Monthly Archives: June 2013

Admitting the Indifference of Dogs


Here is the third of my Parallax review articles, this one on Andrew Benjamin’s important book Of Jews and Animals (Edinburgh University Press, 2010). It was first published as “Negotiating Without Relation” in Parallax, 17:3 (2011), pp.105-108)

Also, previous readers of this blog will have noticed the format change – I received several emails mentioning the difficulty of cutting-and-pasting because of the white-on-black layout, hence the change to black-on-white text (although I’m not sure about the change as yet …)



Dogs run throughout Andrew Benjamin’s new book, both as figures and in their particularity. While Heidegger faces his dog facing him in the silence of indifference, another dog insists upon his or her presence before Goya. A third dog, meanwhile, forever awaiting a drowned human companion in a Turner watercolour, constitutes at once an icon of devotion and the moment of a “founding tear” – a rupture which opens the work to an unthought modality of friendship. Finally, in a doubling and displacing of the Heideggerian absence of relation, the indifference of the dogs of Piero di Cosimo announces a transformative co-presence which, incapable of being determined in advance, can thus only be lived. It is in running together, in this movement from indifferent silence to the in-difference of an undetermined co-presence which, Benjamin will argue, inaugurates not simply an importantly different philosophical project, but rather “a transformation of the philosophical itself” (p.19). In this, Benjamin’s latest work remains resolutely preliminary, in the sense of the tracing of a limit which marks both a closure of potential and the possibility of a radical new beginning and which, in the process, makes explicit the importance of the so-called “question of the animal” to the overlapping domains of philosophy, ethics, and politics. As a result, Of Jews and Animals is set to become a key text, alongside such works as Elisabeth de Fontenay’s Le silence des bêtes (1998) and Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006), in constituting a further and necessary move beyond the utilitarianism and neo-Kantianism within which “animal philosophy” has for so long remained mired.

Central to the book is how the “work of figures” institutes what Benjamin terms the “without relation.” Exemplary in this regard is the positing of the figure of “the animal” in a singular relation to “the human,” a positing which, unifying both elements in their absence of relation, serves to efface both the enormous diversity of species and the already existing complex of relations in the construction of an identity whose function is “predominantly external to the concerns of the identity itself” (p.4). Against this, not only does Benjamin disclose the insistent and originary presence of the animal with the human, but also the interarticulation of such figures which externally impose normative identities which then have to be lived out. It is this mutually-articulating “work” which both underpins the conjunction of Jews and animals in the title (an entitling which fully acknowledges the attendant risk which might appear at first glance to equate the one with the other) and at once serves to efface the working of this very conjunction.

By way of the naturalising construction of the other as “the enemy” within Plato’s Republic, Benjamin argues that, through the working of such figures, the threat of particularity comes to be excluded in the name of the universal; an exclusion, moreover, which, in its continuous reiteration, sustains that same universality. Hence, if this machinery is to be stalled, it thus becomes necessary to think a certain way of being just to particularity. One will recognise here, and in addition to the overlapping nexus of concerns with Derrida’s later work, the relation between Benjamin’s transformative project and that of deconstruction, a relation directly explored by Benjamin in this book both through Derrida’s notion of “play” [“jeu”] and through a critique of Derrida’s reading of Pascal in which, Benjamin suggests, Derrida fails to take account both of the doubling of “force” and of the link between justice and the figure of “the Jew,” both of which are integral to Benjamin’s own position. While never failing to acknowledge this indebtedness, Benjamin contends however that his argument for “a differential or relational ontology” necessarily leads in “another direction” (p.128). Indeed, by way of the notion of the “anoriginal” (which receives perhaps its most rigorous formulation in The Plural Event (1993)), Benjamin has been pursuing this project for many years. While the question remains as to whether the positing of a differential ontology can be so easily directed away from the founding gesture of deconstruction – a gesture which affirms the impossibility of a “finite living being, human or nonhuman, that wouldn’t be structured by [a] differential of forces”1 –, Benjamin’s new book, in seeking to systemically mark and in so doing move beyond the work of dualisms, nonetheless constitutes a highly original and provocative opening, the implications of which for the ecological and the aesthetic, as well as the philosophical and the political, cannot be overstated.

Beginning with the production of the absence of relation between the human and the animal, and by way of two fifteenth century paintings of St Michael’s slaying of the Devil, Benjamin marks an important 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 predicated on the death or nonexistence of the animal, 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. These twin metaphysical configurations, one or other of which underwrites the great majority of contemporary Continental philosophy, work to continually reiterate the without relation, both fallaciously 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. As de Fontenay has argued, “this continuity and this fracture, always at work, this veritable obsession with the mending and correction of the animal by the human” can only function at the expense of the status of the animal.2

In the positing of a singular relation “without relation,” difference remains unthought insofar as “the ground of difference is itself internal to the definitions that establish it” (p.84). The work of figures, in other words, produces as absent a founding relationality – described by Benjamin both as combat and negotiation – which serves therefore to exclude any possibility of negotiation in the future, and in this way all too often succeeds in determining the mode of life in question. In contrast, were difference to be thought – a thinking which defines the important difference of Benjamin’s philosophical project – then “a relation would have to be introduced” (p.85).

To be just to particularity, however, does not mean that all such a counter requires is the introduction of a “with” in place of the “without.” Rather, what is needed is the forcing of a thinking outside of simple opposition, that is, neither negation nor supplement. In other words, the affirmative transformation of the philosophical cannot simply oppose its negation, nor simply add to it, without remaining caught within its opposition (the “simple extension” of (human) rights to animals, for example, only succeeds in further effacing difference whilst resituating the founding “without relation”). By contrast, another thinking demands instead the radical transformation of what exists already. It requires, therefore, an inventive rewriting or re-placing – by way of thinking the difference of difference – of the originary “with” marked and subsequently effaced in the positing of the without relation. In this way, argues Benjamin, “admitting” the animal into the philosophical, insofar as it reintroduces “an element whose exclusion was often taken to be foundational” (p.19), necessarily transforms the philosophical. Such a transformation, in other words, takes place in placing in abeyance the work of such sites of closure in attending instead to the originary presence of an insistent particularity which opens up to forms of relationality no longer constituted by the work of figures.

