Thursday, June 11, 2009

The biopolitics of Michael Pollan and Donna Haraway

Most of you, by now, have seen this blog, which asks the question, Michael Pollan or Michel Foucault?

This reminded me of some work on Michael Pollan I had been doing, most of the arguments having never made it on here (with this one exception). This time, however, I want us to turn toward a rather strange and discomforting shift in Michael Pollan's justification for meat eating. Once again I will focus on the condensed "An Animal's Place", mostly for cutting and pasting purposes, but also because shorter works can sometimes bring out contradictions more clearly than longer pieces. However, every move that Pollan makes in this essay is replicated in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

In "An Animal's Place," Pollan begins by advancing a rather strong critique of the factory farm. What has caused and allowed to continue the atrocities of the factory farm, according to Pollan, is a specific breakdown in the relationship between humans and animals. Let me quote Pollan:
Several years ago, the English critic John Berger wrote an essay, ''Why Look at Animals?'' in which he suggested that the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals -- and specifically the loss of eye contact -- has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny, had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away.

What broke down between humans and animals is a face to face relationship (and here, I would like to wet your appetite for a future post on the ethics of Levinas, the problem of faciality in Deleuze and Guattari, and the question of this face to face relationship with animals), and if we want to have a way to eat animals ethically, we have to restore this face to face relationship. After this claim, Pollan's article spends several paragraphs explaining, primarily Peter Singer's, arguments for vegetarianism. After that we have Pollan's response as to why eating animals is ethically okay, even more, ethically superior to vegetarianism. The first reason is the rather bizarre political origin myth that Pollan lays out that I discussed in my previous post. This leads to his second, and more forceful point of the ethical superiority of eating animal flesh from non-factory farms. Again, let me quote Pollan:
Yet here's the rub: the animal rightist is not concerned with species, only individuals. Tom Regan, author of ''The Case for Animal Rights,'' bluntly asserts that because ''species are not individuals . . . the rights view does not recognize the moral rights of species to anything, including survival.'' Singer concurs, insisting that only sentient individuals have interests. But surely a species can have interests -- in its survival, say -- just as a nation or community or a corporation can. The animal rights movement's exclusive concern with individual animals makes perfect sense given its roots in a culture of liberal individualism, but does it make any sense in nature?

First, let us put aside the question if nations, communities, and corporations make any sense in nature, as well. So, the problem with animal rights/animal liberation, according to Pollan, is that these doctrines turn us toward the individual or specific animal, and away from the animal as a species. This is a curious move, for not only does it seem to replace the face to face relationship that Pollan claimed as so central before (now the face of an individual pig must be replaced with the face of The Pig, pig in general), but it changes entirely the level by which we are to understand and answer ethical and political question. These questions have now been deplaced to the level of the population, to the level of the species. Michael Pollan goes on to contend that without humans eating animals, many domesticated species would die out. So, at the level of the population, we now have a moral imperative to eat and kill animals so that the population does not die. We have to kill in order to make life live (to steal a phrase from Michael Dillon and Julian Reid). It is the same as the old Vietnam military logic of having to destroy a village in order to save it. However, one might be willing to let Pollan off the hook. He isn't a trained philosopher, and he probably couldn't care less about the question of the biopolitical. Let us turn our attention, now, to someone who should know better.

