The Inhumanities

Facing the Other Animal: Levinas (or, pin the face on the donkey)

with 15 comments

Calarco opens the chapter on Levinas, “Facing the Other Animal,” with the practical question, “What today remains of Levinas’s thought for animal ethics?” (55). The question is broad but it strikes me as the proper frame for the engagement: reading Levinas’s ethics and measuring their usefulness for CAS without an a priori commitment to reduce either Levinas or animal ethics to the other. Such a commitment to read Levinas as he sees himself 1) is the kind of gesture that his ethics would ask of us and 2) might open new ways to construe what is going on when we assert the ethical value of animals. After all, Levinas is “unabashedly and dogmatically anthropocentric” (55); his ethical narrative is not in any way designed to accommodate non-humans. But for precisely this reason it might tell us more about them, or more about how we overlook or exclude them, than less determined ethics.

“What, then, of the first claim that Levinas makes, that animals are incapable of a genuine ethical response to the Other? In order for a given animal to be capable of responding to an Other, an animal would, according to Levinas’s account, have to be able to overcome or suspend its basic biological drives” (56).

Calarco is more than fair to the claim that animals are slaves to their instincts, as well as the alternate “selfish gene” account in which organisms are determined by their genetic information’s goal of replication. These both strike me as fruitless inquiries, and Calarco’s rebuttal (among so many others, from so many fields) should help put them to rest. Even if we agree that living beings exist, under one form of analysis, to replicate their genes, this tells us nothing of the subjective experience of any animal. Least of all can this contribute to ethics. For the purposes of this chapter, it is enough to show that one cannot maintain that some animals are automata and others (humans) aren’t. A significant corollary of debunking the automaton myth is that when animals appear to be acting ethically we cannot chalk it up to “instinct.” Since for Levinas an ethical relationship depends on both the symmetry (capacity for ethical action, the concept of the gift) and the asymmetry (the unknown response, the gift itself) between persons (a symmetrical asymmetry, we might say), it is important to establish that animals can also be ethical actors.

With the ethicality of the animal at least in question, discussion turns to the oft-cited and powerful passage on Bobby, a dog who visited the camp where Levinas was a prisoner of war. Calarco quotes at length (57-8) and it is worth the read; you can find it online through Google Books. Calarco adds a few points to Levinas’s understanding of Bobby. 1) Bobby gives something to the prisoners in the form of his recognition of them. 2) Bobby does so at a cost and/or risk to securing his own bare subsistence; “Bobby’s life is also at stake in the camp” (58). Again, this cannot be attributed to instinct without putting the whole project of ethics in doubt.

Furthermore, this raises the question for us of when empirical or contextual information is relevant. Calarco’s alternate reading of Bobby and of the ethical standing of animals takes empirical knowledge of animals and situation to be germane to the question—this is what differentiates the example of Bobby from the attentions of a mere “pet.” To understand what Bobby means here we have to pay attention to the facts of the case. For Levinas, on the other hand, what matters is not empirical. Bobby’s status is not decided by being in the camp or not being in the camp, by his visitations to the prisoners, by his affective reciprocity with them, by being the only life that sees the prisoners as human, or by any other portion of his story except his status as nonhuman. Because Bobby is a nonhuman animal all further considerations are void. I do not think Levinas would quibble with this characterization of his method; his is an avowedly religious and transcendental version of the Human.

Rather, this is one of the stumbling blocks in current debates within animal studies and with other disciplines (Calarco addresses this from roughly 71 onward, in the tension and overlap of animal and environmental ethics). If we look outside of our sometimes provincial arguments, I think we can locate an aporia of animal studies. Strictly speaking, one can persist in a Berkeley-esque (the philosopher, not the city/university in California) anthropocentrism without acknowledging that nonhumans make claims on the definition of the world. (Larval Subject had some great posts not long ago about memes replicating in the same vein. Anthropocentrism is such an immunologized meme).  This banal blindspot is the order of the day concerning animal suffering and animal capabilities.  I see two responses, both of which are at work in Calarco’s text. The first is the seductiveness of the world itself. It is simply more interesting outside of the neo-Berkeley bubble; a fuller accounting of what is going on in the case of Bobby, and in other encounters between myself and nonhuman actors, seems much richer. The second is the deconstructive ethics that begins to a large extent with Levinas: this aporia is what makes our action toward animals ethical. If we could calculate with certainty we would be back in the domain of is rather than ought, to put it simply.

Levinas, however, takes a different route, arguing not for seduction but for interruption as the moment in which ethical standing takes root. I quote from Calarco at length because this is a crucial process and one which provides rich soil for discussion:

“[In Totality and Infinity] he is concerned to make the point that the ethical relation presupposes an absolute (and not just a relative) difference between the Same and the Other. Levinas argues that in order for an absolute difference to exist between me and the Other, there must be some aspect of both me and the Other that resists being integrated within a single purview.…. My encounter with the Other interrupts all of this [my untroubled possession of all that is mine]—and in a fundamental manner…my projects are derailed; my house becomes a hostel; and my possessions are transformed into gifts. (65)

The question is: who or what can effect this interruption of the Same by the Other? Calarco makes what I think is the best counter argument to Levinas’s anthropocentrism. The Other is (according to Levinas) a non-empirical, non-biological, non-anthropological being; hence it is not a priori human, though Levinas intends for it to coincide only and always with humans. Arguably, nonhumans can therefore occupy the place of the Other, and it would be a further consideration whether they can fulfill the role of the Other in Levinas’s narrative of etho-genesis (is there an official word for the origin of ethical standing?). But before moving on to the criteria for interruption, which comes down to the Face, I want to dwell somewhat on the opposition of Same and Other and offer what I think is a less convincing and less coherent proposal than Calarco’s but one that might lead on to further speculation and cross-fertilization with other projects.

The Same has two paradoxical aspects: what is internal to my ego and what my ego has mastery over. The world at large is part of the Same because objects do not resist me; they might be hard for me to use, but they do not have their own projects. Animals, then, are or can be part of the Same. They are instruments in the world that offer particular challenges and pleasures, like motor vehicles or books. Because of this they can also take up residency within my ego, not in a way that I have to attend to them (like a guest) but as furniture which always has its purpose either in regard to the enjoyment of the ego or as gift, hospitality, etc. for the Other. It is difficult for me not to see this as opening the Heideggerian problematic of the being of tools, and in the radical way of the speculative realists, or opening a psychoanalytic problem of an unconquerable and different life inside the Same, a life which cannot be extinguished precisely because it cannot be acknowledged as really living. As part of the Same, animals have to be considered as if the quirks in their behavior are just a problem of sufficient modeling, an engineering question. Even if such a method can exclude any “surprises” from being observed, it does so by what is quite simply repression and so inscribes the indeterminacy of the animal deeper within the subject. The kinds of inanimate objects Levinas cites to demonstrate the nonresistance of the thing—cigarette lighters, eyeglasses (68)—are precisely those objects where the unheimlich can surface because they are taken for granted in a foreshortened ontology (the eyeglasses are a telling example: what Der Sandmann takes are the eyes). In short, placing animals within the Same does not solve Levinas’s problem. It creates complicated, systemic problems. Affirming the possibility of an animal Other requires a minor emendation and keeps the broad structure intact.

So if we take the simpler path and say that when Levinas says “Other” he should mean alterity in general rather than “other human,” there is the final question of whether actual animals have what it takes to effect an interruption of the Same. Do animals have Faces? In the case of dogs, Levinas’s answer is a tentative “yes”—perhaps thinking of Bobby, Calarco notes—but in the case of a snake he is agnostic. What is the difference? One answer might be the psychoanalytic proposal above: dogs (one dog in particular) have a hold in Levinas’s personal life that is not reducible to the logic of his ethics; snakes on the other hand are not even a part of his Same. In light of this, Calarco advocates a general ethical agnosticism that will be very much like what Derrida expounds concerning the non-predetermination of the arrivant (stay tuned for more on that). Any project that sets out to establish inside and outside of the ethical club will fail and fail especially as ethics. Ethical consideration is a moving horizon, and this is precisely why it is demanding of us. It is, precisely, a demand on us.

I have a few questions left that I did not work into the body of my summary/commentary. The Face is, to me, an incredibly interesting problematic. First, is Face really attached to ethical reciprocity, as Levinas argues it must be in the ethical relation between two humans? I feel like I can imagine these existing separately and, if so, are there not secretly a couple different ethical permutations? Proper Humans have Face and are ethically reciprocating. Could we say “pets” in the somewhat degraded sense have Face but not reciprocity? In this sense the visual rhetoric of animal neotony, “Disneyification,” connects with a larger philosophical construct. The divine would be reciprocity without Face, just for the sake of symmetry. The Musselmanner would have neither face nor reciprocity, but only a posteriori, and so is linked to Pets, reduced to mere Face by the failure to practice communicating with them. (If anyone wants to be amazed by the communicative capacities of animals, check out Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task. She is not only brilliant as philosopher and stylist, but a genius animal trainer in a way that few of us can even hope to be.)

A related question, to turn back to the beginning of this essay, is whether we want to keep Face alive as a criterion at all. I understand that in the final, essentially deconstructive ethics of the singular Other little depends on the Face as criterion, and neither Calarco’s reading nor animal/environmental politics stand or fall with it. The request for hospitality displaces faciality. But it certainly seems likely that our opinion of Levinas takes a heavy hit if we delete this element. If we extend the concept of Face to insects, plants, systems—does it even make sense to use the anatomical metaphor anymore? Or put another way: is it really the face, and not the touch, warmth, cry or whimper, or smell or sublimity that makes the claim on us? Part of Calarco’s agnosticism extends to these expanded criteria: we should be awaiting also the momentary determinations of what counts as Face or Other or reciprocity and so on. In addition, he pre-empts criticism of CAS as a boutique or anti-human ethics by arguing that it is, like what Nietzsche finds beautiful in the human, the bridge to the future that is available today. The Holocaust as historical context for Levinas is contrasted with the factory farm/Big Science of ethics today, and like Levinas we must look beyond the dismal horizon. But if we are willing to stretch these categories to their imaginable limits—what today remains, in the animal account, of Levinas’s thinking?

Written by Greg Pollock

September 16, 2009 at 11:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

15 Responses

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  1. This chapter struck me as incredibly well-written, well-argued, and lucid in its presentation of Levinas, the critique of Levinas, and what can be taken from Levinas with regard to animals.

    I had a number of thoughts while reading this chapter, though I don’t know how many of them would be fruitful for a conversation about the book itself. In the spirit of intellectual friendship and sharing I’ll just throw some of them out there and let the other participants decide what is interesting and what is not.

    1) It seems that by decentering the human in the face we’re able to practice an ethics amongst and between non-human animals and human animals that is not anthropomorphic, but instead locates something common to both anthropomorphic and zoapomorphic images of thought. I like this because, in my view and seen very clearly in philosophy of nature/environmental philosophy, we can become overly paranoid and neurotic about avoiding anthropomorphism to the extent that we obscure the human, and, paradoxically, in doing so allow the human to still be that remainder or miracle within the rest of immanent reality.

    2) I would have liked to see a discussion of D&G’s criticism of “faciality” from A Thousand Plateaus. This is a bit of a cheap comment without my going in to it further, and I am not really offering it up as a criticism since it would have been more academic posturing than moving the argument forward if it wasn’t given the same attention the rest of the chapter was. However, that said, doesn’t D&G do here what Calarco aims to do? That is, free the face from the tyranny of the human face? Furthermore, it does so in a way that locates that multiplicity of faces in materiality, rather than some invisible or transcendent “humanness” like we find in more phenomenological thinkers (Levinas of course, but also Henry and perhaps Derrida). If nothing else, it seems like this chapter offers support to Calarco’s argument here.