Here we begin to understand the centrality of the conjunction of “the animal” and “the Jew,” not only within this project, but also to a thinking which seeks to transform normative configurations of race, gender and sexuality more generally. Just as thinking the differences of singular difference insists that we do not remain unaware as to “the role of the animal within the history of philosophy and the positioning of the animal within a relation between universal and particular that resulted in the animal being essentialised […] and excluded in the name of human being” (p.10), the injunction of this thinking follows for every such essentialising exclusion, for all such work of figures. Hence, Benjamin affirms, such a reintroduction of relationality, which thus transforms the concepts and categories of philosophy itself, “can be reiterated in terms that would give a role of comparable significance to the logic of the synagogue” (p.185). This logic, explored throughout the second half of the book, refers to the figuring of the “Old Testament” (and thus the Jew) as blind to the truth it carries, a truth which only the “New Testament” can instantiate. As a result, “the exclusion of the Jews is fundamental to the operation of the very Christianity that they are taken to have enabled” (p.140). “The Jew,” like “the animal,” thus has to be included in order to be excluded. More than this, however, these two figures actually “work in tandem” (p.187), articulating each other insofar as they are both figures of that which is excluded but retained in the positing of a singular relation which effaces the pre-existing complex of relations.

Hence, what Benjamin seeks is a way of thinking relationality which would be just to particularity, with the latter understood as that which exists already but which “cannot be assimilated to a generalised and abstract sense of alterity” (p.191). Always more than the other to the Same – whether that Other be “the animal” or “the Jew” – particularity is that which exceeds every positing of the without relation. Outside of its opposition therefore, particularity introduces “a further determination of alterity […] characterised as existing without relation to the process of universality (and yet necessitated in order that there be universality)” (p.144).

To demonstrate this “outside” of alterity, Benjamin turns to the figure of the Jew as it functions firstly in the texts of Hegel, and then in an overlooked pairing of fragments – a pairing overlooked by Derrida above all – from Pascal’s Pensées. For Hegel, Benjamin writes, totality requires the elimination of the aberrant particular, figured by “the Jew” as a disease which must be effaced in being incorporated within the universalising conception of human being, and yet which, as “the mark of an insistent particularity” (p.105), nonetheless remains inassimilable – the nonhuman within the body of the State. In this way, “the Jew” thus comes to be doubled, split between the “good” assimilable and the “bad” inassimilable or, in Pascal’s words, between those who have “Christian feelings” and those others who possess “pagan feelings” (cit. p.143).

Nevertheless, it is this doubling of alterity which opens to the doubling of force. A doubling which, in its relation to actuality, potentiality, and justice – alluded to previously by way of canine indifference –, is central to Benjamin’s philosophical intervention. There is, on the one hand, the immediacy of force demanded by the presence of an aberrant – “inassimilable” – particularity and, on the other, force as the capacity to act justly, a force which, insofar as it remains always independent of its actualisation, therefore inscribes potentiality within justice itself. While it is impossible here to reproduce the intricacy of Benjamin’s argument, one which aligns the place of judgement with the force of potentiality, one can, in a very schematic fashion, say that the undetermined force of justice must displace the violence of an unthinking immediacy, a displacement which thus reintroduces “time, place and space within the relation between justice and force” (p.144). In this way, the “timing of judgment” thus continually holds opens the space and place of justice, so as to maintain – at the levels of both the philosophical and the sociopolitical – particularities “as sites of conflict and thus within terms they set and create to hold to the necessity that particularities have their own sense of self-transformation” (p.146).

In so doing, argues Benjamin, one is being just to particularity, and he offers as an example of such a holding open of justice nothing less than a new practice of portraiture. Having located the Christian/pagan doubling of the Jew in paintings by both Albrecht Dürer and the School of van Eyck, Benjamin makes clear the contrast between, on the one hand, the faces of those Jews who figure, in their generalised alterity, the logic of the synogogue and, on the other, the “other’s face” of the inassimilable, and thus aberrant and untouchable Jew. Distorted and deformed, it is this “other’s face” which – “unable to be assimilated and thus […] positioned beyond conversion” (p.161) – opens up the potential of a new portraiture which seeks to affirm, rather than to recover, such sites. As such, this affirmation of sites marked by what Benjamin terms an “original tear” would in turn “yield a site where the tear was an opening to questions, both ethical and political, that the work staged” (p.172).

In order to maintain such sites of combat, it is first of all necessary, Benjamin says, to trace the ways that the imposition of singular identity via the work of figures, despite being external to the beings so identified, nonetheless constrains both the life and the identity of that group. Secondly, it is equally important to identify the failure of certain philosophical positions to engage with the figure, precisely as a result of an inability to think “an inaugurating sense of particularity” (p.185). In this latter category, for example, Benjamin offers an important critique of the undifferentiated ontology presupposed by Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life,” a notion which in fact erases the specific functioning of power by refusing “a relation of porosity and negotiation defining self/other and animal/human relations” (p.125).

Furthermore, this double critique in turn discloses a politics. In deconstructing the external imposition of the without relation, one opens instead the space of negotiation that is rather an internal conflict over identity. As one possible combative strategy, Benjamin thus proposes a potentially transformative “micro-essentialism” which, rather than posing modes of equivalence, posits instead multiple determinations which serve to extend relationality. While such micro-positions generally attempt to pose a univocal conception of identity, they nevertheless contrast with the essentialism of the work of figures insofar as they take place as part of an internal (re)negotiation of identity.