Donna Haraway's book When Species Meet is a strange and frustrating book for anyone who is serious about questions of animal ethics. It also contains several remarkable similarities to Pollan's An Omnivore's Dilemma (my brother likes to point out that the books end in exactly the same way, with a bunch of professors roasting a pig in California). It is exactly to this pig roast I would now like to turn. Before turning there, I guess I should stay that until her recent turn to discuss animals, Donna Haraway was an essential and keystone philosopher for much of my early theory days. I even sent her a fanboy email once. And her earlier writing on animals still remains radical and exemplary. I still find her writing and style intoxicating. Even so, let us look at her position on flesh eating in the "parting bites" of WSM. She describes how her friend Gary Lease is a hunter who is incredibly concerned with hunting in ecologically sustainable ways. She further describes "[h]is approach is resolutely tuned to ecological discourses, and he seems tone deaf to the demands individual animals might make as ventriloquized in rights idioms" (pp. 296-297). Again, we see how a certain idea of ecology, an inherently biopolitical, makes us tone deaf to specific beings and is replaced simply by the population. Furthermore, it is a little weird to see Haraway accuse other of ventriloquy trick, considering in an earlier chapter she wrote from a first person perspective of a chicken, a chicken who is okay with being slaughtered, I might add. In her desire for a cosmopolitical moment, we are given to believe that the most important aspects of cosmopolitics is what occurs in the conversations of the professors and students at the dinner party where the roasted pig was served. Displaced at the very moment she insists that eating is centralized, is that eating itself is always a cosmopolitical moment. And while one may have a discussion that does not place one is a field of commitment, the act of eating always a partisan act. And if want to avoid the god-trick of transcendence, as see often argues, we have to understand that non-neutrality is the guarantee of non-transcendence. Only god gets to be neutral. The cosmopolitical moment does not occur when we set aside partisanship (and she so often seems to imply), but can only occur through partisanship. Lastly, the biopolitical movement by which we displace the singular animal for the animal-as-population has extreme importance for any possible cosmopolitics. It forfeits our ability to bring animals into this conversation. It forever exiles animals from agents in cosmopolitics, and rather rigs the game as a discussion among humans, while nearby the corpse of a being that should be central in this cosmopolitical discussion is slowly having its flesh burnt to (humanist) perfection(ism). What you chose to do in that moment matters. It isn't merely a random sentence in the a middle of a paragraph (she eats the flesh), but is the central premise by which the rest of the conversation can possibly occur. Any move that decentralizes your action is a biopolitical god-trick, no matter how many times you say it isn't.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post as much as your last piece on Pollan; it was incisive, but generous and humane. But, I do have some questions:

First, is the question of the individual animal against the species of animal always binary--that is, is it always an all-or-nothing game, in which we must focus exclusively on the welfare of the individual or the survival of the species? Your post seems to indicate so, claiming, as it does, that Pollan's and Haraway's turns toward the species are also, and necessarily, turns away from the individual animal. But, from a biopolitical perspective, this seems to me not to be the case. Much of Foucault's work on the subject involved the mutually sustained and enabled relationships between the two poles (species and individual) of biopolitical production. I know you know this, but it seems worth repeating for the questions it raises.

Foucault was fond of noting that any site on which power mapped itself--particularly biopower, with its emphases on the body and the body politic--created, in that site, a locus for resistance. An example he used was the sudden demand, of feminists in France, for free abortions that accompanied the government's interest in regulating both sexuality and reproduction in women. Loosely, his example suggests that these two poles of biopolitical production are not only indeterminate between one another (they relate to each other in ways more complicated than a binary could encompass), but also as themselves (they are sites of biopolitical regimes' concentration that also provide focal points for theorizing revolt and upheaval).

Thus, my second question: Does a rejection of a biopolitical treatment of animals necessitate turning a blind eye towards the well-being and survival of species of animals, or is there a way to include questions of survival-as-a-species in the discussion, while allowing animals to act as agents within it (in whatever sense we use the words "act" and "agent")? In short, is there a non-biopolitical way of engaging with ecological and species-wide concerns?

Craig said...

Quite interesting.

The Reid/Dillon is paraphrased from Foucault, either the final part of HSI or the last lectures of SMBD, if not both.

I have trouble with Pollan's recourse to species rather than member because species does not appear to be a real object; it is a nominal designation on more or less arbitrary grounds. This is why, for instance (to keep with your early modern approach to Pollan), Locke is able to coherently say that a criminal is not a human, but a member of the class of noxious beasts - the criminal does not meat the nominal definition of human and, therefore, it is a category error to include the criminal in the concept of human. Most philosophy of biology rejects the realist claim about species; a species appears to be a nominal and discursive object - a property of human thought and language - rather than a thing of the world. However, it is much easier to speak about species when the bloodlines are controlled, which results in an inbred and narrow gene-pool, as in the case in domesticated animals.

Anonymous - Foucault nowhere says that power creates resistance. He explicitly states the resistance creates power. Resistance is logically and ontologically prior to power.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that my language was imprecise. I wasn't trying to imply an ontological relationship between resistance and power, merely to point out that regardless of the conceptual chronology of that relationship, Foucault's theories of biopower consistently stress the subversive nature of that power's investments. For clarity, this is the passage from Foucault to which I was referring:

"But once power produces this effect, there inevitably emerge the responding claims and affirmations, those of one's own body against power, of health against the economic system, of pleasure against the moral norms of sexuality, marriage, decency. Suddenly, what has made power strong becomes the means by which it is attacked. Power, after investing itself in the body, finds itself exposed to a counter-attack in that same body. Do you recall the panic of the institutions of the social body, the doctors and the politicians, at the idea of non-legalized cohabitation or abortion?" [From "Body/Power," in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 ; but quoted in Penelope Deutscher's "Inversion of Exceptionality," an interesting article in its own right.]

