Tag Archives: Derrida

Matthew Calarco ‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization.’ A Review of Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals

The following article ‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization’ by Matthew Calarco is a review of my book Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals (2014) recently published in the open access journal Humanimalia 9:1 (Fall 2017), pp.152-159.

I would like to sincerely thank Professor Calarco for taking such time and effort in order to produce such an insightful, in-depth and generous essay.

It can be accessed here (HTML):

http://www.depauw.edu/humani…/issue%2017/calarco-iveson.html

Or here (PDF):

Click to access calarco-iveson-pdf.pdf

 

‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization’ by Matthew Calarco

The growth of animal studies from an emergent field of inquiry into a mature set of discourses and practices over the past several years has been marked by two particularly welcome developments. First, concerns and questions about the status and nature of animals and animality have penetrated ever deeper into the core of disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. This trend has helped to call into question some of the most stubborn dogmas in these disciplines and to provide the space for important intellectual and theoretical transformations. Second, extant approaches and frameworks among animal activists have increasingly come to inform the work being done in animal studies, enriching its ethico-political sensibilities and providing practical support for its enrichment and evolution. What has perhaps gotten lost in the rapid growth of animal studies, however, are deeper questions about what is ultimately at stake in the field. Although the multiplication of disciplinary perspectives on animals and animality is no doubt important, we might ask ourselves: Are some frameworks  more critically insightful than others in terms of trying to discern violence and disrespect aimed toward animals and animalized others? Similarly, we might also wonder: Which perspectives are most fecund for transforming those relations and ultimately arriving at alternative forms of life?

Richard Iveson’s book, Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals, seeks to frame and address these important questions. With this ambitious, wide-ranging, and erudite book, Iveson hopes to provide nothing less than new critical and affirmative groundings for future work in animal studies. On Iveson’s account, unless we understand the deep sources of violence toward animals, we will never arrive at a place from which we might begin to contest those sources and eventually reconstitute more respectful relations with animals. In this review, I will track some of the basic elements of Iveson’s fascinating and powerful argument before closing with some questions about some of its possible limitations.

Rejecting the Institutionalized Genocide of Animals. Iveson’s overall project begins from the premise that animals matter for themselves — which is to say, in and of themselves — and not simply in view of how they might shed light on certain questions concerning human nature or human sociality. That the study of animals and animality might illuminate certain aspects of how power circulates among human beings is, to be sure, something worthy of our attention for Iveson; but his primary emphasis is placed on ensuring that animals are seen as beings who have value beyond their instrumental usefulness to human beings. As he writes in the introduction, to accept the chief premise animating his work is

to accept that humans do not have the right to do whatever they like with other animals. It is to accept that our given state of affairs is unacceptable and must be radically transformed. Put simply, it is to no longer accept the economy of genocide into which we have all been thrown. (25)

The overarching aim of his project, then, is to find ways to allow animal lives to matter, that is, to count and become salient in those disciplines, institutions, and practices that have traditionally excluded animals from the circle of concern. Given Iveson’s philosophical background, the natural place to look for allies for such a project is the analytic philosophical tradition, populated by luminaries such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Paola Cavalieri. The standard gesture in this discourse is to extend ethical consideration to animals by way of analogical reasoning, demonstrating that animals are sufficiently similar to human beings as moral patients so as to warrant similar moral standing and consideration. Iveson, though, takes a critical stance toward this tradition, as it tends to gloss over the radical singularity and alterity of animals and to neutralize human-animal differences by way of conceptual and practical schemas. In so doing, he joins philosophers and theorists in the pro-animal feminist care tradition, who seek to ground animal ethics in caring relations between and among human beings and animals. And yet, despite Iveson’s proximity to this tradition, his deeper philosophical commitments derive from the Continental tradition, with Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Nietzsche being among the primary sources of inspiration. From Nietzsche and Derrida, Iveson borrows the notion that the denial of animal finitude and singularity lies at the very heart of the current crisis in human-animal relations. As such, the task of Zoogenesis can perhaps best be read as a meditation on the sources of that denial as well as what it would take to acknowledge and affirm animal finitude and singularity. The latter, affirmative task would not be so much a matter of granting animals their uniqueness and relation to death but of discovering and encountering it in various ways in the shared spaces in which human-animal relations emerge and are sustained. I will track the main thread of this critical and affirmative analysis in Iveson’s work by examining some of the key themes in each of the five main parts of the work.

From Animalization to Zoogenesis. The bulk of Iveson’s book provides a condensed but rigorous reading of the history of philosophy and theory in view of animals and animality. In Part One, he argues that the guiding thread linking together thinkers as diverse as Plato, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Blanchot is a denigration of animality (both human and nonhuman forms) and a denial of death to animals themselves. In a close reading of Plato’s Meno, Iveson shows how Platonic dualism (the reigning metaphysical system in much of intellectual and Western culture for over two millennia) teaches us to seek the highest truth, beauty, and the Good by leaving behind the sensible world and preparing for a disembodied life beyond death. Although this non-finite mode of human existence is disavowed by post-metaphysical thinkers such as Blanchot and Heidegger, both of whom return the human to its irreducibly mortal mode of existence, such mortality is not understood to be shared between and among human beings and other animals. Instead, mortality and the “capacity” for dying one’s own death come to be seen as  something proper only to human beings. As such, Iveson notes, the post-metaphysical decentering of the human subject that throws the subject outside of itself and toward its singular being-toward-death is insufficient to displace the anthropocentrism at the heart of the philosophical tradition. In order to accomplish this latter goal and to continue the post-metaphysical task of thought require giving finitude back to animals, or rather catching sight of the shared mortality at the heart of all human and animal life.

Failure to recognize the finitude and singularity of all living beings creates the conditions for what Iveson calls animalization. Lives that are animalized are lives that do not matter; such lives are reduced to deathless objects to be annihilated and consumed with impunity. In view of this reduction, Iveson argues that it is

imperative to disclose another way to give death, and to the giving of dying, to animals. To give death to other animals: the gift of and the giving that is the shared finitude of living beings. Only then will the monstrous hubris of an unthinking utilization and consumption of fetishized corpses itself become unthinkable. (94)

If we are to acknowledge the death of animals, Iveson suggests we must begin with the recognition that all singular animal life (whether human and nonhuman) emerges in a process he names zoogenesis.  Zoogenetic relations emerge from a shared, ex-propriated site of encounter. In Part Two, Iveson tracks such animal encounters in literary form with Kafka (“Investigations of a Dog”), in ethico-poetic form with Derrida (in his much-discussed naked encounter with a cat in The Animal That Therefore I Am), and in ontological form with Nietzsche (with the theme of a form of life beyond nihilism). The key to Iveson’s notion of encounter is that it does not ultimately stem from an act of ethical will (which is to say, conscious responsibility for another animal) or a desire for spiritual perfection (understood as seeking out animal encounters as a way of improving oneself and expanding one’s consciousness). Rather, on Iveson’s reading, these thinkers and writers all point toward animal encounters as events, that is, as something that one undergoes — beyond full understanding, presence, and mastery. Thus, animal encounters testify to the ways in which animals are more than a given subject can think. Animal encounters are ways of naming the manner in which animals announce themselves in their singularity and finitude, beyond the strictures of traditional philosophical and theoretical discourses that would seek to strip them of their radical alterity. For Iveson, such unpredictable and astonishing encounters speak to a way of life beyond the nihilism of life-denying transcendence and the incomplete nihilism of the “last man,” a relational encounter with a world that Nietzsche describes in The Gay Science as “over-rich” in all that is “beautiful, strange, questionable, terrible, and divine.”

In Part Three, Iveson explores how such encounters cannot be delimited either to the realm of the inter-human or to one’s preferred forms of animality and nonhuman otherness. As for the former delimitation, he argues that this sort of restriction of the ethics of encounter is at work in Judith Butler’s writings on the recognition and mattering of vulnerability. As with Heidegger and Blanchot, Iveson suggests that Butler’s post-humanist ethics fails to go far enough to displace anthropocentrism. Conversely, he argues that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of becoming-animal, while radically non-anthropocentric, re-establishes its own zoogenetic limit in the manner in which it configures the outside of the human as populated only by pack-like, feral, and untamed animals and forms of life. In configuring the outside of the human in this manner, Deleuze and Guattari run the risk of missing precisely the kinds of encounters with animal singularities that Kafka and Derrida track and ending up in a kind of undifferentiated, deep ecological holism. While Iveson’s reading of Deleuze and Guattari will be somewhat contentious for some readers, there is certainly merit to this concern with their work and with the manner in which their notion of becoming-animal has sometimes been put to work in pro-animal and ecological discourses.

In Part Four, Iveson tracks this same failure to think zoogenetically at the level of the socius, a restriction that has led to an anthropocentric delimitation of the boundaries of community and the political. Through an analysis of a host of political thinkers, Iveson convincingly demonstrates that no politics based on humanism — no matter how widely or generously the concept of the human is defined — will suffice to constitute a genuinely post-anthropocentric sense of community. Rather than being a neutral designation, on this analysis “the human” nearly always functions in the dominant culture of the West in a performative manner to circumscribe a group of beings considered to be properly human and properly part of the society over and against those who are sub- or non-human. Commenting on this anthropocentric logic in the humanism of Susan Buck-Morss, Iveson explains:

Buck-Morss misunderstands that humanism is only insofar as it sets up a limit between the human and the animal. Such is the demand for line-drawing which humanism can never avoid, and which ever again founds that animalization of the other which is the very condition for those political collectives she imagines her humanism will overcome. (244)

For Iveson, it is only with the more radical Nietzschean and Derridean affirmation of more-than-human life that we can arrive at a conception of community and being-with that overcomes this humanist closure and violence. To say yes to life (and to the finitude at the heart of life) is to affirm that one is always already encountered by singularities that are shared in and with others, that communities and relations pre-exist our encounters, and that community with animals only happens in the midst of these ongoing relations. In Iveson’s words, a community beyond the human is a

“community without limit” … an infinite commonality of singularities which shares and in which is shared all finite living beings. (258)

It is important to note that community and relation, if they are understood in terms of Derridean différance and Nietzschean will to power (as Iveson’s account is), will not issue in a hands-off, rights-based, non-interference ethics and politics but will instead entail considerable transformation among and between those beings called animal and human. Such transformations might even involve a fundamental transformation in the species heritages of human and animal beings, whether through biotechnological transformation or other similar kinds of interventions. In the final section of the book, Iveson explores the question of how his ethics, politics, and ontology both feed into and challenge certain animal biotechnological research. Here, in a complex reading of Bernard Stiegler and related thinkers, Iveson acknowledges that animals and relations can and will change over time and that biotechnological interventions cannot be ruled out a priori; the question is rather one of which relations and transformations to undertake. Iveson suggests that the key limitation with the transhumanist technological project is that it is based on an attempt to master animal life and finitude more generally, seeking to guide zoogenetic becomings along a single dimension or axis (largely structured by the demands of capital). By contrast, Iveson outlines a notion of technicity that is open to becomings that unfold in a variety of un-master-able and unpredictable directions.

On the Scope and Limits of Zoogenesis. The potted overview I have offered here of Iveson’s book fails to do justice to the complexity and intricacy of his arguments as well as the charitable and thoughtful engagement he offers with each of the major figures he analyzes. His book is to be highly recommended for any reader who hopes to gain a deeper understanding of how a critical animal studies perspective might thread its way through the hegemonic history of the West as well as the contemporary theoretical scene. In this closing section of the review, I want simply to pose a couple of questions in view of Iveson’s project for those of us who might take up portions of it in various ways.

Given Iveson’s attempt to think relation and singularity zoogenetically, one wonders about the broader scope of his project. How does the path of thought outlined in the book help to negotiate relations and singularities with non-living beings, systems, and so on? Here the question is not so much one of how mortality and finitude figure in the constitution of living human-animal singularities, but rather one of whether ethics and politics might be extended beyond this particular set of relations. In other words, how should we read Iveson’s call for a “community without limit”? The only example of an ethic of non-animal others discussed in Iveson’s work is deep ecological holism, which is rejected precisely because of its tendency to override singularity in favor of relational wholes. But what if one sought to construct an ethic that recognizes a wider range of singularities, both living and non-living? In other words, how might Iveson’s zoocentrism either be supplemented by or be in opposition to phytocentric, biocentric, or multi-centric environmental ethics? Likewise, how might his project be situated in view of an ethics of the more-than-human world that aims to displace any and all centers in favor of a form of life lived in view of “all our relations”? With Iveson’s close relation to both Derrida and Nietzsche in mind, one can see how such questions and possible tensions might arise. Derrida does not rule out the possibility of thinking through the ethics and politics of such a broad set of relations, but his overwhelming focus is on how différance constitutes the matrix through which living singularities emerge and maintain some semblance of sameness. Nietzsche’s thinking, by contrast, casts a much wider ontological and relational net. He thinks will to power as properly cosmic, insists that the Apollonian and Dionysian agon emerges primordially from nonhuman nature itself, and teaches us to be wary of thinking that life is anything but an exception in the planetary and cosmic order of things.

Such questions arise not simply because of the zoocentric nature of Iveson’s project; this delimitation is entirely understandable given the need to work carefully through the human-animal boundary in particular and the unique forms of violence and becoming that occur along this axis. Rather, what prompts one to consider the scope of Iveson’s framework is his tendency to present zoogenesis as the intractable, sole (“only” is a frequent word deployed by Iveson when considering the necessity of a zoogenetic thinking) site from which to contest the established anthropocentric order and constitute an alternative socius. Were zoogenesis understood as a partial but important aspect of a form of life beyond animalization, there would be no need to pit zoogenesis against ecological or planetary holism. Rather, the latter ethical and political frameworks might come to be seen as supplementary forms of normative consideration, which would themselves be nested inside a host of micro- and macro- singularities and relations that exceed the economy of the living. Of course, to do justice to such a wide variety of singularities and relations, one would have to do away with the desire to privilege any single ontological or normative framework and allow thought to enter into a realm in which plural ontologies (which are rather different from a single pluralist ontology) proliferate in view of doing justice to all our relations. Such questions hover on the edges of Iveson’s project, and it will be of considerable interest to see how Iveson’s forthcoming work on posthumanism and the path of thought he has opened up for his readers will unfold in view of these additional ontological and normative considerations.


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

.

Introduction

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.

.

Notes

  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’)

 

Introduction

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.

 

INTRODUCTION TO FREUD: SUMMARY OF KEY CONCEPTS

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.

References:

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.

Abstract:

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

 

Abstract

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).

 

Notes

[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.

 

Notes


[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

 


“Whether There is Life or Not”: Dasein and the Vivacity of the Nonliving

 

The following is the abstract of my proposed paper for the “Radical Space” conference at the University of East London on 18 and 19 October, 2013. Considered in conjunction with the paper for the SEP conference (the previous post here), it gives a clear indication as to my current research interests (research which will ultimately result in a book, at present provisionally entitled Insect Lover of Jacques Derrida: Writings of the Posthuman):

This paper explores some of the far-reaching implications of a rigorous deconstruction of the living-nonliving binary. In proposing a radical materialist conception of the trace – understood as the becoming-time of space and becoming-space of time – I argue that this demands an equally radical reworking of the spaces of the body.

If we are to understand how a certain “post-Derridean” deconstruction constitutes a fully materialist, antihumanist and posthumanist philosophical praxis, the fundamental dichotomy that remains to be challenged is between the living and the nonliving, that is, between the animate and the inanimate. Derrida, by contrast, deconstructs only the living-dead binary, that is, between the living and no longer living, while leaving intact the barrier between the living and the never or not yet living.

Indeed, Derrida in fact installs an unbridgeable abyss between the living and the nonliving when, in Of Grammatology, he posits a first “coup” which allows that being as such only appears with the emergence of life, synonymous with the emergence of the trace, thus leaving deconstruction justifiably susceptible to the charge of correlationalism as posited by Quentin Meillassoux. Put simply, for Derrida there is being, but no being as such, without a living being. The trace, however, continues to function whether there is life or not, and this has serious consequences not only for deconstruction, but for political and ethical questions as well [1]. As will be shown in this paper, this becomes clear once Derrida’s understanding of the trace is placed in dialogue with Meillassoux’s notion of ancestrality – a dialogue constituting a genuine posthumanist encounter between deconstruction and “object-orientated ontology.”

In my reading, I argue (against Derrida) that Derrida’s oeuvre ultimately demands a love for the nonliving in general. This in turn corresponds with a non-vitalist, materialist position which, in contrast to the meaningless void of empty relativism, demands ever greater political and ethical vigilance towards potentially inventive spaces of community.

 

[1] On this, see the important work of Martin Hagglund, particularly Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (2008) and “Radical Atheist Materialism: A Critique of Meillassoux” (in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism eds Bryant, Srnicek & Harman (2011)). Also in this context, see Joanna Hodge Derrida on Time (2007)


Cannibals and Apes: Revolution in the Republic

The following is a copy of the paper I presented at The London Conference for Critical Thought at Birkbeck College, University of London, on 29th June 2012. It is very much the record of a work-in-progress and, rather than attempting any hasty conclusions, my aim here is simply to pull at some of the threads that constitute the nexus of workers, animals, and democracy in Plato’s Republic in the hope of illuminating some of the unthought connections that remain to urgently concern us today.

I explore the issues here in greater detail in a subsequent lecture given at the LSE (Feb 2014), the full text of which is  posted here:

https://zoogenesis.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/plato-between-the-teeth-of-the-beast-full-text-of-lse-public-lecture/

 

Two points, I think, are of the greatest importance here.

First, Plato argues that nonhuman animals as much as human animals possess an “instinct” or “urge” for freedom that is synonymous with the “instinct” or “urge” for democracy, and it is a sensitivity towards this shared possession, as opposed to an empathic sensitivity towards the suffering of others (however important this may be), which so acutely concerns Plato.

And second, it is this sensitivity towards the instinct for freedom shared among all living beings, and among domestic animals in particular, which, more than anything else, Plato fears will ignite a revolution that will bring down the oligarchy of his ideal Republic. This, I think, certainly provides us with “food for thought.”

*     *     *

Democracy, claims Plato, inevitably results in tyranny. This is because the legal equality of men and women, as well as the freedom in the relations between them, together create such sensitivity towards nonfreedoms that, ultimately, “if anyone even puts upon himself the least degree of slavery, they become angry and cannot endure it.” In the end, this sensitivity becomes so urgent that they thereafter “take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all.” At this point, writes Plato, tyranny quickly steps in to inflict “the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom.”

As a result, in the formulation of Plato’s ideal Republic, its ability or otherwise to ensure that any hint of democracy is immediately stamped out becomes crucial to its conservation. 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, the most telling and the most dangerous of which, according to Plato, is a sensitivity towards the enslavement and exploitation of other animals. No one, he says, “would believe how much freer domestic animals are in a democratic city than anywhere else.” Dogs become almost indistinguishable from their mistresses, whilst donkeys and horses – who, in the Republic would labour invisibly for the benefit of its citizens – are instead allowed to freely roam the streets, “bumping into anyone who doesn’t get out of their way.”

Here, we begin to map a clear correlation between the democratic freedoms of animals and those of slaves, women, and workers. In fact, in Plato’s Republic slaves, animals, and workers together constitute what is necessary for it to function as the ideal dwelling of the best (women being, as usual, absented from consideration). Moreover, the boundaries between these three groups are extremely porous, merging into a single group – that of wild animals – during times of crisis spurred by the democratic urge for freedom.

As a technique to prevent such crises, Plato maintains explicitly 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. 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. This is the first point I want to make here.

Turning from the conserving to the founding of the Republic, we discover this founding rests almost exclusively with the mouth. According to Plato in the Timaeus, the mouth is arranged “to accommodate both what is necessary and what is best.” Through the mouth, necessary nourishment for the body enters, and through the mouth the best exits by way of the stream of speech that is the instrument of intelligence.

This is not to say, however, that everyone’s mouth serves as both entrance and exit. Rather, it is a question of degree. At one pole, we find those esteemed citizens such as Plato and Socrates 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 pole, 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. At this latter pole, says Plato, stands 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?”

In the freedom to seek satisfaction for bodily desires, marked by the open entrance of the mouth, Plato thus equates the democratic urge with the “despised” character of the manual worker. At the same time, he makes it clear that the worker animal is fit only to eat, that is, fit only to perform those tasks necessary to the functioning of the Republic, while only the rulers, insofar as they are not diverted by the necessity of work, are fit to reason and teach. For Plato, democracy inverts this proper binary: rather than the mouths of the best enslaving the mouths of the necessary, the necessary enslaves the best. It is clear, however, that the mouth, be it in the Republic or in the democratic city, is nonetheless the instrument of enslavement. For Plato, however, the rulers of the Republic enslave the necessary workers, slaves, and animals to a lesser degree than the free worker enslaves the best in democracy.

There still remains for Plato the question of how, exactly, to repress the democratic urge or instinct from within the boundaries of the Republic. While the best, says Plato, feasts on fine arguments and lives in moderation, workers, slaves and animals, by contrast, have no access to such feasts of the intellect, their desires not being held in check by internal laws in alliance with reason.

As such, he argues, they inevitably succumb to the unreasonable, lawless desires of the body. Despite even the worker-ape’s best intentions, beastly and savage libidinal desires will attack him when his defences are down, that is, they will throw him from sleep, after which “there is nothing it – the worker-ape – won’t dare to do at such a time, free of all control by shame or reason. It doesn’t shrink from trying to have sex with a mother, 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.”

In this moment the worker-ape thus ceases to be a gendered being and becomes instead a rampaging “it” synonymous with Freud’s “id,” a grammatical shift marking the worker-ape as both inhuman and animal. At this point the dominance of the mouth as entrance becomes absolute: no “food” will be denied: incest, bestiality, sex with gods; patricide, regicide; cannibalism – no act, as Plato specifies, is omitted.

Clearly then, at the founding of the ideal Republic, these dangerous desires such as belong to every worker-ape must somehow be contained. The mouth here is for Plato a pharmakon, both remedy and poison at once. 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, serves to illegally incorporate within the body of the worker “something similar to what rules the best.” In short, through the imposing of the language of reason and law, an external Guardian is installed within the worker in order to make of the latter an unwitting slave. It is an enslaving, moreover, of which the worker-ape knows nothing. This, insists Plato, is “better for everyone,” because in this way “all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing.” Such a taming – Plato’s word – renders submissive the dangerously strong and healthy bodies of the labouring classes to the demands of the ruling class, and it is only once such an external guardian has been fully incorporated that the worker-ape may be then “set free.”

The insistence here on the notion of incorporation in its specifically psychoanalytic sense in opposition to introjection, is central to understanding this mechanism for taming the urge for freedom. Indeed, a psychoanalytic reading is explicitly called for by Plato’s text. Introjection, as Maria Torok makes clear, always involves growth, a broadening of the ego by way of the mouth in which the external is assimilated with the internal, transforming both in the process. For the Guardian of the Law to function, however, it cannot be introjected by the worker-apethrough his or her mouth (as entrance), and so must rather pass by way of an incorporation through other orifices (primarily the ear). In short, it cannot be worked-over by the worker-ape because the language of the rulers serves principally to conceal the desires of the workers from the workers themselves.

Incorporation, continues Torok, is “the first lie” and “the first instrument of deception” – a trick which leads the ego to mistake its external enslavement for an introjection of its own making. Instead, the incorporation of the guardian ensures an encryption of the worker-ape’s natural desires, thus 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, entombed by security guards within the animal body. 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.

In speaking of the manual labourer as someone to be naturally despised, however, Plato makes an extremely telling point. The labourer, he argues, insofar as he is forced to attend to the necessary appetites of his beastly body, thus becomes accustomed “from youth on to being insulted for the sake of the money” – the money needed to satisfy those appetites, and it is this insult which makes of the labourer a despised being, an ape instead of a lion.

This shifts Plato’s hierarchy 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 between those who need not concern themselves with the necessary satisfactions of the body, and those that must work to survive. In the latter – and this is Plato’s great fear, a fear that combines in equal measure the cannibal and the starving – the dreams of democracy, of revolution, inevitably slumber. 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.

Moreover, not a single one of these apes 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 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 within an unnameable crypt 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, 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 foreclosed 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, only serves to deceive it, a way of filling its mouth with something 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 its privation of 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, with its teeth bared (teeth being the mark of the first great libidinal reorganisation of the body’s relations) – calls out in vain to be filled with a language that permits introjection, that permits the mourning of what has been foreclosed.

This points to two, related questions: first, how might one mourn, introject, that which has been foreclosed by incorporation? Still reading Plato with Torok, such an interminable mourning would constitute 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 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?

These questions can be brought closer together in conjunction with Derrida’s notion of “eating well.” To eat well, says Derrida, is never negation or repression but always affirmation, that which is without firmness, without closedness. In saying “yes,” the mouth becomes an opening to the most respectful, grateful, and giving ways of relating to the other and relating the other to the self. By contrast, Plato eats badly, the worker-ape in the Republic being cannibalistically consumed by a body that does not share what it eats, and with what it eats, but eats entirely on its own. In place of the violence of Platonic incorporation, Derrida argues instead there must be the lesser violence of a regulated introjection, the opening to which is located by way of an interrogation of all those places left open by cultures and discourses for a noncriminal putting to death.

Here too, the question of democracy is inseparable from the question of the animal: with both, one must learn to eat well understood as “learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-the-other-to-eat.” This, suggests Derrida, is the definition of infinite hospitality. It is also what Plato decries so vehemently as a democratic sensitivity – an infinite sensitivity – to the possible freedom for all. The interminable mourning or introjection advocated by Derrida thus by no means closes itself off to the repressed dreams and desires for revolutionary reorganisation: rather, interminable mourning is that which refuses to succumb to the illegal fantasy of incorporation.

Ultimately, we find ourselves 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 at once diagnostic and repressive. The Platonic Guardian, in short, ensures the closed mouth of the worker, which Georges Bataille describes as “the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude.”

For us, however, things are different. Contrary to the entire Western humanist tradition, we find here an unlikely and unruly valorisation 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. Again, 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.”

Sensitivity to atrocious suffering and, above all, sensitivity to nonhuman suffering is, insofar as it potentially reveals the shared instinct for freedom, the greatest danger to the oligarchic constitution of the Platonic Republic. This alone, given the atrocious suffering of other animals everywhere around us today, should give us sufficient food for thought – in itself a sensitivity to the need for shared nourishment, for eating well, understood as that which has the potential to liberate the repressed desires of an authentic democracy to come. 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 a sensitivity forces the formerly closed mouth wide open, preparing to devour any social pact founded upon gross inequality, slavery and injustice.


Cannibals, Apes, and the London Conference in Critical Thought

The following is the abstract of the paper** I will be presenting as part of the ‘Question of the Animal’ strand at the inaugural London Conference in Critical Thought (LCCT), which takes place at Birkbeck College, University of London on June 29th and 30th, 2012.

**The full paper has subsequently been posted on this blog at https://zoogenesis.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/cannibals-and-apes-revolution-in-the-republic/

This year’s conference is FREE (you only need to register), so hopefully as many people as possible will be able to attend.

Cannibals and Apes: Revolution in the Republic

By way of Derrida’s ethical injunction to “eat well,” this paper explores the relation between “eating the beast,” popular revolt, and Plato’s worker-ape. I take as my starting point Plato’s claim that those in whom the rational soul sleeps are unable to control what is both the beast of the body and the body of the beast, thus wallowing shamelessly in incest, bestiality, and cannibalism. For Plato, the “despised” manual worker exemplifies this monstrosity because he cannot rule but only serve his beastly corporeality, thus becoming an “ape.”

In Plato, the figure of the cannibal functions as a technique of control linked via instinct to the jurisdiction of power. Here, the Law of the Father is aristocratic, evidenced by Plato’s fearful hatred of both worker and democracy. There being no food that the worker-ape refuses to eat, the horror of the cannibal thus overlaps with the fear of the starving. Not by chance, this figure of the beast rampaging through the domestic arena follows on directly from Plato’s claim that the “equal freedoms” characteristic of democracy, in being shared also by domestic animals, constitutes both origin and symptom of imminent tyranny.

To prevent the letting loose of cannibalistic animality, for Plato both the worker and the democratic urge or instinct must be controlled by enslaving the unruly mob of apes beneath the “best,” the proper instrument of which is, quite simply, the mouth, described by Plato as that through which the necessary enters and the best exits. The best thus exits but never enters the mouth, is never ingested or digested, but rather, in being installed through other orifices, places within the body an external guardian of the Law to take the place of sleeping reason. The worker-animal, in short, must incorporate the Law as both foreign and determining, “set free” only once the cannibalistic instinct that is revolution is imprisoned within a further crypt.

It is this constellation of eat-speak-interiorise which Derrida puts into question, in the process tearing apart the dominant schema of subjectivity and the order of the political and of right. This paper thus centres upon two questions: first, when to “eat well” means learning to give without grasping the endless procession of partial objects which pass through the orifices by way of interminable mourning, what remains of the cannibalistic worker’s revolution? And second, how might Derrida’s injunction be restaged to incorporate both the transformative cannibalistic “instinct” that is revolution and the offer of infinite hospitality to the “living in general,” including those beings whose physiology has no need of orifices?

*          *          *

And here is the provisional schedule:

Panel 1: Consumption and the Question of the Animal

 

Richard Iveson, ‘Cannibals and Apes: Revolution in the Republic’

Kamillea Aghtan, ‘Wolf-biters and Over-Groomers: (Self-)Consumption as Ethical Reciprocity’

Karin Sellberg, ‘Molar Ethics and Aesthetics’

Panel 2: Animal Life: Beyond Good and Evil

Daniel van Strien, ‘A Marxist response to ‘the animal question’?’

Hyun Sook Oh, ‘Deleuze and an Ethics of Suffering: Toward the Zone of Indiscernibility of Human and Animal’

Angela Bartram, ‘Art from the Dead: the moral and ethical transformation of the animal pet into cultural artifact’

Panel 3: Animals in Domestic and Urban Space

Aaron Santesso, ‘The Panoramic Animal: Authenticity and Living Exhibitions’

Lucia Vodanovic, ‘Animal-life in the London Zoo: architecture, consumption and display’


The End of Humanity: Kant and the Death of God

 

As is becoming well known, the exclusion of the animal functions throughout Western philosophy to inscribe “properly” human ends. To begin, however, it is necessary that we concern ourselves with this invariant, as only by way of a rigorous engagement with philosophy might we come to understand finitude and history as the condition for every animal encounter, and thus counter the traditional operation that excludes nonhuman animals by dissolving their singular beings within the perfect identity of immortal, changeless species. Moreover, by distinguishing between two very different conceptions signified by the phrase “the end of man,” we discover that the proper end of man ultimately resides in the rupturing of humanism itself.

Readers familiar with philosophy will no doubt recognise the above reference to Jacques Derrida’s famous lecture “The Ends of Man,” first presented in 1968, wherein Derrida draws attention to the disjunction between the teleological and eschatological “ends” of man, that is, between telos and eskhaton.

Put simply, within the metaphysical tradition telos marks the end in the sense of the completion of man, of man’s end as his highest and most proper accomplishment in a transcendence of finitude that indissociably links metaphysics with humanism. In this way, what awaits humanity is humanity itself, that is, a fully human humanity. At the same time, however, the end of man in the eschatological sense of the destruction or overcoming of the human cannot be divorced from the thinking of the truth of man within this same tradition.

This problematic doubling of ends, suggests Derrida, can be seen most clearly at work in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the end of man as telos cannot come about by way of finite human knowledge, but only by way of the unmixed concepts of pure a priori reason. The end of man, in short, can only take place after the end of man, that is, only when every specifically human experience has been removed. Conversely, however, Kant simultaneously insists that this end is possible only because man is in essence a rational being, that is, because only man as man thinks the end, and in so doing raises himself above and beyond the absence of reason claimed to characterise every other animal. Hence, it is only the specificity of the human that opens up the possibility of the end as telos.

Here, Kant is confronted with an antimony or aporia that must be dealt with: the telos of a fully human humanity demands both the specificity of the human and the eschatological elimination of that specificity. It is an aporia, moreover, which constitutes a rupture within every humanism insofar as every humanism is metaphysical.

Kant attempts to control this aporia with the notion of universal history. He argues that Reason organises the regular, teleological progress of humanity only at the level of the species, guided in advance by nature and indifferent to the free will of individuals. However, individual free will nonetheless serves to ensure the ongoing trial and ordeal of Reason’s telos, and thus the development of man’s original capacities. By contrast, nonhuman animals pursue their “natural,” i.e., irrational, teleology purely by instinct, meaning that the “law-goverened history” of every other species can be identified by a simple “internal or external” examination of any given animal, each of whom is identified with the species as a whole.[1]

Here we see how “the animal” functions as the constitutive outside of the properly human. On the one hand, humans cannot proceed by instinct, as this would reduce them to “mere” animals. Hence, man must have free will.On the other, the idea that man acts without an innate, divinely-instilled telos is simply unbearable for Kant, not least because this would reduce humans to something less than “mere” animals. This is Kant’s first antimony: the simultaneous free will and machinic programming of humanity. Hence, man’s free will must be subordinated to the guiding hand of history. Only then might man be free while simultaneously assuming his God-given superiority above the mechanical ordering of animal existence.

For this reason, humans alone are finite. Given the empirical specificity of every freely willing human individual, she or he cannot therefore be identical to the species, as Kant claims to be the case for all other animals. Instead, death is necessary to ensure that the germs of reason “implanted by nature in our species” not be squandered by foolish individuals but be passed along through the “incalculable series of generations,” guaranteeing the progress of universal history (43). Nonhuman animals, however, have no need of finitude, and no death in any real sense. Rather an animal is only the species, each example being identical to every other of the same species. Hence, if a particular animal ceases to live, nothing has been lost. An animal, in short, cannot die. Only humanity, while immortal as a species, consists of mortal individuals.

This conflict between selfish mortality and selfless immortality, Kant continues, is the motor constituting society, which is thus only ever human – other animals being ontologically incapable of a separation of individual and group interests. While Kant goes on to argue that bourgeois capitalist society in fact constitutes the divine vehicle to realise the telos of humanity, this should not distract us from our initial problematic, that of the teloseskhaton aporia that this idea of universal history hopes to circumvent.

As we have seen, the movement of history in general, that is, universal history at the level of the species, must once again bracket out every specific human experience. At the same time, however, universal history is for Kant necessarily human history, depending upon the gradual transformation of an incalculable series of specific individual moments. In other words, the divinely-ordained completion of humanity demands the transcendence of human finitude, a transcendence which at the same time has human finitude as its very condition. Here, the same telos-eskhaton aporia quickly reestablishes itself, this time at the heart of historicity itself.[2]

The positing of the telos of a fully human humanity, the continuous but gradual perfection of the species, requires as its condition that every individual human being dies, destroyed in an eschatological moment of transformative limit. Returning to our specific focus, what does this discussion of the ends of the human offer for an encounter with animals?

Put simply, it offers a specific example of how traditional philosophy must exclude other animals in order to inscribe “properly” human ends, that is, to circumvent the intolerability of purposelessness and godlessness. At base, the exclusion of other animals throughout Western philosophy enables the fragile human ego to deal with the anxiety of cosmological insignificance, producing instead reassuring myths of universal importance. With Kant’s particular ideology, moreover, we begin to better understand the importance of finitude and historicity for any thinking encounter with animals.

Finitude, as we have seen, is the condition for history and for the fulfilment of humanity as reasoning being. It thus comes as no surprise to find that, throughout Western philosophy, other animals are somehow reduced to immortality as a result. Our first task is thus to consider how this paradoxical reduction to divine status is accomplished, as this is intimately connected to that economy which opens the space for a noncriminal putting to death. This economy, which I have no hesitation calling genocidal, depends not simply upon the exclusion of “the animal” from “the human,” but simultaneously upon the finite bodies of nonhuman animals being paradoxically constructed as undying (be that as untouched by the Fall into self-awareness or as genetically-determined automata). By this I mean that “the animal,” functioning as both homogeneous category and constitutive outside of “the human,”  is necessarily defined as lacking the possibility of death and thus as sharing a transparent pathic communication.

The choice of the term “ideology” is not fortuitous: the claim that nonhuman animals lack individual deaths is indeed precisely an ideology, one which, as Carol Adams notes, “ontologises animals as usable” (Neither Man Nor Beast, 15). Moreover, the ideology of the undying animal must be understood as an entanglement of both material and symbolic economies. The “question of the animal,” in other words, is a question of the literal rendering of animals’ bodies, and at once a demand which infinitely exceeds the democratic order founded upon, and conserved by, the semantics of an agent-centered subjectivity and of the sovereign human subject of rights and duties.

While the kettle logic undergirding Martin Heidegger’s hugely influential philosophy is essential to grasping this process, for the moment it is sufficient to note that, with “the animal” thus constituted as both undying and transparently pathic, the murder of a given nonhuman animal becomes ontologically impossible, even as corpses pile up in exponentially increasing numbers. Our initial question is thus clear: do nonhuman animals “have” finitude? And, if it is indeed undeniable that all animals do in fact die, what does this mean as regards thinking encounter with animals?

 

Infamously, in The Gay Science Nietzsche declares the death of God. While this death undoubtedly occurs in time – with Kant on one side of the fire break, Darwin and Nietzsche on the other – this is not an event that can be simply consigned to history, but is rather one to which we must continue to attend. For us here, it concerns the very future of Kant: what becomes of of the ends of mankind following the demise of the divine?

With the death of God, philosophy is forced from the pale pre-dawn of Kantianism: humanity must leave behind its hubristic myths of transcendence, jolted from its childish dreams of a divinely ordained end (telos). No longer concealed behind the linear teleology of universal history, evolution reveals itself as an infinitely diverse multiplicity of trajectories and transformations. With Nietzsche, the end ceases to be that of a fully human humanity and becomes instead immanent to the creativity of existence itself. Such is the eschatological moment of delirious destruction (eskhaton). Requiring neither divine telos nor human privilege, the death of God thus irredeemably explodes the illusory boundary dividing culture from nature. Ultimately, humanism – theological and secular – necessitates its own demise.

Things do not end here, however. Rather, it still remains necessary to consider the further critique of humanism proposed by structuralism. This critique, as Derrida notes, consists neither in restoring meaning to the metaphysical system as ordered by telos, nor in simply destroying meaning and thereby leaving only that dismal reign of chance so unbearable for Kant. Instead, writes Derrida, “it is a question of determining the possibility of meaning on the basis of a ‘formal’ organization which in itself has no meaning” (“The Ends of Man” 134). The structuralist critique, in other words, centres on transformations in the conditions that produce meaning, and it is both within and outside this anti-humanist space of the structure, at the very limit of sense or meaning, that the eschatolgical encounter takes place. Not, however, as restoration or destruction, but as invention and revaluation.

