The Inhumanities

The Passion of the Animal: Derrida

with 16 comments

In reading the comments of the previous installments of this series, it seems like those participating are able to  digest the arguments of the philosophers under consideration and the critiques Matt makes of them (is it ok if I refer to you as “Matt” instead of “Calarco”? The surname address sounds stilted at this point). For that reason, and because life is busy, I am going to eschew a full summary of the Derrida chapter.

Derrida is an excellent capstone to the previous readings. Derrida breaks with Heidegger’s metaphysics and Dasein as the sole possessor of language; he radicalizes Levinas’s ethics in nearly exactly the way I would wish. Matt is kind to footnote Derrida’s many engagements with philosophers on the issue of animals for those wishing to pursue this thread, and in each of those cases Derrida takes the opportunity to unseat a clean split between “human” and “animal.” By juxtaposing Derrida and Agamben one can see the cloaked gravitational center pulling Agamben off course. Matt speaks of a “performative anthropocentrism” in the Derrida that aptly describes the constraints on both. In Derrida’s case, there is a will to respect the animal that is hindered by the philosophical inheritance. In Agamben’s, solidarity with other animals seems like the only logical outcome—what else would move biopolitics out of the realm of idealism?—and yet is avoided, symptomatically, to preserve the whir of the anti-anthropological machine.

There are a few points in Matt’s critique of Derrida that I find myself returning to in my head, and it is on these that I want to focus. First, he calls Derrida out on saying that there are divisions between humans and animals: “not…that there is no limit between ‘animals’ and ‘man’: it is because I maintain that there is more than one limit, that there are many limits” (146). This statement seems, to me, in keeping with a conservative streak underlying much of Derrida’s self-positioning in relation to matters of law. Derrida is no revolutionary: when he revolutionizes philosophy by deconstruction, it is out of an apprehension of the unrecognized excesses of a belief in self-presence (Heidegger being the greatest example, but also the tremendous cruelties carried out in the name of Cartesianism or positivism and kinds of Marxism). So it does not surprise me that Derrida is willing to say “many limits” rather than “no limits.” The question would be whether these Derridean limits would function as gates for oppression, as past generic limits have. The argument I imagine coming from Derrida is that these are transient limits and that they are necessarily instantiated within the ethical moment. Matt’s point is well taken: if Derrida wants a new taxonomic hierarchy, give him the boot. But if he is parasitizing the language of taxonomy to describe singularity, there is no conflict with his typical position (in his written texts rather than interviews) on animals and ethics.

The second major point of discussion is the relation between vegetarianism and deconstruction, specifically in Derrida’s writings. As we know, Derrida gives full ethical otherhood to nonhuman animals. There is a great section of his interview with Roudinesco where he goes on the offensive (as much as Derrida “the power of powerlessness” ever does) in confronting her with the realities underlying her desire to eat meat. It seems intuitive that not eating animals would be a fundamental consequence of this respect for animals. However, Derrida remains agnostic about vegetarianism because it can be deconstructed. This is especially true today, when animal (by)products have been spectralized into seemingly unrelated goods. Are we going to consume nothing? How do we draw a line in the sand without committing the cardinal sin of deconstruction?

Matt concurs with Derrida that deconstruction and a deconstructive respect for animals does not entail vegetarianism (Scu linked to Matt’s article on the subject a couple posts ago; I haven’t gotten a chance to read it, so forgive me if you answer my questions there). For my part I endorse their line of argument. However, this does not mean vegetarianism is incompatible with deconstruction. It means that the pledge of respectful consumption must be renewed continually, as any ethical relation must be continually open to the future and constituted in its arriving. It is somewhat baffling to me that Derrida would not himself sign on to vegetarianism, given the great and senseless suffering inflicted by the meat industry, with the minor human caveat that his vegetarianism remains impure.

Here is where I think vegetarianism can make a strong claim to the practice of deconstruction. Let us imagine Derrida as a young man. He realizes one day that philosophy, the whole thing, is founded on a couple great untruths or self-deceptions. Rather than saying, “philosophy is a load of bull,” he devotes his life to working from within that tradition to mar it indelibly. He was able to deconstruct philosophy by virtue of, and only because of, a position within philosophy. Today, we find ourselves realizing that the cultural infrastructure of the meat industry called Western Civilization (“carnophallogocentrism”) is a set of self-deceptions. From where do we dismantle it? Vegetarianism is not a position outside of the world, but it is a position within it that allows for different horizons to appear. The work of deconstructing vegetarianism would multiply those horizons, disbanding some and enriching others—but it is only from within such a vegetarianism (becoming-veg!n as Scu calls it) that such futures can arrive. I’m not sure there is much more of interest to be spun out from the culture of meat sacrifice after deconstruction. Veg!sm, on the other hand, puts humans at stake in the ever more fine-grained construction/discovery of living beings.


