What is Creaturely Theology?

First, just a “thanks” to aufs for hosting the livestream of our divinanimality conference at Drew this past weekend. While the event is still fresh, I also thought I might pose a couple of questions that began to gestate over the course of this four day conference. My ears are selectively attentive. So whatever I report will (naturally) be told a bit slant. But, nonetheless, I’m interested in broad questions, about how religious studies and theology might infect/intersect with the ever-expanding storehouse of scholarship in animal studies.

Of course there were theological questions, calling attention to the sticky relations between creatures, creators, creations. But I think one of the most fruitful conversations—one that kept coming up over the course of the weekend—was the ontological distinction between the “animal” and the “creaturely.” While the conference intended to foreground the challenges that animals and divinities pose to humanist orthodoxies, many pointed to the “creaturely” as a plane of engagement that seems to do something different. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question (and have a forthcoming piece about it, in the volume resulting from the “Metaphysics & Things” conference at the Claremont Graduate University last December). But it was interesting to hear this conversation broadening. Kate Rigby suggested that the creaturely is a more “democratic” conceptual space—inclusive of both humans and animals, as well as plants, monsters. Perhaps even machines. This space isn’t unlike that given to “actors” in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, Alfred North Whitehead’s “actual entities” or even OOO’s objects. But, of course, the creaturely has a theological genealogy. Which makes it easier to explore this concept in the field of religious ideas. In spite of the generic, egalitarian potential of the creaturely, however, Continue reading “What is Creaturely Theology?”

On the PETA porn site

When I was in seminary, there were several students who were interested in questions of animal rights. Such an interest is surely to be expected in the extremely liberal environs of Chicago Theological Seminary. More noteworthy to me, however, was the reaction from the black students whenever another (invariably white) student brought up animal rights. They rejected such concerns while so much work remained to be done to combat the mistreatment of other human beings and suspected that some students had embraced animal rights as a way of “skipping over” those concerns.

That is certainly unfair as a general statement about animal rights activism. At the same time, things like the PETA porn site make one wonder.

Continue reading “On the PETA porn site”

A Life Worthy of the Idea and the Appearence of Trees

Alain Badiou is always a pleasure a read even if, like me, one isn’t convinced by or a disciple of his philosophy. The first full book in French I read was Badiou’s Manifeste pour la philosophie, which was in many ways a short summary of Being and Event. He has repeated this gesture with his (recently translated) Second Manifesto for Philosophy, which is a summary of the main ideas present in Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II. LoW contains an interesting development of his theory of fidelity, which most readers will be familiar with from his St Paul: The Foundation of Universalism where St. Paul is an instance of one being faithful to an event. Another way of saying this is that St. Paul, like all faithful subjects, “lived a life worthy of the Idea”. In LoW he expands this to a general theory of “subjectivation” or different relational decisions regarding an event are different ways of being a subject. So in addition to a faithful subject, there is also a reactionary subject (who rejects the event) and an obscure subject (who tries to turn the event, founded on the void, into some transcendent body like the Nation, or God, or Race, or Nature, or what have you). I was really taken with this and so Daniel Whistler and me used it in our editorial introduction to After the Postsecular and the Postmodern (Amazon: US, UK; Book Depository) when writing about the different ways theologians, theorists, and philosophers related to the post-secular event. Continue reading “A Life Worthy of the Idea and the Appearence of Trees”

New Critical Animal Studies Blog

Just a quick note to direct interested readers to a new group blog focusing on critical animal studies called The Inhumanities and includes long-time blog friend Craig. Here is the announcement of their first book event:

We are pleased to announce our first event, an intervention in and reading of Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. We plan to cover a chapter a week, and the first post on the book will be up this coming Tuesday, 9-1-09. We encourage everyone to participate in comments, or emails. Calarco has been kind enough to agree to follow the discussion, and post a response at the end of the discussion.

Remember, if you want to email us just drop us a line at inhumanitiesblog@gmail.com

I hope to read along and you should to.

The Knowledge of Animals

I am increasingly startled by the confidence with which thinkers describe the thought process of animals. It appears that all one needs to know is what distinguishes humans from animals, then subtract that aspect in order to arrive at a model of the animal mind. Once we know what the animal mind is like, we can show how different it is from the human mind. Then concrete examples can be used: for instance, animals seldom get caught in tautologies — that is man’s unique privilege.

It does seem likely to me that there are qualitative degrees of intelligence, consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. I just do not see the reason for assuming that human beings stand absolutely alone on this side of whatever qualitative leap came last. Are we really willing to say that a dog’s mental life is closer to that of an ant than that of a human being? Is it possible that “lower” forms of life have in fact suffered from the short-circuit of self-consciousness without having the brain capacity to put it to the same range of uses as we do? Indeed, what if it isn’t even our brain capacity so much as the particular form of our bodies that enables us to make such exemplary use of consciousness? What if consciousness, as it were, “called for” the human body — flexible enough to be able to assume a variety of forms of life, weak enough to require both tools and social structures?

(I’m not proposing to answer these questions, of course.)

Perception is Causation

In a previous controversial post, I attempted to bring together Zizek’s thoughts on cognitive science and on quantum physics to devise a “unified field theory” of human freedom. I failed in this attempt because I did not specify the mechanism by which the “subject” (a purely formal factor that is the “fallout” when the faculty that maps the organism’s surroundings becomes self-referential) is able to “choose its own causes.”

The answer is simple: through the negative gesture of refusing to pay attention to something, which opens up the space for paying attention to something else (i.e., “choosing” it as the relevant external factor that will determine future action). In the “normal” case, which we can for convenience call an “animal,” the inputs from the Umwelt create automatic reactions — for instance, Uexkuell’s famous tick, which can only respond to a very limited number of stimuli. In the “human” case, “consciousness” has reached a very fine-grained level that allows for responses to an indefinite number of stimuli, and “self-consciousness” provides some minimal space between perception and reaction.

I’m fine with saying that most of the time, human beings do act more or less automatically and that consciousness provides us with rationalizations in order to maintain equilibrium. Sometimes, though, at what can only be called an unconscious level, the human subject breaks with “instinctual” causality, aka the pleasure principle, by ignoring certain “causes” and attaching to others. This phenomenon is what goes by the name of “death drive” in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It loses the element of conscious deliberation that many people want from free will, but it seems to be the only way to talk about an action being self-caused as opposed to being externally caused. That is, it provides a non-reductionistic account of human agency, and you now how big I am on non-reductionism!

(By calling the two different models “animal” and “human,” I’m not meaning to reinforce the traditional boundary between the two — it seems possible to me that certain other animal species have reached the short-circuit level that I’m calling the “human,” and not even necessarily only primate species.)

An Open Question

Some friends of mine had an outdoor cat who was accustomed to entering the house through a screen door. One day when they had people over, the cat walked up to the doorway, then stood up on his hind legs as though to lean on the screen. The screen door was open, however, so he fell forward. Hilarity ensued.

My question: Did the cat make a mistake?