What is Zoogenesis (3)?: Derrida & Benjamin, introducing animal studies

The following are the notes from my seminar focusing on the fourth seminar of the first volume of Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign (2009) and Andrew Benjamin’s 2008 paper ‘Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals’ in South Atlantic Quarterly (also included in Of Jews and Animals (2010)).

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By way of an introduction I want to give a sense of the importance and scope of critical animal studies. These two texts were chosen because what both Derrida and Benjamin have succeeded in doing, perhaps more so than anybody else, is making explicit the importance of the so-called ‘question of the animal’ to the overlapping domains of philosophy, ethics, and politics. Derrida, for example, suggests elsewhere that—

‘One understands a philosopher only by heeding closely what he means to demonstrate, and in reality fails to demonstrate, concerning the limit between human and animal’ (The Animal That Therefore I Am, 106).

Similarly, Benjamin recently claimed that—

‘admitting and thus allowing the animal would not involve an act of extension but rather a transformation of the philosophical itself. That transformation would be occasioned by allowing into the philosophical an element whose exclusion was often taken to be foundational’ (Of Jews and Animals 19).

This gives a clear sense of the centrality of nonhuman animals for both of these writers, in particular as regards the deconstruction of humanism and all that that brings with it.

Not to be confused with transhumanism, according to the posthumanism of critical animal studies the ongoing reinscription of other animals within the humanities is necessary for two reasons: first, in order to dismantle the machinery of power by which ‘other’ humans are ‘animalised,’ a displacement constituting the sine qua non of exclusive collectives founded upon boundaries of blood, soil or language; and second, and of equal importance, in order to put a halt to the exploitation, torture, and extermination of nonhuman animals by their human kin

Both Derrida and Benjamin seek to complicate the human/animal dichotomy for both of these reasons. In these texts, Benjamin thus affirms a primordial relatedness prior to this distinction, while Derrida begins the necessary task of deconstructing the ‘proper’ of the human which always takes place at the expense of other animals. Important here, emphasised in both these texts, is that this is not simply a case of extending certain human rights to animals which, as Derrida suggests, constitutes a major failure of logic. Hence, one must avoid temptation of countering what Benjamin calls the ‘without relation’ of the human/animal division with a simple ‘with’: ‘no simple extension (by humility or rights), says Benjamin, which only effaces difference, but rather by ‘forcing another thinking’ outside of the without/with opposition as neither negation nor supplement, or, in other words, whereas negation is opposed to an affirmation of anoriginal relatedness, such affirmation rather differs from negation. Affirmation cannot oppose negation as this would place negation within it. ‘It is less a matter,’ as Derrida says here—

‘of wondering whether one has the right to refuse the animal such and such a power (speech, reason, experience of death, mourning, culture, institution, politics, technique, clothing, lying, feigned feint, effacement of the trace, gift, laughter, tears, respect, etc.—…  the most powerful philosophical tradition in which we live has refused all of that to the “animal”). It is more a matter of wondering whether what one calls man has the right, for his own part, to attribute in all rigor to man, to attribute to himself, then, what he refuses to the animal, and whether he ever has a concept of it that is pure, rigorous, indivisible, as such’ (130).

Before opening up the discussion, I just want to mark what I think are two very important points which underlay both of these texts. The first concerns iterability, performativity, and the mark, and the second, the idea of an ethics of the nonfellow.

For those of you not familiar with Derrida, it might appear that his later focus on ‘the animal’ is something external to, and thus distinct from, his thinking of différance, trace, iterability, and so forth. Rather, this concern both with the diversity of animals and with the philosophical conception of ‘the animal’ is indissociable from deconstruction itself. One cannot, in other words, affirm the differential double movement of protention and retention whilst simultaneously rejecting the deconstruction of human exceptionalism. By this I mean the necessary iterability of every recognised mark which, in order to make sense, must, upon its ‘first’ appearance, always already be repeated, and hence differing and deferring from its apparently indivisible presence. Moreover, the effacing of singular differences in the reiteration of sense is the necessary idealisation which permits one to identify it as the same throughout possible repetitions. Important here, is that this iterability, this making sense, cannot be restricted to human being, and it is this which Derrida attempts to show in his deconstruction of Lacan’s opposition of human language and animal code (118-119), already long since marked by his shift from a thinking of the ‘signifier’ to that of the ‘trace’, and thus of the very traditional distinction between the instinctive or mechanistic programmed natural reaction and free human response. Always a question, as he says, of liberty and the machine. For Derrida, however, the machine must always interrupt the human just as much, or as less, as the animal, and that the possibility of its rupture inheres in the totality of “experience” beyond any reduction to species and property. The problem of the purity of the distinction between (human) response and (animal, machinic) reaction, he writes,

will always inscribe a destiny of iterability, and therefore some reactional automaticity in every response, however originary, free, decisive and a-reactional it might appear’ (119).

Iterable excess, he makes clear, is a structural characteristic of every mark, every sense, and is thus an excess which ‘relates to the requirements for the production of all life’. With this, he is suggesting, against Lacan, that all living beings—and not only living organisms—are also ‘prey to language’, with all its implications for thinking the unconscious, and for psychoanalysis. Benjamin also addresses this in his discussion of Freudian animal drives, which he says marks the impossibility of a founding unity but which rather insists on a primordial relatedness and thus continuous negotiation (85).


The second point concerns the very foundation of the ethical, and thus of responsibility to the other. On this, Derrida speaks of—

‘A principle of ethics or more radically of justice, in the most difficult sense … which is perhaps the obligation that engages my responsibility with respect to the most dissimilar, the entirely other, precisely, the monstrously other, the unrecognizable other. The “unrecognizable” … is the beginning of ethics, of the Law, and not of the human. So long as there is recognizability and fellow, ethics is dormant. It is sleeping a dogmatic slumber. So long as it remains human, among men, ethics remains dogmatic, narcissistic, and not yet thinking. Not even thinking the human that it talks so much about’ (108).

In what seems a very simple point, insofar as the Law refers us only to the similar, to the mirror of the self, then one’s ‘obligations towards the most similar and the nearest’ are intensified, constructing a hierarchy of obligations or responsibility: ‘More obligation toward men than toward animals, more obligation toward men who are close and similar than toward the less close and less familiar’. Such may indeed be a fact, Derrida writes, ‘But this fact will never have founded a right, an ethics, or a politics’.

This crosses with Benjamin’s attempt to theorise and interrupt the ‘work of figures’ which institutes what he calls the ‘without relation’. Exemplary in this regard is the figuring of ‘the animal’ in a simple oppositional relation to ‘the human’ which unifies both elements in their absence of relation while at the same time erasing both the enormous diversity of species and the already existing complex of relations (as Derrida says too on page 120). In this way, an identity is constructed whose function is in large part external to the concerns of the identity itself. In the first part of his paper, Benjamin marks a crucial distinction between the two determinations which figure the two dominant forms of the human-animal relation. In the first, the production of the human is based upon the death or nonexistence of the animal—the human, in other words, begins where the animal ends, whereas in the second, the human remains in a constant struggle with his or her own animality, an animality which must be repeatedly overcome in being-human. One or other of these twin metaphysical configurations, it should be noted, underwrites the great majority of contemporary Continental philosophy—in the first camp, for example, there is Heidegger, Blanchot, Deleuze and Guattari; with Badiou, Ranciere, and Agamben falling within the second, and with Stiegler oscillating somewhere between the two. Both of these determinations work to continually reiterate the without relation of the human and the animal, and they both do so by defining the nonhuman animal by what he or she lacks within a humanist teleological dialectic in such a way as to mark every nonhuman animal as therefore incomplete, as sub-human. This has extremely serious implications, insofar as it is a production which simultaneously serves to ground, in its appeal to an evolutionary tēlos, the reconfiguration of ‘other’ humans, be they women, people of colour, workers, or others’, as irrational in opposition to normative rationality, that is, as primitive, as ‘uncivilised,’ and thus, as not-yet properly human, as subhuman. The repeated overcoming of animality in becoming-human thus underwrites the so-called ‘civilising mission’ of imperialism as well as current neo-colonialism while at the same marking its indissociable complicity with racism. Without the underlying humanist tēlos, however, such degeneration of ‘others’ – human and nonhuman – ceases to be possible. For this reason Benjamin seeks to disclose not only the originary presence of the animal with the human, but also the mutual articulation of all such figures which externally impose normative identities which then have to be lived out. It is this mutually-articulating ‘work’ which underpins the conjunction of Jews and animals.

This leads back to Derrida who, on page 109 writes that—

‘once there is cruelty only toward the fellow, well, not only can one cause hurt without doing evil and without being cruel not only toward humans not recognized as true humans and true brothers … but also toward any living being foreign to the human race … without ever being suspected of the least cruelty’ (109)

Finally, I offer up the following questions,

Benjamin: What of Agamben’s ‘bare life’ as undifferentiated, as the ‘mere capacity to be killed’ (79)? Especially in relation to a transformed concept of sovereignty, understood as the capacity to discriminate, and thus as the capacity to produce ‘bare life’ (the movement from neutral to bare bodies) (81-2)?

What of Agamben’s utopian redemption of ‘bare life’ in or as the coming community (84-5)?

Derrida’s question: What becomes of animals and ‘the animal’ following the deconstruction of the essential, transcendental humanist Subject (111)?

How does the ‘question of the animal’ affect the discourse of human rights, and of universal human rights in particular? Schmitt would be important here, with his argument that the supposedly ‘political’ notion of a universal humanity is always a mask of private economic interest, one which, moreover, authorises the most extreme inhumanity.

What too of animal rights discourse? What exactly is its major failure of logic, and what are the consequences of this?

What are the implications of extending Law, Crime, and peccability (sin) to nonhuman animals (106)?

What of the qualitative limit, irrespective of numbers and time, Derrida speaks of on pp109-110, especially as regards the humanist privilege and the taking of the malformed embryo as the subject or object of his thought experiment?

What of the ethical obligation to the nonliving—dead living beings and living beings not yet born (110)—how does this impact upon both ecology and ethics and heritage and ethics?

What is the difference between a dogmatic legacy and a critical inheritance (113)?

What of the need—and what are the ‘easily imaginable’ consequences—of inscribing death in the concept of life? Animals are generally figured as lacking death, that is, pathic and thus infinitely substitutable, and hence undying; what then if animals are ‘given death’ (and thus ‘given time’)? Death and thus finitude and nonsubstitutability (123)

What of ‘Thou shalt not kill’?

What about the cultural constructedness of ‘personhood’ (re: Kant)?

What of Descartes’ contention and AI, and how does this return to the question of the animal (112n20)?

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About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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