Equally important, is that such a politics can no longer be preserved as the proper of the human. Returning to the figures and the particulars of those dogs with which we began, the timely radicality of Benjamin’s gesture resides above all within the “founding tear” announcing a co-presence which opens a space of negotiation between the human and the animal. Benjamin locates this particular justice in the relay between the dogs of Turner and di Cosimo. In the former, a “tear” interrupts the otherwise unthought figure of the iconographic “loyal animal,” announcing itself in the latter as a co-presence which necessarily exceeds the figure: “The complementarity between the two emerges because this co-presence is there in the continuity of a coming into relation, a process that had been occasioned by the tear” (p.183). Turner’s watercolour, in other words, stages an already existent relation that suggests “a form of finitude” which both occasions, and is continuous with, the staging by di Cosimo of the absence of existing relation, gesturing therefore towards relations “understood purely in terms of potentiality” (p.184).

The consequences of all this cannot be exaggerated. Given the primordial relatedness of Benjamin’s differential ontology, not only are identities after-effects, but so too is particularity insofar as it is has as its condition an informal network of relations. Hence, “integral to human being [is] the continuity of living with an unending and self-constituting relation to an affective quality that can only ever be a site of negotiation rather than a site of exclusion” (p.107). As a result, what the suspension of the site of exclusion – of the without relation – gives is a relationality which necessarily extends beyond those which obtain solely between human animals. Beyond the without relation, there are instead relations of dependence between and within species which, insofar as all living beings are defined as networks of relations, thus offers neither essence nor primacy to the human. Instead, being just to particularities necessarily involves “the recognition that the interplay between human being, human animality and non-human animals involves divisions that are both porous and infinitely negotiable” (p.188). Indeed, although Benjamin does not say so explicitly (and which thus marks a direction which remains to be explored), nor can this stop at nonhuman animals, requiring instead the further exploration of such deformed and aberrant particularities as those which inevitably exceed, for example, the singular oppositional relations of “life” and “dead matter” and of the organic and the inorganic. Here, moreover, the ecological aspect of Benjamin’s philosophy – ecology being understood as a “network of non-intentional but nonetheless interdependent relations” (p.188) – comes more radically to the fore. In suspending the exclusive working of figures, the opening of negotiation marks nothing less than potentiality itself.


1. Jacques Derrida, “The Transcendental ‘Stupidity’ (‘Bêtise’) of Man and the Becoming-Animal According to Deleuze” in Derrida, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis, ed. Gabriele Schwab (NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp.35-60 (p.59).

2. Elisabeth de Fontenay, Le silence des bêtes: La philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité (Paris: Fayard, 1998), p.525.



The need to take care with Bernard Stiegler


Here is the second of my review articles, this one on Bernard Stiegler’s Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2010), which originally appeared as ‘Rewiring the Brain, Or, Why Our Children are not Human’ in Parallax 18:4 (2012), 121-125.



A hugely prolific writer, for more than fifteen years philosopher Bernard Stiegler has been seeking both to articulate existence itself, and to ameliorate its contemporary woes. In what is a vast undertaking, Stiegler moves from the originary emergence of humanity to the safeguarding of its future by way of multi-volume analyses that range widely between and across technology, political economy, art, palaeontology, television, democracy, and industrial and hyperindustrial societies.1 Focussing on education and the changing role of the school in contemporary Western societies, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations continues this project, while at the same time going some way to explain the sense of urgency, which characterizes much of Stiegler’s previous writing.

According to Stiegler, we are forever engaged in a ‘battle of intelligence for maturity’, a battle ‘concomitant with the history of humanity’ (p.29). Today, however, this battle has been transformed into the life or death struggle of humanity itself. Unless things change rapidly, Stiegler insists, humanity as we know it will be destroyed, displaced by a dystopian posthuman future whose inhabitants would be incapable not only of heeding Stiegler’s warning, but of even reading it. Proclaiming himself thus a prophet of and from potentially the last generation of mature adults, Stiegler seeks to hastily recall us to rational critique before the new media has its way and irretrievably restructures the connections which constitute intelligence so as to render such constitution impossible (p.33).

To instaurate critique, however, is no easy matter. It is not simply a question of education reform, but of a revolution that impacts upon every level of society and beyond, intervening ceaselessly even at the neurological level. Moreover, a revolution by its very nature offers no guarantees. As Stiegler admits, the remedy he prescribes might also turn out to be the worst kind of poison. Indeed, one can all too easily envisage the appropriation of his discourse in the service of a right-wing defence of ‘family values’, and even in a renewed eugenicist discourse which (by way of A Clockwork Orange) deems synaptic rewiring a remedy for ‘delinquency’ within a regime of enforced ‘care’.

Throughout, Stiegler draws on three main philosophical supports in order to establish his notion of ‘rational critique as noopower’. First and foremost is Plato’s theory of anamnesis. A theory, which, according to Stiegler, constitutes ‘the basis of all instruction as the dialectic transmission of apodictic or formal knowledge’ insofar as it ‘requires a kind of attention the learner forms itself as a knowledge […] by individuating it’ (p.172). Secondly, rational critique requires the establishment of a ‘republic of letters’ such as formulated during the Aufklärung and by Kant in particular. Finally, Stiegler offers a sustained engagement with Michel Foucault, extending the latter’s notion of the ‘writing of the self’ while at the same time disputing Foucault’s earlier claim that the school is ‘only’ a prison of surveillance and control. Instead, through Plato, through Kant, Stiegler argues that the school in its broadest sense in fact constitutes the primary pharmacological site of the battle for intelligence. It is the school, in other words, which has the potential to produce both the curative individuation of rational critique (noopower) and the poisonous disindividuation of psychotechnologies in thrall to the market.

To understand this, however, it is first of all necessary to understand the specifically pharmacological nature of what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, a nature, which makes of them always both poison and remedy at once (pharmaka). Social or cultural memories that have subsequently become materialized as memory supports (the book being the privileged example), tertiary retentions are for Stiegler the building blocks of the human world. During the process of instruction, these tertiary retentions must be re-internalized in order for knowledge to be individuated, as we saw with the Platonic dialectic. Such circulating intelligence is thus already collective at every level, forming an ‘organological milieu linking minors and adults, parents and children, ancestors and descendants’ (p.34). It is this which constitutes the ‘organological history’ of humanity. These same material supports, however, are also what allow for the destruction of intelligence. Thus it comes to pass that this history of humanity now finds itself increasingly under threat from the emergence of what Stiegler calls ‘grammatized media’, television and new media being his primary examples. These new symbolic media, he writes, constitute ‘a network of pharmaka that have become extremely toxic’ (p.85).

Stiegler, however, is by no means offering a simplistic rant against technology, nor a reactionary call to return to some mythic bygone era. While grammatized media – and their toxicity – are indeed unprecedented, they are, he insists, nevertheless the only ‘first-aid kit’ we possess with which to remedy the poison of their carelessness. In other words, insofar as they are necessarily pharmaka, the new grammatized media must therefore also constitute the condition for a new maturity, a new critique. It is here, Stiegler writes, that the contemporary battle for intelligence must begin, with a re-forming of ‘psychosocial attention in the face of these psychotechnologies of globalized psychopower’ (p.35). Such reformulations are what he calls nootechniques aimed at producing transindividual knowledge, as opposed to its short-circuiting in the fulfilment of base human drives under control of psychotechnologies.


TV is poisoning our minds

Psychotechnological systems, argues Stiegler, are the key technologies of hyperindustrial societies of control. Hence, whereas for Stiegler the key question centres upon education leading to maturity, the ‘media world’ by contrast is fixated upon gaining control of youth’s psychic and social apparatuses from the youngest age (p.132). Such systems of control serve only to short-circuit the psychic system, however, resulting in the explosion of attention-deficit disorder, infant hyperactivity, and cognitive-overflow-syndrome we see today. Ultimately, maintains Stiegler, desire itself collapses (p.42).

In this way, attention is reduced to retention, a regression of intelligence for which the programming industries and mass media are to blame. Television in particular, writes Stiegler, has ‘irresistibly’ ruined the public education systems instituted in the 1880s along Aufklärung ideals, to the extent that democracy in the West has now been subsumed by a telecracy, which, with the programming industries as its ‘armed wing’, seeks only to control social behaviour by adapting it to immediate market needs (p.58). Moreover, this process has been accelerated by the emergence of new media, leading to the ‘hypersolicitation of attention’ (p.94). This control process serves to remove individuals from participation in the critical process of collective intelligence, a removal characteristic of what Stiegler, after Marx, terms ‘proletarianization’.

Psychotechnologies, in other words, eliminate the very thing that defines the human, that of critical consciousness. As a result, the ‘new’ short-term state of ‘attention without consciousness’ they inaugurate necessarily constitutes an entirely different form of being. Stiegler refers to this as a state of ‘vigilance’, a form of being characteristic of wild animals (p.78). The programming industries, in short, rewire the human, purging it of its exceptional ‘cerebral plasticity’ so as to produce instead an animalistic nervous system ‘forever enclosed within strict neurological limits’ (pp.96-8). The post-human, therefore, is a (psycho)technologically produced animal, subject only to the short-term satisfaction of drives without desire. This, suggests Stiegler, is the future, and that future is (almost) now, consciousness having being reduced to a ‘grammatized stream’ by the ‘transformation of formalized machinic processes, as well as by devices recording and manipulating the information stream’ (p.147).

This ‘rewiring’, moreover, is no simple metaphor. Television and new media, Stiegler insists, irrevocably restructure the synaptogenetic circuits of children subjected to them at an early age. The evidence invoked to back up this claim is, however, very thin. Nevertheless, Stiegler takes it as proven that such rewiring inevitably results in an irreversible inability to attain maturity at the neurological level (pp.74-7). The ‘herd’ that is the next generation, in short, will thus be physiologically unable to heed Stiegler’s warning and to take responsibility. Rather, by the time today’s children grow up, it will already be too late.

For Stiegler, signs of this process are everywhere. In place of the social formation of intelligence, we find only ‘the most minimal human “subject”’, which increasingly ‘delegates its attention to automata that then become its captors, meters, gauges, warning signals, alarms, and so on’ (pp.100-1). While, on the one hand, we can no longer recall our own telephone numbers or how to do simple arithmetic, on the other we transfer control of all our financial, military and medical decisions to various software applications. As a result, there can be no singular internalization of the collective and social memories of humanity, and thus no possibility of creating new long circuits of transindividuation. Instead, machines calculate us: ‘attention engines’ take the place of attention itself, and thus substitute for the subject (p.100).

There is, however, something of a hysterical edge to Stiegler’s stricture regarding the toxicity of television and new media, which recalls similar apocalyptic warnings that have accompanied the emergence of every new media form, not excluding the printed book. It is an attack moreover, as John Hutnyk points out in a recent article ‘Proletarianization or Cretinization’, which depends upon a largely undifferentiated concept of the ‘long-circuit’, which takes no account of the specificities of place. Moreover, Stiegler appears not to consider the possibility that, what for him is only ever a delinquency of youth in need of correction, might instead constitute a basis for resistance and struggle against market controls. Thus, writes Hutnyk, whereas Stiegler’s diagnosis tends all too readily to render the masses a passive object of capture, perhaps instead ‘we need more delinquents, civil unrest, a revolutionary call to attention’ in the constitution of a dialectic in which the distraction of attention may actually be a refined and critical inattention’.2 Stupidity too, insists Hutnyk, can be pharmacological.