Written by Greg Pollock

October 3, 2009 at 8:02 pm

16 Responses

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  1. This last chapter is certainly one of the best of the book. There are all sorts of things I want to talk about, but I will try to contain myself to three big topics: Derrida’s continued use of a human-animal distinction, the question of deconstructing vegetarianism, and the question of rights.

    (1) I could be wrong, but I think it is unfair to say that Derrida doesn’t get rid of the human-animal distinction. I think that distinction would be absurd for him, for all the reasons we all know. However, I think the human-cat distinction is still real for him. I think the human-cow distinction is still real for him. I think the cat-cow distinction is still real for him. I think the question isn’t that there remains a human-animal distinction, but rather a refusal to problematize species. I assume this refusal would be an issue for Matt, and I certainly would also advance the reality of a species trouble, but I don’t think that we can say of Derrida that he continues to cling to a human-animal distinction.

    I think a further point is what do we do with Derrida’s claim that there isn’t a single divisible line between myself and my cat, but several differences. It seems to me that there is a certain truth to that claim. My cat and I are different, and different in a ways that are different than the way my girlfriend and I are different. While at the same time I believe a strong species boundary is completely impossible, I also am not terribly worried about saying that my cat and I are different species. I don’t know what to do with Derrida’s language that we need to see an abyssal difference between, say, the human and the cat. If I was in a generous mood (which, maybe we shouldn’t be) I would say that such a language might be necessary to reject continuums. Not only for the biologistic reasons that Matt understands as Derrida’s critique of Heidegger in Of Spirit, but also because ultimately any type of continuum never really breaks free of a binary logic. If we take for example those people who posit a continuum of gender or sex, there is something perhaps more libratory in the continuum, but there is also something still really violent and normalizing in such statements. Even a cursory look at the medical discourse on intersexed people will reveal this violence and normalizing impulse. You have all these discussions about pseudo-hermaphrodite versus real hermaphrodites, etc. I think it is important not to see the ape as on a continuum that makes the ape closer to the human than the cat is. All of that introduces so many problems, that it seems if you are going to continue some sort of species distinction, you might need to say that those differences are abyssal.

    (2) The question of turning vegetarianism/veganism into an object of study in its own right is, I think, absolutely necessary for the future of critical animal studies, well, at least for those who believe critical animal studies needs to be dedicated to a reduction of violence and oppression. I don’t entirely know when I decided this was true, but I do know the discussion in “Eating Well”, combined with both David Wood’s response and Matt’s response to both pieces. I felt then when I read them that there is a way in which both Wood and Matt are absolutely correct. Vegetarianism (if it is possible) is a deconstruction, and at the same time that vegetarianism needs to be deconstructed. I think if we replaced the word vegetarian with the word justice in the previous sentence, most people would not find anything particularly odd by that claim. Anyway, this is something I am currently trying to work out, mostly through Derrida’s insight that even vegetarianism has so far refused to sacrifice sacrifice. That is to say, that vegetarianism (and I certainly include veganism as a type of vegetarianism, the one I certainly endorse, as well) remains bound up with an economy of the profane and the sacred (and I’ve got to thank Craig for his insistence that I read through more carefully the work of sacred sociology). I don’t really want to get too deep into my own project (mostly for the sake of proper manners), but I would like to thank Greg for his kind shout-out.

    I do wonder, how, if Derrida’s opinions on vegetarianism changed from the time of “Eating Well.” If we look at a 2003 (I believe) interview with Derrida in Derrida: screenplay and essays on the film the question of vegetarianism is raised again. He is asked if he is a vegetarian, and he responds: “I am not a strict vegetarian, but I am more and more inclined not to eat meat.” (p. 119). And while such a response is obviously insufficient, it is has stood out to me as remarkably different than his comments in “Eating Well.”

