Sunday, December 15, 2013

Accelerationism, animal ethics, and the factory farm

I am probably not an accelerationist, but I think certain core principles of accelerationism are useful for exploring tensions within the animal ethics community.

Accelerationism is a term coined by Benjamin Noys in his book, The Persistence of the Negative. Accelerationism is a philosophy loosely based on Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, Jean-Francois Lyotard's Libidinal Economy, and Jean Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange and Death (sidenote, I had an undergraduate class utilizing those three texts back in 2002, weird), along with the writings of Nick Land. As Noys explains, "they are an exotic variant of la politique du pire: if capitalism generates its own forces of dissolution then the necessity is to radicalise capitalism itself: the worse the better. We can call these positions accelerationist." (p. 5) It is important to note that Noys is critical of the accelerationist move. There many who have adopted the mantle of accelerationism as a positive radical political project. You should look to Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek's accelerationist manifesto, as well as Steven Shaviro's talks on accelerationism (this link contains both an video giving an intro, plus the text of another talk). The only animal ethicist I know who has also written on accelerationism is Patricia MacCormack. Though it is not principally on animal ethics. And David Roden has written about accelerationism and posthumanism. While there is a lot about accelerationism I probably would not agree with, I do want to focus on a couple of points I am in agreement with, and how those points pertain to animal ethics and the factory farm.

Accelerationism argues strongly that there is no going back. Or at least, back is not the direction we wish to go. In this sense, Marx (or at least a certain Marx) is a principle figure for accelerationism. Just as anyone who has read Marx understands that he has no wish to move from capitalism back to feudalism, or to destroy the machines of capitalism. Instead, the machines and factories of capitalism are the basis of the general intellect and the powers of social production necessary for communism. The accelerationist, then, is in opposition to the Heideggerian critiques of free floating intelligences, the das man, and en-framing. In other words, we do not suffer from too much calculation and too much abstraction, but rather, from too little or the wrong kinds of calculation and abstraction. As Negri wittily once put it, " But here we are once again, always at the same point: Marx frees what Heidegger imprisons. Marx illuminates with praxis what Heidegger reduces to mysticism." (Insurgencies, p. 29). Animal ethics is stuck in a similar fight: Do we embrace calculative and production capabilities of the present, even with the its taint of the violences of modernity, or do we strive for a premodern remedy to the violence against other animals?

The slow food and locavore movements have clearly embraced the premodern strategy. The issue for them is not one principally of speciesism, or the killing and eating of other animals, but rather of capitalist and modern 'excess.' If we could just turn the clock back (to the '50s, though I am never sure if they mean the 1950s or the 1850s), everything about our food productions would be fine. Thus we see the simultaneous orientalism of the hunting and eating practices of indigenous peoples, the romanticism of the pasture, and the nostalgia for the food preparation of the immediate post-war generation. As my brother has constantly chronicled, such orientalism, romanticism, and nostalgia is frequently the basis of political and social conservatism of the most extreme sorts (pdf). This also brings us to a post by James McWilliams on the work of historian Maureen Olge. Olge is no friend to the animal ethicist or the vegan activist. At the same time, she completely pegs the mythology of the slow food and locavore movements. We will return to this shortly. Unlike, say, the move from feudalism to capitalism, or sovereign power to disciplinary power, it is a bit harder to not fall for the premodern nostalgia. As anyone who has bothered to pay attention to animal agribusinesses and animal science knows, the current move is to fully realize Descartes' belief that animals are just machines. Agribusinesses do this by simply treating animals in factory farms as if they are machines, and animal science is doing this by actively trying to create biological subjects that will behave just as machines (take away animal's sentience, for example, make animals even more docile, etc). And when I have written about the push to treat and make animals into machines, I have not always been clear to not sound like I support a return to a pre-industrial agrarianism. And much of the slow food and locavore people are advocating for a reduction in the violence to other animals (including an attack on some of the intensive forms of violence). Clearly, however, our only choice is not between the present system, and the romanticized past. And make no mistake, it is a romantic past.

Okay, back to Maureen Ogle. She has argued:
As many Americans know, the agrarian past looms large in both our national identity and mythology: The nation was founded by the sturdy yeoman, the rugged individual, etc. Those who work the land are the best among us, etc. Rural values are the bedrock of American society; threaten those and the republic itself is threatened, etc. (See, for example, Wendell Berry.)
This mythology is just that: mythology. Historically, first in the colonies and then in the new United States, American farmers were less interested in yeoman "independence" than in earning profits from a national and global market for food stuffs. (And make no mistake: American agriculture has served a global market since the 1600s.)
Again, make no mistake, Ogle is not on the side of the animal rights advocate. However, her point here is entirely correct. What I came to understand in my work on the history of the factory farm, is that the seeds of the factory farm existed within the time period before the factory farm. If you want an slaughterhouse that doesn't treat an animal as a carcass to be disassembled like a machine, you will need to go back to slightly before 1850s. We would have to go back, as Ogle states, to before the 1600s to get an American production of animal bodies not for a global market. Want to understand animals before interventions to breed for size, docility, etc? Depending on what you mean, we are are going to have to go to at least the `1700s, or basically the entire domestication of animals if you want a broader understanding. Some of our first institutions of higher education in this country were built to do research and teach animal husbandry. Scientific journals on the intervention of breeding animals are some of the first trade journals in this country. The techniques and technologies of the factory farm are found an encouraged in this history of animal agriculture, not because of the excesses of capitalism, but because capitalism's machinic formation are found and encouraged in the same history. You cannot fully disentangle capitalism's violence and speciesism (I really do believe one cannot oppose capitalism without also opposing a certain expropriation of the animal). So, now what?

Well, you can earn for a mythic past. For the vegan, at least, this seems to be a non-starter. Our relationships to other animals, at every level, does not seem separable. Agamben's claim that we should just let animals be (along with any number of animal rights activists) is just so insane. We build roads and productions and houses in animal habitats. We domesticate animals, we eat animals, we use animal bodies for clothes, jewelry, to clarify wines and beers, to make pills and condoms, to test drugs on, to labor for us, and on and on. While the present system of violence and expropriation needs to be abolished, our lives with other animals seems to be so entangled I do not begin to understand how we would just let animals be. Or why that would be ethical. Instead, we have a world to create. The danger and hope of animal science is that life can be created and recreated. The danger and hope of animal agribusiness is that we can achieve levels of vast production of the relations between humans and other animals. The factory farm is a great evil, but I also have no desire to go back, whatever that would mean. We need less appeals to nature and the natural, and more appeals to a future constructivism. I have before called this an ecofeminist constructivism. Constructivist because the ontology is not on the natural, and the politics are not on the level of voluntarism, and aesthetics is not a romanticism of the past, and the ethics is not a withdrawal of relationships. Ecofeminist because the world that needs to be built is one centered on flourishing, on respecting relationships, on understanding intersectionality and interlocking oppressions. Deleuze and Guattari, in What is Philosophy?, called for a new people and a new earth. I have written before of becoming-vegan.  In that I mostly focused on a foucaldian understanding of askesis. But we need not just new human subjects, but a new world. This not the worse it is, the better it is (as Noys put it). But at the same time, this is not something that will come about by going back. Anyway, there is no back to go to.