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animal by any other name Arrow vol 3 No 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004



Animal by Any Other Name? Patterson and Agamben
Discuss Animal (and Human) Life

Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, Lantern Books: New York, 2002.

Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell, Stanford University Press: Stanford California, 2004.

Dinesh Wadiwel
University of Western Sydney


But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other
thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K.
could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against
cheek, watching the final act. "Like a dog!" he said: it was as if the shame
of it would outlive him.

—Franz Kafka, 1968: 251

1. There is a certain humanist line of thinking that suggests that violence is invariably accompanied by what can be described as ‘dehumanisation.’ According to this standpoint, the instigator of violence suspends the humanity of his or her victim, in order to circumvent the ethical deterrents that would normally prevent the use of violence. In many respects this strikes us as true: the human subject of violence is frequently ‘objectified,’ they are treated as ‘pigs,’ ‘vermin,’ ‘dogs,’ as sub-human. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the greatest acts of violence against humans appear to be accompanied by a dehumanisation that is of commensurate intensity. The Holocaust was no exception to this. Dehumanisation was found in the Nazi labour and extermination camps, not only in the forms of violence and death prevalent there (for example cattle cars and mass exterminations), but in the plight of those in the camps, who as a result of starvation, brutal working conditions, indignity and violence, are said to have lost touch with their ‘humanity.’ A survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau recalls: "You could watch human beings turning into animals" (Volkel in Steinhoff, Pechel and Showalter, 1991: 236).

2. The humanist will say "Stop treating humans like animals: respect the human and violence will not be possible." But there is alternative line of thinking that responds in an apparently oblique way to the humanist: "Stop treating animals like we treat animals; then it will not be possible to treat humans like animals." Understood in this fashion, human violence represents not only a capacity for dehumanisation alone, but is tied closely to the justification of violence against the non-human. This reflects not only the capacity for humans to harm each other, but draws attention to the sustained incarceration, torture and violence that is directed towards animals in slaughterhouses, experimental laboratories and factory farms. It was perhaps this line of thinking that prompted novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer to observe "In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."

3. It was this same pronouncement that inspired the title of Charles Paterson’s book, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (2002). Patterson, who has previously written on anti-semitism (Patterson, 1982) turns attention in Eternal Treblinka to the relation between human violence against humans and that against animals, through exploration of the historical links between the slaughterhouse and the extermination camp, and through the testimony of survivors and activists who have been made more aware of animal suffering through their experience of human suffering in the Holocaust.

4. The first two chapters of Patterson’s work provide an overview of the history and language of human violence against non-humans. Patterson explores here, in its various guises, what can be described as the gap between the human and animal. He suggests for example that the domestication of animals for food and produce was a significant step towards a separation between human and animal being, arguing that "once animals were ‘domesticated,’ herdsmen and farmers adopted mechanisms of detachment, rationalization, denial and euphemism to distance themselves emotionally from their captives" (2002: 11). This capacity for emotional separation in turn lays the foundations for human slavery, by creating the pre-requisite framework for ‘animalizing’ other humans. Patterson points out that the emergence of slavery coincides with the development and perfection of techniques of animal domestication, emphasising that "in slave societies, the same practices used to control animals were used to control slaves − castration, branding whipping, chaining, ear cropping" (2002:14). The gap between human and animal is also cemented by religious and philosophical teaching. Patterson refers to both the Christian and Messianic traditions, pointing to texts which support the dominance of human over animal. He also refers to Aristotle and Descartes and their own respective contributions that have widened the gap between human and non human. The overview presented here by Patterson in these chapters is brief, but provides a useful background for readers on the historical and philosophical roots of violence against animal life. My only quibble with this section is its failure to include information on other philosophical and religious traditions (such as Hinduism, Buddhism) and the specific relation they pose to animal. I believe this information would add contrast to some of the historical developments in the West.

