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.