    (3) Lastly the question of rights is one that I continue to find of interest. On the one hand, there is an obvious philosophical and even legal genealogy of rights that I can certainly understand why many people would want to distance themselves from. But there is also a history of rights at the level of rhetoric and political struggle. It is this level of rights that we seem to be supported when we read Foucault or Ranciere supporting the notion of human rights. Or also the rather strange support that Derrida gives human rights in Philosophy in a Time of Terror. Where he argues, correctly, “To take this historicity and perfectibility into account in an affirmative way we must never prohibit the most radical questioning possible of all the concepts at work here: the humanity of man (the ‘proper of man’ or of the human, which raises the whole question of nonhuman living beings, as well as the question of the history of recent juridical concepts or performatives such as a ‘crime against humanity’), and then the very concept of rights or of law (droit), and even the concept of history.” (pp. 132-133). If we take the view of a history of rights that comes from the concrete rhetorical and political struggles we find not only a history that many of us might not want to distance ourselves from so quickly, but also something that implies and inevitable connection between human rights and animal rights. Hannah Arendt pointed out her The Origins of Totalitarianism that, “: “Even worse was that all societies formed for the protection of the Rights of Man, all attempts to arrive at a new bill of human rights were sponsored by marginal figures– by a few international jurists without political experience or professional philanthropists supported by uncertain sentiments of professional idealists. The groups they formed, the declarations they issued, showed an uncanny similarity in language and composition to that of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. No statesman, no political figure of any importance could possibly take them seriously[.]” (p. 292, emphasis added). And the history, that I am sure many of us are familiar with, of fights over children’s and women’s rights are often taken up by and frequently supported by those who fought for animal rights as well.

    So, I can certainly understand the need to distance oneself from a certain political and legal history of the term rights, and I can further understand that the future probably does not reside in legislative actions or any particular enumeration of animal rights, but it might reside in Arendt’s poetic formulation of “a right to have rights.”

    Sorry this was rather long.


    October 7, 2009 at 3:22 pm

  2. Thanks for the synposis and discussion! I’ll post a response on Friday.

    Matthew Calarco

    October 7, 2009 at 6:42 pm

  3. Another quotation from Derrida, just to make everything a bit more confusing.

    “Although I cannot demonstrate this here, I believe– and the stakes are becoming more and more urgent– that none of the conventionally accepted limits between the so-called human living being and the so-called animal one, none of the oppositions, none of the supposedly linear and indivisible boundaries, resist a rational deconstruction– whether we are talking about language, culture, social symbolic networks, technicity or work, even the relationship to death and to mourning, and even the prohibition against or avoidance of incest– so many ‘capacities’ of which the ‘animal’ (a general singular noun!) is said so dogmatically to be bereft, impoverished.” Rogues, p. 151.

    He even calls that thought dogmatic at the end!

    I am not sure if this quotation symbolizes a change of heart in Derrida from The Animal that therefore I Am and this later, 2003 (I believe), piece. I certainly do believe that even though the question of the animal runs throughout Derrida’s career, it has always seemed to me that he has only become more radical on this question the later in his career we look.

    Or, maybe my earlier, generous reading was slightly more on point than I even believed. Or … something else entirely, I don’t know.

    Matt, I look forward to your response. Tomorrow will be great, but if you get too busy, later is always fine as well.


    October 9, 2009 at 12:20 am

  4. I think one of the seminars coming out in translation soon is on wolves. I heard from Michael Naas that all his later seminars were going to focus on animals.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    October 9, 2009 at 1:46 pm

  5. Well, The Sovereign and the Beast deal with wolves, including the issue of the rogue or bandit as a wolfman. I am not sure if this first volume of those lecture will or will not include those parts. I get that book either this afternoon or Monday. Very excited, really. I personally cannot wait.


    October 9, 2009 at 1:58 pm

  6. Oh, yep, that’s the one. Didn’t realize it was out! I think he had planned other animal seminars but they were not made before his death.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    October 10, 2009 at 10:36 am

  7. Well, the fact that it is out is going to be on tomorrow’s weekly round-up. It has come out almost a month early, so I am sure plenty of other people haven’t realized, either.

    The annoying thing is that the seminar deal is the French get to publish first, and the English translations have to wait (I think a year) for the translation to come out. Which would be fine, really, but right now the French plan to release a volume a year, even though more than a few of the volumes are already prepared (this is my, perhaps very incorrect, understanding of the situation. Treat this as gossip, rather than fact). There exist at least a few seminars on the question of digestion, of the rhetoric of cannibalism and eating the other. I kinda want those, you know? They just might be useful for someone wanting to write about becoming-vegan, becoming-vegetarian.


    October 10, 2009 at 11:03 am

  8. I hear you, can I suggest you contact the people in charge and see if they might know of a place where one could find a copy lying about a hard drive?

    Anthony Paul Smith

    October 10, 2009 at 12:29 pm

  9. Scu:

    1. I won’t be able to get to all of the points you raised today, but let me start with the first one about Derrida and the human/animal distinction. Here, you and I might be reading Derrida somewhat differently. I agree that he *should not* seek to maintain this distinction, and that the general thrust of his work points in the direction of abolition of the distinction (for phenomenological, ethical, and ontological reasons, among others). So, I try to stress this in the chapter and be as fair as possible to him along these lines. But the fact that he is unwilling to draw this conclusion when pushed on the issue, and the fact the he explicitly insists in multiple places on *keeping* the human/animal distinction—-these things, to my mind, constitute his single biggest mistake, his chief dogma. I have other minor beefs with Derrida, but here I think he is making a *serious* mistake. It marks the key limit of his thought, to my mind.

    2. And if the move he makes here of holding onto the human/animal distinction is taken up as a kind of grounding gesture for (a) people who work in philosophy and animal studies and (b) activists inspired by his work, I think it would be a truly bad move with all kinds of problematic implications. What I am trying to do in this chapter is show the failure of deconstruction so that people inspired by his work don’t get trapped in it. Derrida has, to my mind, walked philosophy and animal studies into a dead end. And given the way his work on animals is being appropriated by animal studies people and by philosophers who follow him almost entirely uncritically (I’m thinking of Leonard Lawlor and others), it seems to me that this point about his maintenance of the h/a distinction really has to be insisted upon and driven home.

    3. So, in defense of the reading I am offering, here is just a sampling of the passages I cite in the book where Derrida backs away from abolishing the human/animal distinction:

    4. Derrida quotation: I won’t take it upon myself for a single moment to contest that thesis [i.e., the thesis of “philosophical or common sense” that there is a limit between human beings and animals], nor the rupture or abyss between those who say “we men,” I, a man,” and what this man among men who say “we,” what he calls the animal or animals. I won’t take it upon myself for a single moment to contest that thesis, nor the rupture or abyss between this “I-we” and what we call animals. To suppose that I, or anyone else for that matter, could ignore that rupture, indeed that abyss, would mean first of all blinding oneself to so much contrary evidence; and, as far as my own modest case is concerned, it would mean forgetting all the signs that I have sought to give, tirelessly, of my attention to difference, to differences, to heterogeneities and abyssal ruptures as against the homogeneous and the continuous. I have thus never believed in some homogeneous continuity between what calls itself man and what he calls the animal. (AIA, 398)

    5. The second passage is drawn from Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco. With regard to the division or distinction drawn between human and animal (a division to which Roudinesco says she is “attached,” in the sense of believing that it exists and defending the right to insist on this division against animal rights thinkers who destabilize or efface it), Derrida notes that he speaks

    “not only of one division [between human and animal], but of several divisions in the major modes defining animal cultures. Far from erasing limits, I recalled them and insisted on differences and heterogeneities. . . . Like you [i.e., Elisabeth Roudinesco], I believe that there is a radical discontinuity between what one calls animals . . . and man.” (VA, 72-3)

    6. Elsewhere in the same interview, Derrida adds the following remarks that further develop these points:

    “If I am unsatisfied with the notion of a border between two homogeneous species, man on one side and the animal on the other, it is not in order to claim, stupidly, that there is no limit between “animals” and “man”; it is because I maintain that there is more than one limit, that there are many limits. . . . The gap between the “higher primates” and man is in any case abyssal, but this is also true for the gap between the “higher primates” and other animals.” (VA, 66)

    7. There are others, but these will suffice to make the point. In the name of avoiding reductionism, continuism, and homogeneity, Derrida insists upon maintaining and complicating the human/animal distinction. I’m all for multiplication and complication of binary distinctions, but *only for those binary distinctions that are worth holding on to*. The human/animal distinction is not worth holding on to (at least in the context of philosophy, animal studies, and critical thought—maybe in veterinary medicine it’s different!). And my argument is that this point needs to be hammered home, again and again, because it is only by thinking and living beyond that distinction that something like a radical transformation in thought and life can take place.

    8. In terms of a change of heart in Derrida with regard to this distinction, note that two of these passages are from the interview with Roudinesco, which is a very late piece. I don’t see a change of heart in Derrida toward a more radical position on any of these issues. To be frank, I see him getting more conservative over time. To be sure, he pays more attention to animal issues as time goes on, but the radicality of his position actually lessens over time.

    9. If I had to defend that claim, the first place I’d go to would be the early Geschlecht essays. Look at how hard he is on Heidegger, how impatient he is with Heidegger’s dogmas. He goes so far as to say that Heidegger’s talk of “abysses” and “ruptures” between human and animal constitutes the most serious dogma in his thought. Fast forward a decade and you find . . . Derrida using the exact same rhetoric he takes Heidegger to task for using! (And, yes, by turning the same claim of serious dogmatism around on Derrida in the book, I am parodying him, making fun of his most recent position, showing how ridiculous his position is in view of what he had earlier argued against Heidegger). Now, it’s possible that in his unpublished material he changes his mind and does something more interesting than what we currently have available. We’ll see!

    10. So, it is clear that Derrida has set up a false dilemma between reductionism, continuism, and homogeneity on the one hand (wherein all differences are reduced down and flattened out), and “complicating” the binary (where human and animal remain different and where that difference gets complicated and where both sides of the binary are complicated).

    11. There is of course, a third option. Recognize that the distinction is not only ridiculous, but also ontologically superficial, ethically and politically pernicious, overdetermined, metaphysically loaded, and so on . . . and just let it go. Sure, it won’t go away any time soon. And sure, the wishes of philosophers and activists don’t fully determine the language of culture. But that doesn’t mean we have to allow the language of culture to stand as is and merely “complicate” it. We could, perhaps, laugh at it. We could, perhaps, try to render it senseless. We could even invent new concepts, and hence new ways of resisting the status quo.

    To my mind, complicating the status quo is often overrated. I’d much rather do everything possible to annihilate it.

    Matthew Calarco

    October 10, 2009 at 4:38 pm

  10. Dear Matthew,

    I have to disagree with your reading of Derrida. Not in a literal sense but in the implication that you draw from it. It is true that he argues for a distinction between the animal and the human. But no more than the distinction that he argues between different animals. Between an ape and a worm say. It is not, at least in theory, a privileged position for the human.

    Vasile Stanescu

    October 12, 2009 at 2:41 am

  11. Hi Vasile–I wanted to thank you for your comments and ideas in the other posts as well as this one. I haven’t had the time to respond to them yet but I hope to soon. By the way, I’d be very interested to hear your take on zoe/bios in Agamben and how you’d make use of those concepts on these kinds of issues.

    As for the Derrida issue, I hope I didn’t imply that the human/animal distinction gives rise to a privileged position for the human in Derrida’s work. It most assuredly doesn’t, at least not in ethical terms (in terms of the performative dimension of his texts, he actually does privilege the human, but there are lots of reasons for that, and I wouldn’t necessarily fault his approach on that point).

    So, it is true that the human/animal distinction is but one distinction among many for Derrida worth holding onto. But the question I am asking is whether he has evaluated the matter correctly here. Is it really worth holding onto? I think he has simply accepted the metaphysical tradition’s notion that this distinction is worthy of thought and worthy of keeping (even if he complicates and refines it). And that acceptance is a mistake. He nowhere argues for maintaining the distinction, nor does he demonstrates the value of keeping the distinction.

    Let me say a bit more about this, as I might not have explained myself well in the book or in the previous post to Scu.

    If we take the example you provide, the distinction between ape and worm, I can imagine that such a distinction *might* be of use for thought and life, depending on how it is deployed and what meanings are attached to it, etc. For me, it would be a question of what kind of work it does at an ontological, ethical, political, aesthetic, etc., level. I’d simply have to see . . .

    As for the human/animal distinction (even a refined and complicated one), I can’t see–at this historical-political juncture–what work it can do for thought and life.

