restricted access American Bestiality: Sex, Animals, and the Construction of Subjectivity
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American Bestiality:
Sex, Animals, and the Construction of Subjectivity

On March 21, 2006, a dog handler was convicted of charges brought against him in conjunction with the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq. Army Sgt. Michael J. Smith, aged twenty-four, was found guilty of six out of thirteen indictments. Smith expressed remorse for only one of those convictions, his conviction for indecency. That conviction stemmed from Smith's "directing his dog to lick peanut butter off the genitals of a male soldier and the breasts of a female soldier." Smith said: "It was foolish, stupid and juvenile. There is nothing I could do to take it back. If I could, I would" (Dishneau 2006a). Smith expressed remorse for having his dog engage in sexual acts with his fellow soldiers. What made this one charge among the many for which he was convicted legible to Smith as an offense? Smith apologized for the one act that involved other Americans, and for an offense that situates his case within a practice that is foundational of the social order itself, that is, the practice of constructing subjectivity by criminalizing bestiality. His reference to his acts as "juvenile" marks them as a rite-of-passage into adult maturity; his apology itself performs a learning process by which he comes to recognize subjects (those fellow beings who have legal standing in the courts and interpersonal recognition from acts such as apologies) by distinguishing them from animals (those nonsubjects that lack legal and discursive representation). There is no mention here of the Iraqi detainees, or of the dog.

My pointing out that second absence will in and of itself seem ludicrous, and my linking the dog with the detainees might come across as offensive: of course Smith didn't apologize to the dog. After all, we reserve rights and apologies exclusively for human beings, because only they participate as subjects in the structural and representational [End Page 98] schemes that make up the symbolic order. Representational subjectivity sets human beings apart from all other living creatures—it lies at the core of our secular notion that human beings are special, that there is such a thing as human exceptionalism. I borrow the term "human exceptionalism" from Kay Anderson, who uses the phrase to describe the belief that each human being is fundamentally different from all animals (426). That belief has its strategic purposes in allowing us to conceptualize human rights as a category of legal, ethical, and symbolic representation that extends subjectivity beyond state boundaries. But I worry that human exceptionalism actually enables abuses because it sets up a dichotomy between human beings who have representational subjectivity and animals who lack it. Smith's apology exemplifies this problem. He defines representational subjectivity ontologically and tautologically: one has rights by virtue of being human, and one is human by virtue of having rights. By that definition, animals lack rights because they are animals, but all too easily, those who lack rights, such as the abused detainees, are animalized. Human and animal are categories that lay claim to utter ontological fixity but are highly fungible. Any creature who is not deemed human becomes subject to abuse without recourse to ethical standards that would mark such injury as a wrong: Smith never apologized to the detainees he brutalized; like the dog, they remained to him nonsubjects, beyond recognition.

Ultimately, human exceptionalism does not protect human beings from abjection, but it enables abuse by creating animality as a position of nonsubjectivity and of socially sanctioned abjection. Abjection takes on many forms, but one thing "interlocking oppressions" such as racism, sexism, and homophobia have in common is that their mechanisms of shame and violence revolve around literal and figurative animals.1 The abjection of animals is the sine qua non of these forms of domination (Adams and Donovan, 9).

That abject animality is not simply outside of the legal order; it is foundational to it. Giorgio Agamben (1998) made a similar argument by reexamining Michel Foucault's notion of biopower as a key mechanism of sovereignty in the state of exception. Agamben has demonstrated how the abject position of a "bare...