Day 2 – Before the Law, Melion, and Competing Biopolitical Models

First we thought about Azra Raza’s outcry against “Mouse Models” on The Edge, and Jeremy England’s Thermodynamic account of the origins of life. The first story complicates the supposed utility of animal testing: mice are not protected by animal cruelty laws (as Cary Wolfe reminds us), but the payoff is supposed to be the scientific benefits we might gain from their suffering. Raza argues, in essence, that studying cancer in mice is a good way to understand mice cancer, but not of much use at all if we want to understand human cancers. For that, we need to study human cells. So there’s no good reason to put mice through what we do. England’s account of the origins of life understands it as an inevitable process of energy dispersal: if life is understood as a spontaneous self-organization designed to organize and especially disperse energy, then “life” as a category is much, much wider than we thought it was otherwise.

We then turned to with Obama’s on-screen killing of a fly during an interview in 2009. I suggested that the sovereign killing of the fly might be linked to the sovereign pardoning of the turkey. The President has the power to make die or let live. This fundamentally Agambenian idea was quickly modified by pointing out that the fly is also an annoyance. Obama’s trying to talk; he’s trying to be dignified; and along come a fly, gets into his space, and leaves him looking as ridiculous as any fly-killer. Medieval natural history (Sidrak and Bokkus and Gervase of Tilbury, for example) would divide animals into three categories: those that help us, those we eat, and those that keep our pride in check. The fly is one of these latter animals.

The medieval discussion proper began with the portrayal of Charlemagne in the //Alphabet of Tales//. There, Charlemagne is like a Paul Bunyan or Chuck Norris figure: he’s enormous, can virtually flay a man just by looking at him, can split a man in two with a single blow of a sword or lift a fully-armored man above his head. He also eats a lot of meat:

“And he ete bod littyl brede, bod at ans he wolde ete a quarter of a weddur, or ij hennys, or a guse, or a swyne shulder, or a pacok, or a crane, or a hale hare. And he wolde drynk bod esy wyne, bod if it war medlid̛ with watir”
[and he ate but little bread, but at once he would eat a quarter of a ram, or two hens, or a goose, or a swine’s shoulder, or a peacock, or a crane, or a whole hare. And he would drink wine but moderately, and only fi it were mixed with water.”

Why so much meat? It’s an obvious sign of sovereignty and also virility. There’s also a link between flesh and wine in the central sacrament of late medieval Christianity, so perhaps that’s being invoked in some way. There’s also the strange mixture of recognition and non recognition in the deaths of the animals: on the one hand, their lives can’t count (otherwise this would be monstrous); on the other hand, unless their lives count as lives, there’s no point to this great display of carnivorousness. No one praises Charlemagne for eating a whole onion in one bite, for example. In what sense do the lives of meat animals count? Charlemagne needs to commit a sovereign crime to be recognized as a sovereign. We could have linked this to Wolfe’s discussion of the resistance to “artificial” meat.

We also considered Charlemagne’s preference for water over wine. Why? Other warrior cultures — Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic, for example — praise warriors for their great feats of drinking and indeed require communal drunkenness to form community. Not here. We might have a reference here to the common portrayal of the drunk as a beast. Avoiding wine makes Charlemagne MORE rational, then. But perhaps his preference of water makes him more natural and thus something prerational. Wine comes in only with Noah (Genesis 9), or, as we see in Chaucer repeatedly — “The Former Age,” the widow in the Nun’s Priests’s Tale, Griselda — those who are most virtuous and closest to the natural state of humanity drink water rather than wine. Charlemagne’s water-drinking, in other words, is a precultural activity, without that extra something that would mark him as human, and certainly without the civilization that comes along with the invention of wine. Is Charlemagne, with his meat and water, man or beast?

The obviously Agambenian bent to this portrayal of the sovereign led us naturally into Cary Wolfe’s Before the Law. We dealt with only a few key points this week in this dense little book:

  1. I situated Wolfe in the context of the development of critical animal theory since the mid 90s and its explosion in 2002/2003 (and Wolfe’s work prior to that in animal rights activism) and led them through the Wolfe’s recent engagements with systems theory. Basic point: Derrida begins by troubling the assumption of the stability of things, whereas Niklas Luhmann begins by wondering how things can be stable. They arrive at similar conclusions about closure and openness, but for JD, change is a scandal and for NL stability is.
  2. The problem with the reciprocity model of rights. If we’re granting rights only to those that can reciprocate, then what do we do with infants, the severely disabled, or with the stateless? And if rights is just a quid pro quo, in what sense is rights the very opposite of ethics?
  3. The problem of animal rights “with the furry face” (the Great Apes Project) vs the “scandal of the cephalopods,” whose ways of thriving may be entirely different from ours and thus require a wholly different kind of “rights” (perhaps having to do with flourishing in general).
  4. And finally Wolfe’s contrast between Agamben and Foucault. Agamben’s Homo Sacer presents a model of a sovereign with supreme power and his subjects who are totally abject, exposed to the law entirely by being encompassed in it. The model of the community for Agamben, and by extension Esposito, is the camp, whether a labor camp or a death camp, in which every subject is fully exposed to the sovereign.
  5. Well, that’s just obnoxious. While, yes, the drone as a model of sovereignty does support, but in a classroom at CUNY, we are not in a death camp. Not even close.
  6. This is why the model of aleatory, resistant bodies (Foucault via Nietzsche) is far, far more interesting than the sovereignty models. What’s “before” the law in this sense? Bodies, not spatially, but rather temporally, resistant simply by virtue of their already existing inherent desire to persist in themselves. This resistance need not have anything to do with agency or consciousness, for all bodies, whatever they are, have affordances that let them do particular things in particular ways easily: I can type on my phone, but I can’t bend it, for example. Bodies will never be fully and entirely subject to the will of the sovereign. They will always go awry in some way because they are up to their own business, independent of the sovereign will.

We then had an interlude with Augustine and Aquinas. Aquinas says NO animals are not proper, direct objects of charity, as they are not ends in themselves. Indeed, it would be, per Aquinas’s logic, charitable to a pig to make it into bacon, since this is a pig’s proper end. Augustine (City of God1.20) says we can kill any plant or animal and indeed (1.21) that we can kill many humans, if it’s legal to do so; the one thing we can’t kill is ourselves, as our life doesn’t belong to us.

Augustine also gave us a way to rethink the Phallus. Here’s Wolfe using some Derrida:
“The phallus is then both the very figure of sovereignty, ipseity, and at the same time ‘automatic, independent of will and even of desire’ ‘mechanical, already in itself prosthetic.’ ‘It it proper to man,’ he asks, ‘or else, already cut from man, is it a ‘something’, a thing, an a-human, inhuman what, which is, moreover scarcely more masculine than feminine? Neither animal nor human?” (98)

And here’s Augustine //City of God// 1.24, who asserts that in paradise man would have moved his penis at will rather than by lust. His evidence? Some people can wiggle their ears or their scalp. Also:

“Some, by lightly pressing their stomach, bring up an incredible quantity and variety of things they have swallowed, and produce whatever they please, quite whole, as if out of a bag. Some so accurately mimic the voices of birds and beasts and other men, that, unless they are seen, the difference cannot be told. Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing. I myself have known a man who was accustomed to sweat whenever he wished. It is well known that some weep when they please, and shed a flood of tears. But far more incredible is that which some of our brethren saw quite recently. There was a presbyter called Restitutus, in the parish of the Calamensian Church, who, as often as he pleased (and he was asked to do this by those who desired to witness so remarkable a phenomenon), on some one imitating the wailings of mourners, became so insensible, and lay in a state so like death, that not only had he no feeling when they pinched and pricked him, but even when fire was applied to him, and he was burned by it, he had no sense of pain except afterwards from the wound. And that his body remained motionless, not by reason of his self-command, but because he was insensible, was proved by the fact that he breathed no more than a dead man; and yet he said that, when any one spoke with more than ordinary distinctness, he heard the voice, but as if it were a long way off. Seeing, then, that even in this mortal and miserable life the body serves some men by many remarkable movements and moods beyond the ordinary course of nature, what reason is there for doubting that, before man was involved by his sin in this weak and corruptible condition, his members might have served his will for the propagation of offspring without lust?”

Notably, I just realized, his example ends up with someone who ends up insensate, like a corpse, as if THIS is evidence of the supreme potential of human will. This definitely deserves much more unpacking!

Penultimately, we talked about the Lay of Melion. What does it mean to flatter a wolf into joining you (and why does the text use precisely the same language to describe how Melion’s estranged wife was convinced to turn him back into a human?). What does Melion and his band eat when they’re committing outrages against first beasts and then humans? Is it unnatural for wolves to go to war, as the text says? We have a kind of Agamben model of sovereignty when Melion joins with Arthur, but we also notice that the wolves and their bodies have an innate resistance to authority that frustrates the pretensions of sovereignty (Foucault). And is a wolf that’s domesticated “desnaturé” (denatured), and in what sense?

Finally, we considered how the wolf, unable to talk, uses Arthur to achieve his vengeance and salvation. As in last week’s discussion, we have an animal turning a human into a tool or prosthesis for it. The wolf’s lack of human language is no problem so long as it can get a human to do its work for it.

Finally, we talked about the English Forest law, where the king had the pretension to be a sovereign (Agamben model), but finds himself stymied by the independent forces of deer and their bodies and desires (Foucault model).