The Red Critique


Fictions of the Animal; or, Learning to Live with Dehumanization

Robert Faivre

In contemporary theory, "thinking" today has become defined by what I call "fictions of the animal." Claiming to enact an even more "radical" and "ethical" version of what Jacques Derrida described as "community without community" (Politics of Friendship 298), or the need to think politics beyond binaries such as class, posthumanism has emerged in both cultural theory and popular culture as an ideological solution which resolves the growing contradictions of global capitalism by turning towards the figure of the animal in an attempt to displace any class analysis. Specifically, as found in the work of not only Derrida (The Animal That Therefore I Am), but other so-called "radical" bourgeois theorists such as Giorgio Agamben (The Open: Man and Animal), Donna Haraway (When Species Meet), and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Commonwealth), the primary claim of the proponents of the "posthuman turn" is that: "In our culture, the decisive political conflict, which governs every other conflict, is that between animality and the humanity of man" (Agamben, The Open 80). By turning social conflict into the expression of an unreconcilable epistemological and linguistic division between "human" and "animal," posthumanism ideologically re-frames social problems (with social solutions) as universal problems beyond the social, and specifically makes real material problems (e.g., deepening poverty, worsening conditions of life, environmental devastation, and other impacts of the globalization of capitalism's relations of exploitation) into problems of identity, values, and norms. The posthumanities—posthumanist thinking and texts across the broad field of the humanities—thus function as pedagogies of dehumanization, that is, producing forms, figures, ideas, and logics which in effect teach people (readers, subjects) to learn to live with dehumanization. This essay reads novelist J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and sociobiologist E. O. Wilson's novel Anthill as fictions of this animal turn, whose narrative logic is the logic of posthumanism and indeed the ideological logic of the global ruling class whose command and control of the world's resources continues to produce dehumanization at the cost of what Marx calls true humanity or full "species-being."

Novels are not simply read and consumed by individuals, but, in their reading, are sites of social pedagogy which either teach via "de-reading" an acceptance of the global status-quo as inevitable, natural, etc. or which teach through transformative reading and critique that social problems have social solutions. In other words, in reading the posthumanist fictions of the animal, readers are engaged either in reproducing the ideology of the posthumanist narrative that class exploitation has been replaced by the governing "fiction of the animal," or in acts of reading-as-critique that shows the ideological function of the text and thus makes available the class consciousness necessary for social transformation. Reading, that is, is either interpretation within ideology which "de-reads" the social, or it is critique-al explanation against and outside ideology and thus productive of reliable concepts and logics for understanding problems and proposing and testing their solutions. In uncovering how and why the contradictions of class society are written into the text, critique-al reading calls into question the image of literary reading as being a space of "negative capability," a zone free of the need to solve problems or even to think.

Of course, on the surface, the texts of the posthumanities present themselves as texts about real world issues (e.g., animal rights, ethics of eating, etc. in The Lives of Animals; ecological diversity, ethics of land use, etc. in Anthill) and thus seem to correspond to a more radical reading praxis. The reason for this is that there are real material problems in global society today which cannot be ignored; however, as the real resolution of these problems requires social transformation, these posthumanist narratives have the ideological function of, on the one hand, recognizing (at least partially) these real problems but then, on the other hand, representing these problems as either unsolvable (and thus, "get used to it" or find a "live-able" compromise) or resolvable through a change of ideas, values, etc.. Given the dire situation of the vast majority of the world's people and the worsening conditions of life for the working class on average across the globe, it is vital not only to come up with new ways to think and feel about these problems but rather to identify the roots of the problems and to make the necessary changes at the roots. This is why even how and why we read these animal fictions matters: because our reading is pedagogical, and the product of all pedagogy is not simply learning and consciousness, but learning of and consciousness of the material conditions which shape people's lives. In learning of the real problems of the world, in becoming conscious of the world and its problems, we need ideas, logics, models, etc. which enable us to live in the world, to develop labor as a "free, conscious activity" (Marx Economic 276) and thus to recognize what it is that prevents labor—as the basis of our humanity—from being a free and conscious activity. In other words, reading—as part of a diverse set of human activities—is an extension of the basic human activity of labor, and thus reading, like labor, is either an activity of reproducing class divisions or it is an activity of transforming the existing conditions into those necessary for the realization of full humanity for all humans.

