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

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

 

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

 

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Animals in democracy

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

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

What do you mean? asks Adeimantus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Protagorean Presumption and the Posthuman: Ceci n’est pas un calmar (Part One)

The following is the un-cut draft of the first half of my (long-overdue) paper engaging with Tom Tyler’s CIFERAE and Vilem Flusser & Louis Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (both published as part of the U of Minnesota’s Posthumanities series). The second un-cut half will follow shortly (the final paper will actually be about half the total length).

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Introduction: Trajectories, a Question of Method

The posthuman emerges as a necessarily paradoxical figure – even the definite article cannot be simply assumed. How, then, might one address that which is posthuman? Two recent texts, published as part of the influential “Posthumanities” series, consider just this question, albeit employing vastly different approaches. Here, among other things, we find explorations of method, of trajectories that, from the most dogmatic of realisms to the most cynical of relativisms, collide over issues of scientific objectivity at the crossroads of pragmatism and representationalism and of diffraction and reflection. Moreover, and however paradoxical it may seem, such questions and collisions of objectivity directly concern the definition of the fable. Last but not least, both mark important contributions to an impossible pedagogic bestiary, and to the notion of eating well.

In Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser and artist Louis Bec invite us to “harrow the hell” (43) that is the genealogy, world, culture, and emergence of a species of giant squid, alleged to have been recently caught in the Pacific Ocean. In CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, philosopher Tom Tyler argues for a rewriting of the notion of “we.” For this, he suggests, we must first “enquire whether the assertions that humanity cannot know the world except by means of human aptitudes and abilities, that human beings will, inescapably, unavoidably be the measure of all things, are intrinsic, incidental, or entirely extraneous to a diverse range of epistemological outlooks” (209).

 

Part One: The Protagorean Presumption

Ceci n’est pas un calmar

It soon becomes clear that Flusser’s subject is not the vampyroteuthis, who is rather an heuristic fabrication geared toward helping us humans to “make sense of our current cultural revolution” (65). Indeed, the vampyroteuthic hell on offer here constitutes a grotesque glimpse of one possible future toward which our Information Age is already tending – no doubt the “soft” of software, Flusser jokes, alludes to mollusks (ancestor to the vampyroteuthis) as “soft animals” (67). The vampyroteuthis, in short, comes forth from the depths of the ocean as a device for deciphering possible posthuman futures; and the choice, it would seem, is between utopia and technocratic dictatorship,

To understand this, however, it is necessary to enter into a game built from funhouse mirrors. Certain aspects of the basic structure of human Dasein, writes Flusser, are evident in the basic structure of vampyroteuthic Dasein, while certain others appear in it “utterly distorted” (9). According to Flusser, such a “reflective game” – at once a reflection of the “game of life” (25) – avoids falling prey to the transcendental delusion that characterises scientific objectivity, as it offers an analysis of humanity strictly from the perspective of a co-being, in this case that of a highly-evolved mollusc. In this way, Flusser presents something that hesitates between ethnological treatise, philosophical study, and fabulous narrative.

At its most straightforward, Flusser suggests that we simply exchange the vampyroteuthis’ molluscular point of view for our own (35). In one sense, this is all Flusser does: an economy of method. Such an exchange, suggests Flusser, serves as a deep sea dive into the uncustomary, an estranging procedure enabling us to apprehend anew the human condition that would otherwise remain concealed behind the “shroud” of habit. The vampyroteuthis, in other words, is constructed as the opposite of the shrouded, habitual human. While partly a literary device, this approach also takes as its “conversational impulse” Heidegger’s existential analytic in general, and its famous tool analysis in particular. For Heidegger, the materiality of a tool remains invisible to its user only as long as it functions as it should (that is, ready-to-hand). Should the tool break, however, and its obstinate materiality pushes itself to the fore (present-at-hand). For Flusser, while the inverted world of the vampyroteuthis serves as a “repugnant model” for humanity, it simultaneously provides a vampyroteuthic perspective on the human world, a perspective that inevitably reveals the human to be “a model that is broken” (30, my emphasis).

Central to Flusser’s project, therefore, is the relation of the human and the vampyroteuthis. They are, he claims on numerous occasions, mirrors of each other. Hence, the relation is explicitly that of reflection. This reflexive structure, however, follows an evolutionary trajectory that guarantees the exceptional status of these mirrored worlds, key to which is Geist, understood variously as both “spirit” and “mind.” To begin with, however, Geist is always and only spirit insofar as it “belongs to the agenda of life; it has manifested itself from the time of protozoa, and it does so in humans and the vampyroteuthis in a converging manner, analogously” (24, emphasis added).

This notion of analogy functions as organising principle in both theory and practice, and thus needs to be considered in detail. Given the context, it is clear that analogue must be understood in at least two ways, both as a literary trope and as a precise term from evolutionary biology. Tom Tyler offers a clear description of the latter: analogues, he writes, “are those parts [of differing organisms] that have the same function, though they need not be the same organs” (234). Homologues, by contrast, are “the same organs, though they need not have the same function” (234). Hence, continues Tyler, an elephant’s trunk is in certain respects analogous to the human hand, but it is in no sense a homologue as it has a different phylogenetic origin. Analogy as a narrative trope, by contrast, centres in this case upon the genre of the fable. In this way, the vampyroteuthis represents both an analogy of the human through the latter’s negation and a moral mirror.

Flusser’s methodology, like his text, is thus at once analogical and fabulous, scientific and literary, the reasons for which will become clear. Returning to the human-vampyroteuthic analogous convergence, Flusser traces the evolution of the vampyroteuthis by constructing a negative version of the human at each stage of the latter’s evolution until we reach the present day and the alleged “discovery” of the vampyroteuthis in the abyssal depths of the Pacific, suitably armed with a barrage of analogous pairings that would seem to reflect the human from any number of angles. Of these, the binaries light-dark, active-passive, and problematic-impressionistic, are key to the value of the vampyroteuthis as a negative model, insofar as together they not only offer a critique of objectivity in general and “scientific objectivity” in particular, but also point toward a solution of sorts. In this, Flusser’s text is vertiginously reflexive: the model is a production of the text and the text is a production of the model. Indeed, this for Flusser is precisely the value of such a fable, that is, as a code for deciphering our posthuman future. Indeed, the production of such beasts as the vampyroteuthis is explicitly presented as a methodology superior to that currently found in the sciences. “By observing the vampyroteuthis,” he writes, “we are able to recognize an art of a different sort” (63).

However interesting this may prove to be, the analogical methodology presents some major difficulties – difficulties the overcoming of which Tyler’s book provides an excellent resource. Put simply, in starting with the human as the positive against which a negative model can be constructed, as in a mirror, we clearly do not in fact arrive at an analogical relation in the sense of having a different phylogenetic root but only a narcissistic image. For Flusser, “the reflective nature of the world–its ‘yes/no’ structure–is irrefutable” (70). Dominant, yes; habitual, yes. Irrefutable? By no means. In fact, reflection is inherently reductive: an anthropocentric optics that cuts itself off from the infinite realm of mutual and nonmutual entanglements at and between every scale of being. As Donna Haraway notes, ““[reflexivity or reflection] invites the illusion of essential, fixed position” offering diffraction as a counterpoint to reflexivity, which she sees as being played out as a methodology. As Karen Barad writes, “both are optical phenomena, but whereas reflection is about mirroring and sameness, diffraction attends to patterns of difference” (29).

Interestingly, and with a reflexivity that quickly becomes dizzying, Flusser himself argues that “reflection,” as the uniquely human methodology of philosophising, is limited, restrictive and leads toward stasis (46). As with Nietzsche, Flusser argues that concepts are mere “empty husks” that are preliminary to thinking and which prevent us from discerning “any phenomena for which we have not already established a model” (47). Moreover, this is a result of the hand, and particularly the fingers which trace “along the dissected rations of phenomena in order to comprehend and define their contours” (47). By contrast (naturally), the vampyroteuthis is pre-human–and thus posthuman–insofar as she is pre-conceptual and thus, as possessors of both tentacles and preconceptual reason, are able to teach us humans a thing or two about escaping from such an all too human methodology. In the midst of this funhouse of mirrors, it becomes easy to lose one’s footing, as well as one’s grip, as we shall see. Nonetheless such a gait and grip is unique: only because humans walk erect, insists Flusser, do they have hands, and only because they possess the hand do they conceptually reflect. This problematic human exceptionalism raises further methodological issues concerning pragmatism and representationalism on one hand, and of the human and the posthuman on the other. Ultimately, it will become necessary to ask not only if an unquestioned exceptionalism is necessary in order to engage the world of another, but also if it in fact prohibits such an encounter from ever taking place.

Flusser’s “squid,” then, is not (simply) a squid – she may in fact be a Guardian of the Platonic Republic, or even a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQuID), but more of that later. First things first, though, we must consider, with Tyler, whether the fabulous figure of the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis can be reduced to an example of anthropomorphism in its most problematic form, that of the moral fable. Is not the exploitation of her exemplary status simply anthropocentric hubris which presumes the possible reduction of animal figures to the simple, remainderless anthropomorphisms of moral education, albeit here dressed up in the colours of posthumanism (after all, the notion of “dressing” certain forms of marine life, especially but not only crustaceans, for profitable human consumption is a common and habitually shrouded practice)? In short, can we ever be sure that the vampyroteuthis is not simply a cipher, one more to add to that immense list of safely muzzled animals who litter the philosophical canon, ancient and modern?

 

Pointing the finger: deciphering anthropocentrism

All of these questions and problems lead us directly to CIFERAE, in which Tyler sets out to identify and, if not necessarily rescue, then at least recognise and perhaps release the feral potential of just this litter of cipherous animals, beasts declawed and detoothed as a condition of their placement within the Western tradition. In Tyler’s five-fingered bestiary it is no coincidence that the index finger points squarely to a critique of anthropocentrism, insofar as it is precisely the indexical, the indice, which opposes such unthinking ciphers.

Cipherous animals, writes Tyler, can take one or more of three different forms: (1) nonspecific placeholders; (2) codes awaiting interpretation; and (3) symbolic characters in animal form. As an example of all three forms, Tyler recalls the paradox of Buridan’s ass, a paradox that has “recurred within philosophical circles for donkey’s years” (25). The story goes as follows: a hungry ass stands exactly equidistant from two identical bales of hay and thus, unable to find a reason to choose between the two, consequently starves to death. The first sense of the cipher is easy to understand, the ass is a mere placeholder insofar as it is not necessary that the poor animal be an ass – any animal would do. Indeed, it need not even be a nonhuman animal – numerous versions appear with the role of the cipher filled variously “by the place of the earth in the heavens, … a student between two books, a man between two knives, a courtier between two ladies” and so on (26). The two remaining forms, the code and the symbol, are a little harder to differentiate. As a code in a didactic fable, Buridan’s ass awaits interpretation insofar as she has been “employed ‘in other than the usual sense’” (28). Her position, in short, requires a decipherment that has no need of any recourse to the specifics of her existence. Finally, the ass is a cipher in the sense of being a symbolic character in animal form insofar as she is utilised as a “hieroglyph” to “convey esoteric, philosophical arguments that are intelligible to the initiated” (28). As symbols, in short, animals refer only to exemplary epistemological problems or metaphysical speculations.

Tyler’s first point, then, is that in all three forms of the cipher, nonhuman animals are not actually there as a particular animal in his or her own right. Rather, the cipherous animal “derives its meaning from its application or reference to some entirely unrelated endeavour” (28), with the result that actually existing animals are transformed into “invisible, figurative phantoms” (28). Cipherous animals appear – or, rather, appear to appear – without number throughout the history of philosophy. Indeed, the cipherous animal could be said to reach its apotheosis in the phenomenology of Heidegger, who argues that all individual nonhuman beings are in reality merely phantom individuations constituted as beings only in the polished mirror of the human Dasein.[ii]

More than this, however, pointing out these instrumental “uses” of other animals is also to point to its possible overcoming. We must, in other words, not only stop treating other animals as ciphers, but also de-cipher the cipherous animals of philosophy so as to disclose the ferae, that is, the animal in all her indexical specificity. Further, argues Tyler, to release the feral animal from her cipherous shroud – the cipherae or ciferae – is to disrupt the complacency of habitual philosophical practice. To this end, he continues, it is thus necessary to recreate the pedagogic bestiary.

Already then, we begin to perceive a significant overlap in the methodological aims of both Tyler and Flusser, despite their widely differing approaches. As regards the infernal vampyroteuthis, however, we must now consider her position in respect of Tyler’s. Can we point to her as a mere cipher, or does she emerge, in her own light, as an individual, nonsubstitutable entity? We have already noted the influence of Heideggerian philosophy and so, more specifically, the question concerns whether Flusser’s giant squid manages to escape from Heidegger’s anthropocentric circle, irrespective of Flusser’s double claim both to overcome anthropocentrism and to reclaim “objectivity.”[iii]

First of all, as regards any simple division between a cipher and an index, things rapidly become obscure, as if submerged within a cloud of sepia ink. Certainly, the vampyroteuthis is no mere placeholder: Flusser’s analysis is both complex and detailed, focusing explicitly upon the plane of the particular and complete with several pages of anatomical diagrams. As regards the second form, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is indeed explicitly posed as a didactic fable and thus, as noted above, as a code for deciphering the (post)human future. However, it is more difficult, if not impossible, to say whether the vampyroteuthis is being employed “in other than the usual sense.” Similarly, insofar as it is the human Dasein that Flusser ultimately aims to disclose, she indeed represents a code that demands to be deciphered, however one cannot say that this decipherment has no need of recourse to the specifics of vampyroteuthic “existence,” given that the Dasein of the vampyroteuthis provides the contours of the analysis. And yet, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is also a fable in its most traditional sense, in that its reader is expressly instructed to put her- or himself in the place of the vampyroteuthis and, in so doing, identify with an animal in order to follow the course of its normative moral lesson.

Finally, is the vampyroteuthis a philosophical hieroglyph, that is, a symbolic character in animal form? Well, she certainly figures exemplary epistemological problems but, given that she is an imaginary Borgesian beast, can one say that any actual nonhuman animals have thus become instrumentalised phantoms? And if not, is the vampyroteuthis therefore indexical? Clearly then, the cipher-index pairing cannot be considered as a simple opposition, as Tyler himself is quick to point out.

As such, we must turn instead to the two traditional modes of anthropocentrism – the evaluative and spatial on the one hand, and the epistemological and temporal on the other – in order to clarify vampyroteuthic practice. In the evaluative-spatial mode, writes Tyler, there is the “bald belief or supposition” that the human species is of a greater value than all of the others (20). Here, then, anthropocentrism is spatial insofar as humanity is placed “centre stage,” and evaluative insofar as it is “judgmental and disparaging” (21). By contrast, epistemological-temporal anthropocentrism – exemplified by Protagoras’s famous contention that “man is the measure of all things” and posed most influentially by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason [iv] – presupposes that “any attempt to explain experience, understanding, or knowledge – of the world, of Being, of others – must inevitably start from a human perspective” (21). Here, anthropocentrism is temporal insofar as the human “arrives or appears before all else,” and epistemological insofar as “all knowledge will inevitably be determined by the human nature of the knower” (21). Following Tyler’s example, I will refer to this latter mode by the shorthand phrase “human first and foremost.”

Given Flusser’s claim to have liberated the vampyroteuthis from traditional anthropic constraints, we must in the first instance locate her vis-à-vis both evaluative and epistemological anthropocentrism.

 

Saint Francis and the anthropocentrism of disgust

To begin with, Flusser charges evaluative-spatial anthropocentrism as falling prey to vulgar anthropomorphism, the basis of which is disgust. It is disgust, rather than ontogeny, that recapitulates phylogeny. First of all, claims Flusser, there is something like a vertebraic prejudice: “We feel a connection with life-forms supported by bones, while other forms of life disgust us” (11). From this initial prejudice, Flusser then suggests that the greater the distance from the humans on the phylogenetic tree, the more disgusting humans will find them. So, while reptiles are less disgusting than frogs, they are more disgusting than mammals, and so on. Hence, most disgusting of all are mollusks, that is, “soft worms” (11). Moreover, in a kind of Ballardian species-specific collective unconsciousness this hierarchy of disgust alleged to “reflect a biological hierarchy” (11?), a mirroring that results in a species-specific conception of “life” as a slimy stream that leads unfailingly to its ultimate tēlos: the human.[v] The hierarchy of disgust, while half-serious and half-parody, nonetheless discloses for Flusser both the cause and the emptiness of evaluative-spatial anthropocentrism. Humans rationalize this unconscious “feeling” into categories that “allow us to classify living beings, namely, into those that approximate us (‘incomplete humans’) and into those that depart from us (‘degenerate humans’)” (12). As such, our biological criteria are entirely anthropomorphic, “based on a hollow and unanalytic attitude toward life” (12).

For Flusser, “unanalytic” reflection, a rationalization of the irrational that is synonymous with narcissism, reaches its apotheosis in the systematization of Charles Darwin who therefore “must, in political terms, be placed on the right” (12). By contrast, the refusal of evaluative anthropocentrism belongs to the political left, and is exemplified for Flusser by Saint Francis insofar as he “does not speak to lizards, our ‘ancestors,’ but rather to birds, to ‘degenerate animals.’” (12). By speaking with an highly-evolved mollusk, and more specifically by contrasting “our human Darwin with a vampyroteuthic one” (12), Flusser could thus be said to place himself on the “ultra-left.” This comparison of course demands a coda: St. Francis’ birds were actually existing creatures, whereas the ontological category of the vampyroteuthis is rather more slippery. Nonetheless, Flusser claims to follow the leftist Saint Francis in escaping the constraints of our collective unconscious, an escape which he defines precisely as “freedom of spirit (Geist)” (12). Freedom, in this sense, is at once to escape the constraints of evaluative spatial anthropocentrism, and to break free of an unanalytic methodology based upon narcissistic reflection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, here too we find an interesting overlap with Tyler who, in place of an analogically-reflexive Darwin, seeks instead a pragmatic, memetic Darwin, as we shall see.

Turning to epistemological-temporal anthropocentrism, Flusser, like Tyler, focuses on the problem of objectivity given the inescapability of human perspective, an “epistemological problem of the highest order” (16). Nonetheless, claims Flusser, it is a problem that can largely be solved by distance. Objectivity, he argues, can in fact be salvaged insofar as the “further removed a phenomenon is from its describer, the more objectively describable it is. … Objectivity is therefore quantifiable, and a hierarchy of objectivity can be established” (16-17). Astronomy, therefore, is “very objective,” whilst psychology is “less objective” (17). However, cautions Flusser, there is a catch: “the farther away something is, the less interesting it is” and thus, “bearing in mind the taxonomy of disgust,” the more disgusting (17). By interesting ourselves in the vampyroteuthis, we therefore take up a position balanced between interest and disgust and, as such, need not disclaim “objective” knowledge entirely, although the transcendence of a “pure” scientific objectivity remains forever impossible. Here, (at least) two problems are immediately apparent. Firstly, Flusser claims to “solve” the temporalising hurdle of “first and foremost” anthropocentrism by organising the external world according to a spatial model, i.e., of proximity to the human. This, however, changes nothing as regards the possibility or otherwise of knowledge, but only further highlights the problem. Secondly, Flusser equates disinterest with objectivity, while admitting that nothing objective can be entirely disinterested, as then the object would never have even been discerned. For this is make sense, however, would require that humanity be entirely dissolved within its species-being, while nonetheless allowing for some kind of simultaneous transcendental Heideggerian boredom at the level of the entire species. And, even then, Flusser’s human species remains unable to affect an escape from what Tyler calls the “Protagorean presumption” (74). Flusser, however, has not yet done with his escape attempt.

 

Handling humans

In their respective discussions of the hand as something traditionally imagined to be uniquely human, both Flusser and Tyler have recourse to Heidegger’s famous analysis of tool use in Being and Time, as briefly referred to above. Thus Tyler notes that for Heidegger it is only in its use, that is, in its being ready-to-hand, that a tool authentically discloses itself in its specific “manipulability” (Tyler 226). Moreover, for Tyler, it is the notion of the hand, rather than “handiness,” which is “crucial” even at this stage of Heidegger’s philosophy, arguing that “it is only those beings who have hands, those beings for whom equipment manifests itself as ready to hand, who can enter into this concernful relationship to things” (226). From there, Tyler takes the necessary step of deflating such misplaced anthropocentric pride, noting how the hand, rather than “being a specialized highpoint of the evolutionary process, is in fact a rather archaic appendage” insofar as “increasing specialization … manifests as a diminution in the number of digits” (231, 233). Moreover, rather than being unique to Man, these archaic instruments are possessed by large number of diverse creatures, including pandas, frogs, and chameleons.

Flusser, meanwhile, similarly recalling Heidegger’s distinction between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand, moves along a very different track. According to Flusser, “the structure of the world turns out to be a function of liberated hands” insofar as the present-at-hand are “the future (of the hands): ‘nature,’” in contrast to the readyto-hand as “the past (of the hands), handled things: ‘culture’” (36-37). Hands, in short, guarantee for humanity alone the possibility of culture, of becoming “superbiological” beings. This in turn would seem to stymie from the start his stated aim articulating vampyroteuthic culture, given that the latter possess mere tentacles. We must, however, hold fire on this point. Returning to his reading of Heidegger, Flusser suggests that the difference between the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand can be judged entirely according to an evolutionary schema: the present-at-hand “can come to be known, ‘grasped,’ in order to be handled; this is the purpose of the ‘natural’ sciences” (36-7). “Natural” science, in other words, propels humanity into its future through an ever-wider “grasp” of external reality, this all despite Heidegger’s insistence that the present-at-hand and ready-to-hand are always necessarily bound up together.[vi]

In an uncanny presque-vu of the first volume of Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time, for Flusser everything begins with the hand. It is in order to free the hands, he writes, that the proto-human first begins to walk upright, and from this all further evolutionary steps quite literally follow: the distancing of the head from the ground “dislodged” the “bony labyrinth” within the inner ear, with the consequence that space “became three-dimensional to us in a specific, Cartesian sense” (37). Moreover, this elevation of the head enables neocortical development which, as “the centre of all higher mental functions, including language,” thereafter allows the world to “become meaningful” (37).

Here, then, we are following an evolutionary trajectory that moves from the development of the hand, to walking upright, to spatiality, to language, to meaning, and thence, to time. It is in regards to the latter that Flusser offers a somewhat idiosyncratic reading of Heidegger’s tool analysis. A further consequence of walking upright, he argues, “was the division of time into three regions: the present (that which we are bumping into as we walk), the past (that which we have already passed by and experienced, and the future (that which we long for and desire, that is, where we are going)” (37-8). One can understand this in one sense as a literal rendering of the Heideggerian “way,” but Flusser offers little in the way of clarification. Why, exactly, does an upright carriage cause (or create) both temporal perception and a perception of temporality and, further, why should this temporal discrimination be restricted to the human animal alone?

The answer, I suggest, concerns an “unanalytic” – that is, at once narcissistic and reflective – conception of language. Flusser, in short, seems utterly incapable of conceiving of “language” as anything other than the narrow sense of human verbal languages, and particularly in the sense of Greco-Latin written language, which in their horizontal structure reflect the division of time. However, insofar as Flusser also attributes chromatophoric and bioluminescent languages to the vampyroteuthis, thus would seem to suggest an odd, contradictory blindness as far as nonhuman animals are concerned. What must be remembered, however, is the “invented” nature of the vampyroteuthis: the vampyroteuthis is a human creation, not only as a figure in a book, but also as its reverse image, that is, as a being constructed in the mirror of the human which, as the “original” figure, necessarily both precedes and entirely delimits the “emergence” of the vampyroteuthis who, as a consequence of this economy, inevitably takes on a complementary exceptionalism.

Put simply, Flusser’s analysis starts from, and requires, the human Dasein – a vicious anthropocentric circle that is as much Kantian as it is Heideggerian. “World,” insists Flusser, is “simply a pole of human Dasein” (38). The vampyroteuthis – along with everything else – occurs only in the human world: “It exists in the world – indeed – but only in relation to me” (38). Despite paying lip-service to the limits of anthropocentrism, then, it is clear that Flusser in fact makes no move toward an exit from “first and foremost” humanism. Equally clearly, however, Tom Tyler demonstrates that such anthropocentrism is in no way necessary to such a philosophical position. It is, rather, nothing more than a bad habit.

First, let us recap Flusser’s claim to have rehabilitated objectivity on behalf of philosophy, which in turn will bring Tyler’s resolute move beyond anthropocentric habit into sharper focus. As humans, writes Flusser, we inevitably encounter the vampyroteuthis as an object. Despite this, and despite the unconsidered complications raised by the “disgust-interest continuum” as well as the “quantification” of objectivity, we are nonetheless, insists Flusser, capable of recognising in this object “something of our own Dasein” and, “[i]nsofar as we recognize ourselves,” we can “therefore also [recognise] what is not ourselves as such” (38). In this reflection of light and dark areas, he continues, resides the possibility of reconstructing vampyroteuthic Dasein and to “begin to see with its [sic] eyes and grasp with its [sic] tentacles,” thus crossing the surface of the mirror metaphorically, but not transcendentally, in that we are not seeking to place ourselves outside the world but “relocate” ourselves in another’s (38). It is precisely this, claims Flusser, which makes of his text a fable rather than a theory, and thus, in an explicit allusion to, and apparent move beyond, Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, we leave “the real world for a fabulous one” (38).[vii]

Objectivity, then, would seem to demand that we move out of the real world and into a fabulous one, a movement of exchange requiring a metaphorical vehicle that nonetheless holds fast to its worldly tenor. If nothing else, such a demand bears heavily on questions of realism and representationalism, for which we must first properly articulate the question. To this end, let us turn to Tyler.

 

Realism, representationalism, and the convenience of aliens

As we know, Tyler’s initial objective is to establish the theoretical necessity or otherwise of an anthropocentric standpoint. His starting point, in short, is to ask if man is necessarily the measure of all things according to the very philosophical positions that claim it to be so. Ultimately, Tyler reveals in no uncertain terms that not one of these epistemological outlooks – realism, relativism, and, as we shall see, pragmatism – actually requires a first-and-foremost epistemological anthropocentrism; its widespread prejudice being nothing other than a contingent habit that must be broken.

Tyler begins by examining the realist position. A realist, he writes, holds that “a reality exists independently of the beliefs and ideas of those who come into contact with it and that true knowledge consists in the correspondence of one’s beliefs and ideas with that independent reality” (82). Hence, a realist epistemology requires three basic properties: first, belief in the possibility of truth; second, that knowledge is characterized as representation; and third, that knowledge constitutes an explanatory power. Knowledge, in short, “attempts to provide a representation of reality that is true and that will therefore explain things to us” (89). In order to highlight the problems of this position, Tyler turns to the almost infinite resource that is Nietzsche’s early essay “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense” from 1873.[viii] This is of particular interest for us here, insofar as Nietzsche’s paper is, I will argue, the hidden – that is, encrypted – text of Flusser’s oceanic depths, a text written by the vampyroteuthis in the silence of shifting colours.

