Animality, Violence, and Dignity: Final Response, Part 2 (Inner Animalities Book Event)

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.

One thought on “Animality, Violence, and Dignity: Final Response, Part 2 (Inner Animalities Book Event)

  1. Thanks for your characteristic generosity of engagement, Eric. It’s such a though-provoking gift you’ve given us, and I couldn’t be more grateful for your scholarship and self.

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