Closer, or the Pleasure of Being Eaten (Inner Animalities Book Event)

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Violence was present in my home. This does not make me special since violence is present in every home. I am even tempted to ask, don’t you know? There is no such thing as home. Only dead trees and minerals ripped from the ground and legally binding paperwork. Home is a name to cover that violence. But violence is not in itself a moral or ethical category. In naming home as violence I am not saying that home is bad or evil, though I am certainly also not claiming that violence simply is and that we should embrace it either, that violence is simply something “good”. In reading Eric’s Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human I was drawn to thinking about violence, to asking what it is. I was drawn to wondering about the violence of my childhood, to the violence of eating, the violence of sex, and the violence that is here now and that is to come.

So much of the violence of home seems to take place around the dinner table. One must of course give the usual preamble here: a certain home, a certain family, even a certain dinner, to say nothing about the table. But at least anecdotally I can think of how often the tensions of home, the underlying violence, often manifests at the dinner table. Allow me some biography here, since to write about life is perhaps to write about the one that we have lived. So I can think of my step-father here, whose job as a cop was always tied to violence, and who demanded that there always be meat at dinner.

This required that my mother, who was a vegetarian at the time, cook two meals on top of her full-time paid work. I never really enjoyed eating those dinners. He preferred his steak well done and it wasn’t until I ate a steak nearly raw in France that I ever understand the taste for that meat. But given his demands that I eat the meat that he did, I would choke it down. My step-father’s mood always had to be managed such that I learned a kind of ethology of man. I knew how to read his look, his posture, his breath, where he sat, what he wanted to eat. Early on he wanted me to go into the military and yet he also doubted that I could kill. He would talk about violence at the dinner table and he would even ask me directly if I thought that I could follow the order to kill. I had internalized the valorization of national violence given to me in the first Gulf War and the subsequent displays of violence that played out on TV through war movies (the original Red Dawn was particularly important in my childhood) and on the news (watching the green night vision of CNN during the first Gulf War gave way to various displays of military violence during the Clinton administration). I wanted to say yes to my step-father. I wanted to want to kill.

When witnessing the same conversations with my step-brother, who eventually became a special forces solider in the Air Force, I saw someone who truly wanted to kill. He didn’t even need the ideology. He didn’t care if he killed for America. He liked the idea of killing. When my step-father would take us hunting I was happy that I was too young to really go hunting, while he was gleeful about it. I was nervous about what would happen when I would have to kill this or that deer. I could remembered at that time what had happened when I went fishing with my father at the age of five and wept when I caught a fish. I’m not sure what it is I felt. I know I felt sad, I felt bad. I don’t know if I could understand it as guilt, meaning that I had done something bad or evil to the fish, or if I simply felt compassion for the fish, a suffering with the fish that reflected a kind of knowledge its suffering.

I eventually became a vegetarian and still am one. Such a decision was tied to the problem of violence and to the fact that I did not want to kill and decided to take responsibility for my desire. It might be said that I am not a killer, though of course I am part of killing all the time and so I am not free from the culpability of certain forms of death-dealing in our world. I became a vegetarian in a very Levinasian way. Easter Sunday of 2005 I was at my in-laws who have a kind of fantasy of being rural folk with a small farm. At the time they were raising a small amount of chickens and cows who they were going to eat. Having little to do in their house, I went out to look at the cows and I was suddenly confronted with the face of one. Levinas claims in Ethics and Infinity that the true ethical encounter happens when you do not even notice the color of the other’s eyes. So perhaps it wasn’t a true ethical encounter, as I did look into the eyes of the cows and I remember the snot around her nose and mouth brought forth by the chilliness of that day. In that moment I knew that I could not kill this cow. I had no reason to suspect I could kill any cow and so I didn’t feel I had the right to eat her. In that moment I stopped eating meat, though I do not pretend that this means I have extricated myself from the economy of violence. Neither the capitalist economy of meat nor the necessary violence that all living things appear to participate in as the ecological interrelatedness that is the food web. An interrelatedness that has far more to do with shitting and killing than it is does with some sense of peaceable wholeness, as I was glad to see Eric acknowledge and incorporate into his own analysis. I have wondered what might happen if (when?) civilization collapses and the networks that provide relatively cheap and plentiful food no longer function. Will I be able to kill then? When I am starving? Will I have a right when it is a matter of survival? I have to confess, I usually feel that I wouldn’t be able to and that I would probable prefer to starve or otherwise commit suicide, despite the fact that the regime of rights would clearly no longer function in that moment.

The language of rights is far from the theological grammar of Inner Animalities. It made me wonder if perhaps my thinking in terms of rights belies some inconsistencies in my ethical practices, perhaps it gives a false theoretical frame to a more felt reality that I am not a killer. Not every living thing is a tiger. Some are cows. Some are humans. But this is how I tended to spontaneously speak of it in those moments when it was demanded I give account of what I eat or do not eat. What was ready to head as a grammar of thinking was the language of rights. But Eric’s text allows me to think about this anew, to undo the spontaneous philosophy of my ethics of eating, and perhaps respond in a worthy way to the challenges I’ve often felt remain there. I am thinking of the question of violence in nature and its relation to the question of good and evil or at least good and bad.

In §13 of On the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche calls upon an animal metaphor in order to think the identity of man. Eric’s work, and those he draws upon, make such a move unsurprising. We expect to find a kind of naturalized animal-thinking used to think neither about nature or animals, but about the identity of humans and their relations to one another. There Nietzsche writes of birds of prey and the lambs that they eat, implicitly connecting the first to master morality and the second to slave morality. Consider this passage from the translation by Carol Diethe:

– But let us return: the problem of the other origin of ‘good’, of good as thought up by the man of ressentiment, demands its solution. – There is nothing strange about the fact that lambs bear a grudge towards large birds of prey: but that is no reason to blame the large birds of prey for carrying off the little lambs. And if the lambs say to each other, ‘These birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey and most like its opposite, a lamb, – is good, isn’t he?’, then there is no reason to raise objections to this setting-up of an ideal beyond the fact that the birds of prey will view it somewhat derisively, and will perhaps say: ‘We don’t bear any grudge at all towards these good lambs, in fact we love them, nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’ – It is just as absurd to ask strength not to express itself as strength, not to be a desire to overthrow, crush, become master, to be a thirst for enemies, resistance and triumphs, as it is to ask weakness to express itself as strength.

Now there is an obvious error in Nietzsche’s thinking here, thinking about the question of good and evil as a relationship of two species, one pray and the other predator, to one species, humanity. Except, as we know from the work of Fanon, Wynter, Wilderson, and others in Black Studies, that it isn’t really an error. In the social world there really is not one species of humanity, but several or some “life forms” that are not human despite their DNA. Setting this aside for now, I have always been struck by the power of Nietzsche’s polemic. Why should human beings hold back violence? Perhaps I can’t ask this question of anyone else (to stick with a Levinasian theme), but I can ask myself this: why should I not kill? And does my keeping this commandment require ressentiment for those who do not? Can I look at not just my fellow man, but the tiger, and ask how they can commit such violence, what can only be experienced as such evil by the creature subjected to that violence?

Eric’s theological reading of eschatological eating and sex—or what might be more honestly called eating and fucking to bring forth its animalism—meets Nietzsche’s philosophy in that neither are an ethics subordinate to the liberal discourse on rights. Nietzsche’s vision—perhaps a kind of sublimation of frustration at his own physical frailty, his own failed masculinity—seems on the surface of his writing to disregard the position of prey in favor always of the predator, or the killer. Eric turns to the consumed body of Christ in a way that I think would challenge Nietzsche’s critique of Christian ressentiment, without denying that there is in fact such a thing in the Christian tradition. He writes that with the resurrected body of Christ “we are confronted with a glorious body that is endlessly broken, divided, and consumed; we are confronted with a glorious body that provides transformative nourishment to those who consume it (156).” This is important here because Christ’s body, connected as it is in Eric’s theo-fiction with animality and not “proper humanity,” is linked not to the predator, but to the prey. “The broken, betrayed, abandoned, and executed body of Jesus—a body preyed upon—is also a body whose flesh and blood continues to be consumed, even as Christ surely lived beyond suffering and death, because through resurrection the Spirit has transformed the agony of the cross into glory. At the heart of eucharistic theology, then, stands a resurrected body torn and consumed, yet undiminished in glory (ibid).” Ressentiment doesn’t enter here, because the agony is not a sign of goodness, but of glory. The question is no longer one of good and evil, it seems to me, but of beauty and ultimately of pleasure.

Eric goes on to think of this broken and glorified body as a sign or model of the “eschatological transfiguration of the entire food chain (159)”. From one perspective this might give way to a vision of hell. The tiger endlessly hunts and kills its prey, meaning that the prey is endlessly hunted and killed for eternity. Yet, this perspective assumes an economy that has been destroyed in the eschatological act. Though I confess I’m not sure how to interpret that eschatological act in the here and now, this means that “creatures no longer eat and drink because they must incorporate energy from outside their bodies to survive. Rather, creatures eat and drink because sharing in another’s flesh is the gracious means by which God has chosen to share the divine life with creation (160).” This is pleasure in being eaten. Perhaps we see a vision of this in the way St. Francis spoke of death as a creature, as created, and so a brother. In this eschatological vision of prey and predator the lamb does not hate the bird of prey, does not declare the bird of prey evil, but loves to be eaten. Is this not like “being fucked”?

Here I think Eric’s account of eating is more erotic or says something more about sexuality than his writing on sex directly can do alone. I found this section incredibly interesting, but disconnecting from this profound meditation on the enjoyment of what one is. Sex in the theological tradition Eric draws on tends to prize “union.” But is that why we like sex (well, those of us who do)? Or does union cover over something more difficult to face and to think, much like interdependence does for the majority of ecotheologians? In his conclusion Eric refers to an “ecological death drive” present in humanity. His meaning here is, of course, to the way that the species seems to be drawn towards killing itself and the entire biosphere. Yet, there is another way to think death drive, as a kind of undoing of the self, something that would be unconcerned with the economic rationality that rules the ecological death drive and is perhaps closer to good sex. In the jouissance of fucking it isn’t about selves, it isn’t about fantasy, but rather a kind of death of the self. Union is a funny way of saying this, though the breaking down of borders in the act of fucking may be a kind of coming together. I worry that union is a kind of fantasy that covers over the real of fucking. In the same way that, eschatologically speaking, eating is no longer stuck within an economy of survival, the act of sex is no longer tied to an economy of reproduction. In being eaten, in being fucked, one is used up and also never satisfied while also basking in pleasure and glory.

Perhaps this will seem a strange way to rethink vegetarianism, dripping as it is with an anxious moralism. It seems to me, though, that questions of sexuality and questions of eating are closer together in their relation to violence than our usual rights based discussions give credence to. Yet, problems still remain when we look to the here and now, where the eschaton has not yet happened (will it happen?). Frank B. Wilderson presents our challenge, requires that we face the unthought, by thinking “the negro question” alongside of “the cow question.” Writing about Gramsci’s war of position located within a hypothetical meat packing planet, Wilderson invites us to join him in the thought-experiment that assumes the workers revolt has won and no longer are those who work in the slaughter house part of an economy of capitalist accumulation. They are free in their labor now. “But still” he writes, “we must ask, what about the cows? The cows are not being exploited, they are being accumulated and, if need be, killed (“Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society, p. 233).” Wilderson’s point here is that the position of the black subject is isomorphic to that of the cow in this thought-experiment. That ultimately the problem of the worker is not the problem of the slave and so “once the dream of worker exploitation has been smashed” there is no reason to think that “the dream of black accumulation and death will be thrown into crisis as well (ibid).”

Wilderson’s thinking does not take place within a moralism, either. Rather the linking of these two “non-human species” brings into question what it is that we are not thinking when we think about social movements of liberation:

Thus, a whole set of new and difficult, perhaps un-Gramscian, questions emerge at the site of our meat packing plant in the throes of its War of Manoeuver. First, how would the cows fare under a dictatorship of the proletariat? Would cows experience freedom at the mere knowledge that they’re no longer being slaughtered in an economy of exchange predicated on exploitation? In other words, would it feel more like freedom to be slaughtered by a workers’ collective where there was no exploitation, where the working day was not a minute longer than the time it took to reproduce workers’ needs and pleasures, as opposed to being slaughtered in the exploitative context of that dreary old nine to five? Secondly, in the river of common sense does the flotsam of good sense have a message in a bottle that reads ‘Workers of the World Become Vegetarians!’? Finally, is it enough to just stop eating meat? In other words, can the Gramscian worker simply give the cows their freedom, grant them emancipation, and have it be meaningful to the cows? The cows need some answers before they raise a hoof for the ‘flowering of the superstructure’ (233-34).

At its most intensive and abstract these questions are formulated as, what does it mean to be free in relation to what it means to suffer? The eschatological vision presented in Inner Animalities suggests that perhaps the answer to this is to be found in a destabilizing pleasure—a different kind of ecological death drive—and not in rights, sovereignty, or even species mitsein.

I have been interested in thinking with Eric’s work here. It provoked a number of thoughts for me. Really I found myself, as I often do with my friends, close enough to the work to think that the problems that remain for Eric are the problems that remain for me in my work. So what is present her is an engagement with those concepts, a working with them, perhaps in my own idiom or with my own concerns. A project like Inner Animalities necessarily calls for further work as it is part of a kind of revaluation of values. This simply does not take place in the preferred 200 pages of academic publishers today. So what I hope is present here is part of that common project of thinking, here at the end, after all, where everything and nothing converge.

One thought on “Closer, or the Pleasure of Being Eaten (Inner Animalities Book Event)

  1. Thank you APS, for these thoughts on and around my work. I’m grateful to be able to think through the relationship of animality and violence with you here as it’s been, both personally and intellectually, inextricable from the backstory of the work in the book. I’ll say more in my response later this week, but your work in this post does so much of what I was hoping to communicate in the book. In particular, the connections you’re drawing to Wilderson and Wynter are a real gap in the book’s argument (and evidence of a gap in my thinking/attention at the time that I wrote it).

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