Tuesday, October 30, 2012

CFP: The Production of Knowledge and the Future of the University

The Sixth Annual Comparative Literature Graduate Conference
Binghamton University (SUNY)
Literature, Politics, and Aesthetics:
The Production of Knowledge and the Future of the University
March 8th-9th, 2013

Neoliberal policies have restructured the university, disciplinary
knowledge, and the disciplines themselves. With the formation of the
‘for-profit’ university, profit-bearing disciplines are valorized,
student loans increase drastically, and humanities departments are
pressured to redefine themselves in the face of intrusive economic
demands. But where does this leave the humanities? What is the status
of knowledge production given economic deregulation and privatization
shaping the present and future of the university?

These transformations have manifested in the dissolution and
elimination of departments in the humanities, and thereby the loss of
certain types of knowledge from the university. Perhaps because, or in
spite of, these very same processes, spaces for new knowledges open
up. For instance, humanities centers are formed to house conversations
between traditional disciplines as interdisciplinary programs are
dissolved. These transformations refer to but also move beyond
questions as they appear in Jacques Derrida’s “The University Without
Condition,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Death of a Discipline, or
Edu-factory’s Toward a Global Autonomous University.

We seek papers that address the following questions:

What trends and approaches exist in literary criticism today? Are they
connected to the broader restructurings mentioned? If so, how? For
instance, how do feminist, postcolonial, queer, and other approaches
to literature address questions concerning the production of
What political problems do neoliberal policies pose at the university
level, the disciplinary level, and beyond the university?
How do we define research today within comparative literature,
language departments, visual studies, media studies, cultural studies,
and other interdisciplinary programs? What methods and theories can
legitimately be used within the disciplinary purview of today’s
humanities departments? What does this mean for disciplinary
boundaries themselves?
Ultimately, is literary criticism still relevant to knowledge
production within the university? How does the analysis of a specific
literary movement, period, or narrative reflect these broader

Please send your 300-500 word abstract to Isabella To at
thefutureuniversity@gmail.com by December 14th, 2012.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Unruly Creatures I&II

Backdoor Broadcasting has the recordings up of Unruly Creatures (which they have had up for a while), and the more recent Unruly Creatures II. If you click the links, you will get the talks, plus sometimes other things. You will also get a quick summary of the talk.  [sidenote: I am not done with the Feminists Encountering Animals event, just thought I would put this up first].

Unruly Creatures I: The Art and Politics of the Animal. June 14th, 2011. Hosted by The London Graduate School.

Participants include: Cary Wolfe, Vinciane Despret, Steven Baker, and Phillip Warnell (there are also important respondents and introductions).

Unruly Creatures II: Creative Revolutions. June 18th, 2012. Hosted by The London Graduate School.

Participants include: André Dias, Erica Fudge, Jonathan Burt, and Anat Pick (and again, there are also important respondents and introductions).

Friday, July 13, 2012

FEA: Stephanie Jenkins, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and killable subjects

Two quick notes: (1) The "virtual symposium" has been extended until at least July 20th. So, if you haven't had a chance to read and participate, you have longer! (2) The comments are coming more quickly than they were in the first few days. There are several lively and interesting discussions throughout the various posts of the symposiums, and I highly suggest you pop on over there and read the comments, even if you have already read all the initial posts. They are worth your time.

Stephanie Jenkins' contribution is a wonder, and particularly close to my own work. She wants an "an affective feminist practice that views animal others as grievable, vulnerable, and valuable"*. Such an understanding gives us (either contra or pace Warkentin, I am not full sure) a different understanding of veganism. As Jenkins argues: 
When built upon feminist ethics, vegan practice is not a universal obligation or a fantasy of purity but rather a “bodily imperative” (Weiss 1999, 129) to respond to another’s suffering and to reject the everyday embodied practices that make certain animate others killable.
This is a strong contribution to a rethinking of veganism that several of us are trying to produce, in which veganism is neither reducible to another instance in the economies of the sacred and the profane, the pure and the polluted, and the innocent and the damned; but also is not reducible to one more consumer choice, one more boycott, one more instance in the transformation of us into homo economicus.  

Jenkins in interesting in contrasting an ethically engaged animal studies with what she, cleverly, called "hypo-critical animal studies". 
Because it isolates ontological inquiry from ethical practice, hypo-critical animal studies constitute a response to animal suffering that is a nonresponse. These studies do not call upon us to change how we eat, dress, or entertain in the world in regard to our everyday relationships with other animals. 
Hypo-critical animal studies would be what Michael Lundblad terms "animality studies".  

The major target of Jenkins attack is Donna Haraway, and particularly Haraway's notion of "killing well" (a somewhat strange translation of Derrida's eating well). For those who have read When Species Meet, Haraway justifies scientific experimentation on animals, as well as killing and eating animals. Both of which are problematized, but ultimately the conclusions are for our right to kill and eat animals in ways that very, very problematic (and conclusions matter, no matter nuanced we get there). For example, Donna Haraway is okay with killing and eating wild boars in California because they are an invasive species. To tie this back into Kelly Oliver's piece, just as pit bulls are seen sometimes in racialized and criminalized codes, the invasive species occupies a similar ground, bringing in our xenophobia and anxieties over immigration (I want to thank my colleague Kevin Cummings for this insight). After all, the invasive species does not belong, replicates too quickly, drains important resources that should be going to other, 'more natural' species that 'belong'. For Donna Haraway, killing well often means a biopolitical justification of killing, that is of sacrificing the individual for the population's sustainability (I have argued this before). Now, for a brief disagreement with Jenkins. 

Jenkins is concerned with articulating a nonviolent philosophy, one that centralizes the idea of though shalt not kill, as opposed to Haraway's formulation of thou shalt not make killable. I am not at all convinced that nonviolent ethics is truly possible (again, see my discussion of ethics and innocence). And I agree with Haraway that the issue isn't one so much of thou shalt not kill as much as it is one of thou shalt not make killable. Haraway failure, and here I come back to full agreement with Jenkins, is that she doesn't actualize this ethos. Jenkins is passionate in her articulation of why the violence of the vegan and the violence of the omnivore is not the same violence. 

Jenkins ends her short essay with an appeal to Butler's work. (Stephanie, along with Eric Jonas, presented on Butler and animal ethics/ontology/politics at the Sex, Gender, Species conference. Their work on Butler has been essential for my own). Needless to say, I agree, and I encourage to read it (and all of the comments) in full

*I currently don't have the pdf in front of me, with the page numbers. And cutting and pasting from it caused the weird formating issues from earlier posts. So, I don't have page numbers right now. Also, I will keep to calling Stephanie "Jenkins", even though we are friends, and it seems weird. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

FEA: On Traci Warkentin, veganism, and animal studies

Traci Warkentin writes what is easily the most controversial (in terms of the themes of this blog and to my readers) of the various posts of the symposium. I also want to say that the comments section of that post is particularly lively and interesting, so make sure you don't just read the original article (though read it), also go read the comments. Okay, before going into the more nuanced territory, let me get out the parts that I agree with fully and strongly:

Animal ethics, in both its continental and analytic varieties, have often ignored feminist contributions generally, and ecofeminists contributions specifically. This is particularly problematic in terms of discussions of vegetarianism and veganism, in which so much interesting work has been done by ecofeminists. Even if ecofeminists haven't added work that can't be found elsewhere (and, to be clear, they have), it would still be important to include them as an important part of our archive in animal studies (I've made this point before).

