The following paper, part of my “Philosophers and their Animals” series, will hopefully further clarify, along with the thought of Jacques Rancière, that outlined in 3(a): Derrida as well as serving as a (long) preface to 3(b): Derrida, which remains still to come.
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Stigmata of mastery: Jacques Rancière’s wounded animal
The expression ‘degeneration’ designates both the loss of vital, genetic, or generous forces and the loss of kind, either species or genre: the Entartung. … The degenerate is not a lesser vitality; it is a life principle hostile to life.
The contribution made by Jacques Derrida to what has recently become known as ‘animal studies’ cannot be overstated – as he himself writes, ‘animals are my concern’.0 Indeed, he describes his own thought in terms of a ‘sort of animal movement’, a movement which ‘seeks to appropriate what always comes, always, from an external provocation’ (Derrida 1995, 352). While animals preoccupy Derrida, haunting his texts with their in-humanity, this is not to suggest, however, that Derrida’s attentiveness to the ‘question of the animal’ is something external to, and thus distinct from, his thinking of différance, trace, iterability, and so forth. Rather, this concern both with the diversity of animals and with the philosophical conception of ‘the animal’ is indissociable from deconstruction itself. One cannot, in other words, affirm the differential double movement of protention and retention whilst simultaneously rejecting the deconstruction of human exceptionalism. It is precisely this, however, which, it will be argued, is attempted by Jacques Rancière. One of the most subtle and probing of contemporary thinkers and, indeed, one of the few political theorists, as Thomas Keenan remarks, ‘to take serious measure of the impact of deconstruction’ (Keenan 2005, 106), Rancière’s concern with active restaging – the process whereby those ‘outcasts’ denied an identity by the police order become viable discursive beings in and as the enactment of a revolutionary performative – remains central for a thinking of political struggle today. Nevertheless, his definition, via Aristotle, of the political as an essentially human domain dependent upon “the desire to engage in reasoned discourse” which thus disqualifies nonhumans as potential participants, is a circumscription which has serious consequences for his thinking of assujetissement ’.1 By contrasting Rancière’s notion of ‘literarity’ with that of Derrida’s ‘iterability’, it in fact becomes possible to understand how Rancière’s exclusion of nonhuman animals in delimiting the political in fact restages the very machinery of domination through which both nonhuman animals and ‘animalised’ humans are reproduced as subhuman – the very machinery of death which his discourse otherwise seeks to interrupt. Seeking only to extend Rancière’s thinking of politics beyond this contingent, self-imposed limit, this paper thus aims to demonstrate that only a vigilant deconstruction of anthropocentrism in all its guises – as indeed is offered by Derrida’s thinking of the trace – retains the potential to interrupt the genocidal economy of animalisation, and thus of an opening to a radical political restaging such as is plotted by Rancière. In this, it also seeks to attend to Derrida’s assertion that ‘[o]ne understands a philosopher only by heeding closely what he [sic] means to demonstrate, and in reality fails to demonstrate, concerning the limit between human and animal’ (Derrida 2008, 106).
In proposing an exclusively human politics, even as his texts plot the renegotiation of that very delimitation, Rancière ultimately redeploys a teleological, Aristotelian-Heideggerian conception of the human-animal dichotomy, and in so doing restages the very same economy of dependence-exclusion by which is reproduced the insensibility of ‘other’ bodies. In this, Rancière both discloses and conceals the political event, while simultaneously positing an eternal animal oppression and at once denying the very possibility of that oppression. Beyond this contradiction, it is only by refusing Rancière’s ‘flat-out denial’ – a denial by which ‘the master position’ conserves itself – does it become possible to interrupt the murderous theatrics of animalisation. A refusal which is simultaneously a refusal to disavow the billions of beings rendered invisible and at once unspeakably rendered every year within the slaughterhouses of agribusiness and on laboratory killing floors. Never the proper of the human, that which Rancière names assujetissement is instead always an animal encounter, in that it is an encounter which precisely makes explicit that which ‘the Human’ has foreclosed in order to delimit itself.
Introducing his notion of assujetissement (or ‘subjectivization’) in the first paragraph of ‘Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization’ (1992), Rancière explicitly states that his discussion will be ‘guided by the idea that the activity of thinking is primarily an activity of translation, and that anyone is capable of making a translation’ (Rancière 1992, 58). So far, so good (given that one understands ‘primarily’ as ‘first of all’, in the sense of prior condition). However, immediately after positing this ‘anyone’, this ‘anybody’, Rancière then retracts the ‘any’ and replaces it with an ‘only’: ‘Underpinning this capacity for translation is the efficacy of equality, that is to say, the efficacy of humanity’ (Rancière 1992, 58). The simple fact that Rancière sees no contradiction between the claim that ‘anyone’ can make a translation (can make sense) on the one hand, and that it is the efficacy of humanity which underpins just that capacity on the other, clearly illustrates the anthropocentrism organising his discourse. Indeed, this reactive circumscription of efficacy is already discernible in the reduction of the sensible – that which is aisthēton, i.e., capable of being apprehended by the senses – to the visual and the audible, and the latter, moreover, only insofar as it concerns human speech. In an echo of Plato who, in arguing that material ‘bodily sense’ can only be a hindrance to the acquisition of wisdom, simply assumes that what might be called the senses of contiguity, that is, smell, taste and touch – collected together and dismissively marked as ‘the rest’ – are all ‘inferior’ to sight and hearing (Plato 2003, 65b), Rancière’s reduction of the sensible to the visible and the audible-sayable (a reduction which presupposes that ‘sense’ can be rigorously subdivided) is again symptomatic of an unquestioned anthropocentrism. One which, effectively foreclosing the possibility of encounters which transcend visual and/or verbal exchanges, reiterates the traditional economy of ‘objective’ rationalist (positivistic) discourse.
More than this, however, is that Rancière’s symptomatic misrecognition serves to efface the fact that what he terms the process of politics – the ‘heterological enactment of the other’ (Rancière 1992, 64) – is precisely an encounter with an other as and at the limit of the human, an encounter which must always transcend a visual and/or verbal exchange. However, when Rancière insists that assujetissement is always enacted ‘in the name of a category denied either the principle or the consequences of … equality: workers, women, people of color, or others’ (Rancière 1992, 59), two conclusions are immediately evident. First, that these indeterminate other others can only ever be other, not yet visible-audible human animals; and second, that Rancière is at once assuming a master position which repeats that very same denial by which just such ‘outcasts’ are reproduced as ‘without sense’ when in fact, as we shall see, it is rather that the improper reinscription of sense that is assujetissement necessarily exceeds human efficacy. Thus, in hoping to inscribe such a proper limit, Rancière in fact hopes to efface that very efficacy.
For Rancière, ‘outcasts’ are those bodies positioned and posited ‘between humanity and inhumanity’ (Rancière 1992, 61), and thus any and all beings rendered insensible within a given (human) order of policy.3 Assujetissement, meanwhile, is concerned with their active restaging: ‘the production through a series of actions of a body and a capacity for enunciation not previously identifiable within a given field of experience, whose identification is thus part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience’ (Rancière 1999, 35). In short, politics (as opposed to policy) consists of making sensible that which is insensible (unseen and unheard) within a given police order, a making sense-able of any and all bodies rendered invisible and voiceless. The question then, is how, and under what conditions, those ‘bodies’ which, reproduced as invisible, senseless noise according to an historically contingent ‘distribution of sensible’, thus come to make sense. Such a process, Rancière makes clear, can never consist of ‘an act of an identity’ but is rather ‘the formation of a one that is not a self but is the relation of a self to an other’ (Rancière 1992, 60). The ‘process of disidentification’, in other words, is dependent upon a trope ‘that links the name of a group or class to the name of no group or no class, a being to a non-being or a not-yet being’ (Rancière 1992, 61)—dependent, that is to say, upon a necessarily improper metonymic performative. The question that is of particular interest here concerns the efficacy of the specific transforming performative. In other words, why this positing rather than another? Why the efficacy of this ‘dis-identification’? And what, exactly, becomes visible in its being sayable? Efficacy is rightly of the greatest importance for Rancière, but the question remains as to what, precisely, this might mean. We are given a clue when, in outlining his methodology in ‘Dissenting Words’ (2000), Rancière writes of the need to explicate an event’s political valence, a valence which is to be grasped in the ‘revindication of the efficacy of the literary, of the egalitarian powers of language, indifferent with respect to the status of the speaker’ (Rancière 2000, 116). Here then, the efficacy of an event, which Rancière seeks to revindicate, clearly resides in the literary.
While generously acknowledging his debt to ‘Derridean deconstruction’, Rancière nevertheless prefaces his explication of the ‘literary’ with the assertion that his own approach ‘begins from a different reading of Plato’s critique of writing’ and, in particular, of its ‘silence’ that renders it ‘equally available both to those entitled to use it and to those who are not’ (Rancière 2000, 115). Thus, and starting from this declaration of difference, Rancière goes on to state that what he calls literarity is precisely this inaudible excessiveness of making-available, this ‘excess of words’ which necessarily ‘interrupts Plato’s logic of “the proper” – a logic that requires everyone to be in their proper place, partaking in their proper affairs’ (Rancière 2000, 115). This notion of literarity, he continues, refers to three distinct yet indissociable properties:
at once to the excess of words available in relation to the thing named; to that excess relating to the requirements for the production of life; and finally, to an excess of words vis-à-vis the modes of communication that function to legitimate ‘the proper’ itself (Rancière 2000, 115).
At this point, it is perhaps not immediately obvious in just what way this reading differs from those performed by Derrida around the ‘quasi-concepts’ of différance, trace, and iterability, particularly in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ (1968) and ‘Signature Event Context’ (1971), and which could be said to constitute the inaugural moment of deconstruction. Nevertheless, there is indeed one major difference, and it is Rancière’s next paragraph which furnishes the key. Before coming to that, however, it would perhaps be helpful to briefly review Derrida’s three predicates of writing [écriture] as summarised in ‘Signature Event Context’, and which follow directly upon a reading of Plato’s critique (or ‘condemnation’) of writing in the Phaedrus. Writing, insists Derrida, is firstly a mark – a mark that includes, but is by no means restricted to, that of the written word – ‘which is not exhausted in the present of its inscription’ and which can thus give rise to an iteration ‘in the absence of and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who … has emitted or produced it’. Secondly, and as a result, such a mark carries with it, given its essential iterability, ‘a force of breaking with its context’, whether that be the so-called ‘real’ context or the semiotic and internal context. Finally, this ‘force of the rupture is due to the spacing which constitutes the written sign’, a spacing which ‘is not the simple negativity of a lack, but the emergence of the mark’ (Derrida 1984, 317). From these three predicates there will thus always be, in that a mark can always be reiterated improperly, an excess of words both over things and, in Rancière’s words, ‘vis-à-vis the modes of communication that function to legitimate “the proper”” (Rancière 2000, 115). Hence, it can only be with the second of Rancière’s properties—the excess of literarity ‘relating to the requirements for the production of life’—that the difference becomes legible.
Immediately after summarising his approach, and of this difference which resides within the three predicates of literarity, Rancière begins the next paragraph with the following, rather hasty conclusion:
We can conclude, then, that humans are political animals because they are literary animals: not only in the Aristotelian sense of using language in order to discuss questions of justice, but also because we are confounded by the excess of words in relation to things. Humans are political animals, then, for two reasons: first, because we have the power to put into circulation more words, ‘useless’ and unnecessary words, words that exceed the function of rigid designation; secondly, because this fundamental ability to proliferate words is unceasingly contested by those who claim to ‘speak correctly’—that is, by the masters of designation and classification who, by virtue of wanting to retain their status and power, flat-out deny this capacity to speak (Rancière 2000, 115).
Leaving aside the second reason for the moment, we can see that with this ‘not only’ Rancière begins by aligning himself with Aristotle’s well known definition of man as zōon logon ekhōn, that is, as the ‘living being possessing language’. A designation which serves to mark out the human as the only living being with the ability to form universal concepts, and to which Rancière clearly alludes when he speaks of ‘the Aristotelian sense of using language in order to discuss questions of justice’. Hence, in seeking to ground the properly human, Rancière calls upon the authority of Aristotle (a recalling which relies in large part upon its apparent ‘common sense’), but does so in order to suggest that the excess of literarity is nevertheless prior to the Aristotelian attribution of language and concepts, and which is itself prior to the zōon politikon of the Politics: ‘humans are political animals because they are literary animals’.4 Here then, the priority of literarity marks its excess as that which is proper to the human and the condition of possibility of language and concepts. (An exclusive property which, while perhaps ambiguous in the first sentence – in that it is not explicitly stated that only humans are literary-political animals, although the reference to Aristotle constitutes a clear inference – is clearly marked as ‘fundamental’ in the next.) In the course of one sentence then, Rancière first refers to the apparent certainty of the Aristotelian linguistic animal only so as to then enable him, after what seems to be little more than an appeal to common sense, to immediately pass on to the more originary structure of literarity. A movement which, in the rapidity and self-evidence of its claim, reduces all language to that of human speech, and with which Rancière thus grounds literarity as both exclusive to, and constitutive of, the human animal as zōon logon ekhōn. The syllogistic movement is clear: literarity precedes language, language consists of (human) words, thus literarity is exclusively human. In short, it is only by way of a re-positing of a traditional human-animal distinction, one which depends upon just such a reduction of language to the verbal, which enables Rancière to thenceforth restrict literarity as exclusively, fundamentally human and, perhaps more importantly, posit the domain of the political – ‘this creative activity of invention that allows for a redescription and reconfiguration of a common world of experience’ (Rancière 2000, 116) – as essentially restricted to the reproduction-distribution of human bodies alone.
Here then, it becomes possible to understand the second property of literarity, of an excess ‘relating to the requirements for the production of life’, as nothing other than the refusal of an excess beyond the ‘mere’ preservation of life to every nonhuman being. It is this marking out of every other living being as, in a sense, nonliving, as mere reactive machinery, that above all differentiates Rancière’s reading of the ‘“silent” word of writing’ from that performed by Derrida. Moreover, it is precisely this difference which ultimately constrains the radical force of Derrida’s ‘quasi-concept’ of iterability, domesticating it in such a way as to precisely limit its efficacy. Indeed, Rancière’s choice of the term ‘literarity’ is in fact symptomatic of this constraining gesture. Whereas Derrida’s term ‘iterability’ refers explicitly to the iteration which a priori structures every mark and which ‘introduces an essential dehiscence and demarcation [brisure]’ (Derrida 1984, 326), literarity functions only to elide this general structure of spacing in favour of a reference to the literary, and thus to the written as the storehouse of human endeavour. This difference thus constitutes a highly traditional gesture which, in its strict reference to a properly human potential, needlessly serves only to hobble deconstruction within a cage of metaphysical anthropocentrism.
