Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Post of Links

First up, Peter is right, and the Bennett discussion is moving here. If you write on Bennett during the week, make sure you drop me an email at I plan to be taking memorial day off, so I might not be able to get my opening posts on chapters 2 and 3 up until Tuesday, but I am aiming to have them done for Monday regardless.

Second, a really fascinating study on the brains of omnivores, ethical vegetarians, and ethical vegans (the terms are the study's, not mine). The study showed images of human and animal suffering to these three groups, and used fMRI to see how the brain lit up. As had been predicated based upon similar emotional quotient (EQ) studies, vegetarians and vegans display higher levels of empathy than omnivores. This is true for both images of human and animal suffering, but far more true for on the question of animal suffering. Also, there is part of the brain that lights up for if the empathy, but also a part that lights up if that empathy is also considered self-relevant. All three groups self-relevance centers lit up when showed images of human suffering. Whereas the vegetarians and vegans both had high degrees of empathy for animal suffering, the vegans were the group whose self-relevance also lit up. There is also other interesting stuff, too. Like, vegetarians and vegans frontal lobe (the part of the brain that controls abstract thought) comes on when shown images of animal suffering in order to calm the amygdala (the part of the brian associated with fear, and to a lesser degree disgust). This has broader implications for the field of neuropsychology, and helps support certain controversial theories. You can read more about this part in the discussion section. Anyway, I'm not a scientist, much less a neuropsychologist, so I could have made a mistake in my reading. And moreover, you should treat this for what it is, one scientific study with all the limitations that entails. Help with figuring out what this study does say, comes from my wonderful fiance, whose masters comes from MR research, and knows a bit of neuroanatomy from her current time in med school. Any mistakes, of course, remain my own but I am sure I can figure out a way to blame her.

Third, Levi has a smart post up on Cary Wolfe's What is Posthumanism?. My favorite line is,
In discussing “different perceptual modes” of humans and animals, Wolfe is simultaneously quite close and exceptionally far from object-oriented ontology.
That is exactly how I felt when I first started blogging and ran across all this discussion from people calling themselves speculative realists and object-oriented philosophers. Except what they were both close and far away from is critical animal studies (or at least what I understand by that term). And while I still think the two groups have more intellectual in-roads to be made together, at some point we might hit internal limits where such a dialogue has to come to an end. But both of us can only benefit from the downfall of anthropocentrism, and as long as anthropocentrism is the default position in philosophy I hope we continue to be allies and fellow travelers.

Forth, here is another in-depth and interesting article on the Humane Society and their political opposition (h/t A Thinking Reed). It is worth noting that the opposition doesn't seem to offer reasons to support the worse abuses of factory farming, but rather sticks with attacking the Humane Society. Another thing worth noting is that the attacks tend to be that the Humane Society doesn't plan to stick with eliminating these worse abuses, but is after a dismantling of the animal agricultural system, that they are vegan abolitionists. Anyway, worth a read.

I like adding music to my random posts of links, so I think I will keep up this new tradition. The new LCD Soundsystem album, This Is Happening, is one of those albums that start off alright, but gets better with each listening. "I Can Change"

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Green Humane Movement

Good news, EPA takes a slightly tougher stance on CAFOs (aka factory farms, aka hell on earth). This link comes from this post from Dylan Matthews, who ends his post on this point, "Given some coordination, a green/Humane alliance on tougher factory farm regulation could be pretty formidable." Too true, and a great hope. And while many people in the movements know this (and there is a great overlap between the green movement and the animal movement), for now there basically should be no difference between the two movements. They both should be working to abolish factory farms whose toxic chemicals and greenhouse gas production are amazing. They both should be working to stop global warming (which endangers entire species) and preserve ecological systems.
Now, some of you might not know this, but within the academic and sometimes radical articulations of ecological and animal rights thinking, these movements have often been at cross-purposes. This will be really surprising to those of you who think that the intellectual movements are basically interchangeable (we are frequently treated that way by people outside of environmental and animal studies). Now, a major part of this comes from academic discourses that tend to focus on fairly marginal questions or questions that assume a particular future rather than dwelling on the immediate crisis that we all agree on (those being the need to stop factory farming and rapid global climate change). But it is important to stop and remember that we really are profoundly on the same side, at least for the foreseeable future.
I also don't really get where the animosity comes from between green people and AR people. A plant based, sustainably produced diet is obviously the best.

A Post of Links

First up, as most of you know there is a petition to commit to an academic boycott of Middlesex. Specifically,
We the undersigned therefore commit ourselves to an academic boycott of Middlesex University until it shows evidence of full reinstatement and firm commitment to support its philosophy program. Prior to such reinstatement, we will refuse to act as external examiners or to deliver talks at the school. We will encourage colleagues not to accept job offers. We will refuse to visit campus for any reason other than to protest the decision to close the philosophy program. We will, in short, cease to engage with Middlesex as a legitimate academic institution.
I've signed it, but each of you will have to make this choice for yourself.

This article does a wonderful thing. It both holds Heidegger accountable for his Nazism while at the same time showing Faye for being such a lousy scholar on this issue.

Levi has a good post up on the importance of academic blogging (I am not advocating his attacks on APA and SEP, mostly just because I am fairly removed from both of those annual events). I hope to write more about this post, but I want to note that while blogging has been great intellectually, several of us grad students are a new experiment on the role academic blogging will have for us getting or not getting jobs. Not that blogging is the only (and probably not the most important) factory in that equation, but now is not the time to call triumph on grad student blogging. This experiment is far from settled.

Lastly, Janelle Monae's album The ArchAndroid is the most amazing thing musically to have occurred in a while. I'm going to embed a video from the album, but I also suggest checking out some of the live show videos (the one from letterman is particularly good).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Random Thoughts on Vibrant Matter so far

First, I want to thank Peter Gratton for getting us started off so nicely, and for being a one person army for collecting all the various reflections of Bennett's book as we proceed. So make sure you check his blog to know what is going on (I'll try to do the same work next week).

