by Kari Weil

    Image source © Darrell Perry, 2004

    The interdisciplinary field of animal studies has grown in tandem with, but often in opposition to, popular and technophilic conceptions of posthumanism and the posthuman. The idea that ‘the human’ as we know it might be made increasingly obsolete by artificial intelligence has been around since the 1970s, when the literary critic Ihan Hassan announced the “advent of a ‘posthumanist culture’” as a result of the new “conjunctions of imagination and science, of myth and technology”.[1]  Artificial intelligence challenges Enlightenment views of the human as the sole proprietor of consciousness and agency. It also inspires dreams of uploading one’s brain into a computer chip, so that the thinking self might function on into posterity. If some found this imagined erasure of embodiment enticing, however, others saw this dream as another means of claiming human transcendence and exceptionalism. Artificial intelligence suggested, moreover, that we are not, nor have ever been our bodies, a claim that feminists in particular have taken issue with.[2]

    Concerns over the newly porous boundaries between human and machine were thus accompanied by new considerations and critiques of what had been regarded as the mind/body dichotomy and relatedly, of what had been accepted as defined borders between human and animal. At least as far back as Aristotle, the human was associated with an agentive mind, which allowed him (in this case a deliberately exclusive pronoun) to act with free will. Other animals, and to a lesser extent women and certain races of man, were regarded as tied to their bodies and so, less free. This mind/body, human/animal opposition found its culminating articulation in René Descartes’ notion of the animal-machine. This was not the machine of artificial intelligence, but rather the unthinking machine that reacts rather than acts and does so automatically, or instinctively and without consciousness. Descartes would be variously contested through the Enlightenment, but it was Charles Darwin who would ultimately put an end to Descartes’ animal-machine and, along with it, to any absolute boundary between humans and non-human animals. Freud thus named Darwin as the second greatest affront to human narcissism after Copernicus, one that challenged our anthropocentric view of the world. By claiming that we are animals, Darwin changed the tide of research from proving our human exceptionalism and difference from animals, to understanding our shared evolutionary traits, including intelligence and moral behaviour.

    Posthumanism’s need to address our increasing dependence on technology was thus joined by the need to address our dependence on other-than-human worlds for our very existence. Whereas Donna Haraway spurred a new feminist inquiry into the posthuman with her 1984 “Cyborg Manifesto”, in 2003 she published her Companion Species Manifesto. Here Haraway turned her attention from the techno-bodies we are to the dogs and other animals who help us become who we are.[3] Dogs are not “surrogates for theory”, Haraway writes. They “are not here just to think with”, as Claude Levi-Strauss suggested. “They are here to live with”.[4]

    But Haraway’s thinking with dogs and other species also brought her to admit her dissatisfaction with the growing image of posthumanism as, in her words, “the next teleological evolutionary stage in some kind of transhumanist techno-enhancement”. She adds: “the reason I go to companion species is to get away from posthumanism”.[5] Whereas Freud saw his own discovery of the unconscious as constituting a third wound to human narcissism (after Copernicus and Darwin), for Haraway, consideration of species, leads us rightly to a fourth wound.  This is the wound effected by our “constitutive relationalities” with the non-human world—living and non-living.[6] Humans are not and have never been autonomous, either as a species or as individuals. Haraway reminds us that rethinking the terms does not mean that we move beyond their material and political effects. Rather than envisioning a dream beyond such taxonomies, we should address the ways we (whoever we are) continue to affect and be affected by others we are and become with.

    “Post” as a prefix may indeed have become something of a fad, giving us postgender, posthumanism, postmodernism, and, more recently postanimality—as if we have moved beyond these terms. We would do well to think of “post” as “following”, as in the punning title of Derrida’s influential essay, “l’Animal que donc je suis”.  Translated as “the animal that therefore I am”, and/or “that I follow”, the title contests Descartes’ assertion that thinking is what defines and distinguishes humans, as it also insists on our evolutionary descent from and connection to other animals. Being after the animal, also evokes our ongoing struggle to know what it means to be animal. We are after that knowledge in the sense of searching for it. “Animal” in particular (and by relation the concept of the human) comes under deconstructive scrutiny in that text, as Derrida exclaims, “Animal, what a word! […] Men would be first and foremost those living creatures who have given themselves the word that enables them to speak of the animal with a single voice and to designate it as the single being that remains without a response, without a word with which to respond”.[7] Contesting the singular of the word “animal” that hides the many differences between species and has been used to claim, by opposition, the human’s exceptional status and capacity for thinking or language, Derrida will invent the word, “animot”, which sounds like the French plural of animals (animaux), even as that plural is hidden within the singular “word” (or “mot”).

    Derrida’s deconstruction of the human/animal opposition ultimately directs us to the violence that words such as “animal” promotes and justifies. Animal studies thus brings to light the need for a new, posthumanist ethics, one that does not rely on taxonomical distinctions or on normative hierarchies of reason and language to determine who has moral status, or who is a who, rather than a what. The point is not to simply extend our concerns to those who have the capacity to think or act like us, but rather to find ways of addressing and acknowledging those whose ways of being in the world, including their ways of thinking, communicating and feeling are foreign to us.  Paraphrasing Jeremy Bentham’s claim that the question to determine who should have rights is not can they reason, or can they talk, but can they suffer, the question for ethics should not be can animals reason or talk or suffer, but, rather, can we really know what animals can and can’t do, and how should we proceed when we have no trusted access to animal interiority. [8] We are, indeed, after animals.

    — Wesleyan University, January 2017

    Keywords: animal, machine, animot, thinking, reaction, response, Derrida, Haraway, ethics


    [1] Ihab Hassan, “Prometheus as Performer: Toward a Posthumanist Culture?” The Georgia Review 31.4 (Winter 1977), pp. 835-6.

    [2] See, for instance, Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

    [3] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-181. See also Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).

    [4] Haraway, Companion Species Manifesto, p. 5. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 204-208.

    [5] Nicholas Gane, “When We Have Never Been Human What is to be Done? Interview with Donna Haraway”, Theory, Culture & Society 23 (7–8) , p. 140.

    [6] Ibid., p. 141.

    [7] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (New York: Fordham UP, 2008), p. 32. On posthumanism’s debt to deconstruction see Ivan Callus and Stefan Herbrechter, “Introduction: Posthumanist subjectivities, or, coming after the subject…” Subjectivity, 5.3 (September 2012), pp 241–264.

    [8] Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Chap. XVII note 122. (From the Library of Economics and Liberty: Retrieved January 14, 2018.)



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    Clarke, Bruce and Manuela Rossini, The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

    Nash, Richard and Ron Broglio, eds., “Introduction, Thinking with Animals”, Configurations 14, 2 (Winter, 2006).

    Regan, Tom and Peter Singer, eds. “Animals in the History of Western Thought”, in Animal Rights and Human Obligations. (New York: Prentice Hall, 1989).

    Senior, Matthew, David L. Clarke, and Carla Freccero, eds., Yale French Studies 127: Animots: Postanimality in French Thought (Yale University Press, 2015).

    Weil, Kari, Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

    Wolfe, Cary, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).