Famished Thoughts: On the Philosophical Strangeness of Gut Flora

by Rick Elmore

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Recently, while attending the annual meeting of The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in Rochester New York, I went to a panel on Kelly Oliver’s most recent book,  Animal Lessons: How Animals Teach Us To Be Human (2009).  It was an afternoon panel, and I had eaten a very light lunch.  Hence, I was a little hungry as I sat down.  However, I had read Oliver’s book when it first came out and was excited about the panel.  One of the central themes of Oliver’s text is reexamining the relationship and role animals have played in the development of our concept of the human.  She argues, quite convincingly, that “[p]hilosophers unthinkingly use animals to develop their theories of the human subject and human nature” and, consequently, “[o]ur concepts of the human, of kinship, of language, and even of human rights are borne on the backs of animals, whose importance to philosophy goes unacknowledged” (http://rorotoko.com).  Much of Animal Lessons is a tracing of this unthought and unacknowledged importance of animals to philosophy through an impressive number of thinkers including Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Agamben, and Kristeva to name just a few.  Central to her argument is the claim that many of these thinkers insists on the distinction between humanity and animality and yet cannot explicate such a distinction without recourse to examples and uses of animals that challenge and complicate it.  I am, of course, sympathetic to this line of argumentation, which, although not new or revolutionary, is decidedly right.  It is difficult to argue that there is not a profound and constitutive speciesism running through the Western philosophical tradition. 

Now the panel was set up with three speakers (David Wood, Kalpana Rahita Seshadri, and Brett Buchanan) followed by a response by Oliver.  I especially enjoyed Buchanan’s paper which brought up the issue of extinction and, in collusion with Wood’s talk (defense) on Heidegger, got me thinking about what it would mean to think of Heidegger’s notion of “being towards death” as “being towards extinction.”  However, the thing that lingered with me the most about the panel was the way in which the figure and example of the “pet” circulated as a touchstone for talking about our relationship to non-human animals. 

A number of times, especially during the question and answer portion, reference was made to “pets” in order to illustrate issues or concretize points.  So, for example, in asking about the interdependent relationship between humans and animals, it was the figure of one’s cat or dog that seemed to dominated the scene.  In the context of Oliver’s book, this emphasis on pets makes perfect sense.  She herself frames her narrative around her relationship to her cat (and Seshadri’s response made direct reference to this aspect of Animal Lessons).  In addition, this recourse to pets as a model for conceptualizing our interaction with non-human animals is fairly common and widespread.  Our pets are a place where we can and often do develop and maintain intimate relationships with non-human animals in ways that importantly shape our relationship to non-human life generally.  Yet, it is certainly not the only place that this happens, nor is it perhaps the best example of interdependence or of the “unthought” role animal play in philosophy.  (For a solid critique of “the logic of pets” I recommend Cary Wolfe’s work).  Now perhaps it was my growing hunger during the panel, or some other force of stomach related association, but it struck me that if we want to conceptualize real interdependence between human and nonhuman life, the example of something like gut flora, that is, the example of some truly mutualistic relationship is perhaps better.  This is at least in part because interdependence cannot, it seems to me, be articulated with the kind of experiential clarity one generally has in relation to one’s pets. 

An obvious structuring principles of the model of pets is that it is experientially accessible in a way that the mutualistic model of something like gut flora is not.  There is a space between me and my pet, one which allows me to articulate the relationship between us, in a way that is not true of the relationship between me and the tiny organisms that, at this very moment, live in my digestive track.  It is not experientially unclear where I start and my pet stops in the way that it is with me and my gut flora.  Now as I was sitting there thinking about the question of experiential clarity in connection with pets and gut flora, it hit me that this issue of counter-experiential interdependence was one of the things at stake in speculative realism’s oft stated insistence that philosophy needs to be based on a  “strange,” “weird,” or counter-intuitive realism.  I had up to this point tended to conceptualize this “strangeness” in terms of understanding or perception: stuff exists but not in the way we think it does.  However, it is also more than this.

Now I’m sure that what I’m about to say has occurred to many of you already, but this claim to “strangeness” is perhaps less a concern about understanding and more a concern about experience.  The strangeness of realism is not so much that things aren’t the way we think; rather, it’s that things aren’t the product of human experience, meaning that human experience ought not to be taken as the model of reality (certainly) but also not as the model for realism.  This is where thinking interdependence in terms of our relationship to our pets get us into trouble potentially.  As long as we keep this model, we, at least implicitly, favors a realism (even if we aren’t thinking of ourselves as realists) that operates primarily by pointing to “our,” “human”  experience of objects.  If one really wants to explore the “unthought” role non-human life plays for human life, I wonder if we don’t need a little more counter-experiential or “strange” model than that of “pets.”  Now this is, of course, not the direction of Oliver’s project, nor an explicitly stated theme of the panel I attended.  Rather, I got hungry and I got thinking.  There is nothing profound in this, and certainly nothing to match the profundity of the fact that our tummies (and our worlds) are filled with other life forms, life forms we don’t experience as other.  However, profound or not, this seems to me to be the basis for a critical realism, and that is, as they say, not nothing. 

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Famished Thoughts: On the Philosophical Strangeness of Gut Flora

  1. I agree that the notion of “pets” is already “all too human” in the Nietzschean sense. The problem is how do we comprehend and animal without reducing it to our conceptual bric-a-brac. One can reduce the thing to thought (Idealism); or reduce the thought to the object (Empiricism); or one can draw a distinction, make a cut, create a bridge between thought and being that does not reduce the one to the other, but allows the object (in this case the animal) to grasp out thoughts and order its own descriptions according to its own nature. Either way what we are describing is that humans need to relinquish control or dominion over thought and being, to allow things to think themselves.

  2. Rick Elmore

    Thanks so much for the comments. I tend to agree with you about the heart of the problem. Although I must admit, I’m not sure what it means to “allow things to think themselves.” But I, of course, wholeheartedly concur that we are talking about a certain relinquishing of human control and domination.
    One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and to which this post speaks, is trying to find clear ways to describe what’s going on in SR/OOO/OOM/etc. I think there is a lot of honest confusion about these modes of thinking. For example, I think that the question of realism is a sticking point for many folks because they envision a certain, dogmatic conception of realism rather than a critical or speculative one. I think there is something valuable, therefore, in reconstellating some of these central themes in the plainest of language, even at the risk of seeming to state the obvious (which I hope isn’t all I’ve done haha). Thanks again for the comment. I’d be very interested to hear more about what you think it means to let things think themselves.

  3. Randall Honold

    Great post, Rick. I haven’t read Oliver’s book, nor much of Wolfe, but “the pet” has another kind of relevance for me regarding this issue – something maybe they’ve discussed (?): Pets get stranger the more intimate we get with them. We think we’ve got them pegged but they continually act counter to our expectations. Much like our loved ones and friends, actually. So, maybe from this angle they’re a good example to show how we experience reality. That said, I agree we haven’t done enough thinking about how things like gut flora, microorganisms in our bloodstream, or even non-living elements and compounds in our orbits affect that very thinking. Aristotle on the digestibility of poultry, Descartes on the importance of a full stomach for clear thinking, and Nietzsche on digestion, all implicate gut flora in philosophizing!

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