Men Who Think About Animals
And other problems I have no desire to defend.
This week I published a short essay, for the Political Theology Network’s (PTN) series on critical terms for political theology. The series already includes a list of fascinating reflections on mourning, money, and blackness (among other things) that are all worth checking out. My critical term was “animal.” You can read the essay here, if you’re interested.
In my first post, for this Substack, I mentioned that I have a longstanding interest in the underworlds of ideas and figures, including the figure of animal life. At an earlier point in my academic career (graduate school, primarily) I spent a lot of time writing about the subterranean ideas that shape what we understand to be animal life. Working on this piece felt a bit nostalgic, in that regard. I wrote a whole dissertation on creatureliness, and the way that Christian intellectual history has shaped (and often distorted) the many worlds we tend not to think of as human. Writing this essay had me reflecting on why it is I could never publish that dissertation, and why I don’t think (publicly) about animals quite so much anymore.
There are always many ways to answer motivation questions like this, and most answers to this sort of question will be incomplete, because motives are multifarious and elude us. But what I will say, for now, is that my work on figures like “creatureliness” or “animality” threw me up against some of the unsettling conventions of the discipline I was trained in (theology). One of the things I learned about theology was the fact that apologetics—defenses of Christian doctrine or tradition—are a centripetal and subterranean force in the field. Apologetics act on you, even if you think you’ve evaded them.
Why I Started Writing About Animals
My students sometimes ask me why I decided to study and teach theology, and I almost never give them the simple answer: it was an impulsive, or quixotic, decision. I had amorphous and idiosyncratic questions that I imagined would be answered by this strange field that had been set up to, in essence, contemplate divine things and divine powers. But in all honesty, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I grew up in a family of people who would either identify themselves as atheists, or wouldn’t be offended by the description. God never really came up in our conversations, except maybe in jokes. For most of my life, as far as I know, the people closest to me seemed to feel more or less the same way. So, it was a true culture shock to find myself in an academic setting where people not only used the word “God” seriously, but seemed to be referring to something real, when they said it.
I was coming off of a brief stint as a newspaper reporter, and I found these conversations anthropologically interesting. But I had to contribute something to the conversations, too. I had to write papers! I cast frantically about, digging through the old treasure chest of ancient theological ideas and concepts, looking for something that felt real enough, to me, to speak about. This is where I found the figure of the creature—not an animal, necessarily, but a mortal. A made, or created, thing: the most basic speculative unit of nature. I loved both the poetry and the concreteness of the figure. If anything could be considered divine, to me, it was maybe just the fact of these basic units—these tiny beings—acting in, with, and against one another to build worlds.
The creature was a concept from the storehouses of an ancient theological tradition, no one could argue that it wasn’t. It was something “theological” to think and write about. And yet, it also helped me maintain a critical distance from the center of the field (itself a vortex that has historically spun around the proper noun God). The creature was like a protective talisman that allowed me access to the discipline, without demanding that I use words or terms whose references I could not comprehend.
As a graduate student, you have to figure out how to connect your research (even if it’s looking at ancient and esoteric stuff) to contemporary conversations. Given that the figure of the creature is—as I’ve just put it—the most basic speculative unit of nature, I ended up in conversations about religion and ecology. And the subfield of animal studies seemed like a natural place to talk about creatures; some people were already even using that term as a cognate for “animal.” This was when I started to think, and write, about animals.
Men and Animals
In the essay that I wrote for the PTN, one of the things I’m reflecting on is how deeply conditioned the term “animal” is by its development alongside the figure of Man (the philosophical subject of European philosophy). He was presumed, by the philosophers of this tradition, to be not only the prototype of the human but also male, white, and European (the western sort). As I argued in my essay for the PTN, the term “animal” was born as a taxonomical category that took its shape against Man. The animal was the living being that Man was not. In turn, a whole complex plurality of human and more than human beings were suddenly encapsulated within this figure of the animal. It was a general figure for something subhuman, from the viewpoint of Man.
