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The Metaphysics of Exceptionalism vs. Bovine Flatulence


In his July 18 op-ed, “The Endless Summer,” food columnist Mark Bittman notes with biting sarcasm that the conceit of “American exceptionalism” has been ironically affirmed in global conversations about the environment in recent decades.  From U.S. failures with respect to the Kyoto Protocol to current avowals of agnosticism regarding the causes of climate change, American political leaders have shown a knack for disdaining global consensus, to potentially disastrous effect. (Of course there are dissenters in science, but these appear to be dwindling, as evidenced by Richard Muller’s avowal of a recent “conversion” on the basis of a year of intensive research at Berkeley.)

Someone who has paid attention to the production and consumption of food, as Mr. Bittman has, is distinctively situated to grasp the fallacies of exceptionalism.  Nothing exposes our deep reliance upon others, and upon a healthy environment, than does the need for food.  And on perhaps no other issue is there such widespread naïveté.  There are structural reasons for this ignorance (We buy our food in grocery stores which are several steps and usually many miles from where it originated.), but these operate within a cultural ethos that remains almost comically naïve.  As Reinhold Niebuhr and many others since have pointed out, the libertarian conception of freedom cherished in the United States is a pale abstraction from the real network of dependencies in which we are embedded, and therefore makes us unable to grasp our true situation. It is all too easy for us to envision the whole world as a grocery store.

In other words, we face a seductive fantasy of independence from a wider, dynamic order of things, with the result that our response to challenges in international relations or ecological crisis have been rather consistently out of touch.  But of course this is far from simply an American problem.  I suggest that it stems from a disease of the modern subject, a way of looking at the world that treats “its” objects as inert and easily manipulated.  In other words, this is a deeply-rooted metaphysical problem, a constitutional failure to account for the capacity of objects in the world to push back.  It is an inability to reckon with the fact that objects are, as Bruno Latour puts it, “actants.”  Agency is not limited to human beings (and perhaps other higher animals) who have the capacity to form intentions and thus style themselves as “subjects.” As Latour and his object-oriented descendants urge, all kind of things act, with or without intentions.

Consider one kind of non-human agent, or actant, in particular.  At least as big a contributor to climate change as carbon emissions is bovine flatulence.  Simply put, there are too many cows.  Of course, this overabundance is a result of human agency—i.e., it is because we eat way too much meat.  Still, bovine behavior is not something that we can entirely control. This is a vexing problem, because, as we know, craving and prizing meat among humans is an evolutionary adaptation favored by the need for protein combined with the comparative difficulty of getting it during our formative millennia of hunting and gathering.  We have known for some time that it has become maladaptive with the domestication (and now industrialization) of animals combined with the lengthening of the human lifespan due to our modern dominance over microbes:  in large part because it has made heart disease such a difficult problem. But it also turns out that it is maladaptive for a different reason:  the expansion of the human population and the consequent increase in demand for meat is contributing significantly to climate change.  But again, given the biological heritage of human beings, it is hard to see a very easy way out.  As a colleague once said to me, “I know that there are tons of reasons not to be eating it, but it tastes so good!”

An interesting twist has to do with historical changes in the habits associated with wealth and poverty.  Throughout much of human history, consistent meat-eating was confined to the very wealthy who could pay the much higher costs.  Now, at least in North America, the situation is somewhat reversed. Meat is much more readily available because of the industrialization of meat production.  And, on the other hand, it is the comparatively wealthy who have access to healthier alternatives and adequate time to prepare the kinds of meals that can sustain culinary interest (i.e., which “taste so good!”) while avoiding animal products.  The working class are now consuming vast amounts of animal fats, and thus shortening their life span and contributing disproportionately to global climate change. Here is one of many links between economic inequality and environmental problems.