According to the logic of posthumanism, the "fiction of the animal" operates as the fundamental other that structures all of Western thought and explains the treatment of both humans and animals within contemporary capitalist relations. In turn, as the celebrated citationalist Cary Wolfe argues, to think the "fiction of the animal" means not simply extending the rights of humans to animals, since "the philosophical and theoretical frameworks used by humanism… reproduce the very normative subjectivity—a specific concept of the human—that grounds discrimination against nonhuman animals and the disabled in the first place" (xvii). Instead, posthumanism undoes binaries of "human" and "animal" and puts these concepts into question by proposing that it is instrumental reason which produces the "difference" between humans and animals. In turn, the way to resist such rigid conceptualization is to recognize on the contrary that animals and humans exist as "autopoietic entities that have their own temporalities, chronicities, perceptual modalities, and so on—in short, their own forms of embodiment" (Wolfe xxiv). In other words, any and all social divisions are the expression of a reductive epistemology which puts "life" in static categories without the ethical "respect" of recognizing each being in its irreducible alterity. However, by reducing the issue of inequality to a neo-individualist ethics, posthumanism updates and produces the very ideological thinking that blocks class consciousness, namely the capitalist ideology of "freedom" as nothing more than the unique and individual freedom of all in the market. Posthumanism and the posthumanities are thus part of an ideological defense of capital and its self-justifications at the level of neo-individualism in that in class society, based on the division of the propertied from the propertyless, the "individual" of alterity is always a mediation of the fundamental property-owning rights.  Of course, the turn to the animal—which, according to the logic of posthumanism, claims no property, indeed is treated as property, and thus is said to be both inside and outside property, putting the very concept of property into question—is contradictory in that in developing a "more inclusive" theory of difference, it excludes the conceptual category of class and related concepts which not only explain the division of humanity into classes but also explain how and why animals and nature are not outside capitalism but are increasingly (at the global level) made subject to the social system of exploitation. The posthumanities and the animal turn are reflections of the regional and global environmental crises begat by capitalist expansion and activity, and of capital's increasing dehumanization of the conditions of life of the working class and the reserve army of the unemployed, which isolate these developments from exploitation and thus alibi capitalism. In other words, although the turn to the animal, which is evident not only in philosophy and popular fiction but in art, film, and other cultural media, is presented as premised on a more inclusive breaking down of the barrier between human beings and animal beings, it is enacted as a means of bypassing and rejecting the class binary, the violence of exploitation, and the primary and secondary alienations of capitalism.

New texts in the posthumanities, in their questioning of the human, put the emphasis on a conceptual difference within a mass of alterity—the difference of human/animal, reason/being, thinking/feeling, etc.—but what this questioning leaves out (and indeed blocks explanation of) is the violent social differentiation of human beings which is class, exploitation, and the relations of property which produce alienation. Under the current determinative conditions—the social relations of class exploitation and the exploitative development of the productive forces—labor in total is a complex activity which is hardly "free" (that is, it is compelled by the wage exchange, it is directed by the priorities of private capital, and it is overall an alienating activity, separating the laboring class from control over social labor) and it is not entirely a "conscious" activity, in that the class which decides about production (with whatever degree of knowledge and planning) and the class which labors are different classes, with different objective priorities: profit or need. The "being" which is produced under these conditions is estranged or alienated human being, and it is this socially divided being which appears as "the human" in the literature of the posthumanities.

If the dehumanized being of labor is the problem, the solution offered by posthumanities is temporary escape into either the above-class being of the ruling class or the supposedly beyond-class being of the animal. In either case of momentary class escape, the aim is how to leave behind the existing conditions of humanity in the cultural imaginary while maintaining them in the economic base. Promoting these Deleuzian "lines of flight," of imaginary escape from normative value hierarchies, serves the ruling class by blocking the class consciousness necessary for abolishing exploitation and realizing a new society based on social and economic equality. Alienation at the site of production gives the consequent social structures and conditions of life the character of alienated humanity: the working class is pressed ever closer to animal life as the cost of the reproduction of labor is driven downward by the falling rate of profit and rising organic composition of capital (ratio of labor to fixed capital), and while the ruling class and its privileged managers appear free and self-styling, this is a false appearance as the ruling class is compelled to search ever-elsewhere for new sources and means of generating profit. The falling rate of profit and thus the immanent crisis faced by the ruling class is worsening the conditions of the life of labor and thus the ideologists of capital produce what they must always do in times of ensuing crisis: the ideas of crisis-management. Posthumanist theories, including those of the general field of the posthumanities, traffic in "new" ideas which do not explain the root cause of the growing crisis but which de-read the crisis and thus interpret and explain away the current situation as the return of the repressed forces of nature, nature which the human has too long denied in the name of reason and progress. These theories and texts of posthumanism thus produce a set of norms and values which support the continued alienation and exploitation of the majority of the world's people while sentimentalizing the question of the animal. That this is done in a celebratory way—human beings finding their liberation in embracing the animal within—is part of the ideological problem which this essay seeks to address and critique.

In short, the posthumanities produce ways of thinking necessary to defend the status quo of global capitalism today, as can be seen not only in theoretical writing (e.g., the University of Minnesota Press series, Posthumanities, edited by Cary Wolfe) but also in other cultural forms, including literary and popular fiction. The logic of the posthumanist novels, the forms and figures of these animal fictions are the normalizing forms and figures and logics of the posthumanities, which teach the subjects of global capitalism how to learn to live with dehumanization.

The current conditions under which the world's people exist are evidence of the class contradiction on a global scale. For example, of the large proportion of those living below or near poverty levels, most are children. A 2007 report of the World Bank states that "Nearly half of the people of the world today are under 25 years of age. Nine out of ten of these young people live in developing countries. More importantly, the majority of the developing world's poor… [are]… under the age of 18 years." Further, "More than half a billion children (40 percent of all) in developing countries are living on less than $1 [US] a day (Unicef 2005)" (Patrinos 1). Complicating matters, a major problem of the first decade of the 21st century has been "food price volatility," with the greatest price increases occurring in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa ("Food Price Watch" 1). There are also large and growing gaps in basic health outcomes (such as rates of infant mortality, adolescent fertility, and other measures) between the poor and wealthy in countries receiving advice or aid from the World Bank. A 2009 report states, "The overwhelming majority of low- and middle-income countries (representing more than 2.8 billion people in 2001) show a large gap in outcomes between the poor and the wealthiest" (Yazbeck 8). As more and more of the world's adults and children are forced into poverty, they become more vulnerable to severe weather, environmental changes, and climate change (Poverty and Climate Change, v). Since the growing numbers of the world's poorest people rely on nature for "food, fodder, water, and other health requirement," changes in environment and climate have the strongest impact on those least equipped to adapt; indeed, "[d]egraded ecosystems increase hunger, exacerbate risks, diseases, and take children out of school" (Comim, et al., 447, 448).

In short, as capitalism drives more and more people to the social margins, those at the social margins are increasingly vulnerable to harsh weather, compromised ecosystems, degraded water and land, food insecurity, health risks, etc.—what amounts to the violent reduction of humans to mere physical beings.[1] As the authors of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2010 put it, "Unequal development is not human development" (Klugman, et al., 72), but the question is development to what end? The realization of human capacity in community? Or the development of humans as exploitable "human capital," whether exploited as wage-labor or marginalized as the reserve army of the unemployed? Capitalism produces great wealth increasingly concentrated in fewer hands and at the same time produces more widespread and deeper poverty. That an ever greater proportion of the citizens of the future are dehumanized by these conditions—socially produced conditions—is a serious problem that must be solved. The question is whether to learn to live with these facts of dehumanization and the structural relations which necessarily reproduce these facts as the conditions of living, or rather to critique class dehumanization as part of the struggle to realize truly humanizing relations. The animal fictions of the poshumanities are symptomatic of the contradictory dehumanizing reality of which they are a product. These texts and theories propose reformist solutions that argue for accommodating the system of wage-labor/capital relations which is the structural cause of dehumanization. 

How we are to read or re-read these appearances of the human, and their basic logics, is a decisive analytical and interpretive question. Reading is decisive because reading is not only the interpretation of textual meanings and logics, but indeed is the making-intelligible of the logic of the social totality. In other words, reading is socially decisive in that it either is transformative reading which explains the contradictory social relations or it is de-reading which explains away these contradictions by means of ideological accounts.[2] Popular fiction is particularly significant to read for its ideological coordinates because while it is written in the familiar literary registers of narrative, the logic is never singular to the text but is always an expression and mediation of the social conflicts. Coetzee's and Wilson's "fictions of the animal" are an exemplary set of literary and cultural texts which represent human relations in terms of the animal. In both fictions, the writers confront the reader not only with human characters interacting in situations, but also either animals as characters (such as the rich menagerie of animals and especially insects—colonies of ants—in Wilson's Anthill) or animals as allusions and analogies offered by characters in conversation with other characters (such as when Coetzee's character Elizabeth Costello draws on Kafka's primate Red Peter). One difference between the two books is that Coetzee's animal references are all once-removed, discussed by characters, whereas Wilson's text is populated with a diversity of non-human creatures who are characters in the narrative. Despite this formal difference, both books make use of the figure of the animal to displace actual social (human) relations with abstract human/animal relations. This displacement—despite historical references to, for instance, WWII and the holocaust or to commercial development of land in the 20th century U.S.—and reframing of the social relations into a more abstract and less historical space has the effect of overgeneralizing (reducing) actual humans and their class relations into an abstract humanity-without-difference. The most important difference erased is the class division, and thus the ideological effect of these fictions is to make the social and historical relations appear as part of a natural or cosmic order that can be protested but not changed. This is the ideological effectivity of posthumanist fictions of the animal: to deny the possibility of social transformation at a time when the class contradictions are deepening and the social stakes heightening. It is important, therefore, to read these texts for their ideological effects and thus to explain these texts and arguments as part of the ongoing class struggle over what it is to be human.

Anthill, by sociobiologist-turned-novelist E. O. Wilson, reproduces familiar Romantic arguments against commerce but owing to its spiritual theory of the relation of human/nature, produces an individualist response to what it takes to be the problem. Such an approach reduces the problem of development and environment to a matter of values without accounting for the root cause of which values are an expression. That is, values are socially produced ideas about, for instance, land and the use of land. Will land be for common use, for rent, for private profit, for agriculture, parking lots, sanctuary? How land is valued is an expression of the social relations; values designate social priorities and conflicts over social priorities.  Humanity, in his view, is split into two kinds of human: those who value nature and the environment for its eternal mystery and those who value money and material gain without concern for or need of eternal mysteries. Discussions of values without locating the origin of value in the social relations reduce conflicts over values into matters of interpersonal ethics, which is how the conflict plays out in Wilson's fiction, both in terms of the conflicts between humans and in the natural conflicts between the ant colonies and others in the ecosystem.

