Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Matthew Calarco reviews Gary Steiner’s Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism

Gary Steiner. Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 312 pp. Hardcover $89.50. Paperback $29.50.

Reviewed by Matthew Calarco

The chief question animating Gary Steiner’s Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism concerns the implications that might follow from postmodernism in view of achieving justice for animals. By postmodernism Steiner has in mind primarily poststructuralist discourses inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, though his analysis touches on a wide variety of thinkers who are critical of the central tenets of modernity, humanism, and anthropocentrism. Along with many readers who have taken notice of the animal turn in contemporary postmodernist philosophy and theory, Steiner is interested in what, precisely, this emergent discourse adds to questions surrounding animals that has not already been addressed by preceding philosophical and legal approaches (such as those associated with animal rights theorists like Tom Regan and Gary Francione).

Steiner’s overall assessment is that postmodernism is an ethical and political dead end with regard to animal justice. This position is arrived at by way of: a review of Nietzsche’s influence on the formation of postmodernism (Chapter 1); an account of the difficulties that postmodernist thinkers encounter in trying to generate a positive ethics and clear principles for action (Chapter 2); a critical reading of Jacques Derrida’s writings on animals and animality (Chapter 3); a survey of various legal, philosophical, and postmodernist attempts to evade the implications of animal rights (Chapter 4); the development of a positive account of a nonanthropocentric cosmopolitianism (Chapter 5); and the defense of an ethics and politics of veganism. While I share Steiner’s vegan commitments and concur with the very general conclusion that poststructuralist discourses concerning animals suffer from certain critical and intractable limitations, many of the readings and arguments by which Steiner arrives at his overall position strike me as deeply confused and ultimately unpersuasive. The question that is driving Steiner’s project is a good one and worth pursuing; but in order to answer it in a way that does justice to the texts and thinkers under discussion, different (which is to say, more careful) protocols of argumentation and reading are required.