Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dark Animal (Studies)

I recently received a rather odd email from someone who came across my blog, and the response to this email is something I feel the need to post here, as well. Mainly because it deals with some misconceptions of vegetarianism and veganism that seem very common. So, here's the response:


It seems to me that your email misunderstands what is at stake with trying to create ethical relationships with non-human beings (in particular here, those beings we call animals). There is an indictment against vegetarianism and veganism that it is motivated by a naive escapism and utopianism. In this argument, vegetarianism and veganism are conceived not as ethical responses to violence, but rather as a way of being unable to think through violence. The ethical equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and going lalalala over and over again. Under this view vegetarianism and veganism is about keeping our hands clean, about purity and innocence and the sacred. This is the mistake that Derrida makes in his interview with Nancy, "Eating Well." In it he argues that vegetarians have yet to sacrifice sacrifice. Well, no duh. Now, I've hung out with plenty of vegetarians and vegans, and in general they are crowd less congratulatory on their innocence as consumed by their own guilt. The blame they lay at the feet of those who still consume animal flesh and products is meet by an almost Newtonian response of equal and opposite blame upon themselves. This is the guilt that Adorno describes as a "guilt of a life which purely as a fact will strangle other life". Indeed, the escapist and utopian drive that seeks to ward off this guilt is to be found just as often (if not more so!) among those who deride vegetarianism as utopian. If you look at Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Jose Ortega y Gasset you see again and again a desire to expiate this guilt by sublimating their violence into a sacred ritual. It's like something straight out of Durkheim or Mauss.
Vegetarians and vegans are seldom Hegel's beautiful soul who faces the "silent fusion of the pithless unsubstantial elements of evaporated life," but are instead the other side of the dialectal coin, a damaged soul who has seen the face of the gorgon. This is exactly what I have tried to address in my discussion of vegetarian vampires and vampiric vegetarians. The vegetarian vampire is the liminal figure that exists on both sides, both beautiful soul and damaged soul. On the one hand the vegetarian vampire uses vegetarianism as a marker of innocence (this is one way to understand Hitler's propaganda around his non-existent vegetarianism, and also a way to understand the British National Party's Land and People campaign for animal welfare). On the other hand, the vegetarian vampire is a brooding, reflective creature; a guilt-ridden being. We need to escape these economies of innocence and guilt, of purity and pollution, of the sacred and the profane (this is a difference between myself and Agamben, who embraces the profane as a way out). What we need might be less of a critical animal studies, and more of a dark animal studies.
The critique, as Kant explains to us from the very beginning, has a policing and tribunal function. The critique distances and judges. I think that ground has very little to offer us, at least now. So, a dark animal studies repeats Tim Morton's move towards a dark ecology. The point isn't for innocence, the sacred, or distance. At the same time, it isn't for guilt, the profane, or redemption. It is, rather, to exit from these economies entirely. This is the point of ethics -- it is only because innocence and purity cannot exist that ethics can. As I have said elsewhere: Ethics is not about finding innocence, but about living after innocence. Ethics is about thinking and living in our postlapsarian world without alibi. It is from this position that we can begin to think about vegetarianism and veganism, or at least the vegetarianism and veganism of dark animal studies-- a becoming-vegetarian, a becoming-vegan.
As with all becomings what is at stake are alliances, packs, relations. Vegetarianism and veganism are practices of the self (a la late Foucault). As Foucault teaches us; following the return to certain Classical philosophical schools like the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Cynics; we need to reverse the Cartesian moment by which right knowledge produces right action (this is, in some ways, most explicit in Badiou's theory of revolution). Rather, certain practices allow us to access certain truths. These practices and productions of the self are not simply of the self. Rather, they open us to alliances with other beings, beings that may have existed for us before these practices as "sub-ontological" (to borrow a phrase from Nelson Maldonado-Torres). The navigation of these alliances; the force and diplomacy involved; are not automatic or always obvious. There are complex and rigorous philosophical questions involved. This is another reason to think of a dark animal studies, as an invocation of a double sense of opacity against comprehension. We need to both recognize the opacity of other beings, but also the greyness, the opacity from ever knowing fully ahead of time how such relations are going to play out. Becoming-vegetarian, becoming-vegan, are practices of self and other, pacts we make to packs.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A certain fragility of the infinite

Anyone who has been reading my blog for a while knows that questions of vulnerability, finitude, and precariousness are returning philosophical questions for my work. (See here and here for a couple of examples). Several other thinkers have used the idea of finitude to think us outside of an anthropocentric ontology, ethics, and politics (see Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Cora Diamond, and Cary Wolfe). Now, in one sense of this thinking vulnerability is just a fact, an almost unfortunate fact, that has to be taken into account. In more positive accounts, Butler's for one, precariousness isn't just a passive fact demanding to be taken into account. Rather, the reality of shared vulnerability produces important facts-- like sociality and plasticity, like the common and contingency. (As a side note here, when Wolfe writes on vulnerability he focuses on Diamond and Derrida, which is certainly interesting. But I wish in that chapter he had spent more time with Luhmann, I think a strong second-order systems account of vulnerability would be wonderful).
So, on the one hand, finitude is simply fragility, and as such needs to be paid attention to in the same way we stamp "Caution: Fragile" on boxes. On the other hand, finitude isn't fragility or simply fragility, it is also a productive power upon which all sorts of adaptive strengths come from (indeed, adaptation and evolution are entirely bound up with the notions of finitude). What happens, though, when we start flipping this around? In a real way, it is hard to say, because life seems to need some measure of death, but there are several literary resources at hand. For example, the vampire here enters the scene as a being defined by certain finitudes (the Hunger, fear of sunlight, etc), but also a belief that one day, the might not die. Many authors seem unsure if the great age of vampires make them powerfully devious, or if their very immortality makes them more predictable, more rigid. I started thinking about this while reading Jim Butcher's Dresden Files (don't hate). Butcher himself can't seem to make up his mind, attributing both realities to his vampires depending on what he wants done in his text. In another example, we can think of the Highlander tv series. In it Duncan MacLeod is always is always running into other immortals that he has known through his 400 plus years of existence. And almost all of them seem like pure trauma cases from psychoanalysis, constantly repeating the same traits again and again throughout the centuries. Immortals seem to almost never change, and all of them seem completely predictable. I am actually curious what other vampire stories and stories of immortal beings (including gods) have come down on in this idea of if immortality tends to produce a certain asociality and rigidity. A certain fragility of the infinite.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ignorance, or, paying attention to identity

This post is sorta prodded by a few other people's post. Namely Peter's write up on folk philosophy. But also Harman's and Peter's discussion on some of Heidegger's racist asides.

I think we need to pay attention to identity. I think it matters if the books we read, the people who we work with and who attend the conferences we go to, the people we think with, all tend to have the same identities. I am not trying to say we need to engage in some sort of B flat identity politics, but I am also saying that many of us tend to ignore the importance and insights that would be gained by a strong plurality in identities we engage with. If we find that a certain concept we are working on tends to be mostly or almost universally engaged by certain groups, and other groups tend to dismiss or ignore that work, I think it is important to figure out why. Let me be clear, this is not to say you have to abandon your project, or always say you are wrong if you find that your project has been dismissed by other social and cultural groups. However, I think it could enrich the presentation of your work, and it might even force you to exam your own work in ways that you haven't. So yes, there might be mistakes and faults that need to be seriously engaged that you have ignored and would be able to ignore if you don't pay attention to identities. For example, I believe that the concept of humanism is a vicious and violent concept. And yet, decolonial theorists have again and again tries to revive the concept while critiquing it-- think here of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Sylvia Wynter, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, among others-- and that does and has to give me pause. I haven't changed my mind about humanism, but it has caused me to more attuned to problems in discourses about becoming-animal and getting rid of personhood. That there are limitations to the ways these ideas have presently been articulated and understood. I'm not saying that decolonial theorists have to be or will be convinced, I am saying their arguments cannot be ignored.

I think there is an ignorance here that is really important, and Heidegger is a good way to present this problem. Heidegger's Nazism remains something fiercely debated about. There is a certain argument, that I think is bullocks, that goes that Heidegger was somehow deeply ignorant about the stakes and reality of national socialism. And that this profound ignorance was manifested, at least partially, not because of the content of his philosophy but because of the practice of philosophy. As he himself argues in the infamous Der Spiegel interview:
I certainly followed the course of political events between January and March 1933 and occasionally talked about it with younger colleagues as well. But at the time I was working on an extensive interpretation of pre-Socratic thinking, and at the beginning of the summer semester I returned to Freiburg.

