|More Theory, Please|
The Random Animal apologies for inflicting what follows (including bibliography and a note) on gentle and busy readers. The 27 page essay below is a prequel (like the movie made after Star Wars about what happened before) to a review scheduled to be published within a few days, and is placed here for reference. Like the prequel to Star Wars, it can be skipped with no ill effects. There are no appearances by Harrison Ford.
Author: Priscilla Paton. Published in jac: a quarterly journal for the interdisciplinary study of rhetoric, writing, multiple literacies, and politics Vol. 30, num. 3-4, 2010: 557-582. Currently not available elsewhere online.
Theory: Gone to the Dogs
“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as the dog does.” Christopher Morley, American writer and humorist (1890-1957)
I would like to begin this conversation with a dream:
If my dog were smarter, if he could intuit others’ needs. If he (neutered) could see, hear, or smell beyond race, class, and gender to a proactive partnering, then I could narrate the necessary shaggy-dog-story, the life-knowingness needed in the techno-fundamentalist-corporate conflict/consumption culture to transform it to something of kin, of kindness in kinship, I would have a theory. But mostly my dog sleeps.
Homo sapiens is a meaning-making, meaning-debating animal, as my dream implies, and our species’ contested territory and subsequent rhetorical strategizing encompass what to think of non-human animals. Though these others have occupied the imagination since humans became humans, they are often lost in theoretical gaps beneath the consideration of grand teleologies and critiques of pure reason. Now animals are the muses in discussions of human morality, while the phrase “Animal Studies” has little to do with gigging frogs in labs and much to do with the formation of cultural values and power structures. Embedded in many contemporary discussions is a salvation narrative: the animal question becomes, can animals save us from ourselves?
This may sound counter-intuitive at a time when human interventions threaten numerous species. But movies from the lyrical Winged Migration to Marley & Me find large audiences, and popular books offer testimony about the redeeming presence and wry wisdom offered by a chimp, dog, horse, lion, or hog.[i] Interdisciplinary conferences explore human/animal issues and indicate that intellectual attention has taken many channels since Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation of 1975 decried the suffering of resource species and since John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals” of 1977 lamented animals’ “cultural marginalisation” (Singer, Berger 1). Philosophers draw on Utilitarian, Kantian, and Contractarian premises to propose ethical foundations for treatment of animals. Jeremy Bentham’s question—“can they suffer?”—is much cited and enhanced by “can they feel pleasure?” (Balcombe) Those who prefer a continental approach to animals invoke Jacques Derrida or Emmanuel Levinas. Primatologist Frans de Waal at Emory and ethologist Marc Bekoff at University of Colorado have followed Donald Griffin’s lead in making research on animal mindedness safe for scientists. Postmodern thought in particular has embraced consideration of the “animal” as another means of unsettling assumptions about human centrality. Donna Haraway, Harriet Ritvo, Cary Wolfe, Martha Nussbaum, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, along with a growing contingent of scholars, render the animal question significant to “posthuman” critique. This critique asks how we are to conceive of human agency and responsibility in a global society infused by technology and complicated by multiplicities of difference, including the difference of other species. The answers are sought not only in theoretical principles, but in the appeal of narrative.
As Henry David Thoreau or Claude Lévi-Strauss might remind us, animals are cast as characters and assigned symbolic weight, often to their literal detriment. What is required of animals, in theory, that they might save us, so we in turn might save them?
The Human Fallacy
If Homo sapiens is a species of habit (sometimes maladaptive) and learned behavior (sometimes acquired in error), then renewed sensitivity to interaction with other lives is always welcome. Rethinking the animal challenges longstanding conceptions of subjectivity, language and reason; the interaction of biology and culture in the construction of a living being; the species divide and ethical boundaries; and social contracts that heavily privilege empowered, “superior” human beings. Curiously, while the meaning of being human undergoes morphing in these discussions, the connotations of “humane” and “inhumane” remain stable. A subtext recurs that the best man or woman among us may be a dog, and through the cutting-edge jargon traditional ideals emerge: humanity defined by empathy and compassion, the value of hard mutual work, the power of love, and the power of stories about that love.
The resonance of “humanity” and the problem of illustrating that and the opposing “inhumanity” occur in selections from Peter Singer and Jacques Derrida. The Utilitarian and the Deconstructionist both compare the slaughter and consumption of animals to crimes against humanity. Singer, as do many animal rights advocates, stresses parallels with the oppression of marginalized people: “Just as it was convenient for the slave traders and slave owners to believe that they were justified in treating people of African descent as property, so too it is convenient for humans to believe that they are justified in treating animals as things that can be owned, and to deny that they have interests that give rise to moral claims upon us” (“Preface” xii). Derrida, in his essay “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” indicts “the unprecedented proportions of this subjection of the animal” (119). He employs another controversial analogy in associating the production and slaughter of animals with genocide and the Holocaust:
One should neither abuse the figure of genocide nor consider it explained away. For it gets more complicated here: the annihilation of certain species is indeed in process, but it is occurring through the organization and exploitation of an artificial, infernal, virtually interminable survival, in conditions that previous generations would have judged monstrous [. . .]. As if, for example, instead of throwing people into ovens or gas chambers (let’s say Nazi) doctors and geneticists had decided to organize the overproduction and overgeneration of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing numbers for the same hell. (120)
Singer’s and Derrida’s statements imply that in the treatment of animals old-fashioned sins of omission and commission mate with modern technologies of habitat alteration, mass production, and mass slaughter to engender greater evil. Underlying these controversial analogies is the assumption that the human should be an ethical animal (an Aristotelian thought), and the implication that people should act as if morality were innate. The passages implicitly but unequivocally reject domination, destructiveness, and violence as typical human traits, or part of the human animal’s behavior. (History, however, history has shown our species’ strong predilection for such “inhumanities.”) In other words, to be fully “human,” which will allow the animal to be fully animal, the human being must be trained away from destructive or predatory tendencies to become compassionate and altruistic in supporting autonomous lives across species lines.
Postmodern theorists are practiced at unpacking the rhetoric of others, yet with the animal question they may need to take care with their own terms for credibility’s sake. Although Derrida offers the disclaimer that “the figure of genocide” should not be abused,” such comparisons of extreme human suffering with the suffering of animals excite dissension. J.M. Coetzee dramatizes the debate in his novel Elizabeth Costello. At academic lectures, the character Elizabeth Costello chooses to talk about cruelty to animals rather than the novels that made her famous, and she boldly employs the Holocaust analogy:
‘Let me say it openly: we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.’ (65)
As a result of her remarks, the university’s resident poet, Abraham Stern, declines to have dinner with her. His letter of explanation turns on his sense of the moral confusion embedded in her rhetoric:
‘You took over for your own purposes the familiar comparison between the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle. The Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle die like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words which I will not accept. You misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I would even say you misunderstand willfully, to the point of blasphemy.’ (94)
Coetzee leaves the issue unresolved for his readers: Costello does not reply to the letter, and her responses to questions about animal rights are vague and evasive. (The section of the novel that revolves around Costello’s talk constituted Coetzee’s own presentation, “The Lives of Animals,” for the 1997-98 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University.) Left hanging is the charge that the Holocaust analogy consists of “a trick with words.”
Bold analogies can be a form of shouting—sometimes a necessary means of communication, but not a very precise one. The moral validity of analogies remains an enormously crucial topic for human expression and thought, one that I cannot fully address. The fictional Elizabeth Costello might argue that resistance to slavery or holocaust analogies proves that animals are considered lesser in some perception of ultimate value. On the other hand, groups who have been historically enslaved, debased, or massacred may believe that such comparisons dilute and even dishonor cultural memories and the profound lessons of specific experiences. In other words, the trope of kinship has been too loosely applied. Perhaps “ethnic cleansing” and the deaths of people in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur recall the holocaust in a way that meat-processing factories do not. People are acculturated to care for those biologically or socially close. As philosopher Mary Midgley explains, “it is plausible enough that our tendency to respond differentially to our own species is a natural one. All social creatures attend mostly to members of their own species, and usually ignore others” (Animals 105).
The argument could also be made that comparisons to atrocities against human beings simplify the historical circumstances of animals. A central issue is that the acceptance of animal slaughter has been a norm since humans began hunting and gathering, a “fact” of appropriate and ordinary existence. In other words, killing “livestock” has not been viewed as a sadistic pathology. This calm acceptance is exactly why opponents of animal slaughter turn to loaded analogies, but the analogies’ loaded impact can undermine their persuasiveness with the status quo.
While controversial analogies evoke ancient concepts of evil as the hatred and ruin of another, much theoretical rhetoric has a post-Marxist, post-feminist slant, in emphasizing, to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the “violence inherent in the system.” The animal question, in its focus on the disenfranchised exploited for others’ benefit, enters into critiques of corporate, interventionist, and imperialist ideologies. It challenges hierarchical modes of thought that assume the exceptional, prosperous human is rightly dominant and justified in manipulating environments, economies, or peoples who lag behind, in manipulating whatever is “lesser.” In other words, revised concepts of human and animal argue against what Fredric Jameson calls the “logic of capitalism.” Capitalism, with its depersonalized, often invisible, modes of production, becomes the ultimate enemy of animals. Films like the animated Meatrix and the documentary Food, Inc. provide stomach-churning support for this view in depicting unsanitary, unhealthy scenes in which animals cannot pursue their natural behaviors and suffer a mechanized death.
Yet, as theorists are well aware, the modern economy did not invent cruelty or killing of animals. Linda Kalof, in her book Looking at Animals in Human History, chronicles ancient patterns of over-hunting and abuse. Her examples include Palaeolithic hunters who “killed randomly, slaughtering more animals than were needed for survival” and hastening the extinction of Ice Age mammals; the Romans goading animals with weapons and fire so they would fight-to-the-death in the coliseums; the medieval practices of bear-baiting and rituals using animal parts to shame people, particularly “women who transgressed patriarchal norms”; and the use of horses in war, mills, agriculture, and transportation, all of which pushed them “inexorably towards an early death and the boiling house” (7, 93, 135). The killing and misuse of animals is much more than a by-product of capitalism.