Returning to those reasons evinced by Rancière in support of a fundamentally human politics, it may initially appear (in the first subordinate clause of the second sentence) that Rancière is simply reiterating the originary supplementarity of literarity when he states that ‘[h]umans are political animals … because we have the power to put into circulation more words, … words that exceed the function of rigid designation’ (Rancière 2000, 115). It is here, however, that Rancière nonetheless demonstrates his break with Aristotle’s zōon logon ekhōn. Having demonstrated that the silent literary excess which permits an improper enactment is common to all words, in this second movement Rancière seeks instead to separate human verbal language from all other forms of language. Thus, and no doubt well aware of the difficulty involved in denying the existence of nonhuman language, he employs the originary structure of literarity in order to redraw Aristotle’s essential human-animal distinction through Heidegger, in that exclusive to human animals is not the possession of language per se, but rather only that of literarity, that is, of the iterative excess of writing. It is not the case, therefore, that nonhuman animals are denied language after all, but only that they find themselves locked within the confines of a ‘rigid designation’ without excess. Without, that is to say, the ‘as’ of the ‘such’ which marks the excessive translative movement. But, one is compelled to ask, what might such a language be, given that, without the possibilites and necessities of iterability, there can be no language? A possibility and necessity which belongs, moreover, to the formal and grammatical, and thus to the machinic. ‘There can be no use of language’, as Paul de Man writes, ‘which is not, within a certain perspective, thus radically formal, i.e. mechanical … The machine not only generates, but also suppresses, and not always in an innocent or balanced way’ (de Man 1979, 294). It is a machinery which thus works in both directions, not only interrupting the auto-nomy of the human utterance (as in Rancière’s notion of literarity), but also and at once the so-called ‘fixity of animal determination’.5 In refusing this death–machine at and as the origin of all living–be-ing, it can only mean that, for Rancière, every single, singular nonhuman animal necessarily possesses a ‘language’ that is absolutely meaningful, and thus divine. That is to say, (tele-)pathic, in that a given singularity must be fully known without the remainder of a divisive iteration. Such a determined rigidity which, by definition, precludes any possibility of improper positing, thus insists that, in being condemned to the absolute plenitude of robotic designation – to the lack of lack –, nonhuman animals are therefore incapable of pretending to play, for example, incapable of employing irony. And indeed, incapable, as we shall see, of living, of be-ing.
To understand the politics (or, rather, the policing) of this familiar move, it is necessary to recall once again Derrida’s reading of Plato’s condemnation of writing, so as to enable us to better understand the stakes of Rancière’s refusal.6 In rigorously following through the logic of the iter, Derrida is led to necessarily insist of his three predicates that they are found not only in spoken language, not only in ‘the order of “signs”’ and in all language in general, but—
ultimately in the totality of ‘experience’, to the extent that it is not separated from the field of the mark, that is, the grid of erasure and difference, of unities of iterability, of unities separable from their internal and external context, and separable from themselves, to the extent that the very iterability which constitutes their identity never permits them to be a unity of self-identity (Derrida 1984, 318).
This insistent affirmation of iterability as the condition of “the living in general” can be found from the beginning to the end of Derrida’s oeuvre. Thus, more than three decades later, he writes,
It is enough, a minimal condition, that we take into account the divisibility, multiplicity, or difference of forces in a living being, whatever it may be. It is enough to admit that there is no finite living being, human or nonhuman, that wouldn’t be structured by this differential of forces (Derrida 2007a, 59).
The excess which Rancière names ‘literarity’ is, as Derrida makes clear, a structural characteristic of every mark, every sense, and thus of every finite living being. In other words, the very economy of excess that is the literary condition must be at once the condition of ‘living on’ or sur-vival – that is to say, ‘for the production of life’ – in its entirety. Refusing this reading, however, Rancière seeks instead to reinscribe its rupturous force within an exclusively human domain. Nevertheless, if literarity precedes and exceeds the word, then it must also precede and exceed the language that Rancière attributes – albeit by default – to nonhuman animals. Further, the consequences of Rancière’s circumscribing gesture become all too clear in the second clause of his argument for a properly human politics. To recap, humans are political animals firstly because of positing power, because of originary literarity, and –
secondly, because this fundamental ability to proliferate words is unceasingly contested by those who claim to ‘speak correctly’ – that is, by the masters of designation and classification who, by virtue of wanting to retain their status and power, flat-out deny this capacity to speak (Rancière 2000, 115).
Literarity is, as we have seen, this ‘fundamental ability’ which marks out humans from other animals precisely as political, that is to say, as essentially preserving the possibility of assujetissement. Whereas ‘the masters of designation and classification’ (and one must wonder here exactly who or what might be the master of that rigid designation within which and to which all nonhuman animals are apparently corralled) seek to conserve their mastery by denying that very same capacity to other bodies which this same mastery serves to reproduce as insensible nonsubjects, for Rancière it is therefore not only the human act par excellence to refute – that is, to disseminate and thus render incorrect or, rather, improper – such masterly discourse but, more than that, it is in fact essentially human to do so. The event that is marked by assujetissement is, in short, the proper of the human. Thus, for Rancière, not only do nonhuman animals not count, but they are essentially – ontologically – prevented from doing so. There is, however, a huge irony here, one which centres on this notion of the master’s master word. As Alain Badiou acutely notes in ‘Rancière and the Community of Equals’ (1998), and for reasons that should now be clear, the function of the ‘historian’s operator’ of Rancière’s texts is that it ‘undermines the postures of mastery, and the political or philosophical postures in particular’ (Badiou 2006, 109). Hence, in seeking to distance his own discourse from such modes that reproduce (whether wittingly or otherwise, and if such a distinction could still be made) structures of domination, Rancière –
never refutes anyone, for this would itself confirm the master’s authority. Refutation establishes heritage, succession. … Rancière wants to discredit the master by showing that his position suggests representations whose arrangement is fallacious. And the fact that it is fallacious is established precisely through the local expressions of the non-mastery of the dominated who contradict, at each and every moment, the guarantees of the master’s existence (Badiou 2006, 109).
