Thursday, October 23, 2014

On Pets: A Provocation for Uncanny Ethics

I call the two cats that live with me my pets. I cringe a little when people refer to their pets as if they were their children. I cringe even more when people call their pets their roommates. Are these cringes fair? Probably not. Pets are a complicated matter.

Those who have read Deleuze and Guattari probably know about their infamous cry that "Anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool," (ATP p. 240, emphasis in the original). This rejection of domestic pets is something found not just throughout A Thousand Plateaus, but also in the opening discussion of L’Abécédaire. He explains there that despite having a cat in his household, he hates having a human relationship, and instead wants an animal relationship to animals. His concern, in both texts, is less with the animal herself, and more with how the domesticated pet oedipalizes humans. In other words, he is interested in the ways that pets are used as immunization against our own animality. I find that interesting, but that is not what makes me cringe. Instead, I want to focus on how our human relationships to pets, our decisions to make them one of the family, immunizes ourselves not against our shared animality, but rather our non-shared sovereignty. We take what should be an entirely uncanny, disturbing ethical relationship, and we, well, domesticate it. As usual, a complex ethical situation is suppressed for the desire of the innocence in roommates or children.

Why is the ethical relationship to pets one that should disturb? That should be uncanny? In a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, Lori Gruen discussed the ethics of captivity. Her argument, that our pets are really also our captives, is important. I quote at length:
The ethical issues around captivity are remarkably complex and it is surprising how little philosophical attention has been paid to them. [...] When we start thinking about pets or “companion animals” as captives then we may start reflecting in new ways on how we treat them. Clare Palmer and Peter Sandoe wrote a provocative chapter in the book that questions the received wisdom that routinely confining cats indoors promotes their well-being. Cats may be happy with our affections and their lives may be longer if we keep them safe indoors, but there is a loss here, to their freedom to go where they want and interact with and shape their larger environment. In captive contexts, the trade-offs, between safety and freedom, protection and choice, are often obscured. [...] Seeing pets as captives, I think, does bring some of the complexities of captivity into sharper focus. [...] One justification for keeping individuals captive has been that captivity is better for them. In the context of companion animals and zoo animals, for example, one often hears that they will live longer lives and they won’t have to worry about injury or predation or hunger. The sense is that they are better off having lost their freedom. The same sorts of justifications were also heard in the case of slaves. Captors wanted to believe that slaves were better off, became more civilized, more human, because of their captivity. Of course, this is odious in the case of human beings, and there are some who argue that this attitude is equally objectionable in the case of other animals. Comparing captivity to a type of slavery, some animal advocates are opposed to all forms of captivity, even keeping pets. They take the label “abolitionist” as a way of linking their views to earlier abolitionist struggles to end slavery. But I think our relationships with other animals (of course humans, but also nonhumans) are a central part of what makes lives meaningful. Rather than thinking we must end all captivity and thus all our relationships with other animals, we’d do better working to improve those relationships by being more perceptive of and more responsive to others’ needs and interests and sensibilities. Since we are already, inevitably, in relationships, rather than ending them we might try to figure out how to make them better, more meaningful, and more mutually satisfying. Importantly, by recognizing that we are inevitably in relationships to other animals, replete with vulnerability, dependency, and even some instrumentalization, and working to understand and improve these relationships, I’m not condoning exploitation. Acknowledging that we are in relationships doesn’t mean that all relationships are equally defensible or should stay as they are. Relationships of exploitation or complete instrumentalization are precisely the sorts of relationships that should change. And this is where an exploration of conditions of captivity and the complexity of the individual captives’ interests comes in. Some animals, like whales and elephants, cannot thrive in captive conditions. As much as we might want to have closer relationships with them, it isn’t good for them. Others, like dogs and chimpanzees, can live meaningful lives in captivity but only if the conditions they are captive in are conducive to their flourishing and they are respected. Part of the problem with captivity is the relationship of domination that it tends to maintain. By re-evaluating captivity (and for many in our non-ideal situation, there is no real alternative) we can start to ask questions about whether and how captive conditions can, while denying certain freedoms, still promote the dignity of the captives.

When we talk about our pets as children or roommates, we are disavowing the fundamental, more confusing relationship we have with our pets. How do we go about undoing this moral sleight of hand? One way can be by focusing on the disconnect between our rhetoric of how we think of other animals, and how we treat our pets. In Kennan Ferguson's wide-ranging and fascinating book, All in the Family: On Community and Incommensurability, he examines the relationships between humans and dogs in his chapter, "I ♥ My Dog." The chapter opens with the predicament of spending money to save your dog's life (or even to make her life more comfortable or happier), versus spending money to give to aid agencies to save the lives of other humans. Despite all of our claims that humans' lives matter more than animals, those of us with pets both do and do not act like this. On the one hand, the money we spend on our pets could easily translate into saving the lives of humans; on the other hand, our relationship to our pet will never be like the relationships with other humans in our household. The pet becomes this sort of strange liminal being. This realization is what moved Erica Fudge to ask, "Is a pet an animal?," which she follows up with this observation, "They are both human and animal; they live with us, but are not us; they have names like us, but cannot call us by our names" (Animal, pp. 27-28). Deleuze's desire that we have animal relationships toward our pets cannot but seem foolish now. After all, you cannot relate to a pet as an animal, or as a human. The pet forms a kind of becoming-human, a minor subject who enters into a becoming of a majoritarian subject. No wonder pets, dogs and cats, constantly haunt the arguments of A Thousand Plateaus. How much easier the world would be for Deleuze if it only had wolves.

