Thursday, June 11, 2009

The biopolitics of Michael Pollan and Donna Haraway

Most of you, by now, have seen this blog, which asks the question, Michael Pollan or Michel Foucault?

This reminded me of some work on Michael Pollan I had been doing, most of the arguments having never made it on here (with this one exception). This time, however, I want us to turn toward a rather strange and discomforting shift in Michael Pollan's justification for meat eating. Once again I will focus on the condensed "An Animal's Place", mostly for cutting and pasting purposes, but also because shorter works can sometimes bring out contradictions more clearly than longer pieces. However, every move that Pollan makes in this essay is replicated in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

In "An Animal's Place," Pollan begins by advancing a rather strong critique of the factory farm. What has caused and allowed to continue the atrocities of the factory farm, according to Pollan, is a specific breakdown in the relationship between humans and animals. Let me quote Pollan:
Several years ago, the English critic John Berger wrote an essay, ''Why Look at Animals?'' in which he suggested that the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals -- and specifically the loss of eye contact -- has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny, had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away.

What broke down between humans and animals is a face to face relationship (and here, I would like to wet your appetite for a future post on the ethics of Levinas, the problem of faciality in Deleuze and Guattari, and the question of this face to face relationship with animals), and if we want to have a way to eat animals ethically, we have to restore this face to face relationship. After this claim, Pollan's article spends several paragraphs explaining, primarily Peter Singer's, arguments for vegetarianism. After that we have Pollan's response as to why eating animals is ethically okay, even more, ethically superior to vegetarianism. The first reason is the rather bizarre political origin myth that Pollan lays out that I discussed in my previous post. This leads to his second, and more forceful point of the ethical superiority of eating animal flesh from non-factory farms. Again, let me quote Pollan:
Yet here's the rub: the animal rightist is not concerned with species, only individuals. Tom Regan, author of ''The Case for Animal Rights,'' bluntly asserts that because ''species are not individuals . . . the rights view does not recognize the moral rights of species to anything, including survival.'' Singer concurs, insisting that only sentient individuals have interests. But surely a species can have interests -- in its survival, say -- just as a nation or community or a corporation can. The animal rights movement's exclusive concern with individual animals makes perfect sense given its roots in a culture of liberal individualism, but does it make any sense in nature?

First, let us put aside the question if nations, communities, and corporations make any sense in nature, as well. So, the problem with animal rights/animal liberation, according to Pollan, is that these doctrines turn us toward the individual or specific animal, and away from the animal as a species. This is a curious move, for not only does it seem to replace the face to face relationship that Pollan claimed as so central before (now the face of an individual pig must be replaced with the face of The Pig, pig in general), but it changes entirely the level by which we are to understand and answer ethical and political question. These questions have now been deplaced to the level of the population, to the level of the species. Michael Pollan goes on to contend that without humans eating animals, many domesticated species would die out. So, at the level of the population, we now have a moral imperative to eat and kill animals so that the population does not die. We have to kill in order to make life live (to steal a phrase from Michael Dillon and Julian Reid). It is the same as the old Vietnam military logic of having to destroy a village in order to save it. However, one might be willing to let Pollan off the hook. He isn't a trained philosopher, and he probably couldn't care less about the question of the biopolitical. Let us turn our attention, now, to someone who should know better.

Donna Haraway's book When Species Meet is a strange and frustrating book for anyone who is serious about questions of animal ethics. It also contains several remarkable similarities to Pollan's An Omnivore's Dilemma (my brother likes to point out that the books end in exactly the same way, with a bunch of professors roasting a pig in California). It is exactly to this pig roast I would now like to turn. Before turning there, I guess I should stay that until her recent turn to discuss animals, Donna Haraway was an essential and keystone philosopher for much of my early theory days. I even sent her a fanboy email once. And her earlier writing on animals still remains radical and exemplary. I still find her writing and style intoxicating. Even so, let us look at her position on flesh eating in the "parting bites" of WSM. She describes how her friend Gary Lease is a hunter who is incredibly concerned with hunting in ecologically sustainable ways. She further describes "[h]is approach is resolutely tuned to ecological discourses, and he seems tone deaf to the demands individual animals might make as ventriloquized in rights idioms" (pp. 296-297). Again, we see how a certain idea of ecology, an inherently biopolitical, makes us tone deaf to specific beings and is replaced simply by the population. Furthermore, it is a little weird to see Haraway accuse other of ventriloquy trick, considering in an earlier chapter she wrote from a first person perspective of a chicken, a chicken who is okay with being slaughtered, I might add. In her desire for a cosmopolitical moment, we are given to believe that the most important aspects of cosmopolitics is what occurs in the conversations of the professors and students at the dinner party where the roasted pig was served. Displaced at the very moment she insists that eating is centralized, is that eating itself is always a cosmopolitical moment. And while one may have a discussion that does not place one is a field of commitment, the act of eating always a partisan act. And if want to avoid the god-trick of transcendence, as see often argues, we have to understand that non-neutrality is the guarantee of non-transcendence. Only god gets to be neutral. The cosmopolitical moment does not occur when we set aside partisanship (and she so often seems to imply), but can only occur through partisanship. Lastly, the biopolitical movement by which we displace the singular animal for the animal-as-population has extreme importance for any possible cosmopolitics. It forfeits our ability to bring animals into this conversation. It forever exiles animals from agents in cosmopolitics, and rather rigs the game as a discussion among humans, while nearby the corpse of a being that should be central in this cosmopolitical discussion is slowly having its flesh burnt to (humanist) perfection(ism). What you chose to do in that moment matters. It isn't merely a random sentence in the a middle of a paragraph (she eats the flesh), but is the central premise by which the rest of the conversation can possibly occur. Any move that decentralizes your action is a biopolitical god-trick, no matter how many times you say it isn't.