At the same time, in order to justify his distinction between the (good) psychotechnics which constitute humanity, and the (bad) psychotechnologies which reduce it to ‘mere’ animal vigilance, Stiegler’s position ultimately depends upon an extremely problematic human-animal dichotomy, one which conflates ‘the human’ with consciousness and ‘the animal’ with blind instinctual drives. As detailed in the first volume of Technics and Time, Stiegler insists upon the absolute exceptionalism of the human by virtue of a co-constitutive technicity (meaning that, according to Stiegler’s thesis, any nonhuman animal who manipulates a tool must therefore be a human). In Taking Care, however, Stiegler seems to suggest that a human can be somehow reduced to, or even returned to, an animal way of being. The question then, is how can grammatization – the putatively defining property of the human – effect what for Stiegler is an ontologically impossible reduction of the human to the animal?

It is in order to circumvent this question that Stiegler attempts to separate human vigilance from its animal counterpart by claiming they constitute two different ‘aspects’. Such a separation, however, cannot be maintained. Psychotechnologies, he suggests, eliminate human attention, whereas animal attention is always already captured (p.102). In other words, the human, defined futurally, must have attention and thus anticipation eliminated in order to then become a captured animal. The difference then, concerns only the process, rather than the resulting form of being, by which ‘the human’ becomes what ‘the animal’ always already is. Stiegler’s vigilant posthuman, in other words, is the regression of the (ontologically distinct) human to an animal he or she never was. Perhaps then, in this dystopian future controlled by autonomous psychotechnological forces, it will be Senegalese chimpanzees who, with their favourite tools for extracting termites and their carefully fashioned spears for hunting lemurs, will find themselves marked out as the ‘proper’ humans amongst all us (other) animals.


Re-schooling Foucault

Returning to Stiegler’s argument, the ‘great question’ of our times necessarily consists in finding a way to abandon the inhuman abandonment of the subject to machines, and to invent instead ‘new modalities of non-inhuman existence […] modalities that are less toxic, more useful to a non-inhumanity’ (p.183). This, in short, is our particular battle for intelligence: how do we reconfigure the current psychotechnologies so as to invent a new way of life, one that takes care ‘by inventing techniques, technologies, and social structures of attention formation corresponding to the organological specifities of our times’ (p.48). This will not come about by chance however. Rather, says Stiegler, humanity must be taught to cultivate care and attention by way of a reinvention of education that utilizes an industrial organization.

Here we reach the core of Stiegler’s text, which can be summarized as a series of interlinked prescriptions. First, the entire education community must be made aware of its hypomnesic basis within tertiary retentions through genealogical analyses of the grammatization process. In this way, teachers and students alike will thereafter understand the need to return to the ‘older’ form of attention construction as the formation of disciplinary transindividuation circuits. This then in turn requires the teaching of strategies for paying attention to psychotechniques of attention formation (p.70). Stiegler calls this an ‘organological rethinking of the education system’ (p.83) in which every retentional device is to be systematically analyzed for both its potentially curative and potentially poisonous effects. In this way, the various forms of attention brought about by both psychotechniques and psychotechnologies can be identified and the correct ones selected in the formation of a regime of care.

Arguing that the school, therefore, constitutes the primary pharmacological site of this battle for intelligence, Stiegler is thus compelled to engage with Foucault’s influential reading of the school as simply a prison of enforced discipline. This he does by suggesting Foucault in fact ‘misses’ the pharmacological aspect of tertiary retentions by virtue of a ‘skewed’ reading resulting from the historical contingency that Stiegler terms ‘post-1968 disappointment’. Similarly, writes Stiegler, insofar as Foucault roots his analyses within the nation-states of a long-gone Europe, his notion of biopower cannot account for our age of deterritorialized economic forces and their programming industries which inevitably construct entirely new apparatuses.

It is rather the case, Stiegler argues, that the school, in addition to being a Foucauldian apparatus of surveillance and control, is also an institutional mechanism through which knowledge is to be acquired, both through the ‘construction of a system of care regulating the connections of the individual to self and others, intergenerationally’, and by the ‘transindividuation of a transmissible knowledge to “ordinary scholars”, citizens with rights (Kant’s and Cordorcet’s subjects) who attain such knowledge in the form of a discipline formalizing consciousnesses, and that can be taught as such’ (p.146).

For this, Stiegler says, we must return to Kant’s ‘republic of letters’ as formulated in ‘What is Enlightenment?’ from 1784. Here, we discover that the corporeal discipline of the school is in fact a condition of a mature self-discipline and of the discipline of self (p.118). Foucault overlooks this fact, claims Stiegler, because he focuses on only one pole of the school’s inherent pharmacology, that of the disciplinary field of subjection, and completely ignores ‘the field of disciplines structuring knowledge – and as discursive relations based on techniques of the self’ (p.121).

Let us not be too hard on Foucault, however, insofar as he too was inevitably trapped within his own historically specific ‘regime of truth’ and thus condemned, as we all are, to operate within its diagrammatic statements. This limit, Stiegler suggests, was constructed in and by the ‘era of 1968’, during which all power was considered as synonymous with the repressive State apparatus. As a result, education in general, and the school in particular, necessarily came to be considered as part of the disciplinary control apparatus. However, subsequent to what Stiegler calls the ‘historicopolitical abortion called “1968”’ (p.119), the huge disappointment that followed – disappointment described by Stiegler as the mindset of ‘only’, in the sense of ‘school will have only been a disciplinary tool’ (p.120) – thereafter comes to define the thought of an entire generation of thinkers. While admittedly fertile, insists Stiegler, this mindset of ‘only’ is nonetheless only fruitful ‘on condition of its being critiqued – and the time of that critique has come’ (p.121).

