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February 26th, 2010 / 12:18 pm
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Notes on Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am

Published in French in 2006, two years after his death, this book is a long lecture (which actually turned into a ten-hour seminar) that he wrote for the 1997 Cerisy conference on his work titled “The Autobiographical Animal.”

Here Derrida sets his sights on the philosophical problematic of the animal. Specifically, he is interested in exploring the limits of that interstitial space between that which we call animal and that which we call human. He coins the neologism “Limitrophy” to describe this exploration, “Not just because it will concern what sprouts or grows at the limit, around the limit, by maintaining the limit, but also what feeds the limit, generates it, raises, and complicates it. Everything I’ll say will consist, certainly not in effacing the limit, but in multiplying its figures, in complicating, thickening, delinearizing, folding, and dividing the line precisely by making it increase and multiple.” (29) He predicates this line of inquiry on his assertion that the entire history of philosophic discourse from Aristotle to Heidegger is guilty of misrepresenting or misinterpreting the basic ontological difference between that which we call animal and that which we call human.

He opens with a discussion of the Genesis myth, focusing on the way in which Adam is naked in the garden until he eats the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Instead of the typical reading of this action as a fall from grace, Derrida sees this as the inciting incident for the creation of humanity. Recognition of nudity, and the shame associated with it, is particularly interesting to Derrida because, as he puts it, “In principle, with the exception of man, no animal has ever thought to dress itself. [Thus] clothing would be proper to man, one of the ‘properties’ of man. ‘Dressing oneself’ would be inseparable from all the other figures of what is ‘proper to man,’ even if one talks about it less than speech or reason, the logos, history, laughing, mourning, burial, the gift, etc.” (5) These “properties of man” are the sites he wants to push against in this lecture.

In his trademark elliptical, recursive, persistently deferring style, he raises this issue of being naked in front of that which we call animal, what it means to be naked, how that which we call animal cannot be naked, what it means to be seen by that which we call animal, and what it means for a human to see themselves in the eyes of that which we call animal.

N.B. this phraseology “that which we call animal” instead of the simpler term “animal.” This is purposeful. For Derrida, the fact that we refer to all living creatures that are not human as “animals” is absurdly reductive. He makes a good point. Lumping together the cricket and the whale, the mountain lion and the parakeet, the giraffe and the marmot, seems lazy and dismissive, yet, as Derrida points out, this is exactly what philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger are guilty of doing. And part of his project is to shine a light on this unexamined assumption.

Take Heidegger, for example. As Derrida shows, Heidegger delineates three ontological positions: the living being (which is separated into the animality of the animal and the humanity of the human) and the nonliving being. So, for Heidegger, you are either a nonliving being (the example he uses is a stone) or a living being, of which there are only two kinds: animal and human. According to Heidegger, the determining distinction between the animal and the human is the ability to die. Animals, Heidegger argues, come to an end but do not die. By the same token, “A dog does not exist but merely lives.” Humans, on the other hand, have “the living character of the living being,” by which he seems to mean logos and/or the awareness of mortality and/or the ability to manipulate existence and/or the ability to choose death. Heidegger’s specific wording for these distinctions are, “the stone is wordless, the animal is poor in the world, man is world-forming.” Of the various objections Derrida raises to Heidegger’s argument, the one that resonates most powerfully with his project of limitrophy is his assertion that the binary division between human and animal falls vastly short of representing the multiplicity of difference between various species. (On a personal note: I read Derrida’s argument regarding the need to move beyond the univocal signifier “animal” as akin to the annoying error so often made when someone generalizes about “Africa”: not taking into account the immense geographic, historic, political, social, and cultural diversity of the continent.)

Another site for Derrida’s limitrophy is Lacan’s position vis-à-vis the difference between that which we call human and that which we call animal. For Lacan, it should be no surprise, what separates the two is language. It is a difference between response and reaction. Animals, Lacan argues, do not respond to questions; they react to stimuli. They do not have a language, rather, they use a coded system of signaling, which is a fixed program, as opposed to the dynamic, symbolic interaction of the human. He uses bees as an example: the dance of the bee who returns to the hive to direct others to where they might find nectar. Lacan claims that this dance is not an exchange in need of interpretation, as would be the case with humans, but is instead a kind of exchange of data from one (as Derrida puts it) Cartesian machine-animal to another Cartesian machine-animal. For the most part, Derrida is not as interested in refuting Lacan’s claim as much as he is interested in making porous the distinctions, again, exploring the limits, the threshold between response and reaction.

In terms of application, Derrida’s idea of limitrophy is of particular interest to me as a potential guiding methodology for exploring the posthuman (one of my current fields of inquiry) – and more specifically, for my major ongoing research interests, as a way to think and talk about experimental literature. If posthuman discourse can, in some ways, be considered an exploration of the categorical boundary separating the human from the non-human, I don’t see why that discourse can’t be grafted onto a discussion of the categorical boundary separating conventional realism and non-conventional realism.  Aren’t both programs reliant on the power engendered by the exclusivity of their (perceived) unique characteristics in order to demarcate them as foundational, separate, autonomous, sovereign?  In other words, that which we call human seems analogous to that which we call conventional realism.  Perhaps, as posthuman discourse shows us the inherent flaw in such molar classification of the human, so too can this discourse show us the inherent flaw in conceiving of conventional realism as a molar classification.  Both that which we call human and that which we call conventional realism are porous, malleable, molecular — while at the same time they seem to present legible boundaries. Limitrophy offers a strategy for questioning the validity of those perceived boundaries by identifying gaps, spaces, discontinuities, through surveying the interstitial space between that which constitutes and that which deviates.

Jacques Derrida. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Fordham University Press, 2008)

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