5. In the second chapter, Patterson turns his attention towards forms of vilification towards humans that rely on reference to an animal metaphor. Although this is brief, it nevertheless provides some very direct examples of how the animal is often evoked in the 'dehumanisation' process, as "humans become animals" in order for violence to be realized. Indeed Patterson observes early in the chapter that vilification of humans as animals can be treated an ominous sign that bloodshed will soon occur, suggesting, as an example that "in the years leading up to the Armenian genocide, the Ottoman Turks referred to Armenians as rajah (cattle)" (2002:28). This points to one of the significant, albeit not explicitly stated, achievements of this work. Through his examples of the way in which humans become animal through violence and vilification, Patterson sheds light on the fundamental instability of the 'human' itself as a category. This is perhaps best reflected in the example of "Barry," an attack dog used against prisoners in Treblinka. Patterson observes that its owner "amused himself by spurring Barry to action with the command "Man, go get that dog!" By "Man" …[he]…meant his dog Barry, while "dog" referred to the prisoner he ordered Barry to attack" (2002: 123). The human, no matter how it tries to escape, is caught in an inexorable web with the animal. Human civility projects itself beyond the ground of its animality, but this same movement is continuously anchored and drawn back to its point of origin. We find this clearly in Aristotle’s immortal pronouncement, that ‘Man is by nature a rational animal’ (Aristotle, 1952b: 1253a), which suggests not only that the human is a ‘better animal’ (an animal ‘plus something else’) but that there is an indissoluble connection between the human and animal, no matter how great the differences. To my mind this is a curiosity of religious and philosophical thought within the West. Within this logic the human does not possess a radically different nature to animal, instead the human exists on a plane of animality. Even when humanity moves to the nether most regions of this plane, it is still grounded within animal being, a horizon from which it can scarcely draw away its gaze.

6. What is perhaps most illustrative of this movement are the examples of sustained and calculated human violence found in the camp, where the human is thrust abjectly towards its own animality. In this respect chapters 3, 4 & 5 of Patterson’s work can be said to form the horrific but compelling centrepiece of this book. These chapters provide an arresting account of the historical links between the forms of human violence practiced by Nazi Germany during the middle of the twentieth century and forms of torture and death developed in the animal slaughterhouse violence. Patterson’s technique here is similar to Edmund Russell’s very impressive War and Nature (Russell, 2001), another work that uses detailed comparisons between the technologies developed to eradicate and control animals and those used for the same purposes against humans. (Interestingly both accounts critically retell North American history and call to account the United States’ role in our last bloody century.)

7. Patterson draws on two important developments in the United States that facilitated the technology of Nazi genocide. Firstly, he suggests that it was the US that made the most significant contribution to the development of methods of industrial slaughter used to ‘process’ animal life. Patterson points for example to the construction of the Union Stock Yards in Chicago in 1965, a slaughter house facility with 2300 connected livestock pens, occupying over a square mile of land (2002: 57). Technologies that facilitated the movement of animal bodies, whether alive or dead, would enable an increased potential for the process of flesh. For example, rail connections to slaughterhouses expedited the capacity for animal life to be speedily extinguished. Patterson notes further that the introduction of a conveyor belt in 1886 increased this capacity, with line speeds enhanced (2002: 71). These developments have been improved upon to startling degree, to the point where industrialised slaughter has enabled death on an almost incomprehensible scale. Patterson observes, for example, that by the end of the twentieth century, 9.4 billion animals were killed annually (or 125 million a day) in US slaughterhouses alone (2002: 71).

8. Secondly, Patterson argues that the growth of the eugenics movement had its roots within the US, where some of the initial ‘successes’ where first reported. As Patterson foreshadows in this ironically named chapter ("Improving the Herd") eugenics emerged at that point where the techniques of biological selection and intervention that were commonplace in the management of animal populations were turned towards the manipulation of human populations. The first steps forwards were taken by the US, which endorsed enthusiastically the sterilisation of people convicted of crimes, people with mental illness and people with disability (2002: 87-9). Although by 1933 Germany had taken its own measures along eugenicist principles, Patterson wryly notes: "the Nazis had a good deal of catching up to do. When they embarked on their sterilization program in 1933, the United States already had sterilized more than 15,000 people, most of them while they were incarcerated in prisons or homes for the mentally ill" (2002: 92).

