BOOK REVIEW: On Judith Still’s Derrida and Other Animals: The Boundaries of the Human (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 416pp.
To cite this article: Richard Iveson (2016): ‘Derrida and other animals: The boundaries of the human.’ Modern & Contemporary France, DOI: 10.1080/09639489.2016.1162142
Well-known for her work on both subordinated economies and hospitality during the Enlightenment, feminist scholar Judith Still here turns her considerable talents to a close reading of the second volume of Derrida’s final seminar, The Beast and the Sovereign. While such a narrow focus can at times reveal nothing more than a lack of engagement with the oeuvre as a whole – something that befalls Derrida perhaps more than most – this is clearly not the case here. Rather, Still brings a deep understanding of Derrida’s philosophical project to bear not only on her readings of Derrida, but also on the core secondary texts addressed by Derrida over the course of the seminars.
As might be expected, Still’s concern for ‘other animals’ is here centered upon the negation of women in being constructed as ‘other’ to Man. While some previous attempts to read Derrida’s late works in this way have, as a result, entirely missed the point of Derrida’s critique, Still instead approaches the systematic exclusion of women through nonhuman animals, clearly cognizant that the latter’s systematic exclusion from sovereign protection is both the necessary condition of, and necessarily reiterated in, the constitution of savages, slaves and women as ‘less-than-human’ in the sense of subhuman. As such, this enables Still to extend, as well as clarify, several complex issues that are key to Derrida’s project.
For this reason, Derrida and Other Animals moves well beyond both summary and critical commentary. That said, however, if a reader is hoping to find a radical new interpretation of Derrida’s animal philosophy here, she will likely be disappointed; Still’s reading remaining comfortably orthodox, even pedestrian on occasion. Nevertheless, what raises this book above straight exegesis is precisely the way contemporary feminist concerns are worked through Derrida. In this, Still stays close to her plan ‘to supplement Derrida’s extraordinary thinking’ by opening it up to writings of the New World concerned with both savage and slave, while simultaneously expanding Derrida’s thinking of sexual difference so as ‘to incorporate women writers writing on or across the animal-human borderline’ (358).
Like savages and slaves, women too share subaltern status with nonhuman animals by sharing with them the fate of being ‘animalized as other.’ Deemed ‘other’ in this way is to be refused any capacity for reason and, reduced in this fashion to the status of a beast, excluded from taking part in the affairs of Man and thus no longer afforded any juridical protection. It is with the aim of further dismantling this instrumental construction of the subaltern that Still introduces into her reading a number of supplementary texts – prominent among which being those by Carol Ann Duffy, Marie Ndiaye and Marie Darrieussecq – that contrast sharply with those addressed in the first instance by Derrida, and which provide for a far more nuanced and subtle result than is often the case, most notably around the question of animal agency.
All of that is, however, until the final chapter, helpfully signaled by its title, ‘Wanting Conclusion.’ Focusing on Derrida’s bizarrely bêtise attempt to somehow raise Jeremy Bentham’s famous question ‘can they suffer?’ to the status of universal ethical principle, it appears that Still finds little in this move to concern her, suggesting only that the category of ‘suffering’ should be broadened to include ‘feeling, sensation and sentiment’ (370). At best, such claims are preliminary, contributing very little if anything insofar as it leaves the work of deconstruction only half done. Insofar as Still continues to identify animals with emotion in this way, her conclusion – irrespective of how inclusive an identifying category may or may not be – inevitably remains stalled at a simple reversal of value (the privileging of emotion over cognition); a reversal that is itself a negation insofar as it maintains an abyssal separation between the paired terms. As Derrida insists, however, the work of deconstruction is necessarily double, both negation and affirmation, as without the latter the former is nothing. Missing from Still’s conclusion is just this affirmative staging of multiple différance and differences, of such foldings and foliation as confound every tactical negation and strategic exclusion.
The wanting conclusion aside, Still carefully situates Derrida’s posthumous ‘animal’ texts are within, and against, the crosscurrent of contemporary feminist theory throughout. While broadening and deepening the dialogue between deconstruction, feminism and the nonhuman as well as clarifying and extending Derrida’s thinking, the real conclusion of Derrida and Other Animals is our significantly increased understanding of just what, exactly, is at stake.