Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The new is the new post now that we are post post, but perhaps we should be post new Turn, Or, Why I am so Meta.


Once upon a time we were always already post once upon a time. We also had postmodern conditions (or was that conditions of postmodernity?). We were poststructuralists, and postmarxists, and postcolonialists (absolutely postcolonial!), even post-continental (or post-continental in this way or post-continental in that way?). But after such a long explosion of postness, we became post post. We were so post post that by the time Wolfe's What is Posthumanism? came out it already felt a little anachronistic. Too late for the party, but not so late it was retro or vintage--the homemade, handwoven theory like Grandma use to make.  

But now everything is NEW! We are new realists and new materialists, we are new atheists and new weirdests, we are new modernists and new vitalists. (Are there new new historicists?). New, like post, is a temporal relationship to the root word that sometimes raises more questions than it answers. Is the new a repetition, reiteration, return, revolution, and/or a revival and revitalization? Just like the confusion of the post, is the new pledging fidelity or is it promising a break?

The post always promised something new, and the new is always promising something post. As one ends, another beings. Theory is dead. Long live theory! 

***

I came into grad school somewhere in the middle of the post turn toward new. The big new fad when I started was to call everything a turn. A decolonial turn, a speculative turn, a nonhuman turn, etc. This clearly hasn't ended. And indeed, Richard Grusin speaks of a "turn fatigue" in his introduction to The Nonhuman Turn.  He goes on to explain:
Having sketched out a very partial genealogy of the nonhuman turn, I conclude with a brief look at an even longer genealogy—the etymology and changing definitions of the word turn—as a way to return to the question of “turn fatigue.” While it is true that critical “turns” have proliferated in the past few decades almost as a form of academic branding, the idea of a “nonhuman” turn provides a different
perspective on what it means to name an intellectual movement a “turn.” In fact, if we take a look at the definitions of the word turn as presented in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we can see that nonhuman materiality and movement have been part of the meaning of the word from its inception. Originating in fifteenth century Middle English, with roots back through Anglo-Norman to Latin and Greek, turn is used in English as an action noun involved with nonhuman movement and change. The OED divides its various meanings under five main headings. The first meaning of turn, as “rotation,” is tied to the physical technology of the wheel and entails nonhuman movement around an axis or central point, as in the turns of the hand of a clock or the phrase “as the world turns.” “Change of direction or course,” the second sense of turn, describes physical movement or change without the idea of rotating or revolving around a fixed center, as when a river turns around a bend or a rider turns his horse in a certain direction. The third meaning, “change in general,” drops the sense of turn as physical movement and applies it to moments of transition, as in the turn of the season, the year, or the century. The fourth sense, which groups instances of turn as “actions of various kinds,” includes the affectivity of turn in phrases like “bad turn” or “evil turn” or in sayings like “One good turn deserves another.” The fifth sense of turn as “occasion” operates temporally—referring not to change or movement in space but to the movement of action through time. In this sense turn describes behavior that fosters (or counters) collectivity, especially as turn refers to the time an action comes around to an individual, or when one fulfills one’s obligation to serve—as when one takes one’s turn or when one’s turn comes around, or conversely when one acts or speaks out of turn. In this interesting sense of the word, it is agency or action, not wheels or rivers, that rotates among individuals or changes course or direction.
Describing the nonhuman turn as a shift of attention, interest, or concern toward nonhumans keeps in mind the physicality and movement involved in the idea of a turn, how the nonhuman turn must be understood as an embodied turn toward the nonhuman world, including the nonhumanness that is in all of us. Rehearsing these various senses of the word turn lets me defend and reclaim its use to account for the change of direction or course in twenty-first century studies toward a concern with nonhumans. This nonhuman turn could be said to mark in one sense the rotation or revolutions of academic fashion. But in another sense this turn could also help to provoke a fundamental change of circumstances in the humanities in the twenty-first century. Insofar as a turn is an action, movement, or change, it also functions as a means of translation or mediation in the Latourian sense, indeed as a means of remediation or premediation. A turn is invariably oriented toward the future. Even a turn back is an attempt to turn the future around, to prevent a future that lies ahead. (xix-xx). 
That's a good argument. And even though I am clearly making a bit of good-natured fun of post and new, I am most clearly grouped with an intellectual movement that follows the tired academic framing of critical X studies, which, as Craig McFarlane use to joke, the only problem with critical animal studies is the words critical, animal, and studies (I can't find the paper with this joke, but it's so good). But I also tend to think that so much of the fatigue of academic nomenclature by academics has more to do with a desire to refuse our family resemblances and to pretend to always having untimely mediations. So, contra Grusin, perhaps turns and posts and news are not about the future, but rather about the now. While the post-new turn tries to establish temporal relationships of futures and pasts, the time we most are enacting is a fidelity to the nowness, the timelines, the hic et nunc of of our work. Against pretensions toward untimely mediations and eternal questions we need more scholarship toward the ephemeral and the immediate. Perhaps this is the new idea we need as we turn post all these pretensions, a simple attention to what Boaventura de Sousa Santos has called the expansion of the present

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Trumped-up Theory: On Donald Trump's appeal

Over the last few months on facebook, there has been some really interesting connections of the rise of Trump and various theoretical reflections. I'm collecting the ones I remember here.


The fascist leader types are frequently called hysterical. No matter how their attitude is arrived at, their hysterical behavior fulfills a certain function. Though they actually resemble their listeners in most respects, they differ from them in an important one: they know no inhibitions in expressing themselves. They function vicariously for their inarticulate listeners by doing and saying what the latter would like to, but either cannot or dare not. They violate the taboos which middle-class society has put upon any expressive behavior on the part of the normal, matter-of-fact citizen. One may say that some of the effect of fascist propaganda is achieved by this break-through. The fascist agitators are taken seriously because they risk making fools of themselves.
Educated people in general found it hard to understand the effect of Hitler’s speeches because they sounded so insincere, ungenuine, or, as the German word goes, verlogen. But it is a deceptive idea, that the so-called common people have all unfailing flair for the genuine and sincere, and disparage fake. Hitler was liked, not in spite of his cheap antics, but just because of them, because of his false tones and his clowning.
Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, pp. 224-225 (h/t to Joshua S. for the idea of comparing Donald Trump's appeal to Adorno on fascism, all the way back in July. I highly suggest reading the whole chapter on fascist propaganda, it is amazingly apt).


Just as monstrous and mutant algae invade the lagoon of Venice, so our television screens are populated, saturated, by 'degenerate' images and statements. In the field of social ecology, men like Donald Trump are permitted to proliferate freely, like another species of algae, taking over entire districts of New York and Atlantic City; he 'redevelops' by raising rents, thereby driving out tens of thousands of poor families, most of whom are condemned to homelessness, becoming the equivalent of the dead fish of environmental ecology.
Felix Guattari, Three Ecologies, p. 29. (h/t to Dominic P. for this insight)

Here is  Jamelle Bouie using Umberto Eco to argue that Trump is a fascist.
One of the most-read takes on fascism comes from Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco in an essay for the New York Review of Books titled “Ur-Fascism.” Eco emphasizes the extent to which fascism is ad hoc and opportunistic. It’s “philosophically out of joint,” he writes, with features that “cannot be organized into a system” since “many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanacticism.” With that said, it is true that there are fascist movements, and it’s also true that when you strip their cultural clothing—the German paganism in Nazism, for example—there are common properties. Not every fascist movement shows all of them, but—Eco writes—“it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it." Eco identifies 14, but for this column, I want to focus on seven. They are: A cult of “action for action’s sake,” where “thinking is a form of emasculation”; an intolerance of “analytical criticism,” where disagreement is condemned; a profound “fear of difference,” where leaders appeal against “intruders”; appeals to individual and social frustration and specifically a “frustrated middle class” suffering from “feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups”; a nationalist identity set against internal and external enemies (an “obsession with a plot”); a feeling of humiliation by the “ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies”; a “popular elitism” where “every citizen belongs to the best people of the world” and underscored by contempt for the weak; and a celebration of aggressive (and often violent) masculinity.
Read the rest here.