9. Eugenics and industrialised slaughter converge radically in the Nazi extermination camps. Within the camp human death and animal slaughter become indistinguishable. Patterson observes for example that the passage leading animals to their deaths is colloquially referred to as a ‘chute’ or ‘kill alley’ or ‘tube’ (2002: 111). Uncannily, the barbed wire enshrouded alleyway at Treblinka, through which starved human bodies were hurtled to their deaths, was also referred to as the ‘tube.’ Patterson also provides here a chilling perspective on the capacity for the industrial apparatus of slaughter to remorselessly facilitate the killing of both human and animal infants. The techniques that were used by the Nazi killing squads to distance themselves from their victims, are the same as those found in slaughterhouse facilities, amongst workers who quickly learn to overcome any emotion involved in killing young animals. This discussion is particularly moving, and succeeds in drawing the reader to consider the suffering of animals on the same plane as the suffering of humans.

10. The final three chapters of Eternal Treblinka provide a selection of personal accounts of individuals who have been moved by the events of the Holocaust to consider not only the effects of violence against human life, but to also examine and campaign against violence and exploitation of animal life. Chapter 6 gathers together a range of Jewish thinkers and activists who have become animal advocates. Patterson refers, for example, to philosopher Peter Singer, who is not only known for his clever utilitarian analyses of animal suffering, but recently revealed that members of his own family had been killed in the concentration camps (Patterson, 2002: 160). An activist, Barbera Stagno, explains to Patterson that the aspect of the Holocaust that evades comprehension is "that people could do everything and anything to those that they deemed ‘sub-human.’ Which is, of course, what we do to animals" (2002: 150). Chapter 8 follows a similar structure, turning attention to Germans who have both been effected by the Holocaust, and consequently drawn to consider violence against animal life.

11. Patterson also includes a detailed account of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s life and literary works. The analysis here is careful and draws attention to the intersections between Singer’s life experiences and his novels and short stories. Through this discussion Patterson focuses on a continuing theme through Singer’s life and work, namely that the exercise of human violence against humans is connected to that directed against animals: "there is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers à la Hitler and concentration camps à la Stalin" (Singer in Patterson, 2002: 199).

12. Although I found that Eternal Treblinka presented a compelling case for unveiling the largely unexplored connections between the Holocaust and the industrialised animal slaughter, I felt less satisfied with particular aspects of the analysis. Occasionally, and I confess that I may be quibbling over details here, I felt that there wasn’t strong connections drawn between the evidence presented and the case argued by Patterson (namely that the slaughterhouse is connected to the Holocaust). An example of this was the detailed discussion of Henry Ford and his documented anti-Semitism. Although Patterson provides evidence that Ford was influenced by the industrialised slaughterhouse in the creation of his own factory lines, and that Ford was responsible for the publication of a series of anti-Semitic brochures, I was not entirely convinced that Patterson established a case that "not only did…[Ford]… develop the assembly line method the Germans used to kill Jews, but he launched a vicious anti-Semitic campaign that helped the Holocaust to happen" (2002: 73).

13. Further, although there was convincing relationships drawn between violence against humans and violence against animals, I felt that there were significant questions that appeared to be left to one side. Patterson states at the close of Eternal Treblinka that "the sooner we put an end to our cruel and violent way life, the better it will be for all of us – perpetrators, bystanders, and victims" (2002: 232), but it is not clear how this can be enacted, or how Patterson’s analysis has specifically contributed to our understanding of this truth. Can we infer, for example, that human violence originates in animal? Would the recognition of the ‘rights’ of the animal, and the abolition of the slaughterhouse, lead to any changes in the climate of human violence? Perhaps these questions are beyond the parameters of Patterson’s work, but I could not help but feel that there was more to be uncovered.

14. It is perhaps fitting therefore that we turn to Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal, since I feel that it is within this work that some of the issues raised in Eternal Treblinka are explored. Agamben’s previous political explorations, particularly his use of Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, are notably applicable to an analysis of the animal (Wadiwel, 2002). In particular, prior to the publication of The Open, I believe there are two significant moments in Agamben’s works that can be said to prefigure his latter concern for the question of animal. The first of these moments is in Homo Sacer, when Agamben contemplates the medieval werewolf story Bisclavret. In Homo Sacer, Agamben argues that western sovereignty is distinct in its production of ‘bare life,’ that is, life that is held in a space of indistinction which is neither accessible to divine intervention or to law. This definition of sovereignty reveals an originary relationship between the sovereign power of exception and the political constitution of life as a biological entity that is found prominently within the concentration camp (Agamben, 1998). Agamben remarks that Bisclavret reveals, "both the werewolf’s particular nature as the threshold passage between nature and politics, animal world and human world, and the werewolf’s close tie to sovereign power are presented with extraordinary vividness" (1998: 107). The sphere of indistinction that Agamben suggests characterises Westernised sovereignty is not merely a juridical threshold but a meeting point of the human and animal: "at issue is not simply fera bestia and natural life but rather a zone of indistinction between the human and animal, a werewolf, a man who is transformed into a wolf and a wolf who is transformed into a man in other words, a bandit, a homo sacer." (1998: 106).

15. Agamben’s second significant encounter with the animal can be found in Remnants of Auschwitz, amidst a detailed discussion of the Muselmänner (or ‘muslims’) of the Nazi concentration camps. Muselmann was the term used by internees in the camps to describe ‘the walking dead’ of the camps, those who through exposure to starvation, deprivation, violence and brutality experience a fundamental "loss of will and consciousness" (Agamben, 1999: 45). What Agamben finds in this figure is the limit condition of human life:

The decisive activity of biopower in our time consists in the production not of life or death, but rather of a mutable and virtually infinite survival. In every case, it is a matter of dividing animal life from organic life, the human from the inhuman, the witness from the Muselmann, conscious life from vegetative life maintained functional through resuscitation techniques, until a threshold is reached: an essentially mobile threshold that, like the borders of geopolitics, moves according to the progress of scientific and political technologies. Biopower’s supreme ambition is to produce, in a human body, the absolute separation of the living and the speaking being, zo_ and bios, the inhuman and the human – survival (1999: 155-6).

16. If it is true that violence perpetuated by humans against other humans involves a ‘dehumanistaion,’ then Agamben suggests that this is a product of an extreme biopolitics, which reduces the human to the barest point of their biological functioning: in other words they are drawn level with the animal within.

17. Both of these ‘brushes’ with the animal point to the same thing: for Agamben the political is caught between a ceaseless constitution of the human and the in-human, the human and the animal. Homo sacer or ‘bare life’ is the meeting point of this threshold, where the pre-eminent political question, above all other forms of inquiry, is life and how it is defined. It is no coincidence therefore that Agamben continues this theme in The Open, when he remarks that "it is more urgent to work on these divisions, to ask in what way − within man − has man been separated from non-man, and the animal from the human, than it is to take positions on the great issues, on so called human rights and values." (2004: 16).

18. The Open is structured in a similar fashion to both Homo Sacer and Remnants of Auschwitz, all three works using short fragments of writing to progressively enlighten, and entangle, a central area of focus. This approach can be disarming to the reader, since it is difficult to find the sustained forms of argumentation that are usually found in academic writing. That said, there is some aesthetic pleasure in the approach Agamben adopts, particularly in the subtle way in which the reader is brought into familiarity with the subject matter through a series theoretical glances that sweep across heterogenous centuries and traditions. Agamben’s strategy has drawbacks, which I shall discuss below, but it also has an ability to effuse the boundaries of traditional thinking.

19. Less satisfying, and even somewhat disconcerting, is Agamben’s use of the term ‘man’ in the title of the book and throughout the text, rather than "human," "person" or another designation that is more gender inclusive. For many readers this will undoubtably sound warning bells and generate questions about the gender of the subject towards which The Open is addressed. It is true that because Agamben treats the ‘human’ as distinct from the ‘man’ – as it is ‘man’ who contains the division between human and animal – there is some cause for the use of an intransient term that can appropriately distance itself from the inherent instability and divisions of the ‘human.’ It may also be true that something may be lost in the translation from the Italian text. I nevertheless could not be comforted by these factors: I discuss these issues in further detail below.

20. Agamben begins The Open with an inquiry into the separation between human and animal as posited within scripture on the divine. He turns to an image from a Hebrew Bible from the thirteenth century that depicts "the messianic banquet of the righteous on the last day" (Agamben, 2004: 1). The image is compelling, since the righteous are depicted "not with human faces, but with unmistakably animal heads" (Agamben, 2004: 2). For Agamben this is representative of a connection between the human and the animal within the auspice of the divine. This theme – that the human will eventually be "reconciled with his animal nature" – is pursued in a reading of a series of exchanges between Georges Battaille and Alexandre Kojève around the theorised ‘end of history,’ and the subsequent end of ‘man.’ In the late 1930s, Kojève’s understanding of the ‘end of history’ – a concept that finds its origins in the Hegelian link between time and negativity (Hegel, 1977: 486-8) – pointed to a meeting of the human and animal that mirrors the scene depicted by Agamben in the Messianic banquet. Battaile objects to this, pointing to a distinct form of humanity which will survive even ‘the end of history.’ perhaps as a result of Battaile’s intervention, Kojève adjusts this position in his later writings pointing to ‘snobbery’ as a distinctive form of being that is used by humanity to transcend its human nature. What is crucial for Agamben in this admittedly curious exchange, is that it reveals an instability in the category of human itself:

in Kojève’s reading of Hegel, man is not a biologically defined species, nor is he substance given once and for all; he is, rather, a field of dialectical tensions always already cut open by internal caesurae that every time separate – at least virtually – "anthropophorous" animality and the humanity which takes bodily form in it.

21. As I have discussed, Patterson also picks up on this same instability that finds humanity confronting the animal within it. But for Agamben this is more fundamental than the ‘dehumanisation’ that occurs when a human is vilified as an animal. For Agamben the animal is found within the very core of humanity, and thus, the human subject is only achieved through the continual rearticulation of a space beyond animal.

22. As discussed above, this movement is contained within the Aristotelean conception of "man" as "a political animal," a statement that propels us simultaneously both towards the grounding of the human in the animal, and towards the form of transcendence that gives definition to ‘humanity’ itself. Accordingly, Agamben draws the reader’s attention to the Aristotle’s conception of the soul, which divides the essence of all living beings into components parts, and identifies "nutritive life" as the core component fundamental to all organic life, human, animal or plant (Agamben, 2004: 14; see also Aristotle, 1952a: 416b ). These divisions run through humanity, and as Agamben infers with his discussion of the Musselmann, are encountered wherever life itself is accounted for, evaluated, decided upon. Perceptively, Agamben precisely accounts for the predicament that finds the human continually bleeding into the animal: "it is possible to oppose man to other living things, and at the same time to organize the complex – and not always edifying – economy of relations between men and animals, only because something like an animal life has been separated within man, only because his distance and proximity to the animal have been measured and recognized first of all in the closest and most intimate place" (Agamben, 2004: 16).

23. We can track humanity’s internal ‘caesura’ through developments in the biological and evolutionary sciences, successive attempts to locate the exact distinction between the human and the animal. For example Agamben turns to Carolus Linneaus who, writing in the 1700s, can only chart marginal differences between the human and the ape and consequently assigns to human the genus ‘primate,’ a category shared with other animals. Agamben pertinently observes that even the categorisation sapiens (defined as "wise" or "possessing knowledge") that distinguishes the human from the ‘mere’ ape is a "taxonomic anomaly, which assigns not a given, but rather an imperative as a specific difference" (2004: 25). Agamben finds resonances in the wolf-children (or ‘enfants sauvages’) that would come to captivate popular sciences in this period, as well as in the ‘missing link,’ both figures that mark the immutable intersection of human and animal. Even language, which is frequently sited as that distinctly ‘human’ capacity that distinguishes Homo sapiens from other animals, proves fragile, since as Agamben points out it is "a historical production which, as such, be assigned neither to man nor to animal" (2004: 36).

