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Zombies and Ethics

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This is the fourth post in the cross-blog event. This one was written by Greg Pollock.



The problem of the ontological status of the other appears to me as the problem of the zombie. By this I mean that not only does the problem of other minds appertain, but more importantly, there is an urgency to deciding where in the schema of life, death, and the inanimate this other stands so I can act well toward it. So while I am on one hand concerned with the status of this other’s mind–and, projecting myself into their position, whether I appear to have a mind–the problem immediately becomes one about bodies in motion. On reflection, I will try to make sense of this in terms of minds, and probably gird myself for future encounters with a good theory of mind, but at the moment of exchange the real existence of the other and the need to respond to it successfully are more pressing.
If carried out as an extreme functionalism, this approach to other beings would destroy both ethics and ontology. It is to avoid such an outcome that I begin with the other as zombie. As both alive and dead, the zombie opens a new ontological zone, one which dialectically spills over into its symmetrical category of the neither alive nor dead. In other words, the split living/dead is supposed to exhaust the states of the human being, but if this split is not exhaustive (as in the zombie) we encounter a new category that interpellates human existence. Humans are shot through with the inanimate, and conversely the inanimate bears the traces of life and death. In this analysis, I believe the zombie is uncanny not because it transgresses the division between life and death, but because it intimates a further ontological interpellation that retroactively makes the life/death split less than final. The (human psychological) fixation on death is a distraction from our far-from privileged place in fundamental ontology.
In fact, once we have stopped stacking the deck in favor of our personal experience of death, death is quite simply another form of becoming. Deleuze’s Spinoza is quite clear on the continual de- and re-composition of forces, in which one organism’s decomposition is continuous with another’s composition, and K. Silen Mohammad has a very good essay reading zombies in this light (in Philosophy and the Undead). As the surgeon must first overcome her revulsion to blood, so animal theorists/activists need to first get over a humanist conception of death. What is disgusting and wrong about factory farming (etc) goes well beyond a hystericizing version of “death.”
Beginning instead from a zombified world, in which traces of life appear everywhere by virtue of the double split between life/death and in/animate–in plants, rocks, the face of Jesus in your soup–I think we have room for a speculatively realist ontology. By this I mean that we can describe objects as having real existences unto themselves, as well as their existences for other objects, without seeing them as fundamentally collections of attributes which are not proper to their existence (if this is not SR please correct me). Having all objects already traversed by the same indistinctions that compose the human condition–or rather, seeing humans as a particular kind of object with the same fundamental ontology as other objects–allows one to discover the same mysteries in the microwave and the thumbtack as in other humans.
Animals fit into this as the naturally existing disruption of a life-death division(Zombies, for better or worse, do not exist naturally, though they are the better example). We understand animals to be living, of course, but philosophy has worked quite hard to deny them death; and in any case, the category of actual animal trails off into murky waters. Within humans and other animals we find a plethora of bacterial lifeforms that do not count as “animals” but which are physically constitutive of them. This kind of problematic is par for the course in animal/science studies these days so I won’t dwell on it. Because of this I don’t see “animal” as a new subject of ethics, but as the sign for the problematic of ethics attached to life/death. Animals actual and conceptual can be leveraged against a regime of humanism and the denial of “reality” to other beings.
So I wouldn’t say that consideration of animals provide a new “foundation” for ethics, but neither does this deny the importance of our attitudes and actions concerning other (living) beings. I would say that in the zombified world there are still better and worse actions, and these values are connected to the resultant lumpy ontology, but that there is not a codification resulting from that ontology. Ethics is still historical and situated, but the terms of history and the situation are different.
The shiver of hesitation one feels before terminating a zombified loved one speaks to ethics after zombies. The experience of this shudder is the persistent opening in which animals and other objects flicker into ethical existence in the shadow of a new ontology. It is in this light that I repeat Donna Haraway’s position that our task is not to ban killing animals, but to stop making them ontologically “killable.” The political ontology of the zombie body is often taken to be precisely the expansion of killability, its totalization as applicable to the human form and the means by which we might imagine all humans as homo sacer–and in popular vulgarities such as Zombieland this is the case. However, I contend that in zombie movies what we see is frequently the opposite: not the brutal efficiency of the war machine given free reign to exterminate its foe, but the continual hesitation in the face of ontological uncertainty. In sum, I am hesitant to articulate a new ethics around “the animal” because I am not convinced this is a rigorous category, but by pursuing the ontological reformulations of its problematic I see a new understanding of ethics emerging, one in which the content of ethical statements–don’t eat meat, for example–are already grounded in the preceding transformation of the very category “ethics.”

Written by Greg Pollock

November 30, 2009 at 3:17 am

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

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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

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Our First Event: Zoographies

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We are pleased to announce our first event, an intervention in and reading of Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. We plan to cover a chapter a week, and the first post on the book will be up this coming Tuesday, 9-1-09. We encourage everyone to participate in comments, or emails. Calarco has been kind enough to agree to follow the discussion, and post a response at the end of the discussion.

Remember, if you want to email us just drop us a line at

Written by Inhumanities

August 27, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized