- What Animals Teach Us about Politics by Brian Massumi
The trouble with thinking of who should "count" and why, for those of us attempting to dethrone humans from our self-appointed dictatorship over life on Earth, is that most measures by which worth is gauged hinge on long-established assumptions of human exceptionalism. We claim exclusively the virtues that we have declared worthy: language, intelligence, agency, individuality, personhood, and so on. Some might, in attempting to debunk such constructions, attempt to locate these coveted capacities in non-humans, so perhaps might cheer as dolphins or great apes are declared sufficiently complex to be "persons." Such a move elevates the denigrated to our lofty level, but this continuing imposition of anthropocentric standards will still deny most life on Earth any privileges and protections. Others might attempt to level the field by bringing humans 'down,' reasserting our animality or declaring that there are no differences, for example, but this flies in the face of not only all convention but also the apparent evidence of our eyes: declare all we want, but then there's the art, technology, and writings that we cherish and somehow feline acrobatics or antly architecture will never feel as impressive to most of us. We are even impressed by the extent to which we have brought about apocalyptic levels of environmental destruction—the Anthropocene, evidence of our tremendous importance, even if for ill.
In this lucid and engaging work, Brian Massumi attempts to shift the paradigm, conceiving of a politics that accounts for all participants without the need to represent, categorize, or hierarchize any subjects through seemingly endless debates about personhood and agency. Without succumbing to a frustrating pluralism or relativism, Massumi reframes humans and animals (and plants and things) into the same continuum and offers a refreshing alternate scale of measure. The short book is organized into an opening section that functions as a glossary for the concepts and terms, leading to fourteen propositions and concluding with three supplementary essays. The writing style can feel recursive, but the repetition gives clarity and a rhythm to writing that almost sounds lyrical, playful, as Massumi strings together conclusions as neatly and cogently as a logical proof.
Consider animals playing at combat. Launching from Gregory Bateson's 1972 essay on play, Massumi breaks down the significance of what he calls the "ludic gesture." Play-combat and combat may at a glance be difficult to distinguish, as the gestures and affect may appear the same. But if done right, the play bite performs combat while communicating that it is pretend: there is a bite that in biting says, this is not a bite. This paradox is significant for two key reasons. One, to make the anti-anthropocentric claim that the potential for language—language being one of the platform points levied by those who insist on the superiority of humans over other animals—is actually animalistic. The ability to play bite, effectively acting in one way while communicating that the act is not what it seems, exhibits [End Page 537] the abstraction that is at the basis of language ability. At the same time, the ludic gesture produces corporeality—"lived importance" (29)—affect-laden expression of bodies in relation—pulling participants in its purview into a zone of "mutual inclusion" (4) or "indiscernibility" (6). The zone of mutual inclusion is necessarily relational and transindividual. Sympathy takes on a new meaning, not only to be distinguished from the mawkish sentimentality that produces self-indulgent emotional responses, but also to not require an accounting of subjects or agency. What matters is that sympathy is what enables one to be transported into the ludic event—and thus what matter are the events rather than the doers.
In the zone of mutual inclusion, differences are not ignored, but neither are the differences wielded to buttress hierarchies of value. All players are part of the context that enables the ludic gestures, when all potentialities for creativity have been unleashed, enabling the surpassing of the status quo and its profound inertia. Massumi's depiction of the ludic gesture echoes...