24. Here Agamben establishes what must be considered as a nodal allusion within his political work, which not only provides further depth to our understanding of the enigmatic figure bare life, but also provides a point of connection that leads from the soul of the animal to the heart of the (human) camp. Where in the past there was a movement in which the animal was humanised – in the figure of the "man-ape, the enfant sauvage…and above all the slave, the barbarian, and the barbarian" – the modern ‘anthropological machine’ has sought to isolate the in-human from amidst the human: "the Jew, that is the non-man produced within the man, or the néomort and the overcomatose person, that is, the animal separated within the human body itself" (Agamben, 2004: 37). Both formations represent the same thing, and both signal the bare life, since they possess within them the sphere of indistinction that, as suggested above ,characterise the homo sacer that Agamben argues is the subject of politics. This intersection infers biopolitics, in so far as it seeks the to locate the essential animality within the human subject: "the decisive political conflict, which governs every other conflict, is that between the animality and the humanity of man. That is to say, in its origin Western politics is also biopolitics"(Agamben, 2004: 80).

25. Having argued for a fundamental connection between the animal and the human, within politics, science and the divine, Agamben turns attention to another dimension of the relation, that in turn reveals a distinction between the being in the world of the animal and that of the human. Zoologist Jakob von Uexküll, describes an intimate relation between the animal and its environment or Umwelt, defined as the bare elements constituting the living sphere of any organism. Agamben draws our attention to Uexküll’s observations on the life of the tick, which the zoologist uses as an exemplary case to demonstrate that the animal maintains a relationship to only a few specific elements of the environment (for example, the heat produced by the body of the mammal, the smell produced by butyric acid etc). The tick lives out a short life cycle that comprises almost wholly an intimate relationship with these simple elements: "The tick is this relationship; she lives only in it and for it" (Agamben, 2004: 47).

26. Agamben uses this environmental grounding of being to illustrate, via Martin Heidegger, the way in which animal life and humanity are constituted in their communion with the ‘concealedness’ or ‘non-concealedness’ of the world. Heidegger argues that an animal maintains a relationship of ‘captivation’ with its discrete environmental elements or ‘disinhibitors’. In this relationship of captivation, the animal cannot apprehend or reveal being – this potentiality is reserved in Heidegger’s thought for the distinctly human Dasein – instead the animal is caught in a relation of both being openly drawn to elements in the world, yet simultaneously not exposed to the openness of being itself. In Agamben’s words, "the ontological status of the animal environment…is offen (open) but not offenbar (disconcealed; lit., openable)" (2004: 55). Human activity is distinct in its capacity to open being itself, to find itself within a world without any specific or essential relation to the environment around it. In other words, where the animal opens itself to a world in which it can never move beyond a captivation with its specific ‘dishibitors’ or environmental elements, the human finds abundant potentiality in its own being that forces the opposite: a closure of being to this very potentiality for freedom.

27. There is an intersection between the relation of the human to its environment and the relation of the animal to its own environment in boredom. According to Heidegger, boredom reveals a human capacity for the depthless captivation with one’s environment that is ascribed to the animal, through a detached, non-engaged connection to the world around us. Agamben’s citation from Heidegger illustrates this well (2004: 63-4). A long wait for a train may lead us to check our watch, flip vacantly thorough magazines, draw figures in the sand and so on. We are not particularly engaged with these activities, in fact they reveal a disconnection with our environment, a refusal to become entangled. In these moments, while the human Dasein approaches the ‘open to a nondisconcealed’ that characterises the Heideggarian animal, Dasein also radically differentiates itself from animal being at this point, precisely because it is revealed in its own capacity to unhinge itself from its environment through the experience of boredom. To quote Agamben, "Dasein is simply an animal that has learned to become bored; it has awakened from its captivation to its own captivation" (2004: 70).

28. These sections of The Open are particularly challenging to the reader. But they are useful because although they offer some way to found a ‘real’ distinction between the human and the animal, and, almost simultaneously, close this same gap finding the human once again in close proximity with the animal. For if boredom only reveals a human ability decaptivate itself with its world, then the foundations of humanity must contain a continual oscillation between animal captivation, and a human capacity for distraction. Indeed Agamben asks, "in what sense does Heidegger’s attempt to grasp the "existing essence of man" escape the metaphysical primacy of animalitas?" (2004: 73). The failure to find any clear points of distinction between human and animal end in indistinction. Thus, The Open eventually poses the same fundamental issue that is raised in Homo Sacer, namely, the extent to which biopolitics – reconfigured by Agamben as the ‘conflict between animality and humanity’ – has delimited, and ultimately defined, the horizon of human politics. This is where the Kojèvian / Hegelian ‘end of history’ becomes pertinent to the analysis: Agamben speculates whether humanity’s quest to find the animal within the human subject ("genome, global economy, and humanitarian ideology are the three united faces of this process") can be considered humanity’s last task (2004: 77). According to Agamben this would be an alarming end for humanity:

To be sure, such a humanity, from Heidegger’s perspective, no longer has the form of keeping itself open to the undisconcealed of the animal, but seeks rather to open and secure the not-open in every domain, and thus closes itself to its own openness, forgets its humanitas, and makes being its specific disinhibitor. The total humanization of the animal coincides with a total animalisation of man.

29. If Agamben were to end his account here, I would be concerned that his intention in The Open is simply to restore ‘dignity’ to humanity: to fortify the gap between the human and animal, and live in eternal hope that the animal and the human will never again meet. This would align Agamben’s thinking in some respects with humanistic accounts ("Stop treating humans like animals") without seeking a more radical way to overturn the human / animal ‘machine.’ It is thankful therefore that Agamben considers another alternative, although it must be said that on first reading the explication that concludes The Open appears to pursue a somewhat ‘mystical’ trajectory. Drawing inspiration from two paintings by Titian, Agamben conjectures the existence of a space beyond both the figure of the human and the animal, in which neither openness or concealedness are constitutive of being. Within this state being is not driven towards the revelation of being, there is only a "lost mystery" and a suspension of the desire to look further behind the facade of just being (2004: 87). This same movement allows the human to reconfigure its relationship with the animal within itself. As Agamben observes, if humanity defines itself by its capacity to disconnect itself from its animal connection to its disinhibitors, then it should also possess the capacity to allow the animal to exist outside of the sphere of being, to ‘let the animal be’ (Agamben, 2004: 91). To allow the animal to exist outside of being is precisely to remove it from the inquiry of human subjectivity, and thus call an end to the continued determination of life that characterises the conflict between human and animal.

30. Here we find a pronounced echo from Agamben’s earlier work The Coming Community, where Agamben formulates the mysterious ‘whatever being’ (Agamben, 1993), a figure that has in itself no particular essence, and therefore is both within and without the grasp of ontological investigation. A clear sense of the meaning of ‘whatever being’ is found in love, where according to Agamben, the "lover wants the loved one with all its predicates, its being such as it is"(1993: 2). It is not incidental therefore that Agamben calls on Titian’s lovers in The Open to present an image of being untrammelled by the contest between human and animal. In this respect The Open represents a return for Agamben to themes of his earlier work, offering a more developed account of how we might move forward from the constitution of life that characterises biopolitics. If we take seriously Agamben’s claim that ‘western politics was a biopolitics from the beginning,’ then any imagining of a being beyond biopolitics would be abstract in its pure speculation. But I nevertheless feel that Agamben’s inclination towards this third figure seems like a credible way out of the human / animal machine, if only perhaps because of its resonance with forms of transcendence / enlightenment that are central to Eastern philosophies.

