Without a Word for “Animal”

As previously quoted, Kathleen Jamie has written that “there was a time…when there were no wild animals because every animal was wild”.  Her point can be extended by suggesting that there have been times and places where there were no “animals” at all because all animals were individuals (or at least representatives of particular species). A koala wasn’t an animal but was simply a koala nor was a raven an animal but rather simply a raven. A koala and a raven are clearly very different individuals and haven’t always both fallen under a homogenizing term such as “animal”.

In Creatures of Empire, Viriginia DeJohn Anderson notes one such time and place when this was the case. She writes that:

“Although Europeans placed all nonhuman creatures into a genuine category of animals, Indians may instead have conceived of animals only as distinct species.”

Anderson is speaking specifically of Algonquin-speaking Indians in New England and the Chesapeke region of colonial America.

She continues explaining that:

“Colonists who compiled lists of native vocabulary recorded names for many kinds of animals, but no Indian word for “animal” itself…The absence of a clear equivalent for animal is striking, since compilers of native lexicons typically recorded words in common use and it seems unlikely that the term never came up in conversation. If this linguisitic peculiarity represented a genuine conceptual difference, it suggests that Indians did not conceive of the natural world in terms of a strict human-animal dichotomy but rather as a place characterized by a diversity of living beings.” (18)

The same point has been made on a theoretical level by Jacques Derrida.  In The Animal That Therefore I Am, he explains that humans use this “catch-all concept”:

“in spite of the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger or the elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm or the hedgehog from the echidna”. (402)

He suggests that:

“Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give. ..They have given themselves the word in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” (400)

And that the term is applied to:

“all living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbors, or his brothers” (402)

The “catch-all concept” is not without its consequences:

The confusion of all nonhuman living creatures within the general and common category of the animal is not simply a sin against rigorous thinking, vigilance, lucidity, or empirical authority; it is also a crime. Not a crime against animality precisely, but a crime of the first order against the animals, against animals.” (416)

Given that Derrida describes this as a crime “against animals” it is important to point out that the culprits are not limited to those we may consider to be paradigmatic knife-wielding, animal exploiters. The concept animal is (perhaps out of necessity as we are not free to create our own language from the ground up) obviously employed by those working toward animal liberation. On one level this may be deemed trivial as it is seemingly a mere choice of words which can be pragmatic; so long as we don’t forget who we are talking about there is little chance of harm.  But can we realistically avoid such forgetting when employing a term that necessarily suggests that chimpanzees and spiders belong to one category while human beings to a distinct (and more elevated?) category?  Can we avoid having our minds warped with speciesim given language that we seemingly have little alternative but to employ?

What if we do forget who we are talking about when we say “animal”? What if we forget that “animal rights” involves so many diverse beings that there is no uniform set of interests for such rights to protect? There can be no animal rights per se but, at best, species-specific rights that are more-or-less applicable to particular individuals.  Yet even this approach will mask the diversity of interests of individuals belonging to the same species. It is obvious that not all humans have the same interests and that attempts to posit rights almost inevitably end in conflict and yet the same thing is seemingly not so obvious when applied to nonhuman animals where the range of diversity is many times greater.

For example, there are some who would favor genetically eliminating carnivores so as to spare prey animals much suffering.  Would this safeguard certain rights or violate certain rights (both? neither?)? Does it benefit animals or harm animals?  How ought animal rights activists respond?

It may be impossible to simply discard the word or the concept of “animal” but at a bare minimum we would be wise to continually remind ourselves that there are no animals but only “a diversity of living beings” of which we are a part.