The Inhumanities

Calarco’s Zoographies: Introduction

with 19 comments

Hopefully those of you planning on reading along have managed to get a copy of the book. If not, this post is just devoted to the relatively short introduction by Calarco, so you should have time to still get the book and catch up easily.

Kant famously contends in his Logic that “philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense of the word” can be summed up in four questions: “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is a human being?” This final question, the question of the human, will be the domain that Kant claims all four questions can be answered. There are those of us resistant to Kant, and to his humanism. Calarcro’s book, with its philosophical ear finely tuned not toward the question of the human but toward the question of the animal, helps advance such an intellectual resistance.

Calarco’s book is written for two audiences. On the one hand, it is written from the field of continental philosophy to those in the field of animal studies who feel they need stronger philosophical (ethically, politically, and ontologically) arguments. In this way, Zoographies seeks to contest the calculative logics of Peter Singer’s utilitarianism and the metaphysics of the subject in Tom Regan’s rights-based Kantianism. On the other hand, and just as importantly, this is a book written from the field of animal studies to those in the field of continental philosophy. In this way, Zoographies is a work of immanent critique (though that phrase is never used). The question of the animal becomes almost a methodology, a way by which a thinker’s project is tested against the pitfalls of anthropocentrism. Calarco gives us a Heidegger beyond Heidegger, a Levinas beyond Levinas, an Agamben beyond Agamben, even a Derrida beyond Derrida.

Despite a clear attempt to write to both of those audiences, Zoographies is heavily weighted toward the later category. In so doing, Calarco extends the two major insights of animal studies that he identifies to the work of the major thinkers that are the focus of the book. The first insight is a critique of the essentialism of ‘animality.’ In many ways this critique resembles similar critiques advances on issues of gender, sex, race, etc. This critiques the ability completely demarcate what is the animal, and insists on the radical heterogeneity of all animal beings. If one insight of animal studies has been to insist on difference and anti-essentialism, the other complimentary insight of animal studies has been to insist on the commonalities. These commonalities problematize any static species borders, and this certainly includes the species border that draws a line between the human and the animal.

The refusal of the human/animal distinction, and all the anthropocentric baggage that goes along with it, has profound implications for questions of subjectivity and political projects of universalism. Calarco remains sympathetic to those theorists that believe the need to overcome or go past the subject has gone too far. Some notion of subjectivity is necessary for a radical ethics or politics. However, such a notion of subjectivity remains in the grip of a metaphysical anthropocentrism even if it escape a metaphysical humanism (I admit that the distinction between these two terms remains hazy for me). This becomes clearest in political philosophers who propose a radical universal project, like Zizek and Badiou, but whose notion of universality ends at the human (I would like to take this moment to refer to John Mullarkey’s excellent critique of Badiou’s anthropocentrism in Mullarkey’s Post-continental Philosophy for readers who would like to explore this point in more depth). Such an arbitrary distinction to end the project of emancipation at the borders of the human undercuts the radical force of such universalist philosophers (a point that will be developed more in the chapter on Agamben).

Comments for us to explore more on:
Calarco’s project to eradicate anthropocentrism in ethics and politics is explicitly seen as working in conjunction with Graham Harman’s and Ray Brassier’s attempts to rid ontology of anthropocentrism.  Considering the number of speculative realists that follow this blog (hopefully including Harman, if he is not too busy), we will be able to explore this conjunction in more detail. I also wanted to end on this note of universality because everywhere I turn my head recently I notice the increasingly fragmentary nature of both those in the animal emancipation movement and the relationship of the animal movement to other emancipation movements. I am not sure how I feel about universalist projects, even those devoid of anthropocentrism, but I increasingly feel the need to overcome such a fragmented movement, a movement that truly eats itself (bringing to mind Derrida’s claim that vegetarianism and veganism requires a deconstruction as well, a topic that Calarco has written about elsewhere). Hopefully, in our reading of Zoographies, we can explore not just the insights of animal studies for philosophy, but also how the philosophical project in Zoographies might inform those of us, scholars and activists, who have been taken by the question of the animal.

Next week, Craig on chapter I, “Metaphysical Anthropocentrism: Heidegger.”


Written by Scu

September 1, 2009 at 2:12 am

19 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the clear and succinct overview of the introduction. My own first introduction to speculative realism was in the first footnote to the chapter where Calarco cites Brassier’s and Harman’s projects as important to his own. Unfortunately, Calarco did not develop this point beyond this gesture. It is certainly my hope that Calarco, in his response, or Harman might take up this point: what does speculative realism contribute to the project? Is an anti-anthropocentric ontology sufficient or does this ontology need further development to take the “question of the animal” seriously?

