Thursday, January 14, 2010

Influential Books: Critical Animal for the Uninitiated

Over at AUFS, Anthony and Adam (Update: also Dan and Brad) have made posts outlining what some of the key texts are for them. I like this idea, so I am stealing it (and hopefully some other people will as well).

Obviously, there are many texts that have been important, too many that I like, too many that I feel are essential. So I want foundational. And, there is a certain clear problem, most foundational things aren't books. They are professors, students, events, encounters that mostly are foundational. And often those encounters take place with and across texts which means that it isn't ever the text itself, but the perfect text at the perfect moment. With all those problems, I'm going to do this anyway.

Perhaps more than any other thinker, I understand what it means to do philosophy because of Gilles Deleuze. Two texts in particular: "Letter to a Harsh Critic" from Negotiations and Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy?. Sure, these texts taught me about the political nature of philosophy, and also argued for the egalitarian and democratic nature of thinking. But they taught me a generosity when dealing with other works, they taught me that to follow the work that excited me and intensified my own work. Philosophy is political (is never innocent), philosophy is not about escaping (elitism/vanguardism) from the crowds but about alliances and coalitions (it addresses itself to a new people and a new earth), philosophy is generous and open (building what it can through contamination rather than filiation), and the only judgement of a concept is intensity (does it turn you on? or even better does it turn you into something else entirely?). Whatever ways I have moved away from Deleuze and Guattari, I still think about philosophy in this egalitarian register. Bill Haver has been a major influence in keeping the political aspects of doing philosophy at the forefront of my work, however I am not sure his texts are key here. However, while his book The Body of this Death is important, perhaps for the non-neutrality of thinking I would suggest his essay on Genet, "The Ontological Priority of Violence".

My methodology of thinking has been influenced mostly by Foucault's Discipline and Punish and Marx's The German Ideology. While both of those authors get cited any number of times in my work neither of these texts are particularly cited (well, D&P is but The German Ideology isn't). However, both of these texts acted like wrecking balls to my earlier vaguely idealist and methodologically anthropocentric nature because of Marx's materialist history and Foucault's genealogy. Furthermore, in both cases, I learned that political questions often take place around the modes of production of subjectivity.

Some of the books that most charted a way out for me, a way of facing the structures of oppression without feeling trapped by them, were feminist works. Donna Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, and Women taught me about the interplay between material realities and social construction. Judith Butler's Bodies that Matter and Antigone's Claim taught me about the power to become otherwise, and the strength of interdependent finitude. Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw, or more likely meeting her and attending some of her workshops when I was 19,  taught me a lot about the practical ways of being a part of communities of the weird and the abject.

European radicalism and continental poststructuralism were both important strands of philosophy for me, but they have their blind spots, weaknesses, and aporias. All of which I might be more tied to now if it were not for MarĂ­a Lugones. I suggest her book Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes. For at least some of you, for whom it seems as if every book is written for you, this book is not written for you. Which is all the more reason to read it. Another text, which seems to work within the tropes of poststructuralism only to explode or morph them at every turn is Gloria AnzaldĂșa's Borderlands/La Frontera. While it wasn't her intent to do what I described, that was the effect upon me.

This is a critical animal studies blog with a pro-vegan bias, so I should probably mention some works in that tradition. However, my desire to do all of this work came really without the intellectual work of the philosophers whom I now use. Still, there seems to be a few key texts to comment on. Revival Netz's Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity is probably the book I wish I had written in the field. Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat is one of the, if not the, foundational books in Critical Animal Studies. Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am provides a lot of the key insights that are missing or subdued in Barbed Wire. It also has the added benefit of being the book that changed my mind about the importance of Derrida. Lastly, J. M. Coetzee's text The Lives of Animals remains one of the most thought provoking and moving texts on the subject out there.

There are some many other texts I'd like to talk about, but keeping it small seems the point. I do look forward to seeing other people take up posts like this.