Current ideologies and economies, like those of the past, certainly channel the treatment of animals and the forms of protest. In twenty-first century America, habitat loss and climate change threaten wild species—the polar bear is one dire example. The chances of extermination through hunting, however, are lessened by such laws as the Endangered Species Act; and preservation efforts draw on a relatively affluent, educated populace for donations and scientific research. In previous centuries, rural and working class people who relied on draft and food animals for their livings were scorned as the worst abusers. Now corporate policies and food conglomerates receive the blame (though the handling of animals is still relegated to lower class employees). In eras that lacked modern veterinary expertise, animal control looked much like animal cruelty: it depended largely on extermination or “violence by community consensus” (Grier 191). While the drowning of kittens routinely controlled the cat population, summer round-ups and slaughter kept stray dogs (choked “with wire lassos and sometimes clubbed or shot”) off the streets to purportedly stem rabies (Grier 209, 193).
Pets in twenty-first century households generally benefit from the high standard of living with quality food, health-care, and positive training methods. During the late 1800s, in comparison, the desire to protect animals fell under the middle-class ethos of wise paternalism softened with feminine kindness. Katherine Grier explains in Pets in America that this paradigm “was widely accepted by American families who embraced Victorian culture’s ideals of gentility, liberal evangelical theology, and domesticity, and their attendant beliefs in social progress and moral uplift. Gentle treatment of animals was regarded as an important attribute of good character and a useful test for distinguishing a good neighbor and citizen from a bad one” (235). These views, which seem familiar yet condescending and cloying at the same time, had of course their flaws. For example, bees who worked in community were good, while carnivores that preyed “on weak and helpless creatures” were bad (235-236). Current postmodern rhetoric has significantly debunked Victorian hierarchies and energized thinking about animals, but it has also spawned difficulties. The plot of animals as the oppressed to be liberated falters on animals’ inability to become “equals” in systems of human governance. Nor does the liberation plot’s emphasis on the individual readily translate into environmental concepts of population fluctuation and predator/prey relations. Peter Singer himself warns against simplistic understandings of “speciesism,” which echoes “racism,” “sexism,” and other terms of identity politics and social justice rhetoric: “it is worth saying a little about what the rejection of speciesism does not imply. It does not mean that animals have all the same rights as you and I have” (“Introduction” 4-5). Postmodern theorists struggle with their own vocabulary, seeking the cogent terms and the convincing plot of change.
Rethinking the animal entails rethinking biological, cultural, and symbolic kinship and an “ethical taxonomy”: that is, the categories that shape differential treatments. In Scandalous Knowledge: Science Truth and the Human, Barbara Herrnstein Smith presents the porous, shifting character of taxonomic distinctions: “Once the straightforward truth of our human distinctiveness is unsettled by the straightforward truth of our animal identity, there’s no point, or at least no more obviously natural point, beyond which the claims of our kinship with other creatures—or, indeed, beings of any kind—could not be extended” (154). Theorizing about animals thus involves examination of likeness and difference, but the parallels and divergences are difficult to determine and human perception of them highly influences reception of particular species. Whether in animal-rights advocacy, academic theory, or wildlife management, uncertainty exists about how to respond to the Animal Kingdom’s vast range. Smith poses these not-so-rhetorical questions: “Should we, for example, have care for dogs, cats, cows and horses, but not birds, snakes or butterflies? For leopards and walruses but not lobsters or oysters? For all these, but not wasps, ticks or lice?” (154). Preferences lie with charismatic mega-fauna—a familiar label now for species like primates, elephants, dolphins, or dogs. We humans align ourselves understandably with animals that are like us and that might also like us. As a result, concepts that foster narratives of beneficial relationships and positive change dominate examples of animal-human correspondence.
We believe in the existence of very special becomings-animal traversing human beings and sweeping them away […]. For if becoming animal does not consist in playing animal or imitating an animal, it is clear that the human being does not “really” become an animal anymore than the animal “really” becomes something else. Deleuze and Guattari (87)
Deleuze and Guattari’s “Becoming-animal” (which is not completely in my ken) seems about a transfiguration of human thought, not about anything that actually happens to an armadillo. And Donna Haraway deconstructs the arrogance and condescension in their assertion that “anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool” (When Species Meet 27-28). Nonetheless, Deleuze and Guattari’s rhapsody converges with other trends. Again, contemplating the animal is liberating for the human, especially for the human warped by institutions that Deleuze and Guattari label as the “State.” Also, the phrase “becoming-animal” resonates with current interest in animal cognition and social development—with how the animal develops his behaviors. Certain mammals and birds display intentionality, self-recognition, proto-ethical behavior, and awareness that another individual has a different thought process. As Natalie Angier writes for The New York Times, “Researchers who study highly gregarious and relatively brainy species like rhesus monkeys, baboons, dolphins, sperm whales, elephants and wolves have lately uncovered evidence that the creatures engage in extraordinarily sophisticated forms of politicking, often across large and far-flung social networks.” So when a wolf pup is interacting with a pack, scientists study how she reacts with other members to become “wolf.” Or, to borrow from Descartes (who with his mechanistic view of animals is probably turning over in his grave) the wolf thinks; therefore she is.
If animals, and humans, are in some process of “becoming,” that suggests possibilities for change, for new patterns in a bildungsroman (even if in the animal’s case that means becoming predictably like preceding species members). The language of becoming, or of the human and animal becoming something together, inspires fresh analogies for responding effectively and ethically to forms of otherness within the human species. So with Animal Studies, love walks in, on four feet.
Redeemed by Love
“At the end of the day, no one loves you as unconditionally as dogs do.” This statement, which I heard from the overworked manager of an animal rescue shelter, is echoed in academic discourse on the value of crossing the species line. In The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Donna Haraway, the prescient prophet of cyborg existence and the inseparability of technology, nature, and culture, explores the possibilities of “biosociality.” She asks how an “ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness” might be “learned from taking dog-human relationships seriously” (3). Social, communicative animals—dogs, horses, dolphins—and Homo sapiens could cohabit and benefit each other.
For the late philosopher-poet-animal trainer Vicki Hearne, the process of responsible training transports animal and human into the realm of shared purposes and at best crosses the threshold to art. Her essays in Adam’s Task: Calling Animals By Name elevate disciplined partnership: “It is [. . .] as though the rider thinks and the horse executes the thought, without mediation or any sort of cuing; but it is also the other way around on the back of a great horse—it is as though the horse thinks and the rider creates, or becomes, a space and direction for the execution of the horse’s thoughts” (163). Temple Grandin, the autistic designer of slaughter houses which are less terrifying to livestock on death row, begins Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior from the opposite pole, with “a bunch of emotionally disturbed teenagers living with a bunch of emotionally disturbed animals” (2). But she reaches transcendence similar to Hearne’s. After claiming that “Animals saved me,” Grandin explains how teenagers learn responsibility and the “art” of interaction with horses: “riding a horse isn’t what it looks like: it isn’t a person sitting in a saddle telling the horse what to do by yanking on the reins. Real riding is a lot like ballroom dancing or maybe figure skating in pairs. It’s a relationship” (4-5). Trained animals are thus idealized and their submission to training by a dominating species softened. Then, as Marjorie Garber observes in Dog Love, the animal becomes “the repository of those model human properties that we have cynically ceased to find among humans” (15). The notion of the model animal can be taken further: people look for a respite from human folly in the civilizing order of Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer television series and family values in the film March of the Penguins.
There’s more here than puppy love. Concepts like “discipline,” “self-sacrifice,” and “standards” often receive a postmodern unpacking as terms that shore up a privileged group’s status when these traits are applied to the group itself but not, say, to hip-hop artists, the unreligious, or the poor. However, some postmodern discussions of human and animals working together rehabilitate the language of discipline. The duties of the sheep trial and agility field training elide into human relationships, and the success of cross-species cooperation implies the following: it is time to set aside whining about the “other”—spouse, office mate, or enemy—and instead all should settle into the “work” of getting along, as animal and trainer do. Haraway provides an example in The Companion Species Manifesto: “I believe that all ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation” (50). Within the context of dog agility exercises, she finds authenticity in words usually presented as corrupt in postmodern critique of oppressive social systems, words like “self-actualizing motivation,” or “freedom and authority” (46-47).
The relationships between horse and rider, dog and trainer, then provide models of purposeful well being not based on simplistic ideas of live and let live, but on mutual effort and the evolution of communication that spans difference. Love saves, not because it is unconditional, but through awareness of limitations and the need to establish understanding, control, and trust. Hearne’s tales of difficult animals, in need of the insightful trainer to bring them back into a relationship, highlights the skill required to bring species together and foreshadows the current fashion that rejects punishment in favor of positive modification. Haraway also rejects quick and easy love: “Adopting a shelter dog takes a lot of work [. . .] and a willingness to submit to a governing apparatus sufficient to activate the allergies of any Foucauldian or garden-variety libertarian. I support that apparatus—and many other kinds of institutionalized power—to protect classes of subjects, including dogs” (Companion Species 94). Keeping a dog is work, but owners may expect a dog to do his share by sustaining them emotionally. Jon Katz, in The New Work of Dogs, writes of the increasing need that a technological, career-oriented society with fragmented social bonds creates for emotional attachment to some responsive being, and that being is often a pet: “if dogs’ roles are a mirror of America, and I think they are, then they faithfully reflect its hard, disaffected, and increasingly lonely underside” (209-10). There is a corollary, according to Katz. If people expect complex emotional support from creatures who light up for liver treats, without educating themselves and their pets about reasonable behavior, then the dogs “will suffer” (16).
If the attraction to animals first appears as a spontaneous sensory response, living well with them requires the development of patience, forbearance, rules comprehensible to all involved species, and supporting social networks. The experienced animal companion, in such a model, could have foreseen that rescuing people of a very different mindset (for example, Iraqis under the governance of Saddam Hussein) would require far more than a declaration of freedom, or the liberated will bite back.
Believe in Science, But Not Too Much
Not only is faith in love (and in educated socialization) redeemed in writings on the animal, so is faith in science. The climate for science during the administration of President George W. Bush was hostile when findings ran contrary to various conservative agendas. Then and now, however, attention to the animal revives an everyday interest in scientific offerings. Studies of behavior provide non-threatening insights into the minds of favorite creatures and practical tips for training. With resource animals, such as beef and hogs, clarification of their responses results in better handling methods and a reduction of stress en route to slaughter. (The moral of this research might be that a “happy animal makes a tasty animal.”)
Besides informing the pragmatic handling of animals, ethology—the study of animal behavior—and “evo-devo”—the study of embryonic development as shaped by evolution and the environment (“Evolution”)—offer means of smoothing the relationship between hard sciences and their postmodern critics, who have punctured the concepts of absolute authority and objectivity. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, in Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human, defends constructivist critiques of “logical-analytic” methods and in the chapter “Animal Relatives, Difficult Relations” scrutinizes the different discourses, including scientific ones, on animals. She weighs “alternative forms of knowledge-investigation” to explain the nuances (3):
[C]onstructivist accounts of specifically scientific truth and knowledge see them not as the duly epistemically privileged products of intrinsically orthotropic methods of reasoning or investigation (‘logic’ or ‘scientific method’) but, rather, as the more or less stable products of an especially tight mutual shaping of perceptual, conceptual and behavioural [. . .] practices in conjunction with material/technological problems or projects that have especially wide cultural, economic and/or political importance. (4)
If this seems a grudging and obtuse definition of scientific advances, Haraway, who has also challenged assumptions about science, bluntly acknowledges its importance in comprehending animals: “Species is about biological kind, and scientific expertise is necessary to that kind of reality” (Companion Species 15).
While “species” and “taxonomies” depend on rigorous classification and revision influenced by genome research, they are also social constructions. Harriet Ritvo in researching pre-Darwinian conceptions of animals finds that “the category of ‘beasts’ has never been either homogeneous or stable” (66). Smith again notes that taxonomic “categories are not abstract, neutral, inert containers but shifting tendencies to perceive and respond in some ways rather than others” (155). Specific, transient contexts matter: the lamb with a name is a pet; the lamb without a name is dinner. On the other hand, species difference must be respected. Putting the word “pet” in front of Ursus arctos does not make the creature safe, as Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man horrifically demonstrated when Timothy Treadwell was killed by the species he loved.
In addition, biological sciences have outgrown the old nature-versus-nurture debate, source of rancorous conflict about innate or socialized differences. Craig Stanford, anthropologist and co-director of the Jane Goodall Primate Research Center, claims in Significant Others: The Ape-Human Continuum and the Quest for Human Nature that nature versus nurture is a “false” dichotomy that “should finally be put to rest” (xvii). Research has shifted to the interaction of genetics, organism, and environment. As Haraway says of an organism’s development in a specific time and place, “Differential, context-specific plasticities are the rule, sometimes genetically assimilated and sometimes not [. . .]. There is no time or place at which genetics ends and environment begins” (Companion Species 32)
While science offers fun lessons about animals from neurotic terriers to plotting meerkats, it joins philosophy and postmodern theory in chipping away at human exceptionalism. The “animal,” as W. J. T Mitchell summarizes, is no longer “a straightforward antithesis and counterpart to ‘the’ human” (xii). A 2006 piece in The Economist, “Close Cousins,” summarizes research which “concludes that humans and chimpanzees interbred after the two species first separated, before eventually going their different ways some 5.4 million years ago” (82). Ethologists no longer talk of simple auto-instinctive responses. Instead they find examples of tool use, intentionality, self-awareness, complex communication, and responses labeled as “proto-ethical” (Smith 157).
Such research causes discomfort in several arenas: the fear that accepting evolution will undermine theological and ethical foundations; the scoffing concern over a blunt equality—if animals enjoy “rights” then plants, material objects, and entities with artificial intelligence must be considered; the view that people eat, dissect, drug, and inflict all kinds of pain on creatures of intelligence and awareness; and the worry shared by humanists and postmodernists that biological determinism will dominate interpretations of human behavior. That determinism and over-simplified versions of evolutionary psychology result, Barbara Herrnstein Smith fears, in “a vulgar eagerness to transfer explanations as rawly as possible from barnyard and jungle to contemporary human societies” (164). (Some might argue, however, that the barnyard and jungle are not as “raw” as humanity generally assumes.) Because science and ethics can side with views of animals as biologically determined resources or with views of animals as complex sentient beings, the truces among disciplines remain fragile.
Save the Animal, Rescue the Human
“Kinship” reappears as a central trope in recognition of biological and ethical connections that could replace such concepts about animals as “nuisance” or “property.” Despite wariness about fissures in the species divide, human beings generally accept a likeness with animals, with some individuals seeking an indefinable deeper kinship. As Harriet Ritvo concludes, “A deep acknowledgment of similarity remains as firmly embedded in contemporary culture as does the scientific or theological assertion of difference” (66). Rediscovering kinship can also take the form of a narrative quest, an ongoing plot with complications. In The Companion Species Manifesto, Haraway hopes even “the dog phobic” will embrace positive human/animal interaction as a trope for living beneficially with otherness, for creating a whole of disparate members that is more than its parts (3). (This attitude glosses over stereotypes in which animal lovers range from socially inept to violently misanthropic.) Her model, echoed in popular books on how an animal turned a person’s life around, assumes that human behavior will improve—without a breeding program. Jan Dizard, who studied conflicts over controlling the deer population in a Massachusetts reserve, quotes an animal rights activist on the belief that caring for animals will grow into universal empathy:
“I think if we have compassion for other species, we will have compassion for one another, we will have compassion for our environment [. . .]. What’s going to happen is that we will expand our consciousness from self to family to community to world community to other species [. . .] to trees and water. (127)
Variations of this utopian concept have been around longer than current intellectual trends—that morality is revealed, according to the Biblical phrase, in caring for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).
An analytical version of concern for the less powerful is offered by philosopher Martha Nussbaum in “The Moral Status of Animals” and Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, as she proposes grounds for extending ethical treatment to beings who cannot participate in social and political processes:
It has been obvious for a long time that the pursuit of global justice requires the inclusion of many people and groups not previously included as fully equal subjects of justice [. . .]. But a truly global justice [. . .] also requires looking around the world at the other sentient beings with whose lives our own are inextricably and complexly intertwined. (“The Moral Status of Animals” B8)
These remarks share the hope that respect for one form of otherness (such as the dolphin, the disabled, or the differently gendered) will extend to respect for many forms of otherness (the vampire bat, the fundamentalist, the liberal).
Humans, however, are selective in their prejudices. In Animals and Why They Matter, philosopher Mary Midgley warns, “We can no more think sensibly about our duties to animals-in-general than to human-beings-in general” (26). She expands on the consistency of human inconsistency in her essay “Is a Dolphin a Person?”: “Spasms of regard, tenderness, comradeship and even veneration, alternating with unthinking callousness, seem to make up the typical human attitude to [animals]. And towards fellow-human-beings too, a rather similar alternation is often found” (Utopias 112). People may love their pets, hate their neighbors. In interviews with shelter workers who attend to abandoned and abused animals, I have found those who admit that they develop a very low opinion of other people and become angry. Tolerance is preached, but it breaks down toward those who have not embraced the message. As Dizard discovered in the Massachusetts case, “The proponents of animal rights and the hunters are unintelligible to one another. Hunters cannot fathom how people who profess love for animals can sit idly by knowing that deer are going to be starving to death. Animal rights advocates cannot, for their part, comprehend how hunters can claim to love the animals they so eagerly seek to kill” (125). While deer inspire conflict, creatures like feral hogs receive less compassionate press. In theory and in practice, some animals are more equal than others.
The Semantics of Human Difference
So thinking about the animal revives utopian intentions: the power of bonding through affectionate education, faith in science connected with compassion, hope for broadening understanding of others and restoring their agency. Many sticking points remain, of course. The difficulty of including animals in our moral sphere—the crisis of the plot—comes back to difference, to the exception that is Homo sapiens, the species capable of concocting philosophies of utilitarianism, inherent dignity, contractarianism, unstable language, or sustainability in biotic communities. As scientists and philosophers blur the lines between species, they trip over the paradox of exceptionalism: human beings must be humble and “humane” as they take the high road of justice with those who cannot reciprocate or effectively retaliate. Formulations that echo “humanistic” principles, as Cary Wolfe asserts in Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, widen the philosophic chasm between human and animal by reinstating “the very humanism” they appear “to unsettle” (9). Consequently, the significant subject remains “always already human” (1). Decentering one’s self is no easy task, and so far it seems that no other species (with the possible exception of dogs) attempts this.
The concept of “the animal” is also embedded in assumptions about beings and behaviors that “the human” should control or eliminate. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva associates the abject with unfamiliarity, a lack of kinship, and "the threatening world of animals or animalism [. . .] representatives of sex and murder" (12-13). W. J. T. Mitchell comments on the “abject” animal in his preface to Cary Wolfe’s book: the animal as abject or as “merely below or beside” the normative “’human’” is a “prejudice that is so deep and ‘natural’ that we can scarcely imagine human life without it” (xiv). Wolfe develops ideas from continental philosophers to conclude that “Western subjectivity and sociality” depend “on the tacit agreement that the full transcendence of the ‘human’ requires the sacrifice of the ‘animal’ and the animalistic, which in turn makes possible a symbolic economy in which we can engage in what Derrida will call a ‘noncriminal putting to death’ of other humans as well by marking them as animal” (6).