The main character in Wilson's Anthill is Raff Semmes Cody, who develops strong bonds with family, friends, fellow students and professors, but whose strongest attachment is with the ecosystem of the Nokobee woods, itself almost an organism with a life span. As a child, Raff first encounters the nature of these woods in the U. S. American South as "infinite" and mysterious, although these qualities are nearly lost when circumstances change "the sacred place" to "a tract of land" considered for commercial development; the narrative, however, concerns how Raff's consciousness of the place and thus his own sense of meaning and being are affected, and how through a series of transformations he becomes an activist on behalf of the Nokobee woods which he learns to see as "a habitat of infinite knowledge and mystery, beyond the reach of the meager human brain" and an "island in a meaningless sea" (378). This notion of islands of meaning is a motif of the novel; indeed at a hinge moment in the narrative, Wilson has Raff become conscious of nature not as "something outside of the human world," but as "the real world itself, and humanity exists on islands within it" (140). This doubled sense of nature as island against a sea of meaninglessness and then of humanity as islands within the "real world" of nature enacts the associative logic of Romanticism as opposed to the "mechanistic" logic of natural science. And it is on these terms that Wilson's narrative provides a doubled way to think the human: first, the human as mindless progress without concern for ecological limits or for nature as a source of meaning (and Wilson not only presents this with reference to human characters, but analogizes the idea of limits, balance, and destiny in the anthropomorphic "chronicle of the ants" at the center of the book); and second, humanity as singularities, "islands" of meaning and of the sensitive individual who appreciates the mystery of place. The human here is divided: mindless destruction of universal ("infinite") value as against mindfulness of the mysteries of nature as the real world. These are the positive and negative poles of the human by Wilson's logic, and in his narrative it is by an Edenic land ethic that humanity finds meaningful being, if at all. The Nokobee woods are not a place in which a human may live, but one may live for such "sacred places," which is Wilson's resolution for Raff, even as the surveyor and bulldozer do not cease in their work and Raff day-dreams of floating away with the hawks and buzzards to unknown lands. Again, the double inscription of the human here is as a being with the potential for finding meaning within natural limits as well as for the destructive and meaningless exceeding of limits. The emphasis here is on natural limits, or on social limits re-written as if they are natural limits, as is performed in the novel's narrative-within-the-narrative, "The Chronicle of the Ants," Raff's senior thesis. The chronicle metonymically plays out the novel's logic—in animal terms—that human reason is out of place in the natural world; in Raff's imaginative account of competing ant colonies in the Nokobee woods, the rise and fall of a "super-colony" of "genetically mutated ants" and the survival of a smaller colony in the face of a human invasion provide instructions on how to live. In this image, it is a "genetic mutation" which is the natural undoing of the super-colony, much like the rise of instrumentality in humans has put the human super-colony on the path to extinction.

The theory of the human that Romanticism advances, and which Wilson's narrative duplicates, reads the world and the two kinds of human in terms of competing values. In effect, this reading sentimentalizes the destruction of the environment, turning it into an ethical conflict. The utilitarian and commercial value of nature as resource and land as scene of commerce (means-to-an-end) is contrasted with Raff's aesthetic and indeed spiritual appreciation of the place and its complex ecology (end-in-itself). In this account, nature thus appears as a source of timeless spiritual values, a source with which modern humanity is losing touch, but which some humans can find again. Nature then becomes a space of retreat from society and from class contradictions. As such, nature actually functions to counteract—in the consciousness of the individual—the lack of meaning produced by commercial civilization for which land is property to develop and nature is either resource or obstacle. That is, the Romantic view of nature does not oppose commercialization, but rather depends on it. Nature becomes the escapist counterpart to modern development, and it is only the special individual who can escape temporarily into the beyond-class fantasy of another source of values. In fact, it is this ethical subject who is needed to preserve spaces of natural/spiritual escape while in no way slowing the for-profit development which capitalism requires. Thus, the figure which Wilson's text celebrates is an ethical subject who can be in-between the seemingly inevitable spread of development which tempers its destruction minimally in a seemingly humane way. The wildlife refuge to which Raff returns as an adult with a troupe of children is a refuge of values that functions as a timeless consolation for the dehumanizing violence that continues unabated. The novel, then, is a kind of ethical primer in learning to live with dehumanization.

Coetzee's narrative in The Lives of Animals is an engagement with some well-known arguments and theories about human/animal relations. On the face of it, the book can be read as a primer in animal rights; however, the narrative is more fully an argument about two different ways of being human: philosophical reason and rationalization, as against poetic imagination and sympathy. What is more human, the book asks: rational argumentation or affective relation? In so doing, Coetzee's text, like Wilson's, locates debates over what society should and can be in the sphere of values, making it seem unlikely that any resolution of social conflicts can be found in that deeply felt values are more likely to be rationalized than examined. That is, in both novels, what motivates the values of characters is not reason or rational decision-making, nor social forces, but rather seemingly natural forces: affective responses to the limits of rational or philosophical examinations in Elizabeth Costello's case, deeply felt convictions based on childhood experiences in Raff Cody Semmes' case, and indeed pure instinct and involuntary impulses in the case of the ants in the colonies whose complex relations Wilson narrates. Values seem to exist prior to reason in these narratives, and conflicts between values are for the most part irresolvable except through violence or deal-making. Anthill includes dramatic examples of both, whereas The Lives of Animals presents conflicts as too difficult to resolve.

But to focus on social conflicts as matters of value is to focus myopically on the effects of social relations rather than grasping the root relations which produce values. That is, dehumanization is not a difference of values; dehumanization is an effect of the social relations which unequally divide people's access to the collective social wealth and the means of production. To make the conflict into a conflict of values is thus a partial recognition of actual problems which cannot be ignored. The debate over "values" is an occult critique of capitalism which registers an actual problem (i.e., exploitation and its effects), while rendering it as a spiritualist matter and thus effectively masking the logic of the wage-labor/capital relation. Keeping "values" in a self-sustaining sphere of values is an ideological means which suspends critique and explanation of the actual social conflicts.

