Interview with Anat Pick, author of Creaturely Poetics

Creaturely PoeticsThe following is an interview with Anat Pick, author of Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film.

Question: Your title, Creaturely Poetics, does not explicitly mention humans or animals. What or who is “creaturely” and how does speaking about creatures differ from speaking about humans and animals?

Anat Pick: There are a number of reasons for speaking about creatures instead of humans and animals. The creaturely includes both human and nonhuman life. Creatureliness is intended to replace the so-called human condition, which implies the “inhuman condition” as somehow inferior and excluded from life’s existential adventure and, most significantly, excludes animals from the moral community. The creaturely is primarily the condition of exposure and finitude that affects all living bodies whatever they are. The materiality of life turns us all into creatures sharing in a common embodiment and mortality. Recent scholarship, especially in the area of biopolitics, has turned its attention to the state of bodily exposure. But unlike Giorgio Agamben’s bare life or Judith Butler’s precarious life, which remain within the confines of human life, creatureliness applies across the range of living beings and draws on the predicament of animals as in some sense exemplary of precarity as such.

There is, furthermore, a kind of provocation in the term “creature” because it hints at a certain animalization (or—to use a loaded term—“dehumanization”) of the human, and, conversely, a certain humanization of the animal. It is an egalitarian term that refrains from simply extending moral consideration to animals based on capacities similar to our own that we grant they possess and which therefore entitle them to (certain limited) rights. Instead of extending such consideration to animals, I wanted to contract humanity. This is a recurring idea in the book, and it is partly achieved by thinking of human beings as creatures. The creature speaks universally, without erasing or flattening out the differences that clearly exist between different living beings. The question is an ethical one: what value do we attach to the differences between humans and animals and what are the moral consequences of such differences? Contrary to some work in animal ethics, I do not concede a moral difference between humans and animals; I do not recognize a difference in the intrinsic value between human and nonhuman life.

But there is a third sense in which “creaturely” is a preferable framework within which to operate: I have become increasingly skeptical about what seem like endless but ultimately fruitless deconstructions of the human/animal binary. I don’t think reaching conceptually to some before or beyond of the human matters very much. The book offers a different reading of the problem of animal exploitation and of the central problem of violence that persist whether or not we regard ourselves as human or view animals as more or less similar to us. The more controversial implication of my work is that our kinship with animals—and indeed kinship in general—is no guarantee against violence. I explore this idea in the first chapter on the Holocaust, a chapter that moves away from conventional Holocaust rhetoric, for which “human” and “humanity” are key terms for making sense of the event. The Holocaust is not, I argue, simply a “crime against humanity” but a violation of the sacred. And I turn to a variety of thinkers and commentators, from Primo Levi to Alain Finkielkraut and Simone Weil, to explore the uses and misuses of the discourse of species in Holocaust remembrance. I do not subscribe to the notion that enlightenment humanism in some ways led to or culminated in the Holocaust, nor do I see the chief task of remembrance as a salvaging and a reinstating of humanism. It is through a creaturely prism that the Holocaust remains at once a worldly or historical event and a radically transgressive one.

Finally, the religious inflections of creatureliness are intentional. Part of what Creaturely Poetics aims to do is bring together—not always harmoniously—theological and materialist approaches. Materiality and the sacred are two very different ideas that I nonetheless try to look at in some kind of conjunction.

Q: This coinciding of religion and materialism in the book takes place largely through your focus on the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. Can you explain Weil’s importance, and the role of religion in thinking through the question of the animal?

AP: The word “religious” can be misleading. To be sure, Weil’s form of Christianity is unorthodox and from an outsider’s perspective. Similarly, Creaturely Poetics is religious in the broad sense of advocating a form of reverence toward creation and created things. Love, so central to Weil’s thinking, is in my work the most fitting response to life’s material constitution. I do not see a necessary opposition between a materialist and a theological view of the world.

