Human/Animal : Stathis Gourgouris

This singular name, which simultaneously abolishes any bona fide singularity as it renders generality vacuous, is a cipher for how the autobiographical animal (the human) registers its authorial presence. The unexamined false singularity of the animal—which is another way of saying that animals are deprived of an “I”—dovetails with the conviction that whoever says “I” is not an animal. In so many words: the professed (false) singularity of the animal is possible only because of the authorial singularity of the human. Most important, however, from my standpoint: this is the very same equation that suppresses the animal-in-the-human, paradoxically by externalizing the singular essence of the human to what is conjured, in singular grammar but nonetheless generically, as other-than-human.

Derrida engages the calamity of unresponsiveness before the animal by conjuring a “chimerical word” to counter the animal’s false generic singularity: l’animot echoes the repressed plurality (animaux), while registering at the same time the power of the singular-generic animal as the animating word—the “living word” which is the literal rendering—of humanity’s authorial differentiation. The autobiographical gesture, being at some level a gesture of immunity against nature’s obliterating inevitability (death), is always threatened, Derrida correctly argues, by an autoimmunity condition, by producing an idiomatic death process, what I have called, on multiple occasions, identicide—for me an essential characteristic of the human, which outmaneuvers the basic (and rather banal) rubric of mortality as generically intrinsic to all animal life.

In this respect, I would propose here a divergence from Derrida’s thinking, though very much in the sense that I am within and I follow from (je suis) Derrida’s thinking. The consequence of this sort of meditation, as far as I’m concerned, is the reverse: in effect, only humanity may be said to have a generic-singular, a sui generis, animality (Gattungswesen—generic essence, species-being).

Only the animal that, despite its own sense of itself, is as such an animal, yet is also as such like no other animal, can be animal in a singular sense. This is all the more considering that the plurality of living creatures to which human-being belongs, but from which it is extracted in order to constitute its singularity, nullifies animality as such—i.e., the condition of being content to exist in the self-generating singularity of one’s species environment, one’s absolute uninterrogated specificity. The only way we can perhaps speak of a common physis between the one animal that generalizes all singularity and the multiplicity of animals that, in their unresponsiveness to logos, fall prey to generalized singularity is the category of the living being as a mortal being, what Derrida suggestively calls vivants à mort, mortal living beings, living-in-order-to-die beings.

In the end, the important step to take—which Derrida does not—is from l’animot to l’animort: to the animated death substance that human-being, as living being constituted by its knowledge of death, enacts at its most radical core of self-constitutive imagination. Dying is in this sense inextricable from living, and it has nothing to do with discourses of expiration or obsolescence. The existential necessity of obsolescence in robots, whether actually produced or fictionally created in various literary forms, cannot be equated with the finitude of living being. The liquid carbon materiality of living being truly decays and is recirculated, while the obsolete machine’s materiality is preserved, even in landfills.

There is yet another word to be said. Despite marking philosophy’s inadequacy before the animal—or perhaps, because this inadequacy makes philosophy unresponsive to the living being’s death-animating substance—Derrida cannot move onward to an affirmative assessment of human/animal, whereby mortality as mere fact of living would not serve as decisive archē but as just one instance in the amorphous pool of all those elements of physis that make one a living being, an animal—human or otherwise. This lapse is perhaps Derrida’s own moment of auto-immunity in his discourse, the guardian angel’s identical shadow. The animal, for Derrida, remains singular despite his animot because it seems to settle on the most unsettling position possible (because undeconstructible): the absolute Other.

Derrida’s consistent reluctance to deconstruct absolute alterity renders an otherwise sumptuous meditation on the animal impertinent to the exigency of characterizing the human/animal in affirmative terms, a risk I consider essential to rethinking humanism or, which is the same project, to reanimating the mutable condition of human-being.31

31. In reading Crary’s account of how Derrida’s notion of “iterability”—as early a Derridean concern as any—haunts his argument about the animal, I could not help thinking that the two are irreparably entwined as spectral obstacles: after all, absolute alterity is what iterability entails and without the rubric of absolute alterity iterability is nonsensical.

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