Thursday, September 30, 2010

Butler, animals, mourning

I'm working on this paper (with another academic blogger, more on this as appropriate) about Judith Butler and her anti-anthropocentrism. And it caused me to try and remember when I got interested in thinking Butler's work alongside the question of the animal. Because, her explicit comments about animals seems to have occurred mostly after I started looking toward her work. And I remember it started because of mourning. Butler has long insisted that questions over who gets to mourn whom is at the heart of the political, at the heart of social intelligibility. This makes a lot of sense, historically, because of issues of mourning were very much at the heart of queer identity and the AIDS crisis. I still remember a playwright that I knew in high school, who had a moving one man show about the death of his partner. The show centered around less the death itself, but all the problems of mourning his lover. From institutional problems of not being family and being unrecognized to stay after visiting hours, to a family that refused to recognize his relationship. He therefore was constantly grieving, but denied all the socially recognizable paths and protocols to mourn. And at the funeral, his relationship to his partner was completely whitewashed over, as if it never existed. Mourning is a way of making connections, of establishing kinship, and of recognizing the vulnerability and finitude of the other. The protocols that refuse to recognize our mourning refuse all sorts of tangible, social intelligibility. This brings me to animals.
Sometimes we are allowed to mourn animals. Particularly (perhaps even only) pets. Sometimes we are allowed to mourn species that go extinct. But to mourn particular nameless animals, to mourn the animals who cut flesh is on display, to mourn the lobster with the cracked and bound claws in the tank, to mourn the dead animals on the side of the road. To mourn, in other words, the pain and death we dish out, is something that profoundly refused. It is one thing, controversial enough, to become a vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, to fight for animal welfare and rights. People don't like it, but to some degree it is understood. But to be in the grocery store and to suddenly be overcome by the reality that exists behind the animal flesh on display, to be able to see their muscles and fat and bones for what they are: the cut up pieces of a being, and to mourn. To tear up, or have trouble functioning, to feel that moment of utter suffocation of being in a hall of death is completely unintelligible. Most people's response is that you need therapy, or you can't be sincere. And so most of us work hard to not mourn. We do it to function, to get by. But that means for most of us, even those of us who are absolutely committed to fighting for animals, have to also and regularly engage in disavowal. Butler's insistence that mourning is political, and it is bound up in a matrix of norms, subjectivity, and relationships is important. I am glad that her work has moved to an increasingly anti-anthropocentric place, and that she understands that at the heart of grief is also the question of what gets to count as a life, or an intelligible life.