Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory

Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory

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by Cary Wolfe

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In Animal Rites, Cary Wolfe examines contemporary notions of humanism and ethics by reconstructing a little known but crucial underground tradition of theorizing the animal from Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Lyotard to Lévinas, Derrida, Žižek, Maturana, and Varela. Through detailed readings of how discourses of race, sexuality, colonialism, and…  See more details below


In Animal Rites, Cary Wolfe examines contemporary notions of humanism and ethics by reconstructing a little known but crucial underground tradition of theorizing the animal from Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Lyotard to Lévinas, Derrida, Žižek, Maturana, and Varela. Through detailed readings of how discourses of race, sexuality, colonialism, and animality interact in twentieth-century American culture, Wolfe explores what it means, in theory and critical practice, to take seriously "the question of the animal."

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American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory

By Cary Wolfe
Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-90513-6

Chapter One
Old Orders for New

Ecology, Animal Rights, and the Poverty of Humanism

Early in The New Ecological Order, French philosopher Luc Ferry characterizes the allure and the danger of ecology in the postmodern moment. What separates it from various other issues in the intellectual and political field, he writes, is that

it can call itself a true "world vision," whereas the decline of political utopias, but also the parcelization of knowledge and the growing "jargonization" of individual scientific disciplines, seemed to forever prohibit any plan for the globalization of thought.... At a time when ethical guide marks are more than ever floating and undetermined, it allows the unhoped-for promise of rootedness to form, an objective rootedness, certain of a new moral ideal.

As we shall see, for Ferry-a staunch liberal humanist in the Kantian if not quite Cartesian tradition-this vision conceals a danger to which contemporary European intellectuals are especially sensitive: not holism, or even moralism exactly, but that far more charged and historically freighted thing, totalitarianism. Ferry's concern is that such "world visions," incarnated in contemporary environmentalism, ecofeminism, and animal rights, threaten "our entire democratic culture," which "since the French Revolution, has been marked, for basic philosophical reasons, by the glorification of uprootedness, or innovation" (xxi). Ferry's thesis-it becomes explicit in his comparison of environmental legislation under the Third Reich with tenets of deep ecology in the book's second section-is that movements like these have come to occupy the space left open by the passing of the political imaginaries of fascism and communism, so that denunciations of liberalism (and its corollary in political praxis, reformism) may now be unmasked for what they are: critiques "in the name of nostalgia, or, on the contrary, in that of hope: either the nostalgia for a lost past, for national identity flouted by the culture of rootlessness, or revolutionary hope in a radiant future, in a classless and free society" (xxvi). To which Ferry responds-literally-"Grow up!" Late in the book, he tells us that we must follow through on "the adult development of the secular and democratic universe" (137) by rejecting totalizing revolutionary visions of the sort purveyed by radical environmentalism and adhering instead to liberal reformism, "the only position consistent with leaving the world of childhood" (138).

Ferry is certainly right to draw our attention to the often uncritical nostalgia and romantic holism of some varieties of environmental thought-problems that have been noted by critics from points on the map very different politically from Ferry's avowed liberal humanism. And it is certainly understandable, given the historical context, that he would join a long list of other European intellectuals in pointing out the manifold dangers to democratic society of totalizing moral schemes-dangers often represented for liberal intellectuals like Ferry by the rise of the Greens in European politics. We do well to remember, too, that for European intellectuals like Ferry, liberalism retains, for understandable historical reasons, a viability and a promise toward which many American intellectuals are skeptical or even jaded. European intellectuals, conditioned by the experience of fascist authoritarianism and the strong but problematic presence historically of the Communist Party in social and intellectual life, may find in liberalism a refreshing and indeed radical democratic openness and dynamism. On the other hand, American intellectuals, conditioned to the absence of any other major political contenders, have long since grown accustomed to liberalism as the name for that "end of ideology" position that, as Fredric Jameson puts it, "can function more effectively after its own death as an ideology, realizing itself in its most traditional form as a commitment to the market system that has become sheer common sense and no longer a political program."

But in defending democratic difference, everything hinges, of course, on precisely how such terms are framed and how difference is articulated-an index of which often may be found in how its imagined opponents are painted. Here, as we shall see, Ferry's text gives us early and ample pause, not least in its impoverished notions of "democracy" and the "human." As for the latter, Ferry wholly disengages the "human" from problems of class power and from the determinative force of both discourse (conceived not merely as rhetoric but also in the stronger Foucauldian sense I have already touched on in the introduction) and psychoanalytic investment. Similarly, Ferry's notion of "democracy" is extraordinarily thin because it is completely uncoupled (despite some gestures to the contrary very late in the book) from the problem of capitalism as liberal democracy's de facto economic embodiment. Given the well-known importance of both class and race in contemporary environmentalism-in debates about "environmental racism," for example, or the disproportionate exposure to toxic waste and environmental degradation borne by the poor, not to mention reminders of how middle class, and how white, the contemporary environmental and animal rights movements are-this is surprising and disabling for one as eager as Ferry is to defend the heritage of "democracy."

All this suggests that Ferry's critique of radical environmentalism remains locked within a liberal humanism that renders it impossible to make good on the desire for difference and heterogeneity that his aversion to holism expresses. It is not simply that he adheres to a definition of the liberal "human" as a wholly negative (that is, empty) sort of being open to "infinite" experimentation. That case, for what is sometimes called the "moral perfectionism" of the distinctly human, has been made, and made better, by Stanley Cavell and others (and not at all coincidentally, I think, in dialogue with postmodern theory rather than in the dismissal or misconstrual of it that we find in Ferry). It is rather that the figure of "the human" in Ferry's liberal humanism turns out to be not so open ended and contentless after all but is instead "sovereign and untroubled," as Foucault once characterized him, "a subject that is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in empty sameness throughout the course of history." He is the one who can master discourse without being mastered by it, the one who is able to step outside into a space of pure, transparent reflection, the very systems and material structures in which he is supposedly ineluctably embedded. These include, of course, the laissez-faire capitalism that liberal humanism wants to pretend has no important bearing on the political equality that liberalism's call for "democracy" says it desires.

Though he devotes considerable space to discussions of animal rights philosophy (at least the version promulgated by Peter Singer's Animal Liberation) and, to a lesser extent, ecological feminism, the bête noire of Ferry's book is clearly deep ecology. Invented, if you will, by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, formalized and codified by Naess and American philosophers Bill Devall and George Sessions, and more recently adapted by the European Greens, deep ecology proposes a fundamental change, from anthropocentric to "biocentric," in how we view the relation of Homo sapiens to the rest of the biosphere. An eclectic blend (to put it mildly) of ideas drawn from Heidegger, Buddhism, Robinson Jeffers, and many other sources, the fundamental principles of deep ecology are nevertheless relatively easy to state. They have been formalized by Sessions and Naess in eight basic and often-quoted tenets:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human Life on earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes. 2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves. 3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs. 4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires such a decrease. 5. Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes. (Qtd. in Ferry, 67-68)

There is much to remark on here, but the philosophical platform of deep ecology may be boiled down to this: the ultimate good is not harmony with nature, or even holism per se, but rather something much more specific: biodiversity. Once this is recognized, we must affirm the inherent value of all forms of life that contribute to this ultimate good, and we must actively oppose all actions and processes by human beings and their societies that compromise these values.

The appeal of deep ecology and its demand that we recognize the inherent value of the biosphere and conduct ourselves accordingly is understandable for all sorts of scientific, ethical, historical, and political reasons. As Gregory Bateson points out in his influential collection Steps to an Ecology of Mind, "The last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its 'progress' ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself." The Darwinian paradigm of "organism versus environment" and "survival of the fittest" must be revised, Bateson argues, to read "organism-in-its-environment." Rather than seeing these two terms as naming different and hierarchically related ontological orders-in which "environment" is merely a fungible resource for the self-realization and self-perpetuation of the organism-we do better, as good ethics and as good science, Bateson argues, to understand that both are components of a larger network or system of relations in which negative feedback is crucial to maintaining systemic balance. The Enlightenment face of Darwinism would tell us that the organism that most successfully exploits and maximizes its environmental resources is the one that wins, the one that lives to pass on its genes. But "if this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology," Bateson tells us, "your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell" (462).

This is a central theme, of course, in the literature of deep ecology. As Hans Jonas, one of its leading European exponents, writes, "The promise of modern technology has reversed itself into a threat.... The subjugation of nature with a view toward man's happiness has brought about, by the disproportion of its success, which now extends to the nature of man himself, the greatest challenge for the human that his own needs have ever entailed" (qtd. in Ferry, 76-77). Ferry's first impulse-in a rhetorical strategy endemic to the book-is to dismiss such critiques as "a return of the old science fiction myths," the latest instance of Frankenstein and the Sorcerer's Apprentice, where "we have a reversal by which the creature becomes its master's master" (77). But such concerns have been raised, of course, by scores of critics and philosophers who are as far from "deep" as Ferry himself (Martin Heidegger, Kenneth Burke, Theodor Adorno, and Jeremy Rifkin come to mind, to name four rather different examples). Indeed, one need not be captivated by Frankenstein scenarios to acknowledge that practices such as the current headlong rush into genetic engineering of plants and animals entail all sorts of unforeseeable consequences, inhumane practices, and potential biological disasters. Similarly, it is hard to disagree with Jonas that there is currently no way-legally, economically, or politically-to effectively control such practices, a problem made even more acute, as Ferry recognizes, by the considerable economic incentives involved (Ferry, 77). For these reasons and others-increased deregulation of business and industry, the weakening or proposed abolition of government agencies devoted to environmental protection, the increased pressure to "privatize" public lands and allow wilderness preserves and refuges to be exploited for their resources, unabashed attempts to severely weaken or abolish landmark environmental legislation such as the Endangered Species Act, the increased momentum and publicity of the "wise use" and "property rights" movements, and so on-deep ecologists and others have called for greater government activism and more forceful use of state power to regulate and direct the effects of human society and technology on the environment.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. As several critics have pointed out, the philosophical platform of deep ecology is marked not only by eclecticism but also by incoherence. As Tim Luke has noted, if all life forms are given equal inherent value, and if biodiversity as such is an ultimate good, then we face any number of rather vexed ethical questions. Luke asks, "Will we allow anthrax or cholera microbes to attain self-realization in wiping out sheep herds or human kindergartens? Will we continue to deny salmonella or botulism micro-organisms their equal rights when we process the dead carcasses of animals and plants that we eat?" And if biodiversity as such is an ultimate good, then by definition, "rare species and endangered individuals in rare species ... are more valuable than more abundant species and individuals," creating scenarios like the following: "If one was caught in a spring brushfire a deep ecologist would be bound ethically to save a California condor hatchling over a human child, because the former-given its rarity-is much more valuable" (87). Moreover, the deep ecology platform-for all its talk of "hard" biocentrism and its "no compromise" posture-is fundamentally compromised, in its own terms, by its "vital needs" or "mutual predation" loophole, which reveals that deep ecology reverts in the final instance to a "soft anthropocentrism," one that thus remains tied to the very Enlightenment schema it means to overturn (83).


Excerpted from ANIMAL RITES by Cary Wolfe Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Cary Wolfe is a professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY. He is the author, most recently, of Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the "Outside" and the editor of Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal.

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