Perhaps there are at least two ways around the dilemma of the marginalized, conceptually unapproachable, abject, sacrificed animal. Accept that humans will act within the circumference of constructed “humane” behavior to define within biological, environmental, and social contexts the responsibilities that come with the big brain. Such an endeavor must be constantly reexamined, as animal studies encourages. If this view circles back too readily to the dominating stance that harms animals and muddles thinking, perhaps further deconstruction should be applied. Though “reason” is no longer offered as the absolute line separating human from animal, and certain species are allowed mindedness and a sort of culture, the implications remain that human impulsiveness, bodily urges, selfishness, and destructiveness are the “animalistic” that must be sacrificed. These implications should be challenged.
Dramatic film scenes of predators ripping apart prey demonstrate why we read “violent” as animal. However, anthropologists and scientists for a time debated whether certain forms of violence, such as genocide, are a specifically human behavior. The answer offered by Jared Diamond is that parallels exist between primate and human “xenophobia,” but human brainpower enhances the “strategic planning” of murders (290-94). Perhaps humans should “own” violence, not in the Nietzschean sense of destiny, not as the inheritance from “beasts,” but as a behavior derived from hominid ancestors. So-called primitive responses should not be read simply as vestiges of some animal phase. As Craig Stanford explains, “Both lay readers and scientists misread evolution’s signature easily and often. Chimpanzees are not evolutionarily challenged people, and people did not evolve from gorillas. . . [though] we share a common ancestor in the nearly invisible past” (xv). To give another example, as modern wolves evolved from wolf-like forbears to have the capacity to kill and to create kinship structures, so humans evolved from human-like forebears to have the capacity to kill and create kinship structures.
The current debate about human violence as literally and metaphorically animal-like has not emphasized enough that such violence, like love, results from genetics interacting continuously with environment and learned behaviors: another “nature-and-nurture” issue. Violence and abuse of others are not just impulsive acts, but also highly socialized behaviors, which is why animal activists can hope for change. Humans can be educated, though it takes longer than training a dog. What should be stressed, to return to the topic that concerned Singer and Derrida, is that “humane” behavior is not what separates us from the “animal.” Rather, the “humane” separates us from the other “human,” the one that harbors—often in sophisticated, culturally encoded ways—arrogance, dominance, and cruelty.
Intuition and Imagination
To extend empathy and justice across the divides of otherness and species difference, scholars and popular writers invoke intuition and imagination. The call for empathy, while echoing ancient dictums, counters the limits of understanding set by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s pronouncement, “if a lion could talk, we could not understand him" (Wood 134) and Thomas Nagel’s contention that the subjective sense of being a bat is “inaccessible” (7). Contemporary defenders of animals in the disciplines of philosophy, biology, and natural history recognize the pitfalls of delusional anthropomorphism and sentimentality. Nonetheless, as Martha Nussbaum insists, “imagining and storytelling remind us in no uncertain terms that animal lives are many and diverse, with multiple activities and ends both within each species and across species” (Frontiers 355).
What Nussbaum and others have in mind is not accepting one’s dog as one’s baby or an orangutan as a social equal. Rather, stark facts without context or interpretation, as enlightenment thinkers and postmodernists agree, cannot provide substance and guidance. Also, realms of experience and knowledge are beyond human grasp or resist logical-positivist explanation—what does a lion or bat “really” feel and why are they part of the universe in the first place? Nonetheless, what eludes analysis should not be dropped from consideration: humans interact with the incomprehensible daily. Thomas Nagel concludes in “What is it Like to be a Bat?” that “to deny the reality or logical significance of what we can never describe or understand is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance” (6). Consequently, a single school of thought is insufficient for improving human interaction with animals. Mary Midgley acknowledges the importance of theories without deifying them: “No theory has the absolute dominion which Utilitarianism [for example] so mistakenly claimed. None can make the whole moral scene intelligible” (Utopias 131). Intuition and imagination are certainly not infallible, but they fill in the gaps between concepts to approach a holistic response to ethical, environmental, and emotional quandaries involving animals.
This sense of intuition informs Nussbaum’s theoretical contribution in Frontiers of Justice, the “capabilities” approach, which outlines “core social entitlements” based on a being’s physical, intellectual, social, and emotional capacities (75-79). This approach includes those who fall outside the dominant “contract” principles of government and business, to land under the headings of “impairment and disability,” “nationality,” and “species membership.” In seeking to “suitably [enlarge] conceptions of reciprocity and dignity,” Nussbaum avoids terms like “absolute,” “inherent,” and “foundational,” but speaks of core concepts like “the dignity of the human being” as a “basic intuitive idea” (25). This method has what pragmatist William James would call “cash value.” That is, Nussbaum seeks a “practical philosophy” that is both “critical and constructive” so that abstract concepts of justice can be applied to changing real-world situations (4-5). To move beyond epistemological conundrums, Nussbaum justifies reliance on intuited concepts: “We can agree that the capabilities approach does indeed rely on intuition—although not on uncriticized preferences [. . .]. That is, some deep moral intuitions and considered judgments about human dignity do play a fundamental role in the theory, although they are never immune from criticism in the light of other elements of the theory” (83).
With animals, human imagination can distort their lives, as philosophers like Peter Singer have stressed and as any Disney cartoon can prove. However, Nussbaum acknowledges, “All of our ethical life involves, in this sense, an element of projection, a going beyond the facts as they are given” (354). The imagination, in Mary Midgley’s words, “is a central part of our mental equipment for any serious study” (Utopias 142). If “imagination” and “intuition” sound too romantic for postmodern use, they converge with the flexibility and negative capability of mind that can comprehend “historical specificity and contingent mutability” (Haraway, Companion Species 12) or engage in “necessarily ambivalent, contingent assessment” to respond compassionately to unresolved “conceptual and ethical problems” (Smith 166).
The imagination of ethicists then parallels the “critical anthropomorphism” of ethologists and other scientists. Frans de Waal distinguishes between fantasy and false projection and the “use of anthropomorphism as a means to get at the truth, rather than an end by itself” (“Foreword” xiii-xvii). Marc Bekoff explains how empirical data can be enhanced by “perceptions, intuitions, feelings, careful behavioral descriptions, identifying with the animal” to approach comprehending what a lion means and what a bat senses (Bekoff). In defending this open-mindedness, Gordon Burghardt argues that he developed the “concept of ‘critical anthropomorphism’ to recognize the multiplicity of information needed for an effective science of comparative psychology” (137). This “multiplicity of information,” of observational and intuited knowledge about animals, is often conveyed through stories—another overlap in the approaches of scientists, theorists, and ordinary people.
The Power of Stories
If imagination and intuition are required, not surprisingly narratives of the inseparability of human and animal lives are also deemed necessary. “Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope”: in this assertion, Haraway directs theorizing about animals to remain open to experiential possibilities (Companion Species 17). Barbara Herrnstein Smith does not offer anecdotes, but concludes with the postmodern view that the “old story” of “our own animality” is always being retold, whether as a fable or as a physiological study (Scandalous Knowledge 166). Martha Nussbaum believes abstractions remain necessary to policies of justice, but illustrates the need for principles with a story about elephants being granted a “dignified existence” in India (Frontiers 325-26). Mary Midgley opens an essay on the legal definition of personhood with the story of young men on trial for releasing dolphins (Utopias 107-08). Derrida writes of being caught “stark naked before a cat”; the cat seems quite reasonable throughout the episode, while the philosopher seems wordily self-absorbed (113-128). Emmanuel Levinas tells the Holocaust tale of how a dog named “Bobby,” unlike the Nazi guards, recognized the humanity of Jewish prisoners (48-49). The examples go on.
But which stories to tell? And which stories are heard? Many current narratives, whether embedded in field observation, scientific trial, philosophical analogy, or personal experience, emphasize a human/animal continuum and the potential of animals to elicit the best of human nature. While stories can transgress the boundaries of ideologies, ideologies (as postmodernists are fond of pointing out) influence what is observed and told.
So again, what stories do we exalt and how do we interpret them? Tales of Hurricane Katrina illuminate human folly and interspecies companionship. The apparatus was inadequate to save humans and even more so animals. Not only were racist social structures laid bare, but the old ethical test—who is thrown from an overcrowded lifeboat—was jettisoned as flood victims insisted on staying put unless their pets were also rescued. Alternative stories might follow the path of a chicken from a Chinese village, or a pig from Mexico, to the beginnings of a pandemic—illustrating the health dangers of lower life forms or of globalization. In already common cases of annoyances becoming threats, some tales focus on how deer, populating cities and suburbs, cause more car collisions—illustrating the need to manage wildlife or the consequences of lost habitat. Some stories arise from paradigms very different from those of benign kinship, like this defense by J. Bruce Overmier of animal-based research: “The Dark Ages were so designated because in Europe there were substantial religious and social prohibitions against activities that might yield new information or new perspectives. These prohibitions applied to the use of animals for dissection as part of anatomical study, and medicine stagnated for nearly a millennium” (15).
Animal Studies, however, prefers stories that cast animals as benevolent innocents. In a time of war, terrorism, global warming, and economic melt-down, it may be salutary to focus on the correspondence between people and animals, to believe that life means more than human conflict. The animal is studied not so much to recover the human as the humane. The danger is that animals, as the messengers and saviors in fables and theory, may be beaten and crucified when their behaviors, even if understood, do not alter human nature. Whatever the semantic disagreements, the theoretical consensus, and the tales of beneficent species, Homo sapiens will be the deciders of animals’ destinies.
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