Week 17 — down with human exceptionalism

Good morning,

I decided to write and send this before going to the gym and destroying myself instead of after, because all those typos were getting out of hand. Of course, when you read this, it could be any time of day but time is a construct so wahay.

Friday was the first week back at uni. I’m doing a module called Animals in Theory and in Practice: Philosophy, Agency, Ethics. It’s quite different to anything I’ve done before. The first week was pretty spectacular, so I’m very excited for the rest of the module.

It’s given me a massive rush. Not all modules do that. Last term largely didn’t even though it was very informative. I didn’t have that shift of the entire world changing a little bit. I’m addicted to that feeling. I’ve never done recreationals so untrustworthy take but who needs drugs when we have this?! Also, there’s a black Labrador named Monk who joins us. What a joy!


The lecture didn’t really cover the assigned reading in-depth, but rather gave a quick introduction to the field through Enlightenment philosophy (Kant, Aristotle and Descartes). Taken together, they create the discursive space for human exceptionalism.

Enlightenment legacy continues to shape discussions about animals and animal rights. The tutor suggests that most people don’t realise how much their views of the world and the Other are shaped by animals, despite often not having animals in their consciousness. After the lecture, I’m inclined to agree.

These texts are so rich, it’s impossible to summarise. Literally, I have pages of notes. So, I’ll mostly focus on that parts that are in conversation with said philosophers. The tl;dr on Aristotle is that he sucks. Ditto Descartes and Kant.

Ch 1 “The right to remain silent” in Animal Lessons
by Kelly Oliver

Oliver challenges the framework of rights discourse itself, both from identity politics

If we have learned anything from the civil rights and women's liberation movements, which are invoked by many animal rights or welfare activities and theorists, it is that identity politics has limits. Using the same terms of identity that were used to subordinate in order to liberate, has problems.

to the argument for extending human rights to animals

Given that the rights discourse has assumed the Cartesian subject and that the Cartesian subject has been constructed through the sacrifice of the animal, animality, and animals, it is imperative that we consider the social and historical conditions that made the discourse of human rights possible. It is significant that the discourse of rights developed in relation to owning animals and the land on which to keep them.

Extending moral obligation as long as they are “like us” is shaky ground, and the power relations remain intact.

This ahistorical approach risks reinscribing the subordination and denigration it hopes to eliminate by addressing the symptoms, but not the structures, of oppression, including material and economic structures, but particularly linguistic, conceptual, and cultural structures and institutions. Rights may be better than nothing, but they still leave oppressive power structures and values intact.

The chapter also raises a very interesting point of increased rights coming with increased surveillance and regulation, which is certainly not unique to animals. Something I hope to delve into more in future readings.

In addition, these protective rights bring with them regulation and surveillance, if not disciplinary institutions. The relationship between protective legislation and regulation, surveillance and discipline is even more obvious when it comes to animals.

The ending of the chapter is just beautiful.

Given that we are waging endless war, that species are disappearing from the earth at an astounding rate, and global warming threatens the health of the planet, perhaps it is time to think about our own limitations and the limits of the human and humanity. It is time to check our hubris and see what we can learn from the animal and animals, not to dissect them and examine their brains to learn something about our own. Not to unlock and master the secrets of life. Not to make them trophies to hang on the wall or to document in scientific journals. But rather to humble ourselves before fellow creatures that accompany us in life and through which we become human.
...
What if we go a step further and question what it means to belong – whether human or animal – not as property but as inhabitants of a shared planet?

Emoji summary: 🐒 👀 🌎

Ch 1 “Giving animals a hearing: rights discourse and animal representation in animal ethics” in The Speaking Animal
by Alison Suen

Suen takes on logos/language.

In The Politics, Aristotle posits humans as the only animals endowed with speech, with logos. Aristotle’s definition of the human proliferates throughout the history of Western philosophy, where the human is often defined against other animals by virtue of this capacity to speak. This linguistic divide has been translated into an ontological hierarchy whereby the human is privileged over the animal—an ontological hierarchy that, many animal advocates contend, informs our treatment of animals.

Rights discourse is often about “giving voice” to the voiceless, though feminists have highlighted the potential violence of “behalf-ism”. However, the notion of “giving voice” still privileges logocentrism.

…animal rights discourse remains logocentric by privileging language and those who can speak. … the rhetoric of “giving a voice to the voiceless” in animal advocacy, wherein the advocates and the animals are dichotomously split between the speaking and the voiceless. Given that the task of an animal advocate involves speaking for the animal, it is important to consider the power dynamic between the advocate and the animal.

The problem is not just that humans have to speak on behalf of the animal, but that it re-establishes the value of speech, the foundation of human exceptionalism.

…we need to reconceptualize language so that it allows us to stand together with the animal other. We need an account of language that acknowledges our connections with the animal without obscuring our differences. Instead of linking language to reason, we should think of language as a relational capacity: our capacity to speak and our capacity to relate are constitutive of each other.

Emoji summary: 🔤 🗣 🐕

Ch 2 “Universal basic rights for animals” in Zoopolis
by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka

This one is very different to the previous two in that it argues within the framework of animal rights theory but posits that it doesn’t go far enough. They call for inviolable rights to be extended to animals

The idea of inviolable rights implies that an individual's most basic interests cannot be sacrificed for the greater good of others.