And lastly, here is Judd Legum using Roland Barthes on pro wrestling to explain Trump's style and appeal. Quoting Barthes:
This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.
Legum then adds, "In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair." Read the rest here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Animals and the banality of evil

I had been teaching Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in my Moral Philosophy class, and this is my first time teaching this book. On the second day of teaching it, I wondered how class discussion was going to happen, because I kinda felt that Arendt's points were both obvious and unobjectionable. Instead the class was split between those who were deeply critical of the idea of the banality of evil, and those, like myself, who found it obviously true. This class made me wonder if my work around how we treat animals makes me more likely to buy Arendt's argument (it also makes me want to teach J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals the next time I teach this book). So while I am sure I am not even close to being the first person to have this insight (I really should google this), but what follows is a summary of Arendt's work on the banality of evil, and its intersection with our treatment of other animals.


***

While the subtitle of Eichmann in Jerusalem is the banality of evil, the phrase actually appears only twice in the book. The first time as the last words of the last formal chapter of the book, and the second time it occurs within postscript of the book. But despite the paucity of the phrase, much of the book is structured around explaining the concept. The banality of evil is not about some sort of minor or unimportant evil. It is not about, as this SMBC comic puts it, the semi-hitlers of history, like the person who leaves his dishes out until his roommate has to do them. Rather the banality of evil describes a societal inversion.
And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody "Thou shalt not kill," even though man's natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler's land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: "Thou shalt kill," although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it - the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation. (150)
So evil which had once been rare, exceptional, and anomalous has become normalized, common, and banal. For Arendt this does not reduce the horror of the evil, rather it intensifies the horror of the evil.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly an terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied [...] that this new type of criminal, who is in actual act hostis generis humani, commits his crime - under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (276)
When I was discussing this with my brother, we talked about how this is one of the reasons that animal activism and scholarship comes again and again to the Holocaust, the genocides of settler colonialism, and chattel slavery. It is not to engage in the analogy of victimhood, which not only insults everyone involved, but as I have argued elsewhere, they also do not provide particularly useful models for even understanding our treatment of animals. Rather, we return again and again to these issues in order to trace something like the essential questions of the banality of evil. How is it that we live and love among people who find nothing wrong in something we find to be a world historical crime? How do we deal with the fact that we ourselves have been complicit with this crime for so long? How do we face the fact that we probably cannot fully disentangle ourselves from this crime? How do we provoke a sense of responsibility in a world, that as Adorno put it, "[e]ven the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter" (Prisms 34)?

***

We also come back to the banality of evil because of our feelings as a vegan killjoy (see also Richard Twine's article). Vegans and vegetarians are constantly being judged for our very existence, even if we are not advocating anything at the time. And if we do engage in advocacy? We are told again and again that we cannot engage in judgement. Which brings us back to Arendt. "As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solutuion" (116). Arendt further explains how Eichmann, who was not particularly important in the party, was asked to the meeting to plan the Final Solution to serve as a secretary for the meeting. This meeting was important for Eichmann.
Although he had been doing his best right along to help with the Final Solution, he had still harbored some doubts about "such a bloody solution through violence," and these doubts had now been dispelled. "Here now, during this conference, the most prominent people had spoken, the Popes of the Third Reich." Now he could see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears that not only Hitler, not only Heydrich or the "sphinx" Müller, not just the S.S. or the Party, but the elite of the good old Civil Service were vying and fighting with each other for the honor of taking the lead in these "bloody" matters. "At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt." (114)
At this point Arendt comments, "Who was he to judge? Who was he "to have [his] own thoughts in this matter"? Well, he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty" (114, emphasis in original). To try to be moral in the banality of evil requires one not be ruined by their own modesty, and to have their own thoughts in the matter.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Short Reflections on Deleuze

Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Gilles Deleuze. The LA Review of Books has put together six essays reflecting on Deleuze today. My particular favorite among them was Brian Massumi's. The essay is remarkably strong about tracing the importance of Deleuze on thinking about thinking so that we may produce concepts otherwise. But it also contained this very funny paragraph about the success of Deleuze:
Fast forward to the present. Deleuze is one of the most cited authors around. He is everywhere, to the point that Deleuze fatigue is palpable in many quarters. One is as apt to hear his surname preceded by “The Church of” as by “Gilles.” The publication of scholarly volumes whose titles begin with “Deleuze and …” has reached industrial proportions. The “minor” figures Deleuze drew on have been rediscovered, largely through his work, and each has spawned a mini-industry of its own (with the exception of Ruyer, and he is coming). The Deleuze Studies journal is finishing its ninth year, and the annual international conference associated with it is preceded by a weeklong “Deleuze Camp.” Seriously. It is actually called that.
As I said on facebook, when I was younger I belonged heavily to the Church of Deleuze, nowadays I am more more like high holidays Deleuzian, culturally Deleuzian. I like the music, you know? But I also want to spend a few minutes to talk about what Deleuze meant for me.

He was the first thinker I became obsessed about. I encounter Anti-Oedipus when I was 18, and taking my first philosophy class, Contemporary French Philosophy, taught by Jason Wirth. The summer between my first and second year of college was very brutal and hard for various personal reasons, and I engaged in the same coping mechanisms I use to this day. Namely, I threw myself into working through hard philosophy. I picked up a copy of A Thousand Plateaus from Barnes and Nobles, and did my best. I didn't, couldn't, read it cover to cover. But I took their permission seriously that I could pick and choose chapters. It would not be an exaggeration to say I spent the rest of undergrad, and no small part of grad school, writing various papers that simply meditations on Deleuze, regardless of what I was actually assigned. In one of my first papers for grad school, which was Kafka, the law, and animals I was told by the professor that I could not just parachute Deleuze in at the end of my paper to save the day. When I got married, we ended up with a groom's cake that was made to look like my copy of ATP (it was a very good wedding).


There are lots of things that drew me to Deleuze, but the most important parts, the parts that have stayed, are the lessons I learned about how doing philosophy and the task of thinking. Deleuze wrote again and again that philosophy is a practice of experimentation and experience over interpretation. I was free to play around in Deleuze's backyard because I was told it wasn't a matter of getting it correct, it was a matter of producing something worth thinking. While scholarship and rigor are perhaps important standards for philosophy, for Deleuze it was provocation, production, and potency. Philosophy mattered to the degree it was able to do something. So many different kinds of doing: making weapons, clearing paths for fleeing, making demonic alliances, producing a new people and a new earth, harming stupidity and cliches, creating concepts. Deleuze presented the task of philosophy in its grandiosity, but it always democratic and egalitarian, and suspicious of major, royal, and macro interpretations. While dominate institutions may wish to put philosophy to its own work, philosophy and thinking always are the weapons of the oppressed, of the minors who are excluded from majoritarian images of thought. Philosophy was for the peoples and races who could not find themselves within the reflections of the world around them. Deleuze didn't always get it right, but you always knew what side he wanted to be on, and you always knew what side he felt philosophy served.

There are reasons that I often call myself a recovering deleuzian, or make other jokes distancing me from his work. There are lots of ways I no longer find myself in his writings. However, his understanding of philosophy is still my own, and I am still pretty happy that the epigraph of this blog comes the last work co-authored with Guattari. "The agony of the rat or the slaughter of a calf remains present in thought not through pity but as the zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into the other." - What Is Philosophy?

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Species Contract and Speciescraft

An ingenious philosopher has lately denied, that animals can enter into contracts, and thinks this an essential difference between them and the human creature:—but does not daily observation convince us, that they form contracts of friendship with each other, and with mankind? When puppies and kittens play together, is there not a tacit contract, that they will not hurt each other? And does not your favorite dog expect you should give him his daily food, for his services and attention to you? And thus barters his love for your protection? In the same manner that all contracts are made amongst men, that do not understand each others arbitrary language. -- Erasmus Darwin, Zoönomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, Vol. 1.

Can we include other animals into a social contract model of justice and fairness? The historic answer to this question is somewhere between no and hell no. Rawls famously cannot include animals as subjects of justice, only of compassion (which is doing slightly better than Kant). And while there have been some gestures to refute Rawls from within something like his system (for example see Mark Rowlands' discussion of the Original Position in Animals Like Us, or Paola Cavalieri and Will Kymlicka's "Expanding the Social Contract") most have taken the social contract position as impossible for including animals. As Martha Nussbaum explains in Frontiers of Justice, "the asymmetry of power between humans and nonhuman animals is too great to imagine any contract we might make with them as a real contract. Certainly, we cannot imagine that the contract would actually be for mutual advantage" (334). But this isn't the end of the story. The move to exclude animals from the social contract by Rawls, which Nussbaum sees as obviously necessary (and therefore a problem with contract theory), is not shared by all, who have long advocated human domination of other animals based upon contract theory.



