Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Simply Neoliberalism, Or, the Algorithms of the Natural.

In Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice, Alissa Hamilton explores all the ways that industrial processes are incorporated into the mass production of orange juice. What are the industrial processes of orange juice, you may be asking. But think about it, oranges are really only in season a few months of the year, and yet, not from concentrate orange juice is available year round. And while there are ways to grow oranges out of season, orange juice is consumed at a much higher frequency than oranges, and it would be really hard to grow all those oranges year around. If it is January, and you live in Minnesota, you can go to any grocery store and get Simply Orange orange juice. What makes that possible? From Hamilton:

The technology of choice at the moment is aseptic storage, which involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so it doesn’t oxidize in the million gallon tanks in which it can be kept for upwards of a year. When the juice is stripped of oxygen it is also stripped of flavor providing chemicals. Juice companies therefore hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that formulate perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein, to engineer flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. Flavor packs aren’t listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature. The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor. Mexicans and Brazilians have a different palate. Flavor packs fabricated for juice geared to these markets therefore highlight different chemicals, the decanals say, or terpene compounds such as valencine. The formulas vary to give a brand’s trademark taste. If you’re discerning you may have noticed Minute Maid has a candy like orange flavor. That’s largely due to the flavor pack Coca-Cola has chosen for it.

Got it? You take the orange juice, put it in tanks without oxygen, and then reconstitute the flavor later. Actually, that makes it sound more straightforward than it actually is, because you have to take into account demand from all over the place, and figure out issues of hurricanes and freezes, and all sorts of other variables. In order to do this, Coca-Cola, which makes both Simply Orange and Minute Maid, has created complex algorithms for their juice business, as reported here. "“We basically built a flight simulator for our juice business,” says Doug Bippert, Coke’s vice president of business acceleration." Because, it seems, vice president of business acceleration is totally a thing. The algorithms and storage vats are all attempts to "take Mother Nature and standardize it,” says Jim Horrisberger, director of procurement at Coke’s huge Auburndale (Fla.) juice packaging plant. [...] Bob Cross, architect of Coke’s juice model, also built the model Delta Air Lines uses to maximize its revenue per mile flown. Orange juice, says Cross, “is definitely one of the most complex applications of business analytics. It requires analyzing up to 1 quintillion decision variables to consistently deliver the optimal blend, despite the whims of Mother Nature.”" All of this resulted in a writer at the Chicagoist to use the phrase, "all-natural orange juice experience, free of algorithms" non-ironically.

So, why all this talk of orange juice? Mostly because as a capitalist product goes, it is one of the ones most identified with its naturalness, its simpleness (as in, Simply Orange). The label of not from concentrate was itself used a marketing gimmick to single the orange juice as being fresher, more natural, more authentic. We can think here that neoliberalism operates as a type of craft or sorcery that works by transforming the constructed and arbitrary into the natural and the essential.  By craft here, I am mostly thinking of the excellent work of Karen and Barbara Fields on Racecraft. Under the Fields, racecraft functions by taking racism (the structure of discrimination and violence), and naturalizing it into race. And in the same way for sorcery I am thinking of Pignarre and Stengers' Capitalist Sorcery, which reveal the ways that capitalism produces infernal alternatives for anyone who seeks to oppose neoliberalism. The artificial becomes natural, and the natural becomes inevitable, maybe even eternal.

