- Of Trivial Importance:Lessons from Literary Vegetarianism
Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody's serious but me.Allen Ginsberg, "America"
The first sentence of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation (1975) doesn't address animals directly; it doesn't discuss cruelty; it doesn't mention suffering. Instead, its subject is its own seriousness: "'Animal Liberation' may sound more like a parody of other liberation movements than a serious objective" (1). Singer's seriousness and his emphasis on his seriousness are key components of his rhetorical approach. Widespread practices of cruelty to animals, Singer writes, "exist only because we do not take seriously the interests of other animals" (22). And, later: "Unless you can refute the central argument of this book you should now recognize that speciesism is wrong, and this means that, if you take morality seriously, you should try to eliminate speciesist practices from your own life, and oppose them elsewhere" (243–44). Moral seriousness, which links the reader to the author in character and temperament, grounds the book's call to action.
This move—announcing the seriousness of one's commitment to animals—is not unique to Singer. To be sure, writers giving animals serious consideration have good, practical reasons to advertise their subject's importance and the earnestness of their approach. As [End Page 473] Singer rightly points out in the early paragraphs of Animal Liberation, animals often have served critics of progressive political movements as those movements' parodic reductio ad absurdum. Given the widespread skepticism about the relative moral importance of non-human animals (and the tendency to think about their importance in relative terms), it is hard to imagine a critical consideration of animal ethics that doesn't in some way argue the need for careful thought about its subject, respond to the possibility that readers will find it trivial, or think that it trivializes other struggles for justice. Implicit or explicit claims of seriousness often provide a basic premise for the social, political, and intellectual work of animal studies, responding both to the threat of triviality and to disciplinary norms. David DeGrazia's Taking Animals Seriously (1996), for example, foregrounds in its title the moral efficacy of a serious disposition toward animals. Like Singer, DeGrazia demonstrates his seriousness through sustained rational argument, backed by empirical study. And there is a claim to seriousness, too, in the stylistic density of Cary Wolfe's prose, which embeds his argument about animals (human and non-) in discourses of critical theory as he develops his notion of a posthuman (and posthumanist) critical imagination.1 In these cases and the broader set of works they represent, the authors' seriousness, and the serious disposition they cultivate in their readers, is taken as a given. We are asked to recognize the seriousness of the work and to take the work and its implications seriously, but not to think seriously about its claims of seriousness.
As Judith Halberstam notes in The Queer Art of Failure, however, the pressure to be serious can limit the strength of our critique: [End Page 474]
Being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant. . . . Indeed terms like serious and rigorous tend to be code words, in academia as well as other contexts, for disciplinary correctness; they signal a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing, but they do not allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy.(6)
Because they are nearly ubiquitous and largely invisible, seriousness and its apparent obverse, triviality, are constitutive concepts that underlie much of our thought in general, and much of our thought about animals in particular—whether we are considering those animals as objects of our (serious) concern, dismissing them as cute and fluffy pals or as dinner, or anything in between. In this essay, I consider the often reflexive gesture whereby writers establish their seriousness when they write about animals, and I examine how triviality emerges to shadow serious considerations of what animals are and how we should treat them. What discursive work does seriousness do for animal studies? What are its alternatives? What happens if we suspend...