This view of contract theory sees domestication as a contract between other animals and humans, in which humans and animals enter into a relationship of mutual advantage. This has been termed the "Ancient Contract" by the popular history and science writer Stephen Budiansky in a magazine article, and later developed in his book the The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. This idea has had a wide influence on other popular writers justifying our rearing and eating animals. Temple Grandin cites Budiansky specifically in Thinking in Pictures:

Recently I read an article that had a profound effect on my thinking. It was entitled "The Ancient Contract" by S. Budiasky, and it was published in the March 20. 1989, issue of U.S. News & World Report. It presented a natural historical view of our evolving relationship with animals. This view presents a middle ground between the supporters of animal rights, who believe that animals are equal to humans, and the Cartesian view, which treats animals as machines with no feelings. I added the biological concept of symbiosis to Budiasky's view. A symbiotic relationship is a mutually beneficial relationship between two different species. For example, biologists have learned that ants tend aphids and use them as "dairy cows." The ants feed the aphids. and in return the aphids give a sugar substance to the ants. People feed, shelter, and breed cattle and hogs, and in return the animals provide food and clothing. We must never abuse them, because that would break the ancient contract. We owe it to the animals to give them decent living conditions and a painless death. (235)

We can continue this understanding with Michael Pollan's telling a very similar story from The Omnivore's Dilemma:
For domesticated species, the good life, if we can call it that, cannot be achieved apart from humans -- apart from our farms and, therefore, our meat eating. This, it seems to me, is where animal rightists betray a profound ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of enslavement or even exploitation is to misconstrue the whole relationship, to project a human idea of power onto what is, in fact, an instance of mutualism between species. Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans imposed on animals some 10,000 years ago. Rather, domestication happened when a small handful of especially opportunistic species discovered through Darwinian trial and error that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection, in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk and eggs and -- yes -- their flesh. Both parties were transformed by the relationship: animals grew tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves (evolution tends to edit out unneeded traits), and the humans gave up their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled life of agriculturists. (Humans changed biologically, too, evolving such new traits as a tolerance for lactose as adults.) From the animals' point of view, the bargain with humanity has been a great success, at least until our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished. (There are 10,000 wolves in North America, 50,000,000 dogs.) (p. 320)
What both Grandin and Pollan make clear is what is usually so hidden in contract theory. My title the species contract should be an obvious reference to Carole Pateman's The Sexual Contract, Charles Mills' The Racial Contract, and their joint work Contract and Domination. A shared insight of these works pointed out early in Pateman's The Sexual Contract is:
The genius of contract theorists has been to present both the original and actual contracts as exemplifying and securing original freedom. On the contrary, in contract theory universal freedom is always an hypothesis, a story, a political fiction. Contract always generates political right in the form of relations of domination and subordination. (8)
Grandin and Pollan seem to not mind at all that the Species Contract does guarantee freedom at all, but domination and subordination justify only upon a story of mutual benefit. And we can spend the time explaining how their view of contract theory either cannot fit into a model of justice as fairness (à la Nussbuam), or we can spend the time laying out that domination is built into the contract model (à la Pateman and Mills). Both would be good benefits of our time, but I want to point out something else.

There is something about the model of the ancient contract that could be attractive to us. It gives agency to the animals rather than keeping them as mere objects, and it puts them within a political relationship. Except, weirdly, it doesn't do this at the same time it does this! Let's look at the rather incredible passage by Pollan in a bit more detail. Pollan posits that domestication is "natural" and "evolutionary" and as such it is "rather than political." So on the one hand Pollan is telling the oldest state of nature story ever, something that could come out of Hobbes or Locke. And while he does not use the language of an ancient contract, there is a reason his story looks so much like hers. The animals surrender some of their rights in exchange for the protections from the humans. It is a moment of declared 'mutualism,' of the creation of an 'alliance.' So this moment which is naturalized and depoliticized is also at the same time the most classical formulation of the political story. We are left then, with a very weird maneuver. An apolitical political story. A contract that is never a contract but merely nature. The state of nature never really disappears, the moment of artifice (and again, what else is domestication?) that defines the change from state of nature to civil society is repressed by Pollan. This is probably one of the scariest things about his pseudo-evolutionary metaphysics, the utter suppression of any political or ethical moment. Thus we have something that looks like a really bad joke. When is a contract not a contract? When it is a species contract!
This ability to both advance a theory of artifice with one hand while naturalizing it all with the second is something I want to call, following the work of Karen and Barbara Fields, speciescraft. In the Fields' book, Racecraft, they articulate how their concept of racecraft works in relationship to race and racism. Race is the social construction that tries to tie together morphology, ancestry, cultural, and pigmentation into something real and coherent. Racism is the creation of social, legal, economic, and political double standards based upon race. Racecraft is the what allows the obvious artificial reality of race and racism seem natural. Racecraft is what turns the political and historical categories of race and structures of racism into something normal, natural, inevitable, and therefore ahistorical, apolitical, and amoral. While not a perfect theoretical port, and a longer argument would need to attend to the tensions and differences, speciescraft is the name we can give to the movement to turn speciesism into a natural and inevitable state of affairs. It is because of the magic of speciescraft that Pollan and Grandin can retail stories of foundational political moments into natural relationships and still seem to be making coherent arguments. If we can combat speciescraft when examining the species contract, we can take at least one form of hope. The species contract tells a story of political artifice, and that means our relationship to other animals is not destiny, and we can do the work to build different relationships, and different models of justice. The inevitability of human domination of other animals is contestable and changeable.



As a sort of ps, here are few things that you might want to read that I couldn't figure out how to work into this version, but would work into a longer form. First, Pateman is critical of the idea of what I am calling a species contract, and she called a beastial contract. See Pateman, "The Sexual Contract and the Animals" (which sent me down the citational hole to the Erasmus Darwin quotation at the top). I am not the only who has noticed that some people use the language of contracts to justify their domination of nonhuman animals. Make sure to check out my brother's discussion of contracts in his dissertation, "Happy Meals." Also, see Clare Palmer's "The Idea of the Domesticated Animal Contract," Sunaura Taylor's "Beasts of Burden," and for a popular version this James McWilliams post. And yeah, a totally just stole stuff I wrote on this blog six years ago, but that is what blogging is for, right?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Vindication of the Rights of Vegetables, or, Plant Theory and Planted Theory

I am about a third of the way through Jeffrey T. Nealon's Plant Theory: Biopower & Vegetable Life, and considering it just came in the mail yesterday evening, that is a good sign for the book. This is not a review of his book (see the only a third part), but so far it is engaging and well-written. If you are interested in biopolitical studies, you almost certainly should read it. While this is not a review of Nealon's book, it is another in the almost never ending blog posts about the relationship between animal ethics and plant ethics. Now, most of my views are in this post (and wow, I need to learn to write a second part in multi-part posts), and I don't plan to be recovering most of that ground. However, I want to use this post to think about some of the concerns that comes from critical animal scholars about plant theory. It is probably unfair to do this with the arrival of Nealon's book, because (1) I haven't finished reading it yet, and (2) nothing I am saying is specific to his book. However, his claims to think plant theory and animal studies together and closer than it has before is provocative, and this is what it provokes.



One of the things that is hard to engage with, in Nealon's book, is how open he is that the inspiration came from being at the MLA and trying to decide how animals had become "the next big thing" in theory. And he shortly follows that up by accusing animal scholars of a "refusal to consider vegetable life within its biopolitical frame seems to function as a subset of an old practice: trying to close the barn door of ethical consideration right after your chosen group has gotten out of the cold of historical neglect" (xii). These remarks speak rather directly to the suspicions people within critical animal studies might have towards plant theory. The first suspicion is that plant theory, or critical plant studies or what have you, is operating somewhat like Thomas Taylor's Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, which sought to undermine Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (I talk about Taylor briefly, and include his amazing closing paragraph, in this old post on plants). The goal of Taylor's track was satire, which he sought to achieve by extending some of Wollstonecraft's logic to other animals. It matters little if he was accidentally correct on this point, his goal was to help neither brutes nor women, but simply to undermine the moral authority of Wollstonecraft's argument. Almost every popular news story that has taken seriously plants as active forces have immediately framed them as attacks on vegetarians and vegans, even though it makes no real sense. Michael Pollan's work is regularly cited in plant theory circles, and he is well-known for his work to argue against vegans and vegetarians (and also for getting his science really, really wrong). We are all familiar with people like Barbara Kingsolver, arguing in her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that her harvesting her favorite plants was the same as killing hens. Maybe even worse, because plants are innocent. So there exists a fear that even if plant theorists are sincere, they will be utilized to undermine normative claims about our ethical relationships toward other animals. Because of course they will be. If you do this work, you know they already have been.
This relates to the second problem, which is the way in which plant theory sometimes frames animal studies as this theory event, as the next big thing. For those of us working on animal studies for a while, a very weird thing happened in it becoming a thing. Let me relate a story that I know I have told several times before. Sometime in grad school, during the 2006-2007 academic year, I was talking to a fellow student who asked me what my research was on. When I replied, "animals," she laughed. She honestly assumed that was not a serious project. Years later I would run into her (now around 2013), and she asked me what I had written my dissertation on. When I reminded her, "animals," she went, "Oh that is so trendy and red hot. That was a smart move." It remains to be seen if it was a smart career move, but it certainly was not seen that way when I started. Animal studies got taken seriously, more or less overnight, due partially to the English translation of Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am, and the publication of Donna Haraway's When Species Meet (these works came out with within 6 months of each other). Of course there was a lot of other stuff being published, and nor is it really a foundational moment. Ecofeminism had been doing a lot of this work years earlier, but had become heavily discredited within academic circles (see Greta Gaard's Ecofeminism Revisited, as well as the intro to Adams and Gruen's recent excellent volume on Ecofeminism). But between the giants of Derrida and Haraway, suddenly, animal studies was recognized. And in some corners concerns about animals went from being dismissed because they were boutique concerns to being able to be dismissed because they were trendy. So when Nealon, in a clause directly before the quotation above about closing barn doors, writes "debates about ethical vegetarianism aside," it is hard not to feel he has missed the point of animal studies. Ethical vegetarianism and veganism, as well as advocacy for the liberation of animals, are the normative core in much of the work of animal studies. Of course, this isn't true for all animal studies. Michael Lundblad has advanced the idea of "animality studies." He explains:
But the phrase “animal studies” strikes me as too limiting, too easily mistaken for a unified call for universal advocacy for actual animals. I want to make a distinction between critical attention to how we think about “real” animals and various forms of advocacy for treating nonhuman animals better. I want to associate animal studies even further with that advocacy, with work explicitly concerned about the living conditions of nonhuman animals. Conversely, I want to argue for “animality studies” as a way to describe work that expresses no explicit interest in advocacy for various nonhuman animals, even though it shares an interest in how we think about “real” animals. Animality studies can prioritize questions of human politics, for example, in relation to how we have thought about human and nonhuman animality at various historical and cultural moments. Increased attention to the history of animality and related discourses can lead to new in- sights in fields such as the history of sexuality, as London’s texts will help me illustrate below. To the extent that this kind of methodology resists engaging with concern for nonhuman animals, it could be seen as “speciesist.” But I want to open up a space for new critical work that might have different priorities, without an imperative to claim the advocacy for non-human animals that runs through much of the recent work in animal studies.
I want to be clear that I don't think there is anything wrong with animality studies. I think a lot of us who advocate for animals still move back and forth a lot between such advocacy and animality studies. What has been interesting about much of what is going by the label of plant theory, is that most of it is not really in the form of advocacy for plants. Following the distinction by Lundblad, perhaps we can randomly say there is a difference between planting theory, which should have some sort of plant focused core, and planted theory, which uses plants to fundamentally understand and change the human world. So if we look at the growing body of books we can call plant theory (here I am thinking of Elaine Miller's The Vegetative Soul, Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking and his The Philosopher's Plant, Matthew Hall's Plants as Persons, Eduardo Kohn's How Forests Think, and now Nealon's Plant Theory), the only one that is obviously primarily planting theory is Hall's book (though there is some in Marder's Plant-Thinking, and I am not finished with Plant Theory). In other words, most of plant theory is, so far, planted. And again, I think there are important things going in most of those books. Nealon's work still feels fairly central if you care about biopolitical studies. What I am having trouble with is imagining the dialogue between animal studies and planted theory. The stakes of the projects are too different. Indeed the tensions between planted theory and animal studies might turn out to be a false family resemblance, when in reality we are doing very different things. We need more planting theory if we are going to figure out how to ethically and politically relate to plants and animals. These are not easy questions, but they increasingly seem like important ones, and perhaps painfully timely ones. Here is to new seeds and future plantings.

Monday, October 26, 2015

On two news stories about food and vegetarianism

There have been a few popular stories recently that have implications for vegetarianism and/or veganism. I will briefly talk about the story of finding animal meat and human DNA (?!) in vegetarian hotdogs, and then spend slightly more time with the WHO reclassifies processed meat as causing cancer.

First up, there has been a report a large number of vegetarian hotdogs had meat or human DNA in them. As the story from The Atlantic put it:
Around 3 percent of the samples found pork where it shouldn’t have been, most often in meats labeled as chicken or turkey, and around 10 percent of the vegetarian products contained meat. Vegetarian products seemed to have the most problems across the board: Four of the 21 vegetarian samples had hygienic issues (accounting for two-thirds of the hygienic issues found in the report), and many vegetarian labels exaggerated the protein content by up to 2.5 times the actual amount.
That seems, well, disconcerting. I posted that to my facebook, and then went looking for data within the original study. I honestly had (and have) no clue what hygienic issues even means, and wanted to know what brands they found animal meat in. So, here is the take away before I get any further in: Whether this all turns out to be true, this is not science. This is a PR viral marketing scheme for a kickstarter and general fundraising. If you go to their hotdog report, you will find fun graphics, and basically no useful details. You can't find out what brands they tested. You won't find answers to unhygienic means. Their process, and it seems the data itself, are proprietary. At this point there is no way to test or verify their claims. So, that's what we have. It may turn out to be totally true (and disgusting!), but at this point, no use paying it a lot of attention. It is interesting to think of the way that viral PR and link bait generating headlines fulfill each others goals. So that even ostensibly serious news websites, like The Atlantic, can post an article without any serious reporting or discussions with experts. Just like Clear Labs is not really engaging in science, I don't think we can call writing up a press release for a company counts as journalism.

The second major story concerns the WHO, process meats, and cancer. The WHO recently has determined processed meats (meaning things like ham, pepperoni, bacon, etc.) definitely can cause cancer, and moved them into Group 1, as this graphic explains.




But as this longer post from CRUK (from which I got that infographic) explains, this is "hazard identification’, not ‘risk assessment’." Meaning, "these groups show how confident IARC is that red and processed meat cause cancer, not how much cancer they cause." So, for example, both smoking and processed meats will definitely cause cancer in some cases, smoking is super way more likely to cause more incidents of cancer for people. Now, this change is all over vegan social media. I have mixed feelings about all of that. First, there really isn't a strong argument here even for vegetarianism. Chicken probably doesn't increase the risk of cancer, and I'm not sure that shifting people from eating hotdogs to turkey dogs is something to celebrate? Also, while lots of people consume processed meats, it is mostly consumed by poorer populations. So, really, this becomes another example of poor populations in overdeveloped nations being hit by health impacts. But I do believe this provides evidence for something else: The need to create public policy to move us away from consuming land-based mammals. Outside of the ethics, or the need for justice for other animals (positions I believe I have a clear record on), there is a totally speciesist need to change our food chain. From global warming, to desertification and deforestation, to poisoning water tables, to food borne illness, and now to causing cancer, we cannot sustain a system that depends so heavily on rearing and eating land-based mammals. But here is the rub! The same global system of disavowal and forgetting that keeps us from confronting the ethics of what we do to other animals in general will immunize us from the policy needs for shifting our food chain. So even though there is a totally speciesist reason for moving away from eating land-based mammals, and even though we could probably do that while maintaining high levels of eating poultry and fish, it will be our very speciesism that keeps us from taking on those policy implications.