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




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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