Over the Edge… With Wings: Final Response, Part 1 (Inner Animalities Book Event)


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.