The main character of The Lives of Animals is Elizabeth Costello, an elderly novelist who accepts an invitation to give two lectures at a college. The narrative is composed mainly of her lectures and other discussions, framed by interactions with her son and his family. The family interactions are frustrating for all concerned. In the two lectures and what follows each, Coetzee has Elizabeth Costello retell animal narratives from literature, science, and philosophy, and she rehearses conventional philosophical arguments about animal being. A consistent framing reference throughout Costello's discourse is the historical legacy of "industrial" genocide in WWII. Elizabeth Costello's first lecture is on the limits of philosophy and more generally reason as the means by which not only to know but to be. "Reason," Coetzee has Costello state in this lecture, entitled "The Philosophers and the Animals," "is the being of a certain spectrum of human thinking" (23). To submit to reason as the means by which to understand the universe, after Plato, Descartes, Kant, et al.—and thus as the way of human being and knowing—is distinct from animal being and knowing, which is to be and to know without submitting to reason. Costello contests the idea that the rational subject, a central tenet of humanism before and after the Enlightenment, is the best way to know and be. As a counter-example to the rational subject and the "too abstract" reasoning consciousness of much of Western philosophy, Coetzee's Costello takes up the educated ape, Red Peter, who offers an account of his development from beast to speaking being in Kafka's fable, "Report to an Academy." In Coetzee's novella, Costello identifies with Red Peter as "an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting, to a gathering of scholars, a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak" (26). This wound, in the imaginary of the humanities, is the foundational break with nature and the animal which defines the human: the acquisition of language and reason (e.g., Agamben, Infancy and History). Through Costello, Coetzee rehearses some of the main points of this old debate, the principal one being that by taking up not only language but reason, human beings have become wounded beings who, unlike Red Peter and Elizabeth Costello, are unaware of their condition of woundedness. This woundedness is an estrangement from their fuller being—which is what the animal has to teach us, if we will let them. While Coetzee's Costello is rehearsing a traditional argument of the humanities regarding what makes the human, the way in which the argument is deployed in the narrative goes to help Costello make her point in siding with the sympathetic and feeling animals over the rational humans. In this sense, Costello as a character is performing not so much a critique as a felt polemic against rational language (philosophy) and the way it wounds the sensitive animal in much the same way that Derrida, for instance, speculates when relating the story of standing naked before the gaze of his pet cat in The Animal That I Therefore Am. Just as Derrida's story of his cat staring at his naked body is meant to deconstruct the human/animal binary as figured in the discourse of philosophy by demonstrating the power of the animal's "bottomless gaze" which exposes "the abyssal limit of the human" in the absolute alterity of the animal (12), Red Peter operates for Costello as the gaze which reflects back the "wound" caused by the instrumental logic of reason.

Under these circumstances, Coetzee has Costello respond in two ways: first, her character makes a series of arguments and assertions about being and knowing; and second, her character responds emotionally, becoming a being beyond reason whom the other characters (and we as readers) encounter in the text. Coetzee has Costello argue that rational knowledge is abstract and disembodied, produced by and reproducing an alienation from full humanity. Against the Cartesian cogito argument, Costello opines, "To thinking, cogitation, I oppose fullness, embodiedness, the sensation of being—not a consciousness of  yourself as a ghostly reasoning machine thinking thoughts, but on the contrary the sensation—a heavily affective sensation—of being a body with limbs that have extension in space, of being alive to the world" (33). In her second lecture, "The Poets and the Animals," Costello argues that what is needed is not reason but "sympathetic imagination," about which she states that "there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another" (35). Sympathetic imagination, is, by this logic, the state of knowing and being that is not bounded by reason but indeed goes beyond conventional and instrumental reason. This state of being and knowing can be enacted in poetry, in language that "brings home to you the wholeness, the unabstracted, unintellectual nature, of … animal being" (65). By this logic, what matters is understanding at the level of experience or "being."  And yet, this is an insular form of understanding that closes off the singular being from the (abstract) social relations which produce the conditions in which a human or an animal acquires and develops its state of being. There is no non-relational "being." What explains "being" and the character of "being" is not singular and internal, but rather structural and external to a given individual which becomes what she/he is only in the context of the social relations which produce him/her. The idea of the singular being whom another singular being attempts to identify and engage with sympathetic imagination is a class idea that emerges in capitalism as an ideological denial of the possibility of reliable conceptual knowledge of the actual class relations which relate beings objectively, not simply (and often opposed to) by way of the imagination. 

