Agamben and Animality

At Inhunamities, Scu writes in his response to Caralco’s chapter on Agamben, which I recommend. I just want to focus on this part:
agamben4In Leland de la Durantaye’s authorative work, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, he writes: “In this light [that being how The Open functions in the economy of Agamben's writing], to read Agamben in the context of debates about animal rights is, though illuminating for those debates, somewhat misleading as a frame through which to understand The Open. For Agamben, the point is not to locate a continuity or an interruption in the line of evolution, not to align himself with those advocates of continuity like Aristotle or those who see a fundamental break between man and animal like Descartes and Heidegger, and not to bring about a more just treatment of animals, but instead to glimpse a new and different paradigm for human life” (p. 333). He explicitly cites Calarco’s “Jamming the Anthropological Machine” as just such a reading. The problem with such a reading by Durantaye is he implies that such an “illumination” is a one-way street. Indeed, Agamben’s work has been very illuminating for those of us committed to bringing about a more just treatment of animals. However, this illumination moves both ways. We in critical animal studies are not merely parasitically mouthing the words of ‘masters’ in an attempt to justify our work. Rather, we also argue that to the degree these authors stay within a metaphysical anthropocentrism their projects run against certain internal limits.
agamben5This may seem a bit unfair here, but I was quite disappointed in certain ways by Durantaye’s book. I didn’t read it cover to cover yet (it’s about 350 pages), but I think I can safely say that it does a good job of noting critiques of Agamben’s positions. The problem, though, since I share some of these problems is that I don’t think, pace Durantaye’s continued suggestion, that I’ve misunderstood Agamben or mis-read him, or just need to read him deeper. While I’m grateful to Durantaye’s book and see it as a real help to students of Agamben’s work, I don’t appreciate a rhetoric that links together various critiques and then suggests that they are wrong in some undefined or superficial way before moving on quickly to the next chapter. Scu, I think, picks up on one such place. Most disappointing in Durantaye’s work is that he never seems to point out the contradictions among his many works. Agamben is not consistent and Durantaye often has to elide these differences to come up with a comprehensive and cohesive account. Perhaps one avenue Durantaye would have would be to read Agamben as a critic of himself. For example, you might start out with Homo Sacer’s view that the political is originary and the that the relgious views of sacredness and sacrifice are secondary. Then you might have the Agamben from the second volume, third part (Il regno e la gloria) come back and critique this view, saying that all modern political concepts are indeed theological.

Oh, the Inhumanities…

Via the Inhumanities blog, what looks to be a good event, not least because it maps well onto some things I’ve noted here, namely a divergence of interests in critiquing anthropocentrism in animal ethics and speculative realism—and, though not mentioned here, environmentalism:

animal_index_circleWhile speculative realism has critiqued anthropocentrism in ontology, and critical animal studies has critiqued anthropocentrism in ethics, there has yet to be many productive connections made between the two. With each offering the other important insights, the question to be asked is, what is the relation between ethics and ontology? Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives? Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real? Are nonhuman actors capable of ethical relations?

Larval Subjects begins to show just what one can expect when questions are formulated well, as here:

I will, however, say that earlier this year those of the various SR orientations had a debate as to whether trees are real. The eliminative materialist-Brassier side of this debate contended that it amounts to “folk ontology” to claim that trees are real. The OOO folk contended that reductivism fails to recognize that objects exist at multiple levels of scale and are irreducible to one another. This was treated as “folk ontology” because it was claimed that we were individuating objects by virtue of how we perceive objects. Long story short, I cannot say that I see much of use for ecology or critical animal studies coming out of the scientistic/reductive materialist side of this discussion. If we can’t even hold that trees are real objects, then I am unsure of what possible use SR can possibly be for the ecologist or the critical animal theorist. Fortunately SR isn’t exhausted by scientism

I think he’s right about the normative side of reductionist accounts. (Or otherwise put, when the reductionists, such as the Churchlands, begin going normative and talking about imprisoning people deemed to have certain types of brain functioning, be afraid, be very afraid.) Besides, as a reader of the Greeks, various types of African philosophy, and Heidegger—well, what’s so bad about so-called “folk ontology”? Or is that a cudgel used to short circuit questions about what role narrative plays even in reductionist ontology?


