Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (and Affiliated Organizations)
Forty-Seventh Annual Meeting
Oct. 16-18, 2008, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Hosted by Duquesne University
Review of Relevant Presentations
Reviewed for H-Animal by
Donovan O Schaefer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (abbreviated with the much catchier monosyllable “SPEP”) is the main academic organization in North America dedicated to the field known as continental philosophy. Continental philosophy in the modern academy generally refers to study and writing within certain philosophical traditions originating in France and Germany, especially from the nineteenth century forward. While the legacies of pre-nineteenth-century philosophers like Kant and Descartes are still discussed in continental philosophy, the Enlightenment (Kantian) and Cartesian paradigms of truth, certainty, and the autonomous subject are usually viewed with a critical eye in modern continental philosophical discourse. Romanticism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, phenomenology, critical theory, hermeneutics, feminism, structuralism, poststructuralism, queer theory, critical race theory, and postmodernism are all popular headings at a SPEP conference.
SPEP convenes with a number of other continental philosophical societies, such as The Nietzsche Society, the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology, PhiloSophia, The Society for the Philosophic Study of Genocide and the Holocaust (SPSGH), the International Association for Environmental Philosophy (IAEP—pronounced “yep”), and the Society for Phenomenology and the Human Sciences (SPHS). These groups vary in size. Where the smaller ones generally have their conference as a single session on the first day of the SPEP meeting, some of the larger ones—IAEP and SPHS—have their own keynote speakers and extend the SPEP meeting by two additional days. I found the IAEP and SPHS conferences were particularly rich in animal-oriented panels. Another conference, put on by the Society for Ecofeminism, Environmental Justice and Social Ecology, also looked interesting. Unfortunately it took place after I left so I can’t address it in this review.
Although the SPEP annual meeting has never, to my knowledge, taken animal issues as an explicit theme, there is no doubt that the philosophical exploration of animal worlds and human relationships with them is on a rising tide. When I first attended SPEP’s conference, in 2006, there was only one two-paper panel on “Philosophical Animals: Heidegger, Adorno and Unruly Beasts.” Now, just two years later, I was able to attend at least two sessions or talks each day that related directly to animal issues. Whether this trend—which is consistent with any number of other fields in the humanities—continues or abates slowly or swiftly remains to be seen.
Why this trend? Simply put, the resources of continental philosophy offer an extremely rich array of responses to animal issues. As one presenter at IAEP said, phenomenology (the study of experience, the twentieth-century ancestor of much contemporary continental thought) is perhaps one of the most powerful critical tools available to us to understand animals. Whereas the Anglo-American (also known as “Analytic”) philosophical traditions tend to focus on knowledge and language (with ethicists, such as the Utilitarian Peter Singer or the Kantian Tom Regan, the notable exceptions) and, as such, very often reinscribe the status quo of human exceptionalism, a phenomenological study of animal experience opens up the possibility of creating interesting and meaningful accounts of animal worlds. Animal worlds as charted by phenomenology can be different from human worlds, but still intrinsically valuable and meaningful.
At the same time, I was very pleased to see a strong emphasis on the integration of empirical approaches and research with continental philosophy in several corners of this conference. Many presenters happily introduced evolutionary biology, microbiology, cognitive science, and ethology into their papers, testing and adapting philosophical frames against new data. As the continental philosopher of religion Clayton Crockett has said, one of the hazards of this field is its propensity to scholasticism—to meticulous research within a very tiny cluster of texts. Hybridization is a central theme of postmodernism; it is when continental philosophy remains open to new influences that it is at its most vigorous and helpful.
In what follows, I want to review several papers and panels that illustrate the current state of the study of continental philosophy where it intersects with animal studies.
Unfortunately, I was not able to arrive in time to attend the 9:00 AM SPSGH conference, which this year was on the theme of “Animality and Genocide.” Nor had any of the other conference-goers I spoke with over the course of the weekend. As with many discussions of animals, politics, and oppression, one of the motifs of the discussion seems to have been the rhetorical deployment of “animality” as a strategy of “debasement” used against humans. The paper titles referenced existentialists such as Sartre and Hannah Arendt, and post-Marxists like Althusser, Badiou, and Adorno. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the panel except to say that this research is being done at the intersection of continental philosophy, genocide studies, and animal studies.
“Phenomenology and Embodiment”
The first session I attended was a SPHS panel on “Phenomenology and Embodiment.” Although the paper I had been most interested in attending (“What Exactly is Conscious Life?” by W. Kim Rogers) was cancelled, the remaining two proved just as valuable.
In “My Genius is in My Nostrils: What and How Nietzsche’s Nose Knows,” Michael R. Paradiso-Michau gave an expository paper on Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of scent. For Nietzsche, scent represents a channel of knowledge creation that sidesteps the positivist tropes of sight and sound (both of which correlate to a model of knowledge that is objective, logical, and detached) at the same time as it connects us to our deeper, more instinctual natures.
As usual, Nietzsche uses animal imagery to represent this instinctual substrate of humanity accessed by scent, and argues that a return to this substrate is necessary to burn off the stench of the corrupting modern world—the stench of the diseased body, of crowds, of sickly Judeo-Christian morality. Paradiso-Michau did an excellent job of collecting Nietzsche’s diverse writings on scent (many of which rely on the trope of the animal) and connecting them to later commentaries and to contemporary phenemonological accounts of scent.
At the same time, I was somewhat wary of Paradiso-Michau’s restraint towards any kind of intervention in Nietzsche’s groundbreaking, but simplistic philosophy of embodiment. Though Nietzsche’s insights were profound for his time, it seems to me that we need to begin complicating his philosophical framework now rather than continuing to congratulate it. Does not Nietzsche’s hostility to the “foul odors” of “the crowd” and the Judeo-Christian tradition as he interprets it betray a certain fastidious puritanism of his own? Is not the exercising body, also, a smelly body? Are not certain smells associated with health? This error corresponds with Nietzsche’s dangerous simplification of instinct. Aren’t there many smells that we perceive as pleasant that are nonetheless extremely dangerous? And is it valid to reify “the animal” as a trope for authentic experience? Don’t animals make mistakes with scent, too?
I put these questions to Paradiso-Michau after his presentation and he responded thoughtfully, suggesting that he was primarily looking at the metaphorical mechanisms in Nietzsche’s toolbox, not taking up his standard. He added an observation of his own, that children need to be “taught” which smells are good and which are bad. He suggested that although the spirit of Nietzsche’s critique was interesting and worth discussing, the metaphors—including the metaphorics of animality—that he uses can only be taken so far.
The second paper on the panel, Joel W. Krueger (who works at the extremely impressive-sounding “Center for Subjectivity Studies” in Copenhagen) presenting “Merleau-Ponty on the ‘Social’ Body,’” offered a compelling account of how the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty—a twentieth-century phenomenologist who took a special interest in the constitution of the body—could be used to understand how different bodies have different modes of experiencing their worlds. Although he did not directly tie his work to species, the implications of his interpretation for animal studies are interesting to consider. He also posed an excellent example of a seamless and productive harmonization of continental philosophy and empirical research, using clinical studies of patients with Moebius Syndrome as his case study.
Friday, Oct. 17
“Time, History, and Suffering: Violence after Adorno and Nancy”
I must confess that Namita Goswami’s “I am an Animal: Time and Cruelty in Adorno’s Metaphysics” mostly went over my head. She read her paper so quickly and used Adorno’s technical vocabulary so casually that I, with my limited experience with the particular text she was working on, was quickly left behind. From what I could tell, she deployed an extremely erudite and subtle deconstruction of Adorno’s work—reading Adorno against himself, as it were—to show up the limitations of his theory of animals (as beings lacking an awareness of death) and his model of human exceptionalism. In the process, she suggested that the idea that animals are unaware of death should be inverted. It is humans who are marked by their ability to ignore their own mortality.
Following this, Goswami used her own positive reading of Adorno (through the prism of Gayatri Spivak’s notion of the “native informant”) to suggest that we must retrieve a more fundamental consciousness of our mortality and in the process become more truly “animal.” She then connected this increased awareness of mortality to modern concerns over climate change. This is a paper I definitely would have preferred to read, rather than hear. If nothing else, it persuaded me that Adorno’s Metaphysics deserves to be on my reading list.
Aron Gurwitsch Memorial Lecture
The Aron Gurwitsch Memorial Lecture this year was given by Dieter Lohmar, Scholarly Director of the Husserl-Archiv at the Universität zu Köln. Edmund Husserl was an early twentieth-century German philosopher (a mentor of the more famous and more notorious Martin Heidegger, who took his predecessor’s work in dramatic new directions) who is considered to be the father of phenomenology. Husserl is also considered to be a major contributor to poststructuralist thought, having importantly influenced the early work of the philosopher Jacques Derrida.
Husserl’s insight was that the objects of experience are not separate from the observer, but are constituted by the process of observation. This foundational revelation enabled several new avenues of research under the heading of phenomenology, the study of experience or of phenomena, how things appear. These research projects continue today and continue to yield important theories and discoveries, not only in the field of epistemology (which was Husserl’s initial project) but in the study of embodiment (in the lineage of Merleau-Ponty, mentioned above), experience (Heidegger), and language, ontology, and ethics (Derrida).
Contemporary Husserl scholarship is most successful when it is adapted to contemporary empirical research. Lohmar’s paper, “Phenomenology of Non-Linguistic Thinking in Humans and Other Primates,” was a superb example of this. Lohmar argued that there exist non-linguistic systems of representation in humans and our nearest evolutionary relatives. By this he meant that human language is just one of many ways for individuals to express, represent, or privately reflect on the world around them. Not only do these non-linguistic systems (among which he includes codified gestural communication, non-codified gestures, and his primary example, scenic phantasma, or daydreams) exist alongside language in humans, they are very probably also present in other primates.
As evidence for these claims, Lohmar made an interesting move using paleontology, pointing out that whereas human language cannot have emerged any more than 150,000 years ago (which is when we find the first remains of large-tongued hominids), the settlement of inhospitable areas dating back millions of years implies that advanced cognition and planning must have already been possible. From this Lohmar infers that non-linguistic communication—or at least mental representation—must have been operative before modern human language.
On top of this Lohmar adds the testimony of contemporary primatology, summarizing the ethological research of Frans de Waal on the cognitive capacities of chimpanzees and bonobos (local traditions of tool use, symbolic communication, the notion of duties corresponding to a position in a hierarchy, and an understanding of appearance and ways to manipulate others’ reactions by altering it). Lohmar takes this research as evidence of the existence of what Husserl called pre-predicative knowledge, knowledge that is not transmitted or stored in language. Thus, language is only a certain modality of symbolic thought, and one that would seem to rest on the surface of more profound non-linguistic thinking.
At this point, Lohmar anticipated and addressed an interesting counterargument: don’t science, literature, and other features of human culture set human language apart? Citing the work of Michael Tomasello, Lohmar suggested that although language can improve cultural technologies (such as science and literature) in incomparable ways, language itself is fundamentally comparable to animal systems of communication. Here, I think Lohmar rehearsed an important insight offered by Husserl on the nature of culture and technology among humans. Although what Husserl calls sedimented knowledge sets human culture dramatically off from other animal species, at the level of individual bodies, the mechanisms are very similar.
That said, I had a few reservations about this paper. Primarily, I think Lohmar takes a somewhat simplistic view of symbolic representation as consisting of the autonomous acts of recollection, replication, and modification through combination. My own thinking on language is more informed by the network model of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, which understands symbolic representation to be a messy, constantly shifting process. A representation is never a pure reflection of an object, but is an imperfect attempt to muster that object through the virtual matrix of the brain. Furthermore, representation itself (of which, Lohmar rightly pointed out, human language is only one example) is a part of a broader category of cognitive responsivity that I think needs to be explored further. The question period saw Lohmar acknowledging that cognitive phenomena like reactions were not necessarily reducible to his model, even though they seemed to have some of the same features of symbolic communication.
I was also surprised that although Lohmar had a comprehensive grasp of the data from de Waal on chimps and bonobos, he had no mention of Francine Patterson’s work with Koko!
Saturday, Oct. 18
“Zoontology and Feminism: Reflections on Animality and Sexual Difference”
The last panel that I attended at SPEP took place Saturday morning. Entitled “Zoontology and Feminism: Reflections on Animality and Sexual Difference,” it represented a range of approaches from feminism (taken in the loosest possible sense) towards sexual difference and zoontology, which I came to learn through the papers means something like animal species difference.
The first paper was Rebecca Hill’s piece “Becoming-Bird in Irigaray,” a title that she said had emerged after her submission to the conference as she thought more about the meaning of her work. Luce Irigaray is a Belgian psychoanalyst and feminist of the “French feminist” school (whose other members, Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, are also, famously, not French), sometimes also associated with Post-Feminism. Hill’s paper was an effort to assess Irigaray’s model of sexual difference as interval against the picture of human-animal interaction in Irigaray’s short essay “Animal Compassion” in the recent Animal Philosophy volume. (This book, edited by Matthew Calarco and Peter Atterton, is an excellent starting point for the study of animals in continental philosophy. It consists mostly of excerpts paired with commentary, but Irigaray’s contribution was commissioned for the volume.)
Hill started by sketching Irigaray’s notion of the interval, the fluid site of sexuation, the space separating male from female. The interval is labile, non-measurable, and non-compartmentalizable; an overflowing, unstoppable force of transformation and differentiation. The interval is also the site of a certain existential function. It makes possible a becoming, or falling out of one’s identity and into something else. This becoming is not the same as a transformation, or shift in state, but the plunge into an interval. (Becoming is also an important category for the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who I will discuss further below.)
Hill goes on to connect the interval to Irigaray’s “Animal Compassion.” In that work, Irigaray discusses a range of encounters she has had with animals in her life, concluding that although animals exist across an interval from humans and thus inhabit a world we can never know, through the process of becoming—diving into the interval that separates us—we can learn from and draw aid from animals. Irigaray specifically mentions examples of animal companionship and birdsong, both of which Irigaray takes to be ways for humans to learn to love.
In a third section, Hill offered her critique of what she saw as the naïveté of Irigaray’s picture of the animal world. Echoing (perhaps coincidentally) a theme of the recently published book The Animal that Therefore I Am by the late philosopher Jacques Derrida, she points out that Irigaray is using the word animal in an unreflective, vague, and imprecise way: rather than realizing the fundamental multiplicity of the animal world, she seems to think that all animals are the same and are defined primarily by their difference from humans. This leads not only into a somewhat romanticized understanding of animals and their worlds, but to an us-them situation that has the effect of cutting humans off from their own animality. This results in a backhanded anthropocentrism, corroborated by Irigaray’s somewhat starry-eyed idea of animal helpers. Hill offered some colorful examples of ways that animals can deeply disturb us, shifting emphasis from Irigaray’s idea of helper animals to the theme of animals as separate worlds.
I find Hill’s assessment completely persuasive. I was somewhat confused as to why her paper was structured with an explication of the interval at the beginning. Why not just move directly into “Animal Compassion”? It seemed to be a contrivance designed to connect her piece to the topic of the panel (sexual difference), though I may well have betrayed my superficial understanding of Irigaray by saying that.
The next paper, Jami Weinstein’s “Toward a Fundamental Transhuman Zoontology” turned to a thoroughly Deleuzean picture of the connection between zoontology and sexual difference. Weinstein’s thesis in this paper was that while the exploration, through feminism, of sexual difference has opened up the possibility of multiple ontologies—multiple worlds, multiple kinds of beings (male and female, to start with)—we must now conceptually move beyond this binary logic (a logic that is completely internal to the human world) and open ourselves to the more radical ontological multiplicity of species. Weinstein situated this project according to Deleuze’s notion of the concept as a historically provisional response to a problem, a way of addressing an issue that is important in its given time, but that may also be superseded by responses to new problems. Sexual difference was the problem of a previous generation. Zoontology is a problem for ours.
For Weinstein, the yield of feminism (to wit, a certain kind of feminism that focuses on finding value in sexual difference, rather than sameness) has been a new set of tools for thinking the differences between the sexes, for recognizing male and female as related but meaningfully different worlds. Now, in order to avoid lapsing into an anthropocentric egoism that is a reiteration of the logic of unity or uniformity that feminism was designed to defeat in the first place, humans must begin thinking in terms of a transspecies zoontology that sees meaningful differences between human and animal worlds but recognizes the value of each. In the process, feminist projects must aim to render themselves obsolete, leaving sexual difference behind, as it were.
I was deeply impressed by the intelligence and force of Weinstein’s paper, and was curious to see how some of her bolder proclamations about the current state of feminism would play out in the audience. My colleagues in the seats, however, seemed to share my admiration. One questioner offered Weinstein an opportunity for an important addendum. Asked how she saw her ontological claims (about the incorporation of species difference) playing out ethically, especially with respect to the discourse of animal rights, Weinstein responded that ontology does not determine ethics, but it does restrict or enable the range of possible ethics. For instance, she pointed out, the ontology of autonomous, rational, moral subjects offered by Enlightenment humanism made possible certain kinds of liberal ethical and political patterns. Transspecies zoontology, while not necessarily directly indicating animal “rights,” nonetheless opens up a range of possibilities for humans’ ethical relationships with animals.
