Monday, November 30, 2009

Kelly Oliver's "Animal Lessons"

Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of more than fifty articles and fifteen books, including Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex, and the Media; The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Oppression; and Family Values: Subjects Between Nature and Culture.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, and reported the following:
[Rousseau] also says, ‘the first cake to be eaten was the communion of the human race’ (1966 35). Here, I am more interested in Rousseau’s suggestions about the connection between diet and morality than the connections between food and civilization discussed earlier. But before moving to his remarks on pure, natural, and wholesome tastes in both food and morality, recall that Rousseau’s discussion of the diet of civilized men suggests that man become cultivated in relation to how he eats animals and also learns how and what to eat from animals. As we have seen, Rousseau repeatedly describes how man imitates animals to survive and to become more human. This assimilation of animal lessons is another form of ingestion that enables human culture and morality themselves. Derrida’s analysis of eating also revolves around the metonymy between eating and assimilation, and eating understood as assimilation leads him to the heart of the problematic of ethical relations with others. (Animal Lessons page 99)
In Animal Lessons, I distinguish between two types of eating or assimilation that speak to our relations with animals and our relations with each other: We can eat only what we need to eat in order to nourish ourselves; and we can nurture a nourishing relationship with others such that assimilation is as nourishing as possible. Or, we can kill for the sake of conquest and mount our trophies on the wall, dissect them, or train them to jump through hoops. From Rousseau and Herder to Freud and Kristeva, philosophers suggest that humanity is determined by what we eat: whether they think that we are what we eat (like Rousseau and Herder) or that we are not what we eat (like Freud and Kristeva), man becomes human by eating animals. I begin by looking back at 18th Century notions of humanity and animality that define man in terms of what he eats in order to set the stage for an investigation into how philosophies of otherness from Freud through Kristeva repeat romantic gestures that exclude and abject animals. Examining texts as varied of those of Rousseau, Herder, Freud, Heidegger, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir, Derrida, Agamben, and Kristeva, I argue that concepts of subjectivity, humanity, politics and ethics continue to be defined by the double-movement of assimilating and then disavowing the animal, animality, and animals. Even thinkers who explicitly reject romantic notions of humanism rely on an opposition between human and animal born. Indeed, animals are so radically other it seems, they cannot even stand in the place of the other in relation to the subject of philosophy. I argue that within the history of philosophy, animals remain the invisible support for whatever we take to be human subjectivity, as fractured and obscure as it becomes in the late Twentieth Century. Just as philosophers from Aristotle through Kant have used animals to support a notion of the unified or autonomous subject, in philosophies of difference, the abstract concept animal continues to work along with animal metaphors, examples, illustrations, and animal studies to support alternative notions of a split or fragmented subject. Even as these thinkers challenge the Cartesian subject and the concomitant notions of rationality, sovereignty, and individuality, they continue to rely on the human-animal divide to do so.
Learn more about Animal Lessons at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue