Why I Left the Editorial Committee of the Cahiers antispécistes

Par David Olivier Whittier

In September 2004 I left the editorial committee of the Cahiers antispécistes, a journal I had founded thirteen years earlier. I sent the e-mail below to explain the reasons for my departure and my vision of the political situation and the animalist movement.

Machine translation, pending revision.

Subject: The Anti-Speciesist Papers, me, the in-depth reflection

Hello to you,

Since last Wednesday, I have left the editorial staff of the Cahiers antispécistes; the magazine continues without me. I am sending this mail to the lists following this "personal" event, because the Cahiers have had an important influence in the antispeciesist and more generally in the animalist movement in France, since their foundation in 1991. In recent years, the journal has had a lot of difficulty in "positioning" itself, not so much from the point of view of its political positions, but in relation to the role it still wanted to play in the movement, in the struggle to put an end to the system of speciesist thought and what follows from it. The magazine was initially published quarterly (until 1995, that is, a dozen issues), but then its publication became much more irregular and spaced out; the last issue, number 23, came out last December. This irregularity also reflects the difficulties that we saw, or at least that I saw, in the role that the Cahiers could play and in the fact of assuming this role.

So I'd like to summarise the situation as I see it. The other five members of the editorial team think it is possible to continue and want to do so; I wish them every success, however they see this continuation. I also remain the webmaster of the site (http://www.cahiers-antispecistes.org/), which contains most of the texts of the current issues; but I no longer have any editorial responsibilities.

I think the journal originally had two roles:

1. To create, then lead, an antispeciesist movement in France, by formulating its basic ideas, arguing them and making them known; through original texts and translations of existing texts in English (Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Steve F. Sapontzis... ) and in Italian (Paola Cavalieri); and also, in this context, to serve as a kind of "signpost", a reference for a certain body of thought having a certain coherence, a certain "orthodoxy" of antispeciesism "à la française", an "orthodoxy" that existed in fact, although we never wanted to impose ourselves as possessing a monopoly of antispeciesism (whatever the bad tongues say).

2. To develop an in-depth reflection on all the problems that arise from the adoption of a non-speciesist point of view. More strongly than Anglo-Saxon authors, the Cahiers have emphasised the need to question naturalism and have addressed the issue of predation. We also developed a reflection on the questioning of humanism, and of all its thought patterns that are deeply rooted in our mentalities, such as the sanctity of life (only human), the distinction between acts and non-acts, and so on. We have addressed issues often seen as pure biology, such as the status of the notion of species or issues related to Darwinism. In the last issue, the Cahiers addressed the central question of sentience, and noted that today's science does not seem to know how to account for it well.

In general, the Cahiers have argued from the beginning that the abolition of speciesism implies a profound cultural and political revolution, touching on many philosophical, scientific, artistic and other areas. We also thought that in doing so we would inevitably encounter problems, and have no ready-made solutions to solve them. For example, the question of the value to be given (or not to be given) to the preservation of the life of a sentient being is posed in a much more acute, much more explicit way than in the humanist framework. But as the presentation of the last issue states:

'The difficulties which we believe antispeciesist ethics must necessarily face may seem like a weakness for our cause, and are often rightly pointed out by our opponents - such as those who never fail to talk to us about the 'cry of the carrot'. However, we believe that they are also a strength. Anti-speciesism must be seen as a movement that opens up areas of thought where others cannot afford to venture. We do not have all the answers, but we dare to ask the questions, those that the dominant ethic manages to avoid and forbid by repeatedly invoking the sanctity of human life and the human person. The mere fact that we ask when a (human) foetus becomes sentient or what value (for the human being concerned) a life that will be short and unhappy can have, and many other questions, is seen as scandalous, because it amounts to "treating human beings like animals". Dogs and cows are euthanised, so there can be no question of this for humans.

I would like to think that the anti-speciesist movement will be able to be the bearer of an uninhibited reflection on these questions. Because only we can say: "Yes, we want to treat humans like animals", because for us alone, treating a being "like an animal" does not mean despising it and treating it badly. It means treating it as what it is, an animal, a sentient being, a being whose life, happiness and unhappiness are the most important things in the world, are the only important things in the world.

I think that today, and for years, in fact, the function "1." indicated above, that of the "Cahiers sign", the reference of a certain anti-speciesist doctrine, has lost much of its meaning. At the beginning, it was practically only us in France who claimed to be antispeciesists; we fought to make these ideas known, particularly within a milieu we knew (Yves Bonnardel, Françoise Blanchon and myself, at the time), namely the anarchist and alternative milieu. Little by little the movement took shape, and also acquired an independence from the Cahiers. Moreover, in recent years, a whole series of independent projects have emerged. The vegetarian movement has become more radical, has started to dare to talk about animals, and has even started to claim to be antispeciesist; the traditional animal rights movements, for their part, have moved closer to antispeciesism, most of their members have stopped eating animals and have started to question animal exploitation as a whole. There is the Veggie Pride, the Estivales, the anti-foie gras campaign, and other ideas, projects carried out completely independently of the Cahiers, with their own thinking. The Cahiers no longer have any meaning as a brand, as a trademark, simply because we are no longer the only ones acting and thinking within a movement that carries ideas close to our own.

I think that the second role mentioned above, that of in-depth reflection, is still very important. But for this, it seems to me that the "review" formula is no longer appropriate. The 'review' formula makes sense precisely as a 'sign', because it provides a traceability, a continuity over time. It has other advantages as well. But it also has disadvantages, if only in the fact that there is not just a small group of people, the members of the editorial staff of a journal, who are capable of carrying out in-depth reflections. And it is even clear that the scale of the upheaval involved in anti-speciesism makes it absurd that it can be handled by a handful of people. We thought a few years ago: "All we have to do is open up the columns of the Cahiers more widely, publish texts by lots of people". But there, precisely, the "sign" character of the Cahiers was contradictory with such an opening. People were going to propose texts that were very interesting, in certain aspects of their thinking, but which were, for example, full of naturalism, confusion between anti-speciesism and ecology, etc. Publishing them in the Cahiers was going to be a mistake. Publishing them in the Cahiers was going to muddy the waters. Many people rush to confuse antispeciesism with ecology, and we have made great efforts to make the difference clear, and if this were to be blurred again within the Cahiers, this would, in my opinion, endanger these efforts. Or else to publish the texts in question with a distancing 'hat' - which is an unpleasant way to go, both for the author and for us.

We have navigated these contradictions for a long time; in any case, it is these contradictions that I have increasingly felt, and which have led me to believe that the "journal" formula no longer has a role to play.

On the other hand, I believe it is absolutely necessary to continue the fundamental reflection. During the Estivales last August (see http://question-animale.org/), a discussion was held on the Cahiers, and it appeared that few people - among those present - felt that such a reflection was useful. Some lines of reflection were put forward, in relation to specific militant themes, but concerning the theoretical reflection, many people expressed the feeling that "everything had been said". Personally, after reflection, I don't think that everything is said. I think that theoretical reflection is still very necessary in many areas. I think that such reflection may sometimes appear to be without any militant utility in the short or medium term, but that this is an illusion. When we discussed, for example, the question of the scientific status of sentience, we had the impression that this was an area that many would describe as 'pure intellectual masturbation'. Some had already spoken to us in these terms, moreover, during the debate I had initiated on this subject at the Estivales 2002. However, today we realise that this is a key area; the problem of the absence of a clear scientific status for sentience, for example, makes it easy for many researchers at INRA and elsewhere to claim that there is no such thing as animal suffering, or that it is just the same. It also plays a part in the desire of many people to attribute sensitivity to plants, to conclude that eating carrots is as bad as eating pigs, so we might as well keep eating pigs.

I could mention many other areas of thought that we have barely touched on, which can play a key role. For example, the law. How can we integrate non-humans into the law? when the law is deeply modelled on a certain image of the standard human being. Or the problem of anti-speciesism and religion. One area that was raised at the Estivales was that of animal experience; getting to give depth to animals and their experience, beyond the simple welfare/suffering axis, could be very important in getting people to take their interests into account. Or the question of art, which is one of the main vehicles of emotion in our society. The Cahiers have hardly ever said anything about this very important subject.

I believe today that we should consider continuing this fundamental reflection in a different, more decentralised way. I think that there is a possibility that many projects of reflection will develop and be expressed within society, without passing through the forks of the orthodoxy of a journal, an orthodoxy that is justified, in my opinion. These projects can be the work of people from the Cahiers or of other people, whether or not they are close to our ideas. On the other hand, I think that the antispeciesist ideas that we have developed can also remain identifiable, provided that we carry them and defend them; and this can be done elsewhere than in the Cahiers. We can try to contribute to other journals; to those that are close to us (Alliance végétarienne, for example), as well as to mainstream journals, to carry our ideas. In my opinion, the Cahiers are currently a reassuring cocoon, too reassuring, for us.

Furthermore, I have a specific project, which is to found a publishing house focused on the animal question. This publishing house could be used to publish any work, any reflection, as long as it directly concerns animals - including humans - as sentient beings. The variety of possibilities is very great. This could be a tool - among others - to stimulate reflection, not subject to the straitjacket of the preservation of what we have promoted as the conception of antispeciesism. On the other hand, we can, in this framework as in others, promote our conception of antispeciesism, which I still think is right. Many quite precise, identifiable currents of ideas have existed without being linked to a journal or other body that gave them the stamp of conformity. This means that we have to fight; but I think that is a good thing.

Finally, another specific project is close to my heart: a project on sensitivity. It is an attempt to promote the idea in society as a whole that, whatever today's science may say, 'the subjective is objective', i.e. the fact that an animal is or is not sentient, feels or does not feel pain, feels something at all, is a real, 'objective' fact, although the phenomenon itself is, by definition, subjective. It is this paradox that today's science refuses, declaring that "we cannot put ourselves in the pig's place", and that consequently his feeling itself is non-objective, non-observable, and therefore does not exist. Yet this same science is generally careful not to assert the same thing about humans - without having the slightest argument justifying such a distinction; simply to say that human sentience does not really exist would not 'pass' in society, it would be seen - rightly - as an enormity. We want science, and contemporary thought in general, to admit that the denial of animal sentience is also an enormity, even if we have difficulty in accounting for this sentience in the theoretical schemes of today's physics. (Cf. the texts in issue 23 of the Cahiers on this subject, available on the website). I wanted to mention this project, although it is still in its infancy and I don't know what form it will take, nor how it will be organised, because I think it is good that the whole movement knows about it.

There you have it, sorry for this rather long e-mail, and perhaps not always as clear as I would have liked. Concerning the Cahiers, the other members are continuing and will see what form it will take as time goes by, they said. For my part, I now imagine this journal as a piece in this set of reflections, this bubbling that I hope will appear.


David Olivier