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Without Offending HumansA Critique of Animal Rights$

Élisabeth de Fontenay

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780816676040

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816676040.001.0001

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Their Secret Elect

Their Secret Elect

(p.1) 1 Their Secret Elect
Without Offending Humans

Élisabeth de Fontenay

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 1 (Their Secret Elect) is an investigation of the moments when animals appear as a group or in more singular instances in the work of Jacques Derrida. Fontenay carefully suggests that in some of these instances, Derrida may over-generalize and thus elide certain anthropological specificities but praises his continued engagement with the animal question.

Keywords:   Jacques Derrida, Animal Rights, Peter Singer, BioArt, Mad Cow Disease, Media, Frankfurt School, Animal, Steven Jay Gould

I am saying “they,” “what they call an animal,” in order to mark clearly the fact that I have always secretly exempted myself from that world, and to indicate that my whole history, the whole genealogy of my questions, in truth everything that I am, follow, think, write, trace, erase even, seems to me to be born from that exceptionalism and incited by that sentiment of election. As if I were the secret elect of what they call animals.

—JACQUES DERRIDA, The Animal That Therefore I Am

“The philosopher, the one the animal does not look at” … When, for the first time, I heard Jacques Derrida speak at the Collège de philosophie, directed at the time by Jean Wahl, I reacted, all things being relative, as Malebranche did upon reading Descartes’s Treatise on Man: “His beating heart sometimes forced him to stop his reading,” writes Fontenelle. From that moment on, I did not take leave of this work nor of this man, even if it would often cause me distress to place myself in certain of his footsteps.

But in a way, I missed out on the first traces of Derridean thinking about animals, for it is only after hearing and then reading On Spirit in 1987 that I was able to measure the force and permanence of this insistence, and then, yet again, in 2001, in the dialogue with Elisabeth Roudinesco.1

As for me, I had spent twenty years thinking about beasts, stirred by a desire to confront certain familiar experiences with what, throughout the ages, philosophers had written about animals. “La raison du plus fort,” a long preface to a French edition of Plutarch’s Three Treatises for Animals, had appeared in 1992, then The Silence of the Beasts in 1999.

(p.2) I didn’t participate in the Cerisy conference devoted to Derrida, whose acts were published under the title L’animal autobiographique at the end of 1999. It was only with their publication that I discovered the introduction he had delivered before his paper. After his death and under the title L’animal que donc je suis (The Animal That Therefore I Am), the totality of his intervention was published.

All of this is to say, in the most modest way possible, that on this question, my thinking was both parallel and asymptotic to his, and that I would not be able to publish the texts I wrote and pronounced in the wake of The Silence of the Beasts without first meditating on what, from him, appeared subsequent to the publication of my own book. For these are words I did not know how to hear, and then a text that I was unable to read in time. It’s a matter of debt and of dates.

“Of the animal who comes to Derrida”: this would be one blasphemous yet friendly way of parodying the title of a major text by Levinas: Of God Who Comes to Mind. The animal, from the moment it infiltrated Derrida to accomplish its work, functioned not as a topos or a philosopheme, but as a major trope, a resource for arguments in the service of the deconstruction of what is proper to man: humanist metaphysics and its authoritarian rhetoric, the rhetoric that persists for example, and par excellence, in Heidegger, when he establishes a variously described abyss between the “merely living” and the Dasein. Trace, writing, grapheme: these are the operators of what, from the very beginning of the grammatological enterprise, allowed for the opposition human/nonhuman to be exceeded/preceded. The new concept of the trace was destined to spread to the entire field of the living, beyond the anthropological limits of language, the limits of phonologocentrism. This is why, in his later texts, Derrida constantly recalls, in a kind of auto-bio-bibliography, just how and how much the animal and animals had always already slipped into his work. Without in any way suggesting a periodization of the work—something that would come off as a serious misinterpretation—I will be distinguishing among three levels of deconstruction that are, even as they interpenetrate one another, (p.3) testimony to the radicalization and shift of argument: a strategy through the animal, exposition to an animal or to this animal, and compassion toward animals.

