On January 6th, we witnessed the extraordinary danger credulity poses to democracy. One wonders whether or not we possess the critical thinking skills required by our era.
I propose a test. Let’s see if our critical thinking skills are up to the challenge of interrogating the Golden Rule. Wait, you say, what? What could possibly be wrong with the Golden Rule? What critical thinking could we need to do there?
Because many people do bad things for reasons they falsely believed were good, the application of critical thinking is vital not just for ideas that strike us as bad. It is just as necessary for ideas that prima facie strike us as good. The same line of logical reasoning that shows under what circumstances critical thinking is required applies equally to ostensibly bad ideas as well as ostensibly good ideas.
After all, are the propositions we were taught moral because we were taught them or were we taught them because they’re moral? For my money, it has got to be the latter. When a Greek citizen of ancient Athens named Euthyphro defined “piety” under Socrates’ persistent questioning as “Piety is what the gods love,” Socrates applied the line of reasoning I’m talking about, which has come down to us as “the Euthyphro dilemma.” Socrates replied that even on the assumption that the gods love pious actions, an as-yet-unanswered question remains: Are the pious actions pious because the gods love them or do the gods love them because they are pious? If something is moral just because God says so, then murder could have been moral if God had chosen to sprinkle it with piety dust. We must resist that way of thinking, which goes under the label “Voluntarism” for the role of will in determining what is good. Rationalism, on the other hand, says that any true and good moral proposition in the Bible—for instance—is in the Bible because it’s true and good, not the other way around; it’s not true and good merely because it’s in the Bible.
But, then, what makes something good? At least Voluntarism tells us that bit clearly; what makes it good is God’s say-so. When we deny Voluntarism, we assert that whatever the standard of truth and goodness turns out to be, it will be independent of the Bible, tradition, and of authority in general.
If the Bible said jump off a bridge, wouldn’t we pause and think on our own if jumping off the bridge was a good idea? And wouldn’t this thinking we do be best characterized as “non-Bible dependent thinking,” since the Bible just told us to jump off a bridge and we are now thinking about whether or not to do that? If we decided to not jump off the bridge—my recommendation, by the way—then we would necessarily have come to that choice by a decision-making process independent of the Bible itself. Continue reading “David J. Frost: “The Dangers of Credulity””→
This is the first post in a monthly column about animal rights and critical animal studies.
Because I’m a poet and essayist some of my posts will move beyond the strict scope of animal rights philosophy and will concern literature specifically as it relates to nonhumans, veganism, and zoopoetics.
Zoopoetics is a new movement in literary theory and practice that treats nonhumans as individuals with agency, as conscious world-having individuals worthy of moral consideration. Think Kafka, Coetzee, D. H. Lawrence. Think Oni Buchanan and Aracelis Girmay, Les Murray and John Kinsella, Gretchen Primack and Ashley Capps, among countless other innovative writers and editors actively helping to reconceive our relationships with nonhumans.
Zoopoetics is markedly different from ecocriticism, ecopoetics, ecopoetry, and ecological literature in general. Such movements are not concerned with nonhumans as individuals; rather, they are concerned with animals as populations. When they do concern themselves with nonhumans, the essays and anthologies in these genres typically express disquiet about threatened favored populations of animals in the wild — wolves, eagles, bison, monarch butterflies — and rarely if ever mention the plight of farmed animals or question the practice of enslaving, killing and eating the bodies and secretions of nonhumans. The animal in these works is aestheticized and collective. Terry Tempest Williams, for instance, might protest the killing of prairie dogs and owls in the Utah desert, as a part of the general “subjugation of women and nature” in her book Refuge, but think nothing of lauding the hunting of rabbits by her family only a few pages later as a practice integral to her family’s sacred (her word) relationship with nature. Dozens of poets in a collection of essays on ecopoetics will rail against damage to the environment and the loss of connection to the animal world and nature caused by human hubris but never once mention a slaughterhouse, the practice of meat eating, or the fact that animal farming is not only predicated on human supremacism but is also the single greatest driver of climate change and the chief ecological threat to rivers and aquifers worldwide. Forewords, prefaces, and introductions to recent anthologies of ecopoetry and the postmodern pastoral won’t mention the slaughterhouse at all, though the bodies of dead nonhumans are universally eaten and worn, and CAFOs are scattered across countrysides everywhere.
The idea that literature should be written to benefit nonhumans is new. We see no hint of this in western letters prior to now. Book X of The Republic maintains that the only permissible literature is that which praises gods and famous men. Aristotle remarks in Book IV of The Poetics that literature’s purview is the imitation of the actions of men and gods. Sidney’s Defence holds that literature’s purpose is to improve the character of a gentleman. Shelley, Lessing, Schiller all declared that the intent of literature should be to improve humanity. In fact it’s been a broadscale and sustained note since the advent of humanism: the project of literature is humanity’s improvement. Full stop.
Writing literature for the improvement and benefit of nonhumans isn’t some boutique issue, especially when we consider how animal farming is altering our climate and damaging our health and environment. Even for those who cannot intrinsically value nonhumans as ends in themselves, they should recognize that our fate is bound up firmly with their well-being.
A human future that does not acknowledge the injustices done to nonhumans cannot be rosy. Thankfully, a growing body of thinkers, literary and non-literary alike, is increasingly in agreement with political theorist John Sanbonmatsu who writes,
“A Left or socialist politics which does not place our enslavement of other beings at its center, conceptually and politically, cannot possibly succeed: ‘speciesism’ is not merely one more ‘ism,’ but in fact lies at the root of every form of social domination.”
Indeed, Giorgio Agamben goes so far as to insist that the ways we conceive of nonhumans has for centuries been at the heart of all political oppression.
As with the rest of mainstream culture, there is in this eco-centric literature a general disavowal of the suffering of nonhumans despite the seventy billion who are killed each year (trillions if we consider the annual slaughter of sea creatures) for meat, jackets, fur collars, handbags, watchbands, hats, shoes – all commodities unnecessary for, and in fact detrimental to, our health and mental well-being. The rare animal who rises to the status of an individual by such authors is generally a domestic pet or a rescued farm animal.
Rather than coldly expressing concern over animals as populations, we should, in the words of philosopher David Sztybel be “’hot’ for the individual animal.” This new literature does this. And none too soon. Now that we are living through the sixth mass extinction since multicellular life rose on the earth a billion years ago, an extinction caused in great part by animal farming, an extinction, what’s more, that is nearly invisible to us, it’s time we begin to think of literature as a force that can benefit nonhumans too. A zoopoetic literature, which is sometimes straightforwardly veganic, is being written for the benefit of all sentient beings, not just as populations but as individuals, as individuals with bodily and mental sovereignty.
Such a literature will correct our received notions about what it means to share a lived sense of mutual vulnerability with nonhumans, to be one among many, not first among a few, of sovereign and suffering beings, each of whom, like us, is surrounded by the causes of death. Such a literature will also help us understand that humans need no longer be one of those causes.
(photo by Elige Veganismo of cow in restraining device for slaughter)
 The term zoopoetics was introduced by Jacques Derrida in his 1997 The Animal that Therefore I Am, but it has recently been more carefully inflected by Aaron Moe in his book Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry (Lexington 2013) as a counter to, and a clarification of, ecocriticism and ecopoetics.
Slavoj Zizek is a senior researcher, Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and visiting professor at American universities (Columbia, Princeton, New School for Social Research, New York, University of Michigan). Ph.D. (Philosophy, Ljubljana; Psychoanalysis, University of Paris). A cultural critic and philosopher who is internationally known for his use of Jacques Lacan in a new reading of popular culture and is admired as a true ‘manic excessive’. Author of The Invisible Reminder; The Sublime Object of Ideology; The Metastases of Enjoyment; Looking Awry: Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture; The Plague of Fantasies; The Ticklish Subject.
Slavoj Zizek has cast a very long shadow in what can only be termed ‘cultural studies’ (though he would despise the characterization). He is an effective purveyor of Lacanian mischief, and, as a follower of the French ‘liberator’ of Sigmund Freud, Slavoj Zizek’s Lacan is almost exclusively transcribed in mesmerizing language games or intellectual parables. That he has an encyclopedic grasp of political, philosophical, literary, artistic, cinematic, and pop cultural currents – and that he has no qualms about throwing all of them into the stockpot of his imagination – is the prime reason he has dazzled his peers and confounded his critics for over ten years.
Primarily the goal appears to be to demolish the coordinates of the liberal hegemony that permit excess and aberration insofar as it does not threaten the true coordinates. He suggests as well that the true coordinates are much better hidden than we realize. The production of cultural difference is to Slavoj Zizek the production of the inoperative dream – a dream that recalls perhaps George Orwell’s 1984 or even Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where a kind of generic pastoralism or a sexualized nature substitutes for authentic freedom – the flip side of this is film noir. Slavoj Zizek has determined that late-modern capitalism has engendered a whole range of alternative seductions to keep the eye and brain off of the Real. The Real only exists as a fragment, fast receding on the horizon as fantasy and often phantasm intercede. These dreams and nightmares are systemic, structural neuroses, and they are part of the coordinates of the hegemonic. The hegemony – the prevailing set of coordinates – always seeks to ‘take over’ the Real, and, therefore, this contaminated Real must be periodically purged.
