Tag Archives: Quentin Meillassoux

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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