Presentation: Ableism, Animals, and Apparatuses, Online, Aug. 31, 2021

Ableism, Animals, and Apparatuses


Shelley Lynn Tremain, Ph.D.

Presented at Spécisme et Autres Discriminations / Speciesism and Other Discriminations,

Online, Aug. 30-31, 2021

To increase the accessibility of my presentation, I have now posted it to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, the philosophy blog that I mentioned yesterday. The link that I have now put in the chat will take you to the blog post of the presentation and you can read along with me if you so choose.

The location from which I am joining this conference is traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer the presentation that I will make today with respect for, and in solidarity with, Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and colonized people in other settler states.

Before I begin, I’d like to convey my thanks to Valéry and Jonas for inviting me to participate in this wonderful symposium.


In my presentation today, I consider the prospects of engagement between Michel Foucault’s analyses; philosophy and theory of disability; and critical animal studies, all of which areas of research are steadily growing fields of intellectual inquiry. Indeed, this presentation aims to enlarge the scope of philosophy of disability through a particular engagement with critical animal studies, building on my work to articulate the ways in which an apparatus of power—namely, the apparatus of disability—operates to bring impairment into being as the naturally disadvantageous foundation of recognizably social disability.

 Foucault introduced the term apparatus to refer to a heterogeneous ensemble of discourses, institutions, scientific statements, laws, administrative measures, and philosophical propositions that responds to an “urgent need” in a given historical moment; that is, an apparatus is a historically specific and dispersed system of power that produces and configures practices toward certain strategic and political ends. As I have indicated in other contexts, I maintain that the urgent requirement to which the apparatus of disability has responded in this historical moment is biopolitical normalization whose mechanisms and techniques largely operate through coercion and control to render populations manageable. As an apparatus, disability constitutes and is constituted by and through a complex set of technologies, identities, and discursive practices that emerge from medical and scientific research, government policies and administrative decisions, academic initiatives, art and literature, popular culture, and so on. To understand disability as an apparatus is, thus, to conceive of it as a historically contingent matrix of power that contributes to, is inseparable from, and reinforces other apparatuses of force relations, such as settler colonialism, white supremacy, gender, and class.

My use of Foucault’s idea of an apparatus to understand and represent disability shifts philosophical discussion about disability away from the restrictive conceptualizations of it that currently predominate in philosophy, conceptualizations according to which disability is a naturally disadvantageous personal characteristic or attribute, a property of given individuals, an identity, or a difference that individuals embody or possess. To move toward an understanding of disability as an apparatus in this way, philosophers must engage in a process of radical conceptual engineering with respect to their current thinking about disability, that is, must engage in conceptual engineering with respect to what they think disability is and what their current thinking about disability does. Put directly, the call to understand disability as an apparatus requires a conceptual revolution in the terms of which disability is a contingent product of force relations rather than a politically neutral feature of a prediscursive biology or inherent nature. Indeed, my assumption that disability is an apparatus shifts philosophical discussion of disability toward a more comprehensive conceptualization of disability than other conceptions of it provide, a conceptualization of disability that is (among other things) historicist and relativist and, hence, culturally sensitive in ways that other conceptions of disability are not.

Foucault is renowned as a thinker whose inquiries rarely provided explicitly normative prescriptions as outcomes with respect to the social phenomena that he studied. As I have explained in other contexts, Foucault’s refusal to offer normative prescriptions with respect to the various social phenomena that he studied has therefore led some disability theorists to doubt the usefulness of his claims for the field of disability studies, a field largely directed at institutional and social change, that is, a field fundamentally grounded in normative goals and objectives (for example, Tremain 2010, 2015, 2017). Likewise, practitioners of critical animal studies aim to develop and advance normative arguments designed to convince people that the prevailing treatment of animals is pernicious, including arguments according to which animals should not be used as food, or in research, for the production of human clothing, or for the testing of cosmetics, cleaning products, and so on. Practitioners of critical animal studies might, therefore, think that Foucault’s ideas are inadequate and even inappropriate for their field of research given its collective aims.

