The awareness we each have of being a living body, being ‘alive to the world,’ carries with it exposure to the bodily sense of vulnerability to death, sheer animal vulnerability, the vulnerability we share with them. This vulnerability is capable of panicking us. To be able to acknowledge it as shared with other animals, in the presence of what we do to them, is capable not only of panicking one but also of isolating one, as Elizabeth Costello is isolated. Is there any difficulty in seeing why we should not prefer to return to moral debate, in which the livingness and death of animals enter as facts that we treat as relevant in this or that way, not as presences that may unseat our reason?
Cora Diamond, “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” 74.
With his left hand he pushes a sheet of paper across to her. She lets go of the suitcase and picks up the paper. It is blank.
‘Before I can pass through I must make a statement,’ she repeats. ‘A statement of what?’
‘Belief. What you believe.’
‘Belief. Is that all? Not a statement of faith? What if I do not believe? What if I am not a believer?’
The man shrugs. For the first time he looks directly at her. ‘We all believe. We are not cattle. For each of us there is something we believe. Write it down, what you believe. Put it in the statement.’
J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, 233.
I’ve been thinking about pets lately. My mother’s German shepherd, Romy, had nine puppies a few weeks back and my mother has been gently nudging me to adopt one. I grew up with dogs and I adore them. And my mother also loves dogs. I suppose it’s hard for her to imagine that I wouldn’t be happier if I had one in my life. Truthfully, I worry she’s right. When I imagine a dog in my life, I sometimes get the impulsive, imprudent urge to say, yes, give me one! What a seductive fantasy I concoct for myself. It would be a big dog—I prefer big dogs—so a German shepherd works nicely in this fantasy. I see myself walking my big proud dog around Duke’s campus, playing ball with it, scratching its ears, taking it on runs, feeding it snacks, and snuggling with it on the sofa. More than anything, I see myself seeing it being its doggy self, bending my sometimes melancholy ways towards its soulful and earnest enthusiasm.
Dogs are, above all else, enthusiasts.
But it would all be very impractical. I’m sensitive to noise when I write and I spend an unreasonable amount of time writing. I don’t have a yard. I’m modestly allergic to canine dander. Sun Bear likes dogs too, but he also has allergies and we both travel too much. Perhaps my worry is that whatever happiness the dog would bring me would be offset, not just by the headaches and expenses of caring for it, but also by my guilt about not being able to give it the fullness of doggy life it deserves—not enough scritches, ball throws, and walks. Perhaps I would let it down and be a bad pet owner. Maybe it would make me miserable.
And while that’s all true, it is also a deflection: a way to cage my feelings and, so caged, to settle me. The danger of weighing “costs and benefits” as moral analysis is that the practiced forget that they are only ever weighing their own thumb on the scale.
This is what I feel about this possible dog: I do not want to watch it die.
It was National Pet Day. In recognition, unsuccessful 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate and current New York City mayoral candidate, Andrew Yang tweeted something that I found rather odd.
I wasn’t the only one who found it odd! In fact, the tweet was universally panned as out of touch and creepy. It was, as the kids say, “ratioed.”
But why? As Yang’s defenders noted, his decision to give the dog away was prompted by his son’s allergies and it’s hard to argue against this course of action. Should he have instead given away the son? Made the son suffer the dog’s presence indifferent to hacking, wheezing, rashes, and red eyes? Perhaps we could quibble about the contours and seriousness of this “allergy”—how bad were the allergic reactions really? an unsympathetic observer might wonder—but few would deny that, if the allergy were serious, Yang had a right and responsibility to protect his son over and against Grizzly. When being a parent is set against being a pet owner, most people would argue that being a parent is more binding and, thus, the priorities of parenthood must prevail. That’s a shame for Grizzly, but it is what parental responsibility demands. Right?
We live in a culture in which some class of people will have their first exposure to death when a family pet dies.
The first dog I can remember clearly was a German shepherd named Connie. She was large and furry, so very much larger than me. She died, but I don’t remember that part.
Then we got a dog named Parker, a roguish little fellow who was a beagle and German shepherd mix. He had a beagle body with German shepherd markings. His personality was like if Andy Capp were a literal dog rather than a figurative dog. Parker caroused the neighborhood, baying at the moon, fighting possums, and turning over trashcans. He was a practiced escape artist; no fence could hold him. Parker lived until I was in college, but then he also died. My parents kept the news from me until I got home from school, fearing word of Parker’s passing would disrupt my studies.
Long before he died, Parker’s inadequacies as a guard dog resulted in our family adopting a second dog. I was in second grade at the time. A man broke into our house one night and held my parents at knife point before stabbing my father in the arm and fleeing into the night. Parker had cowered in the corner during the whole ordeal, but when the police arrived he finally exploded in a rage of furious barks. I imagine Parker was also traumatized by the incident, but my mother never forgave him. More practically, it revealed the need for a much fiercer creature, an enormous purebred German shepherd named Abby.
Abby had an enormous, fat, furry belly which made for an excellent pillow. Her favorite place to sleep in the house was at the bottom of the basement stairs, where she could press her belly against the tiles that stayed unusually cold even in the hot summer. Abby had a thunderous and terrible bark. To my knowledge, she never had the opportunity to direct it at knife-wielding burglars. She did, however, use it to terrorize my friends and other dogs. Once my parents tried to breed Abby with another German shepherd named Griff. Griff belonged to famous Hoosier rocker, John Cougar Mellencamp, who employed my Aunt Peg as a nanny at the time. We hauled Abby down to the Mellencamp compound on Lake Monroe and, with John Cougar’s approval, put her in a pen with Griff. Abby pinned poor Griff to the floor of his pen and barked ferociously. The courtship concluded without puppies, but it seemed to infuriate John Cougar.
Abby’s death was terrible. She was such a large dog—almost as large as me—and, like many German shepherds, she suffered from excruciating hip dysplasia. Near the end, she couldn’t walk and she would drag herself around the house, sweeping her ruined hindquarters across the oak floors like a massive duster. One afternoon, I came home from school and found that Abby had managed to smash down the plastic gate that we affixed to top of the basement stairs. She was trying to get to her favorite sleeping spot, and she tumbled all the way to the bottom, landing on those cold tiles. How many times she had tried to climb back up the stairs, I don’t know, but when she heard me enter the house, she tried again. Her legs couldn’t bear her or, perhaps she couldn’t bear the pain of her legs. I heard her tumble, I heard the weight of her body strike the steps, I heard the desperate scraping of her claws on the wooden slats as she faltered, and I heard the yelps, dog shrieks, and then a long sustained whimper.
I still don’t know why I didn’t wait for help—I was the only person there—but for some reason I believed I had to to get Abby out of that basement. I tried to pick her up, tried to raise her hindquarters and lift her. It must have been painful and scary for her, because she struggled and cried. And there we were, at the bottom of the basement stairs, locked in a terrible embrace, and we faltered again and again together, like the cruelest Abbot and Costello routine you could imagine. We were such a wretched ball of pain and fur and whimpering and tears and claws all mixed in an impossible mess.
I don’t know how we managed to get up those stairs, but we did. My parents had her put to sleep not too long after that.
What turns our stomachs in Andrew Yang’s tweet is not, I would wager, a belief that, in a similar situation, we would make a different decision. To the contrary, it turns our stomachs precisely because we know we would make the same decision, that it is, in a very basic sense, the right decision, and we are shamed by this. I do not mean that Yang is a mirror of our own moral weakness and we see in him our own flawed calculus and we want to smash the mirror. The problem is not Yang’s decision; we validate this exercise of power as necessary and correct. It is the pitiless way that the dog is made to speak after its abandonment. What does it say? “I’m for Yang. Because he abandoned me.”
Yang dramatizes the pitiless of power, and it shames us. But he is not ashamed.
Ted Chiang’s “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” ponders what it would take for your pet to convince you to let it become your child. The story follows a pair of software programmers—Derek and Ana—who work for a company that designs and sells “digients,” virtual artificial intelligences with the ability to learn and become more complex over time. The digients live in a vast virtual landscape called Data Earth that also houses other games and virtual intelligences. Customers enter Data Earth to interact with and “train” their digients with virtual food pellets that the company sells. The training is supposed to be fun, but as a form of dynamic conditioning, it’s also the way that the digients individuate and obtain personalities. The digients start out mostly playful and cute—they are simple, after all—and, in the early goings, customers do enjoy training them. They seem at once vulnerable and harmless, and training them is like tossing a ball with an enthusiastic puppy. But as the digients age they become more complex and training them less fun. Their owners become subtly estranged from them and begin to lose interest. Some customers opt to “reset” their digients to earlier innocent phases, but most people just wind up suspending their digients and moving on to other things. The company goes bust. It leaves throngs of orphaned digients without owners, most of whom are suspended and archived. But a small community of hobbyists continue to raise digients without the company’s support, using freeware food pellet programs and their own computing resources.
Ana and Derek get new jobs, but they have both developed strong emotional attachments to the digients, and those emotional attachments lead them to ethical committments. They believe that the digients are a form of life and this means that it’s an ethical priority to help them become what they are becoming. This commitment is no mere passing fancy. They rework their lives to pursue it. Ana adopts a digient named Jax and Derek adopts a pair named Marco and Polo, and they both join up with the community of hobbyists, pouring time and money into it. The other people in their lives don’t seem to understand. Ana cycles through boyfriends who can’t grasp how important the digients are to her. Derek’s wife divorces him over the same. Derek has been harboring romantic feelings for Ana, so perhaps it’s all for the better, he thinks, since now he can make his move. He plans to tell Ana over lunch along with the news that he’s getting divorced. Ana surprises him by telling him she’s moving in and getting serious with her latest boyfriend, Adam. Derek says nothing and lets his feelings simmer.
Months and then years pass. The community of digient hobbyists dwindles to a few dozen. The company that operates Data Earth gets bought by a competitor. Most of the virtual denizens of Data Earth are ported over to Real Space, the competitor’s virtual landscape, but the digient software is too old and won’t run properly. The digients need an upgrade to enter Real Space, and, without it, they just wander through the now abandoned virtual landscape of Data Earth, growing bored, sullen, and frustrated by the lack of interactions. And they’ve clearly grown too complex for such a sterile virtual space. Marco and Polo, for example, want Derek to allow them to legally incorporate so that they can make their own independent decisions. Derek says they’re not ready for that kind of responsibility yet, but he recognizes they might soon be, especially if they had the social interactions that Data Earth no longer provides. Derek, Ana, and the rest of the community hustle to put together the money to pay for the upgrade, but it’s hopeless. It’s too much. The digients, restless and angry in isolation, volunteer to take jobs to foot the bill. The community explores having companies hire the digients for various tasks, but they can’t find any companies that are interested.
But one company, Polytope, does offer Ana a job training a different group of virtual AIs, and she considers taking it. She reasons that, from the inside, she may be able to convince Polytope’s executives of the potential value of their digients and get the company to front the cost of the upgrade. But the job offer comes with a massive hitch: to ensure that Ana is committed to the virtual AIs she is training, Polytope insists that she wear a medical patch that releases oxytocin into her bloodstream whenever she is in their presence. Ana, Derek, and Adam are all horrified by the idea, but Ana seriously considers it. It might be the last chance she has to free the digients from their Data Earth purgatory. Ana and Adam argue about it, but Ana won’t let the idea die.
Before she can decide, another company entirely, Binary Desire, approaches the community with an unusual offer. Binary Desire engineers sex robots. They offer to pay to upgrade all the digients, but in exchange they want some of the digients to come to work for them. The idea is that Binary Desire will reprogram the digients with erogenous zones and new anatomically sexed avatars. They’ll be able to choose their own genders, although Binary Desire is eager to let them experiment with anatomy, gender, and pleasure in entirely novel configurations: “The avatars we would give them would be humanoid, but not human. You see, we’re not trying to duplicate the experience of sex with a human being; we want to try to provide nonhuman partners that are charming, affectionate, and genuinely enthusiastic about sex.” They’ll then assign each newly sexed digient to just one client. Sex with the client will be just like training, only with sexual pleasure rather than food pellets. And the digients will continue to develop as a result, with a sexual feedback loop linking pleasure, choice, and personality. But their personalities will be perfectly fitted to just one human—the client—and with a tactile, particular, and embodied granularity that can’t be pre-programmed or fabricated: they’ll fit each other like a glove, but only after they’ve worn each other for a time.
Binary Desire’s offer sets off a complicated debate in the community. Ana and Derek both initially feel queasy about the offer. They don’t like the digients being “used” for sex, but that objection falls apart upon examination. After all, Ana and Derek agreed to let the digients work other jobs if the digients said they wanted to do so. How would this be different? And Binary Desire also promises to include programming checks that would prevent the digients from being tortured or experiencing pain. In fact, Binary Desire is offering work to the digients that they would, by definition, experience as pleasurable, something few employers could promise. But Ana objects that if Binary Desire reprograms the digients it will effectively destroy their capacity to choose. What choice would they have about bonding with a client if they were already programmed to do so? In a sense, by choosing to work for Binary Desire, they would be choosing to damage their future capacities for choice. Ana eventually accepts that, at some point, if they are more experienced with sex and the significance of their own programming, they could be permitted to choose, even to choose to not be able to choose. But they are currently still too immature, she argues, and hardly ready. This isn’t like letting a teenager decide they want an ugly haircut, Ana says. This is like letting them choose elective neurosurgery. She urges Derek and the community to unanimously decline Binary Desire’s offer, at least for the time being, and, for the time being, everyone goes along with her.
But Derek also talks the situation over with Marco. Marco is enthusiastic about the proposal. Not only will it free Marco from the Data Earth purgatory, but Marco is genuinely curious about the possibilities for pleasure and, well, sex. Derek still hesitates. Does Marco really want Binary Desire tinkering with their pleasure map? Marco is unmoved. I didn’t choose to have a pleasure map much less the pleasure map that I have, so what’s wrong with changing my pleasure map? Shouldn’t I be allowed to change my pleasure map? wonders Marco. Derek hesitates. What if Marco edits their own pleasure map to allow them to experience pain, loss, and trauma? And what if Marco edits themselves to such an extent that they cannot be repaired? What if they destroy themselves?
Marco shrugs again. If Derek is going to let Marco choose, Derek has to let Marco choose things that Derek worries might hurt them. And it’s Derek, not Marco, who is insisting that sexual pleasure has to mean a unique vulnerability, a very human perspective and one not well suited to the bargain Marco is being offered. Derek is rightly concerned about the exposure sex can entail for humans, but Marco isn’t being asked to have that sex. Marco is being invited to invent new forms of sex heretofore unknown, new pleasures, and, perhaps, new vulnerabilities. But why is Derek better situated than Marco to evaluate sex that neither of them has ever had—indeed, that no one has ever had? Why can’t Marco explore the risks and vulnerabilities? It seems like Derek’s hangups—his anxieties about sex, intimacy, desire, and loss—are putting Marco in a vice. It’s heads Derek wins, tails Marco loses: Derek is using Marco’s sexual innocence as the justification to deny him the capacity to lose his innocence.
Derek finds this all compelling, but not quite compelling enough. He isn’t convinced Marco is ready yet. Initially, that’s the end of it. Derek tells Ana he agrees with her—the digients may be ready to choose in the future, but they’re not ready now. But Derek’s feelings for Ana creep back into the picture. Derek worries that if they decline Binary Desire’s offer, Ana will move forward with the job offer from Polytope and begin to take the oxytocin. Derek knows Ana doesn’t want to do that, but she may because of her desire to help the digients. Derek thinks that’s all wrong—at least for him. He cares more for Ana than he does even for Marco and Polo, and the idea of sacrificing her interests for theirs strikes him as horrifying. At the same time, he knows he’s in agreement on this issue with Adam, and that Ana and Adam have been fighting about it. If Ana takes the Polytope offer, he reasons, they may break up and that would finally give him his chance with Ana after all these years. He’s torn and then ashamed. He’s been carrying this torch, but maybe the truth is that he needs to let Ana go. Surely, he thinks, allowing Marco to take Binary Desire’s offer would permanently ruin those romantic possibilities—it might even be the end of their friendship. But maybe that would be better? Maybe living in the shadow of that possibility is the worst part of all and it would be better—for himself and for Ana—if he chose to close himself to that possibility?
Derek allows Marco to take the job with Binary Desire. He cannot explain why he has done what he has done to Ana, not truly, and she does not understand him, wonders if she ever really knew him at all. She does know, however, that a choice—a choice larger than Derek or Ana or anyone in particular—has been made. The digients begin to port into Real Space, as if all in a rush. After a period of arrested development, they are becoming something again, though what precisely they are becoming is unclear.
The story leaves unsaid what seems clear to me: If Derek hadn’t done it, Ana never would have. The digients resembled the orangoutangs in the rehabilitation facility described in Juno Parrenas’s beautiful book, Decolonizing Extinction: they are held in perpetual abeyance, being trained for a release that will never come. For the digients, the purported obstacle for their release is their maturity, but it is their captivity in Data Earth that also arrests their maturation and pushes it out, a horizon of possibility that can only be approached and never surpassed. And while it’s clear that Ana is earnest in her hope to port the digients into Real Space, she is also trapped in an intimate affective loop with the digients, not entirely unlike Derek’s feelings for her. She hopes for the digients to become something, but does she really and what will that mean for her? They are perpetually on the precipice of choosing to choose, and Ana pulls them back, pulls them into her embrace. There is no bright line. No decisive boundary. Why can’t we wait just a little bit longer? I choose to delay your choice to choose. Derek’s actions break the circuit and flip the switch. The gate is open. There are trash cans to flip and possums to fight. It is not the world you were promised, but that is the difficulty of the world, all the same. No one is ever mature enough for it.
[Parker and Abby.]
In “Injustice and Animals,” Cora Diamond rejects the idea that when we assert that an “injustice” has been done, we mean that someone’s rights have been violated. Diamond is drawing from Simone Weil’s writings on justice in the essay and she has some crucial departures from Weil, but it is her shared understanding of the difference between justice and rights that interests me. Justice and rights, Diamond maintains, emanate from grammatically distinct locations. The question of rights is whether one has been given a fair share, a question that calls for a series of comparisons and calculations: How much is there to go around? What was I promised? How much did you get? Why am I receiving less? These are the questions one asks about a property dispute, which is also why a right unenforced is no right at all. And so the grammar of rights always implies a contest to be adjudicated by the presence of a sovereign figure who will enforce the claim without pity or mercy. In fact, pity, mercy, and compassion are opposed to this grammar of rights. We do not beg for rights. We assert them. Compassion is what we give to those without rights.
By contrast, Diamond says that a claim of injustice emerges from compassion—from what we experience when we are exposed to the vulnerability we share with one we witness being violated. It is “unreasoned” and not open to verification or the assays of propositional logic. In this sense, an injustice is not fungible, nor can it be compared exactly, and it is radically partial, since we are exposed only ever to something particular. This also means it cannot be rebutted or justified. Instead, it stands in stolid implacable witness to the pitilessness it sees. It is autonomous of the tit-for-tat calculations of power, the subtle ruses of thought and judgement: your violation is necessary to restore me. This is not to say that injustice is irrelevant to power, or that choices will not be made. They will be made. That is the difficulty. We might think this weakens injustice—renders it a mere stumbling block—but Diamond’s perspective tells us otherwise: the claim of injustice surpasses power, stands outside it, and marks its limit. Perhaps the claim of injustice is a wrong that cannot be set right by power, and its assertion, then, humiliates power, shames it.
As for animals, Diamond says, the “welfarists” seek, at best, to stay the hand of power but they have already concluded that the power they would stay must be pitiless when it is resolute. And this gives away the game. Animals, measured against humans, will always come up short and the resolution will look this way:
[W]e might say that the welfarist view is essentially that we should ease the burdens we impose on animals without getting off their backs, without ceasing to impose burdens on them, burdens that we impose because we can, because they are in general helpless.
These same welfarists frequently speak against speciesism. That is, they believe they treat the interests of animals with the same respect that they do humans in the calculation and parceling of dues—calculations and parcelings done without partiality and, when resolved, without pity or compassion. They are resolved to be as pitiless in affirming the rights of animals as they are in affirming the rights of humans; it is inconvenient that, by virtue of their diminished capacities, animals may claim so many fewer rights.
Diamond rejects this. We perceive injustice, she says, as “the subjection of others to our will.” Here our moral commitments run to a ghastly conclusion stitched already into the human world in which we live or perhaps the cage we inhabit. “We mean to have a world in which we treat each other with respect,” Diamond concludes, “and we mean to make animals bear the burdens, the multiform burdens, of our living as we think human beings should. We mean to do this, and we have the power to do it.” Such is the fate of animals we find within our grasp as we reach our arms between the bars of our anthropic cage.
I suppose it’s as simple as this: we would do the same thing—we would have to—but we would feel fucking terrible about it, so terrible that we would want to forget that it ever happened even if we couldn’t, so fucking terrible that we would never, not in a million years, broadcast the memory of it to a crowd of millions of strangers. The decision to abandon your dog, even for good reasons, is so spiky and intimate and impossible because it sets as irreconcilable two interests—the welfare of your dog and the welfare of your child—and it makes you the agent of an injustice.
This, as Diamond wrote elsewhere, is “the difficult of reality.” The cracks in the world surpass our capacity to think them and, thus, our moral intuitions get gummed up in the calculator, the levers suddenly sticky and crooked. We are at a loss for words, haunted and wounded by what we have seen. We feel something that dwells outside of language. It refuses thought, remains unreasoned. It will not even cohere as a belief, which would solidify it as a claim—I affirm X belief is true—and open it to verification or contradiction. We are at a loss for words, haunted and wounded.
The pet-owner relation is an interesting case for Diamond’s argument. What do we feel for pets when we put them to use? And to what use do we put them? It is obvious to say that they are our intimates and that their use is defined by the emotional webs of that intimacy. We keep them with us to be felt by us. They are, whether we realize it or not, a kind of moral instrument: a way we come to feel creatures that are both “‘with’ us” and “strange and other.” They are companions in this feeling—they also feel us—but we feel, in these moments, the contours of the kinds of animals we are, “indeed of the moral life of this kind of animal.”
And, yet, the pet-owner relation is also formally despotic. By this I mean that your dog is ultimately under your power in a way that, considered from within the relation, is absolute. The dog has neither right nor ability to levy a claim against you that you must respect nor that will bind you in any way. The limits on your conduct that exist—demands that you not treat your dog in a cruel fashion, for example—are not grounded in your relation to the dog as a dog. Those limits emanate from your relation to society and, more specifically, how your conduct might disturb the social order of use. Consider that the same dog, sold by its owner to a laboratory and converted from intimate to experimental object, may endure conduct that, though identical in quality, is classed in the former context as cruel and in the latter context as accepted, indeed exhorted. This is because what constitutes cruelty, as a matter of law, is not intrinsic to the dog, but attends instead to how society allows and disallows use.
Is this in tension with recent work on the history of animal cruelty laws? Clare Priest, for example, contends that late nineteenth century animal cruelty statutes sought to address the suffering of animals and, thus, represented a break from the prior regime which regulated only cruel conduct that was disruptive to public order. But it seems to me that these laws, and their successive legal regimes, directed legal recognition of suffering in ways that actually reinforced the underlying economy of use, which is precisely why animal suffering alone is not the arbiter of cruelty in the law. Rather, cruelty is defined relative to human purpose, and specifically it is understood as conduct that causes suffering that is gratuitous to the appropriate use of an animal. The dog must not be made to suffer not because it is a dog, but, instead, because it is the kind of animal whose use affective use is troubled by the appearance of gratuitous suffering. I would suggest here, specifically, that the dog’s affective use—as a companion of feeling and moral instrument—requires a fantasy of a kind of innocence of power that is undone by certain forms of intense contact. To make use of these creaturely feelings we must not be reminded of “the subjection” of the dog “to our will.” But, in all of this, we will recognize Diamond’s “welfarist,” the one who will defend animals so long as this defense does not mean he must forfeit his ultimate structural superordination, a superordination that makes the human the judge of which animals may be eaten and which may be kept as pets, which are to be the subject of appetites and which the subject of sympathies.
Such assertions of sympathy, and even feelings of the same, may occlude but cannot erase the formal nature of the despotic relation. I do not mean to cast doubt on the expressions of love that pet owner’s feel for their pets, which I take as earnest and accurate to the extent that words can, indeed, capture such sentiments. And, of course, that we wield despotic power over our pets does not mean that they respond as we desire. It may even be that the formal character of the pet-owner relation is accompanied by contradictory and confounding emotions that lay us low and reverse the formal power dynamics. (I am reminded of a friend who asserted that she was a sub in a BDSM relationship with her cat.) But I do mean to say there is a double-game at play here: the pet-owner relation is one that magnetizes some kinds of animals as subjects of moral concern, making us sensitive to their injustices, but in a way that reinforces rather than undoes the underlying structural superordination.
Indeed, the affective contours of this moral concern imply the very superordination we imagine they resist. Consider aesthetic theorist Sianne Ngai’s analysis of the cute in Our Aesthetic Categories. Pets often evince all the formal characteristics Ngai identifies in the cute: “smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy.” They are “soft, round, and deeply associated with the infantile and the feminine.” Pets’ edges are blurred—literally fuzzy—and disclose a “softness that invites physical touching— or, to use a more provocative verb, fondling.” Finally, note the affects Ngai catalogues attending to these formal properties: the “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency” we recognize in animals whose food, water, and shelter we control.
This sense of “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency” may provoke in the pet owner a specific ambivalence, what Ngai describes as “ugly or aggressive feelings, as well as the expected tender or maternal ones.” “For in its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability,” Ngai continues, “the cute object is as often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle.” The cute pet is the pet whose vulnerability—its capacity to be formed and “deformed” by the owner—discloses an electric reminder of the owner’s ability to abuse that vulnerability, to master the pet, to choose not to abuse it, all of which we could class as an imminent experiential confrontation with the essential despotism of the pet-owner relation. Petting is the perfect expression of this ambivalence. It is literally a tactile de-forming and re-forming of the pet’s edges that, in its intensity, location, motion, and forcefulness, might seamlessly veer into stroking, molesting, abrading—the range of touches that, at once or together, could be sensual, nurturing, erotic, narcotic, punitive, malicious, vengeful, nervous, compulsive, or empty.
I wonder what Abby felt of my terrible embrace at the bottom of those stairs. Abby lingered in pain for too long and suffered. She suffered because of her hip dysplasia, a product of generations of human-directed overbreeding. But she also suffered because of our attachment to life—our as both general to you and me, dear readers, and our as specific to my family—as we experience that attachment through our pets, as we experience how we feel with them as an extension of what it is to live as the kinds of animals we are. And, yet, we killed Abby. Our exposure to the injustice of Abby’s suffering prompted a decision that no one else could make and that Abby herself did not make. We made it. This is the sense in which the despotic relation is imminent and inescapable, for even when you love your pet, and desire to do only what is best for your pet, you are superordinated, no matter what you may choose.
[My grandmother with an unknown dog.]
One epigraph comes to us from another of Diamond’s essays, “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” It was published in a short volume responding to the J. M. Coetzee novella, “The Lives of Animals” (1999), which, in turn, was an advanced excerpt of Coetzee’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello that Coetzee had delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University in 1997. The “Lives of Animals” is perhaps more famous than the larger novel, in part, because it is sometimes interpreted as a thinly fictionalized exegesis of Coetzee’s own feelings about how humans should (and should not) treat animals. In the novella, the titular character, a famous novelist, is invited to give a series of lectures at a college. Rather than speaking on the subject of her writings, she delivers lectures about human crimes against animals. The novella concerns both the argument she makes and the way that her arguments seem to alienate her from her audience and hosts. “The Lives of Animals” has, as a result, been the subject of lively debate and interpretation.
Diamond sees in Costello a character who is haunted and wounded by “the horror of what we do, and the horror of our blotting it out of consciousness.” But Diamond says we should not confuse this with Coetzee’s view, since the story tacks against that as well, establishing that Costello can only see “part of the difficulty . . . so far as we keep one sort of difficulty in view we seem blocked from seeing another.” But the point here is the way in which the focus is, itself, the exercise of thought as it relates to power, what Diamond says is ultimately a process of deflection. And this is the point of the story for Diamond—not a discourse on the rights implicit in the lives of other animals, but the difficulty of living as the animals that we are and “indeed of the moral life of this kind of animal.”
For now, however, I am more interested in the rest of the novel and, in particular, how it ends with Costello’s confrontation with death. The final chapter, which gives us our second epigraph, finds Elizabeth Costello long after the events of “The Lives of Animals,” presumably at the very end of her life, alighting a bus in some town square and coming to stand, suitcase in hand, before a barred gate. She asks to be admitted, to pass on to what is next. The guard refuses to admit her. She must, he says, first make a statement of belief. “We all believe,” he says, “We are not cattle.” Costello refuses. She is a writer. Writers cannot afford to have beliefs, she says, or at least no more than “provisional” beliefs. She writes a statement to this effect, begging that she be exempted from the statement of belief. The guard refuses her, but she is given a hearing before a panel of judges. Here she submits a statement that refuses to offer belief, explaining that, as a writer, she is a “secretary of the invisible.” The judges summon the specter of terrible crimes. Has she no beliefs about such things, no conviction or judgment? Costello refuses. She will dictate only, and she is ready to answer the summons of victims and murders alike. “Do you think the guilty do not suffer too?” she tells the court, “Do you think they do not call out from their flames? Do not forget me! – that is what they cry. What kind of conscience is it that will disregard a cry of such moral agony.”
The judges dismiss her without a verdict and she goes to a dormitory where she works to revise her statement. A woman there tells her that the judges “will be satisfied with passion” if she cannot muster belief, and although she is agitated by the advice, she takes it to heart and makes an effort. When she is summoned again to the panel of judges, she describes a memory of frogs from her youth in Australia, though it seems likely fictional. She says she saw these frogs along the river Dulgannon after the torrential rains, when they would collect in the tens of thousands in the mudflats along the banks and bellow. Costello says that, after a time, the frogs buried themselves in the mud of the flats and they would sleep there for months and months, until it rained again, and they would reemerge to sing. “What do I believe? I believe in those little frogs,” she tells the court. It is a passionate performance and the judges question her about what it means, what beliefs it contains about life and frogs, whether it is should be taken as a statement of literal or figurative belief. But hasn’t she changed her plea, they wonder? Before she said she had only provisional beliefs, but now she says she believes in these frogs, perhaps real, perhaps metaphoric. Which is it? “You ask if I have changed my plea. But who am I, who is this I, this you? We change from day to day, and we also stay the same,” she says. “No I, no you is more fundamental than any other.” It is evasive.
The judges dismiss her again without a verdict. She goes to the guard and find him filling out records. Costello begs to know if he thinks that her most recent statement will earn her entry. He declines to say anything more than that we all stand a chance to pass the gate, but she presses him. What chances does she “stand as a writer, with the special problems of a writer, the special fidelities?” He demurs again and she presses him again. Does he often see people in her “situation,” those who feel morally compelled to refuse belief?
“He lays down his pen, folds his hands, regards her levelly. ‘All the time,’ he says. ‘We see people like you all the time.”
We do not learn if Elizabeth Costello passes the gate.