«To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will therefore mean. to risk ourselves in this emptiness: the suspension of ...»
Stopping the Anthropological Machine:
Agamben with Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty
To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will therefore
mean … to risk ourselves in this emptiness: the suspension of suspension, Shabbat of
both animal and man. (Agamben, The Open 92)
In The Open, Giorgio Agamben diagnoses the history of both science and philosophy as part of what he calls the “anthropological machine” through which the human is created with and against the animal. On his analysis, early forms of this “machine” operated by humanizing animals such that some ‘people’ were considered animals in human form, for example barbarians and slaves. Modern versions of the machine operate by animalizing humans such that some ‘people’ were/are considered less than human, for example Jews during the Holocaust and more
recently perhaps Iraqi detainees. Agamben describes both sides of the anthropological machine:
If, in the machine of the moderns, the outside is produced through the exclusion of an inside and the inhuman produced by animalizing the human, here [the machine of earlier times] the inside is obtained through the inclusion of an outside, and the non-man is produced by the humanization of an animal: the man-ape, the enfant sauvage or Homo ferus, but also and above all the slave, the barbarian, and the foreigner, as figures of an animal in human form. (37) The human-animal divide, then, is not only political but also sets up the very possibility of politics. Who is included in human society and who is not is a consequence of the politics of “humanity,” which engenders the polis itself. In this regard, politics itself is the product of the anthropological machine, which is inherently lethal to some forms of (human) life. Although PhaenEx 2, no. 2 (fall/winter 2007): 1-23 © 2007 Kelly Oliver
-2PhaenEx Agamben’s analysis could be extended to include a diagnosis of the dangers to animal life, in The Open, he is primarily concerned with the dangers to human life.1 Agamben argues that the dichotomy between man and animal is a division within the category of the human itself. In both the earlier and the modern versions, humanity is divided into more and less human types, which in turn becomes justification for slavery and genocide.
The question, then, for Agamben is not one of human rights, but rather how the category of the “human” is produced and maintained against the category of the animal, which functions as both constitutive outside and inside such that some “people” are rendered non- or sub-human. In other words, how do we come to treat some people like animals? Extending the scope of Agamben’s interrogation, we might also ask, how do we come to treat animals like animals? Or, in other words, how does animality justify enslavement and cruelty? In addition to Agamben’s investigation into how the category of humanity is produced through the anthropological machine, we must also investigate how the category of animality becomes beholden and subservient to humanity.
In this essay, I critically engage Agamben’s analysis of the man-animal dichotomy and the anthropological machine that produces it. In the first sections, I delineate the ways in which Agamben moves with and against Heidegger. Agamben maintains that Heidegger’s comparative pedagogy in his lecture course, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, continues the work of the anthropological machine by defining Dasein as uniquely open to precisely the closedness of the animal. Yet, Agamben’s own thinking does not so much open up the concept of animal or even open up man to the possibility of encountering animals as it attempts to save humanity from the anthropological machine that always produces the animal as the constitutive outside within
that for Agamben presents the greatest danger. Agamben suggests that the only way to stop the anthropological machine is through a “Shabbat” of both man and animal. In this essay, I argue that Agamben’s return to religious metaphors and the discourse of religion as a supposed counter-balance to the science and philosophy through which the machine operates, at best displaces the binary man-animal with the binary religion-science, and at worst returns us to a discourse at least as violent as the one from which he is trying to escape. As an alternative, I look to Merleau-Ponty’s reanimation of science in his Nature Lectures. In the conclusion, I suggest that perhaps we need both Agamben’s diagnosis of the politics of science and Merleau-Ponty’s creative re-enactment of science if there is any hope of stopping the anthropological machine.
Although Agamben begins and ends his diagnosis of the anthropological machine in The Open with invocations of a messianic banquet, the centerpiece of his analysis is Heidegger. In a sense, Agamben follows Heidegger in challenging Darwinian theories of evolution on conceptual grounds in terms of the categories of “human” and “animal” (by insisting that biology cannot be separated from the language we use to describe it). And even while ‘deconstructing’ Heidegger’s distinction between animality and humanity or Dasein, Agamben embraces Heidegger’s insistence on animality as what is concealed about and from humanity. Moreover, in some passages in The Open, Agamben seems to embrace a Heideggerian abyss between man and animal, an abyss that Agamben suggests is not wide enough in Heidegger’s thought. In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger’s notion of Da-sein as ek-stasis and rupture leads him to postulate an absolute abyss between animal and human. Da-sein’s ek-stasis is
language, an entrance closed to the animal. Heidegger cannot abide by evolutionary theory that makes man a mutation of animal because, for him, language is not something merely added onto the body or onto animality. Rather, language is a way of being in the world and a way of having access to it, what he calls “world-formation.” Heidegger is not so much denying evolution on an ontic level, the level of biologists, as on a conceptual level, the level of philosophers. It may seem ironic, then, when in the lecture course he turns to biology and zoology to prove his thesis about animals lacking access to world-formation because they are poor in world.2 In the comparative pedagogy of his lecture course, Heidegger uses life sciences to make his analysis more convincing. Heidegger’s well-known criticisms of technology and techno-science make his use of high-tech experiments in zoology and biology to prove his point even stranger.
Heidegger singles out two biologists in particular who made advances he finds helpful:
Driesch and von Uexküll. According to Heidegger, Driesch addresses the animal in a holistic way and von Uexküll shows how the animal is bound to its environment (FC 261). Heidegger is especially fond of von Uexküll (a favorite of Merleau-Ponty and a favorite target of Agamben) because “amongst the biologists Uexküll is the one who has repeatedly pointed out with the greatest emphasis that what the animal stands in relation to is given for it in a different way than it is for the human being” (FC 263-4). Even so, according to Heidegger, Uexküll doesn’t go far enough in separating man and animal in that his term “Umwelt,” which refers to the animal environment is too suggestive of a world (Welt); and he goes so far as naming an “inner world” of the animal, which Heidegger rejects as anthropomorphism (FC 263). Despite these shortcomings, Heidegger thinks that Uexküll’s observations can be useful to philosophy particularly in overcoming the Darwinian view of the ascent of man from animals. On the one hand,
relationship with its environment; the organism is not merely adapting or reacting to outside stimuli; rather its relationship with its environment is dynamic. On the other hand, the organism is englobed by its environment in a way determined by its instinctual body, which Dasein escapes in its access to beings as such. Heidegger finds in Uexküll both an anti-Darwinian sentiment that goes along with his anti-Cartesian one, and also an absolute separation between human and animal. Heidegger concludes that the difference between animals and man, between poor in world and world-formation, is not one of degree or quantity but rather of quality (FC 195; cf. 350); he argues “the world of the animal … is not simply a degree or species of the world of man (FC 200). And he repeatedly says “the animal is separated from man by an abyss” (e.g., FC 264; “Letter” 230).3 In The Fundamental Concepts, this abyss is between behavior (Benehmen) and comportment (Sichverhalten). Animals behave, whereas humans engage in the self-reflexive activity of comporting themselves. Animal behavior is locked into its instinctual ring, whereas human comportment is intentional and free. Heidegger likens animal behavior to physiological
processes in the animal’s body:
It is not as if the beating of the animal’s heart were a process different from the animal’s seizing and seeing, the one analogous to the case of human beings, the other to a chemical process. Rather the entirety of its being, the being as a whole in its unity, must be comprehended as behavior. (FC 239) Heidegger concludes that captivation does not merely accompany animal behavior but defines it.
Animals are captivated by their instincts and therefore have no true or conscious relationships with others or with their environment, while humans comport themselves toward others and their environment in a conscious way, which is to say, a world-forming way (cf. FC 237). Heidegger
given to the lizard in a lizard-like way defined by the lizard’s way of being, “which we call ‘life,’” but not existence. To exist is to have access to the environment and others as beings, which animals do not have. Heidegger concludes that “when we say that the lizard is lying on the rock, we ought to cross out the word ‘rock’ in order to indicate that whatever the lizard is lying on is certainly given in some way for the lizard, and yet is not known to the lizard as a rock” (FC 198). Discussing pets that live among us, Heidegger echoes this sentiment when he says that the dog lives but does not exist, which is why they cannot truly be with us (Mit-sein). To be with another being requires that one exist and vice versa. He says that domestic animals “belong to the house,” but not like the roof belongs to the house. They live with us but don’t exist with us;
they feed while we eat, and therefore they are there alongside us but not truly with us. In other words, an encounter with an animal, even one with whom we share our home, is not possible.
We cannot know their world and they cannot know ours; and therefore any transposition between the two is severely limited, if not impossible. Indeed, from the side of the animal, transposition is foreclosed from the beginning. For Heidegger, animals are not capable of the Mit-sein that is characteristic of Dasein.
Agamben’s relation to Heidegger is complicated in that he takes over the language of concealment and unconcealment at the same time that he “deconstructs” it. He takes it over in his own criticisms of techno-science, while in his critical engagement with Heidegger’s lectures, he maintains that the unique unconcealment at the heart of the clearing opened to Dasein turns out to be none other than the captivation of the animal. In other words, the animal is revealed to man
Animality is the concealed within the unconcealment of Dasein. On Agamben’s reading, the struggle between concealment and unconcealment is the struggle between man and animal itself (cf. 69-70). Man’s humanity is dependent upon keeping himself open to the closedness of animality (particularly his own animality). In Agamben’s terminology, man suspends his animality in a zone of exception (79); and by effacing his own animality, he retains his privileged position in the dichotomy of man-animal. By closing himself to the closed environment of the animal, he opens himself to the world of the properly human. Humanity, then, is dependent upon the exclusion of animality, which all the while operates as its constitutive outside (or more accurately, outside within). Agamben describes the definitive boredom that Heidegger attributes to Dasein as an awakening from captivation to captivation such that Dasein sees itself as open to its own non-openness; and “this resolute and anxious opening to a not-open, is the human” (Agamben 70). Following Agamben, we could say that animality with its world-poverty is the mysterious beating heart concealed and revealed at the center of humanity with its world-formation. Because of the structural connection between animality and humanity, Agamben argues that in the case of animals, it is impossible for Dasein to perform the activity essential to it, which is to let beings be. Man cannot let animals be (themselves) because as human he is dependent upon seeing animals as closed systems from whom he differs in his openness (as opposed to their closedness) (cf. Agamben 91).4 On Agamben’s reading, Heidegger’s comparative analysis of man and animal is another example of the anthropological machine in action: humanity is produced by excluding animality, against which it defines the human as precisely not-animal; in this way, it is the human who