Yet the suggestion that Foucault’s work offers little useful guidance to philosophers and theorists of disability, philosophers and theorists in critical animal studies, or other critical thinkers who wish to motivate social change relies upon misunderstandings about the impetus for his inquiries and of what critical philosophy requires. In Foucault’s genealogical studies of abnormality, madness, sexuality, and deviance, for instance, he was concerned with the problematization of phenomena, that is, concerned to show how these phenomena became thinkable as problems in the first place, emerged as problems to which solutions came to be sought.

Foucault pointed out that a “conditional imperative” (2007, 3) underpinned each of these genealogical inquiries, for he recognized that every theoretical or analytical discourse is in some way reliant upon or permeated by something like an imperative discourse. He characterized the imperatives that underpinned his theoretical analyses in this way: “If you want to struggle, here are some key points, here are some lines of force, here are some constrictions and blockages.” In other words, Foucault regarded the conditional imperatives on which his work relied as providing “no more than tactical pointers [to] tactically effective analysis [in] the circle of struggle and truth, that is to say, precisely, philosophical practice” (3). In short, the conditional imperatives or imperative discourses that underpin Foucault’s analyses are contingent strategies to understand given phenomena in particular ways and to make them understood as such.

For more than a decade, some philosophers and theorists in critical animal studies influenced by Foucault’s thought have in fact used his insights about, for instance, normalization, discipline, and other modern technologies of power, as well as his studies of institutions such as prisons and hospitals, in order to examine ethical, political, and theoretical issues with respect to (among other things) the character of the slaughterhouse, the use of animals for the production of clothing and cosmetics, trophy hunting, and domestic relations between human and nonhuman animals.

In other contexts, furthermore, some philosophers and theorists of disability have (for more than a decade) used Foucault’s studies of discipline, normalization, and other forms of modern power—in particular, his genealogies—in ways that enable them to articulate claims about the eugenic character of genetic technologies, the historical contingency of ableism, and the social construction of disability (for example, Tremain 2001, 2006, 2017). My aim in this presentation is not to offer explicitly normative responses to speciesism or ableism, but rather to offer a critical analysis that involves consideration of the problematization of the very idea of species, a critical analysis that resembles the consideration of the problematization of disability that I articulate in various books and articles (for instance, Tremain 2017).

In recent years, some disabled writers in critical animal studies have drawn on insights about the social construction of disability to identify commonalities between the social construction of disability and the social construction of animality, demonstrating the mutually constitutive and reinforcing character of disability and animality and hence the relevance of conversations between critical disability theorists and practitioners of critical animal studies. In doing so, these disabled theorists and researchers have cast doubt on the widely held assumption that the interests and concerns of critical disability studies and critical animal studies are invariably and inevitably antagonistic.

Sunaura Taylor (2017), for instance, has gone considerable distance to dispel taken-for-granted, misguided beliefs according to which the central claims and goals of these two areas of inquiry are distinct from each other and indeed in conflict. Until recently, that is, disability studies scholars and disabled activists have assumed that the arguments of writers in critical animal studies—like the claims of one of their forefathers, Peter Singer—invariably dehumanize and demean disabled people by comparing them to nonhuman animals. Alternatively, many authors in critical animal studies have regarded this sort of opposition to Singer’s arguments as both speciesist and philosophically unsophisticated. My presentation today redirects these disagreements with an examination of the notion of species designed to denaturalize it.

In an interview with George Yancy, Singer (2015) explained his position on speciesism in this way (and I quote at length):

“Speciesism is an attitude of bias against a being because of the species to which it belongs. Typically, humans show speciesism when they give less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than they give to the similar interests of human beings. […]

One might, for instance, argue that a being with the ability to think of itself as existing over time, and therefore to plan its life, and to work for future achievements, has a greater interest in continuing to live than a being who lacks such capacities.

On that basis, one might argue that to kill a normal human being who wants to go on living is more seriously wrong than killing a nonhuman animal. Whether this claim is or is not sound, it is not speciesist. But given that some human beings – most obviously, those with profound intellectual impairment – lack this capacity, or have it to a lower degree than some nonhuman animals, it would be speciesist to claim that it is always more seriously wrong to kill a member of the species Homo sapiens than it is to kill a nonhuman animal.”

Like Taylor, Lori Gruen, who has written extensively about the ethics of animal-human relations, maintains that philosophers and theorists of critical animal studies, in order to avoid speciesism, need not adopt an approach to animals and their relations with humans that compares nonhuman animals and disabled people in the way that Singer compares them. Indeed, Gruen outright disagrees with the sort of cross-species comparisons that Singer makes in the preceding excerpt. Yet Gruen also argues against philosophers and theorists of disability who express disgust with some of the comparisons between animals and disabled people that critical animal studies scholars make. As Gruen explains it, “I take issue with [Eva] Kittay, who says that she finds it ‘revolting’ to think that her love for her [disabled] daughter is in any way comparable to her love for her dog and that to even suggest such a comparison is dehumanizing” (Gruen 2018). Gruen disagrees with Kittay’s view that (in Gruen’s words) “only humans can count as members of our families and, thus, that only these sorts of relationships with humans are genuinely morally worthy relationships” (Gruen 2018). Many families, Gruen points out—including families with disabled children, disabled animals, and nondisabled animals—find that the love shared with nonhuman animals enhances the love that all of them share. As Gruen notes, furthermore, many people make family with nonhuman animals and no children.

Both Gruen and Taylor have expanded the types of analyses of speciesism and human-animal relations that philosophers and theorists who work in both critical animal studies and critical disability studies produce. Their work has encouraged other authors to forge novel connections between the analyses of critical animal studies and the analyses of critical disability studies. Nevertheless, I maintain that the ontological assumptions about disability that underlie their respective approaches (and Singer’s assertions) variously naturalize disability and hence run counter to the Foucauldian analysis of disability and speciesism that I wish to articulate. Drawing on Foucault’s idea of an apparatus, my argument in this presentation thus follows Gruen’s and Taylor’s pathbreaking work and goes beyond it to argue that the naturalized category of species on which this intersectional work relies should be reconceived as an apparatus of power rather than a politically neutral methodological designation.

As I have noted, philosophers and theorists in critical animal studies increasingly use Foucault’s ideas to advance their arguments on a range of issues pertinent to animals and to animal-human relations; nevertheless, the thinkers who draw on Foucault for this purpose, more or less, agree that he ignored the ethical and political questions and concerns that surround animality, failing to direct his own analytical efforts to critical consideration of these matters. Indeed, most philosophers in critical animal studies who use Foucault’s work and are thus sympathetic to its central claims maintain that Foucault’s analyses are anthropocentric and speciesist, both of which charges are reminiscent of feminist charges according to which Foucault’s corpus is androcentric and reflects masculinist biases (see Tremain 2017, especially chapter four).

Stephen Thierman, although he too regards Foucault’s own concerns as anthropocentric, argues that many of Foucault’s insights can be “fruitfully extended” to philosophical inquiry into animal ethics. Thus, Thierman calls upon philosophers and theorists in critical animal studies to “fill in the blanks” and show how Foucault’s methods and conceptual tools can be “fruitfully employed” to explore human-animal relationships (90). It is especially pertinent to my analysis of animals and disability that Thierman (91) agrees with me that Foucault’s idea of an apparatus should be deployed to investigate our interactions with nonhuman animals, while he notes that the description of an apparatus brings into focus a particular “environment,” outlining a field of interactions and enabling a distinct kind of experience or perception that causes us to understand phenomena in a particular fashion (90).

Thierman, to illustrate these remarks, refers to Foucault’s study of the history of sexuality, pointing out that Foucault invoked the idea of an apparatus of sexuality in order to show that when different elements of this apparatus of sexuality were understood in relation to each other—that is, when intense scrutiny of juvenile sexuality in medical discourse, family relations, and schools were understood in relation to each other—a new way in which to conceive the historical emergence of sexuality came into view. As Thierman writes, “The apparatus [of sexuality] illuminated by Foucault shows us how an understanding (and experience) of sexuality in a particular historical location is created by the interrelation (and mutual support) of various heterogeneous factors” (90). Insofar as Foucault conceived of an apparatus as a matrix of power relations between and amongst the various elements that comprise it, his genealogical inquiry into sexuality as an apparatus enabled him to highlight various politically invested dimensions of this apparatus that would otherwise have gone unrecognized as such, continuing to be taken for granted as natural and inevitable rather than recognized as naturalized and historically contingent.

Thierman thus refers to the domains of power into which Foucauldian analyses of animal-human relations could inquire as “apparatuses of animality” (92), proceeding to outline how some of the multifarious elements of an apparatus, as Foucault envisioned it, specifically emerge from an apparatus of animality. Thierman notes, for example, that apparatuses of animality continually produce discourses that pertain to animals within veterinary medicine, sociobiology, agricultural engineering, dog breeding associations, and popular culture. In addition, he notes that the institutions that, in effect, are mechanisms of the apparatus of animality, include animal husbandry, pet-keeping, and universities. The architectural forms in which the apparatus of animality is implicated, according to Thierman, encompass slaughterhouses, zoos, aquariums, and animal shelters. Scientific statements about animals are made by ethologists, evolutionary biologists, and zoologists. In short, Thierman shows that one can readily identify the elements of an apparatus of animality that correspond to current social practices and discourses about animals and animal-human relations. The recent work of Aph and Syl Ko on black veganism, as Gruen notes, throws into relief the apparatus of animality, although not in these terms. By drawing on Sylvia Wynter’s critique of the construct of the human, for example, Ko and Ko examine the colonial invention of the “animal” as a weapon used in the service of white supremacy against black people and people of colour, as well as nonhuman animals (Gruen 2018).

The apparatus of species that I want theorists and researchers in critical animal studies to recognize and interrogate shares features with the apparatus of animality that Thierman recommends. Nevertheless, I think that Thierman’s understanding of animal-human relations as infused with power does not extend far enough. To be sure, Thierman (93) refers to the “vast incongruities” between how human and nonhuman animal bodies are constructed within various apparatuses. He seems, however, to take for granted the fundamental character of the classification of species itself, which is, ultimately, an ontological assumption that my antifoundationalist, historicist, and relativist conception of the apparatus of species denies. Although the classification of species is widely assumed to pick out a natural kind, philosopher of science Ian Hacking and others have convincingly argued that natural kinds do not exist in nature, but rather are as socially and culturally constructed as their alleged counterparts, namely, humankinds.

Indeed, Richard Ryder, the psychologist who in 1970 introduced the term speciesism, noted that “[s]ince Darwin, scientists have agreed that there is no ‘magical’ essential difference between humans and other animals, biologically-speaking.” Like race, Ryder pointed out, species is a “vague” term for the classification of living creatures which is largely determined on the basis of appearance. The term species is generally regarded as a politically neutral taxonomic classification; that is, the term species is generally taken to refer to a group of individual organisms that actually or potentially interbreed. Although this definition of a species may seem straightforward, it is not. For example, many bacteria primarily reproduce asexually. To these organisms—that is, organisms that reproduce only or primarily asexually—the definition of a species as a group of individuals that interbreed cannot readily be applied (Smith 2020). Furthermore, many plants and some animals form hybrids in nature, in some places mating exclusively within their group and in other places hybridizing, raising the question of whether these organisms should be regarded as members of the more common species or hybrids. In many contexts in nature, that is, the boundaries between species are “fuzzy” (Smith 2020). In other words, designations of and criteria for species membership are contextually specific and artifactual human inventions.

Given the value-laden and constructed character of the classification of species, we might therefore consider the foundationalist—that is, naturalizing—role that the category of species plays in Thierman’s apparatus of animality as itself a mechanism of the more comprehensive apparatus of species. Indeed, a critical genealogy of a given apparatus of power (such as the apparatus of species) enables us to denaturalize that matrix, identifying its historical contingency, the constitutive mechanisms and tactics that operate to consolidate it, and the array of technologies and practices that comprise it. With his genealogies of sexuality and punishment, Foucault showed how his genealogical technique can be used to critically inquire into the history of necessity on a given topic and the historical emergence of the necessary conditions of a certain state of affairs. Foucault’s genealogies were concerned with questions about the historical conditions of possibility for who we are now, how our current ways of thinking and acting came into being, and how they have become naturalized.

As Ladelle McWhorter (2010) explains it, genealogies help us “to make sense of how we are now, in this historical moment, by looking at how we got here and how this, here, now, is historically possible.” Thus, we might ask: How has it been possible for a certain group of the species “human”—namely, nondisabled, white, men—to be produced as the ideal human above all other humans? How has it been possible for the species group designated as humans to become constitutive of living beings that themselves have been produced as inherently superior to nonhuman animals?

I suggest that the importance of Foucault for work in critical animal studies lies in the responses that he implicitly offers to these questions. At the end of his introduction to the history of sexuality series, Foucault implicitly attributes this anthro-supremacy to the emergence of biopower, a vast network of force relations that seeks, through coercion and control, to improve the life of the species and the life of the individual. I want to argue that when, in the last chapter of the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault described biopower in this way, he aimed to throw into relief the artifactual character of both the human species, that is, the human as species, and the individual subject, that is, the individual as subject. If my inference is correct, Foucault’s argument is that a being’s membership in the human species, its identity as a subject, its materiality, and its ostensibly unique and defining features are constructions, that is, constitute artifacts of power because the seemingly neutral taxonomy of species is itself an intentional and nonsubjective fabrication, in a word, an apparatus.

When Foucault’s insights about the truth function of an apparatus are applied in the context of the apparatus of species, we can identify how the truth or falsity about what a species is, the criteria for what counts as a species, and the relation between species classification and other ways to classify living beings are established by and through the very elements of the apparatus of species itself. In another context, Hacking refers to this apparent circularity as the “self-authentification” of a style of reasoning which brings into being objects, relations, and sentences that affirm the style itself.

In short, the allegedly value-free and objective taxonomic classification of species is a product of a historically and culturally specific apparatus of power relations and the epistemologies, metaphysical commitments, and so on that it generates. Just as the scientific classification of race (a naturalized product of the apparatus of race) has made possible and concealed the naturalization of practices constitutive of racism—including segregation in housing, discrimination in employment, and biased aesthetic values—the taxonomic classification of species (a naturalized product of the apparatus of species) has made possible and concealed the naturalization of practices constitutive of speciesism—such as meat consumption, animal testing, and trophy hunting.

My argument is that philosophers and theorists of critical animality and disability should assume a version of nominalism with respect to the taxonomic classification of species, as Foucault assumed in his genealogies of sexuality and the modern prison. Foucault’s nominalist position, Barry Allen has written, represents “a formidable stand against physicalism, or the metaphysics of inherent structure.” As Allen puts it, “there is no such thing as nature, not if nature is supposed to be a source of determination or identity independent of historically contingent discourse” (2015, 99). The argument against inherent structure, or physicalism, Allen explains, is that the world does not come divided into categories that humans discover; rather, humans themselves organize and classify, constructing “facts” and verifying statements about them. There is no natural order; nor are there are natural kinds. As Allen points out, Foucault claimed that identity or structure, like its representation, is an artifact of discourse, of a certain regime of true and false; it is a discursive practice (99).

Foucault, in his treatise on the archaeology of knowledge, put it this way: “What, in short, we wish to do is to dispense with ‘things’ . . . to substitute for the enigmatic treasure of ‘things’ anterior to discourse the regular formation of objects that emerge only in discourse . . . relating them to the body of rules that enables them to form as objects of a discourse and thus constitutes the conditions of their historical appearance” (1972, 47–48). The classical nominalists said that structure is not inherent, but rather comes from language, that is, from names and conventions of representation. To this linguistic structure, Allen remarks, Foucault contributed the idea of social power whose economy is as indispensable to knowledge and truth as the names that relations of power cause to combine and circulate (Allen 2015, 99).

The nominalist conception of impairment and disability that I have developed neither presupposes that the discursive objects of the apparatus of disability are universals nor substantivizes these objects, tendencies to which (as I have shown at length elsewhere) other conceptualizations of impairment and disability are prone. On the nominalist approach to the objects of the apparatus of disability that I have advanced, the identification of similarities and differences between these objects is a convention of discourse rather than recognition of natural essences, kinds, or identities. Most philosophers think that nominalism is a misguided stance. These critics of nominalism hold that objects such as stars, photons, and horses with which the natural sciences concern themselves existed as stars, photons, and a distinct species before any human being encountered them and presumed to categorize or classify them. I want to point, however, that, as Allen’s remarks indicate, compelling arguments have been made according to which not even the objects of the natural sciences (say, stars, photons, Shetland ponies, and species) have identities until someone names them. 

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