Monday, August 3, 2015

Moral Baselines?

Recently there has been a bit of discussion of moral baselines in the animal activism community. In particular, Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) has argued that activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline. This is in response to Gary Francione, who has long held that veganism is a moral baseline (for example, see this post). So, what's going on?

In short, Francione has maintained that veganism has to be a moral baseline of animal rights movement. Veganism here means more than diet, and is to be broadly understood as removing ourselves from using products that exploit animals, and removing ourselves from directly exploiting animals. For Francione, animal rights movements have to endorse veganism, and as he argues, "Veganism is not, as some welfarists suggest, the “most” that we can do; it’s the least that we can do if we take animal interests seriously." Okay, Hsiung supports veganism, but he does not see it as the baseline. The example he gives is coming across a mob beating a child. In his analogy, veganism is not beating the child, but activism is actually intervening to stop the beating of the child. He argues that we are morally required to stop people from beating the child, and therefore activism becomes the moral baseline. This debate replicates a fairly traditional debate between negative and positive rights. The quick and un-nuanced version of this debate is that negative rights are all the rights you can give someone just by ignoring they exist (you shouldn't kill them, shouldn't steal from them, etc.), positive rights requires you to act on behalf of the other person (you need to feed them if they are starving, give them medical care, etc.). So, who is right, Francione or Hsiung? Neither, because a moral baseline is a strange framing device. Let's spend sometime with that.

First, what is a moral baseline? This is not a phrase I am familiar with in ethics outside of discussions by Francione or inspired by him. As far as I can tell, this phrase is somewhat of an invention of Francione's (if I am wrong, someone please let me know!). It seems that a baseline would be something that has to be done to be moral, and if you did not do this action, you would no longer be moral. But you do not have to do more than this action to be moral. This is rather strange, because it creates degrees of moralness. One can do more than the baseline and, presumably, be more moral, but the person who does only the baseline is still moral. If we take this as the definition of a moral baseline, let us first look at Hsiung's argument. In order to be moral, we must be activists. If we look at the analogy he uses, we can come up with several versions of the analogies where it would be hard to argue that we have to try to stop the beating. What if we are alone, the mob is large and armed, and we have no cellphone, or anyone nearby, and stopping the mob will certainly get ourselves hurt or killed. While tragic, no one would assume the person in that situation had been less than moral for interfering. Let's go past the metaphor. As you read this, animals all over the world are being tortured. And while you can engage in activism, you cannot directly act on behalf of every animal being tortured and killed for humans in the world. So while activism is a moral good, it is hard to understand it as a moral baseline. Okay, what about Francione? While there might be rare cases where humans cannot be vegan (or at least try to be vegan, assuming actual veganism is, in a way, impossible in our society), for the most part it makes sense to say we can and should be vegans. So, can we therefore say that veganism is the baseline. You can do more, but veganism is the least you can do to be moral. However, I think Hsiung is onto something with his argument on some level. Say there is an animal suffering in front of you, and you can, with little to no cost, help the animal. I think we all agree it would be moral to do so. In other words, some sort of positive action on behalf of other animals is probably necessary. The closest moral principle I can think of to think about this is to refer to Kant's famous distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. Veganism would be an example of a perfect duty toward other animals, and activism would be an example of an imperfect duty toward other animals. While you cannot perfectly be an activist, it is still required. In other words, even through a Kantian lens, we are not given something like a moral baseline. Indeed, the weirdness of a moral baseline with any system of ethics I can think of is not particularly surprising. And that is because despite what the term may imply, the moral baseline is not a principle of ethics, but a principle of organizing.

I am not sure when Francione introduced the term moral baseline, but as far as I can tell, the first time it appears in one of his books is the 2008 Animals as Persons. In it, he argues:
If we ever hope to shift the paradigm away from the speciesist hierarchy that currently informs our thinking about nonhumans, we must develop a political and social movement in favor of abolishing animal use, with veganism, as both a logical and a moral matter, being the clear baseline of that movement. Many new welfarists, however, reject veganism as a moral baseline. They maintain that it is more "practical" to support welfarist reform and to promote animal uses that are more "humane." But this approach reinforces the prevailing view that animal use is morally acceptable if treatment is "humane," and it makes veganism appear as a radical or extreme response to animal exploitation, which is counterproductive to the goal of abolishing animal use. I have long argued, and continue to believe, that an afternoon spent distributing literature on veganism at a crowded place or giving a lecture on veganism at a local community college is a much better use of time, as a matter of both moral theory and practical strategy, than spending that time working on a campaign to get battery hens some extra space or to require that vivisectors treat animals used in laboratories more "humanely." (p. 17)
Clearly in this passage moral baseline has less to do with normative demands on individual actors, and more to do with animal activist organizations should look like. The passage, for example, does not advance an ethical argument, but instead affirms a few strategic reasons that organizations should focus specifically on vegan education and advocacy. This is fine, I just want it to be clear that what is under discussion is principally a strategic conversation, and not an ethical conversation. We need to have strategic conversations, so I have no problem with this. What is a problem is when what is a strategic question is framed as a moral question, to refuse to have a strategic conversation. When that occurs, it shrinks the sorts of conversations, imaginations, and possibilities we can have as a movement.

I am worried about the rhetoric of moral baselines. The idea of baselines are clearly set to be exclusionary, and I worry that our movement is marginal enough as is, and that we have a tendency already to eat our own. I am further worried that it does not allow for flexibility and charitability in our discussions and debates over strategic, and indeed, ethical questions. I want to end by quoting Erin McKenna's Deweyian inspired The Task of Utopia, which encourages that our important utopian imaginations focus not on "homogeneous perfect end-states, but possible futures-in-process" (12).

She quotes Dewey's "Human Nature and Conduct":
The doctrine of fixed ends not only diverts attention from examination of consequences and the intelligent creation of purpose, but, since means and ends are two ways of regarding the same actuality, it also renders men careless in their inspection of existing conditions. . . . The result is failure. Discouragement follows, assuaged perhaps by the thought that in any case the end is too ideal, too noble and remote, to be capable of realization. We fall back on the consoling thought that our moral ideals are too good for this world and that we must accustom ourselves to a gap between aim and execution?
She contrasts this doctrine of fixed ends with ends-in-view:
Insofar as we are concerned with making a better future, this engagement must involve imagination. "All conscious experience must be imaginative to the degree that the past is used to interpret the present and its bearing toward the future." Envisioning the future as a guide in the present is to achieve that very integrative standpoint which Dewey calls lived experience. Visions of the future help organize and structure our present experiences to some purpose; imagination helps organize experience by providing it with a goal. Dewey calls such goals ends-in-view. Dewey's model of experience is a process model that builds on the premise that human beings are interactive, relational creatures. We are born physically dependent and remain socially interdependent. He further believes that we are finite developmental creatures who must grow and adapt to both our changing physical and changing social environments in order to survive. This means there can be no set goals, no predetermined unchanging goods or ends. Instead, there is a continuous chain of ends-in-view becoming means for new ends-in-view which become means for new ends-in-view. (85-86)

The future of our movement depends upon imagination, shared projects, and vast interdependence. Veganism or activism is a beginning, but not a baseline. It is a process, rather than a foundation, it is a relation, rather than a command. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Important new title in Critical Animal Studies

Dinesh Wadiwel, a longtime significant theorist on animals and biopolitics, has an important book out, with a forward by Matthew Calarco.




Are non-human animals our friends or enemies? In this provocative book, Dinesh Wadiwel argues that our mainstay relationships with billions of animals are essentially hostile. The War against Animals asks us to interrogate this sustained violence across its intersubjective, institutional and epistemic dimensions.

Drawing from Foucault, Spivak and Derrida, The War against Animals argues that our sovereign claim of superiority over other animals is founded on nothing else but violence. Through innovative readings of Locke and Marx, Dinesh Wadiwel argues that property in animals represents a bio-political conquest that aims to secure animals as the “spoils of war.” The goal for pro-animal advocacy must be to challenge this violent sovereignty and recognize animal resistance through forms of counter-conduct and truce.

Table of contents
Acknowledgements
Foreword: Matthew Calarco
Introduction: The Live Hang
Part One: Biopolitics
Chapter 1: Bare Life
Chapter 2: Governmentality
Part Two: Conquest
Chapter 3: Immunity
Chapter 4: Property and Commodity
Part Three: Private Dominion
Chapter 5: Privatisation and Containment
Chapter 6: Companionship
Part Four: Sovereignty
Chapter 7: Capability
Chapter 8: The Violence of Stupidity
Conclusion: Truce
Index

***

And remember, the Critical Animal Studies book series are looking for manuscript submissions.

Critical Animal Studies investigates and challenges the complex dynamics of structural,
institutional and discursive power formations that affect animals, humans, and the
environment. By “critical” we mean that animal studies must not become a safe and
sanitized discourse; it must use its unique and powerful perspective to advance a radical
and oppositional dissent that engages and politicizes the many profound ethical,
environmental, and social issues embedded in animal studies. With a critical orientation
to the study of human-animal relationships the series seeks to contribute to current
debates and be a resource for social justice, animal advocacy and environmental
movements and research as well as for humanities and social science scholars more
generally. The series bridges boundaries between academic and activist knowledge
development, between scholarship and citizenship, between theory and praxis, as well
as between existing disciplines. We particularly invite texts that explore under
researched areas such as animals and climate change, globalization, capital, colonialism,
queer theory, education theory, childhood studies, labor issues, and disability studies.
We welcome contributions from any discipline.
Possible book proposals may:
• Intervene in the animal economy of the production, science, service, experience, and
culture industries;
• Critically analyze ideologies, practices and effects of the current animal welfare
movements;
• Explore diverse forms and sites of human and animal resistance;
• Reappraise preexisting texts (such as Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain) by exploring
new connects to the field of critical animal studies;
• Contribute to bold, innovative, and boundary shifting knowledge development in
critical animal studies.

The Internet of Wetware

We all know about the internet of things, and the fear that with it, that the physical world becomes public by default, and private by effort.  Recently, I have read two articles about what we can call the internet of wetware. The first is this superbly well-written article about fitbits, confession, and exorexic erotics. The second article is about the rise of four different pelvic exercise machines for women. The second article is one that reminds us of the term wetware, popularized by Rudy Rucker, who understood it to mean, "the underlying generative code for an organism, as found in the genetic material, in the biochemistry of the cells, and in the architecture of the body’s tissues. [...] The whole point of the word “wetware” is that it’s meant to make you look at the world in a new way, and to try and see biological systems from a computational standpoint." While fitbits and kegel machines have nothing to do with DNA or epigenetics (yet!), they have everything to do with seeing biological systems from a computational standpoint. As Rose Eveleth points out:

But in the years since, "wetware" has come to represent everything that is soft and squishy about humans: our brains, our health, our fleshy and fallible bodies. Of late, the notion that a human’s wetware is directly analogous to a computer’s software has gained traction in Silicon Valley. The results of this belief are unending attempts to replace, track, or supplement every aspect of our messy human lives with an app or device.


So the rise (and so far mostly financial failure) of wearables are accelerating the internet of things (particularly with the failed google glass) and the internet of wetware (with the fitbit and the apple watch). The internet of wetware seeks to give us the quantifiable body, the data-driven day, the gamification of existence. And as the fitbit article attests to, the current devices are principally about individualizing the self, it is easy enough to imagine a Wetware 2.0, where our devices measure our sociality ("My Friendometer tells me I have given more high fives than anyone else in my social network today!"). And despite that ennui inducing vision of the future, the real issue of the internet of wetware is between two Foucaults. First, there is the latter Foucault who was concerned with the techne tou biou and the care of the self.  Both kegel machines and fitbits seek to address very real health issues. In Foucault's histories of askesis, he points out how journals were used by the stoics to work upon the self. Perhaps the internet of wetware is just part of a broader technology of the self, and the quantifiable body is a resistance to all the ways we are asked to sacrifice ourselves. Of course there is the other Foucault, the one of disciplinary power. In this view, we already know some insurance companies are giving people discounts for turning in data from fitbit and similar devices. How long till insurance companies and others increasingly incentivize this data? If gamification of our bodies is the new trend, we need to be asking who the players of our bodies are in these games. Who are driving us? The right of obscurity must be respected.

None of this, so far, has even dealt with the gendered element of the internet of wetware (both of which are central to the articles that inspired this post). There is a lot in those articles, and it thicker and more interesting than anything I have put forward, so far. But I want to end with one more provocation. If we have seen a rise of a particular kind of feminization of labor (as charted by Nina Power, among others), the internet of wetware represents, perhaps, the feminization of leisure.



Saturday, July 25, 2015

Prison Teaching

I just finished my sixth week teaching in a maximum security prison. I work with this program, to be precise. Six weeks is a ridiculously short time to have any ideas about prison work, so I will mostly being quoting from others, and suggesting some books in this post. I will get to that in a bit. But first, let me say something about the program. It is an all volunteer program. There are no grants supporting the program at this time. It is run, for years now, by non-tenure track professors. And while I can't speak for the program in general, the majority of the people I have met so far who are teaching are also non-tenure track, but with terminal degrees. This matters, because the program is very expensive to run. Books, paper, pens, photocopies, etc. all have to be provided for every class and every student, every semester. Think about a normal size classroom of 20 or so students, and now imagine having to also pay for all their books. Even cheap books add up quickly. There are well over a hundred students in the program, and there are six courses running this summer semester alone. All of this can be a pretty big expense for people, even with everyone volunteering their time and gas. Above I linked to the patreons account for the program, but here it is again. Think about giving something. You will notice they are really close to the first milestone goal, you could probably get us a lot closer there.... [Well, thanks particularly to one person, first milestone already hit since this has gone up. Thank you! But trust me, more help would be greatly appreicated]. Also, you can give money directly via paypal, or volunteer to teach a class if you are in the area, and that information can be found here.

Now, again, I have only been teaching there for six weeks, so I don't have a lot to say. But the two people who have organized the program for several years co-authored an article for a special issues of Radical Philosophy Review. So, let us turn our attention to Joshua Miller's and Daniel Levine's "Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison." (If you click on Download from archive, you can download a word document of a draft of this paper). All quotations come from their paper, the non-quotation parts are my brief reflections. I suggest reading their paper.

In a recent interview, Axel Honneth asserted that the “whole idea of a university” is to “represent a space where free thinking is possible.”  This idea is critical to the value of prison education, even while it transplants values that now seem quaint even in the university into much more hostile soil: what a university ideally provides is a space where thinkers can interact without the pressures of conforming to accepted ideas or the direct subordination of the interplay of conversation to instrumental goals. This free intellectual play is central to the goal of creating new practices that instantiate new values. As members of the relatively privileged social group, prison educators can create spaces in which dominant ways of thinking about and living social values can encounter the social and value practices of marginalized groups, can be put at risk, and can change. Free thinking—because it allows for new patterns of intellectual interaction to occur—creates new forms of such interaction in which prisoners and other members of marginalized populations are no longer marginalized. And like novel skills and practices, the new ideas generated from this encounter can be “exported.” When prisoners and other members of marginalized groups face the challenge of “no alternative” and status quo bias, they can now respond with concrete ideas of how things might be done differently.
The program is working to figure out how to provide credit for the courses the students take. But as of now, they don't have a way. You would think that might the kiss of death for the program. After all, the students could be doing anything else besides coming to class and doing the homework. They could be working, or playing. And yet students show up, anyway, ready to debate the points of often dense philosophical and theoretical texts. In many ways, the classroom space is what many professors dream of. I have never needed any of the tricks to get my students at the prison to participate. Indeed, I might have to find new tricks to better guide an over eager classroom of discussion, overflowing with debate. There are no grades, but students still turn in notebooks of written reflections on the readings. But why is this?

What then does an education in the liberal arts offer our students in prison? For one, it offers an escape from dullness and the lack of progress and growth that characterizes prison life.  This escape is not simply escapism, and in many ways it is precisely the alien character of the cultures, questions, and texts of the humanities and liberal arts that makes it so effective. 
When I was discussing with Josh Miller what course I should teach, and I was worried that environmental philosophy would be too far removed from the daily realities of my students, he assured me it would be fine (he also really didn't want me to teach a course on Alfred North Whitehead, which might have something to do with his assurances). The students find the same value in academic work that can be rigorous but abstract as any of us. Also, of course, they are quick to bring the subjects to their own lives. I will certainly not forget while discussing corporations trying to absolve themselves of responsibility for environmental damage, one of my students said, "They're the real criminals." Well, he has a point. Not to mention the way they got a lot out of our reading of the intro to Rob Nixon's Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, and their quick pushback on some points. So even when I come in to teach the debate between Eric Katz and Andrew Light on ecological reconstruction, and one of my students began with, "Professor Scu, you got to stop giving us such boring readings," we proceeded to have our best day of class discussion. While the readings might have been boring (sorry Katz and Light, I liked it) everyone became engaged when they realized not everyone in the class agreed with them. Indeed, the same student who complained about how boring the readings were, said at one point during the class discussion (with regards to Katz's "The Big Lie"), "This guy seems to answer my objections in the article as I make them. It's like he is in my mind."

As teachers in a prison, we cannot escape the fact that we are representatives of the dominant, oppressive system, and of its “criteria of rationality.” But we can leverage our complicity, both directly and indirectly. Directly, we can put the hegemonic moral and social norms into play in the prison classroom, opening them to contestation rather than mere refusal. Indirectly, just as our students can bring thoughts about value to the broader communities in which they take part, we can use what we have learned in prison to challenge the views of other elites. We should be realistic about the potential impact of prison education. The benefits of any one class, or one program, are going to be small. But the utopian vision of a society in which the whole encounter between currently-dominant and currently-subordinated social groups is transformed is likely to be made up of a multitude of small, piecemeal encounters like this. We do not know how to spark a revolution that will overthrow mass incarceration all at once and transfigure our society, but we believe that it can be made to fade away through a proliferation of non-carceral practices.
We can hope. I do believe there is something there. Sometimes we put too much faith into some grand unified strategy, which a variety of positive tactics can have more of an impact. I do know that students make teaching worth it, and this is no different for me.


For those who are interested in reading about prisons and issues around prisons, here are a few (obvious, yet important) suggestions:
Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete? (spoiler alert, she seems to think the answer is yes). This is a very short book, and an excellent place to begin if you need to understand some of the scope of the problem.

Lisa Guenther's Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. This is a philosophically sophisticated work, and I am particularly suggesting it for readers of this blog, because it also includes a brilliant chapter intersecting the issues of solitary confinement and factory farms against animals.

And for a very recent and insightful publication, I suggest Joshua Price's Prison and Social Death.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The existential dimension of conflict, compromise, and enemies.

Over at Another Panacea, Josh cites Sarah Shugars on compromise (both these blog posts are super short, you should just read them). From Shugars blog post:

…if a full victory is beyond our reach perhaps a step towards justice is better than the status quo. Or, perhaps, a step towards justice will simply mollify the moderates, who will no longer feel the need to fight for more robust reform. On the other hand, refusing to compromise may earn you enemies – alienating moderates who might otherwise be willing to support your cause. These are complex, strategic questions which every movement and activist must evaluate and consider. Importantly, a willingness to compromise for the good of the movement should not be confused with an instinctual response of conflict-avoidance.

I think this is generally right. Compromise and conflict have to both be strategic decisions about building coalitions, striving for justice, and relieving suffering. To ideologically refuse compromise ahead of time is to promote the purity of your (beautiful) soul over the possibility of amelioration of suffering for actually existing other beings. Okay, but Josh is not so sure about the last line from Shugars. He argues:
I don’t think Shugars justifies that last line: perhaps it’s wrong to avoid conflict, but perhaps too those instincts have wisdom, such as the importance of preserving comity for future matters. A nation torn by value-based disagreements can fail to fix a lot of roads and schools while they glare daggers at each other. (Ask me how I know!) And activists are not always the best judges of either their opponents or the effective strategies for achieving their goals (nor are philosophers and political theorists, of course). In any case the question of instinct here suppresses a decision about the default strategies we should adopt that is itself strategic and requires the utmost prudence and practical wisdom.

I take Josh to be saying that we should strategically always try first to deescalate, that we should always try for coalition, that we should always assume the other comes as friend first, not foe. And I think there is a lot of merit here, too. Okay, but! struggle is often an existential question as much as it is a strategic question. As Jean Genet quotes an old Palestinian woman in The Prisoner of Love, "to have been dangerous for a thousandth of a second" is the only possibility for existence. (I steal this shamelessly from Bill Haver's "The ontological priority of violence"). Thus, when someone like Fred Moten proposes a "general antagonism," he is neither advocating a strategic understanding of antagonism, or a preservation of beautiful souls, but rather the existential requirement of having a relationship of antagonism against a culture bent of his destruction. He is affirming the ontological necessity of non-neutrality in existence. This tension is one that haunts me, and I have discussed before in the importance of pluralism. I worry that my ability to be like, "Of course I should treat this person as a friend first" cannot be generalizable.

Okay, the other two posted poems, so I guess I should too (mine is a lot longer than theirs, sorry). From June Jordan:
I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies
Dedicated to the Poet Agostinho Neto,
President of The People’s Republic of Angola: 1976
1
I will no longer lightly walk behind
a one of you who fear me:
                                     Be afraid.
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavements anymore
and this is dedicated in particular
to those who hear my footsteps
or the insubstantial rattling of my grocery
cart
then turn around
see me
and hurry on
away from this impressive terror I must be:
I plan to blossom bloody on an afternoon
surrounded by my comrades singing
terrible revenge in merciless
accelerating
rhythms
But
I have watched a blind man studying his face.
I have set the table in the evening and sat down
to eat the news.
Regularly
I have gone to sleep.
There is no one to forgive me.
The dead do not give a damn.
I live like a lover
who drops her dime into the phone
just as the subway shakes into the station
wasting her message
canceling the question of her call:
fulminating or forgetful but late
and always after the fact that could save or
condemn me
I must become the action of my fate.
2
How many of my brothers and my sisters
will they kill
before I teach myself
retaliation?
Shall we pick a number?
South Africa for instance:
do we agree that more than ten thousand
in less than a year but that less than
five thousand slaughtered in more than six
months will
WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH ME?
I must become a menace to my enemies.
3
And if I
if I ever let you slide
who should be extirpated from my universe
who should be cauterized from earth
completely
(lawandorder jerkoffs of the first the
terrorist degree)
then let my body fail my soul
in its bedeviled lecheries
And if I
if I ever let love go
because the hatred and the whisperings
become a phantom dictate I o-
bey in lieu of impulse and realities
(the blossoming flamingos of my
wild mimosa trees)
then let love freeze me
out.
I must become
I must become a menace to my enemies.

Harming Stupidity?

When you reach a decision, close your ears to even the best objections: this is a sign of a strong character. Which means: an occasional will to stupidity. -- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

To harm stupidity.- Surely, the faith preached so stubbornly and with so much conviction, that egoism is reprehensible, has on the whole harmed egoism (while benefiting, as I shall repeat a hundred times, the herd instincts!) -above all, by depriving egoism of its good conscience and bidding us to find in it the true source of all unhappiness. "Your selfishness is the misfortune of your life"-that was preached for thousands of years and harmed, as I have said, selfishness and deprived it of much spirit. much cheerfulness, much sensitivity, much beauty; it made selfishness stupid and ugly and poisoned it.
The ancient philosophers taught that the main source of misfortune was something very different. Beginning with Socrates, these thinkers never wearied of preaching: "Your thoughtlessness and stupidity, the way you live according to the rule, your submission to your neighbor's opinion is the reason why you so rarely achieve happiness; we thinkers, as thinkers, are the happiest of all."
Let us not decide here whether this sermon against stupidity had better reasons on its side than did the sermon against selfishness. What is certain. however, is that it deprived stupidity of its good conscience; these philosophers harmed stupidity. --Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Deleuze, echoing Nietzsche, wrote that philosophy "is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought." (Nietzsche and Philosophy, 106).  Deleuze formulates the problem of stupidity most strongly in chapter three of Difference and Repetition, "The Image of Thought." There are, recently, some very strong resources charting Deleuze's argument on stupidity (see Jason Wirth's recent Schelling's Practice of the Wild, and Nobutaka Otobe's amazing dissertation, Stupidity in Politics), so I won't go over the argument here in detail. However, this is the space that Deleuze wishes the problem to be heard, "Philosophy could have taken up the problem with its own means and with the necessary modesty, by considering the fact that stupidity is never that of others but the object of a properly transcendental question: how is stupidity (not error) possible?" (D&R, 151). Deleuze wishes to distinguish stupidity from error, from nonsense, and from idiocy. Indeed, the idiot will be an important conceptual persona that allows for the production of concepts in What is Philosophy?. Stupidity has nothing to do with being bright, or the ability to reason logically, rationally, or rigorously. It might be a kind of gullibility, but not in the traditional sense of the term. For Deleuze, stupidity is, as Nietzsche tells us, "submission to your neighbor's opinion." It is a sort of incuriosity, a kind refusing to think. We substitute thinking with cliches, with "everybody knows..." and "no one can deny..." (D&R 130). Stupidity is then a kind of disavowal. It is not a lack or a passivity, but rather an active force, a will to stupidity. Stupidity takes place in the epistemic register that Donald Rumsfield infamously called "known unknowns." These are things we could know, that on some level we do know, but that we refuse to know. Like all forms of disavowal, stupidity is a kind of psychic self-defense against facing our existence.

When talking about stupidity and cliches, we are reminded of Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (Otobe is excellent on the differences and similarities of Arendt and Deleuze).   She quotes Eichmann as saying, "Officialese [Amtsprache] is my only language." She would then explain:
But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché…Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what [Eichmann] said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such. (48-49). 

Stupidity's safeguard and protection against reality should remind us of the distinction between the skeptic and the empiricist in William James' essay "The Will to Believe." Remember, the skeptic is the one who would prefer to not know the truth, as long as they will never be wrong. The empiricist is one who does mind being wrong, mind being made to seem stupid, if that means they will be more likely to know the truth. This brings me, I guess, to the point.

I worry that we thinkers, we knowers, believe we are in the business of harming stupidity. I worry because I assume we are all very, very stupid. In Malcolm Bull's Anti-Nietzsche, he challenges us to read Nietzsche as losers. To read Nietzsche as the herd animal, as the slave, as one of the many instead of the few. I think we should read Nietzsche as one of the stupid ones. Does our seeking out to harm the stupidity of others make us more or less likely to see the stupidity in ourselves (like when Derrida critiques Deleuze for being stupid on animals being unable to be stupid). Nietzsche says that we submit to our neighbors' opinion. But also, perhaps, it isn't always submission, but inhabiting the world our neighbor, of, as Arendt put it, "to think from the standpoint of somebody else." This is the tension of stupidity, it both disavows reality, but also forms the ground for a kind of empiricism. It both allows us to reject the world of the other, while forming the very common space and language of inhabiting the worlds of others. Deleuze warns us of a stupidity of cliches, while at the same time yearns after a kind of pop philosophy, and challenges us to write in slogans.

In one of Judith Butler's essays on Arendt, she writes:
But more than this, [Arendt] faults [Eichmann] as well for failing to realise that thinking implicates the subject in a sociality or plurality that cannot be divided or destroyed through genocidal aims. In her view, no thinking being can plot or commit genocide. Of course, they can have such thoughts, formulate and implement genocidal policy, as Eichmann clearly did, but such calculations cannot be called thinking, in her view. How, we might ask, does thinking implicates each thinking "I" as part of a "we" such that to destroy some part of the plurality of human life is to destroy not only one's self, understood as linked essentially to that plurality, but to destroy the very conditions of thinking itself.


Perhaps the point of philosophy is not to harm stupidity at all. Perhaps its goal is to push stupidity farther still. To take stupidity to the point that it fosters pluralism. To take it to the point it stops protecting the self against reality, and instead opens the self up to the outside. Maybe we must get to the place where we stop thinking we are harming stupidity, but instead understand ourselves as profoundly stupid. Huh, maybe I am wrong. Everybody knows I don't know everything.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

Matthew Calarco has a new book out

Matthew Calarco's Zoographies was one of the first books in animal studies that focused on the intersection of continental philosophers and the ethics, politics, and ontologies of other animals. Now, Calarco has a new, short book: Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction. This book has just been released, and I am excited to read my copy when it comes in the mail.

Summary from the Amazon page:

The rapidly expanding field of critical animal studies now offers a myriad of theoretical and philosophical positions from which to choose. This timely book provides an overview and analysis of the most influential of these trends. Approachable and concise, it is intended for readers sympathetic to the project of changing our ways of thinking about and interacting with animals yet relatively new to the variety of philosophical ideas and figures in the discipline. It uses three rubrics—identity, difference, and indistinction—to differentiate three major paths of thought about animals. The identity approach aims to establish continuity among human beings and animals so as to grant animals equal access to the ethical and political community. The difference framework views the animal world as containing its own richly complex and differentiated modes of existence in order to allow for a more expansive ethical and political worldview. The indistinction approach argues that we should abandon the notion that humans are unique in order to explore new ways of conceiving human-animal relations. Each approach is interrogated for its relative strengths and weaknesses, with specific emphasis placed on the kinds of transformational potential it contains.