That indeed the research on Pre-Socratic thinking caused Heidegger to distracted from truly understanding the political movements of his day. As I said, I don't actually believe this excuse, or not entirely. But I want to posit it as true for a second. Here we have a man of deep and extensive intellect, who falls into one of the most vile political movements of all time. And he claims to fall in because of a certain ignorance, and an ignorance enabled and abetted by the practice of philosophy. Such an ignorance is a dangerous ignorance, if Heidegger is to be believed, there really is very little to keep any of us from becoming card carrying members of the national socialist party. Unless our practices of philosophy doesn't increase or ignorance, but rather helps us develop a certain attentiveness, a certain carefulness. This is not to posit the political or the identitarian as first philosophy, but is rather about developing practices of philosophy that are attentive and richer.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Beating the Heat

I am now in South GA, and it is absurdly hot here. Basically getting to 100, 110, every day. I recently had a major allergic reaction to, well, something. Not sure. But it was all hives and swelling and scaryness and itchyness. This is one of the reasons that I haven't been as updating as much as I should. Everyone I have talked to is unsure what it is so far, but pretty sure the heat aggravated it. Which reminds me, prisons in this country are not, for the most part, air conditioned. That means there are prisoners in GA and FL and other places, in confined places with no air conditioning. No air for them, not for the guards. This policy is both obviously cruel, while at the same time probably economically stupid. It has to increase medical conditions, increase violence and disorder in the prison, increase violence and disorder between guards and prisoners, and increase turn over among the guards. Just a random thought about the cruel and stupid things we do to people we lock up.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Post of Links

My last post on Schmitt created a bit more of a response than I expected. Make sure to read the comments from my post, also read Peter's response here, and Stuart Elden's response here. Excellent discussion that I hope to get to shortly.

Recently there has been a flurry of articles out there about if vegetarianism is helpful or harmful to the environment. You have this discussion from Mother Jones, and this short article from Mother Jones. There is also this very mixed in quality article from New Scientist (h/t APS). I've been meaning to make a longer post on this issue, and if there is interest I will definitely do so. Make sure to read Eric Marcus on the MJ article.

A frequent commentator on this blog, Captain Furious, just got through sending me a link to this wonderful looking conference that will take place at Indiana University. Sadly, it looks like the dates will conflict with my honeymoon (well, I guess not too sadly on some level).

Levi has up the table of contents of his The Democracy of Objects. I've said it before, it looks really wonderful. I can't wait to see it in print.

Peter has a post up on Radical Philosophy Review, including a call for articles. It's a great journal, and Peter and everyone deserves a lot of credit for the work they have put into it.

EJ has a post up as a follow-up on my post about first philosophy. Worth reading.

In honor of my recent move back to GA, I am going to post a video from one of my favorite current GA musicians, Sharon Jones.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Some very short and incomplete thoughts on Schmitt and Heidegger

In the May/June issue of Radical Philosophy, Stuart Elden had an article entitled, "Reading Schmitt Geopolitically". It's a smart and provocative article, and I hope most of you take the time to read it. I read it when it first came out, and wanted to respond. The problem (and also one of the strong points of the article) is that it tends to be specific to the use of Schmitt by political geographers, and basically the only political geographers I have read are Harvey, Elden, and Shapiro. So, I certainly assume that Elden has a better sense of what is going on in those circles than I. But I recently saw that a new English translation of Schmitt's Dictatorship is coming out, and I've decided to come back to some of the things I was thinking when I first read Stuart Elden's article. To clarify, this post isn't a response to Elden in particular, but rather about my own generic experiences with the way people have adopted Heidegger and Schmitt.

As we all know both Heidegger and Schmitt were members of the National Socialist party. The degree to which they were down for the whole genocide and pure fascism part will remain heavily debated by biographers, historians, and the rest of us. However, we know both of them had reactionary, far-right politics. For those of us who hold radical, left-wing political positions I think both Heidegger's and Schmitt's political involvement should give us pause. So often discussions of Heidegger's Nazism tends to revolve around two questions: What is the essence of Nazism (the Naziness of Nazism), and did Heidegger actually support or reject this essence? The other question tends to be some variation of if the whole Nazi thing is just an ad hom, and if his philosophical corpus should at all be treated differently because of his political commitments (or his political lapses, in the terminology of some of his defenders)? The debates around Heidegger have been raging for decades now, but Schmitt is a relatively new beast. Departments that are comfortable with teaching Heidegger have a far more uneven relationship with Carl Schmitt. For example, a professor in the philosophy department at Duquesne recently told a friend that their faculty have been having debates if they should even teach Schmitt. Perhaps this uncomfortableness comes from a belief that the answers to the questions of Heidegger's Nazism are far more clear cut with Schmitt. Regardless of the reason, the unease is far from universal and new scholarship into Schmitt continues at a rapid rate, and I am certainly one of those who have read largely of Schmitt's work and found it useful. For me it comes down to how Schmitt, and for that matter Heidegger, are being read.
Schmitt remains an obvious far right thinker, and radicals should approach his work with that fact in mind. A certain critical distance will be necessary when engaging with Schmitt, certainly at his solutions, but even at his problematics. I occasionally fear that Schmitt will start being read less and less with a critical distance, in other words he will be more and more like Heidegger. My hope is that the debate around reading and engaging Schmitt might start provoking more a critical distance by those engaging Heidegger. Though Stuart Elden and I seem to disagree about the importance of actually reading and engaging Schmitt, we share a concern that certain thinkers are beginning to read Schmitt with little of that distance.