What I am going to present here is some not fully formed, fairly scatter-shot thoughts about Vibrant Matter so far. I should note that I am far from finishing the book, yet, and Bennett has made it clear in the book that many of my particular questions might be addressed in chapter's 7&8, so I'll bracket a lot of those questions for now.

(1) "Enabling Instrumentalizations"

I don't want to bury the lede, so the most interesting part of the first chapter for me comes on page 12, where Bennett speaks of the need to create and maintain enabling instrumentalizations rather than escaping from instrumentalizations. It is unclear to me if she argues for this position because she thinks it is a better system period, or if she argues for it because she believes escaping from instrumentalization is a pipe dream. However, I am in broad agreement with Bennett on this point, that politically, ethically, and ecologically we need to start thinking of mutually enabling instrumentalizations that escape anthropocentrism. I would push this to say that we need to engage in some type of calculation, the type of calculations that Derrida gestures towards in "The Force of Law" and Rogues. Now, for Bennett, this enabling instrumentalizations is for the physiological and opposed to the moralistic. This moralism, for her, seems to mean Kantianism. This means that Kant's desire to treat people as ends in themselves is great if you get to be a person, but no so great if don't get to count as a person (I would add that it shouldn't surprise us how few beings really got to count for Kant). I'd like to raise two more points here. The first is that Kant isn't the only thinker worried about instrumentalization, and I'd be interested how Bennett feels about Heidegger's fears of technological en-framing and Agamben's desire for rendering inoperative ontological and metaphysical machinery. But the second and more important point deals with conflict of interests. Sometimes choices are going to have to made, sometimes instrumentalizations will not be mutually enabling. And when these moments occur (and I'd say they occur a lot), we are going to have to have some level of normative thought at those moments. Now, that normative thought may be profoundly anti-individualistic and anti-anthropocentric, it may be conceived in terms of tactics and strategy and relations and forces, but the normative element cannot escape a system of enabling instrumentalizations. In a footnote (p. 127 n. 39) Bennett cites that Adorno "describes this pain as the 'guilt of a life which purely as a fact will strangle other life' (ND, 364)." I think that 'pain' has to be part of any thought of enabling instrumentalizations. Moreover, this pain is coupled with or complicated by the opacity of other beings (Edouard Glissant, admittedly anthropocentrically, deals wonderfully with this issue of opacity in his text The Poetics of Relation, which I highly suggest).

(2) A New Adorno

Bennett doesn't give us a new Adorno, but her few pages on Adorno's concept of nonidentity are simply marvelous (though I am probably even more sympathetic to Adorno than even she is). I think that in general this forms part of a rather uncoordinated but important re-evaluation of Adorno, who is emerging not just as a thinker of the culture industry and music but is becoming one of the great thinkers of doing philosophy and the limits and pitfalls of humanism. And while his pessimism doesn't match my own personality or feelings, I think it has often forced me to confront things I would have normally not addressed or have passed quickly by. I won't summarize Bennett on Adorno, but I suggest a close reading of these brief pages for part of what I feel is this new reception.

(3) Being a clown, being naive.

Bennett brings up both Adorno's thoughts on being a clown and Deleuze's thoughts on naivete. This clownish power, this naivete, is certainly an interesting response to the critical function. Besides those terms, we also have the fool from Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy?, Ronell's work On Stupidity, and Derrida's long reflection and play on the term betise (in The Animal That Therefore I Am, among other places). What all of these figures mobilize (in and outside of Vibrant Matter) is the opposite of Kant's famous description of the critique as a tribunal with all the pomp and circumstance that figure entails. I don't think it is surprising that thinkers who are trying to move outside of a merely critical tradition so often likely to associate their efforts with clowns and fools than they are with tribunes and kings.

Anyway, I am enjoying the book so far.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gratton's many contributions to the Bennett Vibrant Matter Reading Group

Here are the links thus far (please disseminate across other blogs):

* Vibrant Matter: The Overview.
* An Interview with Jane Bennett (the author of Vibrant Matter).
* Chapter 1, Section I.
* Chapter 1, Sections II-V.
* Chapter 1, Section VI.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Disciplinary power, still a problem

Deleuze got it wrong. In his "Postscript on Control Societies," Deleuze speaks about the transition from disciplinary societies to control societies:
But discipline would in its turn begin to break down as new forces moved slowly into place, then made rapid advances after the Second World War: we were no longer in disciplinary societies, we were leaving them behind. We're in the midst of a general breakdown of all sites of confinement-- prisons, hospitals, factories, schools, the family. (Negotiations, p. 178)

However, there has been no generalized breakdown of sites of confinement and spaces of enclosure. Quite the opposite, we have seen a generalized expansion of sites of confinement. If we take prisons as a privileged example of a site of confinement (and there is good reason to do so), we can see both an extensive and intensive expansion. Extensive in the most obvious way, we have far more people in prison now then we use to. To give a few numbers, in the late 1960s we had slightly over 200 hundred thousand people locked up. Now, we have around 2.5 million people locked up in jails and prisons (this does not include all sorts of other forms of being locked up, like INS detention centers or juvenile detention facilities). Not only do we have have so many people locked up, but we also see an extensive international expansion of prisons, with many countries joining in on trying to lock up more of their populations and some countries opening up their first prisons in recent times (I suggest Julia Sudbury's edited volume Global Lockdown for more on this last issue). But we have also seen an intensive expansion in prisons. We see this in the rise of supermax prisons (also called control units, administrative units, special housing units, etc). In these units inmates are actively lockdown 23 hours a day, allowed out of their cells for one hour period. During this time, they are never allowed to talk to anyone. Cameras are turned on 24 hours a day, as are lights. The walls and plumbing are sound proofed so that zero communications are allowed, and food is given through a slot in the door.

