Saturday, September 5, 2009

Animal, all too Animal: On Bare Life, part I

(Scu note: I know I have comments to answer here and over at The Inhumanities. I will try to get to them tomorrow. I am on semi-vacation for the weekend, and wrote this away from the computer. Also, I didn't finish it, so part II should be done before the long weekend is over, too).

I. Introduction.

Over at J Rodolfo’s blog Posthumanities and Peter Gratton’s blog Philosophy in a Time of Error, a small but interesting discussion has been going on concerning the canonical status of Agamben’s The Open within critical animal studies (Can CAS already have a canon? I guess if we can have debates over it, it can). You can check out the discussion here, here, and here. In it, Gratton claims:
But on Agamben, his whole approach to animality is still always defined in its relation the human. I’ll expand on this at some point, but identifying animality with bare life (nuda vita) does not sound pregnant with possibilities for post-humanistic discourse.
This is what I was trying to get to awhile back with this post on bare life not being animal life.
Now, I haven’t known exactly how to respond because I am slated to do the Agamben chapter on Calarco’s book over at The Inhumanities. I think I will treat this post as prelude (concerning Calarco’s interest in Agamben doesn’t particularly reside in the concept of bare life). I find myself disagreeing with Gratton that Agamben is not useful for those of us, scholars and activists, who find it necessary to produce thought capable of responding to the present catastrophe of the treatment of other animals. But I agree that Agamben remains trapped within his anthropocentrism. As usual, the only to move is through immanent critique, a reading that seeks to produce an Agamben beyond Agamben. In particular the strongest elements of Agamben’s anthropocentrism remain in his interconnected thoughts of language and bare life. Due to certain time constraints, we will have to bracket his discussion of language (though one hopes to come back). In what follows, though, I hope to sketch out the problems with bare life from the perspectives of critical animal studies.

II. Heidegger

The first way to gloss bare life is through Heidegger. Let’s turn to Being and Time, and the essential existential analytic about death.
Furthermore, it was evident in our characterization of the transition from Da-sein to no-longer-being-there as no-longer-being-in-the-world that the going-out-of-the-world of Da-sein in the sense of dying must be distinguished from a going-out-of-the-world of what is merely living [Nur-lebenden]. The ending of what is merely living we formulate terminologically as perishing. The distinction can become visible only by distinguishing the ending characteristic of Da-sein from the ending of a living thing. [1]

In this we see a constant trope, those who are merely living are not able to die (sterben), they are only able to perish (verenden). Death, authentic death, is preserved for the human. Nur and bloß are pet words and term of art in the work of Heidegger, as Garham Harman has shown. And while they occur throughout Heidegger's work, they appear again and again in Heidegger's frequent attempts to show how animals exist in ontological poverty in relationship to humans. [2] The disjunction between death and perishing, with its automantic relation to other animals, is not just a feature of early Heidegger, but also late Heidegger. We can move from Being and Time to Heidegger’s 1949 Bremen lectures, “Einblick in das was ist.” (most of which remains, strangely, untranslated). For those of us that continue to see the question of the “fabrication of corpses” bound up with the question of the animal, these lectures are impossible to ignore.[3]
Heidegger wonders in these lectures if those who die in mass deaths, actually die. He knows they can unkommen, he knows they can werden umgelegt, and he knows they can werden liquidiert. But none of these terms, often considered synonymous with death, answers the question, “Sterben Sie?”[4] Indeed, for Heidegger the victims of mass death cannot die, just like the merely living. He makes this fairly explicit in the lectures. Claiming, “They become pieces of stock in the reserve of the fabrication of corpses. [5] In the earlier lecture, Das Ge-Stell, during a discussion of turning all beings into reserves of stock, Heidegger remarks that it would be odd to refer to a living being as piece of something, except of course we might talk of cattle as being pieces of stock.[6] This connection between the perishing of the merely living (cattle, for example) and the inability of dying of those victims of mass death means that Agamben’s reading of these lectures in Remnants of Auschwitz are fundamentally incorrect. Remember, in that text Agamben advances the argument that Heidegger’s lecture mirrors the point made by Primo Levi, that the victims of Auschwitz experience a death that one hesitates to call a death.[7] Rather, we find that Heidegger’s philosophy obscures mass death. [8]

