Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The new is the new post now that we are post post, but perhaps we should be post new Turn, Or, Why I am so Meta.

Once upon a time we were always already post once upon a time. We also had postmodern conditions (or was that conditions of postmodernity?). We were poststructuralists, and postmarxists, and postcolonialists (absolutely postcolonial!), even post-continental (or post-continental in this way or post-continental in that way?). But after such a long explosion of postness, we became post post. We were so post post that by the time Wolfe's What is Posthumanism? came out it already felt a little anachronistic. Too late for the party, but not so late it was retro or vintage--the homemade, handwoven theory like Grandma use to make.  

But now everything is NEW! We are new realists and new materialists, we are new atheists and new weirdests, we are new modernists and new vitalists. (Are there new new historicists?). New, like post, is a temporal relationship to the root word that sometimes raises more questions than it answers. Is the new a repetition, reiteration, return, revolution, and/or a revival and revitalization? Just like the confusion of the post, is the new pledging fidelity or is it promising a break?

The post always promised something new, and the new is always promising something post. As one ends, another beings. Theory is dead. Long live theory! 


I came into grad school somewhere in the middle of the post turn toward new. The big new fad when I started was to call everything a turn. A decolonial turn, a speculative turn, a nonhuman turn, etc. This clearly hasn't ended. And indeed, Richard Grusin speaks of a "turn fatigue" in his introduction to The Nonhuman Turn.  He goes on to explain:
Having sketched out a very partial genealogy of the nonhuman turn, I conclude with a brief look at an even longer genealogy—the etymology and changing definitions of the word turn—as a way to return to the question of “turn fatigue.” While it is true that critical “turns” have proliferated in the past few decades almost as a form of academic branding, the idea of a “nonhuman” turn provides a different
perspective on what it means to name an intellectual movement a “turn.” In fact, if we take a look at the definitions of the word turn as presented in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we can see that nonhuman materiality and movement have been part of the meaning of the word from its inception. Originating in fifteenth century Middle English, with roots back through Anglo-Norman to Latin and Greek, turn is used in English as an action noun involved with nonhuman movement and change. The OED divides its various meanings under five main headings. The first meaning of turn, as “rotation,” is tied to the physical technology of the wheel and entails nonhuman movement around an axis or central point, as in the turns of the hand of a clock or the phrase “as the world turns.” “Change of direction or course,” the second sense of turn, describes physical movement or change without the idea of rotating or revolving around a fixed center, as when a river turns around a bend or a rider turns his horse in a certain direction. The third meaning, “change in general,” drops the sense of turn as physical movement and applies it to moments of transition, as in the turn of the season, the year, or the century. The fourth sense, which groups instances of turn as “actions of various kinds,” includes the affectivity of turn in phrases like “bad turn” or “evil turn” or in sayings like “One good turn deserves another.” The fifth sense of turn as “occasion” operates temporally—referring not to change or movement in space but to the movement of action through time. In this sense turn describes behavior that fosters (or counters) collectivity, especially as turn refers to the time an action comes around to an individual, or when one fulfills one’s obligation to serve—as when one takes one’s turn or when one’s turn comes around, or conversely when one acts or speaks out of turn. In this interesting sense of the word, it is agency or action, not wheels or rivers, that rotates among individuals or changes course or direction.
Describing the nonhuman turn as a shift of attention, interest, or concern toward nonhumans keeps in mind the physicality and movement involved in the idea of a turn, how the nonhuman turn must be understood as an embodied turn toward the nonhuman world, including the nonhumanness that is in all of us. Rehearsing these various senses of the word turn lets me defend and reclaim its use to account for the change of direction or course in twenty-first century studies toward a concern with nonhumans. This nonhuman turn could be said to mark in one sense the rotation or revolutions of academic fashion. But in another sense this turn could also help to provoke a fundamental change of circumstances in the humanities in the twenty-first century. Insofar as a turn is an action, movement, or change, it also functions as a means of translation or mediation in the Latourian sense, indeed as a means of remediation or premediation. A turn is invariably oriented toward the future. Even a turn back is an attempt to turn the future around, to prevent a future that lies ahead. (xix-xx). 
That's a good argument. And even though I am clearly making a bit of good-natured fun of post and new, I am most clearly grouped with an intellectual movement that follows the tired academic framing of critical X studies, which, as Craig McFarlane use to joke, the only problem with critical animal studies is the words critical, animal, and studies (I can't find the paper with this joke, but it's so good). But I also tend to think that so much of the fatigue of academic nomenclature by academics has more to do with a desire to refuse our family resemblances and to pretend to always having untimely mediations. So, contra Grusin, perhaps turns and posts and news are not about the future, but rather about the now. While the post-new turn tries to establish temporal relationships of futures and pasts, the time we most are enacting is a fidelity to the nowness, the timelines, the hic et nunc of of our work. Against pretensions toward untimely mediations and eternal questions we need more scholarship toward the ephemeral and the immediate. Perhaps this is the new idea we need as we turn post all these pretensions, a simple attention to what Boaventura de Sousa Santos has called the expansion of the present

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Trumped-up Theory: On Donald Trump's appeal

Over the last few months on facebook, there has been some really interesting connections of the rise of Trump and various theoretical reflections. I'm collecting the ones I remember here.

The fascist leader types are frequently called hysterical. No matter how their attitude is arrived at, their hysterical behavior fulfills a certain function. Though they actually resemble their listeners in most respects, they differ from them in an important one: they know no inhibitions in expressing themselves. They function vicariously for their inarticulate listeners by doing and saying what the latter would like to, but either cannot or dare not. They violate the taboos which middle-class society has put upon any expressive behavior on the part of the normal, matter-of-fact citizen. One may say that some of the effect of fascist propaganda is achieved by this break-through. The fascist agitators are taken seriously because they risk making fools of themselves.
Educated people in general found it hard to understand the effect of Hitler’s speeches because they sounded so insincere, ungenuine, or, as the German word goes, verlogen. But it is a deceptive idea, that the so-called common people have all unfailing flair for the genuine and sincere, and disparage fake. Hitler was liked, not in spite of his cheap antics, but just because of them, because of his false tones and his clowning.
Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, pp. 224-225 (h/t to Joshua S. for the idea of comparing Donald Trump's appeal to Adorno on fascism, all the way back in July. I highly suggest reading the whole chapter on fascist propaganda, it is amazingly apt).

Just as monstrous and mutant algae invade the lagoon of Venice, so our television screens are populated, saturated, by 'degenerate' images and statements. In the field of social ecology, men like Donald Trump are permitted to proliferate freely, like another species of algae, taking over entire districts of New York and Atlantic City; he 'redevelops' by raising rents, thereby driving out tens of thousands of poor families, most of whom are condemned to homelessness, becoming the equivalent of the dead fish of environmental ecology.
Felix Guattari, Three Ecologies, p. 29. (h/t to Dominic P. for this insight)

Here is  Jamelle Bouie using Umberto Eco to argue that Trump is a fascist.
One of the most-read takes on fascism comes from Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco in an essay for the New York Review of Books titled “Ur-Fascism.” Eco emphasizes the extent to which fascism is ad hoc and opportunistic. It’s “philosophically out of joint,” he writes, with features that “cannot be organized into a system” since “many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanacticism.” With that said, it is true that there are fascist movements, and it’s also true that when you strip their cultural clothing—the German paganism in Nazism, for example—there are common properties. Not every fascist movement shows all of them, but—Eco writes—“it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it." Eco identifies 14, but for this column, I want to focus on seven. They are: A cult of “action for action’s sake,” where “thinking is a form of emasculation”; an intolerance of “analytical criticism,” where disagreement is condemned; a profound “fear of difference,” where leaders appeal against “intruders”; appeals to individual and social frustration and specifically a “frustrated middle class” suffering from “feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups”; a nationalist identity set against internal and external enemies (an “obsession with a plot”); a feeling of humiliation by the “ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies”; a “popular elitism” where “every citizen belongs to the best people of the world” and underscored by contempt for the weak; and a celebration of aggressive (and often violent) masculinity.
Read the rest here.

And lastly, here is Judd Legum using Roland Barthes on pro wrestling to explain Trump's style and appeal. Quoting Barthes:
This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.
Legum then adds, "In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair." Read the rest here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Animals and the banality of evil

I had been teaching Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in my Moral Philosophy class, and this is my first time teaching this book. On the second day of teaching it, I wondered how class discussion was going to happen, because I kinda felt that Arendt's points were both obvious and unobjectionable. Instead the class was split between those who were deeply critical of the idea of the banality of evil, and those, like myself, who found it obviously true. This class made me wonder if my work around how we treat animals makes me more likely to buy Arendt's argument (it also makes me want to teach J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals the next time I teach this book). So while I am sure I am not even close to being the first person to have this insight (I really should google this), but what follows is a summary of Arendt's work on the banality of evil, and its intersection with our treatment of other animals.


While the subtitle of Eichmann in Jerusalem is the banality of evil, the phrase actually appears only twice in the book. The first time as the last words of the last formal chapter of the book, and the second time it occurs within postscript of the book. But despite the paucity of the phrase, much of the book is structured around explaining the concept. The banality of evil is not about some sort of minor or unimportant evil. It is not about, as this SMBC comic puts it, the semi-hitlers of history, like the person who leaves his dishes out until his roommate has to do them. Rather the banality of evil describes a societal inversion.
And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody "Thou shalt not kill," even though man's natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler's land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: "Thou shalt kill," although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it - the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation. (150)
So evil which had once been rare, exceptional, and anomalous has become normalized, common, and banal. For Arendt this does not reduce the horror of the evil, rather it intensifies the horror of the evil.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly an terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied [...] that this new type of criminal, who is in actual act hostis generis humani, commits his crime - under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (276)
When I was discussing this with my brother, we talked about how this is one of the reasons that animal activism and scholarship comes again and again to the Holocaust, the genocides of settler colonialism, and chattel slavery. It is not to engage in the analogy of victimhood, which not only insults everyone involved, but as I have argued elsewhere, they also do not provide particularly useful models for even understanding our treatment of animals. Rather, we return again and again to these issues in order to trace something like the essential questions of the banality of evil. How is it that we live and love among people who find nothing wrong in something we find to be a world historical crime? How do we deal with the fact that we ourselves have been complicit with this crime for so long? How do we face the fact that we probably cannot fully disentangle ourselves from this crime? How do we provoke a sense of responsibility in a world, that as Adorno put it, "[e]ven the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter" (Prisms 34)?


We also come back to the banality of evil because of our feelings as a vegan killjoy (see also Richard Twine's article). Vegans and vegetarians are constantly being judged for our very existence, even if we are not advocating anything at the time. And if we do engage in advocacy? We are told again and again that we cannot engage in judgement. Which brings us back to Arendt. "As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solutuion" (116). Arendt further explains how Eichmann, who was not particularly important in the party, was asked to the meeting to plan the Final Solution to serve as a secretary for the meeting. This meeting was important for Eichmann.
Although he had been doing his best right along to help with the Final Solution, he had still harbored some doubts about "such a bloody solution through violence," and these doubts had now been dispelled. "Here now, during this conference, the most prominent people had spoken, the Popes of the Third Reich." Now he could see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears that not only Hitler, not only Heydrich or the "sphinx" Müller, not just the S.S. or the Party, but the elite of the good old Civil Service were vying and fighting with each other for the honor of taking the lead in these "bloody" matters. "At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt." (114)
At this point Arendt comments, "Who was he to judge? Who was he "to have [his] own thoughts in this matter"? Well, he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty" (114, emphasis in original). To try to be moral in the banality of evil requires one not be ruined by their own modesty, and to have their own thoughts in the matter.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Short Reflections on Deleuze

Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Gilles Deleuze. The LA Review of Books has put together six essays reflecting on Deleuze today. My particular favorite among them was Brian Massumi's. The essay is remarkably strong about tracing the importance of Deleuze on thinking about thinking so that we may produce concepts otherwise. But it also contained this very funny paragraph about the success of Deleuze:
Fast forward to the present. Deleuze is one of the most cited authors around. He is everywhere, to the point that Deleuze fatigue is palpable in many quarters. One is as apt to hear his surname preceded by “The Church of” as by “Gilles.” The publication of scholarly volumes whose titles begin with “Deleuze and …” has reached industrial proportions. The “minor” figures Deleuze drew on have been rediscovered, largely through his work, and each has spawned a mini-industry of its own (with the exception of Ruyer, and he is coming). The Deleuze Studies journal is finishing its ninth year, and the annual international conference associated with it is preceded by a weeklong “Deleuze Camp.” Seriously. It is actually called that.
As I said on facebook, when I was younger I belonged heavily to the Church of Deleuze, nowadays I am more more like high holidays Deleuzian, culturally Deleuzian. I like the music, you know? But I also want to spend a few minutes to talk about what Deleuze meant for me.

He was the first thinker I became obsessed about. I encounter Anti-Oedipus when I was 18, and taking my first philosophy class, Contemporary French Philosophy, taught by Jason Wirth. The summer between my first and second year of college was very brutal and hard for various personal reasons, and I engaged in the same coping mechanisms I use to this day. Namely, I threw myself into working through hard philosophy. I picked up a copy of A Thousand Plateaus from Barnes and Nobles, and did my best. I didn't, couldn't, read it cover to cover. But I took their permission seriously that I could pick and choose chapters. It would not be an exaggeration to say I spent the rest of undergrad, and no small part of grad school, writing various papers that simply meditations on Deleuze, regardless of what I was actually assigned. In one of my first papers for grad school, which was Kafka, the law, and animals I was told by the professor that I could not just parachute Deleuze in at the end of my paper to save the day. When I got married, we ended up with a groom's cake that was made to look like my copy of ATP (it was a very good wedding).

There are lots of things that drew me to Deleuze, but the most important parts, the parts that have stayed, are the lessons I learned about how doing philosophy and the task of thinking. Deleuze wrote again and again that philosophy is a practice of experimentation and experience over interpretation. I was free to play around in Deleuze's backyard because I was told it wasn't a matter of getting it correct, it was a matter of producing something worth thinking. While scholarship and rigor are perhaps important standards for philosophy, for Deleuze it was provocation, production, and potency. Philosophy mattered to the degree it was able to do something. So many different kinds of doing: making weapons, clearing paths for fleeing, making demonic alliances, producing a new people and a new earth, harming stupidity and cliches, creating concepts. Deleuze presented the task of philosophy in its grandiosity, but it always democratic and egalitarian, and suspicious of major, royal, and macro interpretations. While dominate institutions may wish to put philosophy to its own work, philosophy and thinking always are the weapons of the oppressed, of the minors who are excluded from majoritarian images of thought. Philosophy was for the peoples and races who could not find themselves within the reflections of the world around them. Deleuze didn't always get it right, but you always knew what side he wanted to be on, and you always knew what side he felt philosophy served.

There are reasons that I often call myself a recovering deleuzian, or make other jokes distancing me from his work. There are lots of ways I no longer find myself in his writings. However, his understanding of philosophy is still my own, and I am still pretty happy that the epigraph of this blog comes the last work co-authored with Guattari. "The agony of the rat or the slaughter of a calf remains present in thought not through pity but as the zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into the other." - What Is Philosophy?

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Species Contract and Speciescraft

An ingenious philosopher has lately denied, that animals can enter into contracts, and thinks this an essential difference between them and the human creature:—but does not daily observation convince us, that they form contracts of friendship with each other, and with mankind? When puppies and kittens play together, is there not a tacit contract, that they will not hurt each other? And does not your favorite dog expect you should give him his daily food, for his services and attention to you? And thus barters his love for your protection? In the same manner that all contracts are made amongst men, that do not understand each others arbitrary language. -- Erasmus Darwin, Zoönomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, Vol. 1.

Can we include other animals into a social contract model of justice and fairness? The historic answer to this question is somewhere between no and hell no. Rawls famously cannot include animals as subjects of justice, only of compassion (which is doing slightly better than Kant). And while there have been some gestures to refute Rawls from within something like his system (for example see Mark Rowlands' discussion of the Original Position in Animals Like Us, or Paola Cavalieri and Will Kymlicka's "Expanding the Social Contract") most have taken the social contract position as impossible for including animals. As Martha Nussbaum explains in Frontiers of Justice, "the asymmetry of power between humans and nonhuman animals is too great to imagine any contract we might make with them as a real contract. Certainly, we cannot imagine that the contract would actually be for mutual advantage" (334). But this isn't the end of the story. The move to exclude animals from the social contract by Rawls, which Nussbaum sees as obviously necessary (and therefore a problem with contract theory), is not shared by all, who have long advocated human domination of other animals based upon contract theory.

