Nonmimetic Sharing

Baba Joseph did not stand in for the guinea pigs; rather, he tried to understand their pain in the most literal way. There is an element of mimesis in his actions that I affirm: feeling in his flesh what the guinea pigs in his charge feel.12 I am most interested, however, in another aspect of Baba Joseph's practice, an element I will call nonmimetic sharing. He sustained bites not to stand in as experimental object but to understand the rodents' pain so as to do what he could about it, even if that was only to serve as witness to the need for something properly called forgiveness even in the most thoroughly justified instances of causing suffering. He did not resign his job (and so starve? or "just" lose his status in his community?) or try to convince Nhamo not to help out in the lab with Dr. van Heerden. He did not "free" the guinea pigs or worry about the flies. Joseph encouraged and instructed Nhamo's curiosity about and with animals of all sorts, in and out of the lab. Still, Joseph had his God from whom he hoped for forgiveness. What might standing in need of forgiveness mean when God is not addressed and sacrifice is not practiced? My suspicion is that the kind of forgiveness that we fellow mortals living with other animals hope for is the mundane grace to eschew separation, self-certainty, and innocence even in our most creditable practices that enforce unequal vulnerability.

In an essay called "FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™," I confronted a genetically engineered lab critter, patented under the name OncoMouse, whose work was to serve as a breast cancer model for women. Commanded by her suffering and moved by Lynn Randolph's painting The Passion of OncoMouse, which showed a chimeric mouse with the breasts of a white woman and a crown of thorns in a multinational observation chamber that was a laboratory, I argued: "OncoMouse™ is my sibling, and more properly, male or female, s/he is my sister. . . . Although her promise is decidedly secular, s/he is a figure in the sense developed within Christian realism: s/he is our scapegoat; s/he bears our suffering; s/he signifies and enacts our mortality in a powerful, historically specific way that promises a culturally privileged kind of secular salvation—a cure for cancer.' Whether I agree to her existence and use or not, s/he suffers, physically, repeatedly, and profoundly, that I and my sisters might live. In the experimental way of life, s/he is the experiment. . . . If not in my own body, surely in those of my friends, I will someday owe to OncoMouse™ or her subsequently designed rodent kin a large debt. So, who is s/he?"13 It is tempting to see my sister OncoMouse as a sacrifice, and certainly the barely secular Christian theater of the suffering servant in science and the everyday lab idiom of sacrificing experimental animals invite that thinking. OncoMouse is definitely a model substituted for human experimental bodies. But something the biologist Barbara Smuts calls copresence with animals is what keeps me from resting easily with the idiom of sacrifice.14 The animals in the labs, including the oncomice, have face; they are somebody as well as something, just as we humans are both subject and object all the time. To be in response to that is to recognize copresence in relations of use and therefore to remember that no balance sheet of benefit and cost will suffice. I may (or may not) have good reasons to kill, or to make, oncomice, but I do not have the majesty of Reason and the solace of Sacrifice. I do not have sufficient reason, only the risk of doing something wicked because it may also be good in the context of mundane reasons. Further, those mundane reasons are inextricably affective and cognitive if they are worth their salt. Felt reason is not sufficient reason, but it is what we mortals have. The grace of felt reason is that it is always open to reconsideration with care.

I am trying to think about what is required of people who use other animals unequally (in experiments, directly or indirectly, in daily living, knowing, and eating because of animals' sensuous labor). Some instrumental relations should be ended, some should be nurtured, but none of this without response, that is, nonmechanical and morally alert consequences for all the parties, human and not, in the relation of unequal use. I don't think we will ever have a general principle for what sharing suffering means, but it has to be material, practical, and consequential, the sort of engagement that keeps the inequality from becoming commonsensical or taken as obviously okay. The inequality is in the precise and changeable labor practices of the lab, not in some transcendent excellence of the Human over the Animal, which can then be killed without the charge of murder being brought. Neither the pure light of sacrifice nor the night vision of the power of domination illuminates the relationships involved.

Inequality in the lab is, in short, not of a humanist kind, whether religious or secular, but of a relentlessly historical and contingent kind that never stills the murmur of nonteleological and nonhierarchical multiplicity that the world is. The questions that then interest me are, How can the multispecies labor practices of the lab be less deadly, less painful, and freer for all the workers? How can responsibility be practiced among earthlings? Labor as such, which is always proper to instrumental relations, is not the problem; it is the always pressing question of nonsym-metrical suffering and death. And nonmimetic well-being.

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