- Politics, Animal-StyleA review of Brian Massumi, What Animals Teach Us about Politics
Brian Massumi’s book arrives after a more-than-ten-year multidisciplinary brainstorm on “the question of the animal.” While the question has proven as hard to pose as it is to address, it is possible to point to some key moves that have inaugurated the field of animal studies and instigated a great deal of research activity across the humanities, social and life sciences. Examinations of the legal, religious, scientific, and social channels through which nonhuman animals have remained outside the purview of subjects figure large in this output (How are animals considered objects?). So too are critiques of the autonomy and stability of the human vis-à-vis that which is designated as beastly, wild, more-than-human, or otherwise animal (How does the objectivity of animals secure the subjectivity of humans?). Some of this work is empirical: studies and practices attesting to a bio-social complexity of animal species that matches if not exceeds the human, while troubling established distinctions between the two more generally. Some of it is ethical, asking how animal alterities, vulnerabilities and traumas echo or prefigure those of historically minoritized human communities and call for particular responses. Other research considers how animals come to mean what they mean, to whom, when, and why: the representations through which animality itself is conjugated. Another approach takes what Kari Weil has called a counterlinguistic turn, arguing that representation has muffled what animals might be and/or do and concealed the animality always already within the human. What Animals Teach us About Politics makes its intervention into political theory from this fourth angle, and is also sustained by a shared expectation in the field that nonhuman animals point to alternate and more hopeful ways of being in and relating to the world. If only we could tap into that promise. If only we could figure out how to think with or as animals rather than at or about them. Massumi’s offering responds to both desires; the book’s 97 pages consider how animality can help us re-evaluate “the all-too-human ways of working the political” (3).
The opening dedication to Massumi’s “childhood friendship” with a daily playmate “with whom I became many an animal” sets the book’s tone and aspirations. For Massumi, any meaningful discussion of animals and politics begins with the recognition that humans are also animals, that we belong on an “animal continuum,” the spectrum of which includes capacities traditionally allocated to humans but that are in fact prevalent across species (3). Our task is to read for those capacities. The risk of anthropomorphism is quickly acknowledged here, echoing other recent attempts to understand what is human-ish about the nonhuman realm.1 Massumi’s caveat, however, carries its own risk of undermining precisely the animality he seeks to highlight as constitutive of human-to-human relations. It takes a lot of practice to think as an animal, and the suggestion that such animality might have inflections of the human is a distracting conceit to the experiment at hand.
The experiment is to build on the concept of “becoming animal” first laid out by Massumi’s philosophical forebears, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in a way that feels less arrogant than its initial imaginings of a nonhierarchical pack animality that defies knowable type. This is how play comes to serve as both the central motif and method of Massumi’s political theory: a process of becoming animal awash in routine-yet-still-vital “ludic gestures” that create “zones of indiscernibility” between two or more participants while also respecting and playing with their differences. Play also matters to Massumi for its ability to disrupt assumptions held about instinct more generally – for example, instinct as a state of bare and inflexible nature or instinct as pre-linguistic and oriented towards the continuity of species. Massumi reassesses instinct in light of the dynamics of animals-at-play. Contra your parents’ sociobiology, the appeal of instinct as a form of play lies in its distance...