Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Agamben and Animals and Anthropogenesis, Again

Well, yesterday was an Agamben day. Stuart Elden posted a visual image of the current entire 'order' of the Homo Sacer series. Then, a facebook friend posted this EGS video from 2011 of Agamben on "Animal, Man, and Language."

So, then I found this interview with Agamben from 2013 conducted by Leland de la Durantaye. (Sidenote, I found this interview while trying to find a transcript to the lecture above. Both because I don't really like watching long lectures on youtube, but also because I was having trouble hearing large parts of the lecture. During some of the Q&A, I had my volume up so loud, I was worried my neighbors would complain about my blaring my philosophy).

Now, anyone who has been following my work for a while knows that I something of a hate/love relationship when it comes to Agamben, especially in his relationship to other animals (there are plenty of blog posts on Agamben, but if you are really interested, I suggest reading my articles "Beyond Biopolitics" and "Species Trouble"). But this blog post is trying to update the debate with work from Agamben after the more commonly cited sources of Homo Sacer and The Open.

In the video above, Agamben makes a claim for the event of anthropogenesis (which he glosses in The Sacrament of Language as "the becoming human of man"(p. 68)). Anthropogenesis occurs, for Agamben, when "man" enters into language. In this case, man entering language matters for two different reasons: First, it means she does not have language naturally, but most be constantly acquiring language. This is opposed to the language (or communication) of nonhuman animals, which is already plentiful and natural (yes, this pretty much Bataille's claim about language, humans, and other animals in The Theory of Religion). So, Agamben claims in the interview: "Language is not made for communication. It is made for something else, something perhaps more important, but also more perilous. Language is, in fact, the principle obstacle to communication, which animals know perfectly well. They watch us sometimes, filled by a strange compassion for us, caught up as we are in language. They, too, might have ventured into language, but preferred not to, knowing what might be lost." In this move, Agamben enters into a series of thinkers who construct a human exceptionalism that operates on the otherside of the coin of the usual justifications for human exceptionalism. Normally, human exceptionalism is argued for by contending that humans are distinctly more important and impressive than other animals. We are smarter, we build things, we have morals, etc. However, there also exists an understanding of human uniqueness that argues we are special because we are less than animals, usually because there exists a gap between nature and ourselves that animals do not have to deal with. We see this, as I already mentioned, in Bataille, but also in Lacan, Schelling, even Deleuze, along with several others. Such moves sometime take on obvious description of the religious. In such moves, it is humanity's fallen nature, as opposed to the animal's non-fallen nature, which results in the gap from nature. Agamben from the interview: "that animals were never expelled from Eden. [...] If Elsa and Kafka were right, then through animals we remain close to paradise. Given that we live in the same world, however, this means that not even we have been expelled from paradise, only that for some reason we imagine that we have been. This is why we are so hard for other animals to understand." If animals still exist in Eden, and exist fully in communication and nature, they are therefore pre-political and pre-ethical beings. This is why in the talk above, Agamben is interested in distinguishing anthropogenesis from one of cognition (humans are like other animals, and then we somehow achieve a certain level of intelligence, and then we become somehow the human that is not the animal), but rather existing as principally one of language. We are the beings that can speak, and it is our speaking that is the on-going event that makes us human (first there was the word...). Why is it important that it is an issue of language, and not cognition, for Agamben? As he explains earlier in Sacrament of Language, "With a tenacious prejudice perhaps connected to their profession, scientists have always considered anthropogenesis to be a problem of an exclusively cognitive order, as if the becoming human of man were solely a question of intelligence and brain size and not also one of ethos, as if intelligence and language did not also and above all pose problems of an ethical and political order, as if Homo sapiens was not also, and of course precisely for that reason, a Homo iustus" (p. 68). Furthermore, "something like a human language was in fact only able to be produced in the moment in which the living being, who found itself co-originarily exposed to the possibility of both truth and lie, committed itself to respond with its life for its words, to testify in the first person for them. [...] [T]he oath express the demand, decisive in every sense for the speaking animal, to put its nature at stake in language and to bind together in an ethical and political connection words, things, and actions. Only by this means was it possible for something like a history, distinct from nature and, nevertheless, inseparably intertwined with it, to be produced" (p. 69). This is the second reason that man entering language matters for Agamben, for her entering of language is also the way in which she is able to exist politically, ethically, and have history instead of mere nature. "[A]nthropogenesis, is not in fact an event that can be considered completed once and for all; it is always under way, because Homo sapiens never stops becoming man, has perhaps not yet finished entering language and swearing to his nature as a speaking being" (p. 11). So, that which originally existed as a negative to other animals (language interrupts communication, we are confused and think we are fallen) becomes instead the very grounds upon which a certain power and potentiality exist (politics! ethics! history!). As an aside, this is why Derrida's critique of Deleuze, where Deleuze maintains that animals are not capable of stupidity and Derrida objects, is so important. Stupidity, like being confused if you are still in Eden, is a type of power. But I want to point this discussion in a different way.

Agamben's insistence on anthropogenesis is a bit of a strange one. In particular, in both Sacrament and in the above video, he wants to insist on his conception of anthropogenesis against any scientific understanding of the human. At one point during the Q&A, he goes out of his way to say he is not engaging in a scientific understanding, but rather a "thought experiment." And earlier, during his talk, he has an aside that it is clear that the scientists have an agenda (as if philosophers didn't?). I point this out, because this discourse of a human exceptionalism (found here in Agamben, but found much worse in other thinkers) is a type of creationist thinking. I have tried to argue this before, but let me try again. Evolution, as we know, is the name we give to the forces that help select for traits that allow one to reproduce, and reach the age of reproduction, in certain environments (I know that is a little b-flat of an explanation). Evolution doesn't really care who you are. As such, it tends to repeat adaptive traits across multiple species. To believe that humans are inherently unique and exceptional against requires a certain, shall we say, faith. That there exists a group of beings with a certain cluster of traits, and that this group has fuzzy boundaries, and that almost individual trait can be found in another type of being, that makes sense to me. But that there exists an indivisible line between animals and humans (so that the phrase human animal sounds odd), well, that requires a certain transcendental intervention into what it means to be a human. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise the the creationist advocacy organization, The Discovery Institute, has a Program in Human Exceptionalism, and whose Senior Fellow, Wesley Smith, spends most of his time attacking vegans and animals rights advocates. To think the human as an exception from other animals, is to think the human as an exception from evolution, in other words, to think as a creationist.

Now, Agamben always makes this weird. Because at the same time he thinks the human exception, he also thinks it opposite. Twice in the interview, Agamben affirms that he is an animal. He further argues: "If the anthropological process I sought therein to analyze is founded upon an articulated division between “human” and “animal,” then their reconciliation is a philosophical task, consisting in deactivating both notions. Giorgio Colli once gave a definition of contact that seems to me prescient in this regard. Two things are in contact only when they are united by a representational void. The point at which the human and the animal are in contact is interrupted by what I have called the anthropological process." This exists in tension with his moves about the never ending nature of anthropogenesis, doesn't it? And perhaps the tension between myself and Agamben is over how to deactive these notions of man and animal, I'm not sure.