Nothing, as a matter of fact, is more closed to us than this animal life from which we are descended. (Bataille 1989:20)
In the Preface to a recent collection of “Essential Readings in Continental Thought” that deals with the question of animals in philosophy, Peter Singer remarks on “the failure of the Continental tradition to challenge orthodoxy regarding animals” despite the critical stance particular thinkers have taken with regard to other prevailing assumptions and systems of oppression (Singer 2004:xii). The theme is echoed in the editors’ own introduction: it seems that Continental philosophy should be well placed to accommodate the issue of animals, given its longstanding and sophisticated suspicion of traditional humanism, and yet it “has only rarely given serious attention to the animal question” (Atterton and Calarco 2004:xv). Singer contends that the treatment of animals has more often than not been characterised by “vague rhetorical formulations”, but suggests nonetheless that “positive potential” lies in the work of certain thinkers, and that their ideas “may point beyond the conclusions that they themselves [page 266] have reached” (Singer 2004:xiii). Atterton and Calarco go on to argue that approaches toward the animal question can “open up new vistas for research even if they often turn out to be cul-de-sacs for the thinkers themselves” (Atterton and Calarco 2004:xvii). In this paper I would like to examine aspects of two of these rhetorical formulations, neither of which are vague but both of which display precisely the deficiencies in respect to their treatment of animals which Singer decries (2004:xii). I would like thereby to discover whether, in scrutinizing the work of two key exponents of the so-called “Continental tradition”, a new vista does indeed become visible.
Bataille chooses the vexed question of animality as an appropriate starting point for the first chapter of his Theory of Religion (Bataille 1989),1 though he admits from the outset that his account is but a means to an end: “I consider animality from a narrow viewpoint that seems questionable to me, but its value will become clear in the course of the exposition” (1989:17). What will concern us in this paper is the fact that this narrow viewpoint, this reflection on animality, is indeed a questionable one, but one that it is worth exploring a little. Bataille’s treatment is illustrative of a particular tendency amongst philosophers and theorists, Continental or otherwise, when dealing with animals or “animality”. I would thus like to consider Bataille’s text as an exemplar of this propensity, which is to say from a narrow viewpoint that perhaps seems questionable, but whose value will become clear in the course of my own exposition.
Bataille’s contention is that the animal’s existence in the world is immediate and immanent (17, 23). Lacking the capacity to distinguish objects, it is unable to discern any difference between itself and anything else.
...there is, for the wolf, a continuity between itself and the world. Attractive or distressing phenomena arise before it; other phenomena do not correspond either to individuals of the same species, to food, or to anything attractive or repellent, so that what appears has no meaning, or is a sign of something else. (Bataille 1989: 24-25)
According to Bataille the animal cannot perceive an object’s duration, its existence in time. It posits nothing beyond the present, and so exists in a state of immediacy. Even in eating another animal, even, presumably, in being eaten by another animal, there is no break in this immanent, immediate continuity. Neither predator nor prey, neither the goshawk nor the hen it consumes, are able to distinguish the other from itself (18). “Animals, since they eat one another, are of unequal strength, but there is never anything between them except that quantitative difference. The lion is not the king of the beasts: in the movement of the waters he is only a higher wave overturning the other, weaker ones” (18).2 For Bataille then, “every animal is in the world like water in water” (19, 23, 25).
[page 267] Humans, on the other hand, cannot even imagine this immanent world. The consciousness that allows us to comprehend distinct objects, to give meaning to the continuity, prevents us from seeing things as an animal does. In trying to imagine a world without humanity, in trying to see things as the animal does, we try to see nothing: “There was no landscape in a world where the eyes that opened did not apprehend what they looked at, where indeed, in our terms, the eyes did not see” (21). Worse, in pursuing that which is closed to us, in straining to see this absence of vision, we are stupidly drawn in by the “sticky temptation” (tentation gluante) of poetry (22). In our confusion we try to make positive assertions regarding the animal mind, perhaps that it is limited by terror, by suffering and death (21). We use words to describe experiences that can only be experienced without words, without distinctions, without consciousness. In short, we produce nonsense (21-22).
Bataille isn’t suggesting that animals are merely things, like stones or air. Though we are often prone to regard them as such, for instance when we eat them, when we enslave them or treat them as objects of science, they cannot be completely reduced to this level (22). It is not entirely meaningless, Bataille begrudgingly allows, to regard the animal as a subject (though, crucially, it cannot regard itself in this way) (19). The animal is not entirely closed and inscrutable to us. Indulging in a little poetry of his own, Bataille suggests that the depth which it opens before us is familiar (we are ‘descended’ from animals, after all) even if it is unfathomable (22).
Ultimately then, animals are neither man nor thing (21). Bataille doesn’t want to assert categorically that the animal lacks the ability to transcend itself. We can only know this negatively, in the sense that we cannot clearly discern in it any such ability. We can perhaps imagine it in embryo, but only in humans is it actually manifested (23). In reality, Bataille suggests, transcendence is always embryonic, even for humans, which is to say that it is something partial, tentative and unfinished, which we constitute as if it were solid and immutable. It would be impossible to do otherwise, for we could not base ourselves on what are really “unstable coagulations” (24). The animal, however, whose unfathomable depth is familiar, persistently reminds us of our own immediacy and immanence. And so, as humans, though we cannot really know for sure, we are bound to regard the animal, for the sake of our own transcendence, from the outside, as lacking transcendence (24).
Bataille remains true here to his own commendable prohibition: “while carrying one’s elucidation to the limit of immediate possibilities, not to seek a definitive state that will never be granted” (12). But the fact that the ability to transcend one’s environment, and posit oneself as distinct from one’s surroundings, is primarily a human ability, is implied by Bataille when he asserts that “the animal situation does contain a component of the human situation; if need be, the animal can be regarded as a subject for which the rest of the world is an object” (19). The continuity which Bataille concedes between human and animal thus depends on a characteristic which properly belongs to the former (the capacity to transcend one’s environment), displaying itself in the latter. [page 268] That which in humans is fully formed appears in animals as a merely “embryonic” proto-manifestation, groping toward full realization.
In his opening chapter, Bataille is principally concerned with introducing, and tentatively exploring, the notion of immanence. It is to this end that he embarks on a discussion of animality, and from here later moves to a study of human religious, economic and military affairs.3 That Bataille has no interest in animality or animals in their own right is not, of itself, a matter for concern. But he does here articulate especially clearly a pair of interrelated claims regarding the relationship between humanity, animality and knowledge. These claims frequently surface, more or less explicitly, when the animal comes under scrutiny, and the value of my own rather narrow reading of Bataille’s text thus lies in their analysis, and the broader concerns that they throw open.
First, the two claims. On the one hand, the perfect continuity that, according to Bataille, exists between animal and environment, the lack of transcendence, means that phenomena are not distinguished as objects. The animal has no meaning, no knowledge of the world, and exists, as we have seen, like water in water. On the other hand, in virtue of the fact that the existence of the animal consists in this uniformity with the environment, that existence is utterly closed to us. Compelled always to impose precisely those divisions which are denied to the animal, humans cannot entertain any meaningful understanding of animal life. In short, the reason the animal is closed to us, the reason we cannot have knowledge of the animal, is that there is no meaning, no knowledge for the animal. Taken together, the implication of these two claims is that knowledge (meaning, understanding, cognition) is always and only human. We who do and must have knowledge are condemned to our own perspective, to an inevitable anthropocentrism. Any attempt to step outside this limitation, to articulate an understanding or knowledge which is not constrained in this way, will unavoidably descend into poetic babbling.
Is (our) knowledge inherently and inevitably constrained in this way? It is unavoidable, Bataille says, that we should regard the animal as lacking transcendence (23, 24). But he has here already assumed a qualitative difference between human and animal experience which he has not demonstrated. The life of the animal, he says, is closed to us; its place in the world seems in our eyes to be one of complete immanence (20, 24). The pronouns, here and elsewhere in the chapter, are instructive. They refer exclusively to the human. In so doing, Bataille gives priority to the human perspective, “our” starting point, and suggests that this human perspective is inescapable. When he asserts that “[f]or the moment, I need to set apart from the dazzle of poetry that which, from the standpoint of experience, appears distinctly and clearly” he is attempting to take stock from the standpoint of human experience (23). Despite his poetic [page 269] suggestion that the animal’s immediacy is in fact our own, Bataille assumes that, in a sense, we are human before we are animal.4
We will return to this issue of the temporal pre-eminence of the human shortly. First, however, I would like to look a little closer at the question of anthropocentrism. If we are to seize the opportunity to gaze out across new vistas, it is important that we examine the nature of the limitations that have been placed on those eyes, human or otherwise, that would attempt to apprehend a novel landscape. Before we gaze outwards, then, we would do well to look down, toward that perplexing, unfathomable depth.
