Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oscar Wilde on vegetarianism

"However, even vegetarianism in your hands, would make a capital article -- its connection with philosophy is very curious-- dating from the earliest Greek days, and taken by the Greeks from the East -- and so is its connection with modern socialism, atheism, nihilism, anarchy and other political creeds. It is strange that the most violent republicans I know are all vegetarians: Brussels sprouts seem to make people bloodthirsty, and those who live on lentils and artichokes are always calling for the gore of the aristocracy and for the severed heads of kings. Your vegetarianism has given you a wise apathy-- so at least you told me once -- but in the political sphere a diet of green beans seems dangerous." -Oscar Wilde, The Complete Letters, p. 334, from a letter dated Nov. 12, 1887.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A complication to flat ethics and relational ethics

I am absurdly busy this week, so of course one of the more interesting cross-blog conversations has broken out. Let's see if I can trace this for everyone. Paul made the original post, following up on a discussion we were having about anti-correlationist thinking and the animal. Levi followed up by combining some of his earlier analysis on inhuman ethics with Paul's post. That then generated an excellent discussion in comments (read them), Peter made some short comments on his blog (here and here), and then both Paul and Adrian followed up on stuff they had said in comments in full length blog posts, and of course Levi found the time to already respond. (oh yeah, meanwhile Craig also decided to write an interesting post at his blog you all should read, even if it isn't directly a part of this conversation).

I don't have the time to respond to all of this stuff. Really any of it right now. So a short problematic that needs to be worked through in both flat ethics and relational ethics (not that those are necessarily different?). The problem is similar but slightly different for each.
In flat ethics we are trying to talk about how we can conceive of ethics (is it appropriate to say do justice?) that isn't just anthropocentric, or animal-centric, or even biocentric (right, Levi?), but rather does justice to all entities that are real. So, that's hard enough to even formulate the proposition, much less answer. But the fear is that such an extension could cause a defacto anthropocentricism (or pick your favorite -centrism). Let's bring this discussion to something those of us in the CAS movement understand, which is the extension of ethical treatment towards plants, which we dealt with briefly before on this blog. It is not uncommon for someone to respond to finding out someone is vegan (or vegetarian) by responding "What about plants?" sometimes this is meant as a joke, usually it is meant as an excuse not to explore the ethical. Though perhaps in the strongest formulation you will find this concept as part of what Derrida calls eating well, or what Haraway translates into the notion of killing well. If in order to live we have to eat/kill, than how should live in such a way to eat/kill well? In Derrida there isn't much to go on in his formulation, and it is a frustrating and interesting interview. In Haraway's boook When Species Meet, she develops her notion of killing well. And there is some thoughtful writing here about other animals, and balancing issues of ecology, etc. But she (and in many ways Derrida as well) doesn't deal with the question of killing humans. In short, it is hard to imagine she has created the same system for killing well humans as she as for animals. While human actions are under scrutiny in the work, an implicit anthropocentrism still seems to have hold over her notion (and I'd love nothing more to see her more directly take up this issue). By extending the ethical, we have to make sure that it doesn't foster a type of anthropocentrism (because I am concerned of plants and socks and Harry Potter and my cat and the bird he tries to hunt, etc) we end up declaring that tough choices have to be made! that still somehow excuses those same choices being made about humans. Obviously this is not at all a problem inherent in flat ethics, but is a problem that must be repeatedly and obviously guarded against.

In the relational ethics we have a similar issue, as I see. Adrian writes that:
But maybe there is a difference here after all... It's quite possible that an object-oriented ontology makes it easier to measure things that are fundamentally of the same kind (objects as defined in such and such a way), and is therefore more amenable to egalitarianism to the extent that "equality" is considered a kind of sameness that is distributed across a certain set of entities. A relational ontology, on the other hand, prefers to focus not on equality but on qualitivism -- that is, the notion that we should act in a way that preserves and enhances the quality of relations. I’ve argued elsewhere for an “ethic of circulating agency,” where what we value is that the ability to act, to pursue one’s goals, to respond to others, to grow and to flourish, is kept in motion , i.e., that it is actively distributed across the terrain within which the capacity emerges for such action, pursuit, responsiveness, and growth. I have yet to develop that idea in any philosophical depth, but I think it’s consistent with a poststructuralist and post-constructivist process-relational approach to politics.
First, let me clarify. By egalitarianism (which is my emphasis with the concept of flatness with ethics) I do not mean sameness, homogeneity, static being, etc. As I stated in a comment over at Levi's place, ethics means affirming both equality and difference. This is obviously a tricky thing, and my favorite formulation of it, perhaps weirdly, is by Peter Singer (I hesitate to ever bring him into discussions, because of how much weight dragging his name into a conversation tends to have. So let me state I do not mean to bring his philosophical apparatuses in whenever I quote him. I sometimes don't even mean what he means when I quote him, sometimes I just like his formulations), when states that we have to give equal consideration of interests. Now, he has some technical meanings for the terms interest and consideration, but of which I think we might be challenging. But this is what I mean by equality, in which an exceptionalism doesn't form in our ethical relationships. I like the idea of an ethic of circulating agency. But I would too wonder what it does with something like the notion of killing well or eating well. In short, how does an ethic of circulatory ethics deal with situations that are not win-win? How does it deal with situations where choices have to made that for some being to continue flourishing means that another being cannot continue to flourish? This is where egalitarianism becomes all the more necessary, otherwise some group or person or whatever will always cheat at these moments. Will claim that their interests are obviously more important than others. (And this might also be a good way to rethink interests, in terms of collective relations toward flourishing, rather than an individualistic utilitarian calculations). Again, not something inherent, but something that needs to be watched and guarded against.

Anyway, I think this discussion has been wonderful so far. I know we are all busy, but I hope it continues. And maybe when the blogging begins to slow down we can formulate some sort of more concrete exchange (special journal issue, formalized virtual conference, real conference, etc.).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Metro riding dogs

This article about stray/wild dogs in Moscow is a must read. The parts about how some dogs have learned to use the metro is certainly fascinating, as well.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The biggest disappointment of the day?

Which will it be: Apple's iTablet, or Obama's SOTU address?


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A question regarding DeLanda

I know some of the people who follow this blog know DeLanda personally. If there is any chance, could you drop me an email at thescu@gmail.com
The question itself is vaguely time sensitive, so within the next 24 hours would be ideal. Thanks for any help, in advance.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Persons, persons everywhere!

(UPDATE: Greg has a post on personhood up, here).

So, it seems my last post on the history of personhood is quite timely, everywhere we look there are discussions of personhood. Let's track down a few:

Margaret Sommerville has an article arguing against personhood for animals. The article is at least 98% bunk (even her attacks against Singer are off base). Except for the honest argument that personhood for animals should be opposed because it destroys human exceptionalism. That's the problem sometimes, what I want is often exactly the opposite of what someone else wants. It's not a misunderstanding that can just be clarified. Anymore than someone saying their opposition of extending personhood to african-americans in the times of slavery was a problem because it destroyed white exceptionalism. No duh, that's a benefit, not a bug.
This article comes by way of A Thinking Reed, where Lee has two posts up responding, here and here. You might also want to check out his post on corporate personhood.

Meanwhile, it seems there is a movement to create an amendment in order to define citizenship as belonging just to humans, and specifically trying to stop citizenship rights to be conferred on corporations. I learn this by way of Animal Rights & Anti-Oppression. Over there Mary Martin makes the argument that corporate personhood is bad for the personhood of non-human animals. No doubt.
Of course the whole thing seems to be caught in some sort of weird double bind. People want to pass this amendment because they feel the recent SCOTUS decision gives too much power over the political process to corporations. If this is correct, passing an amendment, the hardest political thing you can probably do, should be easily stopped by the corporations. Oh well. If the language gets changed to something less anthropocentric, let me know.


There is probably more I want to say on all these issues, and I might get to them later.

A history of the concept of person

With the recent SCOTUS decision allowing corporations unlimited political speech, we've heard all sorts of things about this idea that corporations are persons. Some of those ideas have also touched on the relationship between animals and persons (see the comments made to Levi's post). None of this should surprise us, because questions surrounding animals and personhood have been around for a few years now. Great apes as persons, dolphins as persons, animals as persons; a menagerie of personhood. But if the idea of an animal as person is now several years old, the idea of a corparation as a person is even older, and extends out of an even older understanding of personhood.
To be a person has, at least in the occidental tradition, been tied to the concept of ownership since Rome. Though it also includes notions of personhood outside of the occidental tradition, we won't be getting into that quite yet. Indeed, to be a person is originally bound to the capacity and desire for ownership, for possessing the property of property. A radical course might be, then, not to abolish animalhood into personhood, but rather to abolish personhood into animalhood. This is why, for Deleuze and Guattari, an anti-capitalist politics requires a becoming-animal. This is just prelude, to summarize the arguments below.
***
Our word person comes from the Etruscan phersu, which originally meant mask. The Etruscan theater rites held that the performers wore masks, the phersu. These rites would influence the Roman theater, and gave birth to their word persona. The persona could refer to the mask, to the individual wearing the mask, or to the character one played. Persona both meant mask, and also meant role. Around the second Punic War grammarians borrowed the theatrical term of persona, and used is to signify different forms of address (first person, second person, etc.). That was the third century BCE, by the first century BCE the word persona had come to take on several different but related meanings. One had many roles in Roman society; roles as father, roles as citizen, etc.; and persona became the technical term for different types of roles one was to perform in society. Perhaps most definitely for our purposes is that persona comes to be a definitive legal category. One's persona was connected toward the legal right to have a name, that indeed the "Roman citizen had a right to the nomen, the praenomen and the cognomen that his gens assigned to him." [1] To be a persona meant to have access to one's name, to one's status. And this status is not an abstract category but the very right to have property, to do business, to be a member of the senate. Mauss again:
To the very end the Roman Senate thought of itself as being made up of a determinate number of patres representing the 'persons' (personnes), the 'images' of their ancestors.
It is to the persona that is attributed the property of the simulacra and the imagines. [2]

Indeed, if we fastforward to 535 CE the exacting Institutes of Justinian codify all of this. As Thomas Collett Sanders explains in his definitive commentary:
Every being capable of having and being subject to rights was called in Roman law persona (see Introd. sec. 37). Thus not only was the individual citizen, when look at as having this capacity, a persona, but also corporations and public bodies. Slaves, on the other had, were not persona. They had no rights (see Introd. sec. 38). [...] Status (legal standing) is the correlative of persona: persona is that which has a status. In Roman law there were recognized three great heads of this legal capacity: libertas, the capacity to have and be subject to the rights of a freeman; civitas, the capacity to have and be subject to the rights of a Roman citizen; and familia, the capacity to have be subject to the rights of a person sui juris. [3]
So, at least by the sixth century CE, personhood is the term of art for those with legal standing, and corporations were included. But there is another important development with the concept of person in Rome. We need to rewind back to first century BCE.
While persona was entering legal terminology, it was also entering as a term of art in moral philosophy. In particular, it forms part of the basis of Stoic anthropology. As Cicero declared "dignitas hominis," he also outlined the four persona that make us human in De Officiis. The first persona is that of ratio, of reason. This is the most important one for Cicero, as it is both what divides the human from the animal and "in superiority surpass the brute creatures" [4] while at the same time gives us the guide of how to treat the other personas, as if they were "wild beasts." [5] The other three personas are individuality, the historical factors that form you, and your own will. This anthropology is more than just an argument on what separates humans from animals, it is also a moral argument. Here the idea of a moral consciousness enters into our understanding of persona; a moral consciousness that is bound together with reason. Persona will undergo one other important transformation in the classical period, this time under the treatment of the patristics.
As Mauss argues: "Our own notion of the human person is still basically the Christian one."[6] Let's exam what could be meant by this statement. Tertullian, whom invented the notion of the trinity, argued that God is "tres Personae, una Substantia," three roles, one substance. And while we are dealing with three, what we are really dealing with is a duality between spirit and flesh, and this duality must be overcome. This is why Mauss further contends: "It is from the notion of the 'one' that the notion of the 'person' (personne) was created -- I believe that it will long remain so -- for the divine persons, but at the same time for the human person, substance and mode, body and soul, consciousness and act." [7] The way this dualism is eventually overcome is by tying the notion of persona to the notion of economy. [8]
These classical understandings of persona, bound up with ownership, reason, legal status, dualism and economy, are important. But we need to fast forward again, this time all the way to the early 19th century.
Antoine Destutt de Tracy, an aristocrat and philosopher perhaps best known for coining the term ideology, published an influential book entitled Traité de la volonté. When Thomas Jefferson translated this book into English, he changed the title to Treatise on Political Economy. Within this treatise, Destutt de Tracy argues for the absolute inability of personal property, because one's very personhood is defined by the capacity to own things. As he writes, "Now this idea of property can only be founded on the idea of personality. For if an individual had not consciousness of his own existence, distinct and separate from every other, he could possess nothing, he could have nothing peculiar to himself." [9]
Destutt de Tracy's arguments are taken up by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, which I shall quote at length:
Destutt de Tracy among, and after, many others said the same thing much better approximately thirty years ago, and also later, in the book quoted below. For example:

“Formal proceedings were instituted against property, and arguments were brought forward for and against it, as though it depended on us to decide whether property should or should not exist in the world; but this is based on a complete misunderstanding of our nature” (Traité de la volonté, Paris, 1826, p. 18).

