It is not uncommonly said that habitats generated by internal combustion engines and electronics lack the crowds of animals common to what are often called “premodern,” “preindustrial,” or “developing” habitats. It is supposed that medieval people were therefore “more in touch with” animals than their modern counterparts. The standard argument continues in this way: because medieval people relied on animal labor, traveled on animals, and because they could not have misunderstood where meat came from, they did not need to compensate for their “unnatural” separation from animals by surrounding themselves, for example, with overbred, useless pets. Their relationship to animal life was truer than ours, where “ours” equals that group of people most likely to be reading this chapter.
The faults of the argument stem first from its implicit narrative of a fall and decadence, as if the real came first, followed by a long slide towards our antiseptic present. This nostalgia for the origin and its attendant belief in the truth of first things can and has been traced from, for example, Plato and his Ideal Forms to present-day postapocalyptic literature (with its survivalist belief in the final return to the “underlying” – a favored spatial metaphor — reality of nature). The idea that people have a primary connection to animals as a whole (say, as children), that socialization as such is the culprit, that subrational “lived experience” is distinct from and more authentic than cultural practice, that getting before “modern civilization” is somehow going to save us and others, and so on, belongs to the precritical fantasy of origins and the fantasy of the superiority of an imagined unmediated contact.
In an animal rights context, the argument has been that industrialized production of meat somehow separates us from our “real” engagement with its real source in animal life and animal death. Supermarket culture is particularly to blame for shielding meat-eaters from the violence that feeds them. The shock of butchery, of getting past the hypocrisies of industrialized carnivorousness, is key to Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse art, or in the grand reveal, not without sexual violence, of the [I recommend not clicking on the link] industrial, cannibalistic dismemberment of female clones in Cloud Atlas. This argument follows the standard logic of ideology critique, insofar as it claims that only by coming face-to-face with the “reality” of the modes of production can we finally surmount the cruelty of our polyannish relationship to work and consumption. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in a variety of contexts, such claims are overblown: there may be some value in revealing what goes on in industrial farming – the very reluctance of these operations to open their doors to scrutiny is evidence enough of that – but what may be far more difficult to change is the consumer’s certainty that, in the end, their needs are worth it all, regardless.
Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning lambastes the “Messianic approach to art-making,” which holds that being “ambushed” by with the “truth” is an essential or even desirable goal of art. Nelson argues that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art may not require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction. Revelations of cruelty may be little more than revelings in cruelty. They might produce nothing but sensations of disgust, alienation, self-loathing, and guilt, or the self-aggrandizement of feeling that one feels more intensely or just more honestly than others, or that one has been exiled from bourgeois comforts (or that one has discovered some new way to épate them for their supposed hypocrisy). Revelations of cruelty might lead to still worse, titillation and enjoyment and from there to the desire for more cruelty, not because cruelty treats others as things, but because it recognizes that others can suffer in ways that things cannot.
Dominic Lacapra’s History and its Limits arrives at similar ends through its assault on conjunctions of the sublime, the transcendent, and sacralized violence, and on generalized, antihistorical obsessions with wretchedness, particularly as practiced in the work of Agamben, Bataille, and Žižek. When Lacapra turns his attention to one of Coetzee’s fictional creations, the animal rights activist and writer Elizabeth Costello, he joins Nelson in arguing against the notion that identification necessarily leads to empathy, and empathy necessarily to kindness. Coetzee’s Costello analogizes the death of animals to the Holocaust, accusing those who kill animals of being like the camp guards, whose fault, she insists, was that “the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims.” Lacapra observes that while this may be so, Costello’s argument that this cruelty can be blamed on a failure of identification can hardly account for sadomasochistic projection: no doubt, some killers and other villains can and do perceive their victims as like themselves, vulnerable and dependent, and therefore, for those very reasons, suitable targets of cruelty.
