When we are called upon to defend the humanities—not from the productive mutual encroachments of consensual interdisciplinarity, but say, against the growing instrumentalization of a university education—we fall back (not at all surprisingly) on the language of humanism: or, as I perhaps idiosyncratically define it, the logic of sameness and difference. The humanities are essential, we argue, because they are about "that which makes us human." Lest this sound like simple species narcissism, we insist that the commitment to investigating our exceptionalism is also fundamentally ethical. To study the human condition is necessarily, we say, to investigate how we encounter the Other, including the most vulnerable among and beyond (which is to say, beneath) us.
I want to offer in this paper an "immanent defense" of the humanities, one which gratefully relies on humanist methodologies but is passionately detached from the foundational humanist principle of sameness and difference. I wonder what it might look like if we—in the face of challenge—cared a little bit less about our own survival? Instead of a full-throttled "resistance to oblivion", as Judith Butler (2014) recently put it in her defense of the humanities, can we imagine a passionate detachment from humanism, and from any simple recourse to an always necessarily exclusionary "human" commons? I want to propose, instead of the humanist-anthropological morality of sameness and difference, an immanent ethic of indifference. As I say below, I do not mean indifference as such, but indifference to difference, which is also the same as indifference to "the same." I argue that this is where the critique of humanism—which we sometimes, perhaps unhelpfully, gloss as posthumanism—brings us. What follows is a tale from my fieldwork, which I’ll call "Love and Other Injustices."
There is a story people tell, perhaps apocryphal, but nevertheless, apropos. The story is set on a lonely stretch of road in North India. A bull from a nearby farm is hit by a speeding lorry and is thrown onto another man’s land. The sound of the bull’s cries brings people from neighboring houses to see, most of whom are disturbed by the animal’s injuries. He needs to be shot, which someone is ready to do, but the owner of the land upon which the bull has fallen refuses, citing his adherence to ahimsa: this is his property and he won’t be responsible for the bull’s death. He tells the assembled to move the bull ten feet which would remove him from his land—and off his hands—and then they can shoot him, but this is an impossible task. The bull is bloody, broken, and afraid. Also he is a bull. The solution is to call someone with a vehicle and push the animal off of this man’s land and onto the road. In the hours it takes to find this car with a willing driver, and amidst the slow attrition of people who have other things to do, the bull eventually dies.
"…love is an injustice, because when we love it is the one or ones who are special to us that we save."
It is not the bull’s ultimate death that is of concern in these tellings. Rather the story is about indifference and about ahimsa—not as an injunction to act mercifully or compassionately or act at all—but as an abnegation of responsibility, a moral hygienic practice of washing-one’s-hands-of. Indifference is complicated here since the landowner is neither affectively indifferent (i.e., apathetic) or averse to differentiation: he is far from indifferent when it comes to wresting himself from Other, a self that includes his property. But beyond that self, all is undifferentiated, equally a possible stain: someone else’s concern.
When animal activists tell this story (or another one in its genre) it is for a host of reasons: to assail religious hypocrisy, particularly through an immanent critique of Hinduism; to separate an ethic of noninjury from the prevalence of suffering (indeed, to attribute the prevalence of suffering to an ethic of noninjury) (see Gandhi 1924); to point out the selfishness of men, gendered and general. But most of all, it is a lament against passivity and a call for a positive ethic of action. What I want to suggest, though, is that this positive ethic of action (when mobilized as, conflated with, or dismissed as love) becomes the very same thing as its supposed antithesis. The practice of indifference, which is called instead an ethic of noninjury, looks a lot like the politics of distinction, which we instead call love. My gambit in a nutshell is this: that love is an injustice, because when we love it is the one or ones who are special to us that we save.
But that is not always the case. In India I knew a family called the Abrams-Meyers, hale and healthy people from the Pacific Northwest. In addition to being sturdy and strong they have big hearts too, ones we may accuse of bleeding. Jim, for instance, used to be an English professor, but was fired from his job in the 70s for teaching James Baldwin to his students. He later moved to New Mexico to start a commune. Eventually he and his wife, Erika, found themselves in India; a few years after their daughter, Claire, was born and they decided to move there permanently and start an animal shelter in Udaipur. They sold their house in Seattle, took Claire out of school, and founded Animal Aid. When I spent a week with them about 2 years ago they were in the middle of moving. The original shelter had grown too small for all the three-legged dogs, paralyzed pigs, and nighttime car accident cow emergencies; and not only had they leased a large new plot of land for the animals, but were building their home right in the middle of it. No longer would there be any distance between them and all that need, nor between them and all that labor. We were chatting one day about this, and Erika said something that I found so funny at the time. She remarked on what it meant to have brought her "pink, pink baby" to work on an animal shelter, and be faced everyday with terrible examples of cruelty and neglect. Now, believe me, Jim and I called her out immediately on how racist this "pink" business sounded, and she was mortified, and so if you will just for a moment suspend that reading, I do think there is something else there. That something else is about taking something you love, something that is entrusted to you, and putting it in the way of harm. Claire is an amazing young woman who, during a difficult time, used all of the money from her grandmother’s inheritance to keep the shelter afloat. Jim tried to dissuade her, but she would have none of it, and this eats at him still. Their project is her lifetime’s burden. It is impossible to imagine that even decades from now, she will feel like she has done her part and can leave the animals and start another kind of life. As it is, she always feels she isn’t doing enough, that for every moment she is not carrying a dog, mending a donkey’s leg, breaking into a lab, or doing undercover work at a slaughterhouse.
Animal activists talk about this sometimes, this descent into obligation. There is an actress in Hyderabad called Amala. She has been working for animals for the last 20-odd years. She told me once, though only after I inadvertently pressed her, about the "dark hour of the soul that every activist goes through," of how working with animals is "a never-ending, bottomless ocean." Timmie Kumar, who directs a renowned shelter in Jaipur, says she has to simply shut herself down sometimes or she would "drown from knowing too much." She has been doing this for decades, "But I have to stop now," she said, "I just must. I didn’t want to do nothing. But somehow nothing became everything and I started to drown."
One can stop. Or one can drown. Or there is a third solution—the one most of us choose—which is to love. To differentiate. To do as the propertied man with the bull, and to make a fortressed island of ourselves and our own, beyond which, and in whose interest, there are limits to what we can be asked to do. This is what haunts Abrams, that he failed to build an island, and now his child will almost surely drown.
Love, then, despite its obfuscating romanticist reputation, is an utterly rational act, made necessary by a binary moral logic that pits everything against nothing, retreating from the world versus drowning within it. With love, we know in advance what to save, we have in advance the answer to the ethical question (my self, my family, my people), and is in that sense, as Charles Taylor has argued, at the core of a humanist ethic. Without love there is no morality, he says, as it is our love (read: impassioned preference, differentiation) for something, someone, some group or idea that allows us to "live within our moral means," a ground without which we risk being swallowed up by obligation (Taylor 1989). Love is reason; though it is only when viewed as its alter ego, love as transcendence, that it comes to appear as the very ground, the very spirit, of human being (see Povinelli 2006).
It is surely no surprise that even people who devote their lives to animals are quite attached to humanism, and its narratives of human exceptionalism. There is a woman who works at Animal Aid named Kamala who, like most of the employees there, lives in a nearby village. One of her tasks is to sit under the tarp that shades the paralyzed dogs and massage them, which she does for nearly 45 minutes each everyday, and while she does so she sings to them and pulls out their tics. I was under the tarp with her one day, refilling bowls of water, and I asked her if she ever wondered why she does work like this, with such sincerity and love, and others don’t. She said she was raised well, and that her parents loved animals, but added, after a pause, "main insaan hoon," as if being human is precisely what makes it possible for her to love something that it is not, to transcend the bestial order of skin, of instinctive self-enclosure. But in the very next instant, as if recognizing her mistake, she said: "Insaan sab matlab se karte hai. Jaanver mein koi matlab nahin hai. Jaanver main samajdar hota hai, lekin matlab nahin hai." Humans do what they do always with matlab: intention, purpose, self-interest, with some meaning, for some point. Animals are not matlabi, but lest I hear this as a denigration of animals, an argument for their senselessness, she clarified that animals instead of matlab have samajdar: understanding. So she began by positing "love" in its vaunted iteration—love as transcendence—but then immediately thought better of it and admitted to love as its compromising alter ego—love as reason, self-interested. In her rendering, animals—with claims neither to transcendence nor to reason—may not "love" but they have understanding. Which of these, it is fair to wonder, is the ground for ethics?
Love is reason and reasonable, a politics of distinction that, by providing something, rescues us from the twinned abyss of everything and nothing. And as Elizabeth Povinelli has argued, the experience of love (the capacity to be subject to that intimate event, to transcendence of the bestial order of skin and of genealogical society) is at the heart of modern humanism (Povinelli 2006). And so love—the feeling—is a politics of distinction, but also love—the very norm—is a politics of distinction: between human and animal; autological and genealogical; west and east. If love is so much at the soul of humanity, and necessarily, then, of reasoned being: why in the case of animal activists does love always seem so crazy?
The examples of seeming insanity among animal activists are too legion to even attempt to enumerate here. One of the earliest moments in the founding of an Indian animal welfare movement only happened because an Australian woman who was in love with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (whom she had never met), had a dream about him one night in which he asked her—his wealthy beloved—to send a check to his grandson, Sanjay Gandhi, to help him open an animal shelter. And she did. And he cashed it. And years later Sanjay’s widowed wife, Maneka Gandhi—India’s most famous animal rights activist and a prominent parliamentarian in her own right—did use it to open a shelter. There are also, of course, the gau bakhts (cow devotees), one of who, the Retired Brigadier General Chauhan—a favorite interlocutor of mine—drinks cow urine like it’s beer. He will sometimes for fun eat off the ground with his cows, on his hands and knees; he also administers uncannily accurate horoscopes based on intel he receives in his dreams from cows.
And then there are the hoarders, usually women, who instead of loving too much have precisely failed to love (failed to discriminate), like Asha Kaur in the northern, mountainous state of Uttaranchal who rescues animals destined for sacrifice or, far more often, she takes in animals who, priced too high by greedy brokers at festival time, could not be purchased whole and so had a leg or two sliced off instead. Her small house is full of such bandaged and infected, half-dead animals. The urea is so strong that it burns your eyes and it’s better to sleep outside despite the gruesomely tortured animals that locals throw onto her property as threat. Another example is Leela Parulekar in Pune, former heiress of the Pawar clan who also descended into illness, in part due to the urine soaked mattresses and feces stained floors and constant encounter with suffering.
"If love is an injustice because when we love it is the one or ones who are special to us that we save, then in this ontology of 'andar se aana hoga' love is an injustice because, by virtue of our love, it is we who must be saved."
The issue here I think is less about madness and more about what is culturally and politically attributed to love. All those who read Indian papers are familiar with the phrase "animal lover." It goes back in India at least as far as 1950, when the Hindu newspaper ran a story on Jawaharlal Nehru strolling a zoo, assuring "animal lovers" that their leader had a soft spot for furry creatures. Fur and prime ministers, strangely enough, came up again, in 1990, when the Hindu opened an article with, "What adorns the Prime Ministerial pate need no longer trouble animal lovers. Bowing to criticism from animal rights organizations, Mr. Viswanath Pratap Singh now wears caps made of synthetic fur." (Because, of course, "animal lovers" have no other concerns related to national governance!) The phrase—needless to say, infantilizing, feminizing, and dismissive—is now ubiquitous. It is used to represent people who oppose mass dog culling, those who rescue livestock from illegal transport vehicles, those who protest KFCs, and the neighborhood auntie who feeds dogs at the street corner. What work does this attribution of love do? Why, even in a context as different as the anti-abolitionist movement in North America and its concept of the "nigger lover" is the deliberate confusion of love and ethics so politically and psychically powerful (see Singer 1975)?
For one thing, it reveals the lover’s love as a failed affect. The animal lover’s love lacks distinction; it is only categorical (all animals) and, like any category, is one so unstable that it can never serve the rational ,and thus covert, purpose of love which is to safely mediate the twinned dualisms of autology and genealogy, everything and nothing. By calling it love, you show that it is no kind of love at all. But secondly, if love (which we now have to forget is a categorical love and so an irrational love that is therefore no kind of love at all) is the ground for animal ethics then it is no kind of ethics at all, for it is neither normative, nor is it premised on practical judgment, nor futural, nor immanent. Calling a politics love is to evacuate it of its ethical content, to leave it stranded as simultaneously irrational (not because it’s love, but because it’s categorical, and thus failed) and idiosyncratically singular (love in its guise, not because reason, but because of transcendence).
