WP 4: Arousal

Wake Up! Even if Life Is but a Dream: Ethics of/as Arousal

Kelly Oliver

Arouse: 1. to raise or stir up from sleep or inactivity; to awaken 2. to stir up into activity, excite (principles of action, emotion, etc.) 3. to wake up, bestir oneself. (OED)

Arousal: the action of arousing, or fact of being aroused. (OED)

Arousal: 1. the arousing of feeling, response, or desire. 2. feelings and physical signs of sexual desire 3. waking up from sleep, unconsciousness, or a similar state. (Webster Dictionary

When we think of arousal, we think of sex. Yet, the Oxford English Dictionary does not list sexual excitement as a form of arousal. And in the more contemporary Webster Dictionary, sexual desire is secondary to feelings, response and desire more generally. Both indicate that arousal means to wake up, to bestir oneself, to move from inactivity, sleep or unconsciousness into wakeful consciousness and activity. That which arouses moves us from inaction to action, from sleep to waking, from unconscious to consciousness.

Writing with Blood

In this regard, philosophy itself is arousal; and the history of philosophy is the history of dreamers waking up: Plato’s cave is a dream-world from which the philosopher must exit into the daylight; Descarte’s evil demon threatens to deceive the philosopher into thinking that his dreams are reality; Kant awakens from his dogmatic slumber into Enlightenment; Rousseau calls himself a dreamer who unlike other philosophers presents his dreams as dreams rather than as indelible truths; and Derrida, following these philosophical dreamers, both identifies with the dreamer who gives his dreams as dreams and yet also dreams of a magical pen that can write the body’s arousal without mediation.

In The Animal that therefore I am, Derrida’s dream becomes one of an invented grammar or extraordinary unheard of music that moves beyond discourses of the human, animal or divine, and takes us beyond the economies of sameness or opposition that lead to warfare, including—and most especially—our war on animals: “I dream of inventing an unheard of or extraordinary grammar and music.”1 Derrida plays off of the notion that only humans dream by suggesting that his might be the dream of an animal—in the double sense where an animal is the subject who is dreaming and where an animal is the one dreamed about, only now an animal capable of speaking, or singing, in a new language.2 This musical magical tongue may be an animal and/or it might allow us to speak our own animality.

This new way of speaking (or singing) would bring with it not only a new lexicon but also a new intonation through which “blood mixes with ink” and this new language writes the body.3 In “Circumfession,” Derrida says that he has always dreamed “of a pen that would be a syringe” so that he could write himself into a sentence and find himself there.4 In this regard, Derrida’s dream is not so different from his philosophical predecessors: the dream of immediacy, of a language that does not betray the body but speaks in its own natural language, the language of blood. Given that some of the first ink used was animal blood, some of the first pens were bird quills, and animal figures were some of the first written symbols, we might ask whether in a sense we always write with the blood of animals. What does the blood of animals arouse in us? Hunger? Lust? Thirst for dominance?…Sorrow? Empathy? Guilt? Responsibility? And, can language or philosophy bestir us into ethical action? Can it speak or write with metaphorical blood and thereby author the body’s arousal without spilling the blood of others?

Perhaps Kant was onto something when he maintained that we learn how to treat each other through our relation with animals. For him, cruelty to animals can arouse cruelty to humans. We are familiar with the ways that the exploitation and denigration of people traditionally involves viewing them as animals, treating them like animals, and justifying their “inferior” status on the basis of their supposed animality or proximity to the animal. This was (and is) the case with women, who traditionally have been considered closer to nature and to animals, especially in their reproductive and child-rearing functions. This was the case with slaves, who were treated like cattle or oxen to be bought, sold, and used on plantations. This was (and is) the case with people of color who have been stereotyped as hypersexual, immoral, or irrational like animals.

