Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, March 27, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

There is hardly a single person in the House of Commons worth painting; though many of them would be better for a little white-washing.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Rats, Sinking Ships, and What Comes Next

Francis Fukuyama is one of a number of neoconservative intellectuals who have recently started to backtrack at long last from their deluded daydreams of Empire as the disaster in Iraq so many of us saw so clearly from the very beginning continues to assume ever vaster, ever more irrevocable, ever more and more nightmarish proportions. Normally I wouldn't pay much attention to this sort of sadsack self-rehabilitation here on Amor Mundi, but I tend to notice Fukuyama's moves since he is such a prominent player in both of the "intellectual" currents of conservatism that preoccupy my critical attention for their perniciousness: neoconservatism and also bioconservatism. (As for the two conspicuously anti-intellectual currents that drive the American movement conservatives in reality on the ground, that is to say, religious fundamentalist hostility to "difference" and market fundamentalist greed, well, I hope it goes without saying how I feel about that horror show of humanity at its worst.) Be that as it may, now that Fukuyama is starting to slink away from his early neoconservatism we might hope that perhaps he will reconsider some of the bioconservative formulations of Our Posthuman Future as well before they do comparable damage. I won't be holding my breath.

But contemplating Fukuyama's skin-saving about-face I find myself thinking about where we have been in this miserable little historical episode and what we are all too likely to find comes next. When it comes to the Killer Clowns in the Bush Administration, when it comes to Iraq, when it comes to the fiscal irresponsibility of the movement conservatives, when it comes to the theocratic hostility of the conservative fundamentalists to queers like me, to women's freedom, to people of color, to people struggling to make ends meet, to science and education and civil liberties, when it comes to the whole stupid bloodyminded lawless thieving bigoted spectacle, well, what can one say now?

There are the ones who were right and there are the ones who were wrong.

The ones who were wrong ridiculed and viciously attacked the ones who were right.

Now some of the ones who were wrong are compelled to admit they were wrong.

But somehow this admission becomes a force that augments their expertise while somehow the ones who were right, despite the fact that they were right, will still be called shrill and immoderate and inexpert and unprofessional for struggling to say the things they were right about against the roar of the wrong.

It's like the investment gurus in financial shows who are always bulls and who, were you to follow their advice to the letter, would ruin you utterly, but who keep shilling for the cameras for the advertisers in suits and still lead all the sad young lemmings off the cliff.

This is straightforward brand recognition in a broadcast-media environment: the taint of immoderateness attaches to the right who were maligned by the wrong, the halo of "expertise" attaches to the questionable shill by virtue of the repeatedly reiterated scene whereby he administers his recommendations to gravely nodding suits on television.

How hard would it be, after all, to report an "expert's" track record in a scroll beneath his chin as he pontificates for the companies of the network's advertisers?

How hard would it be for the interviewer to demand an explanation how the surreally wrong neocon came to support his wrong views in the first place, views that were far in fact from universally held, after all, despite the fact that few countervailing views were circulated seriously on broadcast outlets. Shouldn't part of a woefully wrong pundit's rehabilitation be that they would have to explain how new criteria govern their assessments of circumstances now?

Will the actual pundits on television change now that so many who were so wrong did so much damage by their wrongness and by their awful willful denigration of others who were right? Will any who were right all along be elevated for being right to the spotlight as experts in the areas on which they were right?

I find myself wondering and worrying whether or not p2p network models might help us overcome the impasse and repair some of the damage done by broadcast media in this debacle. Or will some new mode of pernicious p2p "manufacturing of consent" arrive on the scene soon enough that I just haven't anticipated or cannot bear to fathom in my exhaustion and despair?

I'll try to end on the more promising note that readers who have not yet clicked on the link on the left that points you to the Independent World Television Network project should give it a look. Global independent jounalism funded by networked contributions and supported by the work of some of the best, smartest, most interesting and admirable working journalists may not save us from ourselves, but I will certainly be glad to see this development emerge on the media landscape.

I remember when I agreed with Barbara Ehrenreich that the Reagan era constituted The Worst Years of Our Lives, but Bush II has shown that one cannot ever underestimate the capacity of America's conservatives to surprise us all with their talent for devastation, criminality, hate, and endless self-congratulation. Now the rats are jumping the sinking ship and progressives are building the fledgling architectures from which a better world might emerge from the wreckage. Things are looking up at last. Shake your heads, have a good cry, help each other out, and get ready to get back to work, I guess.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Technoprogressive Majority

Good friend and ally James Hughes points me to this Wall Street Journal poll, from last September:
A survey of 2,242 U.S. adults in Sept. 6-12, 2005

"Please indicate whether you support or oppose the policy."

Percent supporting:

96% Medicare (health insurance for the elderly and disabled)
93% Use of birth control/contraception
92% Condom use to prevent HIV and other STDs
91% Medicaid (health insurance for people with low incomes)
87% Sex education in high school
87% Funding of international HIV prevention and treatment programs
75% Universal health insurance
70% Embryonic stem cell research
70% Funding of international birth control programs
68% Withdrawal of life support systems/food for those in vegetative
63% Abortion centers

I was instantly reminded of a study I had read about in the Alternative Energy Blog, a survey of American attitudes on environmental issues conducted for the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies by the Global Strategy Group just a couple of months before the one James cited.

According to the study
93 percent [of Americans] want the government to require the auto industry to improve gas mileage, an opinion that showed no gender or political gap.

This puts the electorate squarely at odds with Congress, which recently rejected a proposal to make SUVs and minivans more fuel efficient....

Across the board, people favored more solar power facilities, wind-turbine farms and increased funding for renewable energy research.

Taken together, these results suggest that there is an emerging technoprogressive majority in America commited to the technoscientific redress of shared social problems, especially problems of environmental damage and healthcare. Radical, social, and progressive democrats (and Democrats, too) need to embrace the secular, critical confidence of Americans in the capacity of intelligent and responsible human beings to collaborate in the solution of shared problems. It is a testament to the resourcefulness, hopefulness, and good sense of average Americans that they can retain their confidence in democratic technoscientific collaboration and social struggle in the midst of the fraud and hype of uncritical unscrupulous corporate-military technophilia with its megaphones as well as in the midst of the uncritical fear-mongering and false-nostalgia of religious fundamentalist technophobia with its megaphones.

The experiment of American democracy confronts a larger world that will no longer tolerate technodevelopmental adjection at the hands of American corporate-military globalization in a twentieth-century mode. And so, American democrats must affirm the secular pragmatism of the American people as always and only the simultaneous affirmation of consensus science and stakeholder politics (locally, nationally, globally). Only as both a scientific and democratic culture can the American experiment hope to be a force for good in a century that must grapple with the equally unprecedented threats/promises of the end of nonrenewable energy and the beginning of modification medicine. Without democracy technodevelopment will bring utter disaster, without a focus on technodevelopmental social struggle democracy will wither into irrelevance. The stakes are high, but majorities are with us. It is high time for technoprogressive politics to assume its place at the table.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Weekend Wilde

Young men want to be faithful, and are not; old men want to be faithless, and cannot.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Alone With Our Thoughts

Here is an abstract for a talk I will be giving at the Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference at Stanford University, this May. The conference will take place from the 26th through the 28th. My talk is entitled, "Alone With My Thoughts: Private and Public Faces of Cognitive Self-Determination."
Concerns with "recent inventions," "mechanical devices," new photographic processes and mass circulation newspapers preoccupied Warren and Brandeis’ canonical 1890 essay “The Right to Privacy,” just as quandaries with new forms electronic surveillance bedeviled privacy cases like Olmstead and then Katz. The pattern reiterates itself again and again, from the privacy debates that raged around cases securing personal autonomy in matters of contraception and abortion, through to contemporary debates about assistive reproductive technologies (ARTs), proliferating surveillance cameras and profiling software. Throughout its career, the notion of a right to privacy has been a unique and even primary location in culture in which we have negotiated our sense of personal autonomy and dignity in the face of ongoing technodevelopmental change. And in these debates, the notion of “privacy” itself has taken on many different forms and entailments.

Given this background, my first claim is quite simply that it is inevitable that competing conceptions of privacy will be central in legal, policy, and popular discourses we take up to cope with emerging neuroethical dilemmas. And my second claim is that we will want to be especially careful to foreground just those dimensions in privacy that speak to our particular concerns.

For me, the concept of informed consent is crucial as we struggle to balance demands of personal autonomy with demands of public welfare in the matters of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification that preoccupy our conference. And so, in my talk I will highlight those aspects in the history and concept of privacy that best facilitate legible performances of informed consent to procedures of medical modification. I will emphasize the ways in which privacy has articulated the notion of secure intimate associations (as between doctors and their patients, for example) and downplay the ways in which privacy has sometimes facilitated the disruption or dismantlement of public spaces.

For me, informed consent is not a “natural capacity” that we must recognize and defend but a kind of public “scene” that is constructed and maintained in our ongoing negotiation of the legal, normative, fiscal, institutional/architectural “lines” between the public and the private. To the extent that “consenting” is conceived itself as a kind of cognitive act the demand to secure the scene of its legible performance in matters of cognitive modification will bring into special relief, and possibly bring into crisis, the dilemmas that attach more generally to the defense of morphological freedom, defined as the defense of consensual practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive self-creation and self-determination.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

One must have some occupation nowadays. If I hadn’t my debts I shouldn’t have anything to think about.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Differently Enabled

Occasionally advocates for the “disabled” will find themselves making arguments in which they seem to suggest that there might be something somehow "genocidal" about a woman’s choice to end a pregnancy that might eventuate in a differently enabled child. Rarely, but sometimes, this is literally the -- to me, dreadfully misguided -- claim the advocate is actually making. But more usually when they are talking this way I think “disability” advocates are trying to get at a much more fraught and painful point that is simply terribly difficult to convey:

All too often cultural commonsense radically skews the proportion of women who might come to view as unwanted and so choose to end some pregnancies that they might otherwise have wanted and continued if only they had better information and more realistic expectations about differently enabled people, or could feel, as certainly they should be able to feel in democratic societies, more assured of social support and tolerance once they brought their pregnancies to term. And so, sometimes the choice of some women to end some pregnancies can clearly symptomize the irrational and illiberal attitudes of society to some of its citizens here and now.

It is undeniable that some embryos/fetuses that exhibit traits that are marked as "disabilities" will sometimes be construed as inherently "nonviable" in consequence of this fact even when the truth is that many countless individuals presently live perfectly legible and viable lives while incarnating these traits. (This is not to deny that some such traits really do register nonviability.) The exhibition of “disability” in any measure or morphology in the womb too typically comes to be freighted with not necessarily realistic prophetic conjurations of difficulty, disappointment, and tragedy. But the fact is that there is no such thing as a perfect child just as every child is extraordinary, that raising children is always difficult and heartbreaking just as it is rewarding, that every human life will be marked by tragedy and suffering just as it will be with triumphs and pleasures. Too often, no doubt, prejudices about the differently enabled skew our sense of what reasonable expectations about parenthood, childhood, humanity, and life really should be.

For "disability critics" these skewed expectations subsequently play into the ongoing stigmatization of differently enabled citizens alive here and now, and facilitate their exploitation and the irrational discrimination they face. The social and cultural contexts in which pregnancies come to be constructed as wanted or unwanted are one and the same as the social and cultural contexts in which the differently enabled must then struggle to cope, to testify to their joys and their sorrows in the world they share with us as peers, and to demand their rightful standing as peers.

Needless to say, trying to convey these already difficult truths in the midst of debates about abortion rights of all things isn’t exactly the easiest or the most clarifying thing in the world. And I do feel that introducing this level of nuance and critique into a discussion of abortion at an historical moment when abortion rights are under assault by a menacing activist conservative movement demands that I make a few things clear right here and right now: I believe that every woman always makes the right choice and the choice she has a right to make whenever she makes the best decision she can on her own terms and on the basis of whatever information she has at her disposal over the biological processes that take place in her own body. My own feminist version of technoprogressive politics always and in every case without exception champions any woman's right either to facilitate wanted pregnancies through ARTs or to end unwanted pregnancies through safe and legal and universally available abortion. And for me both of these commitments are aspects of precisely the same technoprogressive advocacy of morphological freedom.

Also, I think I should take a moment to say that when I put quotation marks around the term “disability” this is not to deny nor to trivialize the real facts of suffering that inhere in the reality of morphological variety and differently enabled embodiments in social worlds as they actually exist. And part of the way I would want to get it why I do scare-quote that word “disability” is to say a bit about why I also use a term that almost nobody else does when talking through these issues: differently enabled.

In a nutshell, “disability critics” rightly point out that a term like “disability” introduces immediate and sometimes insuperable barriers in the way of talking about questions of morphological variety that almost always pathologize and disqualify some variations, and so some citizens, over others. A common intervention, then, is to substitute for the inherently normative term “disability” here, a more “neutral” designation like “differently abled.”

But I worry that the neutrality evoked in this substitution likewise tends to facilitate a nostalgic politics of the “natural” that is far more trouble than it is worth, and conspicuously so in discussions of what are proper and democratizing medical interventions into customary biological norms. For me, then, a more powerful term to facilitate specifically technoprogressive rhetoric on these questions is "differently enabled." The term comes from neuroethicist Zack Lynch. His term is like "differently abled" in that it tries to drain some of the inherent stigma of a term like "disabled." But Lynch's substitution of the term "differently enabled" over "differently abled" also manages, I think, to usefully denaturalize these discussions.

It helps us foreground the extent to which science has contributed to the increased standing of people living with Down's Syndrome and other conditions in the present, while it helps us call attention to the incredibly intimate prostheticization of so many valuable embodied lives in this historical moment (people locomoting by means of motorized conveyances, communicating via digital networked interfaces, etc.), all the while providing an avenue through which to think of the genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive proliferation of human embodiment that is well on its way.

Make no mistake, the way we deal with the social problems of respecting our differently enabled peers today will deeply influence the ways in which we come to cope with the technoconstituted variety of humanity in an era of morphological freedom.

When the differently enabled demand "nothing about us without us" this is the quintessentially democratic demand and technoprogressives would be benighted misguided fools not to heed them in this demand, because soon enough we are all going to be them (not to mention the fact that some of us already most certainly are). Everyone is going to be disabled soon enough vis-a-vis the specific empowerments available via different paths of modification undertaken by some others, just as they too will be rendered relatively disempowered via-a-vis some of our own modifications.

I think technoprogressive champions of medical research and of the rights of democratic citizens to make informed consensual recourse to emerging modification and longevity medicine need to take special care to understand and then to frame the case they are making in terms of “modification” rather than “enhancement.” We should talk about modification in terms of difference, variation, and proliferation rather than drifting into curiously chauvinistic talk of “objective improvements,” “better humans,” or of becoming somehow “more than human.” We should stress universal access and informed consent rather than the imposition of universal norms and a conformity we designate too-blandly and too-uncritically as simply, “health.”

There is no question that part of the special difficulty of this developmentally transitional moment for technoprogressives is that the differential distribution of basic healthcare around the world both expresses and facilitates the most brutal forms of injustice. And there is no question that we must invoke universal standards to combat this injustice, to provide basic healthcare for all, to regulate development to render it safe, transparent, and accountable, to distribute the costs, risks, and benefits of medical and other technoscientific developments as fairly as possible to all the stakeholders to these developments.

And yet we must recognize, likewise, that the inevitable and necessary reliance on these universal standards becomes dangerously susceptible all too quickly to a kind of normative technocratic hygenicism that looks for all the world like the worst kind of eugenicist nightmare.

To the extent that basic needs are met, to the extent that human beings around the globe are emancipated through technodevelopmental social struggle from deprivation and then take up their rightful places as informed, consensual citizens and peers in a democratized secular technoscientific world then, and always only precisely to that extent, technoprogressives must shift from the universalizing language of the ethical face of social justice to the individualizing language of justice’s moral face.

As a first approximation of my own resolution of this quandary, let me propose that we will finally say that basic human needs are met and maintained whenever the scene of consent is truly an informed one and when consent is offered up in that scene without any threat of violence, deprivation, or humiliation to duress it. These conditions seem to me to demand the global institution of a basic income guarantee, universal basic healthcare, lifelong recourse to education, retraining, and therapy, sustainable and deliberative development, world federalist alternatives to the military adjudication of disputes, and a radical democratization via peer-to-peer networks of governance, security, and social administration. But once the struggle for social justice secures this scene of consent, what justice demands then is the widest possible affirmation of the creative proliferation of consensual practices of self-creation that will arise out of that scene.

Morphological freedom is proliferative, not convergent. It is the farthest imaginable thing from a trajectory into some bland “superhuman” conformity.

Technology will save the wretched of the earth. But then technology will make queers of us all.

(By “technology,” here I mean to say technodevelopmental social struggle –- but it really doesn’t make for a nice slogan, does it?)

As a queer, I know all too well that had I been unlucky enough to be born just a couple of generations ago my perfectly healthy and rather conventional desires would surely have been pathologized as part of the commonsense of my society (including the "common sense" of most of the well-meaning and knowledgeable people to whom I might have turned myself or been referred to had my desires and practices become known). And so, I am very skeptical of some of the rhetoric I encounter though which people strive to articulate the ways in which variously differently enabled people suffer for their differences in our society. I can never forget just how easy it is to mistake the suffering caused by stigmatization and discrimination with suffering "inherent" in a bodily condition itself.

Even as we struggle to facilitate morphological freedom for everybody, including our variously differently enabled peers today, we have to be very careful not to pretend we know in advance what forms of modification will be the “right” ones for all, nor to imply that consensual paths of modification different from our own will be, because of their differences, stigmatized as unliveable, unintelligible, pathological, or abject.

What on earth is the point of all this technological abundance and empowerment and modification technophiliacs keep crowing about if they just end up wanting to police everybody into crabbed conformity like Puritanical conservatives grubbing around in some muddy starving plague-ridden New England hamlet? It makes no sense to me at all! With each passing day we manage to facilitate technoprogressive outcomes it seems to me we should celebrate diversity more and more and share our abundance more and more.

Also, and by way of a conclusion here, I have begun to hear debates on these sorts of questions getting framed as though they represented conflicts between “transhumanists” on the one hand, and “disability activists” on the other. As is well known, I don't personally care about whether or not some minority viewpoint called "transhumanism" prevails in "sweeping the world," whatever that's supposed to mean, but I do care quite a lot whether or not emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies are developed and rendered safe as quickly as possible and that their costs, risks, and benefits are all distributed as fairly and as widely as possible to empower and emancipate humanity and deepen democracy. And this requires, it seems to me, that technoprogressive folks (in all their own marvelous irreconcilable variety) participate in struggles like those around autism rights, as well as other "disability" rights movements, in terms that emphasize the extent to which there are no "natural" capacities to champion here, that technologies are never inherently just or unjust but demand democracy to faciliate progressive outcomes. Taking up the mantle of some tribal identification and then assigning the status of enemy tribe to another in a moment like this looks to me like a human, all-too-human, distraction from the important work that needs doing here and now.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Technology and Terror

Social discontent provoked by the experience of injustice is a primary trigger of violence and unrest. But we are fast approaching -— if we're not already there -— the extraordinary moment when technologies of abundance, intelligently administered, could provide new means to alleviate at last the sources of such discontent. Meanwhile, these same technologies will also provide new and relatively cheap means to express discontent with unprecedented destructive impact.

I worry that while both of these points are understood well enough on their own, they are rarely discussed together. This matters because what is potentially emancipatory about new technologies is inseparable from what is potentially devastating about them. And so: The very same digital networks that facilitate global communication, collaboration, and trade peer-to-peer render us vulnerable to global attacks from viruses, scams and spam. The very same science and technology that could revolutionize medicine could revolutionize biowarfare. The very same hypothesized capacity for nanoscale self-replication that could eliminate poverty and heal the biosphere also inspires panicky visions of a world reduced to goo.

But the connection I have in mind here goes deeper than the simple recognition that new technologies bring both new powers and new risks.

I believe that the power of emerging technologies to redress the sources of legitimate social discontent -— to end global poverty, to promote universal health and education and to develop abiding, genuinely representative and accountable public institutions -— provides the only way to manage the lethal power of emerging weapons of mass destruction, as well as the relative ease with which they could find their way into the hands of those who would express or exploit such discontent.

Contemplating Insane Destructiveness

New technologies will be unprecedented in their creative and their destructive power, as well as in their ubiquity, and this changes everything.

Two short essays, one by Lawrence Lessig in the April edition of Wired magazine and the other by Richard Rorty in the April 1 issue of the London Review of Books, address this in interestingly similar terms.

These essays look at the problem of the likely near-term development and proliferation of relatively cheap and massively destructive new technologies such as bioengineered pathogens (Lessig) and suitcase nukes (Rorty).

"Key technologies of the future -— in particular, genetic engineering, nanotech, and robotics (or GNR) because they are self-replicating and increasingly easier to craft —- would be radically more dangerous than technologies of the past," writes Lessig in terms that evoke an earlier essay by Bill Joy, but the technophobic conclusions of which Lessig significantly rejects. "It is impossibly hard to build an atomic bomb; when you build one, you've built just one. But the equivalent evil implanted in a malevolent virus will become easier to build, and if built, could become self-replicating. This is P2P (peer-to-peer) meets WMD (weapons of mass destruction), producing IDDs (insanely destructive devices)."

Rorty writes in a similar vein that "[w]ithin a year or two, suitcase-sized nuclear weapons (crafted in Pakistan or North Korea) may be commercially available. Eager customers will include not only rich playboys like Osama bin Laden but also the leaders of various irredentist movements that have metamorphosed into well-financed criminal gangs. Once such weapons are used in Europe, whatever measures the interior ministers have previously agreed to propose will seem inadequate."

It is probably inevitable that discussions of the threat of weaponized emerging technologies will reflect the distress of the so-called contemporary "War on Terror." But it is important to recognize that present-day terrorism, however devastating, is a timid anticipation of the dangers and dilemmas to come. The March 11, 2004 Madrid attacks made use of conventional explosives, and the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States involved the crude hijacking and repurposing of fuel-fat jets as missiles.

To the extent that these attacks have provoked as a response (or worse, have provided a pretext for) "preemptive" and essentially unilateral military adventures abroad, and assaults on civil liberties at home, it is increasingly difficult to maintain much hope that we are mature enough as a civilization to cope with the forces we have ourselves set in motion.

Regulation Between Relinquishment and Resignation

Both Lessig and Rorty anticipate that when confronted with the horrifying reality or even simply the prospect of new technological threats the first impulse of the North Atlantic democracies is almost certain to be misguided compensatory expansions of state surveillance and control.

Both essays point to the likely futility of such efforts to perfectly police the creation and traffic of unprecedented technologies. In the worst case, with Lessig's designer pathogen or with the goo bestiary that preoccupies the nightmares of nanotech Cassandras (and don't forget the actual story: Cassandra was right!), we are confronted with the prospect of new massively destructive technologies that might be cooked up in obscure laboratories at comparably modest costs, using easily obtainable materials, employing techniques in the public domain, and distributed via stealthy networks.

In the Bill Joy essay that inspired Lessig's piece, the epic scale of the threats posed by emerging technologies prompted Joy to recommend banning their development altogether. The typical rejoinder to Joy's own proposal of "relinquishment," of a principled (or panic-stricken) pre-emptive ban on these unprecedentedly destructive technological capacities is that it is absolutely unenforceable, and hence would too likely shift the development and use of such technologies to precisely the least scrupulous people and least regulated conditions. And all of this would, of course, exacerbate the very risks any such well-meaning but misguided ban would have been enacted to reduce in the first place.

Definitely I agree with this rejoinder, but it's important not to misapply its insights. The fact that laws prohibiting murder don't perfectly eliminate the crime scarcely recommends we should strike these laws off the books. If Joy's technological relinquishment was the best or only hope for humanity's survival, then we would of course be obliged to pursue it whatever the challenges.

But surely the stronger reason to question relinquishment is simply that it would deny us the extraordinary benefits of emerging technologies -— spectacularly safe, strong, cheap materials and manufactured goods; abundant foodstuffs; new renewable energy technologies; and incomparably effective medical interventions.

Technophiles often seem altogether too eager to claim that technological regulation is unenforceable, or that developmental outcomes they happen to desire themselves are "inevitable." But of course the shape that development will take —- its pace, distribution, and deployments -— is anything but inevitable in fact. And all technological development is obviously and absolutely susceptible to regulation, for good or ill, by laws, norms, market forces and structural limits.

Market libertarian technophiles such as Ronald Bailey sometimes seem to suggest that any effort to regulate technological development at all is tantamount to Joy's desire to ban it altogether. Bailey counters both Joy's relinquishment thesis and Lessig's more modest proposals with a faith that "robust" science on its own is best able to defend against the threats science itself unleashes. This is an argument and even a profession I largely share with him, but only to the extent that we recognize just how much of what makes science "robust" is produced and maintained in the context of well-supported research traditions, stable institutions, steady funding and rigorous oversight, most of which look quite like the "regulation" that negative libertarians otherwise rail against. For me, robust scientific culture looks like the fragile attainment of democratic civilization, not some "spontaneous order."

So too "deregulation" is a tactic that is obviously occasionally useful within the context of a broader commitment to reform and good regulation. But treated as an end in itself the interminable market fundamentalist drumbeat of "deregulation" -— so prevalent among especially American technophiles —- amounts to an advocacy of lawlessness. Does this really seem the best time to call for lawlessness? Market libertarian ideologues often promote a policy of "market-naturalist" resignation that seems to me exactly as disastrous in its consequences as Joy's recommendation of relinquishment.

In fact, the consequence of both policies seems precisely the same —- to abandon technological development to the least scrupulous, least deliberative, least accountable forces on offer. My point is not to demonize commerce, of course, but simply to recognize that good governance encourages good and discourages antisocial business practices, while a healthy business climate is likewise the best buttress to good democratic governance.

While I am quite happy to leave the question of just which toothbrush consumers prefer to market forces, it seems to me a kind of lunacy to suggest that the answer to coping with emerging existential technological threats is, "Let the market decide." What we need is neither resignation nor relinquishment, but critical deliberation and reasonable regulation. What we need is Regulation between Relinquishment and Resignation (RRR).

Resources for Hope?

Lessig and Rorty make different but complementary recommendations in the face of the dreadful quandaries of cheap and ubiquitous, massively destructive emerging technologies. Taken together, these recommendations provide what looks to me like the basis for a more reasonable and hopeful strategy.

Rorty insists, first and foremost, that citizens in the North Atlantic democracies must challenge what he describes as "the culture of government secrecy":

"Demands for government openness should start in the areas of nuclear weaponry and of intelligence-gathering," which are, he points out, "the places where the post-World War Two obsession with secrecy began." More specifically, we must demand that our governments "publish the facts about their stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction [and] make public the details of two sets of planned responses: one to the use of such weapons by other governments, and another for their use by criminal gangs such as al-Qaida."

He goes on to point out that "[i]f Western governments were made to disclose and discuss what they plan to do in various sorts of emergency, it would at least be slightly harder for demagogic leaders to argue that the most recent attack justifies them in doing whatever they like. Crises are less likely to produce institutional change, and to have unpredictable results, if they have been foreseen and publicly discussed."

Never has the need for global collaboration been more conspicuous. Never has the need to unleash the collective, creative, critical intelligence of humanity been more urgent. And yet the contemporary culture of the "War on Terror" has seemed downright hostile to intelligence in all its forms. Efforts to understand the social conditions that promote terror are regularly dismissed as "appeasement." Critical thinking about our response to terror is routinely denigrated as "treason." Authorities strive to insulate their conduct from criticism and scrutiny behind veils of secrecy in the name of "security." (And all of this is depressingly of a piece, of course, with the current Bush Administration's assaults on consensus environmental science, genetic research, effective sex education, and all the rest.)

It is no wonder so many of us fear the "War on Terror" quite as much as we fear terrorism itself. But how much more damaging than the self-defeating and authoritarian responses to conventional terrorism can we expect the response to the emerging threats of Lessig's "Insanely Destructive Devices" to be?

When devastating technologies become cheap and ubiquitous we must redress the social discontent that makes their misuse seem justifiable to more people than we can ever hope to manage or police. Since we cannot hope to halt the development of all the cheap, disastrously weaponizable technologies on the horizon, nor can we hope to perfectly control their every use, Lessig suggests that "perhaps the rational response is to reduce the incentives to attack... maybe we should focus on ways to eliminate the reasons to annihilate us." Fantasies of an absolute control over these technologies, or of an absolute control through technology (SDI, TIA, and its epigones, anyone?), are sure to exacerbate the very discontent that will make their misuse more widespread.

Anticipating the inevitable objection, Lessig is quick to point out that "[c]razies, of course, can't be reasoned with. But we can reduce the incentives to become a crazy. We could reduce the reasonableness -— from a certain perspective -— for finding ways to destroy us." Criminals, fanatics and madmen are in fact a manageable minority in any culture. (Racist know-nothing slogans to the contrary about a so-called epic and epochal "Clash of Civilizations" deserve our utter contempt.) Although there is no question that Lessig's "Insanely Destructive Devices" could still do irreparable occasional harm in their hands, it is profoundly misleading to focus on the threats posed by crazy and criminal minorities when it is as often as not the exploitation of legitimate social discontent that makes it possible for lone gunmen to recruit armies to their "causes."

Lessig concludes that "[t]here's a logic to p2p threats that we as a society don't yet get. Like the record companies against the Internet, our first response is war. But like the record companies, that response will be either futile or self-destructive. If you can't control the supply of IDDs, then the right response is to reduce the demand for IDDs. [Instead, America's] present course of unilateral cowboyism will continue to produce generations of angry souls seeking revenge on us."

For generations, progressives have sought to ameliorate the suffering of the wretched of the Earth. We have struggled to diminish poverty, widen the franchise, and ensure through education and shared prosperity that more and more people (though still obscenely too few people) have a personal stake as citizens in their societies. We have fought for these things because we have been moved by the tragedy of avoidable suffering, and by the unspeakable waste of intelligence, creativity and pleasure that is denied us all when any human being is oppressed into silence by poverty or tyranny.

The emerging threat of cheap and ubiquitous, massively destructive technologies provides a new reason to redress social injustice and the discontent it inspires (for those among you who really need another reason): The existence of injustice anywhere might soon threaten you quite literally, and needlessly, with destruction.

This piece is a slightly edited version of a column that appeared at BetterHumans, April 28, 2004.

Today's Random Wilde

The basis of optimism is sheer terror.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Keep Your Laws Off My Body

I first heard the slogan, "Keep your laws off my body!" as an activist well over a decade ago, when I was still in my 20s. But I cannot remember if it was in a rally decrying the sodomy laws that were still on the books in Georgia, where I lived at the time, or in a march to defend a woman's "right to choose" against conservative legal assaults.

For me, the slogan, and the feminist politics of "Choice," have always described more than an attitude about reproductive freedom. They've described a much broader, much more radical sensibility. In fact, I tend to think the conventional word "choice" is altogether too anemic to capture what is at stake in this broader sensibility. At the heart of the politics of bodily self-determination, or "choice," is much more than the "right" of docile liberal consumers to select options from some menu created and maintained by others.

Bodily self-determination is a project to expand the sphere of bodies and of embodied lives that are taken as socially legible, as lives worth living, as lives with standing. It is a demand for freedom construed as a responsibility enabled by responsiveness, as a self-creation enabled by collaboration, as an autonomy enabled by interdependence, as an informed consent enabled by the permanent possibility of forgiveness.

Too often "choice" amounts to little more than a sad stand-in for and domestication of the freedom that is at stake in that joyous and righteous demand for bodily self-determination: Keep Your Laws Off My Body!

And so, I use the term "morphological freedom," which I have appropriated from an essay by Anders Sandberg, to name this broader conception of the culture and politics of bodily self-determination and "choice." I use it especially to connect up the cultural politics of responsible embodied self-creation with the problems and promises inhering in the emerging technologically constituted proliferation of techniques available for the genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification of human bodies and embodied human lives today and in the near-term futures we can reasonably anticipate.

The feminist politics of bodily self-determination have sometimes already connected the defense of reproductive decisions to other political struggles -- for example, to the politics around queer forms of family and affiliation, transgender rights, end of life issues, resisting the disastrous contemporary War on Drugs, and so on. I think that the feminist politics of bodily self-determination should be expanded further still, to accommodate an affirmative politics of genetic medicine, the support of increased scientific research and education, and the facilitation of multiplying therapeutic options.

Ignorance Has Its Uses

On November 5, 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the so-called "partial birth" abortion ban. The moment of the signing was captured in an image that is perfectly emblematic of the larger historical stakes in play for women in this moment. The President is seated at his desk, document and pen before him, staring a bit blankly into space. Behind him are a host of grinning and enthusiastically applauding men. Looming behind them are a host of American flags.

There are no women present at all.

For the bodies of women, you must turn to the text of the document itself, for the bodies of women are treated as texts on which these men are presuming to write.

I have described this law as the "so-called" partial birth abortion ban because, as it happens, no such medical procedure exists. Medical literature contains no references at all to this occasionally banned and vilified procedure. "Partial birth abortion" is a public relations creation of the anti-choice (so-called "pro-life") conservative Right, designed to conjure up a scene of profound grisly violation that can, for the lack of any clear reference in reality, attach in the popular imagination and subsequently in the applications of law to an ever-broadening range of legitimate and affirmed medical procedures.

As technology continues to blur established biological lines, such obfuscation will only get worse.

The trajectory of technological development has introduced real perplexities into the status of profound embodied life-experiences such as pregnancy, sexual maturation, illness, aging, and death. Already, the susceptibility of organisms to prosthetic and pharmacological intervention has transformed the status of "viability" as a stable measure of just when lives can properly be said to begin or to end, or as a benchmark against which to leverage intuitions about the proper scope of such intervention.

Consider the impact of the emotional investments sometimes occasioned by early-term ultrasound imaging of fetuses in the womb, or the sometimes disturbingly agile machine-assisted afterlives of the brain-dead or irretrievably comatose. These technological spectacles delineate a crisis in traditional meaning that is exacerbated by contemporary technological developments now on an almost day to day basis.

The appalling effectiveness of the rhetoric of "partial-birth" abortion and similar anti-choice interventions lies in their exploitation of ignorance about specific procedures and capacities, as well as in their exploitation of a deep uneasiness provoked by such technological development about the biological as well as cultural limits of recognizable and hence meaningful human lives more generally.

Socially conservative and bioconservative bioethicists such as Leon Kass, retired chair of the influential United States President's Council on Bioethics, eagerly deploy this kind of uneasiness like a cudgel in support of their anti-choice agendas. Kass, for instance, has notoriously urged that there is a "wisdom" we should heed in the involuntary shudders of repugnance that seem to accompany for him and some others practically any confrontation with new genetic medical technologies.

Like a divine intervention, this admonitory shuddering seizes Kass himself whenever he contemplates abortion, physician-assisted suicide, in-vitro fertilization, the radical amelioration of the diseases of aging, embryonic stem-cell research, or the merest suggestion of cloning. Since a shudder of repugnance need offer no reasons in support of itself for its decisive force to be felt, one has to wonder (even if you find his particular sympathies and antipathies personally congenial) just how Kass would distinguish his own instinctive recoils from those occasioned in his predecessors in generations past by the contemplation of anesthesia, interracial marriage, or consensual sodomy.

Family Resemblance

There is a decisive family resemblance between conventional anti-choice politics that try to hijack the concept of "life" and the recent effort of many bioconservative bioethicists to hijack the concept of human "dignity" in the service of projects to ban and restrict therapeutic choices and avenues of medical research just to better reflect their own parochial interests and tastes (and very often it is literally the same people who are making these parallel arguments).

Bioconservative technophobic politics take amazingly diverse forms, but the broad contours will seem suspiciously familiar to feminists long-used to conservative arguments against abortion rights. Last year, for example, I read about an Illinois bill to restrict surgically splitting the tongue lengthwise to produce the appearance of a snake- or lizard-like forking. Shannon Larratt, a Canadian who had his tongue split in 1996 for esthetic reasons, argued that it "can be a dangerous procedure. Now they'll force people who want this -- and there are a lot of people who want this -- into untrained hands."

Sound familiar?

But where should technoprogressives look to find allies in the struggle to articulate and support our morphological freedom? To the usual facile market libertarian technophiles for whom the demands of freedom require little more than signing on to a contract, however prevailing conditions might duress its terms? I judge the conceptual and strategic resources available to the feminist culture of bodily self-determination or "choice" far more relevant and more robust to the delineation and defense of what I am calling morphological freedom than, say, the comparably anemic "negative liberty" of the market libertarian. When feminism embraces the technologies and therapies through which a desired but otherwise unavailable pregnancy is initiated, or through which an unwanted pregnancy is terminated, these reproductive freedoms provide more than a simple defense of a woman's liberty, but represent instead moments in a profoundly emancipatory technologically mediated struggle for equality and self-determination inconceivable in any "state of nature."

Already feminist sensibilities contribute indispensable perspectives to the negotiation of complex bioethical dilemmas that a "negative libertarian" framework will hopelessly oversimplify. Should growth hormone be administered by a parent to confer a positional advantage on an otherwise developmentally "normal" child? Does plastic surgery consolidate or subvert arbitrary and in fact damaging standards of bodily attractiveness? Will preimplantation genetic diagnosis diminish valuable human diversity even as it certainly diminishes human suffering? Is the advocacy of physician-assisted suicide a way of defending individual autonomy or does it amount instead to encouraging valuable human beings to leave the scene rather than spending the resources in health care and social support that would help many who are suicidal feel their lives are worth living? And so on.

Morphological Freedom Fighters

While adding a welter of new technological quandaries to the politics of "Choice" may seem to risk an evacuation of the real urgency of conventional "pro-choice" politics in the specificity of their reproductive applications at a time when women's rights to bodily self-determination are under attack as never before. But I think and hope that emphasizing the range of affinity and connection to other vital struggles for responsible embodied self-creation is just as likely to strengthen feminist politics in that specificity even as it illuminates those other struggles.

By embracing the technological forces that would expand the reach of reasonable self-determination over once-definitive biological limits, a hopeful radical responsible feminist politics of self-creation can seize the initiative away from the conservative and bioconservative politics of fear in this most intimate collision of technologies with individual human bodies. This more hopeful politics of technological possibility is necessary to turn the tide against recent conservative successes that limit our access to contraceptive procedures and reproductive technologies as well as to reasonable and life-saving sex education practices and a whole host of related issues.

It would also put us in a more credible position to resist a few developmental pathways that really are too dangerous by objective measures (reproductive cloning, at least for now, is such an example), to protect our right and capacity to decide ourselves and in private secure consultation with trusted authorities the ways in which technological transformation will impinge on our own narratives of personal meaningfulness, as well as to plausibly regulate technological development to ensure that its costs and risks as well as its benefits are all distributed fairly among all the stakeholders to that development.

Human dignity, surely, is not diminished by the proliferation of the decisions we can make, nor by the spectacle of the ongoing play of human self-determination in all its promising, forgiving, coping, pleasure, suffering, standing. Dignity, it seems to me, demands freedom above all.

This piece is a slightly edited and expanded version of a column that appeared at BetterHumans, March 22, 2004. That column was adapted itself from a paper delivered on March 11, 2004 at the 13th Annual Boundaries in Question Conference, "Feminists Face the Future: New Feminist Perspectives on Biotechnology and Bioethics," held at the University of California at Berkeley.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bioconservative Crimes Against Humanity

In a recent address made on behalf of the Family Research Council to The World Congress of Families, Dr. William L. Saunders made some extraordinary claims that are becoming ever more ordinary in bioconservative discourse:
Male pregnancy, fetal parenthood, human chimeras, genetic engineering, cloning, two genetically-differentiated kinds of human beings, cybernetics, nanotechnology, perhaps nano-epidemics, even a post-body human existence –- how do we decide whether any of these should be pursued? How do we decide if science and biotechnology should be permitted (by we citizens, under the laws our representatives pass) to proceed to do every thing that can be done? Some scientists argue that they should be allowed to do whatever they can. Professor Lee Silver, in fact [sic], says there are no ethical reasons to fail to do any of the things I have mentioned. Is he right?

I submit he is clearly wrong. And, further, that anyone who knows the history of the 20th Century should immediately recognize he is wrong. After World War II, the allies held the famous Nuremberg Trials. Those trials resulted in the issuance of the Nuremberg Code. The Nuremberg Code set forth principles to be followed in all human experimentation. As we all know, the Nazi doctors had undertaken gruesome experiments with prisoners. The Nuremberg Code was intended, in fact, merely to set forth as a code those ethical principles that the civilized world already agreed to.

It is difficult to know where to begin to respond to a "man of faith" who claims to be troubled by the idea of a "post-body human existence" (perhaps Christian faith has changed a bit since the days when I outgrew it?), just as it is inevitably difficult to know how to talk to "voices of compassion" who endlessly devote themselves to fighting made-up medical procedures like "partial-birth abortion" (there's no such thing) and fictional scourges like "clone armies" and "designer babies" (ditto, don't exist) as they intone solemnly about "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" all the while yawning in apparent indifference while thousands upon thousands of actually existing human beings die in actually existing genocides and crimes against humanity in actually existing Iraq, Darfur, and on and on and on...

It is also curious to observe literally in action the kind of hysterical paranoid technophobic slide into outright panic conjured up in Dr. Saunders' laundry list of technodevelopmental derangements. These diabolical developments will take "us" -- that is to say, those carefully selected exemplars whom the Family Research Council deems appropriately representative of humanity -- down, down, down, no doubt ineluctably, down that slippery slope from the quaintly homophobic oh so proximate threat of "[m]ale pregnancy" to George Bush's own nightmare preoccupation, centaurs and other "human chimeras," and thence to the enormously more broad "genetic engineering" (all bad, always and everywhere, apparently -- no need for distinctions when what is at stake is purity of essence!), then on to "cloning" (get thee hence, all ye satanic twins!), and then still onward to, in something of a surprise move, "cybernetics" (don't ask), whereupon we skip onward to "nanotechnology" for some reason, and then, rather hilariously, to "perhaps nano-epidemics" (as if "nano-epidemics," too, have their "adherents" among the godless scientifically-literate throng. Paging Dr. Evil!)...

Whatever else you might want to say of the technodevelopmental threats that appear to bedevil Dr. Saunders in this episode of personal distress, it is quite clear that his stormcloud conjuration is scarcely designed to recommend thoughtfulness in his listeners in the face of the enormously complex problems and promises of emerging, disruptive technological change that confront them and us all in this moment of real quandary and real hope. Saunders is seeking to elicit panic and rage and, hence, no doubt elicit thereby the dollars and the votes that conservatives can always count upon most from the panic-stricken and the enraged.

The fact is that of course there are real difficulties and conspicuous injustices that inhere in the ways in which people are taking up the fledgling knowledges and techniques available in this moment, whether we are talking about emerging and disruptive technoscientific practices associated with genetic medicine, neuroceutical medicine, digital networked media, nanoscale manipulation, or what have you. Any sensible moral or policy discourse worthy of the name would want to take these difficulties into account. But what does it mean to invoke a faux-populist resentment of "scientists," mobilized to "stop them" from doing "whatever they want" and then proposing to stop... "genetic engineering" or "cybernetics"? What on earth would such a campaign even entail?

It's all very well to decide, say, that human reproductive cloning isn't safe in any contemporary setting and so should be forbidden for now, but do we really want to ascend to a level of generality for which this sensible recommendation also entails a repudiation of stem-cell research into a cure for Parkinson's Disease or closes the door to any possible future reproductive cloning techniques?

Let's leave nanotechnology and uploading and space elevators and such to the side for the moment, and focus more specifically on the fraught question of reprogenetic medicine.

I assume that what we want is to secure the best and most equitable standard of care as well as the widest proper latitude for informed parental choice in the matter of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). To manage this, we will always be weighing a number of already complex factors: On the one hand we will be struggling to do justice to democratic social norms that are already in tension with one another (like universality and diversity, for example). And on the other hand we will be struggling to keep track of a constantly, rapidly, radically changing medical state of the art.

Now, it seems to me that this is just about the worst possible moment to invoke some static nostalgic fantasy of "normal reproduction" testifying to what are in fact utterly parochial values and contingently prevailing conditions, and then decrying the violation of "nature" or "dignity" whenever conditions change the least bit or whenever different values emerge on the scene of decision. Nevertheless, this is precisely the move that is afoot whenever bioconservatives invoke Nuremberg in the context of the fraught assessment of costs, risks, and benefits of reprogrenetic medicine among serious bioethicists.

It should go without saying that the difficulties that confront this particular moment in the technodevelopmental trajectory of genetic medicine are different from the difficulties that will confront subsequent moments in that development. This is not to suggest that we should deny present difficulties, risks, and costs in some perverse dedication to a faith in their "inevitable" future remedy. Such a denial would amount in practice to nothing more than a deeply unjust imposition of those real costs onto those who simply are too vulnerable to resist otherwise. But it is crucial that when we admit of the actually existing difficulties and calculate the actually existing risks and costs of emerging techniques we take care not to naturalize as bioconservative discourse always does the specific conditions that prevail at a particular technodevelopmental moment as if they represent a more deeply "normal" and "proper" state of affairs against which variations will be deemed irresponsible or perverse deviations against this pseudo-sanctified familiar condition.

The uncritical technophilia of corporate-futurism and the uncritical technophobia of bioconservatism offer up a clash of antidemocratic naturalisms, one taking up the mantle of a priesthood to "progress" imagined as a natural and irresistable force shepherded along by multinational corporate-militarist elites, the other taking up the mantle of a priesthood to "nostalgia" imagined as an ordained natural order protected by social and religious elites. What I want to see is more democracy and less "nature" in the habitual responses we make to the dilemmas of radical disruptive technodevelopmental transformation.

Let us turn the tables for a moment. Undertaking risky medical procedures has always been a part of the human condition, surely, and has never been of all things a crime against humanity. But to the extent that humanity has been engaged throughout its history in an ongoing cultural struggle to create itself in the changing image of its aspirations then it seems to me that an effort to curtail that ongoing cultural experimentation (which emphatically must include prosthetic tinkering) might indeed qualify as precisely such a crime against humanity.

Again, none of this is to deny the very real difficulties that beset us. The last thing I would mean to advocate is some facile neoliberal voluntarism, or, worse, a reductive market libertarian contractarianism here. Flawed as it is as an instrument, it seems to me that what is wanted in these circumstances is as much informed consent as is possible for these procedures. And, despite some caveats, I also believe that we can generally count on parents or legal partners to make reasonably good decisions on behalf of their preconsensual children or unexpectedly vegetative postconsensual partners, so long as they have access to the best and most trustworthy factual information available -- a belief I would expect, probably incorrectly, would be shared by an organization that called itself the "Family Research Council."

It seems to me that a robust commitment to "informed consent" in these and comparable matters would entail, in actual fact, among other things, urgent and immediate demands for reform in matters of relations between those who regulate industries and those who lobby for them (especially, say, pharmaceutical companies), demands for reform in what should be taken to represent fraudulent advertising claims for medical products and nutritional supplements, demands for extensive reforms of the public funding and grant-making apparatus and especially in the intellectual property regime currently in force regarding medicines, medical techniques, genetic information, and such, demands for new protections of the privacy that governs consultation between doctors and patients in matters of treatment, and demands for a radical extension of access to trusted sources of consensus science information via digital networked media. Eventually, I expect a commitment to the value of informed consent might also inspire a demand for the subsidization of neuroceutical interventions in mood and memory -- as certainly it should now justify a comparable subsidization of universal web access.

Bioconservatives keenly and unkindly seem to trivialize what are surely the earnest efforts of parents who would make recourse to whatever fledgling scientific knowledges and technologies are available to them to ensure the best possible lives for their children, decrying these efforts as, at best, "reckless tinkering" or, at worst, surreally as a kind of resurgent Nazi eugenicism. I would hope we can all agree that parents deserve better protection from corporate fraud and hype, that parents should have assured access to the accurate information on the basis of which the best most informed decisions can be made, and that, most important of all, we must secure universal health care coverage to minimize the duress under which irrational healthcare decisions are undertaken too often in contemporary America. It is unclear how the specter of "crimes against humanity" helps anybody think more clearly about the unprecedented quandaries with which emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine are beginning to confront us.

When all is said and done, the sad truth is that it is the conservative elites themselves who have long been engaged in the only eugenicist breeding program I can think of to date, an ongoing, relentless, self-selecting experiment in racist patriarchal crony-capitalism that has proceeded now for generations. We can judge its success in such stunning results as George W. Bush. One suspects that the bioconservatives fear far less that we are embarking upon an era of parental experimentation so much as that we are shifting from an aristocratic to a democratic moment in what has been a very old game of experimental parentage, a shift they are quite right to suspect will not likely bode well for their own hopes to cling much longer to their dear but unearned privileges.

Today's Random Wilde

Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Animal Rites

NAKED Lunch--a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork. -- William Burroughs

Part One: Vegetarian Criticisms, Vegetarian Selves

What might a proper vegetarian critical theory look like and to what uses would it properly be put? I come to this question as an ethical vegetarian myself, a "strict" vegetarian, but as one for whom such fiercely exacting specifications of identity and practice, as well as the urgencies which provoke their assignment and insistent repetition among vegetarians and others, produces a certain anxiety. How many vegetarianisms are there, after all, and which of these are the strict ones? In the service of just what ends are these strictnesses observed? When is one’s vegetarianism finally strict enough, and can one be too strict about it?

Vegetarian criticisms will be likely to assume as their work either one of two tasks. Perhaps most obviously, vegetarian criticisms will seek to ameliorate the suffering of nonhuman animals at the hands of especially human ones by documenting as best it can the facts, complexity, intransigence, and adverse consequences of that suffering. Another possibility is that vegetarian criticisms will seek simply to document the vicissitudes in the ongoing emergence, circulation, and ramification of vegetarian identities, cultures, practices, and discourses.

Crucially, these two projects will often appear to be at odds with one another. Recall the classic antagonism expressed in Marx's complaint in his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, distinguishing critics who describe and interpret the world as against those who strive more actively to change it. The "meticulous, gray, and patiently documentary" rigors of vegetarian criticisms tasked simply to trace the complexities, complicities, and aporias in the fraught normative and practical intercourse of human with nonhuman animals will inevitably, at least occasionally, frustrate the work of activist vegetarian criticisms tasked to contest the legitimacy of the abuse of nonhuman by human animals.

That the two more obvious projects vegetarian criticisms will take up seem to be at odds with one another provokes the usual range of tensions between them and among the critics who would undertake them. And these tensions are unusually exacerbated by our awareness that the export of intensive and factory farming methods beyond the North Atlantic West, the production and patenting of animal species, among other comparable forces freshly afoot in this moment, represent in fact an unfathomable intensification of the risk and range and intractability of nonhuman animal abuse at the hands of the human ones. And of course this intensification has occurred simultaneously with and apparently in sublime indifference to a proliferation of academic and nonacademic critical discourses about animal rights and animal suffering.

To the familiar frustration of the "activist" with the concerns of the "theorist" I can offer little consolation that is likely to satisfy her -– except to say that we can never know in advance just which of the quandaries that preoccupy theory today may provide resources deemed indispensable to activism tomorrow. And yet, if history is any kind of reliable guide, we can be sure that at least some of them will.

In this essay I concentrate much of my attention on the work of the feminist-vegetarian theorist Carol Adams, who seems to me certainly an exemplar of what I would mean to evoke with the term "vegetarian criticism," and who has been my own primary point of departure in determining what form vegetarian criticism would take in my personal practice.

Adams has bemoaned a recent proliferation of vegetarianisms and vegetarian identities, from the extraordinary coinages by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of the "pollo-vegetarian" and the "pesco-vegetarian" –- eaters of the slaughtered bodies of chickens and fish, respectively -– to the much more familiar "lacto-ovo vegetarian" diet, which restricts consumption of animal products to eggs, milk, cheese and the like.

In the Introduction to her book Neither Man Nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (New York: Continuum, 1994) Adams writes of this terminological broadening and hence thinning of the concept of "vegetarianism." "[W]hat is literally transpiring in the widening of the meaning of vegetarianism," she writes "is the weakening of the concept of vegetarianism by including within it some living creatures who were killed to become food." (p. 27)

While I sympathize with the thrust of this observation, I am uneasy about the extent to which it seems to rely for its force on the conjuring up of a vision of a "strong" vegetarian practice we should attain to. This "strong" vegetarianism consists not simply of the reasonable (for vegetarians, at any rate) vision of repudiating the treatment of animal bodies as food, but, further, the vision of the occupation, by means of this disciplinary restriction, of a space of purity in which the real difficulties of determining the course of proper conduct in the interminable commerce of human with nonhuman animals are inappropriately trivialized.

Adams seems sometimes to advocate a vegetarianism figured as a revolutionary outside of the sphere of political power and violence. She writes: "Either one consumes cooked animal flesh (do you?) or one does not (I don’t). There is no neutral ground from which to survey this activity and the debates about it." (p. 25) But to what extent has Adams herself, in assuming just this point of departure for her thinking of the question of the animal for ethical conduct, posited precisely a kind of high ground here, and so refused a more precarious and dangerous thinking of the terrain?

In the deeply personal "Coda" that closes Neither Man Nor Beast, Adams gestures at complexities which would seem to undermine radically any project (such as that, arguably, of her own book) to figure vegetarianism as an available practice of purity. "[B]esides clothing many people," she writes, "dead animals’ bodies are in camera film, videotapes, Jell-O, rubber tires, house paints, tennis racket strings, emery boards, car antifreeze, and countless other products." (p. 203) It is easy to see that a commitment to vegetarianism will nudge me away from the purchase of a fast-food hamburger, but the application of the principle would seem to become more vexed when the question is whether or not I should purchase a leather wallet, or a wool sweater, whether or not I should rent a video, visit a doctor’s office, swat at a gnat, or hail a taxi.

What might it mean, for instance, for a wool sweater to be figured as an "animal product," and so shunned by strict vegetarians, while a cotton sweater produced by hungry children wage-slaving in some multinational sweatshop in Southeast Asia will not be so figured and hence will be chosen as a properly "vegetarian" alternative? Or, if both sweaters are refused, to what extent will it sensibly have been one’s vegetarianism that has governed each of these decisions?

There would no longer seem to be any question of a conclusion that reframed the rigorous either/or with which Adams’s book began. It would seem either hopelessly implausible or appallingly trivializing to offer up an either/or to the effect that "either one will choose and then manage to separate somehow from the utter ubiquity and complexity of late modern globe-girdling industrial and bureaucratic practices of nonhuman animal exploitation (I have) or not (will you?)"!

Interestingly, Adams closes the argument of her book instead with an evocation of the uses to which nonhuman animal skins have been put historically in the production of written and printed texts, among them no doubt any number of the texts on which she has depended herself to formulate her own critique. In this I read a (too?) subtle registration of her own imbrication within a constellation of practices of animal exploitation she is nonetheless resisting and renegotiating, but from which an absolute or perhaps even satisfying separation and escape is finally impossible, however necessary.

"[R]esponsibility is excessive or it is not responsibility," insists Jacques Derrida in an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy ("’Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject," in Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, eds., Who Comes After the Subject? New York: Routledge, 1991). "A limited, measured, calculable, rationally distributed responsibility is already the becoming-right of morality; it is also, in the best hypothesis, the dream of every good conscience, in the worst hypothesis, of the small or grand inquisitors." (p. 118) It is a typically rich passage from which I will draw for now just the modest lesson that to take seriously our ethical responsibility to others in general we should rather assume our actual responsibilities forever just exceed our capacities than risk a complacent acceptance of harm we could indeed address or worse, drift into self-righteous deployments of ethical language in the service of projects of active harming. My worry is that when they are figured as a kind of "pure" or "strong" or "strict" and yet attainable or even attained ethical vantage, the very vegetarian sensitivities and practices which appear perhaps to the majority of people as an almost impossibly rigorous and difficult ethical practice may have instead the paradoxical effect of making ethics altogether too easy.

To treat an animal, whether human or not, ethically, properly politically, say, as a peer in the arrangement of the world, is to risk a derangement of that world. The encounter with a peer demands "respect for the other at the very moment when, in experience... one must begin to identify with the other, who is to be assimilated, interiorized, understood ideally[.]" I have elided a parenthetic aside in this quotation so as to highlight it: "I am speaking here," Derrida explains, "of metonymical ‘eating’ as well as the very concept of experience." (pp. 114-115.) It is important that in the assertion earlier in the same paragraph that "[v]egetarians, too, partake of animals, even of men," this "partak[ing]" does not share in the scare-quoting of the "metonymical ‘eating’" he conjures up so soon after.

Derrida assures his conversational partner(s) that it is not his intention "to start a support group for vegetarianism, ecologism, or for the societies for the protection of animals" –- all of which are treated rather breathtakingly as equivalent -– nevertheless, he immediately adds the spritely proviso that offering such support to vegetarians "is something I might also want to do, and something which would lead us to the center of the subject." (p. 112) Indeed.

But as things stand it is no simple task to determine just how to make use of whatever support Derrida is providing here. It is no simple task for vegetarian criticism to decide when to take eating as just a quotation of eating, when to treat eating as literal or figurative, when to proscribe, question, tolerate, or affirm practices of partaking of others. And in the matter of these determinations, the example of Derrida’s own practice will scarcely guide us –- he is by no means vegetarian himself! –- even while he provides reason to question no less the example of those vegetarians who imagine that by the simple repudiation (however difficult in execution) of "red meat" -– or of corpse-eating altogether -– or of consuming corpses, eggs, and dairy products –- or all of these, as well as cosmetics, modern medical treatments, and manufactured good generally -– who imagine that by means of any comfortably prescribable delimitable repudiation whatever they can thereby solve to their satisfaction, once and for all, the ethical "problem of the animal."

The vegetarian imperative is to my mind a voracious one, and in fact, finally, unsatisfiable. This is not only because, as I have suggested already, contemporary practices of animal exploitation are impossibly imbricated with everyday life. More, one of the best ambitions of a vegetarian criticism would be to join in the work of recent feminist, queer, and race theorists to trace and inflect the flows of force, knowledge, meaning, desire, and power that arise through formations of identification and disidentification –- all in the service of the urgent but interminable projects of emancipation, equality, and the self-determination of peers in the world. Carol Adams has begun this work already, most conspicuously in her classic account of the co-construction and co-dependence of sexism and carnivorism (a conjunction Derrida designates with the aptly unlovely term "carno-phallogocentrism"), The Sexual Politics of Meat (New York: Continuum, 1990). In other work, Adams has gone on to begin to explore articulations of "speciesism" (another ungainly term, I know) with racism and heterosexism. The chapter "On Beastliness and a Politics of Solidarity," in Neither Man Nor Beast (pp. 71-84) is particularly important for this.

In her formulations of the idea of the "interlocking oppressions" of sexism, racism, speciesism, and the rest, however, Adams sometimes seems to assume a seamless alignment of the interests of the oppressed as well as to summon up the spectacle of a no less monolithic oppressor, with the consequence that her critiques tend to hold out the promise of a clean and complete break with oppression as such. If only!

This utopian dream of an attainable outside to the play of power attends even her most careful formulations: "We recognize that expanding the category of Other to include the other animals must be done carefully. If it is not, it could provide an escape for white middle-class women from engaging in solidarity with oppressed people, by focusing instead solely on oppressed [nonhuman] animals. This would be completely inappropriate. To set up a hierarchy between the two issues is a false choice. That is not our focus, nor do we endorse such a response to this essay. In fact, the oppression of people because of race, sex, and class and the oppression of animals are interwoven" (Carol J. Adams and Marjorie Proctor-Smith, "Taking Life or ‘Taking on Life’" in Carol J. Adams, ed. Ecofeminism and the Sacred (New York: Continuum, 1993, p. 300.) The argument here seems to suggest that justice is achievable once and for all by dint of careful attention and a little hard work.

Against such a conception (however comforting) I am interested in thinking through the problems and possibilities of a sense of freedom that is achieved and maintained instead from moment to moment in the interminable negotiation among never-fully-reconcilable claims among peers in the face of insuperable though shifting asymmetries of power, authority, creativity, and satisfaction. I am attracted to this alternative conception since intelligible race- sex- and class-identifications, for example, would seem to me to be opportunistic sociocultural formations with long and hopelessly convoluted histories, articulated with, through, and against one another in unexpected ways. Hardly protagonists in a single story in a single key.

"Vegetarianism" writes Brian Luke (in "Taming Ourselves or Going Feral? Toward a Nonpatriarchal Metaethic of Animal Liberation," in Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan, eds., Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995) "certainly carries quite different meanings and implications depending on one’s class, gender, race, religion, culture, physiology, etc." He goes on to illustrate the point with the example of Alice Walker who, despite a fierce vegetarian conviction ("eating mean is cannibalism"), has eaten flesh in deference to regional identification ("it is hard to consider oneself Southern with [Georgia ham]"), in respect of the incomprehension of a cherished friend, and other circumstances as well (pp. 295-296). The example would seem to resonate with special force in light of the uses to which Carol Adams has repeatedly put Walker’s slogan "We are one lesson" in the service of the image of a conspicuous convergence of properly just ends.

It complicates I think rather than undermines Adams’s painstaking documentation and analysis of the "historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in... suffrage movements and twentieth century pacifism" The Sexual Politics of Meat, p 167) to ponder the example of moments in these histories when in spite of an awareness of interlocking oppressions people are urged by the exigencies of strategic advantage and in the flow of uneasily shifting negotiations of conviction to make difficult choices among struggles and investments.

I am thinking here especially of Reginald Abbott’s discussion (in "Birds Don’t Sing in Greek: Virginia Woolf and ‘The Plumage Bill’" in Adams and Donovan, eds., pp. 263-289) of Virginia Woolf’s first feminist polemical essay, "The Plumage Bill," in which she declared that she would choose –- for the first time in her life, and in the face of a moral repugnance at the very idea of such a thing -– to wear an egret plume in her hat precisely in protest against the misogyny of male advocates for nonhuman animals who sought to blame the extraordinary scope and violence of the slaughter of birds for their plumage in the early part of the twentieth century on the so-called frivolity of bestialized and infantilized women and their hunger for fashion, rather than on the men who were after all the actual hunters and domesticators of the birds, and who administered the entire system of governance, industry, and investment that made this exploitation possible.

More threatening to the spirit of Adams’s genealogies –- and to her utopian insinuation in them that the fact of oppression resonates in the presence of others who are oppressed and impels solidarity among them -- is a recognition of the intimate relation historically between fledgling movements against vivisection and for animal protection generally with antisemitism in fin-de-siecle Europe.

"The societal response to the ritual slaughter of animals by Jews [was] itself brutal [!] and direct," writes Sander Gilman in Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient (New York: Routledge, 1995). "The anticruelty forces in Europe and America teamed up closely with the anti-Semites, who saw everything associated with the Jews as an abomination, to label this form of slaughter cruel and barbaric… Arthur Schopenhauer, who saw in the Jews’ refusal to use ‘humane’ methods of slaughter such as ‘chloroform’ a sign of their ‘unnatural separation’ of human beings from the animal world he attributed to the spirit of Judaism… In the 1883 meeting of the Congress for the Protection of Animals in Vienna, the argument was made that the protection of ritual slaughter, or at least its lack of condemnation, was a sign that the Jews controlled the political process in Europe." (pp. 135-137)

On the view that is emerging here, a vegetarian criticism could scarcely hope to provide a key to history, or ultimate weapon in the abolition of violence from public affairs, but would at most examine the ways in which the figure of animality has contributed to the ongoing articulation of other identifications, or perhaps explore the urgencies that govern vegetarian identifications including but not exhausted by straightforward projects to alleviate the suffering of nonhuman animals, eg, the attractions of power in any virile stewardship over a "brute" nature; ascetic renunciations in the service of common or garden varieties of self-laceration; ambitions of transcendence through attachment to notions of an originary naturalness, organicity, pacifism, or disciplinary hankering after purity, etc.

Talk of vegetarian identity inevitably recalls for me the fact that I have personally encountered incomparably greater hostility and incomprehension in a career of self-disclosure as a vegetarian than as a gay man. It is revealing (and not a little amusing) to register just how often the negative reactions occasioned by my "coming out" as a vegetarian have paralleled pretty much exactly what I had expected but for the most part rarely confronted in coming out as queer. Specifically, I have been told that my vegetarianism is "just a phase" (even after fifteen years of the practice). I have been told repeatedly that my vegetarianism is "unnatural." All manner of the long-awaited bad Darwinian and Biblical citations have been typically adduced in support of the "unnaturalness" claim. And certainly nobody who has witnessed the surreally urgent debates among vegetarians and their opponents in which the shape of an incisor or the length of the intestine is trotted out in triumph in support of a claim of propriety or inevitability for this identification or that can imagine that debates about genetic predispositions to gayness are infinitely remote from the contours of debates about vegetarianism.

Be that as it may, these promises and dangers, it would seem, have haunted the figure of the vegetarian from the very moment of her sudden and quite self-conscious entrance into public discourse in 1847, to the present day. Against the Oxford English Dictionary’s "authoritative" derivation of the term from an irregular truncation of the word "vegetable," Vic Sussman maintains (in The Vegetarian Alternative: A Guide to a Healthful and Humane Diet, as discussed in Adams The Sexual Politics of Meat, pp. 78-79) that the designation "vegetarian" was derived "from the Latin term homo vegetus -- a mentally and physically vigorous person. Thus, the English vegetarians [of the nineteenth century who coined the term and then applied it to themselves] were trying to make a point about the philosophical and moral tone of the lives they sought to lead."

Again, I cannot deny that this resignification of the vegetarian name has its attractions, especially against those formulations which would make the vegetarian a synonym for the mindless or the hopelessly humdrum. Nevertheless, I cannot help but remember the uses to which figures of "soundness" and "wholeness" and fantasies of the ethical production of "mentally and physically vigorous person[s]" were typically put in this period in the consolidation of moral and social projects of policing and "pruning," projects the trajectories of which eventuated as often as not in genocidal rages for order.

Now, it may seem that to italicize worries of this kind in the face of the harrowing reality of shattered animal lives and the necessity to intervene in their behalf risks an altogether unnecessary troubling or, more hyperbolically, paralysis of action. But I want to emphasize that it is precisely because practices and justifications of nonhuman animal exploitation exert in their un(der)questioned un(der)theorized ubiquity a special, formative (if not foundational) force and near ineradicability, that the spectacle of their strength and scope occasions dreams of total transformations of society and radical refashionings of personality. Surely such sweeping vegetarian imaginaries, however satisfying it may be to inhabit them, represent no less dangerous distractions as theory’s painstaking attentions are at their worst to the fleeting, complex, and even contradictory urgencies of ethical action and judgment as they fall to us in a public sphere that contains a plurality of both human and nonhuman actors.

Part Two: Body Politics, Bodies Politic

I maintain that, in the North Atlantic West at any rate, what we have come to think of as culture, society, the public realm, the space of politics, the sphere of civility, and the like have all been produced and policed on the basis of an ongoing practical, institutional, and discursive demarcation of human from nonhuman animals. Sometimes it is conjured up in the vision of an idyllic, or perhaps instead a nasty and short, but always, always brutish "prepolitical" state of nature from which civilization is imagined to have emerged and to which some will fear it is again degenerating... Sometimes it is evoked in the inarticulate cries issued at the "postpolitical" poles of public intercourse offered up in the torturer's touch or the lover's embrace... Come what may, the margins of civil space are haunted by the ineradicable specter of the animal, the beast, the brute.

Of course, this demarcation of human from nonhuman animals provides an ongoing justification (or, more often, a dismissal of the very need for justification) for the uses to which we put animal lives and animal bodies in the service of a taste for "meat" or of a faith in exclusively technical solutions to political problems. But also, crucially, this demarcation provides us an ever-ready abjected population of individuals who by signifying the "utter" absence of agency and rationality serve as a presence to contrast conpicuously with other luckier, more privileged populations of individuals as they seek to signify and inhabit the valorized conceptions of agency and autonomy they crave.

