My first book, A Theology of Failure: Žižek Against Christian Innocence is out on 7 May. A 30% discount is available if you buy the book via http://www.combinedacademic.co.uk using the code below.
My first book, A Theology of Failure: Žižek Against Christian Innocence is out on 7 May. A 30% discount is available if you buy the book via http://www.combinedacademic.co.uk using the code below.
Here, friends, is the second part of my response to the excellent posts on Inner Animalities that have appeared here over the last two weeks. Once again, I can’t express enough gratitude to those who wrote responses, to Beatrice who organized the event, and to AUFS for holding open a space for this kind of engagement.
To Beatrice Marovich:
While the entire book event has been a tremendous gift, I think that Beatrice articulates the central intuitions and instincts of the project with unmatched clarity and precision. I spend so much time attending to the failures of thought, language, and communication that it’s a little uncanny to see communication actually happening. I keep seeing my authorial intentions, those fossils we gave up on so long ago, emerging in the words of friends newly costumed in attire that I can’t help but admire. Beatrice’s image of Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, knee deep in the reservoir of animality and drinking their fill, all while denigrating water as beneath their dignity so aptly and so succinctly captures my sense of the dominant relation between Christian theology and animality. That image alone outweighs the pages and pages of theoretical explanation in the early chapters of the book.
I’m grateful, as well, for the image of proper humanity as a carceral reality. Somewhere along the way we created a normative conceptions of humanity that trap and surveil us, punish us for deviations, and rob us of freedoms and intimacies. Just this week, I was reading Val Plumwood’s (excellent) Environmental Culture with students and was struck again by her insight: “This rationalistic agency that is in the process of killing its own earthly body sees itself as the ultimate form of reasoning planetary life, and seeks to impost itself universally…it has little capacity to reflect on or correct its increasingly life-threatening failures or blindspots. This kind of rationality is irrational, despite its hyper-rational trappings (16).” The prison of proper humanity not only traps human beings, but subjects the whole world to a unbearably stupid collective punishment regime. There are limits and dangers to this metaphor, of course, but Beatrice is right to note that I catch a scent of liberation in animality, the bare outline of a way of being human that is not trapped in enforced cycles of destructive addiction and exploitation.
I am, indeed, “tempted to fracture human and animal lives in the other direction” by valorizing animality over humanity. Methodologically, my goal here little more than a pretty standard Derridean approach to a calcified binary: demonstrate that what masquerades as a clean split is always mutually contaminated and that the dominant term of the binary absolutely depends upon the subordinated term. That said, as Beatrice notes, I really don’t mean to construct some pure, utopian animality, a “nature” that can absorb and redeem humanity’s errors if only we relax ourselves out of civilization and back into a “real world” that we’ve been missing all along. Rilke offers a good example of this maneuver. If I am tempted to valorize animality, it’s out of a sense that common creaturely interdependence—not only at the level of basic bodily needs (i.e. the food chain) but at the level of personhood and purpose (existential orientation and spirituality)—would be better than our current ways of living. Life on the outside is not categorically different from incarcerated life, but it can be much better.
Societies that create and tolerate anthropological gradients—which attribute more humanity to some genres of than others—persist by building on the assumption that animality is always a degradation. I am coming to think that the point at which anti-racist, anti-colonial, and feminist work intersects (each at its own angle, in its own way) with attention to human animality is in the recognition that creaturely dignity is always a fragile social agreement that loosely governs a space where two or more lives interact. Making space for Sarynada’s conviction that “there is no such thing as a subhuman [and] we must treat each other as if this is so” means organizing and cultivating the relations that safeguard dignity with a thickness of personal, emotional, corporeal, and ecological intimacy rather than the assertion of an abstraction.
To Anthony Paul Smith:
Anthony’s reflection—beautiful, challenging, and strange in its own way—draws out the entanglement of violence and biography (life-writing). One of my good friends, an organic dry-land farmer in central Montana, who also spends a lot of time looking cows in the face, likened Anthony’s post to listening to a Radiohead album after pounding a beer on an empty stomach. I can assure you that this was a high compliment.
Thinking animality means thanking ecologically. Thinking ecologically means thinking violence. And if we are thinking ecologically, we need to think violence in ways other than categorical refusal, disavowal, and erasure. Violence is categorically evil just to the degree that life itself is bound to evil—since the two are ever entangled. Lisa Sideris’ Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection remains inescapable for me in thinking about the violence inherent in ecological-turn-ethical concepts like interdependence, community, and kinship. We eat, we breathe, we occupy the land, we produce waste. While our current economic and political system multiplies violence into world-crushing machines, there is violence inherent in even the basic functions of creaturely life. Heterotrophy happens.
Of course, violence lies at the root of creaturely evolution; it is the secondary cause of creaturely strength, speed, diversity, and intelligence. A theological argument that presses human beings toward out common animality must necessarily think about living, responsibility, and violence all in the same frame. Progressive theologians—among whom ecological theologians are frequently and rightly numbered—have earned a reputation for squeamishness around questions of violence. Love and inclusion is supposed to take care of everything. But ignoring the sometimes-unedifying connections between living and killing turns theological reflection into an untethered romantic daydream that justifies exploitation through distraction rather than confronting it.
Anthony’s reflection on Inner Animalities’ last full chapter explores the desire and pleasure of being prey. I can imagine the attraction there—the pleasure of being eaten—even as I imagine that, in the moment, I would fight to the death against being preyed upon. The struggle of life must necessarily end, then there is goodness in a final surrender even if it can’t be good for me. This direction of thought throws us, quickly and uncomfortably, back upon Beth Pyne’s question: How do we stringently and effectively differentiate between the (necessary?, good?) violence of animality and the debased, exploitative and sacrilegious violence of reactionaries, fascists, misogynists, and homophobes? We often lack the moral fortitude and conceptual sophistication to do the work of that differentiation. The refusal of that work allow s degraded violence to posture itself into a kind of “nature” while some of us pretend to be able to repudiate violence altogether. Perhaps we need a word other than “violence,” bracing as that one is, to describe the forces at play in creaturely living and dying.
Anthony is absolutely right when he writes that questions of eating and questions of sexuality are closer to one another than we realize. In the overlap, profound corporeal intimacy moves in the direction of compulsions to consume in ways that are simultaneously real and symbolic. The conversation that links the obvious violence of eating with the prevalent, reprehensible violence of so much sexuality terrifies me, in part because I’m really not sure that these are my questions to raise—even if I can’t avoid thinking them. The teeth in that conversation don’t often bite my particular genre of flesh in the world we inhabit. Are we capable of building and sustaining communities, traditions, relationships, homes (!?), in which the violence of sex and eating are made explicit—in a responsible, a face-to-face acknowledgement of the stakes of living together? Asking this question well, I think, requires that I own the experience of being fucked and being eaten with or without the fantasy of a pleasure in it. I mean me, I the writer, not the interchangeable pronominal “I” that might attempt to swallow you into acquiescing to the same response. I think that I can imagine such a fate without fatalism, without resignation, but something more like an ecological humility.
Like Anthony, I am a vegetarian for whom righteousness has very little appeal. I live with a vegan who puts my cheese-compromises to shame anyway. While my commitment does strike me as a kind of responsibility, I can’t pretend to escape from complicity in violence. Most vegetarians and vegans that I know find that aesthetic compulsions (disgust, most of all) sustain their dietary habits far more effectively than moral outrage. Nevertheless, affectively reinforced by my disgust, I do feel compulsions to minimize my violence, to own it my looking it in the face, to struggle against the ecologically-untethered violence that grinds people, creatures, and places that I love into alienated and fragmented versions of themselves. These compulsions toward responsibility, impossible though they are, and doomed to failure, feel to me like elements of way of living that I wish were widely shared. Is it too romantic to think that most animals have a relationship to the violence of living that is more honest, more sober, quieter than ours? Perhaps I haven’t escaped the orbit of a kind of righteousness after all.
To Jacob J. Erickson:
Jake Erickson’s achingly melancholy piece offers profound images for thinking about the themes and arguments of Inner Animalities. Winterkill as a picture of the long-buried, scoured bones of human animality; or human animality as a last-surviving member of a ghost species, a captive on display with no real future—Jake has led us into rich connections, even if somewhat mournful.
