Cary Wolfe reviews Luc Ferry’s The New Ecological Order.
Old Orders for New: Ecology, Animal Rights, and The Poverty of Humanism
Old Orders for New: Ecology, Animal Rights, and The Poverty of Humanism
Early on in The New Ecological Order, French philosopher Luc Ferry characterizes the allure and the danger of ecology in the postmodern moment. What separates it from various other issues in the intellectual and political field, he writes, is that
it can call itself a true “world vision,” whereas the decline of political utopias, but also the parcelization of knowledge and the growing “jargonization” of individual scientific disciplines, seemed to forever prohibit any plan for the globalization of thought… At a time when ethical guide marks are more than ever floating and undetermined, it allows the unhoped-for promise of rootedness to form, an objective rootedness, certain of a new moral ideal (xx).
As we shall see, for Ferry – a staunch liberal humanist in the Kantian if not Cartesian tradition – this vision conceals a danger to which contemporary European intellectuals are especially sensitive: not holism, nor even moralism, exactly, but that far more charged and historically freighted thing, totalitarianism. Ferry’s concern is that such “world visions,” incarnated in contemporary environmentalism in movements such as Deep Ecology and Eco-Feminism, threaten “Our entire democratic culture,” which “since the French Revolution has been marked, for basic philosophical reasons, by the glorification of uprootedness, or innovation ” (xxi). Ferry’s thesis – it becomes all too explicit in his comparison of environmental legislation under the Third Reich with tenets of Deep Ecology in the book’s second section – is that Deep Ecology and its ilk have moved in to occupy the space left open by the passing of the political imaginaries of fascism and communism, so that denunciations of liberalism (and its corollary in political praxis, reformism) may now be unmasked for what they are: critiques “in the name of nostalgia, or, on the contrary, in that of hope: either the nostalgia for a lost past, for national identity flouted by the culture of rootlessness, or revolutionary hope in a radiant future, in a classless and free society” (xxvi). To which Ferry responds – literally –“Grow up!” Late in the book, he tells us that we must see through “the adult development of the secular and democratic universe” (137) by rejecting totalizing revolutionary visions of the sort purveyed by Deep Ecology, and by adhering instead to liberal reformism, “the only position consistent with leaving the world of childhood” (138).
Ferry is certainly right to draw our attention to the often uncritical nostalgia and romantic holism of some varieties of environmental thought –problems that have been noted before by critics from points on the map very different politically from Ferry’s avowed liberal humanism. And it is certainly understandable, given the historical context, that he would join a long list of other European intellectuals in pointing out the manifold dangers to democratic society of totalizing moral schemes – dangers often represented for liberal intellectuals like Ferry by the rise of the Greens in European politics. The case of another important liberal European intellectual - Niklas Luhmann - comes to mind here. Though working in an explicitly post-humanist framework (systems theory), Luhmann is also bothered by the Greens for these reasons, as his book Ecological Communication makes clear. For a discussion of the dangers of ethics from Luhmann’s point of view, see William Rasch’s informative discussion in “Immanent Systems, Transcendental Temptations, and the Limits of Ethics,” Cultural Critique 30 (Spring 1995), esp. pp. 213 ff. We do well to remember, too (as Fredric Jameson and others have pointed out) that for European intellectuals such as Ferry, liberalism retains, for understandable historical reasons, a viability and a promise about which many American intellectuals have long since become skeptical or even jaded. European intellectuals, conditioned by the experience of fascist authoritarianism and the strong but problematic presence historically of the Communist party in social and intellectual life, may find in liberalism a refreshing and indeed radical democratic openness and dynamism, while American intellectuals, long since conditioned to the absence of any major political contenders other than liberalism, have long since grown accustomed to liberalism as the name for that “end of ideology” position which, as Jameson puts it, “can function more effectively after its own death as an ideology, realizing itself in its most traditional form as a commitment to the market system that has become sheer common sense and no longer a political program.” Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 1990), p. 249, emphasis mine.
But in defending democratic difference, everything hinges, of course, on precisely how such terms are framed and how difference is construed – an index of which often may be found in how its imagined opponents are painted. Here, as we shall see, Ferry’s text gives us early and ample pause, first in its rather thin and impoverished notions of “democracy” and the “human.” As for the latter, Ferry wholly disengages the “human” from problems of class power and the determinative force of both discourse (considered not merely as rhetoric but also in the stronger Foucauldian sense as materially institutionalized conditions of production), and the unconscious (whether the latter is considered either in Freudian or Lacanian and Zizekian terms). Similarly, his notion of “democracy” is extraordinarily thin because it is completely decoupled (despite a couple of gestures to the contrary very late in the book) from the problem of capitalism as liberal democracy’s de facto economic embodiment. Given the well-known importance of both class and race in contemporary environmentalism – in debates about “environmental racism” and the disproportionate exposure to toxic waste and environmental degradation borne by the poor, as well as in discussions about how middle class, and how white, the contemporary environmental movement is – this is surprising and disabling for one as eager as Ferry to defend the heritage of “democracy.”
Ferry’s head-in-the-sand posture (here and elsewhere) makes doubly annoying his reliance upon caricature and red herring to paint opponents of liberal reformism as little more than “new zealots of nature” (xix) and the like. Such tried if not quite true rhetorical maneuvers will be familiar to readers who have encountered them in other liberal intellectuals such as Richard Rorty who – despite his substantially more sophisticated and productive engagement with post-liberal, postmodern theorists–sometimes stoops to paint people interested in, say, Marxism as nothing more than religious fanatics bent on salvation rather than on, say, constructive change in society’s material structures and maldistribution of wealth and power. See, for example, Rorty’s characterization of opponents of liberalism as “people who have always hoped to become a New Being, who have hoped to be converted rather than persuaded,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 29. Further references in the text.
What this means is that Ferry’s critique remains locked within a liberal humanism that renders it impossible to make good on the desire for difference and heterogeneity that Ferry’s critique of ecological holism expresses. It is not simply that Ferry adheres to a definition of the liberal “human” as a wholly negative (that is, empty) sort of being open to “infinite” experimentation. That case, for what is sometimes called the “moral perfectionism” of the distinctly human, has been made, and been made better, by Stanley Cavell and others (and not coincidentally, I think, in dialogue with postmodern theory rather than in the dismissal or misconstrual of it we find in Ferry. An example of Ferry’s superficial engagement with postmodern theory is evinced in his rather remarkable misreading of Felix Guattari’s interest in ecology, where he mistakes what Guattari calls “resingularization” with conservative identity politics. Anyone who has read any of Guattari’s work over the last thirty years knows that Guattari has never said that identity is a positivity that can be either accomplished or restored in the sense attributed to Guattari by Ferry. The same should be said, of course, for Ferry’s claim that Guattari’s contention that “there is no reason to ask immigrants to give up their national affiliation or the cultural traits that cling to their being” is “a ‘leftist’ version of racism” (114). This rather absurd charge might be plausible were it not for the fact that Guattari’s work long ago made it clear that he does not believe in the existence of races, or of their equivalent in terms of cultural identity. It is rather that the figure of “the human” in Ferry’s liberal humanism turns out to be not so open-ended and contentless after all, but is instead a very, very familiar sort of character indeed: “sovereign and untroubled,” as Foucault once characterized him, “a subject that is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in empty sameness throughout the course of history” Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), p.58. – the one who can master discourse without being mastered by it, the one who is able to step outside, into a space of pure, transparent reflection, the very systems and material structures in which he is supposedly ineluctably embedded – including, of course, the laissez-faire capitalism that liberal humanism wants to pretend has no bearing in material reality on the political equality that liberalism’s call for “democracy” desires.
Though he devotes considerable space to discussions of animal rights philosophy (at least the version promulgated by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation) and, to a lesser extent, ecological feminism, the central target of the book is clearly Deep Ecology. Invented, if you will, by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, formalized and codified by Naess and American philosophers Bill Devall and George Sessions, and more recently adapted by the European “Greens,” Deep Ecology proposes a fundamental change, from anthropocentric to “biocentric,” in how we view the realtionship of homo sapiens to the rest of the biosphere. As Devall writes,
There are two great streams of environmentalism in the latter half of the twentieth century. One stream is reformist, attempting to control some of the worst of the air and water pollution and inefficient land use practices in industrialized nations and to save a few of the remaining pieces of wild-lands as “designated wilderness areas.” The other stream supports many of the reformist goals but is revolutionary, seeking a new metaphysics, epistemology, cosmology, and environmental ethics of the person/planet (quoted in Ferry 60).
What Devall invokes here is the distinction that gave the movement its name: between “shallow environmentalism” and “deep ecology.” An eclectic blend (to put it mildly) of ideas drawn from Heidegger, Buddhism, Robinson Jeffers, and many other sources, the fundamental principles of Deep Ecology are nevertheless relatively easy to state. They have been formalized by Sessions and Naess in eight basic and often-quoted tenets:
1) The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human Life on earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.
2) Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
4) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires such a decrease.
5) Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
6) Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
7) The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
8)Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes (quoted in Ferry 67-8).
There is much to remark upon here, but the Deep Ecology philosophical platform may be boiled down to this: the ultimate good is not harmony with nature, nor even holism per se, but rather something much more specific: biodiversity. Once this is recognized, we must affirm the inherent value of all forms of life that contribute to this ultimate good, and we must actively oppose all actions and processes by human beings and their societies that compromise these values.
The appeal of Deep Ecology and its demand that we recognize the inherent value of the biosphere and conduct ourselves accordingly is understandable for all sorts of scientific, ethical, historical, and political reasons. As Gregory Bateson points out in his influential collection Steps to an Ecology of Mind,
“the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its ‘progress’ ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself.” The Darwinian paradigm of “organism versus environment” and “survival of the fittest” must be revised, Bateson argues, to read “organism-in-its-environment”. Gregory Bateson, “Form, Substance, and Difference,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972), p. 451. Further references are given in the text. Rather than seeing these two terms as naming different and hierarchically related ontological orders – in which “environment” is thus mere fungible resource for the self-realization and self-perpetuation of the organism – we do better, as good ethics and as good science, Bateson argues, to understand that both are components of a larger network or system of relations in which negative feedback is crucial to the maintenance of systemic balance. The Enlightenment face of Darwinism would tell us that the organism that most successfully exploits and maximizes its environmental resources is the one that wins, the one that lives to pass on its genes. But “If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology,” Bateson tells us, “your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell” (462).
This is a central theme, of course, in the literature of Deep Ecology. As one of its leading European exponents, Hans Jonas, writes, “the promise of modern technology has reversed itself into a threat… The subjugation of nature with a view toward man’s happiness has brought about, by the disproportion of its success, which now extends to the nature of man himself, the greatest challenge for the human that his own needs have ever entailed” (quoted in Ferry 76-7).
Ferry’s first impulse – in a rhetorical strategy indemic to the book – is to dismiss such critiques as “a return of the old science fiction myths,” the latest instance of Frankenstein and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where “we have a reversal by which the creature becomes its master’s master” (77). But such concerns have been raised, of course, by scores of critics and philosophers who seem as far from the Deep Ecology position as Ferry himself (Kenneth Burke, Theodor Adorno, and Jeremy Rifkin come to mind, just to name three rather different – and markedly un-“Deep” –examples). See Kenneth Burke’s discussion of technology in the postscript to the second edition of Attitudes Toward History (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1984), p. 396. Rifkin, as is well-known, is one of the more socially visible critics of the current headlong rush into genetic engineering, especially of animals. Indeed, one need not be captivated by Frankenstein scenarios to acknowledge the validity of Jonas’ view that practices such as the current headlong rush into genetic engineering of plants and animals entail all sorts of unforeseeable consequences, inhumane practices, and potential biological disasters.
Similarly, it is hard to disagree that there is currently no way – legally, economically, or politically – to effectively control such practices, a problem made even more acute, as Ferry recognizes, by the quite considerable economic incentives involved (Ferry 77). For these sorts of reasons, and for others, Deep Ecologists and others have called for greater government activism and more forceful use of state power to regulate and direct the effects of human society–especially of technology –on the environment.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details. As several critics have pointed out, the philosophical platform of Deep Ecology is marked not only by eclecticism but also by incoherence. As Tim Luke, for example, has noted, if all life forms are given equal inherent value by Deep Ecology, and if biodiversity as such is an ultimate good, then we face any number of rather vexed scenarios. Luke asks, “will we allow anthrax or cholera microbes to attain self-realization in wiping out sheep herds or human kindergartens?
