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he title of The Autonomous Animal was an obvious reference to infamous declaration by Aristotle that man is “the political animal.” The purpose was to evoke the ways that within the horizon of modernity, autonomy and the political have become intimately intertwined in ways that are both problematic and productive. Autonomy works simultaneously as a precondition for political participation, an end goal of political action, and a framework for understanding political agency. The juxtaposition of autonomy and animality was also intentional, placing two terms that are often seen as in opposition together to think about the assumptions embedded in our ideal of autonomy and how and why paradoxical conjunction of terms can help us re-think the primacy of autonomy in the horizon of modern political thought, particularly liberalism. The ultimate goal was not to displace “the political” with “the autonomous” subject but to re-politicize how we think about the modern subject with a contextual understanding of autonomy as a practice rather than as a norm, value, or quality.
My interest in autonomy was sparked by a tantalizing paradox within modern political thought. Against literature that either took autonomy as a given foundation of political life or literature that rejected autonomy as a modernist fantasy, theoretical explorations of autonomy always seemed to rest on tensions like Rousseau’s proclamation that we must be “forced to be free.” The Kantian imperative of autonomy is not a fantasy of a fetterless, willing actor but of a subject who gives the law to himself, choosing his own limits. I began the manuscript with a biographical story of Kant’s own delight in his corporeal self-management as an illustration of the ultimate paradox within the ideal of autonomy. Even as Kant gestures towards the universal, willing a law for all, he also expresses his joy at the process of engaging in self-limitation, imposing the law on himself. While the runner on the front of the book gestures toward a presumed predetermined end point, the look of delight on her face is also an indication that the end point is not necessarily the entire point. The process of autonomy unfolding is full of unexpected pleasures and pains that are at once subjective and universal, personal and political. This view of the subject seemed to defy caricatures of the modern subject and offered a bridge to post-foundationalist analyses of politics without subjectivity.
I was drawn to exploring autonomy as a set of processes or practices rather than as a quality, characteristic, or end. I wanted to avoid abstracting from the concrete experiences of self-governance because I wanted to capture the complexity and contradictions within the concept. To this end I was drawn to work outside of my own discipline in political science, particularly work in sociology and geography that engaged with theory in a rich, grounded fashion. I wanted to explore the ways that the ideal of autonomy, especially within the liberal democratic tradition, could produce a multiplicity of political projects often at odds with one another such as the drug war and drug culture or the commodification of animals and the discourse of animal rights. Moving between practices informed by the ideal of a self-governing subject and theoretical constructions of this ideal was a thread of a continued compulsion that one must be autonomous (or risk ceasing to be seen as a subject), an imperative that places an infinite burden on the subject.
The examples in the book repeatedly returned to a corporeality of the autonomous subject in large part because of the emphasis on the body as a site of self-governance and of potential danger. While philosophical analyses have often emphasized the mind/body binary and the usual hierarchical relationship between the two, I found in modern political thought a fascination with the body that defied simplification. As a presumed seat of the self, the body was at once an object of danger, whether in the sexualized teenager, the degraded drug user, our “beastly” physicality, or in fears about a lack of physical fitness. On the other hand, as Kant’s reveling in his physical self-management suggests, the body was not to be simply suppressed but directed to become a productive subjective. Rather than being ignored or repressed in favor of the life of the mind, the body has always been central to the development of proper subjects. And, far from personal, the well-governed body is also central to the political project of democracy in which self-governance on a collective scale is contingent upon our ability to govern ourselves at a more micro-scale.
The danger inherent in this project --the exploration of the modern subject and doing so at a micro-scale--is to fall into the trap of excessive self-absorption, a focus on the politics of the self that reiterates rather than resists the modernist turn to a politics of subjectivity. The problem may be two-fold, one that in diagnosing the politics of autonomy focuses on the self rather than the broader political context, missing the broader forces of power, social transformations, or political movements. As Lake suggests, a related problem is the danger of political quietism, accepting the “loneliness of the long distance runner” disengaged from a political world with others. Ironically, this danger repeats the very danger of the liberal view of autonomy being critiqued, in which the self becomes not a subject of action but an object of power. A politics of the self that seeks only self-transformation runs the risk of merely reiterating, rather than transforming, a liberal project that has depoliticized through a diversion of attention from power and onto the individual.
I think this warning is well-heeded and speaks to a persistent concern that has informed my work since the book. I thinking about how, for example, the discourse of autonomy has created, challenged, and remade differing forms of power, locating power is not difficult. One of my ongoing projects explores the relationship between sexuality and subjectivity within modernity, suggesting that sex (and its corporeality) vexes the liberal state precisely because it is at odds with conceptions of self-governance that see the body and pleasure as needing to be managed for the good of the well-ordered self. Consequently, to understand contemporary debates around sexuality we have to unpack the assumptions about self-governance, the body, and sex and their racialized, gendered, species, and class-based dynamics.
My second persistent interest has been to explore what Wilson generously calls “energetically imagin[ing] what this way of thinking autonomy might allow.” To this end I have continued exploring animality as a productive site for re-imagining subjectivity and autonomy outside of a liberal framework. I think the figure of the animal, which has often served—as Lake’s citation of Arendt’s concern that we not become “conditioned and behaving animal[s]” indicates—as a symbol of the non-political. Animals are often understood to be at best moral patients or objects of our ethical consideration but trying to imagine them as political subjects has been challenging. The results have often been unsatisfactory, whether in the animal rights debates I examine in the book or in texts that have tried to understand animal “resistance” as a form of intentional political action aimed at “liberating” animals from human oppression, a move that merely reiterates the liberal model of political agency. In the book I turned to Derrida’s later works on animals as an exemplar of how a self-critical politics that seeks to interrogate and uproot the assumptions at the heart of our political actions can be productive. However, the emphasis on the ethical runs the risk of, once again, obfuscating the political. While challenging the ontological grounds on which we rest our domination of animals and questioning the meaning of “human” may unsettle our ethical responses to animals, translating personal discomfort into political action that genuinely reshapes relationships of power is more complicated. The figure of the animal as an ethical foil is a useful critical tool but also gestures towards the need to think about the difficulty in imagining the animal as a political subject. This difficulty, I believe, calls us towards thinking about the nature of politics and political action.
I would like to thank my interlocutors for their careful reading and well-placed critiques. Their engagement with my work has reaffirmed my belief that I benefit enormously from an interdisciplinary discussion.