I’m thrilled that Jake picked up on the pneumatological lean of the text, which I am certain that I inherited from Elizabeth Johnson. That turning toward the spirit is not explicit or loud in the book, but it was an intentional trajectory. Jake solicits the “disruptive potential” of this pneumatological movement in other areas of theological anthropology, a solicitation to which I’ll gladly respond. I have spent the last twelve years of my life in the circles of Catholic higher education, where the notion of dignity plays an important theological, ethical, and political role. Human dignity, as it appears in Catholic social teaching and Catholic theology, is a cipher for anthropological exceptionalism insofar as it names a quality of human life that sets us (uniquely) above the rest of creation in importance. And so dignity, in my view, is really a mixed bag. It’s often the starting point for demanding preferential attention to the poor, for refusing abusive economic, political, and ecclesial structures, and for resisting degradation; at the same time, through its link to anthropological exceptionalism, dignity validates ecological degradation in service of economic growth, the horrendous torture regimes of animal agriculture and experimentation, and other forms of violence that only come back to swallow the very people that assertions of dignity mean to protect. So dignity is a mixed bag.
I’ve been working to rethink dignity in an ecologically embedded way, and pneumatology has opened doors in this work. Insofar as dignity is most often grounded theologically and biblically in the “image of God” tradition, it leans toward Christology and ends up in fortified forms of anthropological exceptionalism. But there are other ways to arrive at dignity. Jake asks “Could it be that perhaps the pneumatological breath of life, the nephesh desire breathing in each creature of this animated world is, at its base level, a perpetual witness to and reminder of our animality?” Yes! If dignity is a function of the breath/spirit of God that animates the life of the living—I am thinking of Genesis 2’s common formation of human and animals, both scraped together from the dust and animated by God’s breath/spirit—then the particular dignity of being human is only a particular species of a dignity that inheres in every living, breathing creature. Our common animality is in our being nephesh, elements of soil moved by divine breath that becomes our breath (until we choke ourselves out with pollutants). This account of dignity, what is more, necessarily demands openness to the full range of creaturely difference and diversity—since the spirit moves in all the furry, feathered, finned, and flying shapes of creatures that ought to teem on the earth. From the perspective of theological anthropology, that openness seems vastly preferable to a dignity that inheres in the (singular) image, which perhaps despite the best of intentions, offers dignity only at the cost of disciplined conformity.
If the spirit breathes in all the living, then along with ghost species, we can attend to various species of ghost—the haunting divinanimality of all the living. It is possible to intuit, in intimacy with creaturely neighbors, a “livingness” that cannot be reduced to the operation of a body-machine. The dignity of other animals, as the sustaining breath of God moving in and out of nonhuman bodies, doesn’t need to be theorized as a kind of theologically amplified dualism, much less as a dualism. At best, it is the emphatic recognition that living members of our neighbor-species are just as complex as we are, carrying multiplicities of world-experience that are hidden from us. Restrict dignity and holiness to one, anthropomorphic, ghost allows us to give our proper humanity a sense of importance, but it comes at the deadly cost of an ignorance of all the inspiring, expiring holy ghosts who move with the life of God in the lives of earth. Ghost species, those at the edge of extinction, press upon us the haunting urgency (if we are honest enough to look them in the eye) that proper humanity is extinguishing the very spirit by which we also live.
photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger on pexels.com
A few years ago, I was skiing along a ridge looking toward a snow-covered cliff that dropped several hundred feet from the ridge that I was on down to the forest below. What caught my attention was a couple of crows, whose black feathers stood out starkly against the cap of snow that sat on rocky cliff top. Both crows hopped around, looking curiously at the sorts of things that catch crows’ attention. All of a sudden, one of the crows, standing right at the drop, lowered one shoulder and rolled sideways down the snow and over the rim of the cliff. After just a second of falling, she spread her wings, stopped her aerial roll and landed smoothly with both feet on an even smaller ledge a little ways beneath the top of the cliff—as if nothing had happened. As I remember it, she gave a little shake before flying back up to the top of the cliff and then, for the hell of it, did the same maneuver again. I cannot know what compulsion or desire motivates such behavior, but it seemed to me that this crow was enjoying an activity that she, uniquely, could perform. “I am wings, I rise over heights, I am feathers on snow, I will roll and drop. Again!”
The feeling that I’ve had reading the posts over the last few weeks has been similar to the experience of watching that crow. At some distance from me now, I see Inner Animalities in the hands of the colleagues and friends that have read, thought, and written so generously. It seems to me that this creature is out there having fun in the world, doing a thing that it, uniquely, can do. The book, it seems, is having fun as it spins and flies in the hands and minds of other readers. I can no longer understand entirely the compulsions and desires that constitute the book’s behavior, but I’ve now had a felicitous opportunity to watch the relationships emerging between the book and the worlds of a few (excellent) co-travelers. Like watching that crow, my stomach has dropped in anticipation and my heart has thrilled with the joy of seeing this strange activity. The interactions with my work that have been posted here are more sustained and substantial than any other interaction I’ve had around this project, and likely more than any interaction to come. It’s a tremendous gift and I can’t possibly express the extent of my gratitude to James Stanescu, Elizabeth Pyne, Jay Emerson Johnson, Anthony Paul Smith, Jacob Erickson, and especially, to Beatrice Marovich who not only contributed to the book event, but also organized it.
I have been unable to contain my responses to a more reasonable length, so rather than post a single unreadably long response, I’m going to divide my comments in two. I’ll post the first half today and the second half early next week.
To James Stanescu:
James Stanescu presses on the implications of an important question for a project like mine: Can animals sin? And, it’s true, some who make claims similar to mine—that the human “fall” into sin is not a fall into, but away from animality—end up in an “exceptionalism through negation.” Leonard Lawlor’s This is not Sufficient does excellent work (drawing on Derrida) to demonstrate how the notion of a fault or a lack in human nature (relative to a conception of animals as complete) generates anthropological exceptionalism insofar as humanity emerges as distinct in superior precisely by overcoming the disadvantageous lack of strength, fur, speed, instinct, or essence that makes animals “whole.” However successfully, I meant to avoid generating such a scheme in the book. And so, again, my simple answer to the question is “yes,” animals can sin. In the comment beneath James’ post I left a story that I would regard as an example of elephant sin. Still, I’m really grateful for this opportunity to try to clarify—for myself, if no one else—just how the sin of hyenas and hyraxes might be related to the sin of humans.
Drawing on Agamben, I would align anthropogenesis closely with theological category of sin. Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language can be read together with The Open, in order to suggest that the project of the anthropological machine—to generate the regulatory fiction of proper humanity (that is, anthropological exceptionalism)–goes all the way back to the origins of humanity and our effort to control our world with our language. And to suggest that humanity is coterminous with sin is really only the traditional doctrine of original sin (sin is radical and universal). For humanity, sin is the pretension to exceptionalism that is generated by regulatory notions of “proper humanity” that attempt (and fail) to repudiate and control animality. Nevertheless, connecting sin to anthropogenesis in this way doesn’t rule out the idea that sin might appear in other creatures too. In thinking about animal sin, there are two points to make.
The first is that whatever sin looks like in a rabbit or a robin, we should not expect it to look the same as human sin. Just as nonhuman animals have species-specific and community-specific forms of intelligence, culture, emotion, play, tool-use, and morality that are not directly intelligible from our own, limited human perspective, so too the sin of non-human animals is likely to be species-specific and community-specific. The really interesting questions, in all of these areas, are in the overlaps and divergences, but I think we need to start with an acknowledgment of basic difference rather than expecting animal intelligence, emotion, sin, etc. to be a diminutive or derivative version of our own.
The second point is about the conception of sin itself. The word “sin” in our cultural moment throws us immediately into questions of guilt, responsibility, punishment, and forgiveness. This moralizing tendency is one way of thinking about sin, but only one way. And most of the resistance that I see to the idea of animal sin comes out of this unquestioned link between sin and guilt, protesting that animals are innocent of malice. It’s also possible (and I would argue better) to think about sin through the frameworks of alienation and sickness—categories where questions of blame are less applicable. Alienation and sickness push us into thinking about sin along the lines of thriving in relationships. What healthy interdependence and thriving looks like for an osprey or an octopus is going to be really specific to those creatures, but if we bother to pay attention, we are capable of discerning such things. And we can also see situations in which communities of creatures break down or particular creatures fail to thrive in egregious ways—such as in the case of the elephants who rape rhinoceroses (again see the comment beneath James’ post). The salvation or redemption that is needed in such cases is not forgiveness for breaking the rules, but restoration of the possibility of healthy interdependence. If human beings are fallen in a particularly destructive way, then perhaps it’s appropriate to think of redemption as especially focused on human beings, but there are forms of alienation and sickness across creation that require something like redemption.
To Elizabeth Pyne:
With exquisite accuracy, Beth puts her finger on an important problem that goes largely unaddressed in the book. She wonders and worries whether an affirmation of animality in human life might unwittingly validate weaponized animalities like Andrew Sullivan’s notion of “male instinct” or Jordan Peterson’s lobster-based naturalization of dominance. And it should be said that Sullivan and Peterson are the unreflective, reactionary surface of an iceberg that sinks down into blood-and-soil fascism, violently entitled masculinities, nostalgic agrarian purity politics, and eugenic racism. The basic question is one of the link between nature, animality, and violence—concepts that are very hard to disentangle. Beth rightly notes that I don’t have much patience for positive assertions of what is or isn’t “natural,” except to start paying attention to the political question of what is being justified by the assertion. Beth herself has one of the sharpest minds I know on these questions. But, she wonders, if animality is often a cipher for nature, then isn’t affirming animality a backdoor for regressive naturalized violence? Insofar as weaponized animality accompanies episodes and outbreaks of violence, I can’t deny the possibility. Beth finds in Inner Animalities at least the seeds of a “rejoinder to these manipulations” of animality, and I’d like to try to expand on these briefly.
First-time authors do not often get full control over the titles that their books wear. I had reservations about Inner Animalities as soon as the suggestion emerged. Those reservations had a lot to do with the implication that everyone has some natural, undiscovered kernel or core of animality just waiting to be expressed—an implication, to be clear, that I’d reject precisely because it maintains a link between animality and a static, essentialist concept of nature. In contrast, I’d argue that animality and ecology are always already deeply political, whether human beings are involved or not. Any community of creatures must perpetually work out, at the intra-species and the inter-species levels, what kinds of behaviors are tolerable or intolerable, what consequences attend to unexpected behaviors, and how relations of power and consumption will be managed. To say that human dignity and human salvation are to be found in those relationships of animal commonality is not to validate or justify our unreconstructed conception of our own animality (the fictional inner-cave man to which evolutionary psychology persistently appeals). In aligning the regulatory fiction of “humanity” with original sin, I mean to suggest that redemption throws human beings back into creaturely commonality. Redemption, in that picture, is not the end of politics as such, but the transformative reintegration of human politics with ecological politics. And here’s the point of my reply to Beth’s concern: human animality is a performative political project that will require constant intra-species and inter-species negotiation. I would strongly suggest that we organize against weaponized animalities as contraventions of the work of God, but I don’t think that there’s a theological shortcut for the political organizing that will be necessary to repudiate and overcome anti-ecological, exploitative, and debased claims to animality. There is no pre-made culture of redeemed human animality, we will need to build it out of the fragments of our worlds—with the grace of God and our own constitutive interdependence on fellow creatures to guide us.
In a similar fashion, I feel urgency in the difficult listening work necessary to learn what it means to live alongside wolves, snakes, and microbes—specifically discerning what modes of violence and consumption allow for long-term stability and which modes of violence and consumption are only exploitative. Many animals already know that that cross-species political arrangements do not mirror intra-species politics; crows and coyotes communicate and cooperate with one another, but not in the same way that they cooperate with their own. I make this point in order to avoid slipping into a swamp of sameness-in-animality. There are forms of violence between creatures that do not, at least for other species, justify analogous forms of violence within the species. We must stop hiding from the violence of living, the violence of our own living, in order to minimize
To Jay Emerson Johnson
I sometimes joke that I spend half of my time in the classroom trying to talk students out of biblical/theological literalisms and the other half trying to talk them into them. One of my favorite “no, really, let’s take this literally for a minute” passages to throw at students is Job 12: “Ask the animals and they will teach you, the birds of the air, and they will tell you…” Generally, this conversation leads to a consensus that nonhuman animals must have unique creaturely perspectives on divinity/transcendence and also that most of the humans who turn up in North American college classrooms have neither inherited nor developed the interest and techniques that would be necessary to really learn from those nonhuman animals. Our heritage of anthropological exceptionalism has shut our ears to the wisdom that quietly surrounds us in the lives of our neighbors, even as the machines of our political and economic systems grind down and extinguish those lives—leaving us with fewer teachers.
Usually, in these conversations, I bring up Jane Goodall, Barbara Smuts, and other figures who’ve devoted their lives to understanding chimpanzees, baboons, and others on their own turf and terms. But the science of ethology isn’t the only technique by which we might come to understand our neighbors’ perspectives better. And so, I’m grateful for Jay Johnson’s thinking about communities and sub-cultures like pup-play where humans inhabit, in a way that presses against limits that we don’t ordinarily meet, modes of common animality. I doubt they would describe it this way, but I’d like to recognize that people at the Folsom Street Fair might be doing the work of “asking the animals.” Playing is learning. Playing well means knowing the moves and the spirit of the game. I’ve talked with a colleague who asks students in their animal-studies class to observe one particular creature for an extended time and then choreograph a dance that expresses that creature’s way of moving in the world. If we humans are, as our traditions tell us, an exceptionally intelligent species, then surely we are smart enough to critically imagine the world from perspectives other than our own. Some human beings have done so, and I think Jay adds another tool where we might join their inquiry. The fact that the question sounds trivial from the standpoint of a militantly ecocidal, globally-entrenched political-economic system is itself a condemnation of that system.
Moreover, Jay is absolutely right that I “could have made still plainer how the distinctions [between humanity and animality] are so frequently mapped to the rhetoric of white supremacy, the misogynistic commodification of women’s bodies, and the truly insidious intertwining of these denigrations.” The lack of sustained attention to the complex ways in which the subordination of animality generates and sustains gendered and racialized hierarchies is one of the failings of the book that I feel the most deeply. In part, I probably was not prepared to address those connections in an adequately sharp way when I was in the midst of this writing project. While I certainly have not yet thought through the connections between animality and human difference in a fully adequate way, the book’s failure concerned me enough that I’ve worked to address those connections in a few articles (here and here), and may continue that work in another book project. Anyone interested in animality, humanity, and constructions of human difference should start with scholars such as Sunaura Taylor, Sylvia Wynter, Mel Y. Chen, and others doing that work in a way that I can only strive to learn from.
More to come early next week.
I’m running a workshop at the 2019 Society for the Study of Theology conference about “diversifying the curriculum”. We’re talking about some different models of “diversifying”, what the challenges are, and what has worked.
I’ve been putting the syllabi I’ve created up on the blog for a while now but wanted to have a single place I could point people to: here, then, is that post, with links to all the different syllabi I’ve uploaded. If you’re interested in syllabi by the AUFS authors more broadly, you can check our posts tagged syllabi; if you’re interested in our more general reflections on teaching, you can take a look at our posts tagged teaching.
First year undergraduate syllabus (on Augustine, suffering and study skills): Great Christian Thinkers: Joining the Conversation
First year undergraduate syllabus: Introduction to Political Philosophy
First year undergraduate syllabus (on Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, John Calvin, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Gustavo Gutiérrez): Great Christian Thinkers 2
Second year undergraduate syllabus: The Making of Modern Christianity: Medieval Europe
Second year undergraduate syllabus: Hegel, Marx and Dialectical Thought
Second and third year undergraduate syllabus: Christianity, Race and Colonialism
Second and third year undergraduate syllabus: Gender, Sexuality and the Bible
MA syllabus: Dazzling Darkness: Mysticism and Philosophy
For the past couple of years I’ve been teaching a first year introductory module called “Joining the Conversation”. The module exists to introduce students to key themes and concepts in Christian theology (hopefully in a way that engages both our philosophy and our theology students), to a key Christian thinker – St Augustine – and to a key set of study skills relating to reading texts, critically engaging with them, and writing essays. The module is organised around the theme of suffering, and the question of whether suffering is “What Matters Most”. Here’s the module descriptor I use: