Killing

Jacques Derrida has been lurking in this reflection for quite some time, and it is time to invite him in directly. Not least, Derrida eloquently and relentlessly reminds his readers that responsibility is never calculable. There is no formula for response; precisely, to respond is not merely to react with a fixed calculus proper to machines, logic, and—most Western philosophy has insisted—animals. In the lineage of Western philosophers with and against whom Derrida struggled all his life, only the Human can respond; animals react. The Animal is forever positioned on the other side of an unbridgeable gap, a gap that reassures the Human of his excellence by the very ontological impoverishment of a lifeworld that cannot be its own end or know its own condition. Following Levinas on the subjectivity of the hostage, Derrida remembers that in this gap lies the logic of sacrifice, within which there is no responsibility toward the living world other than the human.15

Within the logic of sacrifice, only human beings can be murdered. Humans can and must respond to one another and maybe avoid deliberate cruelty to other living beings, when it is convenient, in order to avoid damaging their own humanity, which is Kant's scandalous best effort on the topic, or at best recognize that other animals feel pain even if they cannot respond or in their own right obligate response. Every living being except Man can be killed but not murdered. To make Man merely kill-able is the height of moral outrage; indeed, it is the definition of genocide. Reaction is for and toward the unfree; response is for and toward the open.16 Everything but Man lives in the realm of reaction and so calculation; so much animal pain, so much human good, add it up, kill so many animals, call it sacrifice. Do the same for people, and they lose their humanity. A great deal of history demonstrates how all this works; just check out the latest list of genocides-in-progress. Or read the rolls of death rows in U.S. prisons.

Derrida understood that this structure, this logic of sacrifice and this exclusive possession of the capacity for response, is what produces the Animal, and he called that production criminal, a crime against beings we call animals. "The confusion of all nonhuman living creatures within the general and common category of the animal is not simply a sin against rigorous thinking, vigilance, lucidity, or empirical authority; it is also a crime. Not against animality precisely, but a crime of the first order against the animals, against animals."17 Such criminality takes on special historical force in view of the immense, systematized violence against animals that deserves the name "exterminism." As Derrida put it, "No one can deny this event any more, no one can deny the unprecedented proportions of the subjection of the animal. . . . Everybody knows what terrifying and intolerable pictures a realist painting could give to the industrial, mechanical, chemical, hormonal, and genetic violence to which man has been submitting animal life for the past two centuries."18 Everyone may know, but there is not nearly enough indigestion.19

Within the logic of sacrifice that undergrids all versions of religious or secular humanism, animals are sacrificed precisely because they can be killed and then ingested symbolically and materially in acts saved from cannibalism or murder of the brother by the logic of surrogacy and substitution. (Derrida understood that patricide and fratricide are the only real murders in the logic of humanism; everybody else to whom the law is applied is covered by courtesy.) The substitute, the scapegoat, is not Man but Animal.20 Sacrifice works; there is a whole world of those who can be killed, because finally they are only something, not somebody, close enough to "being" in order to be a model, substitute, sufficiently self-similar and so nourishing food, but not close enough to compel response. Not the Same, but Different; not One, but Other. Derrida repudiates this trap with all the considerable technical power of deconstruction and all the moral sensitivity of a man who is affected by shared mortality. Judging that the crime that posits the Animal is more than idiotic (a bêtise), Derrida goes much further: "The gesture seems to me to constitute philosophy as such, the philosopheme itself."21

Derrida argues that the problem is not human beings' denying something to other critters—whether that be language, or knowledge of death, or whatever is the theoretico-empirical sign of the Big Gap popular at the moment—but rather the death-defying arrogance of ascribing such wondrous positivities to the Human. "The question of the said animal in its entirety comes down to knowing not whether the animal speaks but whether one can know what respond means. And how to distinguish a response from a reaction."22 Taking as given the irreducible multiplicity of living beings, Homo sapiens and other species, who are entangled together, I suggest that this question of discernment pivots on the unresolved dilemmas of killing and relationships of use.

I am afraid to start writing what I have been thinking about all this, because I will get it wrong—emotionally, intellectually, and morally— and the issue is consequential. Haltingly, I will try. I suggest that it is a misstep to separate the world's beings into those who may be killed and those who may not and a misstep to pretend to live outside killing. The same kind of mistake saw freedom only in the absence of labor and necessity, that is, the mistake of forgetting the ecologies of all mortal beings, who live in and through the use of one another's bodies. This is not saying that nature is red in tooth and claw and so anything goes. The naturalistic fallacy is the mirror-image misstep to transcendental humanism.

I think what my people and I need to let go of if we are to learn to stop exterminism and genocide, through either direct participation or indirect benefit and acquiescence, is the command "Thou shalt not kill." The problem is not figuring out to whom such a command applies so that "other" killing can go on as usual and reach unprecedented historical proportions. The problem is to learn to live responsibly within the multiplicitous necessity and labor of killing, so as to be in the open, in quest of the capacity to respond in relentless historical, nonteleological, multispecies contingency. Perhaps the commandment should read, "Thou shalt not make killable."

The problem is actually to understand that human beings do not get a pass on the necessity of killing significant others, who are themselves responding, not just reacting. In the idiom of labor, animals are working subjects, not just worked objects. Try as we might to distance ourselves, there is no way of living that is not also a way of someone, not just something, else dying differentially. Vegans come as close as anyone, and their work to avoid eating or wearing any animal products would consign most domestic animals to the status of curated heritage collections or to just plain extermination as kinds and as individuals. I do not disagree that vegetarianism, veganism, and opposition to sentient animal experimentation can be powerful feminist positions; I do disagree that they are Feminist Doxa. Further, I think feminism outside the logic of sacrifice has to figure out how to honor the entangled labor of humans and animals together in science and in many other domains, including animal husbandry right up to the table. It is not killing that gets us into exterminism, but making beings killable. Baba Joseph understood that the guinea pigs were not killable; he had the obligation to respond.

I think that is exactly what David Lurie, the sexually harassing, middle-aged scholar of poetry, understood in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Working with a vet who fulfilled her duty to untold numbers of stray and sick animals by killing them in her clinic, Lurie brought the dog he had bonded with to her for euthanasia at the end of the novel. He could have delayed the death of that one dog. That one dog mattered. He did not sacrifice that dog; he took responsibility for killing without, maybe for the first time in his life, leaving. He did not take comfort in a language of humane killing; he was, at the end, more honest and capable of love than that. That incalculable moral response is what, for me, distinguishes David Lurie in Disgrace from Elizabeth Costello in The Lives of Animals, for whom actually existing animals do not seem present. Elizabeth Costello, the fictional Tanner Lecturer in Coetzee's Lives of Animals, inhabits a radical language of animal rights. Armed with a fierce commitment to sovereign reason, she flinches at none of this discourse's universal claims, and she embraces all of its power to name extreme atrocity. She practices the enlightenment method of comparative history in order to fix the awful equality of slaughter. Meat eating is like the Holocaust; meat eating is the Holocaust. What would Elizabeth Costello do if she were in the place of Bev Shaw, the volunteer animal caretaker in Disgrace, whose daily service of love is to escort large numbers of abandoned dogs and cats to the solace of death? Maybe there is no solace for those animals, but only dying. What would Costello do in the place of Disgrace's Lucy Lurie, whose face-to-face life with dogs and human neighbors in postapartheid South Africa arrests the categorical power of words in midutterance? Or even of David Lurie, Lucy's disgraced father, who finally inhabits a discourse of desire at least as fierce and authentic as Elizabeth Costello's distinction-obliterating discourse of universal suffering? How do the relentlessly face-to-face, historically situated, language-defeating suffering and moral dilemmas of Disgrace meet the searingly generic, category-sated moral demands of The Lives of Animals? And who lives and who dies—animals and humans—in the very different ways of inheriting the histories of atrocity that Coetzee proposes in these novels' practices of moral inquiry?23

I suggest that what follows from the feminist insight that embraced historically situated, mindful bodies as the site not just of first (maternal) birth but also of full life and all its projects, failed and achieved, is that human beings must learn to kill responsibly. And to be killed responsibly, yearning for the capacity to respond and to recognize response, always with reasons but knowing there will never be sufficient reason. We can never do without technique, without calculation, without reasons, but these practices will never take us into that kind of open where multispecies responsibility is at stake. For that open, we will not cease to require a forgiveness we cannot exact. I do not think we can nurture living until we get better at facing killing. But also get better at dying instead of killing.

Sometimes a "cure" for whatever kills us is just not enough reason to keep the killing machines going at the scale to which we (who?) have become accustomed.

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