Briefly, on the Animal Sacer: Curse anyone who cares

4818609023_99127be9eeTake a red Cock that is not too olde, and beate him to death, and when he is dead, fley him and quarter him in small peeces, and bruse the bones everye one of them.

So says (notoriously) the late sixteenth-century Book of Cookyre, which elsewhere, just as (apparently) cruelly, calls for a pig to be whipped to death so that it might taste like wild boar. I had these and other such recipes in mind at the NCS during Bob Mills‘ excellent consideration, in his “Judicial Violence, Biopolitics, and the Bare Life of Animals, which engaged with–and apologies for my failing memory and poor notes and, why not, Jeffrey’s lost notebook–a scene from Havelock the Dane (2493-503) in which the wicked Godrich suffers flaying and hanging, about which the poem declares “Datheit hwo recke: he was fals!” (Curse anyone who cares [takes notice of, considers, for “recchen” encompasses both “noticing” and “caring”]! He was false!; 2511).
Curse anyone who cares. What happens when we care incorrectly? When the autoimmunity of community goes awry? When care [say, that of biopolitics] is indistinguishable from cruelty? (and here I think of Eileen’s paper on Breaking the Waves and The Clerk’s Tale–about which I’m sure we’ll hear more soon–as well as a great question on communities and autoimmune disorders by George Edmondson)

I won’t presume to elaborate on Mills’ argument, in large part because I don’t know which of my notes are his words and which are my own (who said: “extirmation [sic!] and protection part of the same structure in biopolitics”? me? Bob?). Instead, I’m taking this opportunity to present material I cut from my forthcoming Ohio State UP book, How to Make a Human: Violence and Animals in the Middle Ages (look for it next August!).

Did I announce I have a book coming out next year? It’s true. I do.

I cut the material below out of my uncertainty about Agamben, but I’m not too bashful to present this work on the blog. Its arguments will be more than familiar to those who have been reading In the Middle since I joined it. So be it: familiar, perhaps insufficiently thought out, let this work be immolated here rather than in print! Further context: this belonged to a larger discussion that violence requires recognition as violence, as cruelty, and so forth, to count as violence, that, in a critical sense, what the cock being beaten suffers is not violence, and that, finally, community formation as it typically operates founds itself on such inexclusions from consideration: this point I took a largely from Zizek but also from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life and Frames of War.

No further ado:

Domestic pigs were sometimes slaughtered only after being “baited,” that is, harassed by biting dogs, as in the paraphrase of Jesus’s parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 12:1-14; Luke 14:16-24) in the Middle English Cleanness, where the rich man proclaims “My boles and my bores arn bayted and slayne” (55; my bulls and my boars are baited and slain). All of these techniques suggest that humans are particularly interested in being violent against animals, that, in other words, the cruelty was itself the point, and thus that animal suffering was present in itself in the human system.

On the contrary: at least in these quotidian techniques, the violence the animals suffered was not understood as remarkable.[1] Notably, in Cleanness, boar-baiting is not a main event, or even, so to speak, an event at all; since the guests arrive only later, the baiting is, here at least, significantly not an entertainment, significantly insignificant. At the same time, it’s narrated, but narrated as if it did not deserve to narrated in itself [and see “datheit hwo recke,” above, which calls upon us on to read and, at the same time, not to pay heed to what we read]. This significant insignificance witnesses to the clearing of space for the animal sacer within the human structure, where, inasmuch as violence against animals is insignificant, the human exists.[2]

For nothing illustrates more vividly the status of the “merely animal,” and thus the existence with it of the human–which always exists as a kind of echo of the category “animal”–than such unnarratable deaths. Animals suffer this “objective violence” as zōē, or rather, they suffer it to manufacture zōē as bare life distinct from what they also produce, through their unrecognizable suffering, as the particularly political life of bios. [3] Animals are life that can be killed without the death being classified as either sacrifice or murder. Understanding why the so-called “reduction” to mere life and the manufacture of the category animal should have such violent consequences, and understanding why “animalization” should be so terrible a fate, requires understanding why and how the human system makes what it calls animal available to itself, how, in brief, this “denegation of murder,” as Derrida termed it, is linked “to the violent institution of the ‘who’ [rather than an animal ‘that’] as subject” [Derrida, “Eating Well,” 283].

It also requires recognizing that the invisible violence against animals does not simply remove them from moral consideration, because its very invisibility is necessary to the formation of the human. Violence against animals therefore occupies the very heart of the human community as a constitutive exclusion through which the animal sacer, both structurally and in its necessity, operates within the human community as the homo sacer does within the political community.[4]

1. Note the comparison of baiting as cooking to baiting as entertainment remains, so far as I know, a desideratum: for entertainment, see among others, Lisa J. Kiser, “Animals in Medieval Sports, Entertainment, and Menageries,” in Resl, ed., A Cultural History of Animals, 103-26.

2. As an aside, I would have expected that “animal sacer” would have been picked up by the criticism by now. Not so. Ten minutes’ research gets me only an obscure Lacanian article by Alfredo Zenoni, which gestures, so far as I can tell from this brief quotation, at the lines between animal sacer and God and homo sacer and people, but not, as I do, at the lines between animal sacer and the human itself.

3.These irreducibly indistinct terms were indistinct from their very inception: see Derrida, Beast and the Sovereign, 315-17, 324-33]

4. See Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, 7-11, and 85, which observes that the certain sanctioned killings, which are neither punishments nor sacrifice, constitute “the originary exception in which a human life is included in the political order in being exposed to an unconditional capacity to be killed,” and that this “originary exception” is foundational for the political order as such: for my purposes, for “political order” read “human order.”

(image by me from Siena Natural History Museum)