Will we continue to deny salmonella or botulism micro-organisms their equal rights when we process the dead carcasses of animals and plants that we eat?” Tim Luke, “The Dreams of Deep Ecology,” Telos 76 (Summer 1988), p. 51. Further references are in the text. And if biodiversity as such is an ultimate good, then by definition, “rare species and endangered individuals in rare species…are more valuable than more abundant species and individuals,” creating scenarios such as the following: “if one was caught in a spring brushfire a deep ecologist would be bound ethically to save a California condor hatchling over a human child, because the former – given its rarity – is much more valuable” (87). And in any event, the Deep Ecology platform – for all its talk of “hard” biocentrism and its “no compromise” posture – is fundamentally compromised, in its own terms, by its “vital needs” or “mutual predation” loophole. As Luke points out, “Rocks and trees do not use humans…for their survival or self-realization.” For this reason, “Individual nonhuman entities or organisms are treated with less respect, equality and rights by humans… Although humans could change many of their ways, such predation still would be far from mutual” (82). In Luke’s view–and here his analysis reaches conclusions diametrically opposed to Ferry’s – what the “mutual predation” loophole reveals is that Deep Ecology, for all of its putative biocentrism, is in reality a “soft anthropocentrism,” one that thus remains tied to the very Enlightenment schema it means to overturn (83).
But this point of divergence between critiques from the Left, such as Luke’s, and those from the Right, such as Ferry’s, also provides an important point of contact, one that brings to light an essential confusion of categories at the heart of Deep Ecology’s ethical project. For both Luke and Ferry, Deep Ecology attributes human qualities, and gives at least somewhat human status, to the non-human realm of nature. As Luke points out, in Deep Ecology, “Nature here speaks of virtues and freedoms that are those of sovereign individuals,” and the modern liberal paradigm of subjectivity “is not so much overcome as much as it is made into an equal entitlement and guaranteed to everything in the ecosphere, knowing all along” – as Luke reminds us in an important addendum–“that humans still have the best crack at enjoying these benefits” (84-5). For Ferry, a similar categorical mistake lies at the heart of Deep Ecology –only Ferry defends the very Enlightenment humanist tradition that Luke’s Marxist - informed perspective would critique. For Ferry, the attempt to make good on ethical biocentrism by introducing legal rights for nonhuman beings “is in radical opposition to the legal humanism that dominates the modern liberal universe” (69), and merely reproduces on the level of law and government an underlying philosophical confusion.
There are two related but distinct points here. First, Ferry is quite right to point out that the Deep Ecologists, “imagining that good is inscribed within the very being of things,” forget “that all valorization, including that of nature, is the deed of man and that, consequently, all normative ethics is in some sense humanist and anthropocentrist ” (131). We will return below to the question of what this “in some sense” is, exactly–and why this claim does not function in the way that Ferry imagines. But for now, we should surely agree with Ferry that “it is still the ideas, and not the object as such, that are the basis for value judgements which only men are capable of formulating: ethical, political or legal ends never ‘reside in nature’ ” (141).
The last part of Ferry’s assertion leads us to the second important point about ethics that Ferry raises against the Deep Ecologists: that (and here he agrees with a critique of Deep Ecology by Paul Ricoeur) “basing ethics in biology is insufficient, for the fact that nature ‘says yes to life’ does not imply an ethical necessity that men act in favor of its preservation” (81 n. 28). That is to say, even if an ethics could be derived from nature, the Deep Ecology version of such an ethics forgets that even though life forms as a rule pursue self-preservation, it is possible “to have values other than those of self-preservation, to prefer a life that is short but good, for example, to one that is long and boring” (85). Self-preservation cannot be a moral imperative because, well, it is not an imperative “as biological beings,” Ferry reminds us, “we all care about our health. But only, it must be specified, ‘to a certain extent.’ For health is not an absolute value for everyone or in all circumstances” (88). Here again, Ferry is quite right to point out the real danger of believing that “Nature in itself contains certain objectives, certain goals…independent of our opinions and our subjective decrees” (86). Trying to derive ethical principles from empirical knowledge of biology may seem innocent enough, but when you start “with the idea that, in principle, each individual possesses a ‘healthy and identical’ human nature,” you may be “gradually led to associate all supposedly deviant practices with pathology”: “evil is confused with abnormality: one has to be crazy to smoke, not to love nature as one should, and so on” (89).
Keeping in mind the appalling historical track record of using the order of nature itself and its supposedly self-evident moral imperatives to countenance social and political practice, Ferry is quite right to be worried about claims by Jonas and other Deep Ecologists that serious ecological reform “seems impossible, or at least infeasible…within the framework of a democratic society,” that “We must have recourse to force,” to “State constraint” (77). Ferry is quick to seize upon some of the more extreme pronouncements by Deep Ecologists which imagine a “global government that can subjugate populations in order to reduce pollution and alter desires and behaviors through psychological manipulation.” And he is right to put pressure on the Deep Ecologists on the issue of population control. “When we get to the point of arguing that the ideal number of humans, from the point of view of nonhumans, would be 500 million (James Lovelock) or 100 million (Arne Naess), I would like to know how one plans to realize this highly philanthropic objective” (75). “No serious democrat will argue,” Ferry writes, “with the idea that it is necessary, if not to limit the deployment of technology, at least to control and direct it.” But “the idea that this control must occur at the price of democracy itself is an additional step which deep ecologists, propelled as they are by a hatred of humanism and of Western civilization…almost never hesitate to take” (78).
These, it seems to me, are the most forceful and worthwhile points that Ferry makes in his critique of Deep Ecology. But the passage I just quoted, while it provides a snapshot of some of what is right about Ferry’s position, also suggests much of what is wrong about it–not least of all, his reliance upon overly simple and indeed reified oppositions between concepts like “democracy” and “totalitarianism.” It is easy enough, for example, to point out, in response to his critique of Deep Ecologists’ calls for “state constraint,” that there are all sorts of areas of social and political life in which government involvement and state power are exercised at the expense of “pure” democracy (which is itself, need it be said, a fiction). If, for instance, we conceive of the environmental crisis as a problem fundamentally of national and international security, as well we might, then how could Ferry object to uses of state power to address that problem that are no greater than those indulged by the military-industrial or intelligence complexes as a fact of everyday life in liberal democratic society? Ferry might well object that none of these instances are justified, but that is just as question-begging, for short of a full-bore endorsement of anarchism (which, from Ferry, seems unlikely) the problem is example how and when such uses of state power are justified, and not simply a matter of equating, as Ferry does, calls for the use of state power by Deep Ecologists with a “hatred of humanism and of western civilization.” Democracy, in other words, is not nearly so pure and simple as Ferry likes to paint it, nor is it automatically equatable with the presence or absence of “state constraint”; and hence, suggestions by ecologists that we use government power to address environmental problems like nuclear waste contaminating the groundwater supply instead of, say, to run the Iran-Contra operation, are not so outlandish and “totalitarian” as Ferry suggests.
In this light, it will come as no surprise that Ferry’s use of the term “democracy” systematically ignores and represses the economic context which historically accompanies it: capitalism. Chantal Mouffe’s critique of a similar problem in Rorty’s liberalism would apply doubly to Ferry. The problem with both is the
identification of the political project of modernity with a vague concept of “liberalism” which includes both capitalism and democracy… If one fails to draw a distinction between democracy and liberalism, between political and economic liberalism; if, as Rorty does, one conflates all these notions under the term liberalism; then one is driven, under the pretext of defending modernity, to a pure and simple apology for the “institutions and practices of the rich North Atlantic democracies.” Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993), p. 10.
The question of the point at which “democracy” begins and ends is not limited only to the use of state power, in other words, but depends at least as much on the uneven distribution of economic power in capitalist democratic society. In a well-worn strategy of liberal intellectuals, Ferry is eager to condemn all those who stray from his version of liberal humanism as fanatical, totalitarian, haters of modernity, of Western civilization, humanity, and so on. But at the same time he relies upon a strategically vague notion of democracy which – though supposedly without any positive content – is ideological through and through. There is not a single serious engagement in Ferry’s critique of the fundamental problem of liberalism familiar to us since Marx: that the liberal humanists’ presumption of perfectly equal “rights” in the sphere of civil society and law is belied by the fact of the unequal distribution of property rights in the economic sphere, a fact whose effects are obvious and pronounced in every aspect of social life under capitalism.
Ferry makes a few hollow gestures very late in the book toward a recognition of how the economic fact of capitalism might complicate and compromise the abstract democracy he promotes, but they are just that–hollow gestures. He observes, for example, that “no one can remain indifferent to a questioning of the liberal logic of production and consumption” (128). But when it comes to any serious examination of the relationship between the de facto economic form of liberal humanism and environmental devastation, we find the same sort of laissez faire posture we witnessed in his concept of democracy. Ferry’s program for the “reformist ecologist” countenanced by his liberal humanism–as opposed to the revolutionary “deep” ecologists of the “new ecological order” – argues that
ecology ultimately blends into the market, which naturally adapts to new consumer demands… clean industry is developing by leaps and bounds, creating competition among companies to obtain the ‘green’ label. The supreme pardon? Perhaps. But why take offense if it allows us both to advance the cause of environmental ethics and include it within a democratic framework? (145-6).
Instead of a rigorous examination of the relationship between democracy, capitalism, and environmental protection, we find in Ferry the same sort of superficial faith (this time in the “free market”) that Ferry finds intolerable in the “zealots” of Deep Ecology. For as Arran Gare points out in his recent study Postmodernisn and the Environmental Crisis, the much-ballyhooed use of market mechanisms to control environmental degradation–such as issuing pollution “shares” to restrict emissions to tolerable levels, and then allowing companies who exceed these levels to buy more shares from companies who meet the standards–may have been enthusiastically embraced by industries and business organizations, but in practice, they have failed to protect the environment. “In particular,” Gare writes,
it has been found that utilizing the market through the issuing of tradeable pollution rights, tradeable rights to exploit resources, has not achieved any significant reduction in pollution, diminution in the rate of exploitation of mineral reserves or reduction in the rate of destruction of resources… The only legislation that has had real effect has been absolute bans on the exploitation of animal species or the use or production of particular types of material… That such measures should have failed is a reflection of the limitations and defects of the market as a device for regulating economic, let alone social and political, activity. (77-8) Arran E. Gare, Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 77-8.
In light of Ferry’s thin–indeed nearly legalistic–concepts of democracy and liberal humanism, his apparent lack of knowledge in the nitty-gritty details of environmental reform (and, as we shall see in part II, in areas relevant to animal rights such as cognitive ethology), and because of his readiness to rely upon utterly reified oppositions between ideal types such as “democracy” and “totalitarianism,” moments such as the following cannot help but come off as pompous and somewhat comical, even if we agree in spirit with Ferry’s point:
Are the days of prophets, when the use of intelligence was limited, at times, to the choice of a “camp,” to be regretted? The most simplistic divisions–for or against revolution, capitalism, alienation, “symbolic force,” self-management, and so on–were enough to separate the good from the bad without any further examination of the issue being necessary… A sinister time, in truth, when the divisions between intellectuals, true professional ideologues, and experts riveted to their administrative careers enabled everyone to avoid the decisive questions. (139)
Clearly, we need more than this to tease out the symptomatics of Deep Ecology and its quite considerable appeal. Here, Fredric Jameson’s recent observations on the renascence of ecology and the idea of nature in postmodern society are particularly suggestive. Jameson points out how ecology in the postmodern moment operates at one and the same time as a genuinely utopian figure for a longed-for “outside” to global capitalism (to this extent it remains tied to the different category of “nature” and is something of a “modern” rather than properly “postmodern” category), and as an index of the failure of postmodern society to achieve that end.
As Jameson puts it in The Seeds of Time – in terms with some utility for exposing the ideology of Ferry’s position – “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism” (xii). Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. xii. Further references given in the text. What has happened, according to Jameson, is a sort of flip-flop of outside (nature) and inside (the economic, the social) under postmodernism, so that what was formerly “second nature” (the ideologically naturalized and reified economic and social relations of capitalism) has now become the first nature whose end it is impossible to imagine. Meanwhile, “ecology” has become what Jameson would call an “ideologeme” of postmodern culture, one which trades upon the concept of “nature“ ‘s residual, modernist utopian charge, while reproducing the systemic logic of the postmodern itself.
Nature, Jameson writes, is surely “the strong final term and content of whatever essence or axiomatic… whatever limit or fate may be posited.” In this sense, the end of nature “is surely the secret dream and longing” of postmodernism understood as the “cultural logic of late capitalism” (46). “Ecology,” however, “is another matter entirely,” Jameson writes; and what is at question is whether the “Nature” of postmodern ecology “is in any way to be thought of as somehow the same as that older ‘nature’ at whose domestication if not liquidation all Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought so diligently worked” (47).
As Jameson remarks, very much to the point here – and one can’t help but recall the expressed or residual misanthropy of some Deep Ecologists in this connection – is how concepts of nature are always inseparable from those of human nature. “A discipline necessarily directed toward the self and its desires and impulses; the learning of new habits of smallness, frugality, modesty, and the like; a kind of respect for otherness that sets a barrier to gratification” – all of these, Jameson reminds us, are “the ethical ideas and figures in terms of which new attitudes toward the individual and the collective self are proposed by (postmodern) ecology” (47). In Jameson’s view, then, postmodern ecology of the sort we find in Deep Ecology exemplifies “a self-policing attitude,” a “new style of restraint and ironic modesty and skepticism about the collective ambitions” of an earlier, modern “Promethean Utopianism” which was of a piece with revolutionary politics, and whose last gasp was the counter-culture movement of the sixties (48). In this light, the thou-shalt-not biocentrism of Deep Ecology is revealed to be of a piece with a broader “contemporary authoritarianism” in postmodern society – specifically in most of the parliamentary democracies, in which a “general pessimism, political apathy, the failure of the welfare state or of the various social democracies – all can be enlisted as causes in a general consent to the necessity for law-and-order regimes everywhere” (48). For Jameson, “Such regimes, which it may not be inappropriate to characterize as neo-Confucian…finally prove to be based on a renewed conception of human nature as something sinful and aggressive that demands to be held in check for its own good” (49).
I have dwelt at some length upon Jameson’s analysis to underscore the point that there is a useful way and a not so useful way to make the point Ferry wants to make about the overly zealous holism and “anti-modernism” of contemporary environmentalism as exemplified by Deep Ecology. Like Ferry, Jameson is essentially a modernist, if a much more ambivalent and complicated one, and would defend the modernist Prometheanism necessary for political change in terms more welcome to Ferry than to those of Deep Ecologists. But Jameson’s materialism and historicism provide precisely what is scrupulously avoided in Ferry’s defense of liberal humanism: a conjugation of the relations between concepts such as democracy in civil society and the economic structures that materialize or prevent them. In that light, Jameson’s analysis helps us ideologically locate not only the “new frugality” of contemporary environmentalism, but also the positive content, the material ground and effect, of what Ferry presents as the wholly negative, open-ended character of liberal humanism.
The essential conservatism of Ferry’s position is hard to spot at first because his framing of “the new ecological order” sets against the “fundamentalism” and moral puritanism of contemporary environmentalism the apparent openness and commitment to change–the ” uprootedness, or innovation ” as he puts it (xxi)–of the liberal humanist tradition he defends. Ferry contends that “the hatred of the artifice connected with our civilization of rootlessness” that we find in Deep Ecology “is also a hatred of humans as such. For man is the antinatural being par excellence” (xxviii). According to the blend of Rousseau and Kant with which Ferry identifies himself, the
“humanitas” of the human “resides in his freedom, in the fact that he is undefined, that his nature is to have no nature but to possess the capacity to distance himself from any code within which one may seek to imprison him. In other words: his essence is that he has no essence.
“Romantic racialism and historicism are thus inherently impossible,” Ferry continues. “For what is racism at its philosophical core if not the attempt to define a category of humans by its essence?” (5). There seems much to admire here and very little to condemn. Unfortunately – as with his concept of democracy – the reality of Ferry’s notion of the human is that it is a good deal less “open” and “innovative” than it at first appears. For as we shall see, even though Ferry condemns racism for its attempt to define a category of beings by its essence, this is precisely what Ferry’s liberal humanist speciesism does in relation to non-human others in his critique of animal rights philosophy.
One of the fundamental problems with Ferry’s discussion of animal rights is foreshadowed by his reliance upon ideal types and reified oppositions in his discussion of Deep Ecology: that he constantly presents as differences in kind what are only maitainable as differences in degree. Ferry consistently overstates the degree to which “the animal is programmed by a code which goes by the name of ‘instinct’ ” (5), and he consistently understates – likely out of ignorance, it seems – the degree to which new work in ethology has shown that many non-human animals demonstrate degrees of the volition, free will, and abstraction that Ferry is at great pains to protect as the sole domain of the human. Meanwhile, he consistently overstates the degree to which the human being “is nothing as determined by nature ” (9), not bound by instinct, biological needs and intolerances, by sexuality, the body, and so on. This is not to suggest that Ferry’s treatment of animal rights philosophy is as harsh as his attack on Deep Ecology. Ferry is clearly genuinely concerned with the ethical call upon us of non-human animals, and he is at some pains to try to do justice to the ethical relevance of the fact that animals, if they are not “man” (as he puts it), are also not “stone.” But Ferry’s relative receptivity to animal rights philosophy is less surprising when we remember that the philosophical basis for animal rights as put forward by its two most important practitioners – Peter Singer (in Animal Liberation) and Tom Regan (in The Case for Animal Rights) – is based squarely in the liberal philosophical tradition of utilitarianism (Singer) and Kantianism (Regan). As Ferry quite rightly notes, the animal rights argument “is inscribed in a democratic framework: in the tradition of Tocqueville, it counts on the progress of ‘the equality of conditions,’ so that, after the blacks of Africa, animals in turn enter the sphere of rights” (27).
The philosophical foundation for animal rights articulated by Singer in his Animal Liberation (often called the founding text of the animal rights movement) is relatively easy to state, and follows Jeremy Bentham’s well-known challenge to what would later come to be called speciesism:
What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty or reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, What would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (quoted in Ferry 27)
For Singer, beings who have a capacity to suffer – and this is very broadly construed, including not only physical pain but pyschological pain and anticipatory duress as well – have a demonstrable interest in avoiding suffering; and that means that such beings have a right to have those interests protected, to be regarded morally as ends in themselves and not, as Regan puts it – in a phrase with some resonance for specifying his revisionist relationship to Kant’s “indirect duty” view – “as mere ‘receptacles’ of valuable experiences” for humans. Peter Singer, “Prologue: Ethics and the New Animal Liberation Movement,” in In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 5. Further references in the text. And all of this is true, both Singer and Regan argue, regardless of the species of the being in question.
