Angry PostHumanism II: The Continuity of All Life, No Matter How Different, Research Time, 28/11/2014

Continued from last post . . . Cary Wolfe’s “Event-Machine” essay is published again in his What Is Posthumanism? collection, in a slightly expanded form from the version I first read in Emergence and Embodiment, which came out the year before. It’s my favourite kind of expansion, which changes the title a little (to “Meaning and Event”), and adds some paragraphs and deletes others at different points throughout. So you don’t just get the original essay with an extra section, but the more detailed work of reconsidering some aspects of the argument and updating it. 

Part of what he’s updating it with, aside from some improvements to the expression and the order of some of the arguments, is attempting to link the essays together. Very few collections of previously published essays do that, and as a result, they’re often quite repetitive, as essays originally published in different journals years apart will be smashed in a book within a few pages of each other. And reading through marginally different iterations of the same introductory conceptual material can get damn annoying sometimes. 

Although Wolfe sometimes refers to the same texts in different articles, and even sometimes the same quotes from the same texts (I’m thinking about a particular line from Jacques Derrida’s essay “Eating Well”), the context of each occurrence is different enough to make it land on a reader differently each time. 

Really, just coming to grips with the fact of our ecological
evolution must adjust you to your continuity with animals.
Any process as slow as humanity's evolution, while involving
thresholds, can only be continuous.
Derrida’s “Eating Well” is his engagement with the ethics and morals of animal rights and vegetarianism, and his conclusion amounts practically to the same brand of not-quite-quietism that most of his ethical engagements end in (unendability, that is). There are several essays in this book about the question of human continuity with non-human animals, an issue that conventional transhumanism usually ignores in its gleaming visions of a humanity that is ultimately stripped of all that could be called organic. It makes for a wonderfully multifaceted critique of all conceptions of humanity that radically separate us from all other forms of life and ecologies.

This makes Wolfe’s essays on the human conception of ourselves regarding animals a welcome addition to the Ecophilosophy manuscript. Because he frames their inclusion in the book using a conception of post-humanism, the new introduction to the manuscript would explicitly link the ecological and geo-historical continuity of humanity to all other life on Earth now and throughout the distant past to the planet’s beginning. 

Wolfe is also very good at calling up the ethical squishiness of our mainstream conceptions of the animal in the context of his own inquiry. I could tell that an essay called “Language, Representation, and Species” originally appeared as a direct attack on Daniel Dennett’s conception of mind, and used the actual mental complexity of animals to expose that Dennett’s concept of mind just begged the question of what exactly mind is. 

Basically, Dennett’s argument that the human mind is special because its self-consciousness (that only we can think reflexively, experiencing our own experience) is unique depends on having postulated at the beginning that non-human animals can’t think reflexively. He doesn’t prove that non-human animals are deficient in this way. He just presumes it, and argues for it in a way that makes it feel like a conclusion, when it’s been a premise all along. So I’d like to thank Cary Wolfe for finally putting a finger on why I’ve felt so iffy about Dennett’s ideas ever since I first encountered them late in my undergrad.

So there is no categorical separation between humanity and the rest of the organic world.* Once we’ve established this continuity, we end up in a very difficult spot. A lot of the moral distinctions that allow us to treat animals so poorly (medical and scientific testing, factory farming and industrial slaughterhouse practices) depend on the premise that they can only think in a fundamentally inferior way.

* Thinking in terms of this radical duality also commits the blindness of collapsing all the differences among non-human species of organism into a single category and treating them as if they were all a single type of thing, organisms-that-are-not-human. 

Recognizing the continuity now introduces the ethical issue that moral dialogue with non-humans is possible where all participants are moral agents. Standing on a moral platform, if not in strict moral equivalence or sameness because of our important physical and epistemic differences in kind, means that we have to take our cruelty to animals in a profoundly serious sense. It’s more than just immoral because humans are bad when they’re cruel. A non-human’s cries, when we think authentically in terms of our natural continuity, should touch our soul. To be continued . . .

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