Letters - Winter 2007

Response to Our Autumn Issue

By Our readers | December 1, 2006

Getting It All Wrong

It takes chutzpah to write an essay on a subject you don’t know much about, but perhaps Brian Boyd assumes that the obscurantist dogmatists he caricatures in “Getting It All Wrong” will not bother to read it. Boyd’s examples and language reveal that his notion of theory is frozen circa 1986, and that most of what he knows about it he learned from popular articles. To take only the most egregious example, he writes that “Derrida and his disciples think only in terms of humans, of language, and of a small pantheon of French philosophers and their approved forebears. . . . There was some excuse for Derrida in 1966, but there is none for the disciples in 2006.” Well, Professor Boyd, there is no excuse for your failing to read anything Derrida wrote after 1966. If you’re going to attack him for ignoring issues, it would be wise to ascertain whether he in fact ignored them. Apparently Boyd has never read Derrida’s late work on, precisely, the animal. In “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” which appeared in English translation in 2001, for example, Derrida writes that “there is no animal in the general singular, separated from man by a single indivisible limit. We have to envisage the existence of ‘living creatures’ whose plurality cannot be assembled within the single figure of an animality that is simply opposed to humanity.” So much for thinking only in terms of the human, no? The essay —one of several on this very subject in Derrida’s later writings—goes on to explore the fallacies not only of thinking anthropocentrically but of conceiving of language itself in singularly human terms. We could, he argues, think of language as something only humans possess if we construe it in precisely the fashion that Boyd condemns in the “poststructuralists,” but that would be to ignore much recent relevant scientific work on animals and language. Throughout the essay, Derrida engages (“thinks in terms of”?) the writings of not only Heidegger and Nietzsche but Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, and Bentham. If these are included in the “small pantheon” of “approved forebears,” who would not be? For remarkable examples of “theory” that live up to Boyd’s unnecessary (because already followed) prescriptions to take science seriously, he might have at least glanced at Cary Wolfe’s Animal Rites, Alain Badiou’s work on set theory, Giorgio Agamben’s books on the animal, or Slavoj Zizek’s engagements with contemporary cognitive science and consciousness studies. If Boyd had done such basic research on literary theory, though, he would not have been able to produce a shoddy, prejudice-confirming essay arguing (as the cover has it) that “If the Theory people bothered to read science, they’d realize just how silly they’ve been.” I trust I don’t need to rephrase that with Boyd as its subject in order to show just how amusing it is.

Michael Robbins

Brian Boyd replies:

Michael Robbins assumes my knowledge of Theory is “frozen circa 1986.” In fact I was prompted by and replying to a paper of Louis Menand that itself deplores the frozenness of Theory and asks what could bring about a much-needed thaw. Menand asks for a critique, but he does not know where the heat or the pressure should come from. But what he does feel he can insist on is that the way out of Theory’s icy impasse is “definitely” not consilience, E. O. Wilson’s term for the attempt to link the natural sciences, most immediately the life sciences, with the social sciences and the humanities, for that would be “a bargain with the devil.”

Perhaps Robbins’s quarrel should be with Menand rather than with me. I have contributed to a forthcoming volume called Knowing Animals (Brill, 2007), edited by Derrida scholar Laurence Simmons and animal studies scholar Philip Armstrong. Introducing the volume, the editors proclaim an “animal turn” during the last two decades “comparable in significance to the ‘linguistic turn’ that revolutionized humanities and social sciences disciplines from the mid-twentieth century onwards.” They also cite with approval both Bruno Latour and E. O. Wilson as striving to break down the barrier between the humanities and the natural sciences.

I think “the animal turn” a considerable overstatement. Animal studies exists as a subdiscipline, but on the margin. Menand, focusing nostalgically on the “greatest generation” of the 1960s, does not show any awareness of it, let alone any sense that it might thaw icebound Theory. And indeed animal studies as a humanistic subdiscipline will remain on the margin if it fails to engage fully with evolution and ethology, with biological theory and observation.

Derrida discusses the animal, in his characteristic way, through his punning neologism l’animot, part “animal,” part “word,” through discussing “the animal” in terms of language and human perceptions. So too had Heidegger, whom both Derrida and Agamben respond to. Heidegger had defined “the animal” as weltarm, “poor in world.” Listen to Agamben patiently clarifying Heidegger’s attempt to define the ontological status of “the animal”:

it is offen (open) but not offenbar (disconcealed; lit., openable). For the animal, beings are open but not accessible; that is to say, they are open in an inaccessibility and an opacity—that is, in some way, in a nonrelation. This openness without disconcealment distinguishes the animal’s poverty in world from the world-forming which characterizes man. (The Open: Man and the Animal, 2004)

Such writing only confirms my claim that theorists think, even when professedly considering animals, “only in terms of humans, of language, and a small pantheon” of forebears. Over the last half-century there have been many thousands of studies of different animals’ capacity to understand their world, and nuanced research on the difference between vervet monkeys and capuchin monkeys, or scrub jays and pigeons, in capacities ranging from numerosity to Theory of Mind. Such studies make the work of Derrida and Agamben look impoverished and enclosed—frozen, in fact.

To disprove my charge about the small pantheon of approved forebears that Theorists refer to, Robbins cites Derrida’s references, in discussing the human and the animal, to not only Heidegger and Nietzsche but also “Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, and Bentham.” These are indeed illustrious names, but all except the approved forebears are before Darwin, who overturned all we had thought about our relations to other animals, and who studied in detail the close relationship between the expressions of emotion in humans and other animals. Robbins does not mention Darwin, or Tinbergen, the founder of ethology, or Griffin, the founder of cognitive ethology, or prominent modern researchers like Frans de Waal, Marc Hauser, or Marc Bekoff, who actually study cognition in other animals and the relation of different aspects of animal knowing to human knowing. Had he, or Derrida, or Agamben, cited names like these—Agamben cites the early ecologist von Uexküll only because Heidegger, von Uexküll’s contemporary, at least cites him before drifting off into his fog; but Agamben himself does not cite any contemporary biology—Robbins would have proved his point. As it is, he has only proved mine. Over the last few decades scientific work on the evolution of cognition, emotion, sociality, and morality in other animals has radically altered our sense of animal minds and has helped clarify the evolved basis of human cognition, emotion, sociality, and morality. Without attending to this research program, the humanities can only impoverish themselves.

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