Human/Animal : Stathis Gourgouris

Although her critique of Derrida is warranted, Haraway’s long term anti-humanism carries with it a whole set of limitations. It’s interesting that Haraway disavows being a post-humanist because this too is another identitary categorization, and speaks instead of belonging to a post-humanities, which she explicitly cites as “another word for ‘after monotheism’.”35 Here, there is indeed something revealing about the explicit distinction between post-humanism and post-humanities, on the one hand, and the association of post-humanities with post-monotheism, on the other.36

The work of post-humanities, in these terms, would consist of breaking down both singularity and alterity as determinant conditions. Certainly, alterity as physis is very much implicated in a monotheistic logic. It is indeed a singular notion; it belongs to the logic of the One, as do all absolute notions. Even, let us say, in the ancient imaginary of Hesiod or Anaximander, where chaos might be translated as abyssal alterity, it is nonetheless inconceivable for chaos not to be implicated with the kosmos that emerges from it, albeit discontinuously and groundlessly.

In the world of human institution, or even living being more generally, the absoluteness of alterity is a perverse equation whose solution is absolved of any reality. We are not speaking of brutal natural externality, of the effect of gravity or the annihilating power of fire; we are speaking of absolute alterity residing in living substance, in the realm of animal. There is nothing absolutely other in the realm of living being. Even death cannot be deemed to be absolutely other, unless we were to divorce it from the realm of living, which, on the one hand, Derrida articulates perfectly (vivants à mort) and, on the other hand, rescinds in his quest for absolute alterity in animality.

In the end, alterity within living being is only conjured phenomenologically to be absolute; it only appears to be absolute. It is imagined as absolute because alterity’s all too familiar reality, its worldly proximity, is intolerable. One might go so far as to say that precisely because alterity is not absolute as pure human physis, precisely because it is not conveniently determined by its own rules, and thereby does not escape the kosmos but is rather internal, partial—partial to us, part of us, and therefore very much our own—that it must be made absolute, so that we can be rid of our responsibility for it, so that we can then submit to its regal externality, its determining force.

So, despite the philosophical merits of contemplating the significance of the animal per se and whatever the inventiveness of the techniques of such contemplations, the process can never be anything other than the contemplation of the question I posed at the outset, the definitive question, whose affirmative content can never overcome its essence as a question and whose multivariant answers cannot but rebound to the interrogative domain: the question “what is human?” This interrogative domain, I repeat, is the framework of zōon politikon, the entwinement/intersection of physis/nomos that enables us to consider how human animality opens the way to the political.

How animals have been raised, captured, bought and sold, employed, exhibited, domesticated, trained, sacrificed, slaughtered, and consumed is—and will always be—a matter of human history and the politics it entails, the only history there is because it entails a politics.37 I consider history here neither mere representation of living and dying in the world, which would be apt to every living being, every living-in-order-to-die being, nor the representation of creating and destroying the world, which is the exclusive property of the human being.

History has meaning precisely in that the representation of living and dying, creating and destroying, is open to question, rendered political. This entails, at the very least, that besides being a domain of action, of creation/destruction, history is always and at the same time an object of reflection—both action and reflection taking place in a sphere of contention. History’s meaning then is subject to judgment, and in this specific sense—even when there is no judgment, even when there is ignorance or deliberate denial of its significance—history is the determining force of how we signify living and dying in the world, creating and destroying the world.

I say this because the discussion of the animal as it pertains to the human cannot be conducted with the naïve expectation that it will reach some sort of transcendental knowledge of what an animal actually is—other than the simple, but oh so complex, matter of a living being, a living-in-order-to-die being—nor with the spurious intention, philosophically speaking, that, by contradistinction, the discussion of the animal elucidates the truth of what the human animal actually is. The first will lead us to accounts of animality inevitably drawn from the position animals have had in history (once again, unavoidably, accounts of their encounters with humans, within the world of the humans). The second will be implicated in the classificatory paradox of the name “human animal,” which cannot obtain an unequivocal truth by definition: because the human animal is indeed an animal like any animal (within, of course, the specific zoological classification that pertains to it), yet, insofar as it is the human animal, it is like no other animal on the planet. It is in this respect, as mark of this constitutive disjunction (which after all makes an animal political), that I write it as human/animal.


Stathis Gourgouris is Professor of Classics, English, and Comparative Literature and Society, and Director of the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.


Published on May 15, 2013

35. For Haraway’s disavowal of post-humanism see When Species Meet, 19; 245.

36. Derrida too seems to go into this direction even if in passing, when he attributes the Cartesian privilege of the human to “the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic tradition of war against the animal” (101), in order to go on to delimit the purview of Kantian transcendentalism as “the general trait” of a zoophobia or even overt hatred of, not merely the animal, but “the animality of the human”: “Authentic idealism consists in insulting the animal in the human or in treating the human as animal” (103). Rather unusually in Derrida’s work monotheism and rationalist idealism are hereby conjoined in sharing a like trajectory: a constitutive transcendental command to annihilate the sensuous animality of the human.

37. It’s almost banal (but how horrifying!) to say that this same list of verbs has been applicable to the treatment of humans throughout this said history and continues to be. Singularly indicative, but not often invoked, is that the very institution of the zoo was derived from the construction of exhibition parks in the mid-1870s, themselves direct products of European colonialism, that presented peoples from various parts of the world (Laplanders, Sudanese, Inuit, or Sri Lankans) in controlled existence environments that presumably reproduced their ‘natural’ conditions. See Nigel Rothfels, Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

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