Tag Archives: iterability

“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).



The Protagorean Presumption and the Posthuman (Part Two)

Okay, so here is the promised second part of the long draft of my paper dealing with Tom Tyler’s CIFERAE and Vilem Flusser & Louis Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis.


Part Two: The posthuman future: Eating Well


Belly Out! The movement of mouth and anus

As with Kant and his imaginary Venusians, Flusser must first of all separate the vampyroteuthis from “mere” animals and, moreover, must do so without contradicting his ideology of evolutionary teleology which preserves the pinnacle of creation for humanity alone. Hence, Flusser notes right at the start that the skull capacity of the vampyroteuthis “exceeds our own” (5). In what is a dogmatic first move of human exceptionalism, this pseudo-scientific wielding of “skull capacity” already ensures that neither humans nor vampyroteuthis’ might be mistaken for a mere animal.

Unlike Kant’s Venusian, however, the vampyroteuthis is not unknowable. Indeed, for Flusser, if his analysis is to avoid the transcendental delusion and thus remain “in” the world of a “co-being,” the vampyroteuthis cannot be “entirely alien to us” (5). A large part of this familiarity, it should be noted, concerns the construction and legitimation of the vampyroteuthis as a suitably “proper” (that is, non-animal) model of the human. Hence, the abyss between the vampyroteuthis and the human is “incomparably smaller than that which separates us from extraterrestrial life” (5). As the distance between the human and itself, this abyss is incomparably smaller, too, than that which for Flusser divides “we (humans)” from “we (animals).”

Nevertheless, if we are to remain within the world, the vampyroteuthis must evolve.

Sharing a common ancestor and thus a number of “deeply ingrained memories,” “we” belong to the “same game” of life (6). Furthermore, their subsequent paths of evolution, in mirroring each other perfectly, thus constitute, supposedly each for the other, a compressed record of evolutionary suppression and sociopolitical repression. Here, then, the contours of “the human” are seen to emerge in contrast to an “outside,” the construction of which presupposes the very knowledge of the human that it then claims to reveal. Put simply, despite plumbing the blackest ocean depths with its bone-crushing pressure, the vampyroteuthis – this “animal” who is not an animal – begins and ends with the (same) human.

Putting this aside for the moment, Flusser’s tale of reflected evolution nonetheless offers a number of provocative observations ranging across a variety of disciplines. Firstly, in being composed entirely of superimposed suppressions, every “organism” is therefore an event of stratified memory. As such, and not a little paradoxically, “human personality” – for Flusser the experience common to the tēlos of creation itself – finds itself reduced to “muscle cramping and individual posture” (28).

This mirroring of stratified suppressions is no mere trope. Rather, the human and the vampyroteuthis have literally turned their faces away from each other. Arbitrarily taking as a starting point the horizontal axis of the cipherous “four-footed” animal, Flusser describes how the cephalopod turns ninety degrees clockwise, her face curling downwards, towards the anus. The human, by contrast, turns ninety degrees anticlockwise, her face moving upwards, away from the anus, until, ultimately, she stands erect, liberating her hands.

These mirrored trajectories reflect an evolutionary “choice” between mouth and anus, that is, between digestive system and nervous system – the proto-human “chose” the former, the proto-vampyroteuthis the latter. Later, the path of the vampyroteuthis diverges once again, refusing a potential future of exoskeletons, antennae, and multiple legs in favour of a downwards “migration” – towards the anus – of the sensory and tactile organs. “Cephalopods are, then, our antipodes: elevated intelligent abdomens, unelevated brains” (18).

Precisely because she is the antipode of the human, however, the vampyroteuthis must be similarly exceptional. Hence, in order to establish an abyssal distance between her and other, mere “animal” mollusks, Flusser writes how, in a way analogous but opposite to human beings, the vampyroteuthis “unwound its mollusk coil into a perpendicular line” (23). In other words, the vampyroteuthis has, like the human, “straightened up.” Tellingly, for straightening in this way, Flusser awards the vampyroteuthis a hand or, at least, part of one: uncoiling, she becomes “an open palm, touching and absorbing the world to fill its elevated stomach” (23). Hence, with this movement hand and mouth become one. With these analogous hands, the one grasping and the other absorbing, both humans and vampyroteuthis’ have, writes Flusser, surmounted their animality, estranged from earth and sky respectively (23).

Here, then, both the human and the vampyroteuthis have transcended evolution. At the same time, however, both are also the result of “the blind chance of the ‘game of life’” (25). As “analogously alienated” from the animal realm, how might we understand this? Why the insistence upon a biological understanding of “analogy,” when what defines the human and the vampyroteuthis is the fact they alone are “superbiological” beings? Despite their place at the summit of evolution, Flusser argues that humans and vampyroteuthis’ are both “poorly programmed” beings whose analogy is entirely coincidental, that is, the utterly arbitrary result of blind chance (25).

Paradoxically, Flusser is thus attempting – somewhat desperately – to hold on to a reductive sociobiological “explanation” of “life” whilst simultaneously positing the human as an exceptional supra-biological being who has in some way transcended the “game of life.” Moreover, it is precisely this alienation from “much of [biological] life’s domain” that authorises its reflection in the figure of the vampyroteuthis – a figure similarly definable, in contrast to other animals, by its banishment from life. Both human and vampyroteuthis are, in other words, somehow the result of “life’s” programming and thoroughly unnatural beings defined by lack, that is, by their shared lack of life. Here, then, we disclose once more that age-old schema, that of the “original sin of human genesis, the difference that marks its manifest destiny” (Kirby “Human Exceptionalism on the Line”).

Returning to consider their reflexive relations, Flusser follows Wilhelm Reich in arguing that there are in fact only two fundamental attitudes toward life, love, and war, attitudes dependent upon the mouth-anus relation. On one side, in bending backwards to distance mouth from anus, the human adopts a militant “chest out!” position, a position with a tendency towards rigor mortis and the armoured status of insects.  On the other side, in bending forwards to bring mouth and anus closer together, the vampyroteuthis adopts the “belly out” position of the Buddha, a position tending towards love and selflessness and softness. The human, then, is militant and moribund, associated with death (thanatos), while the mollusk is libidinous, generous and soft-bodied, associated with love (eros).

At this point, however, Flusser takes Reich to task for failing to predict the emergence of the vampyroteuthis, understood as a further, “post-animal” stage of development. For Reich, the vampyroteuthis should represent the ultimate triumph of love over death. However, in taking a further step, the vampyroteuthis rejects the dialectical synthesis of mouth-anus and so, unfurling its palm in an explosive release of bioenergetic force, rejects “a state of total love in the direction of total death” and is thus a being that, “despite devouring its own anus, is the most bellicose of all living creatures” (29).


Eating Well: Shock and doubt

The body of the vampyroteuthis, we thus discover, is an open palm tending in the direction of total death. As the antipode of the bipedal human, it remains for Flusser to ask, given that a negative model (total death beyond total love) now exists, what does this “mean” for “our” (human) world? Ultimately, as we shall see, it opens up a vision of the human utopia as permanent orgasm. Flusser begins, however, by posing the question in specifically Heideggerian terms. Two models of Dasein, he claims, “extrapolated from the ‘same’ environment, have come crashing together: paradise and hell,” and it is this which “provides the groundwork for a dialogue” (35). The point of contact of this dialogue, if that is indeed what it is, is between the hand and the tentacle; an analogy that in turn produces a whole slew of analogous pairings.[i] Flusser embarks upon this dialogue by outlining what can be best described as an imaginary phenomenology of tentacular engagement.

First of all, the vampyroteuthic world is neither visible nor apparent; rather, it is rendered so by the vampyroteuthis’ own lights. Consequently, the two worlds – the light and the dark, air and water – are perceived through entirely different methods. While the human world is firm, requiring that human animals “have to ‘undergo’ it – perambulate it – in order to grasp it,” the world of the vampyroteuthis is fluid, requiring the vampyroteuthis to “take hold” of the world as it flows past (38). Hence, humans actively comprehend their world as static and established, while vampyroteuthic comprehension is at once passive and impassioned. The vampyroteuthis, in other words, comprehends what “happens upon it” as opposed to what one happens upon, with the result that humans have problems, while vampyroteuthis’ have impressions (39).

These analogous phenomenologies serve to define their respective cultures. Objects, as problems, must be moved out of the way. Hence, human culture is “an activity aimed against stationary objects, a deliverance from established things (from natural laws)” (39). By contrast, objects perceived as free-floating entities that one “happens-upon” results in a culture of incorporation understood in both its simple and psychoanalytic senses. Vampyroteuthic culture, that is to say, is “an act of discriminating between digestible and indigestible entities” (39). In other words, “culture” for the vampyroteuthis is always a question – both literal and symbolic – of eating well.

The external world, writes Flusser, as a reflection of sunlight off of things, only ever appears to human beings and, as such, it can deceive us. Human beings, he continues, imagine they must penetrate this “veil of light” in order to disclose the eternal truths that only ever appear improperly in the “things” of our world (39).[ii] Hence, writes Flusser, human animals are “born Platonists” who only belatedly become Kantian and so escape the delusions of realism. More precisely, as we shall see in a moment, Flusser’s born Platonists are in fact born into the Republic.

The vampyroteuthis, by contrast, “irradiates” a world of perfect darkness with her own point of view. Phenomena, in other words, are engendered by her bioluminescent organs, resulting in an external world that “cannot deceive because it is a self-generated deception (39, emphasis added). The vampyroteuthis, that is, is never duped into seeking eternal truths hiding behind appearances. Never the dupe of realism, the vampyroteuthis is rather “a born Kantian” for whom Plato comes later.

In addition, the hand-tentacle and handle-suck analogy reveals further philosophical alignments. Insofar as human sexual organs are only indirectly connected to the hands and eyes, the human brain often receives contradictory sensory information that must be resolved into “empirical experiences” (40). As such, the human brain doubts, the human world is dubious, and thus the human animal is a doubting Cartesian. The sexual organs of the vampyroteuthis, meanwhile, are “partially located” on the tentacles and are, like her eyes, “directly connected to its brain” (40). Flusser does not, however, explain just how such a contact might be “direct” insofar as any such connection is necessarily a mediated relation. Instead, for Flusser any such contact simply “ought” to be immediate, that is, according to pre-existing framework that already presupposes an oppositional relation; in this instance, the opposite of human indirection. For the vampyroteuthis, then, all phenomenological impressions – understood as simultaneously tentacular, optic, and sexual – are said to arrive already processed and thus unified, making contradiction impossible. As a result, writes Flusser, the world of the vampyroteuthis “is not doubtful but surprising … an unbroken stream of Aristotelian shock” (40).

For the surprised Aristotelian vampyroteuthis, then, the information flow is explicitly and directly libidinal, whereas for the Cartesian human this same information flow is habitually shrouded by conceptual distance. The human animal encounters the world indirectly, by handling it; the vampyroteuthis encounters the world directly, through sex. Passivity, as the world rushes past, is in this way transformed into passion (41).


Conceptual orgasm and sexual syllogism

Such an unceasing and direct stream of creative Aristotelian shock is necessarily identical with the vampyroteuthic body, which thus exists in a state Flusser describes as both “artistic ejaculation” and “permanent orgasm.” Here, however, several problems with Flusser’s account quickly become visible, all of which are related to vampyroteuthic time or, rather, to the absence of any engagement regarding questions of vampyroteuthic temporality. Indeed, Flusser a priori analogical schema here clearly displays its limitations. While the opposite of (human) time according to such a schema can only be (nonhuman) nontime, this would inevitably make of the vampyroteuthis an in-finite being existing outside of the temporal universe – thus causing Flusser to fall prey to the very “transcendental delusion” he seeks to guard against.

Returning to the twin questions of orgasm and time, Flusser begins with artistic ejaculation, stating that the unbroken stream of shocked surprise “overwhelms” the vampyroteuthis, he writes, causing chromatophores in the skin “to contract and emit coloured secretions” (64). This moment of clenched emission is, he continues, “an artistic orgasm during which its [sic] colourful ejaculations are encrypted into vampyroteuthic code (64, emphasis added). The question, then, is how might an unceasing and unbroken stream of impression(s) that is identical with embodiment give rise to an ejaculatory moment of orgasm?

How, in other words, given the unending nature of creative vampyroteuthic shock, can the event of orgasm be delimited? In later deeming this unceasing stream to be that of “permanent orgasm,” Flusser only further highlights the problem: how, in the midst of orgasm, can one experience – that is, punctuate a (singular) orgasm, artistic or otherwise? Does vampyroteuthic Dasein consist of one long orgasm, or an infinite series of overlapping orgasms? Moreover, if one’s entire existence is orgasm, might one not also say that such an existence is, by definition, never to experience an orgasm? Here, the organisational priority of Flusser’s reflexive schema not only creates these problems, but also requires that Flusser shy away from producing a vampyroteuthic Being and Time.

Interestingly, the text’s status as a fable carries with it a tendency to invalidate necessary questions such as these. Fables, after all, are not supposed to be “realistic,” and yet, the possibility or otherwise of an existence indistinguishable from orgasm is the very question this “fable” sets out in all seriousness to explore. Indeed, its centrality becomes obvious once we consider that the human analogue of the vampyroteuthic orgasm is the concept. We also begin to perceive a certain Nietzschean inter-text or hypertext that haunts Flusser’s fable.

First of all, the concept-orgasm opposition implies an equivalent vampyroteuthic temporality: according to Flusser, the movement of the syllogism constitutes the “time” of the concept, a temporal movement that finds its analogue in vampyroteuthic copulation. For the human, in other words, the syllogistic process forms – or ejaculates – a concept, whereas for the vampyroteuthis copulation ejaculates – or forms – a colour-coded orgasm. Moreover, given that vampyroteuthic Dasein “is” orgasm, do human animals therefore exist only “in” concept? In other words, are humans only insofar as they are conceptual? And is this one continuous conceptualisation, or its opposite? Are concepts, in opposition to orgasms, punctual, overlapping or identical? Finally, in opposition to the flow of Aristotelian shock and artistic ejaculation, is the conceptual Dasein of the human therefore necessarily inartistic?

With unwitting irony, according to Flusser the libidinal durée of the vampyroteuthic Dasein represents nothing less than a critique of the limits of reflection, and thus of a certain kind of conceptual objectivity. In contrast to the human who always perceives, and thus conceives, of the world within her own reflection, the vampyroteuthis, insofar as she emits light, thus “delineates the darkness into rations before they are conceived,” therefore marking out her reason as preconceptual (47). She thus perceives things rationally first, in order to subsequently comprehend with her tentacles what the “light-reason has already rationalized” (47). Moreover, insofar as the sexual organs of the vampyroteuthis simultaneously function as organs of sense, any concept abstracted from the “illuminated cones” of preconceptual reason is thus already sexualised and gendered (47).

Such a movement of vampyroteuthic comprehension, however, clearly requires some form of spacing or discretisation – and thus distancing – to serve as the a priori condition for any perception of time. Such a discretisation, moreover, instead of making every contradiction disappear, rather guarantees the impossibility of any such perfect immunity from potential contradiction. At the very least, the temporality of vampyroteuthic comprehension seriously undermines Flusser’s claim that the vampyroteuthis experiences the unceasing libidinal flow of information immediately, that is, in a perfectly transparent form which, in being identical with her very existence, can never take flight in unexpected directions nor drift into alien contexts and registers.[iii] Take, for example, the argument that every vampyroteuthic concept is gendered a priori. Even before being abstracted, writes Flusser, every proto-concept has already been moulded into its particular shape by the sociopolitical crucible that engenders it. As such, Flusser’s preconceptual conceptual gendering can in fact only emerge from within an enormous network of deeply enmeshed relationships. Abstracted from out of this endless, orgasmic durée of experience, the vampyroteuthic concept thus necessitates a leap into what can only be an utterly discontinuous domain. Indeed, enlarging the notion of language in “On Truth and Lie” to include the tropological functioning of any and all perception and affection, that is, of any filtering of information whatsoever, Nietzsche shows that each and every such leap – every production of sense of whatever stripe or species – is necessarily a translation [übertragung].

Leaving aside this hugely problematic notion of unmediated perception for a moment, might anything be salvaged from the notion of a prior “gendering” of concepts? Firstly, it is clear that, for Flusser, gender is reducible to a simple either-or: either male or female, with no thought for bisexed, intersexed, or multiply-sexed bodyings. According to Flusser, this pre-gendering of concepts equates to a philosophy of physicality, that is, a dialectic of bodies with copulation as initial contradiction and orgasm as its sublation – such sublations-copulationsthereafter serving as models for perceiving phenomena. For the vampyroteuthis, then, philosophy is copulation while, for Flusser, philosophy is the Hegelian dialectic. Moreover, while humankind in general negotiates contradiction with “cold logic” and syllogisms, for the vampyroteuthis negotiation is coitus, with orgasm as its successful resolution (42). Unsurprisingly, however, in once again starting from an unthought – and thus dogmatic – opposition (male-female), Flusser is constrained to “disclose” nothing but one more simplistic mirror-image: the libidinal “first” philosophy of the vampyroteuthis presupposes its mirror in human psychoanalysis, just as human philosophy presupposes its reverse in a vampyroteuthic history that begins with Freud and ends with Pythagoras.

In a sense, then, Flusser follows Nietzsche in arguing that concepts are just “empty husks,” preliminary to all thinking. The huge difference, however, concerns the fact that, for Nietzsche, the formation of such concepts is definitive of life in general, whereas for Flusser it is the defining factor guaranteeing human exceptionalism. This difference is, once again, the difference between reflection and diffraction: the difference between gender as an either-or and gender as the production of singular bodyings. Only with the latter, I would suggest, might the production-undergoing of conceptual relating take on something of the orgasmic. Without it, conceptual gender difference never moves beyond a simplistic recognition of the fact that gender impacts upon the received sense of concepts. First, though, we must reflect on this psychoanalytic mirror which, according to Flusser, reveals the importance of vampyroteuthic reflection.


Republic of squid: democracy and cannibalistic animality

The vampyroteuthis, argues Flusser, can tell “us humans” something very important about ourselves and our history, namely that human animals have suppressed the sexual in favour of the digestive. The specifically human way of handling objects, he suggests, is exemplary in its privileging of the digestive, while human sex finds itself reproduced as both “animalistic and ahistorical” (49). Furthermore, writes Flusser, the suppression of sexuality originates in the male fear of female rebellion. Hence, to disclose the secret libidinal history of humanity, to sexualise the entirety of perception and affection, is at once to challenge institutional patriarchy, to disclose masculine insecurity at the base of societal order, and to open the space for a specifically feminine deposition. This notion of the “feminine” is, I would suggest, best understood through Nietzsche’s engagement with Ariadne, and especially by way of the readings offered by Derrida in Éperons and “Otobiographies.”

Staying with Flusser, ahistorical conceptual arrestation gives way to an historical suppression of the female by the male who, having initially relied upon greater physical strength, thereafter institutionalises this suppression by posting border guards at the body’s various orifices, with the mouth occupying the prime position. Interestingly, within the mouth of the vampyroteuthis one finds a gland that, secreting “a paralyzing poison,” arrests the flow of incoming information, a spacing that produces intelligible forms to be communicated later (51). The delineation and arrestation of form is, in other words, a poison that passes by way of the mouth. Such, then, is the question of eating well. Central in this regard are the key psychoanalytic concepts of incorporation, introjection, and ingestion.

The vampyroteuthis, writes Flusser, absorbs the world, that is, she incorporates it. Humans, by contrast, contemplatethe world. Whereas the vampyroteuthis hates the world, the human loves it, an opposition that manifests itself in the desire of the human animal to experience the vampyroteuthis, and the desire of the vampyroteuthis to swallow the human. It is not by chance, then, that for Flusser the analogue of human reason is the vampyroteuthic dream, and that the critique of pure reason is analogous to vampyroteuthic psychoanalysis. To bring all these factors together, we must go all the way back to the beginning of human history (and therefore into the future of the vampyroteuthis). We must, in other words, return to (or ultimately arrive at) the ideal Republic of Plato. Therein, we find an intensely dramatic portrayal that begins with the male fear of female rebellion and, through the digestive repression of sexuality moving by way of the mouth, ends with the institutional posting of orificial guards. Further, we begin to get a sense of the political implications of Dasein experienced as permanent orgasm.

Of course, whatever the particular form of political utopia to which the vampyroteuthis may aspire, it will necessarily represent an anti-Republic insofar as it is libidinal through and through and, as such, is in a strict, human sense unthinkable. It is perhaps this same unthinkability that compels Flusser, as a “born Platonist” (and thus coupled with some form of bizarre genetic determinism), to restage the ancient Republic whilst claiming for it a radical act of “unshrouding.” As we shall see later, however, what these Emperor’s New Clothes ultimately reveal are simply the limits of a reflexive methodology.

According to Plato, if the Republic is to endure then creaturely desire must be suppressed at its root. Such desire is for Plato characteristic of the labouring animal body – a lowly group which, in times of crisis, comprises nonhuman animals (who either labour with their bodies or labour through their bodies), women (whose labour is all too literal), and male slaves (waged or otherwise). Bereft of the salve of reason, the members of these groups 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. 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 women and by domestic animals, constitutes both origin and symptom of imminent tyranny. Hence, insists Plato, the labouring animal body must be a priori “tamed” through the force-feeding of an institutional “Guardian.” Indeed, for Plato creaturely desire overlaps largely – and is at time identical with – the “urge” or “instinct” for democracy.[iv]

Moreover, should just one labouring, desiring body – whether for corporeal pleasure or for democratic order – be left free, the rulers of the Republic risk letting loose a cannibalistic animality. For Plato both the labouring body and the democratic instinct must be enslaved 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, penetrates and places within the body an external guardian of the Law to take the place of sleeping reason. The feminine labouring body, 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. Without this enforced incorporation, the feminine gives rise to an orgasmic rebellion pursued through a newly-libidinal animal body utterly consumed by desire.

In Flusser’s account, meanwhile, we discover that the female vampyroteuthis is physically larger than the male (thus inverting the human “might is right” origin of our patriarchal socius) and, as a species, possesses a “somewhat unnerving” reproductive system, its libidinal saturation demonstrated by sheer number of penises, “clitorises,” and secondary orifices (20). Moreover, and far from coincidentally, political freedom for the vampyroteuthis is cannibalism. Ultimately, the promise underpinning the detailed reconstruction of vampyroteuthic society, history, and culture is located here, as the libidinal mirror-image of the Republic and thus the negation to be negated.

What “shape,” therefore, does an encounter with the vampyroteuthis promise? Transferred to the abyss, the human plane becomes a vampyroteuthic volume, with space replaced by a realm of coiled tension (42), and the eternal, geometric Platonic forms replaced by Nietzschean mutability and revaluation, that is, by an ever surprising (Aristotelian) plasticity of impression. As we have seen, humans “desire” an experience of the vampyroteuthis, whereas the vampyroteuthis desires to swallow humanity. Nevertheless, it is just such a contact that underpins Flusser’s utopian project: it is precisely on the surface, that is, where sea meets sky, that the bland, veneered, Apollonian human world must encounter the energy-laden, brutal, orgiastic and Dionysian world of the vampyroteuthis.

Here, then, vampyroteuthic “culture” becomes a posthuman Birth of Tragedy, and the vampyroteuthis a posthuman figure. On the one side, we find Captain Picard’s (imperialist, rationalistic) quest for experience, his “hands-on” approach (“all hands on deck”), compared to the vampyroteuthis-Borg’s quest for incorporation (i.e., swallowing, assimilation). Such is a specifically Nietzschean Borg, divested of its (Platonic) geometric rigour (of its cube ship), her sepia ink-sculptures always already fluid. The “hive-mind,” we recall, is the highest evolutionary form, yet here its eternal fixed geometry is replaced by an orgiastic fluidity of form experienced as passion, as an explosive uncoiling releasing vast amounts of repressed sexual energy.

Lastly, with Flusser’s final “analogy” of truth and lie, Nietzsche’s own “On Truth and Lie” is revealed as the secret text of the “orgasmic, orphic, and artistic” vampyroteuthis (53). For this, however, we must first understand the peculiarly glandular forms of historicity and communication characteristic of the vampyroteuthis.


Historicity, Language, and Short Circuiting Artefacts

Here, the vampyroteuthis shares much with Bernard Stiegler, arguing that humanity rests far too heavily upon its inanimate mnemonic crutches. As a result of this “blunder,” human history can never be “genuine” insofar as it can never be “properly intersubjective” (50). However, whereas Stiegler argues that the danger concerning the transfer of human knowledge onto “psychotechnologies” is the defining characteristic of our current information age, Flusser, by contrast, suggests that all of human history is a failure, presumably because human history has always contained this tendency for exporting information onto mnemonic aids. While this is indeed the case (and not only for human animals), what Flusser regards as a “properly” intersubjective and thus genuine history sounds suspiciously like a romantic return to some mythical notion of “oral history.”

That aside, the intersubjectivity of the vampyroteuthis is particularly interesting insofar as the media of transmission are the glands, making vampyroteuthic history “a glandular history, a history of secretions” (50-51). This glandular historicity, moreover, in being opposed to human historiology, represents a constitutive difference, thus allowing Flusser to (apparently) maintain a traditional human exceptionalism based upon possession of second-order language. I parenthetically mark this “difference” as mere appearance, as Flusser himself insists that vampyroteuthic displays of colour in fact constitute a chromatic language that is intraspecific, one that gives “outward expression to the inner thoughts” (51). It remains to ask, of course, not only how such a language is not a “language,” but also as to how such “inner thoughts” might themselves be formulated if the vampyroteuthis lacks a “proper” language and, indeed, how one could ever tell a “proper” language from an “improper” one. Once again, Nietzsche’s notion of translation offers a timely corrective on this point.

The issue of vampyroteuthic language is further complicated by the introduction of further “communication” glands. A second gland, for example, renders the sender of a given message transparent and thus invisible to its recipient(s). This form of transmission, suggests Flusser, inevitably reminds us of certain ideologically-overdetermined “aspects of our current media” such as radio and television (21). Moreover, writes Flusser, both of these ways of communicating, the chromatic and the ideological, constitute a cognitive rape – a claim with clear implications for our own technocratic media society. The importance Flusser gives to, and immediately distances himself from, this overtly masculinist claim is marked by the fact that it is on this subject alone that the vampyroteuthis is given its critical voice directly in the first-person singular (albeit in italics), simultaneously raising the question of whether she speaks as a critic or as a normalizer.

As a species, and having first checked any unit of received information against the species’ existing information pool, the vampyroteuthis then widely disseminates this new information, which in turn is stored in the memories of other vampyroteuthis’ (52). This, argues Flusser, is vampyroteuthis history: a continuous dialogue ensuring “that the sum of available information will only and ever increase” (52). Once again, the question of memory is at the centre. As well as being “the central problem” of historical evolution, memory, writes Flusser, is “also the central problem of art, which is essentially a method of fabricating artificial memories” (61). In his own voice this time, Flusser again parodies the human tendency to transfer its memories to impermanent “cultural” artefacts, which thereafter come to shape human experience and thought in its entirety (62). It is, in the end, the very materiality of such artefactual objects that constitutes the downfall of human (art) history: objects resist being transformed into memories, a resistance which, in an ever-expanding feedback loop, comes to be recorded in other artificial memories. This feedback loop, suggests Flusser, is “art history” (63). In a startling, indeed uncanny, presentiment of Stiegler’s argument (and somewhat contradicting Flusser’s earlier claim to an ahistorical tendency), Flusser describes present-day humans as having come to “live as functions of their objects,” forgetting that such artefactual objects are supposed to function only to record and share acquired information (a sharing Stiegler terms a “long circuit”) (63). Instead, continues Flusser, humans become absorbed by the objects themselves, allowing these objects to “absorb their existential interests” (63) (a reversal that for Stiegler constitutes a literally brain-numbing “short circuit”). As a result, artefactual objects cease being communicative media and become their opposite, “namely, barriers that restrict human communication” (63).

Finally, there is a fourth method of glandular communication: the sculpting of ink to produce sepia self-portraits in addition to “countless other forms that are indecipherable to us” (52). Despite this indecipherability resulting from an inevitable formal species barrier, argues Flusser, we must nevertheless assume that the vampyroteuthis broadcasts information through these sepia clouds. This, I would say, is equally inevitable. Flusser, however, is quick to reject any comparison with human-produced artworks for two reasons: first, there is the ephemerality of the cloud; and, second, because the “information communicated with these clouds is exclusively intended to mislead its receiver” (52). These reasons, however, simply cannot be maintained. First, a large number of human-produced artworks are at least as “ephemeral” as a dissipating sculptural form (indeed, it can be argued that the very notion of art’s work is that of a singular, ungraspable event). Second, given the indecipherability of the information communicated as a result of the species barrier, how is it possible to judge the exclusivity of the attempt to mislead? Further, is it even possible to guarantee that every receiver of a form will be deceived?

Leaving this aside, this ink-producing gland (the “diverticum”), in common with all the others, explicitly “facilitates lying” (52). Put simply, the history – both historicity and historiology – of the vampyroteuthis is an (art) history of deceit. Further, deceit and memory are the key terms of a vampyroteuthic critique. Whereas falsehood is the opposite of human truth, for the vampyroteuthis “truth” is already a lie, and hence its opposite is rather dishonesty (53). Flusser is here making an extremely important point: vampyroteuthic culture, as “deceit, pretense, and falsehood,” is necessarily “a culture of art” (53) – a point that clearly reveals their Nietzschean chromatics. Such a Nietzschean, vampyroteuthic thinker thus philosophises not in order to proceed from falsehood to truth, but “in order to lie ever more completely” (53).

In this inverse world, the entirety of cultural artefacts, of history and philosophy, thus constitute “a peculiar type of cryptography that is not meant to be decrypted” (52). Instead of our peculiarly human culture of “truths,” in the world of the vampyroteuthis decryption only ever yield further deceptive encryptions that, at its most elemental level, “mask the demonic predator’s will to power” (53, my emphasis). Along with reading Being and Time as the point of origin and departure of the Dasein), we could thus profitably consider Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lie” as the secret text of its decryption-encryption – a decryption that only ever encrypts and deceives.

Deceit, together with memory, thus forms the key terms of a vampyroteuthic critique. It is a critique, however, which only goes so far. To begin with, rather than challenging the most traditional of humanisms, Flusser simply extends – albeit in a restricted form – the “superbiological” exceptionality of humankind to the fabulous vampyroteuthis. Further, this extension is no extension at all: as the negative model of the human, that is, as that which the human has repressed in becoming human, we never leave the human for even a moment. In this way, Flusser in fact reiterates the most basic of humanisms, relegating all nonhuman and nonfabulous animals to the Heideggerian realm of “merely biological” automatons, that is, of genetically determined machines. Such a move, as is increasingly being recognised, brings with it a variety of particularly noxious consequences – consequences that Tyler’s focus on pragmatism ultimately renders meaningless.

Before returning to Tyler, however, let us first consider the specifically vampyroteuthic solution to the “laughable” error that is human art and history. Firstly, we recall, the vampyroteuthis represents a code for deciphering our posthuman future, although such a claim is nullified somewhat by her indecipherable and deceptive encryption. Secondly, on the meta-level, the production of such beasts – not, in other words, that of sepia sculptures but rather that of the species itself – represents a methodology “superior” to that currently practised within the hard sciences insofar as it allows for an otherwise shrouded humanity to “recognize an art of a different sort” (63). What, then, is revealed regarding this new, “post-scientific” art form?

Vampyroteuthic art, writes Flusser, is “not burdened by the resistance of objects … but is rather intersubjective and immaterial” (63). We thus understand the refusal of the status of “artwork” to vampyroteuthic sculpture: rather than producing artworks, which are, by definition, mediated, the vampyroteuthis instead imparts data immediately into the brain of its auditor. The human, in short, struggles against the stubbornness of materials, whereas the vampyroteuthis struggles against the stubbornness of her fellow vampyroteuthis’. However, the very notion of transmission necessitates a material substrate. For something to be sensed, in other words, there must be a physical manifestation for perception, as mediated, to take place; a mediation which can always be misinterpreted, distorted, and even forgotten. Unfortunately, then, Flusser’s “new” art depends upon an impossible idealism of intersubjectivity. If the human wholly loses herself in material objects, then so too is the vampyroteuthis precisely because she is wholly concerned with the sharing and transfer of knowledge.

Curiously, the “immateriality” of vampyroteuthic idealism is described in the most material of terms: upon experiencing the Aristotelian “creative shock” of something new, the vampyroteuthis is forced to reorganize her memory, a reorganisation that permeates her entire body, causing her to orgasm and her chromatophores to emit coloured ejaculatory secretions. Here, then, the definitive im-mediate and non-material transmission is a display that takes place across and through the animal’s entire body in a frenetically coloured expression of orgasm. An orgasm, moreover, which, across distance and time, attracts a mate into an orgiastic coupling that is at once dialogue and transfer of information. Significant too in this context is Flusser admission that he is unsure as to how this new information “infiltrates” – a term already suggesting contamination – the “common vampyroteuthis conversation” (64).

Flusser is clear, however, as to the mode of this infiltration: rape. Irrespective of gender, the penetrating vampyroteuthis forces her auditor to store immaterial information. Here, the human-vampyroteuthis opposition turns full circle: tired of objects, humans too have “created media that have enabled us to rape human brains … have built chromatophores of our own – televisions, videos, and computer monitors that display synthetic images – with whose help broadcasters of information can mendaciously seduce their audiences” (67). Ultimately, then, Flusser’s “superior methodology” – consisting of the “invention” of a mirror-image human in symbolic animal form – very much holds to the generic tradition of the fable: we end, as we begin, with the human. Despite appearing to be what Eduardo Kac on the back cover describes as “a pioneering exploration of uncharted territory in the realm of animal cognition, philosophy, and art,” as claims on the back cover, we discover instead that the distance travelled by Vampyroteuthic Infernalis is very small indeed.


The Lessons of Anthropomorphism

This enclosure of and within the traditional genre of the fable inevitably re-raises the vexed question of anthropomorphism. Flusser, we recall, regards the ever-more-subtle categorising of biological entities as being merely a vulgar anthropomorphism, one that reflects only the spatial hierarchy of a specifically human disgust. Anthropomorphism, as Tyler tells us, presupposes knowledge of a uniquely human trait, as Flusser’s charge clearly shows. This presupposition, however, raises two problems. First, it presumes we know what it is to be human when we don’t and, second, it infers that any such trait is uniquely human when in fact any number of extraterrestrial visitors, for example, may arrive tomorrow to disqualify each and every such inference.

More importantly, the charge of anthropomorphism is at once a charge of narcissism and, as such, is always an accusation. As Tyler argues, however, it is an accusation that, at the very moment of its utterance, inevitably turns an about-face. In what is a bravura display, Tyler shows us that, rather than belonging to those who “yield to the appeal of anthropomorphism” (63), narcissism in fact belongs to those who believe in the existence of anthropomorphism, thus wielding it always with an implicit accusation. Regardless of whether one condemns or commends anthropomorphism, in other words, to wield such a charge requires that one already accepts the possibility of a uniquely human trait. Without this belief, the charge of anthropomorphism simply refuses to make sense.

How then, as she returns our gaze, do we stare Flusser and Bec’s infernal squid in the face, as if from a mirror? Unsurprisingly, we find ourselves caught within its infinite regress: to condemn Flusser’s vampyroteuthis as an example of anthropomorphism in the hugely problematic form of a generic fable of moral education, to decry her exemplary exploitation as a reductive, cipherous product of anthropocentric hubris, is to accept the very possibility of human exceptionalism such a charge aims to disrupt. And, of course, the sheer complexity of the world of the vampyroteuthis is unique in the annals of Western philosophy. Perhaps, then, the truth of Flusser’s short, fabulous text is that of an important and timely warning: one cannot cease polishing the mirror so easily. Inventive figures of posthumanism and radical posthuman figures can never emerge on the heels of accusations and dismissals.

So, then, what of the distance traversed by the Vampyroteuthic Infernalis? Precisely because of the reflective way of proceeding, Flusser presupposes and (thus) inevitably “reveals” a fixed human position. This does not, however, deny the possibility of tracing a diffractive movement through the text. To this end, Karen Barad suggests that we need a method “attuned to the entanglement of the apparatuses of production, one that enables genealogical analyses of how boundaries are produced rather than presuming sets of well-worn binaries in advance” (29-30). As beings of perception and affection, we are, and will forever remain, prone to the specifics of narcissistic blinding, and none more, or less, than Louis Bec’s SQuID.


Typewriters, Technozoosemiotics, and Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices

Such questions, as we have seen, a priori concern language, writing, and the plastic art of creation. In a later paper, Louis Bec makes the interesting claim that the vampyroteuthis is in fact a writing set: enclosing “a transparent pen and a sac of sepia ink; its body is the case” (Bec “Squids, Elements of Technozoosemiotics,” n.p.). The vampyroteuthis is, in other words, a machine for writing (literally, une machine à écrire – a typewriter). A machine, moreover, for writing extremes and for writing in extremis in that the vampyroteuthis is also an extremophile. Extremophiles are microorganisms who thrive in environments previously thought impossible to support any life – environments without oxygen and light, for example. Here, while the vampyroteuthis remains a reflection of the human, she is no longer an image of universal humanity. Instead, she diffracts light onto specific human animals who have been transformed into prototypical extremophiles – not yet properly “other,” but never or no longer human either.

The vampyroteuthis, then, is an extremophile insofar as she survives in the immense pressures of the ocean depths. Specific humans, too, are extremophiles insofar as they survive under immense pressures elsewhere. For example, writes Bec,

take the thousands of women and children in Mailuu-Suu searching for welded nickel in light-bulb shells in dumps of a factory located on terrain where uranium was previously mined – there are prototypical extremophiles among us, trying to survive in a maximally toxic and radioactive environment where the atmosphere is laden with a surplus of glass powder, to boot (n.p.)

Clearly, the notion of “exception” reflected by the vampyroteuthis-as-extremophile has changed. No longer mirroring the universal exceptionalism of the (allegedly) superior human species, the vampyroteuthis now shows us an image of a certain human animal who is exceptional only by virtue of the extreme conditions imposed upon her survival. Admittedly, this is to move beyond the questions specific to Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. Nonetheless, Flusser’s text is, as any text outlining a methodology must be, explicitly preliminary, that is to say, it attempts to open new directions for thought that go beyond itself. As such, to do it justice is to ask what, if anything, does the fabulous analysis of vampyroteuthic society offer for those animals forced into extremophiliac survival? An extreme politics, or a politics of the extreme? We shall return to this in the next section.

In addition to being a squid, a writing set, an extremophile, and a typewriter, the fabrication of the vampyroteuthis is also an attempt at evolutiontoward a more integrated, perhaps even vampish, posthuman future. Such a squid, writes Bec in the later text, is a SQuID: a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device. Focusing on this occasion on the Loligo vulgaris mollusk, Bec suggests that the mollusk’s “chromatophoric and bioluminescent communication codes” renders her “simultaneously a semaphoric and a techno-cephalopodic object” (n.p.). Here, Bec takes an important step forward, one that moves beyond the earlier text co-authored with Flusser: he digitizes these cutaneous codes with “the aim of setting up a ‘dialogue’ … by using an artificial skin to manipulate the chromatic and formal parameters involved” (n.p. check all Bec quotations). Once again, we find the appeal to “dialogue,” but things are very different now, the focus being not on the fable but on the fabulous: any attempt at genuine dialogue depends a priori upon specificities, that is, the diffracted materialities that are specific “worlded” configurations of matter, energy, and information.

In a positive coda to the vampyroteuthis of Flusser, Bec thus embarks upon the fascinating project of “technozoosemiotics,” aiming at the creation of digital interfaces of transduction and transcoding areas between kinaesthetic and paralinguistic systems, and of strings of signs that might possibly be intelligible between different living and artificial species. The notion of transduction is absolutely central: by way of Gilbert Simondon, the term refers to the emergence of entirely new beings. A transductive being, in other words, is one in which the “elements” of her/his/its unheard-of combination do not precede their relating, but rather can only be discerned retrospectively. The terms constituting the relation, in other words, do not exist prior to their relation.

Ultimately, argues Bec, the project of technozoosemiotics aims at “laying the basis for a communication continuum for the alive.” All of this is extremely interesting although it is difficult to understand, given this description, why, at the very last minute, Bec restricts his “continuum” to that of the alive. Unless, that is, Bec intends a complete transformation of the very notion of “alive-ness” – a transformation that is, I would argue, both timely and urgent.[v] To this end, writes Bec, the “alive no longer appears as a material, autarkic unity, but as part of a network in which it forms an integration point for energy and above all for information” (n.p.).

Why the vampyroteuthis? Why the squid? As “surplus information interfaces,” writes Bec, squids “provide the means of approaching the ‘why’ of ecosystemic information surplus processing, as well as the methodological and instrumental ‘how’” (n.p.). Put another way, the squid socius bears with it the potential for transductive creation, “located at the intersection of multiple exchanges which link it to all the components of its biomass and of the natural and technological environment it constructs by producing a heterogeneous information surplus” (n.p.). However, insists Bec, this surplus “must be processed by devices, by constellations of a syntactic and semantic nature that are irrevocably linked to the world of species itself” (n.p.). It is here, with such alien yet resolutely material constellations, that a dialogue may finally emerge.


Politics, Freedom, and the Posthuman: Utopias

Returning to Flusser’s book, we recall our earlier question as to what, if anything, the analysis of vampyroteuthic society offers those animals forced into the extremities of, and by, global capital. Once again, Flusser is careful to exempt the human-vampyroteuthis from the animal realm, this time on the old Aristotelian basis of politics. According to Flusser, the “superorganism” that is an ant society, for example, is composed of biological, rather than social, agents; each specific ant functioning merely as a cell functions in an organic body. This relation of ant and cell is, of course, an analogical relation, ensuring that ant society as a whole operates according to biological and not political rules. Ultimately, however, the analogy does not convince: a group of ants do not compose, from birth to death, a bounded organ only released upon literal decomposition, but are rather a number of individual entities capable of joining or leaving this or that group for a limited time span. Far more accurate would be to say that ant society is a networked society.

Flusser, however, requires this notion of a bounded organ in order to reserve politics – and thus freedom – for humans and vampyroteuthis’ alone: to “speak of politics,” he writes, “is to speak of freedom” (56), and most immediately of freedom from biological constraints. By contrast, ants, like cells, have “sacrificed their freedom” in becoming a superorganism and an organ respectively (56). Unwittingly, no doubt, Flusser is thus suggesting that explicitly political ant societies necessarily existed at an earlier stage on their evolution. Ignoring these political proto-ants, Flusser instead stages yet another form of analogy, that of isomorphism. As a consequence of sacrificing freedom in becoming a superorganism, a new freedom is created, “namely, that of the superorganism and the organism” (56).[vi] The emergence of the superorganism, in other words, brings with it a specific form of (dialectical) freedom.

Nonetheless, the unacknowledged politics of the proto-ant offers a disquieting interpretation of freedom. Freedom, we have seen, exists only insofar as biology has not yet fully encroached upon life. Hence, freedom “is a provisional stage in the tendency of evolution toward socialization and death” (56). One is here reminded of Freud’s death drive, forever seeking a “return” to a primordial, inorganic stasis. Properly provisional – perhaps proto-beings on evolutionary par with the individual ant – humans and vampyroteuthis’ are, for now, “free individuals” (56). It is a freedom, however, which is increasingly under attack by society as a whole, insofar as such societies “are becoming ever better organized and thus ever more conscious of biological regulations” (56). Here, we begin to perceive the direction of Flusser’s critique, one that treads a well-worn path indeed: humans, along with their oceanic dark half, are “in danger of becoming … like ants or bees” (57). Global capitalism, it would seem, ultimately serves evolution by way of the biologization of the social, disposing of individuals as it replaces them with mere cells. This is, of course, a huge oversimplification – an oversimplification aided above all by its unthinking recourse to ciphers in the guise of other animals.

Between biological society and the free individual, however, stands the family, and it is this “central social phenomenon” that the vampyroteuthis can, claims Flusser (and by way of analogy, ofcourse) help us to understand. An understanding, moreover, which will in turn shed light on the differences between, and certain implications of, equality and fraternity as organising principles. Every vampyroteuthis, first of all, is a twin, one of a pair of simultaneously hatched individuals that are “interrelated according to a genetically predetermined hierarchy” (57). Human siblings, meanwhile, are also hierarchized, but this hierarchy, writes Flusser, is largely culturally determined. As such, for humans to advocate for equality over fraternity, or vice versa, would be to agitate “for or against historical contingencies” (57). The vampyroteuthis, by contrast, has no such freedom as if she “should take the side of equality over fraternity, it [sic] would be agitating against its own biological condition” (57). Fraternity, in other words, is, for the vampyroteuthis, synonymous with society, and thus to favour equality would be at once antibiological and antisocial.

Hence, continues Flusser, if we take “political activity” to mean any attempt at changing a given societal structure, then vampyroteuthic politics is necessarily “synonymous with anarchy” insofar as it “would represent the attempt to abolish, outright, its [sic] iniquitous social structure” (57-58). Such a social struggle is, however, impossible, simply because there is no society, but only ever biology: being genetically determined, there can be no change in social structure but rather only the unattainable vampyroteuthic ideal of anarchic, fraternal strife. Here, a number of unanswered questions impose themselves: Given a rigid and complete genetic determination, how might such an ideal arise? And how does the biologized vampyroteuthis – the water-borne reflection of the narcissistic human – thus differ from ant society? Or from the coup de grâce of global capitalism?

At this point, Flusser attributes to vampyroteuthic twins an older/younger fraternal hierarchy, and yet, given they are said to hatch simultaneously, on what basis can such a hierarchy be determined – whether than determination is genetic or social? This is especially problematic, insofar as it is precisely in terms of brotherhood that Flusser claims the human is able to “relate” to the vampyroteuthis, that is, “at least since Freud … or, perhaps, ever since there have been Big Brothers” (??). In itself, this is a somewhat odd reference to call in support of an older-younger hierarchy – in addition to the totalitarian subtext (and in the absence of the more obvious reference to the French Revolution), Freud (and the French Revolution) in fact posits fraternal strife over equality rather than in response to a (biologically or culturally) imposed hierarchy.

Things get even more confusing once the familiar oppositional analogy cranks up. Less familiar, however, is the opposition Flusser poses between equality and fraternity. Comparing vampyroteuthis politics to our own, he argues that “all of our political activity is likewise directed against our biological condition, against biologically predetermined inequalities” (58). But what are these apparently “natural” (i.e., genetically determined) inequalities? The answer is unclear – differences in physical strength perhaps? While this would accord with a patriarchal culture based upon a fear of female rebellion, it is nonetheless an extremely reductive definition of political activity. Ultimately, how such inequalities resulting from the scarcity of resources, or from the inability to control the means of production, or simply from the exploitation of labour-power that is the motor of capitalism, how these are at base “biological” is unclear, although to suggest such would be to suggest that starvation as a result of resource scarcity or economic downturn is, at base, both “natural” and inevitable. While Flusser is quick to note that, unlike the vampyroteuthis, “our biologically predetermined inequalities also have a large and overlying cultural component” (58), this in fact changes nothing. Indeed, the problem comes down to the unthinking opposition between determined-nature and undetermined-culture – a binary opposition that simply cannot be maintained.

Specific to human politics, then (a redundancy insofar as, for Flusser, politics is always and only human), is the striving to change the “cultural superstructure” (58). Such a “freedom” means that human animals are equipped with the ability to imagine Utopias “in which even our biological constraints are done away with” (58). However, by suggesting that all political activity is a deluded attempt to change the superstructure – the ideology – that necessarily leaves intact a (here biologically-determined!) economic infrastructure, we thus take a huge step backwards into the vulgar materialism of certain early Marxist theory. Indeed, such activity aimed at an epiphenomenal superstructure is simply a limited version of, in grand terms, the posing of an (by definition impossible and equally epiphenomenal) ideological Utopia. What, also, can one make of the fact that Flusser is himself proposing an explicitly utopian solution, albeit by way of analogical methodology? Such a mirror as the vampyroteuthis provides, rather than meeting at the surface of sea and sky, falls instead into infinite regress.

As vampyroteuthis society is a “datum” rather than a “factum,” that is, a given and not a product, the vampyroteuthis is incapable of comprehending a Utopian imaginary (58). Vampyroteuthic politics, if there could be such a thing, is necessarily a violent act against her own biological “nature.” But then, asks Flusser in a further dizzying twist, does this not also describe human politics: “Are not those who defend nature – those who defend such natural “realities” as race, the dominion of mankind, even ecological balance – somehow betrayers of the human Geist?” (58). Indeed, but why, if inequalities are biologically determined, are “realities” placed in scare quotes? And, if political activity is a deluded attack on the superstructure, how can this equate to the human spirit or Geist? There are numerous, proliferating confusions here which, it becomes clear, are simply placed so as to allow Flusser to propose his own Utopia as a “third way” between human and vampyroteuthis.

Human political activity, writes Flusser, is freedom as an – as yet unresolved – dialectic, with the self-assertion of the individual on one hand, and the needs of society on the other. For the vampyroteuthis, however, there is no dialectic of political freedom insofar as he (seeing as we are talking always about fraternity and never about sorority) is “biologically necessitated to recognize the hierarchical rank of its [sic] brother” (58). How this “rank” is established is, as we have seen, unclear – it would seem to suppose that both vampyroteuthis twins are in a position of a lower rank toward each other and thus the very undoing of both hierarchy and equality. Nonetheless, Flusser states that for a vampyroteuthis to become free, the only option is to dispose of biological necessity by disposing of his twin. Vampyroteuthic freedom, then, is fratricidal cannibalism: “the right to devour its [sic] kin” (58-59). Interestingly, Flusser notes the parallels between the vampyroteuthic and the liberal conceptions of freedom, but only so far as to point out their analogy: phylogenetically threatened much more by the anthill, that is, “by absolute socialization,” vampyroteuthic politics is as a result “far more antisocialist than ours” (58). Instead of a Utopian Imaginary, vampyroteuthic liberalism is “the denial of its biological condition” (59).

We remain, nonetheless, in the realm of opposites: vampyroteuthis cannibalistic antisocialism constitutes a “hate movement,” whereas “our hymenopteric socialism represents a ‘love movement’” (59). Vampyroteuthic liberation arrives as “brotherly hatred,” human liberation as “a sacrifice of individual freedom to our beloved brother – an anthropomorphizing error on its part, a myrmecomorphizing error on ours” (59). This is not, however, to suggest that human society is thus loving and lovable. Indeed, the opposite is the case: vampyroteuthis behaviour reveals “a lovable and loving being” while human behaviour “is defined by universal hatred, by the universal struggle for survival – one against all” (59). Given the organizing nature-culture dichotomy, we should not be surprised by this recourse to the bellum omni contra omnes [war of each against all], the “naturalistic fallacy” which Donna Haraway acutely describes as “the mirror-image misstep to transcendental humanism” (When Species Meet 79). In Flusser’s version of the traditional paired human-animal and culture-nature binaries, “love, the recognition of others, and orgasm” (59) constitutes the “natural state” of vampyroteuthic Dasein who, only in overcoming her animality in order to become a cultural being, thus learns to hate. The human, by contrast, only learns to love by overcoming her animality (59).

Clearly, then, Flusser is simply reiterating the age-old nonsense of a mythical state of nature, of the war of one against all, that has so often been employed to mark a humanist, or at least anthropocentric, vulgate. Indeed, Flusser then makes the all too common, all too humanly exceptional further move of naming this “overcoming” of “animality” as nothing less than Geist or “spirit” in a clearly Christic move which, just in case we missed it, Flusser highlights by noting that in “Judeo-Christian terms, vampyroteuthis behaviour might be said to approximate ‘sins against the spirit’” (59). Here, then, we further experience the inherent limits of analogical methodology.

Flusser, as a dialectic human, reaches his prearranged or, at least, presupposed goal, that is, the possibility of positing a Utopia which, thanks to reflection, has of course been there all along. We must not forget, he writes, “that the vampyroteuthis stands on its head [a phrase inevitably replete with Marxian resonances]: its hell is our heaven, its heaven our hell” (59). While the fratricidal, cannibalistic anarchy of the vampyroteuthis is nothing less than a vision of hell for the human animal, such anarchy nonetheless “represents an inaccessible heaven of freedom” (59). By contrast, the inaccessible human heaven of a loving socialist utopia is for the vampyroteuthis “a hellish anthill” (60). Here, at last, we reach our own analogical, dialectical heaven-to-come. “Is there not a third possibility, a middle road, a tertius gaudens?” (60).

Indeed there is, writes Flusser, and, moreover, “it is not difficult to find” (60). It is, quite simply, the heaven of the dialectic: “a Geist that is both human and vampyroteuthis” (60). Of course, such a Geist is for Flusser always that of the human, insofar as the vampyroteuthis is nothing more than an inverted human, a human stood on its head, and thus the dialectical utopia is nothing more than resolving the “good” and the “bad” sides that already exists in humanity alone. As Flusser says, we are already vampyroteuthis, otherwise we could never recognize “aspects of its heaven and hell” (60). The vampyroteuthis and the human are the absolute – and thus inaccessible given our human-vampyroteuthis impurity – poles of humanity and, if “we could encounter both sides simultaneously, the question of heaven and hell, of good and evil, would be no more” (60). In fact, Flusser continues, this would be the end of all questions, and thus of Geist: such is the risk we take to encounter our hellish side, to “face the vampyroteuthis eye to eye” and thus “behold … our own reflection, above all the reflection of our grotesque political folly” (60). Vampyroteuthic entanglement, in short, is the condition of our very exceptionalism.

Ultimately, however, the “grand risk” that is run by encountering the vampyroteuthis is no risk at all. Flusser’s utopian “third way” simply reiterates a fable of Kantian tolerance – humans, we recall, are “born-Platonists” who must learn to become Kantian, the third way being simply the forever-deferred sublation of the individual-social dialectic understood as a Regulative Idea. This is, in short, a disappointingly inevitable conclusion – especially given its professed utopian aim of permanent orgasm, earlier described as explosive release – to a text that, producing such a fabulous other animal, promises so much more. How different things might have been, however, should Flusser have chosen not reflection, but diffraction? And more, such a diffraction through such fabulous other animals would have no need of fabled invention, as such animals already impact upon our every move.


Our Posthuman Future

As we have seen, contact underpins Flusser’s utopian project of the third way: the meeting of the bland, veneered, Apollonian human world with and the energy-laden, brutal, orgiastic and Dionysian world of the vampyroteuthis. Here, in an echo of Heidegger, Flusser spells out the anthropocentrism organising his entire project. All roads, he writes, inevitably lead only to the human: “the specific point of departure”–be it genetics, biology, psychology, cultural studies–is “more or less irrelevant,” as “each of these differently equipped vehicles will begin to encounter one another soon after they have submerged below the surface” (69). Ultimately, any separation of “depths” into oceanic and psychic is ultimately superficial, as they “are one and the same abyss” (70). The depths of the sea and the depths of the (human) ego will encounter one another, “as though in a mirror” (70).

Such is the promised utopia of reflection, the paradoxical paradise of the mirror and its sublation. Despite all the talk of abysmal depths, Flusser requires only a mirrored surface – such is the (simplified) promise of the dialectic. Thus, we need not submerge in order to provoke the vampyroteuthis’ emergence, as the vampyroteuthis in turn emerges “to lure our submergence” (70). Moreover, depth itself must be annulled: the vampyroteuthis has already emerged, sending out expeditions of her own “in the exploits of Nazism, in cybernetic thinking, in works of logical analysis, and in certain theological texts” (70). In every case, however, insofar as she exists amid immense pressures, when she reaches the surface she emerges “with the effect of a bomb” (70). Hence, it is not the vampyroteuthis who “annihilates our surroundings but rather the sudden release of the pressure that confines it [sic]” (71). As a result, the vampyroteuthis should only be allowed to surface with caution, raised “slowly and carefully” in order “initiate a dialogue with it [sic] in the clear light of day” (71). Since the Enlightenment onwards, however, “[u]nilateral efforts to ‘depressurize’ and humanize others” have repeatedly failed (71, my emphasis). Perhaps such failures are guaranteed by the very light of day – with everything already so weighted toward the human, should we not rather be snorkelling?


Utopia Dreaming

The vampyroteuthis, writes Flusser, emerges as a composite figure “from aquaria (roughly), from tales of sea monsters (mythologically), from our nightmares (psychoanalytically), and from the events of recent history (ideologically)” (74). She has also emerged “from our Utopian conceptions of a “New Man” (vom Neuen Menschen) – as hatred become love, as permanent orgasm [my emphasis], as the realization of Dasein, as selflessness toward others” (74-75??). While I would suggest that the dangers of such a project is precisely that of falling ineffectually into infinite regress, for Flusser, unsurprisingly, the dangers we must look out for en route are rather twin, that is, “two opposed dangers, each reflecting the other” (72): “the Scylla of anthropocentric arrogance” that might condescend to “save” the vampyroteuthis on one hand, and on the other “the Charybdis of nostalgie de la boue, that is, the ingenuous willingness to reconcile with it” (72). These twin figures are all too familiar, however, redolent of utopian projects already a century old, requiring as they do “simply” the maintenance of a “precarious balance” between that ancient couple: the rational and the instinctual. A balance maintained by an “open human engagement” willing to expose the “whole of our humanity” (72, emphasis added).

To this end, and despite the earlier refusal of all disciplinary boundaries residing just below the surface, science as “currently practiced,” that is, as the rational par excellence, is therefore ruled out straight away on the basis that scientific “objectivity” fails to take into account “the great complexities of humanity” (72, emphasis added). Interesting in the light of what has been said here about Flusser’s analogical method and the limits of reflection, Flusser argues that anything science – biologists and “mythologists” in particular – “can tell us about the vampyroteuthis will necessarily resemble an autopsy of a lifeless body” (73). By contrast, what Flusser offers is only ever a reflection – a reasoning and instinctive intuiting – of the human as already produced.

Science is not entirely discounted, however. Remembering the necessity of precarious balance, Flusser turns to fables which, “like the one in hand,” must inevitably rely on the products of science, as only then can we “hope to orient ourselves in the darkness of the abyss” (73). Science and fable must thus form a dialectical pairing to be sublated in future texts (texts such as Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, presumably). Here, the specific task of science is to “allure[e] the vampyroteuthis to emerge without, at the same time, allowing it to swallow us whole” (73). Here, Flusser’s project comes very close, albeit indirectly, to that of Tyler’s, while remaining nonetheless a typical object of the latter’s critique (in a brief parenthesis, briefer even than this, Flusser notes how he is “leaving aside, for now, the tenable assertion that the sciences produce nothing but fables” (73)).

Despite an apparent and specific dismissal, Flusser almost immediately rehabilitates biology as being of an unmatched importance in the creation of the New Man. This importance is because it “provides us with an almost mythical model of life’s unrealized possibilities,” one that enables us to perceive “a share of the universal potential that has lain dormant within us” (73). At the same time, of course (always remembering the “precarious balance” of deferred sublation), “the same biology … cannot be allowed to run rampant” (74). Perhaps biology generally, and genetic manipulation specifically, is so important because only biology bears the promise of explosive, artistic release understood (somehow) as permanent orgasm. Meanwhile, this same threat of explosive orgasm perhaps explains why biology must be simultaneously discounted as unimportant. As such, let us, in conclusion, return, with Flusser, to Tyler and the becoming-feral of the animal cipher by way of a reworking of the evolutionary meme.


Animals, Analogy and Pragmatism

Language, as Tyler makes clear, cannot be reduced to the word. This is a point that cannot be made often and strongly enough when it comes to engaging rigorously with other animals. In the context of a program of radical pragmatism, Tyler returns to the important notion of the meme, as originally proposed by Richard Dawkins first in The Selfish Gene (1976), and then again in The Extended Phenotype (1982). Memes, suggests Dawkins, are the replicators of cultural transmission. Ranging from hand gestures and catchphrases to clothing fashions and the manipulation of pottery, memes function on the cultural level in the same way as genes constitute the replicators of genetic transmission. Such memes, Dawkins writes, spread from “brain to brain” in “just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell” (cit. Tyler 186). A meme is, in short, “a kind of cultural virus that is passed, often unwittingly, from one individual to another” (186).

As with genes, argues Dawkins, the “fitness” of any given meme depends upon three things: longevity, fecundity, and copying fidelity. First, for as long as a particular cultural artifact is both used and recognized, it will endure. Second, if it is to endure, that is, to be repeatedly replicated, a given meme must not only be recognized upon reception, but it must also be readily duplicated. It must, in short, be iterable. Lastly, upon iteration a meme must repeatedly produce (largely) faithful duplications – a hand gesture, to take Tyler’s excellent example, should it “diverge too far from the norm is in danger of becoming no more than an ostentatious scratching” (187).

Being displaced in space and time, every replication – or reiteration – of a given meme is, however, necessarily imperfect, and it is these imperfect imitations, or mutations, that account for the cultural evolution of memes.[vii] However, as Dawkins notes, the question remains as to who, exactly, benefits from any given mutation, since there must be some sort of beneficiary if we are to account for the replication of a “mutated” meme in terms of “fitness” – which is not, as Dawkins is quick to point out, to suggest an identity of a mutated meme with a mutated gene in bestowing “some kind of survival advantage on their carriers” (188). Rather, a successful mutilated meme is one that is, quite simply, “good at replicating”–an ability that is absolutely indifferent to any benefit or risk that might accrue to its host (188). This, moreover, leads Dawkins to suggest that a “successful meme evolves as it does because it is advantageous to itself” (188). Of course, Dawkins is by no means attributing consciousness to memes but, rather, is reiterating at the cultural level his now well-known theory of the selfish gene such as it functions at the genetic level. Hence, “just like genes, memes can be considered ‘selfish’ replicators in the sense that they compete ‘ruthlessly’ with one another in the ‘meme pool’ that is their environment” (188). With this, however, we abruptly find ourselves once again dependent upon a “natural” genetic model based upon the myth of a universal struggle for survival – of the one against the all – which, as we have seen, has all too often been employed to mark out the human animal as an ontological exception.

This should not surprise us, however, given that, as Tyler notes, the relation of gene to meme is therefore that of analogy – a methodology which, as we have seen, is fraught with problems of unthought presumption. Indeed, in Dawkins’ later Platonic formulation, the difficulty of reflection becomes plain to see: the meme, argues Dawkins, is ontologically divided between its Idea, on the one hand, and its imperfect empirical instances on the other. The meme, in other words, is divided into quasi-immortal genotype and potentially infinite individual phenotypic effects, that is, between immortal germline and mortal cells or between perfect suprasensory form and imperfect material copies. With this, Dawkins ultimately de-claws his earlier, potentially radical theory. As Tyler points out, we are now no longer considering the actual trait or artifact, but rather a meme-infected (human) individual who then “manifests in a mode of behaviour or the production of a concrete object” (189). The meme, in short, is no longer a question for the pragmatist, but is now a matter of reflection: the memetic artifact now reflects (human) knowledge or competence, rather than being itself a performative practice.

Through a reading of Derek Gatherer’s critique of Dawkins, Tyler thus seeks to rescue memetic theory from the liberalism of its founder and so restore to it its innovative potential. Following Gatherer, Tyler argues that what for Dawkins are merely “phenotypic effects” are in fact the memes themselves. The practice, in short, is the meme. Such concrete practices or functions, “subject to a wide range of mechanisms of replication, mutating, sifting, and selection,” evolve as the world worlds – “immersive activities, developing and transforming within particular environments” (190). Such is indeed, as Tyler contends, “a supremely practical, pragmatically cogent understanding of the meme” (190). Moreover, it offers a great deal in terms of a specifically Nietzschean practice, this despite Nietzsche’s own – admittedly misplaced – hostility towards Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

In a superb move, Tyler then takes the survival and success of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as a “matchless example” of the practice of memetic evolution (191). Here, we should recall too that, for Flusser, the “unmatched importance” of biology resides in its providing of an “almost mythical model of life’s unrealized possibilities” (73). Darwin undoubtedly offered a significant contribution to this “almost mythical” model, not only regarding the transmutation of species, but also insofar as he “contributed to a transmutation of the very concept of species too” (202). As such, argues Tyler acutely, the concept of “species” is itself part of the pragmatic “meme complex” of evolutionary theory in the sense given to the term by Gatherer, that is, as “composed of cultural events, behaviours, and artifacts” (202). The success Darwin’s evolutionary theory, in other words, “has depended on its utility, ease of replication, and of course on the selection pressures of its environment” (202). As a meme, however, and this is Tyler’s point, “Darwin’s theory did not need to be true; it simply needed to replicate”– with the example of Darwin’s finches, bloodsucking or otherwise, demonstrating precisely this point.[viii]

Most important, however, is that the pragmatic emphasis on knowledge conceived as a practice offers an alternative not only to realism and relativism, but also to the positing of reflection in that, as practice, it already demands a diffractive methodology, inherent in the notion of perspectivism. Consequently, knowledge as practice necessarily becomes open-ended.

While the question of what, or rather who, might have emerged differently in Flusser’s molluscular genealogy is of course moot, such a diffractive memetic thinking nonetheless offers a great deal to a rethinking of “life” and, in particular, of its conceptual limits. Hence, whereas Dawkins claims that memes are “by and large” the province of humans alone, Tyler shows that Dawkins’ own work in fact “concede[s] the existence of nonhuman memetic practices,” most notably in birdsong (206). It is here that the value of pragmatism generally, and of the meme in particular, manifests itself most clearly. With representationalism, for example, questions aimed at a dismissal of the nonhuman inevitably arise: do birds know something when they sing, or is it simply a mindless parroting? Here, one sees all too clearly how certain methodological frameworks serve to foreclose entire realms of potential discussion. As Tyler writes, the impulse to enquire after knowledge that makes a certain practice possible is a purely “representationalist inclination” (208). It is, in other words, an urge, often deeply ingrained but entirely contingent, to view knowledge as a reflection of the world; an urge that defines Flusser’s entire project.

In his vampyroteuthic genealogy, and despite avowing its impossibility (an impossibility itself providing the impetus behind the “new” genre of biological fable), Flusser remains intent on “polishing the mirror” in the hope of revealing – or constructing – an ever-more-accurate representation of the human Dasein. For the realist, writes Tyler, “knowledge tells us about the world, the object of knowledge, while for the relativist it tells us about the worldview of the knower” (208). Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, by virtue of its Heideggerian anthropocentrism, is an attempt both realist and relativist. In this resides its contradiction, the consequence of analogical method and a priori representationalism.

Pragmatism, by contrast, has no need of knowledge understood as “an entity distinct from the world it represents” (208). Knowledge is of the world, taking its shape “under the pressure of external stimuli” and as “an immediate, immanent element of the environment itself” (208). Taking the example of memetic birdsong above, eminently pragmatic questions concern themselves not with metaphysical exclusion, nor with imaginary oppositions such as “nature” and “culture,” but rather with various modes of activity, that is, of practises or ways of being together within the world.

Ultimately, and this is precisely the value of Tyler’s text, pragmatic epistemology does away with the noxious productions of humanism and of all the various anthropocentric denials. It does this, quite simply, by rendering such claims irrelevant. No polemic is required, no statements of ideology need be professed, and no utopian predictions are necessary. Rather, the world is that within which beings of all size, scope and scale interact insofar as they do, and no further arguments are necessary other than those concerning how we act, that is, what we do, when it comes to our nonhuman and human others. Nor is it enough simply to extend – whether to a greater or lesser extent – the number of species who “count.” Rather, for the pragmatic memeticist, the evaluative anthropocentrism underlying such extensions is not only unnecessary but, more importantly, it is simply bad philosophy or, put another way, bad practice.


[i] These include activity-experience (41); day-night (41); reason-dreams (41); conceptual-orgasmic (41); pure science-pure sex (48); plane-volume; contemplative-orgasmic; Platonic forms-Nietzschean mutability (42); Apollonian-Dionysian; love-hate (43); critique of pure reason – psychoanalysis (41 & 48); truth opposed by lie – truth (as lie) opposed by dishonesty (53); Darwin-Schopenhauer (53)

[ii] Here Flusser follows Heidegger in equating “truth” with “unveiling” as aletheia.

[iii] In a further, ironic twist, Flusser’s very notion of “preconceptual reason” depends entirely upon the unremarked shift from one sense of the term “ratio” to another (initially defined as reason, this is silently supplanted by the sense of ratio as ration).

[iv] This reading focuses on a section from the Republic and also, regarding the mouth, on the Timaeus. Also, see my papers “Cannibals and Apes” and “Plato Between the Teeth of the Beast,” first presented at the London Conference for Critical Thought in 2012 and, in a greatly extended version, at the London School of Economics on 11th February 2014. Both papers can be accessed at www.zoogenesis.wordpress.com

[v] See my own work at CCCS, at Derrida Today, etc.

[vi] Flusser does, however, acknowledge the possibility of politics between individual anthills.

[vii] On the deferring and differing that is inherent to every iteration, see Derrida’s Limited Inc.

[viii] And, notes Tyler acutely, at the expense of Darwin’s painstaking work with domestic pigeons in what is yet one more example of both the impossibility of, and the ideological commitments to, maintaining a wild-tame distinction

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



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


*     *     *


Calling Persephone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Absolute animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Iterability and the phantasm of Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The deadly labor of truth

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

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

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

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

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

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


Double movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The memory of death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The work of death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An initiation into the new Eleusinian Mysteries

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

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


Doubly deceased: the mute deposition of nonhuman animals

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

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

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

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


Specters of Heidegger

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

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

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

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

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



Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xiv] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.