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  • The Metaphysical Cut:Darwin and Stevenson on Vivisection
  • Chris Danta (bio)

[W]hoever refuses to recognize himself in the ape, becomes one: to paraphrase Pascal, qui fait l'homme, fait le singe. [He who acts the man, acts the ape.]

—Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal

I. Vivisection and Animal Life

"For anyone undertaking a genealogical study of the concept of 'life' in our culture," writes Giorgio Agamben, "one of the first and most instructive observations to be made is that the concept never gets defined as such" (13). I can think of no better way of illustrating the ambiguity of the concept of "life" in our culture than by pointing to the term "vivisection," which derives from the Latin words vivus ("living") and sectio ("cutting"). The Oxford English Dictionary defines vivisection as "the action of cutting or dissecting some part of a living organism; spec. the action or practice of performing dissection, or other painful experiment, upon living animals as a method of physiological or pathological study" ("Vivisection," def. 1a). To vivisect is, in the broadest sense, to cut into life by dissecting some part of a living organism. Vivisection requires one to make not just a physical cut but also a metaphysical cut. At stake is the concept of life itself.

Apparent in the debates about vivisection that raged in Victorian England in the 1870s and 1880s is the reluctance, especially on the part of the provivisectionists, to contemplate the metaphysics of the topic. Those scientists who supported the practice tended to treat vivisection as a means to break life down into its component parts rather than to conceptualize it. The British physician and medical biographer Samuel Wilks illustrates this materialist tendency in an 1881 symposium on vivisection that appeared in the Nineteenth Century. Immediately after the Seventh International Congress of Medicine in London, Wilks wrote,

Whether it be a question of the nature of the rocks beneath us, or the composition of the ocean, or of vegetable life or of animal life, the method of inquiry is the same. The rocks are broken and put in the crucible, the water is submitted to analysis, the plant is dissected, and, in order to ascertain the laws which govern its [End Page 51] growth and propagation, experiments are made by grafting and by cross fertilisation. In animal life the same method must be adopted to unlock the secrets of nature. The question of the animal being sensitive cannot alter the mode of investigation.


The approach to nature advocated here is summed up by the old Roman adage "divide and conquer." The ambiguity of the concept of life is overcome through an act of brute scientific force. Not satisfied to figure science as the forceful capture of nature, Wilks clinches his point in a threatening tone: "It is, therefore, sheer folly and ignorance," he writes, "to stand in the path [of vivisectionists] and forbid any one walking in the one right direction; it cannot be done" (947).

Wilks's article is also instructive in the way it tries to reduce the animate to the status of the inanimate. For Wilks, what goes for rocks and water also goes for plants and animals. The fact that animals suffer at the hand of the vivisectionist does not call into question the rectitude of the scientific method. No justification is given for this claim. Nor, for that matter, does Wilks attempt to explain what he means by "animal life." Instead, he grants science the right to treat "animal life" as if it were inanimate nature. What enables him to relegate the animal to the status of the insensible is the decision to separate the human from the animal. From this point of view, the pro-vivisectionist fails to take existential responsibility for the animal life within him- or herself. As Agamben notes,

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...


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