Conclusion from tomorrow’s paper on Speculative Realism

I’m editing my paper to get it down to the time limits for the CRESC objects conference. Since I don’t publish enough philosophy here, here’s my as-yet-unedited conclusion. I suppose it makes better sense in terms of the whole, though to set this up, I take up the problem of what Meillassoux calls “intuition” as the relation between the phenomenal and chaotic noumenal in his work…

Conclusion: Finite Relations Irreducible to Correlationism

            Is, then, “intellectual intuition” the only access to the real? Heidegger famously tells us in his 1929-30 lecture course that the “stone is without world,” that the animals are “poor in world,” and that human Dasein is “world forming.”[1] Nancy begins on territory familiar to Meillassoux’s readers, arguing that there is no sense of the world, as Wittgenstein claimed in the Tractatus, that is given from the outside. This would treat the world as representable, instead of, as Nancy claims, a infinite happening of coming to presence, each time just this once and thus non-representable. But it is also the case, he notes, that the fact that “there is something, there are some things, there is some there—and that itself makes sense,” without a need for a God. But this does not mean that it only makes sense “for, through, or in Dasein”:

[T]he world beyond humanity—animals, plants, and stones, oceans, atmospheres, sidereal spaces and bodies—is quite a bit more than the phenomenal correlative of a human taking-in-hand, taking-into-account, or taking-care-of. … For it is a question of understanding the world not as man’s object or field of action, but as the spatial totality of the sense of existence, a totality that it itself existent, even if it is not in the mode of Dasein. (SW, 55-56).

 

Certainly, Nancy note, one could proffer an exteriority to humanity, but this is not to be thought in terms of the “relation between subject and object” (SW, 56). Nancy is careful, as we’ll see, not to place language simply to one side of this relation. If we take there to be a circulation of sense among things,[2] then there are in a sense (a sense that is not reductive compared to human language) signature and singularities at work, and thus a passing of signs, even if these signatures exscribe their sense elsewhere from us. That is, for Nancy, being a “fragment” of a world means having a signature, having a place and a taking-place that is not simply, on the Heideggerian model, a placing in view of that which has been hidden away (abscondus). And this signature is always underdetermined in the circulation of sense, and thus can be confused with nothing, as the nihil, though in truth it is a “nihil unbound,” to use Ray Brassier’s phrase.

            To take the risk of an anthropomorphism that will quickly recede, this is what we mean when we say that we are touched. Something touches us (and thus is touched by us in turn) and its affectivity passes along the signatures of one and the other with such a gravity—whether the touch is light or not does not matter—that “to be touched” is synonymous with profundity, a depthlessness of meaning being passed along and circulated. And this is why, beyond Meillassoux’s apt discussion of “touching upon the absolute,” each touch (or all touching) is a touch upon the absolute, upon an infinity of sense irreducible to a signification communicated or a bit of information passed along; it is never just a simple touch. Having a sense or sensing of this touch marks a “coming to presence” “just at” (à même) us such it that can never be pinned down as a present thing[3]; it can never be fully felt and thus conceptualized: a touch is always shared, distributed, or it is nothing.

            And yet, we will in turn sovereignly declare human beings as having the touch, as we say in English. The result is that, as Graham Harman puts it in a different context, “One privileged entity is allowed to form links where others cannot. Against this notion, I propose the more democratic solution of a local occasionalism or vicarious causation, in which every entity that exists must somehow be equipped to serve as a medium of contact between two others” (IO, 8). On this matter, as so often, Heidegger takes the less democratic approach:

The stone is lying on the path, for example. We can say that the stone is exerting a certain pressure upon the surface of the Earth. It is “touching” the Earth. But what we call “touching” here is not a form of touching at all in the strongest sense of the word. It is not at all like that relationship which the lizard has to the stone on which it lies basking in the sun. And the touching implied in both cases is above all not the same as that touch which we experience when we our hand upon the head of another human being. …[B]eing a stone it has no possible access to anything else around it, anything that it might … possess as such.(FCM, 196-7; SW, 59)

 

            Before moving further, let me note that everything hinges on how we are inclined towards this passage. If Nancy is right in arguing that the epoch of representation is coming to end (GT, 83) and that “time of modernity is followed by the time of things” (FT, 317), then a “responsible praxis of sense” (FT, 292) must now register for the “test of the real,” even if, on Nancy’s account, “there’s nothing to prove” (FT, 317). This, for Nancy, is the mark of our primordial exposure—an exposure that is not ours alone—to the ruptures of sense in the “movement of a presentation to… which is a rupture of presence itself” (GT, 63). Again, every being-toward is toward another being that is itself toward. Without this circulation and excess of sense, there would be only be signification, that is, “mere indication” and the “denoting of things,” a zero-degree of sense that Heidegger presumes to find in the rocks that do not have a world.[4] And this “test of the real” is not just coming in terms of the “fraying” of things in all their abundance, but also in terms of all of the questions surrounding this notion of “access”—a responsibility of sense practiced in a variety of ecological and movements against the suffering of animals. As is well known, “access” has its root in the Latin accedere, to approach or come near, but nevertheless part of the motto of Roman civic life: accedere ad rem publican, to do one’s civil duty and begin a public life. The responsibility today, the “more democratic approach,” as Harman puts it, is very much about the public things—and how we accede to them, even if acceding to public things means questioning access itself. Nancy writes, responding to Heidegger,

Why, then, is “access” determined [with regard to the stone] a priori as the identification and appropriation of the “other thing”? When I touch another thing, another skin or hide, and when it is a question of this contact or touch and not of an instrumental use, is it a matter of identification and appropriation? … Why does one have to determine “access” a priori as the only way of making-up-a-world and of being-toward-the-world? Why could the world not also a priori consist in being-among, being-between, and being-against? In remoteness and contact without “access”? (SW, 59)

 

As Nancy notes, the scene is all but feudal, if not Platonic, with its hierarchies

of touch as it ascends closer to the sun, wherein “a hieratic and paternal pose fraudulently substitutes a knighting [the placing of the hand on the head] for a touch” (SW, 60). The whole of this antiquated anthropocentrism is “betrayed,” he rightly argues, “by the expression ‘the earth is not given for the stone.” But what, he asks, if this givenness were never “pure”? What if it were preceded by what makes that gift possible in the first place, namely the distribution and sharing out of unassignable gifts “neither to be perceived or received as a ‘gift’”? And what of the networks of stones and animality and—why not?—humanity passing in and through this “contact” of stone, heat, and surfaces of all kinds:

[the stone] is in contact, an absolute difference. … There is not ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ but rather, there are sites and places, distances. … [W]ithout this impalpable reticulation of contiguities and tangential contacts, without the place (interstice, interval, and escape) of a geared down being-toward ….there would be no world. “In itself,” the thing is “toward” the other things that are close, proximate, and also very distant because there are several of them. (SW, 61)

 

In this way, he writes, the stone isn’t simply there as an abstraction, laying in wait for its encounter “by or for a subject” (SW, 62). The stone does not “have,” as Heidegger notes, the world. But are we still naïve enough to think that we things, we res extensae do? The stone, for Nancy, is toward the world or “is the world” as “at least” “areality: extension of the area, spacing…” (SW, 62). The stone has a “liability [passibilité]” to sense, an area of passing through and passing along senses irreducible, Nancy argues, to an “animism” or “panpsychism,” which would figure the sense of the stone, of the things, back through the human. There is in the stone its “concrete” liability, which is also “concrete condition” of its singularity (BSP, 18). This liability is but another word for accede; the stone, too, accedes to the public thing.

