Back to top

Wolfe's Animal Rights and Zoontologies


Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory.

Wolfe, Cary. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003. pp. 237, $18.00, softcover. ISBN: 0226905144.

Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal.

Wolfe, Cary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. pp. 203, $18.95, softcover. ISBN: 0816641064.

<1> The question of the category of the "animal" and its relation to that of the "human" is one that has recently surfaced in the work of such theorists as Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway and Giorgio Agamben; this recent concern with the speciesism that underlies scientific categorization, and the faulty structure such speciesism lends for philosophical investigations into the qualities of Man, has largely been framed within the context of humanism and the problematic of articulating posthumanist ethics. Reductively, the concerns of the above authors are the ways in which the difference that has been constructed between the human and the animal is deployed in diverse contexts to render the category of the animal beyond ethical consideration -- in other words, how the category of the human is constructed as that which is ethical (or has the capacity for ethics) and how certain humans, in certain historical contexts, are rendered more animal that human and robbed of the necessity to be treated as humans, as ethical beings. The promise of a posthumanist ethics that incorporates the question of the animal and its relation to the human is that of releasing the animal from its position on the outside of ethics, and thereby articulating an ethics that is structured by "life" generally (across species -- although one might rightly question what the limit of this category of "life" will be). Cary Wolfe's Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003), and its companion selection of essays, Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (2003), should be read in the context of this concern of articulating an ethics that does not depend on placing the animal outside of the human in order to found the human, but rather, to place the animal and human squarely within the same sphere of ethical consideration. I agree that this need for a new ethics is impending, and one that could open new possibilities for understanding social relationships beyond traditional species lines is promising, but Wolfe's forays into the question of ethics and the animal fall short of making significant headway into the terrain, and unfortunately -- especially in the case of Animal Rites -- depend on case studies that are highly specific and have isolated audiences. Rather than producing theory that has the potential to revolutionize the place of the animal in philosophical thought, Zoontologies and Animal Rites make tentative stabs at the modernist-humanist speciesism, and these stabs might readily be deflected by defenders of humanism as isolated cases of little import. That being said, Wolfe (and his contributors to Zoontologies) do make some vital observations, and it is worth attending to these and transporting the moveable feast of "the question of the animal" to other sites in order to ascertain its legitimacy, and to discover the potential benefits of a posthumanist ethics.

<2> The chapters that comprise Animal Rites were previously published as individual articles over the past 6 years, and the book reads as such -- it suffers from lack of a sustained argument, developed over the case studies presented in the chapters, but instead offers initial theoretical remarks in the introduction and reiterates them in part or whole with minor variation and elaboration throughout the case studies that comprise the rest of the book. Wolfe's case studies consists of the Michael Crichton's Congo, Ernest Hemingway's Garden of Eden and The Sun Also Rises, Jonathan Demme's cinematic version of Silence of the Lambs (coauthored with Jonathan Elmer), and the role of the animal in the philosophical work of Luc Ferry, Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Emmanuel Levinas, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vicki Hearne and Martin Heidegger (with frequent invocations of the work of Derrida, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari). In the case of the textual studies (the three novels and the film), Wolfe relies heavily on post-Freudian psychoanalysis to unravel the "discourse of species" at play in the texts, with frequent detours into Deleuze and Guattari's work together to further (or offer alternative understandings of) the analysis.

<3> Questions of the commensurability of Freud and Deleuze and Guattari aside, Wolfe is a canny reader of the texts at hand, and the chapters on Silence of the Lambs and Congo are cogent -- and engrossing -- analyses of the role of speciesism and the category of the human in popular culture; the chapter on Hemingway suffers from too much acknowledgement of the extant criticism of Hemingway (which does show how speciesism is a problem both of critic and the critiqued, but only implicitly) and too little attention to the broader historical contexts in which Hemingway is writing, from which his investigation of the human-animal relation is surely derived -- bullfights and elephant hunts (it is also twice as long as the other textual studies, and for those unfamiliar with Hemingway's novels, may be trying). Of the three textual analyses, the chapter on Silence of the Lambs is the most directly pertinent to Wolfe's mission, although it is also the most unproblematically psychoanalytic (Wolfe leaves the analysis of the animal in Lacan and Freud to Derrida and Judith Roof, respectively, in Zoontologies): The characters in Silence of the Lambs allow Wolfe to expound his animal-human continuum (the animalized animal, the humanized animal, the animalized human and the humanized human) to show the ways in which the points on either end are ideological constructions (hence, subject to differance, and unattainable), whereas the middle pair are those which are deployed in various "humanist" discourses to privilege some at the expense of others. This continuum is reprised in the analysis of Congo, but whereas the study of Silence of the Lambs is closely tied to Lacan and Freud, Congo moves the theoretical discussion towards Deleuze and Guattari and that of "becoming-animal" (molecular rather than molar conceptions of the human and the animal). What Wolfe is able to accomplish in Animal Rites is less a rigorous theorization of the diversity of forms that the "discourse of species" takes than indicating specific instances. Moreover, the sites that Wolfe chooses to focus upon are -- and I feel that this is an appropriate criticism due to his critique of the field of "cultural studies" as being propped upon speciesist presuppositions -- rather provincial: Three novels and a film, all very white and middle to upper class. Given the diversity of American cultural forms of expression (since this is nominally a book about American culture), Wolfe's selections are lacking, and too disciplinary. They rightfully include both "high" and "low" culture -- and the chapter on the animal and linguistics is an interesting case here, bringing together such diverse figures as Wittgenstein and Hearne (a animal trainer turned lay philosopher) -- but they suffer from a lack of surprise: Evidencing the "discourse of species" in more unlikely sites may have benefited Wolfe's overarching project more profoundly than focusing on texts wherein the animal is already so prominent.

<4> Wolfe's lack in breadth is supplemented by the selections that comprise Zoontologies. Wolfe freely admits, by way of introduction to the collection, that it is not a definitive statement on the "question of the animal," but rather an initial survey of some of the ways in which the animal has been deployed. Briefly, Zoontologies includes: Ursula K. Heise examining cases of artificial animals in science and science fiction as a salve for anxieties regarding species extinction; Paul Patton exploring the relationship between governmentality and training (of horses, although the implication for other animals -- including humans -- is obvious); Judith Roof discussing the role of protista in Freud (with only brief, but interesting, remarks on R. C. Lewontin and his relationship to DNA); a translation of Derrida's recent lecture on the animal in Lacan's thought (readers of Derrida might be especially interested in his expansion of the idea of "trace" he so often employs); a survey of Steve Baker's Picturing the Animal that examines the postmodern artistic representation of the animal; a Deleuze and Guattari-inspired essay from Alphonso Lingis on the subject of "faciality," movement and sovereignty; a New York Times article by Charles LeDuff on the workplace politics of a slaughterhouse in the American South; and Wolfe's own contribution, the second chapter from Animal Rites, concerning linguistics, philosophy and the animal. As this brief listing illustrates, there is a wide variety of theoretical-methodological angles pursued by the contributors in their discussions of the animal (and the place where they see it in play), and while none of the chapters is definitive in its contribution to the field, they do offer insightful potential matters of concern, from psychoanalysis and poststructural philosophy (Michel Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Levinas, Derrida) to aesthetics, animal training, and the politics of meat (Karl Marx being strangely absent, which readers of the early Marx may find troubling, especially with his concern for "species-being," and its reprisal in the work of Bernard Stiegler).

<5> Most evocative among the contributions -- subjectively speaking -- were Patton's piece on animal training and governmentality and Heise's contribution on the relationship between virtual animals and their real counterparts. Patton's exploration of the similarities between human-human forms of government (ala Foucault) and human-animal forms of "training" exposes the ways in which the two systems are more similar that different, that human-human relationships are much the same as human-animal ones, and that, with attention to the ways in which humans and other animals communicate, the contours of governmentality might be more fully articulated -- the lesson is clear: rather than continuing to focus our theoretical testing solely on human-human interaction, we might do well to look at the ways in which humans relate to our non-human companions to see how appropriate our theoretical models are for explaining the environment we construct and inhabit. Heise's contribution is quite different and interesting for its insight into the roles that the virtual can play in substituting one being for another (and how worth might be ascribed to the former despite the presence and absence of the latter). In my mind, Heise and Patton, among all the contributors, show how attention to the figure of the animal might prove very fruitful in deciphering what constitutes the human, thereby sustaining the editorial promise of the collection. While the other contributions are interesting, and generally insightful, in some cases their scope is too limited for ready inclusion in the expansion of the study of non-humans, and some may find -- like Roof's discussion of Freud and his protests -- too narrow in their impact.

<6> Taken together, Animal Rites and Zoontologies offer a survey of the various "discourse[s] of species" that have been articulated in the West (however problematic that term might be, it should be noted that there are no studies of the animal and its role in the East or the South), and make an initial foray into a new academic terrain -- as Wolfe notes, the humanities have been very slack in their questioning of the animal, whereas the sciences (and even, to a degree, the social sciences, like Anthropology -- I think here of Michel Callon and his scallops) have progressed rapidly in their conception of human-animal relations. One can only hope that others will expand on Wolfe's work, showing how the "discourse of species" arises in various cultural contexts to foreclose the possibility of the posthuman, restructuring, as it does, the constitution of the human for the sake of "humanism." But whatever studies succeed Wolfe's own, they must attend to Wolfe's observation that "the only way to the 'there' in which the animals reside is to find them 'here,' in us and of us, as part of the plurality for which perhaps even 'the animals,' in the plural, is far too lame a word" (207). This may border on the New Age conception of the world, or lay Spinozism, but Wolfe is right to think more generally on the level of animal kingdoms rather than species, thereby opening the field of our questioning to new subjects and new relationships. Whether this can lead to a new ethics, an ethics for life in general, is unclear, but, following Derrida's recent questioning of the animal, the project is clearly a pending one.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer