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On Columbia University Press, Zoographies and Francione

Senior executive editor for Religion, Philosophy, and Animal Studies at Columbia University Press (CUP), Wendy Lochner, recently wrote:

What is required is no less than a radical rethinking of the nature of humanity itself as inextricably cojoined with our nonhuman kin and in common cause with them.

It is this point of view that I (and many others) call animal studies, and it is my intention as an editor to foster interdisciplinary work from all fields that considers these and many other interrelated questions.

This, of course, is very exciting, and I encourage you to check out the titles, which are on sale until August 1 and include Gary Francione’s new book, which I am half way through. There was an interview with Francione on the press’ blog yesterday, where part of his final thought is: "The most important thing anyone can do is to become vegan and to educate others about why taking animals seriously means being vegan." For all of you who read yesterday’s post, that sentence says either that being vegan and educating others are two separate things, or that they’re one because he introduces them as the most important thing (singular).

I’m kidding! Let it be over! Smile! We agree to disagree!

As for Zoographies, by Matthew Calarco, here’s the blurb on the CUP site:

Zoographies challenges the anthropocentrism of the Continental philosophical tradition and advances the position that, while some distinctions are valid, humans and animals are best viewed as part of an ontological whole. Matthew Calarco draws on ethological and evolutionary evidence and the work of Heidegger, who called for a radicalized responsibility toward all forms of life. He also turns to Levinas, who raised questions about the nature and scope of ethics; Agamben, who held the "anthropological machine" responsible for the horrors of the twentieth century; and Derrida, who initiated a nonanthropocentric ethics. Calarco concludes with a call for the abolition of classical versions of the human-animal distinction and asks that we devise new ways of thinking about and living with animals.

Now, before you try to reread that, let me say this. Like the blurb, the book starts off rocky, but it’s worth it to stick with it to the end.

I studied philosophy, but only as it related to linguistics and critical theory (which is a lot), and I was familiar with some of the texts referred to by Calarco but by no means all. In addition, Derrida was my personal favorite (there’s a no-brainer), and I had no idea about the extent to which he was interested in the question of the animal, so I started out with a handicap. Calarco lets me off the hook for not being familiar with certain Derrida texts, though.

While Derrida’s readers can perhaps be forgiven for being caught off guard with respect to the importance of the question of the animal in his work, it is not difficult to demonstrate that this question is in fact important and decisive throughout his vast oeuvre (104).

My initial interest in this book was its treatment of Derrida, and because I’m writing my own book (about the animal question, rather than the question of the animal, as my reference point was the woman question), which is vastly different, however part of my job is to read all books relating to animals (definitely trade ones–academic ones are less urgent).

You don’t have to know much about Heidegger, Levinas, Agamben or Derrida to understand the thrust of the book, which is a building or evolution toward current thought (which is to say, I’d venture: Where you are right now) regarding the human-animal distinction. You also don’t need a dictionary of terms used in philosophy, although I’d recommend brushing up as parts of the book are loaded with jargon. But you have to remember that it’s an academic book, so that’s appropriate. Besides, there’s always something in the discussion that you’ll find accessible, such as a reference to someone more widely read, like Dawkins, Darwin, Singer or Regan. Furthermore, even if you remove all words or references you’re unfamiliar with, you’re still left with the story of how philosophers from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries considered animals and our possible responsibilities toward them.

The payoff, for me, is the chapter on Derrida, which includes:

Despite his sympathy for the animal rights and animal liberation movements, he remains deeply skeptical of the notion that fundamental changes in our thinking and relation with animals can be effected through existing ethical and political discourses and institutions. . . . [H]e departs from dominant forms of animal rights discourse and practice inasmuch as he believes that a fundamental transformation of human-animal relations requires a deconstruction of the very notion of moral and legal rights and its underlying metaphysical and philosophical support (115).

Based as they are on a metaphysics of subjectivity and presence, it is clear that modern legal institutions will simply never regard animals as full legal subjects anymore than anthropocentric moral discourse will ever regard animals as full ethical subjects. And this should come as no surprise, given that traditional legal and moral discourse emerges out of an anthropocentric and metaphysical horizon that is grounded on chauvinism and exceptionalism. The dominant strategy of trying to reform this tradition rather than calling it radically into question is understandable but should be seen ultimately as a failure of imagination on the part of animal rights theorists.

Derrida would have us recast the question of the animal along entirely different lines and try to imagine other ways of conceiving of animal life and ethical relations between human beings and animals. The first thing to which Derrida would have us attend is the manner in which the concept of subjectivity has been constituted historically (131).

There’s also a section linking deconstruction and vegetarianism (132-135), which I appreciated, but this is already getting a bit long.

What all of this leads to is an idea I think we can all benefit from:

Might not the challenge for philosophical thought today be to proceed altogether without the guardrails of the human-animal distinction and to invent new concepts and new practices along different paths (149)?

Stay tuned for a post on Francione’s new book, as well as another book on CUP’s list: This is Not Sufficient, by Leonard Lawlor.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dan #

    Thanks for the brief scoop on Zoographies, Mary. I’ll put the book on my list.

    I couldn’t agree more that we need to annihilate the human-animal distinction, which is based on old, ignorant religious myths, prejudices, and superstitions instead of the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting natural selection and the *overlapping continuum* of the consciousness of beings. Even if all humans possessed more awareness and sentience than all nonhuman beings (which is very far from the scientific facts), Darwin’s true claim that any separation is one “of degree, not kind”, one of quantity, not quality ought to make us horrified at the moral atrocities of animal agriculture, especially as it has been practiced since the industrial revolution.

    I also wholeheartedly agree with Wendy Lochner’s intention to foster an interdisciplinary approach to animal rights. Philosophical arguments can demonstrate clearly how arbitrary (i.e. irrational) we are in our treatment of various species, but these arguments are limited in changing the minds of typically arbitrary, irrational creatures such as humans. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, ethology, economics, politics, literature, arts and all of their combinations and sub-disciplines are required to tackle this monster.

    June 19, 2008
  2. jeannie #

    Mary, have you read a book called Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times? The author Nicole Shukin writes from a philosophical angle. I trudged through the first few dozen pages. I don’t have a strong background in philosophy, particularly outside AR, so it’s not an easy read for me. I don’t believe the book is presenting any animal rights message, but rather it seems to be more of an in-depth analysis of the meshing of reality/flesh and symbolism of nonhuman animals as forms of capital. I am also reading a bunch of other books that I am more interested in at the moment, so I'll probably finish it at some future date. If you read it (Animal Capital), please let your readers (me!) know what you think.

    I’m also wondering if you or any of your readers have read the (fiction) book Animals by Don LePan? If so, what did you think of it? I haven’t read it. Looks like it might be interesting.

    January 29, 2010
  3. Mary #

    I don't know if Animal Capital but I will definitely check it out. You're the first person to mention that and Don LePan, who drops by here once in a while! I do have that book but Dunayer is an absolute must for me right now so hers are next. So much to read, so little time! I'll report on all of them eventually!

    January 30, 2010

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