Dissertation excerpt in progress, on systems theory and biosemiotics

This is part of a much bigger work (the ongoing dissertation prospectus). Just sharing for fun.

The semiotic view of life stresses the ubiquity of sign relations in the co-creation of living systems. The less “traditional” move made by some subfields of semiotics but not by standard evolutionary biology or other sciences is to argue that these processes of meaning-making are sign-mediated all the way down. This is unlike the common understanding of semiotics where only linguistic signs of symbolic languages such as the English being written here are “really” sign relations. Instead, these relations have been occurring since the very first cell walls came into being, and probably before even that.

This short piece explains how the different branches of semiotics relate to each other. Building on the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and Jakob von Uexküll, American semioticians John Deely and Tom Sebeok distinguished between what they called, variously, anthroposemiotics, zoosemiotics, phytosemiotics, biosemiotics, and physiosemiotics. As the Greek prefixes indicate, the first concerns humans, the second other animals, the third plants, the fourth living systems in general, and the fifth the physical forces and relations of nonliving systems. Each of these forms of sign relation has their own particular characteristics, but all face constraints but also “deconstraints” imposed at each subordinate level, unless some such constraint or deconstraint in the highest level changes the organism’s relation to its “lower” levels. Anthroposemiotics thus includes biosemiotics and physiosemiotics, but not phytosemiotics, because in addition to being human we are also animals and also subject to physical laws, but we are not plants.

Looking in some more detail at the “lowest” level helps to clarify this picture. All forms of semiosis are constrained by the same physical laws, and each additional emergent form takes on these as well as new kinds of constraints but also new deconstraints, which in sum lead to new forms of semiotic flexibility. “Physiosemiotics” concerns sign relations among nonliving systems. All such relations face at least four hard constraints. These are: the concept of temperature (the “zeroth law”), the first and second laws of thermodynamics (the conservation of energy and the increase in entropy), and the unattainability of zero (the third law).1 These constraints are paired, however, with a crucial deconstraint: the availability of work. Other constraints may be “softer” and less universal than these four, but these are “hard” because they do and must all apply at all higher levels.

It is because of the interaction of work with these constraints that other levels develop the way they do. All living beings are “embodied” in at least some sense of the term, because life is constrained by these laws and can only exist in states that are far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Setting up a boundary between the inside, out of equilibrium, and the outside, closer to equilibrium, is the only way to do this that we know of. This is developed most systematically in the “morphodynamic” framework of Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, which sets out to explain, as the book’s subtitle has it, “how mind emerged from matter.”

In addition to these physical laws, other processes of constraint and deconstraint come in the form of evolutionary and semiotic generals, law-like properties with varying degrees of “hardness” which pattern the way that new forms of living systems emerge and influence the way individuals relates to others and to the different aspects of one’s environment.

Two recent examples from evolutionary linguistics highlight some other potential kinds of constraints, in one case relating to the physical bodies in which we find ourselves and in the other to the physical and acoustic properties of our surroundings. To paraphrase the first case: because the kinds of words humans are likely to speak first are influenced by the shape and structure of the human infant’s mouth and vocal chords, some words, such as “mama” and “dada” are more commonly selected to symbolize the concepts of mother and father than others. This constraint itself interacts, of course, with many other constraints and deconstraints, including social ones. The second case takes the Acoustic Adaptation hypothesis, originally developed for birds, and applies it to humans. The hypothesis states that birds (or humans, or other organisms who vocalize communication within different kinds of environments) living in densely forested areas will sing songs with lower frequency and less variation than birds living in more open areas.

1 As described in Peter Atkins short primer, Four Laws that Drive the Universe. (2007)

Blogging the dissertation, 2: Seeing like an animal, looking like a human

In response to feedback on the previous dissertation draft (the first section of which was recently posted here), I just wrote this analytic overview of my argument with only the minimal reference to authors and texts that are not central to the contribution.

This was supposed to be like five pages, but is instead closer to twenty. It’s an addendum to an existing document, a dissertation prospectus draft available on my academia.edu page. Don’t cite without permission, but comments again welcome!


Seeing Like an Animal, Looking Like a Human:

Dissertation Prospectus Supplement and Overview

Introduction. This dissertation presents a way to see human-animal relations in a world in crisis. The crisis is tangled in a web of concepts that are at both complementary and contradictory, a tangled puzzle best captured by what it means to live both in a posthuman world and in the so-called anthropocene. Posthumanism decenters, while the anthropocene recenters; the one blurs and refracts anthropocentric conceptions of nature and conditions for living well, the other brings human actions and impacts back to into central focus on a global scale. The dissertation research under consideration makes sense of this tension as it relates to human-animal relations and political science. Building on Aristotle and a subfield of semiotics called biosemiotics, it does so by arguing that we see as animals but can also look as humans, and so looking see more, “flourish” better.

What follows here provides an analytic overview of the motivation, contribution, and structure of the proposed dissertation project, stripped of reference to non-essential authors. It proceeds by: first, telescoping the argument and its contributions; second, turning back to the posthumanism versus anthropocene tension to understand the project’s motivations, particularly the relation of breaking down conceptual binaries to “humility properly understood” and what it means to see-as a human; third, with the stage set, to return to Aristotle, biosemiotics, and the political theory of animals, providing an introduction to the relevant literature and a map of the interventions; and fourth, chapter outlines.

I. Looking back to Aristotle and looking forward with biosemiotics. Looking back to origins, to the arche of so much of the Western way of thinking, Aristotle reveals a monumentally impressive theoretical and practical apparatus, one that has few parallels in scope, breadth, and systematicity, either before or since. Rather than simply adopting or rejecting Aristotle’s view wholesale, however, this project proposes a sympathetic and constructive critique. The heart of this critique is that Aristotle’s practical sciences need updating to properly reflect his theoretical sciences. So doing, we stay true to the spirit of Aristotle’s method of inquiry, to look and see the the things in the world and their systems of relation, their way of relating the particular to the universal.

I.A. Looking back: a sympathetic critique. While not fully “neo-Aristotelian,” the critique is sympathetic in many ways. There is a sympathy of spirit, as above but also in the spirit of wonder (thauma) with which philosophy (982b) begins, a wonder echoed in Darwin’s “tangled bank” with its “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” This wonderment traces the tension between, on the one hand, man’s desire, by nature, to know (opening line of the Metaphysics, 980a) and, on the other, the knotted puzzlement (aporia) that faces this inquiry, this search for the of nature and co-relation of different substances (ousia) and their essence (to ti en einai).

Most centrally for the puzzle of finding axiological footholds in a decentered posthuman age, the project agrees with Aristotle about a number of conclusions to claims about the nature of things in the world: aspects of his ontological and perspectival pluralism and contextualism; the tripartite soul (psuche) and its intermediary types; the related accounts of telos and physis for what it means to speak of the nature and completed state of excellence of a particular being; the cultivation of virtuous dispositions for living well and living well together; and the eudaimonistic spirit which informs his teleology as well as his understanding of ethics and politics.

The central critique, again, is that aspects of his ethics and politics fail to properly apply his own theoretical framework as updated by subsequent scientific findings about the nature of different animal worlds. This critique is developed below, in III, and in the discussion of biosemiotics.

For the purposes of introduction and explaining motivations, another motivation and influence needs introduction. This is an age-old motivation; the relation between virtue ethics and utilitarianism in general, and Aristotle to animal utilitarianism such as that of Peter Singer in particular. My contention is that there is more room for meaningful overlap here than is commonly thought. This back-and-forth is “fruitful” insofar as Aristotle shows, on the one hand, that a life well lived is more than the simple sum of its pleasures and pains, tabulated as if in a record book. On the other hand, Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interest can also inform some of the perverse interspecies implications of Aristotle’s practical philosophy, as can the negative utilitarian attention to the moral problem of pain and suffering, a problem especially acute in the anthropocene. While the focus on pain-avoidance and the calculus of pleasure and pain that make a life worth living or not may be foreign to Aristotle’s way of thinking, the equal consideration of interests is at work in Aristotle’s dictum that like should be treated alike, unlike unalike (in the context of justice, see the Politics at 1280a10).

The critique developed here, of course, problematizes the relevant boundaries of likeness. This topic is an appropriate place to also respond to a possible critique of this framework: why animals? Why not an account of living well with plants, with fungi, or even with rocks? Three responses come at this from different directions. First, there’s no reason in principle why this framework couldn’t extend to plants, for instance, depending on what coming to know and respect plant life would entail, but for many practical and pragmatic reasons this is beyond the scope of this inquiry. And second, also on pragmatic grounds, animals are closer to the “adjacent possible”1 than are plants, even if there is some interesting and provocative new work on plant “cognition” and “sentience.” Third, returning to the Singerian influences but also linking them back to Aristotle and forward to semiosis and narrativity, sentient beings are the only kinds of beings that one can properly speak of living well together with, barring some conception building on the first point of sustainable agricultural and botanical practices. And this is not just because of Bentham’s “can they suffer?” Beings with brains not only can suffer and experience pleasurable states, but having a brain is a reasonable prerequisite for a centralized consciousness—thus many bivalves “have” but do not “feel” pain, as they have a nervous system but no brain. In any case, more extended trips down this rabbit hope are well beyond the scope of this overview.

Because the critique of Aristotle is sympathetic to so much of his approach and framework, it is not a rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics of the type called for in Zoopolis. While liberal humanism can at least conceptually delink ontological and political concerns, interspecies ethicopolitical relations require such connections between what a given being is and how it can and should relate to other beings, both like and unlike, familiar and unfamiliar.

I.B. Looking forward with evolutionary biosemiotics. Another central claim of this project is that looking forward with biosemiotics and the evolutionary sciences can untie some of the aporias Aristotle leaves us with, both internally to his own work and over the intervening years. The field of biosemiotics is discussed in more detail in the full prospectus draft won’t be belabored here except as it relates to particularly relevant concepts and innovations and what it does and does not share with Aristotle.

Aristotle’s tripartite soul in particular meshes well with Peircean semiotics in general, biosemiotics in particular (Kull 2009), and Deacon’s morphodynamic framework most closely. This example also shows a way, having looked back at Aristotle, to look forward and see just how deeply relational and interactive living systems are, and how intentionality and some form of agency are essential not just for human action but for the processes of life itself. This process of locating meaning in and between living things themselves itself finds echoes in Aristote’s epagoge from the Physics (at 184a), in which “the universal resides within the material confines of the individual sense data.”2 This position is more fully developed with Deacon’s emphasis on the role of absence in his account of “ententional” processes, a neologism built from Aristotle’s entelelecheia, a being at completion that requires both something present and something absent to fulfill the conditions of its completion, its telos.

This kind of looking forward blends with looking back to resolve the standard critique in the philosophy of biology: that Aristotle’s teleology is guilty of vitalism and that his metaphysics has in it too much “cosmic teleology.” Neither of these critiques entail accurate readings of Aristotle. A more interesting difficulty for post-Darwin moderns reading and making sense of his work is instead the distinction between evolutionary and Darwinian conceptions of how species come into and leave being, a problematically static conception in Aristotle’s otherwise dynamic schema. A fuller accounting of this relation between Aristotle’s eidos and genos and the evolutionary conception of species will be developed in the dissertation, and is just being flagged here.

Perhaps most crucially, as Jesper Hoffmeyer’s prominent 2008 book Biosemiotics puts it, the semiotic view of life presents “a corrective to determinism in nonhuman nature,” to the view, that is, that only humans are really agents in any non-analogical sense. This is as scientifically unfounded a claim as it is normatively catastrophic. As is discussed more below, at II, and in the prospectus, at least the other socially complex mammals of necessity act intentionally and purposively with respect to others. More important than this, however, is what follows from the biosemiotician’s central claim, that live is co-constituted by sign relations between goal directed, if not intentional, units all the way down to the level of intercellular communication.

