Updated: Aug 19
To grasp the difference between a humanist and post-humanist mindset, you only need to read a recent article by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker entitled "The Problem of Nature Writing" (12 Aug 2023), in which the author points out the difficulty in getting readers interested in writings about nature––and maintaining their interest. But things take a turn.
Franzen mentions several strategies for roping readers in, in an argument that on the surface appears forward. His thinking takes a step backward, however, to the humanism of Aristotle, who famously saw animals as animate machines. The philosopher was expanding on the ideas of Plato, his teacher, who invented western humanism when he wrote in the "Theaetetus" that "man is the measure of all things." The implication was that only humans "have mind," as the idiom goes. It was another way of saying that human animals represent a kind of fullness, using thought, while animals represent a kind of lack, relying on instinct.
Franzen writes, "a bird is a creature of instinct, driven by desires that are the opposite of personal, incapable of ethical ambivalence or regret. For a wild animal, the dramatic stakes consist of survival and reproduction, full stop." He piles it on, about the deficiency in animals compared to some abundance in humans. A giant mountain of literature comes to mind to refute him, starting with Darwin's "Animals, Ethics, and the Progress of Science," a series of letters that were written around the time The Descent of Man came out (1871), the thesis of which is the exact opposite of Franzen's––in that way, Darwin was another post-humanist avant la lettre. After Darwin an army of field-workers have gone on to elaborate on just how complicated animals are, penning a mountain of literature on the subject that apparently Franzen overlooks, a list of books much too long to elaborate on here.
But there's no more powerful refutation of Franzen's mentality in my mind than Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am. In that book the philosopher speaks of an experience with his cat. He comments: "I often ask myself, just to see, who I am––and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example, the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment." The reference to an animal gaze, following him as he emerges from the shower, is telling, especially in the way it insists on the language of the gaze, which since the rise of second-wave feminist discourse in the 1970s has examined the semiotics of looking and its links to power, sentience, agency, and dominance. But Derrida's reaction to the gaze of the cat is also telling. Why embarrassed? Because of some puritan shame? Or is it something more existential, related to the way humans have treated animals over the millenniums? In that reading the cat peers not just at the philosopher but humanity in its nakedness, after a long history of abuse.
Derrida takes on the entire western metaphysical tradition going back to Plato regarding animals and animality, turning it on its ears through a series of questions: "I say that I am close or next to the animal, and that I am (following) it, and in what type or order of pressure? Being-with it in the sense of being-close-to-it? Being alongside-it? Being-after it? Being-after it in the sense of the hunt, training, or taming, or being-after-it in the sense of a succession or inheritance? In all cases, if I am (following) after it, the animal therefore comes before me, earlier than me . . . . The animal is there before me, there next to me, there in front of me––I who am (following) after it. . . . And from the vantage of this being-there-before-me it can allow itself to be looked at, no doubt, but also––something that philosophy perhaps forgets, perhaps being this calculated forgetting itself––it can look at me. It has its point of view regarding me. The point of view of the absolute other, and nothing will have ever given me more food for thinking through this absolute alterity of the neighbor or of the next(-door) than these moments when I see myself seen naked under the gaze of a cat."
This posture of questioning, making room for possibility on the part of the animal, which, like Darwin, grants that non-human animals were here before us, that humans follow them, are after them, and in a sense owe them, allows for a radical kinship, a being-alongside. If animals preceded us, if we descended from them, how can we really be that different? Better-than or superior-to? To characterize his posture it's safer to say we know nothing, that we have much to learn still, and that the possibilities for animals, like humans, are "abyssal," or bottomless. Compare that with Franzen's pat, closed portrayal of animals as capable of survival and sex "full stop."
The Lede to Our Undoing piggybacks on the possibilities opened up by Derrida's querying of the animal gaze. It tracks an animal observing not just a single individual but a working-class family, one that in the language of literature operates allegorically.