Now, I want to get to the more nuanced parts of Warkentin's contribution. I need to admit that I am not fully sure what Warkentin is arguing, and I hope that I do not read her post incorrectly. Warkentin seems to be ill at ease in two senses of veganism in animal studies. One is a tendency to move from a sense of the Universal and Same Human who is a meat-eater, and then move to another Universal and Same Human, who is now suppose to be a vegan. In other words, it isn't the advocacy for veganism itself that is the problem, but the sort of homogeneity of the subject and intersubjective relations that seem to be problematic. She also seems to feel the idea of veganism as a market choice, and in imposing upon the subject a sense of being a consumer, as deeply problematic. Alongside this last concern is a related one that would see within certain vegan identity formations a belief in veganism as innocent. These are all points I fully agree with and endorse. Many of them are points I have written about before here, and also are included in a forthcoming article of mine in the Journal of Critical Animal Studies. These are valuable contributions. It is vital we do not confuse our veganism with some sort of innocence, and at the same time the reduction of veganism to a mere consumerism (as Peter Singer's understanding of vegetarianism and veganism as boycott) is all unsustainable. 

I have a question and a comment I would advance for Warkentin. The first is what part advocacy for veganism should be a part of animal studies? While engaging with the literature of ecofeminsts are extremely important, it isn't as if this is a settled question in the literature, and from reading your post I am unclear how you see the relationship of veganism and advocacy.
The second is the level to which being a vegan is deeply lonely. I say this particularly as someone living the middle of GA. When I sometimes bring up dietary identity questions, it isn't so much as a way of demanding to see someone's papers before giving them legitimacy, as much as wanting to draw out kinships and connections. So, for example, when I was at the recent Non-Human Turn conference, there was not great vegan options at the lunches that were provided. I was standing in line with Brian Massumi at one point, and he was wondering about if there was meat in a wrap. I asked him if he was a vegetarian or a vegan. This wasn't a way creating some sort of dualism, but a moment of kindred spirits, of seeing someone go through something I go through.
The opposite of veganism is so universal it doesn't have a name. Carnivore? Omnivore? Meat-eater? Carnivorist? None are particularly satisfying or common. And often the events you describe have struck me less as trying to create new dualisms or demanding people's papers before letting them talk, as moments of relations or trying to break free of a profound loneliness against that unnamed universal subject on the other side (which is why I agree that the refusal of a contextual moral veganism is also problematic).

FEA: On Kelly Oliver, disavowal, and the moral community

The first post in the symposium is from Kelly Oliver, who should need no introduction. If for some reason you are reading my blog, and you haven't read her book Animal Lessons, you should fix that right now (you should also read Chloë Taylor's review of Animal Lessons in the special issue of Hypatia).

Oliver's contribution is fundamentally about the avowal and the disavowal of animals other (both about specific and real other animals, and at the same time how the play of avowal and disavowal with regards to nonhuman animals come back to also structure and produce relationships among human animals). She points out that perhaps animal studies can be benefitted from engagements with specific psychoanalytic theories, particularly:
 Freud’s notion of phobia and Kristeva’s reinterpretation of phobia as abjection go some distance toward understanding the dynamics of avowal and disavowal at the heart of our ambivalence toward animals and animality, particularly our own animality. (p. 497)  
Through recourse to theories and phobias and abjection, we can begin to access the particular ways that we displace our own particular psychic constructions onto nonhuman others and ourselves. Oliver points to the ambivalent role of the pit bull, and she also points out the ways this ambivalence often has particular racial codings (added in part by the research of Erin Tarver, and I suggest you go and read the whole thing). Oliver focuses on this ambivalence as foundational to our determining who is, and who is not, part of the moral community. As she writes:
Indeed, I would argue that our sense of a moral community is essentially linked to the ambivalent function that animals and animality play in our fantasies about what is cruelty, what is innocence, and what is natural. (p. 494) 

This contention should remind many readers of this blog about discussions we have been having, such as the relationship between ethics and innocence. By examining the ambivalence of animals as figures and figurations for the moral community, we must turn our attention to what Oliver, in her Animal Lessons, refers to as "sustainable ethics" (see particularly pp. 303-306, this sustainable ethics should also bring to mind Matt Calarco on indistinction and Bull on climate change ). As Oliver explains in Animal Lessons:
What Derrida calls hyperbolic ethics demands that we never give up exploring our own fantasies, especially those in which we are the heroes, the good guys, the just and the true, fighting against the forces of evil and darkness--the fantasies in which we are humane and the others behave like animals. (p. 304)

This is a sense of the ethical in which not only the question of who gets to count in our moral communities radically under review, but the very right and possibilities of our being the counters, of our justness and correctness to count, all radically challenged.
Taylor, in her review of Animal Lessons, writes:
Oliver's book begins and ends as a work of mourning for her cat Kaos: the book is dedicated to Kaos and opens with a poem to her; the conclusion to the book justifies this dedication. (p. 675) 
My own article in the same issue deals explicitly with this question of mourning and disavowal. One the one hand, I explore the ways that mourning is part of a reality that allows  for avowal of relationships and kinships. As I wrote, "Mourning is a practice that opposes disavowal. Mourning both celebrates and grieves our precarious lives. It seeks connections, discovers secret kinships, and recognizes intersubjective relations." However, the threat of mourning often forces a type of disavowal in order to continue functioning, in order to continue existing and relating in the same world as others. Again, I wrote:
Those of us who value the lives of other animals live in a strange, parallel world to that of other people. Every day we are reminded of the fact that we care for the existence of beings whom other people manage to ignore, to unsee and unhear as if the only traces of the beings’ lives are the parts of their bodies rendered into food: flesh transformed into meat. To tear up, or to have trouble functioning, to feel that moment of utter suffocation of being in a hall of death is something rendered completely socially unintelligible. Most people's response is that we need therapy, or that we can't be sincere. So most of us work hard not to mourn. We refuse mourning in order to function, to get by. But that means most of us, even those of us who are absolutely committed to fighting for animals, regularly have to engage in disavowal. (p. 568) 
The ambivalence of animal others are connected to our ambivalences, our abilities to create connections and kinships. And that is why, following Oliver following Kristeva, we have to risk ourselves in the abject, if we are to have a chance for a sustainable ethics. 

Go read all of Oliver's contribution to the symposium (again, here). 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On the "Introduction" of Feminists Encountering Animals

The goal here will be, over the next couple of days, to respond to the various posts of Feminists Encountering Animals. I might not be able to in the time frame, due to ongoing familial commitments and other writing projects, but that is the goal. I had to make some choices about how to respond. On the one hand, I want to encourage other people to engage with those posts, and to make sure there is a dialogue. On the other hand, I feel that the sort of length and general self-talking I plan to do lends itself to separate blog posts over here, with links over there. Also, my hope is that by making blog posts here, people will be more likely to see the original posts. Okay, we are going to start with the intro to the symposium.

The intro is written by the editors of the Hypatia special issue on feminism and animal others, namely Lori Gruen and Kari Weil. While both teach and work at Wesleyan University, in many ways they represent field that have been in tension within animal studies.

One way to exam this is to look at their recent, very good, books. Lori Gruen published Ethics and Animals in 2011, and Kari Weil published Thinking Animals in 2012. Both are wonderful, but also very different. Lori's book is blurbed by people like Peter Singer and Wayne Pacelle, and Kari's book is blurbed by people like Cary Wolfe and Susan McHugh. Lori's book is written in the style and energy of someone trained and very skilled in analytic style ethics, Kari's is written by someone deeply conversant in French theory and philosophy.  And despite those differences (and other, slightly more content oriented ones), their books are very similar. They both deal deeply with themes of grieving and creating personal and empathetic connections with nonhuman animals. They both are interested in a feminist engage with the question of the animal, and also with the gendered realities of animal lives (even if Lori is a long-term ecofeminist, and Kari leans more to a poststructuralist feminism). All of this means that when they work together to bring a symposium on feminism and animal studies, it is sure to be important. And for anyone who has read the entries in the symposium, it obviously is. We have here two great thinkers, each important in the field, and each representing segments of the field that exist in a great deal of tension (analytic and continental philosophy/theory, ecofeminism and poststructuralism).

I don't have much to say about the substance of the introduction they wrote, but I wanted to make sure and highlight how exciting their very working together is for animal studies.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Feminist Animal Studies FTW!

This is just a short note to remind you that the Hypatia/Philosophy Compass special symposium begins today. Go read and participate.

Also, the entire special issue of Hypatia (including my article, and so much smarter stuff) is unlocked and viewable by anyone (for now) over here. What are you waiting for?

More later.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Animals are more than good to think with, part 1.

It seems almost mandatory that nearly all special journal issues on animal studies include the quotation from Claude Levi-Strauss that animals "are good to think" with. What is weird, though, is that is not exactly what he said.  The is an odd issue, occasionally, of misquotation here, as well. As far as I can tell, this is a reference to Levi-Strauss' comment in Totemism:
 We can understand, too, that natural species are chosen not because they are "good to eat" [bonnes à manger] but because they are "good to think" [bonnes à penser]. (p. 89 in the English translation]. 
Edmund Leach, who translated that work into English, had this to say in a footnote in another article [this one, .pdf]:

Several critics have rebuked me for mistranslation, but in fact I cite Lévi-Strauss' own words to avoid this imputation. Literally, bonnes à penser means "good to think," bonnes U manger "good to eat." But "good to think" is not English, and the adjectival plural of the French is untranslatable. It seems  to me  that  here,  as so  often, Lévi-Strauss  is  playing  a verbal  game. Totemic species  are categories of things, and it does in fact convey the meaning better to refer to them as "goods" than my critics would allow. (n. 8, np). 

What is odd is that the way this quotation is rendered is doubly wrong. There is the common move to lose the wordplay and go with the grammatically correct "good to think with", which isn't necessarily wrong, as much as a translational interpretation. But often the quotation is wrong in another way, shortening the idea of natural species into simply animals, and ellipesizing all that is in-between. Thus, we get "animals are good to think with". You can, for example, see this in the Wikipedia entry for Animal Studies (go there before they change it!). And while I don't really mind calling out the anonymous contributer to Wikipedia, I will certainly maintain that this misquotation is used again and again in academic publications. Occasionally you will see other variations, and even other citations (I have seen The Savage Mind cited a few times. I don't have a copy of that with me, but it doesn't seem to be the case in google books). Often you will see the move, like I did in the beginning, and just put the quotation marks around "good to think" or "good to think with", and put the animals before it. This is, of course, entirely acceptable, and these are not the citations I am talking about. This isn't to speak ill of the people, some of whom are friends and scholars I respect a lot, but more of just a comment about this misquotation. Especially following up with the recent discussion of the common misquotation of Adorno.

I have more to say on this quotation, and on Claude Levi-Strauss' work on animals, but that will have to be for later.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


I am going to talk about a weird little conceptual pet peeve I have been having. There is a tendency to write and talk about something called, strangely now, OOO/SR, which obviously stands for Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism. Which is odd, if you think about it, because those terms are not synonyms. Historically, Speculative Realism referred to a group of four thinkers, of which Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Philosophy was one strand. So, whenever someone talks about OOO/SR, it is the same as if they were writing deconstruction/poststructuralism. Poststructuralism is obviously something much larger than deconstruction (and it would include several people who rejected or had issues with the term poststructuralism, just as speculative realism includes people like Ray Brassier, who has rejected the term). So, the phrase OOO/SR is really odd. More importantly, it often gets used in strange, univocal ways. In other words, it is often used to talk about the field as a whole, like "OOO/SR doesn't..." or "What OOO/SR allows us to do...", which is all very strange. We are talking about a lot of thinkers, many of whom disagree with each other to various degrees. Again, it is somewhat analogous to people writing "what deconstruction/poststructuralism doesn't do...".  (Btw, I am tempted to always write, after I say object-oriented ontology, if such a thing exists! like Derrida always did with deconstruction)

There exists a conceptual murkiness here I don't really understand. If you want to talk about object-oriented ontology, talk about OOO. If you want to talk about speculative materialism, talk about speculative materialism. If you want to talk about correlationism, talk about correlationism. If you want to talk about speculative realism as a poorly suited grab bag term for a cluster of thinkers working on projects both very dissimilar but also very close, do that (in this sense, speculative realism is a lot like poststructuralism. An evocative term for grouping, heuristically useful, but not really conceptually specific). But please, spare me the weirdness of  the extended and confusing acronym that is "OOO/SR".

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Feminists Encountering Animals

Sorry for the silence here. My mother had surgery recently (she is fine, but still in the hospital), and that has been soaking almost all of my time.

As many of you know, I have a forthcoming article in Hypatia on Judith Butler and animals. I wrote an abstract, but I prefer the what Lori Gruen and Kari Weil say about in the introduction to the special issue:
What bodies are edible and consumable and what lives are grievable are questions that James Stanescu takes up at the meat counter of the grocery store at the beginning of his essay “Species Trouble:  Judith Butler, Mourning, and the Precarious Lives of Animals.”  From the insight that both social and personal pressures are operating in the disavowal of mourning for animals, Stanescu expands Butler’s notion of precariousness as “a way of thinking connections, of claiming kinship and relations. . . . Precariousness is a place for thinking the ethical because it begins with the Other, rather than with the self.” Recognition of vulnerability and of finitude, Stanescu argues, is recognition of our precarious animal lives, lives we honor through mourning. In disavowing mourning, we are not just making such lives unintelligible but are also denying our animality and foreclosing our connections to other animals.  By allowing ourselves to mourn, however, even at the grocery store, we can start making a difference for animals, humans and others.
The article is viewable in early view on the Wiley Hypatia site, but for those without institutional access, I have heard a rumor that you can find it over here.

However, from this special issue also arose a symposium, and it is very exciting. Much more importantly, you will be able to interact with the authors as well as read their papers! All of this starts on July 9th.You can find out who the authors are, and more details over here. And trust me, it is an exciting and amazing group of feminist scholars they have assembled. Assuming I can get some time for myself, I will certainly be participating both over there, and here as well. But regardless, you (YES, YOU!) should follow and participate.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Does this Anthony Burgess quotation exist?

One of the two epigraphs to David Foster Wallace's early story, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way", is as follows: "As we are all solipsists, and all die, the world dies with us. Only very minor literature aims at apocalypse -- Anthony Burgess" (from p. 232 of Girl With the Curious Hair). What a great, and rich, quotation. So, when I doing some doodling around with parts of that story, I wanted to see the context for the Burgess quotation, and I couldn't find an original reference. But, I am not terribly well oriented with Burgess' work, so I thought I would put this out to the rest of you: Does this quotation exist?

I own a t-shirt that has the following quotation from Adorno: "Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they're only animals." One of my favorite things about this quotation is that it doesn't exist. Adorno never said it (though he said a few things like it). According to Witt-Stahl, the false quotation attributed to Adorno comes from PETA's Holocaust On Your Plate campaign, and the only justification given being poor organization by PETA researchers. (h/t to the Witt-Stahl article goes to this wonderful article by Marco Maurizi). Anyway, in some of my early grad school conference papers, I used this false quotation, and I have been a little hyper sensitive ever since then.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Post of Links

So, this is going to be long. Uhm, sorry?

Cameron has a new post up in the flat ethics series, over at his place. Really smart, and worth the read. I hope to have more in response to his, and the other posts, sometime later. "And that might be the best way to put it. Ethics is a project of alleviation."

(Last minute addition before I hit publish, Ian has a response to Cameron here. I haven't really read it yet, but my skim of it makes me think there is some miscommunication going on here).

Steven Shaviro has a post on Forms of Life. It covers a lot of ground, and I don't know what to excerpt to make you click the link, but here is a taste:
Translation is then inherently problematic, because it is not just a matter of moving from one code, or one language, to another. Rather, translation involves the violence of codifying, or putting into language, a reality that stands outside of all languages and codes. Translation endeavors to make an equivalent for that which has no equivalent. It forces an exchange between incommensurables.

Scientist Daniel Chamovitz talks about plants thinking, feeling, sensing, etc over at Scientific America. (I got hit with this link like five times in one day, so I don't know the origin of the link).

I just recently finished Karl Steel's excellent How to Make a Human, and he has a prospectus of his new book over at In the Medieval Middle.

Also, JJ Cohen has a post up on grey ecology, dealing with Zombies. That is right, zombies.

And the new issue of postmedieval has an essay cluster on disability studies.

Also, Salon has an article about cannibalism.

James McWilliams interviews Timothy Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, here.

Adam Robbert has a link to a wonderful interview with Bruno Latour, on "Of Whales and the Amazon Forest: Gabriel Tarde and Cosmopolitics".

Stuart Elden alerts us to this French resource on "Aux frontières de l’animal".

Speaking of French resources, here is Andre Ling's review of Stengers' Au Temps des Catastrophes, which is a sort of sequel to her Capitalist Sorcery. Ling's review is in English, the book is still only in French.

Obstinate Obscurity has a post of her talk, Into the Pens: Considering Place and Power in the Rhetorical Scholarship of Nonhuman Animals.

Maybe I shouldn't have let such a funny post for last, but this post on how to fake reading Hegel is so perfet, so so so perfect. I am sure you have all read this post, but maybe it is time to re-read this post.

Sun Kil Moon has a beautiful new album yet. There is something wonderful about their song, "Track Number 8"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Eating Grass-Fed Animals Will Not Save Us: Part 3 of 3

This the last part, in a three part series of posts about eating grass fed and "sustainable" land based mammals. The first two posts were written by me, and they focused on a particular article arguing otherwise. You can see part one here, and part two here. This last part is a talk given by brother, entitled "The Rise of Happy Meat and Compassionate Carnivores". Watch the whole thing. I want to draw a point away from this. My brother likes to talk about the myth of sustainable meat, by which he means there is no such thing. There is not a way to produce animal flesh and animal products for consumption that is environmentally sustainable. But I want to draw your attention to the myth of the sustainable meat-eater. All of the claims about localvorism, sustainable meat, etc. implies that there are people who only eat local, sustainable, or whatever. But to my knowledge, those people don't exist. I assume there are people who try to eat only local, but most of those people eat regular ol' factory farmed flesh often. Whereas there are actual vegetarians and vegans. Now, due to the interconnected nature of agricultural production, other animals die even in a vegan diet, but there are, still, vegans.
My brother traces the arguments pretty well in his talk. But, the whole talk is worth listening to. [If you have trouble watching the video, here is another link].

Eating Grass-Fed Animals Will Not Save Us: Part 2 of 3

This is part 2, feel free to read part one on the environment, here. You can also read part three, here.  [Also, keep in mind this was written a few months ago, before the most recent series of ethics posts].

The Ethics

Let’s begin with what the author gets right, there is a real issue with the production of agricultural products. Lots and lots of animals are killed, and often killed horribly, in such circumstances. And for those of us who want a more just and kind world for other animals, this is surely something we need to pay attention to. One of the reasons that I tend to purchase CSAs (Community Supported Agricultural) is in order to decrease this effect. Furthermore, I certainly agree to the idea that we all have blood on our hands, that we are not innocent. Of course, innocence is not the point. The reason we need ethics is not because we need to learn to be innocent, but because innocence is foreclosed. And unless we want to face our post-lapsarian world with relativism, quietude, and inaction, we must learn to exist without innocence. However, the idea that not being vegetarian/vegan is somehow better or even just a wash as being a vegetarian/vegan, is simply not workable.

Much of the ethical arguments in the original article are mostly based around some sort of calculative consequentialist ethics. So, first I would point out that from that world, the environmental arguments from before are fairly important. A world that is inhabitable to most life will certainly be a world with a lot of death and suffering for all sorts of animals, including human ones. Also, on a more particular note, the grazing of animals on rangelands has resulted in a devastation of biodiversity. Moreover, there is always a cost-benefit analysis we have to engage in when we talk about land to have animals graze on. The article author would have us believe that this land will not usable for anything unless animals are grazing, but, as I said before, that seems doubtful. So, we can graze animals, we can let the land alone and have some biodiversity and natural carbon trapping return, or we can use the land for wind farms and solar farms. The single worse environmental use of the land would be to graze cattle with that, and therefore arguably the worse decision for animals.
Also, it isn’t as if grazing cattle doesn’t also entail a lot of direct killing of animals besides the cattle. “Ranchers have a long history of exterminating animals who could prey upon cattle or otherwise threaten their health. Just about any animal with a spine is considered a varmint and is liable to be shot, trapped, or poisoned. Ranchers have carried out a well organized and far-reaching extermination of wildlife. Over the past century, ranchers have killed billions of prairie dogs, as well as uncountable numbers of wolves, coyotes, and even bear. America’s indigenous cattle, the buffalo, have been nearly wiped off the continent to make way for beef cattle. Ranchers don’t do all this killing alone. The USDA’s Wildlife Services division exterminates animals likely to prey on livestock. In 2002, this division killed 86,000 coyotes, 5000 foxes, 380 black bears, and 190 wolves.” (Marcus, p. 198).
The original article author states and blames agricultural monoculturalism for feeding humans, which is, well, completely false. With the exception of certain sugar monoculturalism produced by slavery and colonialism, much of monoculturalism’s history is tied fundamentally up with eating land-based mammals.
It was not just the states that grazed cattle that were affected. Because people were paid by the poundage of the cattle, rather than each head of cattle, it made sense to make the cattle as fat as possible. It is also worth noting that in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it was uncommon for Americans to desire fatty cow flesh—what we now call the prime cut—however, that type of meat was desired in Britain and many other parts of Europe. This distinction matters because scarcity of meat in Europe shifted European demand to the United States. As Fernand Braudel put it, “In the modern period then, Europe’s privileged status as a meat-eating area declined, and real remedies were only found in the middle of the nineteenth century as a result of the widespread creation of artificial pastures, the development of scientific stock-raising, and the exploitation of distant stock-raising areas in the New World.” British money was invested heavily in building the American beef industry in the mid-19th century. Because of their desire for fatty beef, grass-fed beef became increasingly supplanted by corn-fed beef. The rise of corned beef created heavy demand for corn, and farmers realized that beef became a far more profitable way to convert their corn to money than selling it directly to people. States such as Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, western Kentucky, and others developed a monoculture based upon corn.
Meanwhile, fattening the cows with corn necessitated replace grazing with a different mechanism of feeding cattle. This was when the first feedlots were created. Cows were fenced in, fattened up, and taken to slaughter. In the old days of grazing, cows had between five to seven years to live, which was necessary for the cows to reach a profitable size and poundage. The corned-fed cattle not only meant that it was faster to fatten up the cows, but the rise of feedlots fundamentally shifted the contours of breeding cattle in the first place. Specialized breeders became common, and cattle became bred for certain genetic qualities, such as speed by which they could be fattened up, the size they could get to, and docility. These new, custom-made cattle fenced into feedlots had roughly two years to live, significantly increasing profits.
As the historian Revivel Netz put it:
The bison were now dead, replaced by railroads and farmers. As the Indians retreated to their pitiful reservations, the cow began its trek north of Texas, eventually to introduce there an economy based in Chicago. And this, finally, was the culmination of American history in the nineteenth century. Texas led to Mexico, which led to Kansas, which led to the Civil War, upon whose conclusion America could move on to destroy the Indian and the bison. The final act in the subjugation of the West was under way: the transition from bison to cow. This was the immediate consequence of the Civil War: the West was opened for America --- and America filled it with cows. (Netz, Barbed Wire, p. 10). 
And nothing about any of this has changed! “In 2006, more than a third of all grain produced in the world entered the mouths of animals destined for the abattoir. In the United States, an astounding 80 percent of all grain produced went toward animal feed” (McWilliams, p. 127). The idea that if we just ate more land-based mammals we would see less monoculturalism is absurd, to steal a phrase, it’s nonsense on stilts! And if we eat grass-fed animals, that would certainly be better than eating factory farmed animals, but we are not dealing with this problem because of vegetarianism/veganism, which is actually just as good (if not better) attack upon such monoculturalism.

