Identifying the human/animal dualism as yet another violent fabrication within exclusionary identity politics, the following seeks to outline and challenge the manner by which the essentialist category “animal” oppressively denies non-human individuals valuable subjectivity through the illusive mechanism of the absent referent. Committed to Judith Butler’s groundbreaking developments in critical theory advocating for a more inclusive post-feminism, I seek to expand and utilize Butler’s novel genealogical and performative methodology to inform the subversion of the socially enacted human/animal dualism through the counter-cultural practice of andocentric vegetarianism.
The publication of Judith Butler’s groundbreaking work Gender Trouble profoundly revolutionized the nature and task of feminist discourse. Deeply influenced by Psychoanalysis and French Poststructuralists like Foucault, the text articulates a provocative immanent critique of the discipline’s oppressive heterosexual bias, unmasks foundationalist gender constructions as enacted fabrications, and most importantly, promotes a new way of creatively deconstructing and rethinking contingent social identities. Yet, while taken up by a few projects in contemporary critical theory (such as queer theory), it is the contention of this essay that the most profound insight of Butler’s constructive work, namely, a novel and liberating methodology grounded in the notion of performativity, has yet to be fully extended to a variety of societal categorical exclusions whose relevant contexts finds themselves begging for a similar emancipation. In light of such a reality, the following essay intends to further develop the task of a liberating ecofeminism by means of subjecting the contemporary human/animal dualism to Butlerian analysis and critique. Ultimately, it will be my goal to not only parallel the problematic plight of nonhuman subjects with the outsiders excluded by the “identity politics” of traditional feminism, but to utilize Butler’s destabilizing trope of parody, to promote a particular subversive practice aimed at revealing normative assumptions concerning the human/animal relationship as fictitious.
Methodological Foundations: Judith Butler, Gender, and Performativity
Prior to engaging my primary thesis concerning the performative categorical exclusion of nonhuman subjects, it is instructive to begin with a brief summary of Butler’s methodology, upon whose premises this thesis finds itself attempting to mimic. Recognizing that traditional feminist discourse assumed an essentialist and universalizing masculine/feminine binary, leading to the violent exclusion of a variety of gendered expressions, Butler committed herself to the primary task of critiquing conceptualities of gender defined in static ontological terms. Rather than functioning expressively of an a priori given, she persuasively articulated a notion of gender contingently constructed through the creative act of performativity. Stated simply, Butler defines a performative interpretation of gender as: “The view that gender is performative sought to show that what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body. In this way, it showed that what we take to be an internal feature of ourselves is one that we anticipate and produce through certain bodily acts.” 1 Thus, gender, at least in Butler’s analysis, is a contextually contingent enacted fabrication that is signified and sustained through various socio-culturally defined actions and gestures. As with all identity politics, “the anticipation conjures its object”. 2
Accordingly, because gender, like all forms of social intelligibility is therefore constituted performatively in action, iterated social ritual becomes the primary political mechanism validating the assumed status of particular bodies. Lacking any abstract existence apart from the activities that bring about their experiential occurrence within the limits of genealogically derivative power structures, normative gender assumptions therefore require repeated maintenance through corporate actualization: “As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperienceing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimization.” 3
Significantly, the ritualized and communally enacted nature of social identity is precisely the component which enables its potential internal critique. That is, recognizing the deeply entrenched status of preformed normative assumptions and the impossibility of completely transcending such, Butler conversely opts to subvert what is considered absolute by means of re-conceptualizing and reconfiguring the common social activities that are performed within a given community. Parody, which for Butler is paradigmatically represented in the practice of drag, thus becomes the primary means of subversion, which she defines as:
a production which, in effect – that is, in its effect – postures as an imitation. This perpetual displacement constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to resignification and recontextualization; parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture and its critics of the claim to naturalized or essentialist gender identities. Although the gender meanings taken up in these parodic styles are clearly part of hegemonic, misogynist culture, they are nevertheless denaturalized and mobilized through their parodic recontextualization. 4
Ironic parody then, prophetically imagines new possibilities within a restrictive social order enabled only by the contingent performances that tentatively sustain such. It is a playful, yet powerful, means of internal critique that reveals normative conclusions assumed to be absolute as historically conditioned through ritual embodiment, and therefore subject to change by novel performative activity.
Identity Politics, Performative Exclusion, and Violence Toward the “Animal”
With Butler’s foundational methodology now outlined, it is appropriate to transition to the more significant topic of the relevance of Butler’s proposal to nonhuman subjects. In so doing, it is important to begin by making explicit that far from being loosely projected onto Butler’s project, she herself (particularly in her earlier work), sporadically developed preliminary observations concerning the manner in which her theory has direct implications for nonhumans. 5 Indeed, it is not difficult to see how such is the case, that is, how the identification of the exclusive masculine/feminine binary as a performative and totalizing construction lacking any ontological essence apart from self-validating enacted behavior, translates rather simply into the recognition that the same is true for the equally delicate category of human. Just as the identity of patriarchal dominance and superiority conceptually requires the clarification and subjugation of supposed feminine attributes which allows the two classes to be defined in mutual opposition, so does an anthropocentric hierarchy mandate that the superior and unique human be defined in stark opposition to lesser animals. Having no foundational essence on Butler’s terms (not to mention Darwin’s or any perspective informed by evolutionary theory), both human and animal realistically exist as mere enacted constructs, only mistakenly assumed as normative, by those in power seeking to control a chaotic cosmos. In Butler’s own words:
Hence, it is not enough to claim that human subjects are constructed, for the construction of the human is a differential operation that produces the more and the less “human”, the inhuman, and the humanly unthinkable. These excluded sights come to bound the “human” as its constitutive outside and to haunt those boundaries as the persistent possibility of their disruption and rearticulation. 6
Identifying the manner in which the category of “human” is thereby performatively constructed for security at the cost of definitively demoting the nonhuman, Butler thus argues for the collapse of this false foundationalist binary, and for a shared, “co-constitution that implies the need for a reconceptualization of the ontology of precarious life itself.” 7
The category “animal” therefore, functions to signify everything that humanity is not on the terms of their own arrogant and dualistic self-definition: that which lacks in a range of potentialities: from rationality, to language, to culture, and so on. Similar to the manner in which the identity politics of traditional feminism attempted to define everything that was not considered masculine under the universalizing category of “women”, so here, a mass of individual’s who fail to meet arbitrary criteria are violently incorporated into the undifferentiated category “animal”. Not surprisingly, given his admitted influence on Butler, her claims regarding the tragic manner by which the totalizing category of “animal” denies valuable subjectivity to individual beings has perhaps been reinforced by no philosopher more explicitly than Derrida, as witnessed to in his critique of the metaphysics of subjectivity/presence (and thereby the entirety of Western philosophy) in his seminal essay, “The Animal that Therefore I Am”. “Animal, what a word!” laments Derrida in support of Butler, “a word that men have given themselves the right to give. These humans are found in giving it to themselves, as if they had received it as an inheritance. They have given themselves the word in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept.” 8 Humorously, yet profoundly, he then proceeds to illustrate this problematic subjugation by means of recounting the experience of being seen naked by his cat in the bathroom. Laying waste to the universalizing connotations of the derogatory term “animal”, and providing the rare opportunity for a philosopher to be seen by the animal rather than analytically seeing it, he uses this curious experience to explore what happens when one is encountered by the “unsubstitutable singularity” of the “absolute other.” 9 Referring to his cat, he continues:
When it responds in name, it doesn’t do so as the exemplar of a species called cat, even less so of an animal genus or realm. I see it as this irreplaceable living being that one day enters my space, where it can encounter me, see me, even see me naked. Nothing can ever take away from the certainty that what we have here is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized. 10
Consequently, for both Butler and Derrida, “animal” not only functions as the pejorative negation of the imaginary social boundary “human”, but mandates an “absent referent” in subsuming individual subjects to a homogenizing reduction. 11
Andocentric Vegetarianism and the Parodic Subversion of Nonhuman Identity
While a variety of socially conditioned activities could be investigated as the enacted rituals which sustain and signify this fabricated human/animal binary apart from the important act of naming itself (something Derrida, in referencing the creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible, gives extended attention to), I here want to focus on what empirically appears to lend itself as most applicable, namely, the practice of eating. For not only is eating clearly a culturally contingent embodied ritual, and thereby acutely relevant to Butler’s analysis, but, as illustrated by Mary Douglas in her thought-provoking essay, “Deciphering a Meal”, in both content and order, a hierarchical taxonomy of greater social values. 12 Most specifically, in making reference to the daily practice of eating, what I am attempting to argue is that in each occasion of consuming nonhuman subjects, as is fully normative in the industrialized West, one performatively reinforces the ungrounded dualistic category of animal that denies a being their individual subjectivity. Indeed, as convincingly argued by Carol Adams in, The Sexual Politics of Meat, in so doing and further demoting individual subjects from the category of “animal” to that of “meat”, the seductive phenomenon of the absent referent is only intensified. Subsumed under the category of “meat”, a living animal is falsely named and separated from any authentic autonomy as a living biographical subject. In performatively engaging nonhuman’s as meat to be flippantly consumed at our disposal, our societal rituals have perhaps reached the apex of depriving subjectivity and oppressively conceptualizing an existence that, as noted by Derrida, “refuses to be conceptualized”.
Not surprisingly then, the most logical means of challenging the human/animal dualism exploiting the phenomenon of the absent referent through consumption has been through the prophetic act of vegetarianism. In actively refusing to consume the flesh of dead nonhumans through the performance of novel identity-conferring eating practices, the activist is given the opportunity to refuse to succumb to the socially conditioned assumptions that inevitably reduce individual subjects to the violent misrepresentation of “meat”. Yet, as clearly articulated by Adams, in response to such critique, a threatened patriarchal culture will work tirelessly to soften this challenge by gendering the practice itself through the familiar defense of totalizing binaries. In the midst of cataloguing feminism’s deep and unique historical relationship to vegetarianism, as witnessed to in female-authored utopian literature and the antivivisection, temperance, suffrage, and pacifist movements, Adams successfully identifies the consistent propagation of an influential cultural myth deeply engrained in the human psyche, namely, that meat signifies power. Tracing the often unnoticed manners in which carnivorous activity is inescapably bound to supposed superior ability relating to socio-cultural status, race, and most importantly, gender, she isolates that a taboo, “mythology permeates all classes that meat is a masculine food and meat eating a male activity.” 13 Aimed at ensuring individual and social virility,
It has traditionally been assumed that the working man needs meat for strength. A superstition operates in this belief: in eating the muscle of strong animals, we will become strong. According to the mythology of patriarchal culture, meat promotes strength; the attributes of masculinity are achieved through eating masculine foods. 14
Consequently, the performative practice of vegetarianism is rendered emasculating, sentimental, and effeminate, the collapse of the, “primary symbol of male power.” 15
Predictably, given her primary task of developing a feminist-vegetarian critical theory, Adams’ response to the patriarchal symbol of meat and its implication is to promote a feminist vegetarianism of protest: “The creation of vegetarian rituals that celebrate the grace of eating plants will contribute to destabilizing patriarchal consumption. In place of the ritual fatted calf for the return of the prodigal son, the celebration of the return of a daughter would be vegetarian.” 16 Indeed, the thematic catch phrase of her text is simply, “eat rice and have faith in women.” 17 Yet, by no means wanting to take away from the significance and power of female vegetarianism, the direct application of Butler’s specific method to the liberation of nonhuman subjects, which is the primary purpose of this essay, seems to actually curiously locate parodic destabilizing potential among those identified as male in an andocentric vegetarianism. That is, granted that a Butlerian analysis applies to the issue at hand, as I have attempted to argue, implying that the relationship between humans and animals lacks any fixed essence as the result of being performatively constructed through enacted rituals such as eating, the possibility for recontextualizing more inclusive signification clearly exists as a concrete potentiality. However, informed by Butler’s particular notion of parody as internal critique, which fully recognizes the power and inescapability of normative assumptions despite their status as tentative performances, the primary mechanism of parodic subversion in this particular circumstance seems to suggest a unique prophetic potential for those culturally defined as male. If vegetarianism is the primary embodied means of performatively challenging the culturally constructed human/animal dualism, and this critical activity is pejoratively discredited as emasculating and therefore abnormal by predetermined power structures, what better way to disrupt, destabilize, and reconfigure this assumed foundation than by those identified with masculinity performatively revealing it as imaginary through the iteration of new embodied praxis? If the purpose of parodic practice is to reveal, “a subversive laughter in the pastiche-effect…in which the original, the authentic, and the real are constituted themselves as effects”, then what could more efficiently and ironically bring such about than a male, the least expected individual, actively refusing what is commonly considered the essence of their very identity and physical sustenance? Mimetically paralleling the parodic recontexualization of gender through the practice of drag, andocentric vegetarianism therefore explicitly, “postures as an imitation… suggesting an openness to resignification and recontextualization” that deprives hegemonic culture of appeals to naturalized ontologies.” 18 Ultimately then, at least on Butler’s terms, the destabilizing practice of andocentric vegetarianism lends itself as a uniquely suited resource in revealing essentialist conceptions of nonhuman subjects as contingent fabrications. Far from simply referring to the way things abstractly are, this practice reveals normative understandings of the violent relationship between humans and nonhumans as imaginative performances, and more importantly, embodies more inclusive social rituals that validate, rather than subjugate, the presence of the “unsubstitutable singularity of the absolute other that refuses conceptualization”. Thus, supplementing feminist vegetarian protests, andocentric vegetarianism, with its unique, powerful, and specific means of parodic subversion, plays an extremely significant role in the greater task of liberating nonhuman life and jamming Agamben’s “Anthropological Machine” by means of further calling out oppressive practices dependent on the absent referent.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), xvi. ↩
- Ibid., xv. ↩
- Ibid., 191. ↩
- Ibid., 188. ↩
- For an excellent essay that not only informatively applies Butler’s constructive work on performativity and mourning to the topic of nonhumans, but also helpfully summarizes and organizes her various thoughts on nonhuman subjects in general, see; James Stanescu, “Species Trouble: Judith Butler, Mourning, and the Precarious Lives of Animals,” Hypatia 27, no. 3 (Summer 2012). ↩
- Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 8. ↩
- Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2004), 75. ↩
- Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” Critical Inquiry 28 (Winter 2002), 400. ↩
- Ibid., 380. ↩
- Ibid., 379. ↩
- The significant concept of the “absent referent” has been articulated and developed by Carol Adams, see; Carol J. Adams, “Feeding on Grace: Institutional Violence, Christianity, and Vegetarianism,” in Good News for Animals? Christian Approaches to Animal Well-Being, ed. Charles Pinches and Jay McDaniel (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993). ↩
- Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal,” in Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1975). ↩
- Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 2011), 48. ↩
- Ibid., 56. ↩
- Ibid., 52. ↩
- Ibid., 244. ↩
- Ibid., 245. ↩
- Ibid., 188. ↩