This view of contract theory sees domestication as a contract between other animals and humans, in which humans and animals enter into a relationship of mutual advantage. This has been termed the "Ancient Contract" by the popular history and science writer Stephen Budiansky in a magazine article, and later developed in his book the The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. This idea has had a wide influence on other popular writers justifying our rearing and eating animals. Temple Grandin cites Budiansky specifically in Thinking in Pictures:

Recently I read an article that had a profound effect on my thinking. It was entitled "The Ancient Contract" by S. Budiasky, and it was published in the March 20. 1989, issue of U.S. News & World Report. It presented a natural historical view of our evolving relationship with animals. This view presents a middle ground between the supporters of animal rights, who believe that animals are equal to humans, and the Cartesian view, which treats animals as machines with no feelings. I added the biological concept of symbiosis to Budiasky's view. A symbiotic relationship is a mutually beneficial relationship between two different species. For example, biologists have learned that ants tend aphids and use them as "dairy cows." The ants feed the aphids. and in return the aphids give a sugar substance to the ants. People feed, shelter, and breed cattle and hogs, and in return the animals provide food and clothing. We must never abuse them, because that would break the ancient contract. We owe it to the animals to give them decent living conditions and a painless death. (235)

We can continue this understanding with Michael Pollan's telling a very similar story from The Omnivore's Dilemma:
For domesticated species, the good life, if we can call it that, cannot be achieved apart from humans -- apart from our farms and, therefore, our meat eating. This, it seems to me, is where animal rightists betray a profound ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of enslavement or even exploitation is to misconstrue the whole relationship, to project a human idea of power onto what is, in fact, an instance of mutualism between species. Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans imposed on animals some 10,000 years ago. Rather, domestication happened when a small handful of especially opportunistic species discovered through Darwinian trial and error that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection, in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk and eggs and -- yes -- their flesh. Both parties were transformed by the relationship: animals grew tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves (evolution tends to edit out unneeded traits), and the humans gave up their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled life of agriculturists. (Humans changed biologically, too, evolving such new traits as a tolerance for lactose as adults.) From the animals' point of view, the bargain with humanity has been a great success, at least until our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished. (There are 10,000 wolves in North America, 50,000,000 dogs.) (p. 320)
What both Grandin and Pollan make clear is what is usually so hidden in contract theory. My title the species contract should be an obvious reference to Carole Pateman's The Sexual Contract, Charles Mills' The Racial Contract, and their joint work Contract and Domination. A shared insight of these works pointed out early in Pateman's The Sexual Contract is:
The genius of contract theorists has been to present both the original and actual contracts as exemplifying and securing original freedom. On the contrary, in contract theory universal freedom is always an hypothesis, a story, a political fiction. Contract always generates political right in the form of relations of domination and subordination. (8)
Grandin and Pollan seem to not mind at all that the Species Contract does guarantee freedom at all, but domination and subordination justify only upon a story of mutual benefit. And we can spend the time explaining how their view of contract theory either cannot fit into a model of justice as fairness (à la Nussbuam), or we can spend the time laying out that domination is built into the contract model (à la Pateman and Mills). Both would be good benefits of our time, but I want to point out something else.

There is something about the model of the ancient contract that could be attractive to us. It gives agency to the animals rather than keeping them as mere objects, and it puts them within a political relationship. Except, weirdly, it doesn't do this at the same time it does this! Let's look at the rather incredible passage by Pollan in a bit more detail. Pollan posits that domestication is "natural" and "evolutionary" and as such it is "rather than political." So on the one hand Pollan is telling the oldest state of nature story ever, something that could come out of Hobbes or Locke. And while he does not use the language of an ancient contract, there is a reason his story looks so much like hers. The animals surrender some of their rights in exchange for the protections from the humans. It is a moment of declared 'mutualism,' of the creation of an 'alliance.' So this moment which is naturalized and depoliticized is also at the same time the most classical formulation of the political story. We are left then, with a very weird maneuver. An apolitical political story. A contract that is never a contract but merely nature. The state of nature never really disappears, the moment of artifice (and again, what else is domestication?) that defines the change from state of nature to civil society is repressed by Pollan. This is probably one of the scariest things about his pseudo-evolutionary metaphysics, the utter suppression of any political or ethical moment. Thus we have something that looks like a really bad joke. When is a contract not a contract? When it is a species contract!
This ability to both advance a theory of artifice with one hand while naturalizing it all with the second is something I want to call, following the work of Karen and Barbara Fields, speciescraft. In the Fields' book, Racecraft, they articulate how their concept of racecraft works in relationship to race and racism. Race is the social construction that tries to tie together morphology, ancestry, cultural, and pigmentation into something real and coherent. Racism is the creation of social, legal, economic, and political double standards based upon race. Racecraft is the what allows the obvious artificial reality of race and racism seem natural. Racecraft is what turns the political and historical categories of race and structures of racism into something normal, natural, inevitable, and therefore ahistorical, apolitical, and amoral. While not a perfect theoretical port, and a longer argument would need to attend to the tensions and differences, speciescraft is the name we can give to the movement to turn speciesism into a natural and inevitable state of affairs. It is because of the magic of speciescraft that Pollan and Grandin can retail stories of foundational political moments into natural relationships and still seem to be making coherent arguments. If we can combat speciescraft when examining the species contract, we can take at least one form of hope. The species contract tells a story of political artifice, and that means our relationship to other animals is not destiny, and we can do the work to build different relationships, and different models of justice. The inevitability of human domination of other animals is contestable and changeable.

As a sort of ps, here are few things that you might want to read that I couldn't figure out how to work into this version, but would work into a longer form. First, Pateman is critical of the idea of what I am calling a species contract, and she called a beastial contract. See Pateman, "The Sexual Contract and the Animals" (which sent me down the citational hole to the Erasmus Darwin quotation at the top). I am not the only who has noticed that some people use the language of contracts to justify their domination of nonhuman animals. Make sure to check out my brother's discussion of contracts in his dissertation, "Happy Meals." Also, see Clare Palmer's "The Idea of the Domesticated Animal Contract," Sunaura Taylor's "Beasts of Burden," and for a popular version this James McWilliams post. And yeah, a totally just stole stuff I wrote on this blog six years ago, but that is what blogging is for, right?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Vindication of the Rights of Vegetables, or, Plant Theory and Planted Theory

I am about a third of the way through Jeffrey T. Nealon's Plant Theory: Biopower & Vegetable Life, and considering it just came in the mail yesterday evening, that is a good sign for the book. This is not a review of his book (see the only a third part), but so far it is engaging and well-written. If you are interested in biopolitical studies, you almost certainly should read it. While this is not a review of Nealon's book, it is another in the almost never ending blog posts about the relationship between animal ethics and plant ethics. Now, most of my views are in this post (and wow, I need to learn to write a second part in multi-part posts), and I don't plan to be recovering most of that ground. However, I want to use this post to think about some of the concerns that comes from critical animal scholars about plant theory. It is probably unfair to do this with the arrival of Nealon's book, because (1) I haven't finished reading it yet, and (2) nothing I am saying is specific to his book. However, his claims to think plant theory and animal studies together and closer than it has before is provocative, and this is what it provokes.

