From Aristotle to Agamben: how philosophy is changing its tune on animal life.
One of the defining characteristics of our age is the radical breakdown of the human/animal distinction. In both the popular media and in scholarly scientific literature, we are shown almost weekly new pieces of evidence suggesting that the barriers separating humans from animals are not as impermeable as we once thought them to be. Behaviors and capacities widely believed to be unique among human beings are increasingly being discovered in varying forms and to varying degrees among a wide number of animal species.
The fundamental breakdown in the effort to delimit sharply human beings from animals has been an important intellectual and scientific development for philosophers and theorists, ranging from Aristotle to Agamben.
While philosophy’s historical reputation for being a leading voice of critical thought is often wholly deserved, on the issue of the distinction between humans and animals and the ethical worth of animals, it has unfortunately and frequently failed to live up to its more admirable ideals. In fact, in many ways, philosophy in the Western tradition has been one of the chief architects in constructing the traditional philosophical and ethical dogmas we have inherited concerning animals.
According to Aristotle, for example, animals are best understood as belonging to a naturalistic schema in which they are situated between plants and human beings and as being ultimately (if not entirely) placed in the service of human beings. In Aristotle’s schema, plants have life, animals have life and perception, and human beings have both characteristics along with rationality (the Greek word for rationality here is logos, a rich term referring to the capacity for discursive language, reason, and other similar traits).
Given this ascending scale of the complexity of life, and given that nature makes nothing “in vain,” Aristotle suggests Book I, Part VIII of Politics that it is evident “that “plants are for the sake of animals, and that the other animals are for the sake of human beings, domestic ones both for using and eating, and most but not all wild ones for food and other kinds of support, so that clothes and the other tools may be got from them.”
That Aristotle regards animals as existing “for the sake of” the human should not be taken to imply that such service is necessarily exhaustive of animal being as a whole on his account, though it is indicative of how much of human thought regarding animals have evolved and ossified over time.
On the issue of the distinction between humans and animals and the ethical worth of animals, philosophy has unfortunately and frequently failed to live up to its more admirable ideals.
Another influential discourse on the human/animal distinction is provided by the founding figure of modern Western philosophy, René Descartes. Starting from mechanistic premises, Descartes argues that animals (although alive and capable of sensation) are essentially indistinguishable from machines and that their behavior can be fully explained without recourse to notions such as mind and self-awareness. Animals in his account are complex automata, beings that can react to external stimuli but lack the ability to know that such reactions are taking place.
Both Aristotle and Descartes are representative of a disappointing trend within Western philosophy: a failure to imagine the subjectivity of non-human animal life, and consequently, a failure to critically engage questions regarding how human beings relate to (or ought relate to) animals. Not only have influential philosophers repeated many of the anthropocentric tendencies of the dominant culture, but in many cases they have sought to provide a rigorous justification for many of our most violent modes of interactions with animals.
Contemporary theorists in animal studies are—fortunately—taking a different tack. Emergent approaches, championed by the likes Gilles Deleuze, Donna Haraway, and Giorgio Agamben, increasingly de-emphasize the human/animal dichotomy as a point of departure for thinking through animal studies. Instead they interrogate what other possibilities might open up when we no longer take distinctions between human beings and animals as the unchallenged starting premise for thought and practice on the subject.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben offers us what we might call biopolitical reasons for rethinking our reliance on the human/animal distinction and moving toward a mode of thought that I would broadly label as indistinction. The term “biopolitical” derives from the work of Michel Foucault, whose influential work has helped to uncover the ways in which dominant modes of politics have come increasingly to take the form of the controlling, governing, and shaping of life and not simply wielding the sovereign power to kill.
For Agamben, this biopolitical trend has deep roots in Western culture, going back to the ancient Greeks and their ideas about the nature of what constitutes proper political life. On Agamben’s reading, one of the foundational acts of Western politics is the attempt to separate animal life (zōē) from properly political human life (bios), a process that he refers to in The Open: Man and Animal as anthropogenesis. This process of separation takes place first and foremost, he argues, in and through human beings themselves, with the aim of delimiting those aspects of human life that belong to the political sphere (recall Aristotle’s views on the relationship between human logos and ethical and political community).
This kind of “anthropological machine” is, thus, not simply a descriptive set of concepts and institutions. The separation of human life from animal life within human beings cannot just be read off of the natural world, as if human beings arrive into the world already neatly distributed into various categories and attributes. Instead, 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.
Given the problematic political effects of this distinction, we can see that the anthropological machine is hardly value neutral. If one is deemed insufficiently human, one can find oneself vulnerable to being killed with impunity (consider the precarious situation of human beings who find themselves animalized and dehumanized in various ways). Agamben argues that we should aim to stop this machine and try to think more carefully about the indistinction of human and animal life, prior to their separation. What kind of politics might emerge beyond the exclusion of human animality and the biopolitical shaping of “proper” humanity? What practices might correspond to a life in which “human” and “animal” are no longer sharply delimited and separated?
This post was adapted from Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction.
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