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How to Think Through the Animal?: Towards New Frontiers of Critical Animal Studies: An Interview with Matthew Calarco

By Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha and Saptaparni Pandit

Matthew Calarco is Professor of Philosophy in California State University, Fullerton and author of numerous path-breaking works in the domain of Critical Animal Studies such as Thinking through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction (Stanford University Press, 2015), The Death of the Animal (Columbia University Press, 2009), Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (Columbia University Press, 2008).

On behalf of Café Dissensus, Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha and Saptaparni Pandit spoke to Prof. Calarco.

Matthew Colarco.jpg

Q: Are you currently working on any new volume after Thinking through Animals?

MC: First, let me say thank you for the opportunity to exchange ideas on these issues and for all of your thoughtful questions.

I am usually working on a few things at any given time. At the moment, I have completed a monograph entitled, Beyond the Anthropological Difference, that is under review. It takes up some of the themes of the final chapter of Thinking through Animals and lays them out at more length, for readers who might be interested in seeing a fuller philosophical exposition of those ideas. I am also working on a small book on roadkill, entitled Altermobilities. Finally, I am in the early research stages of a book, entitled The Three Ethologies (a play on Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies), in which I try to reconfigure animal studies as a project aimed at instituting different ethologies (understood in a very broad sense) at the subjective, intersubjective, and environmental levels.

Q: Talking about Identity based philosophers stressing individual ethical choices for veganism and cruelty-free consumerism, you have observed that you prefer more collective and political forms of such ethical practices. But do you see such collective forms being possible at all?

MC: Yes, I think such actions are possible and are currently in existence in various kinds of ways. To explain what I have in mind here, what I am pushing back against is the notion that the pro-animal movement should focus solely or primarily on individuals becoming vegans and changing their consumer habits. While I think this approach is an important first step in helping us to think more deeply about the harms that are caused to animals in our food systems, I think it is ultimately a limited strategy. It leaves in place myriad exploitative relationships at the economic and ecological levels, and it does very little to accomplish a transformation in our subjective constitution. I believe thoroughgoing changes are required at all of those levels, and such changes can only be brought about by collective action. There are many activists who have long recognized this point and have constructed forms of collective action in response. Such actions would include some of the campaigns that are carried out by larger animal rights organizations (to give a concrete example from my own national context, see some of the excellent work being done by In Defense of Animals over the past several years) as well as smaller grassroots projects (for example, Food not Bombs, which does very important work in various local communities in the United States and abroad). So, to underscore the point: I am not opposed to Vegan Outreach or other groups that push for veganism and changes in consumer practices; rather, the point is that we need to supplement such action with a broader set of collective practices and visions for transformation that penetrate more deeply into the sources of violence and possibilities for social, economic, and ecological change.

Q: You spoke about various organizations which are fighting for Egalitarian ethics to be maintained between humans and animals, could you please elaborate on such organizations? You did cite the example of the Great Ape Project and the implementation of some of its rights based suggestions by the Spanish parliament, but how would you see the success of that project now?

MC: The organizations I had in mind here are large animal welfare groups such as PETA and The Humane Society, as well as international organizations like the Great Ape Project (GAP). To stay with GAP for the moment as a stand-in for a certain kind of hybrid animal rights-welfare initiative: no, I don’t think this particularly strategy will ultimately be successful (at least on its own terms). GAP, for instance, is based on a kind of “domino theory” of social change and is undergirded by a progressive view of legislation and democratic politics. The basic idea here is that if we can secure rights for some of the more high-profile, cognitively sophisticated species (great apes, cetaceans, and so on), then we will eventually be able to expand the circle of legal protection to include other animal species. This kind of hope for an expansion in legislation is predicated on the notion that the law and democratic societies more generally are open to reform and have a kind of progressive trajectory to them. This is why animal rights/welfare legislation is often compared with anti-slavery legislation. The assumption is that, eventually, large swaths of people will come to see the mistreatment of primates, cetaceans, and other animals as ethically objectionable and corresponding legislation will emerge to prevent it.