The ontological relationship of resistance to power is besides the point, though. What is the point: since the relationships between power and resistance, and between species and individual, are neither binary nor stable, foreclosing certain areas of discussion--say, species-level concern for, and relationships to, animals--by saying that they are biopolitical in their unrealized motives and deployments seems overly hasty.

Now, I'm not saying that Scu does this, but I think it does raise the question of whether, and how, we can theorize a relationship to animals on an ecological, or species-wide, level that evades the biopolitical problems that Scu thinks are pervasive in the works of Pollan and Haraway.

Anonymous said...

And to clarify the imprecise language in my last post: I was not, there, trying to imply that there is no ontological relationship between power and resistence, merely attempting to articulate that I wasn't making claims about the nature of such a relationship.

Also, thanks for the bulk of your post, Craig. It goes a long way towards answering the question I was asking.

Craig said...

People like to talk about species, but species is a really troublesome concept. According to Grene and Depew's textbook on the philosophy of biology, there are at least twenty-three distinct concepts of species presently being discussed in the literature. There is no simple appeal to "the species" that is not incoherent and problematic.

Scu said...

Thank you for your comments Anonymous and for your follow ups Craig.

First, I want to say I clearly understand that staying at the level of the individual is not a guarantee to avoid the problems of biopolitics (certainly not the disciplinary techniques used by biopolitics). While I was writing my post last night I realized that it could sound like I was valorizing the individual, and I forgot to somehow rectify that issue). However, I do believe it is impossible to have an ethical imperative to anything but an individual. Certainly not to abstract categories like specieses, populations, nations, etc.

Second, the way I understand your question is that you want to understand how we can deal with broader questions, like ecological or how to promote health and security without incuring the darker side of the biopolitical, right? How is it we can create a politics that supports life without also incuring the problems like genocide, nuclear weapons, etc.? I don't know. Or, to say it another way, my answer changes a lot. I could, for example, give you the answer Agamben would, or Negri, or Foucault, or Derrida, or Esposito, etc.

Lastly, you note the example of abortion of one of those moments were resistance to power is able to transform the manipulations of power into something useful for resistance. I don't know if I have something as hopeful to share. I do know that if we are going to escape the global catastrophe we are in, what Derrida simply called the worst, we are going to have to dramatically change many of our dominate relationship with animals.

Craig, your early modern stuff rocks. I always enjoy reading it. I sometimes feel you read Locke so I don't have to ;) (It's a lie, I have. But not as much or as often as you, so the sentiment is still there).

Craig said...

Obviously, you should read first hand (although don't spend two years reading "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" unless you absolutely need to - your time is better spent on Hegel's "Logic" [which I have yet to read seriously and carefully]), but if you can't read first hand, always go with a good authority. I hope that I'm a good authority for those who are unable to read Locke firsthand for themselves.

I picked up Pollan's book at the library yesterday. Hope to get to it in a week or so after I clear some ILLs that just came in.

Craig said...

Oh, I forwarded you an email the other day on Ahimsa.

Scu said...

I have read Locke, along with a number of other early modern philosophers. But not in great detail or rigor. I wouldn't say I was a Locke scholar.

Tell me what you think of Pollan.

Lastly, besides Suicide, what are the other works of Durkheim you have felt were important? Especially in regards to the sacred and profane economies at play in institutions.

Craig said...

Elementary Forms of Religious Life and, of course, Mauss's Essay on the Gift. Both depend upon Mauss and Durkheim Primitive Classification and Mauss and Hubert Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice. Without these texts, no Bataille, no Levi-Strauss, no Baudrillard, no Girard, etc.

Scu said...

I've both of those Mauss texts (and a few others, at least). It always seemed to me that Mauss is far more of a foundational thinker for French philosophy than he is given credit for in the english-language reception of French philosophy.
But, I've not read either of those Durkheim texts, I'll probably be able to read those near the end of the summer. Hopefully we can chat more about them then.

Craig said...

I haven't signed the contract yet, but I expect to be teaching a lecture course in the fall on Durkheim and Durkheimian sociology to sociology undergrads. Per my usual methods in courses like this, it will likely be three hours of textual explication per week for twelve weeks. I expect I'll cover "The Social Division of Labour," "Rules of the Sociological Method," "Suicide," "Elementary Forms of Religious Life" and "Essay on the Gift." The Durkheimian sociology, I think, will be some Bataille and Baudrillard. Perhaps - if I am feeling ambitious, Agamben.