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Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

What Is Intellectual Freedom Today?

Hermeneutic Communism

The following is a blog post by Santiago Zabala, coauthor of, among other works, Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx:

What Is Intellectual Freedom Today?
By Santiago Zabala

In order to respond to this important question, it is first necessary to emphasize that there isn’t much difference among philosophers, theologians, scientists, or artists when it comes to intellectual freedom. Whatever the training, traditions, or debates the intellectually free are those who know how their disciplines are framed. For example, when the scientist Laurent Ségalat, in his book La Science à bout de souffle?, criticized how the management of funds has become more important than search for truth in his field, he was both pointing out what frames his discipline and also exercising intellectual freedom. Only those who thrust us into the “absence of emergency” are intellectually free today.

When Martin Heidegger said in the 1940s that the “only emergency is the absence of emergency,” he was referring to a “frame” (“Ge-stell”), a technological power that had grown beyond our ability to control it. Today this framing power is globalization, where emergencies, as Heidegger specified, do not arise when something doesn’t function correctly but rather when “everything functions . . . and propels everything more and more toward further functioning.” This is why he was so concerned with the specialization and compartmentalization of knowledge that would inevitably limit and frame independent and critical thought. So to be intellectually free today means disclosing the emergency at the core of the absence of emergency, thrusting us into knowledge of those political, technological, and cultural impositions that frame our lives. (more…)

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

“One of the Things We Need to Rethink Weirdly Is Time.” — Timothy Morton

Dark Ecology, Timothy Morton

“One of the things we need to rethink weirdly is time. If future coexistence includes nonhumans—and Dark Ecology is showing why this must be the case—it might be best to see history as a nested series of catastrophes that are still playing out rather than as a sequence of events based on a conception of time as a succession of atomic instants.”—Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology

We continue our week-long feature on Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, by Timothy Morton, with an excerpt from the book’s “Second Thread”. In the excerpt below, Morton considers the necessity for rethinking our conceptions of time as we grapple with ecological concerns and the posthuman:

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Timothy Morton and Olafur Eliasson

The intellectual range of Timothy Morton, author of Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, is rare among today’s academic. In addition to his important theoretical and philosophical work, he has also collaborated with visual artists and musicians, including Bjork. In the following video, Morton talks with noted contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson.

Morton and Eliasson’s interests intersect in many ways, ranging from man’s evolving relationship to nature to the role of art in such a society. In the following talk, Morton and Eliasson discuss these issues and more:

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

A Sort of Dessert

Eat This Book

“Some ethical vegetarians (not all and perhaps not the majority) can certainly be considered religious fundamentalists who attach the greatest importance to their convictions and believe that they must spread their gospel throughout the world.” — Dominique Lestel

This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. For today’s post, we have excerpted Lestel’s afterword: “A Sort of Dessert.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Eat This Book!

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

The Vegetarian’s Unacceptable Arrogance

The following is an excerpt from Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto by Dominique Lestel and translated by Gary Steiner.

The Vegetarian’s Unacceptable Arrogance

Generally speaking, the vegetarian, like the humanist, adopts an attitude of unacceptable arrogance when she makes a moral judgment about how life ought to be and how other beings ought to behave, for in doing so she places herself above other beings

This vegetarian is an omnivorous animal who considers the dietary regimen of her species to be immoral. Such a “demonization” of the natural is not without precedent. We have seen movements campaign against sexuality (even though it is a normal form of behavior) and in favor of the subservience of women to men (even though, from a biopsychological point of view, women are perfectly autonomous and stand in need of no symbiosis with a human being). One may think that it is preferable not to eat meat, and that is perfectly acceptable; but it is only with difficulty that one can turn this position into a major ethical choice. The regime of meat eating is part of what it means to be human today, whether one likes it or not: we have an enzyme for digesting elastin, a fiber of animal origin, and we need vitamin B, a molecule produced exclusively by animals.

Donna Haraway makes the same point when she notes that in denying a specific feature of the living the vegetarian’s position is fundamentally a fatal ideology. As she argues, there is not nor has there ever been a living being that lives without exploiting at least one other living being. In this respect, the vegetarian purports to want to protect living beings at all costs but is in fact opposed to them.

As the American poet Gary Snyder says facetiously, “Everything that breathes is hungry”! Eating—that is, eating other living beings—is part of animal life, and the desire to change life reflects unacceptable vanity. Buddhism, whose adherents include Gary Snyder, is aware of the impossibility of eradicating all suffering, and it has never issued the demand that suffering be eliminated; it satisfies itself with the endeavor to reduce suffering within the limits of what is possible and reasonable for us to do, and it is especially concerned with eliminating needless suffering.

