Killing Them Softly: Animal Death, Linguistic Disability, and the Struggle for Ethics
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Killing Them Softly:
Animal Death, Linguistic Disability, and the Struggle for Ethics

Animal studies, literary studies, and disability studies have recently converged around what could be called a counter-linguistic turn.1 Although many current projects are intent on proving that certain animals do have language capabilities like those of humans, other sectors of animal studies are concerned with forms of subjectivity that are not language-based. Instead, they are concerned with ways of knowing that appear to work outside those processes of logocentric, rational thinking that have defined what is proper to the human, as opposed to the nonhuman animal. These concerns are also shared by a subset of disability studies that focuses on persons with so-called disorders that manifest themselves linguistically such as Asperger syndrome and autism. Temple Grandin is perhaps the most well-known example, perhaps because she is so keenly aware of the way her autism challenges preconceived ideas of what constitutes rational thought. “I think in pictures,” she writes in the beginning to her second book, Thinking in Pictures. “Words are like a second language to me.” Moreover, she emphasizes, “I would be denied the ability to think by scientists who maintain that language is essential for thinking.”2 [End Page 87]

Grandin’s work is compelling especially for the way she turns her linguistic disability into a special ability or gift. She claims, for instance, that her autism has given her special insight into the minds of nonhuman animals, cattle in particular. In addition to having a greater sensitivity to touch that allows her to read their body language with her fingers, she maintains that she is able to see what and how nonhuman animals see. In her third book, Animals in Translation, Grandin goes even further to point out the visual impairment of so-called normal humans, produced by an overactive consciousness that screens out much of what is before us. She cites a study in which test subjects were asked to watch a basketball game and count the number of passes made by one member of the teams. Focused on the task, 50 percent of those watching did not notice a woman in a gorilla suit who walks onto the screen and begins to pound her chest. “It’s not that normal people don’t see the lady dressed in a gorilla suit at all,” Grandin writes; “it’s that their brains screen her out before she reaches consciousness.”3

This notion of “screening,” I would suggest, is at the core of what links disability, literary, and animal studies. What Grandin calls screening, the early twentieth-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls “world,” referring to the knowledge that structures and shapes our vision. It is world that gets in the way and diminishes our view. And, Rilke suggests, it is world that prevents us from seeing what animals see. Articulating a critical perspective that Martin Heidegger will challenge, Rilke finds it is humans who are disadvantaged by their consciousness and unable to perceive “the open” that is available to animal eyes:

With all its eyes the creature-world beholds

The open. But our eyes, as though reversed

Encircle it on every side, like traps

Set round its unobstructed path to freedom.4

In 1922, Rilke’s “Eighth Elegy” articulates already what seems to have become an increasingly powerful, contemporary notion that is both mournful and hopeful that: human consciousness is an obstacle to a knowledge we may have once possessed—a larger, less circumscribed, and less rational way of knowing; and it may be possible, if not to retrieve, then to imagine a fullness of vision in beings who are removed from “normal” sociolinguistic behavior. These beings [End Page 88] may be nonhuman animals as well as persons with certain linguistic and cognitive disabilities. From this point of view, then, the very notion of language that has been used to distinguish humans and animals is understood also to put its speakers at a disadvantage. Such is the possibility raised more recently in Jacques Derrida’s thinking about animals. Paraphrasing Jacques Lacan, Derrida writes: “Man is an animal, but a speaking one, and he is less a beast...