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. (Genesis 2. 19-20)
A year before Bataille’s text, in 1947, Heidegger had written of “our scarcely conceivable, abysmal bodily kinship (abgründige leibliche Verwandtschaft) with the beast” (Heidegger 1993:230). His characterisation is remarkably close to Bataille’s:
Of all the beings that are, presumably the most difficult to think about are living creatures, because on the one hand they are in a certain way most closely akin to us, and on the other are at the same time separated from our ek-sistent essence by an abyss (durch einen Abgrund). (Heidegger 1993:230)
For Bataille the animal itself opens up a depth, whereas for Heidegger the chasm stretches between us and the animal. In both cases, however, the extreme difficulty, or even impossibility, that pertains to our thinking about the animal is due to its radical alterity, represented by this profound and unplumbed void.5 In light of Bataille’s remarks, my objective here is not to discuss what Heidegger has to say about the world of animals, but rather to examine what it is that he believes separates humanity and animality. It is not the nature of animals that concerns us, but the nature of the abyss itself, which we will examine, with Heidegger, from the near side of the precipice.6 On the one hand the animal [page 270] seems very close to us, says Heidegger, whereas on the other hand it resides on the far side of this abyss. And in fact the hands involved here turn out to be central to his account of the interrelation of thinking, language and truth, and therefore of what creates the distance between the human and the animal.
In a lecture series delivered a few years later, in 1951-52, Heidegger asked What is Called Thinking? (Heidegger 1968). He concerns himself with what it would be to learn thinking, and his preliminary answer is that perhaps the process is analogous to the apprentice cabinet builder learning their trade. The apprentice must be capable in the use of appropriate tools, and knowledgeable of the different things to be built of course, but what is far more important, what will distinguish a true cabinet maker, is that he or she responds to the different kinds of wood and the shapes that lie within. Similarly, in order to think we must learn to “answer to whatever essentials address themselves to us” (1968:14-16). The suggestion is that thinking, like cabinet making, is a particular kind of practice, a handicraft (Handwerk). The hand in handicraft is crucial here. The hand is commonly considered simply as part of the body, as a mere organ for grasping. This describes only the mundane physicality of the hand however, and fails to capture its essence. For Heidegger the hand is intimately connected to thinking, and all the work of the hand is rooted in thinking. Thinking, in fact, is itself the hardest handicraft we can undertake (1968:16-17).
So what is the connection between the hand and thinking? What is the role of the hand when answering to essentials that address themselves to us? Heidegger had already taken this question in hand in an earlier lecture series, during the course of his discussion of truth as un-concealment or dis-closure (άλήθεια, alêtheia) (Heidegger 1992:79-83). Here he tells us that it is by means of Handlung (action, activity) that we engage with things. We act insofar as the things present are within reach of the hand. Handlung is Heidegger’s translation of πράγμα (pragma) from which we derive the English term pragmatic. Πράγμα is customarily translated, Heidegger tells us, as “thing” or “fact”, although this tends to miss the original sense, that of the process of setting this thing up as present upon arriving at it. Strictly speaking then, πράγμα means both a thing and an activity, or more precisely, it designates the essentially inseparable unity of these two (1992:80, 84). Although Handlung and πράγμα are not literally equivalent, it is this pair of meanings that Heidegger hopes to indicate by his translation. In the use of things, in the process of employing them as things which are ready-to-hand, we arrive at them: “the hand reaches out for them and reaches them” (1992:80).7 Considered thus, in the context of our “concernful dealings” with them, things are equipment (Zeug) (1962:96-97). Handlung, the manipulation of this ready-to-hand equipment, is for Heidegger the way to unconcealment, which is to say truth.
In its concernful dealings, the hand thus indicates things and thereby discloses what was concealed. This indicating is a pointing, a marking off which brings a thing to presence. Comprehension depends on prehension, and the hand thereby manifests what was hidden. This uncovering demarcation is the true work of the hand, the job that it does, the essence of the hand.8 Such demarcation can be done only with the hand, and this because the hand is essentially related to the word (das Wort). The marking off by the hand creates, says Heidegger, “indicating marks” (zeigenden Zeichen), which we call forms or signs. The sign shows, it indicates, and it is this demarcation as a delimitation which brings a [page 271] thing to presence (1992:82, 84). There can thus be no word without hand, but also no hand without word. The hand “sprang forth” out of the word and together with the word. Only a being that “has” the word, only a being that indicates and marks out, can (and must) have the hand in its essential sense (1992:80).
The marks and signs that are formed by the demarcating hand, the inscriptions, are called writing, and it is this handwriting which makes visible the word. The essence of the word is that it lets beings appear, or put another way, wherever beings emerge into unconcealedness, there Being is put into words. “Being manifests itself primordially in the word” (1992:76). Heidegger links the reading, or lection, of the visible, handwritten word, which is a “disclosive taking up and perceiving of the written word”, to col-lection, or gathering. In Greek, he tells us, this gathering is called λóγος (logos), which “among the primordial thinkers, is the name for Being itself”. The word is our relation to Being, and in handwriting this relation is inscribed in beings themselves (1992:85). It is by means of the word, which is inextricably bound up with the hand, that we are able to “disclose” beings, that is, arrive at them as distinct things with which we interact.9
Crucial to Heidegger’s understanding of the correlation of hand and word is the fact that together they constitute the essential distinguishing mark of humanity (1992:84). Only humans have the hand and the word, or more properly, it is the case that “Man does not ‘have’ hands, but the hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man” (1992:80). As the means by which Being “assigns itself to man”, the word is the essential characteristic of humanity (1992:78). Heidegger outlines this fundamental and primordial relationship between Being and man, through language, in the opening to his ‘Letter on Humanism’:
Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home. Their guardianship accomplishes the manifestation of Being insofar as they bring the manifestation to language and maintain it in language through their speech. (1993:217)
Humanity alone is “entrusted” with the word and thereby “assigned to the preservation of the unconcealedness of beings” (1992:78). Only through [page 272] humanity, by means of word and hand, can beings emerge from Being (1992:76). Beings, as beings, are taken in hand and there preserved as something present and ready to use (Heidegger 1975:51-55).10
This means, of course, that animals don’t have word or hand. This is where the abyss opens up, separating the essence of the human hand from what are merely “grasping organs” in animals, such as paws, claws and fangs (1968:16). The human body is, for Heidegger, “something essentially other than an animal organism” (1993:228). Heidegger is at pains to emphasise that he does not mean to suggest that animals are in any way lesser beings than humans. He is uncomfortable with the idea of any kind of hierarchy composed of “higher” and “lower” animals, and suggests that it would be a “fundamental mistake” to suppose that amoebae or infusoria are more “imperfect” or “incomplete” than elephants or apes (Heidegger 1995a:194). Nonetheless, with his insistence that the hand-word nexus is distinctively and uniquely human, Heidegger does instate a qualitative difference between human and animal.
A lizard who has sought out a warm stone on which to bask will have, Heidegger asserts, his own relation to those two things which we would call “stone” and “sun”. This relation is of a kind which might tempt us to say, suggests Heidegger, that the stone and sun are for the lizard simply “lizard-things” (1995a:196-99). The animal can explore its environment and separate such things out in order to stalk prey, know its dwelling places, defend itself against predators, etc. (1995b:105-06). The lizard, then, certainly has some kind of access both to the stone and to the sun, but the stone is not given to the lizard as a stone, nor the sun as sun, since neither stone nor sun is accessible to the lizard as a being at all.11 Just like plants, “animals are lodged in their respective environments” (1993:230), environments which cannot expand or contract, and to which the animals are confined (1995a:198). This is not quite the immersion of Bataille’s animals, existing like water in water, who do not make distinctions at all. Heidegger draws attention to the discriminatory capacity of the falcon’s eye, and to the canine sense of smell, both of which are greater than our own (1995a:194). The blade of grass up which a beetle crawls is a “beetle-path” on which it seeks “beetle-nourishment”. Each different animal has a particular set of relationships with its various sources of nourishment, with its prey, its enemies, its sexual mates, etc. (1995a:198). But without the word, without the hand, all these animals pottering about their respective “worlds” do so in a radically different way from the manner in which human individuals potter about their world. Animals exist “without standing outside their Being as such and within the truth of Being”. They are never placed freely “in the clearing of Being”, but remain stuck - “lodged” - in their particular environments (1993:229-30).