Within popular parlance, colonization, oppression, discrimination and genocide are usually, if not always, justified through an appeal to the animality of the victims. These supposed subhuman groups do not deserve human rights or human justice because they are figured as inhuman monsters, beasts, or dogs. The proximity between oppressed peoples and animals is not just a contingency of history, but a central part of Western conceptions of man, human and animal. As I argue in Animal Lessons, until we address the denigration of animals in Western thought, on the conceptual level, if not also on the material economic level, we continue to merely scratch the surface of the denigration and exploitation of various groups of people, from playboy bunnies to prisoners at Abu Ghraib who were treated like dogs as a matter of explicit military policy.5

The Dogs of War

In the context of criticizing the Bush administration’s foreign policies, retired Army colonel Lawrence Wilkerson said that he could understand the “bestiality that comes over men when they’re asked to use force for the state.”6 Did he really mean “bestiality”? While “bestiality” means humans behaving like animals, more commonly it means humans having sex with animals. Did he mean to suggest that during war, soldiers turn their enemies and prisoners of war into animals by sexualizing them? (Think of Abu Ghraib.) Or, did he mean that soldiers themselves behave like animals? Or both? In the media surrounding the “scandal” at Abu Ghraib, both the soldiers and the prisoners were variously referred to as animals and beasts. The abusive guards were called “beasts” for their inhumane treatment of prisoners. And those same guards reportedly claimed that “left on their own,” the prisoners behaved like “animals.” One of the most infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib shows Pfc. Lynndie England holding the end of a leash attached around a prisoner’s neck. The image suggests that she is treating the prisoner like a dog; and in testimony, several prison guards reportedly said that they were ordered to treat the prisoners like “dogs,” which they interpreted to include making them bark like dogs. The photographs of abuse also show guards using dogs to threaten naked prisoners, which even Saddam Hussein made a point of claiming did not happen when he was responsible for Abu Ghraib. Mississippi Senator Trent Lott justified the use of dogs, saying “Hey, nothing wrong with holding a dog up there…This is not Sunday school; this is interrogation…you don’t get information that will save American lives by withholding pancakes.”7 These scenes of war are filled with real and metaphorical dogs. But these are not the dogs that we imagine as man’s best friend; rather they are imagined as ferocious attack dogs or pathetic stray dogs left to die in the street: dogs as victimizers and as victims. These dogs do not even evince the pathos of the poor dogs chained to roofs and abandoned to Hurricane Katrina. These are the dogs of war. And it is in the context of war that Col. Wilkerson can imagine humans behaving like beasts.

The rhetoric of war is full of beasts in order to justify the naturalness of war; images of dogs doing what they supposedly do by nature, when “left on their own,” becomes perverse reassurance that we are behaving naturally too, that it is only natural that we would have enemies and kill and torture them. The power of the metaphor, however, is that through comparison, it also underlines the difference: we are not dogs; we can behave like dogs only because ultimately we are unlike them. Metaphors of beasts and animals are not new to war. Think of descriptions of Nazis who behaved like beasts (were they also the “black-sheep” of the German people, just following orders?) rounding up Jews who went to slaughter like sheep or cattle, who were also treated like dogs, even worse than dogs. The so-called beasts at Abu Ghraib who did shocking things to prisoners are also called the “black sheep” of the army, the few “bad apples.” The dog metaphors—along with sheep and apples—falsely reassure us that the photographs from Abu Ghraib are not us! We are not the beasts, the sheep, the dogs.

Yet, those photographs continue to haunt us precisely because we recognize both the abusers and the abused not as beasts or dogs, but as human all too human. It is the humanness of this violence that makes it so uncanny. We are animals to be sure. We are creatures, beings in the world, among others. But we are also animals or beings who mean. To be human is to inhabit a world of meaning and a meaningful world. Perhaps more than deny the entrance of the body into politics, we deny the entrance of meaning into politics, or more precisely, we deny the ambiguity between body and meaning as it affects politics. The realm of politics has been reduced to actions and policies that are seemingly self-evident, even natural, and don’t require interpretation. They arouse sentiment, titillate even, but do not bestir us to action. Contemporary media with its real-time reporting, embedded journalism, and fictional simulations of events contributes to the lack of interpretation that results in a crisis of meaning. We don’t question what we see because seeing is believing. Yet, as Mark Danner concludes in Torture and Truth, “the scandal is not about uncovering what is hidden, it is about seeing what is already there—and acting on it. It is not about information; it is about politics.”8 We can also say that the scandal is about arousal. When we see the photographs from Abu Ghraib are we aroused to act against war and torture, or are we simply aroused because pretty young women are smiling and pointing at naked male bodies? Are we reacting to the presence of cute women in scenes of abuse? Or, are we reacting to the victimization of Iraqi prisoners?

There is Arousal….and then There Is Arousal!

Much of the conservative commentary surrounding the Abu Ghraib photos explicitly or implicitly associated women and sex.  Some comment on women triggering men’s sexual urges and the presence of women leading to “whorehouse behavior” in the military. But, these images of women smiling while engaging in sexual abuse and sadistic torture that captivate public imagination are familiar to us from the S&M porn industry, which is booming on the internet and popular with soldiers, and traditionally puts women in the role of dominatrix. Gender stereotypes also play a role in the confusion regarding these images: not just because women are the abusers but also because men are the ones being sexually abused. Of course, we know that female Iraqi prisoners are also sexually abused and raped, but that is so much business as usual that it does not capture our imaginations in the way that images of women sexually abusing men does.

It makes us wonder how a man can be raped by a woman. How a man can be forced to perform, and thereby seemingly be an agent of, sex acts. These are the types of questions that point to our assumptions about desire, sex and gender. And it is these gender stereotypes that make the smiling faces of Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman so abject—both terrifying or repulsive and at the same time fascinating or captivating.  Julia Kristeva characterizes the abject as something that calls into question borders; it threatens with ambiguity that cannot be categorized.9 Yet, it is precisely this threatening ambiguity that draws us to the abject. We look at it in spite of ourselves. This is our reaction to the photographs from Abu Ghraib. We are repulsed by them, but we can’t help but look. We are appalled, but we want to see more. And the photographs that are the most uncanny, the most difficult to categorize, are those of women engaging in abuse while smiling for the camera. They both arouse and horrify. Perhaps this is why at first even human rights groups were not sure how to categorize the abuse.

Again, we can ask, do the photographs arouse us in the sexual sense of titillating and fascinating, even if just in the perverse way of the abject? Or, do they arouse us to act? Do they move us from inactivity to activity? From sleep to wakefulness? Are they a wake up call or merely a pornographic nightmare? And, what about the more or less unconscious connection between women and sex? And between women, animals—especially dogs—and sex? Can these connections be stirred from unconscious sexual desires or fears to consciousness of the objectification of women? Or our desires for bestiality? Moreover, as viewers, what is our investment in these images of sex and violence, of women and dogs? In the case of our cruelty to others (including animals), can philosophy, language, or interpretation bestir us to wake up and act? Or, is arousal merely sexual titillation through which we use others for our own amusement? In the case of Abu Ghraib, do media images arouse in these two senses at once?

The various meanings of “arousal” can facilitate our thinking about ethical and political responsibility. To arouse is to bestir to wakefulness or consciousness from sleep, an unconscious state, or inactivity. Yet, in our everyday language, arousal connotes sexual excitement and pleasure. These two senses of arousal correspond to two types of seeing and two types of relating to others. First, there is seeing in the pornographic sense of taking others as objects for one’s own pleasure. This type of seeing or arousal does not awaken self-reflection, critical philosophical thought or interpretation. Rather, if anything, it initiates action without thinking—“if it feels good do it!”. In psychoanalytic terms, we could say that it motivates acting out rather than working through. In Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media, I discussed how media arouses by inciting emotions rather than awakening critical thinking or interpretation, and thereby short-circuits political action or ethical reflection.10