In his essay ‘Repeating Lenin’ (1997) – ever the trickster, he convened a symposium on Lenin in Germany in part to see what the reaction would be – Slavoj Zizek sets up a deconstruction of the idea of form to effectively liberate the idea of radical form:
‘One should not confuse this properly dialectical notion of Form with the liberal-multiculturalist notion of Form as the neutral framework of the multitude of “narratives” –not only literature, but also politics, religion, science, they are all different narratives, stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and the ultimate goal of ethics is to guarantee the neutral space in which this multitude of narratives can peacefully coexist, in which everyone, from ethnic to sexual minorities, will have the right and possibility to tell his story. The properly dialectical notion of Form signals precisely the impossibilty of this liberal notion of Form: Form has nothing to do with “formalism,” with the idea of a neutral Form. Independent of its contingent particular content; it rather stands for the traumatic kernel of the Real, for the antagonism, which “colors” the entire field in question.’
He is interested in discerning the Lacanian Real amid the propaganda of systems. In appropriating ‘Lenin’ he is also looking for the moment when Lenin realized that politics could one day be dissolved for a technocratic and agronomic utopia, ‘the [pure] management of things’. That Lenin failed is immaterial, since Slavoj Zizek is extracting the signifier ‘Lenin’ from the historical continuum, which includes that failure – or the onslaught of Stalinism. The version of Lenin that Slavoj Zizek often chooses to re-enscribe into radical political discourse is ostensibly (by his own admission) the Lenin of the October Revolution, or the Lenin that had the epiphany that in order to have a revolution ‘you have to have a revolution’.
In his critique of contemporary capitalism Slavoj Zizek finds not simply the conditions that Karl Marx anathematized but those same conditions reified and made nearly intangible:
‘A certain excess which was as it were kept under check in previous history, perceived as a localizable perversion, as an excess, a deviation, is in capitalism elevated into the very principle of social life, in the speculative movement of money begetting more money, of a system which can survive only by constantly revolutionizing its own conditions, that is to say, in which the thing can only survive as its own excess, constantly exceeding its own “normal” constraints […] Marx located the elementary capitalist antagonism in the opposition between use- and exchange-value: in capitalism, the potentials of this opposition are fully realized, the domain of exchange-values acquires autonomy, is transformed into the specter of self-propelling speculative capital which needs the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its dispensable temporal embodiment.’
In the era of globalization, then, the main question is: ‘Does today’s virtual capitalist not function in a homologous way – his “net value” is zero, he directly operates just with the surplus, borrowing from the future?’
‘In a proper revolutionary breakthrough, the utopian future is neither simply fully realized, present, nor simply evoked as a distant promise which justified present violence –it is rather as if, in a unique suspension of temporality, in the short-circuit between the present and the future, we are – as if by Grace – for a brief time allowed to act AS IF the utopian future is (not yet fully here, but) already at hand, just there to be grabbed. Revolution is not experienced as a present hardship we have to endure for the happiness and freedom of the future generations, but as the present hardship over which this future happiness and freedom already cast their shadow – in it, we already are free while fighting for freedom, we already are happy while fighting for happiness, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Revolution is not a Merleau-Pontian wager, an act suspended in the futur anterieur, to be legitimized or delegitimized by the long term outcome of the present acts; it is as it were its own ontological proof, an immediate index of its own truth.’
Slavoj Zizek’s agenda is to foster and engender a withering critique of the structural chains that enslave late-modern man. His nostalgia is for very large gestures: the meta-Real, the Universal, and the Formal. ‘This resistance is the answer to the question “Why Lenin?”: it is the signifier “Lenin” which formalizes this content found elsewhere, transforming a series of common notions into a truly subversive theoretical formation.’
Slavoj Zizek was a visiting professor at the Department of Psychoanalysis, Universite Paris-VIII in 1982–83 and 1985–86, at the Centre for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Art, SUNY Buffalo, 1991–92, at the Department of Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1992, at the Tulane University, New Orleans, 1993, at the Cardozo Law School, New York, 1994, at the Columbia University, New York, 1995, at the Princeton University (1996), at the New School for Social Research, New York, 1997, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1998, and at the Georgetown University, Washington, 1999. He is a returning faculty member of the European Graduate School. In the last 20 years Slavoj Zizek has participated in over 350 international philosophical, psychoanalytical and cultural-criticism symposiums in USA, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Netherland, Island, Austria, Australia, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Brasil, Mexico, Israel, Romania, Hungary and Japan. He is the founder and president of the Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis, Ljubljana.