The Question of the Animal

The Question of the Animal

2003-03-31
Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory
Cary Wolfe
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003
Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal
Cary Wolfe, ed
. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003

On a posthumanism potentially worthy of the name.

It is becoming increasingly clear that much of what goes by the name of posthumanist theory is (paradoxically) grounded on a stubborn and dogmatic form of anthropocentrism. The reason for this is quite simple: posthumanist theorists have failed to come to grips with “the question of the animal.” This situation is rather odd, for one would assume that posthumanist theory, which takes the questioning of metaphysical humanism as one of its primary starting points, would be highly interested in the issue of the animal other. After all, what figure has been employed more insistently and consistently by thinkers in the Western tradition to mark the outer limit of the human than “the animal”? Throughout much of the history of metaphysics – e.g., from Aristotle to Aquinas, from Descartes to Kant, and from Hegel to Husserl – the essence of the human has been repeatedly determined in opposition to the animal, where the former is understood to be in possession of a certain capacity or trait (logos, ratio, Wille, spirit, subjectivity, etc.) the latter lacks. Contemporary posthumanism has its origins in a critical questioning of these essentialist determinations of the human, a project that seeks to continue and deepen the efforts of the so-called “hermeneutists of suspicion” of the 19th and 20th century. Yet in the wake of this disruption and decentering of the human, there does not seem to have been any concerted effort on the part of posthumanist theorists to rethink either the ethico-political status of animals or dominant ideas concerning the various modes of relation that obtain between animals and human beings.

This should not, of course, be taken to imply that the question of the animal has been completely disregarded by posthumanist theory. In addition to Derrida’s recent work, one could point to Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on becoming-animal, Foucault’s analysis of the relation between madness and animality, and Jean-Luc Nancy’s non-anthropocentric notion of being-with as examples of precisely the type of posthumanist and post-anthropocentric thought one might expect to encounter in this context. But such examples pale in comparison with the wide range of theorists who, despite their reliance on various critiques of metaphysical humanism, retain a generally anthropocentric bearing in their work. To list but a few of the more prominent authors whose work has demonstrated little sensitivity to the stakes involved in the question of the animal: Lacan, Levinas, Lyotard, Agamben, Irigaray, Bhabha, and Butler.

It is with this theoretical and cultural context in mind that the reader should approach Cary Wolfe’s two new volumes: his monograph Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, and his edited volume Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal. I want to say at the outset of this review that Wolfe has given us two extremely important volumes here. His monograph, in particular, is a theoretical tour de force, and will certainly serve as the touchstone for all future debates in this area of inquiry. I say this not because Wolfe is the first author to explore these topics (he is not: see, for example, Akira Lippit’s Electric Animal, Steve Baker’s The Postmodern Animal, as well as the essays gathered together in Peter Steeves’s edited collection Animal Others), but because he does so with an unmatched theoretical mastery of the material as well as a rare sensitivity to the ethical and political dimensions of the topics under discussion. I will begin here with a discussion of Animal Rites before examining the essays collected in Zoontologies.

Wolfe opens Animal Rites by noting that theorists throughout the humanities are only now beginning to catch up with developments in broader American culture concerning our picture of other animals and their possible subjectivity. Although American society remains unabashedly anthropocentric in terms of its treatment of animals at meal time, judging by the popular attention lavished on magazine articles, films, and television shows dealing with animal intelligence and cognition, few people outside the academic humanities believe that animals per se are wholly devoid of subjectivity. Such work on animal cognition, coupled with the long-standing and powerful critique of our anthropocentric ethical bias toward animals (seen, for example, in the work of Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Carol Adams among others), should be of much interest for posthumanist theorists who seek to problematize the privilege granted to classical determinations of the subject (logocentric, phallocentric, etc.). But posthumanists have largely ignored this work and have retreated into a narrow, and rather untenable, conception of the subject that is limited to the human species. Wolfe’s book aims to interrogate this “speciesism” (a term initially formulated by Richard Ryder and subsequently popularized by Peter Singer) with an eye toward both its theoretical and institutional consequences.

Wolfe is quick to note, however, that the question of the animal cannot be restricted to animals alone. On the one hand (as is clear from Wolfe’s earlier books), the question of the animal is part of a larger issue dealing with what Derrida in Of Grammatology calls “the name of man,” and how man gives himself this name by delimiting himself from all non-human others: the animal, the natural world, the non-living, etc. But this list of others cannot be limited to the objects of study that constitute animal ethics and environmental philosophy. The name of man, and the logic of the proper by which it functions, works to exclude many human others as well, by locating them on the side of these non-human others. Thus, Wolfe argues that a critical analysis of the logic of “speciesism” has implications for non-human animals and humans alike:

The effective power of the discourse of species when applied to social others of whatever sort relies, then, on a prior taking for granted of the institution of speciesism – that is, of the ethical acceptability of the systematic “noncriminal putting to death” [Wolfe is citing Derrida] of animals based solely on their species. And because the discourse of speciesism, once anchored in this material, institutional base, can be used to mark any social other, we need to understand that the ethical and philosophical urgency of confronting the institution of speciesism and crafting a posthumanist theory of the subject has nothing to do with whether you like animals. (7)

Wolfe italicizes this last sentence – which is perhaps an overstatement (unless it is to be read in a Deleuzean vein) – to drive home the point that his focus on the question of the animal should not be read as misanthropic, but rather as forming a part of a broader progressive, radical democratic politics. The question for Wolfe, then, is not whether we should abandon human social concerns in favor of animal rights, but rather: “If our work is characterized in no small part by its duty to be socially responsive to the `new social movements’ (civil rights, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and so on), then how must our work itself change when the other to which it tries to do justice is no longer human?” (7).

Part One of Wolfe’s book comprises two chapters: the first (a version of which appeared in ebr) focuses on Luc Ferry’s widely read The New Ecological Order, and the second examines a broad number of theorists who take up the question of the animal and the living in general, including Cavell, Lyotard, Levinas, Derrida, and Maturana and Varela. For those readers interested in the theoretical matrix of Wolfe’s thought, it is to be found primarily in these pages – especially in the lengthy and very tightly argued second chapter. To return to the first chapter, here Wolfe argues convincingly that Ferry’s criticisms of animal rights theory – which seeks to extend moral consideration to animals based either on a shared sentience (Singer) or on a shared mode of being-a-subject-of-a-life (Regan) – backfire. Contrary to what Ferry argues, none of the traditional barriers that have been erected to distinguish all humans from all animals seem to hold in light of recent advances in the study of animal life and behavior. Animal rights theorists are thus correct to insist that, if the premises of a given moral theory can logically and coherently be extended to include other animals, then it is only just to do so. Ferry’s desperate attempt to find the ultimate species barrier that would prevent such an extension in a uniquely human relation to freedom, language, and culture (he looks to the Enlightenment humanism of Rousseau and Kant for his inspiration) is now falsifiable on empirical grounds (see, for example, the work of Frans de Waal on animal culture and Marc Bekoff’s and Dale Jamieson’s work on animal cognition). Consequently, Wolfe maintains that we can only accept the arguments of animal rights theorists who insist on extending moral considerability to include other animals that are sufficiently like human moral patients.

But, of course, this is where the real question of the animal begins. For the extension of utilitarianism or moral rights theory to include some animals (usually those that most closely resemble us) does nothing to challenge the exclusionary logic at work in these essentially humanist projects. A genuinely posthumanist approach to the question of the animal must take this problem as its starting point, examining the ways in which the ethical extensionism of animal rights theorists produces its own set of exclusions.

As a means of finding resources that might challenge the closure of this kind of humanist project, Wolfe turns in the second chapter to various anti-essentialist theorists whose thought would seem to promise a new approach to the question of the animal. Upon reviewing neo-Wittgensteinian approaches to animal issues in the work of analytic philosophers (Cavell and Hearne) and Continental philosophers (Lyotard), Wolfe finds that these thinkers are unable to develop a genuinely posthumanist thought of other animals. It is only when Wolfe turns to an extended discussion of Derrida’s work that he uncovers important elements of what a posthumanist thought of other animals might look like. While Derrida’s thoughts on the question of the animal elude easy summary (and I know of no clearer or more helpful analysis of Derrida on this topic than the one that Wolfe offers in Chapter 2 [62-78]), it will suffice to note here that his work does not remain content with the facile anthropocentrism of his posthumanist contemporaries. Derrida has, from the very beginning, insisted that his thought of the trace (the mark, iterability, etc.) cannot be restricted to the human. As a result, the differences between “the human” and “the animal” are, on Derrida’s account, far more complicated than we typically take them to be–so much so that Derrida proposes in the place of the concept “the animal” his neologism ” l’animot,” which denotes a singular, living being that cannot be subsumed under any species concept. In the closing portion of this chapter, Wolfe brings Derrida’s work on the inhuman trace into dialogue with the scientific writings of Maturana and Varela in order to deepen the thought of inter-species language outlined in Derrida’s writings on animals.