For the feminist Sharon Welch, we are not capable of changing in a unilateral way. The ethics of control, which seeks to reach its objective without taking others into account, needs to be replaced by an ethic of risk, which accepts the fact that our ability to change ourselves and the world is limited but also requires us to take full responsibility for our actions.

Vegetarians systematically overlook the fact that eating meat has a fundamental significance and that it teaches us a lesson about humility in that it reminds us of the interdependence of all living beings.

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

A Sort of Apéritif

Eat This Book

“The ethical vegetarian’s position is tenable only if it is radical, but its very radicality is completely unacceptable for the majority of vegetarians. For this position is antianimal. Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it revives the great frontier traced between human and animal by putting it into up-to-date terms, even though everything today shows any such frontier to be insubstantial. Nonetheless, the majority of vegetarians I know sincerely love animals. Such a contradiction poses a problem.” — Dominique Lestel

This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. To start the feature, we are happy to present Lestel’s introduction, “A Sort of Apéritif,” in which he lays out his project and situates it in the appropriate intellectual space.

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Book Giveaway! Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto

Why America Misunderstands the World

“Witty and comical yet always serious in its defense of meat eating, Eat This Book is a pure joy to read.” — Brett Buchanan, Laurentian University

This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Eat This Book. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, March 11th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “We Are All Cannibals”

This week we are featuring We Are All Cannibals: And Other Essays, by Claude Lévi-Strauss, translated by Jane Marie Todd, with a foreword by Maurice Olender.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of We Are All Cannibals to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 18th at 1:00 pm.

For more on the book, here is the chapter “Santa Claus Burned as a Heretic”:

Monday, March 14th, 2016

Michael Marder on Trump Metaphysics

Michael Marder

“Trump trumps metaphysics.”—Michael Marder

Michael Marder, author of The Philosopher’s Plant among other books in plant studies, recently turned his attention to another kind of life form: Donald Trump. In Trump Metaphysics, a recent essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books Philosophical Salon, Marder looks at metaphysics as a way to understand Trump’s recent electoral success. More precisely, he examines how Trump’s refutation of traditional metaphysics has exposed the failings of conventional politics and broadened his own appeal. As Marder writes, “Trump trumps metaphysics.”

Marder begins the essay by asking three questions, which he relates back to some of the core debates in metaphysics but have recently been linked to the candidacy of Donald Trump: “How to distinguish the real from the fake? What level of ignorance is simply unacceptable in public affairs? How to view matters of principle, or something like ‘the inner essence,’ behind changing appearances?” In considering the controversy around Trump’s evasiveness on his positions as well as his dispute with Romney in which counter-charges of being a fake or phony were leveled, Marder comes back to metaphysics’ interest in the authentic self. Marder writes:

It is simply futile to chastise Trump from the standpoint of stale metaphysical values, because he embodies a system, which has a long time ago outgrown and abandoned these same values. What does it mean to decry a candidate for the office of president as a “fake” in a country where a Hollywood actor was president (more precisely, enacted the role of president), for two consecutive terms? Does it make sense to bemoan this candidate’s ignorance less than eight years after the end of George W. Bush’s terms in office? Where is the logic of accusing him of vulgarity when the official pick of the Republican establishment for the presidential race hints at differences in penis sizes as momentous for the outcome of the contest?

(more…)

Friday, January 29th, 2016

What Is the Common Good?

What Kind of Creatures Are We?

“[H]umans are social beings, and the kind of creatures we become depends crucially on the social, cultural, and institutional circumstances of our lives. We are therefore led to inquire into the social arrangements that are conducive to the rights and welfare of people, to fulfilling their just aspirations—in brief, the common good.”
— Noam Chomsky

This week, our featured book is What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky. For the final post of the week, we have an excerpt from the third chapter of the book: “What Is the Common Good?”:

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

What Kind of Creatures Are We?

What Kind of Creatures Are We?

“The reality, however, is otherwise, for it is becoming increasingly clear that the acquisition of the uniquely modern [human] sensibility was instead an abrupt and recent event…. And the expression of this new sensibility was almost certainly crucially abetted by the invention of what is perhaps the single most remarkable thing about our modern selves: language.” If so, then an answer to the question “What is language?” matters greatly to anyone concerned with understanding our modern selves.” — Noam Chomsky

This week, our featured book is What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky. In today’s post, we have an excerpt from the opening chapter of What Kind of Creatures Are We?.

The general question I would like to address in these lectures is an ancient one: What kind of creatures are we? I am not deluded enough to think I can provide a satisfactory answer, but it seems reasonable to believe that in some domains at least, particularly with regard to our cognitive nature, there are insights of some interest and significance, some new, and that it should be possible to clear away some of the obstacles that hamper further inquiry, including some widely accepted doctrines with foundations that are much less stable than often assumed.

I will consider three specific questions, increasingly obscure: What is language? What are the limits of human understanding (if any)? And what is the common good to which we should strive? I will begin today with the first, and will try to show how what may seem at first to be rather narrow and technical questions, if pursued carefully, can lead to some far-reaching conclusions that are significant in themselves, and differ sharply from what is generally believed – and often regarded as fundamental – in the relevant disciplines: cognitive science in a broad sense, including linguistics, and philosophy of language and mind.

Throughout, I will be discussing what seem to me virtual truisms, but of an odd kind. They are generally rejected. That poses a dilemma, for me at least. And perhaps you too will be interested in resolving it. (more…)

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Part 2 of Akeel Bilgrami’s foreword to What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky

What Kind of Creatures Are We?

“Given the fundamental starting point in human creativity and the importance of its unhindered flowering, Chomsky’s leaning toward anarchism is not surprising, and his way of putting the point has always been to declare, as he does in this lecture again: any form of coercion that hinders it can never be taken for granted.” — Akeel Bilgrami

This week, our featured book is What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky. To start the week, we are excerpting Akeel Bilgrami’s excellent foreword in two parts. In this second half, Bilgrami goes through the other three chapters of What Kind of Creatures Are We? and looks at Chomsky’s work on the limits of human cognition and on humans as social creatures.

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

Part 1 of Akeel Bilgrami’s foreword to What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky

What Kind of Creatures Are We?

“If one firmly understands that language is not designed by human beings but is part of their biological endowment, then, taking language as an object of study, whether scientific or philosophical, there might have to be considerable shift in our methodological approaches.” — Akeel Bilgrami

This week, our featured book is What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky. To start the week, we are excerpting Akeel Bilgrami’s excellent foreword in two parts. In the first half, Bilgrami breaks down the first chapter of What Kind of Creatures Are We?, and uses his explanation to delve into Chomsky’s basic ideas in linguistics and cognitive science.

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Book Giveaway! What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky

What Kind of Creatures Are We?

“It’s always spring in Mr. Chomsky’s garden. Like John Ashbery, Noam Chomsky seems to come up with thoughts that are always fresh, unaffected by the polluting cliches that most of us inhale and exhale all day and night. To read his sentences is a life-giving elixir.” — Wallace Shawn

This week, our featured book is What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of What Kind of Creatures Are We?. Due to overwhelming participation in the giveaway, we have upped our offer to TWENTY free copies of the book! To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 29th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thanks to all those who participated! The giveaway is now closed. We have randomly selected our twenty winners and notified them by email.

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Simon Waxman of the Boston Review recently wrote an excellent reaction/review to With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan, “Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason.” We have a short excerpt from his article here, and we can’t recommend the full article highly enough.

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason
By Simon Waxman

Dayan, a longtime friend of Boston Review and valued contributor to the magazine, has explored related matters in our pages before. Her discussions and conclusions are often unsettling, questioning “the pretense of humane treatment” promoted by organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and humane societies, which routinely and systematically kills the animals of whom they market themselves as protectors. Dayan also is not a supporter of animal rights, which, like the human equivalents that inspire them, can foster in their bearers the quality most desired by the elites who seek to control and exploit them: docility. Meanwhile, the rights paradigm legalizes punishment of those animals that must be lived with, as opposed to above. In essence, the animal rights agenda has enshrined in law the social acceptability of the dumb, pocket-sized accessory who can only breathe and eat—and, then, only with a human hand to feed it—while subjecting to suspicion and penalty any animal of vigor, independence, intelligence, and, yes, capacity for danger.

Alongside her perhaps-surprising misgivings about rights, Dayan harbors sympathies that many abhor. One chapter of With Dogs at the Edge of Life traces the life, legal struggle, and philosophy of Bob Stevens. A downhome pit bull breeder, Stevens has been prosecuted by the state of Louisiana for distributing dogfighting films and earned the enmity of preening urban pet owners who like to dress up their twelve-pound toys and parade them at parties. These owners lack something that Stevens, for all his hard edges, does not: “admiration and respect for an animal’s sheer bodily strength, fierce intelligence, and courage,” which “promise a reciprocal engagement that has been lost in most human experience.”