Now, I recognize that Deleuze in his essay is not indicating that prisons or disciplinary power are disappearing, but rather transforming. Moreover, there are many things in this classic essay that I found useful, for example the change of the logic of power from analog to digital. And in this sense, I understand that the opening line of this post is obviously provocative, but provocation is necessary on this point. Too often we see people proceed as if disciplinary power is no longer a present and driving concern, that rather we need to understand how CCTV in London has made it so that we are all prisoners now, or something of the sort. However, those of us that live in the free world, aka are not incarcerated, sometimes greatly misunderstand the importance of sites of confinement in perpetuating the present order (in the same way that some people believe that primitive accumulation is a sin of the past rather than an ongoing process of capitalism).

Along this chain of thought, we have Mike Konczal's excellent post "Is economic freedom another way of saying we need to build more prisons?". Konczal, taking the libertarian CATO Institutes ranking of countries based on their economic freedoms, finds that countries with high levels of economic freedoms correlate with high levels of imprisonments (this is true even if we control for certain outliers, like the US). Now, obviously correlation doesn't imply causation, but that also doesn't mean these are two unrelated data sets. Konczal goes through several interesting possible answers for this correlation, but from a foucauldian perspective there is another explanation, which is that neoliberalism needs and shares the logic of the prison population. This argument ties together Foucault's book Discipline and Punish to his lectures on The Birth of Bio-politics. Economic freedoms, rather than generalizing freedoms to the rest of society, are built upon a militarized and repressive policing apparatus. Perhaps it is time to give up Deleuze's term of a control society, and rather take up Foucault's term of a normalizing society. As he explains in "Society Must Be Defended":
In more general terms still, we can say that there is one element that will circulate between the disciplinary and the regulatory, which will also be applied to body and population alike, which will make it possible to control both the disciplinary order of the body and the aleatory events that occur in the biological multiplicity. The element that circulates between the two is the norm. The norm is something that can be applied to both a body one wishes to discipline and a population one wishes to regularize. The normalizing society is therefore not, a sort of generalized disciplinary society whose disciplinary institutions have swarmed and finally taken over everything-- that, I think, is no more than a first and inadequate interpretation of a normalizing society. The normalizing society is a society in which the norm of discipline and the norm of regulation intersect along an orthogonal articulation. To say that power took possession of life in the nineteenth century, or to say that power at least takes life under its care in the nineteenth century, is to say that it has, thanks to the play of technologies of discipline on the one hand and the technologies of regulation on the other, succeeded in covering the whole surface that lies between the organic and the biological, between the body and the population. (pp. 252-253)

So, it isn't that the technologies and formations of power haven't changed, but rather that whatever these new diagrams of power that exist, they are able to exist because of an extensive and intensive expansion of sites of confinement.

The normalizing society, especially as it is tied to contemporary models of neoliberalism, should be read against (or at least in tension) with Agamben. As Mignolo has noted, bare life is a legalistic category, whereas disposable life is an economic category. Therefore, in Agamben's work we find a series of fascination over various legal lacunas, the nazi lagers, human experimentation, the comatose patient and the issue of brain death, Guantanamo bay. And yet, the concept of disciplinary power is not mentioned in Agamben's work, and something like the site of the prison is not thought through in his work. Maybe it is because the prisoners in Gitmo exist in a legal limbo, whereas inmates in an American prison have a clear legal standing. However, something like the concept of disposable populations would find prisons to be a necessary problem to be thought and understood.

Consider this post a reminder that disciplinary power hasn't gone away, and that the problems and issues raised by that concept have only increased since Foucault's Disipline and Punish. We need to keep such issues at the forefront of our political thinking and work.

Peter Gratton Kicks It Off

The Jane Bennett Vibrant Matter reading group. Please go check them out at his website (here is the overview, here is the reposted interview). I'll be over there shortly to post in the comments my thoughts and opinions. And remember, the reading group moves here next week for chapters 2 and 3.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Important Links

First up is the continued travesty and absurdity that is going on with Middlesex. I've not spent a lot of time blogging about it, because I feel that people with much larger audiences are doing great jobs. However, after the resent suspension of three faculty members and several students for protesting this crime against thought is simply too big of an atrocity. So, if you haven't been following what is happening, go to Save Middlesex Philosophy and find out what you can do to help.

Following up on the posts about Zamir on the question of veganism, Kazez has an interview up with Zamir. Highly worth reading. He certainly displays more ambiguity in this interview than I saw in the article. I still think his case for how the market will work is naive at best. I would find it more convincing if he could cite some historical examples where the market has responded the way he suggests.

Lastly, this article from National Journal lays out the ground of legislative battle being waged on behalf animal welfare very well. It's long, but I found it quite interesting and smart.

Friday, May 21, 2010

They Make Comments

I had two comments from my last post on Zamir and veganism.

The first from Adam, whose arguments are timely to say the least:

It's frustrating that so many critics of veganism believe that farmed animals can only be sustained in existence through consumption by humans. Farmed animals in "traditional" agricultural systems often had multiple "uses" including labor, fertilizer, fuel, and clothing, "recycling" food scraps, eating "pests", etc. Today these animals are no longer integrated into ago-ecological systems but rather pure production units, completely alienated from their labor and "species being," as Noske (1989) notes.

It is quite concealable that farmed animals remain participants in ago-ecological communities with some minor management by humans (as is the case with stray cats) that neither involve killing them nor managing them for our consumption. Eggs can be fed to other animals or fed back to chickens and the calcium form milk is better left in a mother cow's bones. Perhaps, humans could consume these products or wear them but that wouldn't be the purpose of their existence since the provide many other ecosystem services.

Further, the whole idea of not letting farmed animals go extinct is problematic. Most birds raised for flesh today are so mutated that they can barely flourish beyond adolescents because they are so plagued by monstrous growth (the same with pigs). These, in my opinion, are not animals we ought to keep in existence. Perhaps there is a case for heritage breeds, but even many of these are modern products of eugenics.

And the market is not going to solve this problem, in my opinion. Mainly because neither animals nor food should be commodified. If farmed animals are to exist they must exist in some niche other than as mere flesh or mere "child/ornamental pet;" in other words, they ought to be community members in food systems or otherwise transition into ferals. This requires social and cultural changes, not market changes, which is exactly why IOs and NGOs promotte technoscientific "solutions" such as changing feed content and capturing methane--it's less threatening.

So even most vegans, I think, get it wrong by seeking an elimination of any "use." This is why I actually like Haraway's treatment of animals more than Francione: it's less condescending and not a projection of social atomism, acknowledging that nonhumans are fellow participants, not merely victims. Personally, I think veganism needs to be re-conceptualized as something other than abstention/privation--but I'll save this discussion for a later time :)

He then clarifies his position on Haraway in a follow-up post:

Scu, I think Haraway has rightly been criticized on her conclusion about the permissibility of animal experimentation and her insufficient analysis of training and breeding dogs, I do think her major premises are correct. Unfortunately, I think she comes to unsound conclusions due to her emphasis on the interestingness and playfulness of things rather than engaging deeply with her critics.

Then EJ wades in with his own useful take:

Wow, I hadn't heard of this Zamir character before, but now I've quickly familiarized myself with the paper you're responding to and your response to it, and it's all pretty infuriating stuff.

I think what's wrong with Zamir and with any proponent of more humane forms of animal food production is that there is something terribly naive about thinking that a system in which animals are controlled by humans (whether or not they are legally property) will ever be one in which the interests of those animals will be respected in the way that is morally required (i.e., that animals' interests will not be neglected or "traded off" for supposed benefits for humans).

There are, as I see it, many reasons for thinking that human control of animals will never meet that ethical demand. There is a pretty strong conflict of interest between the human seeking to profit from animals (that is, profit either monetarily or just in terms of goods received) and the animals themselves. As long as animals are farmed on commercial farms in a capitalist society, the pressure to push animals to produce more food to their own detriment will be insurmountable. And even if it were conceivably surmountable, what kind of draconian system of inspections and regulations would need to be in place to make sure farmers were in compliance with the array of regulations to which they would be subject?

There is also, of course, the problem that humans just don't know as much about animals as they like to think. While it might be obvious to someone like Zamir that the relationship between humans and cats is some great ideal to which we should aspire, I am less and less inclined to believe that. Having lived with two indoor/outdoor cats, it is really amazing to see the difference in behavior between cats when they're inside our quiet, static indoor environments and when they're in an environment with rustling leaves, chirping birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and a vast world of odors that we are oblivious to. So much of what we think of as signs of contentment, laziness, happiness or fatigue in house cats may just be a manifestation of crushing boredom. Or it might not. The point is I have no way to settle the matter.

As time goes on, I think that concepts of humane ownership or humane use of animals is nothing more than an ideology, a myth we tell ourselves to quiet our consciences. It seems more and more like the myth of the edification of African slaves through their exposure to christian society or the ideal of domestic, material bliss that justified making housewife the all but obligatory occupation of generations of women. While people tout the ideal of the human-dog relationship, millions of dogs are put to death every year for lack of available homes, millions of others suffer through lives of neglect or abuse, and still more are members of breeds that are predisposed to all sorts of health problems.

In sum, I just don't see much potential for ethical use, ownership or control of animals. While such a relationship might be conceivable (and even there I'm doubtful), it would be extremely difficult to achieve and probably impossible to maintain.

Why I disagree with Zamir: Or why ethical vegetarianism isn't superior

I never know what do with Tzachi Zamir, the author of Ethics and the Beast: A Speciesist Argument for Animal Liberation. Sadly, I have still only read selections from that book, rather than in toto. One of the arguments he advances in that work is that ethical vegetarianism is superior to ethical veganism. In order to exam that argument, we can turn to his article on veganism. And this post will seem at times harsh to Zamir, and I don't mean for them to be. He is obviously insightful and dedicated. In the end, though, I just find his argument unsustainable.
I guess before we go further, I should say a few things about my current stances on these issues. I'm not sure I believe in an absolutely ethically vegan position. Which is to say, I am not sure that every production and possible consumption of an animal product is always and forever wrong. I do believe, however, that I could be wrong about this one. But, from a practical standpoint, I believe that ethical veganism is almost always going to be necessary. There just are not many times when most of us will have access to eggs, milk, etc. that did not depend upon systematic violence and exploitation of other animals (from the genes of their birth to their eventual death). I am, however, not one of those people who believe there is no moral distinction between vegetarianism and eating animals' flesh. And I am certainly not one of those people who believe vegetarianism is somehow worse than that of flesh eating. Now that that is cleared up, let's get into the meat of the argument.

Zamir divides up pro-animal welfare people into three categories: vegans, tentative vegans, and vegetarians. Vegetarians are people who don't eat animal flesh (of any sort) but who do eat eggs and milk from 'progressive sources'. Vegans believe that all use of animals and their products are equal to exploitation of animals. Therefore, we can never eat an egg, wear wool, live with a companion animal, that does not entail violence and exploitation to other animals. Tentative vegans (a phrase I don't particularly care for), believes that in some idealized or utopian situation it might be possible to use animal products, but for practical purposes we have to be vegans currently.

Jean Kazez provides a good overview of Zamir's arguments along with her objections to his argument here, and I suggest reading it. But I am going to focus on my objections to Zamir's work. He spends a lot of time trying to argue that vegans get it wrong, and that it is possible to have a non-exploitative relationship with animals, that includes digesting animal products. Again, I think he is right, but I don't think he meets his burden of proof here. First of all, because I think the concept of exploitation remains fundamentally under thought in the article. Now, there are limits to article spaces, and I don't know if he gets more thoroughly into this question elsewhere, or if he plans to do so. However, I am not sure the most luxurious pet environment isn't coercive in some way. Zamir feels that I would believe this only if I anthropomorphed the other animal into an autonomous individual. Rather, according to Zamir, I should see the pet as as a child. I think this is a good situation to understand Deleuze and Guattari's objection to the pet in A Thousand Plateaus. Particularly, they argue against the oedipalizing nature of pets, the threat is to see them as children (and I would add that part of that threat is naturalizing paternalism, and that we should be uncomfortable with paternalism, even to children). I worry about my relationship with my cat, and I am often raked by moments of existential doubt on being a pet owner. And it isn't because I anthropomorphize my cat, but because I am frequently confronted by both the cat's alienness and similarity. That the cat's desires and thoughts remain fundamentally opaque, and the power I wield over that being is so casual and absolute. How can any sane person not have moments of moral vertigo in such situations? Owning a life that has its own desires, capacities, and goals should always provoke unease, no matter how much I love that life.
I would agree that good pet environments are usually superior to letting them survive in the wild, particularly the urban wild. However, that doesn't prove that we should be in the business of reproducing animal life. Just because my cat's life is better off than the alternative doesn't mean that not existing is a better alternative (for the record, I think my cat is better off existing), and that requires more philosophical work than Zamir gets to his article. In order to follow this point means getting into his arguments about why vegetarianism is superior to veganism, so let me bracket this discussion briefly to make a few other points.
In Zamir's discussions about there being animals who can be well treated and still exist as pets or producers of milk, eggs, and wool, it is striking how often these examples are filled with some of the shocking and regular forms of violence we bring to bear on other animals. Some of these are things that Zamir supports or finds acceptable, some feel him with unease and it is unclear how he comes down on these issues, and some he completely objects to. To give examples, he completely objects to having the vocal cords of dogs cut (good for him), he is filled with unease over debeaking of chickens and declawing of cats, and he finds forced and constant impregnation of cows acceptable and spaying and neutering of cats and dogs to be supported. All of these things, with the exception of spaying and neutering which I am uneasy about but support, I find objectionable. I am particularly horrified that keeping a being constantly impregnated against their will is something he doesn't even seem uneasy about. Furthermore, Zamir doesn't bring up two forms of systematic violence that would still plague animals in a purely vegetarian world: one is that of genetics and the other is animal sociality. The issue of genetics is that we have breed many animals into the walking dead. Zamir objects to bringing a being into existence whose teleology is determined, but we have created many animals whose teleology is determined genetically and violently. Moreover, Zamir either doesn't seem to believe that breaking up animals from the societies and families they exist in is a problem, or that his vegetarian ideal will somehow not cause this to happen. While we are unsure of different species's levels of bonding and sociality, it is not to say that it doesn't exist. This goes back to my point about the opacity of the animal and my unease in casually wielding power over their lives.
Now, to unbracket the earlier point on vegetarianism vs. veganism. Zamir believes that we have a duty both preserve species, but also to keep a large quantity of species around. Now, I have written before about my problems with this obviously biopolitical species logic. However, the entire question to if we owe duties to non-existent beings, or at least not yet beings, is a complicated question (random question for any of the OOO people who might still be reading this. Harman doesn't think potentiality or the virtual are correct ontological determinations. Does that means his version of ontology excludes the ability to plan for future generations? I don't mean this flippantly, but seriously, if not particularly thought out). However, Zamir's belief that we owe not just a species the right of reproduction, but that we must be on the side of quantity is a move I honestly did not understand in his article. Is it a responsibility to the species, or to each potential life? If the former, is there a cap or some amount that is properly paid off that after which we don't have to increase that species' numbers? If the latter, does that mean every time we practice birth control I am doing a violence or morally suspect act? I am not trying to be intentionally dense, I honestly did not follow his argument or its implications. Regardless of feeling that these arguments are not fleshed out, let move on. Zamir argues that a vegan world means that some species might go extinct, or at the very least many domesticated animals would see large reductions of numbers to morally unacceptable levels. In order to make sure this doesn't happen to chickens, cows, and sheep we should practice vegetarianism. Now, you might object that even eggs, dairy, and wool bought from progressive sources still practice horrible and unforgivable actions. The mass slaughter of male chicks when they are born, the selling off of male calves to become veal, and the like. In short, one assumes that the logic of ethical vegetarianism might lead one to ethical veganism. However, Zamir argues that we should nudge and support progressive sources for the welfare of animals, otherwise we are left with the pure factory farmed conditions of the non-progressive sources. Moreover, that withdrawing from the market doesn't drive any market forces. Well, the number of committed vegetarians in this country, much less vegans, is small enough to make one weep. I think we have very, very little influence on market forces. But even outside of that issue, Zamir doesn't confront what I call, following the term greenwashing, humane-washing. Because, for the most part, increasing the humane conditions of animals decrease profits market logic dictates that people don't increase humane conditions. But, one might object, isn't this why it is important that we demand more humanely raised animal products? Well, just as with greenwashing, humane-washing involves selling the image and myth of more humanely raised animals while not fulfilling this promise. Which makes far more market sense really. And we have seen this, over and over again. We have seen this with so-called cage free eggs, and we have seen this with humanely raised meat. Increased demand in both these cases didn't lead to better conditions, it frequently led to companies decreasing standards in order to gather the profits of higher demand. Market forces just don't seem to work the way that Zamir presents them as working, which makes it hard to depend upon this argument for moral superiority. And, while I cannot prove this, my gut feeling is that large scale production of animal products just cannot be achieved without unacceptable living conditions for animals. To give one example, Zamir says that he was informed that cannibalism among chickens doesn't just happen with factory farm conditions (indeed, factory farm conditions can often minimize issues of cannibalism by controlling for diet and light), but happen outside of factory farmed conditions. My understanding is that this is true, and that even a medium size fairly free roaming group of chickens can often lead to cannibalism (especially if issues of feed, spaces for mating, etc, are not properly attended to). This means that debeaking is common even with many free-roaming chicken farms. We need totally free roaming and very small numbers of chickens given a great deal of attention to prevent cannibalism. Which is just not a model for large-scale egg production. People can have pet chickens that they can have relatively guilt free eggs from, but not be able to operate a large chicken farm from without issues of debeaking and/or cannibalism.
Finally, I think Zamir intensifies the idea of combining vegetarianism and veganism with economic rationality. I find this move troubling, and problematic. Especially because economic rationality seems so implicated in some of the most vicious relations to animals. When I talk about becoming-vegan, or becoming-vegetarian I mean partially developing a concept outside of models of economic rationality. Vegetarianism and veganism means confronting basic questions of political economy. And being a vegan or a vegetarian is not, despite what Peter Singer says, the model of the boycott. It's relationship to the boycott is like the relationship of the general to the particular strike, the forms may be similar, but the stakes are entirely different.
Now, part of my concept of becoming-vegan and becoming-vegetarian is to get away from our rituals of innocence and our protocols of purity. So, this post is not some sort of attack on vegetarianism. But I know, and you know, that vegetarianism isn't morally superior to veganism, that no matter how attractive the argument is, it's bunk. I wish it were true, I wish I could have relationships with pets that were not filled with moral vertigo, and I enjoyed dairy and eggs and wish I could consume them guilt free. And while I see Zamir as an ally in struggle, and I think he is a clear thinker and a sound writer, I don't find comfort in this article.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Judith Butler and Animal Liberation

