Sep 4, 2009

Animality, animals and racial Otherness

Renee, posting in two feminist blogs (Feministe and Womanist Musings), authored a comment on the connections between animal rights groups and the political fight of people of color that has sparked relative polemic in philosophy and Animal Studies blogs. She says she feel uncomfortable with animal rights groups' (such as PETA) discourse on the seemingly unquestionable fact that human, as animals, are the same as the latter. Quoting her:
Much of the time, they buttress their position by saying that we are no different than animals and therefore are undeserving of special treatment.   This line of thought does not solely apply to PeTA.  Many animal rights groups are fond of pointing out that humans are also animals.  This is a biological fact, however; using it to defend your position can be extremely problematic and it is rarely to ever acknowledged as such.
I am not very familiar with the exact arguments put forth by PETA for the equal treatment of animals, so I cannot really say if Renee is missing their point. However, even if there's no misreading going on, I still believe there are some issues running deeper than the biologist vs. political clash. To quote the end of her post:
They may scream biology until the end of time but we remember when such comparisons were used to justify slavery, rape, and segregation.  For as long as my skin is Black I will be a devoted speciesist.  My dignity and humanity demand no less.
Are they really screaming biology? Is that what PETA really believes, that we as taxonomical animals we should not force our power over our Animalia siblings? If that's what they are propagating, I feel it's superficial. Either that, or it's just a more popular, simplified form of the argument, the one they send in press releases to news programs. Before I expose my views on why Renee is missing the point, I believe we should take a moment to really address this animalaise (to use Derrida's term) that she — and many other 'non-paradigmatic human beings' — has expressed.

Licia Carlson, who I guess comes from a Disability Studies background, has an interesting article on a similar clash between Animal Studies and her area. She explains the dilemma that she sees — and probably also the one felt by Renee — like this:
On the one hand, the disability critique challenges associations between the “cognitively disabled” and non-human animals, and calls for us to humanize our view of disability; on the other hand, the critical discourse on non-human animals calls in to question the ontological and ethical privileging of the human over the non-human animal, and calls for us to “reassert our human animality,” i.e., to recognize our own animal nature.
I believe it's even unnecessary to point out that Carlson and Renee have a valid point. It's understandable that centuries of dehumanization and animalization leave a mark, and Animal Studies' attempt to make the human lean close to the other side of the line and brush with animality must make historically oppressed people shudder just to glimpse the possibilities of biologist supremacy discourses ingrained in such a move. Like Renee pointed out, we may have a black American president, but that doesn't mean that people won't picture him as a monkey. Any comparisons between oppressed minorities and animals are dangerous, especially because they have served as basis for the oppression itself, and we must be careful with them. But there is a reason why people also advocate for the the erosion of the human/animal divide for the sake of human equality. This was pointed out by other bloggers, such as Critical Animal:
For me, it is obvious that the wrong done to the non-paradigmatic human beings is based upon the ability to do wrong to animals. If we end the ability draw lines between the human on one side and all animals on the otherside, if we embrace the monstrosity of the human animal, then we end the ability to continue to do harm to people of color by calling them animals.
And also there at Vegans of Color:
In my soul I know it would be just as wrong for me to withdraw my solidarity to those who are seen as less than me, because of a species barrier. To construct the worth of a being by their humanness is an embrace of a world where white patriarchy is the standard. Humanness is so connected to  able-bodiedness, whiteness, maleness, cisness, straightness, because these were the people who got to decide who got to count, and when they got to count as human.
And Carlson quotes Cary Wolfe, in his introduction to Zoontologies, where he makes a similar point:
One might well observe that it is crucial to pay critical attention to the discourse of animality quite irrespective of the issue of how nonhuman animals are treated. This is so because the discourse of animality has historically served as a critical strategy in the oppression of humans by other humans – a strategy whose legitimacy and force depend, however, on the prior taking for granted of the traditional ontological distinction, and consequent ethical divide, between human and nonhuman animals.
I like Wolfe's wording better because his quote reveals something I deeply believe in: that we must separate between "the discourse of animality" and "nonhuman animals", that is, living organisms that are alive and that are not people. And, as such, I believe that what he calls a strategy is not only a strategy. The human/animal division is not just a model which we apply to situations where we want to oppress Otherness — it is the very thing that makes humanism(s) possible at all.

I have been mildly criticized for my inclusion of Agamben in my list on the left (which is a list of books I managed to get my hands on while writing my undergrad thesis), and I have defended the validity of his thought as I will again now. I believe his writings on animality in The Open are crucial to the present issue. Employing 'man' to mean 'human' (why?), he writes:
Man is a field of dialectical tensions always already cut by internal caesurae that every time separate — at least virtually — “anthropophorous” animality and the humanity which takes bodily form in it. Man exists historically only in this tension; he can be human only to the degree that he transcends and transforms the anthropophorous animal which supports him, and only because, through the action of negation, he is capable of mastering and, eventually, destroying his own animality.
And which is also reinforced by Derrida:
[the human/animal divide] is the bordercrossing from which vantage man dares to announce himself to himself, thereby calling himself by the name that he believes he gives himself.
So, according to them, the first thing for us to keep in mind in the clash between Animal Studies and the struggle of non-paradigmatic humans is that humanness must not be thought of as dignity or the Good, but as only the product of the expulsion of an undesired trait. To this Rennee would, of course, respond something along the lines of what she wrote on her post:
Whiteness can afford such a comparison [between humans and animals] because it is still the dominant and the norm. It is not reduced by such a comparison because its power has become socially entrenched and its humanity validated.
And I agree with her, it's very easy for the "largely white run animal rights groups" to unsubscribe from human nature because, as my professor would say, the act which most stresses one's power is one's refusal to use such power. But that's not all. It's not only humanity which must be reconsidered, but also animality — and its difference from 'animals'.