Dayan’s goal is not just to scrutinize the pieties of animal rights activists, however. Doing so is an element of a larger project in which the boundary between human and non-, between reason and simply being together with other beings, becomes unstable. Following displaced and disdained dogs, purged from increasingly genteel cities everywhere, Dayan pursues a critique of enlightenment itself, particularly that version on which capitalism is founded. “Through the dogs’ eyes, we sense a world devoid of spirit, ravaged of communion,” she writes, inspired by films shot from the standpoint of dogs. These animals who once owned the city alongside human residents are no longer welcome among “the high-rise developments, the spruced-up neighborhoods of the neo-Western globalized citizen.”

There are no answers, easy or hard, in With Dogs at the Edge of Life, and this, finally, may be the point. “The bold enmeshing of humans and dogs—and the seagulls, pigeons, chickens, and cats in their midst—requires that we suspend our beliefs and put aside our craving for final answers.” The answers are themselves the problem. We have—by force, persuasion, and trickery—been drawn to a single answer: money and the comforts it buys. Call it progress in the capitalist mode. The issue of this progress is visible everywhere, from the comfort of killing law never seen in action, to the comfort of gleaming cities devoid of untamed life, to the comfort of faith in a human reason that eradicates all ambiguity and mystery. Indeed, one of the starkest, most material visions of this progress is the puny, slavish body of the dog lived above rather than with.

The full article can be read at the Boston Review website.

Monday, January 18th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel

Chaos Imagined

“Martin Meisel’s magnum opus is a heroic act of defiance against its own subject matter: an enlightening, judicious, cohesive history of three millennia of thought about the terrors and attractions of chaos. The book moves with steady confidence through literature, science, art, and philosophy, illuminating many varieties of darkness, finding convincing and original connections across centuries and continents. With authority and energy, it creates a whole new field of study.” — Edward Mendelson, Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Chaos Imagined. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 8th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word! Below the giveaway form, you can also read an excerpt from the first chapter, “Shaping Chaos.”

Shaping Chaos

Friday, January 8th, 2016

Pariah Dogs

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Something about death and dogs makes us think and teaches us about how we come to know and when we ought to care.” — Colin Dayan

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. For the final post of the week’s feature, we have an excerpt from the introduction to “Pariah Dogs,” part three of With Dogs at the Edge of Life. In this excerpt, Dayan examines how the suffering of dogs has been represented in literature from the Odyssey to Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Friday, January 8th, 2016

An Interview with Colin Dayan

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“It’s the relation between humans and dogs that matters to me, and what that tells us over time about what we have become as a society.” — Colin Dayan

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. In the first of two posts today, we are happy to present an interview with Colin Dayan recorded by Vanderbilt University, along with an excerpt from the article posted with the video.

Professor offers unsettling look at humanity with study of people and their dogs
By Ann Marie Deer Owens

A Vanderbilt University professor has researched true stories of people and their dogs—some tender and some disturbing—to make a compelling case for re-thinking our treatment of both of them.

Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and professor of American studies in the College of Arts and Science, is the author of With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press, 2016).

Dayan, who is also a professor of law, emphasized that it’s the relationship between dogs and humans that is important to her research. The actions surrounding that relationship provide tremendous insight into what we have become as a society.

“The book is making a plea for us to think differently about our relationships because this is a time, as I see it, of extinctions,” Dayan said. “Certain groups of people and certain kinds of dogs are labeled and easily disposed of.”

(more…)

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Dead Dogs

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Though they were friendly and vigorous, though there was in most cases no proof of actual fighting, the dogs were deemed “threats to the public” and could therefore be killed summarily. According to Louisiana law, “fighting dogs are declared to be contraband.” An arbitrary label put an end to their lives, without any recourse or appeal, without even notice to their owners. Not only were the dogs no longer personal property, but, once seized from their owners, they had become legally disposable too.” — Colin Dayan

Happy New Year! This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. Today’s post, excerpted from the fourth chapter of With Dogs at the Edge of Life, lays out a 2005 case where fifty-seven pit bulls were confiscated, deemed “too aggressive to live,” and killed by the authorities.

Dead Dogs
By Colin Dayan

Early on Friday morning, March 11, 2005, a caravan of vehicles drove from New Orleans down Louisiana Highway 89 to a home outside the city of Lafayette, where the highway meets La Neuville Road in the heart of Cajun country. State police, a SWAT team, U.S. customs officials, and other federal agents, with the aid of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA/SPCA), the Louisiana Humane Society, and the Humane
Society of the United States (HSUS), raided the home of Floyd Boudreaux. They confiscated fifty-seven American pit bull terriers and charged Boudreaux and his son Guy with fifty-seven counts of dog fighting and fifty-seven counts of animal cruelty. Arrested and handcuffed, they were read their Miranda rights and locked up in Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. The dogs were loaded in a truck and driven back to New Orleans. That night the LA/SPCA began killing the dogs by injection. They did not stop until the next day. By the time the Boudreauxs were released on bail on Monday morning, their dogs had already been cremated.

The dogs were not crippled, maimed, or blind. Some had scars. Some had calluses. Most were healthy, described as “normal” on the LA/SPCA’s intake forms. Nineteen of the pit bulls were puppies, less than one year old. One of them would have whelped that weekend. Wendy Wolfson, at the time a veterinarian and medical director for the LA/SPCA, is now an assistant professor in shelter medicine at Louisiana State University, a program of study heavily funded by the HSUS. She testified that she conducted a hands-on exam of each animal: “We did a whole barrage of things to each dog,” she said. She later testified that she found evidence of dogfighting injuries in one or two cases so all the animals were labeled “fighting dogs.”

Once categorized as such, all the pit bulls were assumed to be inherently dangerous—too aggressive to live. Though they were friendly and vigorous, though there was in most cases no proof of actual fighting, the dogs were deemed “threats to the public” and could therefore be killed summarily. According to Louisiana law, “fighting dogs are declared to be contraband.” An arbitrary label put an end to their lives, without any recourse or appeal, without even notice to their owners. Not only were the dogs no longer personal property, but, once seized from their owners, they had become legally disposable too.

Three and a half years after the raid, in October 2008, the Boudreauxs were acquitted of all charges. If convicted, they might have faced ten years of imprisonment with or without hard labor for each count. Judge Kristian Earles found no evidence of any crime. The state’s case against them was so weak that he ruled without even asking the defense to call its witnesses. Floyd Boudreaux, a legendary dog man who had bred these dogs for most of his life, cried when the verdict was read. During the proceedings, the Boudreauxs’ lawyer, Jason Robideaux, condemned the LA/SPCA. “The State’s purpose in this case was to seize those dogs, the Boudreauxs’ dogs, and kill them, and thus, end the bloodline,” he said. “I don’t want to speculate as to the reasons.”

Boudreaux’s dogs were the product of two famous bloodlines: the generations-old Boudreaux line—his family hallmark since the 1930s—and the more recent “Eli Dogs,” named after Eli, a two-time pit winner, bred to Boudreaux’s Spook. Boudreaux had not pitted a dog in a fight since the late 1970s, when dog fighting was banned. Instead, his dogs appeared all over the United States in conformation shows and weight-pulling contests. The federal government enacted the federal dog-fighting law as part of the Animal Welfare Act in 1976, and Louisiana banned dog fighting in 1982. In an interview just before the raid, a year before his seventieth birthday, Boudreaux said he had “been working with the breed for over half a century. . . . My dad had ’em before I did, and then I had ’em before I went to grade school. My son too. It’s always been a family affair.”

Not until September 11, 2011, almost three years after the acquittal, did the LA/SPCA agree to a settlement, though it declined to comment on the terms. Father and son had sought damages for mental distress and loss of income they would have received from the sale of the dogs. They asked for about $300,000. “There’s no more Boudreaux/Eli breed,” Floyd said. “The mom and pop direct descendants that would not have been sold are dead. That’s 100
years of breeding that’s gone.”

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

In Touch and Feeling with Dogs

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Can we engage our feelings without appropriation? Can we think through human and non-human mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary device? Can we really think with dogs?” — Colin Dayan

Happy New Year! This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. In today’s post, Dayan discusses the difficulty and the value of thinking and feeling with dogs.