Frequent friend of the blog EJ has his own blog, Deconstruction Inc.. I obviously suggest adding it to all of your blog readers.

He is currently working on a paper on Butler and animal liberation, a topic that I have found important in the past (see the posts here). He has several posts up, and I suggest people interested in these questions to go check them out. Go here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bennett's Vibrant Matter reading schedule

You've probably already seen this at the other blogs, but I was out of town this weekend and so am a little late getting this up (though Epcot is amazing, so I don't feel bad at all).

The previously announced 'Vibrant Matter' reading group will take place across five blogs over five weeks, beginning May 23 and ending June 26. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things is the latest book by Johns Hopkins University political theorist Jane Bennett. Philosophy in a Time of Error has posted a very useful overview of the book, along with an interview with its author. Anyone interested in participating is invited to read these, and to order your copy of the book in time for the first session. The reading schedule will be as follows:

May 23-29
Host blog: Philosophy in a Time of Error (Peter Gratton)
Under discussion: Preface & Chapter 1, "The Force of Things" (and overview/interview).

May 30-June 5
Host blog: Critical Animal (James Stanescu) [That's me!]
Under discussion: Under discussion: Chapters 2 and 3, "The Agency of Assemblages" and "Edible Matter."

June 6-12
Host blog: Naught Thought (Ben Woodard)
Under discussion: Chapters 4 and 5, "A Life of Matter" and "Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism."

June 13-19
Host blog: An und für sich (Anthony Paul Smith)
Under discussion: Chapters 6 and 7, "Stem Cells and the Culture of Life" and "Political Ecologies"

June 20-26
Host blog: Immanence (Adrian Ivakhiv)
Under discussion: Chapter 8, "Vitality and Self-interest," and the book as a whole (final overview).

All welcome!

I'd also like to add that I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people recently wanting to join the reading group. If you missed making it to this schedule, we still haven't organized the schedule for Tim Morton's The Ecological Thought, so drop me or any of the other participating members an email and we can include you in future organization discussions.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


If you are not a reader of the mainstream political and policy wonk blogs, you probably don't know many of them have been poaching on our ground, with a philosophical and theological discussion on atheism, catastrophe, Nietzsche, and existential dread. I won't to all of them here (you can hyperlink backwards), but I had no clue that Andrew Sullivan was such an existentialist:
I find Kevin's final statement unpersuasive. To be human is to be aware of our own finitude, and to wonder at that. Montaigne argued that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Camus put it differently: men die and they are not happy. For me, this last thing is our first thing as humans. It is our defining characteristic, even though some animals may experience this in a different way.

And our ability to think about this casts us between angels and beasts. It is our reality. Facing it is our life's task.

Now, I've never really bought into this being-towards-death stuff. But I have to say, many times I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, with the dread thought: David Bowie can die. Facing that has been my life's task.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vampire Animal Studies: The Figure of the Vegetarian Vampire

I recently came across an article in n+1 entitled "Vampire Studies". In the concluding paragraph, the author includes this part of a sentence, "So when Vampire Studies replaces Animal Studies as the latest academic vogue" the author goes on to make some rather vague claims and nothing is really ever given why vampire studies is suddenly juxtaposed with animal studies. But what this really gives me is an excuse to return to the figure of the vegetarian vampire. I talked about this before in one of the more popular posts on this blog, and this is a slightly different and slightly longer version of that post.


For those of you lucky enough to not be familiar with the phrase vegetarian vampire, it comes from the novels and movies of Twilight. Recently everywhere I look I see references to vegetarian vampires. T-shirts reading ‘I heart vegetarian vampires,’ and chapters of pop culture philosophy books. Within the world of Twilight, the ‘good’ vampires are a family of the Cullens, who refer to themselves as vegetarians.

When I first heard about a vegetarian vampire I wondered if we were dealing with another comedic adaptation, like the early 90s cartoon Count Duckula. But no, oh no. The vegetarian vampire of Twilight is suppose to be anything but comedic. Edward Cullen, the romantic interest, represents another in the line of both emotive and guilt-ridden vampires. Moreover, these vegetarian vampires of Twilight kill and drink the blood of other animals, they just don't kill and drink the blood of humans. This begs the question: What does vegetarianism mean, if it does not actually mean abstaining from the flesh of other animals?

This question allows us to see a way that vegetarianism, and I would say veganism as well, enters into an economy of the sacred and the profane, the innocent and guilty, the pure and the contaminated. In this case the word vegetarianism has obviously no real meaning, except for one -- to demarcate that the present vampire is 'good'. The concept of vegetarian is wielded in such a style as to make the vampire not a vampire. I mean this in two registers. The first is in the way that vegetarianism is stereotyped as essentially anti-masculine. The vampire that does not drink the blood of humans is a fundamentally 'defanged' vampire. Why, after all, do you think Bill, in the HBO series True Blood, only drinks human blood while having sex, or when he is committing an act of violence? This 'defanged' vampire is the sensitive and brooding vampire. To take another example, in Joss Whedon's Buffy and Angel universe, the vampire Angel also lives only on animal blood. He exclusively drinks animal blood because of a curse that gave him back his soul. If he ever has a true moment of happiness, a repeated euphemism for sex, he will turn back into an evil vampire.

But these tropes of vegetarian vampires are not just used to connect vegetarianism to a lack of virility. Vegetarianism is used in another way, too. The vegetarian is also a trope of a split within vampiric being. Not only is this split connected to the questions of virility mentioned above, but there always remains a yearning for human blood. What is referred to again and again, as The Hunger. As a quotation from the movie of Twilight illustrates: ‘Drinking only animal blood is like a human only eating tofu. It's filling but never quite satisfies.’ Vegetarianism is presented as paralyzed being rather than becoming. The vegetarian vampire is never satisfied with his or her vegetarianism. Rather, this vegetarianism is seen as denial of their true nature, They really are fun filled blood thirsty monsters, but go around saying “woe is me, woe is me” because they don’t kill humans. And the danger, the excitement, of these vampires is that at any moment they may snap. Their vegetarianism maintained only through the greatest will power. Instead of being a creature whose existence symbolizes an impure and con-fused nature, a transgressive nature in thrall of all that is profane —which is what the vampire has classically been used to represent-- this vegetarian vampire seeks after purity and redemption, a Vampyr Sacer. These sacred vampires are fundamentally brooding creatures, racked by guilt and shame. The vampire traditionally has no reflection—they cannot see themselves in mirrors—but all these vegetarian vampires are able to do is reflect upon their lives. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari declared in A Thousand Plateaus that ‘thought is a vampire.’ By which they meant that thought in its most intense manifestations is never a reflection, never a Cartesian moment, but always a creation of something new. Descartes himself, who denied that animals could feel pain or pleasure and carried out horrible vivisections, but at the same time loved his dog and did not eat the flesh of animals was something of a vegetarian vampire as well. These vegetarian vampires reassert reflection as the core of being, and therefore deny the intensity of existence whose impure blood allows multiple becomings. Vegetarianism here seems to indicate nothing other than morality, but a morality of the most incoherent and sickly variety. An anemic morality of a demon who has found religion.

This brings us back, at least briefly, to the philosophy of Antiquity. These practices of the self were referred to as askesis. This term, askesis, became translated by the Christian monks into the idea of asceticism. Indeed, many of the practices you’d find among the stoics and epicureans you’d find transposed with subtle but important differences by the early monastic orders. To give one example […]. Asceticism is therefore rooted deeply in the denial of the self. You deny your human, read animal, nature in order to affirm your higher, divine nature. Therefore, Christian asceticism is a dualism, the same dualism we see in Cartesianism and the figure of the vegetarian vampire. And in all of these dualism we see an extreme bias against the animal. Askesis, on the other hand, is not rooted in denying the self. It doesn’t begin with the idea that we are inherently split, and indeed such a dualism would seem quite alien. Rather, askesis is conceived as a set of practices of self-production, of a form of metamorphosis. Veganism, or better, becoming-vegan, when conceived as a type of askesis is not about self-denial, it isn’t about refusing some primal instinct that is essential to who we are. Which isn’t to say that becoming-vegan isn’t sometimes hard, or that it doesn’t require work. However, it also have a great deal of pride and joy involved. You know, if we lived be several centuries old I don’t think we’d go around being like, [vampire accent] “I am so uptight because I want to suck your blood, but I can’t.” So, becoming-vegan is an askesis, a practice of changing our being.
Now, most of the vegans/vegetarians I know in the animal emancipation movement do not believe they are innocent. But, and this is important, they too are seeking redemption. We need a way becoming-vegetarian that means both we are never innocent, but it also means that we don't have to be trapped by guilt or rituals of purity. However, those of us in the animal emancipation movement see these rituals of purity everywhere we go. Welfarists vs. Abolitionists. Pacifists vs. Militants. A movement that has trouble moving because of all its fractures. A movement that has trouble moving because the question of tactics is always raised to the level of the pure and the impure. Vegetarianism has become a symbol for putting the vampire back into the play of the sacred and the profane, however we desperately have to revert this process. If the animal emancipation movement is to have a chance at changing both our relationships with other animals, and our relationship with the animal that we are, we are going to have to find ways to escape these protocols of guilt and innocence. We need less vegetarian vampires and more vampiric vegetarians.


For long time readers of this blog this will have been mostly repetitive, but I after reading that partial line I couldn't resist.

Animal Capacity and Vulnerability.

First an announcement: The interblog reading group on Bennett's Vibrant Matter is putting together the finishing touches on the schedule, but the key thing is that the discussion is likely to begin the week of the 22nd-29th. So, if you want to be following along at home --and you know you want to-- that should give you enough time to pick up the book. Now on to the post:

When it is time to write about the changing attitudes towards animals that is emerging, I think special attention will have to be paid to youtube (and online videos in general). It is one thing for science to talk about the capacities of certain animals, and even for you to know about it, and another to see an elephant painting a picture. As a matter of fact, watching youtube videos of animals have even become a methodology of scientific research (and oh yeah, some animals can dance to a beat as well). In short, what the constant stream of animal videos are doing is affectively proving to many us that everything we thought we knew about what divided the human from all other living beings-- THE animal-- is wrong. We are learning that the multiplicity of other animals are both more alien from us and more alike to us than we had originally believed. That is why it is always so interesting when we find out beavers have created a structure big enough to be seen from space or that chimps make and use tools (sorry Stiegler), and there is of course an youtube video of those chimps as well. All of this goes to support what Derrida claimed in Rogues, namely:
Although I cannot demonstrate this here, I believe– and the stakes are becoming more and more urgent– that none of the conventionally accepted limits between the so-called human living being and the so-called animal one, none of the oppositions, none of the supposedly linear and indivisible boundaries, resist a rational deconstruction– whether we are talking about language, culture, social symbolic networks, technicity or work, even the relationship to death and to mourning, and even the prohibition against or avoidance of incest– so many ‘capacities’ of which the ‘animal’ (a general singular noun!) is said so dogmatically to be bereft, impoverished (p. 151).
What is at stake here is what Derrida has frequently called the 'propers of Man', those capacities that Man believed she alone had access to. It is a system of anthropocentrism that is destabilized by all of these animal capacities. This focus on animal capacity or generally anti-anthropocentric capacity, however, seems to contradict another important theoretical development in the political, ethical, and ontological domains of animal philosophy: namely the focused on a shared sense of vulnerability.
This notion of vulnerability is found in thinkers as similar yet diverse as Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Cora Diamond, Cary Wolfe, and to some degree in Jean-Luc Nancy and his notion of exposure. It is a concept I have found particularly useful (you can see some of my public work on this here and here), and I am sure many other young scholars have as well. The concept of vulnerability seeks to reorient our philosophical commitments away from what we can do and more to our sense of precariousness or finitude (as an aside, in the back of my mind has been the thought that thinking vulnerability alongside Bruno Latour's notion of trial by strength, but it hasn't gone anywhere yet). Therefore, a focus on animal capacity seems to contradict (or at least is rendered to a mere curiosity by) the commitment to vulnerability. Indeed, Cora Diamond has remarked that the moral basis of vegetarianism is endangered by arguments that seek to confuse the boundary lines between the human animal and the non-human animal.
Now, I haven't been able to work through this seeming contradiction, but my gut impulse is that it isn't a contradiction, of if it is, it is a necessary one. Regardless, my thoughts are that both projects are important, and it is only by being brought in explicit dialogue with each other that either stand a chance of being more successfully forwarded.

Peter definitely puts my aside on Latour far more clearly than I did:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Vibrant Matter

I finally got my copy of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter. First, no one told me that there was a chapter on "Edible Matter." *Looks accusatory at the entire academic blogosphere*.
Second, the book itself is physically quite appealing. This is the second book from Duke press that I came across that is really beautifully put together. The first one being Ed Cohen's A Body Worth Defending (thanks Steph). There is also a third important recent Duke press book, Rodolfo Kusch's Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América, but this one doesn't have same physical presence (though intellectually still up to par).
Finally, I am very excited about the reading group.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Summer reading group

Adrian has suggested an interblog reading group on Bennett's Vibrant Matter and Morton's The Ecological Thought. Peter is down, and I am down for both, as well. If other people are interested, hopefully they will speak up. And then shortly a reading schedule and starting. I want an excuse to read both of these books, and talking about them seems like an added benefit.

Oh, speaking of books to read, my review of Cary Wolfe's What is Posthumanism? should be up later this week or next week. The very, very short version: It's worth reading.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Opposition to Localvorism

The new issues of the Journal of Critical Animal Studies is out. The whole thing is worth reading, but I want to suggest reading the article "'Green' Eggs and Ham?" (pdf). The article is written by Vasile Stanescu (full disclosure, we're brothers), and is rigorous examination of the politics and principles of the localvore movement. Moreover, it is also something of an expose of the secret conservative nature of the intellectual founders of localvorism. I highly suggest this for anyone interested in localvorism, vegetarianism and veganism, and current food issues.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Your first Amazon purchase?

Megan McArdle has a good meme, go to your order page, and post what was the first thing you bought.

Well, for me, it was Jan. 2003, and I bought Zone 6: Incorporations, edited by Crary and Kwinter. Which is still a very interesting selection, and was great for where I was (uhm, for those that don't my age, this would have been my junior year as an undergrad).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Can we give up the term postmodernism?

It wasn't a particularly useful term to begin with, but at least in the 80s and 90s there were still people who self identified with this term. But at this point, anytime someone uses the term postmodernism all I know is that they are trying to smear/attack some philosophical group. And if a term is only used as a smear term, and is basically only used as a strawman, can we just agree to drop it?

But yeah, you really do have to read Heidegger if you want to understand Derrida

Without a doubt, probably the funniest video I have ever seen:

(h/t Adam)

I also wanted to suggest this new post by Levi on ideology. I am working on a longer response, but just in case I don't follow through, you should go read it. Really short version: (1) I mostly agree, and (2) Isn't it funny that he is engaging in ideology critique with those that engage exclusively or primarily in ideology critique? (and I don't mean intellectually weak or contradictory, I just mean humorous).