Coetzee not only has other characters challenge Costello's arguments and assertions, but also, as many literary critics have noted, confronts the reader with Costello not as a talking head but as the literary figuration of a person and her ways of knowing and being. While some critics, such as the ethicist Peter Singer, wonder in their texts what the argument of Coetzee's text is, other more speculative readers such as the philosopher Cora Diamond argue that Singer and others who read for argument miss the point, which is not to solve a philosophical difficulty but rather to encounter that which philosophy can never resolve—namely, what Diamond calls "the difficulty of reality" (Cavell, et al. 45ff).  Diamond celebrates Coetzee's ambiguous use of the character Elizabeth Costello, not as a device for making an argument and thus participating in a social debate, but rather as a literary attempt to do what she claims rational argument marginalizes: encountering the impossible and irresolvable difficulty of reality. The character Elizabeth Costello is overwhelmed by this difficulty of "being" at the narrative's end and is reduced to confronting her son and the reader with her animal woundedness. While philosophy cannot indeed resolve social problems, this is not for the reasons that Diamond gives in her account. The so-called "difficulty of life" that Diamond presents as an epistemological issue is an existentialist side-stepping—a kind of un-knowing—of the actual social difficulties, both the real difficulties of the daily lives of the alienated as well as the political difficulty of making a transformation of the basic social relations. By turning material social conflicts into epistemological problems—as if exploitation, alienation, and dehumanization are simply "ideas" or the product of ideas—Diamond is practicing for-profit philosophizing. Indeed, the figures and logics produced by Diamond and Coetzee reproduce ideological ways of reading and knowing which direct attention toward the singular and spectral, and away from the structural and the material.

By the basic logic at work in Coetzee's narrative—not only its surface arguments as voiced by characters, but its figurative and affective logics—to be human is both to be embodied and at the same time to attempt to refuse to submit to one's subjection to reason. In this view, to be human is to attempt to make animal use of what the animal lacks—reason and language—and thus to try to develop another way of being and knowing. That the character Elizabeth Costello, who celebrates these ideas, is profoundly troubled (wounded) by this situation, may be celebrated by some readers; however, re-read as a figure of alienated or estranged human being, this character and the logics which accompany this figure in the text are—like the doubled humanity which Wilson narrates—symptomatic of not only a way of being and knowing, but of actual social historical conditions of being and knowing. Indeed, the troubled figure of Costello is symptomatic of the petty-bourgeois privileged subject who cynically wishes to "un-know" the effects of exploitation and alienation. This cynical subject is one who abandons social responsibility for knowing not only what the world is but also what the world can become. I say that these fictions and their logics are symptomatic of the social contradictions, by which I mean that they are partial recognitions of real problems, but denials of the root cause of these problems. By rewriting social problems which have developed historically as the universal (natural, trans-historical, "existential") condition of the individual, the particular relations of that history are not explained but explained away.

What Coetzee and Wilson re-narrate as universal conditions of estranged being and recovery from estrangement, are socially-produced conditions of social being. Unlike the animal whose being, Marx argues, is determined by nature and natural relations, human being is determined by labor and the social relations of labor. It is not reason and language (which are themselves products of laboring activity) which differentiate the human from the animal, but labor. To bypass this is to bypass labor relations as the problem. What these fictions of the animal do is to locate the source of social problems elsewhere, beyond social resolution. In so doing, these fictions of the animal are excusatory accounts, teaching how to live with dehumanization as if it were a natural force and condition rather than a social contradiction and a historically specific form of denial of human capacity.

What is the character of humanity and humanity's life-activity? It is contradictory owing to the social situation in which human life is reproduced. The contradiction between the classes, which is actually a social contradiction—a product of history not nature—is theorized by the posthumanities as a natural or cosmic contradiction. For example, in What is Posthumanism? Cary Wolfe argues (after Derrida) that what defines and characterizes humanity is language, which is "fundamental to our embodied enaction, our bringing forth a world, as humans. And yet it is dead. Rather, as Derrida puts it quite precisely, it exceeds and encompasses the life/death relation" (xxv). Through language, through the use of language, human beings create ("enact") a world (or worlds) through "autopoiesis," which is both open and closed. Wolfe argues that the autopoietic closure of language, by which the complex human world is enacted in/of/by language, is, at the same time, through an "openness of closure" (xxi ff.) thereby open to the question of the animal, whose world is other. The posthumanities, Wolfe posits, is born of a recognition of "the necessity of a different logic" from humanism (xviii), and is "a thinking that does not turn away from the complexities and paradoxes of self-referential auto-poiesis" (xxi). The question of the animal is for the posthumanities a question of meanings and values: how to think differently in order to think more "openly" what it means to be human. This is an openness of thinking that bases the human in language as a transhistorical force, locating questions of value beyond social relations and indeed beyond "the life/death relation." It is a theory which does not explain dehumanization, but accounts for contradictions in human relations as epistemological and indeed existential issues. That is, ultimately the posthumanities locates social contradictions as natural, as existing in nature and the cosmos, including in the supposedly pre-social conditions of textuality in language itself, as if language has an origin prior to society and labor. Materialism, because it can explain the systematic dehumanization of humans as an effect of the capitalist mode of production which divides people into classes of exploiters and the exploited, produces a transformative understanding of inequality, whereas the posthumanities makes inequality into a question of the division between human/animal as an epistemological matter that changes with changes in textuality, by changing norms. The posthumanities are thus a form of idealism, in which the structure of life is nothing more than an effect of ideas rather than material reality. As opposed to idealism which always locates problems and their solutions beyond the social realm, materialism is a transformative theory of the real, explaining problems and solutions within the material relations of historical cause and effect, and thus providing explanations of what is needed to bring about actual transformation of the social relations.