31. The Open is many respects a mysterious offering: it raises many issues, and accordingly there are a host of questions that we may want to direct towards Agamben. As I have alluded above, Agamben’s style of argumentation is not unproblematic, and I think it is fair to say that the theoretical jumps he makes between traditions and philosophies lead occasionally to omissions. To cite one example, there are some connections he could have explored in relation to Actor Network Theorists, particularly the contributions of Donna Harraway and Bruno Latour. Both these theorists have offered substantive challenges to the meaning of the human (eg. Harraway, 1991, Latour, 1999 & Latour, 1993) and importantly, have considered the role of non-humans as both constitutive of humanity, and a source of active ‘world making’ in their own right. These perspectives challenge traditional ontological accounts of subjectivity, and could offer Agamben some way out of the politico-philosophical quandary that he finds life within at the turn of the twentieth century.

32. As discussed above, another concern that we may raise with The Open is the role of woman within the text. Agamben differentiates between the two terms ‘man’ and ‘human,’ indicating an intended difference, where the term ‘man’ constitutes the ground for the contestation between the human and the animal. But this distinction is not clearly spelled out in Agamben’s analysis, and I believe leads to a subtle instability around the significance of gender within the framework he proposes. In this context, I feel we would be correct to ask whether Agamben intends a more fundamental alignment between woman and animality (or ‘nature’) that is counterposed to ‘man.’ Certainly, I could not help but to ruminate on this issue when reading a citation from Walter Benjamin in the third last chapter of The Open, which describes sexual relations with a woman as what frees ‘man’ from his bond to nature: "the woman literally detaches him from Mother Earth – a midwife who cuts that umbilical cord which the mystery of nature has woven" (Benjamin in Agamben, 2004: 84). The issue is pertinent because of the theoretical literature that finds symbolic links between animality and femininity, either through an association of woman with nature, the body and the passions (eg Irigaray, 1994: 133-46, Lloyd, 1991) or a direct connection between violence against women and violence against animals (eg Adams, 1991). If woman holds a distinct position in the economy of relations between human and animal, then what are the specific effects of this relation on her being? And does she have an existence beyond this relation, or is she eternally bound to it?

33. For those more explicitly concerned with the treatment of animals, a failure to comment on the violence exercised by humans towards animals must also count as a significant omission in Agamben’s analysis. If one considers this aspect of the human / animal divide, and I believe a reading of Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka confirms this, it is apparent that the spiritual home of biopolitics is not the concentration camp but the slaughterhouse. It is within this facility that life is measured, contained and extinguished with a monstrous potentiality that defies belief; where the slaughter of billions occurs within spheres of exception that are incorporated within the very heart of the civil space. That Agamben does not consider this perspective on the animal / human machine is disappointing, as it is here that the most troubling questions must be asked about the human capacity for the management of life, and the mammoth potential for a seeming infinity of daily torments, and mass exterminations to occur.

34. If it is true that humanity (or ‘Man’) contains within it a fundamental contest between human and animal, then what of the constitution of animals? Do pigs, cows and chickens contain within them their own strain of humanitas? Or to put the question another way, can we be sure that the animal does not see the open? I admit that the latter question plunges humanity into a position of responsibility that is almost beyond comprehension. But I would contend that this trajectory of thought offers two radical hopes for the development of politics. The first is an end to biopolitics, since if bio-power is in reality the divide between human and animal, then the removal of the cause for distinction would heal the caesura for good. The second hope is for the formal introduction of animal to the political sphere. This is poses unfathomable challenges to every meaning of politics, yet renders imaginable a polis that could truly embrace life, without reference to its specific particularities, and by extension, without knowledge of its respective humanity or animality.


Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel is completing a doctorate at the University of Western Sydney. His essay, "Cows and Sovereignty" was published in Vol. 1 No. 2 of Borderlands. Email:


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© borderlands ejournal 2004


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