And if we propose a criterion other than suffering as the basis for distinguishing between beings who deserve ethical consideration and those who don’t – as the humanist tradition has a long history of doing – then the problem, as Singer points out, is that “Whatever the test we propose as a means of separating human from non-human animals, it is plain that if all non-human animals are going to fail it, some humans will fail as well.” This rejoinder, in turn, is often met by appeals to the potential of the human infant to outstrip, in time, her animal counterparts in intelligence, speech, etc., thus achieving a difference of subjectivity in kind from the non-human animal. But the problem with this reply, of course, is that a significant number of humans – the severly handicapped, say – do not possess those capacities and never will. “Why,” Singer asks, “do we lock up chimpanzees in appalling primate research centers and use them in experiments that range from the uncomfortable to the agonising and lethal, yet would never think of doing the same to a retarded human being at a much lower mental level?” (6). The only answer, Singer argues, is that we are not really using the usual humanist list of capacities – language, tool-use, reason, etc. – to decide the matter of ethical consideration here; rather, we are deciding solely on the basis of the being’s species. And to do that is to indulge in speciesism, which – like its cognates racism, sexism, and classism – discriminates against an other solely on the basis of its species and not on the basis of its capacities or qualities.
This does not mean, as Singer is quick to add, that non-human animals have the same rights as humans, or that all beings suffer equally in all situations. Indeed, both Singer and Regan go to some lengths to rebut this common misunderstanding about the idea of animal rights. See Singer’s Animal Liberation (New York: Avon), pp. 21-2, and Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, p. 324. As Singer points out, confining a herd of otherwise well cared-for cows to a single county for weeks would probably not infringe upon the interests of those animals; doing the same to the human inhabitants of that county probably would. What it does mean is that all beings who share the fundamental interest of avoiding suffering share it equally, and should therefore have the right to have that interest respected, regardless of species.
From Ferry’s point of view, the problem with Singer’s animal liberation position is that it is based upon a faulty fundamental assumption. In an articulation that expresses the very core of his difference with animal rights, Deep Ecology, and eco-feminism, Ferry writes: “The fundamental difference that separates utilitarianism from the humanism inherited from Rousseau and Kant,” is that for the latter, ” it is, on the contrary, the ability to separate oneself from interests (freedom) that defines dignity and makes the human being alone a legal subject ” (32). Singer “never considers the criteria of freedom defined as the faculty to separate oneself from nature, to resist selfish interests and inclinations” (36).
Here again, Ferry is right to alert us to the danger of naturalism in ethics harbored by Singer’s thesis. As the eco-feminist Carol Slicer has pointed out, in a somewhat different key, part of the problem with Singer’s position is that it holds “an ‘essentialist’ view of the moral worth of both human beings and animals”; that is, if we follow Singer we “propose a single capacity – the possession of interests” [or Singer’s “suffering”] – “for being owed moral consideration.” Deborah Slicer, “Your Daughter or Your Dog? A Feminist Assessment of the Animal Research Issue,” Hypatia 6: 1 (Spring 1991), p. 110. Slicer’s point is well-taken, but it is hard to see how Ferry could deploy such a critique, since his own basis for maintaining a categorical distinction between the human and non-human animal is to posit, precisely, a single and defining characteristic (“freedom”) as the basis for ethical consideration.
It is in part to meet the sort of objection to “essentialism” raised by Slicer – and, in a different register, by Ferry’s objection to Singer’s biologism – that Tom Regan, in The Case for Animal Rights, critiques the utilitarianism of Singer and broadens the concept of what he calls “inherent value” beyond the emphasis on suffering alone. As Regan puts it,
we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and our pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death – all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of those animals that concern us (the ones that are eaten and trapped, for example), they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own.
Tom Regan, “The Case for Animal Rights,” in Singer, ed., p. 22.
But Regan’s position, though it moves us beyond the biologism critiqued by Ferry, does not exactly dispose of the problem of essentialism that Slicer would find not only in Singer and Regan but in Ferry as well. Indeed, in this light, the problem with animal rights philosophy is not that it is anti-humanist, but rather that it is too humanist, insofar as it, like Ferry, proposes as the foundation for ethical consideration a single quality – namely the capacity for suffering broadly construed – that human beings turn out to possess in greatest abundance. Stephen Zak captures the problem nicely:
Lives don’t have to be the same to be worthy of equal respect. One’s perception that another life has value comes as much from an appreciation of its uniqueness as from the recognition that it has characteristics that are shared by one’s own life. (Who would compare the life of a whale to that of a marginal human being?)… The orangutan cannot be redescribed as the octopus minus, or plus, this or that mental characteristic: conceptually, nothing could be added to or taken from the octopus that would make it the equivalent of the oriole. Likewise, animals are not simply rudimentary human beings, God’s false steps, made before He finally got it right with us. Stephan Zak, “Ethics and Animals,” The Atlantic Monthly (March 1989), p. 70.
Zak lucidly locates a fundamental problem with animal rights philosophy in its current state of the art – and it is the problem that links it to Ferry’s own position. Even cthe liberal philosophical tradition, Ferry’s Rousseauistic/Kantian critique of animal rights encounters all sorts of difficulties. First, his reliance on “freedom” to serve as the ethical wedge between the human and non-human animal does nothing, despite his gestures to the contrary (42), to address the problem of the “lowest common denominator” raised by animal rights philosophy. Following Ferry, we would be forced to say that the encephalitic infant had no interests and rights, and could therefore be exploited as pure means (just as laboratory animals are) because it neither embodies nor has the capacity for the liberal “freedom” that insures ethical consideration. Ferry attempts at the end of his second chapter to forestall this pursuit of his humanism to its logical conclusions, but he can do so only at the price of an utterly question-begging and bare-faced resort to speciesism. “Why sacrifice a healthy chimpanzee over a human reduced to a vegetable state?,” Ferry asks.
If one were to adopt the criteria that says there is continuity between men and animals, Singer might be right to consider as “speciesist” the priority accorded human vegetables. If on the other hand we adopt the criteria of freedom, it is not unreasonable to admit that we must respect humankind, even in those who no longer manifest anything but its residual signs (42).