As is infamously known since Donna Haraway's When Species Meet, Deleuze and Guattari write:

It is clear that the anomalous is not simply an exceptional individual; that  would be to equate it with the family animal or pet, the Oedipalized animal as psychoanalysis sees it, as the image of the father, etc. Ahab's Moby-Dick is not like the little cat or dog owned by an elderly woman who honors and cherishes it. Lawrence's becoming-tortoise has nothing to do with a sentimental or domestic relation. (ATP p. 244)
Of course, Delezue is trying to invoke a certain image of an "elderly woman" here, but there is another image that an elderly woman with her dog or cat that she honors and cherishes should conjure up for us. 
Regardless of age (but not class), in the witch trials there is a constant identification between female sexuality and bestiality. This is suggested by copulation with the goat-god (one of the representations of the Devil), the infamous kiss sub cauda, and the charge that the witches kept a variety of animals, called "imps" or "familiars," with whom they entertained a particularly intimate relation. These were cats, dogs, hares, frogs the witch cared for, presumably suckling them from special teats; other animals, too, played a crucial part in her life as instruments of the Devil: goats and (night)mares flew her to the Sabbath, toads provided her with poisons for her concoctions – such was the presence of animals in the witches’ world that one must conclude they too were being put on trial. (Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 194). 
The witch's familiar represents another vision of our relationship with other animals. These animals, of course, are not the mere pets of the witch, rather, a familiar is a witch's assistant. While I have not done the research to know the history of how we called the witch's animal companions familiars, I cannot help but see the name as being a little ironic. After all, the familiar of the witch's is also uncanny, it is a being that exists in excess of what we imagine defines the being. The familiar is that which "ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light." And what secret is that? Why, that of animal agency. The familiar is not just a pet, but also an actor.

We know that the domestication of other animals have been part and parcel of both settler colonialism and global capitalism. The abolition of domestic relationships seem straightforward when dealing with animals treated as livestock. But, what do we do with pets? Kari Weil, in her Thinking Animals, argues for us to take seriously the agency of other animals when we think about pets. She wants us to take seriously the question "could animals have 'chosen' domestication[?]" (p. 56). This is not some sort of an idea of a social contract or species contract in which animals choose to enter into a pact with humans where we provide for them and treat them humanely and the animals agree for us to eat them. Rather, it is the acknowledgement that other animals have been active participants in their own history, and this might be especially true for the unique intersubjective relationship between pet and human. It is an affirmation that not all domestication has been conscious, and that humans can be domesticated by animals as much as animals are domesticated by humans. And this brings us back to that uncomfortable truth that Gruen raises for us. Namely, that many domesticated animals, including many pets, would no longer exist outside of their relationships with humans.

The animal abolitionist wants to destroy the property status of other animals. And when we think of the animals trapped in abattoirs and factory farms and laboratories, this makes perfect sense. But what do we do with our cats and our dogs, what becomes of our pets? The usual abolitionist line is that we love and care for these animals as best as possible, and we work hard to make sure they are the last generation (through spaying and neutering). It would be too easy to wave my hand at this point, and gesture toward the absurdity of loving animals to death, of loving animals to extinction. But there is a real love here. When I think of the turkey, so changed and transformed she can no longer reproduce of her own, when I think of her body that grows so large it crushes her bones and organs, I cannot help but think we should love and care for these turkeys as best as possible, and work hard to make sure they are the last generation. Our tendency to breed animals with the thought of the corpse backwards, so that life is but preservation for the animal's flesh, has made it so that there are some animals that are no longer born living, but born deading.  But most dogs and cats? They are still born living. But they are also born dependent on humans for a good life. The abolitionist desire here seems clear enough, better that an animal no longer exist than for her to be born a slave. But is this really true? I can't help but believe the abolitionist desire to no longer have pets is a bit like the person who claims their pet is their child. They are both disavowals of the great asymmetry in our intersubjective relationship. They are both claims toward innocence rather than facing the hard work of ethics.

I love my cats. And it is part of this love that means I am haunted by my cats, and the decisions that I make for them. I am disturbed by keeping them inside in the city, and disturbed by letting them outside in the country. I spay and neuter my cats, and am horrified by people who declaw their cats, and understand the sovereign violence in both decisions. I am haunted by cats, and I wish they were familiars. I wish my black cats came from pacts with the Devil, and that they could speak a language I could understand. But they are not familiars, and all I have is the opaque affective communication of our intersubjective relation. They are not familiars, but are instead that uncanny being, they are pets.