Ecopoetry, Speculative Ontology, and the Disavowal of the Slaughterhouse: Some Notes on Ethics and Biopower

[The Sublation of the Animal]

There is unhappily in poetics, and in the majority of contemporary political, philosophical, and ecological thought, a failure to see the nonhuman animal even at its most extreme limit of suffering.

The very thinkers who love animals and grow disturbed by their mass slaughter still eat them. The very people who pride themselves on their championing of The Other, who protest the mistreatment of the subaltern and capital’s disavowal of the suffering of the abject, still tell themselves it’s possible to humanely slaughter. The majority of critical theorists, poets, and ecologists who speak of biopower, ecopoetics, animal welfare and factory farming still willfully take pleasure from the brutalization of our most other others. It bears repeating: the majority of the very thinkers who love justice and who would object to the unnecessary[1]killing of animals still eat them.[2] They persist, even in their most disciplined thought, as ethical misers and energetic dupes of capital.[3]

This sublation of the consciousness and suffering of the animal manifests as a collective misrecognition of the slaughterhouse in precisely those areas that are at present most emergent, if potentially inconsequential, in critical theory: ecopoetics and speculative ontology.

Having recently read an anthology of critical papers and interviews on ecopoetics, I was disheartened to realize that the elision of the slaughterhouse’s unprecedented ecological and ethical effects extends beyond the realm of strictly political thought into those poetries ostensibly most concerned with ecology and the plight of other beings. The book contained not one discussion of the slaughterhouse. In fact the word is not mentioned in the volume at all. It is instructive the degree to which thought about poetry’s material relation to ecology and animals can have so little to do with the single most potent factor in the history of anthropogenic ecological destruction (the animal-industrial complex), and so much to do with the history and aesthetic politics of the Black Mountain School.

If the nonhuman animal is substantively mentioned in an essay on ecopoetics today, it does not surprise if it is the wild, well-named bird or the cold fox in the threatened stream. It is not the 50 million cows who are hung in the nation of the buffalo annually by a back leg. Nor the 8.3 billion chickens raised as balloons of protein above aquifers and thrown each year throughout the United States. Or the 60 billion animals worldwide whose bodies annually are littered everywhere from our alimental interiors to the news stands of airports, and whose systematic and incessant slaughter is the single greatest driver of global climate change.

Surely, from the standpoint of the flesh industry, the manufacture of this apathy, itself a kind of affective labor, is a key goal of immaterial production[4]: the production of the emotional and cognitive habits that constitute the perceptual insensibility necessary to ignore the already incomprehensible calculus that has transmuted the very limit of ontological reality – suffering – into a commodity itself. The labor of the animal is its suffering. Ours is apathy. And we sell it every time meat is purchased.

The animal is also excluded from contemporary ontological speculations. In a recent anthology of critical essays entitled A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics, a book concerned with Being’s relation to the real and to capital, the nonhuman animal is mentioned in passing twice and isn’t discussed once. The animal is excluded from a consideration of being. Being, in this field, is not beings. Of a piece with this, is that in this entire anthology of critical essays about Being’s relation to capital, only one article mentions agribusiness.[5] The nonhuman being is left untheorized by the very materialist philosophers who write of the excluded and uncoded flesh subject to biopolitical power. As if to correct this small oversight, John Sanbonmatsu writes in a book[6] published two years later, in 2012, “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.” The recent work of Giorgio Agamben also turns toward this humanist division between humanitas and animalitas, extending an analytics of ethical consideration toward the nonhuman animal, insisting that this separation has been the chief historical driver of all political conflict.[7] In fact Agamben goes so far as to grant the human-animal distinction a pre-eminent place among the problems of Western philosophy and political thought, declaring that “It is more urgent to work on these divisions….than it is to take positions on the great issues, on so-called human rights and values.”[8]

Yet our cognitive and somatic habits are such that we live in an age in which reputable anthologies in the above-mentioned disciplines – ecopoetry and materialist philosophy – can consider this fleshly existence and its material relation to capital without even mentioning, let alone substantively considering, the industry of flesh – the animal-industrial complex, despite its centrality to capital: its history, its ideologies, its praxes of eating, of diet, of exercise, medicine, slaughter, the cognitive biases innate to carnophallagocentrism, and the material products and effects of the practices of slaughter (clothing, bodily disease, mental health effects, ecological devastation, as well as a kind of effect for which we have no word or any method for measuring, that of the unparalleled flood of suffering induced in the ablation of our most other others). Four-fifths of all antibiotics manufactured worldwide are fed to animals raised for slaughter. Half of the world’s water supply is used in the raising of animals for slaughter. Eighty percent of the world’s soy crop and forty to fifty percent of the global corn harvest, is fed to animals. And eighty to ninety percent (depending on the animal) of the grain that is fed to animals cannot be digested and is left in their manure. These figures are directly related to the global population of one billion malnourished human beings.[9] Fordism itself arises in a very real sense as a matter of diet and animality: the assembly line stems from Ford’s adaptation of the disassembly lines he toured at the Chicago Union Stockyards, specifically the Armour and Swift packing plant, an experience credited for his lifelong vegetarianism. Despite the animal’s central role in capital, this industry’s center is invisible to some of our most innovative thought.

[The Human Political]

“Die Philosophie ist eigentlich dazu da, das einsulösen,
was im Blick eines Tieres liegt.”[10]

Theodor Adorno

How does it happen that politically aware people can fail to see the ethical injustice in their own consumptive and cognitive habits? Some on the left have historically been concerned that the valuation of the ethical marks a diminishment of political commitment. This critique, which stems from Marx’s Holy Family and the Grundrisse to Althusser’s insistence that all ethics is ideological, unscientific, and politically quietistic, arises from a misprision as to the role of the ethical as a means of drawing the abject into the realm of political consideration.

As political struggle is only concerned with those beings who are already part of the polis, we cannot in the realm of politics attend to those who are thoroughly subaltern. This is necessarily so because we cannot recognize the plight of the subaltern if we are only attentive to those already considered members of the polis. From the standpoint of justice, the ethical and the political are indissociable. If we are only politically attentive, we cannot expect to be an agent fully invested in the doings of justice.

In that the political is exclusively concerned with what is already visible as an object of concern, what is given political consideration does not yet include the abject, the disavowed, those beings who, or that, are already excluded from the polis. It is precisely these beings – the sublated, the eaten, the enslaved – who have a need for a pre-juridical, pre-political defense. And this is the role of the ethical.

The way we excite the political and invest the excluded is precisely via insistence on ethical reparation. That is necessarily its function: ethics is the means by which we pull the abject into the light of consideration, into the light of the political; its purpose is to argue on behalf of those who are not even considered “those” yet.

Politically committed people who ignore the argument of the animal, or the plight of animal mothers and children, do so because they believe their own cause encompasses the entirety of justice. And they may in one sense be right. The notion of who justice applies to is always historically bounded by the apathy of violent disregard. To call attention to the studied disavowal of the suffering of other conscious creatures in someone who considers himself politically aware is to invite a remonstration that the animal is not a feminist object of concern, or is not a racialized, or an economic, object of concern. The invitations made by activists and other ethical agents to expend care and concern for the plight of the nonhuman subject more often than not elicit, from both the left and the right, a studied critique over the failure of these activists to attend properly to the human political. The most common objections, then, to the issue of animal abolitionism are less about the welfare of animals and more about the political and psychological biases of animal abolitionists. The human is so invested in its resentments and antipathies for its own concerns that it would almost rather fight about those than extend basic consideration to animal others.  There is a studied disquiet – the human political – at the border of the nonhuman world.

In a climate of political concern that studiously ignores widespread and systematized suffering, it is precisely the epistemic role of the arts and other modes of critical thought to levy pre-juridical and pre-political means of argument in order to draw distant realities of suffering into the arena of warm concern.