    The other question is: Why *insist* on maintaining the distinction? Is it not manifestly a reductive, clunky, silly distinction? We have no idea what a human being/the human is anymore (as if we ever did), and the idea that “animal” is useful for referring: (a) to the several million “species” of beings we have identified (and many others yet to be identified) as animal, (b) the countless numbers of “individuals” that belongs to these species, and (c) the countless numbers of assemblages, networks, and relational structures these species and individuals comprise . . . with all of that in mind, the term “animal” just doesn’t seem to do much work. It’s absurd on its face. And that’s why people who have spent their lives studying “animals” in scientific settings don’t have much use for the term—it doesn’t do any work for them; and those of us who have spent our lives trying to live otherwise with “animals” don’t seem to have much use for the term either. I personally haven’t bumped into an “animal” in years. Plenty of singular assemblages, to be sure—but I haven’t seen an “animal” for at least two decades.

    Derrida’s attitude on this entire issue strikes me as being seriously naïve and dogmatic. What evidence does he have for maintaining the distinction (remember how he chides Heidegger for not making use of refined zoological knowledges–is he not repeating the same dogmatism with this claim)? Does he want to hold onto it for ontological reasons? Ethical? Political? Aesthetic? What’s the point? He claims (like Roudinesco, of all people!) to “believe” in a radical discontinuity between what are called human beings and what are called animals . . . but has nothing to offer in defense of that claim. Except of course for “so much contrary evidence,” of which he offers none—as well as his rather not-very-cute attempt to suggest that anyone who radically contests the human/animal distinction is “plus bete que les betes.”

    Derrida thinks the discussion gets “interesting” when the human/animal distinction gets complicated. I think the discussion gets interesting when thought and life proceed from out of the space of the distinction’s annihilation.

    So put me on the side of the “betes,” the asinine ones, on this point.

    Matthew Calarco

    October 12, 2009 at 4:48 pm

  12. As a meta-comment on this discussion, I think it is heartening that there is a need to read Derrida in terms of where he stands with animals. Especially as his last lectures are released, his legacy seems to be more and more entwined with the question of the animal. In the way that scholars of Jefferson have to deal with his relation to slavery, and Heideggerians have to deal with his Party involvement, I think future generations (including our own) will have to confront and decide where they stand on Derrida’s relation to animals. That puts a lot of weight on how readers think of animals. If there is a performative anthropocentrism in Derrida (as Matt argues, and I find persuasive) there might also be a performative animal-centrism in his legacy, a “gift of death” in the sense of something death gifts to us.


    October 12, 2009 at 8:38 pm

  13. If you will indulge a somewhat longer post in reply. I am struck by the degree to which your critique of Derrida so precisely matches my own reading of precisely what I believe Derrida himself is arguing. This odd twist is most clearly show in the following claim: “the term “animal” just doesn’t seem to do much work. It’s absurd on its face. And that’s why people who have spent their lives studying “animals” in scientific settings don’t have much use for the term—it doesn’t do any work for them; and those of us who have spent our lives trying to live otherwise with “animals” don’t seem to have much use for the term either. I personally haven’t bumped into an “animal” in years. Plenty of singular assemblages, to be sure—but I haven’t seen an “animal” for at least two decades. Now to be clear, I completely and uninterestingly agree with you. However, I also believe this critique of both the word and the notion of “the animal” is actual at the heart of Derrida critique of “animal” rights and comments on not wanting to conflate various species of animals rather this conflation is between worm and apes, or humans and apes. In other words, to articulate a view of animal rights is based on a false grouping that combining all animals together which, in reality, the notion of “the animals” is itself simply a humanist construct. As Derrida himself explain his paradoxical critical endorsement of animal rights is premised upon this very tension. On the one hand he articulates the suffering in some of the most powerful and moving terms in philosophy thus far (I mean he compares factory farming to the holocaust and genocide) at the very same time he is extremely concern by the move to eliminate all difference and re-create a new homogeneous category of “the animal” that is performatively false, anthropomorphically specicist, and philosophical unsound. I would make (as I think Derrida himself does) a comparison between the “sameness” and “difference” standard for any other issue of oppression, say for example gender. Certain versions of feminism have based their arguments on a sameness doctrine, let’s collapse all forms of gender because men and women are really the “same.” In a certain sense I completely agree with this argument. In another sense though we now have a situation where pregnancy is, literally, treated as a disability, covered by sick leave, since this sameness excluded the differing manner in which some of men and women experience reproduction. So too, I believe, Derrida is arguing against Singer/Bentham sameness of standard for moral care. I mean when you re-read Peter Singer what is so striking is how radically anthropocentric the text is. Animals only count because of the manner that they are like humans, a sameness standard. For example he argues that a full grown horse is more intelligent than a new born baby, but this very move to mental abilities a standard for moral worth is itself wholly anthropocentric and wholly humanistic. As Nietzsche argues in Truth and Lying in a non-moral sense there is nothing sacrosanct about rationality and only human consider it to be of such important worth. This is also the same critique that Coetzee levels when is argues that we should be able to do more to account for “animals” than as mentally inferior humans. So too this also Derrida central critique. His argument is that Bentham original rhetorical question (contained in single footnote) was “not can they think but can they suffer” However Singer along with much of the larger animal rights movement, while claiming to uphold this original challenge (Singer begins Animal Liberation with it) actually always make it again about–can they think? Instead I believe Derrida is asking, let us being again our ethical care of others so named as “the animal” but not a position of sameness but instead always open to the possibility of radical alterity. Let us imagine that those called animal are wholly radically and fundamentally different than those called humans, as the are from each other, as perhaps the “human” herself is from each other. Let us abandon any version of the sameness standard for moral worth and instead provide ethical care even from a space of complete and fundamental difference.

