Aug 26, 2010

Disability, the animal, and the question of the "lack"

Long time since I've posted, but I've certainly been busy reading and writing and going to conferences. Right now we are having our annual international seminar on Gender Studies here at UFSC called Fazendo Gênero, which is in its 9th installment. I've had the pleasure of participating of a symposium within the event focused on culturar criticism, Border Studies and Silviano Santiago's concept of the entre-lugar, which was later adopted by Mary Louise Pratt as The Contact Zone.

I wrote my article on and talked about the sometimes tense contact zone between Disability Studies and Animal Studies. This has been explored by many scholars I have read, and the main dilemma seems to be that DS asks us to humanize our ideas of disability, while AS urges us to let go of the concept of the human as a yardstick for moral relevance and, sometimes, to pinpoint how dangerous it might be to a trans-species ethics to give higher moral consideration to humans regardless of their cognitive capacities. This last argument is, of course, based on the premisse that all our ethical systems are sustained by the concept of mental capacity, which supposedly is the only thing that can make you even realize that you're happy or suffering.

Cutting to the end of my article, I arrived at serious aporias which I cannot seem to solve. One of them is the question of the "lack". As Scu at Critical Animal has discussed, this questions offers two opposite paths for thinking. On the one hand, by looking closely at our fellow animals, we may see that our supposed biological and mental superiority is a fiction, since many animals show outstanding abilities on so many areas of cognitive capacity that we can conclude that species difference is, after all, a question of degree and not of kind. Therefore, our moral system has the duty to include these animals under its wing because they share the traits valued in humans in the first place, the ones which, supposedly, make humans be morally relevant.

Of course, the other path is direct critique of this. It points out that seeking animal cognitive abilities is just a way of trying to determine which animals are more like us, constituing this a serious case of speciecism, human exceptionalism and, potentially, of ethnocentrism. The other issue with the "Yes, they can!" approach is how it impacts negatively on those marked by stigma of the "can't" - mostly people living with so-called disabilities (not to mention animals which haven't yet had their chance of being broadcast on YouTube doing cute, smart things). The main problem seems to be that determing ability as the yardstick for moral consideration may be read as just an extension of the classical humanism which has, to give a rushed example, permitted racial segregation and mass genocides - not to mention slaughterhouses. Trying to correct the humanist propension for sacrifice just by perfecting its selecting filter may not be the best idea of a good post-humanist strategy for ethics. This clashes horribly with Derrida's insistence on the question of the páthos, of vulnerability and compassion when writing of the question of the animal. "Can they suffer?", Bentham's question which Derrida echoes, is a direct attact on the "Yes, they can!" ethical platform, and moves the question towards the "can't" - at the same time that tries to strips it of its negative status.

But my question is whether we can really strip the negative status of incapacity. As we discussed in the symposium, it is, for example, the absence of Jetson-like treadmills all over the entire city that makes being hadicapped a disability, and not the biological contigency itself. It is important to establish disability as a discursive concept, created outside of essentialist biologism in order to reinforce ability, but, at the same time, I believe it is important to face the real incapacities and inabilities faced by people who struggle with so-called disabilities everyday. For them (and I could say "for me", since I have my share of problems, too), it is important to be considered, heard, treated with dignity, but having their (and my) disability considered, at the end of the day, as incapaciting.

All this is closely related to the other question that I leave open at the end of my article which is the question of the post-human redescription of the human. Quoting Andy Mousley:
If [...] the human is hybrid, mutable, open to ongoing re-description and reconstruction, then at what point, if at all, might we want to (temporarily?) halt the process of re-description/reconstruction, for polemical, political and/or ethical purposes?[1]
The question is if the post-human critique of the humanist concepts of the human might have to be halted in the name of concrete problems still faced by many when the label "human" fails to protect them from harm - which can be physical, mental, or emotional harm, and may derive from others or from oneself.

Putting it perhaps too simply, should "lack" be considered "good"? Should "bad" things be hailed for the sake of their potential for overruling carnophalogocentrism? Or should we keep the human strategically essential (and I am not comfortable with this expression) for the sake of the protection it still conjures? The questions seem endless, and I don't know how to answer them - not in a "theoretical" philosophical dimension, much less in my own life.

[1] MOUSLEY, A. Limits, limitlessness and the politics of the (Post)human. Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. Leicester, v. 1, n. 1, 2010. pp. 247-255. p. 247.


  1. Anonymous8.11.10

    I am passionate about Disability Studies and Animal Studies as well and find these arguments between one another irrelavent. As living beings regardless of our abilities should treat one another with the up-most dignity and respect, we must listen to our fellow members of the disability community and seek universality in our society. We should also treat animals with respect and not abuse them. Maybe then we wouldn't have such arguments.

  2. Lack as turning on the ability/disability dyad is most interesting, and I agree, a troubling aporia, which you bring out. To be alive is at the same time to be limited, because life is contained in its inability to extend itself beyond its own limits. The animal is limited by the human animal on the basis of limitations. An animal can't X. A human can. The analogy seems to suggest we do the same to the disabled. The disabled can't X. But, the can't is circumscribed by the hegemony of the human who can. It is the further limiting of the human in this way, a frightening conjecture played out in fictive form in Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, that I think demonstrates that lack is mediated by the those who can and those who can't. .

  3. One thing to note about discussions of lack is its prevalence in discussing human-animal relations ever since ancient Greek philosophy up to the present day. So the discussion is not symmetrical or balanced in the sense of juxtaposing simply two similar but opposite options.

    I wrote this for a yet to be published (and an admittedly rather emotional) paper:

    "Yes, the singular four letter word that philosophy uses to disparage all animals, precisely all animals, is indeed lack. This is the Philosophical Prescription concerning animals: they are to be found wanting. This is the law and rule of comparing humans and animals: a mental characteristic found solely by looking at the Man in the Mirror and deemed to be most excellent and glorious, proper only to man and truly worthy of his dignity, is then passed out to animals in some degree, or withheld from them with the same movement. Are they too conscious? Do they too possess language? Do they too fear death? His measuring hand pulls the entire living world together into one single undifferentiated mass, and the blanket judgment he will pass on this multitude that has lost, under his judging gaze, all of its differences, all of its diversity, is negation: what he sees when not gazing into the human mirror is lack and absence: no other creature has what he has, at least not to the same degree (and again, “degree”: the distance is always measurable, that is, it is subsumed under a totalising, homogenizing yardstick that removes all differences in one fell swoop); no other living being can be fully characterised by any criteria he has discovered while admiring himself. Even if, in his better moments, he kindly allows some other animals to have those things he has first found in himself and found excellent, they will have but a shadow, a rudiment, a partial development of that thing, a thing that Homo clausus thinks as the pinnacle of human development. “Oh, the animals, you are but children to our eyes,” says the human, confusing his arrogance with tenderness. The Name of the Animal is Lack, always Lack. To man’s gaze, “animals are nothing but rudimentary human beings, God´s false steps before He got it right with Man”.

  4. Disability is an issue about which we must be aware and should work towards the better environment fro disables.

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