Not that poetry has any special abilities in this regard. Poetry has in fact been at times, even recently, a force for stupidity of nearly magical proportions.[11]

A stupid art is any art that insists on its own a-ethical or non-political content.[12] Or more accurately, it resists its own already ethically dimensioned content. There is no ethically flat enactment possible in any art. “Literature begins with a porcupine’s death…. As Moritz said, one writes for dying calves. Language must devote itself to reaching these feminine, animal, molecular detours, and every detour is a becoming-mortal.”[13] Art must contain or elicit the energy of a mortal ethic.[14] A truly minoritarian art will bear a mortal ethic that will illustrate for those blinded as to the prejudicial ablation of the animal that one cannot be considered a politically invested or an ethically energetic being, an innovative poet, an ecologically responsive or environmentally concerned being, a skeptical thinker committed to the factual, or an activist bent on the cultivation of political emotions, if one eats animals, or any part of an animal. A truly mortal art must touch the diet. It is itself a class of food. And it proves the template for food.

Where compassion[15] is not enough, and where critical theory is clearly not enough, a change of diet is sufficient. And where a change of diet is sufficient, an outspoken and lived solidarity with the indignity of the enslaved and eaten is imperative.

[Object-Oriented Ontology and Neoliberalism]

“Jede Umwelt bildet eine in sich geschlossene Einheit,
die in all ihren Teilen durch die Bedeutung
für das Subjekt beherrscht wird.”[16]

Jakob Johann von Uexküll

The recent vogue of Object-Oriented Ontology and its efforts to establish a “radical democracy of objects” is of a piece with late capitalist attempts to extend personhood to corporations and zygotes.[17] In its efforts to shift the groundedness of ontological dignity, and hence moral consideration, from the suffering of beings to the democratic extrinsicality of objects, it reinscribes capital’s elision of suffering. Levi Bryant, a blogger particularly enthusiastic about developing a “universe” of flat ontology, includes animals in his list of “asignifying objects.” Formally classifying as objects – in the name of “radical democracy” – those beings who have historically, both scientifically and as a matter of folk-lore, long been considered mere things is done with a remarkable lack of irony in a world now built on the industrialized suffering of those same beings, beings whose anguish is precipitated in cellophaned units of exchange-value some euphemize as meat.

In fact, if I had tried to imagine how neoliberalism might manifest in metaphysics, I’m fairly certain something like OOO is what I would have come up with: a panpsychism that dissipates an ethical imperative toward other beings by diffusing among the furniture of the world the significance of the bodily pain and mental anguish felt by that class of neuronal objects called animals. OOO wishes to destroy thoughts predicated on human privilege, yet in doing so it formalizes the very chauvinisms against the world of sentient-others that makes human privilege problematic in the first place: the division of the world into the human being and its instruments[18]. OOO tries to ablate the primacy of the human, but in doing so it underscores the instrumentality, and further legitimates the instrumentalizing, of other sentient beings.

In his Pascalian Meditations, Bourdieu offers an analysis of what he terms scholastic disposition, insisting that it is characterized by ‘‘theoreticism,” or a “scholastic epistemocentrism,” by which he means a privileging of theory by the elision of practical understanding: the “primary understanding of the world that is linked to experience of inclusion in this world.” Insofar as we are now faced with a class of neoliberal thinkers in thrall to an idealist disdain for the unique experience of worldly inclusion felt by those objects that fear their own extinguishment and its attendant excrutiations, we need to counter the stupidity of those who seek to isolate ontological inquiry from both ethical practice and empirical verification. Not to do so risks not only giving a free pass to what Furio Jesi calls esotericism, “the articulation of the modalities of non-knowledge,” but the likelihood of real-world ecological and ethical mistakes that could further erase the animal.

The untestable academic suppositions offered by OOO are not innocuous. To dissociate speculation about being from effective ethical practice, not to mention empirical verification, is to ignore the politics of suffering and the politics of the sciences of suffering surrounding those beings who have historically been classified as objects.[19] Such intellectual parochialism is especially impactful in considerations as to the heterogeneity of being, simply because certain kinds of errors here necessarily, and without exaggeration, result in dire suffering for billions of beings, most of whom are invisible to our philosophy and our poetry, though people who do not know they are without mercy wear them and find them on their plates.

* * *

Here I call from a Chicago journal, the historical city of the slaughterhouse, to poets that they help in this effort to touch the diet and alleviate the global suffering of the enslaved nonhuman animal, as they are without question persons well suited to the task of making mercy’s[20] absence visible.


[1] Among countless other dietary organizations, the American Dietetic Association (not a liberal organization) clearly declares meats dietetically unnecessary. “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” From a meta-analysis of decades of studies by the American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), the US’s oldest and foremost scientific authority on diet and nutrition.”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864

[2] As David Lurie says, in Coetzee’s Disgrace, “I eat them, so I suppose I must like them, some parts of them.”

[3]This ethical dualism has its institutional counterpart in animal welfare laws that criminalize the abuse of slaughterhouse animals by workers while protecting their legal right to kill them. Killing in this schema is not a class of mistreatment.

[4]Hardt and Negri.

[5] Christopher Breu, “Signification and Substance: Toward a Leftist Ontology of the Present” pp 187-207) A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics. C. Strathausen, ed. (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). My colleague at Illinois State University to whom some of these notes were first addressed in correspondence and for whose intellectual camaraderie I am deeply grateful.

[6]Critical Theory and Animal Liberation (Nature’s Meaning), edited by John Sanbonmatsu. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011)

[7] Giorgio Agamben: “In our culture, the decisive political conflict, which governs every other conflict, is that between the animality and the humanity of man. That is to say, in its origin Western politics is also biopolitics.” p. 80 The Open: Man and Animal, translated by Kevin Attell.

[8] Agamben, The Open, p. 16.

[10] “Philosophy is truly there to redeem what lies in the gaze of the animal.”

[11]But it might in time offer something quite powerful that would go toward bettering the lives of billions of beings.

[12] “Conceptual Writing is a-ethical and wouldn’t dare make the presumption that it has the power to affect the world for better or worse. Conceptual Poetry makes nothing happen. Conceptual Writing is the Switzerland of poetry. We’re stuck in neutral. We believe in the moral weightlessness of art.” – Goldsmith, K. The Harriet Blog, April 27, 2010. We should be disinclined to take this utterance at face-value, as it is may be an example of what Bourdieu calls performative indifference, a class of dishonesty found in those persons susceptible to the vanities that lead one to adopt the mantle of the sacred heretic. Often seen in the sort of person who will grope anywhere for a place to put his name even at the cost of gross falsifications.

[13] Deleuze, G., “Literature and Life.” Essays Critical and Clinical, Smith and Greco, trans.

[14] By mortal ethic I mean not to counter the historical impulse to construe poetry as a will to immortality (there is no need to counter that old canard anymore), but that art’s ethic should bring the meaninglessness of the mortality of sentience to the pity of sentience: in ourselves, in other creatures, and the planet’s eventual solar extinction.

[15]There is in fact no special compassion that allows for its own existence while also allowing for the consuming or enslavement of the animal body.

[16] “Every being’s perceptual world [Umwelt] is a self-contained unit that is dominated in its entirety by the importance of the subject.”

[17] “[F]lat ontology argues that all entities are on equal ontological footing and that no entity, whether artificial or natural, symbolic or physical, possesses greater ontological dignity than other objects.” from The Democracy of Objects, Levi R. Bryant, “Four Theses on Flat Ontology.”

[18] OOO in this regard a variant of Heideggerian tool-being: the reduction of everything, including even Heidegger’s concept of human-being (Dasein), to the instrumental objects that have being, some of them with more agency than others. This is an anti-correlationist school of philosophy. About OOO, Ray Brassier, a synoptic philosopher influenced by Wilfrid Sellars’ synoptic empiricism, says, “I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.” (“I am a nihilist because I still believe in truth,” an interview with Marcin Rychter, at KRONOS, April 2012, http://www.kronos.org.pl/index.php?23151,896)

[19] For the latter, see Jaak Panksepp in conversation with Ginger Campbell about, in part, the politics around the funding of research that inevitably led to the unavoidable conclusion that animals possess a plenary sentience. http://brainsciencepodcast.com/bsp/2010/1/13/affective-neuroscience-with-jaak-panksepp-bsp-65.html

[20] A dialogic virtue characterized by the undeserved or unwarranted or unnecessary extension of compassion and the forbearance of harm to a subject in one’s control.

Gabriel Gudding is the author of Rhode Island Notebook (Dalkey Archive Press, 2007) and A Defense of Poetry (Pitt, 2002). His essays and poems appear in such periodicals as Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and Journal of the History of Ideas, in such anthologies as Great American Prose Poems, Best American Poetry, and &Now: Best Innovative Writing. His translations from Spanish appear in anthologies such as The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, Poems for the Millennium, and The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Issue One, May 1st, 2013 | Matter
  2. Stephanie Fieold

    I couldn’t agree more, Gabriel. For too long has the duplicity of ecopoetic types and critical theorists complicit in condoning animal suffering gone unchallenged. Your rigorous and thorough analysis addresses this in cogent, reasoned terms. How you outline that those on the Left – especially poets, thinkers – who profess to champion Animal Rights, yet still condone such acts as the consumption of flesh and the keeping of enslaved beings (such as chickens, steers) have, as you say above, “…still wilfully take[n] pleasure from the brutalization of our most other others” – is masterful. This sentence goes to the core of how such dualities can exist in those who profess to be ethical or moral beings and who may otherwise embody significant empathetic sensibilities.

    There is another offence performed in the service of such “naive activism”, as I prefer to think of it, that you have omitted to cover, however. Given your reflections regarding such “ethical misers” I’m sure you’ll agree with its existence. This offence occurs when concepts such as empathy, ethics or morality are misguidedly and somewhat clumsily intellectualised and deployed (via those who otherwise profess such indefensible protection of non-human animals, no less!) as duplicitous justification tools; tools that act as unconscious – or possibly unintentional – subterfuge for the detestable and unnecessary selective engineering of a “saved” class, or grade, of non-human animal. This type of deliberate species prioritisation – such as “owning” carnivorous “pets” that require the consumption of other enslaved animals that are deliberately slaughtered for such a purpose – represents a level of abject and terrifying hypocrisy from the very individuals that judge and condemn others for associated levels of fluctuating morality. Such biased choices are usually based on a type of cognitive dissonance constructed from – what you brilliantly describe above as: “Such intellectual parochialism [that] is especially impactful in considerations as to the heterogeneity of being, simply because certain kinds of errors here necessarily, and without exaggeration, result in dire suffering for billions of beings, most of whom are invisible to our philosophy and our poetry, though people who do not know they are without mercy wear them and find them on their plates” and – I would add – feed them to their own unfairly prioritised and idolised slave pets; pets that are often kept in a perpetual state of juvenile stasis in order to remain objects of “companionship” or the focus of a saviour complex, while being willingly fed other less privileged (but just as capable of suffering) non-human animals.

    Sadly, such selective and prejudicial narrowing of the very definition of concepts like empathy – for instance, where such activists seek to justify feeding slaughtered cattle or poultry to their own slave pets while seeking to intellectualise the infliction of such stultifyingly horror on other, less “prioritised” animal mothers and children – represents a level of societal smothering that is so entrenched in our current, animal terrorising culture that these suffering-condoning behaviours are often overlooked. Somewhat ironically, these very actions that embody such senseless, and often supremely hypocritical, gradations of non-human animal prioritisation based on human intervention, assignation, and “worthiness scaling” (say, assigning certain worth to various species that exist along the Phylogenetic Scale) result in such individuals acting to reinforce and strengthen the reality of animal suffering that they are rallying so vehemently against.

  3. Gabriel Gudding

    Hi Stephanie,
    My apologies about my tardy reply. I wasn’t aware that there was a comments section here.
    Regarding the keeping of carnivorous pets: Gary Francione speaks and writes eloquently about this issue from time to time. His take, which I agree with, is that feeding meat to carnivorous pets (i.e., cats — as dogs aren’t carnivorous) is not morally justified, though it is morally excusable in the case of those animals that have been rescued from a kill or no-kill shelter. In the case of rescue, it is excusable.
    That being said, we are beginning to hear reports of dietary innovations that would make it possible to use synthetic taurine supplements for cats and allow us to move them to a vegan diet.
    Thanks for your note.
    Kind regards,
    Gabriel

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