For the purposes of applying biosemiotics to Aristotle, political theory, and human-animal relations, three important themes are central. First, the foundationally goal-directed properties of all living systems. Second, and as foundational as the first, the relationality of living systems and the ubiquity of emergent co-creation through sign relations. And third, the patterning of these processes of goal-directed being and co-relational emergence by a range of constraints and deconstraints structured both by physical laws such as the second law of thermodynamics and by evolutionary patterns that are at least law-like and which channel, influence, or constrain outcomes in broadly predictable ways.

Take, for instance, some broad-brush exploratory examples from evolutionary linguistics. The kinds of words human infants are likely to speak first (such as “mama” and “dada” or “papa”) are influenced by the shape and structure of the human infant’s mouth and vocal chords. For another example, biologist E.S. Morton in 1975 proposed an Acoustic Adaptation Hypothesis, hypothesizing that birds living in densely forested areas will sing songs with lower frequency and less variation than birds living in more open areas. The same work has more recently been applied to different human languages and the physical surroundings in which each came to be. This illustration renaturalizes human language, reminding us that we are in and of rather than above or beyond nature, and that even our technological and linguistic innovations have their own nature.

It might be reasonable to stop and ask a cautionary question hinted at above: is all this talk of intentionality and agency just being used analogically? Yes and no. Yes because clearly the simple goal-directedness of the paramecium or the phenomenon of cell-to-cell “communication” are not the same as the complex intentionality required to write a dissertation about biosemiotics or the many layers of communicative meaning required to understand something like Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First?” The same goes for talk of “preferences;” even a single neuron could be said to have preferences3 in the sense that all living systems are goal-directed, autopoietic. And yet this seems quite distinct both from the rank-ordered and transitive preferences characterizing instrumental rationality and from the complex “preference” to rail against determinism that manifests in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

But also no, because both of the latter cases are nested in and emerged from the former; the deeper lesson is that we got here from there, one step at a time, continuing through long periods of relatively little change interspersed by the short flurries of emergent “burstiness” that characterizes Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium and the modern evolutionary synthesis. To say that these are only analogical resemblances ignores this wondrous continuity of the living.

And just as these endless goal-directed forms most wondrous place us squarely in rather than over the rest of the living world, the semiotic relationality through which all live has come to be indicates that we have always lived together with others. Other microcosmic beings, such as the microbes essential to our health and the organs cooperating to maintain our dynamic equilibria, the dissipative and contragrade flows that characterize what Deacon calls our teleodynamic kind of living systems. Other beings like us, the humans with whom we co-constitute familial, social, and political entities. But also other beings with which we have coevolved, such as the dog, the ear of corn or, borrowing from Pollan, even the marijuana plant. Human nature, as Anna Tsing rightly says, is an interspecies relationship. To live well rather than just live together with animals, we need to behave accordingly.

Finally, biosemiotic reveals the patterning of the world. Biosemiotics is of course not alone in looking for such patterns. Aristotle searched for them, in his wondrous puzzlement, both in his theoretical inquiry and in the world as a marine biologist poking and prodding odd sponges and sea creatures brought to him by fisherman on the island of Lesbos. The practice of science itself looks for these patterns (and so do other forms of inquiry, such as Foucault’s genealogical method). Cognitive science and comparative psychology both look to animals to make sense of our, human, forms of cognition and sociality. More about this at III, below, and also in the empirical and conceptual chapter of the proposed dissertation.

I.C. Telescoping key concepts. Three conceptual threads running throughout this project deserve clarification from the outset. The first concerns animal attributes, the second eudaimonia and philia and their relation to practical and theoretical knowledge and virtues, the third interspecies power relations. They are deeply interrelated.

The first asks whether (and how and which) nonhuman animals have moral or political agency, and whether this agency is something like an in-degree quasi- or proto- form of human morality and politics or whether it is something different, something in kind. Interwoven with this, and digging deeper into agency, are the same questions as applied to nonhuman animal intentionality, purposiveness, preferences, and rationality. (Admittedly, this is a daunting set of issues, any one of which could consume a scholar’s attention, but that’s also the reason for looking back, to appeal to Aristotle’s conceptual omnivory.)

The second connects back to the first set of concerns, on human and animal attributes. Take, for now, “loving friendship” and “conditions for living well” as shorthands (albeit problematic and in need of further discussion) for philia and eudaimonia. Given these translations, and depending on one’s analysis of the first set of concepts, two different weaves could be made of this thread. First, that our kind of human species being requires one or another kind of respect for animal alterity and human-animal co-constitution. Or second, that particular other animals, in co-relation either with conspecifics or with companion species, themselves act as either ethical or political agents, in whole or in part, or in some other whole than ours. This project will argue that the first “weave” is unambiguously accurate, and that the second (in line with what I will call humility properly understood, below) can be illuminated by looking to the intervening science of the last twenty five hundred years, with particular emphasis on enactivist cognitive science, comparative psychology, and the insights of biosemiotics.

The third and last set of concepts is also bound up with one’s interpretation of the first two. To understand what it means to live well and live well together, we need some normative account of how power relations are, and ought to be, structured, both within and between different species- and individual-types.4 Building on Plumwood’s critique of dichotmous human-animal and human-nature oppositions, the normative project at work here is one of expanding the mixed community between humans and particular other animals in particular settings, but with an overarching spirit of eudaimonistic living well together. This mixed community needn’t be emancipatory or solely protective of other animals, necessarily; by living together we live better, and living together between unequals with a spirit of friendship and cultivated dispositions of generosity and humility may require some forms of legitimate paternalism.

Taking this interspecies eudaimonistic spirit to heart, which again is necessary for us to live well as humans does require, however, that we avoid domination (conceptualized here in the Foucauldian sense of ossified power relations rather than the neo-Republicanism of Pettit or some other conception). Drawing on concurrent work in anthropology and geography in the tradition of Haraway’s companion species project, this mixed community is: coevolved and codomesticated; it requires that animals have power over us as well as power-with us, just as we have power over them; and it acknowledges animal agency.

An example illustrates this last point. While the sentiment behind a common phrase in animal advocacy, that “there are no bad dogs, only bad owners” is an admirable one, this kind of attitude actually perversely robs a given dog of his her agency as much as the sentiment that all dogs of one or another breed are troublesome or dangerous. One’s agency to act is nurtured away in the first case, and natured away in the second. Meaningful interspecies relations, whether grounded in philia, eudaimonism, or politics, require both an attentiveness to a given animal’s needs and desires—an obligation that increases the closer the relation becomes to one-way power relations—but also an acknowledgment of the other’s voice, their power to act on us and in the world.

I.D. Contributions, in brief. To finish telescoping: the three proposed central contributions of this project are all squarely within political theory. One extends the humanist focus of well-established approaches in the discipline to show how thinking between species can “fertilize” political theory, particularly republican understandings of co-creation and shared political agency and feminist approaches to embodiment, vulnerability, and entangled empathy. Another contribution defends aspects of Aristotle’s approach against the call to reject his legacy made by Donaldson and Kymlicka’s recent and prominent work, Zoopolis. The final central contribution concerns the relation of the approach developed here to its two closest cognates, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to animals and political justice and Haraway’s understanding of companion specieshood.

II. Living well together in the posthuman anthropocene. Only by keeping the tension with which we started in focus can we understand the proper role of anthropocentrism in conceptualizing ethics and politics. To introduce the titular visual metaphor, we see as humans but can imagine, and must acknowledge, other ways of seeing. On the one hand, we exist as humans, just as we also exist as primates, as mammals, as animals, and as living organisms. This structures the way we perceive our lived environments and interact with other beings, both in ways that reinforce our affinity with other living beings and in ways that set us apart. Like the extinct hominidae and the other great apes, we are vision-dominant primates. Like the other mammals, we have social organization and the kinds of moral emotions required to care for our comparatively few and vulnerable young. Like other multicellular animals our organismic unity is comprised levels upon levels of intercellular communication, cooperation, and competition. And so on and so forth, at each different stage, each different punctuation, of our shared living lineage.

On the other hand, we have symbolic language, gestural flexibility, and complex social organization. A number of other animals, of course, have their own complex systems of communication, their own kinds of gestural flexibility, and their own forms of complex social organization. But nowhere else does it appear result in our kind of explosion of cumulative learning, abstraction, and robustly narrative sense of self. Orcas do possess some kind of culture, some intergenerational transfer of knowledge, but they don’t organize and attend productions of Shakespeare. Songbirds, like cetaceans, do sing songs, do make music, and do in many cases change those songs in apparently spontaneous and creative ways, but they don’t write Mahler symphonies or have their favorite songs digitally at hand with the technological prostheses that have become parts of our extended selves.

Stop. Apply the brakes. This focusing optic is too much anthropocene, not enough posthuman. Enter humility, but a humility properly understood. It would be an arrogant hubris, on the one hand, to take our human way of being in the world as the measure of all things. We can as little inhabit the dolphin’s three-dimensional aquatic space as we can the time-dilated space of bird song as heard by other birds or the lived reality of the hummingbird. But while we cannot inhabit these other perspectival worlds, we can imagine them, both with scientific and other forms of inquiry and with the particularly plastic cognition for which our particular kind of being allows. It would be falsely humble for a star basketball player to deny his or her particular excellence, and similarly false for to argue that ontological humility about the perspectival worlds of other beings is incompatible with a given being’s proper self-worth and understanding.

This appears to remain more anthropocene than posthuman. Introducing another central motivation and guiding principle should refocus our inquiry: the rejection of dichotomous or binary thinking along a single continuum in favor of distinct continua each with their own manner of punctuation and context-specific domains. Prominent and relevant examples of such deeply rooted dichotomies include: mind and body, human and animal, human and nature, domestic and wild. Instead of taking humanity out of nature or animality, however, it is both more epistemologically and ontologically accurate and more ethically and politically desirable to see like an evolutionary ecologist. That is, to see how the traits characterizing humans are like those characterizing any living organism that adapts to its environment and co-adapts its environment to it and to others.

The stage is almost set for the re-entrance of the main players and their relation to the canonical and contemporary political theory of animals. First, to finish the mise en scène by extending the visual metaphor.

This is of course not the only attempt to making animals visible in political theory, but it most accurately approximates seeing them both as they are and as we see them. So seeing, we better grasp the nature of our co-created meaning-making and the different domains in which ontological gaps between species are either bridgeable or not. And just as the dynamic posthuman/anthropocene tension stands in for a larger debate between humanism and different forms of anti-humanism, “seeing” here is intended representatively rather than just literally. Indeed, because of our vision-dominant primate natures, to “see” animals as they are in many cases requires tamping down on sight and the visual in favor of other sensoriums, some quite unfamiliar indeed. This acknowledges the limits of our “adverbialism,” our seeing-as humans, but by identifying these limits we see better.

III. Aristotle and the Contemporary Political Theory of animals. The stage is set. Enter the political theory of animals. Animals other than humans have been ignored in much of the history of political theory, often through a process of hypostatization and concretization of a canonical thinker’s work that robs it of its potential dynamism. Thus Aristotelian theorists viewed the human as more exclusively political than did Aristotle himself, Cartesian dualists make animals more machine than they were for Descartes, Kantian deontological humanists more humanist than Kant himself. This set of claims is of course debatable and requires justification, but at least in the case of Aristotle I argue both that we have misread him and that we can use his theoretical and eudaimonistic spirit to critique his practical philosophy.

This section is tentative and pending further research. It introduces: the relation between Aristotle’s practical and conceptual sciences; the role of dichotomous versus continuous or punctuated schema in his thought and, through the critique, beyond; a sketch of what a less anthropocentric and more interspecies reading of Aristotelian politics and ethics might look like; and a similar exploration of what cultivated dispositions of interspecies virtue could and should look like.

Monte Johnson’s recent paper, “Aristotle’s Architectonic Sciences,”5 will supplement primary analysis of Aristotle’s corpus and essential interpretive sources to provide the theoretical account of how his politics and ethics are too anthropocentric even for his own theory, and what it would mean to speak of interspecies politics or ethics between unequals.