At the same time I was making these points on facebook, Robin James and Leigh Johnson posted about neoliberalism and algorithms.  Over at Cyborgology, James argues that "As an ideology, “neoliberalism” is a very specific epistemology/ontology (or, more precisely, it’s an ideology in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology): neoliberals think everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized capitalist market.[...] The object of neoliberal economic analysis is the “calculation” of the program, protocol, indeed, the algorithm that makes apparently incoherent choices cohere into a model that can then be used to predict that individual’s future choices. Economic analysis finds the signal in the noise." Under this epistemontology it makes sense for our vice-president of business acceleration to hire the person that optimized Delta flight revenues in order to make orange juice. And over at NewApps (and actually, make sure you read the comments), Johnson expands on James by arguing:
Perhaps the single most important proposition in modern capitalist economic theory, inherited from Adam Smith, is that competitive markets do a good job of allocating resources, that such markets channel individuals' self-interest toward the collective good as if directed by an "invisible hand."  (I won't detail the manner in which such a proposition qualifies as "onto-theological" here, partly because there simply isn't room to do so, but mostly because I think it is self-evident.) [...] One of the problems with neoliberalism's particular ("invisible hand") iteration of onto-theological prejudice-- and this is something that James' account of the neoliberal "algorithmic modelling" fetish made more clear to me-- is that it effectively blinds itself to the manner in which it not only does, but must, conflate the Hand-that-Guides with the hand(s)-that-are-guided.  When synchronicity or harmony is absent, when dissonance is resonant, when the aleatory interrupts or real human freedom (s'il y en a) insists-- that is to say, when the Invisible Hand is not only non-apparent but also non-existent-- neoliberalism's epistemonto(theo)logical commitments force neoliberals to, quite literally, phish or cut bait.  And what is phishing, after all, but the manufacturing of an Invisible Hand?

This is all very important, because no matter how much it is clear that the algorithm is produced (and look again at the earlier quotations on orange juice, in which two different people talk in terms of opposing the algorithm to Mother Nature, and therefore one assumes the natural), and no matter how much violence is marshaled to make these algorithms work, they are always naturalized. As Bruno Latour has argued (and he is not the first) we have witnessed a strange shift of first and second nature. First nature represented the stuff that is unchangeable, that is usually what we mean we say something is natural, or talk about the world. Second nature is that which is produced by us. But in our era of global warming and the anthropocene, it is clear that the unchangeable first nature of the world is really second nature, something we can produce. Meanwhile, our economic systems, those things we clearly produce, have increasingly become seen as first nature, and inherently natural and unchangeable. And the results of this are clear and devastating. So much so that Fredric Jameson's now famous quip "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism," came first as farce, then as tragedy.

But I think the chicagoist line about algorithm free shows another fear. In the face of the deterritorialization of global capitalism, with its simulacrums and appeals to nature, has arisen a relatively conservative response that argues for the local, for the slow, for the authentic, for the non-calculative. In other words, there are those against the artificial, but in favor of something they see as truly natural  and algorithm free. Anyone who has been reading my blog knows that I do not think that is the way out (see especially here and here, and make sure to read my brother's more critical take on the calculative here). It is a bit like Heidegger's critique of the standing reserve. I am sympathetic, entirely. But his alternative reeks of agrarian fascism. Instead, I believe we should engage in a different craft and sorcery. Not one that turns the artificial into the natural, but one that instead seeks to undermine the narratives of nature while producing a new world.

EDIT: I was unclear in that last paragraph (as both Leigh Johnson and DMF made clear). I am not saying that it is conservatives who support the local, etc, but that it is a conservative ideology. And there are, of course, very conservative advocates of the local and the non-calculative, such as Joel Salatin, who is overtly xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, etc (he is the owner of polyface farms, and was made famous as a sort of hero of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma). But in addition to the Joel Salatins of the world, I am lumping in certain proponents of locavorism, and certain Heideggerians.

What I should have been clearer about is that I have no problem with the desire of the local, or the slow, or whatever from a tactical standpoint. I usually buy a share in Community Supported Agriculture wherever I live, I usually think that putting your money in a local credit union rather than a large bank is a good idea, I almost always buy beer from local or regional microbreweries when traveling, etc. In an era of globalized capitalism, creating local alternatives can be a real form of resistance. My problem is when moved to the level of strategy or a vision. When the advocacy is for a world of nothing but the local, the slow, the authentic, the non-caclculative, that is when I see a creeping conservative ideology.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Special Issue on the EcoGotchic has just been released

Special Issue Gothic Studies 16/1, "The EcoGothic in the Long Nineteenth Century", has just been released, and will probably be of great interest to many of you.

