October 2015

MH

nonfiction

The Animal Catalyst: Towards Ahuman Theory edited by Patricia MacCormack

When the world of publishing bombards you with books on how to find and reach out to our better selves no matter how many other beings (human or nonhuman) we objectify in the process, it's actually a relief to find a book that starts from a premise that is so willingly and conveniently overlooked: that our beloved human race is in fact the only true parasite here on Earth. So head-on and unapologetic that it made my heart and brain throb simultaneously, The Animal Catalyst: Towards Ahuman Theory starts exactly from this premise and tries to pass on perceptions that are far from petting our already overinflated egos that seem to be attached to taking everything for granted simply because we are the dominant, top-of-the-chain characters in a story that belongs to so many others besides us, the humans. And it does it by relating texts from authors whose single common denominator is their interest in what the nonhuman, the so-called animal, has come to signify, pinned down as it is on the panel of human interests.

However, each of these texts is pushed forward only to underscore that belonging to humanness already implies the existence of a hierarchy that catalogues and dismisses other beings based on a certain degree or even presumed inexistence of their so-called lack of consciousness or will. Or, to put it another way, everything revolves around us, the human animals who feel entitled to own and use other sentient beings' lives just because we are the "rational" and "conscious" ones and they are not. This is precisely one of the infatuations this book compels us to reconsider, to disassemble its unethical mechanisms only to make room for the ahuman grace, a concept that is nothing more or less than simply unthinkable and does nothing more or less than step aside and let others be without categorizing some as humans or instrumentalizing others as nonhumans.

Featuring writings by Carol J. Adams (The Sexual Politics of Meat, The Pornography of Meat) who argues that the politics of extermination geared towards people (based on their belonging to a particular minority group, be it racial, ethnic, sexual, etc) has found its real source of inspiration/motivation in the oppressive way humans have always treated nonhumans, and proposes a complete disavowal of any qualification and opposition (human vs. nonhuman) when appreciating the value of life, the first section of The Animal Catalyst can be a quite bitter pill to swallow for anyone not accustomed to questioning his/her ignorance and default behavior towards the nonhumans. And it gets even more hard-hitting with a piece by John T. Maher that investigates how animal rights and legal technology try to oppose speciesism, an opposition that, even if valuable for the time being, remains severely flawed and utterly useless, projected as it is against hierarchic human patterns and still using human communication flows in order to legally "represent" the nonhuman.

This first section concludes with Danielle Sands's "'Beyond' the Singular? Ecology, Subjectivity, Politics," gracefully yet critically diagnosing how well-intended animal theory by Jacques Derrida (The Gift of Death), Donna Haraway (The Cyborg Handbook), Timothy Morton (Ecology Without Nature), Val Plumwood (Feminism and the Mastery of Nature) and Peter Singer (Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals) still feeds on definitions that are ascribed to the very notion of the human and do not advocate or serve the ones that get "defined," in this case, the nonhuman. On the contrary, such corroded concepts make us even more eager to perceive the animal as being the other as opposed to our humanness and try to assimilate this other, even if it shows no intent or will to be emulated or assimilated:

The war on compassion has resulted in a desire to move away from many feelings, especially uncomfortable ones. As a result, fear, which is an understandable response to a new experience -- say, that of encountering a snake or a spider -- becomes the justification for killing a snake or a spider. If feelings were not objectified, we might have developed the ability to interact with the fear, to respect it and the being who is causing it, rather than try to destroy both the feeling and the being. The war on compassion has caused many people to think that it is futile to care. They are unable, imaginatively, to see how their caring will change anything. They experience a passivity inculcated by current political situations as well as by the media. [...] Finally, the war on compassion has caused people to believe that they have to help humans first. As long as we treat animals as animals, as long as we accept that there is the category "animals," both the treatment and the concept will legitimize the treatment of humans like animals.

Contradicting Donna Haraway's reductionist reading and quoting out of context, Charles Stivale comes next with his endeavor to draw deserved attention to the significance of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's collaborative work in terms of becoming animal in one's chase for augmented creativity, a becoming that should always be about abandoning one's human and hindered subjectivity and choosing ahuman grace over interaction with the nonhuman. And it's in the critical reading of Raymond Queneau's Zazie in the Metro where we see this outlook of becoming ahuman taken to its furthest boundaries and expended way beyond them, switching from an intricate underground décor to a cliché-istic Paris and spilling out characters that are caught in cinematic playing with assumptions, gender roles, and dreamlike sequences but somehow stay motionless as their becoming-animal eventually turns out to be an acute yet static zigzag. 