    3) I wonder if we can go back further than Levinas to find an ethical biocentrism rooted in a kind of undogmatic materialism. I’m thinking of Henri Bergson whose reading of ethics out of Darwinian thought is far more faithful to a kind of elevated naturalism while at the same time presenting an ethical vision of the word to be done. In this way you have to read Creative Evolution together with The Two Sources of Morality and Religion as if they formed two volumes of one project. Of course Bergson does fall victim at times to a kind of celebration of the human, but it is not central to his thought in the least and lacks the same intentional positioning of the centrality of the human.

    4) This chapter again brought up the question about ethical demands of animals. If Calarco is correct that animals place an ethical demand upon us as reciprocal ethical creatures then it would follow that we also make ethical demands on animals. There is already some hints at this throughout the chapter, the altruistic action of Bobby for one, but what we are lacking is a rigorous theory of how that works. It may be that we are really lacking a rigorous theory of how that works between human animals too, so this isn’t a criticism of CAS but rather pointing towards a line of inquiry we may all want to follow in future work (if many of you aren’t already following it).

    Again, I really enjoyed this chapter. It sort of captured everything I hate about Levinas and made me reconsider him at the same time. I think one would have to think of the disfiguring of the face, as in Pan’s Labyrinth when the maid makes the face of the fascist captain monstrous, with the disfiguring of the experimental scientist by the ape being experimented upon. Both are an instance of struggle, which seems to me a species of poverty in the properly Negrian sense.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    September 17, 2009 at 1:32 pm

  2. Anthony, on point 4, what do you think about construing “ethical demands of animals” as another ethical moment for us: making ourselves available to responsiveness? I am thinking of the chapter in Adam’s Task “Learning to Say Fetch” in which effective language-building between dog and trainer creates the condition for each partner to make requests of the other. These requests allow each to be hospitable to the other; the dog has the choice between entertaining the request or refusing it (although “choice” isn’t really the right word, as the whole point of dog training is to make a virtuous dog whose disposition enjoys the satisfaction of the request. By Aristotelian standards such dogs are far more successful in the ethical project than most humans.) Animals’ ethical capabilities cannot appear unless we learn how to make ourselves “hostage” to them. Ethical “agency” on the part of animals requires first ethical “passivity”–I like “passion” better–on the part of humans. I mean this all with an open question mark, not as the answer to your question.

    petbull

    September 17, 2009 at 4:34 pm

  3. Thanks Greg for that post. I have a lot of questions about this chapter. They will be written to Matt Calarco, but anyone feel free to jump in.

    It seems to me that your concept of agnostic ethics is the most original concept in the whole book. Indeed, the book can be read as both an ethical creation of this concept and a political and ontological defense of that concept. I don’t know if that is how you see your own book. However, at the same time I feel this is the most important concept in Zoographies, Levinas is the philosopher I feel the least knowledgeable about and this concept is the one I am most hesitant about. That is sort of a preamble to the questions.

    (1) I would like to second APS’s question about D&G’s critique of faciality. Not only do we find the problem of the face in D&G, but also in the writings of Subcomandante Marcos and Gloria Anzaldúa (though the articulation of the problem and the solutions offered differ with each of those named). One possibility that there might not be the tension here I imagine comes from Derrida’s frequent reminder that for Levinas, we must see the face of the other to the degree we don’t even know the color of the eyes of the other. That is to say, I can foresee that for Levinas the face may not be a face, as such. But I really don’t know.

    (2) I am also curious if ethical agnosticism allows any sort of normative ground? Does it allow for me to tell someone else, You should be a vegan? I can understand the need to keep oneself open to any ethical call, but what do we do about those who do not hear the call of the other? What about those, like Michael Pollan in his The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that claims we need to see the face of other animals, but doesn’t believe that the face needs to stop him from killing the other?

    (3) What do we do with those whose belief that eating means we have to kill either plants or animals, means that killing an animal is the same sort of action as killing a plant? Is there ever a danger in ethical agnosticism that one could expand an ethical awareness to a degree that allows violence to be done towards other beings that you would feel uncomfortable with? There is the animal/vegetable question from above, but also the fetus question. It is clear that a belief that fetuses are ethical beings have allowed many people to bring all sorts of violences (some less obvious than others) to women. To try and rephrase my question, is it is possible that ethical inclusion can be as devastating as ethical exclusion? (And I honestly cannot figure out a way to ask this question that doesn’t make me sound like a fascist to my own ears).

    Scu

    September 19, 2009 at 4:01 pm

  4. “Calarco is more than fair to the claim that animals are slaves to their instincts”

    Kvond: One wonders where and how the notion of an ethical instinct became categorically foreclosed.

    kvond

    September 19, 2009 at 7:26 pm

  5. Kvond, it is odd, to say the least. Frans de Waal does a pretty good job in his tanner lecture showing the genealogy of how people came to believe that altruism is never natural. http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/volume25/deWaal_2005.pdf

    Scu

    September 19, 2009 at 11:17 pm

  6. It looks interesting, but he seems to focus on the 1800s. It surely is much older than that. Hobbes’ “man is a wolf to man” he notes is at least an early version, as well likely the conception of human passions and Descartes’ division between substances (and animal automata).

    I find interesting in the phrase “a slave to instincts” a distinctly political, anthropomorphic projection onto the animal world. Perhaps a theory of “animal freedom” is the most radical kind of theory that there can be.

    kvond

    September 19, 2009 at 11:27 pm

  7. Kvond, it seems to me to derive from the distinction between “is” and “ought” in general. All over the place you see philosophers talking about the compulsions of physicality (as in physics) versus the free exercise of the will or the creative faculty or imagination. [as a side note, the SR point that such fictional characters also produce differences strikes me as a great way to side step either the Romantic genius fantasy or the historicist reduction to influence]. Aristotle, like animal trainers, wonderfully speaks of the ethoi/dispositions of animals to courage, honesty or dishonesty, magnanimity, etc–all the habits that constitute virtue or its lack. Animals, like humans, can practice the habits of goodness. This does not amount to the overcoming from zoe to bios. I would say instead that these systems operate in parallel across the aporetic difference between ethics and politics. Animals are “ethical” but not “political.” The basic operation of biopolitics, however, is to erase the ethical for the sake of the biopolitical (to invert one of Levinas’s dicta). I would definitely agree when you write of “a distinctly political, anthropomorphic projection onto the animal world.”

    I can’t recall off hand if the “slaves to instinct” line is mine or Calarco’s, so if it distorts the views of others it is my fault and not his.

    petbull

    September 19, 2009 at 11:59 pm

  8. Yes, Hume’s Is/Ought and its correlated “Fork” is a very good place to look for grounding. This is something that Wittgenstein makes much hay with.

    I wrote on the problems of such a distinction and Fork:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/category/hume/

    And much more at length in four parts, if interested:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/05/28/the-trick-of-dogs-etiologic-affection-and-triangulation-part-i-of-iv/

    Can there there ever be a “habit of truth”. Or, are not all habits of such?

    kvond

    September 20, 2009 at 12:04 am

  9. Kvond, there is a significant difference between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries that you are overlooking: the rapid development of natural history in the mid-eighteenth culminating in modern biology in the last half of the nineteenth. “Passions” and “instincts” do not have the same reference. The seventeenth century philosophers mostly believed that the passions could be limited, controlled or obliterated by rationality. This is not what the concept of instinct claims.

    Further, homo homini lupus does not operate as a theoretical concept in Hobbes. It is, at best, a metaphor–which he immediately sets beside home homini deus. Not only is man a wolf to man, but he is also a god to man. Given the lack of actual wolves in England when Hobbes was writing and his atheism, we must take his words, from the Preface to De Cive, with a bit of salt.

    Craig McFarlane

    September 20, 2009 at 11:20 am

  10. Craig: “The seventeenth century philosophers mostly believed that the passions could be limited, controlled or obliterated by rationality. This is not what the concept of instinct claims.”

    Kvond: I didn’t realize that there is a universal “concept of instinct”. Quite the contrary. And regularly instictual actions is contrasted with reasoned action which seeks to “limit” instinctual action. Emotionally charged action pretty much as the very same, inbetween status, now as it did then. This is the case in terms of Freud wherein the “drive” and the “libido” is conflated, and though no one is a Freudian now, we still think and reason about largely in Freudian terms.

    Craig: “Further, homo homini lupus does not operate as a theoretical concept in Hobbes. It is, at best, a metaphor–which he immediately sets beside home homini deus.”

    Kvond: True enough, but the individual atomism of Hobbes is more than a metaphor, it is a fantasmic projection of what “natural states” were. What Hobbes effaces (and what Spinoza restores taking up his homo homini deus) is that antagnonism is alredy a social state of interpersonal bonds. Antagonisms bind together those that are opposed (and for the political reasons that Hobbes issues). The very act of antagonism is a social, intersubjective projection. So while it is not a “theoretical concept” it is the very framework of psychology which misunderstands what the “social” is made of.

    Obviously though Hobbes spent very little time studying wolves, or even wolves and men. This is no small thing.

    kvond

    September 20, 2009 at 4:27 pm

  11. I guess I should have expressed myself more succinctly on Hobbes, his thought experiment “bellum omnium contra omnes” is conceptual, sociological and ideological nonsense, and his metaphorical appeal to the wolf, as animal, is an expression of this nonsense.

    kvond

    September 20, 2009 at 5:31 pm

  12. For petbull: Thanks for another phenomenal summary. That you are all reading the book with such care and are offering such generous responses and questions here means a great deal to me.

    Out of the things that you focus on in your summary, I think you explain well what I take to be the two more important issues in the chapter: (1) Levinas’s discourse on animals as being “merely” instinctual beings who/that persist in their Being; (2) the notions of the Other and the face.

    With regard to the first point, you nail the main issue really well. If Levinas and others want to dismiss what appears to be ethical behavior on the side of animals as being merely instinctual, then he runs the risk of the same reduction on the side of the human. And vice versa. The entire idea of making ethics unnatural, or super-natural, or somehow cleanly and clearly beyond instincts and biology strikes me as one of the most serious dogmas in all of his work. It is obvious why he makes that move, but that doesn’t make the gesture any less problematic. By the way, I’m entirely comfortable with saying that ethics is fully natural and fully biological. I don’t believe ethics requires extra-biological freedom or agency.

    Concerning the second point on the face and the Other, you also nail that issue well and pose some good questions. Briefly, my aim was to show that the logic of Levinas’s texts forces him to acknowledge that it is illegitimate to determine in advance who the Other might be and what might constitute a face. Of course, Levinas the person is not always as rigorous as the logic contained in his work, and he often tries to tell us that the human is coextensive with the Other and that the face only comes to presence in and among human Others. His gestures in that direction are fundamentally unpersuasive.

    For APS: This leads into APS’s remarks on the face and faciality in D&G. As I mentioned in my comments on the previous chapter, Deleuze looms large in the background of all of the chapters. And I certainly had his work on faciality in mind as I was writing this chapter. The reason I didn’t bring D&G’s discourse on faciality explicitly into the foreground here is because, quite frankly, I’m stubborn. I wanted to show that all of the moves I made could be done using nothing but Levinas’s work itself, a work that is on one level more anthropocentric than almost any other thinker one could imagine, and on the other is developing a logic that entirely undercuts that anthropocentrism. So, call it a stubborn persistence on my part. I simply wanted to make his work explode from the inside out. Levinas is always read so easily and so quickly by both his supporters and critics, and I wanted to demonstrate that the logic of his work is supremely explosive, and that it has the power to shatter not only his own personal prejudices but also those that plague much of modern Continental philosophy.