Strategy, to start with. The animal first of all insinuates itself like a Trojan horse into the metaphysics that runs from Descartes to Levinas. It allows for an operation of rupture aiming at erasing or, even better, at overturning the so-called anthropological boundary. Of all the oppositions placed back to back that Derrida sets into place, the one between man and animal is the most decisive: one could say that it is the opposition that commands the others. For Derrida, it is a question of showing how an invariant repeatedly occurs as a way of folding the Heideggerian conception of Dasein into the Cartesian and Hegelian metaphysical humanisms: language, hands, spirit, and death, but also becoming-subject, historicity, leaving the state of nature, sociality, and access to knowledge and to technique. These are the ways the metaphysical tradition has indefinitely re-marked a subjugating superiority of man over animal that can take the form both of a “projection that appropriates” and an “interruption that excludes.”2

In the most recent version of this deconstruction of the man/animal division, one notes the determinate manner with which a generality, the animal, or, what comes down to more or less the same thing, of a tropological bestiary—animal figures—transforms into a multiplicity, animals, an immensely effective and effectuated multiplicity of other living beings that does not allow itself to be homogenized into the category of animal without violence or motivated ignorance. Derrida in no way denies that there is something like an abyss between men and animals—he even uses the Heideggerian word. But against doxic and metaphysical evidence concerning the clarity and linearity of this separation, he proposes what he calls a limitrophy (from trephein, “to feed” in Greek). Thanks to a subversive topic, this concept allows him to think about what lies near limits, what limitations nourish and allow to grow at their edges, and what complicates them indefinitely. Limits are layered, plural, folded over one another, and heterogeneous, and they do not allow for a determination of anything as completely objectifiable. (p.4) Hence, it is with the same gesture that he dismisses continuism and discontinuism; continuism—associated with a certain analytical, naturalistic, objectivist philosophy—is dismissed with particular disdain when it is treated as sleepwalking and asinine.3

What I have just described is the deconstruction of a certain epochal configuration: that of phallagocentrism, in other words the deconstruction of an unvarying schema of anthropocentric teleology that functions from Descartes to Levinas by way of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Lacan. Yet there is a second level of deconstruction, unrelated to the history of metaphysics: the quasi timeless configuration of carnophallogocentrism, of a matrix of the symbolic, since before time, “since time, since so long ago, hence since all of time and for what remains of it to come.”4 Over the course of an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy titled “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject,”5 an interview that bears on carnivorousness, Derrida underlines the fact that the Decalogue mentions only the prohibition of homicide. And, in this denial of the murder of the animal, he sees the necessary and violent condition for the institution both of the subject and of the other. There would thus be a Judaic as well as a Greek sacrificial structure, a quasi-transcendental of the advent of the self-designated human. Derrida here maximizes the use of the animal trope; he hyperbolizes it, in ways comparable to the use Descartes made of the “evil genius.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that there is between this first layer and the second—the one I am calling exposition to an animal, to that animal—the mark of a qualitative leap, or even of a turn. One can only ask if the animal remains merely a tool of deconstruction. For as this work is written and spoken, it is going to be more and more often a question of this or that animal on the one hand and, on the other, animals in general. What happens then is that the singular—this animal here—or the plural—animals—breaks into the discourse, something that is not foreign to the proliferation of borders that escapes ontology’s control. This branch can be seen at work in two texts in which Derrida has recourse to the animal as if the animal were coming to him.

(p.5) A first occurrence is found in the interview called “What Is Poetry?”: “Not the phoenix, not the eagle,”6 he answers, but the hedgehog. This humble mammal is appealed to as a catachresis of the poem, as if there were no word other than this metaphor to designate this thing, the poem, the proper of which would be the way the poem is “not reappropriable into the family of the subject.”7 The hedgehog, “a suckling hedgehog, perhaps,”8 is here, therefore, to represent the grounding humility of the poem and to be on the lookout for an answer, careful to escape ontological Heideggerian recuperations of the poetic. Then off it goes, this hedgehog, as if it had escaped its rhetorical enclosure. Something like a real animal seizes the figurative one when it so happens that this little mammal gets run over in the middle of the highway, “rolled up in a ball, turned toward the other and toward itself … its arrows held at the ready, when this ageless blind thing hears but does not see death coming…. Humble and close to the ground, it can only expose itself … It has no relation to itself—that is no totalizing individuality—that does not expose it even more to death and to being-torn-apart.”9

Derrida relates a reference Heidegger made to a Grimm brothers’ fairytale, “The Hedgehog and the Hare.” In order to be sure of winning his race against the hare, the hedgehog sends its female to the finish line so that she can cry out “I am here!” Heidegger staged this “I am here” in Identity and difference as a way of illustrating the “always already there” of the Dasein.10 Derrida writes that, to the contrary, his hedgehog “can barely say ‘Ich’ and certainly not ‘bünn,’ still less ‘hier’ and ‘da.’”11 This does not mean, he adds, that it is deprived of speech, but that “there is, in the end, no cogito or work for this hedgehog who cannot gather itself together enough to say ‘Ich bin hier’ or ‘ergo sum.’”12 What then begins to insist, in an irrepressible way, is the proposition according to which “being-for-death,” like “being-thrown,” is the fate not just of men but of all living things: this proposition is a significant rupture, for it inaugurates a community of mortal living beings. And it does so against Heidegger, for whom “being-for-death” is in no way the being of something simply living, which can only end: only Dasein, along (p.6) with speech, detains the monopoly on relating to death as such—and therefore of dying.

It is as if this text throws the metaphorical hedgehog into the precipice of proper meaning, onto the highway, under the cars that run over it. It is in effect as if the catachrestic representation of the poem had, according to Derrida, turned tautegorical. The revelation of an Ereignis also henceforth bears on that animal and no longer concerns only the poem.13 Heidegger would say that the hedgehog does not see death coming, that death does not happen to it. Derrida says this, too, but in an entirely different way. The hedgehog “‘hears but does not see death coming,’ it is as blind as Homer.”14 Where, he wonders, is the limit drawn? “Is it certain that the human Dasein sees death coming as such? What is the ‘as such’ in the case of death? And how can one maintain that the hedgehog has no apprehension of death when it rolls itself up in a ball?”15 This is the first time, or at least I think it is, that a singular animal, in the body and in the flesh, is presented this way in his writing, and it’s moving.

A second time, an animal just as singular, a unique one even, barges in, and the operation of deconstruction, turning autobiographical, changes style and tone. For it is no longer merely the representation of an anonymous individual belonging to a singular species that comes to Derrida—in other words, a hedgehog destined to die run over—but “the gaze of a seer, a visionary or extralucid blind,”16 the gaze of a truly real cat, his cat, an irreplaceable living being, an existence resistant to any concept. He sees himself suddenly being looked at naked by this animal in the bathroom. At this point a brief drama of immense dispossession is played out, a drama of depropriation, over the course of which Heidegger and Levinas find themselves dismissed back to back, for this scene overturns both the Heideggerian non-gaze of the animal and the Levinasian prescription-event of the other’s face. The fact of seeing oneself seen naked by the depthless gaze of this absolute alterity is an experience that, as Derrida repeatedly declares, is before time, before any questioning about the other as a neighbor, equal, or enemy. Such a poetic and prophetic situation ends up provoking a vertiginous series of questions.

(p.7) This little story, this entirely novel experience of modesty and nudity when confronted with an animal gaze,17 will give rise in the Derridean text to an incredible reading of the major story of the appellation scene that is played out in Genesis, when, as if for the first time, one finds the exposition of the triangularity God—man—beasts. Derrida places the two creation stories in Genesis in opposition to one another. In the first, man is created as both man and woman, and his mission is to subjugate animals. In the second, man is Isch, without Ischa, and God orders him only to name the animals. It is through a meditation in turn on what serves as a foundation, by attaching himself to the letter of this second story—and I cite once more his words, “since time, since so long ago, hence since all of time and for what remains of it to come”18—that he is going to suggest how seeing, naming, calling, and responding to the call are articulated in relation to one another.

This is a text that must be read, as Derrida invites us to do, alongside Walter Benjamin’s “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”19 For, he writes, “the public crying of names remains at one and the same time free and overseen,” and God “lets Adam … freely call out the names…. But he is waiting around the corner, watching over this man alone with a mixture of curiosity and authority.”20 In the version of Genesis that says that God had the animals come to see how man will call them, it is as if, Derrida comments, he wanted both to “oversee, keep vigil, maintain his right of inspection over the names that would shortly begin to resound … but also to abandon himself to his curiosity, even allow himself to be surprised and outflanked by the radical novelty of what was going to occur, by this irreversible … event of naming”21—by the birth of a poet, in sum. And, just as God wonders, “What is Adam going to name them?” the gaze of the cat in the bathroom asks, “Is he going to call me?”

The third layer of Derridean thinking about the animal, the accepted pathos of compassion, can be heard in the first part of The Animal That Therefore I Am. It is taken up again and discussed in a chapter of the dialogue with Elisabeth Roudinesco. Derrida means (p.8) to substitute the indubitable aspect of the cogito with the undeniable aspect of pity. Bentham’s question, Can they suffer?, subversively replaces the question that they pretty much all ask, Descartes, Heidegger, Levinas as well as Lacan: Can they speak?: “Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion, … the anguish of this vulnerability.”22 And he adds that as humans, we can testify to this for all living things.

Today, at a moment when, he says, we have reached a critical phase in our relation to animals, pressing questions must be posed in the name of a historial compassion. Questions of law, ethics, politics, responsibilities, obligations—these categories need to be entirely rethought on the basis of violence toward animals. Derrida did not in fact hesitate to venture into apparently naïve practical commitments (he was, for example, the honorary president of a group working against bullfighting) that put a smirk on the faces of those who had not understood that in these marginal and trivial gestures of rupture, it was a question of a coming republic, just as it was in the past for Hugo and Michelet. I believe that for him, in the final analysis, the issue was related to the “Come!” of a democracy tied to the messianic experience of the here-and-now without which the undeconstructable idea of justice would remain meaningless.

Through my presentation of what Derrida sometimes names a “career in impatience,” I have tried to show the continuity and discontinuity of this trajectory. It is now necessary to provide due attention to the insistence of two motifs: the motif of time and that of sacrifice. When Derrida writes, “Since time,” one must commonly understand, it’s been a long time, it’s been such a long time that something of this order—carnophallogocentrism—has lasted, so long that animals have been forced to endure their fate. But one must also understand that the human foundation of time has depended upon this hierarchizing separation. I will nonetheless limit myself to the first and most common meaning, as it allows us to meditate on a since forever, on the quasi-timeless if not immemorial nature of the human relation to animals.

(p.9) Men, then, would first of all be “those living creatures who have given themselves the word that enables them to speak of the animal with a single voice and to designate it as the single being that remains without a response, without a word with which to respond.”23 But where? When? And how? What is immediately striking in Derrida’s work is that the radicality of his approach only ever concerns the West and its triple Judaic, Greek, Christian, and perhaps Muslim filiation: no East, no Brahmans, no Buddhism, no Schopenhauer. The deconstructive mole only digs indefinitely in the ground under Rome and Jerusalem, in the basement that ties Ionia to Iena and Freiberg to Paris. One could object to this approach that it should have gone back to the Neolithic revolution to assign an origin to this process of “an interruption that excludes” and the subjection of animals.24 But the question of the origin seems naïve to Derrida, who, in the darkest of the supposed beginnings, only sees architraces: always already traces, perhaps even writing, less foundational than fundamental. This is therefore the case in the “scene of name calling,”25 of that “public crying out of names” in the second story of the Genesis, a text on the basis of which he goes on, as if in a dream, occupying both places, that of the creator, as a new Jehovah, and that of the last created, another new Adam, thus bringing to an end the vulgate that imputes all the cruelty to come to the power to name.

This is a vulgate that Adorno in fact also indulged in: the dialectics of Enlightenment, he wrote to Leo Löwenthal, started with Genesis, when the power given to man to name creatures marked the beginning of a corruption of language through domination.26 For Adorno, this was an inheritance, however impoverished, of Benjamin’s meditation from the 1920s on the origin of language, a meditation that, as you will remember, Derrida evokes in The Animal That Therefore I Am with a great deal of precision. According to Benjamin, mourning and the sadness of nature are related to this passivity, to this stupefying wound: to have received its name and thus to find itself deprived of the power to name, to name itself, and therefore to respond.27 Yet the Derridean Jehovah, both a severe overseer and a dreamer of chance who, just to see, gives his golem the (p.10) power to name, breaking entirely with the romantic tradition of nature’s melancholy that is still expressed, paradoxically, when Heidegger evokes the sadness of the animal due to its lack of world.

“Since time, since so long ago, hence since all of time and for what remains of it to come”—to the extent that this ahistoricity, the uchrony of the architrace, did not stop a first text from being cited, it also will not keep an epochal meditation from being heard. “I try to show what is specifically modern in this violence,” he says, apparently going against what he designates elsewhere as a “sacrificial structure,” one to which he attributes a certain metahistoricity. Derrida in effect shows how our contemporaries have, all while denying their denial, continually minimized the unprecedented proportions of the subjection of animals to which we have come. According to another scale of time, all while maintaining the exorbitance of his reference to the beginning of time, he estimates signs emerged “about two centuries ago” indicating, according to Derrida, something very different from a historical turning point.

This goes “well beyond the animal sacrifices of the Bible or of ancient Greece, well beyond the hecatombs (sacrifices of one hundred cattle, with all the metaphors that the expression has since been charged with), beyond the hunting, fishing, domestication, training, or traditional exploitation of animal energy (transport, plowing, draught animals, the horse, ox, reindeer, etc., and then the guard dog, small-scale butchering, and then experiments on animals, etc.). It is all too evident that in the course of the last two centuries, these traditional forms of treatment of the animal have been turned upside down by the joint developments of zoological, ethological, biological, and genetic forms of knowledge, which remain inseparable from techniques of intervention into their object, from the transformation of the actual object, and from the milieu and world of their object, namely, the living animal. This has occurred by means of farming and regimentalization at a demographic level unknown in the past, by means of genetic experimentation, the industrialization of what can be called the production for consumption of animal meat, artificial insemination on a massive scale, more and more audacious manipulations of the genome, the reduction of the animal not only (p.11) to production and overactive reproduction (hormones, genetic cross-breeding, cloning, etc.) of meat for consumption, but also of all sorts of other end products, and all of that in the service of a certain being and the putative human well-being of man.”28

Historians of zootechnology will of course protest against a misinterpretation of permanent continuities and ruptures, but their protests attest only to the fact that they more than anyone remain trapped in a form of denial that the philosopher refuses to be denied. One might read these pages as being close to the considerations about techno-science in Heidegger’s second phase. And yet, I said to myself while reading them, here is a case where a certain pessimism is useful not only for refusing dams on the Rhine, mechanized agriculture, and the H-bomb, but for once a philosopher, with Heidegger but against him as well, represents the “hell” to which modernity has condemned animals. And if one were to suggest that Derrida is not averse to having recourse to an apocalyptic tone,29 one would of course also have to add that the deconstruction of this “industrial, mechanical, chemical, hormonal, and genetic violence” has considerable legal and political repercussions.30 But this would still be insu cient. For the one who notices and announces the catastrophe is the same one who, seeing himself seen naked by the little cat, mysteriously said, “I am (following) the apocalypse itself, that is to say, the ultimate and first event of the end, the unveiling and the verdict.”31

On a worldwide scale, men therefore do everything possible to organize the dissimulation of this violence. And Derrida, with a curious mixture of prudence and intrepidity, evoking the “breathtaking” number of species endangered because of man, does not dismiss the qualification of “genocide.” But, he adds, “One should neither abuse the figure of genocide nor too quickly consider it explained away.”32 In order for the concept to be able to seize the factual state of breeding for death, one should imagine that this annihilation of nonhuman living beings happens “through the organization and exploitation of an artificial, infernal, virtually interminable survival, in conditions that previous generations would have judged monstrous, outside of every presumed norm of a life proper (p.12) to animals that are thus exterminated by means of their continued existence or even their overpopulation.”33 Tracing out an extremely transgressive parallel between tortured and slaughtered animals and the human victims of the Nazi camps, he imagines that, “in the same abattoirs,” the overproduction and overgeneration of certain men would have been organized through artificial insemination, more and more numerous and well-fed men who would have been destined, in ever increasing numbers, for extermination.

One can be scandalized by this virtual evocation of the worst of the worst. As if historical reality, the proper meaning of the Extermination were not enough: in order for a reasonable equivalence to be established between the camps and slaughterhouses, one would have to have recourse to an outrageous transformation. Yet one needs to understand how Derrida works: he tears analogy away from approximation; he conjecturally modifies the historical real to give better measure of the unprecedented extent of mass birth, life, and death imposed on animals. He allows reality to be imagined, he gives a perception of the exorbitant increase in poor treatment and in the indefinite modification of individuals carried out for the sole purpose of putting them to death. This risky variation both places him in proximity to and distances him from certain Jewish authors of the second half of the twentieth century who were all obsessed with the “eternal Treblinka.”34 The phrase comes from Isaac Bashevis Singer, and it designates the slaughterhouses. Without a doubt, the Nazi technology for experimentation and extermination loses the precise significance given to it by its instigators and executioners when the desire for ethnic purification is replaced by the industrial production of living beings overfed and slaughtered solely for consummation. For these authors—Adorno and Horkheimer among them—Treblinka and Auschwitz are enough to ensure their destiny as referents of the worst. The case remains, however, that something very important could be understood here concerning the essential tie, in agro-alimentary modernity, between overproduction, manipulation, and annihilation. If one adds biotechnology and genetic engineering to the picture, how can one avoid the feeling that “we are heading down the path toward … a world without animals … (p.13) by means of a devitalizing or disanimalizing treatment, what others would call the denaturing of animality, the production of figures of animality that are so new that they appear monstrous enough to call for a change of name.”35

One of the most insistent hypotheses of this deconstruction with and through the animal is that a common “sacrificial structure”—though Derrida says he is not sure if this is the best way of stating it—would govern in an underground way the thinking of Descartes, Kant, Levinas, and Lacan. He does not let go of the opportunity to cite the text that can act as a first trace of this by recalling the fact that “there was also a matter of a dead animal between Cain and Abel”36 and that God preferred the murderous shepherd to Cain, who offered his grain. He had let Adam name to see (pour voir), he says, and he lets Abel kill as a way of providing (pourvoir) him with sacrificial flesh. Does this then mean that name-giving was already equivalent to sacrificing a living being to God? The story in Genesis suggested that if Cain killed his brother, it’s because he hadn’t been able to offer a sacrifice to Jehovah. These interrogations, alongside others, would allow us to discern, despite considerable differences between eras and authors, one and the same “Judeo-Christian vein.” Four philosophies of sacrificial experience are thus examined, not all necessarily treating ritual animal sacrifices. It is rather a matter of “bringing and including together, in a single embrace”37 Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, Levinas, and even of adding Descartes to them.

So it is in an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy dating from 1989, “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject,” that we first find the strong articulation of what subtends the thought of these four cardinal thinkers. None of these thinkers will overturn the humanism proper to man without reinforcing it unbeknownst to themselves. “It is a matter of discerning a place left open, in the very structure of these discourses (which are also ‘cultures’) for a noncriminal putting to death. Such are the executions of ingestion, incorporation, or introjection of the corpse.”38 The operation, he says, can be real or symbolic when the “corpse” is human: some way of eating the other, some form of “cannibalism” is unsurpassable. (p.14) There is then an indestructible tie between the right to put animals to death with the goal of consuming meat and subjectity, and, more broadly with subjectivity. One must realize that this “putting to death as denegation of murder”39 is linked to the institution of the subject: a virile schema of authority and autonomy, freedom granted man rather than woman, and woman rather than animal, the adult rather than the child, for this mastery and possession of nature implies the acceptance of sacrifice and eating flesh. In other words, the “Thou shalt not kill”—with all of its limitless consequence—has never been understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition, apparently not even by Levinas, as a “‘Thou shalt not put to death the living in general.’”40

This point, on sacrifice, is certainly the only one where I feel I’m in disagreement with Derrida, and it is not without a certain amount of anxiety that I wish to formulate these reservations, now that he does not have the time to explain himself further. To give the background to this critique, it will be necessary to take a detour through the history of anthropology. First, one must remember that there have been and that there still are many different kinds of ritual immolation, different kinds of sacrificial functions that cannot be reduced to alimentary sacrifice: communion, of course, but also propitiation and expiation. One must then note the limitless extension Derrida attributes to the domain of sacrifice: the hyperbolic extrapolation, the metaphorization that allows him to divulge that the secret of “eating the other” cannot operate without giving short shrift to contemporary anthropological research from authors such as Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Jean Soler, to limit ourselves to them. As a way of guarding against generalizing inductions, each of these authors insists on the singularity of the cultures and thoughts anchored in animal sacrifices, and they effectively intend to develop their analyses only through the commentaries produced within each culture.

The category of sacrifice, as it was elaborated by authors such as William Robertson Smith, Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, and Ernst Cassirer—should one add Freud to them?—constitutes a catchall category that could only be constituted on the basis of an (p.15) evolutionist conception of the history of religions—an evolutionism that comes from a debatable piece of evidence: according to this version of evolutionism, Christianity represents the spiritual and social accomplishment of history, and humanity develops and improves thanks to the process that consists in replacing the sacrifice offered to the gods with the sacrifice of the Christic god. Durkheim had already given the name “ascetic path,” ending in Christianity, to what he thought was a wrenching away from primitive and crude forms in favor of the growth of the spirit of sacrifice. Yet Détienne rightly demonstrated the ideological presupposition that transforms the history of religions into a progress of abnegation and a recession of the contractual.

If I am taking up the “theoretical” critique formulated by the school of Jean-Pierre Vernant of the unconsidered progressivism of the founding fathers of anthropology, it is in order to show the singularity of what men in the Christian West both symbolically and truly lost all while believing they were winning interiority of intention and purity of heart: the sacred blood-tie that united them in a living community to beasts and god(s). And if we now return to the institutionally denied murder of ritual immolation, it is to suggest that Derrida’s globalization, radicalization, and metaphorization of sacrifice do not completely escape this evolutionism, which his entire work in fact rejects. His thinking through a bloody “Epipromethean-Islamic-Judeo-Christian descendancy”41 brings him to consider as quasi-invalid the line that divides Christianity, on the one hand, and its abolition of animal sacrifices, and Judaism and Islam, perhaps even Greek culture, on the other, which makes animal sacrifices the fundamental element of their actions.

This is why Derrida places Levinas under the same rubric as Kant and Lacan, even though Levinas the philosopher, despite his quasiindifference to the death of beasts, would not really be able to think of these beasts outside of the sacrificial category to which the practicing Jew he is continues to obey because of dietary restrictions. For him, altars and industrial abattoirs can only have contrary meanings. I do not intend to deliver an apology for animal sacrifices here, to justify the blessed or sacred character of their cruelty, but only to (p.16) affirm a conceptual unavailability. Their diversity in place and time, the plurality of their functions, their singularity, far from allowing for an understanding of contemporary practices of zootechnology and far from structuring the field of their practices into some immemorial time, seems to reserve irreducible enigmas.42

Yet one must indeed recognize that this contestable elevation of sacrifice to the status of a universal and secret structure is what allows Derrida, thanks to an inversion of the sign, to take up several pages by Adorno on Kant in a very gripping way. For Derrida, it is a question of showing that the valorization of human interiority and autonomy, those ideals of idealism and transcendentalism, not only relies on a violence committed against the sensory, but also and more importantly on a war declared on what is animal both outside of and inside man. This is a question of “cruelty,” a word Derrida does not, however, use without reservation. “There can be a negotiable market price for the animal, as for every means that is incapable of becoming an end in itself, whence the virtual cruelty of this pure practical reason. Accents of cruelty already mark Kant’s discourse when he speaks of the imperative necessity of sacrificing sensibility to moral reason. But this sacrificial cruelty can become so much more serious, and virtually terrible, implacable, and ferocious when it comes to the animal that some, such as Adorno, have not hesitated to denounce it as an extreme violence, even a sort of sadism.”43 Adorno will not hesitate to say that the properly human dignity of the autonomy that guarantees sovereignty and mastery over nature to reasonable beings is directed against animals.

And Derrida goes still further when he evokes “an act of war and a gesture of hate, an animosity,”44 a form of violence that, like the philosopher he is commenting on, he considers to be not merely an application of techno-sciences to the animal, but “the process of humanization or of the appropriation of man by man, including its most highly developed ethical or religious forms.”45 According to this critique, Adorno does not understand Descartes, while Derrida brings Adorno back to Descartes, seeing in Kantism “a significant aggravation of ‘Cartesianism’ that becomes a sort of ‘hatred’ of the animal: ‘wishing’ harm to the animal.” According to the two (p.17) philosophers, this Kantian and more generally Idealist zoophobia is not foreign to “a Germanization or at least a fascization of the subject”46 since there is no place left for compassion or commiseration, what with the “memory” of a resemblance or an a nity between animal and man having become abhorrent. “Then, all of a sudden, Adorno takes things much further: for an idealist system, he says, animals virtually play the same role as Jews did for the fascist system. Animals would be the Jews of the idealists, who would thus be nothing but virtual fascists.”47

Here, we can note that Derrida and Adorno are rivals in antihumanist temerity, inheritors as they are of the Genealogy of Morals, even if Adorno would deny it, inheritors as well, even if both Adorno and Derrida would deny it, of the second Heidegger, and particularly of his Nietzsche, a book in which one finds the same “will to will” running through the entire philosophical tradition. The only difference is that they turn toward the animal suffering that is ignored or scorned by most other philosophers, starting or ending with Heidegger.

At the end of this brief debate on sacrifice, I am perplexed. Was it really necessary to sacrifice the comprehensive richness of monographs to a totalizing extension, to a thickening of the continuous line of what, in different forms, comes back to the identical and would thus have always already signified the worst? It is no doubt only right for anthropologists not to give lessons to their still toophilosophical predecessors and to any philosophers who adventure onto their terrain. It may be that philosophers in turn need to inform themselves more precisely about the irreducibility of diverse symbolic practices. In any case, Adorno seems to me to have most equitably unified the two perspectives when, after having opposed slaughterhouses to altars, he noted that the term “sacrifice” now only properly belonged to the vocabulary of animal experimentation. It’s just, he adds, that it is as a specimen that one brings an animal to the laboratory while it is as a substitute that one brought it to the altar.48

“The animal that therefore I am”: the diabolical ambiguity of the title given to this incisive, interminable speech that became a posthumous (p.18) book is discretely unfolded in these (quasi-Borgesian) words that continue to be capable of troubling the humanism of those who gave themselves the name “men.” “For I no longer know who, therefore, I am (following) or who it is I am chasing, who is following me or hunting me. Who comes before and who is after whom? … I no longer know how to respond to the question that compels me or asks me who I am (following) or after whom I am (following), but am so as I am running [et suis ainsi en train de courir].”49


(1.) Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press,2004).

(2.) Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press,2008),. Only the introduction to a series of four seminars given over the course of about ten hours in, during a conference at Cerisy-la-Salle, (p.134) had appeared in in the acts to the colloquium “The Autobiographical Animal.” The second part of the seminar, which figures in The Animal That Therefore I Am, appeared under the title “Et si l’animal répondait?” (“And what if the animal responded?”), in Cahiers Jacques Derrida83, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet and Ginette Michaud (Paris: L’Herne,2004).

(3.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 30

(4.) Ibid., 3

(5.) “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject,” in Points … : Interviews, 1974–1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber, trans. Peter Connor and Avital Ronell (Stanford: Stanford University Press,), 255–87.

(6.) Derrida, “What Is Poetry” [“Che cos’è la poesia?”], in Points …, trans. Peggy Kamuf,.297

(7.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 297

(8.) Ibid., 7

(9.) Derrida, “Istrice : Ick bünn all hier,” in Points …, trans. Peggy Kamuf,303

(10.) Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,2002).

(11.) Derrida, Points, 303

(13.) Ereignis, a German word proper to Heideggerian vocabulary, is commonly translated as “event.”

(14.) Derrida, Points, 312

(16.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 4

(17.) In a poem I was unable to find, Vigny evokes a woman’s reaction of sudden modesty when her dog sees her undress. Gaston Bachelard alludes to this poem in Poétique de la reverie (Paris: PUF,1971),160.

(18.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 3

(19.) Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings, vol. 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,1996),62–74.

(20.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 16

(21.) Ibid., 17

(22.) Ibid., 28

(23.) Ibid., 32

(24.) Ibid., 18

(25.) Ibid., 15

(26.) Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press,1996),256.

(27.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 19

(28.) Ibid., 25

(29.) See Jacques Derrida, D’un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie (Paris: Galilée,1983).

(30.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 26

(31.) Ibid., 12

(32.) Ibid., 26

(34.) Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Letter Writer,” in Collected Stories: “Gimpel the Fool” to “The Letter Writer” (New York: Library of America,2004), 750

(35.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 80

(36.) Ibid., 42

(37.) Ibid., 91

(38.) Derrida, Points, 278

(39.) Ibid., 283

(40.) Ibid., 279

(41.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 102

(42.) Françoise Armengaud seems to concur with the Derridean position. See “Au titre du sacrifice: L’exploitation économique, symbolique et idéologique des animaux,” in Si les lions pouvaient parler, ed. Boris Cyrulnik (Paris: Gallimard,1998),878.

(43.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 100

(44.) Ibid., 100

(45.) Ibid., 101

(46.) Ibid., 102–3

(47.) Ibid., 103

(48.) Must we note the fact that, in the Muslim religion, there are no altars?

(49.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 10.