The special issue addresses introduces a new field of inquiry, the EcoGothic, which includes, among others, two essays on carnivorism and speciesism in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  The issue is available in preview on the Manchester University Press website and by subscription through many university libraries. A brief description of the issue follows below.

This special issue of Gothic Studies brings together Gothic works--British, Irish and Italian--to consider their engagement with species- and environement-related issues through the theoretical lens of an emerging field of critical inquiry–the EcoGothic. An EcoGothic approach takes a nonanthropocentric position to reconsider the role that species, nonhumans and the environment play in the construction of monstrosity and fear, examining the construction of the Gothic body–unhuman, nonhuman, transhuman, posthuman, or hybrid–through a more inclusive, antispeciest lens.


The EcoGothic in the Long Nineteenth Century  David Del Principe

Abominable Transformations: Becoming-Fungus in Arthur Machen’s

The Hill of Dreams  Anthony Camara

(M)eating Dracula: Food and Death in Stoker’s Novel  David Del Principe

The Bog Gothic: Bram Stoker’s ‘Carpet of Death’ and Ireland’s Horrible Beauty Derek Gladwin

Italian Rural Gothic: The Powers of Were-Goats in Tommaso Landolfi’s La pietra lunare [The Moonstone]  Keala Jewell

Meat, Cannibalism and Humanity in Paul du Chaillu’s Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, or, What Does a Gorilla Hunter Eat for Breakfast?  John Miller

‘L’orrida magnificenza del luogo.’ Gothic Aesthetics in Antonio Fogazzaro’s Malombra  Maria Parrino

 An Already Alienated Animality: Frankenstein as a Gothic Narrative of Carnivorism  Jackson Petsche

 Between Darwin and San Francesco: Zoographic Ambivalences in Mantegazza, Ouida, and Vernon Lee  Nicoletta Pireddu

(Thank you to David Del Principe for both putting this together, and letting me know this existed). 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Forthcoming Titles in Animal Studies

EDIT: You probably want to check out at Adam's blog a list of Critical Animal Studies books, most recently published.

Before I get to the forthcoming part, here are two very new titles in animal studies.

Carol Adams and Lori Gruen's edited volume on Ecofeminism. I know most of the authors in this volume, and I promise you this is an important book to get. The philosophical importance of ecofeminism is being reevaluated, and this book is a major argument for its importance.

Gandio and Nocella's The Terrorization of Dissent is an important work in analyzing all the ways that resistance to the animal-industrial complex has been turned into terrorism (includes an essay by my brother).

Now, on to the forthcoming proper list (these books are listed by upcoming publication dates).

If you know the work of Cynthia Willett, then you already know to be excited about any forthcoming work from her. Interspecies Ethics (due out in August), looks to be no exception.
Interspecies Ethics explores animals’ vast capacity for agency, justice, solidarity, humor, and communication across species. The social bonds diverse animals form provide a remarkable model for communitarian justice and cosmopolitan peace, challenging the human exceptionalism that drives modern moral theory. Situating biosocial ethics firmly within coevolutionary processes, this volume has profound implications for work in social and political thought, contemporary pragmatism, Africana thought, and continental philosophy. Interspecies Ethics develops a communitarian model for multispecies ethics, rebalancing the overemphasis on competition in the original Darwinian paradigm by drawing out and stressing the cooperationist aspects of evolutionary theory through mutual aid. The book’s ethical vision offers an alternative to utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics, building its argument through rich anecdotes and clear explanations of recent scientific discoveries regarding animals and their agency. Geared toward a general as well as a philosophical audience, the text illuminates a variety of theories and contrasting approaches, tracing the contours of a postmoral ethics.

Also in August, is  Wahida Khandker's (very expensive) Philosophy, Animality, and Life Sciences. I wish it wasn't so pricey, because it sounds very interesting:
A study of pathological concepts of animal life in Continental philosophy from Bergson to Haraway. Using animals for scientific research is a highly contentious issue that Continental philosophers engaging with ‘the animal question’ have been rightly accused of shying away from. Now, Wahida Khandker asks, can Continental approaches to animality and organic life make us reconsider our treatment of non-human animals? By following its historical and philosophical development, Khandker argues that the concept of 'pathological life' as a means of understanding organic life as a whole plays a pivotal role in refiguring the human-animal distinction. Looks at the assumptions underpinning about debates about science and animals, and our relation to non-human animals. Analyses the relation between the purpose and limitations of research in the life sciences and the concepts of animality and organic life that the sciences have historically employed. Explores the significance of key thinkers such as Bergson, Canguilhem, Foucault and Haraway, and opens up the complex and difficult writings of Alfred North Whitehead on this subject. 
There is an interview between the author and series editor, that can be found here.

EDIT: Thanks to Steven Shaviro for alerting to me this exciting anthology edited by Patricia MacCormack, with the kindle edition out, paperback out in August-- The Animal Catalyst.

Brian Massumi has been a central thinker in promoting a non-anthropocentric philosophy, being an early thinker in assemblage theory and affect theory, Massumi is following this work up with What Animals Teach Us about Politics, due out in September.
In What Animals Teach Us about Politics, Brian Massumi takes up the question of "the animal." By treating the human as animal, he develops a concept of an animal politics. His is not a human politics of the animal, but an integrally animal politics, freed from connotations of the "primitive" state of nature and the accompanying presuppositions about instinct permeating modern thought. Massumi integrates notions marginalized by the dominant currents in evolutionary biology, animal behavior, and philosophy—notions such as play, sympathy, and creativity—into the concept of nature. As he does so, his inquiry necessarily expands, encompassing not only animal behavior but also animal thought and its distance from, or proximity to, those capacities over which human animals claim a monopoly: language and reflexive consciousness. For Massumi, humans and animals exist on a continuum. Understanding that continuum, while accounting for difference, requires a new logic of "mutual inclusion." Massumi finds the conceptual resources for this logic in the work of thinkers including Gregory Bateson, Henri Bergson, Gilbert Simondon, and Raymond Ruyer. This concise book intervenes in Deleuze studies, posthumanism, and animal studies, as well as areas of study as wide-ranging as affect theory, aesthetics, embodied cognition, political theory, process philosophy, the theory of play, and the thought of Alfred North Whitehead.

Corbey and Lanjouw's important edited anthology, The Politics of Species, has an affordable paperback edition out in September.

Another edited anthology in September is Moore and Kearns's Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology.
A turn to the animal is underway in the humanities, most obviously in such fields as philosophy, literary studies, cultural studies, and religious studies. One important catalyst for this development has been the remarkable body of animal theory issuing from such thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Donna Haraway. What might the resulting interdisciplinary field, commonly termed animality studies, mean for theology, biblical studies, and other cognate disciplines? Is it possible to move from animal theory to creaturely theology? This volume is the first full-length attempt to grapple centrally with these questions. It attempts to triangulate philosophical and theoretical reflections on animality and humanity with theological reflections on divinity. If the animal human distinction is being rethought and retheorized as never before, then the animal human divine distinctions need to be rethought, retheorized, and retheologized along with it. This is the task that the multidisciplinary team of theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers, and historians assembled in this volume collectively undertakes. They do so frequently with recourse to Derrida's animal philosophy and also with recourse to an eclectic range of other relevant thinkers, such as Haraway, Giorgio Agamben, Emmanuel Levinas, Gloria Anzaldua, Helene Cixous, A. N. Whitehead, and Lynn White Jr. The result is a volume that will be essential reading for religious studies audiences interested in ecological issues, animality studies, and posthumanism, as well as for animality studies audiences interested in how constructions of the divine have informed constructions of the nonhuman animal through history.

Speaking of edited volumes, Eben Kirksey has an interesting, if not strickly animal studies, work coming out in October, The Multispecies Salon.
A new approach to writing culture has arrived: multispecies ethnography. Plants, animals, fungi, and microbes appear alongside humans in this singular book about natural and cultural history. Anthropologists have collaborated with artists and biological scientists to illuminate how diverse organisms are entangled in political, economic, and cultural systems. Contributions from influential writers and scholars, such as Dorion Sagan, Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, and Anna Tsing, are featured along with essays by emergent artists and cultural anthropologists. Delectable mushrooms flourishing in the aftermath of ecological disaster, microbial cultures enlivening the politics and value of food, and emergent life forms running wild in the age of biotechnology all figure in to this curated collection of essays and artefacts. Recipes provide instructions on how to cook acorn mush, make cheese out of human milk, and enliven forests after they have been clear-cut. The Multispecies Salon investigates messianic dreams, environmental nightmares, and modest sites of biocultural hope.
There is also a related website with this volume, found here.

If I have missed any forthcoming books, please let me know. If you are a publisher interested in my reviewing your book on my blog, please feel free to contact me at James.Stanescu@gmail.com

Save the date for Kentucky's Political Ecology conference

(I didn't know saving the date for conferences was a thing we were doing now, but, the conference looks cool, so I am posting it anyway).

Please Save the Date for the 5th Annual

Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference

at The University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY

February 27 - March 1, 2015

The University of Kentucky Political Ecology Working Group (UKPEWG) is pleased to announce that the 5th Annual Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference will be held February 27 - March 1, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky, USA.

In addition to paper sessions, panel presentations, field trips and various social events, we are pleased to announce that the 2015 keynote speaker will be:

Dr. Kimberly TallBear (Anthropology, University of Texas)

Details of further keynote speakers and panellists to follow in the coming weeks!

DOPE 2014 featured a huge increase in overall attendance with more than 450 participants and 70 panel sessions across myriad disciplinary and research affiliations from all over the world. The conference included two keynote addresses from Drs. Laura Pulido (University of Southern California) and Bruce Braun (University of Minnesota) and a plenary panel with discussion from Drs. Melanie DuPuis (UC Santa Cruz), Carolyn Finney (UC Berkeley), Rebecca Lave (Indiana University), Sharlene Mollett (University of Toronto, Scarsborough), Laura Ogden (Florida International University) and Dianna Rocheleau (Clark University).

If you are interested in organizing a session at DOPE 2015, please plan to circulate your session proposal or a call for papers on listsevs beginning in August, since conference registration will open in September (exact date TBA). Each session is 100 minutes long, and due to space and time constraints, we cannot accept more than two sessions per proposal/CFP. Session organizers are responsible for finding their own chairpersons. Please send your CFP or session proposal to ukpewg@gmail.com so that we are able to post it on the website and in the final program for the conference. All participants in your session must be registered by the deadline in November (exact date TBA) and by that date all session details must be forwarded to the email address stated above by that date. Please do not feel restricted to traditional paper session formats! Be creative and feel welcome to think beyond the 4 papers and a discussant or 5 paper session style (though if you want to stick to this style that is also welcome). You might want to also organize discussions, workshops, lightning sessions (i.e. short presentations of five minutes from more participants) or other alternative session styles.

If you are interested in submitting a paper, please try to find a compatible session by looking through the CFPs posted on the website, politicalecology.org.

If you want to submit a paper, but don't see a session that it would fit into, consider organizing your own session if you think you might find others with similar interests. Alternatively, submit your paper directly to us, and we will try to place it in a relevant session, or create a new session with similar papers.

All participants will need to register for the 2015 DOPE conference. Registration will open in September and close in November (exact date TBA). Each participant will be limited to submitting one abstract.

Please visit politicalecology.org for more information.

Questions? Email ukpewg@gmail.com.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Plants, Again (or, ethics, still). Part I

Planted, An Introduction.

This post tries to think issues of veganism and vegetarianism alongside issues of the active nature of plants. The first part of the post will respond broadly to this question, and lay out my general ethical framework for these issues. For those of you have diligently read this blog for at least a few years, you might find part one repetitive (also, wow, thank you). The second part of the blog post (which will be posted another day) engages theorists forwarding these arguments, particularly Ian Bogost in his Alien Phenomenology, and Michael Marder in his Plant-Thinking, his article "Is it Ethical to Eat Plants?," and his debate with Gary Francione (Marder also has a forthcoming book I haven't read, The Philosopher's Plant).

Plants I:

This is not the first time I have addressed our ethical relationships to plants. See this post, and this post (and several more asides in other posts). This most recent post is immediately caused by a new scientific study that shows that "Plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by insect herbivore chewing." This has caused a variety of news sources to frame this recent discovery as being some sort of unique challenge or cause of concern for vegetarians and vegans. See, for example, this Gizmodo article which actually ends with this line, "Either way, we do know one thing for sure: The world just got a little less smug for the vegan set." Okay then. So, here is the relevant question, why? Why is it each time that some new study comes out expressing the idea that plants are more active and intentional than previously considered, there are a flurry of articles that seem to see this as somehow an argument against vegans? If you are concerned about plants, and any sort of suffering that may come from consuming them, wouldn't adopting a vegan diet be a first step to lowering that suffering? This is true because it takes from more plant protein to produce animal protein, and because that much of animal agriculture includes polluting and destroying lands. And of course, some people concerned with our ethical obligations to plants have made this very point. Near the end of Matthew Hall's Plants as Persons, he makes this very argument:
A third very significant driver of harm to individual plants, plant species, and plant habitats is the unnecessary, unthinking use of plants. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the use of plants to feed massive numbers of animals for the world’s wealthiest nations to consume. Recent estimates suggest that humankind farms and eats over thirty billion animals each year. In a plant context, this live- stock rearing is important because it accounts for more than 65 percent of the total global agricultural area. It also accounts for large volumes of grains and soya beans which are used as feed. In 2002, approximately 670 million tons of grains were fed to livestock, roughly a third of the global harvest. They were also fed 350 million tons of protein-rich products such as soya and bran. The areas cleared to rear animals and feed them on such a huge scale are natural plant habitats such as tropical forests, savannahs, and grasslands. The rearing of livestock on such large scales is one of the major drivers of habitat loss. Basing diets on meat consumption excessively inflates the area of land that is put under human cultivation. Reducing the amount of consumed meat is a direct way of reducing harm done to plants, animals, and human beings. Not least because this large industry is also responsible for generating 18 percent of global carbon emissions—which to provide an idea of scale, is more than all forms of transport combined. (p. 165)
So, rather than seeing plant sentience as a unique challenge to vegans, it seems vegans are already doing something to limit harm to plants. Rather than making the vegan set less smug, wouldn't this make the vegan set more smug? Actually, wait a second, don't you assume that the author of the Gizmodo article probably eats plants herself? So, there is no reason that plant sentience is at all something particular to vegans. This argument could be used against literally any social justice movement. For example, imagine this conversation:
Person 1: Would you like to help out to end genocide against X human population?
Person 2: Did you know plants might be sentient? So, I can't help you.
Person 1: Uhm... okay...?
Person 2: Well, see you are trying to expand our ethical obligations to X human population. But there are still groups you haven't expanded our ethical concern to. And until you figure out a way to respond ethically to all beings, you really haven't done anything yet, have you?
Person 1: I'm pretty sure that's not how ethics work. 
Okay, I hear your objections. This scenario ignores that maybe there is something particular combining our thinking about eating ethically. In other words, the failure to create a completely harm free eating experience negates trying to reduce harm in other ways. But again, if we aren't talking about veganism, would that objection really hold any water? Imagine this conversation:
Person 1: No thank you, I try to avoid X product because I try to avoid products produced by slave labor.
Person 2: Well, all capitalist labor comes from a system of exploitation (surplus value is theft), so there is no need to fight against products produced by slave labor.
Person 1: ... . So are you doing anything to stop either slave labor or capitalist exploitation?
Person 2: What? No, I am just saying stop being so smug, I don't have to feel guilty for using slave labor because of capitalist exploitation.
Person 1: I'm pretty sure that's not how ethics work. 
So, plant sentience is not an argument against veganism because (1) veganism already reduces harm against plants, and (2) if plants present an ethical call, it is an ethical call for all of us, not just vegans. There are, of course, other arguments we can explore. For example, while the research that plants are active beings seem undeniable, what that means in terms of how sentience is expressed seems to be a fairly open question at this point (see this article by Oliver Sacks, and this blog post from Scientific America). And even if sentience was answered, it would not always be a guide about what interests plants have. For example, I am concerned about voting rights being denied felons, but I am not worried about getting voting rights for my cats. And while I am concerned about what Lori Gruen calls the "ethics of captivity" in prisons and zoos, I have trouble believing there are similar issues in botanical gardens. But let us, for now, bracket these broader questions about our ethical obligations toward plants.
So, if there is no reason that vegans are uniquely implicated in the ethics of plants, why is it that we are constantly bombarded with arguments that plant sentience undermines ethical veganism? First, as I have long contended, there is a confusion between ethics and innocence. If there was the possibility for innocence, we wouldn't need ethics. Ethics exist because we have to try to figure out ways to live a good life out of a bad life. What are the ways we can live and act in a world where innocence is impossible? And as in the conversations above, the argument that there is no way to eat without harm is a way of removing responsibility. Universal guilt becomes its own form of innocence, a way of avoiding ethical calls. People don't want responsibility, so they figure out a series of ways to push ethical obligations away. Problems are seen as systematic, so individual change is not called for. Because no solution will be perfect, we know that any change and tactic can be co-opted, so we don't do anything. You only want to help these individuals who are in pain and suffering, and because it focuses on individuals, it is neoliberalism and we don't have to help those in pain. Because there is no innocence, we might as well go ahead and do what we wanted to do anyway. And suddenly, enough excuses pile up so that we somehow have managed to be radical and ethical without ever having to change who we are. It is hard, after all, to be responsible (even just for those lives in front of you). It is confusing to know that we will have politics that will be tainted, that we will communications that fail, and that we will have actions that will cause harm. Spinoza defined conatus as the striving to preserve oneself, and he called that joy. So, perhaps it is sadness to be haunted by others, perhaps it is despair to have to change for others. No wonder we want to create excuses to not act and still pat ourselves on the back. So, maybe we need some other definition of joy. One that finds in our vulnerability the basis of sociality, of laughing together, and of mourning. Perhaps we can find joy (as well as frustration and love) in the difference of others, and with the creative impulse to build a different world. To yearn, and to act, together.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Speculative Realism vs. New Materialism, a question

Following up on a discussion I was having about the new books forthcoming on speculative realism, I have a question for everyone. Yeah, yeah, you don't come to my blog for homework, I get it. But this is quick. Make a list of thinkers (no longer than 10) that you associate with speculative realism. Now, make a list of thinkers (no longer than 10) that you associate with new materialism. These lists cannot overlap (you can't put the same thinker in both list, you have the choice, no matter how arbitrary that choice that is). Feel free to post answers in comments (it is open, and anonymous comments are welcome), feel free to email me, or post it to my facebook.

EDIT: You can just make the lists, don't worry about providing justifications. You can, if you want. But I am much more interested in your first impression lists.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Becoming-vegan as ethical transformation.

Adam Kotsko recently had a post over at his place, "Why am I not a vegetarian?". This will not be a direct response to all his concerns, excuses, and explanations. I will mostly be talking about vegetarianism and veganism here in its ethical dimensions. There are, of course, environmental reasons, labor reasons, etc. that one might want to be a vegetarian or a vegan. However, I do want to highlight a couple of his points:
Another reason: a distrust of ethical consumer choices. Yes, factory farming is an abomination. If there were laws proposing to outlaw it, I would support those laws, regardless of their effect on the cost or availability of meat. In the meantime, I purchase organic meat when possible. Yet I just don’t have it in me to make a big deal out of it or insist on it, just like I don’t have it in me to move heaven and earth to make sure my garbage is recycled. I make my token gesture, but systemic problems have systemic solutions. I’m part of the society in which I live, and no amount of ritualistic keeping my hands clean is going to change anything. [...] For me, it seems like becoming a vegetarian would mean changing into a different kind of person, and I don’t want to make that particular change. Maybe something will happen to make that change plausible and even urgent at a gut level, but it hasn’t happened yet.

I want to say that his rejection of personal responses to systemic issues is a legitimate critique. Though, of course I am not sure I want to go so far as Adam does in his rejection of the ability of personal decisions to change the conditions for other animals. But, in general, the factory farm is exactly the sort of thing that individual consumer choices will most likely not have dramatic effects. Indeed, it would be important, particularly in relation to abolitionist discourses, to consider the limitations of voluntarism and vanguardism. So, if the idea of vegetarianism and veganism as boycott is not functionally sound, why promote it? And I think this is where I also, even more strongly, agree with Adam, when he states that "becoming a vegetarian would mean changing into a different kind of person." Veganism and vegetarianism in this sense is a kind of askesis, a practice of self-production. This pretty clearly drawing upon the work of the later Foucault, and I am by far not the only one to make this argument (you might want to look at Tanke's "The Care of the Self and Environmental Politics," Taylor's "Foucault and the Ethics of Eating," my "Towards a Dark Animal Studies," and Dean's "You Are How You Eat?"). One of the things I find interesting in Foucault's argument is that the cartesian understanding of how a self changes is challenged. Under the usual, what we will call cartesian, view, first you understand the world correctly, and from that correct understanding, you will do what you should do. Right knowledge precedes right action. Under this view of the world, the biggest hurdle to societal arrangements and policy decisions is that people don't know what is true. In other words, the biggest reason we haven't confronted global warming is global warming deniers. Not, you know, that even if we somehow all agreed that global warming was happening and bad, we might still have right action. In Foucault's turn to classical philosophy, we get a different understanding against the cartesian view. In his view, we have to have certain practices that then produce the ability to access certain truths or understandings of the world. Action precedes knowledge, or at least understanding. So, if we want to mitigate the unthinkable suffering of the factory farm, if we want to divert the environmental global suicide pact that is being driven by the expropriation of animal labor and lives, then I think vegetarianism and veganism is going to be key. It will be key not just as an end reality (the end result of challenging the systemic violence to animals will probably be vegetarianism and veganism), but also as a way of producing the sorts of subjectivities that bring about systemic change in the first place. In other words, we need vegetarianism and veganism not because of a consumer boycott, but because we need a different kind of persons.

This gets to a different part of Adam's post:
I also don’t want to be a pain in the ass for hosts. I don’t want to constrain the choice of meal someone can prepare me in their home or the choice of restaurant. This is one key principle from Pauline Christianity on which I will not budge: always be a good guest, always accept what’s put before you. I don’t want them to experience my dietary preference as a moral judgment on them — which will likely happen at least sometimes, whether I intend it that way or not. It’s not as though they or I can do anything about the system of food production, so why create bad feelings?
While not a direct answer, it reminds me of Leela Gandhi's excellent book, Affective Communities. In her chapter "Meat"she recounts the story of Mahatma Gandhi's vegetarianism. When he left for England to study law, he made a promise to his mother to be vegetarian. He had not particularly been a vegetarian before that promise, and felt it was a superstition. He was often made fun of in England among his peers, but he kept his promise. In so doing he found himself in different communities than he would have otherwise. He became radicalized on issues of socialism and anti-colonialism. Along with being a different kind of person, there is always the chance that our vegetarianism and veganism will put us in different communities, perhaps produce different kinds of communities (I take it as a sort of given that host/guest relations are constitutive of community).

Now, none of this is given as a good transformation.  Along with her story of M.K. Gandhi, Leela Gandhi also replays another story happening at the same time, the story of the first animal welfare law passed in the West, and the animal welfare support of James and John Stuart Mill. Gandhi shows how both the Mills and the animal welfare laws come deeply from places of colonialism, and the policing of of the underclasses (I address some of this in a little more detail in this old blog post). Even with those risks, I still feel we need changes.  I do think we need new kinds of persons, we need new relations to other animals, we need new communities. And all of this means that the issues of veganism and vegetarianism are sorts of attempts at Humeian political problems, that is to say, they are attempts at extending partial sympathies.