Tag Archives: Andrew Benjamin

Toward an Imaginary Animal Studies

Coming very soon:  a critical engagement with Boria Sax’s latest book (entitled ‘Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human’) (London: Reaktion Books, 2013) – to appear in  Humanimalia 6:2 (Spring 2015).

Better very late than not at all – here it is.

First published in Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies 6:2 (Spring 2015), 166-177



In common with both its subject and the sub-discipline of animal studies generally, Boria Sax’s latest book, Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human, cannot be easily assigned a suitable pigeonhole within the traditional segregation of genre and discipline. Sax, meanwhile, is very clear as to his aim: the founding of a brand new sub-field of study organized along the lines of animal studies but dealing solely with the realm of imaginary animals (25). While the success or otherwise of Sax’s project remains to be determined, at the very least Imaginary Animals is an exhaustive but in no way exhausting scholarly account of fantastic creatures and wondrous hybrids that are as diverse as the cultures within which they emerged.

Populated throughout with beautifully reproduced illustrations, Imaginary Animals is clearly aimed at both academic and popular readerships. Such a dual focus is always incredibly difficult to achieve, however, and results here in a text that is itself something of a hybrid, composed as it is of two distinct parts. The first six chapters plus the brief conclusion make up one part (pp.7-130, pp.249-254), with the second part consisting of chapters seven through twelve (pp.131-248). Whereas the second part tends largely toward an exercise in cataloguing, the first will undoubtedly appeal more to both academic and general reader insofar as it is by far the more exegetical and critical, and yet without ever becoming dense or difficult in the least. This is not, however, to take anything away from the sheer breadth of research and scholarship that is, if anything, even more in evidence throughout the later chapters. Nonetheless, I will consider this second part first, before engaging in more depth with the theoretical sections of part one, sections that make Imaginary Animals much more than simply an encyclopedic listing of fantastic beings.


First, the Second Part

In the later chapters, various ‘imaginary animals’ are collated according to six basic classifications: wonders; creatures of water; of earth; of fire and air; shape-shifters; and mechanical animals. Here, one finds any number of fascinating stories ranging from Yahweh’s relationship with the Leviathan to the rise of the mermaid as a major modern mythic figure. At the same time, however, one must also undergo the chore of wading through lists that, because of their comparative nature, are at times somewhat repetitive. Moreover, and unlike in the first part, these lists are seldom relieved by provocative passages of analysis and speculation. That said, Sax does manage now and again to slip in some very interesting claims, such as, for example, that insofar as moral consideration in traditional Indian culture ‘is not greatly contingent on human form,’ the treatment of other animals is thus ‘generally better than it is in Western countries, but the treatment of people with low status is worse’ (143). On the basis of such a claim, the potential for rigorously contextualized accounts of a given culture’s mythology – including our own – to challenge ingrained and seemingly immutable habits of thinking about other animals would seem very great. While Sax does not pursue this argument here, such potential is clearly indicated in the strong sense of estrangement produced by the hugely diverse accounts of what ‘counts’ as human across various cultural traditions.

Two related issues are, however, considered in some detail in this part, namely those of plants and of consciousness – issues that, given their importance within animal studies and beyond, demonstrate a clear understanding of the larger stakes in play. Anyone working in the field of animal studies will doubtless have faced the following question in one form or another (and most likely in tones of mock incredulity): ‘So, if we must extend the ethical realm to include other living beings, are you suggesting that we should include plants as well!?’1 As Sax argues, such questions in fact depend upon a baseless yet powerfully normative assumption that human consciousness is ontologically distinct and superior. Such is the apparently self-evident ‘fact’ one finds throughout the West today that ‘animals have some sort of incipient consciousness, while plants do not’ (211; my emphasis). One can thus see how potentially important ethical debates around the issue of caring or otherwise for plants are blocked in forever being reduced to a question of consciousness that appears long since resolved. Similarly, the apparently absurd question of ‘plant ethics’ can be seen as raising the possibility of breaking down just such normative and reductive assumptions that so often organize our thinking.

To this end, Sax begins by demonstrating why the notion of consciousness in plants is anything but absurd. Viewed over an appropriate timescale, he writes, plants can be seen to act ‘with an apparent deliberation that rivals that of any mammal’ (211). Plants, he continues, explore territories, battle competitors, and surmount barriers between them and the sunlight that sustains them; they ‘recruit’ various other animals through bribery, coercion, deceit, and self-sacrifice, and some even launch deadly preemptive attacks against other plants (211). Even the slowness of response thought to characterize plant life can no longer be considered certain: leaves and stems, writes Sax, ‘may immediately emit poisons or even alter their chemistry when insects lay eggs on their leaves’ (213).

Shifting to focus more generally on the often vexed – and just as often irrelevant – question of consciousness and its attribution or otherwise to another, Sax argues that it is primarily a question of dominance. Given that there are quite simply no conditions or criteria by which consciousness can in fact be either awarded or withheld, he writes, the human’s justification for domination is rather an illusion based principally upon ‘a trick of perspective’ (247). Hence, we need only shift that perspective just a little in order to disclose its fundamental bias. Consider, writes Sax, the crows of Sendai, who place walnuts under the wheels of cars stopped at traffic lights, nuts which are then cracked open as the cars move forward on green. ‘Quite possibly,’ he continues, ‘these crows believe that cars and trucks exist for the express purpose of crushing shells’ (247). Among other things, displacing the anthropocentric bias in this manner opens the way to a far more nuanced understanding of the various ways in which human and nonhuman beings co-exist and co-evolve within symbiotic relationships, and not as a result of domestication (from the Latin dominus) conceived as synonymous with domination.

That said, writes Sax, it is in fact technology, rather than other animals, which today more than ever is rendering the illusion of human dominance impossible to maintain. Indeed, he argues, an alien newly-arrived on Earth ‘might well think that computers were the dominant form of life, with human beings only present to build and service them’ (248). And how, the alien may well ask herself, might these human animals have come to be so utterly dominated in this fashion? Well, suggests Sax, the alien might very well conclude that humans must simply have been programmed that way, most likely set in motion by a series of automatic triggers of the most basic stimulus-response type (248).


Second, the First Part

While retaining both brevity and simplicity of telling, the first part of Imaginary Animals concerns itself with the rather different task of responding in depth to a number of provocations that give each chapter its heading: namely, ‘Animal Encounters’; ‘What is an “Imaginary Animal”?’; ‘Every Real Animal is Imaginary’; ‘Every Imaginary Animal is Real’; and ‘Monsters.’

Focusing in the first chapter on the paradoxical figure of the ‘true unicorn,’ Sax clearly demonstrates why, should unicorns be discovered, no captured unicorn could ever be judged ‘authentic’ according to her species classification. From this, we can infer the impossibility of ever adequately defining and delimiting any species insofar as, if no newly emerging species can be defined, ergo neither can any existing or now-extinct species, including human beings. Sax dwells in some detail on this latter point and, while parts of the argument regarding human beings are interesting, some are nonetheless very problematic. He begins by arguing that to produce an adequate definition of the human species is, and always will be, impossible, simply because ‘the boundaries of what is considered human vary enormously by culture, by historical era and even in the course of an individual’s day-to-day experience’ (23). Thus, a bear in one place and time is thought capable of coupling with a human to produce a child while, in another, apes are assumed to be human while certain of tribespeople are not, or again, in another place and time, that the large cassowary bird is a human being is a fact blindingly obvious to all concerned. By any account, this is an important point to make.

However, writing now of the innumerable doomed attempts to define the human on the basis of an apparently unique property, be it tools, language, consciousness, death, etc., Sax seems to locate in this lack of a uniquely definitive property the very property it claims that humans lack. Human animals, in short, are ‘uniquely elusive’ insofar as they lack any uniquely human characteristic, but rather are always ‘disguised, airbrushed, rethought, hidden, exaggerated or otherwise altered’ (24). Given the inference that no species can ever be adequately defined and delimited, this is an extremely puzzling move indeed. Human animals, insists Sax, are unique because they elude definition, while at the same time insisting that unicorns, for example, also elude definition. Moreover, Sax’s definition of the properly human is almost as old as time, having been reiterated over and over again in myth and fable, most notably for us perhaps in the Greek myth of Epimetheus. Indeed, Western philosophy has depended for millennia upon just this notion of constitutive lack as proper to the human, before finally being taken to task by poststructuralist philosophy.

Immediately after making his claim for a properly human lack, Sax then states his desire to extend ‘the academic area called “anthrozoology” or “animal studies” … to the imagination, to myth and legend’ – a realm which, according to Sax at least, ‘has seldom been very anthropocentric’ (25). He attempts this, he writes, in order to ‘finally reveal our human claims to dominance to be illusory’ (25). That said, the claim that myth and legend are largely non-anthropocentric seems to me quite extraordinary, and the suggestion that in ‘folktales throughout the world, all forms of life, from human beings to foxes and trees, interact with something close to equality’ (25) would seem to fall prey both to a universalization of myth (which Sax rightly argues strenuously against throughout) and to a forgetting of that trick of perspectival bias that ultimately sustains an illusory belief in a global human dominance. Moreover, just such an anthropocentrism, precisely because it remains invisible and thus unquestioned, threatens to stall Sax’s project before it can even begin insofar as it potentially risks the silent extension of anthropocentrism – in the guise of its very expulsion – throughout the realm of animal studies. Instead, I would argue, it is necessary to engage adequately and repeatedly with anthropocentrism at every level, simply because it is something that can never be expelled, but only ignored.

Despite elsewhere acknowledging the importance of replacing dominance with symbiotic co-evolution, equally problematic here is a nostalgic regression of other animals to an illusory ‘primordial’ realm of ‘nonhuman cyclic time’ that, in typically Hegelian fashion, is imagined to predate the human world of names, categories, and concepts (31-32). Indeed, readers of animal studies will doubtless be familiar with this argument. Philosophical as much as physical engagements, however, have long shown the necessity of understanding the various controversies concerning temporality that, at the very least, mark it as a hugely complex and profoundly nuanced area of study. By contrast, such a simplistic opposition that pits an unexplored conception of linear time understood as properly human, against some equally unspecified kind of cyclic time said to universally characterize the massively divergent ways of being of all other animals, quite simply offers nothing; serving only to effectively obscure questions of temporality, the answers to which will inevitably bear heavily on the future directions of animal studies, be it an imaginary variant or not.

Here, one might well object to the reading being made here, pointing out that Sax is not, nor does he claim to be, a philosopher, and as such it is clearly unfair to reproach his work for its lack of philosophical rigor. In response, however, we should not forget that Sax’s explicitly stated aim with this book is to construct, or perhaps extend, animal studies so as to include imaginary animals of myth and fable within its remit. If we are to reasonably judge the possible success or otherwise of this endeavor – and, indeed, whether such an endeavor is necessary or even advisable – it is therefore necessary to engage with the work on the ground of contemporary animal studies, an area in which, in my opinion, rigorous philosophical and theoretical critique constitutes the primary component. Moreover, in this first part Sax himself explicitly intervenes in a number of philosophical controversies currently prominent within animal studies, an engagement which makes this part by far the more interesting of the two.

