Human/Animal : Stathis Gourgouris

Part III.

I understand the importance of recent philosophical inquiries into the notion of the animal. There is an explosion of writing on this issue, but at the risk of a certain simplification in order to move further, this writing rarely avoids, in the last instance, the determinant encounter with the long line of thought in the ‘Western’ tradition, from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Descartes to Kant and Wittgenstein.25 And while it is inarguable that traditional philosophy contemplates the animal within the framework of an avowed anthropocentrism, the tenet of much of this recent work is no less anthropocentric, whatever might be its pretensions, its claims, or indeed its bona fide philosophical differences and insightful contributions.

Anthropocentrism does not need to be necessarily reduced to humanity’s epistemological tyranny over all other natural being or living being. But even if it did, the self-ascribed post-humanist deconstructions of the deadly privileging of anthropic being over all other living being—which, of course, I applaud—is performed by and in the name (not to mention, benefit) of what sort of being? What is the being that does the thinking about the vicissitudes of being (and beings)? We are talking about radical interrogative thinking here—poiētic thinking, that is to say, not just thinking in/through concepts but thinking in/through phantasms. This difficulty in outmaneuvering the anthropocentrism thereby denied is very much the point of my inquiry here.

To his credit, Derrida acknowledges that thinking about the animal is constitutively impossible for philosophy and belongs instead to poetic thinking.26 This is not because poetic thinking is any less anthropocentric than philosophy, but because, compared to philosophical thinking, poetic thinking is less repressed about expressing its animality. Burdened, alas, by Platonism’s hatred of the sensuous (aesthetikon) and in the backdrop of a basic Aristotelian naturalism, modern Western philosophy might be said to have obliterated, in the uninterrogated adoption of the Aristotle’s phrase zōon logon ekhon, the determinant force of zōon. As a result, the trajectory of Western philosophy since Plato would come to attribute all sense of the living substance (zōon) to the possession of logos—a word which, incidentally, cannot be reduced to Reason or language as indication of rational thought, as classic humanism has always had it, but, if we care at all about the social imaginary that invented it, it must be reconfigured to retain its signification of language per se: i.e., language as a specific animal virtue.27

It is the deconstruction of this precedent anthropocentric trajectory that Derrida signifies in his ingenious de-Cartesian title L’animal que donc je suis: the animal that therefore I am [is] the animal that therefore I follow. In this double gesture of suis the Cartesian authority of the “I” is irreparably disjointed. It is only by virtue of this disjoining that a discourse about the animal can even become possible: “the most chimerical discourse I have ever attempted.”28 This is because a discourse about the animal is paradoxically both an autobiographical discourse (a discourse about the human) and yet a hetero-graphical discourse (a discourse about the other—indeed the otherness of authorial life, animality as such—as limit of the human.)

There is merit to Derrida’s naming of the human as “the autobiographical animal” in opposition to the usual naming: the animal in possession of logos. Following this trajectory, Derrida entertains the possibility of contemplating the animal, not as the being who cannot speak because it has no logos, but as the being who does not respond to logos. To say “respond” is certainly not to say “react.” It pertains to the game of interpellation that induces in one a sense of political being—in other words, not mere reaction to being called by name, as one could whistle one’s dog into obedience. Evading this specific game of interpellation is not only indicated in the incapacity to respond to logos but in the incapacity to position oneself as an “I.” Interpellation is prerogative to autobiography, for if you do not respond to being politically called upon, you have no calling to narrate yourself, to write yourself in your name. It is in this sense that “power over the animal is the essence of the ‘I’ or the ‘person’, the essence of the human.”29

Insofar as traditional philosophy since Plato is engaged, in some form or another, in the contemplation/expression of an “I” under the authority of zōon logon ekhon, it has failed its task in relation to the animal. Derrida equates, in this respect, the philosophical aspirations of Cartesian rationalism with Kantian transcendentalism, Heideggerian ontology, Levinasian ethics, or Lacanian theories of the unconscious.30 He is correct to claim that no philosopher who takes up the question of animality as an actual philosophical problem has ever engaged with the peculiar designation of the general-singular—the animal.

25. Pioneering philosophical work on this issue is Elizabeth de Fontenay’s Le Silence des bêtes: La philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité (Paris: Fayard, 1998), which is the pinnacle of a series of such ruminations throughout her life, including her more recent Sans offenser le genre humain (Paris: Albin Michel, 2008), and Cora Diamond’s articles collected in The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) and more recently “Injustice and Animals” (2001) and “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” in Philosophy and Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 43-90. For an eloquent defense of Cora Diamond’s arguments and a thorough exposition of the philosophical literature on this matter, see Alice Crary’s entry “Animals” in the second issue of Political Concepts. Although I am deliberately not addressing matters of ethics, much of what I attempt here, I hope, can be taken as part of a conversation with Crary’s argument, including the way we both encounter Derrida’s position.

26. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 7. Derrida’s en passant distinction, however, does not extend itself to poiēsis as a mode of inquiry into this matter.

27. Some of the best work in the literary part of the terrain that has been named “animal studies” takes place in Medieval Studies and increasingly in Classical Studies, and this makes sense because pre-Enlightenment categorizations of language and reason are more fluid in this respect. For recent work see (indicatively) Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) and Mark Payne, The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

28. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 23.

29. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 93.

30. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 89-90.

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