|Sri Lankan oysters (?), BN fr. 22971
by KARL STEEL
Hey gang! I’ve just (finally) submitted my contribution for Steve Mentz’s forthcoming Oceanic New York anthology. I’ve scrapped the essay I wrote for the actual conference in favor of a consideration of consent and existence, in part in response to a paper on (human) consent I heard at Kzoo2014.
Towards the beginning, I consider one of Descartes’ letters to Margaret Cavendish, infamous because he bars all animals from moral relevance on the basis of the “imperfection” of oysters and sponges:
The most one can say is that though the animals do not perform any action which shows us that they think, still, since the organs of their bodies are not very different from ours, it may be conjectured that there is attached to these organs some thought such as we experience in ourselves, but of a much less perfect kind. To this I have nothing to reply except that if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters as sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.
A usual animal studies/new materialist response might be to use a “touch of anthropomorphism” to discover the agency and voice of the oysters. The resources would be the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Oyster riddle, or the talking oyster of Gelli’s Circe, his adaptation and expansion of Plutarch’s Gryllus. But this might be little more than discovering the rabbit we ourselves had enhatted; and it continues to take the speaking voice as the preeminent ethically relevant subject. My essay counters these tendencies by observing, first, that the most salient characteristic of these talking oysters is not their voices, but rather their helplessness. From this point, I try to take oysters on their own terms — helpless, mute, and mostly indifferent to the world — not by enhancing their agency, but by diminishing ours.
Here’s where I take it:
We’re now in a position to reconsider Descartes’ letter to Cavendish. Much of the letter– a little more than two pages long in a modern translation — is not about denying thought to animals. Rather, it opens with a lengthy proof of automatism of most human life. As Descartes explains, somnambulant humans sometimes swim across rivers they could never cross while awake; for the most part, we don’t need to think while we eat or walk; and if we tried not to cover our face as we fell, we wouldn’t succeed. The apparently conscious existence of others may just be mechanical. All Descartes can say confidently is that, unlike animals, we ourselves can communicate things not relating to our passions, but, at least in this letter, he provides no sustained proof that the communication even of other humans is anything but mechanical repetition. That is, only irrational custom or an equally irrational sympathetic guesswork protects Descartes’ human fellows from being eaten, used, and vivisected. This guesswork overlays a more fundamental animal condition that is, for the most part, unconsciousness. Like other animals, we have our passions; like other animals, our passions have us, and our expressions — of hunger, of self-protection, of motion — is the voice not of our freedom but of our vulnerable bodily existence.
In other words, even Descartes begins by admitting that the dominant condition of being human is unwilled exposure. Our existence is at its root not chosen, not rational, not elective, but rather, primarily, nonconsensual. We flatter ourselves by thinking that our freedom of choice is our defining characteristic, but we might ask, with Derrida, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal.” We do not chose to be born. We do not chose the conditions of our being here any more than an oyster does. Our much vaunted ability to willingly move, which we hold out over the oysters, still doesn’t untether us from having to live somewhere. The same goes for our ability to seek out our food rather than just receive it as the water gives it, like an oyster. We have a degree of free movement, but we still can’t chose not to eat. Whatever the powers of our agency to supplement our fundamental inadequacy by building ourselves homes, by wrapping ourselves in clothes and armor, to, in effect, give ourselves the covering oysters already have, we can never eliminate our vulnerability. We cover ourselves for the same reasons, and with the same necessity, that oysters do.
Thanks! There’s more. Looking forward very much to seeing how well it plays in the anthology itself. If you’d like to see some other stuff I’ve done here on Descartes and his disciples, read here.
(you might also read this philosophical essay on oysters, which I still plan to do, and, while you’re at it, read a recent and excellent essay on MOOCs by the Dominic Pettman who suggested the oyster essay to me)