A brief look at the Nicomachean Ethics illustrates both the promise and the limits of Aristotle’s approach for intermediary or partial forms of justice and friendship. He writes that

Political justice obtains between those who share a life for the satisfaction of their needs as persons free and equal, either arithmetically or proportionately. Hence in associations where these conditions are not present there is no political justice between the members, but only a sort of approximation to justice. (1134a26-30)

Even before applying any critique, it deserves emphasis that he acknowledges such intermediate types as “approximations to justice,” intermediary categories into which animals could be subjects and agents of justice, that is, if they were capable of action, intellection, and the theoretical knowledge required for both happiness and virtue. As discussed below, for Aristotle animals were not capable of these things, and so were not entitled to political justice, even if some other animals are political, for him.

And later, in a chapter titled “friendship between unequals,” he distinguishes the role played by merit and the proper kind of treatment in relations of philia rather than justice

…equality does not seem to be the same in friendship as it is in just actions; for in the case of just actions equality is primarily that which is in accordance with merit, quantitative equality being secondary; but in friendship quantitative equality is of primary and equality of merit only of secondary importance. This becomes evident if a wide gap develops between the parties in respect of virtue or vice, or of affluence or anything else… (1158b29-35)

Again, this both opens and closes some doors, even without moving outside of his practical framework. As Santas argues in his recent defense of trans-species philia, this opens the door for such a friendship between interspecies “unequals,” but then closes it again if one can’t meaningfully speak of animal “merit,” insofar as merit is due according to the faculties denied animals above.

By his own account, and to reiterate the grounds for what I interpret as a kind of ontological pluralism and perspectivalism in prospectus draft, Aristotle says in many places that each kind of thing has their own kind of good, and indeed this follows of necessity from the nature of his response to Plato in both the Physics and the Metaphysics. See, for example, also the Nicomachean Ethics, where the good is different for the human and the fish (1141a23), or any other particular type of animal, and that “things are called good in as many senses as they are said to exist.” (1096a23) Also, as mentioned in book VI and as follows from his teleology, on intellectual virtues, “the virtue of a thing is related to its proper function” (1139a15). There are a couple of ways to interpret all of this, but I mention it all to flag the issue of hierarchical ordering between species that become concretized in the “great chain of being.” A strict account of this ordering is at odds with the call to humility developed in this project, but a more context-sensitive interplay of overlapping accounts in which we humans—with our language and technology and so on—do still hold some kind of ontological pride of place, and humility properly understood would acknowledge this.

Most importantly for animal phronesis, agency, even possibly sophia, Aristotle follows up the passage from NE book VI above by right away asserting that “the brutes have sensation, but no share in action” (1139a20). One of the functions of the proposed chapter on recent empirical work on animal agency is to examine the truth of this claim; if it is found wanting, so too the exclusively humanist conception of politics.

Before moving on to the politics and the cultivation of virtuous interspecies dispositions, it helps clarify how another defect—indeed, for many it is a fatal flaw—of Aristotle’s practical thought results from a misapplication of the theoretical work. It also helps to shed light on the value of thinking beyond binaries, and on the contested value of linking marginalized human groups to other animals. This refers, of course, to the status of women and slaves in Aristotle’s political and ethical work.

Just as cataloging and canonizing lists of things that makes humans special has a long history, a similar logic has also been used in many settings to justify sexism, racism, and xenophobia. In this view, Men, like humans and unlike women, are rational. Civilized people, unlike savage barbarians, are cultured, refine, learned, restrained, and so on. And while Aristotle’s account of ruling and being ruled as the virtuous mean (meson) between slavish and tyrannical impulses is conceptually rich even in regard to interspecies politics, he was simply wrong about the kind of being that women and slaves are by their nature. There are exceptions here for cases where that “nature” has been internalized through false consciousness-type processes of hegemonic control, but this is no answer. It shouldn’t be an answer even for Aristotle, as the account of primary substance (ousia) and essence (to ti en einai) in Metaphysics Zeta should arguably categorize these kinds of socialized traits as secondary qualities modifying the primary substance, the human, in question. But this is to get too deep into the theoretical apparatus for now.

Turning, finally, to a brief foray into what Aristotelian interspecies politics and cultivated virtue might look like. Even without the exclusion of animals from intellection and morality—and with the caveats mentioned elsewhere in Aristotle’s corpus about intermediary types and that don’t fit easily with strict classification—his conception of politics is explicitly concerned with ruling and being ruled as equals. Too much deviation from equality and the polity turns to its corrupt types, to “a state not of free men but of slaves and masters, the former full of envy, the latter of contempt. Nothing could be farther removed from friendship or from partnership in a state.” (1295b12-27, excerpt) Only by maintaining this abstract equality can politics “continue in being to secure the good life” (1252b28).

This appears to be a serious impediment, and leaves a puzzle unsolved in this contradiction. On the one hand, we seem to be finding, against Aristotle’s practical philosophy but with his empirical method, that animals do act, do have something at least of morality and possibly sophia and not just of practical judgment. But on the other hand, how could these possible political or ethical agents—albeit maybe semi-, quasi-, or proto-political—take part in politics given that human and animal worlds are not equal, possibly in terms of value but definitely in terms of simple alterity, of different lived experience. Charting a course through this and other puzzles is the purpose of this dissertation.

This long prospectus addendum closes with a look at a central pillar of Aristotle’s moral philosophy: the cultivation of eudaimonia through virtuous and wise dispositions. Both above and elsewhere in his work, Aristotle denies other animals sophia, which for him is the most finished form of knowledge (1141a17). But then, in NE VI, he says this:

[I]t is extraordinary that anyone should regard political science or prudence as most important, unless man is the highest being in the world. But if what is wholesome or good is different for human beings and for fish, whereas what is white or straight is always the same, so too everyone would mean the same by wise, but something different by prudent; for every kind of creature accepts as prudent, and will commit itself to, that which studies its good. This is why some even of the brutes are said to be prudent, that is, those that can be seen to have the ability to provide for their own survival . . . there is no one wisdom that is concerned with the good of all animals, but a different kind for each species . . . To object that man is the highest animal makes no difference; because there are other beings far more divine in nature than man, the most evident examples being those bodies of which the heaven is composed.” (1141a20-7, and 32-3)

This view explicitly endorses a conception of animal phronesis, but then closes the door before human wisdom while acknowledging “a different kind [of wisdom] for each species,” a practical rather than theoretical wisdom entailed in phronesis. And this is no small door, if only human-type “wisdom,” and not its phronetic animal variants, “produces happiness” (1144a3). But not only happiness, as virtue requires intelligence (1144b7-16) and the episteme which allows for knowledge pursued for its own sake (theoria) as versus the phronetic knowledge applied to content or the knowledge applied to production in techne (100b, in the Posterior Analytics, II).

But then at the end of this passage Aristotle reminds us that humans were not at the axiological top of the mountain in the Hellenic cosmology; the gods and heavens were, just as God and the angels would be in the Thomistic Great Chain. Again we see here hints of a proper anthropocentrism and disposition of humility properly understood, a disposition that today requires a new kind of humility and a new kind of generosity, political dispositions of restrained reciprocity between species and ethical dispositions of eudaimonistic philia that seek the good in all its diverse and complementary forms.

IV. Chapter outlines. This last section proposes a modification of the chapters presented in the prospectus draft. Comments are welcome as to which version looks better, or what else would. The outlines are very brief and more colloquial in tone, both to leave room for commentary and because they build on what’s present in the prospectus.

Chapter 1. Introducing and providing a review of literature of the canonical and contemporary political theory of animals and telescoping the central arguments. Emphasis also on the argument at pp. 11-12 of the prospectus that political theorists, and particularly republican and feminist theorists, are centrally interested in the kinds of issues under discussion here, and that the turn to animals both problematizes exclusively human conceptions of such core ideas as co-creation and embodied vulnerability and presents constructive ways to reimagine these relations beyond species.

Chapter 2. Looking back to Aristotle. Building on what’s present in the prospectus and above in this document.

Chapter 3. Looking forward with biosemiotics. Ditto.

Chapter 4. Looking to the sides with anthropology and geography. I’m torn on whether and how I want to engage with work from multispecies ethnography in anthropology (and with Donna Haraway’s work, from which must of the multispecies ethnographic work draws its inspiration, and which in some ways is as much a cognate for my approach as Nussbaum’s) and animal geography. On the one hand, there is a whole lot of really interesting new work being done in both fields that engages explicitly and directly with most of the questions and concepts at work here. On the other, it would stretch the heterogeneity of the research program possibly to its snapping point. Rather than having a whole chapter on this, I could just include a nod and review of relevant literature in one of the other chapters, maybe the first. (And for what it’s worth, I’ll be presenting my conceptual overview at next year’s American Association of Geographer’s animal geography sections next March in Berkeley, right after Western.)

Chapter 4. Key concepts in empirical application: moral and political agency in human and nonhuman animals. Basically the same as what’s in the prospectus: using work from my animal social cognition class and other sources to examine which animals tend to have which kinds of agency, and in what degree or kind.

Chapter 5. Responding to Kymlicka: a partial defense of Aristotle’s animal politics. Similar to what’s in the prospectus, but inflected to account for the shift towards a sympathetic critique of Aristotle’s practical philosophy, basically according to the program set out in this document above. I’ll be presenting a draft of this at WPSA.

Chapter 6. Supplementing Nussbaum: biosemiotics and the capabilities approach. Potentially the same as what’s in the prospectus, with the possible addition of influences from Haraway and/or anthropology and geography as in discussion both with biosemiotics and the capabilities approach.

Chapter 7. Three cases in respectful and disrespectful human-animal relations: companion, use, and “wild.” Same as chapters 5-7 of the prospectus draft. The exact contours of this chapter will depend on the actual dissertation work, but will focus on applying my conceptual frame to specific examples in each case and comparing the outcome to other frames.

1To use Stuart Kauffman’s phrase.

2Quoted from F.E. Peters’ Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon.

4This use of the is-ought distinction is an appropriate place to mention that this project has both normative and descriptive elements that need clearer disambiguation.

5In a relevant passage, Johnson writes that “the relation between Aristotle’s practical and conceptual sciences; the role of dichotomous versus continuous or punctuated schema in his thought and, through the critique, beyond; a sketch of what a less anthropocentric and more interspecies reading of Aristotelian politics and ethics might look like; and a similar exploration of what cultivated dispositions of interspecies virtue could and should look like.”

Blogging the dissertation

It has again been quite some time since I’ve posted here, and the last attempt to post a string of abstracts never quite came to fruition. So. I thought I would post a new introduction to my project that makes some sense of what I’ve been up to for the last year or so of research; it’s going to be a long post. It’s also very much still in progress and mostly unedited, with some wonky blog formatting.

Anyone who is interested and who has access to academia.edu can also go to my page there for the new version of this prospectus draft. Or just email me. Here goes.


Living well with animals in the posthuman polis:

Aristotle, biosemiotics, and the turn to animals in contemporary political theory

This is an account of what it means to come to know, respect, and live well with other animals. It is an effort to make sense of which kinds of beings exist in what kinds of worlds, and how ethics and politics relate to a given ontology and epistemology. It is also an inquiry into the consequences of thinking politically after the animal and “posthuman” turns, which are approaching the mainstream of geography and anthropology but remain mostly ignored in political science and much of political theory.1 When not ignored, the most prominent innovations seem to be shoehorning nonhuman animals into a liberal shoe designed and built for humans. The neo-Aristotelian account developed here will instead emphasize joint trans-species action toward collective ends which acknowledges mutuality, animal agency, and co-evolved and two-way power relations. To live well together between species, I will argue, we need to both come to know and work towards respect and recognition of other animals and the cultivated forms of our coevolution and mutual domestication. But first: a foray into the relevance of some bigger questions, to better understand how the research program is built around some core motivations.

This project presents a way to see forward by looking back. It is developed as a way through and beyond three conceptual blockages that interfere both with epistemologically accurate and normatively persuasive thinking about human-animal relations: the case of binary thinking, whether between humans and animals, humans and nature, or mind and body; the siloing of, and deep opposition between academic disciplines studying sociocultural vs. biological phenomena; and the inability to find the right balance between reductionism and anti-reductionism in the evolutionary study of emergent systems.

The sociocultural and biological divide is most starkly apparent in anthropology, but to varying degrees present in much of academia. Individual agency falls away at either end of this spectrum, at the “hard cores” of either social or biological construction.2 Against these stark dualisms, it is both more accurate and and more ethically and politically fruitful to acknowledge continuity, embodiment, and embeddedness, and to problematize the ways that human-nature, human-animal, and mind-body dualisms have both falsely and wrongly taken the human out of its ecology and the animal out of ethics and society (Plumwood 2012, 16).

In addition to these three conceptual blockages, there is a central problem which this project is designed to examine and address. The problem is contained in the disconnect between what it means to live at once in a posthuman world but also in the so-called anthropocene. That is, in a “more-than-human”3 world that is at once conceptually decentered away from the human and increasingly subject to human influence. These influences are both direct and indirect. And at least with regard to most nonhuman animals, the directionality of influence is deeply asymmetrical; human activities influence nonhuman animal worlds much than those other worlds influence ours. In this new kind of world, the “hands-off” approach to human-animal relations4 is increasingly untenable, as are the many hands-on approaches advocating for radical anti-hierarchical egalitarianism between species. This project develops another way.

Because too much of our inherited vocabulary pushes us toward the incomplete and misguided way of thinking structured by the conceptual impasses above, this research is motivated by two complementary and corrective aims. First, to “look back,” to revisit Aristotle and to see how he has been understood and misunderstood on the topic of animals and politics. And second, to “look forward,” to fertilize political theory with a diverse but converging array of work in anthropology, geography, and biosemiotics. The first aim explains the many things Aristotle got right, the second both incorporates these into contemporary discourses and explains the things he got wrong.

The purpose of “looking forward by looking back” is twofold. First, to acknowledge just how much Aristotle got right. And second, to see just how wrongly many of his exegetes and interlocutors have read pieces of his work without understanding their necessary linkage to the rest of this theoretical apparatus, and how deeply these misreadings have influenced our intellectual history.

Aristotle was also wrong about many things; given the scope and breadth of his inquiry, the sociocultural particularities of his lived environment, and the developments of the intervening two and a half millennia, this could hardly be otherwise. This is thus a neo-Aristotelian account, one that is particularly influenced by a particular philosophy of biology and subfield of semiotics called biosemiotics, which I will argue threads the needle between reductionist and anti-reductionist ways of thinking by explaining how living systems co-create their inner and outer worlds through deeply relational and co-constitutive processes of sign relation and meaning-making. Without overstating the case, and with critical attention to the limits of Aristotle’s texts and approach, this project also argues for the compatibility of Aristotle and biosemiotics in seeing beyond binary thinking about humans, animals, and nature, and in thinking about the deeply puzzling and too often dismissed status of what is broadly called the normativity of nature.

It is in this vein that the Neo-Aristotelean approach developed here is strongly influenced by the core concepts of embodiment, evolutionism, and emergentism. With the development of this dissertation project, I seek to demonstrate that many emerging approaches across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are converging on a broadly compatible view of the human relation to other animals and to our natural environment, a view that problematizes the above-mentioned dichotomies and dualisms. This is particularly the case with regard to embodiment, and, with some caveats, to emergentism (Deacon 2011). In the case of evolution, however, the academic siloing problem remains, and appears as entrenched as ever;5 like Ingold’s research program (2000), this project is centrally concerned with bring these warring camps out of the trenches, with coming to help socioculturalists see the value of evolutionary thinking and biologists see the myriad ways that culture complicates and scaffolds new meaning and new ways of being on biological substrates.

The division between animal and environmental ethics is an illustrative example of how thinking along continua can begin to address the legacies of dualism, and how political theory might be “fertilized” by such thinking. Environmental ethicists tend towards methodological holism and animal ethicists toward individualism. But as Peterson (2013) rightly argues, building on Clare Palmer’s work, this and other binaries—such as that between wild and domestic—should instead be understood as a series of overlapping and interpenetrating continua.

Thinking relationally about such binaries also helps us see how relations themselves generate value. This is the most helpful place to introduce an epistemological framework that is little-known in many disciplines but which is central to this research project: the branch of semiotics called “biosemiotics.” The semiotic view of living systems is the most epistemologically compelling unified framework with which to view the coming into being, development, and change of different forms of life, including the human.6

Biosemiotics is a particular philosophy of biology which adopts some of tenets of mainstream evolutionary biology but pushes for a much broader interpretation of what constitutes intentionality and sign relations among living and possibly even nonliving7 systems. In this view, life by its very nature is compositional and thus deeply relational, where evolvability may be an attribute of information itself as embedded in relation with other living organisms and nonliving material as influenced and channeled by physical laws and the “tinkering” of evolutionary constraints.

I will also argue that this view of life suggests a way through the relativism that appears to follow from strong ontological perspectivalism, and that the roots of this solution can be traced back to Aristotle and the Hellenic cosmology. The “solution” to this puzzle is a deeply complex and metaphysical question, one that requires much more attention both than I can give it here and than I have been able to give it in general. Tentatively, though, this is to say that all living systems start by differentiating between an inside and an outside (Portmann 1967), a process that began with the opposing hydrophobic and hydrophilic tails of the phospholipid bilayers which form cell walls. These first “bodies” interact with each other in a process of sign relation—this attribution of communicative meaning to cell-to-sell signaling processes is one of the ways in which biosemiotics is distinct from standard evolutionary biology—that results, eventually, in a much more complicated inside-outside boundary: human (or other animal) skin (Hoffmeyer 2008).

How we got from nonliving to living systems, and from single-celled living systems to human civilization and technology is one of life’s biggest questions; I can’t claim to answer it here! (But for a biosemiotic attempt at an answer, see Deacon 2011.) We do appear, however, to be discovering more and more ways8 in which we are not so contingent after all. Pace Stephen Jay Gould, if we were to rewind and replay the tape of life, we may indeed get something quite like us, or at least something enough like us to likely share a recognizable system of social, moral and political rules. That is to say, with de Waal (2009), some of the sociobiological program, and Kant’s “unsocial sociability,” that the rudiments of morality are likely to emerge in any social system that requires a means of balancing the competing needs of individuals and groups. How we are to connect these “proto-”moral views to our own abstract and universalized system of morality will be developed in dissertation research (See below, at III, for an incomplete start).

It is in this sense that I understand the title to Stuart Kauffman’s book, At Home in the Universe. That is, that living systems tend universally toward greater flexibility (rather than just adaptability), and some kinds of constraints and deconstraints on adaptation appear in systematic and predictable ways. In other words, through their interaction and the evolutionary processes through which new forms emerge and some old forms fade from being, the kinds of forms that emerge are already constrained, already patterned. Not only by the folk Darwinian conception of competitive struggle between organisms, but by the co-constitutive interactions between genetic code, organisms, and environment (what Lewonton [1998] calls the “triple helix”), interactions in which the prominence of competition over cooperation within and between groups is conditioned not by “evolution” but by the parameters of the selection environment and relative openness that is available to new forms of semiosis, new ways of being in the world.

Every step in the formation and evolution of living systems that has occurred on this planet has been proceeded step-by-step, one thing after another. This is the obvious but important lesson of what Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible;” given evolution and emergence (and the periodic table and laws of physics), the long-term avenues for change are constrained only by physical limitations such as the second law of thermodynamics. This applies looking forward, too—while we can conceptualize distant and radically changed futures in imaginative fiction and speculations, from where we are now we can only get to some adjacent place. And from there to some other adjacent place, and so forth.

And some “places” in the book of life are structured in particular and systematic ways. For instance: at least in the case of social mammals, one expects an openness to cognition, to increasingly more flexible behavioral repertoires. This follows from what sociality as an evolutionary strategy is, and from the way social animals use social learning, cooperation, competition, and play to navigate between the (at least sometimes) competing demands of individuals and groups.

Similarly with the very constituents of what constitutes a good life for a given animal, a concept I will argue has been problematized in the anthropocene. The parameters of what constitute a good life for a mouse, for instance, were co-developed in dynamic relation to predation-avoidance strategies and corresponding counterstrategies by such predators as owls and birds of prey. In an era of increasing human influence on the more-than-human world, however, the question of whether and how humans should influence particular animal teloi is becoming increasingly unavoidable. As Dominique Lestel puts it, this is a “paradox of preservation,” where to allow animals to survive is to modify them in order to allow them to live as they are. Rollin (1998) controversially argues the flip side of Lestel’s paradox, that there would be no problem to engineering sentience out of livestock animals—changing their telos.

This challenge of navigating nature in a biotechnological world, a world that is in some ways “post-nature,” is both a central challenge to Aristotle’s teleology and conception of nature and an invitation to look back, to see if we can find, if not a “grounding,” then at least a rudder or a banister. At least when it comes to respecting both different animal ways of being and the human good by coming to know and live well with other animals, this is, in short, a project of expanding “the politics of the mixed community” (Plumwood 2012).

The result of all of this, I will argue, is a view of life that challenges, on the one hand, entrenched beliefs about both the disembodied cogito, mind-body dualism, and the discrete realms of subject-object and immanence-transcendence binaries, while on the other hand acknowledging both the unity of living systems and the dynamism of different ways of being and lived experiences. It problematizes any simple hierarchy of “higher” and “lower” forms of life, speaking instead of animal sensoriums that are “familiar” or “unfamiliar,” in which superiority and inferiority are context- and domain-dependent concepts but often track a given organisms’ level of cognitive and gestural flexibility and corresponding semiotic openness or closedness.

In this way, the biosemiotic research program presents a means of examining what a given creature’s innenwelt and umwelt—its inside world (what philosophers call qualia) and its perception of its lived environment, its outside world—are likely to be like. This is the central insight of Baltic German biologist Jacob Von Uexküll Umwelt-Forschung; as Beever and Tønnessen (2013) put it, “according to Uexküll, we can extrapolate biological plans, or the natural teloi of each living organism, based on scientifically-testable examinations of their physiology and behavior.” In this spirit, the empirical work in chapter three explores what we can know about animal cognition, social organization, and the possibility of animal morality and even politics.

To return briefly to the motivation for undertaking this project: I am skeptical that existing frameworks of human-animal relations proposed in political theory are capable of making sense of the “mixed community.” Liberal politics concerns itself with equals, or at least with potential equals. Human-animal relations are instead characterized by inequality and asymmetric power relation, relations that can turn to forms of domination all too easily, even under the guide of affectionate relations. As Tuan (1984) documents, even our affectionate relations with animals—such as that of pet-making—entails a kind of domination, of reducing.

Surprisingly few scholars are working on this issue in a constructive rather than predominantly critical frame. That is, in a way that acknowledges, with Foucault, the danger of domination and the ubiquity of power relations but also looks beyond inward-looking “care for the self” and an emphasis on resistance to find ways to expand the “mixed community” or to think about animal welfare beyond suffering and toward forms of flourishing and living well. (Another longstanding motivation, finally, for engaging in such a constructive project9 is to take seriously the heart of Singerian “equal consideration of interests” even as I have in other ways moved away from utilitarianism. Much of what follows in this project is an attempt to grapple with the competing demands of interest- and relation- based theories of ethics and politics.)

I have already mentioned how many animal abolitionists and critical animal theorists prefer a hands-off approach. Animal biopolitics also engages with these issues, but there is rarely any positive program addressed, any means of structuring relations in a different way. One recent work, however, helps to set up the Aristotelian orientation of this project: Ralph Acampora’s Oikos and Domus (2004). Acampora argues, correctly, that many kinds of human relations ought maybe to be structured by “cultivat[ing] an inter-species oikos that is not already (nor becomes) an oppressive domus.” He walks through different “modes of presencing” ourselves to, over, and with animals and defends “constructive-co-habitation” as “a mode of being in relation to others marked by reciprocal surrender to the dictates of intersubjectivity.” I am broadly sympathetic to this approach, and will argue in this project that it can be enriched by looking back to Aristotle, and to the role of agonism and conflict in the Hellenic cosmology and the relation of parts to wholes (homeomeiric and anhomeomeiric states) and certain sciences to others in what Johnson (2015) calls “Aristotle’s architectonic sciences.”11

To wrap up this overlong introduction: at its core, this is an an attempt to address the implications of a perspectival ontology12 for the nature and compatibility of human and animal “goods.” While at least some anthropocentrism is unavoidable given our status as the kind of beings that we are—we can only “see-as” humans—we can meaningfully understand the “grammar” of different animal ways of being and seek mutual recognition that is neither one-way domination nor a collapse of one animal world into another. In the language developed in recent anthropological innovations in the subfield of multispecies ethnography, we can use “trans-species pidgins” to bridge the worlds between beings with familiar and unfamiliar sensoriums.

The questions and concepts that loom largest in this discussion concern what sets humans apart from other animals—and some other animals from yet others—and whether the relevant differences are differences in degree or kind, of continuity or discontinuity. Any attempt to address this question hinges on three central concepts and their relation to each other rise to prominence: agency, morality, and politics. Are animals other than humans agents? Can other animals be moral? If so, which ones, and in what way? Can they be political? And what does it mean to be political?

The answer to these questions is often taken to hinge on the claim that animals have perceptual awareness but humans also have conceptual awareness. Recent empirical work,13 however, on the cognitive complexity, understanding of reference, sense of self-agency, and morality in nonhuman social animals complicates this understanding. Rather than being dichotomous, an on-off switch, the kind of cognition required for politics and political agency appear instead to be continuous, at least in part, or if not continuous then structured by a series of punctuated breaks. This is congruent with an emergentist reading of human and animal evolution that acknowledges coevolution and shared homology14 as well as the particular “breaks” afforded by symbolic language, but also those afforded by gestural flexibility and complex social relations.

Recapitulating the themes developed here and linking them directly to political theory and to the contribution section which follows: a final motivation and goal of this project is to argue that political theorists are centrally engaged with the questions raised here, and have been for a long time. This is particularly the case with the broadly republican tradition, feminist political theory, hermeneutics, and the “affective turn.” While the field as a whole has not yet come to terms with the animal and posthuman turns, many of the central themes and concerns of these traditions—conceptions of freedom, vulnerability, dependence, recognition, and co-creation—are ripe for “fertilization” across species, a fertilization that is well underway in the disciplines of anthropology and geography.15 This is the challenge of the “posthuman polis” presented by Plumwood and Peterson’s call to “expand the mixed community.” The upshot of this challenge is slowly becoming visible in political theory, albeit in fits and starts.

A brief foray into this potential for fertilizing17 political theory helps segue into what follows in the section on contributions, and the seeds of this fertilization hop from one (sub)field to the next.18 The republican tradition from Aristotle to Arendt has long been interested in the relation of freedom and autonomy to sovereignty and to the politics of co-creation. Politics for Aristotle concerns living well together, for Wolin entails “a life of common involvements,” and for Arendt is a process of “collective world-making.” If Anna Tsing is right that human nature is an interspecies relationship, however, this opens up new ways to think about interspecies co-creation, animal freedom, and animal extensions of the logic of republican non-domination from imperium and dominium.

This “collective world-making” is of course also a co-constitution (Disch), a hermeneutic process of dynamic self-narration as described by Gadamer, Ricoeur, MacIntyre, and others, what Appiah calls a “lived unity.” And probably the most obvious overlaps between animal ethics and political theory, finally, are in feminism, particularly ecofeminism and the ethics of care and relationality. Wendy Brown’s work probes the politics of vulnerability19 and the violence that comes with relations of protection, and has with Patchen Markell written on the wrongs of misrecognition. The feminist relation to the “affective turn,” to captivity and the carceral state, and to the role of emotion in moral and political decisionmaking are all amenable to animal extensions, as Gruen and Plumwood have made most explicit.

Acampora, Ralph. “Oikos and Domus: on Constructive Co-habitation with Other Creatures.” Philosophy & Geography 7.2 (2004): 219-235.

Beever, Jonathan, and Morten Tønnessen. ““Darwin und die Englische Moral”: The Moral Consequences of Uexküll’s Umwelt Theory.” Biosemiotics 6.3 (2013): 437-447.

Deacon, Terrence William. Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. WW Norton & Company, 2011.

Gruen, Lori. Entangled Empathy: an Alternative Ethic for Our Relationship with Animals. Lantern Books, 2015.

Hoffmeyer, Jesper. Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Kauffman, Stuart. At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-organization and Complexity. Oxford University Press, USA, 1995.

Lewontin, Richard. The Triple Helix. Harvard University Press, 1998.

Portmann, Adolf. Animal Forms and Patterns, 1967.

Plumwood, Val. The Eye of the Crocodile. ANU E Press, 2012.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Dominance & Affection. Yale University Press, 1984.

De Waal, Frans. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton University Press, 2009.

1The lumping of animal talks under “environmental” panels at conference is a good indicator of this continued ignorance, and the distressingly regular laughs that resulted from responses to my questions about otherwise ignored animal issues on panel discussions is a good, if anecdotal, indicator of continued indifference.

2See Malik (2000) and the introduction to Ingold (2003) on this topic.

3To adopt David Abram’s phrase from The Spell of the Sensuous.

4Advocated by most “animal abolitionists” and many people working in the field of critical animal studies (CAS).

5As John Hartigan writes in Aesop’s Anthropology, this turn “back” to evolution is not welcomed by many in the critical left. He writes that “we need to see culture in evolutionary terms, as an emergent phenomenon that then generates the capacity to mold evolution, as in “artificial selection.” This is squeamish territory, certainly—evolutionary discourses played significant roles in “naturalizing” racial and gender hierarchies and stereotypes. But keeping “nature as a foil for “culture”—as in assertions of social construction—does little either to engage the power of evolutionary perspectives or to learn from and potentially redeploy them, via a greater understanding of the immense plasticity of life-forms and the power of sociality to shape them.” (Hartigan 2014, 87)

6See below, at IV, for a more systematic discussion; the account here is meant to be more general, and to explain the motivation for using this framework.

7As theorized, most prominently in the recent popular press, by Jeremy England’s work on the origins of life as a process of dissipation-driven adaptation.

8Take two recent and illustrative examples from evolutionary linguistics instance that both fit this frame and illustrate the way our embodiment shapes our language (following Lakoff and Johnson 1999). First, Nichols (1992) argued that “mama-” and “dada-” type words may be so common as symbolic referents to mother and father precisely because they are among the easiest sounds for the infant human to produce. And second, Bankieris and Simner (2015) more recently proposed that attributes of a sound like hardness, softness, and even brightness will make languages gravitate towards soft sounds for rounded objects and harder sounds for more angular objects.

9It is in this light that, during a panel discussion on biopolitics, one attendee at a recent conference said that mine the only paper present that was “doing” rather than “analyzing” biopolitics. I think he meant it as a bit of a jab, but it was likely correct.

10 Discovery, intervention/influence (interference, interruption), domination, and constitution/construction.

11As with much of the work in developing Aristotle’s conceptual apparatus, this is still pending further research and writing.

12The argument developed in this paper concerns the “fit” between the human perspectival world and the external world as such. While not discussed here, I accept some form of realism—that the physical world independent of its perception does exist.

13Not reviewed at length in this paper, although some innovative and central texts have been included in the bibliography. To be discussed in chapter two.

14Species traits are developed either from convergent evolution (analogous structures) or from common descent (homologous structures).

15This is an unsurprising development in anthropology, at least, given that nonhuman animals act as agents in multispecies communities in many indigenous traditions. The anthropological turn is discussed briefly at the end of section V, below, but requires more elaboration. To telescope: in geography Wolch and others have charted a path to convivial cohabitation, interspecies sensemaking, and reconceptualizations of animal agency. And while I only here look at Kohn’s account of the turn in anthropology to multispecies ethnography, trans-species pidgins, and unfamiliar sensoriums, Helmreich, Kirksey, Hartigan, and others are charting similar paths at the “multispecies salon” and accompanying blogs.

16Kennan Ferguson’s Political Theory article “What was Politics to the Denisovan?” (2013) argues that our hominid ancestry problematizes the idea that politics and the human are overlapping and exhaustive sets. He charts out a critique of the Kantian idea that “all politics is anthropolitics,” building on evidence that Denisovan and Neanderthal forebears may well have had all of the faculties deemed necessary for “politics.” As he puts it, “if prehistorical humans had hierarchy, power, war, abstraction, tools, society, and even art, how can we deny them politics?” Rather than discussing other nonhuman animals, however, he proceeds to discuss the work of Pierre Clastres and its adoption by James C. Scott as illustrative of traditional people who explicitly reject the state but nonetheless engage in “anti-state forms of political life.” His account and project is distinct from my own, but it presents an important conceptual break from the dominant trend of viewing politics and the human as exhaustive and overlapping. (For more on this question of becoming visible, see also II, below.)

17I don’t have citations for some of what follows here, both because I still need to read some of the things referenced and because this short overview is intended simply to put the animal question in discussion with classical and current trends in the field. To be remedied.

18Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals is a good example of this cross-fertilization, drawing as it does on republican themes of co-creation, feminist themes of embodied vulnerability, and hermeneutic themes of narrativity.

19Echoed in Aristotle’s claim that we are “neither beasts nor gods,” neither fully autonomous—pros hauton—nor heteronomous—pros heteron; hence what Nussbaum calls The Fragility of Goodness.

Conference abstract, “Politics and the animal imagination: biosemiotics, Aristotle, and human-animal relations”

I will be presenting papers at three or four conferences in Europe this summer, one or two in Oxford, one in Stavanger (Norway) and one in Sicily. Here is the accepted abstract submission for the Norwegian conference, “Animals in the anthropocene: human-animal relations in a Changing semiosphere.”


“This paper presents an Aristotelian biosemiotic symbiopolitics beyond the human. From the Greek bios and semeion, biosemiosis looks at meaning-making and sign-relations among living systems. A biosemiotic epistemology best accounts for the nature of animal life in the world, and this implies an ethics of animal flourishing and a politics of trans-species symbiosis. In light of the “animal turn” and what could be called the “critical hyphenated humanisms,” the time for this project is ripe.

This framework views evolution and emergence as semiotic generals, patternings in the world that result from the interaction between physical forces and the self-organizing features of living organisms in given selection environments. The convergence of complexity theory and systems dynamics with neuroscience and biological anthropology provides an explanation for the end-directedness of living systems. In Peircean terms, icons, indices, and symbols are hierarchically organized and operate at an increasing level of abstraction between signifier and signified.

Language provides humans with access to levels of abstract reference which broaden our conceptual horizons and contribute to our narrative sense of self. In Uexküll’s terminology, it changes our umwelt, the perspectival bubble we call our world. But we still share with other animals our basic sense perceptions, embodied vulnerability, core emotions and moral instincts. (And whether we share some of these ‘higher’ faculties with cetaceans, corvids, and other primates remains an open area of inquiry.)

What kind of ethics and politics follows from this this biosemiotic epistemology and the ontology of being-together it entails? Because nonhuman animals are more semiotically constrained in the horizons of their umwelten, biosemiotic analysis reveal what it means for a given animal to flourish, and whether and how that flourishing interacts symbiotically with other kinds of organisms. This approach builds on—and modifies—Nussbaum’s (2007, 2013) understanding of human-animal politics.

Returning to Aristotle reveals a deep irony in the canonical treatment of other animals. It is a commonplace in the literature to mark the beginning of a long history of human exceptionalism and animal marginalization with Aristotle’s dictum, “(rational) man is by nature a political animal.” Many thinkers in this tradition, however, overlook Aristotle’s rich treatment of sense perception and animal imagination in De Anima, De Partibus Animalium, and elsewhere. This loses sight of the broader conceptual unity between his philosophies of life, nature, and politics. I look to biosemiotics, animal phenomenology, and “multispecies ethnography” to propose a revived Aristotelian politics of human-animal relations.”


Imaginative biosemiotics and the symbiopolitics of human-animal relations (part one of three)

It’s been a very long time since I’ve written a post here. Almost three years. This time has been consumed by coursework and comprehensive exams for the political science PhD program at UCSD. While engaging and sometimes interesting, these core curriculum requirement have had little to no overlap with the parallel development of my dissertation research. Hence the hiatus.

Let’s try, then, to explain the warp and weft of this ongoing project. What follows is a work very much in progress. This is the first of three cumulative posts explaining this project, and this post focuses on biosemiotics. The second introduces and discusses the symbiopolitics of human-animal relations and its relationship to Foucauldian biopolitics and Martha Nussbaum’s theory of human-animal relations. The third outlines what I am calling the “imaginative” component of this project and situates this project as a whole to trends in the heterogeneous field of “animal studies,” drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and calling attention to the potential shortcomings of the biosemiotic framework regarding the closed conceptual horizons of nonhuman animal life. Although a list of relevant sources is provided at the end of each post, I try to avoid muddying the conceptual waters by only discussing texts or authors which are central to my work.

The questions driving this research are big ones. How are humans like or unlike other animals, and other animals like or unlike each other? Are these differences continuous or discontinuous, differences in degree or kind? Which framework or methodological approach best answers the many parts of this question? How do the epistemology and ontology of this inquiry—that is, our theory of knowledge and our inquiry into being, into what is—relate to its ethics, or how should we make sense of getting from what is to what ought to be? What, if anything, follows politically from this inquiry? And how does this relate to the patchwork quilt that is “animal studies” and to the lay perception of “animal rights”?

In my reading, biosemiotics best explains the nature of the physical world and the organisms which have come to exist and interact therein. The framework is evolutionist and emergentist. It views evolution and emergence as semiotic generals, patternings in the world that result from the interaction between physical forces like the laws of thermodynamics and the self-organizing features of living organisms in given selection environments. To call evolution a “semiotic general” is to say that something like “descent with modification by [some kind of] selection” happens in all living beings, and in all processes of coming to being, changing a state of being, or going out of being. (More on emergence below.)

Starting with Aristotle’s understanding of teleology (the purpose or the “that for which” of a thing), politics, and the nature or different animal types, I proceed to follow Charles Sanders Peirce and Jacob von Uexküll down the rabbit hole of biosemiotics (from the Greek bios and semeion, “life” and “sign,” biosemiosis looks at sign relations among living systems. And a note: only a few relevant biosemiotic sources are listed below, but those with academic access can download much more, often as full-book pdfs, from Springer.).

Understood broadly, semiotics is the study of meaning-making—of signification—and of the signs and interactions from which meaning is made. With exceptions, semioticians tend to self-classify as either Saussurean or Peircian. Ferdinand de Saussure’s “dyadic” semiotics distinguishes signifier (the material aspect of a sign) from signified (that which for which the sign ‘stands’), and it affirms that the bond between the two is arbitrary. While useful for the study of most linguistic and some cultural signs, this approach fails to account for the ubiquity of sign communication in the nonhuman living world.

Drawing on Charles Sanders Peirce’s typology of icon, index, and symbol, Peircean semiotician Thomas Sebeok terms this the distinction between anthroposemiotics and zoosemiotics. Icons, indices, and symbols operate at an increasing level of removal, or abstraction, between signifier and signified. Icons directly reference the thing signified in some aspect of their material composition. Indices do not contain the signified within themselves, but instead directly correlate to a particular signified, and symbols are only abstractly correlated with one or more meanings. Peircean semiotics is also “triadic” rather than dyadic in that an interpretant mediates between the signifier and the signified.

Terrence Deacon provides clear examples of icons and indices in The Symbolic Species: the Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. The mottling of a moth’s wings are iconic because they directly signify “bark” to the bird that scans its environment and sees ‘bark-bark-bark’ instead of ‘bark-not bark-bark.’ The latter would neither satisfy the iconic function nor protect the moth from predation. The smell of smoke is indexical to fire both for sentient animals (a slippery term, but at its base: those capable of feeling, of sense perception) like the deer in the forest and for sapient animals (also slippery, but: those who act with judgment) like humans in possession of language. (A note on word use: many social anthropologists interested in symbolism and ritual would define as “sign” what Peirce calls “symbol,” and reserve “symbol” for performative acts of cultural rituals, and not just for representations of a thing signified.)

And because—or at least in part because—humans have language, we also have access to levels of abstract reference which broaden and deepen our conceptual horizons by providing a means of constructing a narrative sense of self, a faculty of episodic memory, and a robustly iterated theory of mind (where ‘I know that you know that she knows that I know…’). In von Uexküll’s terminology, language radically changes our umwelt, the perspectival bubbles we call our world. But we still share with other animals our basic sense perceptions, the embodied vulnerability that accompanies being an self-contained organism (or what Deacon calls a teleodynamic system), and most likely our ‘core’ emotions and moral instincts.

In other words, while animals clearly have access to iconic and indexical systems of meaning-making and communication, it is likely that only humans have access to what Peirce describes as symbolism in any robust sense of the term. As Deacon is right to point out, however, icons, indices, and symbols are hierarchically organized. As we share a common evolutionary history with other living organisms, so too with iconic and indexical forms of semiosis.

In my reading, this most central insight of biosemiotics implies that the perspectival world of other animals can be examined scientifically in a more comprehensive and exhaustive way than can the human world of comparatively open symbolic horizons. This insight is important both to the “imaginative” and the “symbiopolitical” elements of this project which will be explored subsequently. (On the imaginative side, it follows from this view that the nonhuman world is more evolutionarily constrained in the potential horizons of their ways of being-in-the-world. Symbiopolitically, it indicates that we can apply biosemiotic principles to scientific inquiry to understand what it means for a given animal to flourish, and how that flourishing interacts symbiotically with other kinds of organisms.)

This argument also works in reverse, although the hierarchical organization of human and animal attributes makes it difficult to parse when which kind of semiosis is operative. In Umberto Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, he distinguishes between dictionaries and encyclopedias, and between labyrinths viewed as linear, map-like, or net-like. Eco points out that we describe many things in dictionary terms that may better be viewed encyclopedically, and this corresponds to the closing of horizons that result from ‘reading’ one type of thing as if it were a different type of thing. There is, however, a trade-off; as he puts it, “the encyclopedist knows that the tree organizes, yet impoverishes, its content”. (Eco 82) (A note: any serious account of the world of human meaning has to describe the social world in a way that I have not here done, to accommodate not just icons, indices, and symbols but the array of social facts, cultural practices, and rituals described by Hacking, Searle, and so many others. I am tabling but not dismissing these emergent realities here; at this stage, my project instead focuses its attention on human-animal relations.)

This “foray into the worlds of zoosemiotics and anthroposemiotics” in turn led to three related inquiries. First, into the treatment of teleology in the philosophy of biology from Aristotle to Darwin to Ernst Mayr and beyond. Second, into the respective roles played by language and other forms of communicating, describing, or representing aspects of the world and our relations with other beings. This set of issues in particular is interpreted quite differently both within and between biological anthropology, social anthropology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and phenomenology. And third, into the relevance of embodiment—understood here as the relationship between brain, mind, and body—to concepts of human autonomy, agency, and emotion.

Explaining this in depth would be too involved for what is presented here. Briefly, though: the central relevant point from the philosophy of biology concerns the nature of end-directness in teleological systems. In the case of language as viewed by the disciplines above the matter is complicated by various and often incommensurable ontological foundations. The first is addressed below, but some aspects of the second and most of the third are postponed until the second and third blog posts in this sequence.

To return to teleology: since Darwin, many biologists have eschewed teleological explanations to animal behavior, both because of a concern about ‘contamination’ by anthropomorphism and because of the scientific rejection of “cosmic teleology,” of end-directnessness in the transcendent sense that “God has a plan for nature.” Others have pushed back against this over-broad proscription, however. Biologist Ernst Mayr, writing at a time when computers (and their software) were becoming widespread, proposed the term teleonomic to account for “systems operating on the basis of a program.” A series of parallel developments in theoretical biology emphasized the how the self-organization of living systems (Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, or self-making, is the best known) is itself a strong semiotic general.

More recently, the confluence of complexity theory (or in the popular vernacular, somewhat misleadingly, “chaos theory”) and systems dynamics with neuroscience and biological anthropology provides an explanation for the end-directedness of emergent properties that relies of evolution, emergence, and the interaction of living and proto-living organisms and molecules. In his 2013 book at the intersection of these fields, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, Deacon coins the neologism ententional to account for the class of objects or processes that appeal to “something not present.” When theoretically situated in the above framework and against the coevolution of dissipative systems in a pattern of emergent dynamics, this concept resolves the problem of reverse causality which has dogged the philosophy of biology ever since Darwin’s overhaul of Aristotle’s biology.

Stuart Kauffman’s book on complexity theory says in its title that we are At Home in the Universe. By this he means that life—and ultimately humanity—is not the “we the accidental” that follows from focusing solely on “blind” Darwinian selection. Instead we are “at home in the universe” because, following Peter Corning, “a fully adequate theory of evolution must encompass both self-organization and selection.” (cited in Deacon 2013, 422) Deacon’s ‘return’ to Aristotle’s plurivocal conception of causality provides a way to think coherently, and within an emergentist Darwinian framework, about the normative implications of teleology.

What kind of ethics and politics follows from this this biosemiotic epistemology and the ontology of meaning-making and being-together it entails? My next post will build on Michel Serres’ The Parasite and other sources to develop the rudiments of a symbiopolitical typology of human-animal relations. This typology will be situated against the biopolitics of Michel Foucault and the animal ethics of Martha Nussbaum.

Selected sources

Aristotle. Politics, Physics, History of Animals, Parts of Animals, Movement of Animals, Generation of Animals

Bickerton, Derek. (1992). Language and Species.

Bickle, John (2009). The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience

Damasio, Antonio (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.

Deacon, Terrence (1997). The Symbolic Species: the Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain.

Deacon, Terrence. (2011). Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter.

Eco, Umberto. (1986) Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language.

Favareau, Donald, ed (2010). Essential Readings in Biosemiotics.

Hacking, Ian (2002). Historical Ontology.

Hénaff, Marcel (2010). The Price of Truth: Gift, Money, and Philosophy.

Jantsch, Erich (1980). The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution.

Kauffman, Stuart. At Home in the Universe: the Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.

Kohn, Eduardo (2013). How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human.

Kull, Kalevi, et al. (2009) “Theses on Biosemiotics: Prolegomena to a Theoretical Biology.” Biological Theory 4.2 (2009): 167-173.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought.

Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding.

Mayr, Ernst (1974). “Teleological and teleonomic, a new analysis.” Methodological and historical essays in the natural and social sciences. Springer Netherlands, 1974. 91-117.

Mayr, Ernst (1988). Toward a new philosophy of biology: Observations of an evolutionist.

Okrent, Mark (2007). Rational Animals: The Teleological Roots of Intentionality.

Peirce, Charles Sanders and Kenneth Laine Ketner, eds. (1992) Reasoning and the Logic of Things: the Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898.

Searle, John (1995).The Construction of Social Reality.

Sebeok, Thomas Albert (2001). Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics.

Suddendorf, Thomas (2013). The Gap: the Science of what Separates us from other Animals.

Tüür, Kadri and Morten Tønnessen, eds (2014). The Semiotics of Animal Representations.

Uexküll, Jacob von (rerelease 2010). A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans.

Whitehead, Hal and Luke Rendell (2015). The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.

‘Man is by nature a political animal’


(Image from Tim Flach’s amazing More Than Human collection.) I haven’t written a new post here in almost nine months, mostly because my recent pursuits have been decidedly non-animal studies related. Time to remedy that. Lots of animal politics-related news has come and gone, particularly trade (seals and foie gras) and cognition (octopus personhood) issues.

For my part, I’ve been deep in quantitative political science land as a first-year PhD student at UCSD, where I’ve been exposed to a view of the world as filtered through rationalist lenses of human behavior. Man is by nature a political animalAll the while, I’ve been asking myself about the role nonhuman animals play in political science, as distinct from political theory. I don’t have answers to this question right now, although I have been working on international research about norm diffusion and animal welfare norms. And I still tend to look at the world through consequentialist but anti-speciesist goggles–where ‘what matters’ is the interests of sentient beings–but my present foray into continental philosophy and animal studies is tempering and may eventually change this outlook. For now, though, I’d like to think out loud for a moment about the effects of looking at the world through rationalist lenses.

Briefly, some context: the rationalist project in political science presents a view of actors rooted in assumptions about agency that preference interest maximization at the expense of systems-level cultural or social influences. A ‘thin’ conception of rationality assumes that preferences are rank-ordered and transitive, while a ‘thick’ conception assumes increasingly egoist preference content, whether power, material gain, or, mostly simply, money. I could go on about this at great length, but for the purposes of this post I’m more interested in the effects of looking at the world through these speciesist and methodological individualist lenses.

The stated purpose of the rationalist project in political science is to be an accurate predictor of empirical reality, and, when discussed on those grounds, it should be evaluated on those grounds. But there’s always a risk that prescription will creep into description, ‘ontologizing’ or ‘reifying’ what are meant to be mere analytical tools. What immediately strikes me in the context of animal studies is how strongly this project reinforces human-nonhuman dualisms; indeed, political science has been doing this since Aristotle’s Politics, to mixed effect.

This is also particularly interesting to me in light of Cary Wolfe’s research on posthumanism and animal studies (for which see Zoontologiesmy current Goodreads…), as distinct from the traditional literature on animal rights. (And as if to reinforce the rights-studies split, the two literatures are shelved on different sides of the UCSD library.) Just as Cora Diamond argues (in the recent Philosophy and Animal Life) that “the language of rights is…meant to be useful in contexts in which we cannot count on the kind of understanding of evil that depends on loving attention to the victim,” the language of interests that predominates in the rationalist literature is antithetical to the kind of reckoning with animality that animal studies in the vein of Derrida and Levinas call for. (In part, this is just a restatement of the analytical-continental divide, but the animal lens brings it to the fore.)

These are some of the thoughts I’ve been having while grappling with regression models and the canon of modern political science and international relations this quarter. Mostly I’ve been keeping it to myself, because pulling the speciesist-humanist rug from under the discussant’s feet would be destabilizing, to put it mildly. But it’s something I’ll keep at, and, in the meantime, I’ve got a few weeks to read, read, read. (The image below is from Ed Wray’s Monkey Town, which is meant to be more of a meditation on the poverty trap than on animal welfare, but which also serves as a potent illustration of Diamond’s attempt to reframe the discourse from rights and interests to one in which we attend to our ‘fellow creaturehood’, our “fellows in mortality, in life on this earth.”)


The moral brain conference

I went to this conference at NYU a few weeks ago, and was thoroughly fascinated all the way through. It was a merger of two conferences – the first on ‘The Significance of Neuroscience for Morality’ and the second on ‘moral enhancement’ – and part one, in particular, was mostly new terrain for me. It was also the first time I used my new iPad/bluetooth keyboard/Evernote combo, which worked really well – and all of my notes are here. Hughes and Dvorsky (from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which I follow on Reader) were also posting updates here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I just sat and listened, absorbing the approximately 25 hours of talks. My general impression is that neuroscientists sure do like fMRI’s; I actually learned a good deal about the different parts of the brain and the different chemicals that affect our moral (and other) behavior. It was also interesting to see Knobe, Greene, and Haidt in person.

Topically, discussions were all over the place – see the links above – but focused on: experimental studies of the effects of seratonin, etc. on empathy and related behaviors, whether it makes sense to talk about a ‘morality pill’ (probably not), and what we’re talking about when we’re talking about moral enhancement.

My only real gripe is that the conference was so strictly anthropocentric. As usual, I saw lots of room for fascinating engagement with the nonhuman animal mind – we could, for example, use fMRI studies of neurotypical humans to assess emotional and maybe even moral states in other primates. Instead, the only discussion of other animals was as ‘animal models’, with a few very minor exceptions. It’s my own fault for not asking a question, though…but hopefully animal studies folks can bone up on this literature and have an overlapping conference of their own!



In-vitro meat as ideological barometer

My food politics class has been discussing food, science, and the influence of ideology on food policy choices (hence Zizek’s RSA Animate – I generally disagree with his conclusions, but he’s right to point out what’s wrong with a certain kind of ethical consumerism, and his critique of environmentalism-as-ideology is apposite). Specifically, we just finished reading Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics, which I assigned to counterbalance pretty much everything else in the course (Patel, Nestle, Pollan, Foer, Visser, Estabrook). My main problem with food technology isn’t so much the technology itself, but its near-exclusive dominance by a few powerful actors with ‘special’ rather than ‘public’ interests. That said, I share the technologists’ skepticism of the idea that nature provides a useful normative template.

In this vein, the media flurry around in-vitro meat provides an excellent case study. It’s no surprise that this is getting a lot of attention, because it sits at the intersection of academic and public discourses about: authenticity, alienation, disgust, sustainability, animal ethics, food safety, and the role of technology in society. And as Haidt and Bailey note, traditional conservative-liberal divides can break down when discussing food, technology, and purity.

I’m curious to track this potential fracturing of the food movement, with Pollan et al‘s ‘eat whole foods’ on the one side and the likes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) on the other. In some respects, these debates also apply to the ‘fake’ meats made from textured soy protein, which many people would probably regard as far less yuck-inducing.

In an era of increasing alienation from the means of production, the back-to-the-roots food movement provides an avenue for empathic priming and hands-on learning. But the reality is that we’re eventually going to embrace ever-increasing levels of technological manipulation of the living environment. The relevant questions for me are when this biotech revolution will really take off, and how it’ll be regulated at the national and international levels. But maybe I read too much speculative fiction.

On food safety, people also tend to forget that inaction is a form of action – and this is what inaction looks like. This is also a domain where the Zizekian challenge of environmentalism-as-ideology comes into play: many environmentalists in the Global North have a knee-jerk opposition to artificial as opposed to natural systems, with the result that rich-world environmental elites sometimes transpose their own circumstances and agendas on the Global South. (This whole Green Revolution for Africa debate is complex and contested, but surely such personal biases should be challenged, or at least examined?) A lot of the science here seems to be looking for predetermined answers, whether it’s the agroecological or organic approach trying to prove that GMOs are dangerous, or the Gates Foundation doing the opposite. This is bad science, probably on both sides. But neutrality may be out of reach in such contested terrain.

So do vegetarians really have ‘a moral obligation to eat in-vitro meat’? I wouldn’t go that far, but the topic is definitely ‘good to think’, to borrow from Levi-Strauss. They’ve got a ways to go, in any case.

Things I want to research at UCSD

I just got back from visiting UCSD’s political science PhD program open house, and it looks like I’ll be going – we’re excited about the prospect of moving back home! And I’m looking forward to sitting on the other side of the desk for a little while. I had lots of interesting discussions with current profs, current students, and prospective students. Here are some things I’d like to work on, eventually.

Product-process distinctions and full-cost labeling in national and international trade policy. This ‘how the iPhone is and is not like a Chipotle burrito’ thread provides a good example of why more work is needed here: they missed what for me is the most obvious difference, that Foxconn is very different from the likes of Niman Ranch. And maybe if shrimp contained carbon (for farmed, via mangrove destruction) or bycatch (for wild-caught) labels, people would eat less destructively.

Social norms, social movements, network theory, food, and animals…lots of this work would actually fit better in the sociology department, which is right upstairs and has a few crossover profs.

Collaborations with local food justice, education, and conservation organizations. One of the theory profs. has lots of good connections to local food policy NGOs, and I plan to start volunteering again at Pazzaz again – and maybe more.

And hopefully I can build on my Fletcher and Center for Animals theses at the International Relations and Pacific Studies’ (IR/PS) Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.

More tangential research I would love to do, although I’m not entirely sure who would collaborate on any of this, either within the political science department or beyond it: speculative fiction and political theory; and games, gamification and nonhuman animals.

My long-term goal is to help move political science beyond the purely anthropocentric, whether through a trans-species rational choice theory (RCT) analysis or by building on the likes of Donaldson and Kymlicka’s recent Zoopolis. In addition to all this, I’ll no doubt get a thorough drubbing in quantitative political analysis, which is what the program is best known for. Bring it.

Could my dog be a citizen?

Maybe not, but Donaldson & Kymlicka’s new book invites us to ask why. I ordered it recently, and so far it’s a fascinating and much-needed addition to political theory. Rather than getting caught up in the stale rights/welfare morass, they venture into a territory that’s rich for humans but poor for everyone else: can we extend citizenship beyond the species line? Should we?

One thing I’ve wondered throughout, though, is whether their defense of nonhuman animal citizenship would fall apart without its grounding in animal rights theory (what they call ART). In any case, whether or not sentient nonhuman animals have fundamental rights by nature might be as meaningless a question on pragmatic grounds as whether humans have such rights: it’s clear that we need them whether they exist or not. (On this topic, I think Aikin and Talisse’s attack on Berlin’s value pluralism as “a difference about what is of value, not a difference about the nature of value” is a distinction without a difference. But this is a different discussion.)

The expansion of the domain of legal personhood to nonhuman animals would a monumental task, both conceptually and practically, as Posner and various others have pointed out. This is one of the reasons District Court Judge Jeffrey Miller was reluctant to acknowledge that the 13th Amendment applies to Orcas. Donaldson and Kymlicka do a good job of navigating this conceptual minefield, though, and they lay a useful foundation upon which political theorists can build, and through which we can hopefully broaden the scope of the debate over nonhuman animals to include their political, as well as their moral, status. This recent review by Steve Donoghue provides a good overview:

In our authors’ simple and elegant formulation, [animals’] inviolable rights come in three sub-sets, depending on the nature of the non-human animals involved. Wild animals are designated as members of separate, sovereign nations, entitled to protection against invasion, trafficking, enslavement – anything that curtails their right to self-determination. At the other end of the spectrum, fully domesticated animals should be seen not as property but as full-fledged members of the communities they share with humans. And the animals in the middle ground, ‘liminal’ species who aren’t domesticated but inhabit human spaces (raccoons, possums, coyotes, pigeons, hawks, etc), should be considered ‘denizens’ of those spaces – not full co-citizens like domesticated animals, but still deserving of fundamental respect (i.e. freedom from pogroms, poisonings, or random persecutions). In our authors’ view, it makes no difference that none of these animals advocate for such respect – the point here is that humans routinely extend these rights to members of their own species who likewise can’t advocate for them (infants and children, for instance, or the uneducated, or the mentally feeble, etc.), so a broader application is already ideologically warranted.

I agree with Donoghue that “Books like this – meticulously thought-out, very attractively reasoned, with no hint of screed – do inestimable good in their incremental way.” Again, though, I wonder if a conception of limited citizenship rights could be formulated without recourse to “universal inviolable rights”, which may present too big a stumbling block, especially when they butt directly against corresponding human rights and interests. If wild animal communities really do have something like sovereignty, an argument could be made that essentially all human settlements violate the property rights of burrowing rodents, for example. This may, or may not, be a silly question. Zoopolis is an important first step in asking it.

Paths to caring, ctd.

Peter Singer and Agata Sagan’s recent Opinionator piece Are We Ready for a ‘Morality Pill’? raises important issues, but is insufficiently nuanced (they have another piece on robot rights, which follows logically from Singer’s version of consequentialist utilitarianism). If and when–probably just when, really–we become able to tinker with our brain chemistry to alter our ability for compassion and empathy, these kinds of questions will be unavoidable. In the meantime, though, it seems odd that we don’t focus instead on those tools which can demonstrably improve both how we care for others and who counts as an other; the short film No Robot provides a good example.


I have a number of collected links in my ‘blog fodder’ folder that haven’t made it into any posts recently, so here they are (starting with Belgian fast food ‘restaurant’ Quick’s ‘Darth Vader burger’, pictured above. This is real.):

Charles Barkley’s ‘White People Problems’ on SNL (and never mind that it’s effectively discussing class rather than race), implying that farm animal welfare doesn’t matter because human slavery existed. Huh.

And speaking of class: Mark Zuckerberg only eats (ate?) meat that he kills himself, and now the bison he shot is mounted in Facebook’s headquarters. Charming.

I just got my copy of Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, and I look forward to reading it stat, because I think Tyler Cowen’s dismissal of the concept of nonhuman animal citizenship deserves more serious consideration, in at least partially modified forms.

There are definitely some fascinating anthropological, literary, and cultural essays to be written on the emerging tradition of “Cooking Food Featured in Fantasy Novels”.

And I haven’t watched it yet, but this PBS video, “My Life as a Turkey,” looks really cool.

Finally, “The Narwhal Bacons at Midnight,” apparently. I’ll leave this last one up to you.


Deengate and twinkie pie

First, the good news: Americans are eating less meat, even if it’s still contingent on geography; in some places, this Onion bit may still be indistinguishable from reality. And depending upon your schadenfreude-ometer, Hostess’ bankruptcy and even Paula Deen’s diabeetus might be cause for celebration. Whatever else it is, though, it’s definitely some kind of teachable moment, and you know you’re in trouble when even the Fox News op-ed feed is berating you.

Deen, creator of the twinkie pie and the donut-encased bacon-egg-cheeseduckenburger, recently announced that she has type 2 diabetes, and the internets have not been kind. Jane Black sees a big missed opportunity in Deen’s decision to forego a transition to a saner and kinder diet–instead, she’s partnering with a costly drug endorsement, and preventive medicine be damned.

And this should all segue nicely into the upcoming Intelligence Squared debate, which will focus on whether the obesity crisis is an issue of personal responsibility or market manipulation. As always, it’s both, but here’s to hoping that the reigning queen of food porn can lead by example, even if the example in this case is a cautionary tale of a lesson not learned.

Food, identity, and gender

Okay, so this ad is as much about Latin chauvinism and machismo as it is about gender–I imagine you can get the point even if you don’t speak Spanish. Another ad I saw at the gym recently is less overtly offensive, but it plays on one of America’s foundational food-and-gender stereotypes: the meat-grilling men. For a broader selection, Sociological Images has compiled quite an assortment. (And see here for more, on ‘suicide foods’) This last one is, well, ludicrous.

This recent NYT profile of Simon Doonan’s Gay Men Don’t Get Fat got me thinking about the topic…Doonan acknowledges that his gay/straight food distinction is a sweeping generalization, but I think this kind of essentializing is unnecessary and damaging, if obviously tempting to advertisers.

(edit, 2/7/12: So apparently Snickers has ads like this in English, too, or so my Food Politics students tell me – this is what I get for not having a TV at home…)

Horse slaughter

A number of my animal studies students have written interesting research papers on the law, policy, and ethics of horse slaughter. I’ve found the issue to be an excellent case study for various key animal politics issues: determining the boundaries of the moral community; understanding whose voice counts, and why; and parsing the the national and international political economy and trade law issues under consideration. The image featured above is from a campaign for electoral reform–“We Need More Party Animals”–but most of the things I came up with when I image searched ‘horse slaughter’ were too nasty. (And speaking of political animals and animal lovers, here’s one)

I actually changed my views quite substantially on this issue over the last few years. Originally, my approach was mostly utilitarian and anti-speciesist, and I couldn’t help but think that if some of the millions of people who called their congresspeople about horse slaughter-related issues (it’s the number one thing anyone in Congress gets called about..) would chime in instead about the billions of other animals sent to slaughter, it would have a better net effect.

But the more I learned about some key issues–the difference between slaughter and euthanasia; the welfare problems inherent in shipping and slaughtering skittish animals whose skulls are not an easy target for captive bolt guns; and, yes, the relational issues that arise from killing animals who traditionally have a strong human-animal bond–the more my views on the issue started to shift closer to a capabilities approach.

Here are some recent pieces on the topic, both of which I felt were lacking, but in different degrees and for different reasons: Josh Ozersky (Time food writer), “The Case for Eating Horse Meat“; and philosopher Mike LaBossiere, “They Eat Horses, Don’t They“.

And here‘s a piece on the growth of the animal studies field in today’s NYT: onward and upward!

Science and politics, words and things

(From clusterflock, on rats and aggression) Sometimes I’m tempted to unsubscribe from Reason‘s feed–like when I read this piece from this month’s magazine: “Who’s More Anti-Science: Republicans or Democrats”. The basic premise is that both groups exhibit strong biases (Republicans on evolution and anthropogenic climate change, Democrats on animal research and biotechnology).

Which is fine, so far as it goes, but it’s the “anti-science” bit that bothers me. The rodent aggression research pictured above is eminently political as well as scientific, and to divorce to two is either naive or dishonest.

Questions about the scope and characteristics of things like personhood and mind can–and often must–be approached using the tools of science, but science alone will never tell us which policies best fit a given set of circumstances. With various caveats, I’m a cautious fan of plant biotechnology, but to just blanket the debate with the sledgehammer-simple dualism of pro- versus anti- science is, well, dumb.

And while I’m venting–Penn Jillette’s “10 Commandments for atheists” is philosophically illiterate, let alone uncritically anthropocentric. This would be more understandable in a Dominion-rooted religious perspective, but after Galileo and Darwin, this kind of hierarchical and teleological Thomism-cum-humanism needs justification, at the very least. In any case, at least Carlin’s is funny.

Upcoming conferences

The PhD application and grading marathon is winding down, and I’ve been remiss in posting recently–so here are some of the upcoming events that will be on my radar in the Spring.

Call for Papers and/or Abstracts

Minding Animals – Utrecht, 4-6 July 2012. Abstracts open until Jan. 15. I’ll probably be traveling with family in Spain during this conference, but it looks interesting, especially to the critically minded animal studies folks (as in, it’s sponsored in part by the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, and as such is less welfarist in scope than, well, me.)

-Also due Jan 15 are abstracts for general-audience-ish papers on Planet of the Apes and philosophy. Cool…if only our separation-anxiety beagle would let me and my wife out to see movies in the theater, I wouldn’t have to wait for Netflix on this one.

-Partially coterminous with the Minding Animals conference is a conference at the Central European University on the scope of distributive justice. Abstracts due Jan. 30.

Other Conferences

-NYU is having a Conference on the Moral Brain from Mar. 30-Apr. 1. that looks super-interesting. Registration is free but full; I’m on the waitlist, and am kicking myself for not signing up when I first heard about it.

-The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s “The Nonhuman Turn in the 21st Century” looks broad-ranging and fascinating, and it will be running from May 3-5. Technically the call for abstracts is still open until Monday, but I don’t have enough expertise in any of the mentioned topics to submit anything. I’d love to go, if I can swing it, though.

[edit] This upcoming University of Tennessee symposium, “Animals, Ethics, and Law” also looks really good. I’d be especially interested in hearing Clare Palmer’s talk on the scope of our ethical obligations to wild animals. Hopefully I can make the longish trip down there after class on March 2-3.

And now for something completely different: “I hate balls”. Lots of fascinating gender politics going on here. Huh. . .And this PBS video, “My Life as a Turkey”, is pretty great. Enjoy.

Oh, and this is Rodney, who we adopted as a retired research dog – he’s got the tat, neuroses, and sweetness to prove it.

Epic Meal Time: the personal and the political

 I’m reluctant to post this, for a number of reasons: first, I don’t want to give them money or traffic; second, I don’t want to be “unpardonably lacking in humor“; third, the gendering going on here is so in your face that it’s farcical; and fourth, bacon fetishism really bothers me. But I can’t help it: one of my students posted this last class, and I’ve been mulling on it.

One of my first thoughts was that this would be a good exercise for implementing Walzer’s communitarian complex egalitarianism: just as money shouldn’t be able to buy unlimited political power, nor should one have license to waste so much for so little reason (whatever your friendly industry shills over at CCF might tell you). Another thought: this is among the strongest arguments I’ve seen that we need an ethic of care, and that our gender stereotypes are killing us (and, literally, killing others) with structural violence.

But many of my students didn’t see it this way–it was “just fun”, in a way that issues concerning, say, universal suffrage or child labor wouldn’t be (pace Gingrich). Or maybe food is different? Or maybe the norms I’m discussing are in cascade, and haven’t yet been internalized.

I don’t know, but I did almost hurl when watching this in class.

Dungeons and Animals

(Bear with me for a bit–this is about to get real nerdy.) This is a Thri-Kreen. They’re an insectoid race of sentient nonhumans from Dungeons & Dragons’ Dark Sun world. When I wasn’t playing a Mul psionicist, I liked to play Thri-Kreen warriors. Forget for a moment that I mostly like Thri-Kreens because they had double the usual number of hits per turn (notice the number of limbs), so I could game the system by souping up my character’s strength and fighting unarmed. Forget also that most of my friends who played D&D, Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf with me when we were growing up in high school have not subsequently engaged in any major way with animal studies. And bracket the question of how furries tie in to the question I’m about to ask–I don’t want to go there.

I suspect there’s a whole world of serious policy wonks out there who grew up playing D&D and other RPGs (here’s one, and here’s someone who’s probably transitioning between the two domains), but my question is this: does engaging with nonhuman sentient life broaden the horizons of our moral community in a way that works to deconstruct human exceptionalism and its corresponding anthropocentrism?

I can see various ways to answer this, depending on the person, so I’ll start with the person I know best: myself. I tell myself I’ve arrived at animal studies after a long and rigorous philosophical journey through an undergraduate monster of a thesis on Kant and the concept of progress, a subsequent affinity for anti-speciesist utilitarian consequentialism, and a realization that nonhuman animal interests were too often dismissed by otherwise caring, rational, and reasonable academics. But the fact is that I might care so much about animals because I was raised with dogs and rats, and I loved them. A third possibility is that my lifelong love of imaginative and speculative fiction has primed my empathy receptors in ever-broader ways. And the fourth possibility, which I hadn’t previously put into specific terms, is that RPGS in various forms–whether around the table with character sheets or on the computer)–can perform many of the same functions.

A possible counterfactual here is that I don’t actually have much of a gut sympathy for insect sentience, although I’m open to see more research. (And Mage was actually my favorite of the games we played, mostly for its open-endedness; there was a sense in which the boundaries of the potential was bounded only by imagination, creativity, and wit.) But like Ta-Nehisi Coates, I remember browsing various Monstrous Manuals, with an endless fascination for the diversity of sentient life. I just wonder how many gamers exclude all (actually existing) terrestrial nonhumans from the domain of the sentient…because they shouldn’t.


The human, the subhuman, the nonhuman

This piece  by Art Spiegelman in the NYRB (which features both of these images) is a handy locus for the discussion of symbolic representations of the human and nonhuman. As Berger and others have described, since modernity we’ve increasingly lived without animals, so we find ways to reintegrate them as family and as spectacle. But the result can often be quite curious. The ‘cheezburger empire’ actually says quite a lot about modernity, alienation, and the longing for meaningful relationships between species, but I’d like to focus here on the role of human-nonhuman animal comparisons and what they say about the state of humanism and its discontents.

The most obvious recent incident here would be PETA’s suing SeaWorld for the constitutional protection of Orcas’ 13th Amendment rights. There’s an interesting institutional backstory here–I think some of PETA’s tactics have to do with keeping the Tilikum incident in the public memory, and capitalizing on that crisis–but many would respond with a kneejerk anthropocentrism. (And this controversy goes back to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison and beyond…) But the symbolism in question hinges on how human persons perceive nonhuman persons.

As the images above attest, symbolic representation can serve multiple purposes–in both cases, the human is being depicted as a less-than-human, inferior animal. This narrative works only when the dominant discourse is unflinchingly anthropocentric, as it arguably still is; this is one domain where the potential for speculative fiction to shift our discourse is ripe. I’ve been reading a lot of specfic recently–I’m currently on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which baldly anthropocentric, masculinist, even realist, but is otherwise a fun jaunt–and I think the works of people like China Mièville and Ursula le Guin can do a lot to reconceptualize our vision of what constitutes the human. Whether humanity 2.0 becomes transhuman, posthuman, or something else is another question.