Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, Kelly Oliver

6714398A great and boggy disappointment. Do we need yet another book cataloging the failures of Lacan and Heidegger on animals? After Derrida, after Calarco, after Wolfe, probably not. It does help that Oliver gives us chapters on the failures of Freud and Kristeva, Rousseau and Herder, de Beauvoir and Agamben, and on the successes of Derrida and Merleau-Ponty, but the failures are all roughly the same (animals stand in for the body, or the presymbolic, or they’re symbolic substitutions of family relationships or drives, or human sociality forms around eating them and not other humans, or animals lack the ‘as such,’ with all that implies), and as for the successes, well, they’ve been cataloged too. It would have been more efficient, then, to present the book thematically rather than as successive brief chapter summaries of the animal attitudes of various philosophers.

And greater efficiency is needed. The book is unnecessarily long for what it delivers. Owing to its organization, Oliver repeats herself frequently, and then explains that time and space prevented her from dealing with Deleuze and Guattari on animals (let alone Montaigne, who surely deserves a place in here). She should have made room, though, as that would have cut down the padding in the Rousseau and Kristeva chapters, and eliminated the repetition of certain quotations (cf. 321 n9 to 319 n33). Had she trimmed, say, 20,000 words, she could have made room, as well, for Cary Wolfe’s “Logic of the Pet” (and indeed, while she cites Wolfe frequently, she never cites Animal Rites, whose points she often repeats; likewise, there are sadly few references to Donovan and Adams, and none at all to Ralph Acampora, despite the phenomenological turn she takes towards the end). She could have made space to acknowledge (and Wolfe would have helped here too) the tensions between Ecocriticism and Critical Animal Theory: the former deals with whole systems, and the latter, regardless of its sophistication, with individuals. Critical Animal Theory, as interested as it is in particular cats and dogs, too often forgets this.

This isn’t to say that Oliver has nothing to say for Critical Animal Theory: it’s good to have another strong feminist voice, good to have more exposition on Derrida’s hyperbolic ethics, and good to see Merleau-Ponty get his due, for example:

Unlike Heidegger, he does not distinguish between merely living and existing; rather, living beings exhibit different styles of existing. If meaning, style, expression, and logos are already exhibited in behavior, then animals also are intentional beings oriented to their environments and others….Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that for Merleau-Ponty, instincts are aimed toward pleasure, whereas for Heidegger, they are aimed toward self-preservation. (213)

Zing! Take that, Heidegger, and go cherish your being seriously elsewhere while we sit here and play with our reversible flesh.