But, there is a second sense of seeing or arousal that goes beyond taking others as objects and bestirs witnessing to both their subjectivity and subject positions. As I have elaborated elsewhere, witnessing moves away from recognition models that base relationships on identifying with others, toward pathos beyond recognition through which we attend to our relationships with others, even those with whom we have nothing in common, by acknowledging our dependence upon them.11 This acknowledgement requires vigilance to the point of insomnia, a wakefulness that refuses to rest. Witnessing calls for the ability to address and be addressed by others. But, this address need not be linguistic or verbal. Rather, witnessing bestirs us to attend to the responsiveness of all living things. Witnessing is arousal as responsiveness to others and otherness by virtue of which we exist and live. We are dependent upon others for our response to them and our very ability to respond. And, the disavowal of this dependence—by objectification or sexualization of others through pornographic ways of seeing that strip them of their agency and make them into objects for us—is a denial of that which enables our own being in the world.

 Our ethical responsibility comes not from our sovereignty or our autonomy, but rather from our interdependence and our dependence upon others, the earth and its creatures. It comes not from conquering, sexualizing, or taking as trophies, but from bestirring ourselves to constant vigilance to the ways in which even our best intentions may exploit others. The ethical responsibility to our founding possibility, which comes from our relationships with others and our environment, obligates us to be wakeful to the ways in which arousal can become pornographic rather than ethical. Arousal suggests both responsiveness to others and the environment, on the one hand, and taking them as objects for our own pleasure, on the other. It also suggests a state prior to arousal, a state of sleep or unconsciousness from which it stirs us. This state prior to arousal is also significant for thinking about ethics and politics. For, when we are unconscious of, or indifferent to, others who remain invisible for us, we cannot be aroused to respond to them or their needs. For example, in the case of animals, most slaughter operations and laboratory experiments remain hidden from public view; and because we do not see them, we can eat and use these animals in good conscience. Think too of the Bush administration’s decision not to allow media to show fallen or wounded soldiers or their caskets. When media does show us the grotesqueness of slaughter or the bloody brutality of war, we often react by blaming the media for wounding us or traumatizing us with pornographic images that we would rather not see. But, in the case of Abu Ghraib, when we did see, and because they were more sexual abuses than bloody dismemberment, we wanted to see more of these nasty girls; there we need to be awakened to our own investment in violence and more particularly the connection between women, sex and violence, so prevalent in popular culture, not only in pornography but also in Hollywood film and television.

Arousal Against the Death Drive

So long as these forms of exploitation, slaughter and warfare remain invisible to us, they are easy to disavow. But when they come to consciousness, like the return of the repressed, they haunt us in ways that can call us to our responsibility. They can arouse us, either to ethical and political action, or to sexual or pleasurable excitations, and perhaps both at the same time. Indeed, it is not always easy to distinguish between forms of arousal that motivate us to act. Do we act for ourselves or for others? Is one form of arousal necessary to bestir the other? This is why awakening an ethical response requires investigating and exploring our own unconscious motives for our desires and actions.

Ethics is the acknowledgment that we are by virtue of response from others, that is to say, by virtue of arousal and arousability. But, we can articulate this ethics only by accounting for our unconscious fears and desires. In order to make responsibility radical enough, which is to say ethical enough, we need to take responsibility even for motives, desires and fears unknown to us. We can never stop interrogating our use of the rhetoric of “justice,” “democracy,” “freedom,” or “humanity,” which means that we can never stop asking ourselves why we do what we do, why we value what we value, why we desire what we desire, why we fear what we fear. Yet, without engaging the unconscious our self-interrogation will never be vigilant enough. We must be humble enough and brave enough to continue to question our own motives, fears, and desires. Only then will the call from others bestir us to ethical and political action rather than, or in addition to, stimulating us to auto-affection or our own pleasure without regard for the pain or pleasure of others.