But of course, it is “unreasonable,” because in this instance Ferry isn’t relying upon the quality of “freedom” at all to ethically adjudicate the matter – the human vegetable, by his own admission, does not possess this quality – but only membership in a given species. And this, of course, is no better than the racism that would extend ethical consideration not on the basis of the qualities possessed by the beings involved but solely on the basis of their membership in a given race.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Ferry is unable to satisfactorily address an important issue raised by animal rights philosophy: that the discourse and practice of speciesism in the name of liberal humanism has historically been turned upon other humans as well. It is entirely to the point that the first chapter of Singer’s Animal Liberation is entitled “All Animals Are Equal, or why supporters of liberation for Blacks and Women should support Animal Liberation too” (1). And that point has recently been made quite graphically in eco-feminism, in texts such as Carol Adams’ flawed but nevertheless important study, The Sexual Politics of Meat, which demonstrates that the species system makes possible not only the systematic killing of many millions of animals a year for food, product testing, and research, but also provides a ready-made symbolic economy which overdetermines the representation of women by transcoding the edible bodies of animals and the sexualized bodies of women (chick, beaver, Playboy bunny) within an overarching “logic of domination.” The discourse and institution of speciesism, then, is by no means limited to its overwhelmingly direct and disproportionate effects upon non-humans. Indeed, as Gayatri Spivak puts it,
the great doctrines of identity of the ethical universal, in terms of which liberalism thought out its ethical programmes, played history false, because the identity was disengaged in terms of who was and who was not human. That’s why all of these projects, the justification of slavery, as well as the justification of Christianization, seemed to be alright; because, after all, these people had not graduated into humanhood, as it were. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Remembering the Limits: Difference, Identity and Practice,” in Socialism and the Limits of Liberalism, ed. Peter Osborne (London: Verso, 1991), p. 229.
To his credit, Ferry seems to recognize this problem. “This distinction between humanity and the animal kingdom seems to carry horrifying consequences in its wake” (12), he writes; “it is impossible to avoid racism and its political consequences if one subscribes to the belief that primitive man cannot attain authentic humanity due to his essence or nature” (13). “But this was not,” he writes, “the Aufklärer’s response” (13); for liberal humanism,
this difference is not inscribed in a definition, in a racial essence. We are forced to agree with Musil that a “cannibal taken from the cradle to a European setting will no doubt become a good European and that the delicate Rainer Maria Rilke would have become a good cannibal had destiny, to our great loss, cast him at a tender age among the sailors of the South Seas.” (14)
But what such an example demonstrates is not so much, as Ferry thinks, the progressivism of Enlightenment humanism, but rather the question-begging concept of “freedom” in his own critique. For how can Ferry locate the basis of ethical consideration in freedom, defined “by perfectibility, by the capacity to break away from natural or historical determinations” (15), and at the same time praise how Enlightenment culture recognizes (as in Musil’s example), precisely, the force of historical determination to wholly shape one’s character? Ferry attempts to salvage this point by holding to an impossible distinction between “a simple factual situation, even if it is intangible like belonging to one of the two sexes” (!), and “a determination which in some sense shapes us outside of all voluntary activity” (115). Here as throughout, Ferry is desperate to maintain as differences in kind what can only be defended as differences in degree. It is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, for as both Spivack and Adams suggest, you don’t need the argument from “racial essence” to justify oppression if you can control the discourses and institutions that reduce human beings to the status of objects. No one believes that human women have no more free will and control over the finality of their actions than a cow or pig; but that doesn’t stop the use of the discourse of specieism in the oppression of women. As was the case with Ferry’s use of the term “democracy,” “freedom” in his humanist lexicon turns out to be a good deal less free – and a good deal more historically and socially specific – than he would would have us believe.
In some places, for example, he holds that freedom is the ability “to separate oneself from interests” (32), “the faculty to separate oneself from nature, to resist selfish interests and inclinations” (36). The problem with this formulation, of course, is that it obviously applies to a number of non-human animals as well. As a great deal of very prominent work in ethology, field ecology, cognitive ethology, and ape language experiments over the past twenty years has shown, the “defining” characteristics of the distinctly human–language, tool-use, tool- making, social behavior, altruism, and so on–have been found to be not so “defining” after all. Whether in academic studies such as Marc Bekoff and Dale Jamieson’s Interpretation and Explanation in the Study of Animal Behavior, Marian Stamp Dawkins’ Through Our Eyes Only?: The Search for Animal Consciousness, Donald R. Griffin’s Animal Minds, or in rather more popular texts like Singer and Paola Cavalieri’s The Great Ape Project and the recent When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, See Marc Bekoff and Dale Jamieson, eds, Interpretation and Explanation in the Study of Animal Behavior, Vol. 1 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990); Marian Stamp Dawkins, Through Our Eyes Only? The Search for Animal Consciousness (Oxford: W. H. Freeman/Spektrum, 1992); Donald Griffin, Animal Minds (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals (New York: Delacorte, 1995). it has become clear that some non-human animals–chimpanzees, for instance –
share with us tool-making and tool-using capacities, the faculty for (non-verbal) language, a hatred of boredom, an intelligent curiosity towards their environment, love for their children, intense fear of attack, deep friendships, a horror of dismemberment, a reportoire of emotions and even the same capacity for exploitive violence that we so often show towards them. Richard Ryder, “Sentientism,” in The Great Ape Project, ed. Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p. 220.
This list can be – and has been by a diverse array of scholars – expanded in great detail to include self-awareness, the ability to regularly engage in both deceptive and altruistic behavior, and many another quality thought for centuries to be exclusively human. This body of work makes it abundantly clear that many non-human animals “separate themselves from selfish interests and inclinations” all the time, as a matter of course.
In other places, Ferry seems to realize the futility of the “freedom from instinct” strategy, and offers instead a tortured argument that, “because of this capacity to act in a nonmechanical fashion, oriented by a goal,” the animal is an ” analogon of a free being” (46), that “life, defined as ‘the faculty to act according to the representation of a goal,’ is an analogue of freedom ” (54). The problem with this rather desperate gambit, however, is that it assimilates “life” in general to goal-oriented behavior, while declaring beside the point the complex forms of social interaction, communication, and self-awareness that would seem very much to the ethical point. Such a formulation would force us to crudely lump the mountain gorilla in with the amoeba (both are instances of “goal-oriented” “life”), but clearly the mountain gorilla – for reasons not addressed by this formulation – has much more in common with homo sapiens.