    p.s. this is the part of the fundamental philosophical argument for my current book project

    Vasile Stanescu

    October 13, 2009 at 2:03 am

  14. Hi Vasile and Scu–I have a bunch of tests to grade this week and some other obligations that are burying me at the moment, but Friday I’ll write a reply on scu’s remarks on rights and vegetarianism and Vasile’s recent post. You both raise some really interesting questions. My apologies for the delay!


    Matthew Calarco

    October 13, 2009 at 3:54 pm

  15. Hello, Matt. Like Vasile, I also think that Derrida is perhaps trying to make the same point as you, but clearly resorting to different arguments.

    I was thinking exactly along the lines of Vasile’s analogy with gender, where a politics of continuity just wouldn’t be strategic. Perhaps he was trying to avoid the pitfalls of some kind of apolitical post-structuralism, in which most people would be voicing their beliefs that there are no “humans” and “animals”, just living beings, while there is a very specific machine of abuse at work which clearly sees such distinction, and which must be dealt with. Not to mention the idiots who would use arguments like: “If there is no difference between humans and animals, I owe no respect to animals and to the natural world, let’s kill them just like animals kill each other.”

    I don’t mean to come up with excuses for Derrida, so I’ll focus on another point instead. I remember that, when I read The Animal that Therefore I Am, what struck me about the paragraph you quoted was that he didn’t say “the distinction between humans and animals,” but “between those who say ‘we men,’ ‘I, a man,’ and what this man among men who say ‘we,’ what he calls the animal or animals.” And again “between what calls *itself* man and what *he* calls the animal.” I don’t mean to split hairs just to clear Derrida, but I think this distinction is very different. We’re forgetting the huge role Derrida assigns to animals in the formation of human identity, as in “the human cannot abandon the subjugation of animals without abandoning itself.”

    To me, it sounds like he’s saying that between those-which-have-embodied-humanity (and humanity here would be the construct which Derrida outlines as being defined by its sacrificial relation to animals) and those-who-they-have-called-animals there is a huge abyss, and in this case indeed there is. For those “humans” abandoning the human/animal divide would be impractical, it would mean being devoid of identity.

    I’m almost ranting, but my point is (and which I think is also Derrida’s) is that erasing this distinction now would be either impossible or inconsequential, given the huge portion of meanings which are balanced upon it. I think for him, the end of this distinction would only be possible after we have “sacrificed sacrifice” and understood the human in different terms.

    Of course, you may argue that abolishing the distinction would be exactly such a way of establishing the human in different terms. It may be true, and I don’t mean to excuse Derrida for everything, but I clearly see a strategic move of his here.

    J Rodolfo

    October 18, 2009 at 9:33 am

  16. Hi Vasile, I Rodolo et al.,

    I’m staying with family and have lousy internet access, so I just wanted to drop a quick note to say thanks again for the posts.

    In terms of the different readings of Derrida, I’ll let my point go. To my mind, what matters more than what Derrida argues is that so many people seem to think that a radical rethinking of the human/animal distinction is required–that’s good news to my ears! That is perhaps the most important issue here, and whether Derrida is read as being on board (or not) on the issue can be hashed out in a different venue.

    You’ve all brought up some great points, and I found them extremely useful.

    I’m looking forward to the next event. I won’t be able to submit something but I will certainly be interested to read what others have to say.

    Matthew Calarco

    October 19, 2009 at 11:56 pm

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