Nietzsche’s critique of realism begins with a scathing attack – in the form of a fable – on anthropocentric hubris and the delusions of human exceptionalism, arguing instead that even the smallest gnat likewise “feels the flying centre of the universe within himself” (??). Fundamental here is Nietzsche’s claim that the representation of reality is by no means limited to human animals alone, but must rather be extended to all living beings, albeit necessarily skewed by the ways of perceiving specific to each species. Somewhat paradoxically, while Nietzsche’s gnat is clearly a cipher in that she holds a place that can be taken equally well by any number of other animals, this cipherous status is itself indexical, and thus feral, insofar as this very substitutability makes the specific point that every living being, squid or gnat, human or chimp, is equally privileged and, as such, equally not-privileged.

Nietzsche’s critique goes much further, however. Insofar as the species-specific perceptions of every living being institute “metaphorical” representations of reality, none of these representations therefore represent reality truthfully. Moreover, no one representation can be considered closer to the “truth” than any other as, not only is truth unavailable, but so too is any criterion by which such proximity might be measured.

With this reference to species-specific perception, Nietzsche makes clear a second target of his paper, that of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). As is well known, Kant posits the existence of space and time as transcendental forms of (human) sensibility, that is, as a priori presentations that are the condition of every perception and affection. Thus establishing the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant ushers in his famous “Copernican Revolution” of philosophical thinking. As a critique of dogmatic realism’s notion of correspondence between subject and object, between idea and thing, what “the Copernican Revolution teaches us is that it is we who are giving the orders … we are the legislators of Nature” (Deleuze Kant’s Critical Philosophy 11); this “we,” of course, referring strictly to “we humans” alone.

Taking up this exclusive and excluding notion of the “we,” Tyler points out that, in fact, the real Kantian-Copernican shift of significance lies elsewhere – indeed, within the heads of aliens. It must be remembered, continues Tyler, that Copernicus, in direct contrast to Kant, shifts humanity away from its illusory central position and into the cosmological periphery. In another sense, however, Kant does precisely this when he allows for the possibility – indeed necessity – of superior alien intelligence. This introduction of alien beings turns out to be essential to the coherence of Kant’s philosophy as, writes Tyler, “[w]ithout concrete knowledge of extraterrestrial rational beings, we cannot understand the nature of terrestrial rational beings” (138). Aliens, in other words, provide for Kant the criterion for rational judgment that is otherwise lacking – a criterion that, as we have seen, Nietzsche correctly argues is unavailable, aliens or no (and, in so doing, thus brings other animals back into the world). Of course, it is interesting in itself that a philosopher of Kant’s stature and rigour will admit the possibility of intelligent life on Venus and Saturn far more readily than they will allow for intelligent nonhuman life on Earth. Indeed, what makes this interesting is the very nature of an “outside” constructed so as to “frame” both life and thought, with all the violence its divisive gesture entails and, potentially, sets in motion.

Returning to the Transcendental Aesthetic, Tyler succinctly refutes the Kantian position by showing that space and time are not in fact a priori and thus unchangeable Ur-forms of sensibility. Through a reading of Benjamin Whorf, he does this by highlighting how the predominance of spatial metaphors in English, French and German, for example, inevitably results in the objectification of time, whereas other tense forms, such as the Hopi, produce instead a very different sense of reality (150). In this way, Tyler rejoins Nietzsche in arguing for the necessity of both the diversity of perspectives and the specificity of creaturely embodiment; two sides of the same coin that together create the “corporeal nature of perception” (170).

In this way, Tyler’s analysis enables us to recognise both the huge potential, and the entirely unnecessary anthropocentrism that ultimately serves only to nullify that potential, of Flusser’s explicitly phenomenological inquiry into an oceanic world such as perceived through the fabulous tentacles of the vampyroteuthis. While this feral potential, along with its habitual yet contingent domestic confinement, will form the subject of the second half of this paper, before then we must, with Tyler, briefly consider the other two fundamental philosophical positions addressed in CIFERAE, namely relativism and pragmatism.

As Tyler points out, and despite general consensus to the contrary, Nietzsche’s antirealist perspectivism is by no means equivalent to relativism. In fact, relativism, figured by the cynical “last man,” is for Nietzsche one of the two major forms of nihilism that must be overcome (the other being the nihilism of the suprasensory ideal). According to the relativist, not only is every standpoint necessarily a partial perspective, but also, insofar as there can be no external criteria to serve as the basis for sound judgment, that all perspectives are thus of equal value. As such, standpoints exist only to be manipulated – exchanged –within a global economy geared toward the cynical accumulation of surplus value. By contrast, in rejecting the duality of representationalism in favour of embodied perception, Nietzsche shows instead that “all creatures’ perspectives will be determined by their interests and values. Any and every understanding of the world will be evaluative” (170). Consequently, Nietzsche’s transcendental species-specific aesthetic shows that all things are, only insofar they “are” mutually-affective relations, and it is the relative value of these relationships that result in a growth or a degeneration of the will to power.[ix]

Untypically, Tyler’s argument is somewhat obscure here, insofar as he claims that, for Nietzsche, only some perspectives should be overcome (171). Against this, I would argue that all value, in the strict sense, is precisely the value of revaluation, that is, of a constantly reiterated overcoming, and thus of a practice of constant openness to overcoming – the revaluation of all values, as the projected title of Nietzsche unwritten magnum opus insists. It is precisely this, as we shall see in the next part, which enables us to disclose the radical potential inhering in the practice of shedding one’s skin that Flusser names permanent orgasm and Nietzsche calls eternal recurrence.

Such practice does not involve a representation of the world. Instead, it is a mode of activity in the world and thus, as Tyler contends, an issue for pragmatism understood as an antirepresentationalist epistemology wherein knowledge does not depict the world, but rather makes possible precisely such modes of activity (209). For pragmatism, and in contrast to relativism, perspectives or “truths” must be evaluated solely in terms of their practical “explanatory power” (180); with knowledge itself understood “as an immediate, immanent element of the environment itself” (208). In this way, pragmatism shares with realism an acceptance of the utility of knowledge, albeit with a focus on the practicality of its explanatory power.

Is pragmatism necessarily anthropocentric? As with realism and relativism, Tyler once again demonstrates in no uncertain terms that the answer is no. Moreover, the pragmatic view that knowledge is practice further serves to short-circuit the representationalist impulse to enquire after the knowledge supposedly behind a given practice. Instead, to remain rigorously pragmatic is, as Tyler argues, to accept – on equal terms – the practical knowledge of myriad other creatures. The duality of representationalism, by contrast, leaves the realist forever “polishing the mirror[x] in the quest for ever-more-accurate depictions.

For us here, this telling phrase leads us back to Flusser and Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. Do they in any sense engage this fabulous creature on the rigorously democratic terrain of practical knowledge in the hope of gaining some sense of her alien, tentacular phenomenology? Or, polishing the mirror, do they remain utterly captivated? In this respect, the epigraph constitutes another telling phrase: Nil humani mihi alienum puto – “Let nothing human be alien.” As a starting point, I would suggest, it is imperative that we turn things around: Let nothing alien be human. For Flusser, however, the alienness of the vampyroteuthis is directly “analogous” to the “alienation” of the human Dasein (23). In practice, this “funhouse image” is reducible to Kant’s extraterrestrial, in that this reflected vampyroteuthic “outside” both circumscribes “the human” and serves as the (impossible) criterion for doing so.

Reading CIFERAE, however, is to learn not only that things do not have to be this way but also, and more importantly, that they should not be this way.

 

Coming soon: Part Two: The posthuman future: Eating Well, beginning with Belly Out! The movement of mouth and anus

 


[ii]  See my “Animals in Looking-Glass World”

[iii] Regarding Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle, cf Being and Time.

[iv] Even this frequent citation is a “mis-measure,” as careful readers of Plato will already be aware and as Tyler makes explicit in his final “Coda”: “Rejecting the absolute assurances of realism, Protagoras subscribed to a contextual relativism or, perhaps more accurately, to an evaluative, pragmatic perspectivism. For Protagoras, then, apes and other creatures do not aspire to be like Man, and each is its own measure of all things” (264); a reading and an approach which finds its echo in Nietzsche.

[v] For the clearest example of J. G. Ballard’s articulation of the collective human unconscious, see his first novel The Drowned World (1962).

[vi] See Being and Time section 16, especially “The modes of conspicuousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy all have the function of bringing to the fore the characteristic of presence-at-hand in what is ready-to-hand. But the ready-to-hand is not thereby just observed and stared at as something present-at-hand; the presence-at-hand which makes itself known is still bound up in the readiness-to-hand of equipment. … the ready-to-hand shows itself as still ready-to-hand in its unswerving presence-at-hand” (104/74).

[vii] See the section “How the ‘Real World’ at last Became a Fable,” in which Nietzsche plots a potted philosophical “history of an error” which variously divides the “authentic” thing-in-itself from an “inauthentic” epiphenomenal appearance, that is, the “real” (suprasensible) world from the “apparent” (empirical) world. Whereas Nietzsche ends in the midday moment, the “zenith of mankind,” in which the abolishment of the real world necessarily entails the abolishment of the apparent world, Flusser instead returns to the fable as a way of accessing the “objective” real, at least to a degree.

[viii] I also have explored this text in depth in my long article “Animals in Looking-Glass World.”

[ix] On the ontological priority of mutually-constitutive relation (or, more precisely, of transductive relations), see my “Animals in Looking-Glass World.” The somewhat ironic notion of a Nietzschean “Transcendental Aesthetic” must thus understand “transcendental” in the specifically Kantian sense of denoting the a priori presentations specific to each species that constitute the condition of possibility for each and every perception and affection. As to the possibility – or otherwise – of defining and thus delimiting any given “species,” this will be considered in detail in the next part.

[x] In a footnote, Tyler traces this “suggestive phrase” (209n164) back to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.


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

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

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

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

Plato between the Teeth of the Beast: 

Animals and Democracy in Tomorrow’s Europe

Short Abstract

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

Abstract:

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

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


The need to take care with Bernard Stiegler

 

Here is the second of my review articles, this one on Bernard Stiegler’s Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2010), which originally appeared as ‘Rewiring the Brain, Or, Why Our Children are not Human’ in Parallax 18:4 (2012), 121-125.

 

Introduction

A hugely prolific writer, for more than fifteen years philosopher Bernard Stiegler has been seeking both to articulate existence itself, and to ameliorate its contemporary woes. In what is a vast undertaking, Stiegler moves from the originary emergence of humanity to the safeguarding of its future by way of multi-volume analyses that range widely between and across technology, political economy, art, palaeontology, television, democracy, and industrial and hyperindustrial societies.1 Focussing on education and the changing role of the school in contemporary Western societies, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations continues this project, while at the same time going some way to explain the sense of urgency, which characterizes much of Stiegler’s previous writing.

According to Stiegler, we are forever engaged in a ‘battle of intelligence for maturity’, a battle ‘concomitant with the history of humanity’ (p.29). Today, however, this battle has been transformed into the life or death struggle of humanity itself. Unless things change rapidly, Stiegler insists, humanity as we know it will be destroyed, displaced by a dystopian posthuman future whose inhabitants would be incapable not only of heeding Stiegler’s warning, but of even reading it. Proclaiming himself thus a prophet of and from potentially the last generation of mature adults, Stiegler seeks to hastily recall us to rational critique before the new media has its way and irretrievably restructures the connections which constitute intelligence so as to render such constitution impossible (p.33).

To instaurate critique, however, is no easy matter. It is not simply a question of education reform, but of a revolution that impacts upon every level of society and beyond, intervening ceaselessly even at the neurological level. Moreover, a revolution by its very nature offers no guarantees. As Stiegler admits, the remedy he prescribes might also turn out to be the worst kind of poison. Indeed, one can all too easily envisage the appropriation of his discourse in the service of a right-wing defence of ‘family values’, and even in a renewed eugenicist discourse which (by way of A Clockwork Orange) deems synaptic rewiring a remedy for ‘delinquency’ within a regime of enforced ‘care’.

Throughout, Stiegler draws on three main philosophical supports in order to establish his notion of ‘rational critique as noopower’. First and foremost is Plato’s theory of anamnesis. A theory, which, according to Stiegler, constitutes ‘the basis of all instruction as the dialectic transmission of apodictic or formal knowledge’ insofar as it ‘requires a kind of attention the learner forms itself as a knowledge […] by individuating it’ (p.172). Secondly, rational critique requires the establishment of a ‘republic of letters’ such as formulated during the Aufklärung and by Kant in particular. Finally, Stiegler offers a sustained engagement with Michel Foucault, extending the latter’s notion of the ‘writing of the self’ while at the same time disputing Foucault’s earlier claim that the school is ‘only’ a prison of surveillance and control. Instead, through Plato, through Kant, Stiegler argues that the school in its broadest sense in fact constitutes the primary pharmacological site of the battle for intelligence. It is the school, in other words, which has the potential to produce both the curative individuation of rational critique (noopower) and the poisonous disindividuation of psychotechnologies in thrall to the market.

To understand this, however, it is first of all necessary to understand the specifically pharmacological nature of what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, a nature, which makes of them always both poison and remedy at once (pharmaka). Social or cultural memories that have subsequently become materialized as memory supports (the book being the privileged example), tertiary retentions are for Stiegler the building blocks of the human world. During the process of instruction, these tertiary retentions must be re-internalized in order for knowledge to be individuated, as we saw with the Platonic dialectic. Such circulating intelligence is thus already collective at every level, forming an ‘organological milieu linking minors and adults, parents and children, ancestors and descendants’ (p.34). It is this which constitutes the ‘organological history’ of humanity. These same material supports, however, are also what allow for the destruction of intelligence. Thus it comes to pass that this history of humanity now finds itself increasingly under threat from the emergence of what Stiegler calls ‘grammatized media’, television and new media being his primary examples. These new symbolic media, he writes, constitute ‘a network of pharmaka that have become extremely toxic’ (p.85).

Stiegler, however, is by no means offering a simplistic rant against technology, nor a reactionary call to return to some mythic bygone era. While grammatized media – and their toxicity – are indeed unprecedented, they are, he insists, nevertheless the only ‘first-aid kit’ we possess with which to remedy the poison of their carelessness. In other words, insofar as they are necessarily pharmaka, the new grammatized media must therefore also constitute the condition for a new maturity, a new critique. It is here, Stiegler writes, that the contemporary battle for intelligence must begin, with a re-forming of ‘psychosocial attention in the face of these psychotechnologies of globalized psychopower’ (p.35). Such reformulations are what he calls nootechniques aimed at producing transindividual knowledge, as opposed to its short-circuiting in the fulfilment of base human drives under control of psychotechnologies.

 

TV is poisoning our minds

Psychotechnological systems, argues Stiegler, are the key technologies of hyperindustrial societies of control. Hence, whereas for Stiegler the key question centres upon education leading to maturity, the ‘media world’ by contrast is fixated upon gaining control of youth’s psychic and social apparatuses from the youngest age (p.132). Such systems of control serve only to short-circuit the psychic system, however, resulting in the explosion of attention-deficit disorder, infant hyperactivity, and cognitive-overflow-syndrome we see today. Ultimately, maintains Stiegler, desire itself collapses (p.42).

In this way, attention is reduced to retention, a regression of intelligence for which the programming industries and mass media are to blame. Television in particular, writes Stiegler, has ‘irresistibly’ ruined the public education systems instituted in the 1880s along Aufklärung ideals, to the extent that democracy in the West has now been subsumed by a telecracy, which, with the programming industries as its ‘armed wing’, seeks only to control social behaviour by adapting it to immediate market needs (p.58). Moreover, this process has been accelerated by the emergence of new media, leading to the ‘hypersolicitation of attention’ (p.94). This control process serves to remove individuals from participation in the critical process of collective intelligence, a removal characteristic of what Stiegler, after Marx, terms ‘proletarianization’.

Psychotechnologies, in other words, eliminate the very thing that defines the human, that of critical consciousness. As a result, the ‘new’ short-term state of ‘attention without consciousness’ they inaugurate necessarily constitutes an entirely different form of being. Stiegler refers to this as a state of ‘vigilance’, a form of being characteristic of wild animals (p.78). The programming industries, in short, rewire the human, purging it of its exceptional ‘cerebral plasticity’ so as to produce instead an animalistic nervous system ‘forever enclosed within strict neurological limits’ (pp.96-8). The post-human, therefore, is a (psycho)technologically produced animal, subject only to the short-term satisfaction of drives without desire. This, suggests Stiegler, is the future, and that future is (almost) now, consciousness having being reduced to a ‘grammatized stream’ by the ‘transformation of formalized machinic processes, as well as by devices recording and manipulating the information stream’ (p.147).

This ‘rewiring’, moreover, is no simple metaphor. Television and new media, Stiegler insists, irrevocably restructure the synaptogenetic circuits of children subjected to them at an early age. The evidence invoked to back up this claim is, however, very thin. Nevertheless, Stiegler takes it as proven that such rewiring inevitably results in an irreversible inability to attain maturity at the neurological level (pp.74-7). The ‘herd’ that is the next generation, in short, will thus be physiologically unable to heed Stiegler’s warning and to take responsibility. Rather, by the time today’s children grow up, it will already be too late.

For Stiegler, signs of this process are everywhere. In place of the social formation of intelligence, we find only ‘the most minimal human “subject”’, which increasingly ‘delegates its attention to automata that then become its captors, meters, gauges, warning signals, alarms, and so on’ (pp.100-1). While, on the one hand, we can no longer recall our own telephone numbers or how to do simple arithmetic, on the other we transfer control of all our financial, military and medical decisions to various software applications. As a result, there can be no singular internalization of the collective and social memories of humanity, and thus no possibility of creating new long circuits of transindividuation. Instead, machines calculate us: ‘attention engines’ take the place of attention itself, and thus substitute for the subject (p.100).

There is, however, something of a hysterical edge to Stiegler’s stricture regarding the toxicity of television and new media, which recalls similar apocalyptic warnings that have accompanied the emergence of every new media form, not excluding the printed book. It is an attack moreover, as John Hutnyk points out in a recent article ‘Proletarianization or Cretinization’, which depends upon a largely undifferentiated concept of the ‘long-circuit’, which takes no account of the specificities of place. Moreover, Stiegler appears not to consider the possibility that, what for him is only ever a delinquency of youth in need of correction, might instead constitute a basis for resistance and struggle against market controls. Thus, writes Hutnyk, whereas Stiegler’s diagnosis tends all too readily to render the masses a passive object of capture, perhaps instead ‘we need more delinquents, civil unrest, a revolutionary call to attention’ in the constitution of a dialectic in which the distraction of attention may actually be a refined and critical inattention’.2 Stupidity too, insists Hutnyk, can be pharmacological.

At the same time, in order to justify his distinction between the (good) psychotechnics which constitute humanity, and the (bad) psychotechnologies which reduce it to ‘mere’ animal vigilance, Stiegler’s position ultimately depends upon an extremely problematic human-animal dichotomy, one which conflates ‘the human’ with consciousness and ‘the animal’ with blind instinctual drives. As detailed in the first volume of Technics and Time, Stiegler insists upon the absolute exceptionalism of the human by virtue of a co-constitutive technicity (meaning that, according to Stiegler’s thesis, any nonhuman animal who manipulates a tool must therefore be a human). In Taking Care, however, Stiegler seems to suggest that a human can be somehow reduced to, or even returned to, an animal way of being. The question then, is how can grammatization – the putatively defining property of the human – effect what for Stiegler is an ontologically impossible reduction of the human to the animal?

It is in order to circumvent this question that Stiegler attempts to separate human vigilance from its animal counterpart by claiming they constitute two different ‘aspects’. Such a separation, however, cannot be maintained. Psychotechnologies, he suggests, eliminate human attention, whereas animal attention is always already captured (p.102). In other words, the human, defined futurally, must have attention and thus anticipation eliminated in order to then become a captured animal. The difference then, concerns only the process, rather than the resulting form of being, by which ‘the human’ becomes what ‘the animal’ always already is. Stiegler’s vigilant posthuman, in other words, is the regression of the (ontologically distinct) human to an animal he or she never was. Perhaps then, in this dystopian future controlled by autonomous psychotechnological forces, it will be Senegalese chimpanzees who, with their favourite tools for extracting termites and their carefully fashioned spears for hunting lemurs, will find themselves marked out as the ‘proper’ humans amongst all us (other) animals.

 

Re-schooling Foucault

Returning to Stiegler’s argument, the ‘great question’ of our times necessarily consists in finding a way to abandon the inhuman abandonment of the subject to machines, and to invent instead ‘new modalities of non-inhuman existence […] modalities that are less toxic, more useful to a non-inhumanity’ (p.183). This, in short, is our particular battle for intelligence: how do we reconfigure the current psychotechnologies so as to invent a new way of life, one that takes care ‘by inventing techniques, technologies, and social structures of attention formation corresponding to the organological specifities of our times’ (p.48). This will not come about by chance however. Rather, says Stiegler, humanity must be taught to cultivate care and attention by way of a reinvention of education that utilizes an industrial organization.

Here we reach the core of Stiegler’s text, which can be summarized as a series of interlinked prescriptions. First, the entire education community must be made aware of its hypomnesic basis within tertiary retentions through genealogical analyses of the grammatization process. In this way, teachers and students alike will thereafter understand the need to return to the ‘older’ form of attention construction as the formation of disciplinary transindividuation circuits. This then in turn requires the teaching of strategies for paying attention to psychotechniques of attention formation (p.70). Stiegler calls this an ‘organological rethinking of the education system’ (p.83) in which every retentional device is to be systematically analyzed for both its potentially curative and potentially poisonous effects. In this way, the various forms of attention brought about by both psychotechniques and psychotechnologies can be identified and the correct ones selected in the formation of a regime of care.

Arguing that the school, therefore, constitutes the primary pharmacological site of this battle for intelligence, Stiegler is thus compelled to engage with Foucault’s influential reading of the school as simply a prison of enforced discipline. This he does by suggesting Foucault in fact ‘misses’ the pharmacological aspect of tertiary retentions by virtue of a ‘skewed’ reading resulting from the historical contingency that Stiegler terms ‘post-1968 disappointment’. Similarly, writes Stiegler, insofar as Foucault roots his analyses within the nation-states of a long-gone Europe, his notion of biopower cannot account for our age of deterritorialized economic forces and their programming industries which inevitably construct entirely new apparatuses.

It is rather the case, Stiegler argues, that the school, in addition to being a Foucauldian apparatus of surveillance and control, is also an institutional mechanism through which knowledge is to be acquired, both through the ‘construction of a system of care regulating the connections of the individual to self and others, intergenerationally’, and by the ‘transindividuation of a transmissible knowledge to “ordinary scholars”, citizens with rights (Kant’s and Cordorcet’s subjects) who attain such knowledge in the form of a discipline formalizing consciousnesses, and that can be taught as such’ (p.146).

For this, Stiegler says, we must return to Kant’s ‘republic of letters’ as formulated in ‘What is Enlightenment?’ from 1784. Here, we discover that the corporeal discipline of the school is in fact a condition of a mature self-discipline and of the discipline of self (p.118). Foucault overlooks this fact, claims Stiegler, because he focuses on only one pole of the school’s inherent pharmacology, that of the disciplinary field of subjection, and completely ignores ‘the field of disciplines structuring knowledge – and as discursive relations based on techniques of the self’ (p.121).

Let us not be too hard on Foucault, however, insofar as he too was inevitably trapped within his own historically specific ‘regime of truth’ and thus condemned, as we all are, to operate within its diagrammatic statements. This limit, Stiegler suggests, was constructed in and by the ‘era of 1968’, during which all power was considered as synonymous with the repressive State apparatus. As a result, education in general, and the school in particular, necessarily came to be considered as part of the disciplinary control apparatus. However, subsequent to what Stiegler calls the ‘historicopolitical abortion called “1968”’ (p.119), the huge disappointment that followed – disappointment described by Stiegler as the mindset of ‘only’, in the sense of ‘school will have only been a disciplinary tool’ (p.120) – thereafter comes to define the thought of an entire generation of thinkers. While admittedly fertile, insists Stiegler, this mindset of ‘only’ is nonetheless only fruitful ‘on condition of its being critiqued – and the time of that critique has come’ (p.121).

Through just this critique, Stiegler thus attempts to move at once beyond the limits of the ‘1968-mindset’ in general, and the Foucauldian imbrication of power-knowledge in particular. By way of a genealogical understanding of the pharmacological nature of schooling, Stiegler claims in conclusion that it becomes possible to reinstitute ‘the school’ as an organization for the teaching of literacy as a formulator of rational, intergenerational relations and thus as a system of care on a ‘completely different plane from the biopolitics emerging as the administration of what Foucault describes as biopower’ (p.179). Insofar as it pays attention to its hypomnesic basis in conjunction with the employment of the ‘correct’ strategies of psychotechnics, the school is thus the key site in the reconfiguration of our current state of carelessness. We, writes Stiegler, the last generation of mature adults, must erect a politics of ‘care-through-instruction’, which is in practice a ‘metacare that, as it were, shapes care in modern society in the strongest sense – as the taking of noetic action that is politically and economically organized’ (p.179). Only in this way, he argues, might the youth of today still understand us tomorrow, only in this way might humanity have a future. Nevertheless, it is a tomorrow whose cure threatens much that might turn out to be more poisonous than the toxicity it promises to combat.

 

Notes

1 On technology, see, for example, the five volumes of Technics and Time (1996–); on political economy, see For a New Critique of Political Economy (2009); on art, see Mystagogies: De l’art contemporain (forthcoming); on television, see Echographies of Television with Jacques Derrida (1997) and La Télécratie contra la démocratie (2006); on democracy, see De la démocratie participative (2007), and on industrial and hyperindustrial societies, see the first volumes of Mécreance et discrédit (2004) and De la misère symbolique (2006) respectively.

2 John Hutnyk, ‘Proletarianization or Cretinization’, forthcoming in New Formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics.

