Humans and other Animals

Renee at Womanist Musings and Feministe had a post up on the perhaps perverse effect of the animal rights’ movement on the politics of decolonization. Critical Animal, I think, replies a bit hastily but sets up the problem well. The reason I say hastily is because I think politics is always a question of strategy and at moments I think the rhetoric of a certain humanism is useful, as long as at the end we continue to recognize that we have to stop treating animals like animals, too:

So much of the struggles of the colonized and persons of color have come from a commitment to being human, too. 
There always exists a politics when a non-paradigmatic human being claims the title of human. This is as true for when the colonized claim to be humans, as when the Great Ape Projects argue for the personhood of Great Apes. However, in a fine Ranciere-ian fashion (a Ranciere devoid of his anthropocentrism, so therefore a Ranciere beyond Ranciere), while the claim to be human may be political, it does not remain political. For those of us on the critical animal studies side of the process, these political moments of demands for the right to claim humanness or personhood are also moments to continue the political. That is to say, to forward our argument that the human/animal distinction cannot stand. To say, “If you got this one wrong, maybe you very ordering system is wrong.” In this way we hope to not just change the count, but change the very logic of counting through this moment of tort. This is where I don’t know how to make common cause. For me, it is obvious that the wrong done to the non-paradigmatic human beings is based upon the ability to do wrong to animals. If we end the ability draw lines between the human on one side and all animals on the otherside, if we embrace the monstrosity of the human animal, then we end the ability to continue to do harm to people of color by calling them animals. That loses the power of justification. But it seems to me that for many people of color that such a move jeopardizes their lives instead of enriching their lives.

I realize I’ve just quoted a bit much of CA’s post. But here Derrida’s work in his lectures The Animal that Therefore I am is quite helpful. His critique of continuinism and so on don’t really advance much in this area, but his crucial point that in the history of philosophy just about every philosopher can be undone based upon where he (and it was a patriarchal he) put the human/animal distinction. Pedagogically, this is far more useful than, say, having to point out the metaphysics of presence or some such. But more to the point: it has the upshot of being right. And once this is destabilized, so does the dichotomy that soon follows in the modern period through to Hegel and beyond between the European and its dark other. Emmanuel Eze made a similar point in his last book on Enlightenment reason. So ultimately, I don’t think either hold, and in fact, pulling the thread on the first unspools the second rather quickly, since as we all too well know, the racialized other is invariably the animal other. All one needs to do is listen to the biopolitical rancor for a few minutes in any discussion of immigration in San Diego and beyond.

But Renee’s point is well taken, since we must recall how certain notions of human dignity are and continue to be crucial in decolonizing movements.


  1. Thanks for this post.

    It is true, that my post was hasty. I wasn’t able to get the words right, but I hit submit anyway. That, however, is the joy of blogging.

    When I write that claiming one’s humanness is a always a political moment, I am hoping to highlight the obviously strategic nature of such claims. I think those in the critical animal studies movement (including often myself) have tended to see this as anything but a profoundly political moment. I think the real challenge is what happens next. I am a firm believer that political moments open themselves up to other political moments. However, such a movement is obviously not without risks. There is always a temptation to take the moment of, “But I am a human too,” and extend it to a larger critique of the human/animal distinction. This has always been my desire. What I have come to believe, as well, is that this move is not always a safe move for people to make. So, from a strategic standpoint, a temporal quality needs to be added. We always need to be on the lookout for the right moment of action. And sometimes extending the political is not worth it.

    Again, I am not sure if I have made myself clear. But I am going to hit submit anyway. Thanks again for your comments, I appreciate them.

    1. I think you make great points. Every blog post, especially mine, is relatively hasty. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for your post and then have my response on this site. The problem that I think needs underlining is that it is true that in certain circles, it’s rightly and I underline that it’s rightly seen that, wow, now that the human is finally being extended, well, to all humans, now that is being contested. And to talk about the human animal (and the other nomenclature of various parts of the movement) only adds to the worries of those who see a replica of language used for the colonized races, for example. But the point is not to say that we’re left without the tools to say something about this…far from it. And so the point is to recognize that legacy and then put both of these critiques together, as you suggest, as part of a larger struggle, since as long as the animal is seen as that which can be treated X, then we will see various humans treated as X.

  2. Joining the pattern of hasty responses, I just wanted to say that your reply to Scu made me remember irrestibly of that guy in “The Lives of Animals” who sends a note to Elizabeth Costello saying he wouldn’t come to dinner because, according to him, it is correct to say that animals die like Jews died but that it is imoral to say the Jews died like animals…

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