With all this in mind, we are now in a position to reconsider one of the most philosophically challenging, influential demands for an identification with nonhuman suffering. This is Derrida’s statement on the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. As Derrida observes in his The Animal that therefore I am (L’animal que donc je suis), when Bentham proposes that the important question about nonhuman animals is not whether they can speak or have reason, but whether they can suffer, this “changes everything” [change tout]. To a large degree, Derrida is correct. Where philosophers have traditionally excluded or included nonhumans within the human community of rights on the basis of positive capacities – for example, the capacity to make tools, form family relations, exhibit a theory of mind, or various forms of “lack” in Lacan, Heidegger, and their epigones – Derrida focuses on a shared non-capacity, what he calls a “nonpower at the heart of power,” the ineluctable, general exposure of animals and humans alike to discomfort, injury, and death. If thinking about animals and humans begins not with abilities, language in particular, but with a shared vulnerability, certainties about agency and freedom all happily collapse.
Derrida’s recentering of the animal question on suffering still has two problems: the first is that it raises the possibility that animals may be killed ethically so long as their suffering is eliminated. This would be “humane killing,” which comes as such a surprise that an animal has no time to experience fear or pain: this is the goal of the slaughterhouse design championed by Temple Grandin, developed through her identification with nonhuman sensory worlds. The second issue is that identification with the “nonpower at the heart of power” need not necessarily result in less cruelty or more kindness. An awareness of suffering need not necessarily result in the desire to end it.
These objections are perhaps too practical. Derrida’s concern is less with animal welfare than with philosophy. He is led to his logical endpoint by his approach to language, in which having language, this supposed distinguishing capacity of humans, is itself not a capacity, but an entanglement in an always shifting, preexisting, limitless network. At the furthest end of this “nonpower” lies the figure of the animal, preserved in Derrida’s analytic, despite his attempts to do otherwise, as a homogeneous figuration of abyssal mystery.
More to the point for my analysis is that Derrida arrives at this problem by aiming at “the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life” [la façon la plus radicale de penser la finitude que nous partageons avec les animaux, la mortalité qui appartient à la finitude même de la vie]. The truth of things may be an aporia, and therefore necessarily, anti/foundationally unreachable, but what it is not is in the middle of things. One has to follow things through to their end to find this truth of absence. Toril Moi’s championing of ordinary language philosophy identifies many of the problems in this, not least of all the fact that “Derrida’s deconstructive concepts at once enact and deconstruct such ideality,” thus requiring that concepts meet the demands of a presumably philosophical purity so that deconstructive analysis has something to disprove.
The purity in its most intense form, as an absence, Derrida discovers in death, suffering, and inability, all of which lie on the other side, at the before (the radical, from the Latin radix, root) and at the after (the finitude, from the Latin finis, a close or conclusion). The “nonpower at the heart of power” locates truth, even if that truth is a void, in suffering, vulnerability, violence, death, across borders, and at least implicitly across temporal limits. Whatever its dedication to upsetting pretensions to unmediated experience, nostalgia for origin, and all other myths of purity, it also needs these myths in order to preserve the grounds for deconstructive analysis.
All this is not to demand that human and animal difference should be conceptualized around differences in ability. I welcome a focus on nonpower, among other things, even if, as Dominic Lacapra observes, this focus goes rather “too far in acknowledging human disempowerment” in relation to nonhumans. It is rather to question both the centrality of suffering in Derrida’s analysis and the accompanying centrality of finitude, and the presentation of all of all of this as authenticity: Herbert Marcuse’s “Ideology of Death” should make us suspicious about any elevation of “a brute biological fact..into an existential privilege” (for introducing me to this essay, thank you to Aranye Fradenburg’s superb Sacrifice Your Love).
Nor am I denying the actual practice of cruelty. Animals can and do suffer, generally not just like people, but nonetheless in their own ways. Recognizing this suffering is no small matter. Furthermore, to say that revelations of cruelty may not necessarily lead to an end to cruelty is not to say that such revelations are valueless: possible results may range from individual kindness to wholesale assaults on an otherwise indifferent or worse social order. Or they may lead to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic assaults on (certain forms) of animal slaughter: good for some animals, bad for some people. I am challenging notions that center right action on the discovery of suffering, especially when this discovery of suffering is elevated into being a central truth – as it can be, strangely enough, for thinkers as antithetical as Bataille and Derrida — and on those that insist that the route to that truth is through the discovery of cruelty where it was otherwise unsuspected or unfelt.