One of the things that is hard to engage with, in Nealon's book, is how open he is that the inspiration came from being at the MLA and trying to decide how animals had become "the next big thing" in theory. And he shortly follows that up by accusing animal scholars of a "refusal to consider vegetable life within its biopolitical frame seems to function as a subset of an old practice: trying to close the barn door of ethical consideration right after your chosen group has gotten out of the cold of historical neglect" (xii). These remarks speak rather directly to the suspicions people within critical animal studies might have towards plant theory. The first suspicion is that plant theory, or critical plant studies or what have you, is operating somewhat like Thomas Taylor's Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, which sought to undermine Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (I talk about Taylor briefly, and include his amazing closing paragraph, in this old post on plants). The goal of Taylor's track was satire, which he sought to achieve by extending some of Wollstonecraft's logic to other animals. It matters little if he was accidentally correct on this point, his goal was to help neither brutes nor women, but simply to undermine the moral authority of Wollstonecraft's argument. Almost every popular news story that has taken seriously plants as active forces have immediately framed them as attacks on vegetarians and vegans, even though it makes no real sense. Michael Pollan's work is regularly cited in plant theory circles, and he is well-known for his work to argue against vegans and vegetarians (and also for getting his science really, really wrong). We are all familiar with people like Barbara Kingsolver, arguing in her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that her harvesting her favorite plants was the same as killing hens. Maybe even worse, because plants are innocent. So there exists a fear that even if plant theorists are sincere, they will be utilized to undermine normative claims about our ethical relationships toward other animals. Because of course they will be. If you do this work, you know they already have been.
This relates to the second problem, which is the way in which plant theory sometimes frames animal studies as this theory event, as the next big thing. For those of us working on animal studies for a while, a very weird thing happened in it becoming a thing. Let me relate a story that I know I have told several times before. Sometime in grad school, during the 2006-2007 academic year, I was talking to a fellow student who asked me what my research was on. When I replied, "animals," she laughed. She honestly assumed that was not a serious project. Years later I would run into her (now around 2013), and she asked me what I had written my dissertation on. When I reminded her, "animals," she went, "Oh that is so trendy and red hot. That was a smart move." It remains to be seen if it was a smart career move, but it certainly was not seen that way when I started. Animal studies got taken seriously, more or less overnight, due partially to the English translation of Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am, and the publication of Donna Haraway's When Species Meet (these works came out with within 6 months of each other). Of course there was a lot of other stuff being published, and nor is it really a foundational moment. Ecofeminism had been doing a lot of this work years earlier, but had become heavily discredited within academic circles (see Greta Gaard's Ecofeminism Revisited, as well as the intro to Adams and Gruen's recent excellent volume on Ecofeminism). But between the giants of Derrida and Haraway, suddenly, animal studies was recognized. And in some corners concerns about animals went from being dismissed because they were boutique concerns to being able to be dismissed because they were trendy. So when Nealon, in a clause directly before the quotation above about closing barn doors, writes "debates about ethical vegetarianism aside," it is hard not to feel he has missed the point of animal studies. Ethical vegetarianism and veganism, as well as advocacy for the liberation of animals, are the normative core in much of the work of animal studies. Of course, this isn't true for all animal studies. Michael Lundblad has advanced the idea of "animality studies." He explains:
But the phrase “animal studies” strikes me as too limiting, too easily mistaken for a unified call for universal advocacy for actual animals. I want to make a distinction between critical attention to how we think about “real” animals and various forms of advocacy for treating nonhuman animals better. I want to associate animal studies even further with that advocacy, with work explicitly concerned about the living conditions of nonhuman animals. Conversely, I want to argue for “animality studies” as a way to describe work that expresses no explicit interest in advocacy for various nonhuman animals, even though it shares an interest in how we think about “real” animals. Animality studies can prioritize questions of human politics, for example, in relation to how we have thought about human and nonhuman animality at various historical and cultural moments. Increased attention to the history of animality and related discourses can lead to new in- sights in fields such as the history of sexuality, as London’s texts will help me illustrate below. To the extent that this kind of methodology resists engaging with concern for nonhuman animals, it could be seen as “speciesist.” But I want to open up a space for new critical work that might have different priorities, without an imperative to claim the advocacy for non-human animals that runs through much of the recent work in animal studies.
I want to be clear that I don't think there is anything wrong with animality studies. I think a lot of us who advocate for animals still move back and forth a lot between such advocacy and animality studies. What has been interesting about much of what is going by the label of plant theory, is that most of it is not really in the form of advocacy for plants. Following the distinction by Lundblad, perhaps we can randomly say there is a difference between planting theory, which should have some sort of plant focused core, and planted theory, which uses plants to fundamentally understand and change the human world. So if we look at the growing body of books we can call plant theory (here I am thinking of Elaine Miller's The Vegetative Soul, Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking and his The Philosopher's Plant, Matthew Hall's Plants as Persons, Eduardo Kohn's How Forests Think, and now Nealon's Plant Theory), the only one that is obviously primarily planting theory is Hall's book (though there is some in Marder's Plant-Thinking, and I am not finished with Plant Theory). In other words, most of plant theory is, so far, planted. And again, I think there are important things going in most of those books. Nealon's work still feels fairly central if you care about biopolitical studies. What I am having trouble with is imagining the dialogue between animal studies and planted theory. The stakes of the projects are too different. Indeed the tensions between planted theory and animal studies might turn out to be a false family resemblance, when in reality we are doing very different things. We need more planting theory if we are going to figure out how to ethically and politically relate to plants and animals. These are not easy questions, but they increasingly seem like important ones, and perhaps painfully timely ones. Here is to new seeds and future plantings.

Monday, October 26, 2015

On two news stories about food and vegetarianism

There have been a few popular stories recently that have implications for vegetarianism and/or veganism. I will briefly talk about the story of finding animal meat and human DNA (?!) in vegetarian hotdogs, and then spend slightly more time with the WHO reclassifies processed meat as causing cancer.

First up, there has been a report a large number of vegetarian hotdogs had meat or human DNA in them. As the story from The Atlantic put it:
Around 3 percent of the samples found pork where it shouldn’t have been, most often in meats labeled as chicken or turkey, and around 10 percent of the vegetarian products contained meat. Vegetarian products seemed to have the most problems across the board: Four of the 21 vegetarian samples had hygienic issues (accounting for two-thirds of the hygienic issues found in the report), and many vegetarian labels exaggerated the protein content by up to 2.5 times the actual amount.
That seems, well, disconcerting. I posted that to my facebook, and then went looking for data within the original study. I honestly had (and have) no clue what hygienic issues even means, and wanted to know what brands they found animal meat in. So, here is the take away before I get any further in: Whether this all turns out to be true, this is not science. This is a PR viral marketing scheme for a kickstarter and general fundraising. If you go to their hotdog report, you will find fun graphics, and basically no useful details. You can't find out what brands they tested. You won't find answers to unhygienic means. Their process, and it seems the data itself, are proprietary. At this point there is no way to test or verify their claims. So, that's what we have. It may turn out to be totally true (and disgusting!), but at this point, no use paying it a lot of attention. It is interesting to think of the way that viral PR and link bait generating headlines fulfill each others goals. So that even ostensibly serious news websites, like The Atlantic, can post an article without any serious reporting or discussions with experts. Just like Clear Labs is not really engaging in science, I don't think we can call writing up a press release for a company counts as journalism.

The second major story concerns the WHO, process meats, and cancer. The WHO recently has determined processed meats (meaning things like ham, pepperoni, bacon, etc.) definitely can cause cancer, and moved them into Group 1, as this graphic explains.

But as this longer post from CRUK (from which I got that infographic) explains, this is "hazard identification’, not ‘risk assessment’." Meaning, "these groups show how confident IARC is that red and processed meat cause cancer, not how much cancer they cause." So, for example, both smoking and processed meats will definitely cause cancer in some cases, smoking is super way more likely to cause more incidents of cancer for people. Now, this change is all over vegan social media. I have mixed feelings about all of that. First, there really isn't a strong argument here even for vegetarianism. Chicken probably doesn't increase the risk of cancer, and I'm not sure that shifting people from eating hotdogs to turkey dogs is something to celebrate? Also, while lots of people consume processed meats, it is mostly consumed by poorer populations. So, really, this becomes another example of poor populations in overdeveloped nations being hit by health impacts. But I do believe this provides evidence for something else: The need to create public policy to move us away from consuming land-based mammals. Outside of the ethics, or the need for justice for other animals (positions I believe I have a clear record on), there is a totally speciesist need to change our food chain. From global warming, to desertification and deforestation, to poisoning water tables, to food borne illness, and now to causing cancer, we cannot sustain a system that depends so heavily on rearing and eating land-based mammals. But here is the rub! The same global system of disavowal and forgetting that keeps us from confronting the ethics of what we do to other animals in general will immunize us from the policy needs for shifting our food chain. So even though there is a totally speciesist reason for moving away from eating land-based mammals, and even though we could probably do that while maintaining high levels of eating poultry and fish, it will be our very speciesism that keeps us from taking on those policy implications.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Trouble with Being Bred: Vegan Ethics and Antinatalism

Antinatalism comes in may forms. Most notably out of the tradition of philosophical pessimism (e.g. Arthur Schopenhauer, Emil Cioran, and David Benatar), but also importantly in queer theory and activism (e.g. Lee Edelman and Gender Mutiny). In addition, there have been antinatalists who argue that humans should cease to reproduce for environmental and animal welfare reasons (Patricia MacCormack  makes the argument for human extinction to save animals in Posthuman Ethics, and The Church of Euthanasia has long advocated we should "Save the Planet, Kill Yourself") Carmen Dell'Aversano combines Lee Edelman's argument with concerns over animals in the important essay, "The Love Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken." My desire here is not discuss the common argument around antinatalism, which concerns humans voluntary ceasing to reproduce (a position I have some issues with), and instead focus on the implicit antinatalism within veganism that is concerned with stopping the production and reproduction of other animals.

Antinatalism is at the core of so much animal ethics and activism. We can take one example that manages to unite vegan abolitionists, large animal rights groups (PETA and HSUS), and animal welfare groups that don't care about ending violence toward other animals in general (ASPCA), and that is the campaign to spay and neuter your pets. This is one antinatalist policy that manages to be shared by all types of animal advocacy groups. But veganism itself is, in many ways, principally a policy of antinatalism. Now, there are ways to advocate that becoming-vegan is about the productions of certain kinds of subjects and relations, but when we examine the mechanism of veganism to directly relieve suffering of animals, it does so through principles of antinatalism. Here, let me quote Will MacAskill being interviewed by Dylan Matthews:

Right. The chicken's already dead, so that's not where you're having an impact. Instead, you're just slightly decreasing demand for chicken. That means that shops are going to buy, on average, a bit less. They're going to stock a bit less chicken, so they'll buy less chicken from farmers, and in the future they'll produce fewer chickens. You're not saving animal lives — you're preventing animals from coming into existence. You may think it's such a small change that it wouldn't make any difference. Most of the time you don't make a difference. That's true. But occasionally you make a large difference, which makes up for it. Maybe the supermarket makes decisions on how many chickens it's going to buy in 1,000 chicken breast chunks or something. So if it sold above a certain number, then it would increase stock, and if it sold below a certain number, it would decrease stock. Most of the time, you won't make a difference, but if you take it over the threshold, then it won't decide to buy 1,000 more chickens. So maybe 1 in 1,000 times you'll make a difference to 1,000 chickens.Economists have actually studied this, and assessed how much of a difference you make. If you don't buy one egg, you decrease the supply by 0.91. If you reduce the amount of beef you buy by 1 pound, you reduce the supply of beef by 0.68 pounds. [Emphasis added]
I think that MacAskill has the function described above basically right. Veganism in its mechanism of directly helping animals is not about either saving current animals, or even really about improving the lives of future animals, it is rather about preventing animals from being born into lives that we feel are not worth living.

Now, why does thinking about veganism's implicit antinatalism matter? I have at least a couple of reasons. The first is that because antinatalism strikes most people as counterintuitive, and that this is no different when it comes toward animal ethics. It is no accident that ASPCA and the Humane Society spend more time talking about health and behavioral reasons to spay and neutur pets, than they do talking about issues of pet overpopulation, because many people are not going to be convinced by the arguments that because we love dogs and cats, we need to have less dogs and cats in the world. And furthermore, because our antinatalism tends to be implicit, and not something we think about, we tend to produce rhetoric and justifications that are more easily hijacked by "happy meat" producers. One of their central claims is that without eating other animals, these animals wouldn't exist. Which is, on some level, true. Certainly less animals would exist. Look at Temple Grandin making this point in a recent interview:

I was up on a catwalk over a whole sea of cattle — this was in the summer of 1990 — and getting kind of upset about it. And then I thought, you know, none of those cattle would have been born if we hadn’t bred them — they would never have existed at all. But we’ve got to give them a decent life. [Emphasis added]
You can find similar arguments in Michael Pollan, and any number of other advocates for different kinds of happy meat. You can see how this makes a certain kind of sense. If existence is an unquestioned good, then bringing animals into this world is a good. All that is left is to figure out how to reform a system. To get rid of the system, it means taking the stance that for many animals, it is better to have never been. That is actually a hard argument to make sometimes, but perhaps it is one we need to practice making, and making explicitly. Otherwise, vegans can always be painted as bizarrely antianimal.

The other reason we need to explore antinatalism with vegan ethics is because it might change our view of certain tactics. Most of you know that I am pluralist when it comes to tactics in animals activism. Meaning essentially I am not sure what tactic will work (or if, indeed, only one tactic can work), and support a variety of tactics and creativity with promoting animal liberation. There are, however, a great deal of vegan activists who believe we should exclusively promote vegan education, or vegan demonstrations and/or education. I believe we need vegan education and demonstrations, certainly. But I cannot understand the exclusivity with such a view towards these tactics. And one of the reasons becomes clearer when we view it from a standpoint of antinatalism. If veganism is about antinatalism, than these tactics are not about helping already existing animals. It is about making sure future animals are not bred into these conditions. But it becomes easier to understand that we might want to help improve the quality of living for those already existing animals, while also believing we should stop producing more animals in these conditions. The manichaeism of certain abolitionists becomes harder to sustain from this viewpoint (and indeed, most of these abolitionists seem to have no problem taking this stance when it comes to pets, but magically develop an allergy to this sort of pluralism when it comes to advocacy for farmed animals).

I am sure there are other important things we can realize when we make our antinatalism explicit in our thinking of animal ethics. But we need to figure out how to sell the argument that wishing a being into existence is not always a kindness, and can indeed be the worse kind of cruelty.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Call for Applications for summer institute on Race and Animals



JUNE 6-17, 2016 

Deadline December 1, 2015

Lori Gruen, Claire Jean Kim, and Timothy Pachirat invite you to apply for “Race and Animals,” a two-week institute to be held June 6-June 17, 2016, hosted by Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.

The “Race and Animals” summer institute seeks to foster critical discussions on theoretical, historical, and political understandings of how power works to constitute racialized and animalized subjects.  We encourage applications from:

Those working on current projects addressing the intersection of race studies and animal studies.
Those working on current projects focusing on race who are interested in exploring connections to animal studies.
Those working on current projects focusing on animals who are interested in exploring connections to race studies.
We welcome applications from all fields of study.  Applicants should either have their Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees (e.g., MFAs or JDs) or be advanced graduate students at the ABD stage of their graduate work.

10-12 selected scholars will attend daily lectures and engage in structured daily discussions with the institute organizers and visiting speakers.  They will also have the opportunity to present and receive feedback on their own research.  Required readings will be distributed in advance of the institute.  Participants will be provided with dormitory style housing and will receive $500 each to offset travel expenses.

To apply, please send a single .pdf file containing the following documents to these addresses (; ;  Both the subject line of the email and the attached pdf should read "Race and Animals Application- LAST NAME"

A cover letter (not to exceed 750 words) discussing your interest in race studies and animal studies. You should highlight past and current projects of relevance (publications, syllabi, etc.) and offer a concrete explanation of what your unique contribution to the institute would be.
A current curriculum vitae.
A short writing sample or other work product that engages with race studies, animal studies, or both.
The names, institutional affiliations, and email addresses of at least two references.
The deadline for applications is December 1, 2015.

About the Organizers:

Lori Gruen is the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy, Chair of Philosophy, and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University.  She also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies.  She is the author of 3 books, including most recently Entangled Empathy (Lantern, 2015); the editor of 5 books, including The Ethics of Captivity (Oxford, 2014) and Ecofeminism:  Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth with Carol J. Adams (Bloomsbury, 2014).  With Kari Weil, she co-edited “Animal Others” a special issue of Hypatia (2012).

Claire Jean Kim is Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at University of California, Irvine, where she teaches classes on comparative race studies, social movements, and human-animal studies.  She is the author of Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age (Cambridge, 2015), Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City (Yale, 2000), and numerous essays on race and animals.  In 2013, she co-guest edited a special issue of American Quarterly entitled, Species/Race/Sex.

Timothy Pachirat teaches in the Department of Political Science at UMass Amherst.  His book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (Yale University Press, 2011), is a widely acclaimed political ethnography of the massive, repetitive killing of animals carried out by a largely immigrant workforce.

About the Visiting Speakers:

Colin Dayan is Professor of English, Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. She is the author most recently of With Dogs at the Edge of Life (forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2015).  She has also authored The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton UP, 2011), a Choice Outstanding Academic book; The Story of Cruel and Unusual (MIT/Boston Review Press, 2007); Haiti, History, and the Gods (University of California Press, 1995, 1998; Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction (Oxford University Press, 1987); A Rainbow for the Christian West (University of Massachusetts Press, 1977).

Maria Elena Garcia is director of the Comparative History of Ideas and associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. She received her PhD in Anthropology at Brown University and has been a Mellon Fellow at Wesleyan University and Tufts University. Her first book, Making Indigenous Citizens: Identities, Development, and Multicultural Activism in Peru (Stanford, 2005) examines Indigenous and intercultural politics in Peru. Her work on Indigeneity and interspecies politics in the Andes has appeared in multiple edited volumes and journals such as Anthropology Now, Anthropological Quarterly, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Latin American Perspectives, and Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies. Her second book project, Dancing Guinea Pigs and Other Tales of Race in Peru, examines the intersections of race, species, and capital in contemporary Peru.

Jared Sexton  is Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, where he is also affiliated with the Department of Film and Media Studies. He has published articles in journals such as African American Review, American Quarterly, Art Journal, Cultural Critique, Radical History Review, and Social Text, and essays in various anthologies on contemporary politics and popular culture. He is the author of Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism and a co-editor of a special issue of Critical Sociology on “Race and the Variations of Discipline,” and has contributed occasional pieces to magazines like Artforum, ColorLines, Jadaliyya, and openDemocracy.

About Wesleyan Animal Studies:

From 2010-2015, Wesleyan Animal Studies, in partnership with The Animals and Society Institute held an annual summer fellowship program for scholars pursuing research in Human-Animal Studies. The fellowship program was started by the Animals and Society Institute (ASI) in 2007 and directed by Margo DeMello; it was hosted by Lori Gruen and Kari Weil since coming to Wesleyan; and over the years funded over 60 fellows. The ASI-WAS Human Animal Studies Fellowship Program will celebrate its 10th year by hosting a conference at Wesleyan in October 2016.

WAS has sponsored a number of speakers and events, including two conferences, and offers a cluster of courses.

[Original Link]

Monday, August 24, 2015

Guest Post: Jacobin's Species Problem, Part Two: Agents, Systems, and Similarity

[I got behind on writing my follow-ups to my last post, however Robert Stanton stepped in to write this wonderful post. -Scu]

Thanks to Scu for the chance to respond further to Sarah Grey and Joe Cleffie’s piece “Peter Singer’s Race Problem” in Jacobin from a couple of weeks ago. Scu has already started the conversation with his previous post, and I’d like to follow some of his points a bit further and also make a few broader observations about the issue of speciesism within a socialist critique.

The main strength of Grey and Cleffie’s article is its observation that rights discourse is at best a weak tool to address animal suffering and exploitation: “Rights,” as they note, “from a materialist perspective, are meaningless outside of human existence; suffering does not necessarily confer rights.” Indeed rights, as a humanist conception, are granted by and to only those individuals who are deemed worthy of them by a certain group of people. Even within the human community, though, the entrenchment of individual rights has been questioned as a reification of specific aspects of what it means to be human: as Wendy Brown observes, constructions of individuality “are predicated upon a humanism that routinely conceals its gendered, racial and sexual norms” (“Suffering Rights as Paradoxes,” 238). The extension of rights to animals, on an individual or a group level, has struck many critics and activists alike as flawed because it inevitably relies on a criterion of rights-worthiness based on one or more characteristics shared with humans, usually including suffering, communicative ability, and rational agency. A classic example is the Great Apes Project, which has fought with some success for the extension of basic rights to “the non-human great primates” who are biologically and cognitively closest to humans.

Grey and Cleffie, by contrast, both recognize and embrace the humanism inherent in most rights discourse: they deny rights to animals specifically because they supposedly lack the human characteristic of rational agency:
Human beings, whatever their racial identity, possess agency. Enslaved human beings, even in the most brutal days of the chattel system, were self-directed beings who not only felt pain and experienced self-perception but who loved, reasoned, wrote, and above all fought for their own freedom. Other species will never display that kind of agency.
Scu has already pointed out the flaws in this argument: not only is it factually wrong (many animals not only love and reason, but do fight for their freedom), but it employs usefully circular logic: if you define agency as all of the things that oppressed humans supposedly do but oppressed animals supposedly do not (direct themselves, love, reason, write, fight for their freedom), then you must by definition deny animals that agency, and hence any sympathy or care that depends on the agency. Lacking this quality, animals immediately become the “objects of history,” subject to those who do possess rational agency. Such a definition implicitly denies agency to animal struggle because it is not conscious, organized, or effective. But this raises disturbing questions within human history.

As Henry Louis Gates notes (drawing on Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts), a significant strain of historiography denied that slaves ever revolted in nineteenth-century America, for some very familiar-sounding reasons: the Harvard scholar James Schouler declared in 1882 that “the negro” was an “imitator and non-moralist,” “easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots,” “a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip.” Slaves have revolted frequently throughout history, sometimes with success (especially in the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804); in the United States, numerous slave revolts took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 being the best known. Such revolts were certainly conscious, they were sometimes well-organized and sometimes disorganized, and, crucially, they were largely ineffective in overturning the larger institution of slavery; its end was instead largely the result of organized protest by non-slaves. Similarly, Jews rose up in ghettos and camps under the Nazi regime, without significantly changing the progress of imprisonment and genocide. Does the fact that there were not more revolts, or more organized and effective revolts, by black slaves and Jewish prisoners mean that these people were less subjects, and more objects, of history? At this point, the subject/object distinction becomes so muddy as to lose any moral force.

Comparisons such as these inevitably generate great offense to many. Grey and Cleffie claim that “[m]emes – and serious political arguments – that compare factory farms to slavery and genocide are profoundly racist.” They cite examples such as PETA’s use of lynching and Holocaust imagery, the appearance in your Facebook feed of “inflammatory memes juxtaposing images of factory-farmed chickens with images of slave ships or Nazi concentration camps” if you have “animal-rights activists or vegan evangelists” among your online friends, and the backlash to outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion at a time when the killing of African-Americans receives far too little outrage, generating a counter-backlash with the hashtag #animallivesmatter. Inflammatory images, memes, and slogans that assert simple equivalency justifiably generate outrage and offense, especially #animallivesmatter, which cravenly combines the energy of #blacklivesmatter with an ignorance of the underlying issues of oppression at stake.

But “serious political arguments” should not automatically be lumped in with incendiary activist language. Language matters here: if someone says that one thing is exactly the same as another thing, then you should immediately be suspicious of that claim, because no two different things are the same thing. The Jacobin piece frequently uses the word “equivalent,” which in its etymology and usage in this context means something like “having equal moral force or effect.” The idea of “equivalence” between human and animal oppression may convince some people, but will offend many more, especially at a time when the violent force (the “-valence in “equivalence”) of racist institutions and practices continues on a daily basis.

A more effective term might be “similar,” which does not assert equal force but means more precisely “comparable in some respect that is significant and useful for purposes of argument.” Such a concept would much more easily apply to comparisons between racism and speciesism, or mistreatment of humans and animals, even more at a systemic than an agential level. Important for a socialist analysis, similarities allow us to examine the overlapping structural, material, and technological relationships among oppressions. None of this requires asserting that an animal life has the same value as a human life, or even engaging in moral equivalences and analogies. But it does allow us to examine the ways racism and speciesism can engage in logics that support one another, or allow us to look at the material technology of barbed wire in cattle yards, colonialism, and concentration camps. Again, the point is to think at the systemic level, and not only the agential level.

Clearly, Peter Singer’s brand of utilitarian philosophy, by focusing so narrowly on individual agency, fails to account for violence and injustice that is exercised at systemic and institutional levels, as the authors note: “Singer thinks human consciousness has advanced with regard to racism, contending that, while racism still exists, it is widely condemned, and that where it does persist it can be explained by people’s individual attitudes.” Singer is not wrong to assert that speciesism is at a very early stage in terms of its recognition and evaluation: many people would deny that the concept exists, and many more would deny that it is a moral problem. But he clearly holds too optimistic a view of the ebbing away of racism: as Grey and Cleffie note, “entire academic disciplines” have demonstrated, using data and sustained moral argumentation, the persistent structural inequalities of racism, which cannot be effectively combatted solely by arguments about individual choice and agency.

But the imbalance between individual and mass consciousness is itself the big problem in the article. The authors acknowledge “the indisputably horrendous treatment of animals in the industrial production of meat,” but note that individual action such as becoming vegetarian or vegan, or avoiding products supported by animal experimentation, are “ineffective in actually changing the current system.” By way of comparison, “boycotts are only effective when they are part of the strategy of a mass movement that directly challenges the systemic nature of racism.” In fact, animal advocacy groups, whether welfarist or abolitionist, have been undertaking just such mass action for decades, a fact completely ignored here.

Reading the article for the first time, I hoped that a more sustained and productive comparison between anti-racist and anti-speciesist action, one based on effective mass action, would follow. But the obvious next step is glaringly absent: namely, the recognition that the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture is itself structural, systemic, and institutionalized. Animal abuse, and the condition of human workers, worsen when size, speed, and efficiency are maximized: the very things that are necessary for profitable production and distribution in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and especially in the rapid expansion of meat production in developing countries. [This is probably why there exists a broad literature on anti-capitalist analysis and anti-animal exploitation analysis. See, for a partial overview, the work of Ted Benton, Bill Martin, David Nibert, and Nicole Shukin.] Such an argument could, of course, be used to support smaller, more humane, and more sustainable animal agriculture; arguments both for and against such efforts continue to be made by people embracing or critical of capitalist economies. But the fact remains that speciesism as a moral norm – the belief that animals are a category of consumable commodity - specifically benefits the economic systems that depend on its tenacity.
In the end, the authors completely fudge the essential moral dimension within a socialist critique:
There is no question that a rational socialist system would make drastic changes to our current methods of food production; we might indeed eat much less meat than we do now, even if it was of a higher quality. But humanely raised and slaughtered animals could certainly be one component of a food production system created to mitigate the current rate of climate change and to feed not the hunger of profiteers but the hunger of ordinary people.
After briefly mentioning that the treatment of animals under current conditions is a moral issue but not exploring it, the authors conspicuously omit it from a list of moral considerations under a “rational socialist system,” nor could it ever be properly included in such a system without recognizing the functioning of the food production system within current capitalist economies. As a critique of individualist, utilitarian moral philosophy, the article hits the mark, but an effective socialist critique requires an acknowledgement of the entrenched, largely unquestioned power structures that underlie systems of oppression, and their intersections across species boundaries.

Robert Stanton is an Associate Professor of English at Boston College. He is currently at work on a book entitled Holy Signs and Fruitful Toil: Animal Voices and Human Literature in Anglo-Saxon England.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Jacobin's Species Problem, part one: animal subjects

Jacobin magazine has recently published an article entitled "Peter Singer's Race Problem." There is a lot in this article. Some of it good, most of it not so good. What I hope to do here is to produce a few posts analyzing some of the biggest issues of this article. Though, I have many part ones on this blog, and very few part twos, so there is a chance this blog post will standalone. This post is going to focus on the rather odd claims that animals are the mere "objects of history."

Here are the relevant passages from Jacobin:
The biologist and radical Steven Rose, in his essay “Proud to Be a Speciesist,” says that the term speciesism, "was coined to make the claim that the issue of animal rights is on a par with the struggles for women’s rights, or Black people’s rights, or civil rights. But these human struggles are those in which the oppressed themselves rise up to demand justice and equality, to insist that they are not the objects but the subjects of history." Rose here is using the term in a different sense than Singer does, but his point stands. Animals, no matter what Singer and other animal rights activists may want to claim, are objects of history. To compare them with humans who have suffered and do suffer oppression — and, importantly, consciously resist that oppression — is factually wrong, not to mention reactionary. [...] We should certainly try to alleviate unnecessary suffering when dealing with animals, but as journalist Arun Gupta pointed out in a recent speech, this is at best a case of negative rights: for example, the right of “not needlessly being subjected to cruelty.” Rights, from a materialist perspective, are meaningless outside of human existence; suffering does not necessarily confer rights. It’s only possible to talk about human rights, civil rights, or women’s rights because different groups of humans who face oppression have struggled and continue to struggle to win these rights. This is not the case with animal rights. No animals have ever struggled to gain better treatment in food production or to oppose unnecessary experimentation by cosmetic companies. Insofar as animal rights exist, it is humans who have granted and fought for these rights. Animals themselves cannot be said to have inherent rights that we do not give them. [...] Human beings, whatever their racial identity, possess agency. Enslaved human beings, even in the most brutal days of the chattel system, were self-directed beings who not only felt pain and experienced self-perception but who loved, reasoned, wrote, and above all fought for their own freedom. Other species will never display that kind of agency.

So, there is a lot going on here, but really we can boil this down to (1) animals cannot struggle for their freedom, (2) therefore rights can only be given, and (3) that means animals are mere objects. There are two pretty obvious responses. The first is that obviously animals have struggled, and the second is that the struggle cannot be the only way to be a subject of ethics. Let's explore both of these in a little more detail.

Animals engage in a variety of behaviors that are clearly struggles against oppression, that are obviously about resisting. Take this story about a chimp in a zoo. He would break apart concrete, create piles of stones to throw, and hide those piles of ammunition. Then he would use those stones to attack people attending the zoo. Many scientists believe elephants are suffering from ptsd between poachers and habitat lost, and we have now seen a rash of elephant attacks on towns, and at least some are theorizing that the elephants are trying to fight back.  We could see several other examples. Orcas and elephants killing various "trainers." Some of this has been sketched out in Fear of an Animal Planet. But there are more examples, not just ones of obvious violence. We might want to look at animals refusing to reproduce in captivity, running away from slaughterhouses, going on hunger strikes, going limp when workers try to move them, and a whole host of other behaviors that if they were being done by humans in the same situation we would unproblematically call resistance. This refusal to say that animals are engaging in the same behaviors that would believe if saw humans do it is what Frans de Waal has called anthropodenial. You can see how this disavowal works in the Jacobin piece, where we do not have to care about animals because they are not agents, but we know they are not agents because we have already decided not to see any agency.

Now, you can probably think of several objections here. Let's answer a few. One counter-argument is that these modes of resistance from animal subjects has been ineffective, or is necessarily ineffective. But how can this matter? If this is the case, it means that any social movement for recognition or rights cannot be taken seriously until they have effectively won. Another argument is that maybe struggle must be recognized by the dominate for it to matter. If an animal goes on a hunger strike, and no one understands it as a such, does it count as struggle? Well, if it doesn't than that simply means that all rights are conferred by the dominate group, which would not seem to be what the Jacobin writers want. Furthermore it would delegitimize all the resistance that is fugitive and infrapolitical.   Perhaps the issue is that animals' resistance is not conscience as such. Well, first, no real way to know. Second, that would delegitimize all attempts to create communities and lives outside of hegemonic power that is not consciously committed to being resistant. The last objection I can think of is such resistance is not organized. But organize resistance cannot be the only way one gains a right to have rights, can it? Maybe that is the case.

This leads us to the second contention against the Jacobin argument. Namely, why does struggle matter is the first place? The authors of the piece don't even bother to present this argument. Why, of all the grounds necessary for caring about others, is resistance key? The authors reject suffering. One assumes they also reject sociality, joy, vulnerability, and any number of other qualities that are transspecies. No reason is given. But you also feel they can't really believe this. We can think of any number of groups, groups that are usually considered moral patients, eg babies, that we are sure the writers believe we have a moral duty towards. Or what happens if we finally over come oppression (that should be the goal, right?), and in a few generations there are women who do not suffer sexism, queers who won't suffer homophobia, people of color who are not oppressed by racism, etc. Will those generations of humans suddenly have, paradoxically, lost their rights? We are produced and undone by each other. We mingle, and co-become, and build new futures and worlds. And none of this is uniquely human.


Okay, I hope to write at least two more posts. One on race, and another on capitalism. We'll see if that happens. If I don't get to it, you can check out this former post on critical race theory/critical animal theory. Needless to say, I can certainly agree to a criticism that Peter Singer has some issues when it comes to thinking about race, and that the animal rights movement has certainly fucked up, a lot and often, when it comes to race.
I don't think I will get into this later, but so I will put this here as an aside. This article spends a lot of time talking and theorizing about rights. Which is fine. But it is worth pointing out that as a preference utilitarian, Peter Singer doesn't actually care about rights. Moral obligations are therefore not based upon rights for him. Remember your Bentham, rights are "nonsense upon stilts." This isn't really important for my previous discussion, it just seems a technical point that matters if you are, you know, writing an article about Peter Singer.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Moral Baselines?

Recently there has been a bit of discussion of moral baselines in the animal activism community. In particular, Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) has argued that activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline. This is in response to Gary Francione, who has long held that veganism is a moral baseline (for example, see this post). So, what's going on?

In short, Francione has maintained that veganism has to be a moral baseline of animal rights movement. Veganism here means more than diet, and is to be broadly understood as removing ourselves from using products that exploit animals, and removing ourselves from directly exploiting animals. For Francione, animal rights movements have to endorse veganism, and as he argues, "Veganism is not, as some welfarists suggest, the “most” that we can do; it’s the least that we can do if we take animal interests seriously." Okay, Hsiung supports veganism, but he does not see it as the baseline. The example he gives is coming across a mob beating a child. In his analogy, veganism is not beating the child, but activism is actually intervening to stop the beating of the child. He argues that we are morally required to stop people from beating the child, and therefore activism becomes the moral baseline. This debate replicates a fairly traditional debate between negative and positive rights. The quick and un-nuanced version of this debate is that negative rights are all the rights you can give someone just by ignoring they exist (you shouldn't kill them, shouldn't steal from them, etc.), positive rights requires you to act on behalf of the other person (you need to feed them if they are starving, give them medical care, etc.). So, who is right, Francione or Hsiung? Neither, because a moral baseline is a strange framing device. Let's spend sometime with that.

First, what is a moral baseline? This is not a phrase I am familiar with in ethics outside of discussions by Francione or inspired by him. As far as I can tell, this phrase is somewhat of an invention of Francione's (if I am wrong, someone please let me know!). It seems that a baseline would be something that has to be done to be moral, and if you did not do this action, you would no longer be moral. But you do not have to do more than this action to be moral. This is rather strange, because it creates degrees of moralness. One can do more than the baseline and, presumably, be more moral, but the person who does only the baseline is still moral. If we take this as the definition of a moral baseline, let us first look at Hsiung's argument. In order to be moral, we must be activists. If we look at the analogy he uses, we can come up with several versions of the analogies where it would be hard to argue that we have to try to stop the beating. What if we are alone, the mob is large and armed, and we have no cellphone, or anyone nearby, and stopping the mob will certainly get ourselves hurt or killed. While tragic, no one would assume the person in that situation had been less than moral for interfering. Let's go past the metaphor. As you read this, animals all over the world are being tortured. And while you can engage in activism, you cannot directly act on behalf of every animal being tortured and killed for humans in the world. So while activism is a moral good, it is hard to understand it as a moral baseline. Okay, what about Francione? While there might be rare cases where humans cannot be vegan (or at least try to be vegan, assuming actual veganism is, in a way, impossible in our society), for the most part it makes sense to say we can and should be vegans. So, can we therefore say that veganism is the baseline. You can do more, but veganism is the least you can do to be moral. However, I think Hsiung is onto something with his argument on some level. Say there is an animal suffering in front of you, and you can, with little to no cost, help the animal. I think we all agree it would be moral to do so. In other words, some sort of positive action on behalf of other animals is probably necessary. The closest moral principle I can think of to think about this is to refer to Kant's famous distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. Veganism would be an example of a perfect duty toward other animals, and activism would be an example of an imperfect duty toward other animals. While you cannot perfectly be an activist, it is still required. In other words, even through a Kantian lens, we are not given something like a moral baseline. Indeed, the weirdness of a moral baseline with any system of ethics I can think of is not particularly surprising. And that is because despite what the term may imply, the moral baseline is not a principle of ethics, but a principle of organizing.

I am not sure when Francione introduced the term moral baseline, but as far as I can tell, the first time it appears in one of his books is the 2008 Animals as Persons. In it, he argues:
If we ever hope to shift the paradigm away from the speciesist hierarchy that currently informs our thinking about nonhumans, we must develop a political and social movement in favor of abolishing animal use, with veganism, as both a logical and a moral matter, being the clear baseline of that movement. Many new welfarists, however, reject veganism as a moral baseline. They maintain that it is more "practical" to support welfarist reform and to promote animal uses that are more "humane." But this approach reinforces the prevailing view that animal use is morally acceptable if treatment is "humane," and it makes veganism appear as a radical or extreme response to animal exploitation, which is counterproductive to the goal of abolishing animal use. I have long argued, and continue to believe, that an afternoon spent distributing literature on veganism at a crowded place or giving a lecture on veganism at a local community college is a much better use of time, as a matter of both moral theory and practical strategy, than spending that time working on a campaign to get battery hens some extra space or to require that vivisectors treat animals used in laboratories more "humanely." (p. 17)
Clearly in this passage moral baseline has less to do with normative demands on individual actors, and more to do with animal activist organizations should look like. The passage, for example, does not advance an ethical argument, but instead affirms a few strategic reasons that organizations should focus specifically on vegan education and advocacy. This is fine, I just want it to be clear that what is under discussion is principally a strategic conversation, and not an ethical conversation. We need to have strategic conversations, so I have no problem with this. What is a problem is when what is a strategic question is framed as a moral question, to refuse to have a strategic conversation. When that occurs, it shrinks the sorts of conversations, imaginations, and possibilities we can have as a movement.

I am worried about the rhetoric of moral baselines. The idea of baselines are clearly set to be exclusionary, and I worry that our movement is marginal enough as is, and that we have a tendency already to eat our own. I am further worried that it does not allow for flexibility and charitability in our discussions and debates over strategic, and indeed, ethical questions. I want to end by quoting Erin McKenna's Deweyian inspired The Task of Utopia, which encourages that our important utopian imaginations focus not on "homogeneous perfect end-states, but possible futures-in-process" (12).

She quotes Dewey's "Human Nature and Conduct":
The doctrine of fixed ends not only diverts attention from examination of consequences and the intelligent creation of purpose, but, since means and ends are two ways of regarding the same actuality, it also renders men careless in their inspection of existing conditions. . . . The result is failure. Discouragement follows, assuaged perhaps by the thought that in any case the end is too ideal, too noble and remote, to be capable of realization. We fall back on the consoling thought that our moral ideals are too good for this world and that we must accustom ourselves to a gap between aim and execution?
She contrasts this doctrine of fixed ends with ends-in-view:
Insofar as we are concerned with making a better future, this engagement must involve imagination. "All conscious experience must be imaginative to the degree that the past is used to interpret the present and its bearing toward the future." Envisioning the future as a guide in the present is to achieve that very integrative standpoint which Dewey calls lived experience. Visions of the future help organize and structure our present experiences to some purpose; imagination helps organize experience by providing it with a goal. Dewey calls such goals ends-in-view. Dewey's model of experience is a process model that builds on the premise that human beings are interactive, relational creatures. We are born physically dependent and remain socially interdependent. He further believes that we are finite developmental creatures who must grow and adapt to both our changing physical and changing social environments in order to survive. This means there can be no set goals, no predetermined unchanging goods or ends. Instead, there is a continuous chain of ends-in-view becoming means for new ends-in-view which become means for new ends-in-view. (85-86)

The future of our movement depends upon imagination, shared projects, and vast interdependence. Veganism or activism is a beginning, but not a baseline. It is a process, rather than a foundation, it is a relation, rather than a command.