Sunday, July 8, 2012

Retrograde Humanism, Golf, and Coetzee

How to be good?

I recently spent a week at the National Humanities Center for a summer institute lead by Robert Pippin (philosophy giant at the University of Chicago) on form and politics in the works of J. M. Coetzee.  Ok, so I have to give mad props to the NHC, an entity that I didn’t even realize existed until a colleague placed a flyer for the institute in my mailbox during the fall of last year.  I applied and was accepted, but I wasn’t really sure what I was in for until I got there.  The seminar consisted of 14 scholars, all of whom, as per the NHC’s stipulation, had completed their phds in the past 10 years.  As is not unexpected for any group of people who consider Coetzee’s work in terms of its ethical implications, I was one of several vegetarians in the group – the only vegan, to be precise – and I was the oldest member of the cadre, attending for the first time in my penultimate year of eligibility, which was a strange and enlightening experience for me.

An aside: it’s an increasingly unfriendly world for those of us in the humanities, as was apparent in the job search narratives of the newly minted phds attending the institute.  At one point during the seminar, Robert asked, “how much longer will they let us teach literature and philosophy before they stop us?” and then answered – rightly, I think, “maybe a generation or two longer.”

Yeah, we've all seen this, but it's worth watching it again, if you have any aspirations in this direction.

The deal was awesome: we were paid $1500 to be there, to attend five, three hour seminars over the course of the week, to talk about the work of J. M. Coetzee.  The institute fed us two meals a day, reimbursed us for travel, provided us with office space for the week, and provided us with transportation to and from the Chapel Hill Inn – a place that’s so full of its old south charm as to be offensive in a self-satisfied, not at all ironic sort of way (I rode up on the elevator with an African American family, the father of which looked at me and said, “well, this is like going back in time, isn’t it?”  I said, “yeah, maybe a time we’d rather not go back to”).   

That building in the background is the Inn.  OK, not really.

We covered a lot of material during the week, starting with Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K and ending with Coetzee’s most recent work Summertime.  On Wednesday, we discussed Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello (specifically the “lessons” that comprise The Lives of Animals), and I found myself, quite to my surprise, on the verge of both constant outbursts of anger and on the verge of tears – tears!! – for most of the discussion.  Here’s why (with apologies to Robert Pippin): I have a deep investment in both of these texts, having written about them extensively,[i] and I realized that day that I clearly have a sense of propriety over them.  Actually, I felt this way about most of the texts that we were covering during the course of the week: that they were somehow mine – mine because they changed my life in ways that are activist and NOT intellectual, and most certainly in ways that have left me stunned and speechless when I see them not changing the lives of others.  By and large, our discussions of these works had situated Coetzee’s literature as philosophy – and that’s an approach that I both appreciate and understand, coming, as it obviously was, from our seminar leader, a philosopher who is not a literary scholar.

But what was bugging me – what had worked its way beneath my skin – was what had started to feel over the course of the week like a systematic dismissal of the ways that certain works of literature perhaps require both an analysis of their engagement with real sociohistorical instances of institutionalized and normalized racism, sexism, and speciesism and – and this one is all me – a defense of our action or inaction in the face of such injustices.  When I say that Disgrace and The Lives of Animals changed my life, I mean that reading these two texts constituted part of a transformative process that I underwent around 2000, when I decided, first, that I would write my dissertation on Coetzee rather than pursue my original goal of the study of women’s literature and, second, that I would become vegan.  To be clear: reading Coetzee didn’t cause me to become vegan, but reading Coetzee did contribute to that decision.

Some brief background on Coetzee, if you don’t know his work and are still reading at this point: most, if not all of Coetzee’s novels end with characters having changed only through their acquisition of negative knowledge, or, perhaps even more problematically, by virtue of their realization that they haven’t changed.  At the end of Waiting for the Barbarians, the Magistrate finds himself on “a road that may lead nowhere” (156); at the end of Life & Times of Michael K, Michael imagines subsisting on teaspoons of water taken from the earth.  Disgrace is Coetzee’s most famous work, a novel that details the life of white South African former literature professor David Lurie’s downfall after his questionably consensual sexual relationship with a female student, his daughter Lucy’s subsequent gang rape by three black men, and David’s “service” in the disposal of the corpses of unwanted euthanized dogs.  The novel ends with David, burned, robbed, and jobless, “giving up” a crippled dog to the needle.

The Lives of Animals, published in 1999 – the same year as Disgrace – is often read as a kind of companion piece to that novel.  Lives is complex in terms of its metanarrative import, consisting of two lectures on animals given by the (fictional) aging Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello at the (fictional) Appleton College.  Coetzee read Lives as his 1997-1998 Princeton Tanner Lectures, and critics have endlessly tried to ascribe Costello’s animal rights position – that the treatment of livestock animals in industrialized societies is synonymous with the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust – to Coetzee.  Whether Costello’s opinions reflect Coetzee’s (and I suspect that they do on some accounts and don’t on others) is of little concern to me.  What is of concern is what we, as readers, teachers, scholars, and, yes, activists, do with the dialogic debates engendered by her opinions.

Within the context of Lives, Costello’s assertion generates outrage among members of her audience at Appleton, as such an assertion, in any context, is apt to do.  At the end of Lives, Costello says to her son John, “I no longer know where I am.  I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relationships with them.  Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participating in a crime of stupefying proportions?  Am I fantasizing it all?  I must be mad!  Yet everyday I see the evidences.  The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me.  Corpses.  Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money” (114).

When she mentions the “crime of stupefying proportions,” Costello is, of course, speaking of the treatment of animals in the industrialized world.  The question is, what do we do with the information Costello provides us?  Do we interpret what happens to animals as “crime”?  Do we conscience a comparison of that “crime” to the “Holocaust”?  If so, then what allows us to keep participating in such a crime?  And if not, how do we make sense and how do we narrate what is happening to animals in our midst? 

Pippin asserted that Coetzee’s work constitutes an act of preparing the way as opposed to bringing about a change.  He further offered that human beings can’t make themselves find important things that they don’t find important.  I can buy both of these things, to a point.  With regard to a kind of inherent inability to find important that which one does not find important, I turn to the subject of golf.  There are days when I am completely aware of the fact that I should find it important, that I should learn to play it even, because doing so would allow me access to a largely male cultural practice that embodies and enables access to certain modes of power.  But I don’t care about golf, and I have no interest in playing it, and no amount of knowing that it might be in my best interest to do so is going to change the utter lack of interest that I feel with regard to golf.  But I’m relatively certain that there’s not an ethical component to my lack of interest in golf in the same way that I feel the same degree of certainty that there is an ethical component in, say, not being interested in the suffering of animals.  Or maybe you could counter that, as a woman, it is my ethical obligation, no matter how interested or disinterested I am, to learn to play golf in order to further women’s chances as ever being anything other than second-class citizens.   If that was your counter, then touché.

Yes, this image exists.

How about this as a counter argument to the claim that we can’t make ourselves care about things that we don’t care about: to begin, I gather, first and foremost that we’re working with a tautology (“I don’t care because I don’t care”).  A colleague who has researched and written extensively about the horrific suffering of factory-farmed chickens continues to eat chicken (he’s also repeatedly told me that I’m a “better person” than him for not eating chickens, a statement that sounds laudatory but is ultimately dismissive – and lets him off the hook).  His knowledge of the suffering of chickens is not enough for him to find their plight important, at least not in the sense of refusing to participate in it.  To write about it, certainly.  To think about it, likewise.  Further, if an awareness of animal suffering is not important enough for most people (and it isn't), neither is the environmental toll of meat: the meat industry is already responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions – and global meat consumption is predicted to double by 2050 (McHugh 185).  But what if the counter argument to “I don’t care because I don’t care” is “despite not caring, you can – and should – do X anyway.”  Bad logic?  Well, so’s the original argument, so I’m working with what I’ve got.

* Look at me!  I’m philosophizin’!

OK, so back to the seminar and Pippin’s other claim, that “Coetzee’s work constitutes an act of preparing the way as opposed to bringing about a change.”  Coetzee’s work does do that.  It does get the reader to the point just prior to a potential (but highly unlikely) shift in a way of thinking or acting.  But I find that assertion just another cop out – and I said so, right at that moment when I couldn’t sit quietly by any longer.  I mean, good for us to sit around and analyze what Coetzee’s works say about the horrors of what’s done to animals, and good for us to pat ourselves on the backs for figuring out the true nature of Coetzee’s fictions . . . and then proceed to lunch and eat BLTs.  Coetzee has prepared the way; we don’t have to change.  And I realize that change, particularly with regard to the act of not eating animals, is always a fraught prospect, even among the most enlightened of folks.  After discussing Disgrace and Lives, I ate an ALT (avocado, lettuce, and tomato) and admitted to being vegan, and much of the discussion over lunch was about vegetarianism.  Over lunch, I got these questions from the same person:

1.  What about Hitler’s vegetarianism?
2.  What about abused children?  Hey, for that matter, what about plants?  Didn’t I know that plants have feelings, too?

I’ve addressed the red herring of the Hitler issue elsewhere in this blog, and I don’t want to waste another word on the subject.  In response to the second issue, I offered up Carol J. Adams’s notion of “retrograde humanism.”  Adams notes, “”when people learn that I’m a vegan . . . they react with such vehemence and accuse me of not caring for (1) abused children, (2) the homeless, (3) the hungry, (4) battered women, (5) the environment, and (6) workers, among many other things. . . .  Sometimes I laughingly claim that my veganism has prompted more people to announce their concerns for human suffering than my activism ever did.” Retrograde humanism, she notes, happens when people who aren’t vegetarian assert their own humanism in the face of feeling confronted by what feels like, well, a dietary confrontation: “finding out they might be doing more, they accuse vegans of doing less” (127).   In such a construction, animal activism or vegetarianism or veganism functions to lead one into an infinite ethical regression: the only way to be “genuine” or “good enough” in such a formulation is not to do anything, because as soon as you do something, you’re held to a standard (to which others don’t hold themselves) that immediately assumes that you’re not doing enough.

So at the end of the day – and at the end of the seminar – I’m still, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, of the belief that thinking is good, but doing is better.  And if anyone out there does become a vegetarian after reading Coetzee (or reading this blog), I’ll learn to play golf.  Swear it.


[i] “Displacing the Voice: J. M. Coetzee’s Female Narrators.”  African Studies 67.2 (2008):  11-29. 

“‘Does He Have it in Him to be the Woman?’ The Performance of Displacement in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.”  Ariel 37.4 (2006): 83-102.

“In Defense of Elizabeth Costello: Rants from an Ethical Academic on J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of 
           Animals.”  J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual.  Ed. Jane Poyner.  Athens: U of Ohio P, 2006.  193-216.  

Writing ‘Out of All the Camps’: J. M. Coetzee’s Narratives of Displacement.  New York: Routledge  
            Press, 2006 and 2009.

Works Cited
Adams, Carol J.  “What Came Before The Sexual Politics of Meat: The Activist Roots of a Critical Theory.”  Species Matters: Humane Advocacy and Cultural Theory.  Eds. Marianne DeKoven and Michael Lundblad.  New York: Columbia UP, 2012.  103-138.

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin, 1999.

---. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Viking, 2003.

---. Life & Times of Michael K. New York: Penguin, 1985.

---. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin, 1980.

McHugh, Susan.  “Real Artificial: Tissue-Cultured Meat, Genetically Modified Animals, and Fictions.”  Configurations 18.1-2 (2010): 181-197.