Monday, June 15, 2009

The Holocaust as a model

Craig's post at Long Sunday expands on a conversation about the relationship between animal slaughter and the Holocaust. I agree with Craig that there is room for a valid structural correlation between these two examples of evil in which many non-subjectively evil persons participate. I think this also touches on the theoretical question of representing a systemic evil I discussed in connection with "White Mythology," and I want to expand on that line of inquiry here.

Animal rights discourse thrives on comparison to other atrocities and, reciprocally, atrocious behavior against humans relies on a world of violence against and between animals to make itself intelligible. From Hobbes's "homo homini lupus" to Tennyson's "red in tooth and claw," violence is animalistic, but it does not become violence proper until it is mitigated by the world of the human (the political for Hobbes, emotive interiority for Tennyson). By the same logic, to make violence against animals significant one draws on the extreme instances of humanity's inhumanity to itself. The comparison of animal treatment to human slavery and the comparison to the Holocaust--wasn't Heidegger vilified for saying that? I suppose context makes a difference--are probably as extreme as one can get in the recent history of massacre. Anyone looking at the matter objectively should acknowledge that these comparisons are fully warranted.

The question that I want to raise, though, is twofold: 1) Why do we need to introduce metaphoricity to make animal exploitation signify, or rather, what underlying conditions create the space that comparison can fill? 2) What are the consequences of introducing comparison into the signifying economy of animal exploitation?

The latter question I tried to address, though very incompletely, in the previous post. As for the former--

While Badiou writes that for persons within the horizon of the Third Reich resistance was the only possible consequence of thinking the situation, today the reverse seems to be true: the negative value of the Holocaust, and its special historico-ontological position, owe to it appearing evil without needing to think about it. The Holocaust gives a referent to evil that will not meet with quibbling. At the same time, as Craig finds in his seminar with high school students, thinking the Holocaust is the condition for moving animal exploitation into thought. The naturalization of "The Holocaust" as the signified or signifier of evil means one does not have to think it. Such a poetics of evil works against the possibility of future or ongoing events also being evil. If the specific mechanisms of evil within the Holocaust--or within American chattel slavery, or whatever event one chooses--are approached as opaque and in need of examination, however, then the metaphorical relationship is not so much vertical as cyclical or reciprocal (it is a general economy rather than a restricted economy in Derrida/Bataille's terms). For Agambenites one must understand the camp to understand the factory farm, and I would add: vice versa. This "vice versa" is critical, not as posturing on behalf of animal studies, but so that the past remains something to think. The link between thinking and recognizing evil is the lesson of the Holocaust, or of John Brown or Frederick Douglass, and it is in this regard that the metaphorical relationship promotes the abolition of animal exploitation.