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derrida and other animals

derrida and other animals

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Published by: Charlie Abdullah Haddad on Feb 01, 2013
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 Deida and Othe Animal
Matthew Congdon
Jacques Derrida,
The Animal That Theefoe I Am
. Trans. David Wills. Ed. Marie-LouiseMallet. Fordham, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii + 176.
The scene of philosophical interest in nonhuman animal life seems to have always been lacking in robust theoretical resources. The philosophical canon from ancientGreece onward contains only a few rare exceptions, and even in the past century,when research on nonhuman animals seems to have gained new momentum, this
interest has remained conned primarily to conversations having to do with the
moral status of animal life, with these discussions roughly divided into two major camps: animal rights discourse and a utilitarian critique (
à la
Peter Singer) of thatrights discourse. Against this historical backdrop, Jacques Derrida’s
The Animal That Theefoe I Am
attempts to interrogate, complicate, and think differentlythis picture of the philosophical problematic of nonhuman animal life, through arange of discussions of the status of “the animal” in philosophical discourse and
in ways that move beyond the moral-status question, using as its touchstone vemajor gures from the Western philosophical tradition: Descartes, Kant, Levinas,
Lacan, and Heidegger. By taking a characteristically deconstructive approach to
the question of the limit between what is properly human and what denes ani
-mality—multiplying, rather than ignoring, the differences that separate human
 beings from other animals—Derrida’s text belongs to the rst strokes of a new
wave of philosophical approaches to animal life.
 The material in this text, gathered and edited by Marie-Louise Mallet, rep-resents approximately ten hours of lectures (including three prepared papers andone informal, improvised discussion of Heidegger) delivered by Derrida at the1997 Cerisy conference on “The Autobiographical Animal,” which was dedicated
1. Along with Derrida, we might include the work of Donna Haraway and CoraDiamond as well as some recent texts that have attempted to build upon and respond to
The Animal That Theefoe I Am
, such as Leonard Lawlor’s
This Is Not Sufcient: An
 Eay on Animality and Human Natue in Deida
(New York: Columbia UP, 2007) andCary Wolfe’s introduction to Stanley Cavell et al.,
 Philoophy and Animal Life
(New York:
Columbia UP, 2008), which attempts to draw out the afnities and differences between
Derrida’s and Diamond’s lines of thinking.
148 (Fall 2009): 185–91.doi:10.3817/0909148185www.telospress.com
to his own work. While David Wills’s translations of chapters one and three— “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” and “And Say the AnimalResponded?”—have been available for several years,
having the entire seriesof lectures collected in one volume makes an immeasurable difference, as thetexts come together and constitute a sequence, building upon and referring to oneanother, gesturing toward remarks to come. Moreover, the previously unavailablematerial from chapters two and four—“But as for me, who am I (following)?” and“I don’t know why we are doing this”—contains the bulk of the close readings of  philosophical texts that provide the heart and hard work of the lectures as a whole,without which we would only be able to speak in generalities about Derrida’swork on the philosophical problematic of animal life.The text opens with Derrida’s already well-known (and already infamous)
reections on the experience of being seen naked in the eyes of his cat as it followshim to the bathroom each morning. Derrida chooses to reect upon the experi
-ence of this
cat, upon its “unsubstitutable singularity,” as opposed to
reections upon “the animal as such,” as it provides Derrida with the motif of an
irreducible aconceptuality of animal life
and serves as the deconstructive wedge
in his readings of Descartes, Kant, Levinas, Lacan, and Heidegger, all of whom
make “of the animal a
