The Passion of the Animal: Derrida
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.