I recently read a piece by William E. Connolly in which he argues that the big philosophical or intellectual disagreement is not between believers and atheists, faith and science, but between different species of faith. He describes this as the tension between “a positive belief in transcendence over the world and a positive belief in the immanence of the world.” I was drawn to Weil’s work because of its equal commitment to the physical—to immanence—and the mystical—to transcendence. In Weil, as Connolly so elegantly puts it, the tension between matter and non-matter results in the attempt to think both simultaneously. Weil’s appeal, for me, resides in these two sensibilities pressed together in unusual ways. Weil retained a mechanistic deterministic approach to life (which she called gravity) and the possibility of redemption (grace). Increasingly in her work, the two sensibilities are “contrasted into fusion,” if I can put it like that, and never divorced from the political. Weil’s mysticism never lets go of embodiment, is never used as a source of consolation but on the contrary, as a manner of confronting what Cora Diamond, another philosopher whose work has been influential for me, calls “the difficulty of reality.” Although Weil did not talk about animals, her views on justice and on what makes life precious are not in any simple sense humanist and lend themselves to an ethics inclusive of nonhuman animals. In other words, Weil is a “creaturely” thinker. And in many ways her fusing of historical materialism with a radical Christian sensibility anticipated the current “theological turn” in some left politics.

Biographically, too, Weil is a fascinating figure. She attracted the attention of a whole range of people, from T. S. Eliot to Susan Sontag, and yet remained on the margins of academia, perhaps because she is not easily classifiable, embarrassingly and unabashedly theistic, and an idealist whom it is a little too easy to pathologize. In recent years she has enjoyed a kind of revival. My own experience of reading her has been transformational. She is fanatical and subtle, shrewd and psychologically insightful, extreme but never simplistic.

The book grew out of an engagement with a single statement by Weil: “The vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is a mark of existence.” This statement seemed to me to encompass, efficiently and poetically, the overlapping registers of the question of the animal. Creaturely Poetics sets out to unpack Weil’s statement in a variety of case studies.

Q: What, then, are the ethical implications of taking materiality and vulnerability seriously?

AP: I take material existence not as some precondition of moral value, but as synonymous with it: finite, mortal, vulnerable existence is tantamount to a sense of the sacredness of life—any life. This moves the discussion away from the familiar ethical models that determine moral status along an imaginary hierarchy at the top of which are, unsurprisingly, human beings. Moral status is most frequently decided according to the cognitive capacities that animals do or do not possess. The problems with this capabilities model are apparent and I wanted to gesture toward an alternative ethical framework that does not privilege human capacities and measures other animals in relation to them.

Q: But isn’t there a danger in focusing too much on vulnerability and powerlessness, promoting a kind of “victim ethics,” a danger particularly acute in the case of animals?

AP: There is arguably a growing tendency to think ethics through the prism of victimization and that is no doubt undesirable. I respond to this objection by distinguishing between creaturely vulnerability and the idea of animals as supreme victims who lack agency and power. I make a point of avoiding, for example, comparisons with certain strands of human rights theory that overemphasize suffering as the foundation of universal compassion. My use of creatureliness invokes the common materiality of life from which we can begin to rethink the power relations that determine moral consideration. In this respect, not only is creatureliness not akin to victimization, it entails a critique of the discourse of rights that in a sense cannot escape the dynamic of powerful versus powerless, dominant and subordinate, perpetrator and victim.

Q: Can you say a bit more on the book’s explicit critique of the idea of rights? What is wrong with rights?

AP: In the book I follow the trajectory in animal studies that I see beginning with J. M. Coeztee’s seminal The Lives of Animals, a trajectory I characterize as the move from rights to lives. I am of course a strong supporter of pro-animal legislation, but I find the idea of rights problematic in relation to humans and animals alike.

I devote several passages to Weil’s critique of rights. Her principal objection concerns the congenital link between rights and power: “might makes right,” in a nutshell. Rights can either be fought for and won, or else granted by those in power. This means that the vulnerable may be unable to obtain rights. For Weil, there is something faulty in the concept itself: rights cannot deliver the justice in whose name they are invoked. Rights are aligned with power not justice. So Weil prefers to speak of obligations, since she sees obligations as primary and unconditional. I follow her lead and give primacy to our obligations toward animals. In place of rights—human or animal—I talk about the sanctity of life that in turn obliges us to not harm and to safeguard the well-being and flourishing of beings.

But rights can be used as a kind of shorthand in animal advocacy. When I participated in a recent BBC television debate on the subject of animals, I supported the rights of animals to live and flourish free of exploitation and use by humans. But this use of rights is still underscored by a sense of creaturely fellowship that I argue for in the book. The idea of rights expresses legally the philosophical principle of equal moral value among creatures.

Q: In light of your critique of rights, where do you place yourself in the debate over animal liberation?

AP: As Robert Garner and Gary Francione have shown, the main division in debates over our relationship to animals is between the abolition and regulation of animal exploitation. Although Creaturely Poetics does not intervene explicitly in the practicalities of these debates between abolitionism and welfarism, I think the book’s abolitionist leanings are quite clear. I hope that Creaturely Poetics is received as a welcome contribution to abolitionist literature even if—or precisely because—I do not work in the tradition of either Francione or Regan and Singer.

Q: Earlier you mentioned the significance of J. M. Coetzee. The book is divided into two parts: “The Inhumanity of Literature” and “The Inhumanity of Film.” Why use literature and film to explicate ethical and philosophical questions?

AP: I am not a philosopher. My background is in literature and the bulk of my teaching in the last few years has been in film. More importantly, though, I think literature and art are suitable realms for contemplating ethical questions. Moral philosophy is often a brilliant thought exercise but I do not ascribe to it a privileged position in illuminating ethical matters. Ethics exceeds reasoned calculations and problem solving, and literature and cinema have the power of presenting us with a range of specific situations where ethical questions unfold in a manner that does not dispense with their full, at times irreducible, complexity.

One of the book’s main objectives is to articulate a new approach to literary and film criticism. Animal studies is a genuinely radical intervention into all branches of critical practice. Non-anthropocentrism has a decisive impact on the way we “do”— understand, teach, and research—literature, film, culture and politics. My focus is on examining some of the ideas behind this new way of approaching the so-called humanities: each chapter is an example of this new creaturely critical framework in action. Furthermore, I like a certain eclecticism to permeate my work, not only because of my background, but also because I am fond of scholarly eclecticism, of the likes of Sontag or, more recently, Jacqueline Rose, who write across politics, art, and culture—a certain tradition of letters that is close to my heart.

Q: You pay a lot of attention to the issue of power as underlying human-animal relations. Does this preoccupation with power in a sense replace an interest in the cognitive and subjective aspects of animals?
AP: As my discomfort with the concept of rights has already suggested, power is key to understanding our relationship with animals. Again, this is memorably articulated in Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, when Elizabeth Costello says we do what we do to animals for no other reason than that we can. This understanding of action is found also in Weil for whom actions are regulated primarily by the presence (or lack thereof) of obstacles: we do things because we can. There is something very profoundly disturbing about this view of human action, but it resonated with me and I wanted to explore it further. In animal studies there is a legitimate interest in the minds of animals and their interiority. This is a progressive move to afford animals “a world of their own” denied to them by philosophers like Heidegger, for example. In the book, I approached the matter from the other direction: I wanted to explore the exteriority that defines both humans and animals, regardless of the worlds they might inhabit.

Animal subjectivity is fascinating, but ultimately, I do not think it has any serious bearings on their moral status. It is materiality before mentality, as it were, that determines animals as members of the moral community. Because if we follow the subjectivity route, we are likely to discover that animals fall short in comparison to us. My book stands as a corrective of sorts to the main strands within animal studies that focus on animal minds.

Q: Does a creaturely poetics allow us to think more specifically about the actual treatment of animals? To put the question differently, is there a follow-up to Creaturely Poetics that moves in a more normative direction?

AP: I believe it is crucial to link a more “purist” theoretical analysis with a practical and political, indeed, a legislative approach to the question of animals. Creaturely Poetics is concerned with laying the theoretical foundations for the practical implications of living with and alongside animals. Addressing those practicalities is a separate project. But the main point is, as Weil insists, that good, useful policies and institutions depend on the right foundation. A policy carried out for the wrong reasons will be less effective, less workable, than the same policy issued from correct thinking. Our actions should emerge out of an adequate conception or formulation of the problem we face. The simplest example is veganism conceived as an ethical commitment rather than as motivated by health or environmental considerations. I don’t think the two are the same, and ethical veganism is by far the more radical, enduring, and practical way of effecting change. My hope is, therefore, that Creaturely Poetics will contribute to an adequate thinking through of the complexities of animal ethics and aesthetics.

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