The last paper of the session was Myra Hird’s “Zoocentrism by Any Other Name: The Limitations of Thinking Sexual Difference Through Human/Animals.” Hird, a trained sociologist, has spent the last year doing research in the lab of Lynn Margulis, one of the most prominent microbiologists in the world (and a favorite subject of Donna J. Haraway, who, with her recent book When Species Meet, has also heavily influenced recent discussions of the animal in continental philosophy). Hird offered a radically different perspective on sexual difference, a view through the lens of microbiology and evolutionary theory.
Specifically, Hird narrated the history of sexual difference in terms of microbiological time—a scale measured in billions of years that covers the advent of life with the earliest cellular organisms to the long march to multicellularity, symbiosis, symbiogenesis, speciation, and sexuation. Why is sexuation so late to this party? As Hird explains, sexual difference was a byproduct of a sequence of previous evolutionary innovations. The ability to reproduce oneself (which emerges long before sexual reproduction) may have first emerged as an adaptive mechanism of self-repair. With symbiosis came the emergence of more complex organisms, and ultimately of organisms that were so complex that they were no longer able to reproduce themselves by themselves. Sexual difference emerges as a solution to this paradox: although self-reproduction (mitosis, internal cellular division) is in many ways more efficient, sexual reproduction (meiosis, the combination of special diploid cells from multiple organisms resulting in mixed-gene offspring) was developed to retain the attributes acquired through genetic complexification.
For Hird, then, zoontology and sexual difference are more closely related than a first glance would suggest. Sexuality is the legacy of a specific path taken by our ancestors on the evolutionary tree. I found Hird’s approach fascinating in its novelty and audacity. I have to confess, though, that I was a little bit unclear as to how she was drawing a link to feminism here. It seemed in her concluding remarks that she had sought to affirm a particular feminist critique of social ordering, but I missed it in my notes.
More than any other paper I attended, I regret sitting on my question for this one. This is because Hird tossed out a line so glibly during the question period that I didn’t have enough time to come to terms with its significance. In response to a question about the political significance of her work, Hird said that its implications were radical. She pointed out that if all microbial life on the planet were to be extinguished, the “Big-Like-Us” fauna would perish in less than one nutritional cycle. Derrida, she pointed out, worries about his cat (a reference to the famous opening scene from The Animal that Therefore I Am), but neither Derrida nor the cat matter; Irigaray thinks about the birds in her backyard—they don’t matter either: the sine qua non of animal life on this planet is only visible under the microscope, and that’s what matters.
I feel like Hird trod into a serious blunder with this response (which I confess I may have misinterpreted; it seemed totally mismatched with the impressive sensitivity and amazing clarity of expression exhibited in her presented paper). There is no denying the importance of microbial life for the continuation of animal life on earth, nor that humble bacteria are the ancestral heritage of all modern animals. But that does not mean that microbial life should be the only thing that is important to us as humans.
International Association for Environmental Philosophy – Keynote Speaker
As SPEP’s programming ended, the last major meeting attached to this cluster of conferences began. The keynote speaker of this year’s IAEP conference happened to be the current executive director of SPEP, Leonard Lawlor of Penn State, reading his paper “Auto-affection and Becoming: Following the Rats.” Like many other American responses to continental philosophy (following a pattern which I think is quite sensible), Lawlor combined the work of scholars who in their home countries are usually not read together, in this case, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze.
From Derrida, Lawlor draws out a certain critique of auto-affection. Auto-affection is a term created by the anthropocentric tradition in western philosophy. It identifies the special property of the human, the ability to be auto-affective, to hear ourselves, to see ourselves, to communicate perfectly with ourselves and so master ourselves. Derrida shows that there are cracks in our auto-affective powers. When we hear ourselves, we hear the voice of the other, of the universe of influences that has created our language for us and imbued it with meaning. We hear the words of those who have spoken our language before us and passed on. Rather than being auto-affective and thus autonomous, we are radically determined by the other, by death, and by the animal.
Lawlor suggests that techniques for subverting auto-affection can be drawn from Deleuze’s work with the renegade psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, particularly the chapter on “Becoming-Animal” from their book A Thousand Plateaus. As might be expected, much has been made of the meaning and significance of this chapter for the zone of intersection between animal studies and continental philosophy. Responses have ranged from laudatory (see Weinstein, above, or the work of Steve Baker, James Urpeth, Cary Wolfe) to critical (see Donna Haraway in When Species Meet). Lawlor, for his part, took the idea of becoming-animal as a valuable, strategic response to the illusion of auto-affectivity.
In order to define the practice of becoming in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense, Lawlor set out to “systematize” it (a somewhat paradoxical approach, to be sure). He suggested that becoming be viewed in four phases. The first of these, “aging,” suggests the mortality of the subject, the constant process of deterioration, the micrological cracks appearing as time passes over life. This process of aging is not strictly negative. In recognizing our mortality and the frailty of auto-affectivity, we are opened to new possibilities. Deleuze and Guattari metaphorize this change as the transformation from the molar (think back to chemistry class—the molar is the macrological scale) to the molecular (the micrological, the minoritarian). As the molar façade cracks, molecular possibilities emerge.
This process of aging enables the second phase, desubjectification. Through desubjectification, individuals are able to step outside of the rigid identity formations that hold them in. What does this stepping outside look like? This is the third phase: the minoritarian. A becoming as stepping-outside is always a becoming-minoritarian. Deleuze and Guattari list becoming-animal alongside becoming-woman, becoming-child, and becoming-other. In all of these cases, the picture of becoming is one of renouncing one’s fixed position within a hierarchy in order to become that which, by virtue of being outside of that hierarchy, is fluid and changing. (Deleuze and Guattari, writing in 1980, could certainly be linked to some questionable political ramifications here, as Haraway has done. Lawlor alluded to a defense of Deleuze and Guattari against Haraway that he had written elsewhere, but did not incorporate it into his talk.)
What is the goal of becoming? The motive, as Lawlor calls the fourth phase, is affects, a critically important term for Deleuze and Guattari that corresponds to the place outside of fixity, the site of transformation and the space of emotional resonance. For them, affect goes along with the event, the flow of power and the permission of self-transformation. At this point, Lawlor made a key move of his own, playing up a short passage in A Thousand Plateaus in which Deleuze and Guattari talk about becoming as enabling love—a love that is not egological (one human towards another human), but open, directed at the entire world. Love is an affect and a product of becoming.
In the second and third sections of his paper, Lawlor consolidated the link between becoming and animality. To do this, he turned to the theme of writing. Writing is another synonym for becoming in Deleuze and Guattari’s lexicon. Writing for Deleuze and Guattari is not an act of mimesis, a pure transmission of the contents of one’s imagination onto a page. Nor is it a description, the replication of an outside act. Rather, writing is a practice of becoming, a process that creates something truly new (a written work) and also transforms the writer. This link between writing and animality Lawlor illustrated with the pun tale/tail. The act of writing brings us closer to animality by opening up horizons of becoming. Rather than auto-affection, writing is an infection, the opening of the subject to new lines of force that redraw identity and create possibility.
Lawlor concludes by turning to the idea of globalization. With this word we envision a new world in which connectivity and mutual dependence and cooperation have increased. But globalization, the enveloping of the globe, maybe an englobulation, is also a “sealing of the exits,” a way in which local networks of power become transnational and invulnerable to resistance. Lawlor suggested that for animals, this is precisely what has happened. The atrocities of the meat industry, to name just one aspect of this network, are now supported by the illusion of global consensus and the financial and legal resources of internationally traded corporations. Lawlor suggests that through the practice of becoming, we can open ourselves up to animal affects, to a global reticulum of love rather than a global matrix of oppression. Lawlor calls on the human race to embrace becoming, and in the process become a community of what he calls friends of passage.
In an articulate and energetic response to Lawlor’s paper, the Deleuzean literary theorist Claire Colebrook, also of Penn State, offered an affirmation of Lawlor’s critique of auto-affectivity. She connected the myth of auto-affectivity to a war of the self against others. At the same time, she advanced two criticisms that struck me as quite well-balanced and certainly meriting further consideration in further research in this direction. First, she suggested that writing is indeed a sort of release from cyclic repetition, but asked if real animals are not themselves trapped in these cycles. Second, she asked if the call for becoming is not also a call for a certain kind of “suicide,” what she, with a literary flourish, called a good suicide. The good suicide would be a destruction of our own “nature,” the nature that has driven us to destroy the natural world on which we depend for our survival.