But all of this talk in terms of a certain kind of utilitarianism does not address something else about the ethics of purposefully eating another being. Okay, time for a long quotation from Cora Diamond on this issue:
We do not eat our dead, even when they have died in automobile accidents or been struck by lightning, and their flesh might be first class. We do not eat them; or if we do, it is a matter of extreme need, or of some special ritual--and even in cases of obvious extreme need, there is very great reluctance.  […] Anyone who, in discussing this issue, focuses on our reasons for not killing people or our reasons for not causing them suffering quite evidently runs a risk of leaving altogether out of his discussion those fundamental features of our relationship to other human beings which are involved in our not eating them. It is in fact part of the way this point is usually missed that arguments are given for not eating animals, for respecting their rights to life and not making them suffer, which imply that there is absolutely nothing queer, nothing at all odd, in the vegetarian eating the cow that has obligingly been struck by lightning. That is to say, there is nothing in the discussion which suggests that a cow is not something to eat; it is only that one must not help the process along” (The Realistic Spirit, pp. 321-322, emphasis in the original). 
As Lori Gruen notes on this passage, “Humans are not food. Imagine how our interactions with one another might be different if we saw humans, or at least some humans, as consumable. If we saw each other as edible and, in fact, ate humans on occasion and really enjoyed it, this could lead to a breakdown in respect for one another and for humanity as a whole.” (p. 102). [Additional note, this passage should be thought alongside Matt Calarco's work on us as being possible subjects to be eaten, and Karl Steel's work on cannibalism].
There is something disturbing beyond belief about treating a life as pure instrumentality, as a being to be raised for us to slaughter and eat. I have trouble believing that the sort of relations necessary to alleviate the suffering and end the violence against other animals is going to come from a cycle of raising, slaughtering, and eating animals.

Part 3 here.

Eating Grass-Fed Animals Will Not Save Us, Part 1 of 3

I wrote this a while back, but I never got around to posting them (there are, shall we say, several posts like this). I wanted to write about this post in something I was working on, and realized I never had posted these, so, all three parts today. Enjoy. Part 2 here, part 3 here.

This is in response to this article. Here is part one of my response, focusing on the environmental impacts of eating grass-fed cattle. The ethical issues will be addressed next. [This article was brought to my attention from one of my colleagues, and he was told to bring it to my attention from Cameron. This part, and the next part, are developed from emails I sent in response].

I am going to address the concerns of the article in two sections. The first is going to be the environmental reasons that grazing land-based mammals is worse, and the second one will respond to the ethical questions about grazing land-based mammals [There will be a surprise third part!]. I will be cribbing pretty hard from James McWilliams’ Just Food, Erik Marcus’ Meat Market, Howard Lyman’s Mad Cowboy, Lori Gruen’s Ethics and Animals, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Whenever I quote directly from a source, I will cite it, but otherwise I will not be giving proper credit in terms of “I was first alerted to this in so-and-so’s brilliant etc etc”. But all of those are books worth reading.

Also, the author I am responding to is specifically talking about Australia, which I know very little about in specifics. So, I will just have to talk about what I know, and assume it applies to Australia.

One other general remark: The idea that eating animals that have been raised in a grazing situation, and from a “beyond organic” situation (no hormones, no antibiotics, no gmo stuff) is clearly better, both environmentally and ethically, than eating all your meat from CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations)/Factory Farms. But this author is disingenuous in the extreme for not pointing out that in order to do so, and to do so consistently, will require an extreme decrease in animal flesh consumption. And just because it is better than factory farms, doesn't even make it closely comparable to vegetarianism and especially veganism on both the environmental and ethical fronts.

The Environmental Issue

Let’s put the conclusion ahead of the rest of the argument. From McWilliams:
The specialized approach might be environmentally sound, and even profitable, for a few small-scale ranchers making grass-fed beef for privileged eaters worried about their omega-3s. However, this approach cannot […] produce enough grass fed beef to replace the conventional beef consumed in dangerous quantities[.] (p. 147)
In other words, as McWilliams further argues, “the major problem is that the sustainable scenario works well only as a boutique endeavor. Scale is everything when it comes to raising animals to feed billions of people" (p. 147).

If the whole world was to eat land-based mammals (what I will occasionally refer to as meat, despite its inaccuracy) at the same rate as we do in America, Canada, and Europe we would create, with no exaggeration, an apocalyptic hellscape. To the numbers!
“Between 1961 and 2002 the worldwide consumption of meat rose from 71 million metric tons a year to 247 metric tons a year—almost a fourfold leap” (McWilliams p. 124). This assumes, even with feedlots and CAFOs and other horrible but land-saving strategies, that “if the world’s growing population decided to eat the same amount of meat as the world’s affluent now consume, we would need 67 percent more land than the earth has” (McWilliams p. 126). Of course, the land itself is not well-treated by keeping lots of cattle on it.
“In Uganda, as a result of overgrazing in its drylands known as the “cattle corridor,” soil compaction, erosion and the emergence of low-value grass species and vegetation have subdued the land’s productive capacity, leading to desertification.3 In the Gambia, it is reported that fallow periods have been reduced to zero on most arable lands.4 Between 1950 and 2006, the Nigerian livestock population grew from 6 million to 66 million, a 11-fold increase. The forage needs of livestock exceed the carrying capacity of its grasslands.5 It is reported that overgrazing and over-cultivating are converting 351,000 hectares of land into desert each year.6” (from the UN’s Economic Commission on Africa, Africa Report on Draught and Desertification 2008, ch. 2).
Because livestock have degraded rangelands worldwide, water has been unable to replenish itself as it woul in ecosystems left ungrazed. Because cows, sheep, and goats press on the land with the same weight as a tractor, watersheds have altered to the extent that precipitation cannot do what it would normally do in a properly functioning hydrological cycle.
Under ungrazed conditions, rainfall is held by soil vegetation and gradually spread across a watershed, infiltrating and replenishing groundwater at a relatively slow pace. When this happens, erosion is kept to a minimum and the soil’s fertility is continually enhanced. With intensive livestock grazing, however, the infiltration process is drastically undermined. Surface flows increase, run-off leaches minerals from the soil and deposits them in oceans, and, most critically, the physical health of the soil is degraded.
With the basic physical alteration of the soil, the preconditions for persistent animal manure contamination of downstream freshwater sources are well established. What we’re left to endure is therefore a kind of double whammy: more manure than the soil can accommodate hitting soil so damaged that precipitation carries that manure, as well as the microbes and chemicals in it, into the water supply we drink (McWilliams, pp. 143-144).
This is what reveals the fundamental misconceit of the original article. There is land that is so destroyed and degraded that we cannot grow crops on it because of the over-grazing by animals! “Many grazing areas are so desolate that, at first glance, it seems they might as well be stocked with cattle, since it appears that few other animals could survive in these areas. But the truth is that America’s rangelands have become inhospitable precisely because they are grazed by cattle. Take away the cattle, and in a surprisingly short amount of time, most ranching areas become revitalized. Within just a few years, plant life makes a strong recovery, and this regeneration attracts wildlife to return” (Marcus, p. 197).
This brings us to global warming, and another long quotation from James McWilliams:
With some estimations attributing about 20 percent of all global warming gases to ‘land use change’, of which desertification is a major component (deforestation being another). […]Making matters worse, the inability of destroyed vegetation to capture carbon dioxide ultimately leads to what scientists call a ‘desertification-global warming feedback loop.’ In this scenario, carbon that’s released from desertification causes global warming, and then in turn global warming exacerbates desertification. […].(McWilliams p. 129)
According to the The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report Livestock’s Long Shadow, livestock is the single largest contributor to global warming gases. Now, while some of that will be answered with grazing issues, there are still problems. “Even if cattle and vegetation coexisted in harmonious ecological balance, though, the respiratory impact of livestock would continue to be an issue. Livestock give off 86 million metric tons of methane a year. Methane is twenty-one to twenty-four times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Moreover, it can linger in the atmosphere for as long as fifteen years. […] When it comes to methane emissions from cows, buying grass-fed hardly lets the consumer off the hook: grass-fed cattle actually produce four times more methane than feedlot cattle, when measured on a per-cow basis. (McWilliams, p. 130).
This is why I talk about increased global meat eating as producing an apocalyptic hellscape. If the world were to eat the amount of meat that people in the US do, even if we were to shift to an entire grass-fed—and no hormone and antibiotic—livestock diet, we would still be eating a diet incompatible with future human life. It would be a world of deserts. It would be a world of manure flowing streams, water basins, and oceans. It would be a world of a rapidly heated globe, with all the environmental and weather related awfulness that occurs. The consumption of other animals is a direct move to poisoning our water, destroying our soil, and wreaking the climate of the globe.

Next Up, the Ethics! here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Animal Studies Book Series

This post is meant to both make sure that I have a complete list, so please let me know if I am missing any, and also so that people looking into book series, either for buying books or submitting manuscripts, might have a list. This list will be alphabetical by publisher.

AK Press: While clearly not an academic press, and often focusing more on cookbooks than animal studies, AK Press still turns out books dedicated to a radical animal studies.

Columbia University Press: Has published several key books in Animal Studies, and obviously continues to publish more. Wendy Lochner seems to be the editor for animal studies.

Lantern Books: While not a press that is specifically academic, it has several important works, and keeps publishing important works, in animal studies.

University of Minnesota Press: Has the Posthumanities series, edited by Cary Wolfe. While not dedicated specifically to just animal studies, animal studies is obviously an important and frequent subset of the books that come out of this series.

Palgrave Macmillan has a the Animal Ethics series, edited by Andrew Linzey and Priscilla Cohn.

Penn State University Press has the new Animalibus: Of Animals and Cultures series, edited by Nigel Rothfels and Garry Marvin. I had a chance to briefly talk to Nigel about this series at The Non-Human Turn conference, and he said the hope was to publish books that were about something in particular, rather than a purely philosophical of theoretical treatise.

Reaktion Books has the unique Animal series, edited by Jonathan Burt. 

Rodopi Press has the Critical Animal Studies series, edited Helena Pedersen and Vasile Stănescu. It is a series dedicated to specifically to books that take seriously issues of animal oppression and emancipation.

Honorable Mention (these are presses that frequently, and currently, keep publishing heavily in animal studies, without having a dedicated series or editor):

University of Chicago Press

Continuum Books

Fordham University Press

Oxford University Press

So, what did I miss?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ethics and Innocence

So, I have some links about my last post on flat ethics: Levi has a response up here, and Peter has an extension here (particularly useful to read in terms of my discussion on innocence), Alex Reid has more thoughts on flat ethics (always worth reading), Jeremy Trombley has more thoughts here (entitled, wonderfully, constructing ethics. Constructivist Ethics has been the recent name I have been giving to my ethical work), Adam Robberts has some thoughts on ethics (similar thread, but not as specific on the issue of flat ethics), also not completely on point but useful is this post by Andre Ling, Craig has a follow up post here (sometimes I think I miss out by not being on twitter, also go read Craig),  Levi has a round up and more ideas here, and lastly Claire O'Farrell has a great little post up on Badiou's Ethics (which also isn't directly related, but I think important to all these present discussions). And I bet while I write this, there will be more posts.
I don't have the time right now to respond to everyone (particularly Levi), but maybe soon. Instead, here is a side discussion about ethics (both flat and otherwise).

This post will still be on my work about ethics, but this is a slightly different route. Karl Steel (whose book, How to Make a Human is really quite wonderful, hopefully more on that later) recently brought me up over at the blog In the Middle. Karl writes:
For some recent discussions of posthuman ethics, relevant to my post, see Levi Bryant and Scu at Critical Animal. I think Scu gets it exactly right when he says "Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world." I think that "Bisclavret" might answer Levi's statement that he's "not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like." Well, here's one, and it's lycanthropocentric. It's not a flat ontology (edit of the edit: or rather, not a flat ethics), because--as Bogost reminds us--there's no escaping -centrism, of whatever sort. But to eat from the perspective of the wolf (as I suggest the Wolf-Child of Hesse does) or the werewolf (as Mr. B does), is certainly to be non-anthropocentric. Edit of the edit: although I may be speaking far above my pay grade, and certainly far outside my expertise, while we might be able to conceive of a flat ontology, I'm not sure we, or anything else, can conceive of a flat ethics. 

Read the rest of his post to get how all of this fits together, it will be worth your time. Okay, well, Eileen Joy (whose energy and scholarship has always been impressive for me to behold from a distance) had this to say in comments:

5. I couldn't disagree more with this comment from Scu:
"Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world."
Any notion of the world [human, inhuman, whatever], as one that is always somehow post-good faith, innocence, etc. just unwittingly participates in what I feel is a kind of Judeo-Christian tragic view of the world. I know [esp. after reading your AVMEO essay] that we need *more* bad conscience [we need to be more hyper-aware of all the ways in which *our* violence has shaped this world], but that is not the same thing as saying this world is always post-lapsarian, always post-evil [as it were], as if the "starting position" for every inquiry, or formulation of ethics, is that there could never be an example, an ontology, of non-violence. At least, I'd like to think "bad conscience" and also goodness outside of religious contexts.

Okay, I was actually both surprised and, well, intellectually provoked by this comment. So, I want to spend some time with it. I had talked to Cameron about this, and he basically said something like, "Well, that's just true". To which I said, "Well, it's not untrue, and I think that is my cue to write a blog post". Which is where we are.

So, first, when I start using phrases like post-lapsarian, I can't really come back and go, "Of course I am not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition", if nothing else my language and images are certainly tied to a Western and Judeo-Christian world I was brought up in. So, I would certainly reject (parts?) of such a tradition. I certainly don't want to trap our ethics back into a religious contexts.

And it is worth noting here how much innocence is so thoroughly criss-crossed by the same religious tradition. To give you merely a very recent example, here is an excerpt from the Christian Medical Fellowship blog (h/t JME blog):
From a post entitled "There are few things more horrifying than the slaughter of innocent children", worried already?
Every child’s death is a tragedy but there are few things more reprehensible than the killing of children by adults. Children are rightly seen as amongst the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society and deserving of special protection. [...]
There is no one more vulnerable, more innocent and being killed in greater numbers than the unborn child. Each year around the world there are 42 million abortions, against only 57 million deaths from all other causes except abortion.

Innocence isn't exactly a concept outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it certainly doesn't maintain itself, well, innocently.

(Side note, I am going to switch to talking about the particular manifestation of the Judeo-Christian tradition I am most familiar with--the conservative evangelical Christianity, as most represented in the American Southeast).

The fallenness of the world in such a Christian tradition is tied completely up with innocence. It isn't like the entire tradition goes: "Well, the world is fallen, time to move on with figuring out how to live". Instead, the entire point is to return to innocence, or moments of innocent, or support and propagate innocence. Thus, we have confessions, we have penance, we have conversions and born agains, we have the idea of rapture, faith to absolve us of sin, etc.
I am just not entirely sure why critiquing the notion of innocence unwittingly perpetuates such a tradition. This is why in my provocations, right before the line that Karl quotes, I write: "Ethics is not secularized redemption, or a manuel for right and righteous living."

I do agree with Eileen's point that such a conception of ethics requires us to take seriously the idea that non-violence might never be an option. I don't think I want to take quite the maximal stance here that there can never be, and never will be, the possibility of non-violence, but I freely admit to not seeing that possibility. And if it is possible, truly and really to live a life of non-violence, I don't think we need something called "ethics". Rather, ethics is all about choices and decisions, it is about producing certain kinds of realities and beings to the exclusion of other realities and beings (this is what makes it tragic). And that is what I mean by violence, the forceful exclusion of some worlds for other worlds. At times this is profoundly and obviously something we can call violence: you have one liver to transplant, and three patients who need it. You experiment on beings for medical treatment, or you don't.  You choose between development and increased standard of living in your country, or decreasing global warming gasses. If what various people with regards to plants are saying is true (and I am increasingly convinced, due mostly to Steven Shaviro), when we eat plants, other animals, or fellow humans (and yes, I am thinking of both Matt Calarco here, and Karl Steel on cannibalism) we are participating in an economy of lives living and dying. These are, as William James puts it, "a tragic situation and no mere speculative conundrum" (The Will to Believe, p. 203). Tim Morton likes to talk about the sense of unease we get when we really think about the ways we all connected. Rather than some hippie or new age sense of celebration, it is scary. It is scary to think about the mercury in our bodies, and the ways that global warming will effect us. Also, from an ethical point of view, it is unnerving to think about the ways we are ecologically and economically connected. We are constantly working on producing one world (or one set of worlds, or a series of particular worlds, or the possibilities for only these worlds and not those worlds), as opposed to other worlds.Further, as James also argues, "Decisions [... are a] strange and intense function of granting consent to one possibility and withholding it from another, to transform an equivocal and double future into an inalterable and simple past (The Will to Believe, p. 158).  This is tragic, this closing off of possible futures into inalterable pasts. But this isn't a move to ask us to repent for our sins, or ask for forgiveness, or pine after a future where tragedy will not exist. There is no thought here of leaving or precarity, or our finitude. This is not a world view that this world is tragically fallen, so we have to leave it, or earn and focus on an (imaginary) time when we will no longer be a part of this world, but immortally otherwise. Instead, the ethical energy is one of constructivism, of constantly building and rebuilding the world. Ethics is a way of putting ourselves into this world, rather than taking us out of this world.

This brings us back to innocence, and also more that I agree with Eileen. I really think there is a bizarre kind of allergy to ethics among certain people, or at least certain issues. For many, it seems to be hung up on a kind of innocence. Agamben and Esposito seem to condemn every complex ethical choice as being the return of nazism. Every time there is some proposition that the complexity of plants is somehow a unique ethical challenge for vegetarians and vegans, innocence is at fault there. I could go on, but much of this also very much in line with what Tim, following Hegel, calls the beautiful soul syndrome. However, I certainly can understand Eileen's recoiling of my attacks on innocence, and her fear that I am somehow claiming we are post-evil (I am not trying to claim that). My focus against innocence, and for ethics, is not a cure all. Just like Deleuze and Guattari warning us to "[n]ever believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us", never believe that critiquing innocence will suffice to give us ethical thinking. Right, I think there is a lot of reason to focus our attacks on BSS and innocence, but there are also surely dangers and failure on that road as well.  I wrote this back in September:

However, being critical of being a beautiful soul is often what someone does right before they, you know, say or do something horribly violent and messed up. Zizek's frankly racist remarks about the Roma is a good example. But this also happens all the time in discussions of vegans and vegetarians. When someone critiques vegans and vegetarians of engaging in beautiful soul syndrome, of just desiring to be pure (like Pollan often does), they almost always are saying their willingness to accept the world as a violent place means they can now slaughter and eat the flesh of animals.
In other words, we cannot have a critique of the beautiful soul leading us into a worse world. This sort of political and ethical 'realism' cannot be an excuse for racism and needless violence. Deleuze was often fond of saying that doing philosophy required a sort of stutter or a sort of stammer. A way of making language do something it wasn't really designed to do. I often think that political and ethical action requires a type of shambling, a type of shuffling. A way of walking that both rejects the beautiful soul while at the same time not allowing that to become an excuse for us to not have ethical commitments.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Some thoughts on flat ethics

First, and very much a part of this discussion, Gary Francione and Michael Marder have a three part debate about plants, veganism, and ethics over at the CUP blog. Preview here, and the debate is here, here, and here. New territory isn't exactly broken in these debates, but it well articulated and positioned, and hopefully I will have more to say later. And it really has a lot to do with flat ethics, which is the point of today's post.

I am not sure, but I think I might have been the first person to use the term flat ethics in some early discussions with Levi (at least in the context of a flat ontology), so it is interesting to see Levi talking about a flat ethics. Which you can see here (and I will claim to have skimmed some of the comments, so if I retread ground, sorry. Though there are some good comments up, by people like Jairus Grove, Thomas Hodgman, Karl Steel, Ian Bogost, and of course, Craig, among others). Craig, at his new digs, also has a very critical response up. Alright, this is mostly going to focus on Levi's post, and generally some thoughts on ethics I have been expounding here and elsewhere.

When I first started talking about flat ethics, it was as a position I was very much for. An anti-anthropocentric and anti-hierarchical ethics. I am no longer sure a flat ethics is possible, but I still very much remember I wanted a flat ethics. I think all of us need to wary of any sort of ethics that engages in easy hierarchy. And I am not even sure it requires so much of a defense, but anything that allows you to add up and calculate the worthiness of life should give us pause, no? It seems absolutely weird to me that flat ethics is seen as a threat, or a harm, or an evil. Flat ethics is the dream, the hope, the promise. But I worry that the only way to achieve flat ethics is to create categories that exclude, fully and fundamentally, types and modes of existence. This is, of course, something that travels along with Matt Calarco's agnosticism and indetermination, and Haraway's thou shalt not make killable (and the Haraway inclusion here should also keep us present to the fears of why we would want and strive after a flat ethics. Her entire justification for killings of the, say, 'invasive' pig is a great example here of why hierarchies are always so suspicious and pernicious. More on this later).
We should turn our attention here to William James, who writes in his Moral Philosopher and Moral Life:
If we follow the ideal which is conventionally highest, the others which we butcher either die or do not return to haunt us; of if they come back and accuse us of murder, everyone applauds us for turning to them a deaf ear (p. 203)
This is why I have insisted that innocence is not the point of ethics. Indeed, innocence (more than evil) is the enemy of ethics, is the enemy of both thinking and performing ethically. Innocence precludes and occludes ethics.

As Isabelle Stengers movingly writes about James' passage:
James thus seems to condemn moral philosophers to relativism, to the admission that all moral ideals are of equal value. Yet this is not so, and the position James proposes, like those of the evolutionary biologists in the sense of Stuart Kauffman, and like those of the sociologist in the Whiteheadian sense, demands an attention to the interstices. For James, the his first means to accept that the question is tragic. Philosophers should be able to resist the temptation to justify the sacrifice, the exclusion of other ideals. They should accept that the victims haunt the interstices of their adherence to an ideal. They should accept to let their experience throb with the complaint of those who were sacrificed in the name of what they define as moral (Thinking with Whitehead, p. 334). 

This sense of the tragic nature of ethical is so far removed from a Spinozian conatus. Hasana Sharp, in the midst of her critique of Butler's Hegelian ethics of recognition (which is smart, and deserves serious attention), writes: "Moreover, by insisting on the impossibility of the Hegelian project, she resigns herself to a melancholy project of perpetual dissatisfaction" (Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, p. 152). However, a melancholy project of perpetual dissatisfaction might very well be the mood and mode of the ethical. (This might have something fundamentally to do with what Jack Halberstam calls the queer art of failure, but there are reasons I hesitate here, and decide to make this a parenthetical argument). But let me put an ellipses here on the tragic and the ethical, and instead move on to the issue of the conatus.

I worry about the move toward the conatus when talking about ethics, particularly as it relates to decisions of hierarchy and putting the human first (see both Levi's post and some comments, but also Jane Bennett's otherwise impressive Vibrant Matter, specifically p. 104). There seems to be a great deal of passivity when talking about conatus, as if we are forced to simply want to promote bodies that are the most like ours. And yet, this seems strange. Not only do many people support and sustain bodies that very dissimilar to their own, but Spinoza is deeply suspicious  of this being the case. On the first part, not only do people cherish and love their pets, instead of, say, giving that money to OxFam International (more on this, see Kennan Ferguson's article "I <3 My Dog"), but also people care for all sorts of non-living beings. Think of the people who spend money and energy on old cars, or atari systems, or the various other objects and things that attract our money and attention. These pleasures come from combining our bodies with bodies that are very dissimilar to our own (dogs, video games, cars, artworks, books, what have you). But Spinoza himself assumes that we get caught and captured in the affects of non-human others (particularly animals). Thus, when Spinoza retells The Fall in his Ethics, our downfall is other animals: "but that after he ["the first man"] believed the lower animals to be like himself, he immediately began to imitate their affects (see IIIP27) and to lose his freedom" (found in IVP68S). What a strange retelling of the fall! Hasana Sharp provocatively and thoroughly charts why Spinoza was so suspicious of humans engaging with animals in her book, but also in her JCAS article (here, which is free, but also a large-ish pdf download). But for me, the passivity with which people talk about conatus is worrisome, and it is worrisome exactly for the ethical reasons.For William James the ethical act has no meaning unless it is chosen out “of several, all equally possible” acts. Ethics “must sustain the arguments for the good course and keep them ever before us, to stifle our longing for more flowery ways, to keep the foot unflinching on the arduous path, these are the common ethical energies. The ethical energy par excellence has to go even further and choose which interest, out of several equally coercive, shall be supreme” (Principles of Psychology, p. 191).  The ethical energy involves choice, not passivity.
Indeed, the very idea that desire is something that we have little control over is deeply dangerous and weird. Any decent flipping through the feminist literature on pornography and desire will surely make this case. We can engage in pathways and protocols that forms and transforms our desires and beings, that forms and transforms our conatus. This is not to say, in some sort of self-help way, that we have supreme control over our desires, but neither are we passive receptacles unable to change or engage our desires and bodies. This is one of the reasons that Foucault's late work on the art of living is so interesting and useful, as a way of learning practices and possibilities of change and relation. Indeed, I have suggested (or will. The length from writing to publication creates bizarre time travel paradoxes), that veganism is such a practice, a mode of changing our desires and relations.
And this matters, for the reasons that James goes on to suggest, “The problem with the man is not what act he shall choose to do, than what being he shall now resolve to become" (ibid).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"'Mere' Meat": An Interview with Matthew Calarco

So, this isn't an interview I did with Matt (though that is a good idea), but it is a wonderful and super smart interview, putting many of the things that makes Matt work so indispensable on display.

Read it in full here. I am going to post a couple of key excerpts, but none of this is an excuse not to read all of it.

For me, veganism is one of the ways of putting the notion of indistinction into practice. Animals and human beings are deeply and profoundly indistinct in the fact that we are, all of us, potentially meat. [...]Animals are potentially meat; they (and we!) can be eaten, are eaten, and will be eaten. But what we know—we fellow meaty, embodied beings who practice this sort of veganism—what we know is that animal bodies can be much more than “mere” meat.
Modern factory farms and animal industries try to reduce animals to “mere” meat (the scare quotation marks are there because nothing is “mere” to my mind, not even processed meat), to make us think that their bodies are capable of nothing more than ending up as beef, pork, or various byproducts on our plates or on our bodies. So, yes, animals are potentially meat to be eaten—but they are potentially more than that as well. Veganism is an attempt to release animals into these additional potentials, into these other possibilities. It is an effort to release them from a world and an established order that has blocked them from constituting their own worlds, their own relations, their own becomings, joys, and passions. As such, veganism of this sort is not a hatred or disgust of meat or of embodiment, but a profound identification with and passion for meaty bodies and their wide range of potentials. Moreover, veganism of this sort is also an effort to release ourselves into other possibilities, potentials, and passions. Who knows what we might become when we try eating more thoughtfully, more respectfully? Who knows what we might become when rethink who we are and who animals are?

But it has to be noted that there have also been radical movements for change throughout the years that have sought change on other grounds and through other avenues. Many different queer struggles, feminist groups, indigenous peoples, anti-racism and decolonization struggles, alter-globalization activists, radical environmentalists, and so on, have argued that radical movements for social justice should not be about who is human and who isn’t human, about who should be granted access to the status quo economy/law/culture associated with “man” and who shouldn’t. Their goal has been to push back against and ultimately leave behind that all-too-human world and construct a world in which many worlds are possible and for beings of all sorts. Rather than playing the old game of determining human propriety and then stretching it to include or exclude this being or that being, these groups are asking us to push back against that game and eventually exit it altogether. I place my work within, alongside, and in support of those struggles. So, my work is not aimed at undercutting the humanist progressive struggles for social justice that I mentioned above; instead, it is aimed at deepening and radicalizing them in the name of those who continue to be marginalized by the established anthropocentric order. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Post of Links

A quick note, since the last time I did a post of links, I started using pocket as my cross-platform way of keeping up with links and webpages. As opposed to my old method, this means I am more likely to have what I want to link to. But it also means I am more likely to miss hat tips and other thank yous for these links. I apologize in advance if I forget any of you. (Also, it seems today is the day of book reviews)

Peter Gratton has a review of Hasna Sharp's Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization. Go read it. For those of you who do animal studies, Sharp's book is of real interest, even though Gratton doesn't get into depth about those issues in his review. My hope is to post a sort of targeted review of that part of Sharp's work. Regardless of how one comes about in agreeing or disagreeing with Sharp, it is a really smart book. Read the review, and then go read the book.

Malcolm Bull (of the recent Anti-Nietzsche) has a review of Stephen Gardiner's A Perfect Moral Storm in LRB. To give you a taste of some of the issues and questions that Bull explores in this piece:

These are in many respects valid arguments, but they miss the point that were it not for climate change, we would be giving even less thought to polar bears, or to the global poor, and would see little connection between our actions and their fate. As Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die showed, our customary moral intuitions barely extend to poor foreigners, let alone to their descendants, or to Arctic fauna. It is thanks to climate change that an entire body of political thought has emerged which positions our everyday actions in direct relation to their most distant consequences.

Nikolay Karkov reviews Pignarre and Stengers Capitalist Sorcery (full disclosure, Nikolay and I went to grad school together). I really appreciated that book, and Nikolay's review is solid and informative. He ends his review critiquing the eurocentric nature of parts of Capitalist Sorcery. If anything, he undersells that issue. While again deeply appreciating the book, there were several moments of jaw-dropping eurocentrism. To take one moment that Nikolay gestures toward, the authors quote (kinda) Audre Lorde. Specifically, they write: "Black American feminists have posed the question: 'Can the house of the master be dismantled with the master's tools?' (p. 108)". So, see the issue? Rather than actually quote and cite Audre Lorde, she becomes an rather strange subject position of "Black American feminists". And it isn't as if this book is opposed to quoting and citing people. Deleuze, Guattari, Starhawk, etc. all get cited as individuals. No one goes, "French philosophers have posed the question of desiring machines and multiplicity". There are other instances as well. But I also want to reiterate how much I generally like, appreciate, and have been inspired by this book.

Here is an interview (.pdf) with Kenyan philosopher Reginald M.J. Oduor about African philosophy and non-human animals. It is mostly opposed to the idea that animal issues play a significant role in African philosophy, but it is still pretty fascinating. For example, here is one point he makes, "In fact, in indigenous African thought, humans are not animals; rather, they are in a class of their own which is much higher than that of animals. As such, even the phrase “non-human animals” is alien to indigenous African thought."

Okay, I have to run here, but in response to recent discussion of the frontwoman of Against Me! (read this amazing post from HJM for more), here is one from Against Me!