How Do We Think Human/Animal Differences? – By Ken Stone

Ken Stone on Matthew Calarco’s Thinking through Animals

Matthew Calarco, Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction, Stanford University Press, 2015, 88pp., $12.99
Matthew Calarco, Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction, Stanford University Press, 2015, 88pp., $12.99
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One of the most striking developments in the humanities and social sciences has been the recent increase in attention to animals. The literature associated with such attention travels under multiple labels, including animal studies, human-animal studies, critical animal studies, the animal turn, and posthumanism (though the latter designation includes topics that have little to do with animals). Interest in this emerging interdisciplinary field has been stimulated by contributions from a number of influential thinkers, including Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am and The Beast and the Sovereign, Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto and When Species Meet, and Giorgio Agamben’s The Open. Various academic publishers have launched book series related to animal studies, and several introductions to the rapidly growing field have appeared.

Matthew Calarco’s newest book, Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction, is not an introduction to animal studies in the traditional sense. A philosopher by training, Calarco has already established himself as a helpful guide to some of the philosophical and ethical issues raised by animal studies, particularly in Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (2008). Thinking Through Animals take a different approach by providing a brief but incisive orientation to animal studies in the form of a “theoretical grid” that is organized around three ways of conceptualizing the distinction between humans and other animals. Without attempting to survey all the work that has been done in this area, Calarco nevertheless touches upon a wide range of issues that animate contemporary animal studies.

Nearly all the thinkers discussed by Calarco challenge what he calls the “long-standing, dogmatic tendency within the Western philosophical tradition to deny fundamental similarities among human beings and animals.” This tendency, which Calarco illustrates with brief discussions of Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant, has often served to justify the human use and neglect of animals, facilitating such contemporary consequences as the horrific treatment of animals in factory farming and rapidly increasing species extinctions. Challenges to traditional ways of construing the boundary between humans and animals are diverse, however, and do not always proceed from the same ontological assumptions or carry the same implications for ethics. Calarco discusses such challenges by grouping them into three categories, which he glosses with the terms in his subtitle: identity, difference, and indistinction.

The identity approach takes its point of departure from Darwin’s recognition that humans are also animals, situated on the tree of life alongside other mammals. Calarco is careful to note that the thinkers he associates with identity do not simply ignore differences between humans and other animals. While our evolution has produced characteristics that distinguish us among animal species, there remains “a deep continuity among human beings and animals with respect to certain ethically salient traits and capacities, such as sentience, cognition, subjectivity, and so on.” These “ethically salient traits” are what most interest the theorists Calarco discusses. For example, many animals share interests with humans that are ethically relevant, such as the interest of sentient beings in pleasure rather than pain. To refuse to take these interests into account simply because animals do not belong to the human species is an “unjustifiable prejudice … a kind of speciesism, or granting unjustified privilege to our own species.” Against such prejudices, identity theorists argue that beings with similar interests and capacities deserve similar consideration when ethical decisions are made.

Calarco associates several well-known philosophers with the identity approach, including Peter Singer, who attempts to apply the utilitarian principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” to all sentient lives, whether human or animal; Tom Regan, who argues for animal rights on the basis that many animals as well as humans are “subjects of a life”; and Paola Cavalieri, who suggests that, since many animals possess the intentional agency protected by human rights, such rights ought to be extended to animals. As Calarco notes, the ideas put forward by these thinkers have lent credibility to various proposals for both individual change (e.g., the reduction or elimination of meat in our diets at a time when factory farming has increased the suffering of the animals we eat) and institutional change (e.g., attempts to extend basic rights to great apes on the basis of their similarities to us). That latter example, however, also indicates some of the weaknesses of this approach. By specifying particular features, shared by humans with some animals, as qualifications for ethical consideration, identity theorists may leave out animals who do not display these features to the same degree as our fellow great apes. Indeed, even some humans may fail to qualify for ethical consideration under certain definitions of ethically relevant characteristics.

Calarco thus turns to a second set of approaches to philosophy and ethics that are “based not only on similarity, continuity, or identity but instead on an appreciation of the manifold differences that exist between and among human beings and animals.” Calarco’s primary example here is Derrida, though others are mentioned. Before engaging Derrida explicitly, Calarco helpfully explicates two intellectual developments that lie in the background of Derrida’s animal writings: the critique of humanism, which challenges assumptions about fixed human natures or essences; and the ethics of difference, which emphasizes one’s encounter with, and responsibility for, the Other. Ironically, the distinction between humans and animals tends to structure accounts of human being even in the work of such critics of humanism as Heidegger and Levinas. Rather than challenging this distinction by highlighting similarities between humans and animals as identity theorists do, however, Derrida emphasizes the heterogeneities that cut across both categories. The particularities of human differences (for example, sexual or racial differences) and the particularities of animal differences (for example, between species, or those discovered in encounters with individual animals such as Derrida’s famous description of being seen naked by his cat) need to be taken into account for an ethical response. As difference theorists and such feminist thinkers as Carol Adams, Kelly Oliver, and Kari Weil note, liberalism’s focus on rights and on such capacities as rationality runs the risk of reinscribing hierarchies that exclude not only many animals, but also humans considered less rational than the Western subject of rights.

Although Calarco is clearly sympathetic to the emphasis on difference and its critique of identity, he does note weaknesses in its approach to animals. In distinction from identity theorists, thinkers of difference have been relatively restrained in their political recommendations, supporting initiatives on behalf of animals for pragmatic reasons but without devoting much attention to matters of policy or activism. In making this assessment, Calarco does not ignore Derrida’s “hyperethical … desire to change the status quo in view of justice,” which Derrida emphasizes over the calculations of interests and rights found in the writings of some animal philosophers. Calarco suggests rather that the premises of the difference theorists themselves should lead to greater “experimentation with the very kinds of alternative practices and modes of thought” for which they call. Moreover, Calarco notes that the desire to avoid homogeneity among humans and animals can lead difference theorists, as it apparently led Derrida, to retain some sense of “radical discontinuity” between humans and animals, which Calarco finds problematic. Although Derrida wishes to complicate the boundary between humans and animals rather than maintain its traditional binary form, Calarco’s dissatisfaction with this boundary leads him to a third approach.

The thinkers discussed by Calarco under the rubric “indistinction” include such diverse figures as Agamben, Haraway, Gilles Deleuze, and the environmental philosopher Val Plumwood. Calarco acknowledges here that he is discussing “an emergent approach to animal studies” rather than a clearly defined school of thought. Like writers associated with Calarco’s other two approaches, indistinction theorists challenge conventional ways of drawing ontological and ethical lines between humans and animals. Rather than arguing that some animals are like humans, however, indistinction theorists tend to emphasize, from a less anthropocentric direction, that humans are always already animals. Our fundamental animality is obscured by what Agamben calls “anthropogenesis” or the “anthropological machine,” whereby Western thought and politics produce human being through a separation from animal life. Calarco observes that “the anthropological machine is what philosophers would call a performative apparatus, inasmuch as it enacts and calls into being (which is to say, performs) a certain reality. It is the machine itself that creates, reproduces, and maintains the distinction between human life and animal life.” While Agamben underscores the impact of the anthropological machine on those humans who come to be associated with animality, his call for moving beyond the anthropological machine also resonates with animal theorists (including Calarco) who are concerned about the impact of that machine on non-human animal as well as human lives.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In order to think beyond the negative effects of the anthropological machine, Calarco calls attention to several efforts at reconceptualizing relationships among human beings and animals in less anthropocentric ways. These efforts include Delueze’s notion of “becoming animal”; Plumwood’s reflections on her experience of being attacked by a crocodile, which led to “a ‘shocking reduction’ away from her privileged subject position to a shared zone of coexistence with other edible beings”; and various attempts at explicating “animal creativity and agency,” including “intentional acts of resistance by animals.” But Calarco rightly notes that the anthropological machine is more than a set of ideas. It is also “a series of institutions and apparatuses that capture and reproduce but also constrain and kill animal life.” Challenging the anthropological machine therefore requires a “pro-animal politics,” intersectional alliances between animal activists and other social justice causes, and direct actions taken against the capitalist economies that generate suffering, on a massive scale, among both humans and animals.

“Indistinction” remains the least distinct among Calarco’s three categories. Yet the heterogeneity of thinkers and issues covered under this framework seems, somehow, appropriate. One of Calarco’s points, also made by other philosophers associated with animal studies, including Derrida and Agamben, is that the founding distinction between humans and other animals has explicitly or implicitly structured Western thought and practice. Thus, approaches that try to think beyond this constitutive distinction are bound to seem experimental and, like animals them/ourselves, heterogeneous.

For such a brief volume, Thinking Through Animals covers an impressive amount of material. Calarco’s discussions of animal studies give more attention to philosophical issues and thinkers than to, say, studies in literature, history, or religion. Nevertheless, the relevance of Thinking Through Animals extends beyond philosophy. One could, for example, apply Calarco’s “grid” to the analysis of texts from other fields, asking both how such texts fit within Calarco’s categories and where such texts challenge the categories themselves. Because religions are often assumed, rightly or wrongly, to ground distinctions between humans and animals, it may be especially useful to bring Calarco’s analysis to bear on religious thought and practice. Both Derrida and Agamben have already made clear that the attitudes toward the human/animal distinction that they interrogate have long histories, which do involve religion. From the side of religious studies, new works written in dialogue with animal studies, such as recent books by Aaron Gross and Donovan Schaefer, suggest in different ways that academic studies of religion, and not simply popular practices of religion, are implicated in the construction of lines between humans and animals — and, as a result, in the widespread suffering that such lines make possible. Calarco’s volume, with its combination of thoughtful analysis and ethico-political commitment, will prove to be a useful companion for scholars who are willing to think through animals in their own disciplinary habitats.