The principle of inviolability says that people's right to life is independent of their relative contribution to the overall good, and is not violable in the service of the greater good.

They critique the Kantian view that reasoning defines humanity and it is such that gives them moral superiority, the “Humanity Formula

Kantian moral agency is, at best, a fragile achievement that humans have to varying degrees at varying points in their lives. None of us possesses it when we are very young, and we all face periods of shorter or longer duration when it is temporarily or permanently threatened by illness, disability, and aging, or by lack of adequate socialization and education and other forms of social support and nurturance.

and so where do we draw the line at sentience/self-hood and who is deserving of inviolable rights?

It’s a pretty provocative idea, but the chapter addresses many of the arguments that you might imagine and then some more besides. They are too long to go into here but do read it. I’m here for these debates.

Donaldson and Kymlicka are deeply steeped in the liberalism tradition, and so there is certainly much to critique on individualism, etc. But still, I like to imagine a world where inviolability is extended to animals. It’s pretty mindblowing.

Emoji summary: ⚖ 👩‍🔬 🐾


There’re Made out of Meat
by Terry Bisson

Somehow, this little story has escaped my notice since 1991. UNTIL NOW. I was laughing so hard I was wheezing a little. That might just be because I’m immature but it’s a very good read after the texts above. Is this… satire?

“No brain?”
“Oh, there is a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat!”
“So... what does the thinking?”
“You're not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?”

Emoji summary: 😂 🥩 🤣

The Xenofeminist Manifesto
by Laboria Cuboniks

Lovely, short, little book with that snappy writing that makes manifestos so manifesto-y. Gorgeous design too, though I am torn. The designer in me delighted, the reader in me struggled. My eyeballs are too old for that tiny text.

Here’s a snippet to get you going.

Why is there so little explicit, organized effort to repurpose technologies for progressive gender political ends? XF seeks to strategically deploy existing technologies to re-engineer the world. Serious risks are built into these tools; they are prone to imbalance, abuse, and exploitation of the weak. Rather than pretending to risk nothing, XF advocates the necessary assembly of techno-political interfaces responsive to these risks. Technology isn’t inherently progressive. Its uses are fused with culture in a positive feedback loop that makes linear sequencing, prediction, and absolute caution impossible. Technoscientific innovation must be linked to a collective theoretical and political thinking in which women, queers, and the gender non-conforming play an unparalleled role.

Turns out you can read it all online. PDF option seems the most legible but maybe you like a challenge.

Emoji summary: 🤳 ➿ 👭

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The Center Blows Itself Up: Care and Spite in the ‘Brexit Election’
by David Graeber

A pretty detailed analysis of political things from 2015 to now, including nuts and bolts of parliamentary politics. A lot of which, esp early Corbyn days, I did not know. My party-political awareness was certainly in its infancy in 2015, most of my energy going to non-electoral politics and staying alive.

Anyway, this article slaps.

Suddenly, they found themselves saddled with a scruffy teetotaling vegan who said exactly what he really thought, and inspired a new generation of activists to dream of changing the world. If those activists were not naive, if this man was not unelectable, the centrists’ entire lives had been a lie. They hadn’t really accepted reality at all. They really were just sellouts.

One could even go further: the most passionate opposition to Corbynism came from men and women in their forties, fifties, and sixties. They represented the last generation in which any significant number of young radicals even had the option of selling out, in the sense of becoming secure property-owning bastions of the status quo. Not only had that door closed behind them; they were the ones largely responsible for having closed it.

It’s weird to me when people refer to Momentum as some kind of hardcore, cultish group. It makes sense in this context.

If the Corbynistas were right, and none of this had really been necessary, were these politicians not guilty of historic crimes? It’s hard to understand the bizarre obsession with the idea that left Labour youth groups like Momentum—about the most mild-mannered batch of revolutionaries one could imagine—would somehow end up marching them all off to the gulag, without the possibility that in the back of their minds, many secretly suspected that show trials might not be entirely inappropriate.

Emoji summary: 🗳 🏛 🔪

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Also…

Persian Letters by Nilo Tabrizy. Absolutely heartbreaking, I don’t have the words.

It’s as if we’re dead.

The internet crackdown and horror are terrible.

We don’t matter to the world. We don’t matter to anyone.

I feel like I can’t breathe.

I’ve never experienced this kind of censorship.

Write these down if you care about us.

Then please delete these chats.

Meet The Feminist Academics Championing Trans Rights by Patrick Strudwick. The UK really needs to get a grip with the terf thing. It’s so gross and really dumb. Intellectual gymnastics by anyone who uses those dumb arguments which all contradict each other. “Let a hundred sexes bloom!

How to Be a Better White Person in 2020 by Michael Harriot. This really should be common knowledge for us whiteys by now but even so, never hurts to be reminded.

Even after you implement these suggestions, you may find yourself at a crossroads, wondering which path to take. So, here is a rule of thumb to use whenever you have to make a difficult decision: … For a brief second, assume you were one of the billions of idle, ambivalent or apathetic white people who objected to slavery, Jim Crow, inequality and injustice but didn’t do a goddamn thing. In your moment of deliberation, think long and hard about what those white people would do.

Then, just do the opposite.