Tag Archives: Derrida

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.

“Whether There is Life or Not”: Triangulating Matter with Derrida, Meillassoux, and DeLanda


The following is a copy of the paper I presented at the Derrida Today conference in New York last month.


In its starkest formulation, for Derrida there is no being as such without a living being. From the first, Derrida installs an abyss between the living and the nonliving when, in Of Grammatology, he posits the emergence of the trace – as the new structure of nonpresence that is the unity of the double movement of protention and retention – as synonymous with the emergence of life. This, for Derrida, is the denaturalizing movement oflife, the originary technicity of living being, its structural unity accounting for the originary synthesis that is the becoming-time of space or the becoming-space of time. Put simply, in order for an entity to endure in time and thus appear on the scene of presence, this very appearing necessarily recalls the trace of both past and future elements, and as such depends a priori upon its relation “to what it absolutely is not,” in that, as Derrida writes, an interval or spacing “must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself.”[i]

This formulation of the trace, as the bedrock of deconstruction as practice, remains central to the important and ongoing deconstruction of the human-animal dichotomy. Indeed, Derrida’s insistence throughout his work that the structure of the trace is constitutive of all living beings is itself reason enough for any rigorous thinking with animals to continually return to the “quasi-concept” of the trace. However, it is just such a rigorous engagement that compels a further question: if the trace is the constitutive condition of everything temporal, that is, of everything that endures, then why, exactly, does Derrida equate the trace with “life in general” while innumerable finite entities continue to endure without the “genetic description” supposedly regulative of life? Why, in other words, does Derrida set limits on the trace when, in so doing, he simultaneously imposes limits on the living?

In the posthumously published The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the long history of Western philosophy has been dominated by the recurrence of an invariable schema, one in which everything deemed the exclusive property of “Man” derives from an originary fault or lack that constitutes “the imperative necessity that finds in it its development and resilience.”[ii] This schematic default, in short, bestows upon the human its exceptional ontological status, ring-fencing everything from technology, language, and time, to society, politics, and law, while at the same time continuing to ensure the human’s “subjugating superiority over the animal.”[iii] Is it possible, then, that Derrida himself remains blind to, and thus complicit with, an even more basic philosophical schema, that of a dominant zoo-centrism that bestows exceptional ontological status upon the living,a dogmatic dominant that Manuel DeLanda calls “organic chauvinism”?[iv]

Our question, then, concerns Derrida’s desire to put an end to life, that is, to place limits on “the living” through the reiterated construction of an abyssal border separating living “beings” from nonliving “things.” Such a question moves Derrida’s thought beyond his own examples of amoeba and annelid to such complex beings as viruses, Martian microbes, quanta and silicate crystals and beyond, to every potential material existent. Perhaps, then, it is not by chance that, in his final seminar, Derrida finds himself haunted by the figure of the zombie, that fearful thing-being hesitating between life and death. More importantly, it is only by refusing to impose contingent limits upon “life” that a materialist and posthumanist praxis becomes possible, one that affirms the potential of “bodyings” that are truly radical.

Returning to the schematic domination of Western philosophy, irrespective of whether they concern human hubris or organic chauvinism, the questions such schema are constructed to counter are basically the same. Today’s humanist descendents of Darwin, for example, lacking the fall-back position of a divine Creator, must nonetheless be able to account for the emergence of the human as both coming from the animal and yet no longer being animal. Perhaps surprisingly, Derrida’s organic chauvinismis staged to counter this very same problem, albeit with a shifting of terms that is essentially superficial. Thus, Derrida, similarly lacking a divine fall-back position, must also be able to account for the emergence of the living as both emerging from the inanimate and yet no longer being inanimate. He must, in other words, address the precise historical moment in which the living presumably “emerges” from the nonliving. This problem, for the secular humanist as for the organic chauvinist, is, in short, that of creation ex nihilo. Ultimately, such dominant – nearly but not quite invariable – historical schema are not constructed to solve but rather to dissolve such problems, that is, to obviate the question.

Derrida, as we know, refers to the movement of the trace as “an emergence.” Okay, but as an emergence from what, exactly? Presumably (Derrida himself does not say), the trace, as a “new structure of nonpresence” synonymous with “life,” could only emerge from and within a world composed entirely of inorganic, inanimate entities – beings that nonetheless somehow endure. This has serious consequences, as not only does this contradict the logical structure of the trace, but it also opens deconstruction as a whole to the negative charge of “correlationism” as defined by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude.

According to Meillassoux, the problem of correlationism can be seen at its clearest when considering ‘ancestral statements,’ that is, statements made about reality anterior to the emergence of ‘life.’ Such statements, Meillassoux argues, are impossible for the correlationist philosopher for whom being is co-extensive with manifestation, in that the past events to which ancestral statements refer could not, by definition, be manifest to anyone. As such, ‘what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is,’ meaning that manifestation is not the givenness of a world, but is instead an intra-worldly occurrence that can in fact be dated. In other words, to make the emergence of life synonymous with the worlding of world is to evoke the emergence of manifestation amidst a world that pre-existed it. Hence, insofar as Derrida makes the emergence of the trace synonymous with the emergence of living beings, deconstruction too, as Meillassoux clearly implies, has no answer to the challenge the ancestral poses to correlationism – namely, ‘how to conceive of a time in which the given as such passes from non-being into being?’ This challenge concerns not the empirical problem of the birth of living organisms, but the ontological problem of the coming into being of givenness as such.

If, as Derrida maintains, the trace is the constitutive condition of existence itself, then how can the double movement of the trace emerge from out of anything? Rather, only the nothingness of the endless void could possibly precede its “emergence” insofar as its apparently “new structure of nonpresence” at the same time constitutes the condition for the appearing or enduring of any entity whatsoever. Hence, “life” as synonymous with the trace ultimately results in a return to the theological, demanding as it does creation ex nihilo.

Things are very different, however, once one extends the logic of the trace beyond its zoocentric privilege. As Martin Hägglund states with admirable clarity: “Everything that is subjected to succession is subjected to the trace, whether it is alive or not.”[v] With this deceptively simple sentence, Hägglund launches – at least potentially – a radical and far-reaching critique. While I will consider what I see as the major difficulty with Hägglund’s position shortly, it is useful first of all to briefly consider possible reasons as to why Derrida sought to put an end to life. Returning to Of Grammatology, we find Derrida pointing to the “essential impossibility” of avoiding “mechanist, technicist and teleological language at the very moment when it is precisely a question of retrieving the origin and the possibility of movement, of the machine.”[vi] Remembering that this is his first major work, I think that, above all else, Derrida wants to avoid exactly those accusations: namely that, underneath it all, he is in fact positing a rigid, mechanistic universe. To this end, however, he succeeds only in offering a late form of vitalism in its stead, that is, a form that rigidly separates the worlds of organic life and human consciousness, where innovation is possible, from the realm of the merely material, where repetition of the same is the rule.[vii]

Further, Derrida may well have imposed these restrictions upon the trace as a result of concerns related to any would-be “retrieval of the origin,” concerns reflected in the fact that Derrida here offers nothing whatsoever in regards to the utterly extraordinary – but still presumably historical – event of the trace’s emergence. More important, however, is the fact that the structure of the trace, in accordance with its own logic, could quite simply never have been “new.” This obscure “locating” of the origin of “life in general” is both odd and paradoxical, an oddness that only increases in that, while Derrida refuses to engage with some of the more radical implications of his own thought, these same implications are nonetheless perfectly consistent with contemporary interpretations provided by both neo-Darwinists and synthetic biologists as to how nonlife “invents” life and how the inorganic “creates” the organic. Moreover, what in their turn all these latter interpretations lack is precisely that which deconstruction provides, and which renders eliminative materialism impossible.

Beginning with a very simple example of the “ancestral,” long before bacteria first “appeared” there existed on Earth large, relatively simple crystals, described by neo-Darwinist Daniel Dennett as virus-like beings who or which, while lacking a host, are nonetheless capable of self-replication. These ancient crystals thus depend on repetition for their very survival, that is, upon an ongoing reiteration that, if successful, brings about accelerating feedback loops and, if not, results in their decomposition.

In order to understand this notion of accelerating feedback loops, it remains to briefly introduce DeLanda’s notion of nonlinearity.While Derrida insists that without life there can be neither affect nor event,[viii] DeLanda argues that affect and event are part of the space of the structure of possibilities of every entity. The being of a given entity, he argues, can never be separated from its future possibilities, and thus must be considered in terms of its properties, capacities, and tendencies. Taking “knife” as an example, its properties – such as sharpness and solidity – exist independently of its relation with other entities. Capacities, meanwhile, consist of an entity’s potential affect, the knife, for example, has the capacity to cut, a capacity that is always double insofar as it requires a relation, that is, requires other entities capable of being affected in their turn. Thus, a knife’s capacity “to cut” is always the mark of a relation: to-cut – to-be-cut. Moreover, capacities are potentially infinite insofar as they depend on affective combinations with other entities, combinations that are theoretically without limit. Finally, every entity possesses certain tendencies understood as possible states of stability toward which it tends. Hence, while our knife tends to be solid, given different conditions it could equally tend to be liquid or even gaseous, with every such transition being actualized as an event.

As such, potential affective combinations characterize the being of every entity – an affectivity that ensures the nonlinearity of history understood in its broadest sense. For DeLanda, innovation, and thus nonlinearity, occurs in any system “in which there are strong mutual interactions (or feedback) between components.”[ix] Moreover, when it comes to the nonlinear, it is entirely irrelevant whether the system in question is composed of molecules or of living creatures or refers to “pre-cellular” or “post-cellular” evolution, since both “will exhibit endogenously generated stable states, as well as sharp transitions between states, as long as there is feedback and an intense flow of energy coursing through the system.”[x] Dynamic, nonlinear phenomena thus fracture Darwin’s original strictly linear conception of evolution, presupposing instead only what DeLanda terms “gradients of fitness,” wherein a gradient functions only so long as there are differences of fitness to fuel a selection process favoring the replication of one kind over another.[xi] Gradients, once again, apply as much to “molecular replicators and their different capacities to produce copies of themselves” as they do to “the differential reproductive success of embodied organisms.”[xii]

Important here is the fact that both nonlinearity and neo-Darwinism presuppose with every replication the structural logic of iterability and, as such, the movement of the trace. For Derrida, we recall, iterability is the very possibility of repetition, while simultaneously determining that every reproduction is necessarily subject to variation or mutation – what Derrida calls dissemination or “destinerrance.” It is right here that deconstruction must shed its “late-stage vitalism” in order to reconstitute itself as a fully materialist practice. Indeed, Derrida is in full agreement with DeLanda as to the importance of history in this respect, describing iterability as “historical through and through” insofar as it allows both contextual elements of great stability and the possibility of transformation, which is to say history, for better or for worse.”[xiii]

Once one understands that the trace functions whether there is life or not, a suitably revised notion of iterability thus has the potential to radically transform the practice of deconstruction. Not the least of which concerns the impact that a deconstruction of the living-nonliving division would have on a number of related pairings, namely, animal-human, instinct-intelligence, and reaction-response.

However, simply to extend the trace in this way by no means guarantees a productive mutation, as we can see with Hägglund’s “radical atheism.” Regardless of how important his critique of Derrida undoubtedly is, its radical potential is quickly muffled insofar as Hägglund almost immediately reinstates what is perhaps the most traditional of all metaphysical oppositions. Arguing for a continuity between living and nonliving beings in terms of the trace,[xiv] Hägglund begins by proposing survival as the condition of every finite entity who or which endures in timespace. Survival is, in short, synonymous with being. All well and good, except that Hägglund immediately follows this with a rhetorical question: “What difference is at stake, then,” he asks, “in the difference between the living and the nonliving?”[xv] His answer is simple: while nonliving beings like Meillassoux’s radioactive isotope survive insofar as they endure and disintegrate over time, they are nonetheless “not alive” because they are “indifferent” to their own survival.[xvi] For Hägglund, then, to be alive is to be concerned with one’s ongoing survival. However, such an ontologically definitive “concern” would seem to imply, at the very least, some minimal form of consciousness or degree of intentionality. As such, a host of beings once again join the (very long) queue for judgment: are ants concerned with survival? Are microbes or extremophiles? What of antibodies? Artificial Intelligence? What of viruses? Indeed, what of urine? Is urine a “living” or a “nonliving” material? Is it, in other words, concerned or unconcerned about survival?[xvii]

By once again defining the living over and against the nonliving, Hägglund not only neutralizes his crucial point concerning the trace, but also in fact reintroduces the well-worn metaphysical opposition between the mindful (i.e. concerned with survival) and the mindless (and thus unconcerned about anything). For Hägglund, only the living constitute an open and closed system, but with no explanation as to why entities deemed nonliving do not also constitute an open-closed system that is in some sense concerned with survival understood as enduring. Indeed, as Derrida himself writes, the iterability of the trace ensures that nothing can remain absolutely stable. No system, in other words, can be absolutely closed, as this would imply full presence.[xviii] It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the most radical deconstruction of the limits imposed upon life by Derrida should itself end up reiterating a metaphysical distinction between response and reaction.

Until we insist on including everything that endures as subject to the logical structure of the trace, we find ourselves not on Crusoe’s island, but on Derrida’s,[xix] with access to the latter depending upon the apparently simple criterion of suffering which Derrida, following Bentham, argues should stand as the foundation of a newly inclusive ethics. As such, any claim for citizenship would seem to depend upon the possession or otherwise of a central nervous system at least comparable to that of the human.

To limit the world to the human, writes Derrida, is to forever remain with Crusoe, helpless but to interpret everything “in proportion to the insularity of his interest or his need.”[xx] Such limits placed upon the world, he continues, are “the very thing that one must try to cross in order to think.”[xxi] To follow Derrida then, means trying to cross the very limits that Derrida imposes upon the world, insofar as such limits once more make over the world as an island. In this sense, Derrida’s island is poor-in-world indeed and, it would seem, incapable of supporting either an ethics or a politics insofar as Derrida himself maintains that any “principle of ethics or more radically of justice … is perhaps the obligation that engages my responsibility with respect to the most dissimilar, the entirely other, precisely, the monstrously other, the unrecognizable other.”[xxii]

At issue here is not the living and the nonliving, but rather the necessary consequences of the trace as the unity of protention and retention – one such consequence being that the living-nonliving opposition must be broken down, and a differential relation installed in its place. Tables as much as tigers become living-nonliving entities insofar as the coherence and persistence of both depend upon matter, energy and differential gradients. In other words, if “life” consists of varying combinations of forces, then a table is alive: stabile yet finite and subject to abrupt phase transitions as a result of its being subject to the logic of the trace. Similarly, if a single RNA microbe is not qualified as “living,” then neither is a tiger, whose finite existence too is composed of stable combinations of forces whilst remaining subject to critical phase transitions.

None of this, however, implies some variant of vitalism or even animism. Nonetheless, only by engaging with the issues of vitalism and determinism in relation to an expanded notion of the trace does it become possible to conceive of a “mechanistic materialism” that in no way presupposes a reductionist view of life. And, once again, it is Derrida who provides the necessary theoretical tool with his notion of spectrality.

According to Derrida, the trace is entrusted to a survival wherein the opposition of the living and the dead loses and must lose all pertinence[xxiii] – to the domain, in short, of the specter. It is this trace-as-specter, as a surviving for whom life or nonlife is neither here nor there, which ensures that deconstruction can never be reduced to an eliminative materialism for the simple reason that, in Derrida’s words, “I don’t know” is “the very modality of the experience of the spectral, and of the surviving trace in general.”[xxiv]

Following our argument here, the spectral modality of “I don’t know” must therefore be extended to all entities. As a consequence of the structure of the trace, in other words, the spectral modality of “I don’t know” presupposes a position between the two extremes of eliminative materialism on the one side, and complete indeterminism in which causality and historicity play no role on the other – what DeLanda calls an “intermediate determinism.”[xxv]

Here, then, is a materialism that nonetheless has “I don’t know” as its way of being, a modality that, instead of reducing life to clockwork cause and effect, instead ensures the emergence of a nonlinear history in which every existent is subject to abrupt phase transitions at critical points, and without a transcendental factor in sight. At last, then, we humans can and must take our place within worlds that are fully-populated, worlds within which Martian hyperthermophiles and the image they evoke find their rightful place alongside the eon-long compression of volcanic rock and the blinding flash of lightning – such placings and spacings that, for as long as they endure, take place in accordance with the nonlinear modality of “I don’t know.”




[i] Derrida “Différance” (above, n. vii), p. 13.

[ii] Derrida, The Animal (above, n. i), p. 45.

[iii] Derrida, The Animal (above, n. i), p. 45.

[iv]Manuel DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum,”TechnoMorphica 1998, no pagination, available at: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/manuel-de-landa/articles/the-machinic-phylum/

[v]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p.119.

[vi]Derrida Of Grammatology(above, n. v), pp. 84-85.

[vii] DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum” (above, n. iv).

[viii] Jacques Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign Volume 2 trans. Geoffrey Benning­ton (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 149 (emphasis added).

[ix]Manuel DeLanda A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Swerve Editions, 1997),p. 14.

[x]DeLanda A Thousand Years(above, n. xxix), p. 14.

[xi] Manuel DeLanda Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason (London & New York: Continuum, 2011), p. 48.

[xii] DeLanda Philosophy and Simulation(above, n. xxxii), p. 48.

[xiii]Jacques Derrida “‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida” trans. Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby in Acts of Lit­erature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York & London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 33-75 (pp. 63-4).

[xiv]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123(emphasis added).

[xv]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123.

[xvi]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123 (emphasis in original).

[xvii] Urea was in fact the first “organic” compound to be synthesized from an “inorganic” substance (ammonium cyanate), way back in 1828.

[xviii] Jacques Derrida “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject” trans. Peter Connor & Avital Ronell in Points … Interviews 1974 – 1994 (Stanford: Stanford Uni­versity Press, 1995), pp. 255-287 (p. 270).

[xix] For Derrida’s discussion of Robinson Crusoe, in which Crusoe’s island isolation serves as a particularly fertile figure of human exceptionalism, see The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), passim.

[xx] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 199.

[xxi] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 198 (emphasis in original).

[xxii] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign Volume 1trans. Geoffrey Benning­ton (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 108.

[xxiii] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 130.

[xxiv] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 137.

[xxv] DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum” (above, n. iv).



Plato Between the Teeth of the Beast: full text of LSE public lecture

Plato between the Teeth of the Beast: Animals and Democracy in Tomorrow’s Europe


(This is the full text of a public lecture given at the LSE in February 2014; it offers an extended consideration of the issues explored in my earlier post ‘Cannibals and Apes: Revolution in the Republic’)



The question I would like to consider today concerns the relation between nonhuman animals and the constitution of a democratic community, with “democracy” understood both as an ideal theoretical concept and as an ongoing social practice. Traditionally, both philosophy and politics have tended to exclude other animals, deeming them irrelevant to what are claimed to be entirely human affairs. Over the past few decades, however, philosophers have increasingly challenged this assumption, beginning with Peter Singer and Tom Regan in the 70s and 80s, and then, from within the Continental tradition, by Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Andrew Benjamin, and David Wood, to name just a few.

It is with this in mind that I have chosen as the subject for this talk a passage from Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, which I will read in full in a moment. While the reasons for choosing such an ancient text may not appear immediately evident, not to mention the fact that Plato was particularly scathing in his dislike of democracy, this passage is nonetheless key to understanding the possible role of other animals to a transformed notion of democracy. Moreover, it will soon become clear just to what extent we are already living within Plato’s supposedly ideal polis, be that as either citizens or labourers. As such, this will force us to re-consider a basic question of our existence, that is, whether – in fact – we live in a democracy at all.

First of all, however, we must consider the traditional use of “republic” to translate the title of Plato’s dialogue. Plato’s original term is “politeia,” which is better understood as “constitution” or “government.” Plato’s dialogue, in other words, is concerned with the various possible ways of governing, that is, with various constitutions or constituencies. To this end, Plato, in addition to his own ideal aristocratic form (glossed by Plato as “government of the best” and which I will continue to call the Republic for the sake of simplicity), examines four other forms of governing: timocracy (government of honour or government by the warrior class), oligarchy (government by the rich), democracy, and, finally, tyranny. Importantly, all these five constitutions are said to take place on a continuum, that is, while the aristocratic Republic is the best possible government, it is also the case that timocracy “arises out of” aristocracy. Similarly, oligarchy, while completely different and “teeming with evils,” nonetheless “naturally follows” from timocracy, just as democracy too arises from oligarchy and, lastly, tyranny – “the worst disorder of the State” – leads on from democracy. In short, Plato begins with the best and ends with the worst, noting that each form of government arises out of the previous one and permitting any number of intermediate forms along the way. Regarding the transition from democracy to tyranny, however, Plato is emphatic: democracy inevitably leads to tyranny. The future of every democracy, in other words, is always that of the most extreme nonfreedom, a future of abject slavery labouring under a tyrannical dictatorship. Given this slippery slope from best to worst, we can also understand why Plato spends as much time on the question of how his ideal Republic might be conserved once it takes power, as he does outlining its specific constitution.

Here, I will consider Plato’s critique of democracy on the one hand and, on the other, his proposed techniques for conserving power on behalf of the aristocratic “best.” This in turn will allow us to address the following series of questions:

1. How might we understand the claim that the inclusion of other animals is in fact a prior condition of any fully democratic community?

2. What is the relation between nonhuman animals, today’s ever-expanding proletariat-precariat, and the founding of a truly democratic constitution in terms of (a) control understood as force-feeding and (b) freedom understood as shared nourishment?

3. What are we to make of the renewed concern with other animals in which concern is based neither on animal rights nor on neo-Kantian notions of pity or compassion? Can a “post-humanist” notion of co-constitutive entanglement nourish a democratic idea or ideal of the communal?

4. If so, what might this mean for our democratic, economic, and ethical relations with other human beings in the era of neoliberalism and beyond?

Plato argues that nonhuman animals share with humans a special relation to democracy. All animals, he writes, possess an “instinct” or an “urge” for freedom that is synonymous with an “instinct” or “urge” for democracy. Moreover, the repression of this urge from the social body is of the utmost importance for Plato, who fears above all else that an increased sensitivity towards just this shared possession inevitably risks igniting a revolution that will ultimately overthrow his ideal aristocracy. Clearly, then, the role of animals within democracy is far from that of mute, passive endurance. Instead, Plato acknowledges a revolutionary relation between the freedom of nonhuman animals, the uprising of the working classes, and the founding upon the ruins of oligarchy of a democratic city always plagued by the double threat of anarchy and tyranny.

Plato goes on to argue that humanity must, and for political rather than economic reasons, harden its heart to the ongoing exploitation and suffering of “other animals” (this latter forming a group that, in times of crisis, includes all those forced to exchange the labour of their bodies in order to survive). By contrast, I suggest that a rigorous understanding of democracy requires that we pay heed to this dangerous “instinct” for freedom revealed in the first instance by the intimacy of our animal relationships. Only then do we begin to gain a sense of an explicitly democratic inter- and intra-relation of human and nonhuman beings.


This will lead us to consider the role played by the mouth in the constitution of bothPlato’s Republic and the democratic city, as well as the institutional role of the Platonic “Guardians” put in place to protect and conserve what turns out to be perhaps the most cynical of oligarchies by ensuring the closed mouth of the worker, a corporeal suppression that philosopher Georges Bataille describes as “the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude.” By contrast, only the wide open mouths of human and nonhuman animals alike permit the potential articulation of a fully democratic socius. Unwittingly no doubt, what Plato’s discourse on the ideal Republic lets slip is that sensitivity to the freedom of other animals is an essential first step in the constitution of a truly free society. Such is the sensitivity for shared nourishment, for eating well. Animal others, then, become fundamental to any understanding of community. Such a sensitivity forces the formerly closed mouth wide open, preparing to devour any social pact founded upon gross inequality, slavery and injustice.



Animals in democracy

Here is the passage from Book VIII of the Republic, which finds Socrates talking with Adeimantus. I will for the most part skip over Adeimantus’s replies insofar as they simply accede to the points expressed by Socrates:

Democratic freedom, says Socrates, makes its way into private households and in the end breeds anarchy even among the animals.

What do you mean? asks Adeimantus.

I mean that a father accustoms himself to behave like a child and fear his sons, while the son behaves like a father, feeling neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, in order to be free. A resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen, and he is their equal.

A teacher in such a community is afraid of his students and flatters them, while the students despise their teachers or tutors. And, in general, the young imitate their elders and compete with them in word and deed, while the old stoop to the level of the young and are full of play and pleasantry, imitating the young for fear of appearing disagreeable and authoritarian.

The utmost freedom for the majority is reached in such a [democratic] city when bought slaves, both male and female, are no less free than those who bought them. And I almost forgot to mention the extent of the legal equality of men and women and of the freedom in the relations between them.

At this point, Adeimantus asks Socrates about the animals such as are found in a democratic city.

No one, Socrates replies, who hasn’t experienced it would believe how much freer domestic animals are in a democratic city than anywhere else. As the proverb says, dogs become like their mistresses; horses and donkeys are accustomed to roam freely and proudly along the streets, bumping into anyone who doesn’t get out of their way; and all the rest are equally full of freedom.

To sum up: Do you notice how all these things together make the citizens’ soul so sensitive that, if anyone even puts upon himself the least degree of slavery, they become angry and cannot endure it. And in the end, as you know, they take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all.

This, then, is the fine and impetuous origin from which tyranny seems to me to evolve.

The same disease that developed in oligarchy and destroyed it also develops here, but it is more widespread and virulent because of the general permissiveness, and it eventually enslaves democracy. In fact, excessive action in one direction usually sets up a reaction in the opposite direction. This happens in seasons, in plants, in bodies, and, last but not least, in constitutions.

Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city.

Then I don’t suppose that tyranny evolves from any constitution other than democracy—the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom.


For Plato, then, democracy inevitably results in tyranny because the democratic citizen becomes so sensitized to anything even remotely resembling control or coercion that ultimately he refuses to abide by any and all laws, including those he imposes upon himself. Anarchy thus displaces democracy, leaving the way open for the tyrant to seize power and thereafter inflict upon the democratic citizen the most cruel and severe constraints. It is, suggests Plato, simple social physics: every action having an equal and opposite reaction.

As a result, a key concern in the formulation of Plato’s ideal constitution consists of its ability or otherwise to ensure that any hint of democracy is immediately stamped out, lest it fall victim to that hateful slide towards the “worst.” Thus, the rulers of the Republic must be permanently on the lookout for signs and symptoms that point to the emergence of anything even resembling a democratic sensitivity. Most telling and most dangerous in this regard, insists Plato, is sensitivity towards the enslavement and exploitation of other animals. Indeed, democracy and domestic animals would seem to arrive together, the latter only becoming visible, that is, recognized as material entities capable of willed physical encounters, when allowed the freedom of the democratic city. By contrast, Plato’s animals are invisible labourers employed in tasks that – while tedious, unpleasant and “lowering” – are nonetheless necessary to the conservation of the Republic and thus to preserve the benefits it allows for the privileged “free” – this latter synonymous for Plato with the “best.”

Animal freedom, therefore, is both a symptom of an emerging democratic “sensitization” within non-democratic constitutions, and a sign of the impending arrival of tyranny within democratic societies.

Plato also points out a clear link between the democratic freedoms of animals and those of slaves, women, and workers.Animal; slave; worker: put simply, these are the three – ideally invisible – groups that together constitute what is necessary for the Republic to function as the ideal dwelling of the best. Moreover, the boundaries between these three groups are extremely porous. Women, for example, belong to all three groups at different times and, during times of crisis spurred by the democratic urge for freedom, the three groups merge together, becoming an undifferentiated horde of wild animals – wildness being, for Plato, synonymous with the absence of justice.

Hence, essential to the conservation of the Republic, that is to say, as a technique to prevent such crises, is a continued “insensitivity” and thus “invisibility” towards all those who provide the labour necessary for its continuance. As such, and as an explicitly political imperative, Plato expressly maintains that the souls of men must therefore be hardened in its relationships with nonhuman animals, a hardening achieved by propagating callous indifference to their daily enslavement and exploitation. We can still witness this imperative functioning today with the continued mainstream dismissal of animal concern as something irrational and sentimental – terms all too often mere synonyms for womanly. Without this calculated insensitivity towards other animals, insists Plato, the masses will inevitably become sensitised to the democratic notion of possible freedom for all. Democracy, in other words, right at its origin, necessarily includes freedom for other animals. Indeed, animal concern can be considered a democratic imperative.

Crucial, then, for the survival of Plato’s Republic – and we will hear soon whether this Republic is in truth an aristocracy, a meritocracy, or rather something much closer to a human zoo – is some foolproof method that somehow ensures that the “necessary” 99% continue to invisibly serve and service the privileged 1%. To this end, Plato introduces into his polis the Guardian of the Law, a spectral being whom from birth and even before the 99% is forcibly given to swallow, coerced into accepting its body within their own – often to the point of being unable to distinguish between them. The role of the Guardian, moreover, is not to protect the general population; nor is its role even to control the Republic’s human inhabitants. Instead, the Guardian is expressly installed to tame animal behaviour, an installation that goes by way of the mouth. Along the way, Plato introduces into his Republic two entirely new beings: first, the worker-ape and, second, a psychoanalyst to ensure his continuing social fitness.



In another dialogue, Plato argues that the purpose of what he calls the human mouth’s “current arrangement” is to serve as “the entry passage for what is necessary, and as the exit for what is best.” Necessary in this respect refers to the nourishment required by the body in order to function – the intake of oxygen, food, and water, basically. Exiting from the body, the “best,” meanwhile,refers to what Plato describes as the “stream of speech that flows out through the mouth, that instrument of intelligence, [which] is the fairest and best of all streams.” Necessary material nourishment thus enters through the mouth, whereas the best exits the mouth in the form of spoken language. Key, here, is Plato’s description of the mouth in conjunction with language as an instrument of intelligence. It is, in other words, an instrument, a tool, to be employed in the constitution of what is intelligible.

The mouth, of course, does not have to function in this fashion – if it did, there would be no need for Plato to insist that it do so. Instead of a stream of speech exiting from the mouth, for example, we might experience instead a stream of vomit. Vomiting, often a necessary purging of the body, thus consists of a reversal of the mouth’s “proper” employment, an impropriety or a corruption as far as Plato is concerned.

At its most basic, then, a reversal ofthe directionsof what is necessary and what is best would represent the total corruption of the mouth’s proper purpose. What form of government might we find, then, in which the best enters through the mouth and the necessary exits? Plato’s answer, of course, is democracy, a world turned upside down insofar as, as we shall hear, in a democracy it is rather the necessary – that is, the body of that chimerical beast of worker-slave-animal – which enslaves the best, that is, the language of the masters. What is clear, however, is that the mouth, be it in the Republic or in the democratic city, is the instrument of enslavement. Plato’s claim, however, is that the rulers of the Republic enslave the necessary workers, slaves, and animals to a lesser degree than the free worker-ape enslaves the best under democracy.

As we have heard, for Plato, democracy, the urge or instinct for freedom, and the arrival of tyranny, are inseparable. Together they consist of a disease of the mouth, a disease which enslaves the very best instruments of Plato’s Republic.

The workers, the slaves, the animals, says Plato, are fit only to perform those invisible tasks necessary to the ongoing smooth running of the polis and, as such, are fit only to feed the body, that is, to materially consume. Those readers of Karl Marx will no doubt recognize this description only too well. The necessary 99% being fit only to exchange labour power for the means to subsist and thus be able to turn up for work the following day. The aristocratic 1%, meanwhile, are fit only for the task of the best, that is, fit only to reason and to teach, and who must not be distracted by the necessity of actually having to work for a living. Just in case we missed it, Plato spells it out for us: the “leonine spirit” that is the mark of the best is lacking in the labourer because the latter is forced to attend to the necessary appetites of his beastly body, becoming accustomed “from youth on to being insulted for the sake of the money” – the money needed to satisfy those appetites.

Diseases of the mouth are thus better understood as aberrations of consumption, that is, the result of not consuming “properly” according not to the dictates of the State but rather, as we shall discover, according to the dictates of the market. At the extremes of Plato’s Republic, then, we find at one pole the elite 1%, made up of esteemed, “purely” ascetic citizens such as Socrates and Plato who have eliminated entirely the desires of the body and whose mouth, unsullied by its necessities, thus serves purely as an exit for the best. At the other end of the spectrum, separated by all those whose bodily desires are weaker or stronger, are located those who have utterly abandoned themselves to the desires of the body, the mouth having become solely an orifice of immoderate entry. Standing at this latter pole, says Plato, we behold an odd, almost Kafkaesque creature – a hybrid that is instinctively despised by the good citizens of the Republic. This creature, declares Plato, is the worker-ape: why else, he asks, “is the condition of a manual worker so despised? Is it for any other reason than that, when the best part is naturally weak in someone, it can’t rule the beasts within him but can only serve them?” As we heard a moment ago, those who are compelled from youth onwards to undergo the insult of having to labour for money necessarily lose their lion-like spirit. Now, Plato makes the link explicit: it is the insultof having to labour for money that transforms the labourer into an ape instead of a lion, and it is precisely because of this transformation that the labourer is a being to be “despised” by the best.

This notion of a Platonic labour exchange shifts the would-be aristocratic hierarchy of the polis dramatically. Now the line is not between those whose natural disposition of the mouth is that of an exit for the best and those whose natural inclination is to abandon themselves to every shameless act of the body, but rather between those who need not concern themselves with the necessary satisfactions of the body, and those that must work to survive. The independently wealthy, therefore, are akin to private zookeepers, putting their ape colony to work in order to ensure their own leisurely comfort.

In the freedom to seek satisfaction for bodily desires, marked by the open, all-consuming entrance of the mouth, Plato thus equates the democratic urge with the “despised” character of the manual worker. Plato is, moreover, absolutely terrified by this chimaeric spectre he evokes – the very personification of a world turned upside down, the world of a revolution in which all that is good is stood on its head. The worker-ape, half-man half-beast, appears as the frightful figure of the masses. The personification, in short, of democracy.

Here, then, can we still claim with any certainty that we are, in fact, citizens of a democracy? Or are we rather part of the heart-hardened masses whose labour ensures an idyllic, republican existence for the lucky few?

As we know, tyranny for Plato is the consequence of democracy, in what is an unequivocal sequence of cause and effect. Moreover, democracy-tyranny is the perfect inversion of the perfect Republic, and is thus the natural – absolute, perfect – opposition of the incumbent government.This carefully constructed ideology of a monstrous democracy and of the democratic monster – and it is an ideology, nothing more, as Plato himself would probably agree – thus automatically casts the Government in the role of Guardian against tyranny, always on the lookout for even the merest stirrings of freedom, protecting its citizens from an insidious enemy that is all around us. The masked democrat, with her irrational empathy for other living creatures, could be anywhere – your neighbour, your teacher, your paperboy or -girl – ready to explode with her terrifying bodily desire for freedom. While apparently based upon sound philosophical logic and precise scientific method, this construction – the framework of which will no doubt be familiar to you all – is in fact a narrative of almost infinite self-legitimation. The agents of government must thus be permanently on the lookout for the emergence of democratic practices, constantly scanning the polis for signs and symptoms marking the origins of democracy. Most important for Plato, then, if this dangerous notion of democratic freedom is to be stamped out at its very source, is not to keep an eye on the attitude of the 99% towards the 1%, but rather to keep close tabs on the way in which the ordinary man or woman in the street engages with other animals, that is, how she shares her life. At the very grassroots of democracy, in other words, Plato locates an instinctual freedom of which each and every animal possesses an equal share.



There still remains for Plato the question of how, exactly, to repress this democratic urge or instinct from within the boundaries of the Republic. While the 1% is said to naturally exist within the moderating light of reason, the 99%, by contrast, are necessarily unreasonable beings inasmuch as they remain too strongly bound to their bodily desires – some of which, aligned with “unnecessary pleasures,” are considered by Plato to be “lawless” and that together make up, of course, the desire for democracy which, given its ultimate refusal of all laws, is indistinguishable from anarchy.

Even within the ideal Republic, however, Plato acknowledges that lawless desires – desires which are at once the desire for lawlessness – cannot be entirely suppressed, no matter how effective the Guardians turn out to be. Where, then, might such terrible, terrifying desires emerge? Nowhere other than in our dreams. Only then, says Plato, might the soul be caught napping, a nap the potential consequences of which are truly horrifying.

Fired up by its lawless dreams of freedom, of revolution, the body wakes abruptly to discover itself entirely under the sway of its “beastly and savage part,” casting off sleep and concerned only with finding “a way to gratify itself.” At such times, insists Plato – and here I quote directly from Book IX of the Republic – “there is nothing it won’t dare to do …, free of all control by shame or reason. It doesn’t shrink from trying to have sex with a mother, as it supposes, or with anyone else at all, whether man, god, or beast. It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness.” Hence, despite even the worker-ape’s own best intentions, beastly and savage libidinal desires will attack him when his defences are down. As such, one can never count on any of the 99% to remain within the Law, as the entire existence of the masses is marked, at the level of their very being, as prone to periodic explosions of terrifying democratic violence at any moment.

Interestingly, during this description of a mouth abruptly set free of all reasonable control, the male worker-ape abruptly ceases being a gendered being, the grammar of the passage shifting from a “he” to an “it.” It is a shift which offers itself to a specifically psychoanalytic reading, especially in the context of Plato’s remarks about repressed anti-social desires emerging through dreams. Sigmund Freud, as is well known, divides the psyche into three separate domains, the ego (which could be roughly described as “everyday consciousness”), the Super-ego or Ego-Ideal (as the authoritarian voice of social conscience), and finally the id (which consists of the seething mass of unconscious desires). In Freud’s original German, the Ego is the “I” (das Ich), and the “id” is “das Es,” that is, the “it.” Plato’s grammatical shift could thus be said mark the shift from the ego to the id, from the “I” to the “It”: the rampaging worker thus becomes a rampaging it, a seething mass of hitherto repressed desire. Moreover, reduced thus to an “it,” the worker-ape is rendered both inhuman and animal, that is, he has being dehumanised and animalised by Plato’s narrative. Simultaneously, the dominance of the mouth as entrance becomes absolute: every desirous act is mistakenly considered as “food” for the body: incest, bestiality, sex with gods; patricide, matricide, infanticide, regicide; cannibalism – no act, as Plato makes clear, can be omitted.

While the notion of a specifically psychoanalytic reading of Plato’s Republic will probablysound somewhat anachronistic, in fact in various places throughout the many dialogues Plato himself outlines something very close to a “new science” of psychoanalysis, with specific focus on the discipline of dream interpretation. In the Timaeus, for example, Plato suggeststhe need for external interpreters to pass judgement on the divinatory quality of dreams. Such judges, who are thus “expositors of utterances or visions communicated through riddles, must analyse any and all visions … to determine how and for whom they signify some future, past or present good or evil.” We should perhaps not be surprised, however, to discover that Plato ultimately proposes an inverted or reverse Freudianism.

Returning to the slumbering labourer within the Republic, we know her dreams are the province par excellence of the lawless desires of worker-apes. According to Plato, then, the dreams of the worker have the potential to reveal the future, a future both lawless and desired. Such, in short, are the dreams of revolution. Given the stakes, it comes as no surprise, then, that Plato wants exactly these dreams to be interpreted by “competent judges” – just one of the techniques Plato installs to protect the 1% from the desires of the remaining 99%. Techniques, moreover, which are explicitly psychoanalytic in practice.

As we know, the mouth remains central to the techniques of control. In this, the mouth is for Plato a pharmakon, that is, something that can serve as both remedy and poison at the same time. Hence, he argues, for all those apes in whom law and reason are either weak or absent, the danger of the animal mouth which poisons the Republic with its urge for freedom must be “cured” by the mouth as pure exit. The language of the rulers, in other words, must somehow function to place within the body of the worker “something similar to what rules the best.” Put simply, Plato suggests that, through the forced imposition of the language of reason andlaw, an external Guardian can therefore be installed directly within the worker – a highly-efficient Super-Ego expressly conceived so as to make of the latter an amenable slave.

Even more importantly, it is an enslaving of which the worker-ape knows nothing: “It is better for everyone,” Plato writes, “to be ruled by divine reason, preferably within himself and his own, otherwise imposed from without, so that as far as possible all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing.” This, he continues, “is clearly the aim of the law, which is the ally of everyone. But it’s also our aim in ruling our children, we don’t allow them to be free until we establish a constitution in them, just as in a city, and—by fostering their best part with their own—equip them with a guardian and ruler similar to our own to take our place. Then, and only then, we set them free.” Given this explicit programme of taming – Plato’s word – one can only assume that, in contrast to its visceral democratic counterpart, Plato here uses the notion of “freedom” somewhat ironically.

Despite the installation of the Guardian within her own body, it is essential that the worker remain ignorant as to the existence of this intimate instrument of control. In order to understand this mechanism for taming the urge for freedom, we need to take on board two more important technical concepts from psychoanalysis: introjection and incorporation. While the roles and even the meanings of these terms varies significantly depending on which analyst one consults, most will nonetheless agree that they refer to specific ways of interacting with, indeed, of coming to terms with, the entities that are all around us. At its simplest, introjection and incorporation are the different ways in which the psyche takes something of the external world within itself and, in so doing, nourishes itself.

As the psychoanalyst Maria Torok makes clear, introjection always involves growth, a broadening of the ego by way of the mouth in which the external is assimilated with the internal, a process through which both beings, the internal and the external, are positively transformed along the way. Such an open, enhancing technique of engagement serves no purpose in the polis of Plato’s Republic. Indeed, in order for the Platonic Guardian of the Law to function, it cannot be introjected by the worker-ape, that is, it cannotbe worked-over by the worker, for the simple reason that the language of the rulers serves principally to conceal the desires of the workers from the workers themselves.

Instead, then, all those labourers necessary to the Republic must rather incorporate the Guardian of the Law. Incorporation, explains Torok, is “the first lie” and “the first instrument of deception” – a trick, in other words, which leads the ego to mistake its external enslavement for an introjection of its own making. As such, the incorporation of the Guardian overwrites the worker-ape’s inherent desire for freedom by splitting the ego of the worker-ape into subject and object, the Guardian having being forcibly consumed, devoured, and installed as an “other-in-me.” The instinct for equal freedoms is thus corralled by security guards within the animal body that is quite simply the imposition of language itself. The 99%, in short, are forced into articulating their existence through the language of the 1%.

All of this, insists Plato, is a matter of justice for everyone. The Republic is not tyrannical like a democracy, he says, but is rather a just city for all who dwell within its walls. However, in speaking of the labourer as someone to be despised simply because he or she has to suffer the insult of being forced to sell her labour in order to survive, Plato ultimately gives himself away. It is this very insult – the insult we know today as the ever-increasing exploitation that is the very raison d’être of global capitalism’s pursuit of surplus value – this very insult which necessarily shelters the dreams of revolution, that is to say, the dreams of democracy shared by every animal, human and nonhuman, who are exploited for their labour. This, in short, is Plato’s great fear, the great fear that is the secret motor of his – and of our – Republic. Plato thus speaks not from a position of justice for everyone, but rather seeks to impose upon the poor the rules of the rich. We must, he insists, be governed by the same Law – the Law that money is power. The Guardian incorporated within the body of the worker is, in simplest terms, an explicitly normalising discourse designed at the outset to protect the wealthy from the dreams and desires of those forced to live hand-to-mouth.

In this context, it is instructive to read the EU Directive appended to the extract from the Republic accompanying this talk. Attitudes towards animal concern, the directive acknowledges, vary from nation to nation throughout the European Union and, while the EU will set the minimum level this concern may take, it will nonetheless allow for a certain flexibility should a given nation wishes to insist on a greater care be taken of their nonhuman inhabitants. There is, however, an extremely important coda: any insistence on better care being taken must “not affect the functioning of the internal market.” Here, we find a clear example of the “language of the masters” serving to ensure that concerned relations with other animals are not allowed to interfere with the market. At the same time, it exemplifies too the ongoing depoliticisation of the sovereign nation, with the EU ensuring that national governments can blithely claim irresponsibility while the market ensures on its part that we continue to harden our hearts to the exploitation of our animal kin, or at least ensure that their horrifying labours remain invisible.

Meanwhile, in our respective Republics, ancient and modern, not a single worker-ape may be permitted to escape this normalising operation. To allow even one worker to articulate the unlawful desires of the masses could be catastrophic. To this end, incorporation in the psychoanalytic sense is in fact the only possible remedy, insofar as only incorporation forecloses even the possibility of articulation: the words of desire, of revolution, the articulation of the insult, literally cannot be voiced due to the presence of the incorporated Guardian. For Plato then, to “eat well” is cannibalistic through and through: in being prohibited from consummating the lawless democratic urge, the worker-ape must be forced to consume an effigy of the rich, to incorporate an external Guardian in a process of auto-cannibalism through which the worker ultimately consumes himself, burying his dreams and his desires deep within himself. Only in this way is the insult prevented from erupting into an instinct for freedom, into a revolutionary consciousness – the “cure” of incorporation being, according to Torok, precisely that which protects against the “painful process” of reorganisation, of introjection, of growth and transformation. Incorporation, she adds, implies a loss that occurred before the desires concerning the object might have been freed, whilst the very fact of having had a loss is simultaneously denied. This, writes Torok, “is an eminently illegal act,” creating or reinforcing “imaginal ties and hence dependency.”

Things, however, don’t end here. The incorporated object – here the Guardian of the law – installed in place of, and to guard against, the desires quelled by repression inevitably recall that something else was lost – the incorporated object itself helplessly marks and commemorates the site of repression. Moreover, and here Torok and Plato are in agreement, these dangerous libidinal desires, while foreclosed in the light of day, nonetheless return in the dead of night, coming closest to the surface in dreams. The “ghost of the crypt,” writes Torok, “comes back to haunt the cemetary guard,” subjecting him to “unexpected sensations.” For Plato, in dreams the purity of the world of Ideas is lost, replaced by bastard configurations that retain the potential to betray those terrifyingly lawless desires. As a result, says Plato, the Republic must, in order to ensure the conservation of its status quo, remain ever vigilant to the slumbering desires of its worker-apes. To do this, he even goes so far as to suggest that every sign and symptom betrayed by the actual dreams of workers should be analysed as a preventative measure in a kind of inverse Freudianism.

If we read Plato with Torok, we discover that the site of repressed desires, commemorated by the Guardian itself, is typically signalled by way of a fantasy of ingestion such as imagined by Plato. While there may be no food that the rampaging worker-ape – consumed by a wild democratic urge – will not eat, this will never sate the actual and persistently active hunger for introjection. The offer of food, as Torok notes, is only ever an attempt to deceive, an attempt to fill – and thus close – the mouth of the labourer with something, anything, else. It is not this rampage of consumption that Plato fears might erupt within his Republic. Rather, such a rampage is both symptom and substitution of the hunger for introjection, a mark of the existential need for progressive libidinal nourishment.

In a sense then, Plato’s fear of the rapacious starving worker is certainly justified, constituted as it is by the very mechanism of incorporation meant to suppress it. In this crisis of the polis, the mouth of the worker – empty, open, teeth bare – calls out in vain to be filled with a language that permits introjection, that permits the articulation of what has been suppressed.

In conclusion, then, we are left with two related questions: first, how might one introject that which has been suppressed by incorporation? Still reading Plato with Torok, this would amount to an ongoing process of growth and transformation by which the entire social terrain would be reorganised according to the libidinal relations of freedom characteristic of a genuine democracy to-come. Second, insofar as this question of freedom for all concerns, at its very origin, a sensitivity to the enslaving and exploitation of other animals, might one not say that a sensitivity to the consumption of animals – understood as a cannibalistic consumption of flesh – is a principal condition of any authentic democracy-to-come, as Plato indeed fears?

Ultimately, we are brought back to the question of instinct. Plato understands the potential abandonment of the labourer to the democratic instinct as an abandoning of the human self to the animal realm. He, of course, can see in this abandonment of the properly human only an illness, a madness of the body that is both consequence and cause of the disease that is democracy, requiring the vigilance of a power simultaneously diagnostic and repressive. The Platonic Guardian, in short, ensures the closed mouth of the worker.

For us, however, things are perhaps different. Contrary to the entire Western humanist tradition, what we are tracing here is an unlikely and unruly privileging of instinct. Rather than excluding other animals, instinct here is essential to the revolutionary articulation of a fully democratic socius that necessarily includes other animals. Philosopher Georges Bataille gives us a sense of this when he writes of how “terror and atrocious suffering turn the mouth into the organ of rending screams. … the overwhelmed individual throws back his head while frenetically stretching his neck in such a way that the mouth becomes, as much as possible, an extension of the spinal column, in other words, in the position it normally occupies in the constitution of animals. As if explosive impulses were to spurt directly out of the body through the mouth, in the form of screams.”



Freud’s Key Concepts: Summary and History

Below is the introductory section of a Freud seminar I led as part of the MA Media Philosophy at Goldsmiths. It consists of a fairly short and concise outline of Freud’s key concepts, as well as a brief history of their corrections and re-workings throughout Freud’s oeuvre, and which I hope will prove helpful.



Difference of reception in Europe and Britain & America, continental/analytic; Freud-Nietzsche/Darwin; irony of neo-Darwinists ignoring Freud (& Nietzsche to lesser extent) insofar as both were attempting to think with Darwin, and Freud certainly never imagined they would be considered utterly incompatible, eg Richard Dawkins – although on its own merits sociobiology is now itself facing imminent extinction.

In UK & US, there is an (erroneous) sense of Freud as silly and sexually obsessed, in which everything is reducible to a phallic object, or at least a sexual symbol, and with all conscious thought patterns, normal and abnormal, asleep or awake, being disguised versions of sexual desire.

Despite this (the view being held, one assumes, only by those who have never actually read Freud), Freud permeates our thinking. The Freudian unconscious, for example, is now – paradoxically – self-evident, a simple fact beyond dispute for many who have not only never read Freud, but who also, and at the same time, disagree with him violently. So too, many people accept the notion of a psyche without question, while with equal ease dismissing that of the soul as absurd.

Vulgar Freudianism in Family Guy (blinded to omnipresent sexual drives (repression) which emerges everywhere through an unconscious genital symbolism: Washington monument; Senate; Pentagon), but also offers, as we will see, a more nuanced reading in relation to censorship-repression which substitutes the Ego Ideal for the FCC, repression marked by the trace of blackened areas, or the warning alarms of deafening air-horns, in particular those unconscious desires which, while not necessary sexual, are nonetheless forbidden expression by the given social order, best evidenced by Peter’s description of his favourite sexual act with Lois involving toothpaste, Episcopalians, parking-tickets, and whatever else.

One might also see such cartoons as a way to circumvent, and thus bring into consciousness, certain socially repressed expressions which, using “real” actors, that is, “real” flesh and blood bodies, could never be presented as such, as the montage taken from previous episodes demonstrates, not to mention human-canine sex and lovable old paedophiles.


To counter this vulgar nonreading, it is helpful to briefly explicate Freud’s core interventions, which involve the enlargement of everyday language into major interlinking theoretical concepts, which accords with a current widespread definition of philosophical invention. These driving concepts, all of which will probably be familiar, and which Freud constantly revises and changes throughout his life, are “unconscious,” “repression,” “sublimation,” “ego,” “drive, libido,” “pleasure principle,” “reality principle,” “life drive (Eros)” and “death drive (Thanatos)”. Finally, there is the “id,” and the “superego” or “ego Ideal.” First of all, however, one further thing is essential to an understanding of Freud. For Freud “sexuality” or the “sexual instinct” was explicitly, and from the first, enlarged far beyond its restriction to the “genital,” although even now this is a common error – basically anyone who suggests Freud is referring to sexual reproduction when he talks of the sex drive has not read any Freud. As Freud says, while sexual instincts became known through analysis of the drive towards sexual reproduction, psychoanalysis straight away was obliged to extend this ever more greatly. Sexual “drive” or “instinct, is quite simply that of an undetermined force or the push of an energetic charge, or cathexis, and which will later be subsumed first by the concept of the libido, and later by Eros. Notably, for Freud the drive is that which relates body and mind, functioning as translator between the somatic and the psychic. The drive, in short, is that which in Freud overcomes the traditional mind/body duality, with the bodily charge being re-presented as a psychic charge, and vice versa.

Along with this reworking of the instinct or drive, Freud described the notion of the “unconscious” (Ucs) as the “fundamental premise” of psychoanalysis; previously designating only that which is temporarily latent within consciousness (Cs) but available for recall at any time – what Freud will call the preconscious (Pcs) – Freud enlarges the concept of Ucs to designate that which is repressed from consciousness in a dynamic way. Hence, the psychical is no longer identical with consciousness, rather consciousness becomes only one quality of the psyche, and not necessarily even the most important one. This serves to exteriorise the liberal subject, to make the inside of the inside the outside – i.e., the decentring of the subject, an event Freud’s rates as of equal importance to Kant’s Copernican revolution (which displaced the conditions of experience from the object onto the subject), and the Darwinian revolution (which displaces the origin of existence away from that of a divine Creator).

So, the concept of the Ucs is obtained via the theory of “repression,” insofar as the repressed serves as the “prototype” of the Ucs. The repressed is that which seeks discharge but is blocked from reaching the Cs or Pcs stages, a blockage which can cause neurosis or psychosis and which psychoanalysis seeks to safely remove through techniques such as dream interpretation and free association. Such techniques are possible because, while the repressed is blocked, this is not to say that its effects are not felt. Refused to consciousness, they nonetheless become conscious only in derivative forms, that is, if they are sufficiently displaced from the repressed representative through either distortion or intervening links they can then slip through  the censorship of consciousness. For this reason, dream interpretation & free association attempts to locate these distortions and derivatives, the latter through an automatic – hence unconscious of a sort – process aiming to outwit the censor. From this the analyst can then reconstitute a conscious translation.

Such derivatives of unconscious drives are not only produced by the process of repression, however, only to be revealed when consciousness is somehow tricked or absent, but they also emerge into the consciousness as sublimated forms. Sublimation, says Freud, is a process that consists in unconscious desire substituting for itself an “acceptable” aim, such as the transformation of unconscious desires into works of art. In this way, sublimation is the counter of repression, insofar as the process of sublimation offers a way out, a way of discharging unconscious impulses into the consciousness without having to resort to repression with its possibility of neurosis. Further, it is this interplay of sublimation and repression which provides the links between disgust & shame (as marks of repression) on the one hand, and aesthetic ideas and morality (as sublimations), in what is itself a very Nietzschean interpretation, and which places that which is most abhorred in an intimate relation with the highest of ideals.

The notion of the Ego follows on from this idea of the dynamic Ucs, insofar as Freud argues that there must be a buffer between the external world and the urges of the Ucs, one which controls and organises the relation between the two. The ego, however, is by no means identical with consciousness, as this controlling relation must function constantly, even while we sleep. Hence, consciousness is merely one part of the ego. While this second tripartite division – after Ucs, Pcs & Cs – will itself lose its distinctiveness by the time of “the Ego and the Id,” it nonetheless serves Freud for quite some time, and in this can clearly be seen the beginnings of the idea of the Ego Ideal.

Later, as the notion of the sexual drive is expanded to become the great reservoir of the libido, this in turn results in a further division of the ego into the object-ego and the narcissistic-ego, depending on whether this libidinal energy, Freud’s cathexis, is directed outwards or inwards. The child, suggests Freud, is originally an entirely narcissistic animal, only later is some of that libidinal energy invested in the narcissistic directed outwards onto an external love object. This transfer of libido, says Freud, offers a definition of love: libido formerly saved for oneself is directed to another, this expenditure resulting in an impoverishment or reduction of the love for oneself (narcissistic ego), which in turn explains the over-valuation or idealisation of its object in comparison to the self. Or, in other words, love. A state which for Freud is thus close to neurotic compulsion, which is also defined as stemming from a lack of self-value.

Finally, before we reach Freud’s final position regarding the opposition of the life and death drives, of Eros and Thanatos, there are two more concepts that need to be taken into account, the pleasure principle and the reality principle.

The pleasure principle is in fact better understood as an unpleasure principle; for Freud, pleasure and unpleasure describe the “quantity of excitement [or cathexis]” present in the mind at any given moment, with paradoxically pleasure being the decrease of excitement and unpleasure being the increase. So, in this sense pleasure is simply the relief from tension in the mind, and vice versa. Moreover, what matters to the intensity of either is not the overall quantity but only the degree of its increase or decrease over a given period of time. The pleasure principle is thus the mechanism of the psyche which seeks a release from the unpleasure generated by the contradictory impulses of the libido, ultimately seeking an oasis of calm devoid of all libidinal excitement. This in turn is a forerunner of what Freud will eventually identify as the death drive.

The reality principle, meanwhile, offers a clear forerunner of the Ego Ideal to come. Insofar as the chaotic & immoral pleasure principle, in seeking to withdraw from all cathexis, threatens the self-preservation of the organism, the influence of the ego’s drive to self-preservation – which, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, is also part of the sexual drive / libido – replaces the pleasure principle with the reality principle. Basically, the reality principle negotiates between the demands of the external world and the pleasure principle, attempting to maintain a balance between the drive towards self-preservation and the drive towards the quietude of the organism. It does this through the postponement of the satisfaction of libidinal desires, abandoning certain immediate possibilities and allowing the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step towards ultimate satisfaction.

Finally then, by the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle – written just before “The Ego and the Id” – Freud will come to propose two fundamental drives which permeate every level of existence, from the single cell to the most complex of social organisations. These are Eros, the life drive, and Thanatos, the death drive. Freud had long resisted the possibility of the death drive but, ultimately, after working with soldiers traumatised by the war and by way of the famous game of fort/da with its inexplicable compulsion to repeat traumatic experiences without the aim of mastery, he comes to recognise its possible independence from the pleasure principle, for which the latter nonetheless serves to point towards. The pleasure principle, as we know, seeks a quietude without cathexes, a quietude which is ultimately self-destructive. The unconscious compulsion to repeat traumatic experiences, however, is not seeking to decrease their cathexis, as would be the case with the pleasure principle. Here, Freud realises that there is much of the ego that is itself unconscious, from which arises the resistance to treatment, while the compulsion to repeat belongs to the unconscious repressed. After this, Freud completely abandons his topographical understanding of the mind as split between Ucs, Pcs and Cs, replacing it with the schema found in “The Ego and the Id.”

The compulsion to repeat is, for Freud, a hitherto inexplicable self-destructive unconscious drive in opposition to the pleasure principle which, as part of the life drive, is the drive towards a pleasurable relief from tension. From this, Freud finds himself in a position to finally define the notion of drive or instinct as the urge to return to an earlier state which the organism has been forced to abandon due to external influences. What then, is the earlier state to which thanatos drives towards? Simply, the earlier earlier state of being, prior to the formation of the organism, that is, towards the inorganic, of nonbeing, the complete disarray of the composition.  As Freud says, “the aim of all life is death,” a “looking backwards” towards the inorganic which therefore pre-existed the organic. Eros and Thanatos thus do battle: Thanatos seeking to achieve its aim of death (and thus regain its a priori inorganic state) as quickly as possible, while Eros seeks to constantly jerk back the death-drive to an earlier stage of being of the organism, and thus to defer death, prolonging the journey.

The drives then, are inherently conservative, not impulses towards development. This means that, in complete opposition to Kant, there can be no teleology, no drive towards perfection, and thus no Divine Plan, no God. This then leads Freud, in his final works, to consider the role of religion (“The Future of an Illusion”) and the illusion of historical teleology (“Civilization and Its Discontents”)

Example of “enlargement,” demonstrating the constant revision on the way to the attempt at systematicity apparently demanded by a “proper” science:

Fromsexuality” to “death drive”: First of all, as he writes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, this sexual instinct is extended, by way of the notion of cathexis (which is simply the energy invested in something by the drives), to the libido, which in turns splits the ego into the object ego and the narcissistic ego (depending on whether this investment in energy is turned outwards toward the material world, or inwards onto the self). Later, Freud extends this great reservoir of the libido, becoming a drive which functions even in individual cells on one hand, and at the level of the movement of history on the other. The sexual drive / object-libido is thereafter transformed yet again, becoming one part of Eros, or the “life drive” which for Freud is that which seeks to force together and hold together the various portions of living substance against the dissolution to the inorganic demanded by Thanatos or the death drive. The sexual drive/object-libido thus now refers only to that part of this drive of Eros that is directed towards – cathects – external objects.


Lastly, I want to gesture briefly towards a few points where the importance of Freud to Derrida’s notion of différance, and to deconstruction in general, is perhaps clearest, and which will later help to understand Stiegler’s own turn to Freud.

In fact, by way of the pleasure principle, Freud offers his own deconstruction of the binary Eros/Thanatos, which in turns mirrors the deconstruction of the mind/body duality by the drive, which will later greatly interest Derrida. The pleasure principle, on the side of life, seeks to decrease libidinal excitement. But Freud here makes a distinction between function and tendency: the tendency of the pleasure principle is to prolong life by deferring the satisfaction of the death drive; however, says Freud, its function is nonetheless concerned with “the most universal endeavour of all living substance,” that of returning to quiescence, the ultimate of which would be the quiescence of the inorganic world. The pleasure principle, in other words, deconstructs the life-death binary, undoing their metaphysical opposition and substituting inorganic matter as the highest aim and destiny of life itself. The ultimate orgasm, that intense pleasure that is the extinction of a highly-intensified excitation, is thus the extinction of life.

August Weismann, Ernst Haeckel, and “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”; and which, for Freud, recapitulates historicity.


Freud “The Ego and the Id” (1923) in Volume XIX of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), pp.12-66.

Episode of Family Guy, entitled “PTV.”

Plato between the Teeth of the Beast: Animals and Democracy at the LSE

Danielle Sands, on behalf of The Forum for European Philosophy (FEP), has very generously invited me to speak at the London School of Economics on the 11th February 2014 (6.30 – 8.00 pm) as part of a series entitled “European Provocations” (link here). Also podcast is here: http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2247

This will be my final paper in the UK for a while, as I’ll be shipping out to Australia the following day.

Below are the (short and long) abstracts for the lecture, which is free and open to the public, and which will continue and deepen the consideration of animals and democracy that began with my paper on Plato’s Republic and the cannibal animals for the London Conference in Critical Thought back in 2012 (which can be accessed on this blog). It would be great if I could see some of you there!

Plato between the Teeth of the Beast: 

Animals and Democracy in Tomorrow’s Europe

Short Abstract

How important are animals to the constitution of democracy? In constructing his famous Republic, Plato expressly warns of the dangerous link between the liberation of animals, the uprising of the proletariat, and the founding of democracy. Unwittingly, Plato also reveals that an increased “sensitivity” towards the fate of bonded animals marks an essential first step towards a truly free society. From this starting point, Richard Iveson will thus consider whether the egalitarian entanglement of humans and other animals in fact constitutes the prior condition of any democratic community.


Reading two short extracts from Plato’s dialogues, one from Timaeus and one from the Republic, alongside a number of articles taken from the recent EC Directive on the scientific “use” of nonhuman animals, “Plato between the Teeth of the Beast” considers the place and the relevance of nonhuman animals to the constitution and conservation of democracy. Here, we will consider what Plato, always scathing in his attacks upon democracy, believes to be the revolutionary relation between the freedom of nonhuman animals, the uprising of the working classes, and the founding of a democratic city plagued by the double threat of anarchy and tyranny. Plato argues that humanity must, and for political rather than economic reasons, harden its heart to the ongoing exploitation and suffering of “other animals” (this latter forming a group that, in times of crisis, includes all those forced to exchange the labour of their bodies in order to survive). By contrast, I suggest that a rigorous understanding of democracy requires that we pay heed to this dangerous “instinct” for freedom revealed in the first instance by the intimacy of our animal relationships. Only then do we begin to gain a sense of an explicitly democratic inter- and intra-relation of human and nonhuman beings.

No longer based upon anthropocentric notions of pity or compassion, this relation gains further clarity when considered in the light of Jacques Derrida’s often misunderstood notion of “eating well.” This will then lead to a consideration of the role played by the mouth in the constitution of both Plato’s Republic and the democratic city. According to Plato, the revolutionary animal body of the worker must first be “tamed” through the force-feeding of an institutional “Guardian.” The Platonic Guardian, in other words, ensures the closed mouth of the worker, a corporeal suppression that Georges Bataille describes as “the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude.” By contrast, only the wide open mouths of human and nonhuman animals alike permit the potential articulation of a fully democratic socius. Unwittingly no doubt, what Plato’s discourse on the ideal Republic lets slip is that sensitivity to the freedom of other animals is an essential first step in the constitution of a truly free society. Such is the sensitivity for shared nourishment, for eating well. Animal others, then, become fundamental to any understanding of community, and hence to the success or otherwise of various anti-capitalist movements active throughout Europe and beyond. Such a sensitivity forces the formerly closed mouth wide open, preparing to devour any social pact founded upon gross inequality, slavery and injustice.

Persephone Calls: Power and the Inability to Die in Plato and Blanchot



In exploring the philosophical foundations of the space of noncriminal murder, this paper sketches a trajectory and exchange between Plato’s immortal soul and the decentred subjectivity theorised by Maurice Blanchot. Here, the double negation of “the animal” which links Blanchot with Plato renders explicit not only the general homogeneity of the philosophical treatment of the animal, but also how the ideologically undying animal serves to reproduce the machinery of Western patriarchy founded upon the illusion of a freely willing human subject. While Blanchot’s radical decentring of the subject sets the stage for much of poststructuralism to follow, I argue that it nonetheless remains wedded to the maintenance of this murderous old machine. Further, Blanchot’s philosophy is doubly relevant insofar as its double displacement of the animal mirrors the revelatory practice of the Eleusinian Mysteries which Plato compares to the practice of the Socratic dialectic. While for Blanchot this rather offers access to the inessential, we nevertheless discover only another Mystery, one which, following Socrates, calls again upon the myth of Persephone to preserve the mastery of the human.


*     *     *


Calling Persephone

Let us begin, as is only fitting in considering the domination of the human-animal dichotomy throughout the Western tradition, with an ancient myth.

One fine day, while collecting Spring flowers, Persephone is spied by Hades who, inflamed with love and desire, kidnaps her and carries her off to his underworld kingdom. Demeter, Persephone’s mother and mother to the earth, is inconsolable, searching the earth and heavens for her daughter. Eventually, she encounters a river nymph who, for fear of Hades, suggests only that Persephone has been taken inside the earth itself. Enraged, Demeter inflicts a devastating infertility upon the land. A second nymph, however, tells Demeter not to punish the earth, for she has seen Persephone with Hades in the Underworld. Deeply shocked, Demeter begs Zeus to arrange the return of her daughter to the upper world. Zeus agrees, with but a single condition: her daughter must have eaten nothing whilst in the Underworld. Persephone, however, has already partaken of a single suck of pomegranate pulp, and so a compromise is offered: Persephone must spend half of every year in the Underworld until Spring arrives and restores her to her mother for the remaining months. Somewhat pacified, Demeter thereafter returns fertility to the earth.

So goes the myth of Persephone, an allegory of rebirth, of the eternal movement of the seasons, and of the casting of the seed inside the earth. It is a myth too, both of feminized Nature as reproduction, subject to the desires of men, and of the promise of resurrection, Persephone’s fate offering consolation to anyone anxious about the afterlife. Put simply, it tells tales of transcendental return. It is in this sense, as we shall see, that Socrates, in dialogue with Meno, evokes the name of Persephone in support of his claim that the soul of man is immortal.

The tale of Persephone’s return, however, is also marked by a prior detour through the earth, shifting briefly from the eternal concerns of gods to the finite world of men. Exhausted from her search, a disguised Demeter is forced to rest upon a stone for nine days and nights. On the tenth day, an old man happens by and offers Demeter compassion and hospitality. Upon reaching his home, however, Demeter discovers the man’s son Triptolemus is desperately ill, and thus proceeds to heal him. When she places the boy in the fire, however, his mother snatches him away, unwittingly preventing his transformation into an immortal. As a consolation, a newly-revealed Demeter promises instead to teach the boy the hitherto unknown art of agriculture, a knowledge which he in turn will impart across the earth. For this act of original pedagogy, Triptolemus later founds the worship of Demeter, erecting a temple in the city of Eleusis on the site of the stone upon which she sat, and staging there the famous purification rituals known as the Eleusinian Mysteries.

This is a less well-known part of the myth of Persephone, telling of the singular gift of the art or technique of agriculture. Here, rather than a Socratic recollection as the proof of transcendental reason and thus of the immortal soul, we find instead an original act of learning. An act, moreover, directly linked to the Mysteries, the very same rites which Meno is unable to attend, and which Socrates evokes in the Meno in order to suggest an analogous relation between the revelatory initiation into divine secrets such as those experienced by Triptolemus and during the Mysteries, and the equally revelatory initiation into philosophical truths offered by Socrates himself. It is this, however, which is impossible, insofar as it is the former which puts the latter into question.

For Plato, as we shall see, the name of Persephone authorizes the transport of transcendental return, and yet, as the price of divine consolation, she thus becomes a figure of all too human disavowal. While the revelatory initiation into divine secrets undoes the Socratic return of immortal truths, this is not, however, to suggest that the rites practiced at Eleusis might somehow partake of the divine. Rather, I will argue, these rites are the obverse of this human disavowal insofar as they too, in their own way, seek to purify the human of its animal baseness. Whether Meno chooses to be initiated into the teachings of Socrates or into the Mysteries of Eleusis, either way his initiation will come at the expense of other animals.

Here, I will argue, philosopher Maurice Blanchot too calls on the name of Persephone, not with Socrates on behalf of transcendental reason, but rather in articulating his own variant of the initiation rituals of the Mysteries. For Blanchot as for the Eleusinian initiates, the animal is ritually sacrificed twice over, firstly as the human, and then again in the name of man. More precisely, the myth of Persephone figures the anthropogenetic movement of double death we find in Blanchot: a redoubled death first of the external animal which marks the becoming man of man, and then of a second, exclusively human death that is the act of mastery that condemns all other animals to the hecatomb.

It is with these twinned offerings, these Persephone calls, that Plato’s inaugural disavowal of the nonhuman animal is drawn out across millennia of Christianized humanism in a line which, ever renewed, ties the Platonic dialogues to the “posthumanist” discourse of Blanchot. With these two purifications, the natural and the supernatural, the empirical and the transcendental, I aim to render explicit the constitution of those exclusively human properties – soul, reason and language – which have, since the “beginning” of philosophy, served to exclude other animals as beings without memory, without trace, and without death. Along the way, I will introduce Derrida’s “quasi-concept” of iterability which, in deconstructing exactly these apparently exclusive human properties, is of central importance to my argument.


First movement

Before Plato, the idea of an essential immortal soul existing independently of its corporeal incarnation was not generally a part of Greek thought.[v] Facing a variant of the “trick argument” in the Meno (80e), however, Socrates finds himself obliged, in order to save philosophy from sophistry, to have recourse to just such an idea if he is to prove that adequate knowledge can indeed be achieved. Meno’s “trick argument,” as summarized by Socrates, runs as follows: man can never discover what he knows because either, (a) he already knows and thus has no need to discover it, or else (b) he does not already know and hence cannot even know what to look for or, indeed, if he has found it.

Before he can stage his reasoned defense of philosophical knowledge, however, and immediately prior to the famous geometrical demonstration of transcendental reason, Socrates is compelled to set the scene by calling upon two nonphilosophical substantiating sources. First of all, he recalls the discourse of “priests and priestesses,” and then, by way of Pindar’s “divine inspiration,” invokes the goddess Persephone to his cause (81b-c). Both, suggests Socrates, say that the soul of man is immortal, forever reborn within new corporeal incarnations.

One quickly understands the need for such a theological authorization, insofar as it immediately transpires that for Socrates it can only be on the basis of corporeal reincarnation that knowledge and truth can be recollected, that is, recovered or reborn. At this point, however, the soul or spirit has not yet left the body: “the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is” (81c). As a result, Socrates argues, a man can indeed recover, rather than discover, full knowledge insofar as, once he “has recalled a single piece of knowledge – learned it, in ordinary language – there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest” (81d). It is this which Socrates sets out to prove by engaging a slave boy in a discussion of geometry. Here, knowledge available for recollection has been learned through prior experience over a great extension of time and number of incarnations, and it is not the case that the soul always already possesses full knowledge.

The problem then arises that, if future knowledge is necessarily the re-collection of previous experience, how will one have first learned that of which knowledge is necessarily a recollection? The demonstration of the slave boy’s recollected knowledge only serves to highlight this aporia: the boy can recollect geometry only because he has already learned it, so how will one have first come to learn that geometry that all men can subsequently recall? At this point, Socrates appears to hesitate. It is a hesitancy, an uncertainty, that finds its fore-echo when earlier he talks of reincarnation only as a clerical and mythical “they-say” (81a-b).[vi] Indeed, throughout this earlier part of the dialogue, and in contrast with the certain movement of the later demonstration, there is no knowledge, but only an uncertain reiteration of hearsay and opinion. At times, it even seems to take on the ironic tone characteristic of the Socratic style in which a thesis is apparently affirmed only then to be taken apart, stingray fashion. However, the leading of the witness to confess the collapse of common opinion, of the “they say,” never materializes. Rather, as we shall see, there is only an absent question, a passing over in silence. Despite this, following the slave-boy’s performance this uncertain hypothesis, that of a redoubled knowledge learned both here and there over multiple incarnations, becomes instead a certainty which, in so doing, departs from the body to become a supernatural apparition, evoked from out of this world.

Having drawn a number of transcendent geometrical truths from the mouth of the slave boy, Socrates then presses Meno:

Either then [the boy] has at some time acquired the knowledge which he now has, or he has always possessed it. If he always possessed it, he must always have known; if on the other hand he acquired it at some previous time, it cannot have been in this life … if he did not acquire them in this life, isn’t it immediately clear that he possessed and had learned them during some other period? (85d-86a).

There is, in this suspension, an obscurity hidden within its clarity – “isn’t it immediately clear that he possessed and had learned them?” –, the moment which marks in silence the shift from knowledge as empirically learned to knowledge as essential possession. When Meno concedes that the slave-boy must indeed have “possessed and learned” the recollected knowledge during another period, Socrates then insists, “When he was not in human shape?” to which Meno simply replies “Yes” (86). Whereas earlier, calling upon Persephone and the priests, Socrates suggests that knowledge is acquired “both here and in the other world,” he thus now insists upon such a possession as only being inhuman and supernatural. There is, however, no explanation as to why the slave-boy could not have learned geometry throughout his having been born many times and thus having seen all things. Meno, as is so often the case with Socrates’ interlocutors, merely affirms this without question.

This disavowal of the corporeal, of the material, in seeking to efface the problem of the recollection of learned knowledge, concerns, as we have seen, the problem of the Origin and of hypomnēsis. It concerns, in other words, the first learning which makes possible the revelation (alētheia) that is recollection (anamnēsis), that is, which makes a discontinuous past available for return in the future. At this point, and still attempting to extricate philosophy from the Sophist aporia, Socrates can thus only side with knowledge as an essential possession proper to man. That is, he is compelled to do so if he is to avoid becoming ensnared in a second aporia – that of an originary site and citing of knowledge. Hence, Socrates continues to press Meno:

If then there are going to exist in him, both while he is and while he is not a man, true opinions which can be aroused by questioning and turned into knowledge, may we say that his soul has been forever in a state of knowledge? (86a).

Knowledge, in a move that Nietzsche much later terms nihilistic, is thus shifted beyond and before the sensible, constituted as an essence that always precedes corporeal being, and opposed therefore to being encoded in the language of its institution (i.e., hypomnēmata).

Here though, Persephone eternally returns to haunt Socrates, in that the myth not only offers the consolation of supernatural rebirth, but also recounts the pedagogy of Demeter, who imparts to man a knowledge of nature and its cultivation that is at once original and empirical. Where these two aspects cross, however, is with the notion of an infinite natural reproduction, that is to say, in the “immortality” of its cycles.


Absolute animals

As we have seen, in order to avoid becoming ensnared within twin aporia, Socrates is compelled to remove knowledge from the sensible world. Knowledge, the mark of an immortal human soul, cannot henceforth be learned (and thus taught), but is rather an essential property of the ensouled that is always available for reactivation. What is of particular interest here, is that in this calculated and arbitrary staging it is nonhuman animals – indeed, all other living beings – who find themselves sacrificed to knowledge in this unquestioned elision of the corporeal and empirical. That nonhuman beings might employ reason does not, according to Socrates, mark the possession of a soul and thus knowledge but rather, as a result of this decision on behalf of philosophy, only the paradox of a learned nonknowledge. Animal “reasoning,” in other words, comes to mark instead an unknowing, that of an automatic response. Indeed, by the time of the Phaedrus, it even becomes its fabulous figure.

Thus, in his speech to Phaedrus on Love, Socrates insists that a man who surrenders to the sensible and the corporeal is “like a four-footed beast” and thus “unnatural” (250e-251a). At the same time, the essential state of the soul in knowledge is no longer a hesitant hypothesis, but has been transformed into simple dogma: “It is impossible for a soul that has never seen the truth to enter into our human shape; it takes a man to understand by the use of universals, and to collect out of the multiplicity of sense-impressions a unity arrived at by a process of reason” (249b-c). Truth, therefore, is the a priori condition for the soul which, in order to become, must first see Truth and then enter a human body. No soul, Socrates says earlier, can be born into a wild animal in its first incarnation (248d). As subsequent to Ideas but prior to corporeal existence, the soul thus functions as the intermediary between essence and existence, between Ideas and their recollection in being.

In this, the soul functions much as the khōra in Plato’s Timaeus, that is, as the nonplace which is the condition of place or, rather, the taking place of place which must withdraw in its having taken place, and therefore in the appearance of being through which the truth is empirically regained, and thus of temporality and historicity. Along the way, the distinction between the sensible (aisthēton) and the intelligible (noēton), which subsequently grounds the sacrifice of the animal to reason, has replaced the tragic composition of anamnēsis as hypomnēsis.

Put simply, insofar as the soul’s archiving of truth is the taking place of man proved via transcendental reason, it necessarily follows that truth, soul, space and time are denied to all other animals. The soul, for Plato, can only be born into a man, although man can subsequently be reincarnated in animal form,[vii] because it is only man and all men, from slave-boy to philosopher-patriarch, who can recollect knowledge. By contrast, nonhuman animals are, as Elisabeth de Fontenay writes, both “absolute animals” and “dead souls” (Le silence 71). Moreover, in this patriarchal gendering of knowledge, women are thus, in the same movement, implicitly aligned with the soulless irrationality of animals.[viii]

Every other living being, every single nonhuman animal of whatever stripe – and, perhaps, every woman, a “perhaps” which marks the opening movement of the machinery of animalization –, thus finds herself a priori excluded from transcendental knowledge. Consequently, she is also denied access to its two correlates: virtue and memory (Meno 87b).[ix] “The animal,” this putatively homogeneous category of everything that is not man, thus lacks not only a soul, but also the taking place of place – that of “being” itself. She can be neither virtuous nor noble, nor can she recall anything, and thus her being-in-the-world lacks even the trace of existence.

One can better understand this nonrelation of virtue and nonhuman animals when, in the Meno, Socrates employs the bee as an example of essential being (ousia) in order to clarify the distinction between the essential being of virtue and its various worldly modalities (72a). This analogical ontological-ontical structure suggests that the ousia of “the bee” as eidos shares a common structural discontinuity from the manifold ways of being-bee as that of Virtue from virtues. However, only man has the capacity to recollect the eidos of the bee (or the dog, or the monkey, etc.) whereas a bee (or a dog or a monkey or, indeed, even an anthropomorphized virtue) cannot recall its own essential form against which finite existence is measured. Hence when, in introducing the myth of the charioteer with two horses in the Phaedrus, Socrates speaks of how “we must try to tell how it is that we speak of both mortal and immortal living beings” (246b), he is referring not to soulless animals and ensouled humans, but rather to finite human bodies in possession of an infinite soul. As the trace of existence, the soul is necessarily the condition of finitude. Ultimately then, nonhuman beings are neither mortal nor immortal, being unable, in truth, to die.

Hence, from the Meno to the Phaedrus, Plato sets upon the stage of tragedy, first through the myth of Persephone and then through the charioteer allegory, a new foundation which, in placing both reason and soul superior and anterior to being, sacrifices nonhuman animals to the certainty of a metaphysics saved from sophistry. The soul, before and beyond its manifest withdrawal in and as a finite body, “is” infinite wisdom, that is, full knowledge without boundaries. This limitless knowledge, however, remains forever beyond the grasp of every finite incarnation. In his mortal incarnation therefore, man in his turn constitutes an imperfect copy of an incorporeal, immortal, and infinite wisdom. In this, with a call to Persephone and with the help of the polis priests, Plato thus pre-figures two millennia of Christianized thought that will only essentially come into question with Nietzsche.


Iterability and the phantasm of Return

Despite, and indeed because of, having condemned “the animal” to an irrational, mute and deathless nonexistence, Socrates’ difficulties with the Sophists are far from over. The ground now shifts again, this time with regard to anamnēsis. Whereas knowledge was initially re-collected by accessing the temporal storehouse of reincarnated reason (the hypomnēmata), now anamnēsis refers instead to the revelation (alētheia) of prior atemporal knowledge. As a result, the transcendental Idea – the essence or truth of the thing – must necessarily be always superior and anterior to its manifold appearance in existence, which in turn can only ever be “like” or “as,” but never identical with, its origin. Socratic recollection then, anamnēsia as alētheia (and seeking to evade hypomnēsia), is thus structured as a trope, that is, as a vehicle seeking to faithfully re-present the anterior tenor. Indeed, this is not simply a trope, but in fact the trope of metaphysics: the metaphor of transcendental Return, as figured by the goddess Persephone. As a metaphor, however, this notion of Return is deeply problematic, as Jacques Derrida demonstrates in “White Mythology” (1971).

Insofar as metaphor “organizes its divisions within syntax,” writes Derrida, it necessarily “gets carried away with itself, [it] cannot be what it is except in erasing itself, indefinitely constructing its destruction” (268). This self-destruction, moreover, follows one of two courses which, while different, nevertheless mime one another relentlessly.

The first is the metaphorical movement of the Socratic vehicle, one that claims to fully penetrate the tenor and thus, as Derrida writes, “finish by rediscovering the origin of its truth … without loss of meaning, without irreversible expenditure” (268). This is, in short, constitutes “the metaphysical relève of metaphor in the proper meaning of Being” (268) – a specular circularity of philosophical discourse, of loss without loss, which describes, as Derrida writes with reference to Hegel, “a metaphor which is displaced and reabsorbed between two suns” (268). Things are not so simple, however, insofar as the spreading of the metaphorical in syntax inevitably “carries within itself an irreducible loss of meaning” (268). Indeed, to rely on an imitation to “reveal” the plenitude of its origin is necessarily paradoxical. Given the temporal discontinuity – its abyss of puckish irony – between the two realms, the revealed “original meaning” can only ever be an effect solely of the copy. In other words, instead of revealing its origin, the trope of transcendental Return only ever produces an endless dissemination. To be otherwise requires that the mimeme exist in two temporal realms simultaneously: both completely inside (plenitude of origin, sunrise) and completely outside (imitation, sunset).

Against and within this first aufhebung of Return, the second self-obliterative recourse is to that of senseless metaphorical suicide. While similar in appearance to the metaphysical metaphor, the suicidal trope instead disrupts the philosophical hierarchy, wresting away its “borders of propriety” that subordinate the syntactic to the semantic and unfolding in its place a notion that, in its dissemination, is explicitly without limit (268). In its passage through the “supplement of syntactic resistance,” the “reassuring relationship” of the metaphoric and the (return of the) proper thus explodes, resulting in the suicide of unisemic sense.

The metaphor therefore always carries its own death. Moreover, the “difference” between its two deaths, the apparent choice between “good” and “bad,” between transparency and undecidability, is in fact no choice at all. By definition, metaphor already supplements an anoriginal absence, and is thus always syntactic and already carried away. Rewriting this in the terms of our discussion, in its withdrawal in and as the appearing of the mortal being, the immortal Socratic soul thus marks a lack to be supplemented in addition to its absolute plenitude. Put another way, both to be an essence and to be represented, an essence must be able to properly repeat itself, and yet in repetition an essence necessarily ceases to be proper. As Derrida says elsewhere, “the presence of what is gets lost, disperses itself, multiplies itself through mimemes, icons, phantasms, simulacra, etc.” (“Plato’s Pharmacy” 166). No return without loss, the sun, infinitely exposed, shatters upon the sea.

The translative movement in and as language, understood in its broadest sense of making sense, is necessarily governed by the temporal structure of the act of interpretation, and thus discontinuous with truth. In summary, the tropological structure which organizes the Platonic Idea must already bring into play, through the similarity of recollection, the paradoxical play of mimēsis. That is, the doubling of the recollection must be faithful and true (i.e., identical), and yet, in that its duplication within existence manifests a necessarily inferior copy, it therefore already divides its indivisible essence. In short, the existential recollection of the essential Idea is already interrupted by what Derrida calls iterability, with the result that the proposed cure for hypomnēsis turns out to be the poison of hypomnēsis.

Inscribed as the structural characteristic of every mark, every grapheme, it is iterability which determines that language can never be meaningful, insofar as a given word or phrase can always be detached from its anterior temporal position and reiterated in another context, a reiteration whose sense inevitably differs from its previous articulation. Repetition, in short, alters. At the same time, however, it is this same possibility of repetition, as the necessary condition for any mark to function ritualistically as language, which constrains language to always return and yet always begin anew. Alteration, in short, identifies. In this way, iterability marks the similarity of recollection as necessarily fantastic. Indeed, according to Plato the fantastic refers precisely to a trope which pretends to simulate faithfully, and thus deceives with a simulacrum – a (false) copy of the (true) copy – that is, with a phantasm.[x] Put simply, the fantastic or phantasmic trope is a deceptive transport by which one is persuaded to mistake interpretation for truth – what Maurice Blanchot describes as mistaking the labor of truth for truth itself.


The deadly labor of truth

This dangerous fantasticity from which a truly faithful copy can never save us is nothing less than the existence of every so-called “living being.” It is, in other words, the translative movement of be-ing. At the moment, the point here is to signal the originary interrelation of two apparently unrelated concerns. At its advent, the valorizing of essence and intelligibility (noēton) over and against existence and sensibility (aisthēton) thus articulates a founding disavowal of other animals together with an attempt to efface the monstrous phantasm of the fantastic.

I began by arguing that “man” can exist “properly” only by externalizing and excluding the improper animal upon which it depends, and here, in this same moment and movement, we thus discover that mimēsis too, can properly be only by externalizing and excluding the impropriety upon which it depends. These twinned movements, the closure of the circle of Return (the organizing trope of metaphysics) and the exclusion of the animal in and as the constitution of this closure (the proper delimitation of the human), are indissociable.[xi] Moreover, beyond our three Platonic binaries, we discover a further duality that sets the entire machinery in motion: that of the proper and the improper.

The inextricability of these twin exclusions ultimately returns us to Persephone. On the one hand, her consoling return figures not only the transcendence of the human, but also of the eternal return of the sun and thus of a fruitful earth forever offering itself for man’s harvest. On the other, however, this myth simultaneously names the phantasm of an all too human disavowal, insofar as the name of Persephone is called upon – and not only by Socrates – to authorize an access to the essential that is restricted to man alone.

Meno, we are informed, must unfortunately leave Athens prior to the celebration of the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries dedicated to Persephone’s mother Demeter – rites which seek a divine revelation that Socrates, in a seemingly curious move, compares to the revelation of philosophical truths (Meno 76e). Here, Meno’s future absence marks the dialogue, an absence that is at once the removal from knowledge. In Ancient Greece, those initiated into the Mysteries perform the following ritual: first, initiates undergo a ceremonial purification in the sea while holding in their submerged arms a sacrificial piglet. They then walk in silence to Eleusis whereupon they fast and, still in silence, sacrifice their domestic animals in their own stead. Finally, after a ritual handling of objects, a dramatic performance is staged, very possibly the myth of Persephone itself.

In this ritual based on the return of Persephone to the sun, the animal is thus doubly sacrificed. First, a piglet – in one sense property but nevertheless not yet fully domesticated, not yet proper – is sacrificed in order to purify man, to rid man of his own untamed bestiality. Second, as dispensable representatives and imperfect copies of man, any number of domesticated – that is, completely dominated – animals are sacrificed in order for man to live on, to survive beyond the constraints of finitude and existential appearance. In short, the animal within is first of all externalized, after which it must then take on the death of man in order that man can live forever. Here then, we can understand better why Socrates affirms an analogical relation between divine revelation of the Mysteries and the revelation of “proper” knowledge: any number of imperfect, improper animal copies are sacrificed in order to install in man alone an immortal soul which accedes to the essential.

What remains as doubly foreclosed, therefore, is the impropriety of the animal, a foreclosure that seeks to guard against the potential interruption of an improper animal relation which is nonetheless ontologically prior to the exclusion upon which the delimitation of the human depends. Here then, a preliminary hypothesis irresistibly suggests itself: given that the proper appearance of “the human” depends upon the exclusion of both “the animal” and “the improper,” a potential disruption of humanist metaphysics would therefore seem to reside within an animal encounter marked by an improper relation. It requires, in short, that animal and man, metaphor and concept, and instinct and knowledge be folded together in a risky new articulation.


Double movement

The metaphysical metaphor of closure and return has enjoyed a long and various career, as we shall see in turning now to consider the function of “the animal” within the “posthumanist” philosophy of Maurice Blanchot. Here, I will argue, the myth of Persephone, with its relation to both finitude and nonhuman being as well as the ritual double death enacted in Eleusis, calls to the notions of essential solitude and inessential existence as articulated by Blanchot in his struggle to move beyond Hegel. Indeed, that Hegel should appear at this point is far from incidental, insofar as it is with Hegel, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that the movement of transcendental Return receives its most compelling example. In the East, he writes, “rises the outward physical [i.e. sensory] Sun, and in the West it sinks down: here consentaneously rises the Sun of self-consciousness, which diffuses a nobler brilliance.”[xii] It is the repressive, irrepressible romantic yearning to master dissemination that is here taken up again by the tēlos of Hegel’s Spirit, understood as that which reveals as it regains and retains the plenum (the essence of man) at last illuminated by the “true light” of the Western sun.

While Socrates places man above the nonhuman animal by virtue of the capacity to transcend the sensible in the unity of useful universals, Blanchot follows Hegel in arguing instead that it is the articulation of death, that is, the act of making mortal, which founds “the human” and at once marks out “the animal.” Indeed, Blanchot more than once cites Hegel in this context: “the life of the mind begins with death.”

The importance of the reiterated reference to Hegel becomes evident once we understand of what this founding act consists. In an important yet complex passage in The Space of Literature (1955), Blanchot writes:

Can I die? Have I the power to die? This question has no force except when all the escape routes have been rejected. It is when he concentrates exclusively upon himself in the certainty of his mortal condition that man’s concern is to make death possible. It does not suffice for him that he is mortal; he understands that he has to become mortal, that he must be mortal twice over: sovereignly, extremely mortal. That is his human vocation. Death, in the human perspective, is not a given, it must be achieved. It is a task, one which we take up actively, one which becomes the source of our activity and mastery. Man dies, that is nothing. But man is, starting from his death. He ties himself tight to his death with a tie of which he is the judge. He makes his death; he makes himself mortal and in this way gives himself the power of a maker and gives to what he makes its meaning and its truth. The decision to be without being is possibility itself: the possibility of death (96).

While the density of this passage may appear daunting at first, things will nonetheless become clear so long as we take it slowly. Firstly, Blanchot suggests that to be human requires that one not only be mortal, but also that one become mortal. Whereas all other animals, insofar as they are blind to even a simple sense of their mortality, merely “perish,” the vocation that gives to humanity its unique perspective is this doubling of mortality. Here then, the human is distinguished from the animal by virtue of a founding reciprocity: whereas every living being perishes (which, as we shall see all too clearly, “is nothing”), only a human animal, insofar as she perceives her own mortality, must thus simultaneously become mortal and, in so doing, become human.

Man thus achieves death, and at once himself (that is, the human perspective), through the doubled articulation of mortality: being-mortal and becoming-mortal. How might we understand these two movements? Being-mortal is, firstly, the meaningful articulation of mortality as the possibility of our future not-being-in-the-world. Moreover, only now can the possibility of dying can be comprehended, insofar as such an understanding could not exist prior to the “as” of the originary articulation of mortality by which the human alone gives itself and the world meaning. The human, first and foremost, is the being who experiences itself as mortal, a cognition that necessarily takes place of and in language. The act that founds the human is thus at once the first human act: the taking place of language as the originary experience of being-mortal as mortal. Hence, that I can still die is, as Blanchot writes in The Infinite Conversation, “our sign as man” (42).

For Blanchot, being human as being-mortal is thus to be thrown into the inessential world of language, inessentiality being the very condition of possibility of language, as we shall see. Meanwhile language, for its part, is both a recognition and a representation of mortality, insofar as “death alone … exists in words as the only way that they can have meaning” (Blanchot “Literature,” 324).

Ignoring for the moment Blanchot’s reduction of language to words alone, in this founding of and as the human, we necessarily discover in this difference of itself from itself the mark of an iteration which corrupts any unity of origin. To be able not to be is at once to be able to be born: we die, and at the same time are born, in and as language. Put simply, as the moment in which a body conceives of its possible nonbeing, and thus possibility in general, the human comes into being and at the same time is thrown from the realm of essential being and into the inessential world of language. Here, we find our first point of contact between Blanchot and Plato: excluded by definition from this movement of anthropogenesis, nonhuman animals are thus once more excluded from the taking place of place, and thus from language and the “there” of being.

Moreover, insofar as other animals are excluded from the ability not to be, and thus from possibility in general, not only can they never become mortal, in fact they can never be mortal and nor, in truth, can they be born. Every nonhuman being, in other words, is denied the possibility of having her own singular death, is refused the possibility of ever dying this death. And yet, as we shall see in considering the complementary movement of becoming-mortal in the next part, for Blanchot the exceptional positing power of the human nevertheless depends upon the singular violent death of a nonhuman animal who, somewhat paradoxically, essentially cannot die.


The memory of death

Having made a preliminary comparison with the Platonic exclusion of the animal, we can now, by way of a detour through Hegel, begin to approach Blanchot’s own peculiar version of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Having constituted itself in its capacity not to be, it is through this originary power to negate that the human thereafter avails itself of the power of the negative. Man, we recall, must be mortal twice over, must both be and become mortal, just as death must both be and be achieved. Hence, writes Blanchot, it is necessary that death be “seized again as a power, as the beginning of the mind” (“Literature” 324, my emphasis). This, he continues, “is at the centre of the universe where truth is the labor of truth” (ibid.). Becoming-mortal, in other words, is the appropriation of negation that gives to man the power of a maker and is the source of his activity and mastery. Death, in short, is the condition of possibility itself. The question thus arises as to how, exactly, this appropriation of death’s power might take place.

As we have seen, the moment must concern the seizing again of death that is the emergence of negation as possibility, and which is at once the taking place of language as that which, at the founding of the human, grounds the emergence of meaning and truth. If we are to understand this strange movement from a being who is able not to be (being-mortal) to that of a maker laboring in the inessential world of truths (becoming-mortal), we need to heed Blanchot’s repeated enjoinders in this context to “remember the earliest Hegel” and, more specifically, the Hegel of the Jena System of 1803-4. Hardly fortuitously, Hegel argues therein that it is the seizing of an animal’s death in a movement of negation that, in its appropriation as the word, not only reserves and preserves the animal’s absence, but also the possibility of truth itself.

According to Hegel, the extended vowel of pain that marks the dying of an animal is at once the founding act of the human. This vowel of sensuous animality, he suggests, transcends its singular violent death in its universal expression: “Every animal finds its voice in violent death; it expresses itself as a removed [aufgehobnes] self. … In the voice, meaning turns back into itself; it is negative self, desire. It is lack, absence of substance in itself.”[xiii] In this, Hegel argues, is given the pure sound of the voice, a pure sounding interrupted by the silence of death, the latter constituting a mute consonant that is “the true and proper arrestation of mere resonation” through which “every sound has a meaning for itself.”[xiv] It is as a result of this “fact,” claims Hegel, that language becomes the voice of consciousness. In other words, the “mere” vowel of animal noise is pure syntax that is negated not by the breath, but by the death of the animal. In the dialectical negation of the negation, this death is thereafter preserved as it is raised up (aufhebung) into a universal expression that finds its meaning only with the founding of man. The nonhuman animal, however, as prior to the advent of this death-word is thus excluded from the possibility of both consciousness and meaning. In his fine reading, Giorgio Agamben summarizes this movement:

“Voice (and memory) of death” means: the voice is death, which preserves and recalls the living as dead, and it is, at the same time, an immediate trace and memory of death, pure negativity. Only because the animal voice is not truly “empty” …, but contains the death of the animal, can human language, articulating and arresting the pure sound of this voice (the vowel) – that is to say, articulating and retaining the voice of death – become the voice of consciousness, meaningful language (Language and Death 45).

In other words, it is because, in dying, a nonhuman animal expresses her absence (death arresting the vowel of pain) that language thus takes on the power of death. Returning to Blanchot, it is in the precise moment when an animal voices her absence in death – an articulation that is no longer animal “noise” but not yet verbal language – that the originary being-mortal of man is expressed in the taking place of language. Before this can be fully understood, however, it is necessary that the human become-mortal, as we shall see now.

First of all, it is clear that there can be such a thing as world for the human only insofar as the existence of the animal is suspended through negativity. There is world, Blanchot writes simply, only “because we can destroy things and suspend their existence” (“Literature” 336). The human, in other words, is that being who, insofar as it arrives only through the taking place of language, comes to itself as already thrown into a world of meaning and truth. Only with the word is death is seized once again, and thus only with the word does man become mortal. In this doubling of death, the animal is negated twice over: its particularity is negated first in universal expression, and then again in the word or name which rather marks “the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being – the very fact that it does not exist” (322).

From this, it becomes possible to pinpoint the very moment of anthropogenesis, as related by Hegel and repeated by Blanchot, in which the power of death is seized again as language and thus becomes the source of activity and mastery: “Adam’s first act, which made him master of the animals, was to give them names, that is, he denied them as independent beings and he transformed them into ideals.”[xv] Here, in this “second” movement, language has already taken place. The human is, in other words, only on the condition of first negating the particularity of animal death (the taking place of language) and then by annihilating her independent existence (language having taken place). The human, in short, is the exceptional animal that twice over denies being to every other animal.

According to Blanchot therefore, the seizing-again or re-cognition of mortality is both a human production and the production of the human. Without this recognition, existence remains dissolved in its “original depths,” and yet with this recognition existence is simultaneously negated: The “existent,” writes Blanchot, “was called out of its existence by the word, and it became being.” However, in thus summoning forth the “dark, cadaverous reality from its primordial depths,” the word gave it in exchange “only the life of the mind” (“Literature” 326). Beyond and before the word, existence consists in “the intimacy of the unrevealed,” an intimacy that is necessarily lost once beings are recognized as beings: Thus, Blanchot continues, “[t]he torment of language is what it lacks because of the necessity that it be the lack of precisely this. It cannot even name it” (326-7). This “lack” is what Derrida describes as “the wound without a name: that of having been given a name” (Animal 19).


The work of death

Lastly, before we can fully disclose the “place” and the function of nonhuman animals within this schema, as well as how their double disavowal reiterates the practice of Eleusinian sacrifice offered up to Demeter, it remains for us only to consider the labor of the negative as it informs Blanchot’s notion of essential solitude.

To begin with, insofar as it is the event of both anthropogenesis and worlding, the appearance of the word in the seizing-again of death has thus already taken place. As such, it is necessarily “an unsituated, unsituatable event which, lest we become mute in very speech, we entrust to the work of the concept (negativity)” (Blanchot The Writing of the Disaster, 67). Here, we must understand that the negating word or name through which death works is already in the strict sense a concept, that is, it conceives of an existent. Indeed, it is precisely this conceptual power which simultaneously constitutes the human and withdraws it from unmediated existence. Hence, the articulation of the concept, its work of negativity, is the decisive event – decisive, that is, as regards the anthropogenetic and the anthropological – that plunges all of creation into a total sea, the event Blanchot calls the “immense hecatomb.”[xvi]

Things don’t end here, however, as a further twist of negativity awaits the concept. In being posited as an ideal, that is, as having exchanged primordial reality for “the life of the mind,” this nonexistence that is the word- or name-concept is thereafter taken to be the essence of the thing. This metaleptic reversal marks, in Blanchot’s terms, the “forgetting of forgetting” through which value is created. The thing, in other words, is forgotten first of all in being exchanged for an empty concept, and thereafter this forgetting is itself forgotten in the subsequent taking of this empty concept for an ideal value. As such, in the culmination of the “life-giving” negation of language, the image becomes the object’s “aftermath” in which the object itself is withdrawn from understanding in such a way as to allow “us to have the object at our command when there is nothing left of it” (Space of Literature 260).

Language can now be understood as the work of death in the world, that which drives –

the inhuman, indeterminate side of things back into nothingness …. But at the same time, after having denied things in their existence, it preserves them in their being; it causes things to have meaning, and the negation which is death at work is also the advent of meaning, the activity of comprehension (“Literature” 338).

We are now in a position to summarize the movement of anthropogenesis in Blanchot’s philosophy. First of all, the death of the animal constitutes the human as a mortal being, that is, as having the possibility not to be. Simultaneously, this singular nonhuman death realizes the power of negativity which, in being seized again as activity and mastery, marks the becoming-mortal of the human. This latter inheres in the act of naming which constitutes the power of a maker, giving to what she or he makes its meaning and its truth.

The animal, in short, ends where the human begins: in language. Indeed, in its double appropriation of death the human “is” the unsituated and unsituatable event of language itself, of its taking place that has already taken place. Hence, for Blanchot the articulating and preserving of the voice of death as both memory and absence, that is, as the trace of withdrawal, constitutes the taking place of language. At the same time, this taking of place is the opening of the space of recognition and thus of the name, that is, of language having taken place. On the one hand then, death, doubled and divided, simultaneously constitutes, in addition to the human, both the world and its representation. On the other, being-mortal and becoming-mortal are nothing but tropes, anthropomorphized figures of language itself.

How then, might we define the exceptional beast that is the human? According to Blanchot, quite simply as the non-animal for whom, insofar as he or she takes place of and in language, the essential is a priori withdrawn and replaced by empty ideals. At best, the immediacy of existence may be approached in a work of art, but even then its hovering appearance has necessarily escaped. Admittedly, this doesn’t sound like much – presumably existing intimately within the real, animals, we might think, are the lucky ones. However, if philosophy teaches us anything, it is that we should reserve judgment on this for the moment. Existence “is,” in short, “the side of the day that day has rejected in order to become light” (“Literature” 328). Only in the obliterating clarity of a meaningful humanity, in other words, can the work of death be found. Immediate existence, by contrast, is necessarily deathless, wordless, meaningless, and inhuman – the primordial realm, in Blanchot’s words, of “essential solitude.” Condemned to exist only as an undifferentiated part of this underworld machinery with neither beginning nor end – “death as the impossibility of dying” (328) – other living beings, it seems, are not so lucky after all.


An initiation into the new Eleusinian Mysteries

Clearly, it is only the human who, coming to be upon the death of a deathless animal, can give meaning to nonhuman existence. Only “man” stands in the light of the negative, only the human animal is enlightened. This, I will argue, turns us back across millennia to the myth of Persephone’s return to the light and, in particular, to Demeter’s place of rest and worship in Eleusis. As we have seen, to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries an appellant must first sacrifice a piglet, followed by any number of domestic animals. We have seen too, how this relates to the Platonic exclusion of “the animal” from “the human,” and how, having first being externalized, the animal is thereafter forced to bear the death of man in order that man might live forever. With Blanchot, however, we now discover the mirror-image of this all too human movement. In place of the “birth” of an immortal human soul, we find instead the annihilating genesis of the human at the origin of the world. In place of the double sacrifice that installs in man alone an access to the essential, we find the double sacrifice that installs in man alone an access to the inessential.

In Ancient Greece, we recall, the initial sacrifice involving the death of a single nonhuman animal served to purify the human of its bestiality. In other words, by way of this first death the human ceases to be an animal. It is in this same moment therefore, that the human equips itself with the capacity to master nature, to dominate, domesticate and exploit other “merely” living beings. Such mastery, however, requires a second sacrifice, a second death. Indeed, the fact of being domesticated alone condemns the other animals to annihilation, to a hecatomb that serves only to vouchsafe the mastery of the human. This, as should be clear, equally describes the double sacrifice that underpins Blanchot’s own metaphysical anthropocentrism: “the animal” is ritually sacrificed twice over, firstly as the human, and then again in the name of the human.


Doubly deceased: the mute deposition of nonhuman animals

The question now arises, as to how might the taking place, or otherwise, of nonhuman animals arrive to potentially interrupt these sacrificial schemas imposed upon them from without for millennia. As suggested earlier, this potential disruption would seem to reside in an animal encounter marked by an improper relation. To this we can now add that such an encounter appears equally to require the reinscription of death within nonhuman ways of being. Indeed, by further considering the placeless place of the animal in Blanchot’s philosophy in these final sections, we begin to open the space for just such an animal encounter to come.

Blanchot’s animal is, as we have seen, doubly deceased, that is, doubly depositioned and decomposed. Nevertheless, nonhuman animals continue to keep getting in the way, an uncanny obtrusion which brings into the open the implicit humanism of Blanchot’s discourse.[xvii] As being-in-the-world and yet deprived of the deluge of language that “is” death and vice versa, an animal “is” therefore mortal without recognizing it (and thus not, in truth, mortal). Moreover, as that which does not have her (own) death, she “is” necessarily senseless and meaningless being. In other words, insofar as she is excluded from the “unsituated, unsituatable event” that is language’s having already taken place, and thus from finitude that is its condition, the nonhuman animal necessarily exists before the annihilation of Adam’s positing power. At the same time, however, she nonetheless remains, indeed co-exists, after the world thus posited – a world, therefore, of cohabitation. At the very least then, she exists in some strange sense that “is” at once both before and after the Fall.

Without language, and therefore prior to being as such, nonhuman animals are thus allotted only some uncanny kind of not yet-world world, that is, a “world” with neither possibility nor resemblance. At the same time, however, there can be nothing beyond or before being as such either, that is, beyond or before what Blanchot terms essential solitude. This paradoxical equation of being as such with essential solitude, however, requires further clarification, serving as it does to ultimately exclude nonhuman living beings even from the primordial realm of the real. Essential solitude is, for Blanchot, simply immediate existence that is withdrawn in and as the taking place of the human. As such, essential solitude can only ever “take place” as that which remarks the hiddenness of existence by the disappearance, the hecatomb, of everything that is. Hence, put simply, essential solitude marks the originary withdrawal of being, a withdrawal that becomes meaningful in being marked as such. Indeed, it is only insofar as essential solitude constitutes the originary taking place of meaning in this way that a work of art may thus approach its unsituated, unsituatable event but, in having necessarily taken place, can never actually reach it.

Here, then, it is already possible to perceive the paradox under which the Blanchovian animal labors. As we have seen, there can be no hiddenness of existence – no essential solitude and no primordial reality – for nonhuman animals, which thus leaves only the nonbeing that “is” inessential being-in-the-world. However, insofar as there can be no nonhuman “as,” and thus no articulation or image, neither can animals exist within the inessential “world” that would be the mark of this nonbeing. In short, nonhuman animals neither are nor are not, neither being nor nonbeing, but something absolutely other. They “are,” in other words, both within and outside the world at the same time as they are neither within nor outside the world: animal spirits or ghosts of nonhumanity.


Specters of Heidegger

This spectrality of the philosophical animal points to an initial point of both proximity and distance between Blanchot and Martin Heidegger. In Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), the animal is similarly (non)placed in negativity: neither present-at-hand [Vorhandensein], nor ready-at-hand [Zuhandensein], nor the Dasein who, as something other and more than a living being, is abysmally distanced from the nonhuman animal who “merely” has life and can only ever “perish” [verenden]. Indeed, Blanchot employs a very similar vocabulary in order to get his own metaphysics up on its rear legs and running. Men and only men, he writes, “are infinitely mortal, a little more than mortal. Everything is perishable, but we [humans] are the most perishable” (Space of Literature 140). As with Heidegger then, the exceptional supra-mortality of the human-Dasein, in refusing death to other animals, simply leaves them to “perish” in the manner of used-up or useless objects, like worn-out tires or unused condoms. As “a power that humanizes nature, raises existence to being, and … is within each one of us as our most human quality” (Blanchot “Literature” 337), death now becomes the exclusive property of man, appearing –

between me, as I speak [emphasis added], and the being I address: it is there between us as the distance that separates us, but this distance is also what prevents us from being separated, because it contains the condition for all understanding. … Without death, everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness (324).

By contrast, in being essentially deprived of death’s power that makes of man a mortal being, nonhuman animals therefore exist as absurdity and nothingness. Existence, in other words, that is not being (and thus nothingness) and is not nonbeing (and thus an absurdity). At the same time, in being excluded from meaning, that is, from becoming mortal, the hugely divergent ways of being animal are reduced to an undifferentiated existence which at once lacks that which prevents absolute separation from one another.[xviii] Here, with the further discovery of a dizzying proximal distancing that posits nonhuman animals as those who are cast off but who cannot be separated, who are excluded but cannot be excluded, the inconsistencies surrounding Blanchot’s fundamental exclusion of “the animal” are clearly proliferating beyond all control. Indeed, such a proliferation inevitably infects every attempt to erect a secure humanist foundation.

In concluding this sketch of the mirroring of ancient and modern philosophical constructions of the undying animal, however, it should be noted that a further, profound difference separates Blanchot’s formulation from that of Plato, insofar as Blanchot employs one of the traditional Christianized forms of the human-animal relationship. These dominant later forms, as philosopher Andrew Benjamin has shown, are configured by two different determinations.[xix] In the first configuration, the emergence 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. Fallaciously defined by what he or she lacks within a teleological dialectic, the nonhuman animal is therefore figured as both incomplete and subhuman. Here, the corresponding movement within Blanchot’s “posthumanism” should by now be clear. Constituted in absolute lack – of death, of existence, of meaning, of separation, of community and of communication – the animal necessarily precedes the human, which founds its being on the negation of the animal. In elaborating what is a very traditional humanist dialectical teleology, Blanchot is thus ultimately unable to break free from Hegel.[xx]

More than this, however, it is an example of a philosophy of decentred subjectivity which nonetheless reproduces the dominant humanist forms of the human-animal relation – hence its exemplary position here. Indeed, Blanchot’s philosophy is doubly apposite in this regard, insofar as the production of the human is here predicated on both the death and the nonexistence of the animal in its double dis-position. Its modern initiation, however, simply offers another Mystery, that of the uncanny placeless place of “the animal” that calls again upon Persephone and the myth of undying Nature – that is, upon a theology and a teleology – in order to preserve for “the human” alone both privilege and mastery within an otherwise soulless world.



Works Cited

Adams, Carol J. Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (New York: Continuum, 1995).

Agamben, Giorgio Language and Death: The Place of Negativity trans. Karen E. Pinkus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

Benjamin, Andrew “Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals” in South Atlantic Quarterly 107:1 (2008), 71-87.

Benjamin, Andrew “Another Naming, a Living Animal: Blanchot’s Community” in SubStance #117, 37:3 (2008), 207-227.

Benjamin, Andrew “Indefinite Play and ‘The Name of Man’” in Derrida Today 1:1 (2008) 1-18.

Blanchot, Maurice The Space of Literature trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

Blanchot, Maurice The Infinite Conversation trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

Blanchot, Maurice The Writing of the Disaster trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

Blanchot, Maurice “Literature and the Right to Death” in The Work of Fire trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

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

Derrida, Jacques “White Mythology” in Margins of Philosophy trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 207-271.

Derrida, Jacques “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination trans. Barbara Johnson (London & New York: Continuum, 2004), 67-186.

Derrida, Jacques “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject” trans. Peter Connor & Avital Ronell in Points… Interviews 1974-1994 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 255-287.

Derrida, Jacques The Animal That Therefore I Am trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

Despret, Vinciane Penser comme un rat (Versailles: Éditions Quæ, 2009).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Lectures on the Philosophy of History trans. John Sibree (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2010).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Jenenser Realphilosophie I, Die Vorlesungen von 1803-1804 ed. J. Hoffmeister, Leipzig, 1932).

Heidegger, Martin Being and Time trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962).

Iveson, Richard “Animals in Looking-Glass World: Überhumanism and Posthumanism in Heidegger and Nietzsche” in Humanimalia 1:2 (2010), 46-85.

Plato Protagoras and Meno trans. W. K. C. Guthrie (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1956).

Plato Phaedrus and Letters VII and VII trans. Walter Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973).

Plato Phaedo in The Last Days of Socrates trans Hugh Tredennick (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 97-199.

Plato Sophist trans. Nicholas P. White in Complete Works ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1997), 235-293.

Plato Timaeus trans. Donald J. Zeyl in Complete Works ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1997), 1224-1291.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Stiegler, Bernard Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus trans. Richard Beardsworth & George Collins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).



[v] The reading of the Meno which follows is indebted to Bernard Stiegler who, in a lecture at Goldsmiths in February 2009, spoke briefly about the Meno and the Phaedrus. See also Stiegler Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, 97-100.

[vi] This position is taken up again and explored more fully by Plato in the Phaedo, beginning with the Argument from Opposites and its less than convincing “leap” to its conclusion (70b–72e).

[vii] It should be noted that the possibility of the ensouled human being reincarnated as an animal would seem, in a variant of the incest prohibition, to thus prohibit the eating of other animals. This question of consuming “animals-with-souls” remains a problem until, with the specific aim of allaying fears of postmortem vengeance, Saint Augustine disavows its possibility absolutely.

[viii] While for the moment at least the male slave stands within the enclosure of man, he is nevertheless – in that a soul can be reincarnated, but never originate, in the form of an animal – held out to a future in reserve and reverse, so to speak. One in which the slave, as a soulless animal reincarnated in human form, finds himself (or herself) penned outside with the animals.

[ix] Throughout this text I follow the example of Carol Adams and use “she” to refer to any animal, alive or dead, whose sex is unknown. I will, however, retain “it” both when citing or paraphrasing another if appropriate (marked by sic where necessary) and when referring to a generic concept rather than to specific human or nonhuman animals.

[x] Plato The Sophist 234b-235a. See also Derrida “Plato’s Pharmacy,” 286-288 note 14.

[xi] On this, see Andrew Benjamin “Indefinite Play and ‘The Name of Man’” (Derrida Today 1:1 (2008), 1-18). Benjamin too refers to the Socratic bee in the context of virtue (4).

[xii] Hegel Lectures on the Philosophy of History, cit. Derrida “White Mythology,” 269n84.

[xiii] Jenenser Realphilosophie I; reproduced in Agamben Language and Death, 45.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] The German original reads: “Der erste Akt, wodurch Adam Seine herrschaft über die Tiere kinstituiert hat, ist, das ser ihnen Namen gab, d.h. sie als Seiende vernichtete und sie zu für sich Ideellen machte” (Hegel Jenenser Realphilosophie, repr. in Agamben Language and Death, 43). Blanchot cites this passage in “Literature and the Right to Death,” the last phrase of which Charlotte Mandell, in order to remain faithful to Blanchot’s text, translates as “he annihilated them in their existence (as existing creatures) [dans leur existence (en tant qu’existants)]” (cit. 323).

[xvi] The use of the word “hecatomb” is interesting in this context, referring as it does to the ritual sacrifice of one hundred “cattle.”

[xvii] While Blanchot indirectly addresses “actual” nonhuman animals in relation to Rilke (Space of Literature 135), their position nonetheless remains obscure.

[xviii] And all this, it should be noted, without either communication or community, both of which, according to Blanchot, have death as their condition. On this, see Andrew Benjamin “‘Another Naming, a Living Animal: Blanchot’s Community” SubStance #117, 37:3 (2008), 207-227.

[xix] Andrew Benjamin ‘Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals’ in South Atlantic Quarterly, 107:1 (Winter 2008), pp71-87 (p76).

[xx] Along with the animal, ‘primitive’ man, for whom ‘the name has not emerged from the thing’ (‘Literature and the Right to Death,’ p322), also finds himself uneasily displaced according to this dialectical movement. In this context, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s reading of Hegel and the native informant in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp37-67.

The Immense Work of Mourning: A Review of Jacques Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign, volume II

The following Review of Jacques Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign Volume II (University of Chicago Press, 2011) first appeared in Parallax 18:2 (2012), 102-106 as “Animals Living Death: Closing the Book of Derrida

Over the next few days I will post my other two Parallax reviews, one on Andrew Benjamin’s Of Jews and Animals and the other on Bernard Stiegler’s Taking Care of Youth and the Generations.


Death, Derrida informs us, will be the subject of this, his final seminar: the question of ‘death itself, if there be any’, and the question of knowing who is capable of death (p.290). These words, in closing the book of Derrida, thus also belong to the genre of ‘last words’ – death (if there be any) having ensured that Derrida’s life will always have been too short, and not only insofar as the seminar entitled The Beast and the Sovereign must remain forever incomplete.[1] Death, inevitably – in all senses – tempers every reading of this book, readings which become always so many works of mourning.

What then, do we learn here of death, of death ‘itself’ or death ‘as such’? Firstly, that neither science nor philosophy can rigorously ascertain the difference between a living body and a corpse. And secondly, that death, in its very futurity, is paradoxically always anterior, insofar as everything begins with the archive. One senses already then, that the voyage of Derrida’s last seminar is one which finds itself, with absolute necessity, ‘constantly going round in circles’ (p.6).

Most importantly for Derrida, however, is that with death go nonhuman animals. One thus understands why he remains haunted by the spectre of Heidegger’s undying animal, a figure he has already analyzed in a number of places.[2] Indeed, while throughout the first volume of The Beast and the Sovereign Derrida tracks the werewolf, the beastly being between wolf and man, here he finds himself haunted by the zombie, that fearful being or ‘thing’ hesitating between life and death. Here too, whereas he roamed widely across a huge variety of sources in the first seminar, Derrida is now much more focused, seeking instead a ‘new orientation’ that is ‘as independent as possible’ of what went before (p.13).

This is not to say, however, that the seminar devotes itself exclusively to the Heideggerian corpus. Instead, Derrida argues for the necessity – sometimes – of reading together two heterogeneous texts so as to ‘multiply the perspectives from which two vehicles can light up, their headlights crossing, the overall cartography and the landscape’ (p.206). To this end, he chooses as a companion text Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. The fecundity of the juxtaposition soon becomes apparent, further illuminating between them the world and the figure of the solitary Dasein, and of the ‘Robinsonade’, which links Crusoe to the Cartesian cogito, and both, via Marx, to the anticipation of imperialist bourgeois society and to the instrumental exclusion of nonhuman animals.

To understand Derrida’s hugely important critique of the dominant tradition that excludes animals both from philosophy and, indeed, from the ‘world’, it is, however, first of all necessary to understand what for Derrida constitutes ‘language’. From beginning to end of his oeuvre, Derrida has repeatedly attempted to rectify the misunderstandings of readers blinded by the very anthropocentrism that his notion of language seeks to contest, and this seminar is no exception. Language, he insists once again, is the constructed community of the world, simulated by sets of (more or less) stabilizing apparatuses, by ‘codes of traces being designed, among all living beings, to construct a unity of the world that is […] nowhere and never given in nature’ (pp.8-9). Language, in short, is a community shared by all living beings. Consequently, the notion of ‘world’ loses its ontological weight, becoming merely ‘a cobbled-together verbal and terminological construction, destined […] to protect us against the infantile but infinite anxiety of the fact that there is not the world’ (pp.265-6). In the place of ‘world’ there is only radical dissemination: ‘the irremediable solitude without salvation of the living being’ (p.266).

As evidence increasingly demonstrates, the idea that animals are incapable of learning conventions and are strangers to ‘technical artifice in language’ is, insists Derrida, an idea that is ‘crude and primitive, not to say stupid [bêtise]’ (p.222). Rather, while language need not be made up of words, neither are pre-verbal or extra-verbal languages therefore somehow ‘natural’. The traditional idea then, that nonhuman animals possess only ‘an innate and natural language’ is just one more example of such crude and primitive stupidity (ibid.), one that links Heidegger equally to both Descartes and Defoe and beyond: ‘What Robinson thinks of his parrot Poll is pretty much what Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and so very many others, think of all animals incapable of a true responsible and responding speech’ (p.278). Moreover, it is this same stupid idea that ultimately serves as the justification for the genocidal instrumentalization of nonhuman animals insofar as it refuses them the possibility of death ‘as such’. Once again, the kettle logic of Heidegger is exemplary in this regard, in that he simultaneously defines the essence of life by the possibility of death and denies the possibility of dying as such to other animals.

According to Heidegger, however, turning within such circles of contradiction in fact marks the very condition of thinking, opening thus onto the question of the circle that constitutes a third thread of this seminar, one that orientates itself in orbit around questions of death and ‘the animal’ by way of the search for pure ‘remains’. Once again, Crusoe and Heidegger run rings around each other as Derrida considers circles of all kinds, from vicious circles, benumbing circles, and hermeneutic circles to wheels and wheeling metaphors, from circles of footprints to the recycling of the metaphora of the I that ‘carries or transports the dreams of being oneself […] pulling the body and the incorporated relation to oneself, in the world, toward the return to self around a relatively immobile axis of identity’ (p.75). It is, Derrida argues, precisely this turn of a trope – the structural auto-deconstruction of which he first explored in ‘White Mythology’ (1971) – that opens both the possibility of unheard-of chances and at once the threat of what elsewhere he terms ‘auto-immunity’. It is the movement, in short, of iterability.

Remaining within this movement, Derrida thus turns to the fourth organizing thread of the seminar: the notion of Walten – provisionally defined as ‘prevailing violence’ – as it increasingly comes to determine Heidegger’s philosophy. In an extraordinary reading that traces a complex chain of displacements moving between Triebe (drive), Mischlinge (hybrids), and Ersatzbildungen (prostheses), Derrida demonstrates that, for Heidegger, physis and Walten, ‘as autonomous, autarcic force, commanding and forming itself, of the totality of beings’, are thus synonyms of each other and of everything that ‘is’ as originarily sovereign power (p.39). While initially appearing to constitute a thorough Destruktion of the nature/culture binary, this is, however, later qualified by Derrida as being in fact limited to a deconstruction only of the post-Cartesian natura, thus leaving intact the oppositions maintained by the Greeks between physis and teckhnē, physis and nomos, physis and thesis, and so on (p.222). With his ‘quasi-concept’ of iterability, however, Derrida seeks to rectify this erroneous restriction, and does so by showing how the prostheticity of language necessarily involves an extension of physis to include all of its ‘others’ within itself. Here, inter alia, Derrida highlights the potential that such a deconstruction holds for an analysis of ‘all the fantasmatics, all the ideologies or metaphysics that today encumber so many discourses on cloning’ (p.75).

The appearance of the ‘fantasme’ or ‘phantasme’ here is by no means fortuitous, turning the seminar once again to Robinson Crusoe, whose fundamental fear is also his greatest desire – that of being ‘swallowed-up’ alive by the earth or sea or some beastly living creature (p.77). This fearful desiring of dying a living death is, says Derrida, the great double phantasm: that of being ‘eaten alive by the other […] [to] decease alive in the unlimited element, in the medium of the other’ (p.94).

Moreover, writes Derrida, it is not only ‘Robinson Crusoe’ who fears-desires living death, but also Robinson Crusoe, the narrative attributed to Defoe. And not only ‘Crusoe’ and Crusoe, but every autobiography insofar as ‘it presents itself through this linguistic and prosthetic apparatus – a book – or a piece of writing or a trace in general’ and thus ‘leaves in the world an artifact that speaks all alone and all alone calls the author by his name […] without the author himself needing to do anything else, not even be alive’ (pp.86-7). In other words, the book – and the auto-bio-graphy that is the trace of every living being – is already a dead-but-living artifact that calls forth an author who need be neither living nor dead. Every autobiographical trace is, like Crusoe’s parrot Poll, a zombie, just as The Beast and the Sovereign too survives the death of its author whilst continuing to call him forth. A zombie and a parrot then, but also a eulogy.

Clearly then, to distinguish between life and death ‘as such’ has become all the more obscure. To this end, Derrida offers an alternative ‘pre-definition’ of ‘being dead’: that of being ‘exposed or delivered over with no possible defense […] to the other, to the others’ and thus to ‘what always might, one day, do something with me and my remains, make me into a thing, his or her thing’ (pp.126-7). Given the place of this text within Derrida’s oeuvre, this might equally sound a plea for clemency and an exhortation to move beyond mere epigonality. It is, however, simply the irresistible injunction of iterability ‘itself’. And of course, as Derrida adds, this disposal of remains need not wait for death. Far from it – the other, in exercising his or her sovereignty, can always put one to a living death.

Such, writes Derrida, is finitude, is survivance: that ‘gestural, verbal, written, or other trace’ entrusted ‘to the sur-vival in which the opposition of the living and the dead loses and must lose all pertinence’ (p.130). Every artifactual trace, every living being, is a living-dead machine, a dead body buried in material institutions and yet resuscitated each time anew by ‘a breath of living reading’ (p.131). Finitude, from its very first trace, is thus the work of the ‘archive as survivance’ – this archive with which we both begin and began. Moreover, this is necessarily the case for

everything from which the tissue of living experience is woven […]. A weave of survival, like death in life or life in death, a weave that does not come along to clothe a more originary existence, a life or a body or a soul that would be supposed to exist naked under this clothing. For, on the contrary, they are taken, surprised in advance, comprehended, clothed, they live and die, they live to death as the very inextricability of this weave (p.132).

In short, finitude – the archive as survivance at work – is the active, radical dissemination that constitutes the originary forcing of ‘life in general’.

Of particular interest to Derrida, here as elsewhere, is the attempt to displace the dominant tradition that determines ‘man’ over against ‘the animal’ according to a criterion of power. Rather than defining living beings on the basis of ‘the “being able to do” or the inability to do this or that’, he argues instead that it is ‘from compassion in impotence and not from power that we must start’ (pp.243-4). We must start, in other words, from vulnerability, indeed, from suffering. Once again, Derrida’s own starting point is Jeremy Bentham’s argument that the question is not whether the animal can speak, reason, or die, but whether the animal can suffer.[3] Part of the reason for this reiterated reference to Bentham is that it permits Derrida to further distance himself – despite a certain ‘sympathy’ – from the problematic notion of animal rights. This latter, Derrida insists quite rightly, remains structurally incapable of dissociating itself from the Cartesian cogito, and is therefore helpless but to reiterate an interpretation of the human subject ‘which itself will have been the very lever of the worst violence carried out against nonhuman living beings’.[4] Here, however, I remain similarly uneasy, and for similar reasons, about Derrida’s own invocations of Bentham. Just as rights discourse inevitably remains tied to the cogito, so too Bentham’s discourse cannot free itself so easily from the ties of utilitarianism, and thus from all those questions, unasked by Derrida, as to the complicity of its founding gesture with the instrumentalization of animals, in particular with justifications of vivisection, and of its relation to the utilitarianism of Peter Singer’s flawed but hugely influential theory of animal rights.

While I agree it is essential that humans engage other animals from a place of shared finitude – and thus of shared passivity, of com-passion – I also find myself particularly wary of the Derridean injunction that we simply must start with suffering, a gesture which suggests the impossibility of sharing possibility with other animals, a possibility or ability that does not insist on a translation into power (for which Derrida takes Heidegger to task). While Derrida’s move is both important and understandable, its founding rhetoric of shared impotency – of powerlessness and passivity – is less so.

Indeed, it is with the important notion of survivance that the problematic injunction toward a Benthamite passivity becomes most apparent, insofar as survivance must inevitably interrupt every such distinction between active and passive tenses. While Derrida clearly understands this, his insistence upon starting from passivity, rather than from sharing which is both active and passive at once, serves only to obscure this originary priority of life-death.

Given this originary indissociability of finitude and life, however, it nonetheless becomes clear that one can no longer deny the possibility of dying to nonhuman animals. Hence, insists Derrida, it is imperative that we break with the dominant Western tradition that – along with and prior to everything else – therefore also denies to every other animal even the redemptive possibility of the phantasm, the spectrality of which necessarily undoes the reductionist view of ‘mere’ life as mechanistic. As Derrida writes, ‘I don’t know’ is ‘the very modality of the experience of the spectral, and moreover of the surviving trace in general’ (p.137).

Ultimately, Derrida proposes a new definition of the ‘phantasm’, one no longer restricted to the arenas of fiction or psychoanalysis. Rather, the phantasm marks the braiding of the intolerable, the unthinkable, and the ‘as if’ – that uncanny zombie, in other words, of a living death that can be affirmed only in and by its endurance as a phantasm. Hence, writes Derrida, any reflection ‘on the acute specificity of the phantasmatic cannot fail to pass through this experience of living death and of affect, imagination and sensibility (space and time) as auto-hetero-affection’ (p.170). One affirms, in short, only by enduring the undecidable, and thus undergoing its apocalyptic ordeal. Similarly, such affirmation must affirm finitude as the condition of every living being, rather than being the right of man alone.

The contrary of this, Derrida argues, is that ‘poor, primitive, dated, [and] lacunary’ gesture which speaks of ‘the animal’ as some homogeneous ontological unit, and in so doing ‘authorize[s] itself to say the same thing’ on the subject of animals as vastly different as, say, infusoria and mammals (p.197). This unfortunately all too common gesture – one which again places Robinson Crusoe together with the Cartesian and Heideggerian Robinsons – is, continues Derrida, simply a bêtise resolutely entrenched within the archive, and as such ‘neither natural nor eternal’ (p.198). Rather, we disclose here one of the limits of this world, and thus ‘the very thing that one must try to cross in order to think’ (p.198). To limit the world to the human, insists Derrida, is to remain, with Robinson, upon his island, conforming to ‘the limits of a Homo Robinsoniensis’ who interprets everything ‘in proportion to the insularity of his interest or his need’ (p.199). Such then, is that all too human Family Robinson who ‘dream on the basis of Robinson’ – the Cartesian, Kantian and Husserlian Robinsons, the Robinsons of Rousseau and Joyce, and ‘of all the transcendental subjectivisms and idealisms’ (p.199).

Another dream – the dream of Derrida and of an increasing number of others, including myself – is to finally leave this island, to leave this solitude of world. This is not, however, simply a case of admitting ‘the animal’ access to (human) ‘world’ – a gesture typical of animal rights discourse. Rather, cautions Derrida, one must never forget that ‘the autos, the ipse, autobiography is Robinsonian’ (p.199). Every living being, in other words, is Robinson, shared together in being always deprived – a deprivation that is at once the greatest gift – of the as such.

Finally then, with what words does Derrida take his leave? Well, fittingly, with nothing less than a declaration of war. The ‘superarmament’ of ideology and idealism that dominates Western metaphysics is, he argues, shot through with a violence that must still be recognized: ‘It is through war that idealism […] imposed its interpretation of Being, a war for the victory of an idea, of the idea of idea’ (p.290). All at once paraphrasing, translating, and appropriating Heidegger, Derrida ultimately returns us to death: ‘There is only one thing against which all violence-doing, violent action, violent activity, immediately shatters. […] It is death’ (p.290). Our opening question thus remains entire: who is capable of death? With this, Derrida takes his leave. Leaving us all with the immense work of mourning.



[1] As the seminar draws to a close, Derrida refers to its ‘promised’ continuance on several occasions.

[2] Derrida explores, with varying degrees of thoroughness, the Heideggerian animal in Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question [1987], trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp.47-57; Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p.75; and The Animal That Therefore I Am [2006], trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp.141-160.

[3] On this, see also Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, pp.27-29, 81, 103; and, with Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.70.

[4] Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue, p.65.


Richard Iveson

Goldsmiths, University of London

E-mail: richard.iveson@ntlworld.com