Through just this critique, Stiegler thus attempts to move at once beyond the limits of the ‘1968-mindset’ in general, and the Foucauldian imbrication of power-knowledge in particular. By way of a genealogical understanding of the pharmacological nature of schooling, Stiegler claims in conclusion that it becomes possible to reinstitute ‘the school’ as an organization for the teaching of literacy as a formulator of rational, intergenerational relations and thus as a system of care on a ‘completely different plane from the biopolitics emerging as the administration of what Foucault describes as biopower’ (p.179). Insofar as it pays attention to its hypomnesic basis in conjunction with the employment of the ‘correct’ strategies of psychotechnics, the school is thus the key site in the reconfiguration of our current state of carelessness. We, writes Stiegler, the last generation of mature adults, must erect a politics of ‘care-through-instruction’, which is in practice a ‘metacare that, as it were, shapes care in modern society in the strongest sense – as the taking of noetic action that is politically and economically organized’ (p.179). Only in this way, he argues, might the youth of today still understand us tomorrow, only in this way might humanity have a future. Nevertheless, it is a tomorrow whose cure threatens much that might turn out to be more poisonous than the toxicity it promises to combat.



1 On technology, see, for example, the five volumes of Technics and Time (1996–); on political economy, see For a New Critique of Political Economy (2009); on art, see Mystagogies: De l’art contemporain (forthcoming); on television, see Echographies of Television with Jacques Derrida (1997) and La Télécratie contra la démocratie (2006); on democracy, see De la démocratie participative (2007), and on industrial and hyperindustrial societies, see the first volumes of Mécreance et discrédit (2004) and De la misère symbolique (2006) respectively.

2 John Hutnyk, ‘Proletarianization or Cretinization’, forthcoming in New Formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics.




Richard Iveson

Goldsmiths, University of London


The Immense Work of Mourning: A Review of Jacques Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign, volume II

The following Review of Jacques Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign Volume II (University of Chicago Press, 2011) first appeared in Parallax 18:2 (2012), 102-106 as “Animals Living Death: Closing the Book of Derrida

Over the next few days I will post my other two Parallax reviews, one on Andrew Benjamin’s Of Jews and Animals and the other on Bernard Stiegler’s Taking Care of Youth and the Generations.


Death, Derrida informs us, will be the subject of this, his final seminar: the question of ‘death itself, if there be any’, and the question of knowing who is capable of death (p.290). These words, in closing the book of Derrida, thus also belong to the genre of ‘last words’ – death (if there be any) having ensured that Derrida’s life will always have been too short, and not only insofar as the seminar entitled The Beast and the Sovereign must remain forever incomplete.[1] Death, inevitably – in all senses – tempers every reading of this book, readings which become always so many works of mourning.

What then, do we learn here of death, of death ‘itself’ or death ‘as such’? Firstly, that neither science nor philosophy can rigorously ascertain the difference between a living body and a corpse. And secondly, that death, in its very futurity, is paradoxically always anterior, insofar as everything begins with the archive. One senses already then, that the voyage of Derrida’s last seminar is one which finds itself, with absolute necessity, ‘constantly going round in circles’ (p.6).

Most importantly for Derrida, however, is that with death go nonhuman animals. One thus understands why he remains haunted by the spectre of Heidegger’s undying animal, a figure he has already analyzed in a number of places.[2] Indeed, while throughout the first volume of The Beast and the Sovereign Derrida tracks the werewolf, the beastly being between wolf and man, here he finds himself haunted by the zombie, that fearful being or ‘thing’ hesitating between life and death. Here too, whereas he roamed widely across a huge variety of sources in the first seminar, Derrida is now much more focused, seeking instead a ‘new orientation’ that is ‘as independent as possible’ of what went before (p.13).

This is not to say, however, that the seminar devotes itself exclusively to the Heideggerian corpus. Instead, Derrida argues for the necessity – sometimes – of reading together two heterogeneous texts so as to ‘multiply the perspectives from which two vehicles can light up, their headlights crossing, the overall cartography and the landscape’ (p.206). To this end, he chooses as a companion text Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. The fecundity of the juxtaposition soon becomes apparent, further illuminating between them the world and the figure of the solitary Dasein, and of the ‘Robinsonade’, which links Crusoe to the Cartesian cogito, and both, via Marx, to the anticipation of imperialist bourgeois society and to the instrumental exclusion of nonhuman animals.

To understand Derrida’s hugely important critique of the dominant tradition that excludes animals both from philosophy and, indeed, from the ‘world’, it is, however, first of all necessary to understand what for Derrida constitutes ‘language’. From beginning to end of his oeuvre, Derrida has repeatedly attempted to rectify the misunderstandings of readers blinded by the very anthropocentrism that his notion of language seeks to contest, and this seminar is no exception. Language, he insists once again, is the constructed community of the world, simulated by sets of (more or less) stabilizing apparatuses, by ‘codes of traces being designed, among all living beings, to construct a unity of the world that is […] nowhere and never given in nature’ (pp.8-9). Language, in short, is a community shared by all living beings. Consequently, the notion of ‘world’ loses its ontological weight, becoming merely ‘a cobbled-together verbal and terminological construction, destined […] to protect us against the infantile but infinite anxiety of the fact that there is not the world’ (pp.265-6). In the place of ‘world’ there is only radical dissemination: ‘the irremediable solitude without salvation of the living being’ (p.266).

As evidence increasingly demonstrates, the idea that animals are incapable of learning conventions and are strangers to ‘technical artifice in language’ is, insists Derrida, an idea that is ‘crude and primitive, not to say stupid [bêtise]’ (p.222). Rather, while language need not be made up of words, neither are pre-verbal or extra-verbal languages therefore somehow ‘natural’. The traditional idea then, that nonhuman animals possess only ‘an innate and natural language’ is just one more example of such crude and primitive stupidity (ibid.), one that links Heidegger equally to both Descartes and Defoe and beyond: ‘What Robinson thinks of his parrot Poll is pretty much what Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and so very many others, think of all animals incapable of a true responsible and responding speech’ (p.278). Moreover, it is this same stupid idea that ultimately serves as the justification for the genocidal instrumentalization of nonhuman animals insofar as it refuses them the possibility of death ‘as such’. Once again, the kettle logic of Heidegger is exemplary in this regard, in that he simultaneously defines the essence of life by the possibility of death and denies the possibility of dying as such to other animals.

According to Heidegger, however, turning within such circles of contradiction in fact marks the very condition of thinking, opening thus onto the question of the circle that constitutes a third thread of this seminar, one that orientates itself in orbit around questions of death and ‘the animal’ by way of the search for pure ‘remains’. Once again, Crusoe and Heidegger run rings around each other as Derrida considers circles of all kinds, from vicious circles, benumbing circles, and hermeneutic circles to wheels and wheeling metaphors, from circles of footprints to the recycling of the metaphora of the I that ‘carries or transports the dreams of being oneself […] pulling the body and the incorporated relation to oneself, in the world, toward the return to self around a relatively immobile axis of identity’ (p.75). It is, Derrida argues, precisely this turn of a trope – the structural auto-deconstruction of which he first explored in ‘White Mythology’ (1971) – that opens both the possibility of unheard-of chances and at once the threat of what elsewhere he terms ‘auto-immunity’. It is the movement, in short, of iterability.

Remaining within this movement, Derrida thus turns to the fourth organizing thread of the seminar: the notion of Walten – provisionally defined as ‘prevailing violence’ – as it increasingly comes to determine Heidegger’s philosophy. In an extraordinary reading that traces a complex chain of displacements moving between Triebe (drive), Mischlinge (hybrids), and Ersatzbildungen (prostheses), Derrida demonstrates that, for Heidegger, physis and Walten, ‘as autonomous, autarcic force, commanding and forming itself, of the totality of beings’, are thus synonyms of each other and of everything that ‘is’ as originarily sovereign power (p.39). While initially appearing to constitute a thorough Destruktion of the nature/culture binary, this is, however, later qualified by Derrida as being in fact limited to a deconstruction only of the post-Cartesian natura, thus leaving intact the oppositions maintained by the Greeks between physis and teckhnē, physis and nomos, physis and thesis, and so on (p.222). With his ‘quasi-concept’ of iterability, however, Derrida seeks to rectify this erroneous restriction, and does so by showing how the prostheticity of language necessarily involves an extension of physis to include all of its ‘others’ within itself. Here, inter alia, Derrida highlights the potential that such a deconstruction holds for an analysis of ‘all the fantasmatics, all the ideologies or metaphysics that today encumber so many discourses on cloning’ (p.75).

The appearance of the ‘fantasme’ or ‘phantasme’ here is by no means fortuitous, turning the seminar once again to Robinson Crusoe, whose fundamental fear is also his greatest desire – that of being ‘swallowed-up’ alive by the earth or sea or some beastly living creature (p.77). This fearful desiring of dying a living death is, says Derrida, the great double phantasm: that of being ‘eaten alive by the other […] [to] decease alive in the unlimited element, in the medium of the other’ (p.94).

Moreover, writes Derrida, it is not only ‘Robinson Crusoe’ who fears-desires living death, but also Robinson Crusoe, the narrative attributed to Defoe. And not only ‘Crusoe’ and Crusoe, but every autobiography insofar as ‘it presents itself through this linguistic and prosthetic apparatus – a book – or a piece of writing or a trace in general’ and thus ‘leaves in the world an artifact that speaks all alone and all alone calls the author by his name […] without the author himself needing to do anything else, not even be alive’ (pp.86-7). In other words, the book – and the auto-bio-graphy that is the trace of every living being – is already a dead-but-living artifact that calls forth an author who need be neither living nor dead. Every autobiographical trace is, like Crusoe’s parrot Poll, a zombie, just as The Beast and the Sovereign too survives the death of its author whilst continuing to call him forth. A zombie and a parrot then, but also a eulogy.

Clearly then, to distinguish between life and death ‘as such’ has become all the more obscure. To this end, Derrida offers an alternative ‘pre-definition’ of ‘being dead’: that of being ‘exposed or delivered over with no possible defense […] to the other, to the others’ and thus to ‘what always might, one day, do something with me and my remains, make me into a thing, his or her thing’ (pp.126-7). Given the place of this text within Derrida’s oeuvre, this might equally sound a plea for clemency and an exhortation to move beyond mere epigonality. It is, however, simply the irresistible injunction of iterability ‘itself’. And of course, as Derrida adds, this disposal of remains need not wait for death. Far from it – the other, in exercising his or her sovereignty, can always put one to a living death.

Such, writes Derrida, is finitude, is survivance: that ‘gestural, verbal, written, or other trace’ entrusted ‘to the sur-vival in which the opposition of the living and the dead loses and must lose all pertinence’ (p.130). Every artifactual trace, every living being, is a living-dead machine, a dead body buried in material institutions and yet resuscitated each time anew by ‘a breath of living reading’ (p.131). Finitude, from its very first trace, is thus the work of the ‘archive as survivance’ – this archive with which we both begin and began. Moreover, this is necessarily the case for

everything from which the tissue of living experience is woven […]. A weave of survival, like death in life or life in death, a weave that does not come along to clothe a more originary existence, a life or a body or a soul that would be supposed to exist naked under this clothing. For, on the contrary, they are taken, surprised in advance, comprehended, clothed, they live and die, they live to death as the very inextricability of this weave (p.132).

In short, finitude – the archive as survivance at work – is the active, radical dissemination that constitutes the originary forcing of ‘life in general’.

Of particular interest to Derrida, here as elsewhere, is the attempt to displace the dominant tradition that determines ‘man’ over against ‘the animal’ according to a criterion of power. Rather than defining living beings on the basis of ‘the “being able to do” or the inability to do this or that’, he argues instead that it is ‘from compassion in impotence and not from power that we must start’ (pp.243-4). We must start, in other words, from vulnerability, indeed, from suffering. Once again, Derrida’s own starting point is Jeremy Bentham’s argument that the question is not whether the animal can speak, reason, or die, but whether the animal can suffer.[3] Part of the reason for this reiterated reference to Bentham is that it permits Derrida to further distance himself – despite a certain ‘sympathy’ – from the problematic notion of animal rights. This latter, Derrida insists quite rightly, remains structurally incapable of dissociating itself from the Cartesian cogito, and is therefore helpless but to reiterate an interpretation of the human subject ‘which itself will have been the very lever of the worst violence carried out against nonhuman living beings’.[4] Here, however, I remain similarly uneasy, and for similar reasons, about Derrida’s own invocations of Bentham. Just as rights discourse inevitably remains tied to the cogito, so too Bentham’s discourse cannot free itself so easily from the ties of utilitarianism, and thus from all those questions, unasked by Derrida, as to the complicity of its founding gesture with the instrumentalization of animals, in particular with justifications of vivisection, and of its relation to the utilitarianism of Peter Singer’s flawed but hugely influential theory of animal rights.

While I agree it is essential that humans engage other animals from a place of shared finitude – and thus of shared passivity, of com-passion – I also find myself particularly wary of the Derridean injunction that we simply must start with suffering, a gesture which suggests the impossibility of sharing possibility with other animals, a possibility or ability that does not insist on a translation into power (for which Derrida takes Heidegger to task). While Derrida’s move is both important and understandable, its founding rhetoric of shared impotency – of powerlessness and passivity – is less so.

Indeed, it is with the important notion of survivance that the problematic injunction toward a Benthamite passivity becomes most apparent, insofar as survivance must inevitably interrupt every such distinction between active and passive tenses. While Derrida clearly understands this, his insistence upon starting from passivity, rather than from sharing which is both active and passive at once, serves only to obscure this originary priority of life-death.

Given this originary indissociability of finitude and life, however, it nonetheless becomes clear that one can no longer deny the possibility of dying to nonhuman animals. Hence, insists Derrida, it is imperative that we break with the dominant Western tradition that – along with and prior to everything else – therefore also denies to every other animal even the redemptive possibility of the phantasm, the spectrality of which necessarily undoes the reductionist view of ‘mere’ life as mechanistic. As Derrida writes, ‘I don’t know’ is ‘the very modality of the experience of the spectral, and moreover of the surviving trace in general’ (p.137).

Ultimately, Derrida proposes a new definition of the ‘phantasm’, one no longer restricted to the arenas of fiction or psychoanalysis. Rather, the phantasm marks the braiding of the intolerable, the unthinkable, and the ‘as if’ – that uncanny zombie, in other words, of a living death that can be affirmed only in and by its endurance as a phantasm. Hence, writes Derrida, any reflection ‘on the acute specificity of the phantasmatic cannot fail to pass through this experience of living death and of affect, imagination and sensibility (space and time) as auto-hetero-affection’ (p.170). One affirms, in short, only by enduring the undecidable, and thus undergoing its apocalyptic ordeal. Similarly, such affirmation must affirm finitude as the condition of every living being, rather than being the right of man alone.

The contrary of this, Derrida argues, is that ‘poor, primitive, dated, [and] lacunary’ gesture which speaks of ‘the animal’ as some homogeneous ontological unit, and in so doing ‘authorize[s] itself to say the same thing’ on the subject of animals as vastly different as, say, infusoria and mammals (p.197). This unfortunately all too common gesture – one which again places Robinson Crusoe together with the Cartesian and Heideggerian Robinsons – is, continues Derrida, simply a bêtise resolutely entrenched within the archive, and as such ‘neither natural nor eternal’ (p.198). Rather, we disclose here one of the limits of this world, and thus ‘the very thing that one must try to cross in order to think’ (p.198). To limit the world to the human, insists Derrida, is to remain, with Robinson, upon his island, conforming to ‘the limits of a Homo Robinsoniensis’ who interprets everything ‘in proportion to the insularity of his interest or his need’ (p.199). Such then, is that all too human Family Robinson who ‘dream on the basis of Robinson’ – the Cartesian, Kantian and Husserlian Robinsons, the Robinsons of Rousseau and Joyce, and ‘of all the transcendental subjectivisms and idealisms’ (p.199).

Another dream – the dream of Derrida and of an increasing number of others, including myself – is to finally leave this island, to leave this solitude of world. This is not, however, simply a case of admitting ‘the animal’ access to (human) ‘world’ – a gesture typical of animal rights discourse. Rather, cautions Derrida, one must never forget that ‘the autos, the ipse, autobiography is Robinsonian’ (p.199). Every living being, in other words, is Robinson, shared together in being always deprived – a deprivation that is at once the greatest gift – of the as such.

Finally then, with what words does Derrida take his leave? Well, fittingly, with nothing less than a declaration of war. The ‘superarmament’ of ideology and idealism that dominates Western metaphysics is, he argues, shot through with a violence that must still be recognized: ‘It is through war that idealism […] imposed its interpretation of Being, a war for the victory of an idea, of the idea of idea’ (p.290). All at once paraphrasing, translating, and appropriating Heidegger, Derrida ultimately returns us to death: ‘There is only one thing against which all violence-doing, violent action, violent activity, immediately shatters. […] It is death’ (p.290). Our opening question thus remains entire: who is capable of death? With this, Derrida takes his leave. Leaving us all with the immense work of mourning.



[1] As the seminar draws to a close, Derrida refers to its ‘promised’ continuance on several occasions.

[2] Derrida explores, with varying degrees of thoroughness, the Heideggerian animal in Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question [1987], trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp.47-57; Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p.75; and The Animal That Therefore I Am [2006], trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp.141-160.

[3] On this, see also Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, pp.27-29, 81, 103; and, with Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.70.

[4] Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue, p.65.


Richard Iveson

Goldsmiths, University of London