I don’t share this kind of teleological vision of history and politics, and I have no such faith in democratic societies. Past history and contemporary events around the globe recurrently give the lie to the belief in a progressive and teleological unfolding of politics and law. That does not mean, though, that I am a fatalist or pessimist. I simply believe that politics and socio-cultural (and natural!) change cannot be fully mastered or controlled. Large-scale, progressive, and revolutionary changes do sometimes come about, as do reversals of such changes. One fights for justice, regardless. There need not be a belief in some kind of moral arc to the universe or the guarantee of long-term success in order to fight injustice and envision and enact alternative forms of life. Projects like GAP make real changes and can have revolutionary effects under certain historical circumstances, and I am deeply grateful for the work that is being done along those lines. But I think we need to be careful about fully investing in the vision of social change that underlies these projects, as such commitments can block us from considering other promising possibilities, strategies, and tactics. (For readers who might wish to examine these questions at more length, I have a long exchange with Paola Cavalieri, one of the co-editors of the original GAP book, in the recently published book, Philosophy and the Politics of Animal Liberation).

Q: You also brought in the issue of logocentrism while talking about identity discourse in critical animal studies. The privileging of reason or logos in Singer and other identity theorists you mentioned has been challenged by the care-based ethics of feminist thinkers. Could you please elaborate on such views?

MC: Among analytic animal ethicists, there has been a heavy emphasis on the idea that our responsibilities to animals can be – and perhaps even ought to be – arrived at solely by way of rational reflection. This position is often articulated against the charge that pro-animal discourse is a form of mere irrational sentimentalism rather than careful philosophical reflection. Given the intellectual and institutional context of analytic philosophy in the 1970s and ’80s, one can understand the need to present one’s work in logocentric terms. But feminists were quick to point out that there is a real danger in this kind of exclusively reason-centered approach. Not only does it reinforce certain masculinist biases (the traditional alignment of reason with masculinity and emotion with femininity), but it also fails to take into account a rich body of work in both the history of philosophy and moral psychology which suggests that our moral reasoning is inextricably linked to sentiments, affects, and passions of various sorts. If part of what is at stake in doing animal ethics is trying to figure out how we might change our individual and collective behaviors and attitudes toward animals, it does seem that we need a well-rounded picture of ethical life; and I think the pro-animal feminist thinkers (Carol Adams, Josephine Donovan, Lori Gruen, and many others) who issued this critique of hyper-rationality helped point us in the right direction. To be sure, reasoning is very important to animal ethics and politics, but there are any number of additional means (affective, emotional, embodied, extra-cognitive, etc.) by which we come to think, know, and live differently with regard to animals. Although the feminist philosophers I mention in this section of the book do not write with Continental philosophers in mind, there are several possible lines of consonance one could draw between this questioning of masculinist reason and the thoroughgoing critique of logocentrism in the Continental tradition. I take up the latter perspective in the second chapter of Thinking through Animals, which focuses on philosophies of difference. 

Q: In your book, Thinking through Animals, you have made the following observation: “Indeed, one of the tasks of philosophy is to help us work our way to the edges of language in order to catch sight of that which exceeds our conceptual mastery.” Could you please elaborate on this?

MC: I was making this comment in the context of an analysis of human-animal indistinction, a path of thought that threatens to do away with a rich conceptual tradition concerning humanity and animality that is inherited from a variety of philosophical and phenomenological traditions. Philosophers who follow Hegelian and related philosophies are often loathe to jettison concepts altogether and are much fonder of refining, complicating, and reworking them in a dialectical manner. I have no objection to this way of doing philosophy in general, and in fact I’m indebted to it in the book itself. At the same time, there are certain conceptual formulations and distinctions that become exhausted and that force us to risk inventing new ways of thinking and speaking. I try to make the case in the book and elsewhere that the human/animal distinction is one such conceptual framework that should be largely abandoned (at least in terms of using it in a positive or affirmative manner).

I arrive at this position not a priori but through the failure of that distinction to do the work that it purports to do, viz., delimit some kind of relatively stable distinction between human beings and animals. I won’t rehearse all of the ways in which the distinction becomes undone, but I will note that the philosophical task of glimpsing the limits of our conceptual frameworks is what is at issue here. When our concepts fail to do justice to reality, and when we glimpse that failure and feel its force – it is at such points that the strangeness and richness of the world come to the foreground and demand of us that we think again, respond again. So, philosophy’s task is double in this instance: both to think the world as respectfully as possible and to be prepared to rethink our frameworks when we encounter forms of alterity we have failed to take into account. Although I do not spell this out at great length in the book, I am suggesting with this kind of analysis that when it comes to a field as rich as the one named under the rubric of human-animal indistinction, we will have to proceed humbly and be prepared to adopt and experiment with plural ontologies (which is rather different from ontological pluralism). 

Q: While reading your book, Thinking through Animals, we also come across this important observation of yours: “The political task ought not to be one of trying to accede to this privileged order but instead of creating a way of life that no longer rotates around the human and the anthropological difference. It is here, on this post-anthropocentric terrain, that the material and conceptual conditions for creating alliances between pro-animal and other radical struggles for social justice are to be found.” This sounds really great and it would be wonderful if you could give example of such political mobilizations being carried forward now.

MC: This statement is probably best read in a normative or “prophetic” manner rather than as descriptive. Let me explain what I mean here. There are emerging at present a variety of intersectional approaches to animal justice and social justice movements. Theorists and activists are now exploring in great depth the manner in which violence circulates in intersecting and overlapping ways across a variety of subject positions and beings (and it goes without saying that this work builds on longstanding precedents among pro-animal feminists, ecofeminists, and many other thinkers and movements). The most radical social justice movements (I have in mind radical queer, critical disability, critical race frameworks, etc.) see very clearly that the political task is not to establish once and for all that typically marginalized groups of people are “fully human” – as if such recognition would solve the problem at hand. This kind of appeal to “the human” and the kind of anthropocentrism that undergirds it is the very source of the violence against which these movements are struggling; and no expansion of the category of “the human” will ever be broad enough to include all of the excluded beings and subject positions for which these movements militate.

It is around this nodal point – that is to say, around the point where one leaves behind the anthropocentric project – that radical social justice struggles and pro-animal and other non-anthropocentric struggles might meet and see each other as allies in a deep and profound sense. I don’t want to pretend that this idea is already widely grasped and practiced by most social justice activists and theorists; it is not. But there are examples of such connections being made in theory and practice to which one could point (in the book I mention a few and I point toward the relevant sources in the footnotes; I take up this topic at more length in Beyond the Anthropological Difference as well). I believe that as intersectional analyses are pursued and deepened something like this kind of shared post-anthropocentric stance will become increasingly common. I further believe that this shared stance will create the conditions for a wide variety of alliances and coalitions to form that are barely envisioned at present. Whether such connections will be carefully pursued and politically effective will depend on factors that no one can predict at present.

Q: Your engagement in your book has largely been with European thoughts vis-a-vis the animal question. What about non-European thinking on animals? The Buddhist and Jainist philosophers did speak about the human animal indistinction. Do you have any plan to engage with these non-Western thinkers in your future works?

MC: Although I didn’t engage in that book with Buddhist or Jainist discourses and practices regarding animals, I have been deeply influenced by those respective traditions (the Jains in particular, and the Bishnoi as well). I tend not to write as much on these traditions due to my not being a scholarly expert on them and given that there are a number of really excellent scholars who work on animal issues from these perspectives. But I have learned a great deal about these traditions from English-speaking scholars like Christopher Chapple and Brianne Donaldson, and I do examine recent research on these traditions in my annual review for the Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory. I will also be engaging Jainist ideas on mobility in the book on roadkill; I have been studying and thinking about that connection for many years now and feel like I can offer something informed along those lines.

