Thursday, July 12, 2012

FEA: On Kelly Oliver, disavowal, and the moral community

The first post in the symposium is from Kelly Oliver, who should need no introduction. If for some reason you are reading my blog, and you haven't read her book Animal Lessons, you should fix that right now (you should also read Chloƫ Taylor's review of Animal Lessons in the special issue of Hypatia).

Oliver's contribution is fundamentally about the avowal and the disavowal of animals other (both about specific and real other animals, and at the same time how the play of avowal and disavowal with regards to nonhuman animals come back to also structure and produce relationships among human animals). She points out that perhaps animal studies can be benefitted from engagements with specific psychoanalytic theories, particularly:
 Freud’s notion of phobia and Kristeva’s reinterpretation of phobia as abjection go some distance toward understanding the dynamics of avowal and disavowal at the heart of our ambivalence toward animals and animality, particularly our own animality. (p. 497)  
Through recourse to theories and phobias and abjection, we can begin to access the particular ways that we displace our own particular psychic constructions onto nonhuman others and ourselves. Oliver points to the ambivalent role of the pit bull, and she also points out the ways this ambivalence often has particular racial codings (added in part by the research of Erin Tarver, and I suggest you go and read the whole thing). Oliver focuses on this ambivalence as foundational to our determining who is, and who is not, part of the moral community. As she writes:
Indeed, I would argue that our sense of a moral community is essentially linked to the ambivalent function that animals and animality play in our fantasies about what is cruelty, what is innocence, and what is natural. (p. 494) 

This contention should remind many readers of this blog about discussions we have been having, such as the relationship between ethics and innocence. By examining the ambivalence of animals as figures and figurations for the moral community, we must turn our attention to what Oliver, in her Animal Lessons, refers to as "sustainable ethics" (see particularly pp. 303-306, this sustainable ethics should also bring to mind Matt Calarco on indistinction and Bull on climate change ). As Oliver explains in Animal Lessons:
What Derrida calls hyperbolic ethics demands that we never give up exploring our own fantasies, especially those in which we are the heroes, the good guys, the just and the true, fighting against the forces of evil and darkness--the fantasies in which we are humane and the others behave like animals. (p. 304)

This is a sense of the ethical in which not only the question of who gets to count in our moral communities radically under review, but the very right and possibilities of our being the counters, of our justness and correctness to count, all radically challenged.
Taylor, in her review of Animal Lessons, writes:
Oliver's book begins and ends as a work of mourning for her cat Kaos: the book is dedicated to Kaos and opens with a poem to her; the conclusion to the book justifies this dedication. (p. 675) 
My own article in the same issue deals explicitly with this question of mourning and disavowal. One the one hand, I explore the ways that mourning is part of a reality that allows  for avowal of relationships and kinships. As I wrote, "Mourning is a practice that opposes disavowal. Mourning both celebrates and grieves our precarious lives. It seeks connections, discovers secret kinships, and recognizes intersubjective relations." However, the threat of mourning often forces a type of disavowal in order to continue functioning, in order to continue existing and relating in the same world as others. Again, I wrote:
Those of us who value the lives of other animals live in a strange, parallel world to that of other people. Every day we are reminded of the fact that we care for the existence of beings whom other people manage to ignore, to unsee and unhear as if the only traces of the beings’ lives are the parts of their bodies rendered into food: flesh transformed into meat. To tear up, or to have trouble functioning, to feel that moment of utter suffocation of being in a hall of death is something rendered completely socially unintelligible. Most people's response is that we need therapy, or that we can't be sincere. So most of us work hard not to mourn. We refuse mourning in order to function, to get by. But that means most of us, even those of us who are absolutely committed to fighting for animals, regularly have to engage in disavowal. (p. 568) 
The ambivalence of animal others are connected to our ambivalences, our abilities to create connections and kinships. And that is why, following Oliver following Kristeva, we have to risk ourselves in the abject, if we are to have a chance for a sustainable ethics. 

Go read all of Oliver's contribution to the symposium (again, here).