Finally, Ferry attempts to raise the bar of “freedom” and the “distinctly human” once again. In almost the only place in the book where he seems to be vaguely aware of the explosion of revisionist work in ethology in the past twenty years, he writes,
one can cite the suicide of whales – an indication that they too can distance themselves from their natural tendency – the language of monkeys and dolphins, the capacity of certain animals to manipulate tools in order to realize their objectives, not to mention canine devotion or feline independence… The problem, of course, is that this separation from the commandments of nature is not transmitted from one generation to the next as a history. A separation from natural norms only becomes evident when it engenders a cultural universe… (6)
In his desperate attempt to maintain the species barrier, Ferry first tries out “freedom from instinct,” then freedom versus the “analogue” of “goal-oriented behavior,” and finally cultural transmission. Aside from begging the question, ” why is the transmission of cultural behavior from one generation to the next ethically fundamental (“freedom from nature,” the crux of the whole Kantian/Rousseauian position Ferry espouses, would fall well to this side of “cultural transmission”)?; and aside from providing an eerie echo of similar statements made during the past two centuries about “primitive” societies, for whom culture would seem to be a form of constraint and continuity, and would thereby run afoul of Ferry’s ethnocentric view of cultural as “innovation” and “uprootedness”; and aside from leaving completely untouched the ethical relevance of the “lowest common denominator” problem raised by animal rights – aside from all that, Ferry would seem to have his facts wrong. For as Jane Goodall points out
We can speak of the history of a chimpanzee community, where major events –an epidemic, a kind of primitive “war,” a “baby boom” – have marked the reigns of the five top-ranking alpha males we have known. And we find that individual chimpanzees can make a difference to the course of chimpanzee history, as is the case with humans…
Chimpanzees, like humans, can learn by observation and imitation, which means that if a new adaptive pattern is “invented” by a particular individual, it can be passed on to the next generation. Thus we find that while the various chimpanzee groups that have been studied in different parts of Africa have many behaviors in common, they also have their own distinctive traditions. This is particularly well-documented with respect to tool-using and tool-making behaviours. Chimpanzees use more objects as tools for a greater variety of purposes than any creature except ourselves, and each population has its own tool-using cultures.
One can only imagine that Ferry’s response to this would be to raise the bar once again, so that only those who have read all of Kant’s Critiques and passed the exegesis on to their grandchildren would be eligible for ethical consideration!
In the pragmatist vein whose epistemological and political complexities I have elsewhere articulated, See my “Making Contingency Safe for Liberalism: In Search of Post-Humanist Theory: The Second-Order Cybernetics of Maturana and Varela,” Cultural Critique 30 (Spring 1995), pp. 33-70, and the forthcoming Critical Environments. it is perfectly possible to argue that taking account of the ethical relevance of the work of ethologists like Goodall does not mean committing ourselves to naturalism in ethics. From a pragmatist point of view, all it means is that, in the language-game or discourse called “ethics,” we are obliged – not least because ethics cannot ground itself in a representationalist relation to the object – to apply consistently, without prejudice toward species or anything else, the rules we devise for determining subjectivity, personhood, and all other ethically relevant traits and behaviors. We need not cling to any empiricist notion about what Goodall or anyone else has discovered about non-human animals–any more than we need to do the same for our knowledge of human beings – to insist that when our generally agreed-upon markers for ethical consideration are observed in species other than homo sapiens, we are obliged to take them into account and to respect them accordingly. This amounts to nothing more than taking the humanist conceptualization of the problem at its word and then being rigorous about it – and then showing how humanism must, if rigorously pursued, generate its own deconstruction once these “defining” characteristics are found beyond the species barrier. But this, of course, is precisely what Ferry is unable and unwilling to do.
In the end, then, it is Ferry’s “human,” and not the non-human animal, who is “the enigmatic being,” the “dreamed object” – “enigmatic” because incoherent, and “dreamed” because an imaginary subject, a fantasy. And yet, for all that, quite familiar. For as both George Bataille (in Theory of Religion) and Jacques Derrida (in “Eating Well” and “Force of Law”) remind us, the humanist concept of subjectivity is inseparable from the discourse and institution of speciesism, which relies upon the tacit acceptance – and nowhere more clearly than in Ferry’s beloved Kant, as Slavoj Zizek has noted – that the full transcendence of the “human” requires the sacrifice of the “animal” and the animalistic, which in turn makes possible a symbolic economy in which we can engage in a “non-criminal putting to death” (as Derrida puts it) of not only animals, but other humans as well by marking them as animal. See George Bataille, Theory of Religion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1992), esp. pp. 17-61; “ ‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” in Who Comes After the Subject?, ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Conner, and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 96-119; Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law,” Cardozo Law Review 11: 919 (1990), pp. 951, 953. For a fuller discussion of these issues, see Cary Wolfe and Jonathan Elmer, “Subject to Sacrifice: Ideology, Psychoanalysis, and the Discourse of Species in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs,” Boundary 2, 22:3 (Fall 1995), pp. 141-170.
To talk about the “discourse” of species is to focus our attention, as Bataille and Derrida do, upon a systematic logic that operates in the same way as its cognates, racism and sexism. Like those, it operates on the basis of a disavowal or repression of difference and materiality, of the “pathological” element (to use Kant’s term) that infects and corrupts what Ferry tells us is the properly “human” effort toward transcendence. It may be the case, as Ferry argues, that ethics is always ineluctably human, always about human concepts and not about objects; but what Ferry’s concept of “the human” fails to acknowledge – indeed his project depends on its disavowal – is what Zizek calls “humanism’s self-destructive dimension.” Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992), p. 26. As Zizek puts it,
The subject “is” only insofar as the Thing (the Kantian Thing in itself as well as the Freudian impossible-incestuous object, das Ding) is sacrificed, “primordially repressed”… This “primordial repression” introduces a fundamental imbalance in the universe: the symbolically structured universe we live in is organized around a void, an impossibility (the inaccessibility of the Thing in itself). Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 181. Further references in the text.
“Therein,” Zizek continues, “consists the ambiguity of the Enlightenment”; the transcendence of the Enlightenment subject is shadowed by “a fundamental prohibition to probe too deeply into the obscure origins, which betrays a fear that by doing so, one might uncover something monstrous” (136).
We could scarcely do better than Zizek’s characterization to provide a thumbnail psychoanalysis of Ferry’s The New Ecological Order. But to broach the question of the institution of speciesism, as Derrida does with particular force in “Eating Well,” is to insist we pay attention to the asymmetrical material effects of these discourses upon particular groups; just as the discourse of sexism effects women disproportionately (even though it may theoretically be applied to any social other of whatever gender), so the effects of the discourse of speciesism fall overwhelmingly, in institutional terms, on non-human others. But the effectiveness of the discourse of species when applied to social others of whatever sort relies upon a prior taking for granted of the institution of speciesism – that is, the ethical acceptability of the killing of non-human others. What this means is that the ethical priority of confronting the institution of speciesism, and the pressing question of the ethical standing of non-human others, does not depend upon whether or not you like animals. Rather, it involves stakes for us all, human and non-human alike.