[page 273] The hand, then, denotes the essential difference between humanity and animality. Man alone is able to point towards things, to point at things, or perhaps better, to point out things, since pointing is a matter of a disclosive assimilation of the unconcealed (1992:81). Man points to what is, and “his essential nature lies in being such a pointer” (1968:9). This pointing is done by the hand, and it is worth remembering, though Heidegger does not explicitly say so himself, that the human fore-finger is called the index finger precisely because it is used for pointing things out (the Latin indicare means to point out, show, indicate and expose). Man is the one who indicates, and in this indicating he draws beings out from Being:
If we are to think of man not as an organism but a human being, we must first give attention to the fact that man is that being who has his being by pointing to what is, and that particular beings manifest themselves as such by such pointing. (1968:149)
Man does not determine what constitutes a being, does not decide “whether or how beings appear”, since “the advent of beings lies in the destiny of Being” itself. But as the only being capable of this fundamental kind of disclosure, he does stand in a privileged relationship to Being, as its carer, as the guardian of the truth of Being. It is because of this particular relationship to beings, to Being, that Heidegger calls Man the “Shepherd of Being” (1993:234). The title is apt. Heidegger’s characterisation of beings has them dutifully running to heel when he (Heidegger, Man) points and calls them out (they are perhaps as much like the obedient sheepdog as the placid sheep). Rather like Adam naming the beasts, Man alone is in the privileged position of being able to comprehend all God’s creatures as the creatures which they are, since it is in his pointing that they manifest themselves as such. Given Man’s special relationship with Being, as the being with the word and hand, he cannot help but get it right when he starts pointing and calling names: “whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2.19). Only humans can know things as such. Adam, the Shepherd of Being, has been charged with the task of preserving the unconcealedness of creatures, and not without reason does a fear and dread of him fall upon every beast of the earth and every fowl of the air, indeed upon everything that moves upon the earth and all the fish in the sea, since, says Heidegger, says God, “into your hand are they delivered” (Genesis 9.1-2).12
Whenever, as was perhaps the case in ancient Greece, the intuitive man handles his weapons more authoritatively and victoriously than his opponent, then, under [page 274] favourable circumstances, a culture can take shape and art’s mastery over life can be established. (Nietzsche 1979:90-91)
One of Heidegger’s chief translators, David Farrell Krell, has described Heidegger’s approach to animal being(s) as “blatantly anthropocentric” (Krell 1992:130). This question, as to the anthropocentrism or humanism unveiled by Heidegger’s treatment of animals, divides his commentators. On the one hand, Krell argues that Heidegger’s suggestion that animal behaviour is “benumbed” (benommen) works “only against the backdrop of a putatively more vigorous and vital stance toward beings as such; the animal’s world reflects a deprivation only on the set of a richer, more varied and abundant openness to being” (1992:130, 275.13 His thinking, then, is not merely humanist, but displays a hauteur that is “hyperhumanistic” (1992:256). Derrida too has questioned Heidegger’s efforts to mark “an absolute limit between the living creature and the human Dasein” (Derrida 1989:54).14 This rupture or abyss, characterised as a single, indivisible, unilinear limit with two absolute edges (Man and Animal), is “one of the greatest, and most symptomatic idiocies” (Derrida 2002:408). Further, the words “poverty” (Armut) and “privation” (Entbehrung) which Heidegger employs to describe the being of the animal cannot but imply, despite his protests, a hierarchy and evaluation (Derrida 1989:55-56). Together, Derrida argues, these moves add up to “a certain anthropocentric or even humanist teleology” (1989:55). Simon Glendinning has further suggested that Heidegger’s essential contrast of humanity and animality requires us to make too sharp a distinction between human and animal being (1996:78-79). Glendinning argues that the analysis ignores “the possibility that different animals can be, in different respects, ‘another like myself’” (1996:78, my emphasis). As such, Heidegger’s analytic remains “stubbornly and problematically humanist” (1996:70).15
