Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dark Animal (Studies)

I recently received a rather odd email from someone who came across my blog, and the response to this email is something I feel the need to post here, as well. Mainly because it deals with some misconceptions of vegetarianism and veganism that seem very common. So, here's the response:


It seems to me that your email misunderstands what is at stake with trying to create ethical relationships with non-human beings (in particular here, those beings we call animals). There is an indictment against vegetarianism and veganism that it is motivated by a naive escapism and utopianism. In this argument, vegetarianism and veganism are conceived not as ethical responses to violence, but rather as a way of being unable to think through violence. The ethical equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and going lalalala over and over again. Under this view vegetarianism and veganism is about keeping our hands clean, about purity and innocence and the sacred. This is the mistake that Derrida makes in his interview with Nancy, "Eating Well." In it he argues that vegetarians have yet to sacrifice sacrifice. Well, no duh. Now, I've hung out with plenty of vegetarians and vegans, and in general they are crowd less congratulatory on their innocence as consumed by their own guilt. The blame they lay at the feet of those who still consume animal flesh and products is meet by an almost Newtonian response of equal and opposite blame upon themselves. This is the guilt that Adorno describes as a "guilt of a life which purely as a fact will strangle other life". Indeed, the escapist and utopian drive that seeks to ward off this guilt is to be found just as often (if not more so!) among those who deride vegetarianism as utopian. If you look at Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Jose Ortega y Gasset you see again and again a desire to expiate this guilt by sublimating their violence into a sacred ritual. It's like something straight out of Durkheim or Mauss.
Vegetarians and vegans are seldom Hegel's beautiful soul who faces the "silent fusion of the pithless unsubstantial elements of evaporated life," but are instead the other side of the dialectal coin, a damaged soul who has seen the face of the gorgon. This is exactly what I have tried to address in my discussion of vegetarian vampires and vampiric vegetarians. The vegetarian vampire is the liminal figure that exists on both sides, both beautiful soul and damaged soul. On the one hand the vegetarian vampire uses vegetarianism as a marker of innocence (this is one way to understand Hitler's propaganda around his non-existent vegetarianism, and also a way to understand the British National Party's Land and People campaign for animal welfare). On the other hand, the vegetarian vampire is a brooding, reflective creature; a guilt-ridden being. We need to escape these economies of innocence and guilt, of purity and pollution, of the sacred and the profane (this is a difference between myself and Agamben, who embraces the profane as a way out). What we need might be less of a critical animal studies, and more of a dark animal studies.
The critique, as Kant explains to us from the very beginning, has a policing and tribunal function. The critique distances and judges. I think that ground has very little to offer us, at least now. So, a dark animal studies repeats Tim Morton's move towards a dark ecology. The point isn't for innocence, the sacred, or distance. At the same time, it isn't for guilt, the profane, or redemption. It is, rather, to exit from these economies entirely. This is the point of ethics -- it is only because innocence and purity cannot exist that ethics can. As I have said elsewhere: Ethics is not about finding innocence, but about living after innocence. Ethics is about thinking and living in our postlapsarian world without alibi. It is from this position that we can begin to think about vegetarianism and veganism, or at least the vegetarianism and veganism of dark animal studies-- a becoming-vegetarian, a becoming-vegan.
As with all becomings what is at stake are alliances, packs, relations. Vegetarianism and veganism are practices of the self (a la late Foucault). As Foucault teaches us; following the return to certain Classical philosophical schools like the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Cynics; we need to reverse the Cartesian moment by which right knowledge produces right action (this is, in some ways, most explicit in Badiou's theory of revolution). Rather, certain practices allow us to access certain truths. These practices and productions of the self are not simply of the self. Rather, they open us to alliances with other beings, beings that may have existed for us before these practices as "sub-ontological" (to borrow a phrase from Nelson Maldonado-Torres). The navigation of these alliances; the force and diplomacy involved; are not automatic or always obvious. There are complex and rigorous philosophical questions involved. This is another reason to think of a dark animal studies, as an invocation of a double sense of opacity against comprehension. We need to both recognize the opacity of other beings, but also the greyness, the opacity from ever knowing fully ahead of time how such relations are going to play out. Becoming-vegetarian, becoming-vegan, are practices of self and other, pacts we make to packs.