    For Scu on the same issue: I’m deeply influenced by Anzaldua and Marcos (those two in particular, more than I could say here; and other artists, authors, poets who invoke the thematics of the face and expressive vulnerability have influenced my work too), and their work is functioning in the background. I bring some of this other work into the foreground in stuff I’m writing now, but just not in the book. So, I’m glad you sensed similar possibilities. I’ll be exploring them in more depth soon.

    Back to APS: As for other, older grounds for biocentrism (you mention Bergson along these lines) . . . oh, absolutely! Since you know environmental ethics discourse well, it’s clear that nearly all of the various non-anthropocentric approaches to environmental ethics (to name the big ones I have in mind: Taylor’s biocentrism; Leopold and Callicott’s ecocentrism, ecofeminsim in several authors, deep ecology in several authors, etc.) invoke sources that go back a long way, in many cases long before the origins of Western philosophy. Some of these authors even invoke texts and traditions from indigenous cultures and other cultures that Eurocentric Continental philosophers would never deign to discuss or, if they did, they’d likely denigrate them (to stick with the man of the moment, Levinas’s history of denigrating other cultures is well known). I am firmly on the side of those who find sources for biocentrism all over the place, even when I can’t accept all of the moves these authors make, and even when I can’t accept the label “biocentrism” as my own (and I can’t, not unless bios is understood so broadly as to include death and so-called inanimate objects).

    For Scu: This comment is already getting overly long, so let me jump right to the ethical agnosticism questions you brought up and then I’ll close this out.

    You ask whether ethical agnosticism allows for any sort of normative ground. I would argue that the discussion of ethical agnosticism is located one step back behind normativity as the term is normally used (existing ethical theories and practices). We have an entire set of ethical discourses and practices already in place, all of which are seeking answers to normative questions. What we don’t have is a widespread discussion about moral status, moral consideration—that is, of who or what counts ethically speaking. The discussion of agnosticism is located there in that gap. It is parasitic on existing ethical discourses and practices, and it functions to displace their founding assumptions about who/what counts.

    You also ask whether ethical agnosticism would allow one to make a distinction between different kinds of actions (killing animals vs. killing plants) and whether inclusion might actually lead to other kinds of exclusions. In other words how does agnosticism fit in with ethical judgment? This is terribly difficult terrain to discuss quickly, but let me give it a shot.

    Let me first say that I was probably being a bit too coy in this chapter. If one arrives at the end of the chapter and sits with the idea of ethical agnosticism for a bit, I think that it becomes immediately clear that morality (judgments, distinctions between what counts and what doesn’t, etc.) is in trouble. Big trouble . . . as in, it can’t possibly survive if it takes the question of moral consideration seriously. I didn’t say these things explicitly in the texts because these are the kinds of points that can’t be made through argument and are best arrived at by other means. I would suggest that they have to be seen and performed by the reader (much like Wittgenstein’s request: “don’t think but look”). I took the reader on that path and hope that the reader will see these things in her or his own way.

    But, since I’ve headed down the more explicit theoretical path, I’ll continue. In a nutshell, if one no longer seeks to determine with finality what does and doesn’t count, then the “language game” of morality as we understand it and practice it is *over*. Morality will from that angle be seen as irreducibly arbitrary and reactive; and any efforts to salvage morality by determining with firmness and finality who/what counts, and who/what counts more than some other who/what . . . these efforts will be seen for what they are: sad passions. They are the gestures of those who want to limit rather than expand responsibility and responsivity, limit rather than expand relation, limit rather than expand the joys and fears of being touched by and touching others of various sorts in ways that one might not even be able to envisage at present, etc.

    In other words, by the time you reach the end of the chapter and sit with the notion of ethical agnosticism for a moment, you see the following conclusion: Levinasian logic has walked itself right onto terrain once thought to be the exclusive province of Nietzsche and Deleuze. Agnosticism really entails leaving morality behind in the name of living wholly on a plane of immanence, where desires for judgment, rank, inclusion and exclusion evaporate.

    And animal studies, which presses so hard on the question of the moral considerability of animals, has walked itself right onto terrain once thought to be the exclusive province of environmental ethics. So, does that mean animal studies is in big trouble, too? You can see the conundrum we’ve walked ourselves into here. ;-) I won’t be coy on this point, though. For the record, I hope to explode and ultimately annihilate animal studies, too. But just as with the explosion of Levinas, this is animal studies’ own fault.

    Matthew Calarco

    September 20, 2009 at 5:55 pm

  13. I think Matt’s passage from animal ethics-> environmental ethics sketches a response to those who would undercut animal ethics by reference to plants or whatever. We have to acknowledge that animal ethics can be ruptured in this way; the question would be whether the interlocutor intends her disruption in good or bad faith. If the point is to say that animals as ethical others is as absurd as corn as an ethical other(s), there is no weight behind it. “No, I don’t like the way corn is treated. What do you think about Monsanto copyrighting the genetic information of GMOs?” If it is meant in good faith, well, animal studies is compromised, but for the better. Those who would exploit agnosticism usually aren’t ready for a serious conversation.

    EDIT: The task that this lays on us in is understanding the specific claims other objects might put on us. Otherwise we do look pretty foolish confronted with the plant or mineral example. I think this takes two forms: empirical or scientific knowledge gleaned by observation (like that some trees need forest fires to reproduce, or that some grains are adapted to coexisting with giant mammalian herds trampling them into the ground) and ontological awareness of other objects as no less that ourselves in terms of objecthood.

    petbull

    September 20, 2009 at 10:08 pm

  14. […] of critical animal studies from the perspective of speculative realism. The first post up – on Levinas, the Other, and animals – has set the stage for what promises to be a lively, rich discussion, centered around the […]

  15. Allow to first say, as this is my first post, that I think that this website and forum is wonderful and I appreciate the invitation to participate. And, likewise, that I have a long been a fan of Matt’s text so it is a particular pleasure that his text was chosen.

    I would like to share just a couple of comments on the points already raised concerning animal, plants, Levinas, suffering, and the face. I find the usually explaination, provide by Singer and others, to justify the moral distinction between plants and animals, that of the question of “pain” remarkably unconvincing and ultimately problematic. We can see this most clearly with the current obsession with “happy meat” and the manner in which an articulation purely on pain still does not provide an adequate basis for establishing, understanding, or relating to animals inherent personhood. “happy cows” may, or may not, experiment little to no physical suffering but they are clearly not view as persons by (most) humans. So what is essential for my own conceptualization of cas is not only issues of suffering, in a vacuum, but also issues of person and our ability to recognize our shared personhood in the other.

    And it is precisely here on this question of recognizing personhood that I find Levinas so uniquely helpful, indeed revolutionary. For what is so significant for me in the story of Bobby is not that Levinas is, or is not, able to recognize personhood in Bobby. What is revolutionary about this passage is the claim that Levinas makes that Bobby recognizes the personhood of Levinas, indeed, he is the only one to recognize the personhood of all the Jews so inprisoned . And, of course, it precisely because of this moment when the animal recognized the personhood of the de-humaninzed human that gives this passage for me its deep ontology meaning.

    And it is this point which I believe represents Donna Haraway positive contribution in what I think we can all agree are her problematic texts “When Species Meet” and “The Companion Species Manifesto” Because it seems to me that she is attempting to draw out a need to give importance to the manner in which the not only do humans need to reconginze the personhood of animals but also that animals possess the ability to recognize the personhood of humans in a directional process. Now, of course, that she in turns justifies meat eating via this very relationship process is inexplicable (but of course the same hold true for Levinas himself). In both cases there seems to be the idea that domestic pets, such as dogs, are “people” and as people can give the personhood of other animals, while other animals are not. There are obvious connections here with Matt own project of attempting to formulate an ethics which choses not to draw lines of moral distinction (animals in, plants somehow out) but this is certainly long enough for my first post and perhaps we can enter into those conversations at a later time.

    Vasile Stanescu

    September 21, 2009 at 7:26 pm


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