Surely, you've heard that before. Probably spoken from a parent to a child. There's a more sinister version of that exclamation, however, directed by one 'self' to an 'Other': Those people are animals. If you think that type of reasoning is absent from today's sociopolitical discourse, I challenge you to read the comment threads of any given news story about Islam or Africa, particularly if there is a so-called "terrorist threat" involved.
What do we mean by such comments? More importantly, how are "human" and "animal" discursively constituted, so that the domination-by-ridicule of animals at the hands of humans, if not animals directly, is fashioned into an instrument of alterity? And how can posthuman (humanimal?) interventions deterritorialize subjectivity from the terrain of anthropocentric metaphysics? In the conversation that follows, medieval scholar and critical animal theorist Karl Steel thinks through these problems, agitating the comfortable distance that people have placed between themselves and their zoological counterparts.
Q: In a discussion of anthropophagy several years ago, you posited that accounts of the savor of human flesh reify the divide between human and animal, perhaps the most fundamental form of alterity. Can you expand a bit on how this distinction historically impacted concepts of human identity?
A: Identifying human/animal as a fundamental form of alterity means reaffirming the importance of this binary. Indifference may do more than study to undo human pretensions to absolute (rather than contingent, relative, local, etc.) superiority. I'd like to think my work finally aims as just such indifference.
Stories of anthropophagy create human difference. To tell stories about anthropophagy and not to tell stories about nonhuman slaughter reaffirms human life as the only life worth memorializing. In Precarious Life and Frames of War, Judith Butler talks about how obituaries produce a distinction between life and nonlife, between the life that will have been grieved for and the life that will not matter. Stories of anthropophagy ensure that eaten humans receive their obituaries, that they remain human by receiving what is proper to them as humans.
The rare references to the savor of human flesh in medieval texts call it the most desirable meat. A fifteenth-century hunting manual says that a wolf that tastes human flesh would rather starve than ever again eat anything else (Emily Dickinson says much the same thing about the tiger, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia says the same thing about people); there are several other such affirmations. By imagining that others yearn to eat them, humans interpassively (see Zizek) sustain their sense of human superiority. Whatever doubts humans have in their own particularity, they sustain themselves by imputing certainty to the anthrophage supposed to believe, who stupidly, directly believes in us.
Q: Have anthropophagic discourses functioned to dehumanize 'the Other' sociopolitically? If so, how, and do you feel that the subsequent dehumanization effectuates a concurrent denial of materiality?
A: Certainly anthropophagic discourses dehumanize as much as they humanize. But they also produce an imagined subject of unconstrained enjoyment, one indifferent to the fundamental prohibitions; nonhuman anthropophages are imagined as subjects that refuse their proper, subjugated place. Horror and envy and perhaps admiration mingle in any story of anthropophagy.
The reason for the horror is obvious: Humans would rather not recognize themselves as materials available for consumption, for use. Only a few humans indifferently abandon their corpses to birds, the sky, the ocean, and so forth (see Timothy Morton for more). When most die, they have themselves burned up; their survivors pickle them with chemicals; they have them sealed into little subterranean homes; they save their organs from putrefaction by giving them to other humans. At the same time, medieval religious texts frequently dilate on human consumability. They love to talk about worms. But this talk, because it aims to shock, of course preserves human particularity, since it presents the very condition of being flesh as a violation.
Q: If concepts of 'the human' have often been predicated upon the subjugation of animals—a subjugation that continues in myriad forms, today—how can humanity be reimagined along less anthropocentric lines, and what impact would this have upon the mass individualization of culture, if any?
A: I would like to think so, but from my vantage point, it's hard for me to imagine. A reimagination of humanity requires a reimagining of the differential allocation of socially significant vulnerability (again, Butler). I don't know if I want to preserve myself (wherever I located "myself") because I know I'm vulnerable, or because I think that as a human, I deserve it. The former—evidence of the "nonpower at the heart of power" (Derrida)—strikes me as a place to begin thinking as a posthuman; the latter position is indefensible, both intellectually and as a constitutive feature, since to be a human with all that this implies means constantly to be under threat. That constitutive indefensibility is why humans as humans spend so much effort defending themselves (speech, culture, soul, etc.). Being human means defending humanity.
Q: Political conflicts, like the War on Terror, are increasingly justified as species emergencies, whereby human life writ large is said to be at stake. Does the essentializing of humans and animals along binary lines inhibit not only cultural hybridization, as 'the Other' is ascribed the same subjugated status as the animal, but also the hybridization of lifeworlds in a manner that emancipates new relations between humans and animals?
A: Yes, absolutely. It also inhibits the recognition that socially significant relations often don't arrange themselves along species lines. Pets matter. And so does pet grief. I'm working on a piece right now about a knight who accidentally kills his loyal dog and, in his grief, goes on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or disappears into the woods, or drowns himself in his fish pond (see "Canis: The Dog File
"). Suicide, social and otherwise. His reaction is an anomaly, sure, but the narrative never
scorns him for his reaction; rather, it scorns his wife and servants, who stupidly think the dog can't count for that much. Unlike the knight, they don't know that lifeworlds are necessarily hybridized already. That's the nature of life. Of worlds. The de-essentializing of the human/animal binary (and indeed a host of other binaries) requires us to recognize what's already there (see Haraway, or Ralph Acampora, Corporal Compassion
Q: The subjugation of animals is often represented as a violent act, an act of butchery. How did this play out in the medieval imaginary and what impact did such violence have upon the development of human security?
A: Perhaps to its discredit, How to Make a Human doesn't do much to distinguish between training and violence because it sees as primary that humans can unilaterally choose what to do with their animal servants and companions. In extremis, a human can separate himself from a chivalric circuit by killing and eating his horse.
To answer your question more directly, the human system seeks to monopolize legitimate violence (cf. Weber). Within human zones of control, wolves would be eradicated and raptors struck dead by saints' curses. The Penitentials—guides to Christian behavior widely produced and disseminated from the sixth to early thirteenth centuries—forbid humans to eat carrion, which they define, in essence, as meat from animals that humans did not intend to kill. Humans who eat carrion in effect condone the violence of nonhuman predators, transforming themselves into partners, rather than masters, of wolves, pigs, chickens, and indeed cliffs. A worthy posthumanism might, thus, require us to become carrion-eaters.
Q: Finally, you've dabbled in object-oriented ontology, which places humans, animals, and other objects on an immanent plane. Understanding that object-oriented ontology, like all ontologies, is not monolithic, how has this emergent philosophy assisted in your critical reevaluation of human privilege?
A: "Dabbled" is exactly right. It has helped Peggy McCracken and I think through a story from the fourteenth-century romance Perceforest
about fish knights (see the epilogue to Postmedieval 2.1)
. These animals, knights, things are at once cultural and instinctual, individualized in their honor and herdlike in their tactics, organic and—being naturally armored and armed—inorganic, and terrestrial and oceanic. The human knight's encounter with the poissons chevaliers
might be understood as the encounter of the critical animal theorist with object-oriented ontology: he no longer knows where to stand, or what to do, or who not to eat.
That said, while I recognize that, for example, the peasant-cart-oxen-field-climate-medievalist assemblage challenges the fantasies of a lonely humanism and perhaps emits a call to which we might respond if only we could hear it right, I'm not quite ready to give up on the distinction between interests and tendencies, vulnerability and breakability, wounds and damage, and so on in an incomplete enumeration of the ways we presume that life differs from nonlife. We will see where my work takes me over the next few years.