It is thus ironic that in his reactive circumscribing of the Human, however, Rancière in fact occupies precisely the master position. A position established by way of Aristotelian heritage and succession whereby he flat-out denies the capacity of speech and thus of iterability-literarity to nonhuman animals in a substitution of effect for cause.7
In inscribing literarity as an exclusively human property, Rancière’s recuperation of the radicality of iterability can thus be said to constitute a symptomatic misrecognition which marks his text with, in Derrida’s phrase, the ‘stigmata of disavowal’ (Derrida 2008, 113). Moreover, its ‘symptom and wound’ is at once a violent mistreatment: of nonhuman animals first and foremost, but also of the various discourses which have in fact refused to remain deaf to the ‘audible or silent appeal’ of nonhuman animals (Derrida 2008, 113). It is an exclusion, furthermore, which has serious consequences for Rancière’s own project, in that it both repeats the very logic which his discourse explicitly attempts to interrupt, and simultaneously serves to conceal the very process of assujetissement which it seeks to disclose. Thus, as the historian of the event, Rancière is both its preserver and its disavower, seeking both its genealogical disclosure and at once its concealment in seeking to contain its movement within a specular human economy. Constrained thus to see nothing other than the human, to hear an animal appeal only as senseless noise, one should perhaps recall Nietzsche’s critique of just such an habitual mode of living which –
at length enters consciousness as a law, as dominating – And therewith the entire group of related values and states enters into it: it becomes venerable, unassailable, holy, true; it is part of its development that its origin should be forgotten – That is a sign it has become master … And yet perhaps they represent nothing more than the expediency of a certain race and species (Nietzsche 1968, §514)
Denied the a priori structure of iterability and displaced as a result in some mythic ‘natural’ realm in contrast to sociopolitical domain of humanity, it is not simply that Rancière’s homogeneous mass of animals are denied speech, but rather that they are necessarily denied all sense. In other words, it is both despite and at once because of their possessing of an uncannily rigid, non-iterative (non)language whose designations have been set for once and always which necessarily disallows all nonhuman beings from acting; from responding, in other words, as subjects. As a result, all nonhuman animals are necessarily reduced to a fundamental state of reactive, invisible noise, that is to say, as essentially without sense and hence necessarily without death. In the reiteration of such a move, however, and ‘by virtue of wanting to retain [the] status and power’ of the human, Rancière thus takes on the very ‘posture of mastery’ he seeks otherwise to undermine. In proffering instead only a flat-out denial, an essential animal oppression is thus reproduced at the same time as the very possibility of that oppression is denied, rendered non-sense by the claim that all (other) animals exist in what is an impossible eternal present and presence and imposed upon by forces of which they remain absolutely insensible. Nonhuman animals are, in short, without sense and thus cannot suffer, being essentially blissfully ignorant. Contrary to this symptomatic misrecognition, however, the moment and movement of invention, of reconfiguration, has as its condition nothing other than an animal encounter. That is to say, a singular encounter with that which is always already other than ‘the human’. The subtle phallogocentrism (or rather, carnophallogocentrism) of Rancière’s reiteration of humanism’s founding gesture of dependence-exclusion not only points towards the question of the nonhuman animal as a privileged site for both philosophy and politics, it also serves to illustrate why it is a question which we must never refrain from asking.
In fact, Rancière’s human restraint is of itself quite odd. Unlike Descartes for example (for whom the positing of the mechanisation of the nonhuman animal – absolutely devastating in its effect – is necessary if only so as to ensure the consistancy of his cogito8), his position would seem to have nothing to gain from such anthropocentric stricture, and beyond which his political philosophy – which nevertheless remains of the greatest importance – undoubtedly becomes more radical. In turning now to another dimension of Rancière’s project in the hope of better understanding the reasons behind the restricting of those beings reproduced as invisible-unspeakable as always and only human beings, one should nevertheless recall throughout that, in the obscure spaces of ‘factory farms’, slaughterhouses, laboratories, ‘cattle’ trucks, and so on, it is precisely nonhuman beings who are reproduced all the more forcefully ‘as’ unseen and unheard. Walls – both material and symbolic – are erected around them, ensuring that the beings within continue to be rendered silent and in darkness; and, indeed, to ensure that such nonsubstitutable beings remain to be invisibly, unspeakably, rendered.
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In considering various political configurations in On the Shores of Politics (1992), Rancière argues that the demos is necessarily discontinuous with the ochlos, in that the demos is in fact ‘the rallying-dividing power’ which comes to divide the ochlos in any of its ‘conjoined’ or ‘disjoined’ forms (the One of a collectivity that assigns ranks in the former, the helotism of individuals in the latter) in the positing ‘of the equality of any One to any other One’. An equality the very ‘essence’ of which is to ‘undo the supposed naturalness of orders’ (Rancière 2007, 32). Of particular interest for the argument being put forward here, however, is the zoopoetic tropological economy by which Rancière figures that antagonism. First of all, the ochlos is figured as the ‘animal rule of politics’ (Rancière 2007, 32), a rule which can be subdivided into three specific configurations: ‘the great collective body, the zoology of orders justified in terms of cycles of nature and function, the hate-driven rallying of the pack’ (Rancière 2007, 33). Already, it should be noted, these three figures all figure a lack of language or, more precisely for Rancière, a lack of literarity, and thus are figures of fixed, machinic reaction (and thus precisely that which can have no figure): the undifferentiated pathic herd which constitutes the mindless collective body of the One; the rigid, non-iterative designation which produces an eternal order that permits neither improper positioning nor incorrect positing; and finally the unthinking, ‘instinctive’ reactivity which, in the mirror of ecstatic oneness, produces the barbarism of the pack. Hence it becomes clear why Rancière assembles these various figures of the ochlos beneath the concept-metaphor ‘animal politics’, a displacement which is then figured in opposition to the demos. That is to say, in opposition to the sovereign, auto-nomous and properly (literary) human response which ‘tears politics away from the[se] various figures of animality’ (Rancière 2007, 33). It is indeed, as Derrida writes in The Beast and the Sovereign, ‘[a]lways the question of liberty and the machine’ (Derrida 2009, 104).
Here, Rancière is clearly marking these three ‘animal’ figures as the organising tropes of reactive power in the Nietzschean sense, that is, as police configurations which, only insofar as they appear natural, seek to render the disruptive dividing power of the demos inoperative. However, in reiterating a traditional analogical reduction of the everyday socius to the apparently apodictic ‘truth’ given to us by an equally reductive zoological poetics, Rancière’s discourse simultaneously reproduces its ‘naturalness’ – that is, reproduces the unquestioned bestiality of so-called ‘animal nature’ –, when, by contrast, it is precisely this appearing of naturalness, a naturalisation marking the operation of power in its discursive production as prior, which calls for genealogical disclosures as to how such naturalisation is differentially articulated and regulated. Hence, in positing the ‘ever-replayed’ decisive movement of and as the demos as a ‘humanising power’ (one which he argues is synonymous with the name of ‘class struggle’), Rancière thus simultaneously reiterates the very naturalisation of power (Rancière 2007, 33).9
The demos then, with literarity as its condition, is the overcoming, the humanising and at once the politicising, of ‘natural’ animal force as manifest in and as a given State. In other words, Rancière posits an exceptional nonnatural politics, that is, a properly human culture in opposition to dumb animal nature, in what is a profoundly traditional gesture. Made visible through a reading of Rancière’s animal, this contradictory relay between rupture and conservatism, between disclosure and concealment, is clearly evidenced three years later in Disagreement. Pointing to the conserving function of power behind the performative politics of ‘animal’ tropes, Rancière states that ‘[t]he metaphor of the large and powerful animal is no simple metaphor: it serves to rigorously reject as animals those speaking beings with no position’ (Rancière 1999, 22). Here then, Rancière marks the exclusionary economy of animalisation, the rigorous rejection as animals of nonspeaking beings with no position, while at the same time reiterating the rigorous rejection of animals as nonspeaking beings with no position which is precisely its condition of possibility. Thus, in positing the animality of every given social order, Rancière necessarily remains caught within its police mechanism, a machinery whose evental rupture he otherwise seeks to disclose. Only this enables him to claim that being a militant necessarily means ‘no longer being a member of a lower order’ in and as an ‘assert[ion of] the unacceptability of all unequal distribution, all fixing of social ranks on the model of animal species’ (Rancière 2007, 33). In other words, in the process of (militant) politics an animal ceases to be an animal in coming to be human (a claim which necessarily conflicts with Rancière’s later refusal of even the possibility of literarity to the animal – a conflict which appears to centre on the problem of figures, and of the undecidability of the literal and the figurative readings around ‘the animal’).
Nevertheless, we can now clearly see why the movement of assujetissement is for Rancière a movement between humanity on the one hand, and inhumanity or animality (the terms having become synonymous) on the other. There is, however, neither inhumanity nor animality here, in what is solely an anthropic struggle. Rather, and even while tracing its rupture, Rancière’s notion of assujetissement ultimately reproduces one of the dominant ontoteleological figures of humanism, that of the necessary (and necessarily repeated) overcoming of one’s own animality – understood as simple (bodily) reproduction, as ‘mere’ or ‘bare’ life – in and as the coming-to-be of the human.10 This reiteration of a traditional ‘overcoming’ has serious implications for Rancière’s philosophy in that, and as a result, the nonhuman animal equally necessarily comes to be defined by what he or she lacks within a teleological dialectic. A move which thus marks out as subhuman every nonhuman animal and every ‘animalised’ human (that is, every human being excluded from the domain of the ‘properly’ human through the violent conserving operation of power, be they, in Rancière’s phrase, ‘workers, women, people of color, or others’).11 This reproduction of the subhuman animal is the condition for the reconfiguration of the ‘other’ human which, in its appeal to an evolutionary tēlos, constitutes its target group as ‘uncivilised’ (as irrational, emotional, primitive, and so on, in opposition to the normative rationality of dominant power), and thus as not-quite-human, as subhuman. The repeated overcoming of one’s own animality in being-human thus underwrites the murderous violence of the would-be ‘civilising mission’ of imperialism-globalisation while at once marking its indissociability from the ‘dark side’ of racism. The second dominant ontoteleological figure, that of the production of the human predicated on the death or nonexistence of the animal, similarly reproduces ‘the animal’ as pre-human, yet in this form the human is configured as ontologically discontinuous, and thus allowing of no possible passage in either direction. Hence in Nazi Germany Jews were reconfigured as essentially subhuman and at once always other to the human, a refusal of any possible ‘civilisation’ which thus already reserves the possibility of genocide.12 Without the underlying humanist tēlos, however, such degeneration of ‘others’ – be they human or nonhuman – ceases to be possible.13 In this one can better hear Nietzsche’s insistence that any way of being which is cut off from – or which cuts itself off from – all radically other ways of being necessarily de-generates, having excluded itself from that which reserves the possibility of its regeneration.
Hence, through the figure of ‘the animal’ upon which it depends and excludes, Rancière in fact offers a refusal of naturalisation which itself naturalises, which reiterates that which it refuses, just as the machinery of domination is reiterated in the refusal of its reproduction. A movement which at once undermines itself in its masterly disavowal of the animal. It is a disavowal, moreover, linked to the metaphysical necessity of reinscribing an end – of inscribing human meaning and of ascribing meaning to humanity – and of simultaneously reserving that notion of ‘ends’ for humanity alone. In short then, Rancière thus unwittingly redeploys the very same logic of dependence-exclusion by which is reproduced the insensibility of other human bodies – a reproduction which will continue unavoidably for as long as what counts is determined by the concept of a delimited and delimitable humanity. As Kelly Oliver writes,
Until we address the denigration of animals in Western thought on the conceptual level, if not also on the material economic level, we will continue to merely scratch the surface of the denigration and exploitation of various groups of people, from Playboy bunnies to prisoners at Abu Ghraib who were treated like dogs as a matter of explicit military policy (Oliver 2009, 38)
By contrast, and to use what for Rancière is a privileged example of the reconfiguring performative, the animal encounter preserved by ‘we are all German Jews’ – ‘an identification with an anybody that has no body’ (Rancière 1992, 62) – is precisely not a humanisation, but rather an encounter with the insensible and thus the not–human, an encounter which calls in anxiety to an intensive co-responding. It is, in other words, an encounter as such which necessarily interrupts any notion of a ‘natural order’ in calling forth an improper metonymy which jams the smooth functioning of what Giorgio Agamben terms the modern ‘anthropological machine’ – that which produces the outside through an exclusion of an inside, which produces, that is, the ‘inhuman’ by an animalising of the human (Agamben 2004, 37). Stalling the mechanism, it gouges its anguished mark in the surface of an everyday state of affairs.
Hence, Rancière’s encounter can only ever be, in that it is a dis-identification, a nonhuman encounter with a radically other – an other that ‘refuses evidence or argument’ (Rancière 1992, 62) – which, necessarily unthought, escapes the reproduced propriety of the oppressively Human. In other words, identification is impossible precisely because it is nonhuman, external to humanity properly defined and thus inhuman or, rather, animal, in that it is an exposing to that which is excluded from ‘the human’ as its constitutive outside. The only (im)possible disidentification, therefore, is with the radical alterity of nonhuman be-ing, the very nonhumanness of which marks, and in so doing interrupts, the measure and the limit of humanity. To posit this encounter as ‘the efficacy of humanity’, as Rancière does, is thus to efface that very efficacy. Instead, the encounter stages both a disavowal of disavowal – a sacrifice of that sacrifice by which a singular, nonsubstitutable being is included solely through an exclusion –, and at once an opening to an ethics of the unrecognisable that refuses the hierarchy of the same which serves to organise every properly human ethics according to distance and closeness. An ethics, moreover, that intersects with the philosophical and the political. Firstly, the ongoing reinscription of other animals within these three domains is a strategic necessity so as to ensure that ‘Man’ is not reconstituted as the transcendental Subject by other (humanist) means, and thus to repeatedly put into question such anthropocentric sedimentation that – implicitly or explicitly – inscribes the putting to death as a right of man. Secondly, the vigilant refuting of the human-animal distinction at once refutes the animalising or inhumanising movement – the sine qua non of collectives (national or otherwise) founded upon boundaries of blood, soil and/or language and consolidated by hate – by which the human subject of its tropological displacement is reduced to an ‘essential’ identity which is in turn reconfigured as ‘animal’. Lastly, and beyond even this, the sheer scale of the exploitation, suffering, torture and extermination both of nonhuman animals and of animalised humans occuring right now demands, before even the question of ethical respond-ability can be raised, that we come to being-together outside of the genocidal economy, a machine which calculates death and consumption as the only (exchange) value of (mere) life.14 It is a question of com-passion, of shared finitude. Theodor Adorno summarises this perfectly: ‘Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals [Auschwitz beginnt da, wo jemand auf Schlachthof steht und denkt: Es sind ja nur Tiere]’ (cit. Patterson 2002, 51).
The animal encounter is that which always already exceeds ‘the human’ so as to reconfigure the very notion of humanity. The chance of the political then, is an exposing to – rather than a self-certain misrecognition of – the nonhuman animal (which includes the ‘animal’ body of the multitude as well as the so-called ‘subhuman’), so as to constitute the relations necessary to disrupt the twinned machines which serve to reproduce both ‘the Animal’ and the animalised, as well as all the murder machines they set in motion. It is, in other words, always again to question the limit of the human. This is a vigilance which begins in the same place where Auschwitz begins, and yet which moves in precisely the opposite direction – it begins, paraphrasing Adorno, ‘wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and can no longer think: they’re only animals’. Vigilance is, in short, the impossibility of such a thought.
0. This phrase, ‘[l]es animaux me regardent’ (Derrida 2006: 58), in addition to ‘animals are my concern’, can also be translated as ‘animals look at me’. In his lecture at the Cerisy conference in 1997 (translated into English as The Animal That Therefore I Am), Derrida offers his own brief autobibliographical summary of this concern as it has manifested itself throughout his oeuvre (2008 pp. 35-40).
1. This was Rancière’s response to the question as posed by Jane Bennett at a conference at Goldsmiths College in 2003. See Bennett Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), 106.
2. On this, see in particular Friedrich Nietzsche  (1993), ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, NJ: Humanities Press International Inc., pp. 79-97. Important related texts include Jacques Derrida (1984), ‘White Mythology’ in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 207-71; Sarah Kofman (1972), Nietzsche and Metaphor, Paolo Alto: Stanford University Press; and Paul de Man (1979), ‘Rhetoric of Tropes (Nietzsche)’ in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, New Haven: Yale University Press. See also Richard Iveson (2010), ‘Animals in Looking-Glass World: Fables of Überhumanism and Posthumanism in Heidegger and Nietzsche’ in Humanimalia 1(2) (Spring), pp. 46-85.
3. One can perhaps compare Rancière’s notion of the ‘outcast’ with the ‘subaltern’ defined by Gayatri Spivak as ‘a person at the ground level of society who is already a victim of patriarchal practices’ and who is ‘epistemologically violated by longstanding cultural formations that have bound her mind in unreasoned responsibility’ (Spivak 1999, 102n143, 102). The further question thus being traced here is: what if we can no longer consider such a ‘person’ as necessarily (epistemologically?) human?
4.Here Rancière is reiterating the claim made five years earlier in Disagreement: ‘The modern political animal is first a literary animal’ (Rancière 1999, 37). As to this seemingly unquestioned authority, see Daniel Heller-Roazen The Inner Touch, esp. ‘Historia Animalium’, in which Heller-Roazen demonstrates that Aristotle’s now canonical definition was opposed at the time by a great number of pre-Socratic philosophers, many of whom affirmed the impossibility of any such distinction.
5.Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, p. 115. It is just this thinking of ‘the animal’ as fixed (in being rigidly determined) which Derrida in these final seminars refers to as the ‘tried-and-true biblico-Promethean tradition’ (Ibid.).
6.A refusal, moreover, which at once gives us to understand Derrida’s claim that ‘the politics of invention is always at one and the same time a politics of culture and a politics of war’ (Derrida 2007b, 10).
7.‘Every culture institutes itself through the unilateral imposition of some “politics” of language. Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations’ (Derrida 1998, 39). Even though Badiou’s analysis of Rancière’s position was made almost a decade prior to the ‘Dissenting Words’ interview, this is not to suggest, however, that the later text would occasion Badiou to revise his judgment of Rancière that he never refutes or refuses anyone, simply because in Badiou’s own conception of the political subject-of-truth there is an absolute stone deafness to the call of nonhuman animals, who exist simply to charm and intrigue humans (Badiou 2006b, 106).
8.Richard Sorabji succinctly summarises the strategic importance of the human-animal dichotomy to Descartes’ project as follows: ‘If we do not recognise the enormous difference between ourselves and animals, we may fancy that we, like them, will not be liable to punishment after death. Conversely, once we do realise how much the animals differ, we can understand much better the arguments proving that our souls are independent of the body’s death’ (Sorabji 2001, 206). More even than this, however, as Heller-Roazen makes clear, is the fact that ‘[o]nce the sensation proper to human beings was understood as a modus cogitandi like every other, it could by nature have nothing to do with the multiple operations performed in the world of beasts’ (Heller-Roazen 2007, 165). Hence Descartes is compelled to claim that ‘the movement of the inhuman animals bore witness to a mechanical nature from which consciousness was by definition absent: that of divinely crafted but utterly mindless automatons, “machine-animals”’ (Heller-Roazen 2007, 166). As to the ‘grounding’ of this claim in simple opinion, one by which ‘men’ are ‘indulgently’ ‘absolve[d] from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals’, see Descartes ‘Letter to More, 5 February 1649’ in Descartes: Philosophical Letters.
9. On the need to resist the temptation of the traditional analogical reduction of the social to ‘merely disguised manifestations of animal force’, see Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign, pp. 14-15. In terms very apposite to our discussion, Derrida continues: ‘We could also invert the sense of the analogy and recognise, on the contrary, not that political man is still animal but that the animal is already political, and exhibit, as is easy to do, in many examples of what are called animal societies, the appearance of refined, complicated organizations, with hierarchical structures, attributes of authority and power, phenomena of symbolic credit, so many things that are so often attributed to and so naively reserved for so-called human culture, in opposition to nature’ (Derrida 2009, 14-15).
10.On the ‘two original and importantly different determinations … [which] already configure two of the dominant forms taken by the relationship between the human and the nonhuman animal’, see Andrew Benjamin ‘Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals’, pp. 76-77.
11. Any such list of ‘groupings’ with the potential of being constituted by power as ‘not-quite’ human is, as given by Rancière’s undetermined ‘others’, finite yet unending.
12.These two forms, and the two examples which follow, are of course extremely schematic. While the underlying mechanisms can never be entirely dissociated from one another, nor do they exist (together) in isolation, but rather function within the hugely complex fields of making-sense-ability.
13.‘Degeneration’ is here being used in the sense given to it by Derrida in his reading of the ‘living feminine’ in Nietzsche (Derrida 1985, 27), and which stands as the epigraph to this paper.
14.The contemporary genocidal economy is indissociable from the machinery of capitalism. It is this indissociability which explains why – following the opportunistic power grab of the PATRIOT ACT of 2001 and then the Animal Enterprises Terrorism Act (AETA) of 2006 – pro-animal activism in the United States has been ranked (and thus reproduced) as the number one domestic terrorist threat. In this animal activists too, branded as irrational, anti-progress anti-Enlightenment and positioned on a par with those other all too familiar ‘figures of evil’, fall prey to the exclusionary logic of animalisation.
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