III. Benjamin

The second gloss of bare life is to be found in Walter Benjamin’s “Fate and Character” and expanded to the realm of concept in “Critique of Violence.” This is even Leland de la Durayante’s argument in Giorgio Agamben for taking the side of Daniel Heller-Roazen’s translation of nuda vita to mean bare life, rather than Cesare Casarino’s translation of naked life.[9] Nuda vita here is already a translation, a translation of Benjamin’s bloß leben. Let us now turn to Benjamin’s understanding of that concept in his “Critique of Violence.”
The term bloß leben appears relatively late in the essay, but emerges at the crucial moment by which Benjamin is trying to distinguish between mythic violence and divine violence. After Benjamin has distinguished between the bloody, lawmaking violence of mythic violence and the bloodless, lawdestroying violence of divine violence, we are introduced to our present term. It is necessary to quote at length:
For blood is the symbol of mere life. The dissolution of legal violence stems (as cannot be shown in detail here) from the guilt of more natural life, which consigns the living, innocent and unhappy, to a retribution that “expiates” the guilt of mere life—and doubtless also purifies the guilty, not of guilt, however, but of law. For with mere life, the rule of law over the living ceases. Mythic violence is bloodly power over mere life for its own sake; divine violence is pure power over all life for the sake of the living. The first demands sacrifice; the second accepts it. [10]

Mere life is thoroughly connected to natural life, to the life of one who can bleed and be injured. It is bound up with the guilt one experiences by having a body. Divine violence may destroy the law, but is necessary by exceeding our animal, all too animal selves. Just a little farther down, Benjamin makes this clear. Benjamin argues against those who argue for the sanctity of life, if “existence is to mean nothing other than mere life.” [11] The argument only comes to have any meaning if
"existence" … means the irreducible, total condition that is ‘man.’ … Man cannot, at any price, be said to coincide with the mere life in him … there is no sacredness in his condition, in his bodily life vulnerable to injury by his fellow men. What, then, distinguishes it essentially from the life of animals and plants? And even if these were sacred, they could not be so by virtue only of being alive, of being in life. [12]

In this Benjamin completely rejects the capacity for suffering and joy to ground an ethics and politics. The threat of such an movement based on shared vulnerability is highlighted by his immediate response, wondering what could possibly distinguish the human from animals. I may disagree about his thoughts on vulnerability, but I agree that it is not enough to base liberation on something that can be termed a mere or bare life.

[1] See Being and Time, Joan Stambaugh’s translation (translation modified, though), p. 224. Also, see the original, pp. 240-241.

[2] While the full scholarly reading of Heidegger's use of 'mere' in relationship to the lives, qualities, and capacities of other animals remains to be written, Stuart Elden has an excellent overview of the numerous places that Heidegger defines the human by showing the 'poverty' of the animal. See, Heidegger's Animals. Continental Philosophy Review. 2006;39:273-91. As Elden shows in great detail, this move by Heidegger far exceeds the usual citations in Introduction of Metaphysics and The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.

[3] Heidegger will use the term Fabrikation von Leichen twice in these lectures, pages 27 and 56. “Bremer und Freiburger Vortrage,” in GA vol. 79. It is also interesting to note in that animal slaughters in France are as likely to use the phrase “faire la bête” (doing the animal) as they are “Tuer la bête” (killing the animal). However, the word faire carries with it also meanings of producing, making, fabricating.

[4] ibid. p. 56.

[5]. Ibid. Sie werden Bestandstücke eines Bestandes der Fabrikation von Leichen.

[6] ibid. pp. 36-37.

[7] Remnants of Auschwitz, pp. 74-76.

[8] My argument in many ways mirrors Todd Samuel Presner’s argument that Heidegger is unable to think the Holocaust. See his Mobile Modernity, pp. 205-232. While I am in strong agreement with Presner’s argument, my advancement is that we are unable to understand Heidegger’s disjunction between death and perishing unless we understand Heidegger’s disavowal of the animal. It is because the animal remains in a place of privitation for Heidegger that he cannot think the human victims who are killed ‘like animals.’

[9] Leland de la Durantaye, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, pp. 202-205.

[10] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” in Selected Writings: Volume I, p. 250.

[11] ibid. p. 251.

[12] ibid.