Pigeons, Pigs, and the Optimism of Reason

Image from Emil Schachtzabel, Illustriertes Prachtwerk sämtlicher Taubenrassen (1906)

Zipporah Weisberg and Carlo Salzani

Pigeons, Pigs, and the Optimism of Reason

Interview with Fahim Amir

In 2018, Viennese philosopher and author Fahim Amir published Schwein und Zeit: Tiere, Politik, Revolte, urging us to rethink animal oppression in resolutely political terms. The book garnered several awards and was translated into many languages, including into English as Being and Swine: The End of Nature (As We Knew It).[1] Part social history, part political intervention, Being and Swine provides fascinating insight into how other animals, most notably pigeons and pigs, have impacted human lives both at the micro and macro levels.

Drawing on Karl Marx and other thinkers in the radical Left tradition, Amir argues that other animals are de facto political subjects and have played a central role in the history of struggle. A core argument throughout the book is that other animals are not powerless victims of human violence but political subjects capable of resistance. In his rethinking of human and nonhuman animal relations throughout modernity, Amir also asks us to interrogate the “bourgeois” concept of “nature” itself (as pure, pristine, and set apart from urban and human life) and to question our despair at “its” undoing. Perhaps, Amir suggests, if looked at through a different lens—one that focuses on the resilience and adaptability of human and nonhuman animals in the face of devastation—the situation we find ourselves in today may not seem as bleak as it might otherwise appear.

Zipporah Weisberg and Carlo Salzani: You propose examining the problem of animal oppression from a Marx-inspired perspective, but at the same time you are very critical of traditional Marxist thought about animals (and ecology?). As you write, “When it comes to animals, the left turns right.” Can you elaborate on the limits of leftist thought with respect to nonhuman animals and environmental issues more broadly?

Fahim Amir: The “left” is a perversely loose term—and when it comes to animals, it gets rather embarrassing. If, for the sake of brevity, we take into consideration those citizens and revolutionaries seated in the French National Assembly of 1814, and later the communards of 1871 and the labor movement in its broadest form, ranging from anarchists to revolutionaries to social democrats, also far beyond Europe, we find individuals and currents that insisted on the inclusion of animals into political intelligibility. May it be the communard Louise Michel in France, the group around philosopher Leonard Nelson in Germany, or those inspired by the writings of Russian writer Tolstoy on both sides of the Atlantic, just to name a few. But the cognitive rupture of the extremely vicious equation of animals and humans by the Nazis, and the intellectual and political response to this rupture, made it difficult to imagine any political continuity in the relationships between species. The horizon of the political imagination had shrunk to include only humanity.

We still feel the echoes of these processes in the dominant modes of perception, reflection, and perspective, also in the hegemonic forms of critical thinking and practice after 1968 that are labelled “progressive,” a notion that is notoriously hard to define in a theoretically sound way. But things have been in motion for a while now, and from different sides. At the same time, increasingly, the need is felt to develop perspectives that go beyond better management, segregation, or abolition. Still, in many ways, in terms of both form and content, and in both theory and practice, our social and political desires and utopias concerning animals too often are just an inverted mirror-image of what is critiqued.

ZW-CS: Despite your criticisms, you nonetheless want to “stay loyal” to the Marxist project and remain committed to using it as a “method” of analysis, albeit in “feralized” form. Can you explain what you mean by that unusual term? How can we “feralize” the Marxist project, and what can it still offer us in our time, particularly in terms of understanding how and why we now systemically torture, kill, and consume more animals than ever before in the history of the world?

FA: In the tradition of, for example, Walter Benjamin, I think it can be rewarding to understand this stream of thought as one that has the potential to say and think philosophically surprising, even unthinkable and outrageous things. You could call that magical Marxism. Or materialist philosophy. But to unlock this power, this old work horse of theory has to shake off its rider, in a sense go wild. It may then no longer carry us into a future paradise but stray and dwell at places not very much looked at in the past. In a historical sense, Marxism today is a dead horse, of course. But as a ghost, it is very present. Without it, you would have neither Postcolonial Studies nor Cultural Studies—in my opinion, you could not even try to critique or conceive ideology, just to name a few examples in the field of theory. At the same time, I think, its critical potential is not yet realized, as the animal question shows. In this specific sense, you could call the book fodder for the undead.