With a piece centered on lycanthropy and its connection with reaching one's a-humanness, Charlie Blake identifies the journey of un-becoming human without trying to categorize it. Instead, he lets writing flow and morph into hybrid forms reminiscent of Lovecraftian motifs, focusing on the journey itself and not on its purpose because yes, the simple act of purposelessly walking alone ("It might be a walk around the block or a walk in the head.") is once again the catalyst for a deliciously obscure trespassing in search of ahumanness. When analyzing Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H., Chrysanthi Nigianni's "The Taste of Living" adopts the "belief" that the woman is not a human being but only to transgress it and imply that the woman may very well be ahuman already. When meeting the cockroach, a nonhuman perceived as abject and impure (cockroach -- la barata in Portuguese, with the diminutive form la baratinha, which also means vagina), G.H. experiences death as in un-becoming human, as in opening herself towards a new existence devoid of the exclusion "me vs. the other" and where writing and love become inseparable from one's becoming ahuman:

Loving, like writing, is not arriving: it is letting go, letting it happen, letting it surpass myself; a surpassing that does not exclude me. It is to reach the violent potential inside the self, since the tenderest caress is experienced as violence or a shock to our discontinuous, isolated human form: it dissolves the boundaries of our bodies. Touch me, caress me. The lover, like the writer, knows well that the idea of self-sufficiency is a lie. [...] Making love, like writing, entails nakedness, dispossession, loss of control. Writing, like loving, is born once we lose the power to say "I". "I" is merely one of the world's instantaneous spasms. If, according to Kafka, we need the kind of books that "stab us and wound us, the ones that affect us like a "disaster," because they destroy our "I" viewpoint, likewise, we need the kinds of love that take us through Hell [...], a love that snatches language and experience from negativity and instrumentality, from hope; from a determination of love that is entirely human.

Later on, Claire Colebrook's piece, "Suicide for Animals," stresses that the ongoing overvaluation of human life is detrimental to other forms of life and leads to their extinction. She also argues that art can be created only after leaving one's humanness behind, only after the human commits a suicide of subjectivity instead of continuing to identify oneself against the nonhuman others. By ceasing to exist, humanness will end its dominion on art and writing and cancel the idea that these two are just a way to survive long after the physical body is gone.

Taking this idea of renouncing to one's humanness even further, Jason Wallin's essay uses the legend of the wolf-child who, once found, had his spine bound in an upward position in order to have his body conformed to the norms of human posture. But despite every attempt to normalize his quadruped posture, recognized as nonhuman and thus abnormal, the wolf-child still refuses to live among humans and prefers the comfort and safety of the nonhuman pack instead. At odds with anthropocentric and identitarian reflections of standardized life and its territories colonized by transcendence, Wallin advances the concept of a dark, ahuman, and ethical pedagogy that interrupts the human from the compulsion of perceiving the world as something that exists simply because the human exists. It's a queer pedagogy, opposed as it is to the factory routine of contemporary schooling designed to normalize children and turn them into obedient subjects who've been disconnected from any kind of reality apart from their human one and thus lost contact with the nonhuman within themselves. It's the pedagogy of how to let go of the humanism born from speciesism, the pedagogy that doesn't imply the murder and torture of the nonhuman for classroom experiments that do nothing more than to teach and enforce the idea that nonhuman life has no value or significance except the one that was attributed a priori by the human.

The current overvaluation of the human body is tested once more in Ruth McPhee's "Self Harm, Human Harm?" as self-mutilation comes to be interpreted as a new redrawing of one's assigned body in order to place the sanctity of the human body under attack and elude normative binaries. It's a challenging piece to read as it delivers a critical perspective on self-harm without glorifying it or advocating it as a necessary mean of political resistance against patriarchal imperatives and the body fascism they promote. Also, the fact that the self-cutter's figure (it's always the white teenage girl who cuts/mutilates herself) stays the same is far from being a coincidence. "Self Harm, Human Harm?" tests the common grip of the self-harmed body, the one ascribed by majoritarian observers who usually experience indignation, fear, and disgust at its very sight and automatically try to project some kind of meaning related to past trauma or suicidal tendencies.

And just when you might think that this anthology has made its point, its final chapter, written by the editor herself, begs to differ. By this point, I would only add that Patricia MacCormack's essay, "After Life" is sure to spark first-class controversy with its concepts of human extinction ("The right to breed humans is nothing compared to the ahuman grace of not doing so.") pointed at a world colonized by humans gone manic with anti-aging dieting, artificial insemination, and virtually any survival trick in between, just as long as it can prolong one's life and "legacy" no matter what. Luckily enough, such unnerving ideas are already here to stay, for some of us to love and others to hate. Actually, I dare you to read this essay and make up your own mind. And to conclude on a more intimate tone, The Animal Catalyst turned out to be an exhausting, almost draining reading experience. But what a treat.

The unspoken acknowledgement in contemporary animal texts that we never were and are already beyond human may be a philosophical given, but our power inclinations, our operations of desire, no matter how "post-" we get, remain stubbornly driven by a particular collective of intensities of desire that are more human than ever -- that is, more excessive in their exertions of majoritarian power and the maintenance of particular strata of dominance where humans operate, discursively and affectively, the world and its many variations of lives, rather than being within a cosmogenic connective tissue describable as this world. Terms such as "species"-- any species, ours or otherwise -- maintain relations based on extrication, order, and dominance. Ahumanity in its destruction of the human kills off nothing; it redistributes without a map and opens life to itself: living things become viable in each exquisite singularity. Humanism, in its monomaniacal excavation towards absolute knowledge of what we are, was already a necrophilosophy even before posthumanism's death of man, history, truth, and subjectivity. Ahumanity's not-knowing is relationality operated through grace.

The Animal Catalyst: Towards Ahuman Theory edited by Patricia MacCormack
Bloomsbury Academic
ISBN: 978-1472534446
224 pages