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Cannibalism and animal studies

December 1, 2011

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education encapsulates everything I find both fascinating and troubling about “animal studies,” a growing field in literary scholarship, and one whose modus operandi is basically the application of deconstructive principles to the idea of human exceptionalism. From “Our Animals, Ourselves,” by Justin E.H. Smith, a philosophy professor:

These days, we are expected to grow out of that sort of thinking well before puberty. Our adult humanity consists in cutting off ties of community with animals, ceasing, as Lévi-Strauss put it, to think with them. When on occasion adults begin again to think about animals, if not with them, it is to assess whether animals deserve the status of rights-bearers. Animal rights, should there be such things, are now thought to flow from neurophysiological features and behavioral aptitudes: recognizing oneself in the mirror, running through mazes, stacking blocks to reach a banana.

But what is forgotten here is that the animals are being tested for re-admission to a community from which they were previously expelled, and not because they were judged to lack the minimum requirements for the granting of rights. They were expelled because they are hairy brutes, and we learned to be ashamed of thinking of them as our kin. This shame only increased when Darwin confirmed our kinship, thus telling us something Paleolithic hunters already knew full well. Morality doubled up its effort to preserve a distinction that seemed to be slipping away. Since the 19th century, science has colluded with morality, always allowing some trivial marker of human uniqueness or other to function as a token for entry into the privileged moral universe of human beings. “They don’t have syntax, so we can eat them,” is how Richard Sorabji brilliantly reduces this collusion to absurdity.

Before and after Darwin, the specter of the animal in man has been compensated by a hierarchical scheme that separates our angelic nature from our merely circumstantial, and hopefully temporary, beastly one. And we find more or less the same separation in medieval Christian theology, Romantic nature poetry, or current cognitive science: All of it aims to distinguish the merely animal in us from the properly human. …

The criticism of the modern equation of “cutting off ties” with the animal kingdom with growing up is, I think, merited. Whenever humans try to stop being animals and become angels, they can easily become monsters. So thinking about animality is important, and I find many of the individual points made about bears and wolves and such to be worth making. But the author draws an absurd equation between the claim that we must deny/overcome our animal nature and the claim that humans are not just animals. A statue is stone, but it is not just stone, and neither is it “trying to overcome its stone nature.” Moreover, we care about the stone because of the greatness of the statue, not because stone is good in and of itself and the statue is just one more thing made of stone–and in the same way, we (ought to) care about nature, but primarily because we live in it. (For a Christian, Man is the pinnacle of creation and the reason for creation—though the author probably would object to my use of “man,” “pinnacle,” “creation,” and “reason.”)

I also find myself often nodding in agreement with the criticisms of industrial farming found in pieces like like. Industrial farming is, after all, bad, though also necessary given our current industrial society, and I don’t anticipate it going away any time soon, and I don’t think it’s bad enough that I need to give up eating meat in protest. But I find absurd the claim that therefore eating meat is wrong in and of itself–at least if we’re not OK with cannibalism, as the implication seems to be. Look at his reductio ad absurdum of meat-eating to “They don’t have syntax, so we can eat them.” The converse is that “we do have syntax, so you can’t eat us.” The question is, should the presumption be for or against eating? Presumably for–meat-eating is, after all, more natural than vegetarianism. So the attack is actually on the idea that cannibalism is wrong because we have language. Well, personally I don’t find “we do have syntax, so you can’t eat us” to be that absurd a claim. It’s better than the proposed alternative, which we find at the end of the article to be prehistoric and pre-Christian society:

It was a community not defined by species, and not based upon a social contract that precludes killing. Killing resulted in eating, and thus in absorbing the other’s powers: perhaps in the end a more profound form of community than living and letting live. This is the sort of community human beings once co-inhabited with bears and wolves, before these hairy cousins of ours were assimilated to the Devil.

Really? Really? So either: 1) the author thinks the bear knows the difference between being killed so his powers can be absorbed and being killed because he’s a threat to industrial society; or 2) it’s not about “treating animals the right way” at all, the author secretly couldn’t care less–he just hates human exceptionalism. Both seem to me absurd.

Incidentally, one stylistic element I’ve noticed in several of these sorts of articles is that they always include more personal anecdotes than you might expect–as if the suggestion that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as more than animal has to be balanced by proof that we can do so while remaining human, and that we’ll do this by being more personal and less philosophically abstract.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2011 4:14 am

    My latest forays into this area of philosophy (pardon me if you’ve already read them) are Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’ ( and Hal Herzog’s ‘Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals’ ( I actually got started when reading ‘Killing’, Chapter 7 of David Edgerton’s ‘The Shock of the Old’. This last book is fascinating: its subtitle is ‘Technology and Global History since 1900’ but that disguises a rather beautiful discussion of what human technology is all about and its effects on society.

  2. December 1, 2011 9:14 am

    I actually haven’t read either of those. This is an area of study I’ve only recently became interested in (as of, say, eight months ago). I think I’ve heard of both of those, though, and perhaps will read one over Christmas break (right now it’s paper-writing time…).

  3. April 23, 2012 6:14 pm

    I know this is rather a late respose, but if you’re still interested I’d recommend Elizabeth Costello (Coetzee) and The Wounded Animal (Mulhall) which is prompted by the former. There are also a couple of good essays in Reading Cavell (Crary & Shieh)

  4. April 23, 2012 6:21 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve actually had both those books vaguely in mind for a while now, but kept forgetting to actually go check them out. I have mixed feelings about Coetzee as a writer but do usually enjoy reading his work. And, funnily enough, I didn’t have Cavell in mind at all when writing this but at this point I’m not too surprised to see his name crop up in this context (and where Cavell goes Mulhall follows).


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