Saturday, August 14, 2010

Deconstructing Veganism: Commodity, Reciprocity, & the Killing Contract

As I previously mentioned, most of my blogging over the last year has been on Facebook. I do not have the time to write as masterful posts with extensive and precise citations as before, so I cannot promise future posts will be as organized and nuanced as previous ones. That said, although I have not done so in the past here, future posts like this one will be in response to either a provocative blog entry elsewhere on the web or several related news stories. If we are both so lucky, these posts will probably be shorter reads. Well, we'll see!

Insturmentalism: the Logos of Animal Capital
Anastasia  @ Animal Visions, a highly welcomed blog that just hit the cyber-scene, writes in "What’s the deal with animal use?":

From an ecofeminist and indigenous perspective, use of another living being is not inherently bad; in fact, it’s necessary for survival. The use becomes a major problem when it’s one-sided. That is, living beings in the ecosystem are made... into resources in order to serve one species, and members of that species do not give back in response to what they have received. ... What’s missing in this scenario is reciprocity, which is also missing in our conceptualization of exploitation... The act of “use” wouldn’t be a problem because everyone would be used, and the use would simply be an act of life, a way of participating in the biosphere. Alas, as it stands, we do not. Our global civilization exploits many and holds no values for giving back...

Do animal liberation proponents really want to abolish all forms of animal use, thereby disregarding our interdependence in the biosphere and severing any possibility for us to give unto other animals and to be open to our use in return? This animal liberation proponent certainly doesn’t.
I really like this and is kind of what I've been thinking about for several years and why I share Donna Haraway's (2007) criticism of abolitionist views that always cast nonhuman animals as victims, ignoring their agency and affect upon humans. Animal rightists have overlooked that their positioning of nonhuman animals as "voiceless", "defenseless," and "helpless" have only re-instituted their passivity, having presupposed a human-reason-agent vs nonhuman-passive dualism. Writers like Haraway, but especially James Hribal (2003, 2006, 2007, 2010), have repositioned animals not as slaves, a la Marjorie Speigel's Dreaded Comparison (1996), but as "the working class." Reconfigurations of animals as fellow agents on the one hand may affirm their subjectivity and role in society, while on the other risks reinstating their oppression on new terms (as I will argue against reciprocity being a sufficient condition for ethical relations).

The domination of animal others, as Anastasia writes in another post, is not because of use, but from out of the objectification and the uni-directional instrumentalization found in their commodificaiton. Animal exploitation will certainly not cease until, not only animals but all life is recognized as non-commodities:

From an animal liberation perspective, veganism is the most basic tactic in boycotting[*] industry that oppresses animals... even if veganism could lessen the extent of animal commodification, the process of commodification would still exist and continue to bring ruin to indigenous peoples, poor laborers, and the natural world. I, for one, don’t think that animal commodification can end without commodification as a whole dissipating. And veganism will not bring the end to commodification.
The problem is not use in general, but commdification itself. Commodification need not only stop with sentient beings as animal rightists like Joan Dunayer (2001) have insisted. Accordingly, nonsentient animals should not be classified as animals because they have more in common with plants, which according to her are nonsentient and thus lack moral standing. Yet, this is only a replication of the very exclusionary identity game that continually held back slaves, women, animals, and others from achieving recognition as something other than property. We ought not forget that the reduction of plants to "mere things," instrumental units of exchange perpetuates the logic of domination, which does not only conceptual and material violence, but, in the case of the private ownership of food, creates world hunger.

Commodification has misfit relatives which ought not to be overlooked. Instrumentalism, utilitarianism, and capitalism all set a price on all other beings, commodifies them, transforming them into standing reserves of financial capital and nutrient assemblages. This is the technological way of thinking Heidegger (1954) critiques in "The Question Concerning Technology" where he compares industrial agriculture to the Holocaust (a douchebag move being that he was a Nazi):

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs
The Frankfurt school calls this type of thinking instrumental reasoning, which has devoured all other kinds of thinking in a capitalist society.

Anastasia seems to suggest that here is no reciprocity in the vast majority of human-animal relations in modern cultures; it is a one way relationship, one in which the privileged subject has an entitlement to the life and labor of others. What I think Anastasia wants to get at is more like communicative rationality, which Jurgen Habermas juxtaposes to means-ends thinking, in which one makes the other's (with one's owns) interests the ends of action through the act of communication. But communicative action, as of now, seems almost impossible with all but signing apes, because of the necessity of a common language to communicate ideas. At the very least, it is imaginable having reciprocal intentions with animal others; that is, the mutual recognition that the other is an intentional subject. If this is the case, reciprocity, albeit not the rational kind, may promise an escape for animal others from the reductionist and fatal status of property.

Reciprocity: The Logic of Domination?

rec·i·proc·i·ty: A mutual or cooperative interchange of favors or privileges, especially the exchange of rights or privileges of trade between nations

Where I disagree with Anastasia, is that I don't think reciprocity is sufficient. Exploitation can still exist within more reciprocal relations, because asymmetries and hierarchies can. Think about traditional marriages in which the husband is the breadwinner and the wife a house-maker. Commonly, such relationships are still exploitative or oppressive, though reciprocal and complimentary. Such a tit-for-tat contractualist reciprocity where individuals come together in their mutual interests has historically been used to exclude animal others.

Many political philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum (2006), have concluded that popular conceptions of reciprocity as held in social contractualism are inadequate for providing protection for people with disabilities, of foreign countries, and nonhuman animals. However, more recently the (pre)historical revisionism of domestication has claimed a "covenant of the wild" between humans and nonhuman species that takes into account not individuals but collectives. According to such revisionists, Callicott (1989), Budiansky (1999), Pollan (2002), and Haraway (2003; 2008), nonhuman animals chose their domestication, trading their freedom and long life for goods such as security from starvation, healthcare, and protection form predators. Moreover, without their exploitation and death, humans would have no reason to breed them, and thus animals have an interest in being used for food because otherwise they would have had not even a decent life to live (assuming they'd live pleasant lives).

Clare Palmer (1997), has been one of the few theorists to thoroughly challenge what might be described as a "Killing contract" between humans nonhuman animals. Palmer gives three reasons to reject such thinking:

First, the domesticated animal contract... is not made by free and equal individuals who understand the nature of the agreement; it is dependent on controversial ideas of tacit or hypothetical consent and it is irrevocable... Second, the use of inappropriate contract language, in implying free consent, legitimates a relationship of increasing domination and control which now includes not only the labour and lives of domesticated animals but also their genetic fabric. Third, it can be argued that social contract theory in general uses the fiction of free consent to justify relationships of dominance and subordination...
Contractualist reciprocity with animal others is flawed because it is never between free, informed equals, and does not permit individuals to leave it, because they have been bred and their environment has been destroyed in such a way that  they're trapped in dependency. In fact, as Nussbaum and many other feminists have raised, contractualism in this ideal form has not ever really existed, but has been convenient to overlook sexism and racism.

Nel Noddings (1984) and other feminists have written that if reciprocity is to be a moral virtue it must not be of the contractualist, enlightened self-interest kind based on mutuality as such.  Rather, reciprocity comes in the response from the cared-for to the care-giving, which enables further care-giving. Yet, despite the evidence in at least dogs (especially therapeutic ones) and other mammals, Noddings rejects that animals can reciprocate the care, assuming that they do not recognize the care as such. The only basis for animal ethics is  aesthetic experience, which is a
private perceptive rather than a public judgment--one has no justification for judging another for supporting animal exploitation.

Anarchist Peter Gelderloss in his "Veganism is a consumer activity" shares Nodding's sentiments (or lack thereof) on the moral implications of non-reciprocal nature of human-animal relations:

 I could kill a bird or a fish to eat, and I have, because I do not think they are capable of recognizing me or any other individual, and therefore I cannot form an emotional relationship with them that is not narcissistic or one-sided. I also think that hunting a wild animal for food is respectful and emotionally healthy.
Besides being utterly confused how hunting a "wild animal" is "emotionally healthy," whatever that means, it escapes me how this hunting is any less one-sided and narcissistic than loving a non-reciprocating animal. As Marti Kheel (1995) argues, the holy hunter motif of hunting as something that is good and honors the animals is rooted in the socialization of males whom can only become "men" to the extent they define themselves against (m)others.** The "need" to "reconnect" assumes one is already disconnected and that only a return to a mystical originary practice can drive out the "madness" of modernity to restore one's "emotional health" at the expense of others'. The privilege of killing animals for food and spiritual elevation is an implicit valuation of the historical masculine ideal of violence (as emblemized by Theodore Roosevelt) over sentiment (as emphasized by Rachel Carson (1962)).

The appeal to an original "state of nature" or privileging the perspectives of "indigenous" people is a popular one amongst environmentalists, even with the difficulties of clumping thousands of cultures' perspectives on human-animal relations into one category. The appeal to indigenous cultures possessing a truer truth than modern cultures is often based on the idea that they are less alienated from the land. Regardless, one ought not to forget that their truth is historical and their narratives of human-animal relations are embedded in their interpretation of material conditions such as the necessity to kill to survive.

According to James Serpell (1996), narratives of animals consenting to be eaten, or who's death was to be demanded by an external deity, developed out of a psychological human need to relieve oneself of guilt:

Unconsciously or deliberately we either avoid befriending the animals we intend to harm, or we fabricate elaborate and often mythological justifications for their suffering that absolves us of blame… The truth is that it is normal and natural for people to empathize and identify with other life forms, and to feel guilt and remorse about harming them.
Other scholars, like infamous Calvin Martin (1982) and Tom Regan (1982), have suggested, stories about animals giving themselves to humans may have been pragmatic appeals for the sustainable management of game, for if one were to kill an animal without prayer, appreciation, and with waste, the animals would not return and the people would starve. Controversy over Amerindian ethics aside, white romantics often appeal to this "noble savage" figuration of indigenous people--a racist and colonialist representation of hundreds of cultures--as if it were a timeless truth. Living in a different socio-historical context--one with greater numbers of people, (general) ecological understanding, less dependence on place, and more diverse moral theory--I no longer think such narrative serve quite the purpose and meaning they once did.

At the very least, attempts to "reverse" moral theory by "returning" to a privileged origin of someone else, is a shaky conclusion. Much of the appeal is buttressed by the Judeo-Christian creation story in which, in a popular interpretation, humans are said to have "fallen" by disobeying God, and had consequentially been kicked out of Eden. Appropriating Amerindian beliefs, beings a "part-time Indian," by representing them and appealing to them as noble savages closer to a "state of nature" is ethnocentric and unjust. More so, it is a cowardly escape from Western responsibility toward animal others by taking refuge in other cultural traditions to justify one's blood lust that has come out of a different one.

Just as we should not appeal to a fallen past, neither ought we appeal to an inarticulable world-making relation to animals in which they become exploited "workers" in a human drama. Donna Haraway likes to position animal others as co-workers in a co-evolving drama of which we know of no end other than co-flourishing. In so doing, she equivocates between animal others as participants (in which they enter into relations with us and have a mutual interest in the outcome) and as play-things (in which they are independent beings who ultimately may be sacrificed for an enriching human experience or the curiosity of an interesting future). There is no sufficient reason for justifying animal experimentation, biotechnology, and eugenic breeding. Still, one ought to share the suffering of animal others, not out of guilt or innocence, but simply to show reciprocity. One's primary moral responsibility is curiosity, which I agree is essential to ethics, but it is not sufficient given her position on killing animals. While there is no class of killable beings, one is apparently made killable, even one's co-worker, for curiosity. In Haraway's case, curiosity does kill the cat... but the cat can't reciprocate the favor.

Even if we follow Hribal's positioning of animals as part of the working class, animals gain no additional agency other than rhetorical flowering. Tom Chisholm has levied substantial criticisms of the figuration of animals as working class. In his response to Hribal, he argues that without the ability to engage in communicative action with humans and thus share solidarity with humans as a class, the use of class is merely rhetoric: "how can we ever forge class solidarity with animals when we are cognitively incapable of knowing with any meaningful precision what animals’ own, in Dr. Hribal’s words, “wants, needs, concerns” are?" Second, it is unclear what identifying animals as a working class accomplishes since they rely on humans to speak for them politically, which is always already an interpretation, not self-representation. Hribal thus does not resolve the "paternalism" of his predecessors, Singer et al. Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, Chisholm argues that the

"reduction of animals as workers [is] yet another conceptual trickery of white man’s (social) science, an attempt to enclose animals and their respectively irreducible animalness in a political and discursive cage of “civilization” (i.e., language of class) that the indigenous peoples and their spiritual traditions around the world have resisted for millennia.
Bob Torres (2006) also questions the usefulness of describing all animal relations in the rhetoric of workers, acknowledging that in certain cases, animals are significantly less free and might as well be considered slaves. The class of animals, however, is besides the point if we are to take to heart the Chisholm makes: perhaps we should not be assigning animals a class at all. Perhaps animals should neither be commodities, co-signers, nor co-workers. Perhaps, following Georgio Agamben (2003), we should simply let them be.

