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What has happened to Ethica Circea?

Few years back, in 2013, Simone Lima, Lorraine de Fátima, Denise Agustinho, Valesca Zanello and others were involved in concocting a collective book proposal on animal ethics inspired by Circe. Nothing, as far as I know, came out of it. What has happened? What should we rather do? Below is the proposal we wrote.

Ethica Circea
The transgressive virtues of transforming animals

The idea of this book arose from a group of researchers coming together to try and think of the ethical perspective of animals. The group composed by biologists, psychologists, philosophers and classical scholars felt that most recent work on animal ethics is done from a human perspective and no effort is done to consider what could possibly be the animal point of view. The overall consensus was that the endeavor to think about ethical issues concerning animals should start with considering features of their life and embodiment. And, in fact, such starting point should exorcize the many forms of appeal to gaps between human and animal life but rather begin with a grip on the commonalities of all forms of existence and, in particular, in the shared embodiment that sustain all those forms of life.

We took much inspiration from ancient discussions of human relations to animals – possibly because the distance of time provoked itself an estrangement with respect to the contemporary ways to think and conceive of human contact with animals. In particular, we were inspired by a dialogue by Plutarch1, were Circe, a sorcerer that appears at occasions in texts like the Odyssey, promotes a dialogue between Odisseus and a Greek turned into a pig who is led to explain why he prefer his current life from the point of view of virtues like courage, wisdom and temperance. Circe has the power to transform humans into other animals – and indeed turn them back to their previous form, if they would rather be humans. Circe holds an important key to understand things from an animal perspective: the key of experiencing life under another animal skin. She makes humans experience another body and another form of life while retaining some of their capacities, especially those that enable them to compare their previous experiences with their present state. Circe then appeared to us to be a central figure in our project: she stands for the possible passages between different forms of animal life.

Circe has connection with three important areas of our interest in animal life as a way to escape from human enclosed forms of life and thought. First, she evokes the possibility of becoming another animal. In doing that she transgresses the divide that Agamben2 diagnosed around what he called the anthropological machine that splits apart humans from other animals in a binary structures. Agamben argues that different ways of conceiving nature – including human nature – provided different implementations of a (civilizing) program of placing all animals in a pole that contrasts with the common pole where all humans are supposed to stand. This is the role of much of our discourse on animals that revolves around comparisons between the unworthy of humanity and the animal. Becoming animal, a micropolitical project much explored by Deleuze and Guattari3, is a way to spoil some cogs of those anthropological machines. Deleuze and Guattari understood the becoming animal as one among several bodily capacities that opens up routes to break away from the compulsory project of producing and reproducing humanity as it is. Becoming is to be distinguished from imitating as the latter doesn’t bring to the fore the body differences between, say, a human and the mouse she is becoming. Experiences of becoming animal provide glimpses of an (ethical) animal perspective. Deleuze and Guattari evoke sorcerers, shamans and witches to make clear that becoming animal is something that the Westernized world has systematically discredit or put aside. Circe could in this context be seen as a master of ceremony for experiences of becoming animal that would provide a view of ethical life from outside the seemingly compulsory human perspective.

Circe also has to do with humans actually turning animals. She prefigures different sorts of trans-species experiences where people are captured by a desire to actually undergo body transformations to turn into an animal. These are experiences, for example, of people who declare to feel like another animal trapped in a human body. They could be ready to change their body to some extend to conform to their felt identity or they could be satisfied with being treated as individuals of another species and no longer as humans. It is interesting to speculate about the attractions to become another animal – especially in the context of human supremacy that is part of much of human formal and informal education. In fact, these desires, combined with experiences of becoming animals, can be read as betrayals to the common projects of humanity where our offspring is inculcated with a human pride. It is also interesting to consider humans that prefer to spend time with other animals and other gradients of trans-specific behavior. In particular, the current research on mirror neurons – those responsible for attending to other individual’s gestures – could shed some light in the physiology of the attraction to the bodily actions of different species. It can be conjectured that in those cases humans have a mirror neuron circuitry that is more readily fired in the presence of individuals of another species.

Circe also evokes the power of biotechnology. The possibly positive promise of such endeavor is to blur the distinctions between different species as genetic materials of species that were uncombined for millennia are now being put in contact. Biotechnology has been often looked at in a negative way as corporate companies who have projects of monopoly have dominated it. It can be see, however, under more positive lights if it is seen as a tool for combining and mutating species that enable further experimentation and, ultimately, opens the door for un-humanizing humanity. In fact, it can be argued that nothing but a freer, more spread and open biotechnology can counter the evils of its corporate variety. Biotechnology is the sort of sorcery that Circe employs: she produces talking pigs that retain their memories of a previous life form and hence recombines ingredients of the pig and human life. Current biotechnology also paves the way for what has been called the end of the Darwinian interlude.4 The interlude was the period where life was transformed and reinvented mostly through vertical genetic recombination – through individuals reproduced within a species. That empire of the species can be coming to an end. The end of the species period heralds the end of the human species – both as an entity and as a project (for humans). To think beyond of the Darwinian interlude is to think of life as a horizontal plan of experimentation. Freer genetic recombination enables transitions of perspectives between different embodied creatures and therefore opens the possibility of a community of all animals and all life forms sharing common projects together.

The book will be composed by different chapters that will be jointly written by all members of the group. We have envisaged a methodology where one or two authors provide a first version and all the others add or remove something to make sure we make the best of our collaboration.

Ethica Circea will have the following chapters:

1. Animal ethics and the anthropological machine

One of the central challenges of an ethics from an animal perspective is to think beyond the many-faced divide between humans and animals. The divide makes humans somehow special – for their reasoning, their technological capacities, their existential pathologies, their virtues or their openness – and therefore differing from all forms of animal life at once. It is as if the animal is always beyond the pale; those that are the ultimate foreigners, the irreducible strangers that could be treated with charity but not as a component of a shared community. Animals are seen as primarily non-human. An ethics that looks beyond this border and tries to exorcize it has to be an attempt to attain a viewpoint that is not hostage to the varieties of anthropological machines. This chapter will introduce the problem and its possible solutions. It will engage with existing approaches to animal ethics and address some of their limitations. This will be a point of departure for a sketch of a different take where animals are no longer in the other side of a bipolar landscape.

2. Transgrecirce: Circe and the insights of animal life

Circe enables the animal – or rather the animal hybrid – to speak and plea for the ethical advantages of their current state. The purpose of the endeavor of the book could be understood as updating her gesture of bringing to the fore a voice coming from the animal. Circe appears for the first time in the texts in Homer, in the Odyssey (X) as a goddess capable to turn humans into pets and wild animals and revert them back to their human form and also to turn humans into immortal beings eternally young, something she proposes to Odysseus and he rejects. When Odysseus arrives with his men in Circe’s island, they are all turned into animals, except the hero who is protected from her spells by eating an immunity plant. Plutarch is the one who makes use of this passage to present a dialogue between Odysseys and one of his men turned into a pig – Gryllos – where the latter claims that animals live a more virtuous and commendable life than humans. Gryllos, clearly arguing in favor of the greater ethics of animal life, is not completely an animal but a trans-species being. Gryllos is an important inspiration for Etica Circea: he is a hybrid and as such he reflects on the transgressing ethics possibilities open up by his animal perspective Plutarch makes explicit the transgressive potential of Circe as her powers enable one to be rid of the compulsory allegiance to humanity. This chapter introduces the toolbox available for an ethics that is informed by insights of animal life and therefore by Circe’s pharmakon.

3. Glimpses of animality: becoming animal and ways to attain a non-human perspective

We often qualify as animal some of our behavior or capacities (often associated with fleeing, feeding our group, fighting or enjoying erotic resources). We also qualify as natural some of our actions – typically when we want to eschew responsibility. Simondon5 draws an interesting distinction between preservation tendencies in a community on the one hand and, on the other, instincts, which can flow between communities, between species and therefore travel across various forms of life. Action moved by those instincts are often seen as momentary lapses of humanity, moments where something goes against our supposedly shared human nature. Some of these moments can be seen as glimpses of animality, quick insights into animal embodiment and action. In particular, Circe can inspire us to view them as a insights into the virtues that guide animal life. As such, they are ethical technologies of possession that enable us to afford a perspective where the matrix of relevance and irrelevance shifts enough to perceive the virtues not laden with the plot of human supremacy. Becoming animal is an exercise of repeating the gestures, behaviors and attentions that are ruled out by such a supremacy. It is not just wanting-to-be-another-animal but rather an episode of contamination that can come from anywhere in our lives. The presence of a becoming-animal presents us with an animality not confined to animals and spreading in parts of human life. It is a window to a non-human perspective. This chapter will examine the import of becoming animal and its relevance for an experience that goes beyond human capacity to make ethical judgments.

4. Trapped in another species body

Trans-specism is a growing fashion (together with phenomena such as furry fandom). The possibility to transition to a different species is gradually open by technological means. This species nomadism is reminiscent of Circe’s sorcery and puts the whole issue of animal life in a different landscape. This chapter focuses on the condition that leads to a species dysphoria. It will also consider whether being trapped in another’s body (another species, another gender, another body plan) could be understood in terms of having mirror neurons incompatible with the respective action neurons. So, the mirror neurons would fire in the presence of something alien to one’s own species.
To break away with a species could then start with resistant mirror neurons that insist in repeating something outside the scope of the species. The anatomy and neurology of an individual is not subservient to the species it belongs, it contains, rather, elements that enable us to be contaminated by other species to the point of seeing ourselves as alien within our own. This feeling of alienation – dysphoria – is to be considered in its ethical import for it gathers the discontentment that breaks up with the existing patters of life. Species dysphoria, in all its degrees, provides us with the ethical knowledge of the discontent, of those that don’t want to have their lives guided by the customs and interest of their species. This chapter explores this ethical knowledge, the virtues of seeking exile from the human species.

5. Anarco-zoology: zoology in the times of biotechnology

Biotechnology brings up several ethical issues and a good number of them has to do with animals. The growing technological capacity to interfere in animal life – and in animal forms of life – is often solely taken to be no more than a resource for human hybris. In fact, biotechnology has been used to control animal life and to implement the human idea that the animals are others – or rather the unified Other as subjects of our domination. As such, humans have been breeding them, herding them, mixing their genetic materials at their leisure. Biotechnology has therefore been used to make animals subject to human control. It can, nevertheless, be seen also as
a tool to unsettle the human project and the integrity of humanity as a species. Once human gene pool is included in the biotechnological program, humans can find ways to betray their position as masters and mix with the animal world also to gain insight about their virtues. Biotechnology can therefore provide a Circean pharmakon. It is not only an instruments in the hands of the master, but something that can be revamped to become a tool against human supremacy, for it provides the means to experiment with different combinations of the bits and pieces that have been biologically and politically separated into the realm of the human and the domain of the animal. Biotechnology enables a view that goes beyond species and understands life in terms other that that of a species-based evolution. In fact, the prospect of an end of the Darwinian interlude insinuates that the view that implicitly recommends ethical attitudes tied to a species is importantly short-sighted.
In particular, it is interesting to look at archeas, forms of life that exchange genetic material horizontally in a way that contrasts with the species-based vertical way that is preponderant in these Darwinian times. This chapter will look at ethical virtues beyond the borders of species and at how the mix of species can be an ethical opportunity rather than a biotechnological catastrophe we can envisage at present.

6. Animal ethics from a non-specist perspective

The animal disrupts the human order and its associate intention to rule life in the planet. A Circean perspective is one where we stop extoling humans for their ethical capacities and start looking at how what we can learn from other animals. It is a commitment to attempt to see things with non-human animal eyes. As such, it engages in its toolbox elements such as species dysphoria, becoming-animal, biotechnology and, among all, an examination of animal life that considers the animal perspective – something akin to a symmetric ethology. In this respect, we can be inspired by the so-called multinaturalism of the human populations of the Low Amazon as studied by Viveiros de Castro and Tania Stolze.6 Multinaturalism considers that things are perspectival and therefore human world is no more than an example of a nature, and different animals have different perspectives that bring about different natures. Amazonian perspectivism conceives the different forms of animal life as being of the same status and make sure that there is no supremacy of one perspective over the others. It also includes shamanism as a way to transit between different animal perspectives.This chapter will consider the insights of animal life in contrast with the view taken by ecological approaches that understand humans as the ultimate guarantor of a hidden equilibrium in nature. It will discuss with current ecological ideas in order to consider them from a multinaturalist viewpoint and ultimately try to attempt a non-human perspective to guide ethical life.

7. The animal gaze

The last chapter will consider the import of being focused by animals as objects of view and recognition. Its starting point is both Stolze’s work on perspectivism7 and Derrida’s interesting reflections in L’animal que donc je suis.8 The animal gaze unsettles the human order in the sense that it indicates a different matrix of importance attached to things. The very fact that an animal looks around, and looks at humans, challenges the supremacy of human life based on human judgments that don’t hear any other side but their own. This chapter closes the book by reviewing the contribution of a phenomenology of being looked at to the contemporary Circean project. It also assembles the many elements put together through the book in order to integrate together the toolkit considered in the previous ones. We are now in the position to present an ethical outlook from an animal viewpoint – we have elements to grasp the ethical import of the animal gaze.


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