Derrida’s vegan hors d’oeuvre: Politicians, rapists, and vaches à lait

In his final seminars at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales between 2001 and 2003, Jacques Derrida addresses himself to the questions of the beast (la bête) and/or the sovereign (le souverain), of the “who” (qui) and/or the “what” (quoi), the who or what which is an animal and/or is a marionette, and of the indissociability of liberty and sovereignty, of the “free” decision and the machinery of response and responsibility. In the Eleventh Seminar, in an analysis of sovereign knowledge which depends upon the “possession and mastery of its object” (Beast and the Sovereign I 280), he speaks of a seventeenth century dissection of an elephant “under the orders and under the gaze of the greatest of kings, His Majesty Louis le Grand” (ibid.). Imagine, says Derrida, “think about it, represent it,” for it is a performance [une représentation]: perform for oneself this “enormous, heavy, poor beast … dragged in from I know not where on its side or its back into a luxurious room, a beast no doubt bloody, among doctors, surgeons, or other armed butchers [médecins, chirurgiens ou autres charcuteurs armés]” (284). Imagine, he continues, the king’s entrance and all the doctors and academics bowing down, the crowd and courtesans: “represent to yourselves the whole ceremony,” this “political picture … so much more stylish than … a Salon of Agriculture in the midst of an election campaign.” Speaking thus in March 2002 at the height of the presidential election campaign in France, during which every candidate was expected to perform such a visit, expected to represent such a political picture at the Salon, Derrida points to all those “pretending to the throne” who must—

stroke the cow’s rear end [caressent le cul des vaches à lait] (consenting cows, of course, as thieves and rapists [les voleurs et les violeurs] always say, by definition) and walk around candidly, candidately among the stands, their mouths full of foie gras, beer, presidential pâte de campagne, their mouths also full of verbiage … in a crowd in which it would be harder than ever to tell a beast from a sovereign (284-5).

In this, whilst analysing the performance of an elephant autopsy, Derrida at once performs—without remarking—a deconstruction precisely of the “what” or the “who,” of qui or quoi and the beast or the sovereign. Doctors and surgeons are here species of the genera “armed butchers” in their gaze and their performance that reduces a singular elephant to a piece of meat on a slab. This genera, moreover, is extended far beyond the butchering of murdered nonhuman animals for human and other animal consumption, carrying with it the atrocities of war, of terror, of cannibalistic killers, in a shift of sense which brings “biomedical” practitioners together with the most “beastly,” the most so-called “animal” of “human” acts, these doctors and surgeons who—these doctors and surgeons that—assume to possess together with their scalpels the certainty of knowledge and the mastery of their object. Here then, the highest of rational sovereign beings become, for a moment, indistinguishable from the most bestial, the most “animal.”

While still within the vicinity of the majesty of Louis le Grand, in an overlaying of the contemporary “political picture” we find today’s French politicians caressing the backsides of vaches—but these are not “dairy cows” [vaches laitière] as the translation maintains, but rather such “cows” are those who are easily taken in (with all its certain superiority of the masculine), such suckers [vaches à lait] whose arses politicians caress at election time (and thus we too are vaches à lait, and with the same assumption or presumption of sovereignly given consent). The cows in question, however, are produced as stupidly willing, a consent supposed by those rational men “by definition” in order to justify theft and rape. And yet, by speaking of  political candidates as les voleurs et les violeurs, which in turn carries with it a certain feminist notion of the theft and rape of the world as programmed by Christian-Enlightenment thought, Derrida thus speaks of those so-called “food animals” shown at the Salon not as quoi, but as qui: these specific cows who, stolen and raped, fondled without their consent by those “pretending to the throne” in an intimate public caress, these cows who, in a jolt of recognition, cease to be what, cease to be “mere” beasts but who become sensible, become beings that are no longer invisible noise but are rather being violated by beasts, beasts stuffed with empty words and swollen with the cruelly swollen organs of other animals, an enactment of bestial molestation amidst a crowd in which it is no longer possible to tell the human apart from everyone traditionally supposed to be everything that that—that human—precisely, irredemiably, “is” not.

What is performed, and represented by Derrida who exhorts us to represent it to ourselves, is the autopsic enactment of positivist mastery in which all but “the human”—which is not to say all human beings—are never “who” but only “what,” only things to be inspected and displayed for consumption (one thinks of the recent Channel 4 series Inside Nature’s Giants, displaying “layman” dissections of a variety of the world’s largest animals). Here then, we find what Derrida calls the inspectacular imbrication of the theatrical and the theoretical (296) at the intersection of convention and consent, which is at once the setting of the scene of the possible (that “always necessary context of the performative operation (a context that is, like every convention, an institutional context)” (“University Without Condition”)); such representations that, recognised within an institutional context, are countersigned without consent and thus necessarily nonevents. Other if not opposite to this ob-jectifying performance of the phenomenal elephant “is” the animal encounter, the impossible that is the in-sensée (madness, delirium) that enacts bodyings as and at the limit of sense and thus of existence.

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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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