Again according to Agamben, we must think of the human “as what results from the incongruity of the [human and animal] elements [within the human], [an incongruity] without which no division of existence into vegetal, animal, human, and divine would be thinkable". As such, what we think 'animality' is, and what Rennee is fighting against, is nothing but a linguistic abstract notion which is produced within us only to be expelled and to allow us to call ourselves 'human'. And by calling ourselves human by the means of an expulsion we have founded humanism, which at the end of the day is nothing but a machine to determine one identity by sacrificing another. When we expel such inner linguistic notion of 'animality', we must attach it to something, and we have attached them to animals (the nonhuman living beings) and that is where our comprehension of those beings come from: the pasting of a human (and human-forming) concept to a nonhuman group of beings. As such, it is only by a coincidence that the word 'animal' is similar to 'animality' and such different is what enables the blogger over at Philosophy in a Time of Error in his response to Rennee to write: [...] we have to stop treating animals like animals. Which, under this light, means: "We must stop treating non-human living beings as the Other we have found within ourselves and which we have exploited and sacrificed in the name of our identity (that we have named 'human')."

That's why all the successful attempts to insert continuism within the human/animal divide haven't had the effect of extinguishing the humanist model of belitting those we decided to attach the 'animality' label to. Darwinism, the humanities and social sciences have proved that there are fewer and fewer 'human exclusives' and yet we still feel the presence of the 'bestial animalized Other' to be available, up in the air, to be thrown in the face of oppressed people of color or people with bodily differences. That is because the fight has been fought in the wrong front — attempting to see the unfortunate individuals who have been deemed animality-donned as rightful humans, when in fact we should try to embrace the thing that is really being belittled, which is animality.

Actually, it seems to me that an idea of continuism between humanity and animality is impossible, since they have been conceived as opposites in the first place (and if I remember correctly, I guess Derrida agrees with me). What inferiorized others demand that we do is that we no longer rely on such internal division so much in order to establish identity, that is, we should aim for a non-negative form of identification process. That's because the expulsion of animality is only the first step of dialetically negative identification, since identity is layered with different degrees of specificity, and thus it will follow that a human white male will, after chopping away his animality to be human, sacrifice racial otherness to be white and femininity to be a man.

And that's what I think the message to other identity politics movement should be: embrace the animal rights (or animal studies) movement because they don't mean to say that you are the same as animals, they mean to say that animals were just the first others to be sacrificed in the name of the human, and you may have been or might become the next, unless we jam the humanist machine by accepting the animality in the very heart of what we have called human.


  1. Anonymous23.11.09

    I have been obsessed with the word "animalaise" ever since I first saw it on this blog. But I can't find where Derrida uses the term. Can you help me out?

  2. Derrida uses it in the beggining of his lecture "The Animal that Therefore I Am".

  3. Anonymous22.10.10

    Page? Paragraph? He talks about malaise, he talks about animalseance, but in my translation (the David Wills' book version from Stanford UP) there is no construction "animalaise."

  4. I find it very unlikely that I have invented that myself (which would be a very good idea, I'm guessing), but I was checking David Will's translation, and the sentence I remembered as "Whence this animalaise?" reads only "Whence this malaise?". I thought I had checked the original and found "animalaise", but you're right, Wills includes the original in brackets as "animalseance". I'm guessing now that I might have remembered the Portuguese translation "animal-estar" together with "Whence this malaise?" and thought I had seen "animalaise" in the original. But does it really matter Derrida didn't say it? You can quote me, if you want. ;)

  5. Interesting stuff - it is rare to find someone writing about humaness (the human condition) and animality, or animalism.

    I feel that it is a little unfortunate that you write about race and conceptions of animality, in relation to this. Personally, as a writer and artist, I see animality as being a central component of humaness. I.e. we are all animals (to a degree) and this actuality is regardless of our culture, geography or skin colour. The human condition is universal and ideas such as culture or race shouldn't detract from this essential reality.

    A paradox of the human condition is that human beings feel that they must refine themselves from their animal neighbours, so we can perceive ourselves as "distinct" from animals. However, by attempting to acheive greater refinement we repress the more animalistic aspects of ourselves and, therefore we find that animality becomes more emphasized in our behaviour.

    Of course, we are distinct from animals, but not as distinct as we like to be, therefore the essential paradox forms a continual and cyclical nature.