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On Humans, Non-Humans and the Unity of Nature: Aristotle and Latour

I wrote most of this post in Nafplio, living close to nature.  The photograph is of the abandoned robin’s nest found in our hanging ivy planter.

There’s been a resurgence of conversation in philosophy about the role of the nonhuman in recent years.  I’ll be honest, I haven’t given it that much thought.  But I came to this ah-hah moment the other day in conversation with my lovely husband about sacrifice as the production of the distinction between gods and beasts and the subsequent production of the space in between: the site of the mortal.  How sacrifice does that is complicated (see Vernant, Girard, Burkart and Agamben), but the implication of this account is that the line between the beast and the human (and the god) needs to be produced.  It isn’t obvious or necessary.  As a result, it is always possible, nay likely, that some who might be humans are placed on the line of the animal.  So, while I might not have cared when I thought the problem of the non-human was just trying to invest me in yet another injustice in contemporary neoliberal society, I realize now that the problem of the nonhuman is the problem of the human.  The distinction implicates the human being and puts the human being in danger, the possibility of always being left out.

In my book on Aristotle, I talk about this problem at the level of the relationship between the citizen and the human being and I argue that to draw a line, to delimit who is just a human being and who progresses more fully to be a citizen, relies on a line-drawing, bordering logic that requires an outside and always inevitably leaves someone out.  I maintained that the definition of the citizen and the human being in Aristotle’s Politics as the one who has logos, which I argue from Aristotle means more than just reason or even speech, but the capacity to organize our pleasures and pains (from Politics I.2).  Citizens show themselves to be citizens by engaging in this activity.  Human beings who are left out testify to their belonging by the claim that they should be included – following Rancière, as I argue here, there are two ways to do this, one that shows that you aren’t actually being included even if the community says you are and the other says you are actually included even if they community says you aren’t.  I argued in that piece that puts Aristotle in conversation with Rancière that this ‘proper’ inclusion cannot be institionalized because it is something we need to continue to be vigilant about.  Are we including all we purport to include?  A question that I think for Aristotle amounts to another way of saying, are we achieving the end we say we wish to achieve?  I don’t think my reading of Aristotle solved the problem of exclusion, but it offered a different model of political life that might better continue to address the problem of communities formed out of exclusion.

But I realize now that this same problem of the relation between the human and the citizen gets repeated between the human and the animal even in Aristotle.  At some point, I’m going to have to work on this more carefully, but I have a couple other projects in the works and I might not get to it for awhile.  So here are some preliminary thoughts.  In Politics I.2, or what I like to call ‘my favorite chapter in Aristotle,’ Aristotle distinguishes between the animal and the human with logos, this organizing capacity whereby we consider which pleasures to avoid and which pains to withstand.  Animals only have voice.  Animals only signal to each other what feels good and what hurts; they don’t make distinctions between these pleasures and pains.  But even here already, if they need to distinguish between pleasures and pains and to let others know, it seems that this isn’t just intuited, that you need to learn it and you can be wrong about it.  If you can be wrong, it seems that some pleasures are really pains and some pains are really pleasures.  So you might already be organizing.  I suppose another possible reading is that you are trying to signal to others dangers — but isn’t that another way of saying you are trying to let them see that what might be safe is not and that what might not be safe is?  So on this level, we already have less of a distinction here than ok, I’ll be honest, than I thought we did.  But we still have the problem that we can’t seem to organize pleasures and pains in the same way that animals do, so some distinction between us is drawn, if only that we can’t understand the way animals do.  Or we don’t want to be able to understand.

Just before this passage, Aristotle explains that the one who is willingly without the political community is either a beast or a god, “a poor specimen or else superhuman” (12533-4).  And after this passage toward the end of the chapter, Aristotle again places the human being above and below the animals when he writes, “For as a human being is the best of the animals when perfected, so when separated from law and justice he is worst of all…Hence he is the most unrestrained and most savage of animals when he lacks virtue, as well as the worst where food and sex are concerned” (1253a32-36).  So the human being’s position in relation to animals is itself precarious.  If a person is not a part of the community “not by luck but by nature” — and how are we to decide whether it was luck or nature that kept you away?  If you are outside because we don’t recognize your claim to belong as a claim to belong, is that luck or nature?  How could we not hear your claim to belong as a claim to belong? — and if the person is separated from law and justice (another way of saying, the person is outside of the community), then the person is the most savage of animals.  We can only assume it is because they are not dividing pleasures and pains but savagely mixing them.  The problem now seems to be that the human being needs desparately to remain distinct from animals.  Only if the human is distinct from the animal can she be in community, the place where we pursue living well and not just living, which we assume is the domain of animals because they don’t think about how to organize their pleasures and pains.  The problem seems to be that where there are lines drawn, a qualifying measure whereby one belongs, there is always exclusion.  This distinction has been kicked back from citizen and human to human and animal and even more so to living and nonliving.  What life counts as life?  How are the qualifiers themselves vague measures that prove to be arbitrary? My friend Leigh Johnson wrote a recent blogpost about the problems with Codes of Conduct that I think follows this logic — the codes of conduct don’t account for nor regulate the ways that the codes of conduct are developed.  Isn’t this the same question here, that the rules for how to treat other humans don’t account for the ways that we judge others to be human, to do the organizing and not just pursuing of pleasures and pains, already make assumptions about what counts as organizing from our own particular position as particular humans?

While I’ve been in Greece, I read Bruno Latour’s book, The Politics of Nature, where Latour argues that the problem of contemporary political ecology movements rests in problematic distinctions being drawn between the human and the nonhuman.  He doesn’t argue that there should be no distinction.  He doesn’t even argue that the distinction shouldn’t be in having logos but he does want to expand the sense in which nonhuman things can be said to speak.  Latour maintains that we have gone wrong because we have clung too dogmatically to the distinction between facts and values where we suppose that scientists access facts of the nonhuman and politicians speak of the values of human beings.  Yet we see a backlash to the sciences in efforts to challenge Science’s hegemony since when we say that Science makes a political claim to knowledge, a claim to power to be able to say what is, we find this argument taken up by those who want to reject outright the work of the sciences altogether claiming that this work is a way to dictate what ought to be.  Science thus seems to have taken over both facts and values.  Latour maintains that the problem comes from thinking that there are subjects and there are objects and maintains instead that we should see that there are collectives, human and nonhuman, that can be made to speak in various ways, that can be represented in various ways.  Latour calls for a rejection of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, a distinction between ‘the fabric of which the world is made…as opposed to representations’ (see Latour’s very helpful Glossary).  This distinction, Latour argues, succeeds in deciding in advance what we have in common (the way we represent) and what we do not (the reality of the world).  It is this work of determining what is held in common that Latour takes to be constitutive of the politics of nature.  Latour writes, “Once we have exited from the great political diorama of “nature in general,” we are left only with the banality of multiple associations of human and nonhumans waiting for their unity to be provided by work carried out by the collective, which has to be specified through the use of the resources, concepts, and institutions of all peoples who may be called upon to live in common on an earth that might become, through a long work of collection, the same earth for all” (46).  Latour argues that the separation of facts and values is only meant to ensure the power of nature over ‘what must be’.  Latour suggests that the fact / value distinction was trying to avoid the twin frauds of using values in secret to interrupt discussions of fact (as when people question climate change science because they want to protect big business) and of using science to impose values (as in scientific racism).  But Latour suggests that the fact / value distinction hasn’t really done this work and we need a new division that is between powers.  The power to take into account that poses the question how many are we and the power to arrange in order that poses the question can we live together replaces the fact / value distinction.  He’s got more powers and more questions, but what is striking is that he elevates the work of the scientist, and argues that we need to make more explicit the working of the scientist so that we can see what the scientist did and the arguments the scientist had with other scientists, conversations that are presently kept secret (at least from the general public) in order to strengthen the force of the scientists’ position or to further an economic position as when researchers hide the many studies that did not go in their favor in order to get approval from the FDA, which currently allows there to be failed studies as long as two studies offer sufficient evidence of a positive outcome of a drug (see the last line of the first page of this article from the New York Review of Books). in order to answer whether we might live together we need to include not only scientists but also the people affected by what is being researched.  Latour uses the example of the prions that are discovered at the beginning of the mad cow epidemic.  Here is a long quote:

At the beginning of the mad cow affair, M. Chirac, the French president, initially summoned M. Dormont, a specialist in those tiny beings [prions]: “Accept your responsibilities, M. Dormont, and tell us whether or not prions are responsible for the disease!”  To which the professor, as a good researcher, responded cooly: “I accept my responsibilities, Mr. President.  My answer is that I don’t know…” Object of a vigourous controversy, prions suffice to induce perplexity—requirement no. 1—not only among researchers, but also among cattle farmers, Eurocrats, consumers, and producers of animal-based feed, not to mention cows and prime ministers.  Candidates for existence, prions bring with them all the external reality necessary to stir up the collective.  The only thing they no longer bring—but no one asks it of them any longterm except inveterate modernists like M. Chirac—is the capacity to silence the collective with their indisputable essence.  From this point on, they are waiting to gain this essence from a procedure that is under way.  
     Who is to judge these prions, candidates for a durable and dangerous existence?  Biologists, of course, but also a large assembly whose composition must be ensured by the slow search for reliable witnesses capable of forming a voice that is at once hesitant and competent—requirement no.2, relevance of the consultation.  This search for  good spokespersons is going to necessitate a rather complicated course of action as well for veterinarians, cattle farmers, butchers, and government employees, not to mention cows, calves, sheep, and lambs, who must all be consulted, one way or another, according to procedures that have to be reinvented every time, some coming from the laboratory, others from political assemblies, a third group from the market-place, a fourth from the government, but all converging in the production of authorized or stammering voices.  It is clear that the power to take into account is translated into a sort of state of alert imposed on the whole collective: laboratories do research, farmers investigate, consumers worry, veterinarians point out symptoms, epidemiologists analyze their statistics, journalists probe, cows mill about, sheep get the shakes.  It is critical not to bring this general alert to an end too soon by assigning stable facts to the common world of external nature and putting the multiplicity of opinions in the social world, as if this world could be equated with the more or less irrational representations that humans make of it.  If there is one thing that must not be reintroduced artificially in this business, it is precisely the good-sense distinction between facts and values!

A couple things I would like to draw attention to in this passage.  Chirac wants an answer to end the conversation. Dormont refuses to cut off the process, to complete the ‘making speak’ until an answer has been reached.  In the case that an answer is not reached, Dormont refuses to speak as if it is clear.  The question seems to be whether prions cause madcow because if so, a test could be done to eliminate all cows that have the prion.  But it isn’t obvious that they do, so the farmers don’t want their cows killed on a hunch.  Perplexity then emerges at every side by the appearance of this new thing that seems to re-arrange the order of things and to call for a new thinking about how things should be ordered (paging Badiou).  The spokespersons are making things speak in relation to this newly emerged thing and asked about their relation to this thing.  Latour notes the problem both with making the facts seem stable too soon and the opinions too plural too soon.  Latour wants to muddle the distinction between facts and values, or deny it altogether, but nonetheless, he wants to maintain a strict distinction between this work of making speak and the political judgments of determining which things matter.  So we would be wrong to judge which things matter too soon before we have properly taken what presents itself into account.  But once that work is complete, we can then proceed to organize things according to the value we give things.  Latour insists that this work cannot be determined in advance by science — the facts can’t dictate how things will be.  We must proceed to a next order of work where what we call political judgment enters the field.  These two tasks – the power to take into account and the power to arrange — must be kept distinct in order to allow things to speak and then to collectively determine and judge the claim of what speaks.

Also this month, I read Randy Stilts historical account from 1980 to 1985 of the AIDS crisis, mostly in America, And the Band Played On.  What is so striking is how the medical community jumps so quickly to putting in order that they refuse or fail to take into account properly.  They either close off the conversation too early or don’t begin to try to make the virus speak soon enough.  Their process is affected by confusing their power to make speak with their power to arrange the importance of certain beings.

I’m not a philosopher of science, but I think even that caveat shows how deeply and profoundly the scientific claim to authority affects us — only those with facts can speak.  Why should I not be permitted to speak to the possibility of overcoming the problems that we face in thinking the relation between the human and the nonhuman?  I am a philosopher of nature and a political philosopher and an ancient philosopher and in these ways I can speak to this problem (yet here I am still claiming authority, yes, but now, not about ‘facts’).  I can maintain that perhaps the problem of politial exclusion that I diagnose in my book as a historical series of ways that nature and reason have been construed in relation to one another as either opposed or hierarchical could also be construed as opposing subjects to objects, things that speak from things that do not.  What if we were to think of all things as capable of speaking and all things as capable of being represented, what would that politics look like?  Latour acknowledges that this does not mean that there will always be inclusion.  Decisions will be made.  We decide for cars and alcohol over 8000 lives a year in France, he says.  But these decisions are not permanent.  They are revisited and it is in the nature of the process to suppose that those who have been excluded could appear as a ‘thing’ that causes ‘perplexity’ and start the whole thing in motion again.  I don’t think this is that far off from the way that I speak of the human who makes the claim to belong when she is included as belonging. Latour has done a lot of work to offer a framework for how that perplexity might be instituted and investigated.  As I’ve said elsewhere, if we are looking for a solution that will institute justice henceforth so that it will never again be a problem, we are likely driving toward totalitarianism.  The alternative is that we must find frameworks to keep the questions at the fore, rather than frameworks that allow them to disappear.  Let all the claimants speak.  Let all the questions ask.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Adriel, very interesting. About the Aristotle, I’ve been reading up on how nomadic forager societies treat those displaying what the Greeks would call “pleonaxia,” “hubris,” or just downright murder. It seems there are three stages: ridicule, ostracism, and execution. They all seems bound up with your discussion of producing the human as member of the community, especially the ostracism: “okay, you think you don’t need us, go right ahead and prove it.”

    The reference here would be Christopher Boehm, _Moral Origins_. An informative interview is here:

    July 15, 2014
    • Thanks for that link, John. The notion that the alpha male becomes a threat to the hunter culture is interesting to me, and the notion that self-control is strongly correlated to the need for equality among the hunters. Especially as it shows that the alpha male is only an alpha male because of the community and not because of his own power. Achilles and Agamemnon seem to be trying to work out similar issues. This piece would suggest that the return of patriarchy and the alpha male that arguably could be said to return with Mycenaean civilization (since it’s then that the Olympian pantheon of warrior males replaces the earth goddess of nature) comes with agriculture and the ebbing of food scarcity concerns.

      I appreciate your remark that producing the human in distinction between the beasts and gods is producing the human in community .

      July 15, 2014

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  2. Metablogging: Blogging about Academic Blogging | The Trott Line
  3. Day 25: Ancient Medical Art and the Distinction Between Humans and Animals | The Trott Line

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