In Touch and Feeling with Dogs
By Colin Dayan

     It is myself,
            Not the poor beast lying there

                    yelping with pain

     that brings me to myself with a start—

–William Carlos Williams, “To a Dog Injured in the Street”

Our greatest poets struggle with their response to and feeling with dogs. Elizabeth Bishop calls a stray, crippled, “depilated dog” to carnival as she laments a world that disallows and disposes of “anyone who begs, drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,” in “Pink Dog.” John Berryman in the great ennui of “Dream Song 14” finds his tedium interrupted by a dog:

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Out of the wear and tear of life comes the surprise. Something as ordinary as the wagging tail of a dog generates a miracle of transubstantiation. The dog and its tail take flight into “mountains or sea or sky,” while the poet remains. He inhabits and takes on what is left behind. The self turns into what a tail does. A nonhuman subjectivity is born in the conflation of the poetic I with the lilting, uplifting swish, sway, and shake of the canine hindquarters.

The vicissitudes, gaps, and blurring that these poets find in the sentience of dogs promise a renewal of self, as well as of language. To be “sensible” is to make meaning in its materiality: to think with the body. Yet it is a fine line between feeling for or with dogs and turning the non-human into source of inspiration or grist for academic argumentation—nothing less than yet another prompt to our poetic or moral thought or inquiry.

Can we engage our feelings without appropriation? Can we think through human and non-human mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary device? Can we really think with dogs? This terrain of mutual adaptability puts us in the thick of what we are not. It asks that we step back and ask how we can know feeling that is not tied to our assumptions. Such a transforming regard also changes how we treat our fellow humans.

As our world becomes obscene in its greed and violence, I wonder if through the route of the dog we might find a practical and embodied way of being with others that doesn’t entail dominance and subordination. I do not advise that we lose sight of how brutality in the non-human world is part and parcel of the disregard and harm so pronounced in the human. But rather through a minded and felt—as well as “attentive” — empathy in all relations, I want to consider how we might dismantle individual preferment.

The route is not easy. Again, animality is what I want us to think about, not claims for humanity. The knowledge that matters has everything to do with perception, an attentiveness that might unleash another kind of intelligibility. Facing what is not our own or what we cannot know, in this bafflement we might relate most fully to what lies within, beside, and beyond ourselves.

Can we live in a world of contestation and entanglement? Such intimacy promises to lead us out of thought and into a feeling that renews another sense of the political. When William Carlos Williams died in 1963, Kenneth Burke wrote a moving reminiscence in The New York Review of Books.

Burke recalled that a few years after Williams, crippled with ailments, had stopped treating patients, they both walked “slowly on a beach in Florida.” Burke’s recollection affirms the meaning of empathy: a sentience that draws together two beings in a manner of experience that heals. It is tactile. It is a demanding reciprocity, a being together in a pain that can be healed if shared. In becoming acquainted with what lies outside the self, we enter into another kind of knowing.

For Burke, who felt sympathy for the dog—a feeling that did not help—this exchange captures what Williams called “contact.” The impetus for both his medical and poetic technique, this practice of discernment is not the precondition for uniqueness but rather an imperative to seek a more voracious if always provisional communion.

A neighbor’s dog decided to accompany us, but was limping. I leaned down, aimlessly hoping to help the dog (which became suddenly frightened, and nearly bit me). Then Williams took the paw in his left hand (the right was now less agile) and started probing for the source of the trouble. It was a gesture at once expert and imaginative, something in which to have perfect confidence, as both the cur and I saw in a flash. Feeling between the toes lightly, quickly, and above all surely, he spotted a burr, removed it without the slightest cringe on the dog’s part—and the three of us were again on our way along the beach.

Such contact demands a radical change in perspective. Not only does it complicate our understanding of the political, but it also escapes humanistic or morality-based assumptions.

Questioning the prescriptive force of morality—and its familiar companions, civility and reason, is crucial, it seems to me, in these times of exclusion and disposal. The radical inclusivity of such an appeal matters now more than ever. At the edge of a cherished humanism, what if we summoned instead a remote and uncertain reservoir on which all creatures might draw but from which most humans have learned to cut themselves off completely?

Early one morning last week I walked my dog Stella down the main street of the neighborhood. A white pick-up truck was waiting in a drive to enter the street. The dog ran up, as she sometimes does when white men in trucks, those I grew up knowing as “crackers” or “red necks,” look out at her. This is an inclination that I’m still trying to understand. She jumped, one paw on the seat of the man’s car, and another on his leg, and began to greet him powerfully with licks and nudges. He welcomed her and said in answer to my wonder: “She knows I’m sick, and that’s why she’s trying to help me. I’m dying.” Then he gently beat his chest, adding, “She can smell it. She wants to give me some relief.”