It is in this vein that Sax evokes the famous bathroom encounter between Jacques Derrida and his ‘little cat’ as related by Derrida in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006) – a passage that, having being read both intensively and extensively, has rapidly established itself as a theoretical touchstone within animal studies. Indeed, Sax’s own reading would have doubtlessly benefitted from being clearly situated within this broader context. Lacking this wider engagement, however, what appears as an initially promising reading ends up veering off dramatically, ultimately losing itself insofar as Sax completely misreads Derrida’s analysis of the shared gaze. Entirely against Derrida’s account, Sax concludes by misinterpreting the encounter with the alien gaze of an (other) animal as being simply ‘an experience that takes us back to something pre-cultural’ and which thus awakens ‘primal responses’ that serve to remind those exceptional beings that are human of the arbitrariness of ‘civilization’ in which such pride is taken. It perhaps goes without saying that Sax’s Christianized conception of Nature – as a previously Edenic realm from which all other animals were subsequently expelled as a consequence of the Fall announced by the arrival of the time-bound and thus historical human – represents a complete anathema to Derrida’s thought. Indeed, in positing the existence of a mythic and timeless animal realm, particularly one that reserves for human animals alone the possibility of experiencing an authentic ‘primordial response,’ Sax seems to be suggesting that the primary function of “Nature” is in fact to humble a self-aggrandizing humanity that would otherwise be consumed by arrogance and hubris.2

At this point, Sax cites Donna Haraway’s equally well-known critique of the Derrida passage, in which she justifiably takes Derrida to task for failing to consider the actuality of the cat – that is, her singular, nonsubstitutable existence and specific ways of being – as being relevant to the encounter. Building on this, Sax argues that, by the end of his lecture, Derrida ultimately reduces his ‘actual’ cat to a mere philosophical cipher, further suggesting that, regarding the bathroom scene at least, Derrida had perhaps ‘been writing as a poet when he suddenly remembered that he was really a philosopher’ (35). Again, however, the opposition of poet and philosopher put forward by Sax sounds a very odd note, particularly given its application to Derrida, who must take a large part of the credit for the thoroughgoing deconstruction of just this pairing. Despite this, Sax finds in Derrida’s lecture the constant battle of poet and philosopher, with the former demonstrating a longing for transcendence in his repeated attempt to reach out toward the cat’s ‘alien presence’ while, with at least an equal persistence, the latter insists upon an understanding that transcendence remains forever impossible (35). Moreover, writes Sax, this internal conflict between can be discerned by way of the ‘simple contradiction’ to which Derrida is said to fall prey. This contradiction is, continues Sax, rather an obvious one, wherein Derrida insists that this being who gazes upon him ‘cannot be classified or named’ while at the same time continuing ‘to call it [sic] a “cat”’ (35). Once again, however, Sax’s would-be coup reveals only a lack of any serious engagement with Derrida’s philosophy, particularly as regards the notion of the trace and its implication for traditional conceptions of language.

Indeed, this absence of engagement is further highlighted by Sax’s suggestion that Derrida could in fact have very easily avoided the contradictory application of the concept ‘cat’ to a being who refuses conceptualization by way of a simple expedient, namely that, instead of employing the word ‘cat,’ he could simply draw a picture of the inconceivable cat. Somewhat worrying here, is that Sax does not appear to grasp that pictures too take place only as a result of habitually acquired and unthinkingly deployed concepts, with drawings of cats serving just as well as labels and names as might those attributed in word form or that of a poetic fragment or algebraic equation. To imagine otherwise would be to assume that pictograms are wholly idiomatic, and thus immune to the delays and difference that condition every making of sense or production of meaning.

In concluding his reading, Sax argues that philosopher-Derrida ultimately silences poet-Derrida by forcing him to read ‘a huge book’ (35). At the last second, however, poet-Derrida is said to force out a last gasp claim that ‘an animal transcends all attempts at conceptualization, even by learned academics’ (35). Sax, it should be noted, is not claiming a direct citation. Nonetheless, this apparently objective summation in fact constitutes a further serious misreading. Derrida’s actual statement reads: ‘Nothing can ever take away from me the certainty that what we have here [in reference to the specific little cat gazing upon his nakedness] is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized’ (9). Clearly, one finds nothing here in support of Sax’s reading according to which any given nonhuman animal necessarily transcends conceptualization, as what appears to be both consequence and property of a common animality from which humanity is excluded. Indeed, to say that a given existence refuses conceptualization is very different from saying that that same existence transcends conceptualization. In one case, such an existence refuses absolutely to be subjugated by the shackles of conceptual control, instead forever exceeding externally imposed boundaries and, in so doing, disrupting every attempt to impose upon it a dominate univocal sense. In the other, however, every organism currently contained within the commonly-accepted concept of ‘animal’ always already transcends not just this very conceptualization by which such transcendental beings are identified, but every such conceptualization insofar as actual nonhuman animals therefore exist upon some plane of being both higher and superior than that upon which humans, as sole possessors of language and thus concepts, are thus condemned to remain.

Moving on to a consideration of the obscure ontological status of ‘Imaginary Animals’ in the next chapter, Sax refers to recent research in a number of fields, including cognitive psychology, in order to demonstrate that, in our ‘postmodern era,’ experience and imagination can no longer be considered opposites. This, he writes, is because perception is never immediate, but is rather a largely imaginative process of construction, at once biological and cultural, built upon ‘conceptual frameworks, visual stimuli, sounds, memories, and so on’ (40). Perception, in other words, is always already apperception, from which Sax concludes that experience therefore ‘does much to determine what stimuli we notice, and prior beliefs affect how we implicitly classify and interpret them’ (40-41). Such a conclusion, however, simply does not go far enough, even despite the important critiques of Eurocentrism and anthropocentrism that follow it, insofar as it leaves itself open to a reinscription of the humanist Kantian subject – a reinscription this reconfiguration of perception as mediated process renders impossible.

That aside for a moment, Sax makes the point here that the experience of perceiving another animal is always in large part the process of constructing an imaginary animal.3 Furthermore, he writes,

animals are the major templates used in the construction of human identity, whether universal, tribal or individual. Imaginary ones in particular are a record of the changes in humankind, as we absorb, lay claim or try to disown features that we discover in other creatures. And because people constantly not only appropriate aspects of the appearance, habits and abilities of other animals but draw on their identities as well, in ways that are almost as various as the animals themselves, there is a great diversity among human cultures and individuals (46).

Clearly, Sax is making a big claim here: namely, that cultural difference – and thus culture ‘itself’ – is either, largely or entirely, reducible to the result and record of the humanity’s arrogation of the appearance, habits, abilities, and even identities of other animals.

This, however, raises a whole series of questions, not least of which being that, if the construction of ‘culture’ and thus ‘human identity’ (or vice versa) depends upon the appropriation of (other) animals, then is culture- and identity-construction an entirely human province? If so, then the animal ‘identities’ thus arrogated must be entirely imaginary and, if not, other animals must thus also take part in culture- and identity-construction. Here, however, Sax seems at no point to entertain the notion that nonhuman animals also possess culture, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Rather, it seems as if human metaphoricity at this point overwhelms and erases the existential specificity common to every animal, human and nonhuman, reinstating the privileged liberal Kantian subject as it goes. Only humans, in other words, are both biological and cultural, in contrast to all other, ‘merely’ biological animals. But what happens in that case to perception-as-apperception? The simplest perception, we recall, is a largely imaginative process of construction that is at once biological and cultural. What, then, becomes of nonhuman perception? It hardly seems likely that Sax would suggest that all other animals are incapable of experiencing their environment through their senses. This problem, I would argue, is a result of not working through further implications of the ‘postmodern’ understanding of perception, in particular as regards the possibility or otherwise of traditional biology-culture and nature-culture dualisms.

This too marks a concern I have with the notion of an imaginary Animal Studies such as Sax articulates here: namely, that it risks detracting from actual animals. No doubt, Sax himself would abhor such an outcome and, indeed, such an outcome is in no way necessary. What is perhaps necessary, however, is a reconsideration of the notion of the ‘imaginary animal’ which, according to Sax,

is a creature that seems to belong to a realm fundamentally different from, yet somehow allied with, our own … An imaginary animal is a sort of “second self” for an individual human being, an association of people or even the entire human race – something we might have been, might become, fear turning into or aspire to (47).

This is not to say, however, that such an argument is without merit. Indeed, in terms of a proposed new area of study, Sax could easily have strengthened his argument by paying attention to the specific construction of contemporary monsters beyond that of Sasquatch and the occasional brief reference to biotechnology. As it stands in its’ admittedly speculative and provisional form, however, it remains difficult for me to see how such a conception answers to anything other than a desire to find an academic home for the collection and collation of whatever might constitute the postmodern equivalent of the mediaeval bestiary. Of course, this is not to say that such an equivalent would therefore be without interest – on the contrary, a postmodern bestiary would doubtless prove fascinating. My point is simply that, if the remit of Imaginary Animal Studies is to be something other than this, as Sax himself clearly imagines, then it must seek its grounding elsewhere than in the hubris of the Kantian subject.

No doubt, part of the problem here results from the constraints imposed by an attempt to appeal to academic and popular readerships simultaneously. Even with these constraints, Sax nonetheless still manages on occasion to display his undeniable critical acumen to devastating effect, most notably in his rebuttal of both the humanism and universality of Steven Mithen’s theory of cognitive fluidity, and again during his engagement with Paul A. Trout’s argument that the fear of being consumed by predators constitutes the foundation of religious awe and thus worship.


Conclusion: The Last Part

In the short conclusion, Sax returns to the limits of human concepts, and particularly in relation to what this means for rights discourse in the case of other animals. All animals, he reiterates, are ‘probably impossible’ to fit neatly within the categories of human thought. While this might seem rather banal at first glance, this is in fact an absolutely crucial point that so many concerned with other animals could do well to heed. For example, asks Sax, are other animals moral? Well, he answers himself, ‘which morality did you have in mind? … A Mafia don, a Viking warrior or a Confucian scholar?’ (251). What about a sense of time? Do other animals have that? Again, Sax answers himself, which time did you have in mind, linear time or cyclic time, time as conceived ‘by Buddha, Newton or Einstein?’ (251). After dealing in similar fashion with a sense of self, of consciousness, and of death, Sax makes the central point that most research inquiring into such questions ‘is not only anthropocentric but extremely ethnocentric as well,’ and constitutes an obstacle that is ‘true of all of … approaches to animal rights’ which seek to extend contemporary human concepts to other forms of life (252). As Sax notes, such approaches may – at best – afford some small protection to a very small number of other animals whom humans perceive as sufficiently similar to themselves. At worst, i.e., when elevated to a universal principle, the only possible result is that of an oppressive imposition of concepts serving only to deny ‘distinctness and autonomy’ (253). Instead of attempting to impose our world, writes Sax, we should rather try to enter theirs.

All of this, I believe, remains timely and important. I am, however, less convinced by the specifics of the alternative proposed by Sax, who maintains that to effect such an entry one needs only a heightened sensitivity and imagination whilst at the same time placing an increased trust upon our ‘poetic imaginations’ (253). Regardless of the degree of imaginative sensitivity, such encounters will always depend upon established patterns of human thought, and as such this would seem to amount to little more than the somewhat trivial suggestion that we humans be more open to other animals. What makes Sax’s approach different from so many others, however, is the priority he gives to imaginary animals (in the narrow sense of the word). Such animals are, he writes, ‘based on real ones,’ albeit with their common kinship and strangeness intensified to an uncommon degree and, as such, they constitute a human ‘mirror test’ (253). It is this, continues Sax, which makes them both good to think and good to dream. They remind us, he writes, of all which we do not know, and thus they warn against arrogance; in Gothic churches, they ‘caution against fanaticism’; in palaces, they recall us to the temporary limits of power; and in libraries, they provide ‘a check on both pride and cynicism’ (253). Because of all of this, he concludes, imaginary animals promise transcendence: ‘Fantastic animals direct us to, and then beyond, the limitations of normal routines, social conventions, religious dogma and perhaps even cosmic law’ (253-254). Perhaps. But perhaps such fantastic human constructions are themselves already mere instances of normal routine and social convention. Moreover, if transcendence is indeed at stake, one cannot help but question where, exactly, other animals are in all this and, indeed, how this alone might offer more than even the limited potential afforded by contemporary rights discourse.

Unfortunately, perhaps, Sax’s latest book is inevitably caught in a double bind, opening itself to criticism precisely in the moment that it dares to go beyond a straightforward cross-referenced encyclopedia to become something different and considerably more interesting. In this sense, a critical response such as this one proves above all that this work does not concern itself with interminable collection collated into terminable lists, but rather reaches toward something entirely other. In this sense at least, Imaginary Animals is indeed exemplary of the field of animal studies at its best.



  1. The answer, by the way, is yes, of course we should. And considerably further too.
  2. As such, it is useful here to counterpoint Sax’s exegesis with a brief summary of the text it claims to elucidate. Thus, Derrida seeks to take account of a thoroughly disarming encounter with the ‘bottomless gaze’ of a feline companion whilst standing naked in his bathroom one morning. As both border-crossing and absolute limit, Derrida describes the encounter as ‘an instant of extreme passion’ that constructs a vantage from which man might, at long last, finally dare to announce himself to himself. Further, he continues, to encounter the gaze of the absolutely other is to lose one’s self in the apocalyptic event of absolute potentiality that, in the very same instant a vantage becomes finally attainable, announces nothing other than the ends of man.
  3. Here we discover a particularly interesting overlap of Sax’s major concerns with those worked through by Tom Tyler in his CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, published by the University of Minnesota Press in the same year as part of their influential ‘Posthumanities’ series.

Admitting the Indifference of Dogs


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

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



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

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

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

Beginning with the production of the absence of relation between the human and the animal, and by way of two fifteenth century paintings of St Michael’s slaying of the Devil, Benjamin marks an important distinction between the two determinations which figure the two dominant forms of the human-animal relation. In the first, the production of the human is predicated on the death or nonexistence of the animal, whereas in the second, the human remains in a constant struggle with his or her own animality, an animality which must be repeatedly overcome in being-human. These twin metaphysical configurations, one or other of which underwrites the great majority of contemporary Continental philosophy, work to continually reiterate the without relation, both fallaciously defining the nonhuman animal by what he or she lacks within a humanist teleological dialectic in such a way as to mark every nonhuman animal as therefore incomplete, as sub-human. As de Fontenay has argued, “this continuity and this fracture, always at work, this veritable obsession with the mending and correction of the animal by the human” can only function at the expense of the status of the animal.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Animal Oppression and the Holocaust Analogy: A Summary of Controversy


There is no direct analogy, it should be noted straight away, between the intense pain and suffering undergone by those nonhuman animals, living and dead, within industrialised feedlots, slaughterhouses, and laboratories, and those human animals, living and dead, who were and are victims of the Shoah. Rather, what I would suggest is their necessary interrelation or reciprocity, that is, both their absolute historical singularity and their indissociability. While not an analogy, therefore, there nonetheless remains a relation—the relation of humanism and nationalism in fact—, one which I propose to mark here with the improper phrasing “animal holocaust” (and without proper noun status).

It is this which makes permissible, if not accurate, the holocaust analogy, insofar as the animalisation of Jews in Nazi Germany has as its operative condition the machine which reproduces nonhuman animals as killable. Taking a cue once again from Derrida, this strategy could be figured as plus un “Holocaust”: more than one / no more one “Holocaust,” insofar as the term recalls always more than one (and thus) no more one community (that is, no immanent or immune body), which is what must be learned if we are to ensure no more Holocaust(s). There remains, however, considerable controversy surrounding the use of the Holocaust analogy, which will be sketched out below. On my own part, I would argue that even if the relation remains implicit, the shock of its implied comparison is nevertheless strategically important (as too is the comparison with slavery) insofar as it opens “the question of the animal” to the related concerns of shame and guilt.

Proposed most notoriously by Martin Heidegger who, whilst remaining silent as to his own complicity, in 1949 compared the death camps to “mechanised agriculture,” the Holocaust analogy is most often condemned on the basis that its equation, in reducing humans to animals, in fact repeats the movement of animalisation which served to legitimise the genocide in the first place.[1] In response, however, David Wood acutely notes that, “while the apparent comparison of the treatment of Jews with the fate of animals … may be obscene, so too is the implication that these sort of practices would call for a quite different judgment if we were ‘just’ talking about nonhuman animals” (The Step Back, 49). He then recalls the strong argument that—

the architecture and logistical organisation of the death camps … was stolen, or borrowed from the successful designs of the Chicago stockyards, also fed directly by the railway system. If the industrialisation of killing was first perfected on cattle [sic], and then applied to humans, we have not an obscene analogy, but an obscene piece of history (49).

The analogy has been put forward at its most basic level by Elisabeth Costello in J. M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name, which Donna Haraway describes as “a common, powerful, and in my view powerfully wrong approach” (When Species Meet, 336n23). This is not to say, however, and as Haraway makes clear, “that the Nazi killings of the Jews and others and mass animal slaughter in the meat industry have no relation [emphasis mine],” but only that such an “analogy culminating in equation can blunt our alertness to irreducible difference and multiplicity and their demands. Different atrocities deserve their own language” (336n23). Carol Adams too, in rare agreement with Haraway, refuses the analogy on similar grounds, claiming that it rips “experience from its history” which thus “does harm to Holocaust survivors. We must locate our ethic for animals so that it does not hurt people who are oppressed” (Neither Man Nor Beast, 83). Finally, Susan Coe in Dead Meat (1996) notes that—

My annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that the suffering I am witnessing now cannot exist on its own, it has to fall into the hierarchy of a “lesser animal suffering.” In the made-for-TV reality of American culture, the only acceptable genocide is historical. It’s comforting—it’s over. Twenty million murdered humans deserve to be more than a reference point. I am annoyed that I don’t have more power in communicating what I’ve seen apart from stuttering: “It’s like the Holocaust” (72)

The clear link between these critiques is not that the comparison is inaccurate or irrelevant, but rather that the positing of an analogical equation is inappropriate—on both sides—only insofar as it effaces the specific differences between them. However, not positing such an analogy can equally result in blindness. As Wood writes, “[i]f there is a worry that the distinctiveness of the human gets lost in such a comparison, there is an equal worry that the refusal of such analogies perpetuates our all-too-human blindness to the systematic violence we habitually inflict on other creatures” (The Step Back, 49).

In addition, such a critique of the trope of analogy in general (reasoning from parallel cases) fails to address the chance imperative of an improper metonymy holding open the place by which previously effaced singular differences actually come to make sense. It is just such a chance imperative which adds weight to Wood’s warning that the “expression may well provoke the very resistance it seeks to overcome, but the expression is not used unthinkingly, or irresponsibly” (49).

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida famously—and carefully—refers to “animal genocides” (26), with the proviso that, “concerning the figure of genocide, one should neither abuse nor acquit oneself [ni abuser ni s’acquitter] too quickly” (26, trans. modified). He then proceeds to compare the “monstrous” suffering undergone by nonhuman animals with that of the Shoah, albeit ensuring, with all he has written on the subject of the prefatory “as if,” that there can be no simple relation of identity or analogy:

As if, for example, instead of throwing a people into ovens and gas chambers [dans des fours crématoires et dans des chambers à gaz] (let’s say Nazi) doctors and geneticists had decided to organise the overproduction and overgeneration of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being continually more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing numbers for the same hell, that of the imposition of genetic experimentation, or extermination by gas or by fire. In the same abattoirs (26).

Here it is clear that Derrida is not proffering a simplistic, reductive analogy between the millions of Jews exterminated in the Nazi death camps and the billions of nonhuman animals slaughtered in the death camps of capitalism.

All this is, however, noted only by way of a contextualising preface. In fact, I would argue that the necessarily blunted edge of any posited comparison is neither the sole, nor even the main, cause of controversy.

To begin with, it must be understood that the term “Holocaust,” referring to the extermination of the Jews during the Nazi period (“the Shoah,” from so-ah meaning “devastation” or “catastrophe,” is the Jewish term), is itself a trope. At once analogical metaphor and euphemism (in the strong sense of a palliative), it is one which moreover remains controversial to this day. Giorgio Agamben has traced this figure, and indeed, its “essentially Christian” history, in a number of his texts, and offers a convincing argument as to the “irresponsible historiographical blindness” of its positing, a blindness and blinding concerned precisely with the question of analogy (Homo Sacer, 114). Arguing that the term “holocaust” (from the Greek holocaustos, signifying “completely burned”) is “from its inception anti-Semitic” and thus “intolerable” (Remnants, 31), Agamben notes how it marks an attempt “to establish a connection, however distant, between Auschwitz and the Biblical olah and between death in the gas chamber and the ‘complete devotion to sacred and superior motives’” (31).[2]

It is here that the figure of analogy is identified as the origin of its intolerability: “the term impl[ies] an unacceptable equation between crematoria and altars” (31). Indeed, with this “wish to lend a sacrificial aura to the extermination of the Jews by means of the term ‘Holocaust’” (Homo Sacer, 114), it becomes clear that the term is if anything more appropriate as a figure for the extermination of animals for consumption, whether by gods or by men, than it is for the Shoah. And again, in terms of the meaning of the original Greek term, it is the industrialised genocide of nonhuman animals which most befits the adjective holocaustos, echoed by the industrial slaughterer’s familiar boast (a boast already worn smooth with overuse in the Chicago stockyards of the late 19th century) that they “use everything but the squeal.”

Returning to Agamben, the important and necessary desacralisation of the Shoah serves, as is well known, as the zero point—marked by the camp Muselmann—for his notion of “bare life.” Jews under Nazism, he writes, were constituted as “a flagrant case of homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed” (114). Bare life is, moreover, only actualised in its putting to death, which is “neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualisation of a mere ‘capacity to be killed’ inherent in the condition of the Jew as such” (114). There was, in other words, no “mad and giant holocaust” but rather only the actualisation, enacted only through extermination, of “mere” life, mere subsistence. That is, in being-killed “the Jew” is reconfigured as pure animal remains (“‘as lice,’ which is to say, as bare life” (114)), for which the mute Muselmann is the figure, the “staggering corpse” (Jean Améry) or “the living dead” (Wolfgang Sofsky) without the capacity to die, but only to be killed.

We can now begin to discern a more nuanced relation than a superficial equation marked by the phrasing “animal holocaust.” Under the Nazis, Jews are thus reproduced as walking dead flesh, a related, but nonetheless singular, transformation into “pure” corporeality, into bodily-shaped collections of dead zombie flesh ready to be disarticulated. Not into “meat,” however, as with so-called “food” animals, but into “mere” animal remains. In other words, by way of a structurally interrelated spectral disembodiment through mimetic displacement, we find here too the instrumentalised “walking ghosts” which reproduce a symbolic logic of oppression that ultimately serves to constitute subjugated beings who are precisely deserving of oppression. Not an analogy, therefore, but an inter- and intra-relation—a founding reciprocity.

Furthermore, the reciprocal relation of these singular historical genocides serves to highlight the specificity lacking in Agamben’s conception of “bare life.” As Andrew Benjamin clearly demonstrates, and in contrast to the “undifferentiated ontology” which founds Agamben’s “bare life,” such a reconfiguration always involves—

the violent imposition of identity. It is imposed in this way on Jews, thus underscoring the vacuity of the claim that such a position involves “bare life,” as though within such a life the particularity of being a Jew—that which prompted the figure’s work in the first place—was not itself already marked out. In being there originally, that mark would always have been retained (Of Jews and Animals, 186-7).


It is this ineffaceable mark which calls to the guilt which, according to Primo Levi, must bear upon “almost all” the Germans of the Nazi period, precisely because they failed to bear witness to what they could not not witness. The question—a related, even an analogous question—turns in a circle: Why do the majority choose not to see, to turn away and to refuse to hear, let alone to touch, taste or smell, the contemporary maltreatment of animals if not because of an unremarked sense of guilt and shame? An experience, in other words, that is the murmur of the always restrained yet retained mark of constitutive exclusion. One recalls here Elisabeth Costello, who cannot not conceive of everyone but as “participants in a crime of stupefying proportions” (Coetzee Elisabeth Costello, 114). This brings us to yet another important aspect of the holocaust analogy: in “Thinking With Cats” (2004), David Wood argues that the posited relation is nonetheless—

wholly justified even if politically divisive. The reasons for this are deep, and connected with the difficulty most of us have in coming to see that some social practices we take part in clear-headedly might be utterly contemptible. This contrasts with our shared condemnation of all Nazi genocidal activity. The attempt to connect these events produces extreme reactions (215n37, emphasis added).

Ultimately then, the impropriety of the metonymy “animal holocaust” discloses the sharing of community based upon the guilt of exclusion, and marked by a failure to witness that which cannot not be witnessed (this latter despite its euphemistic effacement in the concept of “meat,” an effacing figured by the sterile, plastic-wrapped tropes of flesh on supermarket shelves).



[1] Heidegger’s reference to the camps is quoted in the Der Spiegel interview “Only a god can save us” (23 September 1966), pub. Der Spiegel 31 May 1976. Reprinted in Gunther Neske & Emil Kettering (eds) Martin Heidegger and National Socialism (New York: Paragon House, 1996), 41-66.

[2] On this, see also Wood The Step Back, 50.

What is Zoogenesis (3)?: Derrida & Benjamin, introducing animal studies

The following are the notes from my seminar focusing on the fourth seminar of the first volume of Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign (2009) and Andrew Benjamin’s 2008 paper ‘Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals’ in South Atlantic Quarterly (also included in Of Jews and Animals (2010)).

*      *     *

By way of an introduction I want to give a sense of the importance and scope of critical animal studies. These two texts were chosen because what both Derrida and Benjamin have succeeded in doing, perhaps more so than anybody else, is making explicit the importance of the so-called ‘question of the animal’ to the overlapping domains of philosophy, ethics, and politics. Derrida, for example, suggests elsewhere that—

‘One understands a philosopher only by heeding closely what he means to demonstrate, and in reality fails to demonstrate, concerning the limit between human and animal’ (The Animal That Therefore I Am, 106).

Similarly, Benjamin recently claimed that—

‘admitting and thus allowing the animal would not involve an act of extension but rather a transformation of the philosophical itself. That transformation would be occasioned by allowing into the philosophical an element whose exclusion was often taken to be foundational’ (Of Jews and Animals 19).

This gives a clear sense of the centrality of nonhuman animals for both of these writers, in particular as regards the deconstruction of humanism and all that that brings with it.

Not to be confused with transhumanism, according to the posthumanism of critical animal studies the ongoing reinscription of other animals within the humanities is necessary for two reasons: first, in order to dismantle the machinery of power by which ‘other’ humans are ‘animalised,’ a displacement constituting the sine qua non of exclusive collectives founded upon boundaries of blood, soil or language; and second, and of equal importance, in order to put a halt to the exploitation, torture, and extermination of nonhuman animals by their human kin

Both Derrida and Benjamin seek to complicate the human/animal dichotomy for both of these reasons. In these texts, Benjamin thus affirms a primordial relatedness prior to this distinction, while Derrida begins the necessary task of deconstructing the ‘proper’ of the human which always takes place at the expense of other animals. Important here, emphasised in both these texts, is that this is not simply a case of extending certain human rights to animals which, as Derrida suggests, constitutes a major failure of logic. Hence, one must avoid temptation of countering what Benjamin calls the ‘without relation’ of the human/animal division with a simple ‘with’: ‘no simple extension (by humility or rights), says Benjamin, which only effaces difference, but rather by ‘forcing another thinking’ outside of the without/with opposition as neither negation nor supplement, or, in other words, whereas negation is opposed to an affirmation of anoriginal relatedness, such affirmation rather differs from negation. Affirmation cannot oppose negation as this would place negation within it. ‘It is less a matter,’ as Derrida says here—

‘of wondering whether one has the right to refuse the animal such and such a power (speech, reason, experience of death, mourning, culture, institution, politics, technique, clothing, lying, feigned feint, effacement of the trace, gift, laughter, tears, respect, etc.—…  the most powerful philosophical tradition in which we live has refused all of that to the “animal”). It is more a matter of wondering whether what one calls man has the right, for his own part, to attribute in all rigor to man, to attribute to himself, then, what he refuses to the animal, and whether he ever has a concept of it that is pure, rigorous, indivisible, as such’ (130).

Before opening up the discussion, I just want to mark what I think are two very important points which underlay both of these texts. The first concerns iterability, performativity, and the mark, and the second, the idea of an ethics of the nonfellow.

For those of you not familiar with Derrida, it might appear that his later focus on ‘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. By this I mean the necessary iterability of every recognised mark which, in order to make sense, must, upon its ‘first’ appearance, always already be repeated, and hence differing and deferring from its apparently indivisible presence. Moreover, the effacing of singular differences in the reiteration of sense is the necessary idealisation which permits one to identify it as the same throughout possible repetitions. Important here, is that this iterability, this making sense, cannot be restricted to human being, and it is this which Derrida attempts to show in his deconstruction of Lacan’s opposition of human language and animal code (118-119), already long since marked by his shift from a thinking of the ‘signifier’ to that of the ‘trace’, and thus of the very traditional distinction between the instinctive or mechanistic programmed natural reaction and free human response. Always a question, as he says, of liberty and the machine. For Derrida, however, the machine must always interrupt the human just as much, or as less, as the animal, and that the possibility of its rupture inheres in the totality of “experience” beyond any reduction to species and property. The problem of the purity of the distinction between (human) response and (animal, machinic) reaction, he writes,

will always inscribe a destiny of iterability, and therefore some reactional automaticity in every response, however originary, free, decisive and a-reactional it might appear’ (119).

Iterable excess, he makes clear, is a structural characteristic of every mark, every sense, and is thus an excess which ‘relates to the requirements for the production of all life’. With this, he is suggesting, against Lacan, that all living beings—and not only living organisms—are also ‘prey to language’, with all its implications for thinking the unconscious, and for psychoanalysis. Benjamin also addresses this in his discussion of Freudian animal drives, which he says marks the impossibility of a founding unity but which rather insists on a primordial relatedness and thus continuous negotiation (85).

The second point concerns the very foundation of the ethical, and thus of responsibility to the other. On this, Derrida speaks of—

‘A principle of ethics or more radically of justice, in the most difficult sense … which is perhaps the obligation that engages my responsibility with respect to the most dissimilar, the entirely other, precisely, the monstrously other, the unrecognizable other. The “unrecognizable” … is the beginning of ethics, of the Law, and not of the human. So long as there is recognizability and fellow, ethics is dormant. It is sleeping a dogmatic slumber. So long as it remains human, among men, ethics remains dogmatic, narcissistic, and not yet thinking. Not even thinking the human that it talks so much about’ (108).

In what seems a very simple point, insofar as the Law refers us only to the similar, to the mirror of the self, then one’s ‘obligations towards the most similar and the nearest’ are intensified, constructing a hierarchy of obligations or responsibility: ‘More obligation toward men than toward animals, more obligation toward men who are close and similar than toward the less close and less familiar’. Such may indeed be a fact, Derrida writes, ‘But this fact will never have founded a right, an ethics, or a politics’.

This crosses with Benjamin’s attempt to theorise and interrupt the ‘work of figures’ which institutes what he calls the ‘without relation’. Exemplary in this regard is the figuring of ‘the animal’ in a simple oppositional relation to ‘the human’ which unifies both elements in their absence of relation while at the same time erasing both the enormous diversity of species and the already existing complex of relations (as Derrida says too on page 120). In this way, an identity is constructed whose function is in large part external to the concerns of the identity itself. In the first part of his paper, Benjamin marks a crucial 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 based upon the death or nonexistence of the animal—the human, in other words, begins where the animal ends, 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. One or other of these twin metaphysical configurations, it should be noted, underwrites the great majority of contemporary Continental philosophy—in the first camp, for example, there is Heidegger, Blanchot, Deleuze and Guattari; with Badiou, Ranciere, and Agamben falling within the second, and with Stiegler oscillating somewhere between the two. Both of these determinations work to continually reiterate the without relation of the human and the animal, and they both do so by 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. This has extremely serious implications, insofar as it is a production which simultaneously serves to ground, in its appeal to an evolutionary tēlos, the reconfiguration of ‘other’ humans, be they women, people of colour, workers, or others’, as irrational in opposition to normative rationality, that is, as primitive, as ‘uncivilised,’ and thus, as not-yet properly human, as subhuman. The repeated overcoming of animality in becoming-human thus underwrites the so-called ‘civilising mission’ of imperialism as well as current neo-colonialism while at the same marking its indissociable complicity with racism. Without the underlying humanist tēlos, however, such degeneration of ‘others’ – human and nonhuman – ceases to be possible. For this reason Benjamin seeks to disclose not only the originary presence of the animal with the human, but also the mutual articulation of all such figures which externally impose normative identities which then have to be lived out. It is this mutually-articulating ‘work’ which underpins the conjunction of Jews and animals.

This leads back to Derrida who, on page 109 writes that—

‘once there is cruelty only toward the fellow, well, not only can one cause hurt without doing evil and without being cruel not only toward humans not recognized as true humans and true brothers … but also toward any living being foreign to the human race … without ever being suspected of the least cruelty’ (109)

Finally, I offer up the following questions,

Benjamin: What of Agamben’s ‘bare life’ as undifferentiated, as the ‘mere capacity to be killed’ (79)? Especially in relation to a transformed concept of sovereignty, understood as the capacity to discriminate, and thus as the capacity to produce ‘bare life’ (the movement from neutral to bare bodies) (81-2)?

What of Agamben’s utopian redemption of ‘bare life’ in or as the coming community (84-5)?

Derrida’s question: What becomes of animals and ‘the animal’ following the deconstruction of the essential, transcendental humanist Subject (111)?

How does the ‘question of the animal’ affect the discourse of human rights, and of universal human rights in particular? Schmitt would be important here, with his argument that the supposedly ‘political’ notion of a universal humanity is always a mask of private economic interest, one which, moreover, authorises the most extreme inhumanity.

What too of animal rights discourse? What exactly is its major failure of logic, and what are the consequences of this?

What are the implications of extending Law, Crime, and peccability (sin) to nonhuman animals (106)?

What of the qualitative limit, irrespective of numbers and time, Derrida speaks of on pp109-110, especially as regards the humanist privilege and the taking of the malformed embryo as the subject or object of his thought experiment?

What of the ethical obligation to the nonliving—dead living beings and living beings not yet born (110)—how does this impact upon both ecology and ethics and heritage and ethics?

What is the difference between a dogmatic legacy and a critical inheritance (113)?

What of the need—and what are the ‘easily imaginable’ consequences—of inscribing death in the concept of life? Animals are generally figured as lacking death, that is, pathic and thus infinitely substitutable, and hence undying; what then if animals are ‘given death’ (and thus ‘given time’)? Death and thus finitude and nonsubstitutability (123)

What of ‘Thou shalt not kill’?

What about the cultural constructedness of ‘personhood’ (re: Kant)?

What of Descartes’ contention and AI, and how does this return to the question of the animal (112n20)?