My own critique would follow these lines to a certain extent. It seems to me that, in light of Derrida’s thesis in The Animal the Therefore I Am (which Lawlor has written on), it is no longer viable to speak of “animals” as an abstract unity as Lawlor does, at least not without some qualification. Or, even if we were to grant that there was some interesting way in which we could talk about animals being closer to the channels of becoming (which I think is a defensible position, but that such a defense should not be taken for granted), we still need to talk about the ways in which human practices are particular to humans (just as we should talk about the ways that rat practices are particular to rats, or dolphin practices particular to dolphins). Is the notion of the friends of passage something that applies to species other than humans? Lawlor is on the cutting edge of animal studies in continental philosophy, adroitly synthesizing multiple lines of inquiry into a novel and interesting project. I look forward to learning more from him on the topics he presented in this address.
Sunday, October 19 – IAEP
“Animals and Animality”
Sunday was the first full day of the IAEP conference, with sessions continuing until the following day. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend a single panel before I had to return to Syracuse (little did I know that our car would break down on an offramp in rural Pennsylvania and I would be spending that night in Meadvale). However, the last panel I saw also happened to be the one I was most interested in—the IAEP’s session on “Animals and Animality,” featuring three papers highlighting specific approaches to animal studies derived from continental philosophy. The papers proceeded in chronological order, from Husserl to Heidegger to Jean-Francois Lyotard (the originator of the term postmodern in the late 1970s).
In “Monadic Enrichment and Non-human Life: A Husserlian Argument for the Presence of a Diversity of Species,” Sam Cocks offered a reading of Husserl as a defender of the moral need for biodiversity. This reading rested on three legs. First, Cocks read Husserl as suggesting that animal others help us to realize the fullness of our humanity. For Husserl, knowledge is created in part through the technique of “associative contrast.” To know a diversity of other beings is to help us to understand ourselves by highlighting differences. Husserl offers the example of the hound with its powerful sense of smell. This knowledge of another being’s strengths helps us realize that limitations of our own phenomenological world. Other comparisons help us realize our own strengths, possibilities, and responsibilities.
Second, Husserl can be read as suggesting that humans find subjective fulfillment through plural forms of interaction. By considering the other’s perspective we are enriched not just in our knowledge of the world, but in our satisfaction with it. This is especially true of animals, whose perspective on us is “opaque.” By this I took Cocks to mean that because animal worlds are different from ours, we benefit from the work of trying to explore things from their perspective, not that we should forego any attempt to understand animals.
Third, Cocks suggested that a moral consideration of animals and the living diversity of the animal kingdom is demanded of us as humans. This led into his conclusion: throughout Husserl’s work, there is an imperative to maximize diversity of experience—to realize “maximum world fulfillment.” Since experience for Husserl is the world of a given being (such as a human being), there is a moral and epistemological imperative to allow diversity to flourish there. The “luster” of the world is realized through diversity, difference, and texture. The world is through its multiplicity, and humans have a primordial drive to experience it in this way.
Husserl continues to prove to be an extremely rich resource for thinking about animals. Cocks gives us an excellent example of how he can be adapted (and, indeed, adapted he must be) to contemporary concerns. It was Cocks who suggested to us that phenomenology (which Husserl founded) is one of the best methods we have available for the philosophical study of animals. The reason is that phenomenology places experience first. It rejects a priori assertions about the superiority or exceptional status of humans in favor of an empirical exploration of how knowledge, bodies, and experience are actually constituted through interaction with a world.
One of the most powerful applications of Husserl, of course, was the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (who combined his mentor’s insights with his own background in the Catholic scholastic tradition [Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas], German mysticism, and Kierkegaard in writing Being and Time), the subject of Ryan Hellmers’ piece “Animality in Nietzsche and Heidegger: A Differential Retrieval of the Earth.”
Indeed, Hellmers’ reading of Heidegger (which briefly mentions Nietzsche as a sort of jumping-off point), echoed many of the same themes as Cocks’ piece. He started with the term “Dasein,” Heidegger’s special designation for the human as the being that can “think Being” (Da-sein translates as “Being there”), where Being is the mystery and profound meaning of the universe. For Heidegger, Dasein can understand the perspective of the animal, but not of the stone. The animal, as Heidegger explains in his famous lectures from 1929/30 (translated in English as The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics), is “poor in world,” while the stone is “without world” and the human “world forming.” Nonetheless, Dasein can learn much about its own world by attempting to inhabit the perspective of the animal.
