Keyword: Difference

I chose the chapter on “difference” with the hope that it would touch on semiotics and the definition of the human. I was not disappointed. The first half of the chapter was deceptively simple, parsing ethical concerns in animal studies through discussion of “saming’ and “differencing’ and anthropomorphism and anthropodenial. The chapter grew both more interesting and more complex towards its end, when Weil tackled the problem of agency. She offered a number of schema for conceptualizing it. I’m going to try to piece those schema together more specifically/concretely than she did.  

Weil mentions that third wave feminism “rejects the very idea of ‘identity,’” as “unreal metaphysics” and that a parallel movement in animal scholarship rejects the category of the human. The rejection of these categories intend to shift focus from “difference,” which, as Weil notes, “almost immediately implies hierarchy,” to responsibility and relationalities. A focus on responsibility, however, necessarily implies agency, which is implicated in Descartes’ distinction between the intentional human and the “instinctual” animal. To erode this binary, Weil first engages Derrida’s conception of “trace” and later evokes Donna Haraway’s definition of responsibility as “a relationship crafted intra-action through which entities, subjects, and objects come into being.” As Weil says, Haraway “thinks notions of emergent or deferred identities—the fact that ‘partners do not precede their relating’—in terms of an ethical demand. The capacity to respond is dependent on and thus should be responsive to those relatings by which it is constituted in the first place. Differences between identities are and will continue to be differences within any given identity.” The most interesting move comes at the end of this section when Weil describes this move of Haraway’s as a more descriptive evocation of the semiotic concept of “trace”—one that recasts it as a “material, affective, and potentially ethical force that ties me to who precedes me, who has made me who I am, and to whom I am thus indebted.” I thought this was a super interesting and even performative way to conceptualize the problem, grafting the “warm” topics of affect and (potentially organic) materiality to something as bloodless as semiotics, and vice versa.

In further addressing the problem of agency, Weil offers Uexkull, who, as she says, “coined the term Umwelt to call attention to the fact that different species inhabit different phenomenal worlds.” Uexkull “emphasizes that all animals exist within their own particular world or environment ‘to the same degree of perfection’ in order to guard against hierarchical evaluations between them.” When we merge this theory with Haraway’s, the relating bodies are not individuals but entire worlds. This is a difference merely of degree, considering that Haraway appears to consider individuals amalgams in their own right. Weil mentions Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of becoming, and though she doesn’t say so directly, I got the sense that she entertains their conception of identity as well, which envisions individuals as an amalgam of differing and frequently conflicting desires. More important, however, is Haraway’s aforementioned description of these identities as constituted only through interaction with each other. This is the fact that has the most ethical implications, and I think it should be highlighted accordingly. 

One thought on “Keyword: Difference

  1. Carrie Hintz

    Beautiful work with this complex chapter, Nicole! I was also quite taken with the work on Uexkull…it is pretty fascinating stuff. CH

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