Part Two of Animal Rites takes up various cultural objects in order to flesh out the theory developed in Part One. Chapter Three (co-authored with Jonathan Elmer) offers a careful reading of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, using psychoanalytic tools to explore the conjunction of monstrosity, animality, and gender as it appears in the film. Chapter Four examines the motifs of race, gender, and species in the writings of Ernest Hemingway, and takes up Toni Morrison’s critique of Hemingway in the process. Chapter Five focuses on the issues of animality and colonialism in Michael Crichton’s Congo, and provides an insightful overview of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “becoming-animal” as well as thoughtful critique of the “faux posthumanism” of postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha.

After working through these chapters, the reader might be wondering what the ethico-political purchase of this volume is. If Wolfe is critical of the limits of current animal rights theory, does he have anything to offer in its place? In short, the reader might ask, what is the ethics and politics of a posthumanist thought of the other animal? Wolfe attempts to answer these questions in his conclusion, “Postmodern Ethics, the Question of the Animal, and the Imperatives of Posthumanist Theory.” As we have already seen, Wolfe is willing to accept, for pragmatist and pragmatic reasons, ethical initiatives to protect animals such as Paola Cavalieri’s and Peter Singer’s Great Ape Project, but he is clearly interested in pushing the debate well beyond the limits of the dominant discourse on animal rights. One possibility for doing so would be to pose the question of the animal within the context of a specifically postmodern account of ethics of the sort found Zygmunt Bauman’s work. Much like Levinas (to whom Bauman is heavily indebted), Bauman’s postmodern ethics avoids many of the pitfalls of the humanist ethics we find in such thinkers as Kant and Mill; however, and again in line with Levinas, Bauman’s ethics remains dogmatically anthropocentric. Moreover, Bauman offers us a questionable understanding of the relation between ethics and politics (wherein politics gains its justification through a process of moralization), which Wolfe would like to replace with the “functional differentiation” model developed by Niklas Luhmann. What all of this amounts to for Wolfe is that the proper way to craft a postmodern ethical pluralism that attempts to give a place to the animal other is not to abandon reason in the name of a vague respect for some ineffable other (à la Bauman), but rather to arrive at the other by way of ethical theory and reason itself. Theory, if done “well enough,” says Wolfe, will eventually discover that other animals are not other in the sense of belonging to some wholly foreign “outside,” but rather constitute a radical difference and alterity that structures “the human” in its very core. Wolfe’s thought of the other animal is, to be sure, far from the kind of normative ethic one finds in the work of animal rights theorists like Singer, but it is not necessarily opposed to it. In fact, I would suggest that Wolfe’s book can be read as an attempt to work parasitically and critically on animal rights discourse as a means of further radicalizing its current politics. Whether his book accomplishes this goal remains to be seen; it is to Wolfe’s credit, however, that his book at the very least allows the reader to glimpse the importance and need for such a project.

The second volume under consideration in this review, Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal, is a collection of essays edited by Wolfe that further explores the question of the animal as it is posed in Animal Rites. The volume opens with a useful introduction by Wolfe, and a reprint of the second chapter of his Animal Rites, entitled “In the Shadow of Wittgenstein’s Lion: Language, Ethics, and the Question of the Animal” (a fitting choice inasmuch as it is this chapter, as I mentioned above, that forms the theoretical core of his work). The second essay in Zoontologies, “From Extinction to Electronics: Dead Frogs, Live Dinosaurs, and Electric Sheep,” by Ursula Heise examines recent writings on cyborgs (e.g., in Donna Haraway’s work) in view of their implications for animal and environmental issues. Heise shows that this literature opens the way to an enlarged notion of ethics that extends beyond the human to animals and other non-human life forms, and that technology (for example, in the field of “Artificial Life” studies), rather than blocking access to such an ethic, actually plays an important role in making it possible. (For more on the issue of the relation between animal life and science, see Judith Roof’s essay, “From Protista to DNA [and Back Again],” which appears later in the volume.)

