Category Archives: the human animal

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 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.”

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.

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!




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.


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.

“Animal lovers” and the limits of (speciesist) empathy

[Picture, from boingboing, mostly unrelated…but for some reason it reminded me of this post.] I was talking to someone recently about what kinds of students my animal studies class draws, and I noticed that they had framed “animal lovers” as a distinct (and clearly preferable) category against “animal rights activists”. In light of David Brooks’ new column on the limits of empathy, this got me to thinking about ‘who counts’ and the impact of structural violence on nonhuman animals.

Broadly, the animal lovers/activists split could be said to correspond to the welfarist/abolitionist divide, but I think the comparison can only take us so far. I feel that ‘animal lovers’ implies supererogation, while ‘animal rights activists’ take the ethical debate into the uncomfortable terrain of basic rather than optional obligations. (This minefield is probably why many people I know call themselves ‘animal advocates’ instead…) And I think Brooks’ op-ed misses the point when it comes to nonhuman animals: empathy can help us move beyond a frame where animal interests are merely supererogatory goods.

Regarding empathy, we seem to be at a curious historical moment. On the one hand, academics are aflutter with empathy-related efforts (although Pinker’s vision, unlike Rifkin’s, has a heavy dollop of Hobbesian contractarianism). On the other hand, Tea Party America verges on the embrace of cruelty, not empathy (but hopefully debate outcries–regarding capital punishment, health care, and DADT–are the exception, not the norm).

The core of Brooks’ argument here is that focusing on empathy gets us “feeling good without doing good”. As far as this argument goes, it’s a reasonable one. But the argument for extending protections beyond the domain of the anomalous and universally egregious (which, arguably, is all the dominant anti-cruelty ethic protects against) is predicated upon our ability to empathize with other living, sentient beings.

But the argument that “empathy is a sideshow”–and that we should focus instead on moral codes–runs too great a risk of defining nonhumans out of the policy cycle at the definition stage. Yes, animal advocates are often particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, over-reliance on empathy could muddle the rigor of animal ethicists’ arguments a la Dennett. But we need to guard against the dangers of an exclusivist and speciesist empathy that lock the doors behind the species wall, as some supererogatory ‘animal lovers’ arguably do.

A rose by any other name

There have been lots of interesting pieces recently on humanism, morality, and the more-than-human world. My first response to Joel Marks’ supposed rejection of morality is to side with Andrew Sullivan, who has been covering a lot of relevant issues recently. My second was to realize that these issues are bound up with our discussions of secular humanism and its discontents. I agree that something like ‘secular humanism 2.0’ would be an improvement over the current anthropocentric and self-defeating myopia, and I don’t think we need to agree on the primacy of one moral vocabulary to get there.

To briefly recap Joel Mark’s “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” from last week’s NYT Stone piece: Marks transitions from being a deontologist  who fought for the inherent rights on (especially) food animals to a pragmatic/utilitarian person who, less sure of the external moral validity of their core deontological beliefs, “now focus[es] on conveying information” about the conditions on industrial animal ag facilities. I don’t always agree with Coyne, but in this case I do: this looks to me like a distinction without a difference. But that’s also because I’ve come to terms with the fact that most of us exist along a multidimensional plane balancing the poles of the above chart. The best we can do, in my view, is to maintain equilibrium — if it has shown us anything, history teaches us that single-moral-foundation graspings at utopia always tend towards dystopia instead.

As for humanism and its discount tent, well, that’s a big one. As I noted a few posts ago, the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes film is acting like a confirmation bias-y Rorshach test. To take two examples: this post from Salon argues that the human-nonhuman divide remains very large, while Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s responses to the film (as recorded in this episode of On Point) mistakes CGI ape intelligence for the considerably less dazzling real thing. My position is somewhere  between these poles, but I’m making the connection here just to point out that our position on the role of homo sapiens in a “post-Darwin” world is very likely to dictate, or at least inform, our morals–or our ethics, if you’d rather call them that.

Obligatory Planet of the Apes post

I just taught a class on biotechnology and animals, and am now being pummeled by a flurry of Planet of the Apes-related posts. As usual, such posts are a Rorshach-like template for the blogger’s political leanings, so I figured I may as well do the same. I haven’t seen the movie, and, thanks to our separation-anxiety doggie, probably won’t until it’s on Netflix, but I do have some thoughts, and I’ll channel them through this interesting piece on “Creating Non-Human People” from Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog. The trope of “super-intelligent, violent, most likely malicious animals taking over the world” is Hollywood Summer entertainment, but the interesting issues here actually concern the ethics of enhancement, personhood, and species integrity.

A lot of one’s views of biotechnology will be influenced by your views on science and whether you think the critique of ‘playing God’ is a useful one. (I don’t, for various reasons, but mostly because we’ve been playing God in the dark for 10,000 years, and the double helix let us turn the lights on. One’s view on this issue will also color a range of related issues–hence, for example, environmentalism’s uneasy relationship with science.)

That said, I think there are a lot of good reasons to proceed with a lot of caution. The ethics of animal cloning, and genetic manipulation more generally, raise a number of significant welfare concerns. The irony is that the lay bioethical position has turned a blind eye to all manner of grotesque nonhuman animal genetic manipulation, but anything resembling human chimerism is verboten. In other words, the ethical problem of creating cognitively ‘enhanced’ nonhuman animals is that they would then be more likely to qualify for personhood, and, as such, increased moral protection. Ironic because, as Rollin notes, this kind of Cartesianism is its own undoing–if it’s wrong to test on species that are sufficiently ‘like us’, but the reason we do the testing in the first place is because they’re like us.

Tax all the things?

Or ban all the things. You get the picture. Seriously, though, I’m on the fence about the long-term policy effectiveness of restrictive measures as a means of approaching various iterations of food justice. It makes me feel like an equivocating schlub, a sophist even, but I really think both sides have some good arguments here. On the one hand, Bittman is right that the food industry isn’t going to market healthy food on their own. But his proposed solution of giving with one hand (subsidies for veg) and taking away with the other (taxes for sodas) seems iffy to me. On the other, I’m not convinced by Vegansaurus’ response; it’s disingenuous verging on naive to underplay the myriad obstacles at-risk demographics face when trying to eat healthily, so color me a nanny stater: I do believe that the government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from the food advertising run rampant in the private sector, at least by providing complementary information.

But the glib acceptance of confiscating fat kids goes to far in this direction–even though I actually agree with the recommendations of the study in question, such radical interference in the parent-child relationship should never be taken lightly. On the question of regulatory policy more broadly, however, the ag industry seems woefully ill-equipped to regulate themselves for food safety, let alone such ‘negative externalities’ as animal welfare…whatever their pr departments may claim. On the other end of the spectrum–the option of using carrots rather than sticks–Matt Ridley’s proposed ‘healthy living credits’ deserve consideration, but would need some serious parsing, on many levels.

Parsing rights and captivity: the problem with dignity and autonomy

(This video is only tangentially related to my post – but Tyson’s cautionary tale about nonhuman animal communication informs most of the following discussion on autonomy and dignity.)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I seem to be approaching animal studies from a different angle than most of the (largely abolitionist) animal-related blogs I follow. It’s probably mostly because I’m a stubborn contrarian who runs like hell from anything resembling groupthink. But I’m also a pragmatist who is loath to apply rights claims willy-nilly without thinking about implementation; a secularist who is skeptical of the idea that rights claims, whether human or nonhuman, are ever inherent rather than instrumental; a reformed Kantian who thinks, with some caveats, that Enlightenment reason has been unfairly pummeled by critical theory, but that ‘humanism’ is perniciously anthropocentric; and a Rawls-leaning semi-egalitarian who is reluctant to throw the capitalist baby out with the bathwater of inequality.

All of which is to say: the language of domination and liberation is not my preferred vocabulary, and nor is the language of inherent rights. So This essay by Anat Biletzki from the NYT Opinionator’s the Stone column (Boghossian’s “The Maze of Moral Relativism” has also been getting a lot of attention) caught my eye. A previous post, by Lori Gruen on the ethics of captivity, from the National Humanities Center’s ‘On the Human’ project, is also worth a read. I’d like to address an issue raised indirectly by Biletzky and directly by Gruen–the centrality of one’s view of ‘dignity’ and autonomy as it relates to rights claims for both human and nonhuman animals.

I haven’t done much research on the ‘dignity and rights’ subfield, but my impression is that dignity, when used in the human context, is too often a catch-all term that rapidly becomes void of specific meaning. I guess this is the consequentialist in me coming out, but I think it’s more useful to refer to the specific harms caused to an individual when its dignity is violated, and, where no such harms can be tallied, to look at what we’re really talking about when we talk about dignity (to re-paraphrase Raymond Carver). In some cases, I can see the point of dignity-speak (to take Gruen’s example: the assaults on dignity suffered by humans who have been incarcerated can be tallied using other language, but some of the less tangible psychological harms may be difficult to quantify), but it too often degrades into things like defending the dignity of a collection of cells in an embryo, which, to be blunt, makes very little sense to me. Bernie Rollin’s view on telos, which is closer to Nussbaum’s virtue ethical capabilities approach referenced by Gruen, strikes me as a better approach.

On autonomy, Gruen rightly points out that the term means different things to a neo-Kantian contractarian and to those who, like Gruen, adopt a broader definition that encompasses various forms of preference satsifaction. (This also gets us into Dennett/Frey/Cohen territory, all of whom deny, to various degrees and on various grounds, that it’s really “like” anything to be a bat–to use Nagel’s famous case–but I’m not going there right now). She also distinguishes between autonomy’s instrumental and inherent values:

Freedom or liberty is sometimes thought to entail acting autonomously and making our own choices and being in a condition in which there is an absence of arbitrary interference. Depriving someone of her freedom is also thought to be one of the things that can make a life go badly for that individual. There are two ways that denying individuals their liberty may negatively impact the quality of their lives. If we understand liberty to be an instrumental value then respecting an individual’s liberty is important because it is conducive to other things that are valuable, like pleasure and well-being. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, following the desires one wants to satisfy, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are all freedoms that are important, because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better by allowing that individual to satisfy her desires. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated cannot act freely upon their desires and live their lives as they want. But liberty can also be thought of as an intrinsic value, a value that in itself, regardless of anything else, is constitutive of living a good life.

Setting aside for a moment my view that what we call inherent values can just as easily be formulated as meta-instrumental values using a rule utilitarian metric, I think this paragraph both captures the nuance of Gruen’s piece (after all, all she’s arguing is that “Denying [captives] the freedom to exercise their autonomy by keeping them under captive control is…ethically problematic.” This seems to me unarguable.) and what I perceive to be one of its key shortcomings.

In the case of nonhuman animal captivity, the distinction between quality-of-life and autonomy is often very different from the same distinction in the case of human captivity. (Again, how one views this distinction will depend on one’s view concerning the scope of autonomy.) (One of) the reason(s) autonomy is perceived as inherently valuable in human society is precisely because it forms the backbone of the system of rights and property from which so many of our institutions emanate. In the case of, say, a farm animal, I think there’s a reasonably strong argument to be made, following Rollin on telos, that the animal in question has a different set of relevant parameters in determining its quality of life. A broiler chicken would not thrive in the forests of its genetic ancestors. Again, Gruen acknowledges this distinction when she says that we have to live with the structural legacy of nonhuman animal captivity–hence my guardianship of our research veteran beagle, Rodney…

Autophagy and alienation

Justin E.H. Smith has a good new post on the advertising history of animals eating themselves. There’s even a whole blog dedicated to this macabre-fest: Suicide Food. So where does alienation enter in? I broached the topic of in vitro meat to my students last week, and while we were parsing the pros (health, environment, animal pain) and cons (feasibility, disgust), one of the bigger shortcomings seemed to be that such a food production transition would be yet another step in our alienation from the forces of production (in this case: the food we eat). Either way, the phenomenon of food offering itself up for our consumption is all kinds of messed up. ‘Yuck factor’ indeed.

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

This interview with UChicago’s Robert Pippin got me to thinking about the effects of seeing the world through oppression-tinted lenses, especially after rereading (for class) Jeff McMahan’s recent piece (from which the image above is lifted) on the desirability of mass predator eradication. Setting aside the fascinating discussions on Hegel, art, and modernity, I want to narrow in on how Marx famously ‘turned Hegel on his head’, and the effects of viewing the world through zero-sum oppressionscopes. Viewed in such a light, various complex symbioses can immediately be reduced to hierarchical power differentials of oppressors and oppressed. But is this accurate, and would ‘liberation’ lead to a better world? I’m going to have to equivocate: sometimes symbiosis is indeed mere parasitism, but sometimes it’s commensalism and sometimes it’s mutualism. We want to shoot for mutualism. (Duh.)

(Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University, and although my major–the ‘dead white men’ College of Letters–set me on its own course, the PCU-ness of many of my classes left an undeniable mark. Personally, I loved being able to study a core of ‘great books’ while being challenged by a range of broadly ‘left’ disciplines in my coursework. While my gripe at the time was more with what I perceived as the nihilist tendencies of postmodernism (we’ve since come to terms, albeit cautiously), the idea that hierarchy and inequality were categorically unjust seemed an unquestioned axiom of many of my peers.)

I’ll start by saying that some forms of human-animal relations are, indeed, pretty overtly zero-sum in this respect. Battery cage egg production comes to mind, as this blog post rejecting incrementalism points out, but this is as much because of the economics of “commodity” production in an age of economic globalization as because of anything inherently wrong with animal husbandry. (There’s a whole literature rejecting ‘humane livestock’ and what Francione terms ‘new welfarism’, and others neocarnism, that would reject animal agriculture as inherent parasitical. I don’t want to get in to that argument right now, other than to say that I think it’s logically coherent–indeed, with the exception of some nutritionally vulnerable groups, we’re not obligate omnivores–but ignorant of “the way the world actually is”. In other words, yes, I’m an incrementalist.)

Maybe it’s because I’m a Rortyan pragmatist who cringes when I hear single-premise constructs about ethics and policy (hence the contradictory ‘myopic clarity’ schtick). Especially in the case of food politics, I don’t see the other 98% of the world agreeing with the vegan ethic’s principle of harm avoidance overriding all of our other distinct moral premises anytime soon.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m cynical in the sense that nobody, not even the most dedicated vegan, is truly “cruelty-free”, especially those of us urbanites who live under what Marx accurately termed alienation from the means of production. This even follows from the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids: in order for us to live, other living matter must die. This is true for any organism that is not an autotroph…so until we start figuring out how to photosynthesize or chemosynthesize, we have to remove energy from the world to live. So yes, we should all endeavor to eat and live lower down on the resource/food web. But these kinds of ethical concerns are distinct from harm/care/suffering, and they need to be balanced against each other.

And I don’t say this as a cheap rhetorical tactic (to merely prop up counterarguments as if they somehow changed the reality in question: see the Dawkins elevatorgate (just Google it) for a primer on how not to say “your issue is unimportant because other important issues exist.” Which often descends into the caricature: “Why care about animals? Kids are starving in Africa!”)

I guess all I’m saying is that I think we live in a tragically configured moral universe (as Sandel said of Isaiah Berlin’s views), and while I’m not a conservative, I have a lot of respect for the Burkean idea that social engineering projects don’t take you where you think you want to go (cue the ecological nightmare that would be mass predator eradication). Then again, if I see compelling evidence that we can restructure the global food system–or global predator-prey interactions–to bring about a broadly sustainable vegan future, I’m down. I mean, if the Vulcans do it…But large-scale veganic agriculture without massive synthetic fertilizer use (and resultant dead zones) and backbreaking stoop labor is not on the near-term horizon. (This also gets us into a whole other debate: the Vandana Shiva small-scale future versus the Economist techno-sustainable large-scale future. Again, I don’t want to go there right now.)

That said, I think the rich world needs to start eating about 90% less meat and dairy, and I think serious policy efforts need to be made to keep the rapidly developing world–especially China–from following in our dietary footsteps. But things aren’t looking good. But just looking at all animal husbandry as equally illegitimate is to paint with a comically wide brush. But I guess that’s why I’m a welfarist. (It’s also because I don’t believe that rights–whether human or animal–are anything other than a(n enormously useful) social construct)…but that’s a topic for another post.)

It’s a stretch to say that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, but, sadly, Yeats was on to something.

An empathic and nonzero civilization. . .but for whom?

This video by Cambridge’s Simon Baron-Cohen does a good job introducing the relation between empathy, pathology, and social trust (and see here for a good RSA Animate on Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization). Baron-Cohen’s done a lot of interesting work on empathy and the male/female brain and empathy and autism/asberger’s, and on measuring empathy. I was immediately struck, however, by the way he chose to define empathy: “the drive to identify (cognitive) and appropriately respond to (affective) another person’s feelings.” Further into the talk, some of the research he draws on implies that “persons” and “objects” are the only relevant categories under discussion. I guess this is what makes me an ‘animal rights activist’ (as Wikipedia’s definition of empathy puts it), because I think the natural extention of Baron-Cohen’s argument–that answers to questions about empathy have right and wrong answers, and one of the jobs of psychology is to figure out how to get more people to answer ‘correctly’–is far more radical than even he may acknowledge.

What distinguishes empathy from sympathy, compassion, and pity? This is a difficult question to answer concretely, but links like this have me thinking that the reason empathy might be so commonly perceived as ‘person-oriented’ rather than ‘sentient-or-semi-sentient-being-oriented’ is because of the distinction that empathy, unlike the other words, involves literally feeling the other’s mental state (this is where the much-hyped ‘mirror neurons’ come in). It could follow, I suppose, that this requires a certain level of similarity with the other’s mental state, such that this would work best with other members of our species. Keeping in mind that this might be a semantic quibble, I don’t buy this argument. I could as much “feel” my dog’s pain when he slipped a vertebra last year as I could my wife’s when she tore her ACL.

To return to the radical implications of a high-empathy society: I strongly believe that such a society would treat nonhuman animals in a fundamentally different way than we do today, and that such a shift would entail a range of social, political, and economic reforms with far-research consequences. While it’s easy to speak of expanding the domain of the nonzero (as against zero-sum)–and I’m all for this kind of policy…indeed, only a fool or an IR realist would be against it!–but introducing nonhuman animals into the moral calculus with anything less than a high discount rate will change the game in a basic way. And it should, because the level of structural violence that exists against nonhumans animals in the world today is only ignored because of a conditioned moral blindness that would wither in the face of an empathic civilization.

So how to go about this? There are many possible routes, but I think one of the strongest when it comes to empathizing with nonhuman animals is the priming of our moral sensibilities through art (sometimes called the sympathetic or aesthetic education) is marvelously fecund, as Nussbaum and others have argued. Others argue that fostering nonzero relationships tends to result in increased empathy, and this makes sense too, as long as the in-group/out-group distinction doesn’t stop at the species line. A range of other options exist, of course, all the way from the work in studying pathology by psychologists like Baron-Cohen to essentially sociobiological proposals that we engineer aggression out of our gene pool. The bioethics of the latter are troubling, obviously, but they do reflect a trend towards revived sociobiology in the guise of neuroscience. This takes many forms, though, and each needs to be addressed on its own merits.

If nothing else, Baron-Cohen’s research goes a long way in explaining why I was the only male in my Animals and Public Policy class. This needs to change, but it seems the change can only go so far if he is right about the ‘male brain’.

Symbolism redux and posthumanism(s)

“Why does Hollywood make animals act like humans? As The Atlantic’s James Parker has pointed out, the answers lie in philosophy. The French film critic André Bazin wrote of our relationship to onscreen animals as an “ontological otherness”—a connection with an outside world that reminds us of ourselves—or what’s also been called the “human gaze” by animal ethicist Randy Malamud. We’ve become accustomed to seeing “animals doing silly things for the audience’s amusement—things they don’t usually do, and have no reason to do,” Malamud argues. When we see Free Willy’s whale flip through the sky, it’s not for his entertainment so much as ours. The same is true of a cute YouTube video of a hamster eating broccoli or a LOLcat pleading for a cheeseburger, an amusingly discomfiting image. It’s also funny to see Zookeeper’s animals talking on a cell phone—or, at least, it’s supposed to be.” (from this article, on Zookeeper, Project Nim, and animal symbolism)

John Berger pointed out in “Why Look At Animals” that the pervasiveness of nonhuman animal symbolism inversely correlates to the presence of actual nonhuman animals in our lives. I haven’t seen Zookeeper, and, given the controversy surrounding the treatment of its captive animals and the mediocre-at-best Kevin James, I don’t really plan to. (Project Nim, on the other hand, I look forward to.) But this caustic article posted on Minding the Campus (a generally conservative counterpoint to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm — or at least that’s how I parse it) got me to thinking.

Mary Grabar’s “Literature Professors Discover Animals” ranges from Foucault to the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS) to Steve Best to posthumanism (as against transhumanism – see this post at IEET for the distinction). The audience, apparently, is supposed to know why such studies are “ominous”, because she never explains her position. She is also lumping together two related but distinct things–posthumanism and critical animal studies–about which I have two different opinions.

As this muddled and contested Wikipedia page indicates, the term posthumanism (like the field of animal studies) means different things to different people. I’m ambivalent about the term, but I still can’t accept the bald anthropocentrism of humanism, much of which I otherwise agree with.

Critical animal studies, on the other hand, tends to specifically embrace the post-Marx continental philosophy in which all of reality can be viewed as a hierarchical power struggle of otherness, alterity, exploitation, and domination. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but I’ve been to both CAS conferences and to the HSUS’ TAFA, and the two are very different in scope and sensibility. One is broadly welfarist, the other abolitionist. At this stage in the social movement for animals, I think we need both movements, just as we need both PETA and the ASPCA, ADI and IFAW. The two are, indeed, distinct, sometimes even mutually hostile (which is unfortunate, but not surprising).

My reaction to Grabar’s piece, then, is threefold: 1) she lumps a range of different material under the same header, leading the reader to assume that all academic work in animal studies is Foucauldian, etc.; 2) she presumes her argument to be so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning (why, exactly, is this an ‘ominous’ development, and what’s so great about the existing Judeo-Xian ethic?), which it isn’t, and it does; and 3) the result is that this ends up resembling an ‘ivory tower hit job’ in which posthumanism becomes anti-human, which it needn’t be, and where animal studies becomes, falsely, nothing more than CAS.

Animalism and philosophy

(Images source) The recent piece “The animal you are” by UCL philosophy prof. Paul Snowdon was most striking to me for what it left out; for a piece on animality, there sure was a lot of focus on one particular animal. None of the arguments for or against “animalism” (the idea that the human animal is the same thing as the person, or self) even began to engage with nonhuman animal cognition, let alone the people calling for nonhuman animal person for great apes and/or cetaceans.

Setting aside whether ‘person’ is the right word for chimps and dolphins, who clearly have at least some level of self-consciousness and use of reason (these are the criteria listed by Locke and repeated by Snowdon), I think any discussion of mind/body dualism has to seriously engage with the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman animal minds (the Sapolsky video in my first blog post is a good example of this). Snowdon writes that “if we are prepared to allow there might be entities which merit being described as persons who are not human – say God, or angels, or Martians, or robots, – then animalism should not rule them out.” It’s disturbing to me that hypothetical and probably fictional characters are presented to play the role of potential nonhuman persons, when actual, existing animals aren’t even granted a mention in passing. (I’m reminded here of the common line in popular bioethics where human genetic chimeras are abomination–but hey, do whatever the heck you want with other animals–or of the fetishization so common in Japan and elsewhere of robot intelligence and of drafting declarations of the rights of robots, with the irony of cetacean slaughter of existing sentient life continuing unchecked.)

I enjoyed reading this piece, and my comments here aren’t getting into the merits of any of the substantive questions raised, but still: for a piece called ‘the animal you are’, I was expecting more animals. I need to learn more philosophy of mind, if only to unmask some anthropocentric shibboleths.

Food and the paradox of choice


As most of my students have probably figured out by now, I love the RSA Animate series (and the RSA lectures more generally – this recent talk on ethics and public policy by Jonathan Wolff is a good overview of the importance of nuance, and how almost nobody is 100% in favor of any given position), And it makes sense that I would like them: they’re deliciously tangential and chock full of seemingly disparate facts. The most recent one (above), Renata Salecl’s talk on “choice”, is a good springboard to revisit food choices.

I didn’t know who Salecl was, so I Wikipedia’d her, and am entirely un-shocked to learn that she’s Zizek’s ex-wife. And, as an aside, I’m also wondering when post-Marxixts will stop referring to “late capitalism”. . . it’s been late for over a century now, so I’m not sure if historical materialism is going to show up for dinner.

It’s not coincidental that many of the anxiety-inducing choices portrayed in the video are food choices (setting aside, for now, the happily anthropomorphic cow), and this plays into the larger point: that the capitalist system of production emphasizes a cultural model in which choice (a la Friedman’s Free to Choose) reigns supreme. The result, though, is that we get lost in a sea of choice. Salecl goes to far as to say that “the ideology of is actually not…optimistic and it prevents social change.” On the face of it, this seems counterintuitive, but it plays into a rich literature on the role of media and political alienation in the modern world (panem et circenses for the 21st century). Hence the paradox: more choice equals less control.

So what does this have to do with food choices? Lots. Lewis Lapham’s recent piece does a characteristically lucid job of tracing the rise of the new food culture. He doesn’t phrase it in these terms, but much of the battle lines between ‘hands off my burger’ libertarians and the more ‘hands on’ left-liberal and (broadly) environmentalist approach is captured by this response to a WSJ piece on the AMA’s call for competitive eaters to put down their dogs. “They also say that the resources could be better served feeding the hungry. Does anyone have a problem with NASCAR as they burn up thousands of gallons of fossil fuels every weekend? What a bunch of dolts.” Yes, “BIG Eater”, I do have a problem with that.