It’s interesting to note that even at the dawn of modernity, when the King James Bible (KJV) was first published, the term “animal” doesn’t even show up in the text. In contemporary English language translations of the Bible, animals are all over the place. But at this point (in what I would consider recent history) many of these beings were categorized more by their movements (whether they flew, swam, or crawled) than by the nature of their relationship to us. To be fair, the term “beast” appears plenty of times in the KJV. While this was not exclusively used in a derogatory way in these biblical texts, the term did accrue derogatory meanings (as beastliness came to be a distortion that threatened to corrupt Man). So, I’m not making the claim that biblical texts like the KJV speak about more than human worlds in an unproblematic way. I’m just making the point that “animal” is a modern term whose use is coincident with the rise of humanism, in European thought. It was a term that was shaped by the Men who think about animals.
These were the kinds of ideas that blew my mind, when I was a graduate student. And, admittedly, I think I was most immediately drawn to the critiques that most resonated with my own personal experiences. I was especially concerned about the many ways in which Man had sought to animalize (subhumanize) women. Books like Carol Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, an ecofeminist text that illuminates the connections between patriarchy and meat eating, helped me understand some of my own deep-seated forms of self hate: my enduring fear and resentment of my own fleshiness. I developed a romantic sense that embracing my own fleshiness or animality, claiming the creatureliness that had been abjected by those Men who think about animals would not only be empowering for me, but would be a way to feel a kind of solidarity with other creatures. Maybe, I began to think, creatureliness or animality is something that I need to protect and defend...
This was where the apologetics began to creep in through the cracks in the windows of my thought. Apologetics—from the Greek apologia—is not a way to say “I’m sorry” but instead the formal defense of a position, standpoint, or doctrine. The practice of apologetics has been integral to Christianity from the very beginning of the movement. It was how early followers of Jesus responded to the disbelief they inevitably encountered, for instance, when they told stories of his resurrection. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, you can (you should) believe it. This is how!” Naturally, over the history of theological education, apologetics has played a central role. Here I was, a more or less areligious student of theology who had fastidiously avoided overuse of the figure of God, putting something more earthly—more creaturely—in its place. And yet, here I also was doing apologetics for the figure that I’d put at the center of my studies.
There are always consequences, when you protect and defend. Women have never been the only humans who have been animalized by Man. Any history of the formation of the life form that is Man will quickly reveal that the figure of the animal has been at work in his figuration of racialized and colonized others. The problem of creatureliness, or animality, is not simply one that needed to either be embraced or rejected. If, for instance, I wanted to claim my own creatureliness, wouldn’t this be effectively excusing (doing apologetics for) something that was still in need of various forms of critique?
It took me longer than I would like to admit to get there, and some uncomfortable conversations, but my own answer was ultimately “yes.” You can argue with me about whether or not you think it was the right answer (plenty of people already have). But the point I want to make here is simply that I became uncomfortable with the way in which I had begun to do apologetics, without even trying. I wasn’t exactly sure what (or who) I was defending, or why. It made me unable to think clearly about the work I’d done, up to that point. This is why I ultimately needed a new orientation, in my thinking and writing. I needed new things to think about, so that I could explore new ways to think about them.
Things We Defend
I’ve had many people ask me what I thought I was doing, studying theology as an areligious person. What did I think would happen? Didn’t I expect some sort of cataclysmic consequence? My experience in the field is that my professors and colleagues have been welcoming, and interested to see what I would make of the material. Many of my professors explicitly wanted to broaden the discipline of theology beyond the Christian tradition, whose institutions gave shape to the field itself. They appreciated what I was trying to do. But there are foundational conventions in the discipline that are built into it and are difficult to see from the outside, and difficult to extricate yourself from once you find yourself within them. Apologetics is one of these things. You may find yourself suddenly defending things you have no desire to defend, simply because there is an ancient penchant for this sort of defense, built into the field.
At the same time, I don’t necessarily think that these desires or penchants are entirely unique to theology, as a discipline. I think there are many people (in academia and beyond) who become so obsessed with, or taken by, an idea that their entire life becomes oriented around a defense of it. At least I can say that I know what I look like, sound like, and feel like in an apologetic mode. I know the signs and signals. My counter-apologetic efforts have taught me things that my research couldn’t. I’ve gotten better at questioning my own intellectual motives. What is worth defending? How much do you really care? Have you been caught up in a web, or a spell of some sort? Is there some force pressing in, that’s driving your defense? What damage might you do, if you risk this defense?