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There is an old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto coming upon a large group of angry native Americans. Realizing they are surrounded, the Lone Ranger turns to his companion and says, “Looks like we’re outnumbered.” Tonto succinctly replies, “Who’s ‘we,’ white man?” In looking at the challenges posed by animal studies, posthumanism, and new materialisms, such attention to a simple pronoun, “we,” becomes all the more acute. Who is designated by this we? Who is excluded? What are its limits? And how might such limits be recognized (by a “we”) and accounted for? Tracing the rhetorical force of “we” might open lines of insight for revision and greater inclusion.

Who is “We”?

Take, for example, Lynn Worsham’s “Moving Beyond the Logic of Sacrifice: Animal Studies, Trauma Studies, and the Path to Posthumanism,” a revised and expanded version of her previous article, “Thinking with Cats (More, to Follow),” In this, Worsham takes up Derrida’s ruminations in his essay, “The Animal That I am (More to Follow),” an almost Levinasian meditation on the ways in which “animal” is taken up in Eurocentric thinking and used to exclude and justify violence toward an Other. In her phrasing, “‘Animal,’ clearly, is not just one conceptual category among others; it is the foundation, if not the origin, of all practices of othering — of claiming and justifying, first, human exceptionalism and, then, of claiming superiority of particular groups who are seen as belonging legitimately in the category ‘human’” (24). We should read generously here and read this as a claim about European and Eurocentric conceptualizing, one which clearly underwrites nearly the entire colonial history of the Americas, Africa, and other parts of the world.

Yet, Worsham has already made the first in a series of troubling moves. In the previous paragraph, she clarifies a quote from David Wood, following his own conceptual error. Wood, as quoted, argues that “Categories are gross ways in which we (humans) carve up the world” and that among these distinctions, one side of a binary is prioritized such that it is then deployed “so that such violence can be applied to this or that specific animal. ‘Animal,’ in other words, is one of the ways we say ‘Other’” (24, Wood qtd. in Worsham). Again, this is fine so long as we read “human” as pertaining to Eurocentric habits of thought. It’s focus on the subject of things as opposed to other linguistic structures of relationality and predication signals that Wood himself begins to unmoor the term “human” from its full range. Worsham keeps going, clarifying Wood to assert “Humans, then, are creatures who habitually wield conceptual categories as if they were descriptions of reality when in fact they are deeply interested interpretations of reality” (24). Here, she does not even bother to use parentheses to signal a form of short hand, but in an ironic twist, copies the conceptual error even as she discusses its problematics. She goes further in the subsequent sentence, claiming that “Humans are the creatures who use those conceptual categories to exclude others (human and nonhuman others) from moral consideration and to rationalize and justify actual violence against those we consign to the category ‘animal’” (24). Yet, the categorical error does not stop with Worsham or Wood. Worsham quotes Martha Nussbaum on the anxiety over admitting our animality where Nussbaum claims, “What we are anxious about is a type of vulnerability that we share with other animals, the propensity to decay and to become waste products ourselves” (25-26). One should stop here and ask, who is this “we,” white (wo)man? Are indigenous people similarly anxious? Would they claim that “animal” is exclusive of “human” and vice versa? 

The question, I feel, is urgent since Worsham builds on the categorical error she attributes to “human” as operative of a kind of “deflection” in that such distinctions move us from attention to the unsubstitutable singularity and irreplaceability of the individual living being before us to the category, or ‘kind,’ that that being is taken to represent. There is sacrifice happening in this move and the logic of substitution.

By Worsham’s reasoning, such deflection, sacrifice, and substitution are indications of a trauma, an unrepresentable break due to a “difficulty of reality” (26). Such a difficulty of reality is, as Worsham has it, ”the history of our problematic internal relation to our own animality, by our refusal to seek solidarity in a community of the living” (37). We see again how, even with the potential limitation of a history, a particular, European, colonial history, such categories are elided and broadened to a general history, one that substitutes the limited for the general, that sacrifices and substitutes it to arrive at “It is as if we humans cannot accept our own failed transcendence of animal life” (37).

Worsham’s failure to recognize her own substitutions and sacrifices poses problems not necessarily because of its implicit colonial operations, but because she ties her theory to explaining things such as “meat-eating.” Again, and to be fair, a generous reading takes her to mean not just “meat-eating” in general, but factory farming practices specifically. And there is no doubt these are horribly violent and degrading practices most people would not wish to see as a proper treatment of another life. Yet, the fact remains that this is not qualified, only applied to a view of the general human condition. As such, it deflects and brings a false witness to the question of vegetarianism. For people like the Sioux, eating meat, especially bison, bears great cultural significance and relies not on some superiority over other animals, but a deeply conscious communion with them, as animals and as equals inhabiting the surface of the earth. 

One problem left unaddressed in Worsham’s account of how violence gets enacted through language is what Diane Davis in Breaking up {at} Totality (2000) wrote as “writing leakssssss.” Writing is never a complete translation system where one term can mean the same thing in different contexts or even in a singular text, but where the text gets moved to different contexts, audiences, purposes. As Davis tells it, language works on through “exscription,” by leaving things out. The territory is not the map and we are working on the map here. So, we would do well to keep this in mind. 

If language exscibes as much as it inscribes, or as Kenneth Burke put it (and Worsham quotes Burke here), “If any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function as a deflection of reality” (45), then we must contend with the traces left by such deflections and, moreover, engage in our own always-already deflections and exscriptions, not as moral wrongs to be purified away, but as mundane, even quotidian aspects of dealing with language in the world. We can care and be very careful to use language and writing in ways that do the least harm or attempt to avoid offense, but these are never completely preventable and, when they do occur, we have recourse to make amends. 

Who, then, are “we”? In some sense, the term is utterly unintelligible. As Deleuze and Guattari famously put it, “since each of us is multiple, we are already quite a crowd” (ATP). OR, as Avital Ronnell (2012) described her writing, “When following Nietzsche’s style sheet you don’t take the laurels for having initiated a work, but say it seized or befell you” (x). The multiple comes through because we are relations and thrum to the vibrations of those imaginary yet so real strings, shaking as they abduct us. In Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s words, “Material existence is an act of perpetual assertion, generative (new relations are always coming into being) and generous (these relations cross categories and intermix the disjunct)” (25). Cohen is fixed on stone, but for the purposes here, the question is not about knowing or understanding more deeply what an other thing may be in order to co-exist peacefully with it, but about how alliances might be formed, how these relationships Cohen points to might be sustained or altered, how inhuman and human alike might better amalgamate, ala Latour, into a “we.” 

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