Friday, October 10, 2008


Footnotes are not ready yet. Any and all criticism welcomed (I guess). Also, need a title for this section besides just "Introduction". Thanks.


“I have come to tell you about my former life as an ape.” That is the opening line to Kafka’s “A Report to the Academy,” a bizarre and compelling tale about an ape, Red Peter (“A name only an ape could have given.” ) who learns to become human. Kafka’s parable stages an odd meeting, a talking ape who is addressing a faceless and voiceless academy. It is in many ways this lecture that serves as the basis for another lecture, this time J. M. Coetzee’s Tanner lectures. In The Lives of Animals Coetzee gives a Hamlet like quality to his presentation, in which the listener would be given a lecture within a lecture. And why do this? Well there are some obvious similarities between Coetzee and Elizabeth Costello who is the lecturer in The Lives of Animals. A famous novelist, who is something of a recluse, invited to give a lecture in which that person talks about something more philosophical than directly literary. Indeed, the Tanner lectures are dedicated to discussions about our moral values as humans. So every time that Costello tells us that she comes here as a novelist, rather than a Kafka scholar, or a philosopher, or a researcher of any sort, we are clearly being asked to hear Coetzee saying the same thing. You can almost hear Coetzee saying, “Don’t judge me by those standards.” Which isn’t, I think, his implying that we shouldn’t render a judgment on his work, but rather, we have to judge him by the criteria of a novelist advancing an ethical argument. Not as a philosopher, or even as a comparitivist researcher of literature; but as a novelist and a fabulist. What does that even mean? To judge an ethical argument by the criteria of a writer?
First of all, and perhaps most importantly, that we cannot simply take the lecture parts of Costello’s argument and run with them as the only parts of the story that matters. We are given characters and a setting who all interact, and we have to follow those interactions. And we are given three main characters here, the narrator, her son John Bernard, his wife Norma, and most importantly we are given the character Elizabeth Costello herself. And as a story, what we are dealing with is dynamic elements. Death contrasted with life, fullness of being contrasted with exhaustion and old age, ethics that bring us to relate to each other contrasted with alienation, and this is surely not an exhaustive list. However, these antinomies will concern my present discussion.
The first antinomy concerns the distinction between life and death. This is, in some way, the most fundamental theme of this lecture story. We kill animals in order to eat. We juxtapose their death with sustaining ourselves. Now certainly we don’t need to eat animals in order to live, but when we eat animals, we do so through a practice that is essential to life. This both brings in, while simultaneously contesting, Costello’s comparison between the Nazi death camps and our own slaughter of animals. She explains that what happened to the victims of the camps were able to be committed because the Nazis first rhetorically turned them into nothing but animals. It seems simple, but important, to remind that the Nazis didn’t refer to their task as the Holocaust, that term would come later, but rather they referred to it as The Extermination. Not in just in the sense of a killing, but in the sense that we call in an exterminator when our house in infested with rats and vermin. So the Nazis turned the victims of the death camps into animals, and when we describe the actions of the Nazis, we also use terms that turn the Nazis into animals. We can understand why it was so important for the Nazis to turn their victims into animals. Animals are not citizens, they do not have rights, they can be killed but they cannot be murdered. People do not mourn for animals, and if they do, it is considered, as the narrator himself expresses, simply “sentimental and jejune”. But why was it so important to the rest of us to make the Nazis into animals? Perhaps that is too simple of me, but it was to let humanity off the hook. Humans did not commit the holocaust, rather these beasts did. These were not crimes by humans so much as crimes against humanity. And if you can commit a crime against all of humanity, than you must be outside of humanity yourself. This doesn’t just let humanity off the hook, it lets us off from wondering if we could be Nazis ourselves. It is our very humanity, the knowledge that we are humans and not murderous beasts, that keep us from having to question what line separates us from the Nazis. And indeed this is part of what makes the claim that there is some analogy between the death camps of the Third Reich and the abattoir of the factory farm so polarizing, (the word that Costello chooses). It isn’t just that we are somehow belittling what happened to those in the camps, but it is often that it places those who engage in killing animals today to be Nazis. But, when I see the old PETA ad, “A Holocaust on your plate”, I think it isn’t just polarizing, but also perhaps philosophically weak. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner of literature, Primo Levi, wrote that for certain victims of the camp, “It is hard to call their death death.” Indeed, Hannah Arendt, while writing about the horrors of what happened, made a rather interesting remark. She said that was what shocked the conscience was not just the death, not just the amount of dead, but how it was done. She referred to it as “a fabrication of corpses.” And following up on those insights, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben said of the camps that it was a place “[w]here death cannot be death, corpses cannot be called corpses.” Does this not sound at least a little familiar? Where else do have corpses we cannot call corpses? Death that we hesitate to call death? Where else is there an engagement with the production and fabrication of corpses? What has emerged in factory farming is a completely new ontology; an ontology of the damned. With factory farming we have a new mode of production that radically recasts the relationship between life and death. This ontology is at the bottom of thantopolitical support of biopolitics. We will not be able to unravel modern mass violence without first unraveling the ontology of the factory farm.
The wounds of this modern violence brings us back to a story of an ape giving a report to an academy. In the story Red Peter explains that he receives two wounds when he is captured. The first shot that left a scar on his face, and the second shot that left him castrated. These wounds form in the story the first moment that Red Peter can really remember, but they form so much more. The first wound is where Red Peter gets his name from, and the second wound he constantly reveals to others demanding that it makes him less of an ape and more of a man. These traumas are the basis of name, species, and memory. His identity is based in a time of trauma, and the time of trauma is always a repetition. Those who suffer from trauma experience the trauma over and over and over again. The memory of trauma is never in the past, but always radically in the now. It is the past as present. It is not the wound of Red Peter I wish to talk about here, but I too want us to stay in the time of that wound as we turn our attention to the wound of Elizabeth Costello. I don’t mean, here, a psychical wound, but rather the wounded way in which she interacts with the world.
She is a woman whose interactions always carry a certain sadness, a certain devastation. When praised for her vegetarianism, she refuses the praise and sadly declares that she is merely trying to “save her soul.” And, at the close of the story, we see the tears in her eyes. It is this wound, this trauma, that separates and constantly separates her from others. This brings us back to the antinomy about ethics. We see throughout The Lives of Animals that a desire for an ethical relationship to animals leads to an alienation that specifically interferes with an ethics of breaking bread. That is to say, the ethics of hospitality, and of being a host or hostess. When we talk about ethics towards others, there is a trace of hospitality. Remember, ethos, the Greek word for ethics, refers to our habit and our habitat, toward where we live. Therefore, ethics is always a question for how we treat others where we live, a question of our hospitality. We see again and again in this story how the issue of breaking bread emerges. First, when her grandchildren are eating elsewhere because their mother insists on them eating meat, and Costello prefers (insists?) on not having meat when she eats. We are also presented with the problem when the university hosts a dinner for her lecture. And again, when we see the note from Abraham Stern who refused to break bread with Costello because of her comparisons between the Holocaust and the factory farm. Three times in her debate with O’Hearne, (1) When he references that a community with animals is as impossible as a community with Martians. (2) When Costello, referencing a philosopher who refused to believe that animals deserved moral consideration, said she would “not fall over [her]self to break bread with him.” (3) and her son’s observation at the end of the debate, where he stated that the debated ended on a note of “acrimony, hostility, bitterness.” (p. 164).
So this wound that Costello carries with her is one that isolates her. And it is a wound whose source she explains at the end of the story. It isn’t just that she opposes how we treat animals, and it isn’t just that she feels we are all complicit in a great, historical atrocity. One gets the feeling that all of that would make her feel alright, or at least on the right side of history. No, her wound comes from a fear that she is “making mountains out of molehills.” She worries she could be wrong. But again, it isn’t just that. Indeed, her real source of distress seems to come from a fear, not that is wrong, but that she is right. And that rightness means that the people she loves and cherishes, not some strangers, but her grandchildren, are somehow destroying their souls. This is a terrible moment of moral vertigo. It would be so easy if Elizabeth Costello was concerned about creating another category of the clean and the unclean, the damned and the saved, the righteous and the wicked. But what we have is not separation, but rather contamination. It is this thought of pollution that animates her discussion of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels. She posits the question: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could decide if one was a god or a beast? And if a beast, we have that innocence. And if a god, we have that purity. But what if, rather than a god or a beast, we have a human, all too human existence. Neither beast nor god because both beast and god. And we are left, not with the clarity of good or evil, not with the safety of clear and crisp moral argumentation (remember her uncomfortableness with “therefore” statements), but an ethics that will not give us righteousness but might be the basis for something else.
If we are to fight the wound of the ontology of the damned, then we must escape another ethics that creates the saved and the damned. We must focus instead on this issue of contamination and pollution; escape purity to have an ontology of the common. The wounds of identity that Kafka’s Red Peter suffers; of memories, of a name, of species; must be subjected to the positive deconstruction of a fearful involution of a becoming-animal. It is only at this site of contamination and becoming that we can begin to both deactivate the ontology of the damned and produce an ontology of the common.