On the other hand, Michael Eldred has argued that quite the reverse is the case. Heidegger’s analysis, he suggests, carefully and deliberately avoids the charge of anthropocentrism by recognizing “the insuperable difficulties of gaining access to animal being” (2002: Part 3). By respecting the difference between human and animal Heidegger thus avoids assimilating “all openness to the openness of human being”, and refrains from “anthropomorphically transferring the scheme of human understanding to animals” (2002: Part 3).16 This theme of difference, of otherness, is, Will McNeill argues, crucial to Heidegger’s understanding of beings. Man is not just one being amongst others, privileged by his “having” a language which enables him to make interpretations: “it is interpretation or logos itself, and not anthrôpos, which is the centre and measure of all things” (McNeill 1993a:25). [page 275] As such, it actually makes possible an understanding which “opens our access to other things and to otherness in general” (1993a:26). Heidegger is trying to understand not the essence of the animal “in itself”, which would be a misguided and metaphysical endeavour, but in its otherness. Finally, Steve Baker develops this theme, arguing that Heidegger’s concern is not just to understand the animal in its otherness but to “let that otherness be” (Baker 2003:160). Only by recognising and accepting the otherness of the animal is there any possibility of our “going-along-with” it in order to understand “how it is” with the animal (2003:160).17
Is Heidegger anthropocentric? The respect for difference which this second set of commentators emphasises certainly presupposes distinct kinds of being: there is Dasein, which is human, and then there is the animal. Is this anthropocentric? Does Heidegger thereby imply human superiority or centeredness? Perhaps. The more pressing problem here lies rather in the fact that Heidegger presupposes absolutely distinct kinds of being. Even leaving aside, for the moment, Derrida’s contention that the vocabulary used to describe the weltarm (poor in world) animal is evaluative, the division itself is assumed to exist prior to Heidegger’s investigation into Being. Heidegger’s writing starts from the premise that Dasein means human experience, without acknowledging the possibility that the beings that ‘have’ Dasein might not all be human. In short, Heidegger is not anthropocentric because he implies a hierarchy at whose summit Man sits. On this point, pace Derrida, we can afford to give Heidegger the benefit of the doubt. Rather, Heidegger is anthropocentric because he thinks anthrôpos before he thinks anything else. The ‘centrism’ of which he is guilty depends not so much on a hierarchy as on a pre-eminence. Man is central to Heidegger not in the sense that he is higher, but in the sense that he comes first.
Glendinning puts it best when he suggests that the problem is not so much, as Derrida claims, that we cannot find a place for the animal within the basic concepts of Heidegger’s analytic, as the fact of the “unexamined privilege conferred on the human being” by those concepts (Glendinning 1996:78). The distinctive co-dependence of thinking, word and hand sets humanity apart. Heidegger’s objection to traditional humanism is, in part, that it does not sufficiently emphasise the unique and privileged relationship that “homo humanus” has to Being: “the highest determinations of the essence of man in humanism still do not realize the proper dignity of man” (Heidegger 1993:245, 233-34). Only once we recognise the special role of Man as guardian over the truth of Being is he restored to his proper place. This done, Heidegger is prepared to contemplate the possibility of reclaiming the term humanism (Heidegger 1993:245, 247-48). The humanistic (or hyperhumanistic) phenomenology from which Heidegger starts has thus already precluded the possibility of his recognising or discovering a human-animal continuity, a human-animal Mitsein (being-with) perhaps, and thus condemns him to an anthropocentrism in which human being is foremost.18
[page 276] We can at this point usefully distinguish at least three modes of anthropocentric thought. First there is the assertion, to coin that infamous phrase, that “man is the measure of all things”.19 Humanity is here considered to be central to the universe, a spatial characterisation illustrative of the term’s Greek roots in άνθρωπος (anthropos) meaning ‘man’, and κέντρον (kentron) meaning ‘centre’. In epistemological terms this is the belief that all knowledge will inevitably be determined by the human nature of the knower. It is the belief, of which Heidegger was wary, that “human beings are cornered in the blind alley of their own humanity” (Heidegger 1984:99). Bataille demonstrated precisely this kind of anthropocentric perspective. A second anthropocentrism would sketch a hierarchy, a ladder or chain of being, from the summit of which humanity gazes down on lesser beings. In this alternative spatial characterisation the human species is considered to be of greater importance and value than all others. This is the anthropocentrism of secular or Enlightenment humanism, the evaluative anthropocentrism that Derrida detected in Heidegger’s writing.20 In addition to these more-or-less explicitly stated beliefs, a third anthropocentrism can be identified as the assumption that any attempt to explain experience, understanding or knowledge (of the world, Being, others, et al.) must inevitably start from a human perspective. This we might call the anthropocentric assumption, characterised by a temporal preoccupation whereby the human being arrives or appears before all else. This is first and foremost anthropocentrism, and it is on this “unexamined privilege” that epistemological anthropocentrism depends. Heidegger’s phenomenological method, no less than Bataille’s, exemplifies this temporal prejudice.21 It is a heavy-handed anthropocentrism, a self-satisfied anthropocentrism, which inscribes too quickly a distinction between humanity and animality.
Derrida points out that “Heidegger does not only think the hand as a very singular thing that would rightfully belong only to man, he always thinks the hand in the singular” (Derrida 1987:182).22 The thinking that we set out to investigate with Heidegger, which he argued was a handicraft (Handwerk), turns out to be a [page 277] one-handed activity. The organ that marks and writes, and thereby brings beings to presence as beings, is a solitary appendage. In direct contrast to Rousseau, who was infamously unhappy about that dangerous, substitute activity which supplemented his endeavours (Derrida 1976:150-57), Heidegger emphasises the necessary connection between essential, one-handed activities and the disclosive demarcations they make possible. In both cases, however, there is an implicit, self-congratulatory humanism shared by (these) writers. Anthropocentrism, in each of the three senses, is a kind of species narcissism, an obsessive love of self. Just as the narcissist is self-absorbed, self-centred, so the anthropocentrist is species-centred (anthropo-centric). The anthropocentrist, like Narcissus, has eyes only for himself.23 The self-satisfying grasping that Heidegger’s hand does, enthusiastically clutching his Zeug, is the work of a very particular hand, a “singular hand” as Derrida has it. The hand, which Heidegger takes as mark of the human, allows us to lay our hands on the humanist.
Heidegger felt his way forward, toward the Abyss, with one hand on the distinct experience of human beings. Bataille tentatively approached with a cautious look at the world of the animal. Whilst Heidegger delimits what the animal can know, Bataille delimits what we can know about what the animal can know. Both start, though, from an implicit understanding of experience which is unashamedly and irretrievably anthropocentric. It is the lot of the animal, or animality, to come after, to follow on, to take second place.24 Bataille suggested that the consistency of the world of the animal is one of fluid homogeneity, and that self-consciousness has erected a barrier between “us” and those from whom we have “descended”. It has not been my intention to argue positively that he is wrong in these claims. It is conceivable that, on detailed examination, we might wish to assert the existence of a qualitative difference between human and animal cognition, and that the capacity to break the continuity of existence by positing durable objects can be usefully described as “human”. But this must remain, I think, an open question. It should certainly not be our starting point. If we preclude the possibility of recognising or discovering new kinds of human-animal continuity we are condemned to a particular kind of anthropocentrism, a first-and-foremost anthropocentrism, which restricts what we can think both about human being and about the being of other animals.
This first-and-foremost anthropocentrism, though not Bataille’s alone, is exemplified by his chapter on animality. This anthropocentrism, which depends on the animal existing “like water in water”, functions as a kind of self-fulfilling prediction (or predication). By asserting that humans are condemned to see the [page 278] world as only humans can, that the world of the animal, or animality, is utterly closed to us, Bataille identifies himself principally and irretrievably with “the human” (whatever that may be). In doing so, he instates the very perspective that he discovers. His claim, that humans can see only as humans, his anthropocentrism, is both the starting point and the result of his reflection. This reflection, which Bataille believes to be thrown back by the watery beasts, is in fact his own.25 By foreclosing what it is possible for animals to experience, what it is possible for animality to be, the possibilities for the human animal are also thereby curtailed.
Tom Tyler is Senior Lecturer in Communication, Media and Culture at Oxford Brookes University. His current research interests include the uses of animals in philosophy and cultural theory, and the challenges that evolutionary theory, primatology and biological systematics pose for traditional understandings of what constitutes human and animal being.
More essays by Tom Tyler are available at his Research page.