Traditional contemporary animal rights issues are mostly founded on an assumption that we have solid definitions of what constitutes a “human” and what constitutes an “animal”. What if our definitions of these terms are called into question? What does the animal rights issue look like if we construct our ideas about humanity and animality in different ways? Are our lines dividing humanity and animality solidly drawn, or can they bleed and bend, perhaps be drawn in completely different ways?
Philosophy professor and author of Zoographies Matthew Calarco approaches animal rights from a standpoint of continental philosophy: if our definitions of what a “human” is and what an “animal” is are not firmly set, then our consideration of animal rights, if not all of ethics, can enter entirely different areas the current dialog excludes.
1) Why do you think is important to employ continental philosophy for the animal question?
I think there are several ways into the animal question, via law, literature, art, film, science, and so on. Philosophy represents another important approach for helping us to think through animals; and, to date, philosophical approaches to animals have been dominated by so-called Anglo-American analytic philosophy (especially the branch of ethical theory that has developed out of that tradition). I don’t dispute the importance of the work done by thinkers in this tradition (and here I have in mind everyone from Peter Singer and Tom Regan to Paola Cavalieri and Mark Rowlands), but I think it’s important to note that their general approach is but one avenue and path of thought among many.
In addition, it is important to underscore that there are certain intractable lacunas and dilemmas that follow from this body of work in analytic animal ethics, some of which I have examined in my published work. Let me briefly touch on just one of these dilemmas. One of the main problems that arises in the context of analytic approaches to thinking about animals is that these approaches tend to install a certain conception of the human subject at the center of ethical reflection and then extend outward from that center to include nonhuman animals. In other words, within most of these frameworks, animals are included within the scope of ethical consideration inasmuch as they are like “us” in ethically relevant ways; and animals and other beings who do not resemble us in relevant ways are typically left outside the scope of attention and consideration. Now, such arguments by analogy (e.g., this given group of animals is analogous to paradigm case humans in ethically relevant ways and should be given the same ethical consideration) are undoubtedly important at certain levels and in certain situations, but they come at a serious cost to all beings who do not resemble “us” in ethically relevant ways.
One of the major trends within Continental philosophy that I find useful for pushing back against this questionable tendency of analytic approaches is the critical analysis of “the human” that we find in such thinkers as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, Irigaray, Braidotti, and others. This approach to philosophy takes as its point of departure the notion that traditional notions of human nature (based on unified subjectivity, full self-presence, sovereign agency, and so forth) are no longer tenable (and they arrive at this position through a long chain of argumentation that I can’t reconstruct here). If we follow the line of thought opened up by these philosophers, then we have to rethink in a fundamental way what it means to be human.
And as we undertake this kind of analysis, we can see straight away that all of the traditional marks of human propriety that are now in question have been used repeatedly throughout the history of thought, culture, law, economics, and so on, to differentiate human beings from animals. So, if we can no longer trust in those markers of human propriety to tell us who we are, we can also no longer be sure of who or what animals are and what our relation to them might be (both ontologically and ethically). In short, we also have to rethink in a fundamental way what it means to be animal.
Continental philosophy—if pursued in the direction I’m outlining here—would have our thinking about animals begin from a site of aporia, of confusion and tumult, about who humans are and who animals are. This starting point asks us to construct alternative concepts and alternative ways of thinking that no longer trust uncritically the categories and distinctions that have structured the dominant culture’s ways of thinking and living up to this point. This is a much more modest approach to thinking about animals, and it is one that proceeds with a keen awareness of the pitfalls of creating clean and distinct ontological and ethical lines between human beings and animals.
2) In one of your recent papers, you maintain that the best approach to thinking about animals is “indistinction”. I can understand this position philosophically, but might it not be dangerous from a political point of view?
Yes, there are certain dangers in this approach, and so it has to be spelled out very carefully. Let me try to do that as best as I am able to here.
Following the line of thought I just outlined in the previous question, “indistinction” names the space of aporia in which we find ourselves when thinking about animals and human beings. If the sharp distinctions that have typically been drawn between humans and animals fall by the wayside, humans and animals fall into a shared space in which they become deeply indistinct from one another. Indistinct does not mean superficial identity—which is to say, it does not mean that they (animals) are now seen to be like us (humans), or vice versa; rather, it means that both what we call human and what we call animals fall into an altogether different zone of profound and deep identity that requires us to use alternative, nontraditional concepts and ideas if we wish to speak about it. In other words, indistinction means that we have ethical and ontological work to do. It throws a question in our faces: how might (what we call) humans and animals relate, ethically and ontologically, otherwise? We know the old answer to the question of how humans and animals should relate (ontologically, humans are separated from animals by an abyss; and ethically, humans have more value than animals do). But if “The Human” is dead, along with “The Animal,” then we don’t know who we and they might become, what kinds of affects and relations we and they might encounter, what kinds of worlds we and they might constitute and inhabit. In other words, viewing humans and animals as indistinct entails seeing all of us as caught up in a shared space of ontological and ethical experimentation.…
Read more at On Human-Nonhuman Relations.