There are activists who vigorously reject that love has anything to do with their politics, who see the wild-haired neighborhood aunties, and the hoarders, and cow devotees, as a terrible contagion that must be kept at bay with clear-headed rationality, or with cultivated spiritual indifference. But those rejections only fall flat for they forget that the capacity to have love and receive it (when not failed), remains the key humanist currency, the very ground for mutual recognition. And so to claim, as one does, that she has "set her heart in stone" and acts "not out love but out of a deep sense of rage and grief," does not help matters. And to claim, as another does, that he registers no difference between a maggot and a boy and a cow and a dog, does not help matters.
There are those who reject but there are also those who embrace the language and role of the heart. For instance, there is a man named Pummy from a wealthy north Indian family who, a bit of a layabout growing up, was loaned a large plot of land in the once holy region of Kurukshetra by his older brother to start a hatchery. This was in 1996, just on the cusp of a big government and corporate-backed boom in the poultry industry, and Pummy profited handsomely. Years later he was invited by a friend to go on an all-expenses paid Humane Society trip to the US to visit cage-free poultry farms. After his visit, he became unable to stomach the conditions of his own facility, and so sold his farm at a loss and became an advocate for deep litter farming (India’s version of pre-battery cage). He has had no success convincing other farmers to leave the conglomerates to which they are deeply indebted and start other kinds of farming practices, nor did any of the others who participated in the Humane Society’s trip implement changes. He gave me all the economic reasons for this, all solidly convincing. But then he added: Ye sab andar se aana hoga, tapping his chest. It is inside you, or it is not.
I’m also reminded of a letter I read from a woman in West Bengal who wrote to Maneka Gandhi in 2001, asking her to stop an impending sacrifice. "I am again requesting you to hide out my name and address," she wrote. "Let the animal lover to survive first, then animal can be save." If love is an injustice because when we love it is the one or ones who are special to us that we save, then in this ontology of andar se aana hoga love is an injustice because, by virtue of our love, it is we who must be saved.
Conclusion: Indifference to Difference
If indifference alone is injustice and distinction is injustice, what am I suggesting that might be an alternative ground for ethics in the "future of the humanities"? That concept—which I will forward now but reserve the right to one day differ with— is indifference to difference. I first came upon this formulation in a paper I wrote on queer friendship in India (Dave 2014). I was arguing that friendship is today a residual ethic that previously more central is now pushed aside (disappeared even) by the rise of a politics of recognition. Following Leela Gandhi, and her book Affective Communities, I saw friendship as a radical, contrapuntal politics that rejected xenophobia—a statist politics rooted in enmity—through its practice of philoxenia, or a love of difference, a love for the Other, precisely as Other (Gandhi 2006). But I realized as I was working this through that xenophobia and philoxenia are not opposites at all, but actually, are the same thing: an attachment to xenos, an attachment to the existence of difference. And of course homophilia is no different: a love for sameness is necessarily rooted in an attachment to the existence of difference. What I wanted to say about the ideal of queer friendship—as an ethnographer of queer activism but also as a queer friend—was something else: friendship as ethic is neither disdain for difference nor its desire, but indifference to difference: "Same or different, strange or familiar," I wrote at the time, "we are ready to be made more ourselves or something new" (Dave 2014). The ethos of this is a kind mutual estrangement (Roach 2005): the commitment, or at least willingness, to be strange to oneself and to and with another, such that the ground for ethics is not the rational/categorical, but only the immanent.
- For more on the historical and moral complexity of ahimsa in Hinduism, see Doniger 2014 and Kotturan 1973. For a critique of ahimsa as indifference, see Gandhi 1924.
- This clan includes the powerful politician, Sharad Pawar.
- Love and ought have no truck with each other.
- Love and judgment have little truck either.
- You either love animals, or you don’t.
Butler, Judith. 2014. “Ordinary, Incredulous.” In The Humanities and Public Life, edited by Peter Brooks, 15-39. New York: Fordham University Press.
Dave, Naisargi. 2014. “Death and Family: Queer Archives of the Space Between.” In Handbook on Gender in South Asia, edited by Leela Fernandes, 160-172. London: Routledge.
Doniger, Wendy. 2014. On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gandhi, Mahatma. 1924. "Cow Protection." In The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vo.l 27, No. 265. http://www.gandhiserve.org/e/cwmg/cwmg.htm.
Gandhi, Leela. 2006. Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siecle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kotturan, George. 1973. Ahimsa: From Gautama to Gandhi. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.
Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2006. The Empire of Love. Durham: Duke University Press.
Singer, Peter. 1975. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for the Treatment of Our Animals. New York: New York Review.
Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License