Conclusion: And So the Vegan Responds (what a wor(l)d)!
In conclusion, the romantic dialectic of reciprocity often ends up justifying the very things we wish to end through it--domination. We must always be vigilant as to how we represent our relationship with animal others, although, such representations will always be interpretations. Terms like consent, exploitation, oppression, and rights are useful tool, but I don't think they actually apply to human-animal relations in general. We need new ones, however hard it may be to conceive of them. When dealing with those who speak a language we do not understand, we border on colonialism whenever we attempt to slap a title on our relations, to classify it as this or that. Such attempts become ridiculous when we think we can conceptualize our relations with Animals as such, as if there were such a thing. As Jacques Derrida (1997) woes, "the Animal, what a word!"

The distinction between the plurality of human-animal relations in place of one monolithic label (i.e. slaves, workers, etc) is most important, especially in light of how certain thinkers appropriate rhetoric to justify animal exploitation, whether it be Aristotle's claims that animals are natural subordinates, Locke's claim that (domestic) animals are property, or postmodern claims, like Haraway's, that animals are "workers." We ought not think of animals as helpless victims (in general), as beings on an equal playing field, nor as gifts to human flourishing lest we wish to return to the Killing Contract that has plagued animal others for (at least) the last several thousands of years. More so than reciprocity we may need response-ability and hospitality. These forms of generosity put us at risk of being taken advantage, however, as privileged subjects, the marginal losses we might suffer are inconsequential compared to the potential advantages the marginalized may gain.

So what of animal liberation, of veganism? Does not identity and certainty tame both, incarcerating them, just as heterogenities of animals have been corralled by the general singular? Where do we go from here?

I’d like to move away from a metaphysical, ahistorical veganism of identity, non-violence, innocence, purity, and savior narratives toward a more conversational, relational, contextual, and responsive version. Veganism is not something one does alone, but always with and amongst others. Veganism, then, is not private act of purity and protest about consumption (or the abstaining of consumption), or about identity, but about relationships, about affiliation and solidarity. Veganism is a creative, enriching conversation, an affirmation of others, and a promise to do as little violence as is fair. Veganism as intersectional social justice can only begin with listening and can never end in identity.

[*] End Notes: The Commodification of Veganism
We ought not think of veganism as a boycott if we are going to undermine commoditization, which Anastasia would probably agree with. Gelderloss's anarchist critique of veganism has been that it is seen as a consumer activity: "Vegans have spread the lie that you can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist, and suppressed the truth that you can’t be a capitalist environmentalist." The weight of this critique can be levied by leaving behind the market discourse of boycott. As Ida @ The Vegan Ideal responds: "when a vegan abnegates the products of exploitation, they are giving up privilege, as opposed to engaging in a "boycott."

Since Peter Singer's Animal Liberation (1975), there has been a neoliberal appropriation of the vegan movement whereby the political discourse and strategies are founded on (social, political, and especially financial) markets. Particularly insidious, are the sister slogans "voting with your dollars" and "consumer choice" that equivocate the public sphere of democracy with the private sphere of the market where people have even less choice, especially those with the least money, and it is them whom are scapegoated for not taking "personal responsibility." Veganism, then, becomes an identity to buy into, a culture of commodities, which Anastasia fears because it places more emphasis on human experience than the political needs of animal others:

Veganism is becoming more and more a subculture to pre-existing subcultures or scenes (i.e. straight-edge punk, anarchist, afrocentric—to name a few). As a result, the emphasis in veganism as a whole has been to focus on the lives and identities of these self-proclaimed vegans... vegan proponents have become so involved in identity politics to the point where the ultimate concern is being vegan. We’re at the point where you can talk about veganism and make no mention of animals or being animal at all. Veganism in the United States has successfully booted nonhuman animals out of the picture and once again focused majority of our attention on human experience.
This privileging of human lifestyle can be seen most of all in media like Veg News, which on the one hand is an excellent magazine that creates a common community for many vegans, yet, on the other has fabricated a consumer and identity-driven movement.

As with the "voting with your dollar" slogan, the presence of animals form the center of animal rights and vegetarian discourse has increasingly become displaced by ironic, erotic, and pop-cultural images. In an interview, "An Animal Manifesto," Carol Adams (2006), describes this phenomenon in the case of PETA:

[PETA is] trying to work with what there is, cultural consumption, by manipulating cultural images/issues. They are trying to get people to talk about veganism without having to address what has disappeared... One of the results when the cultural becomes the referent, is not only that we forget we are animal beings, but we are allowed to forget that other animals are animal beings, too!
Veganism is a lived revolutionary theory, neither simply a tactic nor a label, property (of identity). By de-centering the exploitative relationship between human and other animals, the significance of veganism becomes absent. As long as the colonized are shrouded in the shadow of cultural representations and motifs, their calls will be forgotten.

The vegan movement itself risks falling into the hollow, self-righteous/centered discourse of the holy hunters
by playing into another identity politics of the cult of the "cruelty-free." Anastasia writes in "The Animal in Veganism (Part 1)" of her dismay that veganism has been appropriated as a fashionable eating performance, one in which the vegan experience has overshadowed by animal exploitation: "Veganism in the United States has successfully booted nonhuman animals out of the picture and once again focused majority of our attention on human experience." Indeed, by forgetting the actual material relations with animals, the relationship, as with the holy hunters becomes a morally symbolic (wholeness) with deviant material consequences (killing). So to does the emphasis on vegan lifestyle forget the struggle for animal others, to have people become complicit in the so-called "moral baseline" of veganism without any public action than the performance of one's identity (in addition to sneering down at those who are incapable of vegetarianism for health, class, or geographic reasons).


ej said...

This is great stuff. I'm really excited I found out about your blog.

animalobserver said...

Thank you for the post! I appreciate your philosophical take and have longed to discuss these ideas and problems with vegans, AR/AnimalLib folks.

"Appropriating Amerindian beliefs, beings a 'part-time Indian,' by representing them and appealing to them as noble savages closer to a 'state of nature' is ethnocentric and unjust. More so, it is a cowardly escape from Western responsibility toward animal others by taking refuge in other cultural traditions to justify one's blood lust that has come out of a different one."--Awesome statement!

I agree with your critique of contractual reciprocity and the problem of looking solely at reciprocity when discussing unequal relations and oppression. My biggest challenge is acknowledge the importance of relationships and responsibility in an anti-oppression framework and seeing that alternative paradigm in practice. I didn't find it in Budiansky, Pollan, and certainly not Haraway. Nor did I find it in most social justice/animal rights/environmental circles I travel.

"Terms like consent, exploitation, oppression, and rights are useful tool, but I don't think they actually apply to human-animal relations in general. We need new ones, however hard it may be to conceive of them. When dealing with those who speak a language we do not understand, we border on colonialism whenever we attempt to slap a title on our relations, to classify it as this or that."--I agree wholeheartedly! Have you had any insights as to address this?

adam said...

@ Animalobserver:
Were you feeling pretty isolated with your animal lib views? I really come to find myself questioning my position on animal others a lot when I'm surrounded by closed-off people and lazy veggies. I'm happy we can have these conversations on the web!

I do have some recommendations on using a "weaker" moral discourse. Funny you should mention a different "paradigm," because I have the recommendations listed on the paradigm page at the top of the blog :)

Luella said...

This is your best post yet. But there's one thing I don't understand. Why do you not like the word "oppression"?

befitting said...

As someone with an investment in transhumanism, (some forms of) biotechnology, and the cyborg aesthetic, Haraway's statements disappoint me greatly.

I want to shout "but we don't ALL think like that!", whenever I see transhuman ideas used to dismiss animal liberation ones, or vice versa. I never saw animal lib and transhumanism as opposed or in competition; we can become something other than evolution designed without being exploiters of other animals or wreckers of the biosphere. In fact, I see intersections between the two movements, between biological fluidity and a less parochial conception of animals. It's just unfortunate that so many of us are caught up in instrumentalism.

adam said...

@befitting: Do you mean nonhumanism, posthumanism, or transhumanism?

Haraway is insistent that she is not a posthumanist because "we have never been human" (so how can one be after something one was not). I'm not sure if this has any substance beyond the poetic, though. Posthumanism and transhumanism, however, are VERY different positions. According to wikipedia, posthumanism:

critically questions Renaissance humanism... which claims that human nature is... autonomous, rational, capable of free will, and unified in itself as the apex of existence.

Posthumanism, in other words, is a philosophical movement to challenge modern philosophy's anthropocentric value and assumptions about self-transparency and autonomy by affirming the agency of nonhuman "objects" and heterogenous drives within (human) subjects. Champions of this movement include Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Haraway, Latour, Wolfe, etc.

In contrast is the technopolitical movement of transhumanism which wikipedia aims at the following:

to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities. The movement regards aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death as unnecessary and undesirable.

Haraway and other posthumanists, despite some of their technophilic and/or relativistic tendencies, would be appalled at such an ambition to erase difference and fall into a futurism--of already assuming a socio-political telos, finding one's meaning in the future, and thus deffering meaning within the present and a more wild expression of desire. Transhumanism, in other words, is the part of modernism posthumanists object to to the max!

adam said...

@Luella: Previously, I had taken a similar position to Ida, but after reading a) Kelly Oliver's discussion of oppression in _Colonization of Psychic Space_, b) Julia Serano's nuanced analysis of gender oppression in _Whipping Girl_ (p308), and c) the discussion between Scu, Ida, and myself on whether vegans are oppressed, I have reconsidered how useful "oppression" is as a category.

In short, and I'm still deciding where I stand on this, "oppression" itself seems to instigate an oppression Olympics. I mean that two ways:
1) Oppression is a charge other liberation movements use against others to silence those who claim they are being oppressed (i.e. trans women before transitions being accused of male privilege while ignoring the privileges of cis women). In this case, there is a misrecognition of the intersectionality of oppression.

adam said...

2) While society in reality is a mosaic of circles of oppression with an inside and outside, the word "oppression" gives the impression of an either/or (the opposite of intersectionality). Very few people exist outside all the "circles of oppression". First, I wonder whether being technically outside that circle but in proximity through solidarity does not allow an ally to experience some limited degree of oppression. Second, the question of whether of veganism as a parallel to a political or religious orientation that is oppressed brings up the question of degrees of oppression, which fundamentally sets off the bells of oppression Olympics--a phrase to guard against quantifying unmeasurable differences and asserting their equal severity. Yet, it seems sometimes, at least in the odd case of animal others, political actors as both humans and vegans can simultaneously be oppressor and oppressed!

3) Finally, I question the language of animal "liberation" and "oppression" as translatable to beings whose consciousness cannot be colonized, to be made to feel inferior. This seems to be a critical tool of sexism, racism, colonialism, ableism, ageism, sizeism, lookism (and perhaps classism), but is it essential? This isn't the case with the majority of animal species. To what extent is oppression psychological, social, political, and physical. Certainly, many animal others feel the physical "press" of humans and are captured in the political-economic systems and subordinated within social-cultural systems, so the question comes down to whether a group also needs to be psychologically oppressed to be oppressed? Or are there various types of oppression, and that perhaps one may not even need to "experience" oppression (i.e. be a nonsentient being). Perhaps objects, too can be oppressed?

animalobserver said...

Yes, I did feel isolated and I still do. I find solace in social change creative thinkers and artists who have no ideological home.

I must confess, I don't understand what you mean by "weak moral language." I have no place in academic thought so the language is unfamiliar and meaningless to me.
What would this paradigm, or multiple co-existing paradigms, on your page look like in practice?

Also, have you read Ann Cudd's Analyzing Oppression? If you have, did you find it useful?

While many people recognize oppression and privilege dynamics as being non-linear, fluid, relationship-based, that doesn't necessarily mean that they will articulate them as such, simply because it's difficult to describe complex phenomena with a linear-oriented language. For example, we forget that oppression is more of a feedback web of relationships than it is one-way interaction where one group is aggressive and the other is passive. And then there's the whole articulation of privilege. All in all, I don't think it's been very useful except at driving more discourse.

befitting said...

@adam: My mistake, then. I'm used to seeing Haraway lumped into the category of transhumanism.

I've run into the term posthumanism before, and your description of it confirmed what I feared. I'll attempt to speak for the other side, as a cyborg and a transhumanist.

I'm skeptical of claims to a "human condition"; they tend to be homogenizing in that they moralize around an imagined essence that is supposedly under attack. I call myself a transhumanist in part because I agree that involuntary disease, suffering and death are "unnecessary and undesirable". In this way, I see transhumanism as a social justice movement.

Insofar as transhumanists support biological immortality, they destabilize the very notion of a 'telos'. And I don't see a conflict between finding meaning and joy in the present and advocating immortality; my politics are a politics of temporal liberation, of the eternal now, not an eternal crypt.

I would argue that historically, systems of social control find their origins in a displacement or substitute for biological immortality; wealth and social status are inherited through bloodline, and (many) religions promise continuity of self in the afterlife. Immortality is the basic (and I'd contend healthy) yearning that capitalism, heirarchical politics and organized religion channel into various forms of domination. To the extent that I believe technology can both provide immortality and put an end to the destructive effects of these faux-immortalities, I am technophilic.

(this doesn't mean that technology is morally/politically neutral, of course, or that all technologies are good)

While I can understand that biological immortality can be interpreted as another extension of human dominance, and therefore undesirable, I would argue that it is not a 'dominance over' other forms of life, but a growing into ourselves and into our natural attributes. We are a species with a keen perception of time and the future; therefore, to lock us within hundred year lifespans is to do a similar psychic harm as to lock a far-ranging animal within a small enclosure where it cannot roam free. While one cage is produced by evolution and genetics and the other by culture, they are, in the end, both still cages. Hence I find animal liberation and human liberation through transhumanism to be ethically consistent.

Likewise, our interest in modifying our bodies to our liking is akin to a nonhuman's interest in roaming, flying, or otherwise following their instinctual and intuitive drives. Humans have always modified their bodies, and barring a cultural push to repress this side of our nature, they probably always will.

Haraway seems to get this latter point. That's why I found it unfortunate that she doesn't seem to get animal lib; to be a cyborg or a biotechnologist doesn't require that one be a vivisector (I'm thinking of Dr. Ray Greek here, who argues that animal experimentation is an outdated model if we are to really understand human biology).

And here lies the problem. On the one hand, as a vegan I can't endorse a cyborg-futurism that still throws nonhuman animal interests under the bus. However, the posthumanism you describe would throw the cyborg under the bus. As a vegan, cyborg, immortalist, transhumanist, I can't discard parts of my political identity when they all nourish each other.

adam said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughtful response. I've never thought of death as a telos. Interesting! I like that interpretation. Some thoughts:

1. Have you read Ernest Becker?
He has some influential anthropological, existential, and psychoanalytic work on the "denial of death." He's had a big influence on me.

Why I mention him is because there has been a lot of work since (called Terror Management Theory) on the role fear/dislike of death play in social conservatism and violence. There have been critical theorists who have touched upon how the more invulnerable one feels, the more terrified they will become when things break down, releasing even greater violence.

2. Have you read Val Plumwood? Much of our ecological crisis, I believe is due to, as I write in another post, a culture that believes in a culture of no limits. How can the earth sustain a population of people who do not die, who refuse to die, yet who want children, and their children want children, and on and on? Plumwood, like Becker, advocates accepting death, that our lives our not ours but are borrowed from the Earth.

3. Have you read Leon Kass? He's a very conservative philosopher, but a beautiful and lucid writer. He has a great chapter that critically questions the desire to live forever--what effect that will have upon human existence,--for instance, there wouldn't be enough jobs for everyone--and whether that would necessarily increase the quality of life. Think about all the commodities we have now. Are our lives any happier than they were 10,000 years ago? Potentially not. Studies, in fact, have shown that Americans are no happier than they were since 1950.

4. In summary, I think transhumanism reflects a naive faith in technology and human narcissism. Beings have to die for others to live. I think such striving will only exacerbate human dominance over other animals and the planet (think about GATTACA). Ultimately, it directs human energies toward technoscience dreams when so much of human, animal, and ecological suffering can be resolved and so much enrichment can be nurtured through improving socio-economic relations.

Anonymous said...

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