Hellmers illustrated this point by turning to Heidegger’s later essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art.” In this piece, Heidegger speaks of Dasein as the site where art reveals the mystery of Being. This mystery is shown to be the fundamental disjointedness of Being, the truth that both self and world are ruptured in their cores. The animal, in Hellmers’ reading, is another agent for highlighting this rupture: the fact that we can transpose ourselves into the animal’s world shows us that our own self is fragmentary. Because animals are beings that are not Dasein, but nonetheless have worlds, the animal is a being in-between—and the in-between is itself another figure for being. Echoing a theme from Giorgio Agamben’s recent book The Open, Hellmers’ pointed out that the animal way of being-in-the-world for Heidegger, encirclement, is itself an essential mode of truth in Heidegger’s later works.
Hellmers’ piece was superbly technical. Unfortunately, he read it so quickly that I had a bit of a hard time following it, so I apologize if I’ve misrepresented any aspect of his work. I thought the similarities between his reading and Cocks’ were extremely interesting and was frustrated that the short period of time allocated to this session didn’t allow more time for discussion between the two. I was somewhat surprised that Cocks didn’t make more reference to the Agamben book I just mentioned. Like Agamben, he seems to be conducting an extremely precise deconstruction (the reading of a minor strand of a text against a major strand) of Heidegger’s general anthropocentric tendencies, and like Agamben, is extracting extremely useful results.
At the same time, I believe that any discussion of Heidegger’s 1929/30 lectures should take steps to intervene in what I see as the fundamental error in Heidegger’s scholarship in that book, the presupposition of the uniformity of the animal kingdom. Following Derrida, again, I think we need to interrogate Heidegger’s use of vivisected insects as representatives of “animals” generally. The emphasis on diversity of species and of perspectives that was a motif of both Cocks and Hellmers’ pieces would have been well-served by deeper attention to the diversity of animal bodies themselves.
The last paper of this panel, “Heterogeneity and Injustice: A Lyotardian Approach to Animal Rights,” presented by Gerard Kuperus, also returned to the motif of diversity, but based in the ethical philosophy offered by Jean-Francois Lyotard. Kuperus began by proposing that we use Lyotard’s work to craft a framework for animal rights that is based not on sameness or identity with animals, but on difference.
To explore this idea of an ethical response to difference, Kuperus introduced Lyotard’s interesting theory of language. For Lyotard, a language is not just a means of symbolic communication. It can be any interpretable behavior, even a silence. Human existence, for example, is always linguistic because there is always a grammar or syntax to our behaviors. Kuperus suggests that this applies equally well to animals, who also express themselves in any number of languages or phrases that are interpretable to us. The fact that this interpretation will always be speculative is not a problem for Lyotard, who suggests that our interpretation of another human’s speech is also always an interpretation. Even if someone is speaking clearly and directly to us, we must situate their speech within the context of our relationship with that person and determine whether or not we want to believe them.
How does this idea of languages translate into animal rights? For Lyotard, these languages are always heterogeneous. Not only each species, but each individual, has its own idiom, its own way of speaking to us. And for Lyotard, the ethical is precisely the recognition of our responsibility to other languages, to other idioms of expression. We must be open to a moral response to the other, not when they are the same as us (this is the danger of domestication) but precisely because they are different. We must respect the “absolute alterity of other languages.”
During question period, I challenged Kuperus on his use of the word language. I brought up Derrida’s observation that because animals are so radically heterogeneous—with respect to humans and to one another—we must consider the possibility that some may have language, and some may not. Furthermore, we must be open to the possibility of thinking the absence of language as “something other than a privation.” In other words, why do we need to privilege language as the locus of ethical concern?
Kuperus responded that language is not just speech, but can refer to the structure or organization of any system of behavior that is proper to an animal (including humans). Another attendee at the session suggested that this problem might be clarified if we were to translate Lyotard’s term as genre. I realize on looking over my notes that my question was not fair to Kuperus (and that I had betrayed my inadequate reading in Lyotard). Lyotard and Derrida seem to be using the word “language” in incommensurable ways. Perhaps the word “genre” is more apt for what Lyotard has in mind—it maintains both the sense of interpretability but also suggests an idiomatic lifeway. A much more interesting question that I regret did not occur to me at the time would have probed the links between his paper and the other two on the panel: is the ethical response to heterogeneous languages in Lyotard homologous with the commitment to increasing the luster of the world by maximizing diversity in Husserl?
Review of "Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy"
Donovan O Schaefer
Date Published: February 19, 2009