Proper Humanity and the Fantasy of the Subhuman (Inner Animalities Book Event)

white and black moon with black skies and body of water photography during night time

Animal Studies is an interdisciplinary field. And this is one of the things that makes it interesting. But one thing I’ve always liked about its deployment in the fields of religion and theology is how this illuminates what Derrida referred to as the “divinanimal” dimensions of creaturely life. It is impossible to think carefully about animals in religion or theology without making note of the fact that there are enduring ambiguities between that which is divine or angelic on the one hand, and that which is animal on the other. It is easy, perhaps, for a primatologist like Frans de Waal (whose contact with religion is not his research, but his childhood encounters with Catholicism) to suggest that the cultural subjection of animal life is largely indebted to religious values and theological ideas. But as religious and theological thinkers such as Eric Meyer—who dig deep into the textual reservoirs of the ancient past—have made clear, the divine has also, often, taken on animal dimensions. This is true even for Christian thinkers, with their confessional allergies to animality. This other tendency has always been there, subdued or suffocated though it may now be. I don’t think this undermines the genealogical connections between the subjection of animal life and religious thought cultures. But it does complicate the story.

Theological discourses in Christianity have long (and evasively) intimated that animals are—in some way—”above us” (united with the divine, perhaps even more grace-filled or virtuous than the human). This is economically expressed, I think, in the figure of The Open that Rainer Maria Rilke evokes, in his eighth Duino Elegythat place where the animal and the eternal fuse, the divine blends with the animal. But in a western intellectual tradition, where animality has also served as the foil against which the sovereign figure of human life has attempted to constitute itself, animals have never—in any simple or outright sense—been figured as “above” us. Western thinkers have recognized that in the image of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom there seems to be some virtue, or some messianic dimension, to animality. But strenuous efforts have been made to read these moments as nothing but allegories, arguing that they have never been about anything but properly human life all along (I lay these arguments out, elsewhere). Stripping the animal of the divine or angelic results, then, in a move that wants to place these divested animals somehow “below” us, in a reservoir that sometimes goes by the name of the subhuman.

In Inner Animalities, Eric is tackling this problem head-on. In his book, I think, he suggests that this space “below” is a kind of defensive fantasy created for proper humanity. For Eric, proper humanity is a normative idea and a regulatory conception that subordinates, modulates, controls, or redirects its own animality. Human beings, on the other hand, are “psychosomatic creatures” whose mind-bodies are traversed by complex rivulets of animality. Proper humanity maintains the fantasy that it can somehow extract the water of animality from those rivulets in the human mind-body, and spit it out. When proper humanity seeks to subdue and govern those tides of animality within human being, it shapes and forms the way that human beings live and think, in order to redirect those waters. They are displaced into a reservoir that proper humanity has named subhuman. But those reservoirs are one of the places where we stop to drink—they provide us with the waters of life. And they have never been below us. Rather, we are knee deep in them. Or drinking at their edge.

In his brilliant reading of late ancient thinkers such as Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, perhaps the most important insight that Eric develops is that for all their critiques of animality, these theologians would have no god and no redemption without animality. Eric’s insights emphasize that, as he puts it, when humanity is “cut off from animality” it “becomes aesthetically out of tune, insular, ashamed, and unresponsive to the analogical grace of divine beauty” (57). Without animality, there is no path toward God, no grace. Here, it is as if these theologians are standing at the edge of the reservoir of water, knee deep and quenching their thirst, as they proclaim that they would not ever be caught dead drinking from this water. They tell tall tales about something beastly and frightening—somewhere below the human—while they float in these reservoirs they decry, and gaze up at the cool blue of the sky.

One of the things that I most appreciate about Eric’s book is his concern for human beings. Much as he problematizes and critiques proper humanity, he refuses to decenter human beings or heap human plates (in the generic) full of blame. This renders his discussion of human life more complex, introducing layers into the way that we speak about it, instead of tearing these layers away or ripping them down. This project is, after all (as the title declares) a work of theological anthropology.

Against the figure of the universal Man (who appears in several guises), Sylvia Wynter has spoken instead of the “genres of being human.” Wynter argues that the textures of humanness are composed through performances of both bios and mythos. When we attempt to reduce humanness to pure biology, this results in racialization because it repeats an old familiar strategy of white supremacy: locating Black people of African descent in a bioevolutionary situation somewhere between apes and humans. This is the racist strategy of attempting to situate non-white bodies in the domain of the subhuman. For this reason, Wynter argues for the importance of resisting narratives of pure and simple continuity between humans and other animals. Instead, she argues for the importance of emphasizing both continuity and discontinuity. And so this can also be read as a refusal to collapse humanness and animality into one another. One of the enduring critical problems in animal studies is that the sub-discipline has barely (is only just beginning) to really think about the problem of subhumanization that Wynter and other thinkers lay out. Thinkers, such as Zakiyah Iman Jackson, who work at the intersection of critical race studies and the posthumanities suggest that white scholars have failed to take into account the complex intersection where blackness and the nonhuman interact. This is something I think that scholars who work in the posthumanities must confront. The refusal to collapse humans into their animality is sometimes read as anthropocentric protectionism—as if it were just another blockade to realizing our interdependence with animal life. But as Serynada argued, in a reflection on the work of Wynter in The New Inquiry, this refusal to should rather be read as the work of extricating humans from their “incarceration in [universal] Man.” So Wynter’s project works toward dissolving Man, enabling us to declare that “there is no such thing as a subhuman” and “we must treat each other as if this is so.”

I think that Eric’s concern with theological anthropology, and his careful attention not to collapse human beings into the figure of proper humanity, is taking steps in this direction. What I think that Eric is doing, in Inner Animalities, is extricating human beings from what might arguably be called a form of incarceration (or, at least, a kind of confinement) in proper humanity. What he offers is a more complex view on human beings. Eric doesn’t propose any sort of universal formula for understanding the nature of the relationship between human beings and their animality. But he does offer a view of several possible methods through which animality lifts human beings up from within, in ways that proper humanity would never allow us to acknowledge. If proper humanity creates the figure of the subhuman as a way of both punishing animal dimensions within ourselves, as well as an attempt to disqualify the bodies of human beings from engagement with “human life”, then I think that Eric is unmasking the theology of proper humanity as a lie. In this way, he is contributing to the refusal of the fantasy of the subhuman. He is helping us to acknowledge that there is no such thing as the subhuman, as Serynada has put it, and so we much treat one another accordingly. There is no reservoir below the human, threatening to engulf us. There is only the water of life, moving through us.

I do think that there is the tendency, in Inner Animalities, to also move against this horizontalization of the relationship between humans and the modalities of animal being. That is to say, while I think that Eric is clearly opposed to the old theological move to argue that animals are somehow “below” us, I do think he is sometimes tempted to fracture human and animal lives in the other direction. There are glimmers, in Inner Animalities, of a view in which animals still do stand, somehow, “above” us. I think that Eric is sometimes drawn toward the suggestion that Rilke makes, in his eighth Duino Elegy: that “we alone face death” while animals—who keep God in front of them and death behind them move “free through eternity like a river running.” So it is, for Rilke, that animals can see with “their whole eyes” while we are turned back into ourselves, “setting traps for freedom.” I think that it may have been this exceptional—perhaps almost transcendent—tendency of theological animality that James Stanescu was catching sight of, when he posed the question “can animal sin?” to Eric, last week. I  do think that Eric is aware of this possibility (that he might render animality somehow transcendent and exceptional). And so I think that the places where he comes closest to the site of this risk—in his discussion of animality and the eschatological—he seems to push ever more fiercely for mutuality. There is deep communality and reciprocity in the images he celebrates in this section of the book (such as the figure of the messianic banquet). But I do think that the temptation to revere an animality that, somehow, doesn’t quite include us is there in brief flickers and flashes. This sort of celebration is, I think, rife in ecotheological projects where anthropocentrism itself is a kind of sin. So I do not think that Eric is at all unique in this way. But I do see it as one potential place where his project to bring humans and animality into a more reciprocal dimension may not be quite as effective.

With that said, however, I will say that I found Inner Animalities to be the best and most comprehensive engagement with this complex problem: the fact that animality has long been a register both “above” and “below” the human. Most books, even in religion and theology, tend to tackle one dimension of the problem. But Eric ambitiously takes both of these dimensions on. For this reason alone (to say nothing of the beautiful writing, and compelling arguments) I would deem Inner Animalities essential reading for anyone with an interest in theological anthropology and the nonhuman.


One thought on “Proper Humanity and the Fantasy of the Subhuman (Inner Animalities Book Event)

  1. Thank you, Beatrice! The water image that you’re using here is really perfect and says efficiently and profoundly what I feel like I strained at barely expressing. I think you’re being quite generous when you suggest that my project is doing work that is similar (even in a rudimentary way) to the work that Wynter, Jackson, and Serynada have done. Further engagement with these thinkers would certainly improve the book’s argument (and in the years since it was first written, I’ve been doing that work). I’ll respond at greater length to your final insight next week. For now…. thank you!

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