Reason, Freedom, and Animality (ENGL 80600)

Just wrote my course description for my Spring 2021 seminar at the CUNY Grad Center (English Department). It’s down there. Are graduate programs in NYC still doing consortial cross-listing? If so, I’d be happy to have students from NYU, Fordham, Princeton, and Columbia in this seminar.

Humans, as Porphyry influentially defined us long ago, are “the rational mortal animal”: an animal, because a living thing; mortal, because we are not gods; and rational, because we – alone among mortal things – have reason. Or so holds a standard taxonomy, which separates humans from a homogeneously irrational mass of dogs, horses, crows, oysters, apes, and so on. The claim to having reason is also the claim to have free will: to be morally responsible, to be a legal subject, to be a citizen, and to have ownership over oneself and one’s actions. And the corollary claim that other things lack reason offers them up to supposedly rational subjects as objects, as property, as chattel, as things to be cultivated, perhaps, but never really to be cared for.

“Reason, Freedom, and Animality” will lean on the question of humans as the rational form of life, examining texts ranging from ancient Greeks to (at least) the early modern period, lingering mostly in the Middle Ages, but always with engagement with later 20th and 21st century philosophical texts. We will explore how the claims to the possession of reason and freedom underlay debates about enslavement, gender hierarchies, racialization, and other ways of denying certain human populations resources and exposing them to premature death. Dominant humans tend to judge subordinated groups as wanting in reason, and therefore as more animal than human, which opens them up to being treated, as the common phrase goes, ‘like animals’: at best, as a dependent form of life, and, at worst, as a life made to be used by others, with all this implies in terms of exposure to captivity and abuse, so that being treated “like an animal” means nearly the opposite of being treated “like a living thing.”

Because the question of the possession of reason accompanies the claim to freedom, we will also explore critical habits of praising freedom where it can be found. How does the hunt for “agency” or the praise of categorical strain, instability and openness encode an at least vaguely supersessionary logic, that accords to some favored objects and groups the liberation from the law that “grace” provides? How do our critical habits participate in a language of freedom inherited from, among other places, the Christian scriptures?

The ideal set of primary texts is still being assembled. Course organization will be roughly chronological, looking first at questions of freedom, reason, and logos in some foundational philosophical and political documents, then moving into medieval narrative and theology, and concluding with some skeptical work, perhaps by Margaret Cavendish. Theoretical readings will be some classics in posthumanism, critical animal theory, feminist care ethics, and disability theory, with generous reference to more recent work, like Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. I will aim to connect course themes to the participants’ individual research interests. Each student will be responsible for a weekly presentation; you will also write a book review; and, in the end, produce a seminar paper, or a conference paper with very thorough notes. We will conclude the class with a mini conference.