Even in so notorious a case as that of Descartes, his absolute denial of intelligible experience to nonhuman animals takes the form of the claim that animals are merely insensate machines -- with the chief consequence that what will follow from this claim is an anxious enumeration of tests with which he can then stave off the haunting prospect that human beings might be mistaken thereupon for machines themselves.

The task of the fraught and fragile demarcation of human from nonhuman animals is rarely primarily to deny altogether the reality of the richness of experience of those animals who are unlucky enough to fall to the wrong side of the divide, but to dismiss the relevance of that suffering to ethical life. The crucial consequence of the human/nonhuman animal demarcation is the constitution of a sprawling class of beings whose pains and pleasures are construed simultaneously as real, but as pains and pleasures that do not matter. Further, the cultural and institutional machineries by means of which social divisions between human and nonhuman animals are drawn and maintained go on inevitably then to buttress and "naturalize" other vocabularies of oppression and acceptable violence.

That is to say, racist, sexist, and heterosexist discourses (and other practices and institutions which accompany them), for example -– not to mention discourses of childhood, disability, madness, indigence, illness, foreignness, criminality -– are almost always also bestializing discourses as well. And so, they will always rely for their intelligibility and force in some measure on the fantastic figure of the being whose experience is real but does not matter and on the assignment of that status or an approximation of it onto another bestialized class of individuals. As witness:

"It is clear," writes Aristotle in Book I of the Politics, "that the rule of the soul over the body, and the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient[.]" To understand the character of this apparent clarity, in light of the uses to which Aristotle subsequently puts it, we need only recall Mill’s question from The Subjection of Women: "[W]as there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?" And so, a natural hierarchy is proposed -– a hierarchy at once natural and expedient -– an apparently spontaneous and self-evident order, conjured up for all that through the heavy hand of the ones who would rule.

From here, Aristotle disgorges a dizzying thread of equivalent tyrannies, all them underwritten in this way by "nature." "The same holds good of animals in relation to men," namely, that they are properly ruled and disposed of in a way expedient to men. "Again" -- this without a pause for breath -- "the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior[.]" And then, why, who can fail to notice that "the one rules, and the other is ruled[?]" "[T]his" we will call, of all things, a "principle," and one which, "of necessity, extends to all mankind."

Again, here we have the claim of a natural order, dragging in tow the shadow and stain of the authority that would keeps it that way. "Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body" –- and such differences, as we have seen, are not necessarily such a rare thing come to think of it –- "or between men and animals... the lower sort are by nature slaves." And, so, naturally, they slave away.

"[I]t is better for them," not to mention, let us say, for their masters, "as for all inferiors" -– for the beastly body and its passions, for beasts in general, women, slaves, and the rest –- "that they should be under the rule of a master." "And so," this a few chapters further along, "in one point of view," possibly indeed in Aristotle’s view, "the art of war is a natural art of acquisition, for the art of acquisition includes hunting, an art which we ought to," and, fortuitously enough, do, "practice against wild beasts and against men who, though intended by nature to be governed" by us, nevertheless, stubbornly, "will not submit" to us. "[W]ar of such a kind is naturally just." Natural, indeed, and expedient.

"[E]ating a dead chicken at a fast-food restaurant," write Carol Adams and Marjorie Proctor-Smith (in "Taking Life," p. 300) "is dissociated from the experience of black women who, as 'lung gunners,' must each hour scrape the insides of 5,000 chickens’ cavities and pull out the recently slaughtered chickens’ lungs. Ninety-five percent of all poultry workers are undereducated black and Hispanic women who face carpal tunnel syndrome and other disorders caused by repetitive motion and stress… Indeed, meat packing is considered one of the ten worst jobs in the United States."

The harrowing behind-the-scenes work through which animal bodies are converted into "meat" is inevitably done by marginalized and abjected human populations... populations whose marginalization and abjection is surely figured significantly through their own bestialization... the discursive machineries of which are in turn facilitated and consolidated by the work they themselves are doing, as it insinuates itself from moment to moment, as much by its hiddenness as by its apparently undislodgeable taken-for-grantedness ever more deeply into the fabric of everyday life...

Now, to highlight the working of the figure of the beast in the oppression of human populations in this way, even if this effort were to buttress a conviction that might bring this harrowing machinery of bestialization to an end, is paradoxically to run the risk on some accounts of an absolute instrumentalization of nonhuman animals. "No argument could reveal the essence of speciesism more clearly," writes Peter Singer (in Animal Liberation, p. 203) than that the "reason against cruelty to animals is that it may lead to cruelty to human beings."

To this I rejoin that this objection relies for its own force on a stubborn maintenance within the vegetarian impulse of the human-nonhuman animal demarcation. How else to account for the assumption that "bestialization" names only a practical and discursive traffic between human beings on the one hand, and all other animals on the other? While I am interested indeed in a analysis that would trace the career of the figure of the beast within the identifications of queers or women of color, for example, this does not foreclose an interest in tracing its trajectory in the stories of hens, of cows, of dolphins, of spiders, as well. To insist that the field of legitimate concern to an animal activism must somehow remain autonomous from humanity is finally to refuse nonhuman animals the status of peers in a shared world so as to ensure them never more than the status of the protected.

It is crucial to notice in this connection that even practices and vocabularies of liberation, whenever they are mobilized and organized by the conventional claim that "we will no longer be treated as ‘mere’ animals!" necessarily simultaneously undermine as well as reanimate certain conspicuously asymmetrical relations of power. They do so by challenging their own location with respect to the human/nonhuman demarcation but otherwise fortifying it.

But surely, it cannot properly be the ambition of vegetarian criticism or activism to eliminate this distinction altogether, however. Not even the most utopian advocates for animal rights expect –- barring radical genetic and prosthetic interventions, say -- that one day nonhuman animals will find their way to the voting booth, or urge the propriety of extending to nonhuman predatory animals, for example, human standards of fairplay or penalties of law. And though I am sensitive to the ways in which observations of this kind are typically used to dismiss or trivialize the very idea of vegetarian sensitivity and practice this seems to me no good reason to refuse to register their significance and force altogether.

The question whether the institutions of a properly "vegetarian" radical democracy, say, would seek to respond more to the claims of human vegetarians or to those of the nonhuman animals themselves is one that has received inadequate attention from those who are sympathetic to vegetarianism and animal rights. And the same can be said of the question, does vegetarian criticism properly seek to represent the interests of "voiceless" animals (and so, as Donna Haraway fears, perhaps cynically augment the power of the critics themselves -- rather as those who claim to represent the "interests" of voiceless fetuses do) or to register the reality of animals’ voices (as Carol Adams rejoins)? What are the stakes of the vegetarians themselves, as animals of a kind among others, in particular framings of "the" animals’ agenda?

What are we to make of the fact that so far by far the principal effort of animal advocacy has been to "bring to voice" the suffering of nonhuman animals? The traditional project of animal rights movements, for example, would seem to be an enterprise to rearticulate the foundation of liberal rights from a shared essence, divine spark, or rational intellect, to one of a shared capacity to experience pain. But does such an effort rely on a mistaken, if well-intentioned, belief that the awareness of another’s pain will necessarily urge an intervention to alleviate that pain when, as often as not, this awareness might instead mobilize projects that insidiously manage and maintain the sufferer as sufferer, as spectacle of suffering?

Is a being who is figured as one whose pain is all that matters about her really better fit to participate as a peer in the political realm than one whose pain does not matter at all? And what is the place of animal pleasures in such a conception of the political?

Too often vegetarian dreams of a world made safe from harm amount to a vision of a world under gas. They amount to disavowals of the ineradicable antagonism generated by plurality. And they offer up blunt repudiations of the pleasures that accompany the hardship occasioned by this antagonism.

What is wanted instead is a reconceptualization of the political in which both human and nonhuman animals count as actors and potential peers. This reconceptualization would be facilitated I think by the insistence that the relation of a human being to his ham sandwich or to her leather jacket is always already a relation between animals, always already a political relation between potential peers, and not a prepolitical, instrumental relation of human beings to the realization of their wants.

There is little question in my mind that such a reconceptualization of politics would have as one of its consequences precisely a diminishment of the exploitation and an amelioration of the suffering of many nonhuman animals and possibly many human ones as well. This is because I think that this exploitation and suffering has largely been possible only because it has been thrust off the political stage and figured as a matter of concern to engineers and not ethicists. But I suspect that we cannot properly expect from this reconceptualization the provision of an angle of view from which the propriety of particular ethical and political judgments, even in such elementary matters as the eating of the flesh of particular animals for food or the suffering of particular animals in the context of medical testing, can ever be absolutely certain in advance.

For me, vegetarian criticism must actually take as its point of departure the inevitability of human/nonhuman animal demarcations, an inevitability that is continuous with the concomitant inevitability of ongoing demarcations among animals, human and nonhuman. And this vegetarian criticism should take, then, as its tasks, both the perpetual troubling of these demarcations and the documentation of their transformations and effects. This would seem to me to be a critical practice that comports well with a sense of the political that has as its constitutive anxiety the simultaneous recognition of the necessity and the impossibility of eliminating violence altogether from public life, a sense of the political which provokes a seriousness the strictures of which afford not purity, but, it is to be hoped, among other things, perhaps a real measure of pleasure.

Parts of this paper in earlier versions were delivered as "Animal Rites: Vegetarian Criticism, Vegetarian Selves," at the Conference "Culture Is Ordinary," held at Bowling Green State University, April 18, 1997, and as "Abject Beasts" at the 12th Annual Boundaries in Question Conference, "Subject, Object, Abject," Friday, February 28, 2003, at the University of California at Berkeley. I want to thank both Carol Adams and Judith Butler for their comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.