    One point that I hope comes up in our discussions is the meaning of “critical” in the phrase “critical animal studies.” Given that much critical theory (for instance, Axel Honneth’s work, which remains the clearest expression of contemporary critical theory) is humanist and anthropocentric, what is it exactly that we mean by “critical”? If “critical” means “being vegan” or somesuch, then it would appear that our ethics or politics drives our ontology, which is a position (as I understand it) that speculative realism rejects out of hand.

    (I also hope that by making this first comment, others will feel invited to contribute now that the silence is broken.)


    September 1, 2009 at 11:37 pm

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I have my suspicions about the ability of SR or OOPs to provide an ontological basis for the ethics and politics of animal scholars and activists. Such a fear was partially validated in a recent post by Levi that said something to the effect that OOPs does not mean a rejection of humanism. Indeed, it could be an affirmation of (a type of) humanism. To be slightly more clear, the destructive aspects of OOPs and SR, with their thoughtful and often brilliant critiques of anthropocentric ontology puts them in a weird alliance with us (or us in a weird alliance with them, not sure). And I, for one, can certainly say that fire burns cotton and human animals alike. But I don’t believe that there remains any obvious ethical or political response to the fact that fire burns both humans and cotton. However, I know that many in the SR camp are poised to turn their thoughts towards the ethical and the political, and I think we will know more about such alliances then.

    Of course, that gets partially to my major difference with people like Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, I cannot imagine how to do ontology separated from ethics and politics. They all seem bound up together for me, operating at once, though with perhaps different facets highlighted at different times. I cannot fathom first philosophy.

    As far as what does the term ‘critical’ mean, I certainly have no good (read: rigorous) answer. I think it is interesting that Calarco seems to prefer the simple animal studies to the more grandiose form of critical animal studies. When I decided to start calling what I did critical animal studies (and I made this decision before seeing that lots of other people had come to this conclusion as well) it was a way to dealing with a rhetorical moment. People would ask what I did, and if I didn’t say “philosophy” I would say animal studies or I study the animals. To which they would start asking me questions of zoology, ethology, biology, etc. Many of those questions I can now answer. But primarily I don’t study those fields, and when I do, I do so as a philosopher (not as a biologist). So, I simply added critical to the front of animal and studies to the end of animal. This is certainly the prevailing trope in the academy (as I know you know). For me it has simply meant work that engages the question of the animal with tools from what is sometimes called theory (no more helpful a term). In this sense, critical seems to have little to do with either critical theory (though Adorno and Horkheimer remain some of the strongest thinkers of the question of the animal), or critique in the Kantian sense of the term. Just a silly academic expression.

    And yes, I agree, I hope the silence is broken, as well!


    September 2, 2009 at 12:28 am

  3. I’m still waiting for my copy of the book, though hopefully I will have it within a couple of weeks.

    I just want to highlight a few things I hope to get out of this reading in the hope it will answer a few questions for me. One thing that interests me about (critical) animal studies is how we get past an anthropocentric outlook, especially when we get to issues of Being in the Heideggerian perspective. This next question follows from the first: if the hurdle of anthropocentrism is to be taken seriously and not just passed of as a form of oppression, how then can we face the ethical issue without resorting to Kantian moral imperatives? The third question I have is more of a side question, though much in line with Scu’s last comment as to how we or SR/OOPS people are able to separate their ethics from their politics from their ontology? It’s all very perplexing to me. (Please take these question with the all the sincerity and naïveté of an undergraduate)

    Having read Scu’s opening post, it seems I wont be disappointed with Calarco’s text



    September 2, 2009 at 6:18 am

  4. Nathan, always glad to have your participation. Hopefully your first two questions will be (partially) answered by chapters one and two, respectively. Hopefully you will push if the answers are not made.

    As to the third question, well, not really my place to answer.


    September 3, 2009 at 12:45 am

  5. I just received my copy of the book today in the mail and read the introduction this morning. I am looking forward to the rest of the book, but so far I’m seeing very familiar themes. One thing I’d like to see addressed, and I recognize this isn’t fair to expect of a book with different aims, is to see how we’re supposed to think about what we call animals and humans differently from under the aspect of nature itself. What I mean is, while it seems wrong to take the Regan approach and sneak in anthropomorphism through the back door of the subject (hot), what can we do about the violence present between two non-human species? I recognize that there is something puerile and even possibly sentimental about this question, but I think it is an interesting thought experiment. In so far as I have the same emotional anger when I see a fat English lad shooting an urban fox (Meet the Foxes was well depressing) that I have when I see a lion run down a gazelle or when my own cat tries to go after a bird, how am I to take that felling? As irrational? As anthropomorphic? Does my cat experience an ethical injunction that is at all amenable to the ethics of the face?

    Anthony Paul Smith

    September 3, 2009 at 4:20 pm

  6. […] Deep « The Gonzales Opera Book discussion time September 4, 2009 At The Inhumanities […]

  7. Thanks for opening up this discussion. I’m responding not to the discussion prompts, but to this aside:

    This becomes clearest in political philosophers who propose a radical universal project, like Zizek and Badiou, but whose notion of universality ends at the human

    The same might be said of Judith Butler, although she’s beginning to fix her persistent humanism in Frames of War. And absolutely yes on Zizek, who repeats the Lacanian line (animals lack the lack) on animals in Plague of Fantasies and Parallax View, and even in Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. Here, even though he briefly considers industrial slaughter (53), he still says “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak? As Hegel was already well aware, there is something violent in the very symbolism of the thing, which equals its mortification. This violence operates at multiple levels. Language simplifies the designated thing, reducing it to a single feature” (61).

    Now, like Lévinas, Zizek can be rescued from his humanism, and not only because our relationship to our own ‘humanity’ is structured as a misrecognition (we see ourselves in the mirror, so to speak, as ‘not animal), and not only because, thinking through Zizek, we can deny ourselves the consolation and nostalgia of ‘Nature’ as being a site of harmony or stability or something ‘for us’ (even as it involves us). But furthermore, following Derrida’s assault on Lacan’s facile opposition between reaction and response, we can also muddle Zizek’s distinction between speech and representation more generally to suggest that all perception, because of the constitutive limitations of any given umwelt, “simplifies the designated thing.” Animals are no more innocent of the violence of representation than humans are.

    Incidentally, for the ‘minimal violence’ and ‘minimal (anthropocentric) narcissism)’ required for any ethics, see the last chapter of L. Lawlor, This is Not Sufficient.

    Does my cat experience an ethical injunction that is at all amenable to the ethics of the face?
    Absolutely. See, for example, Lisa Guenther, “Le flair animal: Levinas and the Possibility of Animal Friendship.”

    Karl Steel

    September 5, 2009 at 12:24 pm

  8. Does my cat experience an ethical injunction that is at all amenable to the ethics of the face?
    Sorry for the double-post, but I just realized I misread your question: you’re wondering whether the cat could be ‘held hostage’ ethically to a squirrel (for example). Great question, and one that I’ll have to sit on for a while.

    Karl Steel

    September 5, 2009 at 12:38 pm

  9. APS: When I first started reading your response I was thinking your question had to do with distinguishing animal studies from environmental studies, a hobbyhorse of mine. But it quickly became clear you have a different question.
    And I don’t have a good answer for it. Maybe someone else here, does. You are right this isn’t something that is explored in the book at hand.

    Karl Steel: As to Judith Butler, I am currently trying to work on an article on this very question. I think she believes her work is clearly open to the question of the animal, and I think she would find such a reading as a friendly reading. Though I don’t think she spends a lot of time working it out, herself. Over at my personal blog, I have a few posts up on her work (one of which is daily spammed by an Asian porn website. Which I daily have to delete).

    At to Zizek and Badiou, they have never particularly moved me, as thinkers (Zizek considers industrial slaughter in his Violence, though? Can you give me some page numbers?). But that is a personal thing. There are all sorts of thinkers that have never clicked. I would be interested in someone trying to create a Zizek beyond Zizek, in terms of what his work would look like devoid of anthropocentrism. I have always imagined that Zizek would embrace anthropocentrism. Not least because of that famous video clip of him calling vegetarians degenerates.


