others).

Chapter seven, on political ecology, didn't clarify the issues I hoped would be. Indeed, the chapter reflected both the positive and frustrating aspects of the book. First, I won't get into it here, but her readings pushing both Dewey and Ranciere into a stronger anti-anthropocentric vibe are wonderful. For those sections alone I would suggest this chapter (especially if you have any interest in those two thinkers). But her own commitment to being anti-anthropocentric struggles in this chapter. Or, as I put it before, her commitment to a certain type of anti-anthropocentrism (in ontology and policy) seems to not also mean an escaping a certain humanism (an anthropocentrism in ethics and politics, if you will). That's the only way I can possibly understand her claiming at one point in this chapter that we need to move beyond an human exceptionalism, and her claims that certain human interests will always come first and that humans must play an executive role in the world. So, while obviously supportive of the first move (the need to get rid of human exceptionalism) I think we need to spend some time with these last two claims.
In a footnote Bennett claims "this fermentation seems to require some managing to ensure, for example, that all the ingredients are in the pot. It seems to require humans to exercise this 'executive' function" (p. 150 n. 19). This seems to lay in conjunction with her claim that:
For while every public may very well be an ecosystem, not every ecosystem is democratic. And I cannot envision any polity so egalitarian that important human needs, such as health or survival, would not take priority.
Why not? Since I have challenged the uniqueness of humanity in several ways, why not conclude that we and they are equally entitled? Because I have not eliminated all differences between us but examined instead the affinities across these differences, affinities that enable the very assemblages explored in the present book. To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me "horizontalize" the world completely. I also identify with members of my species, insofar as they are bodies most similar to mine. (p. 104)

Okay, let's parse this position. Bennett wishes to tap the breaks on her movement towards egalitarianism. Whatever else she may have led us to believe, humans are still firmly in the driver's seat. Now, this doesn't just mean that we have greater responsibilities, but like all executives we get more perks, too. So, whatever she has said about enabling instrumentalizations from before, this is a fairly classical move: Deontology for humans, utilitarianism for everything else. Now, this may be unfair, but it is hard to read this in another way. Maybe I am being too quick to think that phrase "important human needs" is fairly useless qualifier, not nearly strong enough ethical, politically, or ontologically to actually protect nonhumans. Her justification for this human exceptionalism is perhaps the worse part: Her conatus makes her. Seriously? Maybe Bennett needs a new conatus. There is nothing her to explain why species difference is an ontologically, ethically, and/or politically important difference or coherent category. My cat is obviously not the same as myself, but my female partner is also obviously not the same as myself. There are plenty of times when we do not flatten out differences but still demand egalitarianism and democracy. Racists who had bothered to read Spinoza might talk about how they can't support egalitarianism because ultimately their conatus makes them support people of the same race because they are more similar. Or class, sex, nation, what have you. It speaks of the profound anthropocentricism of the world that we think people can simply slot in the word species and not suffer from similar issues as if they had said race, sex, class, etc.
Again, this may seem as if I am being too hard on Bennett. so let me clarify. I may find this move disappointing, but I also don't have solutions here. I have occasionally been attacked as simply replacing an anthropocentrism with some sort of animal-centrism. Not entirely fair, but partially true. In that I think that figuring out how to integrate animals into our political and ethical systems is hard enough for now. I could say: Democracy for all! Which is fine if I simply want to work in slogans, but far more complex to actually have some sort of flat ethics. I have repeatedly come out that I worry that a flat ontology can justify its own humanism. I think this is one example of that.