Exploring the unconscious dimension of our experiences and actions can work to forestall merely acting out violent desires and fears. Rather than “just do it,” we think about it first. The time and space required by this process of questioning and interpretation not only slows down our violent reactions but also allows us to see what is not visible in media images: which is to say, both our political or economic as well as unconscious and disavowed investments in those images. We need to assess and reassess our own investments in images of sex and violence and the ways in which those investments signal unthought fears and desires. We need to avow the ways in which we profit both materially and psychologically from violence toward others, including animals. By contemplating our pleasures and phobias, and moreover by articulating them, we can begin to short-circuit some of the effects of the economy of the spectacle. Moreover, through the process of meaning-making, we begin to articulate bodily sensations of pleasure and pain in ways that help us understand the connection between these sensations and cultural institutions and values that produce and reproduce them. In other words, we give meaning to bodily sensations within the realm of politics, now become ethical.

Only by bringing our unconscious fears, phobias, and desires to consciousness, can we hope to awaken an ethical response to others. Perhaps by acknowledging the death drive within ourselves, we can begin to prevent killing and find alternatives to slaughter, warfare, torture and sacrifice. Perhaps by bestirring ourselves to the relationships by virtue of which we live, we can create an ecological ethics founded on nourishing others rather than conquering them. Perhaps we can imagine sharing the earth with all of its inhabitants, not just in terms of occupying the same planet, but also in terms of caring for each other. It is imperative that we begin to conceive a sustainable ethics that obligates us to maintain not only ourselves but also others by virtue of which we live and thrive. This ecological ethics is a virtue ethics if we take virtue back to its etymological roots in plants and animals that have a beneficial effect on the body. Virtue is not just about securing one’s own character, but also and moreover, about nurturing beneficial relationships with others and the earth.

Ecological Ethics as Arousability

In this era of global warming, species extinction, factory farming, and shrinking biodiversity, endless war, military occupation and expanded torture, record wealth for the few and poverty for the rest, gated communities and record incarceration, more than ever, we need a sustainable ethics. We need an ethics born from, and nurturing, a transformation from the traditional image of man as conquering nature or dominating the globe, to one of human beings nourishing each other and the earth. Although we can never be certain of the difference between conquering and nourishing, between trophy and trophe, we have an ethical obligation to continue to try to foster nourishing relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the earth. In the words of Jacques Derrida, we need to eat well by attending to how and why we—literally and metaphorically—eat others.12 Indeed, because ultimately it is impossible to know how, and it is impossible to be certain we can distinguish trophy from trophe or conquering from nourishing, and because it is impossible to succeed once and for all in arousing ethics rather than merely titillating, we have an obligation to tirelessly attend to our own limitations and the needs of others. This ecological conscience, as John Llewelyn calls it, bestirs us to a responsibility for others, including other animals, and the earth.

 An ecological ethics would have to be an ethics of limits, an ethics of conservation. Rather than assert our dominion over others, the earth and its creatures, this ethics would oblige us to acknowledge our dependence upon them. It would require us to attend to our response-ability by virtue of that dependence. Again, it would challenge us to give witness to what is beyond recognition, beyond rights, beyond media spectacle, but not beyond responsibility, namely, what sustains us (even if it is nameless or cannot name itself). It would be an ethics born out of an acknowledgment of sustaining relationships. Sustainable ethics, then, is an ethics of arousal. It is an ethics that engenders a responsibility to enable response, not as it has been defined as the exclusive property of man (man responds, animals react), but rather as it exists all around us. All living creatures are responsive. All living beings are arousable. All of us belong to the earth, not in the sense of property, but rather as inhabitants of a shared planet. A sustainable ethics would be an ethics circumscribed by the circumference of the globe, which compels us to avow our own limitations, and obligates us to relearn our primary-school lesson: we need to share. Given the threat of our own weapons of mass destruction and the environmental urgency upon us, generosity is a virtue that we cannot afford to live without. We need to wake up from our apathetic slumber to our responsibility to others and the earth.


Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of over seventy articles and nine books, including Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (Columbia University Press, 2009); Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media (Columbia University Press, 2007); The Colonization of Psychic Space: Toward a Psychoanalytic Social Theory (University of Minnesota, 2004); and Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (University of Minnesota 2001). Also, she has edited several books, including Recent French Feminism (Oxford University Press, 2004) and The Portable Kristeva (Columbia 1998, 2nd Edition 2002).