With regard to how these traditions intersect with the notion of indistinction, I agree wholeheartedly that there are important parallels. I would say the overarching aim throughout my work is in fact to clear a kind of theoretical and practical space for these traditions and other non-Western and non-Eurocentric perspectives to enter into mutual dialogue about reconstituting relations with animals and other beings/systems. Indistinction names a fundamentally aporetic space that clears an opening for plural ontologies to emerge and to be experimented with. Buddhist and Jainist traditions have rich resources here, as do a number of indigenous traditions along with various subcultural movements and alternative forms of life. 

Q: At the end of your book, you refer to Brian Massumi and Jason Hribal and your endorsement of their views on animal studies is evident there but you preferred not to engage with them with greater detail. Do you have future plans to write more elaborately on them? This prompts us to ask you about your take on Massumi`s idea of animal play and politics and Jason`s conviction on animal resistance.

MC: I have written at more length on Massumi in one of my annual reviews, but let me say a few words here about what I find promising in his work. Although my approach to animal studies is more straightforwardly normative, I find Massumi to be an important ally in various ways. In particular, I admire the manner in which he reconceives play as emerging from a series of pre- and trans-individual forces in which both human beings and animals are caught up. By placing human beings and animals on a continuum within the context of a field of ex-propriating forces (play and politics being his primary examples), Massumi is enacting exactly the kind of thinking I am identifying as belonging to the indistinction approach (or indiscernibility, to use Massumi’s more Deleuze-inflected language). Critics of Massumi sometimes wonder what the normative implications of his work are, and his analysis of zoos is sure to raise some eyebrows among readers who are aligned with critical animal studies. But here, too, I find Massumi’s work to be useful. I read his work on zoos and politics as less interested in articulating a specific normative ethics and politics and more as dedicated to reminding us that, beyond the activist denunciation of violence (and Massumi is clear that there is much worth denouncing in view of violence being done toward animals), even in the most complicated and repressive animal institutions there is still evidence of animal politics and agency.

Here Massumi rejoins Hribal’s project, although arriving from a very different angle. Whereas Hribal is interested in concrete examples of animal resistance and agency, Massumi is thinking about the ontology that underlies and makes such resistance possible. Their respective projects are, to be sure, not identical in all respects, but thinking through their work together can be a helpful exercise. I have written at more length on Hribal’s work for a forthcoming chapter in an edited collection on animal studies. To restate the essence of my argument, what I find most promising in Hribal is that he shifts standard debates concerning both: (1) animal agency (he demonstrates that animals are, contra the dominant discourse, capable of remarkable and remarkably effective forms of resistance); and (2) the impetus underlying animal defense ethics and politics. Regarding the latter point, Hribal’s work convincingly undercuts the notion that animal defense politics is something that offers “a voice for the voiceless.” While it is true that other animals do not generally speak what we take to be quintessential political language, they do express themselves in a variety of ways and they demonstrate incredible agency, creativity, and resistance. As such, it is perhaps more useful to see pro-animal activism as being fought with forces and powers that inhere in the fabric of life-death more generally and are not the sole provenance of the human. From this alternative perspective, pro-animal activism comes to be seen as something that emerges in response to and in support of extant resistance on the part of animals and other beings and not simply as an attempt to speak for animals (as if they were voiceless and expressionless).

Prof. Calarco, thank you so much for speaking to us. 

Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha is Associate Professor, Kazi Nazrul University, India. His current research engages with issues of the Anthropocene, radical political theology, and postcolonial governance. He has been a fellow in the New School for Social Research, New York in 2017. He co-edits Kairos, the Journal of Critical Symposium and is one of the founding members of the Postcolonial Studies Association of the Global South (PSAGS). He can be contacted at

Saptaparni Pandit is a PhD Research Scholar in Kazi Nazrul University, India. Her domain of research is revisiting literature and culture in the age of the Anthropocene. She has presented her research paper in the Environmental Justice Conference held in the Colorado State University, USA in 2017 and has been assigned to write in journals such as Ephemera and Environmental Humanities (Duke University Press). She can be contacted at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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