The well-known Deleuze scholar Paul Patton is the author of the following chapter. His contribution, “Language, Power, and the Training of Horses,” discusses the ethical potential and difficulties involved in training other animals, horses in this case. Patton argues that, although perhaps no mode of training animals is wholly free of coercion, there are more or less ethical modes of training animals that respect both the differences between humans and animals and the specific nature of the animal being trained. It is even possible, Patton suggests, that good training can enable “a form of interaction that enhances the power and the feeling of both horse and rider” (97).

The fifth essay in the volume is Jacques Derrida’s “And Say the Animal Responded?,” an essay which was first delivered in 1997 at the Autobiographical Animal conference at Cerisy-la-Salle but has not appeared anywhere in print until now (here in translation by well-known Derrida translator David Wills). For readers familiar with Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” this new essay will help to fill in the gaps concerning the various allusions to Lacan in that earlier essay. In “And Say the Animal Responded?,” Derrida’s primary concern is to contest Lacan’s tendency to speak of animals in homogenous terms around the issues of response and reaction–which is to say, around the questions of responsivity, responsibility, and the passion of the other animal he speaks of in “The Animal That Therefore I Am.” Steve Baker’s Derridean- and Deleuzean-inspired “Sloughing the Human,” the sixth essay in the collection, inquires into the becomings-animal that occur in contemporary artworks by and about animals. Baker uses the motif of the hand in the work of Heidegger and Joseph Beuys to inquire into the attribution of creativity to other animals in contemporary art (a characteristic that the metaphysical tradition would no doubt deny animals), and concludes by saying that it “may not yet be entirely clear what is exchanged between the human and the animal in these instances, but the politics and poetics of that exchange call urgently for further exploration” (161).

The next essay by Alphonso Lingis, “Animal Body, Inhuman Face,” offers just such an exploration. Lingis’s essay, by far the boldest contribution to Zoontologies, is a narrative piece that weaves together phenomenological observations with a highly original zoopoetics. Lingis’s work is a fine example of the kind of ethical and political writing about animals that works from within the opening provided by Derrida and Deleuze. Lingis’s essay overflows not with examples of “the animal” but with animals (understood broadly as living beings), in their multiplicity and heterogeneity: bacteria, sea anemones, rodents, rabbits, cats, cockatoos, jellyfish, whales, lions, wolves, and foxes, to name only a few. While much of his discussion focuses on the behaviors of the “demonic” pack animals of which Deleuze and Guattari speak (and which mark a sharp contrast with what Lingis, again following Deleuze and Guattari, calls “the face”), Lingis is also concerned to draw attention to the becomings-animal that are constantly at work at the very core of the human. It is especially during sex, Lingis argues, that human beings undergo such becomings: during orgasm, “our impulses, our passions, are returned to animal irresponsibility” (172); he notes further, in a passage that is sure to shock those readers who are confident that a sharp line can be drawn between the human and the animal in the realm of sex, that, “When we, in our so pregnant expression, make love with someone of our own species, we also make love with the horse and the calf, the kitten and cockatoo, the powdery moths and the lustful crickets” (171).

The final essay in Zoontologies, Charlie LeDuff’s “At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die,” while not informed by posthumanist theory per se, offers further confirmation of Wolfe’s thesis in Animal Rites that the debates on the question of the animal open onto larger social issues. In this riveting essay, LeDuff, a undercover reporter writing a piece on race in America for the New York Times, discusses the job he takes at a slaughterhouse with Smithfield Packing Company in North Carolina. What LeDuff finds at the slaughterhouse is a workplace in which the human beings who slaughter and cut up animal bodies are, because of their race and class status, themselves treated “like animals.” As Wolfe notes in his introduction, LeDuff’s essay presents us with a “graphic illustration of the material consequences of the culture of `carno-phallogocentrism,’ [Derrida’s term for the dominant model of the subject as speaking, virile, and carnivorous] and we come away with a graphic sense of just how hyphenated, how conjoined, those consequences are for human and nonhuman animals alike” (xxi).

While Wolfe’s two volumes are not intended to offer definitive answers to the problems raised by the question of the animal, they certainly do accomplish the goal that Wolfe speaks of in his Conclusion to Animal Rites. There, he tells us that he hopes his work “will constitute a beginning, an opening” and “an invitation” for readers “to explore in their own critical practice what it would mean in both intellectual and ethical terms to take seriously the question of the animal” (190). For readers interested in pursuing this very important task, I can recommend no better starting point than Wolfe’s Animal Rites and Zoontologies.