Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Gary Steiner's "Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism"

Gary Steiner is John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University. He is the author of Descartes as a Moral Thinker: Christianity, Technology, Nihilism; Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents: The Moral Status of Animals in the History of Western Philosophy; and Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship.

Steiner applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism, and reported the following:
In recent years there has been a great profusion of writing, both popular and scholarly, about the moral status of animals. In academic circles much of this writing has been "postmodern" in character, which is to say that it focuses on the irreducible multiplicity and elusiveness of our experience of animal others, and it roundly criticizes traditional efforts to define animals, human beings, and the human-animal boundary in clear and unequivocal terms. Postmodern writers allege that traditional humanistic claims about the supposed moral superiority of human beings over nonhuman animals are based on reductive oversimplifications of both human and animal experience, and that these oversimplifications do violence to the irreducible richness of our experience of sentient life. Many postmodern writers have sought to show that humanistic notions such as agency, individuality, and responsibility not only distort the multiplicity of experiential phenomena, but that these distortions conceal efforts to exclude marginal others from full moral consideration. Where postmodern writers have focused on the marginalization of human others such as women and people of color, some of these writers have more recently sought to extend this critique
Page 99 -- click to enlarge
to the dominion that human beings have long exercised over nonhuman animals. Thus Derrida and others have sought to open us to the possibility that many nonhuman animals participate in logos (reason or language), even if they do not participate in specifically human logos. Nonhuman animals, like human beings, have a share in suffering and mortality, and this is sufficient for acknowledging that animals merit moral consideration considerably greater than human beings have accorded them in the history of Western culture. And yet postmodern thinkers assert no clear and categorical commitments about what we owe to animals; these thinkers rest satisfied with what I call "feel-good ethics," ethical commitments that permit us to express abhorrence at moral injustices but which do not push us out of our comfort zones by requiring us to do anything concrete to counter the injustices that we so abhor. Thus postmodernism is as morally impotent as it is rhetorically seductive; in fact, as I argue in Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism, postmodernism simply legitimizes and reinforces, if only implicitly and against its own intention, the very violence against animals and other marginalized others that it purports to reject as pernicious.
Learn more about Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue