I 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.