And then M. Destutt de Tracy undertakes to prove that propriété, individualité and personnalité are identical, that the “ego” [moi] also includes “mine” [mien], and he finds as a natural basis for private property that

“nature has endowed man with an inevitable and inalienable property, property in the form of his own individuality” (p. 17). — The individual “clearly sees that this ego is the exclusive owner of the body which it animates, the organs which it sets in motion, all their capacities, all their forces, all the effects they produce, all their passions and actions; for all this ends and begins with this ego, exists only through it, is set in motion through its action; and no other person can make use of these same instruments or be affected in the same way by them” (p. 16). “Property exists, if not precisely, everywhere that a sentient individual exists, at least wherever there is a conative individual” (p. 19).

Having thus made private property and personality identical, Destutt de Tracy with a play on the words propriété and propre, like “Stirner” with his play on the words Mein and Meinung, Eigentum and Eigenheit, arrives at the following conclusion:

“It is, therefore, quite futile to argue about whether it would not be better for each of us to have nothing of our own (de discuter s'il ne vaudrait pas mieux que rien ne fût propre à chacun de nous) ... in any case it is equivalent to asking whether it would not be desirable for us to be quite different from what we are, and even to examining whether it would not be better for us not to exist at all” (p. 22).

“these are extremely popular”, now already traditional objections to communism, and for that very reason “it is not surprising that Stirner” repeats them. [10]


As Marx and Engels here indicate, there is a stapling together of property, individualism, and personhood. This stapling together is rooted from some of the earliest occidental legal codes and moral philosophy. This forces us to face the idea that maybe we need to exit from basing our rights and ethical responsibilities on the notion of person. It just might be true that as long as the person is the center of our politics and ethics we will always privilege the wealthiest of us and always leave at risk the most disposed. It is for this reason that in some ways corporations are the most natural of persons (who, after all, owns more stuff), and of course it continues to be a problem to ever extend personhood toward other animals.
***
If I had more time I'd probably now enter into a discussion of Heidegger's notion of animals as poor-in-this-world, Schmitt's notion of nomos, and Deleuze and Guattari's notion of nomos and becoming-animal. But I don't.


A comment on Citations:
I recognize these are not formal citations, it's late and this is a blog. These should, however, allow you get to any of the citations I've given. If you have trouble tracking something down, let me know.

[1] Marcel Mauss, "A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self" in The Category of the Person, edited M. Carrithers et al., p. 16.
[2] Mauss, p. 17.
[3] Justinian, The Institutes of Justinian, translated with commentary by Thomas Collett Sanders, p. 76. I also suggest reading the strongly Agambenian reading of this code by Steven DeCaroli in "Boundary Stones: Giorgio Agamben and the Field of Sovereignity" in Giorgio Agamben, ed. M. Calarco and S. DeCaroli.
[4] Cicero, On Duties, Cambridge Press, p. 42.
[5] Cicero, p. 125.
[6] Mauss, p. 19.
[7] Mauss, p. 20.
[8] Despite his lack of focus on the concept of persona, Agamben's focus on economy in Il Regno e la Gloria is well worth the read.
[9] Destutt de Tracy, A Treatise of Political Economy, p. 17
[10] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, International Publishers, pp. 100-101.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A spy air drone may be coming to a city near you

I hear this a plot mechanism in the new season of 24. However, it seems that air drones are going to be used in parts of the UK. I've recently decided all sci-fi tropes are coming true.

Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the ­"routine" monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.

The arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which produces a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for war zones, is adapting the military-style planes for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police. [...]

They also indicate that police claims that the technology will be used for maritime surveillance fall well short of their intended use – which could span a range of police activity – and that officers have talked about selling the surveillance data to private companies.[...]

Five other police forces have signed up to the scheme, which is considered a pilot preceding the countrywide adoption of the technology for "surveillance, monitoring and evidence gathering". The partnership's stated mission is to introduce drones "into the routine work of the police, border authorities and other government agencies" across the UK. [...]

Far more sophisticated than the remote-controlled rotor-blade robots that hover 50-metres above the ground – which police already use – BAE UAVs are programmed to undertake specific operations. They can, for example, deviate from a routine flightpath after encountering suspicious ­activity on the ground, or undertake numerous reconnaissance tasks simultaneously.

The surveillance data is fed back to control rooms via monitoring equipment such as high-definition cameras, radar devices and infrared sensors.

Previously, Kent police has said the drone scheme was intended for use over the English Channel to monitor shipping and detect immigrants crossing from France. However, the documents suggest the maritime focus was, at least in part, a public relations strategy designed to minimise civil liberty concerns. [...]

Partnership officials have said the UAVs could raise revenue from private companies. At one strategy meeting it was proposed the aircraft could undertake commercial work during spare time to offset some of the running costs.


More animal blogs?

I'm going to list the animal blogs I follow, but there are tons I have overlooked, including several obvious and important ones. Can people suggest more animal blogs for me to read, particularly if they are "critical"? I originally was trying the organize the list below into categories. And while some blogs that was fairly straightforward, it got annoying with others, so it is alpha by blog title.
I also know there are a lot of blogs that occasionally deal with animal issues, let me know about those too!, but I mostly only included blogs that significantly dealt with the question.
Thanks in advance.
UPDATE: As people give me links, I'll be adding them here.


Animal Blawg
Animal Ethics
Animal Law Coalition
Animal Obscura
Animal Person
Animal Rights: Abolition approach
Animal Rights & Anti-Oppression

Carol J. Adams

Green is the New Red

Health

The Inhumanities
In Living Color

LibNow!
LOVE

On Human-Non-Human Relations

Posthumanities

Theoria
A Thinking Reed
Thomas Paine's Corner

The Vegan Ideal
Vegans of Color
VegiFem
V for Vegan

Friday, January 22, 2010

Copyright as performative contradiction

So, one of the weird things I didn't talk about with Hardt & Negri's Commonwealth is that the book is, of course, copyrighted. Hundreds of pages, many of which deal explicitly with the need to move beyond property relations, especially in forms of affective and cognitive labor. That these forms of 'biopolitical labor' belong to the common, and by releasing that we only enrich each other and that labor by allowing it to stay in the common.

Now, I understand that publishing companies have a lot more to do with copyrighting than authors' wishes. But unless there is a back story I am unaware of (and if there is, please let me know) I sorta think that authors at the stature of Hardt and Negri could freely choose to publish with a smaller company without copyright or some sort of creative commons copyright without hurting their careers.

This clearly isn't the only case of copyright as performative contradiction, but it is one of most egregious I have seen.

What makes us unique as humans?

I got this from Ezra Klein's blog:

You should watch it, it is funny and smart.

A couple of comments: He goes through several different things that we think make us human, but we realize other animals (usually primates) have them as well. Then he will always make something that other animals have and only humans have: being a chess grandmaster, killing other people with predator drones, S&M sex, etc. In each case he isn't really making an argument for what is unique about humans as a species, but rather what is unique about certain humans. In other words, he is not drawing lines of kinds, but of degrees.

Except for the last part, which while inspiring, is certainly scientifically implausible, and certainly impossible to prove. Still, worth watching, and very enjoyable.

Communism and animal abolition

So, I was responding to an abolitionist who was posting here, and I said I was in complete agreement with the goals of animal abolition, viz. the dismantling of a regime that sees animals as nothing other than property. But, of course, I oppose property as such.

This brings me to a question, what would a traditional anti-property communist who was also traditionally anthropocentric say about the question of the animals. Animals are no longer property, does that mean you still get to exploit them, eat them, etc? I would guess yes, it just would have to be done for the common (human) good?

It seems to me that opposition to property requires a necessary revolution in our relation to the non-human or a-human.

Towards a radical bioethics

I've been meaning to link to this review of Observing Bioethics for awhile now (btw, this new book review blog of TNR is pretty good, you all should check it out).

I don't want to say too much on this issue here, but this is basically my next project, after I finish the dissertation and get it published. Right now continental philosophy seems to have very little to give toward either practical ethics or bioethics. Indeed, Agamben and the teabaggers seem to have roughly the same level of analysis of bioethicists (hint, they both think they are nazis). Meanwhile, bioethics remains rather conservative, rather individualistic. This is at the same time that bioethics is probably the single most influential part of philosophy today. Things need to change.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ecology and Marxism, pt. 1

I highly suggest reading Levi post, Inhuman Ethics. I hope to make a fuller response later. Right now, I want to quote some things to provide a beginning for later posts (when I get the chance).

The first is a quotation from Reviel Netz's Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity:
Marxism was lacking not merely in the understanding of agriculture but in the understanding of ecology and therefore of history itself (p. 180).

The second quotation is from Adorno:

In Marx the principle of the domination of nature is actually accepted quite naively. According to the Marxian way of seeing there is something of a change in the relations of domination between people -- they are supposed to come to an end, that is, such domination should disappear -- but the unconditional domination of nature by human beings is not affected by this, so we might say that the image of a classless society in Marx has something of a quality of a gigantic joint-stock company for the exploitation of nature, as Horkheimer once formulated it. The fact that, according to Marx, the labour performed by animals does not lead to the production of surplus value -- even though the costs of reproduction is lower in animals than the time or energy expanded -- the fact that, according to an explicit passage in Capital, their labour produces no surplus value is merely the crassest symbol of this. I have no wish to become embroiled in romantic reflections on nature, but I believe that, when I say there has been too little interpretation, we have alighted on a very crucial problem. If there is only one truth, it is not possible to criticize radically the principle of domination on the one hand, while unreservedly acquiescing in it in a undialectical manner on the other. If it is the case -- as Marx and Engels taught, although I am by no means sure it is the case -- that domination over external nature called for societies in which domination prevailed through the millennia because things would not have worked otherwise -- and that this situation is now supposed to be radically transformed all of a sudden, then you need a very strong faith (to put it mildly) to imagine that the forms of domination of nature should persist in accordance with idealism, in accordance with a Fichtean idea of absolute subjectivity, without forms of domination making their appearance [in society]. If in the Eastern-bloc countries the bureaucrats have eaten their fill and have formed themselves into a class, this is undeniably connected to the process of industrialization with its utterly ruthless and undialectical demands for the domination of nature, whereas for a seriously liberated vision of society that includes the relationship of man and nature, the relation to the domination of nature has to be changed if it is not constantly to reproduce itself in the internal forms of society. (Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments on a Lecture Course 1965/1966, pp. 58-59, emphasis in the original).
I will have more to say later, I just wanted to type these up as a beginning.

2010 Critical Animal Studies conference.

Check out the cfp here. I have some logistics to work out, but I will probably be submitting. Who else is planning on attending?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Academic Job Advice

The plan is to finish up and defend next academic year. Which means I am going on the job market. Many of you have jobs doing one of rarest things ever, teaching philosophy. So here it is, a question and a plea: I know nothing about how to go about getting a job. Any and all advice is appreciated. Tell me what what you wished you had know, tell me what the best thing you did was, tell me simple things you think I would know already.

Feel free to post here, or on your blogs. If you want to drop me an email for some reason, feel free at thescu@gmail.com. Reveal the secrets that everyone knows are true but are usually considered impolitic to say.

Link me to excellent things about applying for jobs others have written. Whatever you want, really. And if you don't contribute, you will probably get an email from me anyway.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Influential Books: Critical Animal for the Uninitiated

Over at AUFS, Anthony and Adam (Update: also Dan and Brad) have made posts outlining what some of the key texts are for them. I like this idea, so I am stealing it (and hopefully some other people will as well).

Obviously, there are many texts that have been important, too many that I like, too many that I feel are essential. So I want foundational. And, there is a certain clear problem, most foundational things aren't books. They are professors, students, events, encounters that mostly are foundational. And often those encounters take place with and across texts which means that it isn't ever the text itself, but the perfect text at the perfect moment. With all those problems, I'm going to do this anyway.

Perhaps more than any other thinker, I understand what it means to do philosophy because of Gilles Deleuze. Two texts in particular: "Letter to a Harsh Critic" from Negotiations and Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy?. Sure, these texts taught me about the political nature of philosophy, and also argued for the egalitarian and democratic nature of thinking. But they taught me a generosity when dealing with other works, they taught me that to follow the work that excited me and intensified my own work. Philosophy is political (is never innocent), philosophy is not about escaping (elitism/vanguardism) from the crowds but about alliances and coalitions (it addresses itself to a new people and a new earth), philosophy is generous and open (building what it can through contamination rather than filiation), and the only judgement of a concept is intensity (does it turn you on? or even better does it turn you into something else entirely?). Whatever ways I have moved away from Deleuze and Guattari, I still think about philosophy in this egalitarian register. Bill Haver has been a major influence in keeping the political aspects of doing philosophy at the forefront of my work, however I am not sure his texts are key here. However, while his book The Body of this Death is important, perhaps for the political ramifications of thinking I would suggest his essay on Genet, "The Ontological Priority of Violence".

My methodology of thinking has been influenced mostly by Foucault's Discipline and Punish and Marx's The German Ideology. While both of those authors get cited any number of times in my work neither of these texts are particularly cited (well, D&P is but The German Ideology isn't). However, both of these texts acted like wrecking balls to my earlier vaguely idealist and methodologically anthropocentric nature because of Marx's materialist history and Foucault's genealogy. Furthermore, in both cases, I learned that political questions often take place around the modes of production of subjectivity.

European radicalism and continental poststructuralism were both important strands of philosophy for me, but they have their blind spots, weaknesses, and aporias. All of which I might be more tied to now if it were not for Maria Lugones. I suggest her book Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes. For at least some of you, for whom it seems as if every book is written for you, this book is not written for you. Which is all the more reason to read it. Another text, which seems to work within the tropes of poststructuralism only to explode or morph them at every turn is Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera. While it wasn't her intent to do what I described, that was the effect upon me.

This is a critical animal studies blog with a pro-vegan bias, so I should probably mention some works in that tradition. However, my desire to do all of this work came really without the intellectual work of the philosophers whom I now use. Still, there seems to be a few key texts to comment on. Revival Netz's Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity is probably the book I wish I had written in the field. Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am provides a lot of the key insights that are missing or subdued in Barbed Wire. It also has the added benefit of being the book that changed my mind about the importance of Derrida. Lastly, J. M. Coetzee's text The Lives of Animals remains one of the most thought provoking and moving texts on the subject out there.

There are some many other texts I'd like to talk about, but keeping it small seems the point. I do look forward to seeing other people take up posts like this.

Mary Daly's dead, how do I feel about that?

As I am sure most of you know, Mary Daly passed away recently. Since I have heard I've been trying to figure out how to respond. I've been unable to really to make a post about that without getting into some things I've worked pretty damn hard to get over. Despite the usefulness of second wave feminism for many people, it did some violence to me. Meanwhile, an early meeting with Kate Bornstein did me a heck of a lot of good. So, Daly (whom I saw speak once when I was an undergraduate) is something of a double whammy with her transphobia or transhatred, and her second-waveyness.
Meanwhile, Mary Daly did a lot of good for a lot of people. She was a singular influence on the work of Carol Adams, for one.

Anyway, it seems other people are saying things better than I. I suggest reading this post (h/t AUFS).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More on health care: Why the insurance industry hates it edition

Two notes before I get into this post. First, if you haven't heard about the earthquake in Haiti, it is really, really terrible. According to a few different blogs, Peter Hallward (who would be the guy to ask) suggests making contributions to Partners in Health . I know most of you are poor grad students, but just in case someone following this blog wants to contribute something, there you go.

Second note is that maybe whining and complaining about minor things in H&N's new book isn't the best use of my time or energy. However, I still am not sure what real comments on the book will or won't make the review cut, so I'll just post more stuff when I finish writing the review (which, Peter, it should be done by the end of this weekend if you are curious).

NOW TO HEALTH CARE REFORM!

Now, as I suggested before, many of those on the left who are in the kill the bill crowd are more motivated by hatred of insurance companies than they are by wanting to help people. This view, whereby dramatic reforms are measured not by the amount of good they will do, but by the amount of harm to the insurance companies is just about as backwards of a way to judge a bill as I could possibly come up with. I'm not a fan of insurance companies in this country, I'd love to see some harm fall on their heads. But at the same time, it isn't a zero sum game (indeed a recent post by Reinhardt on community ratings reveals how central insurance is in Switzerland, Netherlands, and Germany). But what has really shocked me in these discussions is that the current health care bill is not an unmitigated give away to the insurance companies that many people keep arguing it is. Yes, insurance companies got their way with getting rid of the public option, and that is not good news. But, here is a list of things that insurance companies don't want that will be in the current bill.

(1) Community ratings: Right now people on the individual market are charged rates, well, individually. This basically means that if you seem to cost insurance companies at all, either you just will not be allowed insurance or will be able to get insurance at absurdly high prices (frequently meaning you still don't get insurance). Community ratings mean you can't charge people different rates out of the exchange (except for some controlled differences in age and smoking habits). This is obviously both the key to expansion of coverage and at the same time something insurance companies really don't want.

(2) Actually paying for people who get sick: Right now one of the main ways that insurance companies make money is by, frankly, not spending money on actually sick people. Now one way is to allow sick people into insurance, but what happens when people get sick or injured that they are covering? We all know the answer, try to find ways to kick them off their insurance rolls and put caps on annual and lifetime expenditures on these people. All of these practices are expected to be banned in the final bill (though there could end up being some annual caps, but I hope not).

(3) No, you can't cheat: Obviously insurance companies are going to want to cheat at all of this. What is good news is that the exchanges will act as prudential purchasers (I covered this in the first health care post). This means the exchanges will not be a come one come all to insurers, but will be able to regulate who can join. If it seems that insurance companies are trying to get over, they can be kicked out. This not only is a good penalty, but provides a fiscal incentive to behave in the first place.

(4) Insurance companies really do want to have to compete with each other. In the status quo, they basically don't. Not only are there many geographical locations where there is only one or two insurance companies to choose from, but the insurance companies do everything in their power to remain opaque to the buyer. That means, in Braudelian terms, the insurance market isn't a market, it is an antimarket. Prices are not set by any market forces, but by command. There are a lot of things in the bill to change all of that. Not only will the exchanges have several insurers to choose from, but the information cost for finding out things about insurance companies will be lowered. We are talking about the amazon-ification of insurance purchasing, where you can find reviews from other people about goods and services. Also, insurance companies will be forced to post information online in ways that are accessible to purchasers.

(5) Competition from non-profit insurers: As I've said elsewhere, several systems in the world don't depend on competition from a public insurance option, but from competition between non-profit and for-profit private insurance companies. In every exchange there will be at least one non-profit private insurance company.

(6) Actually have to spend money on medical care: 85% of every premium dollar has to be spent on medical care, or they have to cut you a rebate check. (In some cases only 80%, but those will the minority cases, not the majority). This is pretty huge in and of itself.


So, let's recap. Currently we have a system where insurance companies don't have to take you if you are sick, and they come up with ways not to pay for your medical care if get sick. They are able to insulate themselves from market pressures, and can use your premium dollars for anything they damn well please. And there is zero fiscal reasons or market reasons for insurance companies not to act as evil as they can. Indeed, all the pressure goes in the opposite direction. All of this changes under the health care bill being considered. That doesn't sound like a great deal, even with a larger customer base, for the insurance companies to me. I'm sure they would prefer the status quo. And indeed, their recent behavior to fund a campaign against the health care bill that won't even include a public option means I'm probably right on this one. Now, does this mean the bill is only bad news for the insurance companies? No, it isn't. Does it go as far as I would like? Duh, of course not. But the status quo is much better for insurance companies and much, much worse for everyone one else.

However, I hear that things are not looking good in the (unofficial) conference. It looks like Democrats might not be able to overcome what Freud referred to as "the narcissism of minor differences."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

hypermodernity, postmodernity, and altermodernity = German, American, and French = wtf?

At one point H&N write, "We could say, in a playful kind of nationalist shorthand, that Germans are primarily responsible for the concept of hypermodernity, U.S. intellectuals for postmodernity, and the French for altermodernity-- although our preference for the position of altermodernity is not due to any sort of Francophilia" (p. 113).

Let's quickly gloss over the obvious dialectical relationship of these three terms (indeed, the dialectical relationship that is the key to altermodernity) despite H&N's protestations, and just get into how this sentence above is completely incoherent.

Now, hypermodernity here refers to theorists who feel that modernity is an unfinished project. And I can get to how they call it playfully German, considering the theorists they mostly identify with this position are Habermas and Beck.

Postmodernity they mean simply a rejection of modernity. Now, I don't understand how this is mostly a term of U.S. intellectuals. I can make some arguments for them, but they don't indicate anything useful in the text. Indeed, in a footnote they write: "The weak versions of postmodernism, from Jean-Francois Lyotard and Richard Rorty to Jean Baudrillard and Gianni Vattimo, offer this kind of aestheticized reaction to the crisis, at times veering into theology" (p. 403 n. 74). In that list we have two Frenchmen, one Italian, and one U.S. intellectual. Now, this might not be worth mentioning would it not be for the absurdity of referring to altermodernity as French.

For the several pages proceeding this schematic distinction between the three reactions of failed modernity, they had been discussing concrete political assemblages they would associate with altermodernity, and host of theorists to explain altermodernity. Almost to a person we are talking about Latin American and Caribbean theorists and struggles. How does this suddenly become a French thing? The only French theorist they have specifically named with altermodernity up to that point is Foucault. On the pages before and afterward they warn against the dangers of Eurocentrism, and then we have this completely bizarre and unwarranted moment of Eurocentrism.


Immanence and from below

I'm working on this review of Hardt and Negri's Commonwealth, and in such a review you end up way more material than can go into a review. So probably for the rest of this week, and some of next week you will see several random posts on stuff that isn't going into the review.

So, random observation: I'm really annoyed by the authors claims on one hand to working within the framework of immanence, and then on the other hand, they constantly talk about stuff "from below." Clearly this isn't a big deal, but those concepts terminology, at the minimum, has some tension. Now I understand, one set has to do with a lack of metaphysics of hierarchy in ontology, and the from below refers to the hierarchy of material and social conditions. Still, annoying.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Faye's out, what's in?

Well, the consensus is that Faye is not worth the time (though there are some decent translations of some of Heidegger's texts that are not in translation yet, or something like that).

So, here's the question: If Faye is out (and looks like he is) what's in? What are the best texts out there that explore the relationship of Heidegger and his nazism? I don't mean just biographical, but also (and most importantly) philosophical.



What do you all suggest?

Leigh Johnson on the dark side of theory

Leigh Johnson has an insightful follow-up to my post on animal experimentation and vulnerability, on the unavoidable hazards of doing philosophy. Check it out.


Friday, January 8, 2010

A question on Faye's Heidegger

Simply, is it any good?

As most of you are aware, I am not a huge fan of Heidegger, and so was pretty happy when I first heard about this book. Even though I knew some of claims are simply outrageous (specifically that we just should never teach Heidegger) I still thought it would be an interesting read. However, for some strange reason it resulted in any number of fairly high profile reviews, and those reviews were positive of the book but really terrible in themselves. I had begun to decide to just skip Faye, but I recently saw the book in a bookstore and flipped through it. It deals with a lot of lectures by Heidegger that I engage with in my own work. But I don't want to waste the money if it is simply a hatchet job or poorly written or inaccurate. So, is it any good?

Vulnerability and animal experimentation.

(It has been suggested to me that I post a disclaimer at the top. This post involves graphic sad things. Really messed up and sad. I would put it under a fold, but I've never bothered to figure that one out, before).

Recently Leigh Johnson, whose work on 'weak humanism' is certainly interesting and I've taken it up before here, had an interesting post on the genetic science behind how what has traditionally been taken as vulnerability is really plasticity. This obviously dovetails in nicely with how I've dealing with vulnerability in my own work, and also how Johnson has been dealing with the concept in her own work on weak humanism. I suggest you read her post here, and I suggest you read the article here.
A major part of the article has to deal with a researcher on rhesus monkeys, Stephen Suomi, who was a student of Harry Harlow. This is what the article says about Harlow:

Suomi learned his trade as a student and protégé of, and then a direct successor to, Harry Harlow, one of the 20th century’s most influential and problematic behavioral scientists. When Harlow started his work, in the 1930s, the study of childhood development was dominated by a ruthlessly mechanistic behavioralism. The movement’s leading figure in the United States, John Watson, considered mother love “a dangerous instrument.” He urged parents to leave crying babies alone; to never hold them to give pleasure or comfort; and to kiss them only occasionally, on the forehead. Mothers were important less for their affection than as conditioners of behavior.

With a series of ingenious but sometimes disturbingly cruel experiments on monkeys, Harlow broke with this cool behavioralism. His most famous experiment showed that baby rhesus monkeys, raised alone or with same-age peers, preferred a foodless but fuzzy terrycloth surrogate “mother” over a wire-mesh version that freely dispensed meals. He showed that these infants desperately wanted to bond, and that depriving them of physical, emotional, and social attachment could create a near-paralyzing dysfunction. In the 1950s this work provided critical evidence for the emerging theory of infant attachment: a theory that, with its emphasis on rich, warm parent-child bonds and happy early experiences, still dominates child-development theory (and parenting books) today.