I think it is also not the full picture to say that “we” systematically torture and kill animals. Who is this “we”? Abstract humanity as a moral subject? I also don’t think that “we” destroy the environment or exploit the socio-economic peripheries of the world. That “we” think so is an effect of ideology. One important dimension we should not forget is class. There are millions of animals who have better lives than many human beings on the planet. As it can’t be surprising that in a world profoundly shaped by sexual and gendered asymmetries, also most exploited animals in the world are female. Class questions are ubiquitous when it comes to animals. Still, very few thinkers follow through on class consequently to the end. Class theorists don’t see animals as part of class, animal activists seldom see animals in the continuity of living labor. That the body of some animals has become an integral cyborg part of the factory, like in the case of milk cows, is just another facet of the ongoing process of real subsumption of capital—entering the bloodstream and algorithmizing profit-extraction.

Coming back to your question of de-tame-ination, going feral means, for me, to also embrace the possibility of being unserviceable, in German “undienlich.” Of course, feralized thinking may not easily be employed in the service of progress, but I think it is of utmost importance. I would say that animals and animality are so much intertwined with the production of reality and the reality of production that messing with these issues seriously means handling dynamite.

ZW-CS: Your politicization of the animal question is part of the “political turn” currently taking place in animal studies. You argue (and we agree) that traditional animal ethics, as varied and diverse as it is, seems to hit a wall when attempting to address the present ecological crisis and the driving forces behind the ever-increasing systemic violence against animals. While the political turn has so far been predominantly led by liberal perspectives, you offer a refreshingly radical interpretation. What contribution can the political turn in general and the kind of political turn you advocate in particular make to improving our understanding of these issues? Should we regard other animals as “citizens” or as “comrades”? Does it matter? You argue that inasmuch as “resisting one’s own domination is in itself genuinely political,” other animals are political actors on the world-historical stage. Why is animals’ status as political beings dependent on their capacity to resist? Can they not be considered political subjects whether or not they resist oppression?

FA: My approach could probably be considered materialist, or “neomaterialist,” if you will. Entities don’t exist, they come into existence in ontological processuality without antecedent elements. Only after their emergence do their elements also become perceptible as such. I think this is not only the case in the realms of natural philosophy, like for example in Lucretius’ philosophy or in Karen Barad’s agential realism, but also in political philosophy.

My understanding of animals as resisting actors and agents of the political stands in a certain forcefield of reasoning that takes issue with certain traditions of philosophy, political theory, and social history. The idea of the polis, which is the genealogical reference for the political in the classical sense, highlights the discursive agency of the Greek free male, who always needs a slave—and if he doesn’t have a slave, an animal will do. In my understanding, entering this field is not contingent upon speaking the master language. It may be even more important to profoundly distort this space of politics.

Later came the idea that to be politically active meant to fight for your interests in an organized way. But taking a legitimized or also illegitimate break from work is as much part of this fight as is an organized demonstration. To come too late to work, or even become sick of it too. This does not mean that I propose this as a meaningful path of political struggle, I just say that it is part of the picture. And in this sense, I also question the fetishes of intentionality and self-transparency of the zoon politikon. Both the contemporary investment of military and science in the bodily and psychological aspects of living beings (for example, research on the ability of certain birds to fly long distances without sleep) and the animal history of the factory as a historical figuration (like pigs resisting the mechanization of their deaths) show that there are dimensions of continuity between the species—from the perspective of power and profit. There are other continuities conceivable from the perspective of comradeship or pact between the species—like solidarity. And certainly, different ways to take these dimensions into account are imaginable, and rightly so.

In my book, I brought a certain notion of autonomy into play, in the philosophical sense that insofar as animals resist becoming part of the machine of surplus-extraction, they can be regarded as part of living labor, not merely a somehow vibrant form of material, like coal, steam, or iron, as is the case in the traditional critique of political economy that takes the analytical perspective of class.

If you set up a certain philosophical force field, certain phenomena become perceptible. In other constellations, other important dimensions may show their contours. A specific idea of the political forms the horizon of most conceptions of politics, or more specifically of democracy, mainly as a way to legitimize public decision-making, that is, produce hegemonic consensus, for example via direct or indirect representation. But in my understanding, the political goes beyond institutions and norms. The political is bigger than politics, and animals are part of it. As the philosopher Hakan Gürses reminds us, this does not necessarily mean that everything is political, but that everything can become political. There is a surplus, an excess of the political that I want to pay tribute to and propose to take into consideration. And in my book I prefer to refrain, as does, for example, critical theory in the tradition of the Frankfurt School, or Marx in his critique of political economy, from painting a positive picture, and rather offer a critical one in the sense of critiquing certain darling ideas as contingent, problematic, and obsolete on the basis of their own categories, historical interventions, or contemporary findings. New beginnings are necessary. A revolution, as Paul B. Preciado remarks, is not just a supplanting of modes of government but also a collapse of modes of representation, “a jolt to the semiotic universe, a reordering of bodies and voices.” I try to contribute to this new sound of reality that is perceptible if we allow ourselves to listen.

ZW-CS: In our view, one of the most interesting features of your book is that it offers what might be called a “social history of humans and other animals” or a “multispecies social history,” which, among other things, highlights how the lives of workers (and the oppressed in general) and other animals have been intimately intertwined through the centuries, both as victims of ideological and structural violence and as agents of change. You outline the various ways in which pigeons and pigs have been cast as heroes, victims, and villains throughout the ages. Why have you chosen to focus on these animals and not on, say, dogs, cats, foxes, squirrels, sparrows, mice, rats, raccoons, or other domesticated or liminal animals that have also lived in close proximity to human beings in and around urban centres? What is it about pigeons and pigs that is of particular importance to your project?

FA: Both animals, pigeons and pigs, have a special history of abjection and at the same time a certain centrality in specific constellations of architectural history, visual and popular culture, economy, politics, and publics that interested me. In other contexts, other animals enter the stage of history in ways that provoke my thinking, for example the Chinese mitten crab that appeared in the early twentieth century in Hamburg dykes through international naval commerce and irritated Nazi sentiments in 1930s Hamburg so much that bounties were offered to mobilize necropolitical hordes of little children to catch and deliver crabs who seemingly polluted German aquatic space and affective landscapes. Of course, the Nazis were utterly success-less and the Chinese mitten crab still lives happily in Hamburg.

Coming back to your question, there are conceptual and contextual elements: Pigeons started to interest me because of a certain film, Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog,” that reflects existence and aesthetics at the end of the American empire through the neo-noir story of a professional killer who lives on the roof of a building together with pigeons who function as his brothers-in-arms—a wonderful meditation on questions of peace, profanity, and the terror of contemporaneity. Pigeons fascinate me for a broad variety of reasons, such as their seemingly unstoppable presence in many cities of our times; their changing role in myth, religion, economy, and communication; and many other reasons like their status as the “ghetto bird” of hip-hop iconography. For example, they can teach us important lessons of cohabitation. In a sense, they are also the embodiment of metaphors—for a long time, they carried meaning from one place to another. Pigeons are the angels of Fordism, the leftovers of history. After having lost all their productive jobs, they now hang around in the cities and watch us.

Pigs, on the other hand, more mundanely caught my interest through my research on transcultural encounters and entanglements, such as straying cows as sudden problems for urban planning in times of high modernism and postcolonial beginnings. In this context, I also came across a book by Sigfried Giedion, the secretary general of the CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture), from the 1940s, in which his rather arts-based research shed light on processes that had also interested Adorno and Horkheimer at the same time at the same place (as refugees from Europe, stranded in the US), but with a plot twist: For Giedion, too, the industrialized mass killing of animals formed the choreography of a danse macabre that could be regarded as intertwined with broader processes of the last century, but his engagement with anonymous history allowed him to see processes that evaded the philosophical eyes of his Frankfurt contemporaries and enabled him to think through the infection of Henry Ford’s assembly line with technologies first brought to full form in the disassembly line of necrocapital Chicago as a porcopolis and bovine city.

Giedion’s genealogical research on this laboratory of modernity that transformed flesh into capital and skyscrapers by refabricating both environment and society was decisive for me in rethinking the historical and conceptual role of animals and animality in processes of manufacturing living labor and birthing the factory. With Adorno and Horkheimer’s liberalism, we would never have arrived there. In my understanding, without a materialist, or maybe more precisely in contemporary scholarly terms, “neomaterialist” footing that stresses both relationality and materiality, critical theory can too easily become a self-reifying discourse machine that always proves what it presupposes. Adding other strands to my interest in pigs, there are also elements of plebeian vulgarity and proletarian ubiquity in both colonial peripheries and the European homelands.

ZW-CS: In the chapter called “Black Hole Sun,” you outline what you regard as the “utopian powers of veg*” which, you maintain, “lie in the disruption of the normal state of things.” Veggie-burger chains are not, you (correctly) insist, part of this disruption. Rather, “to live veg* means to break materially and symbolically with the prevailing conditions.” This is an important distinction between a lifestyle choice and a political boycott. What surprises us is your use of the term veg* to encapsulate both vegetarianism and veganism as if they were equivalent. By all accounts, there is a significant difference, both materially and symbolically, between vegetarianism and veganism. While veganism is a commitment to avoiding, as much as possible, participation in or benefit from all forms of violence against animals, vegetarianism is limited to eliminating animal flesh from one’s diet. Could you explain your reasoning behind putting the practices on par?

Even though in certain parts of the world, in certain layers of society, vegetarianism and veganism are gaining momentum, the political ontology of this practice has not yet been developed at all. In what sense is this negative practice of not doing something, in fact, doing something—beyond the idea that you somehow support the good, “cruelty-free” industry? Is this an anti-cannibalist ethos in the sense that “I don’t want to be a being that physically consumes another one”? Is it a didactic practice that shows that another life is possible? In what sense does the symbolic become material here, as it definitely does—at least in my opinion? It can be a moralistic and consumerist decision; in this sense, it is anti-political as I understand the political—as a form of disruption, as an intervention, as a politization.

The critical legacy of social theory, if it has any weight at all, focuses on the change of the production of society as a whole. Capitalism is so thoroughly interwoven with racial, sexual, and animal exploitation that any kind of break inside it is either thoroughly symbolic or an exodus. While veganism would certainly be the result of ending animal exploitation, the question is: in what relationship does it stand to this goal? Is it part of a struggle or its subsumption? Already, the definition of veganism lacks the clarity that vegetarianism, at least, has. Just imagine a person sitting in a library reading a book or following a debate on their smart phone—is reading a book vegan? What about the gelatine in the glue of book binding? Is checking your mails on your cell phone vegan? What about the destroyed habitats of water wildlife that are killed to cool the gigantic data storage facilities allowing you a simple Google search? What about buildings themselves? Architecture kills more winged creatures via bird strike than all cats of the world combined. Wouldn’t it be logically justifiable to call those who live in tents and refrain from book reading and using the internet the “real vegans”? In analogy with Adorno’s remark on psychoanalysis—it is only correct as an exaggeration—veganism shows with great clarity that it is not possible inside animal capitalism, that the whole thing has to be transformed even if you want to do something as seemingly simple and understandable as being vegan.

At the same time, these issues not only seem to bear the traces of certain ideologies of “purity,” but also entail much wasted time, because I individually have to look for ways to live animal-free in a world that is deeply integrated with animal capital, exploitation, and death. This is a problematic focus on questions of the politically pure lifestyle. As an individual decision, it is politically irrelevant. It may form an element of the political aesthetics of real movements in a profound sense, but it can also reach the shores of narcissistic self-aggrandizement or sectarianism.

Neither veganism nor vegetarianism are politically progressive in themselves. Looking beyond Western centers may be useful as an antidote to toxic righteousness—in India, nationalist hooligans regularly massacre real or allegedly beef-eating Muslims. In my opinion, the current hype of veganism as a radicalized—or more consequent—form of vegetarianism cannot be separated from hegemonic sentiments that dominate current shortcomings of political understanding: It can be argued that the triad of scandalization-outrage-boycott that is becoming the mainstream of political response is just a tiny part of possible political engagement. Still, there is a specificity to the literal consumption of somebody else that also marks, at least for me, the necessity to break with complicity. Veg* is an expression that takes this material-semiotic break seriously but understands its internal constitution between these poles as an inclusive continuity rather than a passport to the land of the righteous.

ZW-CS: A reader accustomed to the literature on animal advocacy might be surprised, and perhaps even disturbed, by your “breezy” tone and use of humor in dealing with such horrifying subject matter. You are certainly aware of this issue, as you feel the need to assert the value of humor in the preface. You resort to irony rather than moralization and define your perspective as an “optimism of reason.” Why do you feel that levity is justified here? How would you respond to the criticism of inappropriateness?

FA: A bitter pill is sometimes better served with a pleasant coating; others may prefer to indulge in the aesthetics of tristesse. Both academic and political jargon may also bore or scare off some readers. Some may regard artivism as ridiculous, others may find conventional rallies a dead routine. Some may find a surrealist painting meaningless, others may find formally ambitious literature lame. Some people may find that comedy is the only materialist genre and polemic the highest critical one. People, places, and circumstances may differ, and a specific way to tackle an issue may not always find its audience, but the questions at stake are too important to allow ourselves to define too hastily what a legitimate way to address an issue is. Personally, I still find much intellectual and literary amusement in the many layers of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays and how he approached matters via letters. This thinker, living in times of civil war, invented a new way to write because he did not want to contribute to the genre of war stories. For a politician or propagandist, things may be different, but for a philosopher, there is a duty to be untimely, and humor can be a means to reach other readers.

ZW-CS: A related question is whether your stated optimism is deeply felt or more of a strategic choice. If the former, it is certainly refreshing to encounter genuine optimism in what is otherwise a historical moment steeped in foreboding. We are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, the animal industrial complex is expanding at an unprecedented rate, there is massive displacement due to war, conflict, and climate change, and we have just emerged from a global pandemic. Could you elaborate on how one might be optimistic in the face of such multiple and intersecting catastrophes? In the chapter “Underground Ecologies,” you argue that even toxic waste, chemical run-off, and waste products such as cigarette butts can benefit other animals (such as birds in Mexico, who have used cigarette butts to build nests which reduce the presence of ectoparasites, or songbirds who apparently sing “louder, faster, and with more endurance” after exposure to synthetic hormones flowing through sewers and sewage systems). Even if this is so, does searching for “silver linings” in situations where many other animals have been harmed, and/or had their biological integrity undermined, by human beings not run the risk of downplaying the serious damage human activity is causing to the Earth and its inhabitants?

FA: The words you refer to from the introduction of my book are “optimism of reason.” This is an homage to Antonio Gramsci’s famous words “pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” But while Gramsci wrote about the prospect of social change in a fundamental sense, I wrote in the context of methodical reflections—if it is indeed necessary to revise the most basic assumptions of Marx’ thought, as Donna Haraway and others propose, or if it could be possible to expand and renew some of its core elements.

Another issue is my insistence on broadening our vision of ecological entanglements and to lessen the weight of moralization when it comes to nature and animals—too often, I find very one-sided worldviews projected on animals, also by those speaking on behalf of animals and nature. For example, in an environmentalist TV documentary that I recently watched, ants were described as “policemen of the woods.” Why in all heavens should ants be conceived in the limited perspective of regulatory policy in the most superficial sense? On the other hand, it seems to be a reality that there is also a policing function inside the anthill. Ants who hang around doing nothing are, sooner rather than later, regulated by other ants specialized in this task.

Thinking should not stop but start where things get complicated. In a certain sense, the intellectual confusion and exhaustion that are characteristic of our time when it comes to questions of nature and animals could be regarded as part of the constitution of a new enlightenment, since old answers have proven to be catastrophic. Of course, in a certain sense, it is already over, like the manipulated, annihilated worlds of colonized people whose gods were murdered, whose temples were destroyed, whose economy and social fabric were torn apart. For many, the end of the world is not a future that has to be prevented but a reality that has to be dealt with. When it comes to facing the grim reality of our politically dark times, there is indeed no reason for optimism, but things are also not entirely hopeless—there are not only viral leaps between species, there is infectious solidarity as well. Desperation, on the other hand, leads nowhere, where all hope is lost, everything is lost.

ZW-CS: Many thanks, Fahim, for your time and for your thought-provoking words.

ZIPPORAH WEISBERG is an independent scholar based in Vienna, Austria. CARLO SALZANI is a research fellow at the department of philosophy of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and a faculty member of PICT.


dePICTions volume 3 (2023): Critical Ecologies

[1] Fahim Amir, Schwein und Zeit: Tiere, Politik, Revolte, Hamburg: Nautilus, 2018; Being and Swine: The End of Nature (As We Knew It), translated by Geoffrey C. Howes and Corvin Russell, Toronto: Between the Lines, 2020.