59 Of bedbugs and landfills

Posted on February 10, 2012 by


(a visual metaphor is the post may be found at AbsolutelyBrittish1.wmv)

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

William SHAKESPEARE Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

For Senior Fellows like me the tide comes in early – if not strong – every morning; in the ambiguous twilight between bed and toil one is taken to browse distractedly through the breathless recommendations Amazon has sent overnight.

Having bought the 1440 page strong works of Derek PARFIT[1] in the unflinching belief of my own intellectual immortality, today I received the following recommendation: Sue DONALDSON and Will KYMLICKA[2] (2012): Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Here the book description:

Zoopolis offers a new agenda for the theory and practice of animal rights. Most animal rights theory focuses on the intrinsic capacities or interests of animals, and the moral status and moral rights that these intrinsic characteristics give rise to. This book shifts the debate from the realm of moral theory and applied ethics to the realm of political theory, focusing on the relational obligations that arise from the varied ways that animals relate to human societies and institutions.

Building on recent developments in the political theory of group-differentiated citizenship, Zoopolis introduces us to the genuine “political animal”. It argues that different types of animals stand in different relationships to human political communities.

  • Domesticated animals should be seen as full members of human-animal mixed communities, participating in the cooperative project of shared citizenship.
  • Wilderness animals, by contrast, form their own sovereign communities entitled to protection against colonization, invasion, domination and other threats to self-determination.
  • Liminal” animals who are wild but live in the midst of human settlement (such as crows or raccoons) should be seen as “denizens”, resident of our societies, but not fully included in rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

To all of these animals we owe respect for their basic inviolable rights. But we inevitably and appropriately have very different relations with them, with different types of obligations. Humans and animals are inextricably bound in a complex web of relationships, and Zoopolis offers an original and profoundly affirmative vision of how to ground this complex web of relations on principles of justice and compassion.

This recommendation is linked to a book by Jane BENNETT (2010): Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (a John Hope Franklin Center Book), Duke University Press – with the following description:

In Vibrant Matter the political theorist Jane Bennett, renowned for her work on nature, ethics, and affect, shifts her focus from the human experience of things to things themselves. Bennett argues that political theory needs to do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in events.

Toward that end, she theorizes a “vital materiality” that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman. Bennett explores how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency always emerges as the effect of ad hoc configurations of human and nonhuman forces. She suggests that recognizing that agency is distributed this way, and is not solely the province of humans, might spur the cultivation of a more responsible, ecologically sound politics: a politics less devoted to blaming and condemning individuals than to discerning the web of forces affecting situations and events.

Bennett examines the political and theoretical implications of vital materialism through extended discussions of commonplace things and physical phenomena including stem cells, fish oils, electricity, metal, and trash. She reflects on the vital power of material formations such as landfills, which generate lively streams of chemicals, and omega-3 fatty acids, which can transform brain chemistry and mood. Along the way, she engages with the concepts and claims of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Darwin, Adorno, and Deleuze, disclosing a long history of thinking about vibrant matter in Western philosophy, including attempts by Kant, Bergson, and the embryologist Hans Driesch to name the “vital force” inherent in material forms. Bennett concludes by sketching the contours of a “green materialist” eco-philosophy.

As “liminal animals” bedbugs have “basic inviolable rights” too – it seems – and landfills may be both source and inspiration with regard to « green materialist » eco-philosophy. Like modern versions of Athena emerging fully armed from the skull of Zeus, two new disciplines have arisen overnight, full-fledged, with a complete complement of theoretical armor to go (and an endowed Research Chair, I suppose), and ready to do battle with the dark powers of philistine (ooops! It may not be PC) ignorance and greed.

It seems to me I’m hearing the Walrus in the distance singing the ditty:

The time has come, my little friends, to talk of other things

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings

 And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wigs

 Calloo, Callay, come run away

With the cabbages and kings.

No – with so many new “theories” to grasp I feel more like the White Rabbitt:

I’m late

I’m late

For a very important date.

No time to say “Hello, Goodbye”.

I’m late, I’m late, I’m late

[1]           Derek PARFIT (2011) : On what matters. Oxford University Press, Oxford. The blurb describes this two volume doorstopper as follows: On What Matters is a major work in moral philosophy. It is the long-awaited follow-up to Derek Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons, one of the landmarks of twentieth-century philosophy. Parfit now presents a powerful new treatment of reasons, rationality, and normativity, and a critical examination of three systematic moral theories – Kant’s ethics, contractualism, and consequentialism – leading to his own ground-breaking synthetic conclusion. Along the way he discusses a wide range of moral issues, such as the significance of consent, treating people as a means rather than an end, and free will and responsibility. On What Matters is already the most-discussed work in moral philosophy: its publication is likely to establish it as a modern classic which everyone working on moral philosophy will have to read, and which many others will turn to for stimulation and illumination.

[2]           http://post.queensu.ca/~kymlicka/ The author is a Research Professor in multiculturalism.