For example, posthumanism holds that the destruction of the natural environment can be accounted for as an outcome of Cartesian binary thought. That is, to put it in more popular language, the reason for this destruction is said to be that human thinking has become disembodied and mechanized in modern times, which has led to terrible consequences for the environment, climate, ecosystems, flora and fauna, and people. The solution, in this view, might include a re-valuing of nature or a re-enchantment of the natural world and a renewal of a basic ethics, respect for others, for the other, for the unknowable animal Other. What is needed, posthumanists argue, to overcome disembodied, rational, mechanical, instrumental thinking is spiritual thinking-feeling; that is, in this view, if we change our values, we can by effect change the world. A primary limit of this idealist assessment is that it does not account for the emergence of Cartesian thought, or mechanistic thought, or instrumentalism. Why does such thinking and its associated values emerge in the first place? Generally, idealism posits an Edenic "fall" from which humanity now has to struggle to recover. But environmental destruction is a question of history, and the ways of thinking, the forms of consciousness, the values, etc. which have emerged are not in and of themselves the cause of destruction but rather are the effects of real material developments. Ideas, in other words, do not make things happen; ideas are the register of material events.

The question is, which ideas and theories really explain the material causes of certain knowable effects, and which ideas and theories are ideological resolutions in the imaginary that actually block knowledge of cause and effect? Materialism explains the destruction of the environment, for instance, as an inevitable outcome of the profit motive. As the members of the ruling class engage in intra-class competition for profit and thus to stave off the inevitable effects of the falling rate of profit, they must constantly find new markets, new resources, new and cheaper sources of labor-power. Marx and Engels write that the bourgeoisie are chased to every corner of the globe in pursuit of profit (487) and from the outset "capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt" (Marx Capital 748). Capital is not an excess to exchange which is produced out of thin air; capital and profit have their basis in the accumulation of labor-power above and beyond what is deemed historically necessary for the reproduction of human life. Labor, under capitalism, produces value from the use of commodified human labor-power and also out of commodified nature. When labor-power and nature are made into commodities for the benefit of the owning class, this has at minimum two effects: (1) the alienation of labor and the consequent dehumanization of the life-activity of the laboring class; and (2) the use of nature (environment, ecosystems, flora and fauna, water,…) not for the sustenance of all but for the private gain of the few. When these relations are grasped materially, as a social problem, it becomes clear that the resolution of these problems cannot be limited to the realm of ideas and values but lies in the social relations which are the cause of not only ideas and values but also real material effects, such as dehumanized humans and destruction of nature.

The human/animal relation is a social one, with a social and therefore changeable essence and cause, which is that by ending and transforming the social relations of exploitation which occur at the site of labor, the alienation and dehumanization of humans will end and thus human life-activity can become a free conscious activity of individuals in (world) community. Human life-activity becomes free when it is no longer a commodity to be bought and sold on the market, and human consciousness becomes free when the conditions of its reproduction are no longer estranged and alienating. But so long as the life-activity of the working class is reduced to a commodity, a means for the profit of the ruling class, then human life-activity is not free. In turn, insofar as the capitalist approach to the environment is driven solely by the logic of profit, it is only by ending the exploitation of human labor by the ruling class that the deep consequences that capitalist production has on the environment and on animals can be addressed.

Polar bears in the Artic, for example, are losing habitat not as a result of a lack of ethics or an overwhelming instrumentalism by the capitalist, but because of the relations of production which place the accumulation of profit above any and all social costs. Similarly, the equatorial rainforests of the world are decimated owing to these same social relations which, on the one hand, compel the people of these regions to turn to the forest for sustenance and, on the other hand, make it difficult for national governments to resist the corporate take-over of the rainforest as a vast but shrinking natural resource. Global competition for profit compels the ruling class to exclude from decision-making all but the profit motive—it is not "reason" but the uses to which reason is put that is the problem. Protection of species, conservation of wild places, etc., are made into ethical questions of value, but the problem is that whatever the ethics of a person or group, the overriding and thus determining system of value under capitalism is the profit motive, which is systematic, compulsory, and beyond individual choice. The problem with the posthumanities which seeks to change the value-ing of animal life is that while making a change in cultural values may effect "change," the actual social relations based on profit, which exist independently of culture, will continue to provide the overarching conditions within which such any such change could take place. The posthumanities thus appear as a re-description which allows the existing conditions of life to continue (with some reforms), and not an explanation which enables transformation to new conditions.

The realization of full human being, or what Marx theorizes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 as "species-being," requires conditions in which the principle human activity—labor—is a "free, conscious activity" (Marx Economic 276). "Species-being" is a concept for humans' dialectical and relational understanding of themselves not only as individuals but as individual members of a species. To grasp one's "species-being" is to grasp that one is a member of a species and thus a "universal individual." That is, to understand one's individual being as human is at the same time to understand one's labor relation to other humans. The character of the understanding, and of our consciousness generally, is determined by the character of our life-activity, and this is first and foremost labor (276). Human life-activity is not only an abstraction (e.g., human being or thought) but actual, concrete practical activity, that is, the labor necessary to reproduce humans and thus the consequent labor relations. Human understanding, which develops as a part of this life-activity, is not transhistorical, but is always conditioned by the historical development of society and its relations of production. While the posthumanities makes the relation of the human to the animal into the primary question, for historical materialism the human/animal relation is secondary to the class binary. The relation of humans to animals is secondary because it depends on the social relations; it is a historical relation not simply between "the human" and "the animal" but rather it is a social relation among humans which shape the relation between humans and animals. This social relation has developed as a global class relation; thus the question of humans and animals, or humans and nature, humans and environment, etc. is determined by the social relations of production and thus mediated, conditioned, and characterized by the actualities of class. Therefore, for historical materialism, to ask what characterizes the human is not to ask what distinguishes human from animal, vegetable, mineral, etc. as some transhistorical idealized "natural" essence but rather to mark the relations and activity which produce the human, and following from this, to investigate how these relations and this activity are structured historically.

