Oysters, How We Begin

And here’s the introduction to my oyster chapter! If you’re VERY eager for 15,304 words on oysters, I’ve put the whole thing up, not on academia.edu, because I’m not a chump, but here, on CUNY Academic Commons. If you’re VERY eager to leave a comment, do it there. It’s a good system.


MS Bodley 602 34r

“But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster” – David Hume, “On Suicide”

“He that does not perceive any higher degree of perfection in a man than in an oyster . . . hath not the reason or understanding of a man in him.” – Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe

“What is prematurely, or belatedly, called the ‘I’ is, at the outset, enthralled.” – Judith Butler, Precarious Life[1]

Oyster books love to talk about pearls and Chesapeake Bay’s oyster war; they love how oyster middens chart the passage not of cavemen but of ancient “covemen.”[2] These same writers happily accept the oyster’s fleshy invitation to aphrodisiacal excess. And when they look to New York City, they love to mourn the loss of its oyster beds, closed in 1927 by pollution and over-harvesting, once home to trillions of the creatures, a seedbed for nostalgia for the grittier appetites of New York’s presumably populist past.[3] At times they talk about how the oyster itself grants a chance of ecological salvation: “oystertecture” offers a possible fix to New York City’s hurricane problems; the oyster’s shell, made of calcium carbonate, helps offset the increasing acidification of the oceans;  and living oysters themselves prodigiously filter water, as what they ingest and don’t eat they eject as pseudofeces, mucous-coated matter that falls to the ocean floor to be processed and rendered safe by anoxic bacteria.[4]

None of this is unimportant, but even the ecological attention to the oyster as an object still thinks of it as there primarily for the use of others. The oyster itself still remains on the outside of our care, thoughtlessly exiled to where even Peter Singer had once left them, when he once notoriously declared that the line between ethically significant and ethically insignificant animals lies “somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster.”[5] Since the latter are no more likely to feel pain than plants do, Singer concluded that so long as they’re sustainably produced and gathered (what to call this activity – harvesting? hunting? – is itself worth noting), there is “no good reason” not to eat them. If there is, as yet, little behavioral or chemical evidence that oysters can feel pain,[6] and if pain, furthermore, is an adaptation suited for animals that can move, an oyster not only cannot feel pain, it also has no reason to, at least once it has passed its first, mobile larval stage, and affixed itself, for its life’s remainder, to some surface.[7] To put this as baldly as possible: a mature oyster feels no pain because there is no way for them to escape us. So long as we assume that the ethical neutrality of killing and eating things that do not know they’re being killed and eaten, then the only reason to grant any given oyster more ethical consideration than any generally edible plant would be because oysters are animals, and animals, categorically speaking, cannot be deliberately killed and eaten by anyone with good ethics.[8]

The great irony here is that Singer, at least here – as he has since decided that it is ethically safer not to eat oysters[9]—harmonizes in some small way with the philosopher whom we can safely call his arch-nemesis. For in November 1646, René Descartes penned a letter to William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle, that likewise offered the oyster, so helpless and so silent, as neatly exemplifying the point where we get to stop caring. Descartes’ chief difference from Singer is to extend this oystery example to all nonhumans. He finished this letter by arguing that if one believed that animals had thought, like us, then they must have an immortal soul, and that one would have to believe this of all animals, oysters or sponges included, which are “too imperfect for this to credible.”[10] This brief passage is a restatement of an argument he published nine years previously, in his Discourse on Method, that likewise ended by insisting that humans uniquely possessed immortal souls, because otherwise “we have nothing to fear or to hope for after this life any more than do flies and ants.”[11] Both these arguments make similarly strange leaps. In the letter to Cavendish, the preceding material is chiefly about the clockwork automatism of nonhumans; in the Discourse on Method, about the inability of nonhumans to produce rational speech, and to get to their respective ends, each argument first passes through the larger animals, so obviously – at least to the nonphilosopher – thrumming with life, intention, and interests: nightingales, parrots, monkeys, dogs, and, cats. And both finish with animals whose silence could hardly be exceeded. Despite being blamed for inaugurating the modern tyranny of instrumental reason over animals,[12] Descartes’ reasoning is essentially that of any Christian medieval scholar, at least insofar as he just assumes that nonhumans die and stay dead and that humans, by contrast, can at least spiritually persist.[13] What is more striking is the presence of the oyster in a proof about clockwork motion: what could be more still than an oyster? Had he not been so bound to prove his own human difference, he might have argued that, for example, oysters were incapable of rational speech or noninstinctual motion, and that other animals were not. The very absurdity of the final flourish of the oyster in an argument about monkeys and cats and nightingales demonstrates both a desire to enclose all nonhuman life, no matter its noisiness and motility, within the stolid shells of oystery immobility, and demonstrates another, even odder point, that when a writer wants to argue about the ethnical inconsiderability of animals, or to imagine animal life at its most minimal, or to determine the absolute limits of animal life, the animal that offers itself up more readily than any other is the oyster. This has been true, as I’ll observe below, since Plato, and remained true at least through to the eighteenth century.

We could respond by saving the dogs and cats from the briny clutches of this border creature, as some animal rights philosophers have sought to rescue the larger mammals from the ethical irrelevance of insects and other swarming invertebrates;[14] we could go still further and try to rescue the oysters themselves, and thereby liberate nonhuman life in general into the uncertain protection of humans of good conscience. Such generation of sensitivity for the apparently insensible has been the habit of all ecocritics as they seek to ethically outflank one another. On this point at least, I can assure the reader that there is nothing to worry about. My interest is in the rich opportunities oysters offer for rethinking standard approaches to posthumanism. Derrida’s otherwise monumental contribution to critical animal theory, for example, largely has no purchase on the shoals of indifferent, uncharismatic oysters, more like landscapes than collections of individuals: it is not only that they seem to lack the capacity for sentience so important to animal rights philosophy, that they cannot speak or suffer, and not only that they can hardly be thought of like, say, cats, as “unsubstitutable singularities,” not only that they simply cannot look back, so that arrogant philosophers might be “seen seen” in their gaze.[15] It is that in the archives I will describe below, oysters can barely be said to be alive, barely be said to be animals, and could hardly exhibit their “agency” or intention—those bywords of speculative realism—more faintly.

Ultimately, I intend to leave the oyster exactly where Descartes, and Singer, at least for a while, left them, but with this difference: I will propose that we crowd in with it, and that, for a while, we give up on our lonely claim to the other side, where Descartes and his unacknowledged medieval masters cleared a space for us to comfortably, and delusionally, pretend to live a life of free will and obvious moral significance. Singer’s understanding of the oyster as only barely animal, and essentially insensible of harm, accords well both with modern science and, especially, with the premodern archive, which, more than modern oyster writing, is particularly concerned with the helpless, mostly insensible umwelt of the oyster. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t widely known: cultural studies, gustatory tours, or eco-history tend not to do much with premodern writing about oysters.[16] This narrow historical perspective is a mistake. It’s not just that premodern writing often considers the oyster; it’s that fascination with the oyster as the border creature – in Singer, Descartes, and a host of other examples, classical and medieval chiefly – and the surprising tendency of one strain of oyster-thinking to compare humans to them, offers a route to recognizing that the oyster’s passivity and exposure to being injured are not alien to our human condition, but emblematic of it. Thinking with the oyster counters the certainty that the chief feature of humans is our agency. The oyster helps us recognize better own secondariness; our not fully conscious belatedness in relation to our own situation, the basic, inescapable vulnerability of existence, and helps us recognize that not only things that do things merit our consideration.

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the Posthumous Essays, Of the Immortality of the Soul, and Of Suicide, from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding of Miracles, ed. Richard H. Popkin, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 100; Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part; Wherein, All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism Is Confuted; and Its Impossibility Demonstrated (London: Richard Royston, 1678), 858; Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 45.

