This is a tricky interpretive question, but I'm not absolutely certain that Wolfe is correct in his criticism of what he calls Esposito's "neovitalism." The idea here seems to be that toward the end of Bios--the overcoming of immunitas toward an affirmative biopolitics--Esposito insists on a absolute valuation of "Life" which ends up "radically dedifferentiating the field of 'the living' into a molecular wash of singularities that all equally manifest 'life.'" (59). As a grapple with Wolfe's reading of Esposito, it seems that for Wolfe this "molecular wash of singularities" (if it is "radically dedifferentiating") turns into something which may as well be a transcendent sacralization of life as that alone which is to be valued, but which fills all living things. The living become manifestations of Life, making Life symmetrical to Spinoza's concept of "God."But I don't think that's really what Esposito is saying. He's not radically DEdifferentiating but radically DIFFERENTIATING, especially if the affirmative biopolitics he proposes involves an inversion of immunitas into the originary function of communitas. As he says at one point, communitas involves the continual exposure to that which interrupts the closure of the body/subject/individual. This seems to imply not a sense of oceanic flow of particles--"molecular wash of singularities"--but a continual process of incomplete differentiation. Perhaps this is a problem of metaphors: by using the physics one--shifting molecules all a part of one mass thing which is Life--naturally this misses the possibility of a play of perspectives, something which Wolfe seems to accuse Esposito of. But Esposito does pay attention to perspective, to the formation of subjectivities that look out on the world. If he didn't, it wouldn't make sense to say that immunitary logic could ever be utilized. Who would be using it? And on the basis of what normativized form of life? It's just that subjectivities are never quite whole, or at least you can never capture a completed version of one. (I realize I'm drifting into higher and vaguer metaphor here.) A fundamental aspect of communitas is the obligation to realize that my subjectivity--who I am as the subject I feel to be--I owe to everyone and everything else which has made me and is making me. He more directs his critique at autonomy and the self-made subject/individual than at differentiating perspectives--differentiatING, not differentiatED. Looking at Esposito in this way, I think he does leave room for multiplicities of values, and he also leaves room for differentiating the perspectives of different species, the values which emerge from those perspectives, so long as the human recognizes the debt it owes to the cat with whom he makes eye contact and feels shame at his own nakedness. The peculiarity of the interspecies interaction complicates the kinds which had already been differentiated, provoking a further differentiation. The only way to stop this differentiating process is to lock the categories, immunitize them from an outside, protect the human from the animal.
And when I say that the interspecies interaction provokes a further differentiation, I don't mean drawing a more nuanced boundary. I mean a breaking and bleeding of the boundary between the two, such that it's difficult to say that one is human and one is animal. It's breaking definitions (as in the affirmative dance of difference), rather than correcting definitions.
Many months ago I came I came across a blog post from an Agamben translator who mentioned an old (probably 16th or 17th century) encyclopedia entry on how to herd or capture animals. I didn’t write the exact source or save the webpage. Agamben doesn’t use this entry in What is an apparatus?; but anyhow, the way the encyclopedia entry described ways to get animals to all follow in a certain direction (herding) or to capture by setting traps seemed like an interesting way of thinking about biopolitics and the management of populations. At the time, I thought the main difference would be that animals are much too easy to capture/herd together, or put differently, don’t have much of any potential to resist—compared to humans. Wolfe seems to be arguing that the biopolitical frame, when applied to non-human animals, allows us to problematize the idea of extending the human rights discourse to animals. As he says, practices of factory farming are the most intense example of “the control over life and death…through eugenics, artificial insemination and selective breeding…”(46) etc that we have ever seen. He then mentions Lazzarato’s reading of Foucault to argue that we need to focus on the dispositifs rather than sovereignty. Lazaretto’s description of biopolitics strikes me as useful; it is “the strategic coordination of these power relations in order to extract a surplus of power from living being”. This suggests a ‘multitude of forces’ rather than the “single source of sovereignty”. Focusing on sovereignty would lend itself more to the rights discourse, and Wolfe seems to ultimately make the argument that sovereignty can always stop recognizing rights, that , “before the law, we are all potentially animals” (105). On the other hand, biopolitics alerts us to other forces in the social field that would need to be contested. Of course, this puts the pressure on humans, not the non-human animals, to do the resistance against the dispotiffs that humans are carrying out. Ultimately, this would be why such a community with humans and non-human animals would require an ethics that doesn’t seek reciprocity in return.
A thread through Wolfe that I found myself following is his play at the nexus of technologies, animality, & learning. As someone who is exploring how algorithms are performative, iterative technologies, Wolfe’s drawing upon Derrida’s introduction to The Animal That Therefore I Am sets the stage for a blending of these two seemingly desperate discourses—that of the (organic) animal and the (inorganic) machine. Animals are seen as lacking the ability to learn and become because they either 1. are essentially different in kind & incapable of this humanistic action or 2. are in constant competition & aren’t social animals like humans. (Who knew octopi could disrupt both of these assumptions?) This logic of constructing speciesism on the basis of the ability to react and respond (both terms only made intelligible through human definitions) speaks to algorithms too, the way their coding as “law” may serve immunization functions that are scary since “we are all, after all, potentially animals before the law” (105). I’m thinking about the bad vibes people like Elon Musk have for AI technologies (or ones without ethics/justice) or how recently that Microsoft Twitterbot became a flaming racist due to its coding. In some ways, I think these example how our approach to technologies (and [animal] behavior) is shaped by our expectations of them. After describing Rosenthal’s smart rat/dull rat experiment, Wolfe aligns himself with Despret’s interpretation of the study that “what accounts for the discrepancy in the results is a complex loop of interactions between institutional, biological, affective, and other factors that literally brings forth a new reality in and through the bodies and practices in interaction—a recursive loop, in other words, between the ‘who’ and the ‘what’” (68). I believe this same logic has been written into algorithms themselves. Indeed, they are coded with certain expectations for behavior and labor by users, and in interacting with users, they are fine-tuned and often have those original assumptions confirmed (kind of like synthetic meat). At the same time, our very understandings of inorganic technologies as “whos” and “whats” also bemoans some further consideration.As Wolfe examples, perhaps taking the animal seriously within the realm of technology studies is key & not a new thing. Though clearly used for less-than-ideal ends, Wolfe’s observation that the Nazi death camps were actually based on factory farming practices and the foundational speciesism against animals, not just some biopolitical rationality gone awry, comes to mind. I feel more imaginative in this key, I guess— I’m now rambling but full of questions like, “What ways can we understand the inorganic and organic as always already implicating each other? Where else might the discourse or technologies of speciesism play into biopower’s current interactions through networked media? Is it fair to see coding as performative and simultaneously liberating like the law, since it is ‘precisely the condition of possibility for any possible affirmation, thus opening the community to its others” (103)?I have a lot to chew on and look forward to tonight’s clarifications/framing!
I wish I had kept my remarks on 19th century conversations on personification reserved for this week’s reading, as Wolfe’s framing of biopolitics seems to be directly engaged in those debates. This can be seen in his reading of Derrida argument that “to confer or to recognize rights for ‘animals’ is a surreptitious or implicit way of confirming a certain interpretation of the human subject”—an interpretation (and this is confirmed, it seems to me, in the positions of both Posner and Epstein) that “will have been the lever of the worse violence carried out against nonhuman living beings.” It is a very Ruskin-esque reading of a pathetic fallacy that emerges in the personification of Rights. A personification that, much like it operates in any figurative context, is concerned with entitlement and delineating who/what counts as person/thing. It is this personification despotif or, for Ruskin, conceptually dangerous play that links the discourse of animal rights to a conversation of biopolitics. What I found satisfying in Wolfe’s opening maneuvers was the space it opens in his reading of Agamben. Homo Sacer, for all its ability to render the consequences of the “genuinely political” category, participates in a similarly homogenizing practices. Which is strange, if one of biopolitics’ primary despotifs is thanatopolitically driven personification, in which things are given “proper” human agency, then conversations on biopolitics should, presumably, closely analyze how different cultures and historical moments personify things with human agency. By opening with Heidegger’s framing into Derrida’s thoughts on language and sovereignty via paragon, Wolfe illustrates a specific counterintuitiveness of Agamben’s philological project in that it acknowledges the danger of seemingly static categories, yet the project itself does not seem to participate in the dynamism it calls for.
If you have the citations readily available, I would love to get the Ruskin citations from you. This seems a fascinating line of inquiry.
His most direct treatment of personification is in his "Modern Painters". He, sometimes frustratingly, never uses the term personification, as he only refers to personification by coining the term "pathetic fallacy". Ruskin's work would go on to inspire Samuel Coleridge and Lord Kames to continue thinking about the problems of personification/prosopopoeia. For my own project, I'm currently tracking down the specifics of their correspondence and the conceptual/ aesthetic issues these writers found with this figurative device.
It's probably worth mentioning that he and many other writers of this period refuse using the term personification because they would largely refer to the figurative device a "grotesque idealism". Grotesque in that, as Lord Kames notes in "Elements of Criticsm", it is a self defeating figurative device in that personified things tend to lose agency. If we consider peronsification's function is to decide who/what counts as person/thing for the purpose of making things have human significance, then the term is self-defeating precisely because the moment you give something "human agency" that agency becomes less meaningful.
I guess my major interest in Cary Wolfe’s work is not in his engagement with critical animal studies but rather the way he positions the non-human animal in regards to the singular entity of the human animal. Yes, biopolitics as a politics and power enacted on the body means that there is considerable interest and complexities to be had in the conversation surrounding how biopolitics is enacted across species lines but I am not sure how productive this conversation is without what I felt was a disregard to the fundamental differences in the human body that have been created in both political and biological ways. Though Wolfe somewhat touches it in his brief mentions of the fetus and the reproductive system is configured under biopower – I think there is more to be said in the conversation surrounding how the human animal body is rendered that makes the non-human animal/human animal distinction (or lack thereof) more complex. For instance, I’m not sure what to make of his assertion that “because both categories [of race and species] – as history well shows –are notoriously pliable and unstable, constantly bleeding into and out of each other” (43) – if this is true then why not engage more with the notion of race as politically figured - or, more relevant to Wolfe’s angle – how race has now been biologicized (his remarks regarding bird flu do not even mention the racialization of bird flu as an “Asian” threat). Further, the human Wolfe engages with is the able-bodied human, what is there to be said about the non-able bodied human within this blurring of lines between the human animal and non-human animal when, in many cases, the treatment of the disabled is remarkable “sub-human” in the same legal sense that Wolfe refers to (for instance: the complete legality of sub-minimum wages for the mentally and physically differently abled). Further, when it comes to the selective breeding and eugenics of non-human animals – this is a practice that is also seen in the human world with abortion and pre-natal practices and the new procedures that allow parents to select gender before insemination. I guess the likely response to all of this is that Wolfe is not interested in these kinds of conversations but rather in the larger project of a community of life under biopolitics, but it seems to me that in order to create a productive sense of resistance that these questions must also be engaged.
Privileging the phenomenological over the ontological (73 and VII) leads Wolfe to introduce the ‘trace structure’ as a third thing, which she rejects (83), to found the interplay between conditional and unconditional hospitality (92-93). Exegetical Comment: In her, rejection of vitalism (throughout the text but clearly at 82), Wolfe turns to the ahuman prosthetic trace structure common to humans and (at least some) nonhuman animals to destabilize the human/animal binary—binary that permits and perpetuates violence against ‘the other.’ Looking to “this shared, structuring system of subjectification for both humans and (at least some) animals” (64) acknowledges that the presubjective conditions that give rise to human subjectivity arise in a “complex network of relations, affects, and becomings into which both human beings and animals are thrown” (74). Here, some nonhuman animals and ‘the human’ respond, and the capacity to respond arise from an imbrication of ‘the who’ and ‘the what’ in a dynamic interplay (67). Moving outside the specie’s biological demarcation (72, 74), Wolfe associates the ability to respond with the “inorganic: namely in the prosthetic relation to the externality and tecnicity of the trace, archive, symbolic system or semiotic code, however rudimentary” (78-79), which destroys the rigorous division between animal and human in relation to Dasein without making human and animal the same (79). This allows Wolfe to posit a third possibility that does not find recourse in “the person” or the “radically dedifferentiated discoruce of life” (58), for the third way acknowledges “the capacity to ‘respond’, to be a ‘to whom,’” as emerging “out of a complex and enfolded relation to a ‘what,’ to its outside” (84) that is radically not (78)—the automatic phallus (90-95). This cannot be autonomous, for “the originary ‘yes’”s—in the double and dislocated affirmation— answers the fact that the other is just as constitutively other to itself as I am to myself, just as constitutively prosthetic, brought into being by a tecnicity and spacing that is radically nether self or other, radically nonliving (82). While this maintains the absolute heterogeneous difference between forms of life without recourse to the person, it requires a recourse to an ahuman constitutive prosthetic that constitutes the open proper to the highly contextual capacity to respond (84).
Working Through Trace Structure: Here, the trace structure serves the structural function of ‘god’ that leads Wolfe to reject the Deluzian/Spinozian vitalism. Wolf defines ‘god’s’ as an impossible observer “who can be both self-referential, contingent, social constructed and historically specific, and universal and transhistorical at the same time,” which allows each particular thing to exist in its specify in relation to others but the existence of each “follows from the eternal necessity of the nature of god” (85). Here, god functions as third thing that stabilizes an existent order. While the trace structures provides no “‘god’s eye view’” that fixes the proper function of an existent order, the “‘limited points of view’” emerging from the “constitutive self-referential blindness” and “constitutively ‘performative’ and ‘conditional’ character” from ‘the norm’ “constitutes an opening to the other and to the outside” (86). This opening, however, is dependent on the trace structure, which is universal and transhistoric but allows for the contingencies of performativity. While trace structures differ as trace structure, the condition for responding, for being a ‘whom, derives from the trace structure. As such, this is the universal condition for being admitted into the category of ‘those who can respond.’ First, this recasts the question of ‘the right to have rights’ as the ‘capacity to respond,’ which shifts (for the better) the site of violence, but does not remove it. Second, this re-entrenches a hierarchy (again, for the better) between living-nonliving, which sidesteps the “task of creating a nonanthropocentric ontology of life-death” (74). Here, then, the trace structure constitutes the transcendent condition (rather than biology) that permits entry into the category of ‘those who can respond.’ At best, this is a transcendental ‘immanent to’ some field and, at worst, it is a transcendent presupposition. In either case, this maintains the ‘/’ that divides (A) ‘human’/1(B) ‘animal,’ while it shifts the ‘/’ to (C) ‘those with the capacity to respond’/2 (D) ‘those without the capacity to respond.’
I am not happy with this... I think the observation is overly simple but I am working through this in relation to the logical structure of the rule, which needs a more nuanced treatment of Derrida.
Critic: This is rough. I am weak on Derrida. While C/2D is better than A/1B, the savoir that permits a ‘/’ of this kind remains unchanged; the ground from which the ‘/1 and 2’ of A-B and C-D assumes the same game of truth and economy of power (the same meta-logic if you will for now), which determines “that which is ontologically and/or logically antecedent to the law, which exists prior to the moment when the, which exists prior to the moment when the law, in all its contingency and immanence, enacts its originary violence, instills its frame for who’s in and who’s out” (8-9), remains unchanged. Choosing the phenomenological over the ontological comes at great cost. The phenomeno-logical subjects the phenomina to some logic that assumes a savoir that makes the division between true/false, real/illusionary sensible. Here, the logically and ontologically antecedent to the law, its ‘before,’ become fused through the savoir, which constitutes the epistemology immanent to a field of practice—both its materiality and its mode of reflecting on itself, praxis—that conditions ontological and logical possibilities, epistemology is decisive. The question, then, is not rearticulating the ‘/’ to shift A and B to C and D, but forming a new savoir proper to a new kind of ‘/,’ not a ‘/2’ that differs from ‘/1’ as a ‘/’ on the ground created by a common savoir (Nealson’s Plant Life is deceive on this point), but a ‘/X’ that differs from a ‘/#’ by operating from/according to a different division of true/false, real/illusory. In short, any ‘/#’ remains trapped within modern logic’s division between universal and particualr, which cannot form community while recognizing the haecceity of ‘whateverbeing, a being that always matters because it is such that it is.’ In Wolfe, the ‘/’ differently divides through introducing the variable C and D in place of A and B, but it maintains the mode of division. As is clear in the discussion of unconditional and conditional hospitality (92-93), the aporia exists at perkily the mode of decision proper to the conditionality of the unconditional hospitality when operationalize into particular encounters. First, Wolfe distinguishes those capable of ‘whoness’ through their categorization as C, which is a transcendental immanent to the filed of life. This transcendental, however, (1) follows the mode of definition stemming from the enlightenment, which creates a definition that is excepted from the category it constitutes. Whatever you think of Agamben, his discussion of the mode of adjudication proper to this form of definition (Homo Sacer 1-73) needs to be addressed before thinking this a viable third way. Here, we have a form of transcendental that, while immanent to a field, becomes calcified into a transcendent. While new evidence (emerging from what field of knowledge production Wolfe does not clarify) that would permit new things into this category, but the category remains fixed. (2) More problematically, Wolfe glosses the adjudication made in the transition from unconditional to conditional hospitality in relation some rule immanent to a social field (a norm). Rearticulating the mode of adjudication, however, is the central component in forming a new ‘/.’ If the mode of adjudicating what falls on which side of a ‘/’ (in whatever field) remains unchallenged, then the form of politicization does not form a new kind of relationality that is not rooted in the from of adjudication the permits the before the law to continue enacting its foundational violence.
Just FYI: CW = a man but obviously his first name does not signal this...
It struck me as a little odd that in Wolfe’s project of destabilizing the rigid boundaries of human and animal that he would take recourse in the notion of values. Speaking of his “third possibility,” Wolfe asserts that “questions of value indeed necessarily depend on a ‘to whom it matters,’ but that ‘to whom’ need not be--indeed, as we have already seen, cannot only be--human” (84). It seems to me that the logic of values and the logic of anthropocentric humanism are closely related if not one and the same. It seems as though with this acceptance of the logic of values, Wolfe is doing that which he proclaimed not to be: merely expanding the scope of the definition of animal. The boundaries of animal and human have been successfully shown as ambiguous, but we’re simply replacing the privileged status of humans with the privileged status of animals (and presumably those forms of life beneficial to animals). To fully subvert the logic of anthropocentric humanism, it seems to me that we must strive towards the valueless world of just being (85). It seems that Wolfe may hint towards an acknowledgement of the paradoxical nature of values in his project; he states “an ethics of pure equilibrium without decision . . . would be, paradoxically, unethical. It’s not that we shouldn’t strive for unconditional hospitality . . . to do so, it is necessary to do so . . . conditionally” (86). This seems to be the same situation of a striving towards just being: to do so, inevitably values must be deployed. This seems reminiscent of the death drive. For the death drive to accomplish it’s task of returning organic life to the inorganic on its own terms it must employ practices which, paradoxically, preserve life and protect it from external harm. As such, we may look at the progress towards just being as following the same logic as the death drive, aiming at accomplishing it on its own terms, which may account for the employment of the seemingly paradoxical practice of valuation.