I have never been current

For a while, I’ve been worried about not being able to keep up with new scholarship in new fields. I was talking about this with Levi Bryant, whose Larval Subjects blog I depend on to keep me abreast of what I don’t know yet. Levi’s brand of Object Oriented Ontology appeals to me insofar as it overlaps with my old interests, psychoanalysis in particular, which gives me some purchase. And it was this problem we were discussing: instead of getting super-excited about new ideas and idioms, I’ve discovered that I’m most thrilled when I reread texts I thought I had a handle on and find whole new possibilities in them. Most recently, I’ve revisited Zizek’s Plague of Fantasies for a grad class I’m teaching and, well, it seemed like a new book. Such realizations are old news, of course, but my question is how to engage with really new work when I don’t feel I’ve exhausted the old stuff? Is it possible to slip out of the old frame when it keeps reframing itself for me? Or, rather, I keep repainting the frame to match the redecorations?

Which brings me to our recent Hermanns Lecture Series dedicated to Animals. A great list of scholars presented really fine work in animal studies and posthumanism. These aren’t specialties of mine by any means (especially the former), so each was exciting. But in my inability to abandon my old devices, some ideas occurred to me during Cary Wolfe’s discussion. Wolfe was introduced as someone who helps move posthumanism away from the technological and toward the animal. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it’s certainly a perception of his work. I like to think that he rather expands the posthuman to include the animal. Regardless, in the day’s discussions – both formal and relaxed – it seemed to me that the animal-studies side of things began to resemble a feminism in its critiques of what seemed to be a primarily masculine understanding of technology and in its presentation of the non-human animal. I don’t want to theorize here too much, since these are new thoughts and likely smeared by my own inability to give up my old mattes, but at least one prior presentation explicitly connected the feminine and the animal (so I don’t think this is entirely made up). And several scholars of renown have moved from feminist-focused work into animal studies in the last decade or so.

In broad terms, is it possible that, in the distinction between human animal and non-human animal, masculine and feminine economies are reinscribed in certain ways? I can only think of these certain ways in Lacanian terms (ok, hell, I am a Lacanian), so my impulse is to sexuate. The human would then maybe be a masculine (castrated, barred) subject infatuated with a phallic technologism (there’s logos in that word, technology, after all) and the non-human would in some way be seen to address a lack in its (human) other? And (per Derrida, et al) THE animal wouldn’t exist as such (just as THE Woman doesn’t?). The non-human animal would thus be situated on the side of contingency, the not-all that was so frequently misunderstood in Lacan?

Too general for any good use, but a sketch of a thought, maybe?

(I’m qualifying so much because I don’t want to step on others’ toes with big phallic feet. But the itch needs scratching.)

Even Cary Wolfe’s discussion – excerpted I believe from his forthcoming book Before the Law – begged for this kind of reading (again, for/from me) inasmuch as I couldn’t abandon the idea of Law in its Lacanian inflection (Name-of-the-Father stuff, etc.). In Wolfe’s primarily Foucauldian reading of Law and politics, he repeatedly turned to figures of machinery and “mechanisms of power,” in effect masculinizing the technological metaphor if not technology proper.

So if it’s possible and useful to talk of such things in these terms, would a look to before the law be analogous to Kristeva’s project of discussing the pre-symbolic imaginary? Is animal studies a preoccupation with the imaginary?

Of course, I have no idea. But there’s something really appealing in Kevin Kelly’s much less academic and often problematic treatment of technology AS animal in What Technology Wants. Which seems to align in some ways with what I understand of Dark Ecology?



  1. I also find myself sometimes feeling like I have never been current. In a way, it is beside the point, is it not? At least in the sense of writing and publishing as an academic, it seems to me it is less important to understand the current theoretical trends and fashions (or, to be less flippant, ‘movements’) than to deploy theory, philosophy, or texts in an inventive, rhetorically persuasive way. I find myself obsessed with finding new theorists and reading about their concepts and arguments, that I spend too much time reading the texts and weighing them against other philosophers or theorists (as if were trying to figure out who was ‘right’), then I do taking those concepts and creating new concepts with them; or, if not new concepts, at least persuasive, readable, and stylistically interesting arguments in a lengthy, involved text with evidence and examples (something I think Levi Bryant does almost every day on his blog).

    Less generally, I am currently taking a course in Posthumanism, in which we read Cary Wolfe’s text, What is Posthumanism? I love the book and also watched a lecture on youtube that I think is an earlier version of the lecture you saw the other day on the promise of Biopolitics for ethical animal studies (with detailed readings of Esposito, Foucault, and Agamben). I like Wolfe because he tends to quote extensively from texts to make his arguments and thus, although he is discussing “continental philosophy,” he argues with analytic precision. And although Levi Bryant has a great post that critiques his focus on epistemology rather than ontology, such an attitude seems to me resonant with OOO and onticology. I also think you are correct that he does not move posthumanism away from technology but expands it to include the animal. Although he is clearly interested in animal ethics, I don’t think his work is exclusively focused on this.

    I’m getting away from my point.

    One of the texts for our course is Posthuman Bodies, edited (and with a powerful introduction) by Judith Halberstram and Ira Livingston. So far (I have only read about 100 pages), some of these essays have shown the connection between posthumanism and feminism — and feminism giving way to the more inclusive term “queer.” We also read a great issue of Critical Inquiry on Posthumanism that discussed the (dis)continuity between posthumanism and humanism as well as posthumanism and postmodernism. You may be interested in these if you want to further think through the connections outline above.

    All of this is to say that I think you are right to think about how posthumanism and animal studies connects to the feminism and, perhaps even moreso now, ‘queer’ theory. Most of the texts of posthumanism that I have encountered have referred to Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manfesto at least once, which critically engages a strain of Marxist feminism. Furthermore, Haraway’s most recent book in the Posthumanities series (edited by Wolfe), When Species Meet, shifts her major figure from the cyborg to “companion species,” (with a focus on animals) but also, introduces the term “queer indigestion,” and the idea that we are all “messmates” at a table.

    Neal Badmington, in his essay from the Critical Inquiry issue on Posthumanism argues that posthumanism cannot absolutely break with humanism; rather, humanism haunts posthumanism. In the same way, feminism, queer theory, and postmodernism haunt posthumanism. Badmington suggests, using psychoanalytic language, that humanism has to be “worked through.” So does the other -isms, which posthumanists may say are still all too human(ist).

    1. Thanks JR,

      So not a terribly new insight except for me. But it’s nice to see that old skillsets and understandings (can) get repurposed. I hadn’t thought of it as a queering, but that makes a lot of sense. It seems to these untrained eyes that there’s a split brewing between the tech and animal folks that’s worth looking at from various angles, especially in that the animal aligns itself clearly with/in science studies (and prefers all but the “bad” tech to stay invisible). Ha, a kind of “first wave” animal studies, maybe?

  2. So, it’s been bugging me. If “Animal” is situated as a feminine here, it would be the crucial male fantasy that allows masculine “Human” to exist. Which runs into problems with the actual situation, one in which animals in the wild use their own brand of technology. But the Animal, in order for any kind of human philosophy dealing with machinery to exist, MUST exist in this kind of feminized space–as exempt from technology and its influence. In essence, isn’t what’s at stake here a reading of human as elevated BEYOND the Animal through the role of technology? And, if we keep going with that reading, doesn’t it give us license to then read onto this idea of being human (dealing with “castrating” technology) something of both Lacan’s idea of Ego formation as well as something of ideological misrecognition (a la Zizek in _Sublime Object_)? It doesn’t matter what we actually experience when we see video of animals using some primitive technology (using a loose definition here), we’re ALWAYS going have some idea that animal is other, that the Human uses/is used by technology and therefore has grown beyond his animal origins.

    Not sure I have any solid ideas here, but if you’re going to read the animal-technological schema through a Lacanian lens, it presents itself to me as something approaching an ideological problem, especially since I’m not sure I view posthumanism as anything other than the bourgeois movement that it was when it started in science fiction. I haven’t read Wolfe’s book yet (on my reading list) so I’m not sure how he deals with this issue.

  3. Thanks, Josh. What I’m suspecting is that, insofar as feminisms offer opportunities to critique the “phallogocentric” at least (and generally do much, much more), animals studies is setting itself alongside the “human” in similar ways (this is what makes animal studies “posthuman”). The problem I see is in often lumping in the “technological” with “the human” from the outset (even conflating them), so that it might ignore the parallel development of technology (among human AND nonhuman animals; oddly, though, animals studies folks frequently love science studies, but presumably not the tech science uses). The goal is not a flattening, I think, like it is in OOO for instance. My guess is that they’d have a real ethical problem with a flat ontology (or with ontology generally). The animal would be other from a masculanized “human” position, I suppose, but the critique of that subject position is the goal, isn’t it? And just as it’s possible for a biological man to “do” feminism, it should be possible for humans to do animal studies.

    You might be interested in Quentin Meillassoux’s _After Finitude_, where he takes up some of your concerns in terms of what he calls coorelationism.

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