Thinking such encounters, however, must first and foremost come to terms with a danger inherent in language, with “language” broadly construed here as a species-specific way of being. Insofar as it must “ceaselessly reinstate the new terrain on the oldest ground,” language can never free itself from the risk of repeating precisely that which it aims to critique (Derrida “The Ends of Man” 135). Language, in other words, is at once the condition of transformative critique and that which necessarily entraps us, forcing us in a certain way to remain always on the same terrain, to always move along the same path. Here, we discover the return of our original aporia, eskhaton once again constrained by telos, only now all the delusions of anthropocentric grandeur have been excised.

In direct contrast to the movement of exclusion characterising the genocidal economy, the route to be taken, following both Nietzsche and Derrida, must henceforth lead us to think creatively with animals from within this originary aporia of shared existence.

To think this return without end it is thus necessary to give death to other living beings. Only the giving of a death has the potential to interrupt the brutal economy of genocide. While it perhaps sounds simple, to include other animals within the realm of the finite has explosive consequences, not least for all those animals, human and nonhuman, currently being exploited to death all over the globe. Indeed, to give death means never having the authority to put life to death.

 


[1] “Idea for a Universal History,” 42

[2] The distinguishing within “history” of historicity and historiology was first proposed by Heidegger in Being and Time. At its most basic, historicity refers to the movement of time, whereas historiology refers the discursive construction of History as a discipline.

 

References

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

Derrida, Jacques “The Ends of Man” in Margins of Philosophy trans. Alan Bass (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 109-136.

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

Kant, Immanuel Critique of Pure Reason trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1996).

Kant, Immanuel “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” in Political Writings 2nd Ed. Trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 41-63.

Nietzsche, Friedrich The Gay Science trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

Nietzsche, Friedrich The Will to Power trans. Walter Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968).


The Wrongs of Animal Rights

 

One might perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the proponents of rights for animals are the only ones left who have not yet heard about the challenges posed to the liberal subject of right from all sides. While this is not strictly true, neither is it particularly false.

A large part of the problem centres upon the fact that the so-called “fathers” of contemporary animal rights theory absolutely refuse any truck with possible alternatives, dismissing them out of hand as without relevance. As a result, a great many activists today – having inevitably turned to animal rights discourse in the first instance due to its privileged media position – believe that rights theory is not so much the best as rather the only position from which to address animal concerns. This is part of a retrograde and, at times, extremely bitter defensive battle concerned only with preserving that privileged position. While this is of course an all too human reaction, it is, however, just such anthropocentric conservatism that must be done away with.

Here then, the discourse of “animal rights” must be contested from both sides, that is, as regards both animal and right. Ironically perhaps, this can best be illustrated by way of its two greatest proponents, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, whose books, Animal Liberation (1975) and The Case for Animal Rights (1983) respectively, are generally considered the founding texts of contemporary animal rights theory.

According to Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, it is insofar as nonhuman animals are sentient, and only by virtue of this, that they are therefore entitled to have their interests taken into account in any utilitarian calculation. In this, however, Singer is not – as he himself makes clear – making a case for animal rights, but rather only for the necessity of including sentient animals in the determination of morality by utilitarian calculation in order to avoid falling into contradiction and thus irrationality. Singer’s basic position, in other words, remains inevitably inscribed within the calculus of ends, a human mastery which thus views the animal only according to its enclosure within an ordered technological schema. A schema, moreover, within which any oppression of a minority for the sake of that judged – by human standards – as the “common good” can all too easily be justified.

While Singer is not strictly proposing a theory of animal rights, Tom Regan meanwhile is not proposing a case for animal rights. Rather, Regan attempts merely to demonstrate that certain privileged nonhuman animals are the “same” as humans insofar as they too are “subjects-of-a-life,” that is, that they, in common with humans, possess interests and desires regarding their own individual existence. In other words, Regan’s neo-Kantian liberal approach determines the place of the nonhuman animal only according to an essential human morality, and in so doing inscribes human subjectivity as the ground of the animal. As philosopher Matthew Calarco notes, “Regan’s work is not a case for animal rights but for rights for subjects, the classical example of which is human beings.”[1]

Already then, we see how the notion of “animal rights” necessarily moves within the same or another humanism, redrawing again and again the same unthought lines of exclusion, the same metaphysics of either-man-or-animal. In both cases, it is man who must determine, and thus delimit, the animal. Similarly, the bourgeois liberalism upon which rights theory rests is clearly evident in the shared privileging of the individual – of individual consciousness (Regan) and of an individual capacity for suffering (Singer) – at the expense of wider considerations. In short, for both Singer and Regan it is only ever sentient animals who count, that is to say, it is only the most human animals who matter.

Here then, it is not only the anthropomorphising of the animal that renders rights theory hugely problematic, but also the liberalism that necessarily inheres within the notion of “right” itself. As Jacques Derrida insists, insofar as rights theory remains structurally incapable of dissociating itself from the Cartesian cogito, it necessarily finds itself condemned to helplessly reiterating an interpretation of the masculine human subject “which itself will have been the very lever of the worst violence carried out against nonhuman living beings.”[2] This inevitable contamination of the notion of “right,” as well as the refusal of its principal theorists to consider other possible avenues, has resulted in the alienation of several potentially sympathetic groups from thinking with other animals, feminists chief among them.

This chasm is further broadened in that, insofar as the Western human male constitutes the measure of everything, rights theory fondly imagines that the inferior status of nonhuman beings can be fundamentally challenged by way of the legal and political institutions of that same Western human male. As a result, as Calarco again points out, animal rights activism is left with no other choice than to adopt “the language and strategies of identity politics.”[3] which in turn serves to further isolate animal concern from other arenas of political activism that are similarly seeking to challenge structures of oppression such as ecofeminism.[4]

Moreover, there are further, less directly related problems regarding the underlying liberalism of rights discourse. Consider the political and ethical issue of veganism, for example. The individualism inherent in animal rights, itself dependent upon the liberalist idea of the free human subject of will, results in the ethico-political praxis of “enlightenment.” Politics, in other words, becomes for the adherent of animal rights the ethical practice of enlightening others through the power of that very will.

As a result, it becomes very easy to understand the widespread negative perception of veganism as the last pure, proselytising religion. Indeed, in a book written with Anna Charlton, rights theorist Gary Francione and even attempts to defend animal rights on the basis of its reduction to a “belief system,” that is, to a religion.[5] It thus comes as no surprise that animal rights activists tend to believe that “active inclusion in the movement carries with it certain proscribed beliefs such as the assertion of the moral righteousness of the movement and the necessity of spreading that revelation.”[6] Or, as Tom Regan puts it, one must – with all the moral superiority that this entails – enlighten “one person at a time.”[7] Here then, the focus is once again returned to the human “believer,” with animal concern being displaced onto a human concern serving what Jamison, Wenk and Parker describe “as an alternative expression of ‘repressed transcendence’” – a repression that is itself characteristic of modernity.[8]

It should be noted, however, that all such people in need of moral “enlightenment” in fact already know about the almost unspeakable horrors, about the intense suffering and resolutely quotidian cruelty undergone by other animals every minute of every day all over the world – a systematic and systemic torture-slaughter machine which, transcending every geographical boundary, carries on regardless. Where then does this leave the righteousness of “persuasion”? Presumably waiting either for a much more effective art of rhetoric, or for a messianic (re)incarnation. In the meantime, how can a proselytising practice founded precisely on liberal or neoliberal individualism ever result in the cessation of exploitation and consumption?

Intimately related to these Christo-capitalist foundations of contemporary animal rights theory is the all too frequent recourse to the rhetoric of moral innocence as regards nonhuman animals. At the same time as reinstating a very traditional human-animal dichotomy, this conservative yet unfounded rhetoric again serves only to burden animal concern with religious overtones – activism thus becomes penance for the moral culpability of the fact of being human. In this way, human exceptionalism finds itself once more safely inscribed within a Christian teleology as the only animal to Fall into sin and thus in need of salvation.

By contrast, the priority of animal liberation resides instead in disclosing an epistemic shift that, already underway, ultimately makes eating flesh simply unthinkable. In this sense, the issue of veganism is both subordinate to, and a necessary consequence of, a thorough deconstruction of speciesism, itself dependent upon the dismantling of the various mutually-articulating structures of oppression. Without this, veganism all too easily risks becoming merely a pious operation of ressentiment.

One way to think about this is through Carol Adams’ concept of the absent referent understood here as that which solicits – in the double sense of both shaking and importuning – that unacknowledged knowledge of the global torture-slaughter machine. Not, however, in the staging of a one-to-one dialogue – itself an all too human, all too individualist, all too egoist privilege – but by way of an undeniable manifestation of an habitual and constituent refusal to think and to see, one with the potential to solicit on a far larger scale. From this we can begin to understand why the future cessation of exploitation and consumption of other animals does not rest with the persuasive power of the minority of “enlightened” humans, but with the return of the repressed. A return which, as that which is most real, quite simply can no longer be denied at the level of our very being. Only then will consuming other animals become unthinkable in an absolutely literal sense.


 

Notes

1. Matthew Calarco Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p.8.

2. Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.65.

3. Matthew Calarco Zoographies, op.cit., p.7.

4. It would seem that, forming a group dedicated to exposing connections between sexism and speciesism, ecofeminists Carol Adams and the late Marti Kheel sought perhaps to “queer” the associations of rights theory by naming the group Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR). This, however, only confuses the issue, which is that of removing the focus on “rights” entirely.

5. See Francione & Charlton Vivisection and Dissection in the Classroom: A Guide to Conscientious Objection (Jenkintown: The American Anti-Vivisection Society, 1992).

6. Wesley V. Jamison, Caspar Wenk, & James V. Parker “Every Sparrow that Falls: Understanding Animal Rights Activism as Functional Religion” in The Animal Ethics Reader 2nd Edition. Ed. Susan J. Armstrong & Richard G. Botzler (London & New York: Routledge, 2008), pp.609-614 (p.611).

7. Tom Regan “Preface: The Burden of Complicity” in Susan Coe Dead Meat (New York & London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995), pp.1-4 (p.4).

8. Jamison, Wenk, & Parker, op.cit., p.610.


Wo und Ob: Heidegger’s Rethinking of the Heideggerian Animal


 

Okay, I admit that the following is perhaps somewhat esoteric, but it nonetheless has important consequences for (re)thinking animals with Heidegger from within both animal studies and continental philosophy. (Also, there is another post on the way soon – entitled “Salvation Dreams: The Wrongs of Animal Rights” – which will probably have a broader appeal. Anyway, back to M.H.)

According to Heidegger, the authentic encounter is marked by a “calling” [Anrufen] proper only to the human-Dasein as the sole possessor of the “as”-structure. However, once one comes to recognise the shared existence (or ek-sistence) of all beings as similarly constituted outside of themselves and irreducible to egological consciousness, this exclusive privilege can no longer be maintained. As a result, Heidegger’s assertion in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that the call is precisely a demand that “impels us toward the singular extremity [Spitze] of whatever originarily makes possible” (144) thus has far broader implications in terms of that which potentially remains to come.

It is toward this potentiality which Heidegger perhaps gestures when he later suggests that—

The difficulty of the problem lies in the fact that in our questioning we always and inevitably interpret the poverty in world and the peculiar encirclement proper to the animal in such a way that we end up talking as if that which the animal relates to and the manner in which it does so were some being, and as if the relation involved were an ontological relation that is manifest to the animal. The fact that this is not the case compels us to the thesis that the essence of life is accessible only through a destructive observation [Wesen des Lebens nur im Sinne einer abbauenden Betrachtung zugänglich ist], which does not mean that life is something inferior or that it is at a lower level in comparison with human Dasein. On the contrary, life is a domain which possesses a wealth of being-open [Offenseins], of which the human world may know nothing at all (The Fundamental Concepts, 255; trans. modified).

It remains the case then, beyond what is yet one more anthropocentric mirror—beyond, that is, this “fact” which compels Heidegger to speculate—, that this necessarily destructive observing with and to which the animal is sacrificed nonetheless reserves for nonhuman animals, on the far side of the abyssal rupture, the possibility of an unknown and unknowing being-open which remains to be differently thought.

Important in regard to this “different thought,” one centred upon the opening of possibility for nonhuman animals, is the very minor – but nonetheless hugely significant – emendation which Heidegger makes prior to the publication of the seventh edition of Being and Time in 1953. While a small number of other changes were made at the same time, these were all merely corrections of typographical errors. By contrast, this one particular change – thus far to my knowledge overlooked by scholars of the Heideggerian animal – opens up a new direction and a possible rethinking of Heidegger by Heidegger.

The change in question can be found on page 346 of the original German edition of Sein und Zeit, and page 396 of the Macquarrie & Robinson translation, with a footnote marking the revision. Here, Heidegger is highlighting a certain difficulty, a difficulty he appears to subsequently refuse two years later in The Fundamental Concepts; viz, in the early editions he argues that—

It remains a problem in itself [bleibt ein Problem für sich] to define ontologically the way in which the senses can be stimulated or touched in something that merely has life [in einem Nur-Lebenden], and how and whether [wie und ob] the Being of animals, for instance, is constituted by some kind of “time” (Being and Time, 396 [Macquarrie & Robinson translation]).