            The stone’s “concreteness” is a “real différance” or différance as real and as à mème, circulating materially. The problem has not been, as Meillassoux suggests, too much use of the thinking of relation in modernity, but too little. What is called for is a thinking of a circulation of sense and materiality, that is, a thinking of an excessively real, if I can put it that way, complex of relations. This is the absolute to which we are all, one and other, one as another, liable and acceding, in the public and in common, passing along signs, partes extra partes, in a generalized circulation of exposure and relation. It is this exscription, this real writing of the real in the passage of sense, that is the res ultima. Where speculative realism in Meillassoux begins and then circles back to the correlationist circle by thinking through the absolute contingency of the relation, Nancy offers a generalized and therefore public thing, an ultimate res that refuses to privilege any given relation over any other—a “more democratic solution” of rocks, bodies, fragments, ligaments, and an endless catalogue from there, in touch with and sharing with one another. In this way, the an sich is still, as “à meme and exposure of the “to,” the ultima res. And this means the absolute is not the res abscondus, but rather the abscondus of the res: the secreting and motion away from signification in a way that hopefully makes sense retains a trace of the res along the way. It is time, then, to “learn to think toward the world.”[5] In the last poem of his Collected Poems, “Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself,” published a year and half before his death, Stevens writes,

                                                            It was not from the vast ventriloquism

                                                            Of sleep’s faded papier-maché

                                                            The sun was coming from the outside.

                                                            That scrawny cry—It was

                                                            A chorister whose c preceded the choir.

                                                            It was part of the colossal sun,

                                                            Surrounded by its choral rings,

                                                            Still far away. It was like

                                                            A new knowledge of reality…

 


[1] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 177. Henceforth cited as FCM.

 

[2] This is the locus of Graham Harman’s “object-oriented” philosophy, to think “a

universally given” as a de-localized givenness “withdraw[n] from all

perceptual and causal relations” (Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the

Carprentry of Things (Chicago, Il: Open Court Press, 2005), p. 20.

[3] This is why Nancy argues that “sense,” as touching, is an “untouchable touch,” since it can never grasp the full significance of the sense, the touch, that is open among things (FT, 110).

[4] The “test of the real” does not necessitate a return to ideologies that presume a hold over all sense, reducing the multiple of existence to singular significations (myths of human nature, God, etc.) less for the sake of realism than Reelpolitik. That is to say, we recognize the danger of those who have presaged an access to the real as a means for buttressing power (e.g., the “real” of a sexual or racial difference), though in turn these ideologies—never soon enough, but inexorably nonetheless—face the test of the real, the excess of sense of beyond any signification, which is another way of saying there is a future worthy of the name, unsignifiable by any tyrant of the present.

[5] SW, 191, n. 112.

Agamben and animals

I see over at posthumanism Agamben’s The Open on the list of classics in the area. Hmm. I think he only reinforces all of Heidegger’s problematic assertions about animality. If one goes by what he says elsewhere about language, isn’t it the case that animals are always already in the open since they are not taken by the decisionary and sovereign language of human beings, that is, the logos? That is, they are purely present to objects as such, whereas humans are said to need to overthrow an entire era of politics and metaphysics that have kept us propagating discourses and thus every-keeping us from the open. Now, leaving aside the completely abusive use of “animals” for all manner of beings; leaving aside questionable assumptions about language (I’m writing on that now); leaving aside an entire history of writing on the animal as perfect–and thus sacrificable (we do shoot Bambi, after all); at the least can’t we start by questioning this opposition at the heart of that work? Just a question.

Humans and other Animals

Renee at Womanist Musings and Feministe had a post up on the perhaps perverse effect of the animal rights’ movement on the politics of decolonization. Critical Animal, I think, replies a bit hastily but sets up the problem well. The reason I say hastily is because I think politics is always a question of strategy and at moments I think the rhetoric of a certain humanism is useful, as long as at the end we continue to recognize that we have to stop treating animals like animals, too:

So much of the struggles of the colonized and persons of color have come from a commitment to being human, too. 
There always exists a politics when a non-paradigmatic human being claims the title of human. This is as true for when the colonized claim to be humans, as when the Great Ape Projects argue for the personhood of Great Apes. However, in a fine Ranciere-ian fashion (a Ranciere devoid of his anthropocentrism, so therefore a Ranciere beyond Ranciere), while the claim to be human may be political, it does not remain political. For those of us on the critical animal studies side of the process, these political moments of demands for the right to claim humanness or personhood are also moments to continue the political. That is to say, to forward our argument that the human/animal distinction cannot stand. To say, “If you got this one wrong, maybe you very ordering system is wrong.” In this way we hope to not just change the count, but change the very logic of counting through this moment of tort. This is where I don’t know how to make common cause. For me, it is obvious that the wrong done to the non-paradigmatic human beings is based upon the ability to do wrong to animals. If we end the ability draw lines between the human on one side and all animals on the otherside, if we embrace the monstrosity of the human animal, then we end the ability to continue to do harm to people of color by calling them animals. That loses the power of justification. But it seems to me that for many people of color that such a move jeopardizes their lives instead of enriching their lives.
 

I realize I’ve just quoted a bit much of CA’s post. But here Derrida’s work in his lectures The Animal that Therefore I am is quite helpful. His critique of continuinism and so on don’t really advance much in this area, but his crucial point that in the history of philosophy just about every philosopher can be undone based upon where he (and it was a patriarchal he) put the human/animal distinction. Pedagogically, this is far more useful than, say, having to point out the metaphysics of presence or some such. But more to the point: it has the upshot of being right. And once this is destabilized, so does the dichotomy that soon follows in the modern period through to Hegel and beyond between the European and its dark other. Emmanuel Eze made a similar point in his last book on Enlightenment reason. So ultimately, I don’t think either hold, and in fact, pulling the thread on the first unspools the second rather quickly, since as we all too well know, the racialized other is invariably the animal other. All one needs to do is listen to the biopolitical rancor for a few minutes in any discussion of immigration in San Diego and beyond.

But Renee’s point is well taken, since we must recall how certain notions of human dignity are and continue to be crucial in decolonizing movements.

Humans and Other Objects

Larval Subjects has a great post up responding to Paul Ennis’s thought experiment on the future of speculative realism, namely that there will be the eventual reactionary insight that somehow humans have been forgotten, thus offering a desolation akin to the one on offer in ecological catastrophe:

Setting that aside, I think an additional point worth making is that today we simply cannot talk about the human without talking about objects. As Latour tirelessly argues, the great sin of modernity was to try and produce a schism between the world of nature entirely independent of humans and the world of the cultural entirely independent of nature. The problem is that the world in which we live is a world in which we’re constantly enmeshed in imbroglios with objects of all sorts. To understand ourselves is, in part, to understand these imbroglios with objects. Yet what do we in fact find in so much cultural and critical theory? We find a bracketing of objects so as to get at that which is specifically human– norms, cultural significations, ethics, politics, and so on. 

Agreed. Writing as someone whose work at times has been deeply embedded in those “bracketers,” I can say that killing off the beast of humanism hasn’t worked out all that well. Surely there is someone dusting off their old attacks on the anti-humanism of Derrida, et al., and simply finding and replacing “Derrida, Foucault,…” with “Meillassoux, Harman…” I would only add that Meillassoux’s notion of the subject, for example, is rather classical (a point I make with a bit more subtlety in my recent Pli article). But more importantly, what SR offers  is a thinking that would call on us to avert the very catastrophes that would make up the moral blackmail no doubt coming soon.

Call it the argument from catastrophe, in which you cite the real possibility of global environmental devastation (in a previous era it would have been the nuclear holocaust) and then accuse X figure of basically wanting that through some theoretical apparatus. In any event, what is exciting about the work in SR is how it meets up with work in environmental studies and animal ethics, to name but two areas, which have long argued for getting out of the human as a part of a larger normative project, part of which would be finding means for averting the very catastrophe in question. This is where, in a sense, I see SR going, namely connecting up with these other movements in such a way as to bolder SR’s normative accounts (such as they are). Or at least, I see these connections whenever I’m at an environmental philosophy conference.