Seres at SEP-FEP: Think human language, distinctiveness and responsibility metonymically, not metaphorically

Among the aspects of Serres’ paper that provoked the most animated discussion this morning was his contention, in ‘Information and Thinking’ and elsewhere, that human beings are not the only entities to think. The idea was articulated most powerfully in the snippet of the talk reproduced below:


This thought returned in the final paragraph of the address:

They [material elements] encode, we encode; they count, we count; we speak, they speak.[1]

The thought that exercised some of the panel members in the round-table discussion following the intervention was the way in which ascribing language (and by implication, it seemed to be extrapolated, agency and responsibility) to non-human objects was a metaphor unwarranted by the very clear differences between a human being and (to use Serres’ example from Verne’s cave) a crystal.

This understanding of how Serres is deploying terms like ‘encode’, ‘speak’ and ‘count’ is not the only one available, however, and indeed it is not the one that cuts best with the grain of his arguments. The issue can be clarified by considering the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

The contributions of some panelists seemed to imply that there are only two options available to us: either a ‘flat ontology’ (attributed to Serres) in which there is no way to account for distinctively human responsibility (for the environment, for example), and a human exceptionalism that eschews a flat ontology but legitimates political and social concerns in a way that the flat ontology cannot.

This is not a dichotomy I recognise from my own reading of Serres, and I think that the confusion comes through taking Serres to be speaking metaphorically when in fact he is speaking metonymically.

The (spurious) metaphorical reading of Serres goes something like this: Language simpliciter, language as such, is human language. All other uses of the term ‘language’ are (legitimate or illegitimate) metaphorical extensions of this literal sense of the term. ‘Humans speak’ is not metaphorical; ‘material elements speak’ is. The metaphorical sense here is parasitic on the literal (human) sense; if there is no ‘plain’ sense of what it means to speak, then there can be no metaphorical sense.  We start with human language—or human responsibility—as traditionally understood and then every other instance of the term ‘language’ or ‘responsibility’ must be a metaphorical extension of that first, human sense.  It’s when we think of Serres in this way that he seems to be painting a Romantic, enchanted, Toy Story world in which stones whisper to each other behind our backs and objects come out to play when we are absent.

But I don’t think that reading of Serres is most faithful to what he is seeking to communicate. We get closer to Serres’ thought when we read him as speaking not metaphorically but metonymically, or more precisely synecdochically (I argue this at greater length in a forthcoming article on Serres in SubStance). In arguing that material elements, too, encode, count and speak, he is not seeking to extend the human meanings of these terms to the non-human world. That would indeed–as was rightly pointed out by the panel–be anthropomorphic and anthropocentric.

He is doing something more radical and much less anthropocentric: contesting that there is a literal sense of language that is to be identified with human language in the first place. Rather, for Serres human language is one local and distinctive instance of a phenomenon that is in no way properly human, but that belongs to all entities. Crystals do not speak with syntactic human language (whoever suggested they did? After all, humans do not undergo an existential crisis when we realise that we don’t transmit information in the same way that crystals do, so why would we assume the reverse?), but it is still quite true and not in the least metaphorical for Serres to insist that crystals speak and human beings speak. (In this he is very close indeed to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘renvois de sens’ between all entities in the world in L’Adoration).

Serres’ rethinking of language is intended to be a challenge to the privileging of the mode of syntactic language as the paradigm of which all other instance of language are metaphors, not a universalisation of this paradigm. In this sense, it is akin to a Wittgenstinian argument about definitions: when we say ‘language’ we must take it to mean any emission, storage, processing or reception of information, not only what humans do in communicating with words.

Where does this leave human responsibility and human distinctiveness? Smoothed away on some universal ironing board of flat ontology? Not a bit of it. Serres can (and does) retain a notion of human distinctiveness—he is a self-avowed humanist, after all—but it is a distinctiveness traceable to a quantitative difference, not an ontological difference between the human and, say, the crystal.

There are different sorts of difference, and we must be careful not to fall into the sloppy binary of ‘no difference at all’/’irreducible ontological difference’. Serres’ account is more fine-grained than that. To reconstruct  it quickly (and elaborate it beyond what Serres says himself, to the best of my knowledge of his work):

  1. Both the human and the crystal receive, store, process and emit information.[2] There is no ontological difference.
  2. But there is an indisputable quantitative difference: the amount, variety and complexity of information that I receive, store, process and emit, is many orders of magnitude greater than the crystal (though the crystal can also perform some tasks of information storage, processing and emission better than I can).
  3. This quantitative difference between humans, animals and crystals tips over, in a Hegelian way, into what is to all intents and purposes a qualitative difference: my information processing is so different to a crystal’s that, looked upon in terms of their results, they hardly seem the same thing at all.
  4. This quantitative-qualitative difference does the heavy lifting that ‘human distinctiveness’ is usually called on to schlep: humans bear a peculiar weight of responsibility, not because they are ontologically or at bottom qualitatively unique, but because they are quantitatively (and therefore qualitatively–think Hegel again) set apart within the entities of the world by virtue of HOW they process information and HOW MUCH they process, not THAT they process it.
  5. So we can, after all, draw a line between human speech and crystal speech, and we don’t need to see fairies under every rock (though the post-Baconian fact-value distinction also needs interrogating afresh in the light of Serres’ ontology, and the odd ‘fairy’ here and there might not always be unwarranted).
  6. And the question is not whether there is a line to be drawn, but the nature of that line, and the point at which a difference of quantity tips over into a difference of quality.

[1] Incidentally, note the inversion of order of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in the third element of this ternary rhythm and its subtle reinforcement of the argument being made: Serres is on his game!

[2] If Serres’ account is to be challenged, it is at the point of the adequacy of this information paradigm, not at the point of the denial of distinctive human responsibility. Can the reception, storage, processing and emission of information act as a sufficient (let alone necessary) paradigm for human being in the world (or, for that matter, for crystalline existence)?

David Wood on Kinnibalism

David WoodI have thought for some time now that the next big rights issue for our society will be fought over the status of animals. Reading a short piece by David Wood this morning entitled Kinnibalism, Cannibalism: Stepping Up to the Plate reminded me just how “locked and loaded” this issue is today. The philosophical justification of the mass killing of animals for food–to take one of the most salient examples of a multi-faceted issue–is, on most currently valent positions, vanishingly small if it exists at all and, as with the pronouncements of Nietzsche’s madman, it is just a case of how much time the lightening, thunder and light of the stars will take to arrive.

Goya, CronusOne issue I have with Wood’s reading of ‘kinnibalism’, though, is the recourse to genetics as a way of arguing against the eating of certain species. He writes:

Genetic overlap between man and the mammals some of us eat is considerable: pigs (86%), cows (80%). The old understanding of cannibalism understood autophagy as ‘humans eating humans’. For many today, when we eat mammals, we are no less eating our kind, our kin.

Is the principle here that the more genetic “code” we share with species x, the less we should be ready to eat it? That seems to be preserving a human exceptionalism through the back door. Why should our code be the yardstick by which other species are measured? And why should genes be a determining factor rather than, for example, the equally problematic measures of animal “intelligence” or even “cuteness”?

Perhaps Wood’s “kinnibalism” is a staging post for a society that is not ready to swallow a completely vegetarian or vegan diet quite yet. First move against kinnibalism and then, once that argument is won, bring people the rest of the way. Such staging posts are not uncommon in these types of debates, and more often than not they are effective.

Cover and endorsement for Khandker, Philosophy, Animality and the Life Sciences

The cover has just been finalised for Wahida Khandker’s Philosophy, Animality and the Life Sciences, in the Crosscurrents series.

The endorsement from Cary Wolfe reads:

Ranging across a remarkable array of crucial texts in the recent history of philosophy and the life sciences, this book provides both an invaluable critical overview of the work of Whitehead, Canguilhem, Bergson, Haraway, and others on the question of “life” and at the same time pursues its own highly original intervention in how we can think our ontological and ethical relation to non-human beings.

You can find my interview with the author here.

Philosophy, Animality and the Life Sciences

Interview with Wahida Khandker about her forthcoming book Philosophy, Animality and the Life Sciences

Goya dogI am delighted that Crosscurrents will be publishing Wahida Khandker’s new book Philosophy, Animality and the Life Sciences in July 2014. The book is a study of pathological concepts of animal life in Continental philosophy from Bergson to Haraway.

Here is the blurb:

Amongst contemporary debates about our relation to non-human animals, our use of them for scientific research remains a hugely contentious issue, and one that many Continental philosophical engagements with ‘the animal question’ have (rightly) been accused of shying away from.  On the other hand, traditional moral philosophy has been limited to the demarcation of living beings either within or outside of our circle of moral consideration.  Can Continental approaches to the categories of animality and organic life help us to reconsider our treatment of non-human animals?  This book looks at the philosophical assumptions underpinning these debates by following the historical and philosophical development of the concept of ‘pathological life’ as a means of understanding organic life as a whole.  It explores the significance of this across philosophy and the life sciences through the work of a number of key thinkers of life and process, from Henri Bergson to Donna Haraway, and argues that the concept of pathological life plays a pivotal role in contemporary  reconfigurations of the human-animal distinction.

Wahida has also kindly agreed to answer some questions about the book.

A great deal has been written on animality and the human/animal distinction in recent years. What does Philosophy, Animality and the Life Sciences say that is unique in this area?

I think the uniqueness of this book is in its sustained philosophical study, within a particular strand of the Continental tradition (the neo-vitalist strand running from Bergson to Canguilhem and Foucault), of the key problem that defines ‘critical animal studies’: the human-animal distinction and how its definition and development impacts on our treatment of non-human animals.  Much of the work that is currently taking place, as interesting and valuable as it is, tends to only touch on philosophical concepts and problems such as the nature of subjectivity, the concepts of time or process, and epistemological questions concerning the content and limits of conscious experience.  Through thinkers such as Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, I try to show how such questions serve as the foundation for enquiries into our relationships with other species on our planet.  Of course, such an approach already exists in environmental ethics where ontological questions underpin theories on the interconnectedness of living and non-living species, and can help to promote care for the environment by underlining the fragile interdependency of individual organisms and ecosystems.  But I wanted to follow this ontological approach in order to tackle the problem of animal rights, looking to thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Donna Haraway for particular formulations of interspecific and transgenic forms of communication between living organisms, and what this might reveal about our attitudes towards the use of animals for food, labour and experimentation. 


You place a particular emphasis on the concept of “pathological life”. Could you sketch the significance of this term for your project?

My project grew out of a broader interest in the concept of organic life that philosophers such as Henri Bergson are well-known for discussing.  As one branch of this broader enquiry, in the writings of the historian of science, George Canguilhem, and following him, Michel Foucault, it is claimed that over the course of the nineteenth century the concept of pathological life supplanted the prevailing vitalist theories of an animating principle as the ‘cause’ of living processes.  The essential point is that the idea that some ‘breath of life’ or external motive force drives a living thing is simply redundant in the scientific study of organic functions.  Rather, life is innately pathological insofar as its efforts can be defined as the attempt to resist disease and death.  What is interesting in the histories of philosophy, science and medicine, is that the line between life and death—the normal and the pathological—is a mobile boundary.  What was once considered pathological or pertaining to disease, at one point in history, is later considered ‘normal’ (e.g., consider the changes in our attitudes towards different mental health conditions and disability).  Thus, I consider the implications of this important shift in the scientific and medical understanding of life for the nature of the human-animal distinction.  My contention is that the moving boundary between the normal and the pathological has not simply improved our understanding of disease and our ability to stave it off, but it has also facilitated the continual re-constitution of the animal as the outside, inferior, or pathological form of the human. 


In the first chapter you criticise the persistence of the Great Chain of Being in our thinking about life and the natural world. To what extent do you think that the Great Chain of Being still controls our discourse about animals today?

It is there in most discussions about the rearing and consumption of animals for food, but this is usually a lazy or unthinking attitude towards meat-eating: human beings are superior, and other animals are there for us to consume.  It is ‘natural’.  Other animals’ capacities tend to be defined as weakened versions of our own.  They lack reason, their feelings of pain or suffering are less intense, and so on.  In fact, such attitudes are also reflected in theories of animal consciousness which tend to be dominated by the assumption that there is a relatively perfected form of consciousness located in the species named Homo sapiens sapiens.  All other forms of consciousness can be categorised as less developed manifestations of conscious life.

In the book you evoke the “fallacy of evolutionary thinking”. Could you explain what you mean by that?

When we think of the evolution of living things, we tend to assume that species that emerged later are naturally better: they are, after all, the products of the Darwinian principle of natural selection according to which weaker or disadvantageous features of a species have been weeded out over time, leaving a fitter organism with characteristics that are advantageous for its survival in its particular environment.  The fallacy lies in a misunderstanding of the role of time.  The evolution of species is not a single process of perfection of life, but rather a continual explosion of diverse forms over the entire course of evolutionary history, which means that species existing today are just as susceptible to selective pressures as species that existed several million years ago.  The same could be said of any lineage we might trace, be it of a species of animal, or a particular concept in the history of ideas.  ‘Later’ does not necessarily mean ‘better’.

You want to resist the tehdency to anthropomorphise animals, but you argue for the animalising of the human subject. Why do you reject the first but accept the second?

Attempts to anthropomorphise animals usually come with attempts to fit them into an ‘acceptable’ frame of one kind or another: such as the definition of consciousness (can they reason?), or the circle of moral consideration (can they suffer?).  The problem with such attempts lies precisely in their exclusivity.  The Great Apes are thought to share many traits with human beings and, it is argued, should be accorded similar rights.  Therefore we should not subject chimpanzees to painful experiments or long periods of confinement in laboratories.  However, rats do not possess these traits; therefore, it is acceptable to experiment upon them.

Despite how it sounds, the animalising of the human is not an attempt to derogate human life (indeed, one would only think this on the assumption that animals are our inferiors).  It is rather an attempt to consider certain traits that we hold to be exclusively or eminently human as equally characteristic of other species.  For example, forms of language and tool use are now recognised in other species.  The other key distinction is between humans as ‘agents’, and animals as ‘patients’.  What happens if we think about animals as participants in the networks of relations that we form with them in (in farms, laboratories, and our homes), rather than simply passive recipients or subject to our will and actions upon them? 


In the book you seem gently to take Donna Haraway to task for not coming out against animal testing. Is the argument of the book intended to draw the reader towards any particular conclusions on this and other current social issues?

I wanted to see if I could write a book at least in part from the stance of an ‘animal advocate.’  When I discuss historical or contemporary instances of animal experimentation, I am immediately concerned with the accompanying attitudes towards it (morally, scientifically/biologically, etc.).  Insofar as I identify the lab-animal-human relation as one of violence, not a productive form of subjectivity (Haraway ponders the duality of the status of laboratory animals), the book does lean towards an ‘abolitionist’ view of the use of animals in scientific research. 


It is sometimes suggested that the status of the animal will be the next big civil rights issue for our society (some argue it already is). Where do you see things going in the years ahead?

There have already been major shifts, at least in certain countries, to the benefit of animals, such as the EU ban on cosmetics testing.  Other factors, not related directly to the animal rights movement, have also seen changes in our attitudes towards intensive farming: the problems of obesity in humans, and the spread of disease in farmed animals have encouraged a wider appreciation of what goes into our food.  I do not think it is a matter of there being a straightforward or enlightened trajectory towards the abolition of animal experimentation, since animal activism remains a marginal endeavour (as opposed to environmentalism, which has become more mainstream over the last two decades or so).  I think with the burgeoning interest in critical animal studies, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this has on the role that universities play in the perpetuation of animal research as the norm.  I would like to think that any intensification of research (and intensification of funding for ‘impactful’ research into major diseases such as cancer and heart disease) that uses animals, will be matched by an increase in scrutiny by both academics and the public of such practices.