Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Aporias of Killing Well: On Donna Haraway's When Species Meet (part one)

Avoiding God-Tricks

Killing well should be felt in a sort of tension, if not outright rejection, of the commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. We can never escape that to live is to kill, and that “eating also means killing” (p.296). Outside of the Christian beginning and end (the Garden of Eden and the Jeremiahian prophetic end time when the lion shall down with the lamb), there is no way to escape this brute fact. This is where Haraway wants us to begin ethically (if by that word we mean the way to navigate the knotted kinships that emerge when species meet), in the unavoidability to killing. In order for one to follow the imperative Thou Shalt Not Kill, one has to decide that some lives are no longer lives. These lives can be bacteria, plants, animals, other humans; regardless one has to perform a god-trick that turns life into not life. This is why she believes that “[p]erhaps the commandment should read, ‘Thou shalt not make killable’” (p. 80). In other words, we can only say, “I do not kill” if we have made certains lives killable, utterly discardable. Thou shalt not kill can never be a commandment of the cosmopolitical, but only of the biopolitical (and those that hear the resonances with Agamben’s own brand of biopolitics are not mistaken. Not only is The Open mentioned, but Homo Sacer finds itself appearing in a footnote on chickens). Killing well, as an ethical principle, seeks to avoid the naiveté, innocence, and purity of those that seek not to kill; and introduce instead the very real and messy situation that is life. One should expect to get one’s hand’s dirty when species meet. Perhaps, though, this leads us to the first aporia of killing well.
The end of When Species Meet is taken up with trying to explore how to eat and kill well. In trying to explore this idea, Haraway relates the story of a departmental dinner. In this dinner, one member of the department who is hosting the dinner serves a feral pig that he hunted and killed and roasted in front of everyone. Haraway spends time to explain that the host is opposed to factory farming, and hunts only according to strickly conservationist principles. She also does her best to invite her own feelings of ambiguity to the dead pig roasting in front of her. The story continues, the guests become divided between those who feel there is nothing wrong with the pig being roasted, and those that feel the department should only offer vegan meals. She feels in what must be mutually exclusive discourses the possibility for cosmopolitics, for a real sharing and playful argument. Instead, the discussion is shut down for politeness sake, and rather than roasted pigs cold cut slices are served in the future. I share with her this sense of frustration, that a sort of liberal relativism came and shut down the possibility for politics. Indeed, can anyone truly argue that cold cuts are somehow a better option than roasted pig hunted by a conservationist? Here, though, something else is revealed. Among the story of this and another dinner, among the details of how careful the hunting is, among the possibility for possibilities, she slips this sentence in, “In the sense I have tried to develop in this book, I respect Lease’s hunting practices in my bones, and I eat his food with gratitude” (p. 299). And that’s that. No matter the “indigestion” she feels in the tug of war on her gut between vegans and the hunted meat, she made a choice. If to live is to kill, then that means we have to make choices. Who do we kill? How do we kill them? Even if we make no one killable, are some more killable than others? Would Haraway eat a feral dog if offered to her, or a feral human? I don’t mean these last questions facetiously, but to underscore the question: Are some lives more killable than others? And this last question seems to be dodged by the book (and by Haraway?) through her analysis of killing well. For her the political seems to reside in the back and forth of debate, in discussion, in playful and serious dialogue. The political is the space mediated, that she finds herself in, and where we are drawn in opposite directions. And I agree, the political can be found in disagreement. However, the political also has to be in the decision. One has to pick sides; that is also what it means to live in a world where living means killing. Her concept of killing well is clearly meant to be in the same pack as Derrida’s interview “Eating Well,” but perhaps it would have also been useful to look at his essay, “The Force of Law.” In that essay, Derrida traces out both the impossibility and inevitability of making a decision. Neutrality is the ultimate god-trick, and non-neutrality is both the mark and guarantor of immanence (for more on this last point see anything by William Haver. Particularly, “The Ontological Priority of Violence: On Several Really Smart Things About Violence in Jean Genet's Work” and “Queer Research; or, How to Practice Invention to the Brink of Intelligibility.”). To live is to kill, and discussions (no matter how cosmopolitical) does not escape that we must choose sides. This is the first aporia of killing well.