In any case, we have to find a way out and the only way to do is to begin to see the world differently.  Exceptionalism is bad policy not just for narrowly moral reasons—it is also wrong because it misconstrues the human situation.  We are not the only actors: the cows are pushing back, even if not to their own advantage.  We live in a world of microbes, computers, people, classes, cows, and nations, just to name a few.  The choices we make arise out of our needs, interests, and affections, but nothing about our choices can escape the web of interactions and negotiations with other actants within our field of influence.  In other words, we are and remain dependent upon a wider order of the real, and a politics which blinds us to this is in need of more than just better policies:  it is in need of metaphysical conversion.


Thomas A. James is pastor of Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, and formerly taught theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary.  He is the author of In Face of Reality: The Constructive Theology of Gordon D. Kaufman (2011).

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Thomas A. James is Assistant Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

(4) Comments

  1. To pick up the metaphysics theme: before Duns Scotus there was an entire cosmology and ontology build on the paradox of the natural orientation to the supernatural. But after Scotus, bovine flatulence was now regarded as making sense on its own finite terms. By disconnecting bovine flatulence from any contemplation of the divine whatsoever, there was a new space of univocal existence, resulting in the sheer “thereness” of flatulence itself. Granted autonomy to explore pure nature, we moderns found what we were not supposed to find–Cows farting!–which ruptured our most elaborate metaphysical schemes. But then Bruno Latour gave us a way to conceptually account for the nasty habits of those cows; or, perhaps,the flatulence itself acting in its (his or her?) own interest for liberation.

    Am I close?

    • I hadn’t thought about Scotus’ “haecceity” (spelling?) in connection with this piece, but I think you’re right that that’s a breakthrough. Of course the old medieval cosmology knew that cows farted, too, and even had some sense of their being something akin to agency there (insofar as all events are expressions of purpose). If we follow Latour, it is really the “modern constitution” which occludes this–not the farting itself, but its capacity to exercise influence rather than simply being a bare, inarticulate fact. Of course, you’re right, at least in implication, that Latour is not reversing course so much as offering something new and quite different and which can take a lot of things “into account,” as he says, that remained largely invisible before. Thanks for your response!

  2. Sorry, but I guess it wasn’t clear that my post was not supposed to be taken seriously (the suggestion that cow flatulence acts in its own interest for liberation was, for me at least, exceedingly amusing).

    Joking aside, I find it absurd to suggest that bovine flatulence poses a problem for modern metaphysics or that we moderns lack a way to account for objects that “push back.” Intentionality is a problem, Yes. Likewise for consciousness, of course. But the resistance of material objects to our wishes and desires as an unsolved metaphysical problem….I just don’t see it.

    Moreover, the most novel aspects of Latour’s metaphysics are also the most implausible. I agree with the critique by David Bloor, who says:

    “We are told [by Latour] to…[invert] our usual conceptual conventions, using a purposive vocabulary for things which don’t have purposes, and a mechanistic vocabulary for things that do. We must try to think of Pasteur as if he were a microbe, and microbes as if they were like Pasteur, or treat Millikan as if he were an electron and electrons as if they were like Millikan. But unless we are very confident indeed that the exercise is necessary and justified, this looks like a formula for imposing confusion on ourselves: it is obscurantism raised to the level of a general methodological principle.”

    Exotic metaphysical schemes to solve bizarre problems found only in the philosopher’s imagination: are we really post-modern?

    • Oh, yes! I thought I was being kind not to mention the point about cow flatulence and liberation, not realizing that you were being sarcastic. Actually, I think it is a misreading of Latour, and certainly of my own little piece, to think that such a thing is being considered. The point is precisely that action does not require intentionality. The quote from Bloor is unpersuasive to me, needless to say. I don’t think Latour requires purposive vocabulary for “things” at all. The “pushing back” is not in the service of anything. It just happens, as the “actant” processes influences from its environment and produces the output appropriate to its own internal structure. I’m certainly not interested in any kind of animism here: it’s just that we need ways to take the force of things (as well as their moral claims) into account rather than treating them as inert, as if all value is produced by human actors.

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