What characterizes human life-activity in capitalism as a system of production, which is at the same time the systematic reproduction of the division of humans into classes of exploiters and the exploited, are both the existing property relations (i.e., the class division between those with property and thus capital from those without property, who possess only their labor-power), and the originary alienation of labor from property as the historical basis of the evolved class relations (Marx Economic 279-80). Alienation—or estrangement—of laboring activity from the activity of decision-making about the priorities of labor, about the kind and social value of labor's product, and the like, is not only a modern managerial separation, but is at its historical root a separation among humans, a separation of labor from its product and thus from the process of making decisions and setting priorities. This alienation of labor, Marx writes, "tears from him [the worker] his species-life" (277), that is, it separates the class of laboring individuals from what makes them human, and also separates the class of ruling individuals from general humanity. The life-activity of the laboring class is degraded to a means ("instruments of labor") rather than being its own end ("free life-activity in common"). Labor made into a commodity becomes a means for others, for the ruling and owning class, to meet other ends, specifically to produce and accumulate profit from the surplus-labor workers expend above and beyond the labor that they are paid for to reproduce themselves as workers.

Alienated labor is the dehumanization of the worker. As the owning class consolidates ever more surplus value as capital, and in so doing reduces the working class to beings concerned only with their physical reproduction, life for the laborer increasingly takes on the character of animal life. It is here that the distinction human/animal returns as useful, within the social relation. The alienation of humans from their own labor is the social division of the human into a contradictory relation, one which gives rise to capitalism and which has intensified with the historical development of capitalism as a global system: the dehumanization of the laboring class and the reduction of our life-activity to the day-to-day struggle to reproduce ourselves and our families, as against that of the owning class whose command of labor is a means of producing not only for need but for profit. However, the point is that while the owners are also bound in the social contradictions—the appearance of freedom in life-style is overlaid on the economic compulsion of intra-class competition and the profit motive—the class-being of the owner is based on the dehumanization of the far greater number of laborers by the social relations of capitalism. Exploitation is the problem that posthumanism re-describes and thus resolves in the imaginary; but exploitation is a real problem which substitutes contradictory class-being for the development of species-being. No renewed level of re-description can solve the problem. For that, transformation is required, and transformation has as a condition of possibility the critique of ideology and the production of ideas, concepts, logics, etc. which explain the world so as to make free and conscious activity and decisions possible.

In order for all human beings to begin to develop our collective species-being in and as free and conscious activity, what is needed is the conceptual ability to distinguish between what-is and what-can-be. Grasping such a relation, conceiving of it, becoming critically conscious of this relation is a human, and not an animal capacity, given by the development of labor itself. Developing the critical conceptual grasp is a condition for transforming the relations of exploitation and the estrangement they produce into relations of labor as a free and conscious activity of realizing full human capacities for all. Marx theorizes this dehumanization of people—that is, the alienation of human beings from the conditions of their realized humanity—in relation to animal being. Whereas ruling class political economy and philosophy defined human nature in terms of the individual in nature prior to or outside the social, Marx argues that human being is always already social being. Unlike animals, human being develops and is conditioned by social relations which are not only made by human beings themselves but are knowable and changeable. The root problem is that through the division of labor and the emergence of property relations, human being has been unevenly developed and develops differently for individuals owing to the specific conditions produced by the class structure. The species-being of humanity is its social being, and as this social being and the determinants of its development are contradictory relations of exploitation, then the human being which develops is a class-divided contradictory being, laboring to maintain physical existence under conditions that force this dehumanization of man's sociality, or animalization of the human being.

The main problem of the social totality today is not the relation of animal and human, but rather the class relations between humans: the humans who must labor to live and the humans who live by de-humanizing the laboring class, reducing them to physical beings and depriving them of their species-being. The struggle for freedom and the struggle for consciousness are not a natural struggle, an existential struggle, or an epistemological struggle but a social and historical struggle. Becoming aware of and understanding what produces the real conditions of life is a necessary step in the struggle against capitalism so that there are no longer two kinds of persons—exploiters and the exploited—but rather a society in which "in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (Marx and Engels 506).

[1] On vulnerability, see Füssel on the "double inequity" facing poor nations; see Patz, et al., on "involuntary exposure," sensitivity to climate change, and adaptive capacity; see Carr, et al., for a discussion of national and global "poverty-environment indicators"; see Comim, et al., on impact of degraded ecosystems on the poor; and also see Amechi's discussion of "the right to environment."

[2] On transformative reading and de-reading, see "Reading and Its Cultural Politics" in The Red Critique, 10.

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THE RED CRITIQUE 14 (Winter/Spring 2012)