    September 7, 2009 at 1:38 pm

  10. Scu,

    Probably not in the course of this particular event (and apologies for going off topic so early on), but at some point I’d like to hear from you on how you understand the difference between animal studies and environmental studies. It seems to me that those in environmental ethics tend to submerge the animal question within the wider question of ecosystem health. So, in the case of ecosystem restoration (which I wrote my MA thesis on), there isn’t really much thought given to how to deal with the animals that are considered invasive or those animals that may die in after a prairie burn. Yet, human intervention is necessary in these ecosystems if they are to retain a high level of biodiversity and ecosystem health. It’s a complex issue that I haven’t felt to have been answered very well by either side.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    September 8, 2009 at 9:27 am

  11. Scu,

    For more on Judith Butler and animals, see Chloë Taylor, “The Precarious Lives of Animals: Butler, Coetzee, and Animal Ethics” Philosophy Today (2008) 52: 60-72. In my book project (‘How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages’), I’ve argued, via Butler, that anthropophagy narratives mark humans as ‘grievable lives’ by excluding other carnivorousness from memorial consideration.

    On Zizek and industrial slaughter, it’s only 1 page, 53. I haven’t seen the video clip of him calling vegetarians degenerates, although I imagine it’s of a piece w/ his insults against decaffeinated coffee. That is, I imagine he’s not talking about vegetarianism proper but about certain kinds of fantasies of a neoliberal dreams about a state w/out violence.

    Karl Steel

    September 8, 2009 at 10:21 am

  12. Is the summary for chapter 1 still coming?

    Anthony Paul Smith

    September 8, 2009 at 5:31 pm

  13. Yes, I’m just running late on account of unrelated matters.


    September 8, 2009 at 5:59 pm

  14. Hi folks,
    Sorry for being out of the loop here, i’ve just stumbled across your site and you are discussing a topic that am quite interested in. So before we get too far in, and hopefully this isn’t an impolite or exasperating question, but in order to understand where people’s opinions are coming from i was wondering what everyone’s backgrounds are? Not only academically, but specifically in respect to practical experience with other species? For example, i was raised on a mixed farm (dairy cattle, chickens, etc.), used to be a professional horse trainer (world champion quarter horses), had numerous pets growing up (or the more politically correct companions: dogs, cat, rabbits, chameleons, turtles), and was accepted and attended veterinary college but dropped out strictly for moral reasons, not wanting to experiment or dissect the very beings i wanted to help or save (a very unfortunate and not uncommon situation for the morally-sensitive aspiring veterinarian to find themselves in). My academic career ended there, so the philosophy I am familiar with is thanks to my own readings of Heidegger, Levinas, Henry, Derrida, Nishida, etc.
    If i am out of line here, just let me know and i apologize in advance, but to me this information seems important in such a discussion.
    Thanks and i look forward to your future posts and comments.


    September 9, 2009 at 4:54 pm

  15. ps. i forgot to mention that i am vegetarian as well.


    September 9, 2009 at 5:00 pm

  16. Thanks everyone for their fine questions and feedback.

    I thought I would respond chapter by chapter, otherwise my response might get unwieldy in terms of length.

    1. Scu, thanks for the lovely and generous summary of the introduction. I especially like the way you characterize my reading of each thinker as seeking to take their own thought beyond where they leave it concerning animals. It will be clear in the subsequent chapters that I am not entirely (not even close!) with any of the thinkers engage with, but I seek to find openings in their work where I can take the logic of their thought beyond the limits of their published work.
    2. In terms of the humanism/anthropocentrism distinction, I try to suggest throughout the book that the critique of humanism (and I use the term to mean what Heidegger means by humanism, viz, the metaphysics of the human subject that dominates Western philosophy) *should* but often fails to open up onto the larger question of anthropocentrism (a term that I use in various ways, but the common usage is close enough to get us started). In brief, I try to suggest that the critique of humanism that is common to so many post-Heideggerian and post-Nietzschean thinkers should be seen as undercutting not just standard notions associated with human subjectivity (consciousness, agency, etc.) but also the very notion of the human as such. The critique of humanism entails, in a certain sense, a critique of anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism has lost many of its main foundational supports due to the critique of humanism. I’ll say more on that in the later chapters.
    3. For SCU, Craig, and Nathan on SR/OOO: As for citing Ray and Graham (and Iain and others) and my relation to SR/OOO or whatever other label is in vogue at present, I will say here first off that their work is incredibly important to my own. I certainly have differences from them in terms of my ontology (I have a forthcoming paper that will lay out some of these differences), but the overlap is far more important to me. The key thing for me is that both Ray and Graham will have no truck with anthropocentrism. And they relinquish anthropocentrism without any nostalgia—indeed, both seem to *relish* leaving it behind (as do I). Their forceful rejection of anthropocentrism is what I share and why I wanted to mark an alliance with them (no matter the other differences between our respective approaches and strategies). I hadn’t read either of them until the book was nearly completed in 2006-7, and when I came across their work, it was like a breath of fresh air. Finally, I had found some allies doing non-anthropocentric ontology! There is no way I can give a full account of how current work on the question of the animal might mesh with, challenge, or be challenged by SR/OOO, but I hope my forthcoming writings will go some way toward such an account.
    4. For both SCU and Craig on critical animal studies: In the book, I used the simpler phrase animal studies not because I like it (I don’t) or think it is the best one to use (I don’t), but simply because that’s the phrase most people were using when I was writing. I like the phrase critical animal studies inasmuch as it separates off this kind of work from traditional animal studies (in the vet, welfare, farm industries, etc.) and it also resonates with other work being done in the field (other journals, authors, etc.). I have no strong ideas on what label should be used, but I will say I very much dislike human-animal studies inasmuch as it makes the human-animal relations central to the project.
    5. For Nathan: Getting entirely past anthropocentrism is no doubt difficult. Given that anthropocentrism is pervasive throughout intellectual, cultural, and economic life, traces of it will remain where one least expects it (and it appears in all kinds of unexpected ways even in animal studies and environmental studies—and even in my own work). I’d have to hear more on what you mean in relation to Heideggerian Being in order to address that part of your question. As for ethics beyond anthropocentrism, I try to go in that direction in the Levinas chapter. But I should say here that I don’t think ethics (understood as morality) actually survives the death of anthropocentrism (or the death of God, contra Levinas). And that’s a good thing in my book. I use the term “ethics” (as well as “politics”), but neither of them really capture the kinds of practices that emerge “beyond” anthropocentrism.
    6. For APS: That’s a fantastic question, and even though I don’t deal with it at length in the book, it’s one that I think about a lot. I don’t want to dominate the conversation on this issue, though, so I’ll let it sit for a bit and let others have their say (the essay Karl mentions is one I had a chance to read before it was published and it does some interesting work in this area). I would love to return to the topic though at the end of the discussion if others let it drop. I should add that throughout the book, I am deeply concerned with environmental issues and am seeking to pose questions about animals in a way that opens onto and links up with radical environmentalism. In this, I am fundamentally at odds with Regan, Singer et al., both of whom have set their work at odds with most forms of environmentalism. So, maybe we can talk more about that as well.
    7. On Karl’s remarks: I wholeheartedly agree with your reading of Butler, Zizek, and Badiou (all of whom I read widely and all of whom I admire in various ways, despite their anthropocentrism). I was able to press Butler on these kinds of questions at length well over a decade ago at a few conferences, and she was utterly deaf to all such concerns. Her work seems, however, to be increasingly open to challenging certain forms of anthropocentrism, and I admire her efforts to move in that direction. It’s always been clear to me that the logic of her work should lead her in that direction. With Zizek and Badiou, such an opening is much harder to find. They can always be read against the grain (as you suggest), but they certainly don’t provide as much of an opening for that kind of reading. For all of the major thinkers I worked on in the book (H, L, A, and D), it was *they* who provided the opening to push against and beyond anthropocentrism. They often did this despite themselves, but I took the opening where I could find it and ran with it. A similar kind of thing could be done with B, Z, and B, no doubt, Butler being perhaps the easiest and most obvious (and most promising)figure for that kind of thing. I look forward to seeing what Scu does along these lines and what you have to say in your book about Butler.
    8. For Pensum: Those questions are important ones for me. In terms of specific answers: I have been vegan for close to 20 years (I’m currently 36), and I have been active in animal, environmental, feminist and other related forms of radical politics for just as long. The stakes of my work, no matter how abstract or stilted my books might be (I swear it’s unintentional!), are always located at the level of radical social-economic-political-ethical transformation. None of those words work well for the kinds of alternative practices and lives that inspire my work, but they probably give you a rough idea.

    Matthew Calarco

    September 9, 2009 at 9:03 pm

  17. Thanks, Matt.

    I am surprised that Butler dismissed your concerns so out of hand, because in her recent work she seems increasingly committed to a non-anthropocentric ethics and politics. I wonder what changed.


    September 10, 2009 at 12:13 am

  18. Matthew,

    Thanks for the great response. I’m enjoying the book and the discussion here.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    September 10, 2009 at 2:55 am

  19. […] Onto-Ethologies. The others is Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies, which The Inhumanities has already summarized […]

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