‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cynthia Willett, Interspecies Ethics (2014)

I thought it would be an idea to read through Willett's latest book and notate some responses, aiming not at comprehensiveness of reaction (yet), but only an initial bounce-off. The worry, of course, is that such an approach will tend towards the unconsidered, and that would be unfair to Willett, who (though I cannot claim to be an expert in her thought) is very evidently a deeply-considered philosopher of intersectionality, ethics-diversity and environmental responsibility. So, when the book opens:
Low-level warfare has been raging across Africa, India and parts of South-east Asia for decades ... adolescent males alone or in gangs have been attacking villages and plowing under swaths of crops in retaliation for the murder of their families and the destruction of their tribal land. The rogue males terrorising African parks and jungles are not the orphaned youths of the Lord's Resistance Army, those kidnapped children pressed into service for the Ugandan revels. However, like child soldiers, those adolescents too are caught in downward spirals of destruction and self-injury triggered by decades of violence. They are among the last surviving members of the elephants of Uganda. [1]
...and my temptation is to make a sort of tch! noise, I need to take care. The aim is, presumably, rhetorical force and vehemence, but this seems to me to strike a tendentious note, already assuming what the book need to show, the ethical equivalence of animal and people: that elephant behaviour is straightforwardly equivalent to human behaviour (they wage war; they feel the injustice of their territorial situation, they are exactly like 'child soldiers' and so on). This is a position that sets out to recruit our sympathy for the plight of the elephants by assuring us that we must feel for them as we would for any human faced with the same situation. I remain, so far, unrecruited.

I should, of course, register the preconceptions (if you like: the biases, the horizons of closure of my mind) with which I sit down to read a book like this. Naturally I hope to open the arthritic portals of my brain sufficiently to read it fairly, and without prejudice; but we work with what we're given, and it's less dishonest to acknowledge one's ideological structures of thought at the get go. Let's talk about 'animal rights'. So, I am committed (I guess) to a model of rights as simultaneously inalienable and as defined by their reciprocal relationship to social duties. I'm not sure I can make sense of a concept of 'rights' that doesn't include a concept of 'responsibilities'. My rights are the limit cases of how society must treat me; my responsibilities are the structures of obligation I owe to society; the two necessarily go together. I would say my rights are larger than my responsibilities, and I'm very comfortable with that asymmetry. It is entailed, I think, by the fundamental disclosure of being alive at all, the inherent dignity and sanctity of life as such, as against the often restrictive and sometimes petty nature of responsibilities. But surely rights can never be one-sided. When it comes to animal rights I wonder: if an animal has rights, what are its concomitant responsibilities? If a lion has the right not to be hunted to death by humans, does it also have the responsibility not to eat me? That would be the Millesque liberal model of ethical interchange, and the problem is I don't trust the lion to keep up his half of the deal. Or if lions (as per Willett's opening gambit, noted above) are too tendentiously 'majestic' an example, let's try: if rats have the right to be left in peace do they also have the responsibility not to spread disease and wreck our sewage system? If the smallpox bacillus has the right not to be exterminated completely, does it not also have the responsibility to abstain from killing off human beings, as it has been doing since prehistoric times, with a death toll that almost certainly exceeds a billion (up to 500 million died of the disease in the 20th-century alone)?

OK, now I'm being tendentious myself. Of course elephants (16 references in Willett's index, many of them stretching over multiple pages) are large and noble animals; of course the smallpox bacillus (no references in Willett's index) is small and horrid. But if 'interspecies' is to mean more than intramammalian we need surely to open to the larger issue. The elephant in this room (sorry about that) is political; and the question about how far Green politics' progressive commitment to ideas of social justice, equality and respect marry-up with a fundamentally small-c, and sometimes large-C, conservative vision of a social paradigm based on traditional communities, village life, old-fashioned, small-scale interactions and so on. The people who enjoy such life nowadays are the very rich; most of the poor live in cities not through choice but by economic necessity. When Willett writes that
Moral philosophy has much to learn from ancient wisdom traditions ... [5]
the snarky part of me wants to retort: 'what, wise old ancient moral traditions like slavery and exposing unwanted babies on the hillside to die?' If Willett thinks a sustainable future can only happen via a retreat to the deep past ('until the recent past, small-scale human and elephant societies passed on ethical practices that sustained their cohabitation') then she'll need to convince me there's a way to turn the inescapably large-scale needs of today's heptabillion population into a small-scale solution that doesn't involve simply annihilating the vast majority of people now alive. This is not a question the book Interspecies Ethics addresses.

But then it's clear, I think, that Willett and I have a different sense of the possibility of community in the 21st-century world as it is constituted. She says
Today new technologies of electronic media and social networking (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) promise to recharge communal-based networks. However, pressured by our entrepreneurial culture, the new social media may just as likely shift humans further away from that communitarian ethos that characterized our species along with elephants and other mammals for eons. [3]
It seems to me that 'may', there, is a doing a lot of work. Maybe they will; but then again maybe they won't, and that Willett has no time for the latter and much more optimistic possibility seems to me a weakness in her book.


I start by wanting to nit-pick, and that's probably not healthy. Willett's fundamental ethical frame finds value in community, hospitality to others, laughter (especially the laughter of the subaltern), and I consider all those things to be very good things. But when she talks of 'hubris' I fear she doesn't know what she is talking about. The emphatic italics in the first sentence here are hers:
Ancient drama depicts hubris as an assault and an insult on selves-in-communitis [sic] by the powerful. This drama warns of the excess of power and privilege accumulated by elites in a social realm warped by conflict and power differentials. In contrast, modern liberal law, by aiming for a formal equality, abstracts from, rather than confronting, the sharp gradients in power that are ever the tragic source of blind arrogance. Ancient codes against hubris impose restraints on the asymmetries of power and provide rituals for reconciling differences through mourning and forgiveness, in this way differing from modern legal codes backed up by prison systems. [25]
This I think abstracts a 'pure' form of ὕβρις as an embodiment of the wisdom of ancient moral codes that has very little to do with the way ὕβρις actually figured in ancient Greece; and as such it seems to me dangerously symptomatic of a tendency to procede from an idealisation of a notionally more-harmonious past. For the Greeks, hubris was closely bound up with concepts of honour (τιμή, which could be as arrogant and vaunting as you like without sacrificing its honourableness) and shame (αἰδώς, which exists in a zero-sum relation to τιμή). Hubris defined actions that shamed victim and therefore abuser, and could only be applied in a situation where rightful vengeance was not the proper response. Revenge is fine, more or less; hubris is not. It comes clearer when you consider the examples of hubris in Athenian legal speechifying: in Against Midias Demosthenes accuses Midias of hubris for slapping him (Demosthenes) in the face in the theatre for no better reason than that they had certain political differences. And in Aeschines' Against Timarchus, Timarchus is accused of hubris, and therefore unfitness for public office, insofar as he submitted himself to passive anal intercourse with a variety of men (active anal intercourse would have been fine). Aeschines' arguments succeeded, and Timarchus was barred from political office. I do not believe that Willett has this form of hubris in mind when she valorises opposing it as a contemporary moral salient. I wonder if she is aware of it at all, actually.

Shame is certainly part of the (watch out! scare quotes!) 'wisdom' of ancient ethics, and Willett discusses it with a kind of tentative positivity: 'modern moral theory asserts sharp distinctions between so-called primitive shame culture and guilt culture. But these distinctions may break down when moral phenomena are reinterpreted in terms of their bio-social significance for social animals ... shame may be more telling than modern theories of individual guilt for understanding the symbolic impact and social relevance of crimes and moral violations ... shame and moral disgust share a visceral component that could well function in trans-species ethics' [115-17]. I really don't think this is right. Shame is surely very much more destructive than it is constructive. I also tend to think it's out of step with modern progressive understandings of ethics (though that in itself doesn't disqualify it, of course), where 'shaming' is positioned as a way of enforcing social conformity and normativity in those areas where the law does not provide disapprovers with the traction to do anything official about it: so it is that sexually promiscuous women are 'slut-shamed', overweight women are 'fat-shamed' and so on. Modern progressives tend to see this as a bad thing, and I tend to think they're right to do so. In a very particular sense, Aeschines' Against Timarchus is a successful example of faggot-shaming.

After a lengthy introduction we get to chapter 1, 'Can the Animal Subaltern Laugh?', and another chime from my pedantry alarm. I'm with Willett when she says that 'subaltern studies have established that ridicule and other forms of humor serve not only as accessories of cruelty and props of power but also provide discourses and technologies of reversal, levelling hierarchies by turning stratified structures upside down' [30] (well: I'm with her up to the last eight words, where I part company). But the question of whether and which animals laugh happens to be an area in which I've read quite widely, and I cannot agree with the sentence that follows: 'animal studies have begun to document the capacity for laughter in primates, dogs, and even in the chirping of mice' [30-31]. That 'even in the' phrase is there to gesture in an open-handed way: it used to be thought that only humans laugh, but now it seems that all these other animals—and who knows maybe all animals?—laugh as well. Therefore laughter enables 'an infrapolitics of cross-species outrage and solidarity'. Willett's footnote to her 'chimps, dogs and mice all laugh' claim cites Frans De Waal's The Age of Empathy (2010) and Robert Provine's Laughter: a Scientific Investigation (2000) but the first is by no means a scientific study of laughter and the latter deals only with humans and chimps. In fact scientific research suggests that 'laughter' is only found in three species: humans, chimps and rats. Not dogs, and certainly not all the animals in the world: the sound hyenas make might sound like laughter but is not. Horses do not laugh, and neither do bees. Indeed, the sense I have is that what makes us, chimps and rats unique in the laughter game is that (like horses and bees) we live in heirarchised social groups, but (unlike horses and bees) those hierarchies are relatively fluid, or at least not fixed. When we interact with a new individual we don't at first know whether we stand in a superior or an inferior relationship to them, where the pecking order it concerned; and laughter, in its many forms, is one of the ways we negotiate that anxious uncertainty. That's why it can be both the superior mocking put down (Nelson from The Simpsons: ha-ha!) and the subaltern snicker and subversion of authority: it lubricates the social interaction and micro-adjustments of behaviour both up and down. I daresay Willett would not agree, and of course she's under no obligation to; but this model strikes me as much less empowering than is compatible with the argument she advances here.


Chapter 2 is called 'Paleolithic Ethics', and discusses amongst other things the 'left Darwinian' tradition that balances out a sense of 'the natural world' as defined by tooth-and-claw competition with a sense that 'affective networks and social affinities' [61] are also motors of evolution. I don't suppose any Darwinian, left or right, would deny the evolutionary advantage of such strategies; the point surely is that they only work within the group, and provide a tenuous basis for an inter-species ethics. But Willett doesn't think so. She cites De Waal on kindness, Donna Haraway on an 'autre-ethics' and 'autre-mondalisation' (old fashioned utopianism?) and attempts to make an, I thought, unconvincing link between Bakhtin's 'carnivalesque' and what she calls 'carnivore play'. She claims: 'dogs laugh through a dry panting noise' [79] which I fear is simply not true. (Dogs pant through a dry panting noise, and so cool themselves down. This is not laughter in the way true of chimps, rats and humans). She's perfectly correct, of course, that carnivores do sometimes 'play': dogs roll over to expose tender bellies, play-bite and so on; but they do this in an intraspecies way that, when it includes humans, treats humans as other dogs. But carnivores also do rather less fluffy and playful things, including (interspecies-ially) ripping the throats out of prey and eating the dead bodies of their own. Picking and choosing behaviour as the basis for an interspecies ethics seems to me arbitrary and unsustainable.

Chapter 3 ('Discourse ethics across species') argues that some communication between species is possible, which gets no argument from me. But I'd say it leans too heavily on its 'human parents love their children, and chimp parents love their children too, and so we all live in the same ethical cosmos' line. There's a repeat of the earlier 'we modern humans might relearn this older knowledge' [98] gubbins, too. What the chapter doesn't discuss is the Timothy Treadwell misprison of communication, whereby he thought he had established a discursive connection with bears, and the bears thought he looked tasty. The scene in Werner Herzog's excellent Grizzly Man (2008) where the director listens, horrified, to the tape of Treadwell's final minutes of life, which we do not hear, and then turns to Palovak (the owner of the tape) and says ‘you should never listen to it, and you should rather destroy it' is an exceptionally powerful rebuttal to Willett's argument here, I think. Treadwell is not in the index.

Chapter 4, called 'Water and Wing Give Wonder: Meditations on Cosmopolitan Peace', rather rubbed me up the wrong way I'm sorry to say (too gosh-wow and credulous for my admittedly cynical English palate, perhaps) although it does manage some small degree of dialectical turn with a 'digression' on 'the disgusting as the ridiculous'. Chapter 5 is a summary: 'Reflections: A Model and a Vision of Ethical Life', and starts with a koan from Chi Yuan:
How is it
Other Species know courtesy
And limits?
to which the ghost of Thomas Treadwell might respond: 'uh, hello? I'm standing right here!' Sections such as 'Animal Spirituality and Compassion' [pages 141-43] assert rather than demonstrate their concepts; the characterisation of the animal kingdom as defined by play and 'intersubjective atunement' strikes me as so fundamentally one-sided as to be almost mendacious, and nowhere do I find the preconceptions with which I started reading (rights imply responsibilities, why draw our examples from fluffy kittens, happy dogs and noble elephants rather than from rats, cockroaches and the smallpox bacillus?) addressed. On the plus side, there's a pretty well-handled coda which reads Coetzee's Disgrace in interesting ways.

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