Now, I'm glad that the article at least hints at what Harlow (and indeed Suomi) did. But it mostly glosses over what happened. Let me explain (and before we go any further, I am pulling most of this information from Peter Singer's Animal Liberation. He, in turn, pulls most of this information directly from scientific periodicals. Whatever you think of his philosophy, the information seems fairly legit and straightforward to me). Now, what the article describes certainly does represent the early work of Harlow, but his work didn't stop there. Let me quote another phase of their work, in which they decided they need to construct 'monster mothers':

The first of these monsters was a cloth monkey mother who, upon schedule or demand, would eject high-pressure compressed air. It would blow the animal's skin practically off its body. What did the baby monkey do? It simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother, because a frightened infant clings to its mother at all costs. We did not achieve any pyschopathology (op. cit. p. 33, from the 3rd edition).
Harlow and Suomi go on to explain the series of tortures they devised to try and make an infant stop clinging to its mother. Monster mothers that would rock so violently "that the baby's head and teeth would rattle", another monster mother would forcibly spring the infant from itself, another one would suddenly shoot out brass spikes. In all cases the baby fought to stay with these monster mothers, and would come back as soon as, for example, the spikes went away. But for whatever reason this wasn't enough for Harlow and Suomi, they needed to produce actual monster mothers, not mechanical ones. So they took infant female monkeys, and raised them in utter isolation. However, this meant that these monkeys didn't develop natural sexual urges. What to do? Never fear, Harlow and Suomi came up with a solution, what they themselves referred to as a "rape rake." These mothers, raised in utter isolation, now forced to care for their offspring produced by rape.
And these are not the only experiments, I could tell you about the experiments they did whose goal was to "induce psychological death in rhesus monkeys." And while this work maybe, as the author of the original article contends, controversial, it has not kept Harlow from being considered a pioneer and his work being talked about in almost every introduction to psychology book. It hasn't produced strict standards against making sure this type of thing doesn't keep happening, indeed the students of Harlow have gone on to be the giants in their field (none so much as Suomi himself, who has received massive amounts of money from the NIH to build his own custom laboratories). So you can understand my double outrage when the article describes an experiment in which infant monkeys were ripped from their mothers and raised with other mothers (including abusive ones). Not only am I outraged by this experiment, I am also worried about what was done to produce these abusive mothers.
But this isn't just a litany of the horrors done by someone still revered and respected. This isn't just because I don't think you can read this article and have your only reaction be, "Wow, this science is so cool and interesting," and implore you to think about what is done to animals in such research. Actually, if you are still reading, I have a philosophical point about vulnerability I wanted to get to. But before I get there, we need a short detour.
A while ago I asked in a blog post if it was true that only humans could dance to a beat. Greg responded that it wasn't, and posted this NPR article in support of this claim. After talking about how we recently discovered humans were not the only creatures to dance to a beat, the article ends on this note:
And what would happen if a bird never heard any music for the first few years of its life? Could it still dance later on? That would be an interesting study, Fitch says, and one that could never be done on people.
And while the science might indeed be interesting, I think it takes a perverse outlook on life to discover that we are less unique than was thought, and immediately go to what strange and perhaps horrific experiments we can do on animals because of this discovery. The same thing happens in the Dobbs article. He writes:
But so far, among all primates, only rhesus monkeys and human beings seem to have multiple polymorphisms in genes heavily associated with behavior. “It’s just us and the rhesus,” Suomi says.
This is, of course, the dirty secret of animal experimentation. As Peter Singer pointed out, either animals are enough like us that this data actually does shed light on us, in which case how can you justify to do this, or the animals are not like us, which again begs the question how you can justify doing these experiments.
The basic premise of all behaviorist ethology is that animals are enough like us that studying them allows us to know something of ourselves. That within responses to fear, pleasure, pain, desires, cooperation and competition, that we can then derive understandings of how we all interact. It is upon the needs and drives and sensations of our embodied, vulnerable, finite, animal selves that both the psyche and sociality are based. Under the illusion of teaching us about our humanity, it is teaching us about our shared animality. Just as Ranciere demonstrated that at the same moment the master tries to prove their superiority by ordering the slave, really the master proves the fundamental equality of the two in that moment, the brutality and degradation of animal experimentation proves the fundamental equality of other animals and ourselves. The equality of flesh, of fear, and of fidelity.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Heideggerian Smirks

Graham Harman has to excellent short posts on the Heideggerian Smirk, see here and here. One of the things he says is that Heidegger gets away with these dismissive maxims in a way few philosophers do (at least in circles where Heidegger is taken seriously). Let me float a quick, off the top of my head guess as to why. I think there are few thinkers that produce such extreme reactions (at least in the American Academy, clearly this can be different elsewhere) as Heidegger. You have thinkers whose silence on Heidegger is both obvious and somewhat dismissive (Deleuze), silence but a mysterious perhaps appreciative way (Foucault), thinkers who are militantly opposed to Heidegger (Zizek, Badiou), and then of course you have the Heideggerians that for the most part find Heidegger useful, but in an odd cult like way (Harman use to have a post up on this I like, I quoted the best part here). I feel (and this whole post is mostly subjective) that we have really produced people who both find Heidegger very useful, but can take a critical distance from him only recently. Only recently can people find Heidegger to be a great philosopher without also finding him to be the master. Which is good.
I myself am so inoculated against Heidegger I risk autoimmunity of the subject. But I am glad that people can engage Heidegger's concepts but are beginning to turn against not just his style of thinking, but more importantly his thinking on thinking. I've always been most bothered by what Heidegger sees as the task of philosophy and what it means to be a philosopher.

Update: Graham Harman has two more short posts on this subject, here and here. Basically, I agree with him and Paul. The tone of Heideggerian scholarship is changing, and really only for the best. Look, I'm never going to be down with the H-man, but recently my disagreements with Heideggerians have actually been useful, and I seldom feel like I am arguing with religious zealots anymore. I'm happy that people can do useful and postitive projects with him, even if I don't personally see it in the source material.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Factory Farming and Health Care

This interview with Michael Pollan from The Daily Show reminded me of a post I meant to write before the holidays, following up on my last post about health care reform, but never got around to it. In it Pollan makes the argument that the reforms of the bill will make it so that insurance companies become more interested in your health, because future profits will come from that, not from figuring out more ways to deny you care or not even let you have insurance in the first place. In this, Pollan foresees a possible near future where big agriculture (mostly big corn) is taken on by big health insurance. And if you look at the lobbying of these organizations, it is pretty profound. The farm lobby donated $65 million during the 2008 election cycle, health care came in at $167 million, the second largest lobby organization around (the largest you ask? Why, that'd be finance with an easy win at $475 million). Now Pollan is mostly talking about things like high fructose corn syrup, which is certainly bad for you, but cheap sweetners have nothing on cheap animal products for our collective health.

One almost doesn't know where to begin. Well, at minimum diets high in animal products are the number one causes behind heart diseases, cancers, and strokes. It is also estimated that there are 76 million cases of food borne illnesses a year in America, almost all of which are caused by factory farming. Furthermore working in a slaughterhouse is still the number one profession for on job injuries, including the number one cause of chronic injuries. None of this covers the severe and often chronic conditions that the pollutions from factory farms give to the people that work on them and live around them. To give one example, children raised next to factory farms have asthma rates exceeding 50 percent, and children raised near factory farms are still twice as likely to get asthma as other children. Meanwhile factory farms basically serve as laboratories for ever deadlier flus and bacteria infections while at the same time destroying the ability of medicines to effectively treat those viruses and infections through use of antibiotics for non-medicinal purposes.

Health care costs are rising faster than the GDP in most countries, particularly fast in the US. There are lots of reasons for this; pay for service systems, an increased technological medicine, the costs of medical schools and the high costs of physician payments, the intense costs of end of life care, etc; but one of the reasons is we are simply sicker. You can not give a fuck about the lives and well-being of other animals, and still realize that we absolutely have to take a stand against factory farming. There are absurdly high costs to cheap meat and cheap animal products. People are getting sick, people are dying, we are destroying the planet, and bankrupting the country so someone can get a cheeseburger for two bucks (or however much they cost). We could do more for health care and national health care cost control than the most liberal utopian single-payer system if tomorrow we banned factory farms. Hell, even if we just effectively regulated them and stopped the government subsidies.

The health care bill that is coming out means that some of those externalized costs by factory farms get paid collectively. It means that not only insurance companies, but to some degree all of us become slightly more invested in the health and well-being of each other. In a rational world that would probably mean we turn against factory farming, but in the world we live in it will probably mean more broadsides against cheap sugar rather than against cheap meat (not that it's an either/or situation).

Some thoughts on Abolitionism vs. Welfarism

As most of you know, I don't think much of turning tactical or strategic disagreements into absolute disagreements among those who seek animal emancipation. Well, while writing a review of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals for this blog (and btw, let me suggest Peter Gratton's post on this book), I found myself getting into a long tangent that I have decided to make into a post of its own.

One of the things that will confuse and/or bother traditional vegan abolitionists who read JSF's Eating Animals is that not only is he generally favorably disposed to both the HSUS and PETA, but he treats them as different sorts of organizations. That is to say, while he calls HSUS an animal welfare organization, he calls PETA an animal rights organization. Now, in certain circles of animal abolitionists it has become almost a tautology to call both PETA and HSUS welfare organizations. The logic of such a move is explained by Gary Francione in this podcast. (I know that podcast is from September, may I also say that I almost never listen to podcasts from anyone, I just don't have a lot of time that format makes sense for me).

In this podcast Francione argues that one cannot both support abolition for animals and support moves of animal welfare. One cannot both be for bigger cages and no cages. He makes makes two types of arguments to support this claim: The second set he makes a series of historical arguments that the only welfare changes that industry adopts are made for profit. That is to say, they would do so regardless of the efforts of organizations like PETA. The first set of arguments is the ones I have problems with, which is that he argues that it is simply speciesist to say one is for welfare now as we work for an end goal of abolition. His support for this argument is that one would never argue for better rape, or better murder, or better torture (though he catches himself when he says this), or better child molestation. One would fight to end all of this. It is only because they are animals that we argue for better slaughtering practices rather than an end to all slaughtering practices. But Francione's analogies are problematic because they all represent things we have already agreed as a society to oppose. What we need to look at are other radical movements, but these involving humans.
Well, one of the other issues I am very concerned with is the abolition of prisons. Again, this is an institution that is truly unforgivable. And even a cursory history of prisons would show that many reforms actually strengthen the carceral society rather than reduce its strength. (For those interested in knowing more, I cannot suggest Stanley Cohen's Visions of Social Control strongly enough). Even with all of this being true, one of the things that prison abolitionists are constantly confronted with is if they should devote resources to reformist projects or not. Should you, for example, spend time to make sure prisoners get decent health care treatment? Or create a drop-in center for the formerly incarcerated? Or allow condom distribution in prisons (which was, last I checked, banned in 49 states and the federal system)? Or a million other things that could make the lives of those caught up in the carceral society slightly better? I don't think these questions can be answered ahead of time. I don't think we can always say we should support every reform, no matter how small, or oppose every reform, no matter how big. I think these questions have to be addressed as they come, with a grasp of history and the stakes involved. We also have to admit that we are not purists, but the abolition is necessary to stop the suffering, exploitation, and violence systematically done to those caught up in these processes and institutions. Labeling those who disagree with the decision you have made about these questions as not being sufficently dedicated doesn't seem to help.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What about plants?

In late December Natalie Angier wrote an op-ed for the NY Times arguing against ethical veganism by arguing for plants. Now, the old "But what about plants?" line is something that anyone who has taken an ethical stance toward our relationship with other animals have heard before. However, Angier hopes to up the ante by moving it away from "a trite argument or a chuckled aside" and instead give weight to this old argument by new science. And anyone who doesn't think plants are some how complex and fascinating should certainly read the article.
But the problem is that many things are complex and fascinating. And in the case of those beings who come under evolutionary pressures, there is a lot about them that resist being killed, or to be more precise resist being killed before reproduction. Otherwise, they probably wouldn't have survived till now. But, for all of that, does that mean they do not want (as in, desire, as in, have desires and interests and wants and suffering and joys and pleasures and all of that) to be killed? This is the crux of the argument, after all.
Angier contends that many scientists speak of plants in active terms, in terms of wanting and desiring. Which I have no doubt they do. After all, I hung out with Cornell chemistry grad students for three years and they spoke of particles and atoms and chemicals as wanting and desiring, as communicating and as active forces. Plants are not passive, neither are bacteria or atoms. But the chemists I hung out with didn't really mean that one atom wanted to bond with another atom, but rather given a certain set of conditions certain types of atoms would bond with other types. The short hand for these active processes was wanting. What I am confused about is if most scientists would say that plants had desires, wants, joys and depressions. It's harder for us who are not people who study plants to know this sort of thing as opposed to animals. For example, I just ate some clementines, which are all seedless. Is that seedlessness the same sort of violence as the turkey that is used for slaughter in this country, now unable to reproduce naturally and require artificial insemination (often through a turkey baster)?
This leads us to one of the more interesting parts of the article, that is, what is missing from its argumentation. The article is specifically set up as a response to committed vegetarianism and strong ethical veganism. But, and this is important, at no point does it make any attempt to explain why or how including plants in our ethical compass is a response to vegetarianism and/or veganism. Let's bracket the obvious answer that factory farming (which amounts to 99 percent of animal products that is consumed) destroys far more plant and animal life than just about anything else and therefore this argument should require one to be a practical vegan even if not an ethical vegan. We are going to bracket this argument because this arguments about plants have nothing to do with plants, actually. Rather, the argument works something like if you can eat nothing with innocence than everything is innocent. If guilt is everywhere, than you do not have to feel guilty about any particular thing. Status quo maintained. This argument seeks not to broaden our ethical considerations, but to obliterate them.
I have no doubt if it is true that plants have whatever it is that we consider important of being included in our moral community that everything will change. Everything will get more complicated. Ultimately, though, it will have to mean a serious way of learning to live, not an excuse for ignoring the suffering and damage we all know we are doing.