, something seen and not seeing” (14). Armed withthis notion of irreducible aconceptuality, Derrida sets out to demonstrate the wayin which thinkers throughout the history of philosophy have attempted and failedto account for animal life by means of varying conceptual schemata delineat-ing the capacities separating human subjectivity from nonhuman animality. Suchfailed accounts have involved various versions of a disavowal of what is “animal”in the human subject, thereby marking the fundamental and central disavowal thatconstitutes what is “proper to man.”Derrida’s text is motivated by a hypothesis that runs as follows: The past twohundred years have witnessed an unprecedented and accelerated transformationin the way human beings interact with and subjugate nonhuman animal life, insti-gated by new developments in zoological, ethnological, biological, and geneticforms of knowledge. This has been accompanied by a reciprocal disavowal anddissimulation of the transformation itself on the part of its human propagators;while contributing to this transformation, human beings have done everythingthey can to keep its grim consequences safely out of sight.The unequivocal way that Derrida asserts this hypothesis responds to afrequently repeated criticism of his writings, namely, that his idiosyncratic philo-
sophical style often makes it unnecessarily difcult to unearth and appreciate his
2. Chapter 1 had previously been made available in
Critical Inquiry
28 (2002):369–418, and chapter 3 was included in Cary Wolfe, ed.,
 Zoontologies: The Question of 
the Animal 
(Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 121–46.3. As Derrida writes, “Nothing can ever rob me of the certainty that what we havehere is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized [
rebelle à tout concept 
]” (9).
concrete argumentative assertions, given their embeddedness within pages of hesitations, esoteric textual allusions, and seemingly extraneous rhetorical ges-
tures. What we have here, however, is a case in which it is difcult to accuse
Derrida of mincing his words, as the primary components of this “unprecedentedtransformation” are stated without ambiguity. He cites animal experimentation,
industrialization of meat production, articial insemination and genetic manipula
-tion on a massive scale, the reduction of animal life to production and reproductionwithin a restricted economy of consumption, all of which takes place “in the ser-vice of . . . the putative human well-being of man” (25).Here, Derrida invokes the much-abused comparison between today’s treat-ment of animals and the Nazi Holocaust, a rhetorical maneuver that should makeus wary, perhaps uncomfortably so, considering the pitfalls risked by such an invo-cation: (1) the fact that this comparison, drawn too quickly, always risks a shallowinsensitivity to, and exploitation of, an event far too unique and incomprehensibleto be meaningfully compared to any other event; and (2) such a comparison addsvery little to our actual understanding of the problem of the treatment of animalsand the ethical implications surrounding it, amounting to a feeble
reductio ad 
. To be fair, Derrida is not unaware of these pitfalls, as he cautions, “One
should neither abuse the gure of genocide nor too quickly consider it explainedaway” (26). While it is not clear that his ensuing justication of his invocation
of the Holocaust gets him entirely off the hook, the picture remains provoca-tive. Alongside the extinction of species, which is accelerating at an alarmingrate, we also are witnessing a kind of negative genocide: farmed animals are notsimply exterminated but kept alive and made to reproduce at an exorbitant rate,so that, “being continually more numerous and better fed, they could be destinedin always increasing numbers for the same hell, that of the imposition of genetic
experimentation, or extermination by gas or re” (26).
Derrida sharpens the import of this hypothesis concerning the transformationthat has occurred over the past two hundred years by arguing that it is currently passing through a “critical phase” (29). It was about two hundred years ago, Der-rida points out, that Jeremy Bentham initiated a shift in the way that animal lifeis philosophically discussed. Contrary to the questions traditionally asked aboutanimals and used to demarcate the status of the human animal—such as “Can theythink?” “Can they reason?” or “Can they speak?”—Bentham’s line of inquiryaddresses animals’ capacity
to uffe 
, a kind of capacity for 
capacity. Bentham’squestion “Can they suffer?” leaves Derrida with no room for doubt and involvesan implicit invocation of pity and compassion toward the suffering of animals. Assuch, the past two centuries have been characterized by a struggle between, “onthe one hand, those who violate not only animal life but even and also this senti-ment of compassion, and, on the other hand, those who appeal for an irrefutabletestimony to this pity” (28–29). The critical phase we are passing through acts asa kind of injunction, a call to think through a war waged over pity that is “not only

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