A compilation of materials about animal rights for the Festival Camino Contro Corrente, November 1-3, 2018.
Compiled by Thomas Reiner from a YouTube video by Slavoj Žižek, an arrangement of ∆’s Arrival in Nara, and images depicting animals.
Hi everyone and welcome to this performance about animals.
I’m thinking about my occasional consumption of meat, which is at odds with my compassion for animals. And maybe this compassion for animals is little more than wishful thinking.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has spoken about animal rights, and the following is an excerpt of what he had to say:
‘We ask a simple question: “can they, the animals, suffer?” Human industry alone is continuously causing immense suffering of animals, which is systematically disavowed.
Not only laboratory experiments but special regimes to produce eggs and milk, like turning artificial light on and off to shorten or lengthen the day, use of hormones, and so on. Pigs, who are half-blind and barely able to walk, just fattened fast to be slaughtered, and so on and so on.
All of us know what goes on here, but this knowledge has to be neutralised so that we can act as if we don’t know.
One of the ways to facilitate this ignorance is the Cartesian notion of animal-machine. Cartesians were warning people against compassion with animals.
The idea is that when we see an animal emitting sounds of pain, we should always bear in mind that these sounds do not express any real inner feeling. Animals do not have souls; they are just sounds generated by a complex mechanism of muscles, bones, fluids and so on, that you can clearly see through dissection.
The problem is that the notion of animal-machine quickly ends up in La Mettrie’s notion of L’Homme Machine, of human being as a machine. If you are a fully committed neurobiologist, exactly the same claim can be made about sounds and gestures emitted by humans when they are in pain. There is no separate interior domain of soul, where the pain is really made.
So, what should we do here? What if – and that’s my proposal – the perplexity of the human looking at the cat, this perplexity in the tortured animal’s gaze, is the perplexity aroused by the monstrosity of the human being itself?
What if, in the abyss of the wounded animal’s gaze, we see there reflected our own monstrosity?
I’m not trying to convince you of some New Age attitude of, you know, “in the animal gaze we see how animals feel the same as us, understand us”, and then you end up with all this bullshit of “trees secretly talk among themselves”, and so on.
What I’m saying is that if you turn around the perspective, and ask not what it means for you, this gaze of the frightened animal, but simply what do you see in the animal’s gaze. I think you will see your own monstrosity.
You see precisely that which philosophers don’t want to see. In short, you see what Freud called ‘death drive’.
You see that excessive violence of which good philosophers were aware.
For example, just briefly, Immanuel Kant has a wonderful text on education, where he provides his famous definition of what is man: man is an animal who needs a master. And then he explains why. He says that there is a kind of wild, irrational excess of violent freedom in man, which animals don’t have. This is why animals don’t need education.
So, Kant is here very precise: he’s not saying that it’s the nature in man, which has to be educated, it’s precisely – let’s call it a nature turned against itself – an excess of wild freedom. And maybe this is what animals see in us.’
So much for Žižek.
I hope we can all agree that animals are sentient creatures.
As a sentient species, we humans share this planet with other sentient species.
If Žižek is right about our own monstrosity reflected in the gaze of an animal, then there is work to be done.
Work, initially, in the sense of reflecting on our disavowal of the suffering we cause to animals.
Coming to terms with this disavowal can be the first step towards acting more compassionately, that is, acting in a way that reduces the suffering of animals.
In my case, this means eating less meat and trying not to buy meat that is mass-produced. For me, this also means replacing cow’s milk with almond milk and avoiding mass-produced cheese.
My vegan and vegetarian friends will probably encourage me to go further than that.
For me, I’m taking steps in the direction of compassion.
 Julien Offray de La Mettrie, L’Homme Machine (1747).
 Immanuel Kant, Über Pädagogik (1803).