For the seventh edition, however, Heidegger replaces this problem of knowing “how and whether [wie und ob]” the Being of animals is constituted by some kind of ‘time’ with a different problem, that of knowing “how and where [wie und wo]” the Being of animals is constituted by some kind of ‘time.’” This change thus marks a an explicit shift in Heidegger’s thinking with other animals: the question is not (or no longer) whether animals have time, but only where and in what way such time(s) might spatialise itself. Here is Joan Stambaugh’s translation of the revised sentence:

How the stimulation and touching of the senses in beings that are simply alive are to be ontologically defined, how and where [wie und wo] in general the being of animals is constituted, for example, by a “time,” remains a problem for itself (Being and Time, 317).

Glossing this sentence, Derrida speculates whether the “pure concept” of “mere,” “bare,” or “simple” life—“this fiction, this simulacrum, this myth, this legend, this phantasm”—is not precisely a symptom of that history which “man tells himself, of the philosophical animal, of the animal for the man-philosopher,” a history intimately linked to the Christian narrative of the Fall (The Animal That Therefore I Am, 22-3). As a supplement to, rather than as a replacement for, this reading, however, Heidegger’s sentence can also be read as both a deferral of nonhuman animals beyond the anthropo-magical mirror[1] and a foreecho of Heidegger’s later hesitation concerning the “being-open” [Offenseins] of nonhuman animals cited above. Unfortunately, in translating “bleibt ein Problem für sich as “remains a problem in itself,” Macquarrie and Robinson efface the alternative rendering of “a problem for itself” (as chosen by Stambaugh) and, as a result, efface too the suggestion that Heidegger might rather be arguing that the “kind” of time by which the Being of animals is constituted remains essentially separate. (The reduction to a singular kind of time, refusing the much more likely possibility of infinte kinds of times, serves here only to yet again reiterate Heidegger’s unthinking reduction of the multiplicity of “living beings” to a single homogeneous essence.)

Hence, in this alternative reading of the sentence, rather than it being a logical problem to be put off until later, the “problem” is one which rather remains always and only an ontological question for nonhuman animals, in that its question—and, more specifically, it is a question of touch in its broadest sensecannot be accessed given the particular restrictions of the human world. In this reading then, its subsequent refusal in The Fundamental Concepts could not, after all, be considered a refusal. Rather, as Heidegger acknowledges with this correction, the question, once actually thought, must instead come to rest upon how that which is humanly unthinkable may be given its space. And that, both stimulating and touching, is indeed a question, one which perhaps even calls “toward the singular extremity of whatever originarily makes possible.”

 

 

Notes:

[1] For a detailed explication of the anthropomagical mirror in relation to Heidegger’s avowed commitment to a “humanism beyond humanism,” see my “Animals in Looking-Glass World: Überhumanism and Posthumanism in Heidegger and Nietzsche” in Humanimalia 1:2 (2010), pp.46-85.

 

References:

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

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

Heidegger, Martin Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, New York: State University of New York, 1996).

Heidegger, Martin The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude trans. W. McNeil & N. Walker (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995).

Heidegger, Martin Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Gesamtausgabe Ln, BD. 29/30 (Vittorio Klostermann, 1992).


 


Philosophers and their Animals – between Derrida and Rancière

The following paper, part of my “Philosophers and their Animals” series, will hopefully further clarify, along with the thought of Jacques Rancière, that outlined in 3(a): Derrida  as well as serving as a (long) preface to 3(b): Derrida, which remains still to come.

*     *     *

Stigmata of mastery: Jacques Rancière’s wounded animal

 

The expression ‘degeneration’ designates both the loss of vital, genetic, or generous forces and the loss of kind, either species or genre: the Entartung. … The degenerate is not a lesser vitality; it is a life principle hostile to life.

             Jacques Derrida

 

 

The contribution made by Jacques Derrida to what has recently become known as ‘animal studies’ cannot be overstated – as he himself writes, ‘animals are my concern’.0 Indeed, he describes his own thought in terms of a ‘sort of animal movement’, a movement which ‘seeks to appropriate what always comes, always, from an external provocation’ (Derrida 1995, 352). While animals preoccupy Derrida, haunting his texts with their in-humanity, this is not to suggest, however, that Derrida’s attentiveness to the ‘question of the animal’ is something external to, and thus distinct from, his thinking of différance, trace, iterability, and so forth. Rather, this concern both with the diversity of animals and with the philosophical conception of ‘the animal’ is indissociable from deconstruction itself. One cannot, in other words, affirm the differential double movement of protention and retention whilst simultaneously rejecting the deconstruction of human exceptionalism. It is precisely this, however, which, it will be argued, is attempted by Jacques Rancière. One of the most subtle and probing of contemporary thinkers and, indeed, one of the few political theorists, as Thomas Keenan remarks, ‘to take serious measure of the impact of deconstruction’ (Keenan 2005, 106), Rancière’s concern with active restaging – the process whereby those ‘outcasts’ denied an identity by the police order become viable discursive beings in and as the enactment of a revolutionary performative – remains central for a thinking of political struggle today. Nevertheless, his definition, via Aristotle, of the political as an essentially human domain dependent upon “the desire to engage in reasoned discourse” which thus disqualifies nonhumans as potential participants, is a circumscription which has serious consequences for his thinking of assujetissement ’.1 By contrasting Rancière’s notion of ‘literarity’ with that of Derrida’s ‘iterability’, it in fact becomes possible to understand how Rancière’s exclusion of nonhuman animals in delimiting the political in fact restages the very machinery of domination through which both nonhuman animals and ‘animalised’ humans are reproduced as subhuman – the very machinery of death which his discourse otherwise seeks to interrupt. Seeking only to extend Rancière’s thinking of politics beyond this contingent, self-imposed limit, this paper thus aims to demonstrate that only a vigilant deconstruction of anthropocentrism in all its guises – as indeed is offered by Derrida’s thinking of the trace – retains the potential to interrupt the genocidal economy of animalisation, and thus of an opening to a radical political restaging such as is plotted by Rancière. In this, it also seeks to attend to Derrida’s assertion that ‘[o]ne understands a philosopher only by heeding closely what he [sic] means to demonstrate, and in reality fails to demonstrate, concerning the limit between human and animal’ (Derrida 2008, 106).

In proposing an exclusively human politics, even as his texts plot the renegotiation of that very delimitation, Rancière ultimately redeploys a teleological, Aristotelian-Heideggerian conception of the human-animal dichotomy, and in so doing restages the very same economy of dependence-exclusion by which is reproduced the insensibility of ‘other’ bodies. In this, Rancière both discloses and conceals the political event, while simultaneously positing an eternal animal oppression and at once denying the very possibility of that oppression. Beyond this contradiction, it is only by refusing Rancière’s ‘flat-out denial’ – a denial by which ‘the master position’ conserves itself – does it become possible to interrupt the murderous theatrics of animalisation. A refusal which is simultaneously a refusal to disavow the billions of beings rendered invisible and at once unspeakably rendered every year within the slaughterhouses of agribusiness and on laboratory killing floors. Never the proper of the human, that which Rancière names assujetissement is instead always an animal encounter, in that it is an encounter which precisely makes explicit that which ‘the Human’ has foreclosed in order to delimit itself.

Introducing his notion of assujetissement (or ‘subjectivization’) in the first paragraph of ‘Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization’ (1992), Rancière explicitly states that his discussion will be ‘guided by the idea that the activity of thinking is primarily an activity of translation, and that anyone is capable of making a translation’ (Rancière 1992, 58). So far, so good (given that one understands ‘primarily’ as ‘first of all’, in the sense of prior condition). However, immediately after positing this ‘anyone’, this ‘anybody’, Rancière then retracts the ‘any’ and replaces it with an ‘only’: ‘Underpinning this capacity for translation is the efficacy of equality, that is to say, the efficacy of humanity’ (Rancière 1992, 58). The simple fact that Rancière sees no contradiction between the claim that ‘anyone’ can make a translation (can make sense) on the one hand, and that it is the efficacy of humanity which underpins just that capacity on the other, clearly illustrates the anthropocentrism organising his discourse. Indeed, this reactive circumscription of efficacy is already discernible in the reduction of the sensible – that which is aisthēton, i.e., capable of being apprehended by the senses – to the visual and the audible, and the latter, moreover, only insofar as it concerns human speech. In an echo of Plato who, in arguing that material ‘bodily sense’ can only be a hindrance to the acquisition of wisdom, simply assumes that what might be called the senses of contiguity, that is, smell, taste and touch – collected together and dismissively marked as ‘the rest’ – are all ‘inferior’ to sight and hearing (Plato 2003, 65b), Rancière’s reduction of the sensible to the visible and the audible-sayable (a reduction which presupposes that ‘sense’ can be rigorously subdivided) is again symptomatic of an unquestioned anthropocentrism. One which, effectively foreclosing the possibility of encounters which transcend visual and/or verbal exchanges, reiterates the traditional economy of ‘objective’ rationalist (positivistic) discourse.

More than this, however, is that Rancière’s symptomatic misrecognition serves to efface the fact that what he terms the process of politics – the ‘heterological enactment of the other’ (Rancière 1992, 64) – is precisely an encounter with an other as and at the limit of the human, an encounter which must always transcend a visual and/or verbal exchange. However, when Rancière insists that assujetissement is always enacted ‘in the name of a category denied either the principle or the consequences of … equality: workers, women, people of color, or others’ (Rancière 1992, 59), two conclusions are immediately evident. First, that these indeterminate other others can only ever be other, not yet visible-audible human animals; and second, that Rancière is at once assuming a master position which repeats that very same denial by which just such ‘outcasts’ are reproduced as ‘without sense’ when in fact, as we shall see, it is rather that the improper reinscription of sense that is assujetissement necessarily exceeds human efficacy. Thus, in hoping to inscribe such a proper limit, Rancière in fact hopes to efface that very efficacy.

For Rancière, ‘outcasts’ are those bodies positioned and posited ‘between humanity and inhumanity’ (Rancière 1992, 61), and thus any and all beings rendered insensible within a given (human) order of policy.3 Assujetissement, meanwhile, is concerned with their active restaging: ‘the production through a series of actions of a body and a capacity for enunciation not previously identifiable within a given field of experience, whose identification is thus part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience’ (Rancière 1999, 35). In short, politics (as opposed to policy) consists of making sensible that which is insensible (unseen and unheard) within a given police order, a making sense-able of any and all bodies rendered invisible and voiceless. The question then, is how, and under what conditions, those ‘bodies’ which, reproduced as invisible, senseless noise according to an historically contingent ‘distribution of sensible’, thus come to make sense. Such a process, Rancière makes clear, can never consist of ‘an act of an identity’ but is rather ‘the formation of a one that is not a self but is the relation of a self to an other’ (Rancière 1992, 60). The ‘process of disidentification’, in other words, is dependent upon a trope ‘that links the name of a group or class to the name of no group or no class, a being to a non-being or a not-yet being’ (Rancière 1992, 61)—dependent, that is to say, upon a necessarily improper metonymic performative. The question that is of particular interest here concerns the efficacy of the specific transforming performative. In other words, why this positing rather than another? Why the efficacy of this ‘dis-identification’? And what, exactly, becomes visible in its being sayable? Efficacy is rightly of the greatest importance for Rancière, but the question remains as to what, precisely, this might mean. We are given a clue when, in outlining his methodology in ‘Dissenting Words’ (2000), Rancière writes of the need to explicate an event’s political valence, a valence which is to be grasped in the ‘revindication of the efficacy of the literary, of the egalitarian powers of language, indifferent with respect to the status of the speaker’ (Rancière 2000, 116). Here then, the efficacy of an event, which Rancière seeks to revindicate, clearly resides in the literary.

While generously acknowledging his debt to ‘Derridean deconstruction’, Rancière nevertheless prefaces his explication of the ‘literary’ with the assertion that his own approach ‘begins from a different reading of Plato’s critique of writing’ and, in particular, of its ‘silence’ that renders it ‘equally available both to those entitled to use it and to those who are not’ (Rancière 2000, 115). Thus, and starting from this declaration of difference, Rancière goes on to state that what he calls literarity is precisely this inaudible excessiveness of making-available, this ‘excess of words’ which necessarily ‘interrupts Plato’s logic of “the proper” – a logic that requires everyone to be in their proper place, partaking in their proper affairs’ (Rancière 2000, 115). This notion of literarity, he continues, refers to three distinct yet indissociable properties:

at once to the excess of words available in relation to the thing named; to that excess relating to the requirements for the production of life; and finally, to an excess of words vis-à-vis the modes of communication that function to legitimate ‘the proper’ itself (Rancière 2000, 115).

At this point, it is perhaps not immediately obvious in just what way this reading differs from those performed by Derrida around the ‘quasi-concepts’ of différance, trace, and iterability, particularly in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ (1968) and ‘Signature Event Context’ (1971), and which could be said to constitute the inaugural moment of deconstruction. Nevertheless, there is indeed one major difference, and it is Rancière’s next paragraph which furnishes the key. Before coming to that, however, it would perhaps be helpful to briefly review Derrida’s three predicates of writing [écriture] as summarised in ‘Signature Event Context’, and which follow directly upon a reading of Plato’s critique (or ‘condemnation’) of writing in the Phaedrus. Writing, insists Derrida, is firstly a mark – a mark that includes, but is by no means restricted to, that of the written word – ‘which is not exhausted in the present of its inscription’ and which can thus give rise to an iteration ‘in the absence of and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who … has emitted or produced it’. Secondly, and as a result, such a mark carries with it, given its essential iterability, ‘a force of breaking with its context’, whether that be the so-called ‘real’ context or the semiotic and internal context. Finally, this ‘force of the rupture is due to the spacing which constitutes the written sign’, a spacing which ‘is not the simple negativity of a lack, but the emergence of the mark’ (Derrida 1984, 317). From these three predicates there will thus always be, in that a mark can always be reiterated improperly, an excess of words both over things and, in Rancière’s words, ‘vis-à-vis the modes of communication that function to legitimate “the proper”” (Rancière 2000, 115). Hence, it can only be with the second of Rancière’s properties—the excess of literarity ‘relating to the requirements for the production of life’—that the difference becomes legible.

Immediately after summarising his approach, and of this difference which resides within the three predicates of literarity, Rancière begins the next paragraph with the following, rather hasty conclusion:

We can conclude, then, that humans are political animals because they are literary animals: not only in the Aristotelian sense of using language in order to discuss questions of justice, but also because we are confounded by the excess of words in relation to things. Humans are political animals, then, for two reasons: first, because we have the power to put into circulation more words, ‘useless’ and unnecessary words, words that exceed the function of rigid designation; secondly, because this fundamental ability to proliferate words is unceasingly contested by those who claim to ‘speak correctly’—that is, by the masters of designation and classification who, by virtue of wanting to retain their status and power, flat-out deny this capacity to speak (Rancière 2000, 115).

Leaving aside the second reason for the moment, we can see that with this ‘not only’ Rancière begins by aligning himself with Aristotle’s well known definition of man as zōon logon ekhōn, that is, as the ‘living being possessing language’. A designation which serves to mark out the human as the only living being with the ability to form universal concepts, and to which Rancière clearly alludes when he speaks of ‘the Aristotelian sense of using language in order to discuss questions of justice’. Hence, in seeking to ground the properly human, Rancière calls upon the authority of Aristotle (a recalling which relies in large part upon its apparent ‘common sense’), but does so in order to suggest that the excess of literarity is nevertheless prior to the Aristotelian attribution of language and concepts, and which is itself prior to the zōon politikon of the Politics: ‘humans are political animals because they are literary animals’.4 Here then, the priority of literarity marks its excess as that which is proper to the human and the condition of possibility of language and concepts. (An exclusive property which, while perhaps ambiguous in the first sentence – in that it is not explicitly stated that only humans are literary-political animals, although the reference to Aristotle constitutes a clear inference – is clearly marked as ‘fundamental’ in the next.) In the course of one sentence then, Rancière first refers to the apparent certainty of the Aristotelian linguistic animal only so as to then enable him, after what seems to be little more than an appeal to common sense, to immediately pass on to the more originary structure of literarity. A movement which, in the rapidity and self-evidence of its claim, reduces all language to that of human speech, and with which Rancière thus grounds literarity as both exclusive to, and constitutive of, the human animal as zōon logon ekhōn. The syllogistic movement is clear: literarity precedes language, language consists of (human) words, thus literarity is exclusively human. In short, it is only by way of a re-positing of a traditional human-animal distinction, one which depends upon just such a reduction of language to the verbal, which enables Rancière to thenceforth restrict literarity as exclusively, fundamentally human and, perhaps more importantly, posit the domain of the political – ‘this creative activity of invention that allows for a redescription and reconfiguration of a common world of experience’ (Rancière 2000, 116) – as essentially restricted to the reproduction-distribution of human bodies alone.

Here then, it becomes possible to understand the second property of literarity, of an excess ‘relating to the requirements for the production of life’, as nothing other than the refusal of an excess beyond the ‘mere’ preservation of life to every nonhuman being. It is this marking out of every other living being as, in a sense, nonliving, as mere reactive machinery, that above all differentiates Rancière’s reading of the ‘“silent” word of writing’ from that performed by Derrida. Moreover, it is precisely this difference which ultimately constrains the radical force of Derrida’s ‘quasi-concept’ of iterability, domesticating it in such a way as to precisely limit its efficacy. Indeed, Rancière’s choice of the term ‘literarity’ is in fact symptomatic of this constraining gesture. Whereas Derrida’s term ‘iterability’ refers explicitly to the iteration which a priori structures every mark and which ‘introduces an essential dehiscence and demarcation [brisure]’ (Derrida 1984, 326), literarity functions only to elide this general structure of spacing in favour of a reference to the literary, and thus to the written as the storehouse of human endeavour. This difference thus constitutes a highly traditional gesture which, in its strict reference to a properly human potential, needlessly serves only to hobble deconstruction within a cage of metaphysical anthropocentrism.

Returning to those reasons evinced by Rancière in support of a fundamentally human politics, it may initially appear (in the first subordinate clause of the second sentence) that Rancière is simply reiterating the originary supplementarity of literarity when he states that ‘[h]umans are political animals … because we have the power to put into circulation more words, … words that exceed the function of rigid designation’ (Rancière 2000, 115). It is here, however, that Rancière nonetheless demonstrates his break with Aristotle’s zōon logon ekhōn. Having demonstrated that the silent literary excess which permits an improper enactment is common to all words, in this second movement Rancière seeks instead to separate human verbal language from all other forms of language. Thus, and no doubt well aware of the difficulty involved in denying the existence of nonhuman language, he employs the originary structure of literarity in order to redraw Aristotle’s essential human-animal distinction through Heidegger, in that exclusive to human animals is not the possession of language per se, but rather only that of literarity, that is, of the iterative excess of writing. It is not the case, therefore, that nonhuman animals are denied language after all, but only that they find themselves locked within the confines of a ‘rigid designation’ without excess. Without, that is to say, the ‘as’ of the ‘such’ which marks the excessive translative movement. But, one is compelled to ask, what might such a language be, given that, without the possibilites and necessities of iterability, there can be no language? A possibility and necessity which belongs, moreover, to the formal and grammatical, and thus to the machinic. ‘There can be no use of language’, as Paul de Man writes, ‘which is not, within a certain perspective, thus radically formal, i.e. mechanical … The machine not only generates, but also suppresses, and not always in an innocent or balanced way’ (de Man 1979, 294). It is a machinery which thus works in both directions, not only interrupting the auto-nomy of the human utterance (as in Rancière’s notion of literarity), but also and at once the so-called ‘fixity of animal determination’.5 In refusing this death–machine at and as the origin of all living–be-ing, it can only mean that, for Rancière, every single, singular nonhuman animal necessarily possesses a ‘language’ that is absolutely meaningful, and thus divine. That is to say, (tele-)pathic, in that a given singularity must be fully known without the remainder of a divisive iteration. Such a determined rigidity which, by definition, precludes any possibility of improper positing, thus insists that, in being condemned to the absolute plenitude of robotic designation – to the lack of lack –, nonhuman animals are therefore incapable of pretending to play, for example, incapable of employing irony. And indeed, incapable, as we shall see, of living, of be-ing.

To understand the politics (or, rather, the policing) of this familiar move, it is necessary to recall once again Derrida’s reading of Plato’s condemnation of writing, so as to enable us to better understand the stakes of Rancière’s refusal.6 In rigorously following through the logic of the iter, Derrida is led to necessarily insist of his three predicates that they are found not only in spoken language, not only in ‘the order of “signs”’ and in all language in general, but—

ultimately in the totality of ‘experience’, to the extent that it is not separated from the field of the mark, that is, the grid of erasure and difference, of unities of iterability, of unities separable from their internal and external context, and separable from themselves, to the extent that the very iterability which constitutes their identity never permits them to be a unity of self-identity (Derrida 1984, 318).

This insistent affirmation of iterability as the condition of “the living in general” can be found from the beginning to the end of Derrida’s oeuvre. Thus, more than three decades later, he writes,

It is enough, a minimal condition, that we take into account the divisibility, multiplicity, or difference of forces in a living being, whatever it may be. It is enough to admit that there is no finite living being, human or nonhuman, that wouldn’t be structured by this differential of forces (Derrida 2007a, 59).

The excess which Rancière names ‘literarity’ is, as Derrida makes clear, a structural characteristic of every mark, every sense, and thus of every finite living being. In other words, the very economy of excess that is the literary condition must be at once the condition of ‘living on’ or sur-vival – that is to say, ‘for the production of life’ – in its entirety. Refusing this reading, however, Rancière seeks instead to reinscribe its rupturous force within an exclusively human domain. Nevertheless, if literarity precedes and exceeds the word, then it must also precede and exceed the language that Rancière attributes – albeit by default – to nonhuman animals. Further, the consequences of Rancière’s circumscribing gesture become all too clear in the second clause of his argument for a properly human politics. To recap, humans are political animals firstly because of positing power, because of originary literarity, and –

 

secondly, because this fundamental ability to proliferate words is unceasingly contested by those who claim to ‘speak correctly’ – that is, by the masters of designation and classification who, by virtue of wanting to retain their status and power, flat-out deny this capacity to speak (Rancière 2000, 115).

Literarity is, as we have seen, this ‘fundamental ability’ which marks out humans from other animals precisely as political, that is to say, as essentially preserving the possibility of assujetissement. Whereas ‘the masters of designation and classification’ (and one must wonder here exactly who or what might be the master of that rigid designation within which and to which all nonhuman animals are apparently corralled) seek to conserve their mastery by denying that very same capacity to other bodies which this same mastery serves to reproduce as insensible nonsubjects, for Rancière it is therefore not only the human act par excellence to refute – that is, to disseminate and thus render incorrect or, rather, improper – such masterly discourse but, more than that, it is in fact essentially human to do so. The event that is marked by assujetissement is, in short, the proper of the human. Thus, for Rancière, not only do nonhuman animals not count, but they are essentially – ontologically – prevented from doing so. There is, however, a huge irony here, one which centres on this notion of the master’s master word. As Alain Badiou acutely notes in ‘Rancière and the Community of Equals’ (1998), and for reasons that should now be clear, the function of the ‘historian’s operator’ of Rancière’s texts is that it ‘undermines the postures of mastery, and the political or philosophical postures in particular’ (Badiou 2006, 109). Hence, in seeking to distance his own discourse from such modes that reproduce (whether wittingly or otherwise, and if such a distinction could still be made) structures of domination, Rancière –

never refutes anyone, for this would itself confirm the master’s authority. Refutation establishes heritage, succession. … Rancière wants to discredit the master by showing that his position suggests representations whose arrangement is fallacious. And the fact that it is fallacious is established precisely through the local expressions of the non-mastery of the dominated who contradict, at each and every moment, the guarantees of the master’s existence (Badiou 2006, 109).

It is thus ironic that in his reactive circumscribing of the Human, however, Rancière in fact occupies precisely the master position. A position established by way of Aristotelian heritage and succession whereby he flat-out denies the capacity of speech and thus of iterability-literarity to nonhuman animals in a substitution of effect for cause.7

In inscribing literarity as an exclusively human property, Rancière’s recuperation of the radicality of iterability can thus be said to constitute a symptomatic misrecognition which marks his text with, in Derrida’s phrase, the ‘stigmata of disavowal’ (Derrida 2008, 113). Moreover, its ‘symptom and wound’ is at once a violent mistreatment: of nonhuman animals first and foremost, but also of the various discourses which have in fact refused to remain deaf to the ‘audible or silent appeal’ of nonhuman animals (Derrida 2008, 113). It is an exclusion, furthermore, which has serious consequences for Rancière’s own project, in that it both repeats the very logic which his discourse explicitly attempts to interrupt, and simultaneously serves to conceal the very process of assujetissement which it seeks to disclose. Thus, as the historian of the event, Rancière is both its preserver and its disavower, seeking both its genealogical disclosure and at once its concealment in seeking to contain its movement within a specular human economy. Constrained thus to see nothing other than the human, to hear an animal appeal only as senseless noise, one should perhaps recall Nietzsche’s critique of just such an habitual mode of living which –

at length enters consciousness as a law, as dominating – And therewith the entire group of related values and states enters into it: it becomes venerable, unassailable, holy, true; it is part of its development that its origin should be forgotten – That is a sign it has become master … And yet perhaps they represent nothing more than the expediency of a certain race and species (Nietzsche 1968, §514)

Denied the a priori structure of iterability and displaced as a result in some mythic ‘natural’ realm in contrast to sociopolitical domain of humanity, it is not simply that Rancière’s homogeneous mass of animals are denied speech, but rather that they are necessarily denied all sense. In other words, it is both despite and at once because of their possessing of an uncannily rigid, non-iterative (non)language whose designations have been set for once and always which necessarily disallows all nonhuman beings from acting; from responding, in other words, as subjects. As a result, all nonhuman animals are necessarily reduced to a fundamental state of reactive, invisible noise, that is to say, as essentially without sense and hence necessarily without death. In the reiteration of such a move, however, and ‘by virtue of wanting to retain [the] status and power’ of the human, Rancière thus takes on the very ‘posture of mastery’ he seeks otherwise to undermine. In proffering instead only a flat-out denial, an essential animal oppression is thus reproduced at the same time as the very possibility of that oppression is denied, rendered non-sense by the claim that all (other) animals exist in what is an impossible eternal present and presence and imposed upon by forces of which they remain absolutely insensible. Nonhuman animals are, in short, without sense and thus cannot suffer, being essentially blissfully ignorant. Contrary to this symptomatic misrecognition, however, the moment and movement of invention, of reconfiguration, has as its condition nothing other than an animal encounter. That is to say, a singular encounter with that which is always already other than ‘the human’. The subtle phallogocentrism (or rather, carnophallogocentrism) of Rancière’s reiteration of humanism’s founding gesture of dependence-exclusion not only points towards the question of the nonhuman animal as a privileged site for both philosophy and politics, it also serves to illustrate why it is a question which we must never refrain from asking.

In fact, Rancière’s human restraint is of itself quite odd. Unlike Descartes for example (for whom the positing of the mechanisation of the nonhuman animal – absolutely devastating in its effect – is necessary if only so as to ensure the consistancy of his cogito8), his position would seem to have nothing to gain from such anthropocentric stricture, and beyond which his political philosophy – which nevertheless remains of the greatest importance – undoubtedly becomes more radical. In turning now to another dimension of Rancière’s project in the hope of better understanding the reasons behind the restricting of those beings reproduced as invisible-unspeakable as always and only human beings, one should nevertheless recall throughout that, in the obscure spaces of ‘factory farms’, slaughterhouses, laboratories, ‘cattle’ trucks, and so on, it is precisely nonhuman beings who are reproduced all the more forcefully ‘as’ unseen and unheard. Walls – both material and symbolic – are erected around them, ensuring that the beings within continue to be rendered silent and in darkness; and, indeed, to ensure that such nonsubstitutable beings remain to be invisibly, unspeakably, rendered.

*     *    *

In considering various political configurations in On the Shores of Politics (1992), Rancière argues that the demos is necessarily discontinuous with the ochlos, in that the demos is in fact ‘the rallying-dividing power’ which comes to divide the ochlos in any of its ‘conjoined’ or ‘disjoined’ forms (the One of a collectivity that assigns ranks in the former, the helotism of individuals in the latter) in the positing ‘of the equality of any One to any other One’. An equality the very ‘essence’ of which is to ‘undo the supposed naturalness of orders’ (Rancière 2007, 32). Of particular interest for the argument being put forward here, however, is the zoopoetic tropological economy by which Rancière figures that antagonism. First of all, the ochlos is figured as the ‘animal rule of politics’ (Rancière 2007, 32), a rule which can be subdivided into three specific configurations: ‘the great collective body, the zoology of orders justified in terms of cycles of nature and function, the hate-driven rallying of the pack’ (Rancière 2007, 33). Already, it should be noted, these three figures all figure a lack of language or, more precisely for Rancière, a lack of literarity, and thus are figures of fixed, machinic reaction (and thus precisely that which can have no figure): the undifferentiated pathic herd which constitutes the mindless collective body of the One; the rigid, non-iterative designation which produces an eternal order that permits neither improper positioning nor incorrect positing; and finally the unthinking, ‘instinctive’ reactivity which, in the mirror of ecstatic oneness, produces the barbarism of the pack. Hence it becomes clear why Rancière assembles these various figures of the ochlos beneath the concept-metaphor ‘animal politics’, a displacement which is then figured in opposition to the demos. That is to say, in opposition to the sovereign, auto-nomous and properly (literary) human response which ‘tears politics away from the[se] various figures of animality’ (Rancière 2007, 33). It is indeed, as Derrida writes in The Beast and the Sovereign, ‘[a]lways the question of liberty and the machine’ (Derrida 2009, 104).

Here, Rancière is clearly marking these three ‘animal’ figures as the organising tropes of reactive power in the Nietzschean sense, that is, as police configurations which, only insofar as they appear natural, seek to render the disruptive dividing power of the demos inoperative. However, in reiterating a traditional analogical reduction of the everyday socius to the apparently apodictic ‘truth’ given to us by an equally reductive zoological poetics, Rancière’s discourse simultaneously reproduces its ‘naturalness’ – that is, reproduces the unquestioned bestiality of so-called ‘animal nature’ –, when, by contrast, it is precisely this appearing of naturalness, a naturalisation marking the operation of power in its discursive production as prior, which calls for genealogical disclosures as to how such naturalisation is differentially articulated and regulated. Hence, in positing the ‘ever-replayed’ decisive movement of and as the demos as a ‘humanising power’ (one which he argues is synonymous with the name of ‘class struggle’), Rancière thus simultaneously reiterates the very naturalisation of power (Rancière 2007, 33).9

The demos then, with literarity as its condition, is the overcoming, the humanising and at once the politicising, of ‘natural’ animal force as manifest in and as a given State. In other words, Rancière posits an exceptional nonnatural politics, that is, a properly human culture in opposition to dumb animal nature, in what is a profoundly traditional gesture. Made visible through a reading of Rancière’s animal, this contradictory relay between rupture and conservatism, between disclosure and concealment, is clearly evidenced three years later in Disagreement. Pointing to the conserving function of power behind the performative politics of ‘animal’ tropes, Rancière states that ‘[t]he metaphor of the large and powerful animal is no simple metaphor: it serves to rigorously reject as animals those speaking beings with no position’ (Rancière 1999, 22). Here then, Rancière marks the exclusionary economy of animalisation, the rigorous rejection as animals of nonspeaking beings with no position, while at the same time reiterating the rigorous rejection of animals as nonspeaking beings with no position which is precisely its condition of possibility. Thus, in positing the animality of every given social order, Rancière necessarily remains caught within its police mechanism, a machinery whose evental rupture he otherwise seeks to disclose. Only this enables him to claim that being a militant necessarily means ‘no longer being a member of a lower order’ in and as an ‘assert[ion of] the unacceptability of all unequal distribution, all fixing of social ranks on the model of animal species’ (Rancière 2007, 33). In other words, in the process of (militant) politics an animal ceases to be an animal in coming to be human (a claim which necessarily conflicts with Rancière’s later refusal of even the possibility of literarity to the animal – a conflict which appears to centre on the problem of figures, and of the undecidability of the literal and the figurative readings around ‘the animal’).

Nevertheless, we can now clearly see why the movement of assujetissement is for Rancière a movement between humanity on the one hand, and inhumanity or animality (the terms having become synonymous) on the other. There is, however, neither inhumanity nor animality here, in what is solely an anthropic struggle. Rather, and even while tracing its rupture, Rancière’s notion of assujetissement ultimately reproduces one of the dominant ontoteleological figures of humanism, that of the necessary (and necessarily repeated) overcoming of one’s own animality – understood as simple (bodily) reproduction, as ‘mere’ or ‘bare’ life – in and as the coming-to-be of the human.10 This reiteration of a traditional ‘overcoming’ has serious implications for Rancière’s philosophy in that, and as a result, the nonhuman animal equally necessarily comes to be defined by what he or she lacks within a teleological dialectic. A move which thus marks out as subhuman every nonhuman animal and every ‘animalised’ human (that is, every human being excluded from the domain of the ‘properly’ human through the violent conserving operation of power, be they, in Rancière’s phrase, ‘workers, women, people of color, or others’).11 This reproduction of the subhuman animal is the condition for the reconfiguration of the ‘other’ human which, in its appeal to an evolutionary tēlos, constitutes its target group as ‘uncivilised’ (as irrational, emotional, primitive, and so on, in opposition to the normative rationality of dominant power), and thus as not-quite-human, as subhuman. The repeated overcoming of one’s own animality in being-human thus underwrites the murderous violence of the would-be ‘civilising mission’ of imperialism-globalisation while at once marking its indissociability from the ‘dark side’ of racism. The second dominant ontoteleological figure, that of the production of the human predicated on the death or nonexistence of the animal, similarly reproduces ‘the animal’ as pre-human, yet in this form the human is configured as ontologically discontinuous, and thus allowing of no possible passage in either direction. Hence in Nazi Germany Jews were reconfigured as essentially subhuman and at once always other to the human, a refusal of any possible ‘civilisation’ which thus already reserves the possibility of genocide.12 Without the underlying humanist tēlos, however, such degeneration of ‘others’ – be they human or nonhuman – ceases to be possible.13 In this one can better hear Nietzsche’s insistence that any way of being which is cut off from – or which cuts itself off from – all radically other ways of being necessarily de-generates, having excluded itself from that which reserves the possibility of its regeneration.

Hence, through the figure of ‘the animal’ upon which it depends and excludes, Rancière in fact offers a refusal of naturalisation which itself naturalises, which reiterates that which it refuses, just as the machinery of domination is reiterated in the refusal of its reproduction. A movement which at once undermines itself in its masterly disavowal of the animal. It is a disavowal, moreover, linked to the metaphysical necessity of reinscribing an end – of inscribing human meaning and of ascribing meaning to humanity – and of simultaneously reserving that notion of ‘ends’ for humanity alone. In short then, Rancière thus unwittingly redeploys the very same logic of dependence-exclusion by which is reproduced the insensibility of other human bodies – a reproduction which will continue unavoidably for as long as what counts is determined by the concept of a delimited and delimitable humanity. As Kelly Oliver writes,

Until we address the denigration of animals in Western thought on the conceptual level, if not also on the material economic level, we will continue to merely scratch the surface of the denigration and exploitation of various groups of people, from Playboy bunnies to prisoners at Abu Ghraib who were treated like dogs as a matter of explicit military policy (Oliver 2009, 38)

By contrast, and to use what for Rancière is a privileged example of the reconfiguring performative, the animal encounter preserved by ‘we are all German Jews’ – ‘an identification with an anybody that has no body’ (Rancière 1992, 62)is precisely not a humanisation, but rather an encounter with the insensible and thus the nothuman, an encounter which calls in anxiety to an intensive co-responding. It is, in other words, an encounter as such which necessarily interrupts any notion of a ‘natural order’ in calling forth an improper metonymy which jams the smooth functioning of what Giorgio Agamben terms the modern ‘anthropological machine’ – that which produces the outside through an exclusion of an inside, which produces, that is, the ‘inhuman’ by an animalising of the human (Agamben 2004, 37). Stalling the mechanism, it gouges its anguished mark in the surface of an everyday state of affairs.

Hence, Rancière’s encounter can only ever be, in that it is a dis-identification, a nonhuman encounter with a radically other – an other that ‘refuses evidence or argument’ (Rancière 1992, 62) – which, necessarily unthought, escapes the reproduced propriety of the oppressively Human. In other words, identification is impossible precisely because it is nonhuman, external to humanity properly defined and thus inhuman or, rather, animal, in that it is an exposing to that which is excluded from ‘the human’ as its constitutive outside. The only (im)possible disidentification, therefore, is with the radical alterity of nonhuman be-ing, the very nonhumanness of which marks, and in so doing interrupts, the measure and the limit of humanity. To posit this encounter as ‘the efficacy of humanity’, as Rancière does, is thus to efface that very efficacy. Instead, the encounter stages both a disavowal of disavowal – a sacrifice of that sacrifice by which a singular, nonsubstitutable being is included solely through an exclusion –, and at once an opening to an ethics of the unrecognisable that refuses the hierarchy of the same which serves to organise every properly human ethics according to distance and closeness. An ethics, moreover, that intersects with the philosophical and the political. Firstly, the ongoing reinscription of other animals within these three domains is a strategic necessity so as to ensure that ‘Man’ is not reconstituted as the transcendental Subject by other (humanist) means, and thus to repeatedly put into question such anthropocentric sedimentation that – implicitly or explicitly – inscribes the putting to death as a right of man. Secondly, the vigilant refuting of the human-animal distinction at once refutes the animalising or inhumanising movement – the sine qua non of collectives (national or otherwise) founded upon boundaries of blood, soil and/or language and consolidated by hate – by which the human subject of its tropological displacement is reduced to an ‘essential’ identity which is in turn reconfigured as ‘animal’. Lastly, and beyond even this, the sheer scale of the exploitation, suffering, torture and extermination both of nonhuman animals and of animalised humans occuring right now demands, before even the question of ethical respond-ability can be raised, that we come to being-together outside of the genocidal economy, a machine which calculates death and consumption as the only (exchange) value of (mere) life.14 It is a question of com-passion, of shared finitude. Theodor Adorno summarises this perfectly: ‘Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals [Auschwitz beginnt da, wo jemand auf Schlachthof steht und denkt: Es sind ja nur Tiere]’ (cit. Patterson 2002, 51).

The animal encounter is that which always already exceeds ‘the human’ so as to reconfigure the very notion of humanity. The chance of the political then, is an exposing to – rather than a self-certain misrecognition of – the nonhuman animal (which includes the ‘animal’ body of the multitude as well as the so-called ‘subhuman’), so as to constitute the relations necessary to disrupt the twinned machines which serve to reproduce both ‘the Animal’ and the animalised, as well as all the murder machines they set in motion. It is, in other words, always again to question the limit of the human. This is a vigilance which begins in the same place where Auschwitz begins, and yet which moves in precisely the opposite direction – it begins, paraphrasing Adorno, ‘wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and can no longer think: they’re only animals’. Vigilance is, in short, the impossibility of such a thought.

Notes

0. This phrase, ‘[l]es animaux me regardent’ (Derrida 2006: 58), in addition to ‘animals are my concern’, can also be translated as ‘animals look at me’. In his lecture at the Cerisy conference in 1997 (translated into English as The Animal That Therefore I Am), Derrida offers his own brief autobibliographical summary of this concern as it has manifested itself throughout his oeuvre (2008 pp. 35-40).

1. This was Rancière’s response to the question as posed by Jane Bennett at a conference at Goldsmiths College in 2003. See Bennett Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), 106.

2. On this, see in particular Friedrich Nietzsche [1873] (1993), ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, NJ: Humanities Press International Inc., pp. 79-97. Important related texts include Jacques Derrida (1984), ‘White Mythology’ in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 207-71; Sarah Kofman (1972), Nietzsche and Metaphor, Paolo Alto: Stanford University Press; and Paul de Man (1979), ‘Rhetoric of Tropes (Nietzsche)’ in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, New Haven: Yale University Press. See also Richard Iveson (2010), ‘Animals in Looking-Glass World: Fables of Überhumanism and Posthumanism in Heidegger and Nietzsche’ in Humanimalia 1(2) (Spring), pp. 46-85.

3. One can perhaps compare Rancière’s notion of the ‘outcast’ with the ‘subaltern’ defined by Gayatri Spivak as ‘a person at the ground level of society who is already a victim of patriarchal practices’ and who is ‘epistemologically violated by longstanding cultural formations that have bound her mind in unreasoned responsibility’ (Spivak 1999, 102n143, 102). The further question thus being traced here is: what if we can no longer consider such a ‘person’ as necessarily (epistemologically?) human?

4.Here Rancière is reiterating the claim made five years earlier in Disagreement: ‘The modern political animal is first a literary animal’ (Rancière 1999, 37). As to this seemingly unquestioned authority, see Daniel Heller-Roazen The Inner Touch, esp. ‘Historia Animalium’, in which Heller-Roazen demonstrates that Aristotle’s now canonical definition was opposed at the time by a great number of pre-Socratic philosophers, many of whom affirmed the impossibility of any such distinction.

5.Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, p. 115. It is just this thinking of ‘the animal’ as fixed (in being rigidly determined) which Derrida in these final seminars refers to as the ‘tried-and-true biblico-Promethean tradition’ (Ibid.).

6.A refusal, moreover, which at once gives us to understand Derrida’s claim that ‘the politics of invention is always at one and the same time a politics of culture and a politics of war’ (Derrida 2007b, 10).

7.‘Every culture institutes itself through the unilateral imposition of some “politics” of language. Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations’ (Derrida 1998, 39). Even though Badiou’s analysis of Rancière’s position was made almost a decade prior to the ‘Dissenting Words’ interview, this is not to suggest, however, that the later text would occasion Badiou to revise his judgment of Rancière that he never refutes or refuses anyone, simply because in Badiou’s own conception of the political subject-of-truth there is an absolute stone deafness to the call of nonhuman animals, who exist simply to charm and intrigue humans (Badiou 2006b, 106).

8.Richard Sorabji succinctly summarises the strategic importance of the human-animal dichotomy to Descartes’ project as follows: ‘If we do not recognise the enormous difference between ourselves and animals, we may fancy that we, like them, will not be liable to punishment after death. Conversely, once we do realise how much the animals differ, we can understand much better the arguments proving that our souls are independent of the body’s death’ (Sorabji 2001, 206). More even than this, however, as Heller-Roazen makes clear, is the fact that ‘[o]nce the sensation proper to human beings was understood as a modus cogitandi like every other, it could by nature have nothing to do with the multiple operations performed in the world of beasts’ (Heller-Roazen 2007, 165). Hence Descartes is compelled to claim that ‘the movement of the inhuman animals bore witness to a mechanical nature from which consciousness was by definition absent: that of divinely crafted but utterly mindless automatons, “machine-animals”’ (Heller-Roazen 2007, 166). As to the ‘grounding’ of this claim in simple opinion, one by which ‘men’ are ‘indulgently’ ‘absolve[d] from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals’, see Descartes ‘Letter to More, 5 February 1649’ in Descartes: Philosophical Letters.

9. On the need to resist the temptation of the traditional analogical reduction of the social to ‘merely disguised manifestations of animal force’, see Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign, pp. 14-15. In terms very apposite to our discussion, Derrida continues: ‘We could also invert the sense of the analogy and recognise, on the contrary, not that political man is still animal but that the animal is already political, and exhibit, as is easy to do, in many examples of what are called animal societies, the appearance of refined, complicated organizations, with hierarchical structures, attributes of authority and power, phenomena of symbolic credit, so many things that are so often attributed to and so naively reserved for so-called human culture, in opposition to nature’ (Derrida 2009, 14-15).

10.On the ‘two original and importantly different determinations … [which] already configure two of the dominant forms taken by the relationship between the human and the nonhuman animal’, see Andrew Benjamin ‘Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals’, pp. 76-77.

11. Any such list of ‘groupings’ with the potential of being constituted by power as ‘not-quite’ human is, as given by Rancière’s undetermined ‘others’, finite yet unending.

12.These two forms, and the two examples which follow, are of course extremely schematic. While the underlying mechanisms can never be entirely dissociated from one another, nor do they exist (together) in isolation, but rather function within the hugely complex fields of making-sense-ability.

13.‘Degeneration’ is here being used in the sense given to it by Derrida in his reading of the ‘living feminine’ in Nietzsche (Derrida 1985, 27), and which stands as the epigraph to this paper.

14.The contemporary genocidal economy is indissociable from the machinery of capitalism. It is this indissociability which explains why – following the opportunistic power grab of the PATRIOT ACT of 2001 and then the Animal Enterprises Terrorism Act (AETA) of 2006 – pro-animal activism in the United States has been ranked (and thus reproduced) as the number one domestic terrorist threat. In this animal activists too, branded as irrational, anti-progress anti-Enlightenment and positioned on a par with those other all too familiar ‘figures of evil’, fall prey to the exclusionary logic of animalisation.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio (2004), The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Badiou, Alain (2006), ‘Rancière and the Community of Equals’ in Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker, London & NY: Verso, pp. 107-113.

Badiou, Alain (2006b), Polemics, trans. Steve Corcoran, London & NY: Verso.

Benjamin, Andrew (2008), ‘Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 107:1 (Winter), pp. 71-87.

Descartes, René (1970), Descartes: Philosophical Letters, ed. & trans. Anthony Kenny, Oxford: Clarendon.

De Man, Paul (1979), Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1984), ‘Signature Event Context’ in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 307-330.

Derrida, Jacques (1985), ‘Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name’ in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation; Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida, ed. Christie V. McDonald, trans. Avital Ronell, NY: Schocken Books, pp. 1-38.

Derrida, Jacques (1995), ‘A “Madness” Must Watch Over Thinking’ in Points … Interviews, 1974-1994, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 339-364.

Derrida, Jacques (1998), Monolingualism of the Other; or, the Prothesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (2006), L’animal que donc je suis, Paris: Galilée.

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

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

Derrida, Jacques (2007b), ‘Psyche: Invention of the Other’, trans. Catherine Porter, in Psyché: Inventions of the Other Volume One, eds. Peggy Kamuf & Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 1-47.

Derrida, Jacques (2009), The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume One, trans. Geoffrey Bennington, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Heller-Roazen, Daniel (2007), The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation, Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press.

Keenan, Thomas (2005), ‘Drift: Politics and the Simulation of Real Life’, Grey Room 21 (Fall), pp. 94–111.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968), The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale, NY: Vintage.

Oliver, Kelly (2009), Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, NY: Columbia University Press.

Patterson, Charles (2002), Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, NY: Lantern Books.

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

Rancière, Jacques (1992), ‘Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization’, October Vol.61. The Identity in Question (Spring), pp. 58-64.

Rancière, Jacques (1999), Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2000), ‘Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Rancière’, conducted & trans. David Panagia, Diacritics 30.2 (Summer), pp. 113-26.

Rancière, Jacques (2007), On the Shores of Politics, trans. Liz Heron, London & NY: Verso.

Sorabji, Richard (2001), Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate, London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

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


Derrida’s vegan hors d’oeuvre: Politicians, rapists, and vaches à lait

In his final seminars at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales between 2001 and 2003, Jacques Derrida addresses himself to the questions of the beast (la bête) and/or the sovereign (le souverain), of the “who” (qui) and/or the “what” (quoi), the who or what which is an animal and/or is a marionette, and of the indissociability of liberty and sovereignty, of the “free” decision and the machinery of response and responsibility. In the Eleventh Seminar, in an analysis of sovereign knowledge which depends upon the “possession and mastery of its object” (Beast and the Sovereign I 280), he speaks of a seventeenth century dissection of an elephant “under the orders and under the gaze of the greatest of kings, His Majesty Louis le Grand” (ibid.). Imagine, says Derrida, “think about it, represent it,” for it is a performance [une représentation]: perform for oneself this “enormous, heavy, poor beast … dragged in from I know not where on its side or its back into a luxurious room, a beast no doubt bloody, among doctors, surgeons, or other armed butchers [médecins, chirurgiens ou autres charcuteurs armés]” (284). Imagine, he continues, the king’s entrance and all the doctors and academics bowing down, the crowd and courtesans: “represent to yourselves the whole ceremony,” this “political picture … so much more stylish than … a Salon of Agriculture in the midst of an election campaign.” Speaking thus in March 2002 at the height of the presidential election campaign in France, during which every candidate was expected to perform such a visit, expected to represent such a political picture at the Salon, Derrida points to all those “pretending to the throne” who must—

stroke the cow’s rear end [caressent le cul des vaches à lait] (consenting cows, of course, as thieves and rapists [les voleurs et les violeurs] always say, by definition) and walk around candidly, candidately among the stands, their mouths full of foie gras, beer, presidential pâte de campagne, their mouths also full of verbiage … in a crowd in which it would be harder than ever to tell a beast from a sovereign (284-5).

In this, whilst analysing the performance of an elephant autopsy, Derrida at once performs—without remarking—a deconstruction precisely of the “what” or the “who,” of qui or quoi and the beast or the sovereign. Doctors and surgeons are here species of the genera “armed butchers” in their gaze and their performance that reduces a singular elephant to a piece of meat on a slab. This genera, moreover, is extended far beyond the butchering of murdered nonhuman animals for human and other animal consumption, carrying with it the atrocities of war, of terror, of cannibalistic killers, in a shift of sense which brings “biomedical” practitioners together with the most “beastly,” the most so-called “animal” of “human” acts, these doctors and surgeons who—these doctors and surgeons that—assume to possess together with their scalpels the certainty of knowledge and the mastery of their object. Here then, the highest of rational sovereign beings become, for a moment, indistinguishable from the most bestial, the most “animal.”

While still within the vicinity of the majesty of Louis le Grand, in an overlaying of the contemporary “political picture” we find today’s French politicians caressing the backsides of vaches—but these are not “dairy cows” [vaches laitière] as the translation maintains, but rather such “cows” are those who are easily taken in (with all its certain superiority of the masculine), such suckers [vaches à lait] whose arses politicians caress at election time (and thus we too are vaches à lait, and with the same assumption or presumption of sovereignly given consent). The cows in question, however, are produced as stupidly willing, a consent supposed by those rational men “by definition” in order to justify theft and rape. And yet, by speaking of  political candidates as les voleurs et les violeurs, which in turn carries with it a certain feminist notion of the theft and rape of the world as programmed by Christian-Enlightenment thought, Derrida thus speaks of those so-called “food animals” shown at the Salon not as quoi, but as qui: these specific cows who, stolen and raped, fondled without their consent by those “pretending to the throne” in an intimate public caress, these cows who, in a jolt of recognition, cease to be what, cease to be “mere” beasts but who become sensible, become beings that are no longer invisible noise but are rather being violated by beasts, beasts stuffed with empty words and swollen with the cruelly swollen organs of other animals, an enactment of bestial molestation amidst a crowd in which it is no longer possible to tell the human apart from everyone traditionally supposed to be everything that that—that human—precisely, irredemiably, “is” not.

What is performed, and represented by Derrida who exhorts us to represent it to ourselves, is the autopsic enactment of positivist mastery in which all but “the human”—which is not to say all human beings—are never “who” but only “what,” only things to be inspected and displayed for consumption (one thinks of the recent Channel 4 series Inside Nature’s Giants, displaying “layman” dissections of a variety of the world’s largest animals). Here then, we find what Derrida calls the inspectacular imbrication of the theatrical and the theoretical (296) at the intersection of convention and consent, which is at once the setting of the scene of the possible (that “always necessary context of the performative operation (a context that is, like every convention, an institutional context)” (“University Without Condition”)); such representations that, recognised within an institutional context, are countersigned without consent and thus necessarily nonevents. Other if not opposite to this ob-jectifying performance of the phenomenal elephant “is” the animal encounter, the impossible that is the in-sensée (madness, delirium) that enacts bodyings as and at the limit of sense and thus of existence.