 

 

 

Richard Iveson

Goldsmiths, University of London

 


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes


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

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

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

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

 

Richard Iveson

Goldsmiths, University of London

E-mail: richard.iveson@ntlworld.com

 


When the Refusal to Offend Offends: Philosophers and their Animals no.4, Elisabeth de Fontenay

 

 The following is the long (rather more polemical) first draft (75% of which had to be cut for reasons of space) of a detailed critical review of Elisabeth de Fontenay’s latest book Without Offending HumansA Critique of Animals Rights, published in the University of Minnesota’s Posthumanities series (I mention that this is an early draft in the hope that it will go some way to excuse the various errors, repetitions, word omissions, sudden jumps, etc. …)

First and foremost, Élisabeth de Fontenay is a philosopher. She is, moreover, a philosopher who has for decades committed herself to bettering the – all too often at once banal and utterly horrific – situation of nonhuman animals. Indeed, I have elsewhere referred to her encyclopaedic masterwork Le silence des bêtes (1998) as a key text in the emerging field of animal studies.[i] I mention this at the outset because, while reading Without Offending Humans, the latest offering in the influential “Posthumanities” series, not only did I find it necessary to repeatedly remind myself of this fact, but also because de Fontenay herself would do well to recall an equal level of commitment on behalf of a number of philosophers she deals with here. In another book in the same series, Kalpana Rahita Seshadri notes acutely that “the philosophical task of formulating coherent arguments and developing a sound logic to defend their moral perspective appears more crucial when the object is to problematise fundamental norms governing the value of nonhuman animals.”[ii] Picking up Without Offending Humans, I anticipated an original and provocative text that would perhaps finally shatter the lingering sociopolitical and juridical justifications of human exceptionalism. In this, however, I was disappointed.

First of all, a few words must be said about the title or, rather, about the translation of the title. Originally published as Sans offenser le genre humain: Réflexions sur la cause animale in 2008, this in its English version becomes Without Offending Humans: A Critique of Animal Rights. Given that animal rights theory is discussed in only one of the seven chapters, Will Bishop’s translation is obviously overtly polemical in intent, no doubt with an eye to a broader audience beyond those working within the Continental tradition. It is, however, unfortunate. Indeed, even the translation of le genre humain simply as “humans” is problematic. While de Fontenay is doubtlessly referring to the human species as that which she will not offend, it is equally doubtless that there will be a number of individual humans who will be offended by this book – Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri foremost among them.

As de Fontenay is a philosopher, however, let us begin with the philosophy, such as is found here only chapters one, two, and five – three chapters which alone reward the effort of reading. She opens with a consideration of the importance of Jacques Derrida’s contribution to the “question of the animal” along with its relation to her own work, which she claims to be “both parallel and asymptotic” (2). Thus distancing herself from accusations of epigonality, de Fontenay then offers a fine, if rather sedate, reading of the place of the animal in Derrida’s oeuvre, stressing a number of key but often overlooked points such as the fact that the trace necessarily extends beyond the anthropological limits of language, or again how Derrida aims to replace the indubitable aspect of the Cartesian cogito with the undeniable aspect of pity. De Fontenay’s reading comes alive, however, when she notes the insistence of two motifs: time and sacrifice. Here, she makes a number of crucial points, not least regarding certain problems inherent to Derrida’s notion of sacrifice as at once historical and metahistorical (10). Similarly, argues de Fontenay, the “limitless extension Derrida attributes to the domain of sacrifice” is all too susceptible to charge of both Eurocentrism and generalisation. Such a concept, writes de Fontenay, is “unavailable,” conflating as it does “diversity in place and time, the plurality of their functions, their singularity” (16). Citing as exemplary the works of Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Jean Soler, de Fontenay rightly insists that we must guard against “generalizing inductions” by insisting on “the singularity of the cultures and thoughts anchored in animal sacrifice” and by developing analyses “only through the commentaries produced within each culture” (14).

Indeed, de Fontenay then shows how the use of sacrifice as a “catchall category” risks a further fall into the trap of a vulgar, Durkheimian evolutionism, which posits Christianity as the “spiritual and social accomplishment of history” insofar as the replacement of sacrifice to the gods with the sacrifice of the Christic god represents “the growth of the spirit of sacrifice” (15). This is an extremely important point – and the high point of this book – that many working with Derrida’s “since forever” notion of the “sacrificial structure” would do well to pay heed. This is important too as regards the legacy of Derrida, insofar as if, as de Fontenay contends, “Derrida’s globalization, radicalization, and metaphorization of sacrifice do not completely escape this evolutionism,” it is an evolutionism “which his entire work in fact rejects” (15). What is required, she suggests, and which is lacking in Derrida’s (inevitably unfinished) work on this question, is a limitrophy, such as proposed by Derrida himself.

In this first chapter, de Fontenay notes that, of all the oppositions Derrida sets into place, “the one between man and animal is the most decisive” insofar as it “commands the others” (3), and it is this anthropological difference which de Fontenay says in the Preface constitutes the focus of Without Offending Humans. In fact, she only engages with this question with any depth and nuance in the two remaining “philosophical” chapters – “The Improper” and “They Are Sleeping and We Are Watching over Them” – which together form a pair.

Reading “The Improper” is, however, a frustrating experience, as it is difficult to understand what, exactly, de Fontenay is arguing about. Principally, this dissatisfaction stems from the fact that she appears to be either completely unaware of, or utterly careless of, the large number of important texts produced within what has become known as “animal studies” over the last two decades or so – a criticism that unfortunately becomes all the more urgent as the book progresses.

The chapter focuses on the “double difficulty” posed if one wishes to avoid the metaphysics of human exceptionalism. The human, she suggests, is surrounded only by absences (of the distant past of our species, the recent past of human historicity, and the uncertainty of our human future), whereas every determination of the proper of the human is necessarily based upon the ridiculous notion of presence. None of this is new, of course, but what marks de Fontenay’s position as somewhat unusual is that she clearly wants to reinstall some form that permits human animals to maintain both their priority and their superiority. She wishes, in other words, to better the position of other animals, but without offending humans in the process. This is different, however, from suggesting that human beings differ in countless ways from all other species, just as any other species differs in countless ways from every other. What de Fontenay wants, in short, is humanism without metaphysics, exceptionalism without reduction. To do this, she writes, a “decision must nonetheless be firmly maintained,” a decision to keep separate the “two heterogeneous interrogations” concerning the origin of man on the one hand, and the meaning of the human on the other (21). Put another way, continues de Fontenay,

one cannot allow the intersections of research from paleoanthropologists and primatologists, or discoveries in molecular biology and in genetics to destroy without remains the affirmation of the rupture constituted by anthropological singularity. And it is therefore not certain that we can do without recourse to philosophical tradition (21).

Here, then, de Fontenay is suggesting the purity marked by human exceptionalism must not be corrupted by incursions from other disciplines which, she argues, can never provide “the authorization to decide” (22), but must rather maintain its “affirmation” by recourse to philosophy. Of course, the very possibility of purity and separation are precisely what various recent philosophies have rendered naïve. Nonetheless, de Fontenay ploughs on as if oblivious, insisting that philosophy must affirm an ethics and a politics founded upon “the singularity and humankind, and thus on its unity, on the effective respect for the dignity … and on the claim for an uncompromising fraternity among all beings who come from a man and a woman, or even from a man or a woman, [which] far from being invalidated by this metaphysical neutrality, find themselves reinforced by it” (22). Prudent, she suggests, is a minimal declaration, a “zero degree of definition” (24), which she insists again as “a human being is a being born of the natural or artificially provoked union of a woman and a man” and thus avoid excluding any section of humanity. Such a definition, however, is circular, insofar as it presupposes knowledge of “man” and “woman” as (gendered) human beings; the definition is, in other words, a simple tautology: a human being is a being born of human beings.

At the end of the “purging” of “the human” by recent philosophy, writes de Fontenay, we must focus on the “little bit of sense” left over, which amounts to a refusal to allow that the signification of the human can be “deciphered solely from knowledge of the origin of humanity and its biological reality” (22). Put simply, we must avoid reductionist sociobiological interpretations. However, one such refusal evokes from de Fontenay a “call to order” is required once “a primatologist [Frans de Waal] attributes a moral sense to animals” as no criteria could ever provide the justification for such a claim (21). This, she argues, is bad philosophy. Interesting here, however, is Nietzsche, for example, argues far more persuasively – and far more “philosophically” if such a thing could be said to exist – that the unavailability of just such criteria is the very reason why we could not posit a moral sense as properly human.[iii] Even more confusedly, de Fontenay will claim recourse to this very argument later in the chapter, noting Nietzsche’s point from The Anti-Christ that every creature has reached the same stage of evolutionary perfection.

This reference to Nietzsche is not incidental. Despite the “zero degree” definition, de Fontenay is in fact positing what is, quite simply, an argument both for negative anthropology and for assumed knowledge. The question, what allows us to recognize a man is, she says, “indecent,” as “everyone knows right away ‘if this is a man’” (a reference to Primo Levi) (24). Along the way, de Fontenay notes both that deconstruction has thoroughly invalidated such binaries as nature/culture, innate/acquired, and man/animal, but also that, in addition, this deconstruction must also demonstrate “their eminently harmful character” (23). While why this should be so is unclear (although such harmfulness is easy to show), rather than allowing for the necessity of challenging beautiful Platonic fictions. Man (de Fontenay is keen on keeping this gendered universal, no doubt as part of her commitment to the philosophical tradition), in other words, has replaced the God of negative theology, and now it is the human whose very existence can only be implied by way of everything that he is not. This, in itself, is certainly an improvement on the “zero degree” definition but problems remain. While de Fontenay, after the first definition, then writes that the only possible ethical, political, and scientific approach is to “affirm the fact that man is a being who neither can nor must be defined,” she almost immediately adds that she “may” nonetheless “propose certain characteristics by which it would seem that we can recognize human difference” (24). Two points must be made here. Firstly, to suggest as a kind of preface that every human always already recognizes every other human is precisely the movement of exclusion de Fontenay claims to avoid, insofar as if one doesn’t agree that “the human” is thus “pre-recognized,” one is not, therefore, “human,” thus excluding all of those who deny such recognizability from the human realm. Secondly, the justification for de Fontenay’s future “proposals” regarding human difference (or exceptionalism) would seem to rest upon her apparent hesitancy – as if the appearance of hesitation or circumspection alone constitutes a sufficient preface and guard which thereafter permits the instauration of old or new “propers.”

After a brief dalliance with Antigone, in which de Fontenay recapitulates Heidegger’s argument in which man is the most uncanny, the violence-doer and the dominator, she quickly turns to Aristotle’s Politics, thus firmly establishing the importance of tradition for what is to come. As is well known, Aristotle defines man as the language-using animal, which alone allows for notions of justice, good and evil, and family and State. This argument, writes de Fontenay, “seems so irrefutable that no one has ever truly been able to surpass it by stating a more decisive criterion of humanity” (27). Again, there is that glaring absence of the huge amount of literature produced on just this subject in recent decades.

The most important question concerning “man” today is, claims de Fontenay, “what have we done to man and what are we going to do with him?” (31). Moreover, the sources of these two “moments” have names: Nazism and cloning. On the one hand, Nazism reveals the “impotence and hypocrisy” of “beautiful humanist and democratic ideals” (31). While positivists are criminally mistaken in situating humanity in the “natural order of animality,” it is necessary rather to “make it begin again, on the historical level, in Auschwitz” (31) – crimes which “inflicted us with “narcissistic wounds far worse than heliocentrism, evolutionism, and psychoanalysis combined” (31). Cloning, meanwhile, promises “to work not toward the emergence of a new humanity but toward the production of beings other than humans” (32). Yet, she continues, to speak of such “other-than-human beings” would require first of all a definition of human beings, which “must be avoided at all costs” (32). All of this is, however, hugely under-theorized, leaving only an apparent snap-judgement that “All our points of reference seem to escape us after National Socialism and in the era of genetic engineering” (32). Seem to? Do they, or not? Is de Fontenay following Adorno, only instead of poetry as being that which cannot be written after Auschwitz, it is now “Man”? And yet, it was precisely in this context that de Fontenay earlier invoked Levi’s writing of his experience of the Shoah to justify the a priori recognizability of one man by any other.

After several brief summaries of the place of the animal in relation to the symbolic in recent philosophy, de Fontenay abruptly halts the discussion to proclaim that, despite Derrida’s caution, “urgency” compels her to reiterate “the oft-rehashed criterion of a specifically human language” (39). Ultimately, we have never left Aristotle. Only the human, de Fontenay claims, possesses “declarative language” (speech produced to give information) or “ostensive language” (to show an object only to have it shown). Such a claim, again in the light of much recent debate on the subject, simply cannot be stated as if it is obvious to all. De Fontenay offers nothing other than her own certainty that the linguistic differences of humans compared with other animals is a difference of kind and not of degree. Here, despite writing of the numerous properly human bastions that have fallen, she simply doesn’t seem to consider this when positing declarative language as a final stronghold. To the declarative, moreover, she then adds “conversational language” (as this implies intersubjectivity and the ability to take an other’s mental state into account, which is thus perfunctorily denied to every other animal) and performative language (in the narrow sense), a claim that is perhaps even harder to maintain with any certainty. If this sounds all too familiar; indeed, all too human, that is simply because it is. As Aristotle showed, writes de Fontenay, “what animals are lacking in the final analysis is everything related to doxa, to belief, to persuasion, adhesion, and therefore to rhetoric” (40). More specifically, she continues, it is “the ethico-rhetorical more than the rational that constitutes the specificity of the human” (40). Indeed, might not it be in “metaphorical power that the difference may be situated” (40)? So, whilst of course refusing to suggest any definition of “man” other than a negative anthropology, de Fontenay manages to writes that all other animals lack the ability to impart information through language, lack the ability to converse, lack the ability to show in order to show, lack opinions, lack beliefs, lack performatives, lack intersubjectivity, lack representations of mental states, lack metaphorical language, lack ethics, etc. etc., and in so doing posits every one of these things as proper to mankind alone. Astonishingly, she then adds: “And we can all agree that deeming this, so close to the thought of the Sophists, what is proper to man has nothing metaphysical about it!” (40, my emphasis).

Given this exceptional “ethico-rhetorical” characteristic, which will be attributed to Aristotle in chapter five, one thus wonders were Nietzsche went, having been cited so approvingly earlier. The notion that only the human employs metaphorical language – which ultimately comes down to saying that only the human can lie, and thus tell the truth – has been explicitly deconstructed by Nietzsche.[iv]

After all this, de Fontenay then cites the primatology (already dismissed as we know) of Maurice Godelier, who argues that the specificity of human language cannot be maintained. Without comment, de Fontenay then suggests that – another definition – actually what is specific to mankind is the ability to “modify the global structure of the relations proper to the species” (41), and then again, as the ability to give oneself “a global representation of the organizing principles of society” (41). Again, all this is stated as simple fact – once again, as a difference in kind and not of degree. The reader may perhaps be mystified as to what de Fontenay is actually doing here, and, if so, it is a mystification I share. At times it seems as if she is just skipping from one traditional definition to the next, declaring each as a simple fact, briefly pointing out a single disputing voice, and then moving onto the next. The question I cannot help asking is, given all that has been said about the harmfulness of exceptionalism and the falling of the propers, why is de Fontenay exerting so much time, effort, and space to produce (or reproduce) anthropological difference? The only answer I can come up with is that she wishes, above all, to write a book without offending humans, or some humans at least – creationists, liberal humanists, and so on.

Anyway, the process continues, with de Fontenay now tackling newly-acquired knowledge concerning genetic plasticity. Only humans, she writes, can change the global structure or organizing relations of society because only humans pass along information epigenetically as well as genetically. Only humans, in short, are not programmed by their DNA – readers will once again get a strange sense of déjà vu. Only this non-genetic transmission ensures the nonsubstitutability of the human, that is, that the birth of a (human) child will be “unique every time” (44), whereas other animals are yet again reduced to substitutable representatives of their programming, with each individual thus identical to the species and thus endlessly exchangeable. This ideology, it must be noted, ontologizes all other animals as usable, and is one of the most noxious productions of the philosophical tradition. Again, if de Fontenay had perhaps read more widely in the field, she would be aware of this. Sociobiologists, writes de Fontenay, fail to account for the “epigenetic enigma” (42). While this is indeed the case, exactly the same charge can be laid against de Fontenay, insofar as epigenesis has been shown by biotechnology to function through all living beings, that is, through cell recapacitation.

Bizarrely, the final “philosophical” chapter begins with de Fontenay noting that deeming other animals as “lacking in reason and in articulate word” and thus excluded from the logos proved “profitable” as it “allowed them to be used and abused as tools, as personal property” (96-7). This is shown, she continues, most clearly throughout Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Without irony, de Fontenay then seeks to continue Adorno and Horkheimer’s project, only this time by focussing on three philosophers who refused the “separatist vulgate” in favour of continuism, that is, who “were able to resist the process of rational hegemony by refusing to dig out an unsurpassable ditch between the intelligence of man and that of certain animals” (99), all of this without any apparent reflexive awareness of her own philosophical position along the line of this “separatist vulgate” she condemns.

The three philosophers chosen to represent continuism will probably come as something of a surprise to many: namely, Aristotle, Leibniz, and Husserl, and the specific question addressed to them concerns the difficulties presented by the event of anthropogenesis given the argument for continuism.

De Fontenay considers Aristotle firstly, and first of all, noting again that the latter ascribes the logos to man alone. De Fontenay offers the following summary of Aristotle’s paradoxical position regarding what is “characteristic” [idion] to nonhuman animals: “Benefitting only from phantasia aisthētikē, the persistence of an impression, which nonetheless already supposes time, the animal does not have the capacity to stop and develop the reasoning that pushes it [sic] to act in the direction of the future” (101, my emphasis). This is particularly interesting in relation to the question of memory, necessary in Platonic thought for the possession of virtue. De Fontenay, however, apodictically concludes that, lacking the middle term necessary for syllogistic reason, nonhuman animals are thus incapable of both judgment and opinion. While the details are contested, there is a well-known tale which, discussed by a large number of Ancient Greek philosophers and attributed originally to the Stoic Chrysippus. Chrysippus, according to Plutarch and then Porphyry, and then again by Philo, Sextus Empiricus and Montaigne among others, tells of a dog who, when faced with a choice of three paths (or two, depending on the source) and having sniffed without success the first two, runs off along the third path without further hesitation.[v] This, the various authors conclude, precisely demonstrates the dog’s capacity for disjunctive syllogistic reasoning. Interesting here is that Porphyry, in discussing the notion of animal syllogisms, invokes Aristotle in order to support the claim. “[I]f it be requisite to believe in Aristotle, he writes, “are seen to teach their offspring … the nightingale, for instance, teaches her young to sing. And as he [Aristotle] likewise says, animals learn many things from each other, and many from men …. For how is it possible that he [that is, anyone who from ignorance “rashly” refuses reason to other animals] should not defame and calumniate animals, who has determined to cut them in pieces, as if they were stones? Aristotle, however, Plato, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all such as endeavoured to discover the truth concerning animals, have acknowledged that they participate of reason” (On Abstinence III:6, 100-1). None of this is mentioned by de Fontenay, who simply uses this as a springboard to repeat, more or less word for word, what she writes in chapter two, namely, that animals thus lack “everything related to doxa, belief, persuasion, adhesion” (101), once again marking the human animal as exceptional insofar as only he or she has access to the rhetorical register, and who is therefore “ethico-rhetorical” (102). Once again, it must be noted that this question of language – as well as memory, judgment, and opinion – forms the core of much of what has become known as animal studies, of which there is simply no trace here whatsoever.

Despite what appears to be an abysmal anthropological difference in de Fontenay’s reading of Aristotle, she then suggests that this difference in Aristotle is simply that of degree and not of kind. How the lack of the various genres of language listed earlier by de Fontenay, as well as the lack of both memory, judgment, and opinion, can be conceived of as positing anything but the most traditional – and facile – difference of kind is simply baffling. Indeed, no evidence is offered on behalf of this claim, but only evidence as to its absence. Aristotle, writes de Fontenay, inscribes other animals within the register of the “like” (i.e., resemblance by analogy) and of the “as if”: animals have something “like a kind of thinking,” appearing “as if … they calculated time and difference” (102). In short, de Fontenay offers evidence as to Aristotle’s difference in kind, while nonetheless insisting that the human-animal distinction is “ambiguous,” having been “hastily established as a foundational opposition” (102). This is not to say that de Fontenay is necessarily incorrect in locating just such an ambiguity in Aristotle’s philosophy, and particularly when one reads his texts on what might be termed “natural history” against the more philosophical texts, most notably the Physics. Indeed, one wishes she had focused on this apparent ambiguity but, unfortunately, “[w]e will not be able to answer this question here” (102).

With this, de Fontenay turns to Leibniz. As is well known, for Leibniz anthropological difference centres upon the relationship to God. In The Monadology (1714), he writes that the difference between the “ordinary souls” of nonhuman animals and human “minds” is that, while creaturely souls are “living mirrors or images of the universe of creatures,” human minds in addition are “images of the divinity itself … capable of knowing the system of the universe” (§83). As a result, only human minds are “capable of entering into a kind of society with God, and allows him to be, in relation to them, not only what an inventor is to his machine (as God is in relation to the other creatures) but also what a prince is to his subjects, and even what a father is to his children” (§84). Despite this seemingly unsurpassable exceptionalism, however, de Fontenay locates a crucial conflict – one with clear implications for Aristotle’s persistence of impression – between a continuous and a discontinuous hierarchy of being within Leibniz’s conception of perception, insofar as there can be neither a purely passive substance nor a perfect absence of perception within Leibniz’s schema, all living beings therefore exist in a state in which there is “a multitude of murmuring solicitations that await only ‘a tiny occasion for memory to awaken, to go from being enveloped by the unclear to developing the distinct’” (Leibniz Die Philosophischen Schriften, cit. de Fontenay 103). It is precisely these imperceptible and yet uninterrupted thoughts, writes de Fontenay, which “ensure the faultless continuity between sensibility and understanding, between apparent inertia and the living” (103). The multitudinous murmurings, in other words, threaten the hierarchy of being from both sides, rendering obscure not only the line dividing animal from man, but also that which divides the “least living” from the nonliving.

There is, then, a conflict between a continuous and a discontinuous hierarchy of being within Leibniz’s thought, a conflict which is resolved, writes de Fontenay, through an engagement with three possible theories of anthropogenesis: miraculous creation, wherein God intervenes at conception to transform an animal soul into a human soul; miraculous transcreation, wherein souls, preexisting incarnation, await for “their” particular human bodies to be conceived, whereupon they take their rightful place; and natural translation, which states that certain animal souls already possess the seeds of reason within them as an aptitude that is actualized when its time is right. It is this latter which resolves the conflict of anthropogenesis, permitting both separation and continuity between humans and other animals.

Here again, de Fontenay begins by suggesting a continuity of being in Husserl’s notion of “animality” as the preconstitutional realm, thus allowing for a hierarchy of being to be established based upon degrees of watchfulness or otherwise (the “more evolved animal” being analogous to the “insufficiently watchful man” (107)). She then lists all the things that Husserl then goes on to deny “the animal,” which includes consciousness of the unity of their lives, consciousness of the succession of generations, anticipatory images of the future, memory, and language, thus reducing them to “simple blind modes of instinctual life” (Husserl cit. 109). All too clearly, as de Fontenay notes, this dogmatic denial of “the animal” is “barely compatible with the construction of animality” (107). Once again, however, de Fontenay locates a glimpse of possibility emerging between Husserl’s universal animality and the rigorous Husserlian “as if” that authorises a human-animal “transfer” by way of the empathy [Einfülhung] characteristic of a “restricted anthropomorphism,” albeit only towards the more “highly evolved” animals (109). Empathy, writes de Fontenay, is for Husserl “an action proper to the transcendental attitude,” meaning that Husserl can give “a rigorous status to the ‘as if’” (109). Hence, “[a]nalogy, intropathy, and the process of the ‘as if’ have nothing arbitrary and naïve about them, inasmuch as the level of crude and instinctual intentionality that, with varying degrees of complexity dependent upon the species composes animal consciousness and its surrounding world, is not foreign to the original psychic layer of those who would give the world to themselves and to one another. Is it not an imaginary projection that creates resemblance; it is an analogy that motivates the transfer” (109).

From this brief unfolding and infolding of the three philosophies singled out here, a fascinating glimpse of possibility thus emerges on the border between Husserl’s universal animality and the rigorous Husserlian “as if” that authorizes a certain human-animal “transfer.” This transfer, writes de Fontenay, takes place by way of empathy [Einfülhung], although this latter must be understood in the specifically Husserlian sense of “an action proper to the transcendental attitude,” one which allows Husserl to give “a rigorous status to the ‘as if’” (109). Through their various institutions of the analogous “as” and the intuitive “as if,” she continues, Aristotle, Leibniz, and Husserl potentially offer an invaluable resource against reductionisms of all kinds. Such a project would indeed be fascinating, and it is perhaps unfortunate that this book was not the result of just such a sustained philosophical exploration.

Chapters four and six, dealing with the rhetorics of animalization and bioengineered animals in art respectively, feel somewhat incidental. Beginning with the important point that the claim that there is a necessary link between zoophilia and racism is a “logical, historical, and moral inanity” (73), de Fontenay offers a historical summation of animalization from its roots in the physiognomy of the Renaissance. This, she rightly notes, is the primary danger of a posited human-animal continuity (although, of course, animalisation can functions just as well on the basis of metaphysical discontinuity), focusing her reading on the nineteenth century, and in particular upon Alphonse Toussenel’s largely forgotten notion of “passional analogy.” Naturalizing the sociohistorical crises that traverse the nineteenth century by way of an analogy contrasting “harmful beasts” to “innocent” ones, Toussenel thus sets about animalizing social categories, that is, a “passional analogy” that “lends order to a reciprocal reading of the animal world and human history” (84-5). At the same time, however, it lends credence to Toussenel’s anti-Semitism. As such, writes de Fontenay, “should we add Toussenel’s name to the repertoire of acceptable friends of the beasts,” and if so, do we not then become complicit in the “inane” linking of zoophilia with anti-Semitism (88)? It is with this question that de Fontenay concerns herself in the remainder of the chapter. Most interesting, perhaps, is the choice of Toussenel, insofar as he orders the taxonomy of his “passional analogy to a large extent from the basis of his love of hunting, as de Fontenay too is a keen hunter according to the brief biography that heads the translation of one of the chapters of Le silence. Hunting, it is obvious, offers a very specific operation of analogy.

The title of chapter six, “The Pathetic Pranks of Bio-Art,” leaves little doubt as to what is to come. Nonetheless, her argument for why such exhibitions of “bioengineered art” – i.e., of animals that have been genetically modified in some way, the most famous example of which is Eduardo Kac’s glow-in-the-dark rabbits through the addition of a jellyfish gene – cannot qualify as “events” is very interesting. Indeed, she is basically accusing bio-artists as failing in their function by being content simply to consent to what already is and what will be, rather than an exile, or a waiting, of an encounter with the incalculable. In short, de Fontenay writes that bio-art is simple calculation, and that whatever art is, it is not that (114). According to Kac, insofar as bio-art implicates other living beings, it becomes unpredictable – and this space of dialogue is what the work is, not the rabbit (116). Beyond this quote, however, de Fontenay allows Kac little or no space in which to argue his point. While she agrees with Jens Hauser that these arts “effectuate a détournement of utilitarian discourse,” for them to be pertinent that must be “a minimal disproportion” between the cells, molecules, DNA sequencing given to the artists to play with, and “the incommensurable effective possibilities being created in laboratories” (115). As de Fontenay points out, here is art used “as a kind of surplus value” (116) Yet the main political question concerns the stance – do they condemn the solely profit-inspired practices of biotechnology which seeks to patent life? At the very least, they form a consenting advert and help to further develop market logics – the opposite of the “new form of ecology” so often proclaimed (116). She is right too is pointing out the apparent critique of anthropocentrism in Kac’s Genesis barely conceals a Promethean or Faustian anthropocentrism and demiurgic humanism “that appropriates all rights over the living, including the right to exhibit its transmutations as if we were a circus” (119). Right too in noting that animals should never be treated “merely as a means or as material, as a sample for postmodern experimentation” (125). Perhaps more than anything, de Fontenay is clearly infuriated over Kac’s claims to philosophical rigour. While Kac’s philosophical pretensions are clearly just that, artists attempting to justify their work through cod philosophy backed up by poorly-understood decontextualised quotes is, however, far from an uncommon occurrence. In conclusion, de Fontenay argues on behalf of researchers for the three R’s when dealing with animal experiments: replacement, reduction, refinement – noting that the creation of a fluorescent rabbit breaks the first two rules “in a shocking way” (124)

This notion of philosophical rigour leads us directly to the chapter entitled “Between Possessions and Persons” purportedly dealing with animal rights discourse. De Fontenay is once again enraged, this time in relation to Paola Cavelieri’s Great-Apes Project, which seeks to establish (human) rights for great apes. It is a project that certainly seems to upset certain French thinkers – one thinks of Elisabeth Roudinesco’s reaction in the dialogue with Derrida entitled “Violence Against Animals.” Dialogue, however, is something sadly missing from de Fontenay’s text. Nonetheless, she begins by questioning, quite correctly, whether the rights claim made on behalf of great apes might rather “inspire political mockery and ethical exasperation. Outrageousness loses more battles than can be won through patience and measure” (47). This may well be true, but how much patience does one need – given that it is forty years since the notion of animal rights was replaced on the political agenda by the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, with no discernible results, it is rather time for a different approach entirely, of which outrageousness may well be a key component. Secondly, the fact that de Fontenay considers the great apes rights claim to be outrageous reveals just how conservative and “patient” is de Fontenay’s own thinking on the subject.

She begins by accrediting to Claude Lévi-Strauss the criticism of the notion of the rights of man as being too “strongly anchored in a philosophy of subjectivity” – the critique more famously having being reiterated by Derrida. Further, addressing “the question of the animal” means to commit oneself to a “fundamental debate” which, she argues, has been ignored by Continental philosophy that dogmatically situates the human condition in opposition to animal nature (47-8). Again, while this accusation is largely true, de Fontenay here nonetheless ignores the extensive literature within the Continental tradition deconstructing – in many cases with admirable philosophical rigour – just this dogmatic opposition. De Fontenay’s concern in this chapter is to refuse the refusal of politics to nonhuman animals, exemplified by the privilege of the hand which, as a philosophical invariant, marks a certain humanist tradition going from Anaxagorus to Heidegger via Engels, and which serves to disqualify animals from “struggles from emancipation” insofar as it “scientifically” shown that animals are non-subjects of non-rights (48).

Once again, however, de Fontenay advises caution: uncritical continuism inevitably results in a dangerous reduction, all too easily appropriated by racist discourse. On the notion of rights too, she rightly suggest, one must distinguish between rights understood “on the basis of a metaphysical, transcendental-immanent conception of natural law” on the one side and, on the other, of rights understood as performatives “invented, declared, and proclaimed, proceeding from the history of men [sic]” (50). It is in this context that de Fontenay turns to Cavalieri’s work, linking it straight away to the dangerous reductionism characteristic of socio-biology and against which she argues for a far more attentive and nuanced approach capable of comprehending “the complications of conflicts and the undialectizable event” (51). Somewhat naively, to say the least, de Fontenay then asks herself “how can one not recognize” that advances in genetics and the cognitive sciences, coupled with the “irrevocable nullity of metaphysically oriented validations,” have lead “more and more to the ‘imperative of responsibility’” that compels concern for those living beings who “will have been mere objects of appropriation” (51). Here, the least one say is that, first, the proclaimed death of metaphysical thinking is premature and, second, to imagine that advances in bioengineering and related fields will inevitably result in a beneficial concern for other animals, rather than creating ever more advanced forms of appropriation requires just such an attentive and nuanced approach (one thinks here of the production of transgenic animals – also known as “bioreactors” or “pharm” animals – whose bodyings contain man-made genetic modifications, as well as the “creation” of so-called “extremophiles”). Again, much has been written on this topic, most famously perhaps by Sarah Franklin, but nothing that would indicate a familiarity with this literature is discernible here.

Indeed, de Fontenay reiterates her contention that the work of ethologists, zoologists, and paleoanthropologists is “inadequate” to the task of “unbinding” us from our attachment to something proper to man, for which only philosophy can save us, despite the fact that it is precisely such work which, she claims, has lead to the “barely conceivable question: must we not extend the rights of man to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans?” (52). Why such a question might be “barely conceivable” is not explained. Indeed, in what follows the question that imposes itself above all is somewhat different: the question of philosophical rigour, or its absence and, with that, the question of academic responsibility. First of all, Cavalieri’s “claims” – which, writes de Fontenay, are legitimized by the utilitarian theory of Peter Singer – are dubbed “outrageous” (53), thus extending the “outrage” both to Singer’s work and to utilitarianism in general. Singer, she continues, presents “a truly extremist hypothesis” (53) that places himself in opposition to rights’ theorists such as Tom Regan and Joël Fineberg insofar as Singer sees the “vocabulary of rights” as merely “a convenient political shorthand” (53). This is indeed the case, and as such begs the question as to why, therefore, de Fontenay in the remainder of the chapter sets up Singer, and not Regan (who is not mentioned again), as the prime exemplar of contemporary animal rights theory. Indeed, de Fontenay will, bizarrely, reduce animal rights discourse – with all of its various steams, philosophy, heritage, and positions – throughout to what she calls the “utilitarian offensive” (63). More than that, it is unclear as to whether de Fontenay has even read Regan and Fineberg, insofar as she refers only to a secondary source nearly two decades old, that of Jean-Yves Goffi’s Le philosophe et ses animaux (1994), a text upon which she also relies for her summary of Singer’s – in places “staggering” (54) – philosophy. In the most reductive fashion imaginable, de Fontenay takes from Singer’s work only then argument that, if vivisection is morally acceptable, then so too are experiments performed on mentally-handicapped humans. While it is all too clear that Singer is not advocating experiments on human beings, but rather arguing that humans have no moral right to experiment on other animals, de Fontenay deliberately misreads into Singer’s argument what amounts to an apology for Mengele. Such a tactic, writes de Fontenay, is “scandalous” and “offends humankind,” and thereafter Singer’s, and by extension Cavalieri’s, status as philosophers is revoked, the distinction now placed within the inverted commas of disbelief (56). Again, without any apparent reflexivity or irony, de Fontenay goes on to accuse Singer of displaying an obvious “lack of civility” (56).

While I believe the contemporary discourse of animal rights, in both its utilitarian and neo-Kantian varieties, is inherently flawed,[vi] I nonetheless find de Fontenay’s treatment of the subject to be superficial and at once deeply offensive to those philosophers who have for so many years committed themselves to the betterment of the – largely abominable – situation of nonhuman animals. Indeed, the confession of an apparent “outrage” concerning the use of disabled humans as limit cases masks a shockingly conservative timidity on de Fontenay’s behalf (who can talk about the Holocaust in relation to human-animal indistinction, but not a brain-damaged infant), one which she ultimately “justifies” with utterly empty statements such as “[t]hat’s just the way it is and no argument is needed” (52), and propped up with a equally empty rhetoric of “nobility” and “dignity” (56, 59). Also, de Fontenay seems quite unconcerned by a vague but repeated invocation of “morality” and of “moral status” and “moral contracts,” without any question or clarification about what constitutes such a morality. Again, what is lacking is philosophical rigour. Indeed, de Fontenay even criticizes the use of the term “nonhuman animals,” the express intention of which is simply to draw attention to the fact that humans are one species among a great number of others, but which de Fontenay reads as “the Schadenfreude of abasing some as a way of elevating others” (52).

Ultimately, writes de Fontenay, Singer and Cavalieri suffer from a simple lack of style along with a rhetoric of bad taste, which should be proposed more artfully to gain followers (57) – thus overlooking completely the huge impact Singer’s Animal Liberation had, and continues to have. Given all we have heard in the previous chapters, it comes as something of a surprise that de Fontenay then confesses to having made a similar “risky” point, although – and thus apparently in direct contrast to Singer & Cavalieri – from the “wisdom of love” in the first chapter of Le silence in hope of making criteria less dependent on the criteria of competence (57). Then, in a further confusion, de Fontenay adds that, actually, the urgency of stopping horrendous psychic and physical torture “excuses” Singer’s & Cavalieri’s methods “to a certain extent” (58).

This urgency, however, is insufficient to prevent de Fontenay from deeming Cavalieri’s work as being done in an “inappropriate way” (60), as “indecent” (60), as misanthropic and “saddening” (59), and as nauseating (62). Similarly, Singer does not discuss, or argue, or theorise, but rather “makes fun” of his adversaries (60). All this, writes de Fontenay, is because they fail to recognise the “minimal moral contract” and fail to respect the “nobility” and “dignity” of Man (59). This very (humanist) notion of “dignity” is of course hugely problematic itself,[vii] as de Fontenay herself notes in Le silence: described by Lévi-Strauss as “the myth of a dignity exclusive to human nature,” it is this myth of a human value beyond “merely” living which, in whatever historical guise, “suffered [a fait essuyer] to nature itself its first mutilation from which all other mutilations must inevitably follow” (cit. de Fontenay Le silence 47). What then might such mutilations be which, insofar as they inevitably follow, are therefore structurally or genetically implicated in this ideology of a “nature” which is exclusively, properly, human? As to what has to follow, in other words, from the positing of an inalienable dignity of whatever stripe or mark which both constitutes, and consists in, a single animal species, an infinite transcendence which thus marks out one species, even before birth, as not-animal (rather than non-animal), Carl Schmitt offers one answer when he asserts that the ideological construct that is this notion of the human’s innate and universal humanity brings with it nothing less than the end of the political, its displacing and thus depoliticization of the site of politics providing instead only an “especially useful” instrument of imperialism.

Despite the charge of misanthropy, however, de Fontenay then immediately sets herself against those “who morally and politically recuse all defenders of the beasts by declaring them enemies of the human species” (61). She does this by way of a confusing – not least given her support for, and earlier fine reading of, Derrida – declaration that the “institution of a rights of animals” [itself an odd formulation] is “one of the legitimate struggles of our time” (61). So then, does de Fontenay agree with rights for animals, or not? Well, yes, on condition that such rights are “not awkwardly mimetic” (62), that is, not attributing the rights of Man to other animals as a sort of appendix, but instead to apply an individual and international ethical codification of “moral status” (62). This, however, all seems rather simplistic, and would ultimately result in it being precisely such an appendix, given that it is a categorisation applied by Man, when what is needed is a complete sea change in the relation with and between animals, which includes man. De Fontenay does make the important point, however, that the extension of human rights to the great apes is far too narrow and constricting (based as it is upon an unabashed anthropocentrism and requiring the construction of a – presumably “scientific” – hierarchy of animal beings). She then appears to immediately contradict this point by suggesting that we make great apes “the first among beasts rather than the last of men” (62).

De Fontenay does credit “the utilitarians” on two accounts: “the idea of interest and the idea of ‘moral patients,’” although quickly adding that they should only be “taken up after a final, philosophical clarification” (67). To this end, she calls upon Schopenhauer, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty to support her own notion of pathocentrism understood as “a centrality of undergoing or suffering shared by all living beings” that has no need of recourse to law or contract theory (67). As is well known, we find a similar argument posited by Derrida in his later work, and which is itself somewhat problematic. While de Fontenay is right in suggesting all vertebrates have specific worlds and specific cultures, its focus on shared suffering is a problem, ironically, precisely because of its implication within a Benthamite utilitarian heritage. Problematic too, is the fact that for de Fontenay it is only the possibility of empathic human understanding with such animals that marks them out as somehow worthy. One can only wonder, then, how far de Fontenay herself strays from a narcissistic contemplation of her reflection, especially given her overriding concern not to offend “humanity.”

Ultimately, de Fontenay is correct to criticize the notion of rights (although it would apply more to Regan’s position that Singer’s) for acting as if Nietzschean genealogy and Derridean deconstruction had never existed (64). She is correct too to write of the necessity of thoroughly deconstructing the notion of natural right based on rational beings able to enter into a contract (66); correct too in suggesting any rights discourse requires a deep and nuanced understanding of the philosophical, historical and juridical problematic (66). One might add, however, that any critique of rights discourse similarly requires just such a deep and nuanced understanding, advice that de Fontenay would do well to heed. First, she should have read Regan or Wise – who do have a deeper understanding of the problematic than Singer, which is not to criticize the latter, as Singer’s utilitarian position is precisely not a rights-based argument. Hence, when she suggests it necessary to substitute a new thinking of law as an alternative to the utilitarian position, this just comes across as an asininity. Indeed, her plea for deconstructionist thought in thinking human-nonhuman relations – which a number of people, myself included, have been engaged with for quite some time – will only serve to aggravate people against such an approach, especially if they think this is typical of the kind of analyses such an approach produces.

Condemnation is right and necessary, as is the link between industrial and technological savagery and economic rewards, even the detrimental effect of the images of mass killings on “our” humanity, but it has been done much better and in far greater depth elsewhere.[viii] Ultimately, de Fontenay’s claim that we need to make “the animal question” into a “social question” (when was it anything else? although “social” in a much more radical sense than de Fontenay prescribes it) and that we need to “find a place in international law that facilitates the existence of a community of the living that can counter human omnipotence and the horrible fraternity of contamination … legal reforms [which] can only be undertaken if the meaning of pity is reevaluated” (132) sound both naive and empty, or perhaps naive because empty and vice versa. While she condemns rights for animals, she offers nothing but the need for “pity” to – somehow – take on a new meaning that will – somehow – completely revolutionise politics, economics, philosophy, law, etc., etc., at a stroke. This, in itself, is indeed a pity.


[i] See my “Negotiating Without Relation” in parallax 17:3 (2011), 105.

[ii] Seshadri HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language, 11.

[iii] Cf “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense”

[iv] See my “Animals in Looking-Glass World,” which deals extensively with this question.

[v] See Daniel Heller-Roazen “The Hound and the Hare” in The Inner Touch, 127-130. Porphyry III: 6, 99-101.

[vi] See my short paper “The Wrongs of Animal Rights,” which can be accessed at: https://zoogenesis.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/the-wrongs-of-animal-rights/

[vii] On the concept of “dignity,” one should also see Giorgio Agamben Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999), especially 68-72 in which the intertwining of the economy of animalization and the logic of the slaughterhouse are rendered explicit in the camps.

[viii] See, for just one example among many, Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital, published as part of the same Posthumanities series.


Plasticity and the living dead: Malabou reading Freud

The following, incorporating extracts from a longer article to be published later in the year, offers an introduction to Catherine Malabou’s important notion of plasticité, which in many respects offers a welcome alternative to the more reactionary aspects of Bernard Stiegler’s work.

For nearly twenty years, French philosopher Catherine Malabou has been exploring the unpredictable terrain of metamorphosis, through which she has evolved the important concept of plasticity (plasticité) understood as the hermeneutic motor scheme of our “new age.” By this, she means that plasticity is a singular scheme or motive that opens the door to the current epoch by enabling the interpretation of phenomena and major events as they arise. In this way, argues Malabou, plasticity has displaced the previous motor scheme of writing (écriture).

In contrast to elasticity as the capacity to return to an original form, plasticity refers positively to both the donation and the reception of form and, negatively, to the formative destruction of form. It is this latter aspect, an aspect consistently shied away from by both scientific and philosophical discourse, which forms the subject of The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage.

Here, Malabou places the “profiles” of psychoanalysis and neuroscience side by side, a long-overdue articulation that reveals a surprising specularity between the two, seemingly incommensurable discourses. According to Malabou, moreover, if psychoanalysis is to move forward, it must be forced to come to terms with what she calls the new wounded (in contrast no doubt to its “old,” hysterically wounded). Exemplified by the victims of catastrophic brain lesions, the new wounded are those subjects who, transformed completely by trauma and oblivious to affect, find themselves utterly indifferent to everything around them. In short, contemporary psychoanalysis must risk a – potentially destructive – encounter with a new wound and thus a new form: that of the embodiment of the death drive itself.

What neuroscience shows psychoanalysis is that, while the cerebral subject always risks being utterly destroyed, psychic life can, even then, survive the damage inflicted upon the brain. By recognizing this, writes Malabou, contemporary psychopathology breaks absolutely with psychoanalytic practice, insofar as the personality changes that result from brain damage cannot be interpreted as a regression to an earlier stage of an organism’s being – an interpretation fundamental to psychoanalysis. Indeed, the very notion of regression depends upon the indestructibility of unconscious traces, that is to say, that earlier stages of development persist and are subject to return or revival at any time, a return which defines mental illness. Neurology, by contrast, recognizes that severe brain trauma has the potential to bring into being “a new, unrecognizable person,” that is, “a new identity with loss as its premise” (48). An identity, in short, without a past, without childhood. Given this, psychoanalytic forms of treatment are clearly without relevance.

The welcome that arrives as a farewell

In what is a provocative and highly original move, Malabou posits the existence of a neuronal death drive that both mirrors – and goes beyond – the Freudian death drive. She begins, however, with an important proviso: if we are to think the work of a destructive, “postlesional” plasticity, it is also necessary to postulate the existence of an internal process of destruction that “responds to the traumatic stimulus and welcomes it, in a sense, facilitating its work of annihilation” (New Wounded, 70). The possibility of an external accident that arrives to destroy the self, in other words, requires an internal process that prepares for – welcomes – its own farewell. As such, argues Malabou, there must be a link between cerebral auto-affection understood as constituting “a continuous annunciation of finitude,” and the traumatic, intrusive event that destroys this same continuity, thus killing psychic identity (71). This, she continues, is the neuronal drive toward death, albeit a death that precedes death.

To clarify the distinction between the neuronal and the Freudian death drives, Malabou turns to the question of reflexivity. According to Freud, the opening of the psyche “to the horizon of its own relation to itself” begins with the anticipation of death (130). Hence, writes Malabou, the anticipation of death necessarily “pertains to the structure of anticipation that every form of anxiety – internal or external – has in common. By the same token, it is the apparatus of psychic openness to all types of events and accidents” (130). As such, the event for Freud arrives to affect a structure of anticipation founded upon “the originary possibility of leaving oneself behind” (130). This structure, moreover, is the very form of the unconscious. With this, we reach a crucial point in Malabou’s reading of Freud, insofar as, for the latter, trauma is therefore caused by “remembered or future separation; it is the cause of separation that sees itself coming” (132). Ultimately, what this means is that the anticipation of separation, that is, the structure of the effacement of the subject – the unconscious, in other words – “is the indestructible substrate of destruction,” with the result that “[n]ever, for Freud, does separation separate from itself” (132). Put simply, the anticipatory structure of the psyche cannot be destroyed by the trauma it anticipates. Hence, for psychoanalysis the formation of a new identity can never be presented as a discontinuous process. For Freud, the cut is never absolute prior to death.

For contemporary neurology, however, the anticipation of death – which is the process of cerebral auto-affection itself – is not insulated from danger, but rather always risks being overwhelmed. As Malabou puts it, “the neurological horizon of the anticipation of destruction is destructible” (133). For neurology, there is always, and for every one of us, the possibility, the risk, of being deprived of the possibility of seeing or feeling ourselves die (133). The absolute cut, complete separation from itself, remains always a possibility.

Daphne fleeing Gregor

Given that the traumatic event cannot, according to neurology, be the cause of a separation that sees itself coming, the psychic past cannot therefore function as a resource for the present. Rather, in contrast to psychoanalysis, the pathological force and destructive plasticity of such an event necessarily “creates another history, a past that does not exist” (New Wounded, 151).

This distinction is hugely important, insofar as the “specificity of the traumatic event thus inheres in its metamorphic power. The traumatic event, in a certain sense, invents its subject. … a new subject enters the scene in order to assume this past that never took place” (152). With this, we reach the crux of Malabou’s entire argument: “Separation can no longer be anticipated but it does occur, precisely, in metamorphosis” (152, my emphasis). Indeed, it is the “radical rupture,” more even than disaffection, which defines the new wounded. However, while we indeed owe to neurology our understanding of this rupture that leaves in the place of identity only the form of its absence, Malabou argues that neurological discourse nonetheless joins with psychoanalysis in fleeing its – barely glimpsed – theoretical implications. Both neuroscience and psychoanalysis, in other words, and in different ways, recoil from the idea of destructive plasticity.

To think destructive plasticity, however, is to contend with a radical form of metamorphosis: that of a biological metamorphosis born of the wound. Indeed, it concerns the very transformation of metamorphosis itself. By far the clearest illustration of this can be found in Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident (2009) wherein she argues that, in the traditional conception of metamorphosis “transformation intervenes in place of flight” (Ontology, 10), as exemplified by the mythical tale of Daphne who, being chased by Phoebus and unable to outrun him, instead transforms herself into a tree. The impossibility of flight that lends itself to such a transformation, however, is by no means the same as a metamorphosis forged by destructive plasticity. However paradoxical it may seem, writes Malabou,

the being-tree nonetheless conserves, preserves, and saves the being-woman. Transformation is a form of redemption, a strange salvation, but salvation all the same. By contrast, the flight identity forged by destructive plasticity flees itself first and foremost; it knows no salvation or redemption and is there for no one, especially not for the self. It has no body of bark, no armor, no branches. In retaining the same skin, it is forever unrecognizable (12).

The metamorphosis born of the wound, in other words, is a transformation both without change and at once utterly unprecedented. Put simply, when no possibility of transcendence, flight or escape remains, destructive plasticity constitutes a form of alterity “where the other is absolutely lacking. … The only other that exists in this circumstance is being other to the self” (11).

How might we imagine such an impossible figure? Malabou’s answer is superb: recall the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself inexplicably transformed into a large and ungainly beetle. However, rather than accompanying Gregor into the nightmare of having his human essence captured within an alien form, let us imagine instead “a Gregor perfectly indifferent to his transformation, unconcerned by it. Now that’s an entirely different story!” (18). Such, then, would be a new figure of metamorphosis and an entirely new form of life: indifferent to anxiety and mourning neither loss nor lack.

A beyond of the pleasure principle

In the last instance, Malabou’s critique of psychoanalysis comes down to its inability to think this new form of life, an inability that is a direct result of its “failure to admit the existence of a beyond of the pleasure principle” (New Wounded, 189). Indeed, she argues, Freud’s selection of sadism and masochism as “representatives” of the death drive serves only to demonstrate this failure, it being a simple matter to show that neither escape the love-hate dyad, and thus the “intrigue of pleasure” (191). This failure, continues Malabou, is inevitable because inherent in the Freudian death drive is the incapacity to form forms. Freud, in short, lacks the necessary conception of destructive plasticity. With nowhere to go but to the safety of positive plasticity, Freud thus “softens” the problem of the death drive and, as a result, is unable to extricate it from the life drives.

The specific form of the psyche produced by the presence of death or pain becomes available to us, argues Malabou, only with the idea of destructive plasticity, as only the latter makes possible the embodying of the death drive. By this, Malabou means those “living figures of death” who “purely and simply inhabit a space beyond the pleasure principle” (198). Such, then, are psyches beyond love and hate, utterly deserted by pleasure: the new wounded.

All around us today, such forms or figures of trauma, argues Malabou, constitute a “worldwide psychopathology” that forces a rearticulation of psychoanalysis even as it consolidates its thinking of the death drive. In place of a sexual etiology, disclosed instead is a “traumatized subject who has gone beyond the pleasure principle” and in fact bears “sacrificial witness” to the deconstruction of subjectivity in the very form of her psyche (206). As such, Malabou asks, “Isn’t it time that philosophy discover the cerebral psyche as its subject?” (206).

In The New Wounded, psychoanalysis as a discipline is offered a stark ultimatum: metamorphosis, or death. This is, however, a work of critique in its most rigorous sense: Malabou is by no means championing the demise of psychoanalysis, but seeks instead to recall the reader to the introjective openness of its original incarnation. In so doing, she explores two, interrelated questions: First, what, exactly, would a new psychoanalysis look like? And second, upon what ground might one begin to elaborate an emancipatory politics capable of responding to our new era of violence?

Central here is the vulnerability to psychic rupture, understood as both an existential possibility and a condition of being-alive. More specifically, the two questions engage critically with the core Freudian concepts of regression and transference. First of all, if it is to even begin to account for contemporary psychic suffering, psychoanalysis must, despite the risks to itself, actively address the “new signification” of traumatic violence by recognizing its link to destructive plasticity. As we know, however, insofar as the new wounded live on in the form of absence, the notion of regression is no longer germane, and this in turn means both that “the force of trauma, whether political or lesional, never derives from lifting repression,” and that “illness does not in itself constitute a form of truth with respect to the ancient history of the subject” (New Wounded, 214). Psychoanalysis, as a result, finds itself tasked with its own transformation.

Similarly, the notion of transference too cannot survive the encounter with neurology: existing in a beyond of the pleasure principle, and thus beyond any feelings of love or hate, the affective indifference of the new wounded leaves them constitutionally incapable of transference. Hence, the role of the analyst too is correspondingly transformed, he or she now having to somehow “‘become the subject of the other’s suffering’ without thereby entering into transference” (215). Moreover, the stakes of such a “nontransferential” relation, one which demands the metamorphosis of both analysis and analyst, far exceed the disciplinary confines of psychoanalysis and neurology. Instead – and this is Malabou’s “wager” – such a relation would open the door to the possibility of a response, at once responsive and responsible, not only to the “worldwide psychopathology” that marks our contemporary era, but also to the senseless violence, be it “biological” or “social,” that manufactures it. This, argues Malabou, is both the future and the promise of neuropsychoanalysis.


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