First Philosophy

I'm not sure I am right about this, but I don't believe in first philosophy. And moreover, I'm not sure thinking there is a first philosophy is particularly useful or helpful. I don't have a clear argument about this yet, more just a feeling I have.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Life Update

I wanted to wait till I had signed the forms, but you are now reading the blog of the Director of Debate at Mercer University in Macon, GA. This is certainly exciting news for me. Not only is this a chance to do an enjoyable job and academically rich job while avoiding adjunct hell*, but I also believe debate is an important activity and am glad to be able to continue working in that area. I've been involved in competitive academic debate in some form or another for 14 years now, and look forward to this opportunity.

However, it has meant that I've moved again (for the last decade I've moved every summer except one. I'm getting a little tired of it). I also recently had a root canal. That's why things have been and will be a little quite around for a bit.

Anyway, here is a bit of music for the occasion.

*Adjunct hell doesn't refer to all adjuncting. It refers specifically to jobs that do not provide adequate funding and no benefits, and frequently requires teaching many courses across multiple universities.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Post of Links

Alphonso Lingis is writing a book about pigeons. Most of you know he wrote a couple of essays (okay, the same essay with different titles) for the early edited collections of continental animal studies books, and I'd like to see more of his work on the animal question.

AAAARG is back up, at a different website. Good for them!

This article on eating synthetic animal flesh is interesting. Hopefully I will more on this later, but I never really get around to doing that when I say I will, so I never said I will write more on this later.

In the Middle has an interesting post on the ways blogging has changed medieval studies. I think this applies to lots of us in the humanities. Well worth the read.

This NY Times article seems to be another in a long line of stories about stopping cheating. It goes through several different means. I never know how I feel on such things. I am certainly part of those who are uncomfortable as enforcer rather than educator, and also who feels sites like turnitin violate students' intellectual rights. On the other hand I tend to teach classes where cheating is hard by their very structure. I might feel differently if I taught different classes.

I was tempted to just completely ignore this recent Chronicle rant against veganism, but I feel the need to raise a few questions. I could spend a while responding to the whole thing, but it is such a poorly written attack against an obvious strawman I don't see the point. If you have things you want responded to, let me know and I will. Otherwise, I am curious why it got printed? This is clearly the sort of thing that should belong to blogs and not to articles. Moreover, why did the author feel the need to write this now? There is nothing in the piece that explains why this article, which contains zero new arguments, is worth being written and read now. Also, make sure to read Peter's brief response.

Lastly, this is another Take Away Show, staring Amanda Palmer covering Jacques Brel's "Amsterdam" (she doesn't actually start singing until about 1:20 into the video). It's really wonderful.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Speciesism: Some Introductory Thoughts

Speciesism is a term that I mostly stay away from in my own work (more for rhetorical reasons rather than philosophical reasons), however it seems to be, I hate to say misunderstood but certainly understood in a very limited way. This post is to unpack this concept a bit and see if it useful. This post is in many ways inspired by this video featuring Kathy Rudy and Tim Morton:

The term itself was coined by Richard Ryder in 1970 in a privately published pamphlet of the same name, but for the most part was popularized by Peter Singer in his Animal Liberation. Speciesism clearly is supposed to be analogous to terms like racism and sexism (indeed, Singer is upfront that the title of the book is to put the animal movement as the next rational movement after something like Women's Liberation). But in what way is the word analogous? Is it that we don't treat people of color well, and we don't treat women well, and we don't treat animals well, so they are all in the same boat? It's a bit more complicated than that.
For Singer racism, sexism, and speciesism is the irrational exclusion of beings from the moral community, or beings that we do not have to give equal consideration of interests (I grant those aren't exactly the same thing). Speciesism isn't just the philosophical insight of Animal Liberation, but underpins the entire rhetorical economy of the book. It was (and continuous) to be the case that those who are concerned for the well being of animals are seen as sentimental and irrational fools while the good rationalist isn't concerned for animals. Look toward the descriptions of Descartes and his followers awful vivisection of animals, or remember your Spinoza, "The law against killing animals is based more on empty superstitions and unmanly sentiment than sound reason." (E4p37s1) Almost all of Animal Liberation can be read as flipping this traditional economy, with irrationality being put on the side of not caring about animals and sound reason being firmly on the side of an equal consideration of interests for animals. Now, sentimentality being connected with women in our culture construct, Singer's original preface has been rightly and largely panned for some sexist and ageist representations (by the way, the most recent edition of Animal Liberation has removed all the prefaces, including the original one, except for the current preface). I also happen to think that sentiment and affect are philosophically more important than Singer does, but that's not the point right now.
So first speciesism serves a certain rhetorical capacity. Moreover, it seeks to displace species as an ethically essential category. Singer performs this function by arguing from marginal cases. In general we have a series of capacities that we claim all and only humans have, and that all other beings do not have. The problem, of course, is that is not really true. First of all, all sorts of animals have amazing capacities (and honestly, the evidence on this one has only gotten more true in the 35 years since Animal Liberation was first published), the ability for tool use, prohibitions on incest, language, denial and disavowal, the ability to paint and dance to a beat, etc. This something I sort of get into in this post. Not only are other animals really incredible, but there is also a great deal of diversity among humans (this tends to be the so-called marginal cases), and that means most capacities that we want to say are definite traits of humans tend to find humans who either never have that power, or at some point in their life have not had these capacities. So, part of what speciesism does is began to contest the boundaries of species. So, species may be real, but they are hardly given and coherent categories, they are not exactly actual. In this sense it might be better to think of species as something like sex. I think we would all agree that there are real and even important differences among the sexes. At the same time, the duality of sexes is kinda bunk. So, there are a multiplicity of sexes, but the coherency of sex, particularly a coherent duality, is a constructed reality (basically see anything by Anne Fausto-Sterling).
In this sense, the critique of speciesism isn't at all about erasing or ignoring differences or about propping up the human/other duality as is implied in the video above, but rather explodes difference. It is actually because of the level of difference (for example, the differences internal to the category of human, and the differences internal to the category of animal). It is actually because of the proliferation of difference that the critique of speciesism has any steam at all. Even in a thinker like Singer we have an explicit discussion of difference in the formulation of equal consideration of interests. This is not a formulation for equal treatment, for the same treatment and the same laws and all of that, but rather the unique interests of beings should be taken account of equally. Of course for many people who espouse a critique of speciesism there emerges certain questions of what allows one in a moral community, and sometimes a support of animal rights in a formal and legal sense. But none of those discussions are necessary to the critique of speciesism (and in this I have a bit of sympathy for Cary Wolfe, who gets criticized in the above video for supporting animal rights--when he doesn't-- and he gets attacked by certain analytic people for not supporting animal rights-- see The Death of the Animal). A critique of speciesism often creates a certain new community, a certain new commonality, but it doesn't do so through a reduction of difference, but rather through an explosion of difference that undermines the coherency of the very category of species. One last thing I want to deal with here is the relationship of speciesism and racism, because that is a central question in Kathy Rudy and Tim Morton's comments above.
There are any number of thinkers that argue that racism's formulation is fundamentally a question of determining who gets to be human. Think here of Foucault in "Society Must Be Defended", Balibar's work on racism, and the decolonial critique of humanism to be found in Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Sylvia Wynter, among others. Now, none of these thinkers push their work toward including non-humans into the ethical and political community. Indeed, many of them go on to argue for a new and true and real humanism after just a few pages before calling humanism a hitlerism. But for those of us who critique speciesism, I think you can see a certain conclusion. If racism is deeply and obviously tied to a boundary maintenance of this incoherent category of THE human, why try to fight racism by getting the category of the human right? Empirically, we've not been very good at figuring out what gets to count as human (for a more recent example, are Great Apes and dolphins human?). And if a being gets miscounted, placed as an animal or hybrid or pseudo-human or fully human when they are not, what is the big deal? Unless, of course, some of those are beings we are able to exploit, kill, and violate at will and whim. So, why don't we work toward getting rid of speciesism instead of creating a new humanism?
And that last point is a good one, I think. But I want to move away from things I may have argued in the past. It strikes me that racism can still function even in a world without speciesism. I think such racism would be weakened (and vice versa), but I don't think it is as easy as saying that racism is an extension of the logic of speciesism (or vice versa). These ideologies are certainly entwined, but I think it is important to see them as still discrete.