[2] See especially John R. Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacosts in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[3] The first such work may be a fourth-century poetic letter in praise of oysters in all their sybaritic variety, by Ausonius to Paulinus of Nola, in Ausonius, Volume II: Books 18-20. Paulinus Pellaeus: Eucharisticus, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library 115 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921), Letter V, 12–17. For a sampling of modern oyster books, see Summer Brennan, The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015); Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006); Rebecca Stott, Oyster (London: Reaktion, 2004); Robb Walsh, Sex, Death, and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009); John R. Wennersten, The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay (Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1981). For the libretto of comic opera about the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Wars, John F. Duncan, “Driven from the Seas, or The Pirate Dredger’s Doom,” 1880.

[4] For a sampling of oyster facts, see the following New York Times articles, which all appeared after Hurricane Sandy hit the city: Andrew C. Revkin, “Students Press the Case for Oysters as New York’s Surge Protector,” New York Times, November 12, 2012, https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/12/students-press-the-case-for-oysters-as-new-yorks-surge-protector/; Alan Feuer, “Protecting New York City, Before Next Time,” The New York Times, November 3, 2012, sec. N.Y. / Region, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/nyregion/protecting-new-york-city-before-next-time.html; Douglas Quenqua, “Oyster Shells Are an Antacid to the Oceans,” The New York Times, May 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/science/oyster-shells-are-an-antacid-to-the-oceans.html. See also “Living Breakwaters Design and Implementation,” SCAPE, accessed February 20, 2017, http://www.scapestudio.com/projects/living-breakwaters-design-implementation/, flood abatement infrastructure for Tottenville, Staten Island, which will begin construction in 2018.

[5] For his oyster opinions, see Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New York: Random House, 1975), 188; and Christopher Cox, “Consider the Oyster,” Slate, April 7, 2010, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2010/04/consider_the_oyster.html.

[6] Robin Jean Crook and Edgar Walters, “Nociceptive Behavior and Physiology of Molluscs: Animal Welfare Implications,” ILAR Journal / National Research Council, Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources 52, no. 2 (2011): 188–89. Further study in molluscs and pain have tended to focus, understandably, on octopuses, squids, and sea slugs; for example, Lynne Sneddon, “Pain in Aquatic Animals,” The Journal of Experimental Biology 218 (2015): 971–73, but also see Gregory A. Lewbart and Conny Mosley, “Clinical Anesthesia and Analgesia in Invertebrates,” Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine 21, no. 1 (2012): 64, which summarizes research from the 1990s on using a 1% solution of Propylene Phenoxetol to relax oysters into opening their shells.

[7] For a treatment for the general public by an “ostrovegan” scientist (albeit an evolutionary psychologist, not a mollusc expert), Diana Fleischman, “The Ethical Case for Eating Oysters and Mussels,” Sentientist, May 20, 2013, https://sentientist.org/2013/05/20/the-ethical-case-for-eating-oysters-and-mussels/.

[8] For one version of this argument, Marc Bekoff, “Vegans and Oysters: If You Eat Oysters, You’re Not a Vegan, So Why the Question?,” in Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2013), 263–66.

[9] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York: New York Review of Books, 1990), 174.

[10] René Descartes, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. III: The Correspondence, trans. Robert Stoothoff (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 304; René Descartes, Oeuvres, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Vrin, 1908), vol. iv, 576.

[11] René Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Donald A. Cress, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998), 33; Descartes, Oeuvres, vol. vi, 59.

[12] For a particularly smart example, Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[13] For example, “whan a beest is dead he hath no peyne; / but man after his deeth moost wepe and pleyne”; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Dean Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987), Knight’s Tale, I.1319-20.

[14] Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[15] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 9, 13.

[16] This is true even for Stott, Oyster, the only literary/cultural theory volume on the oyster I know, which is otherwise quite good on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglophone writing.