HUMAN OR ANIMAL: DECONSTRUCTING THE DIFFERENCE*
*first printed as a chapter entitled “Man or Beast: Imagining the Animal That I Am” in “Philosophy of expressive arts therapy: Poiesis and the therapeutic imagination.” By Stephen K. Levine. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019, pp. 71-77.
Stephen K. Levine
Ph.D., D.S.Sc, REAT, Professor Emeritus, York University (Toronto, Canada), Founding Dean of the Doctoral Program in Expressive Arts at The European Graduate School (Switzerland)
This article is embraced in a series of publications for a new thematic issue of the journal entitled: ‘Animals as partners: cultural, ecological, therapeutic implications.’ Following the thinking of Jacques Derrida, in which difference implies commonality, this essay problematizes the distinction between human beings and animals which is taken for granted in and constitutes the Western philosophical tradition. Philosophy defines human being by the capacity to reason in opposition to animal existence, but suffering is common to both humans and animals. Derrida refers to the novel, Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee, in which the eponymous character, Elizabeth Costello, testifies to feeling “wounded” by the suffering of animals as the primary mode of encountering them, thus shifting the discussion from reason and philosophical discourse to that of feeling and the arts.
Keywords: Derrida, human, animal, difference, rationality, suffering, philosophy, art
I am an animal— more or less. I make that qualification in the same words with which I answered the immigration official in Toronto when he asked me, pointing to the woman standing next to me, “Are you married?” Of course, he refused to accept my reply. In the eyes of the State, tertium non datur; there is no third term between exclusive alternatives. I would have been hard pressed to explain to him that the answer depends on what he meant by “married” or “you” or, even, “are.” In the end, I had to answer by choosing one or the other alternative that I was given.
In his book, The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008), Jacques Derrida, on the other hand, has no hesitation to name himself an animal, an “animated” creature, we might say, and not only a mind. His words, l’animal que donc je suis (the animal that I am), even goes so far as to insert a “donc” (therefore) as a challenge to Descartes. Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am,” said Descartes, when he tried to find a basis for knowledge. When he then went on to ask, “What am I?” and answered, “A thinking thing,” he thus effectively excluded the body of the animal from his existence and from the existence of the human as such. This distinction is part of the philosophical tradition, beginning with Aristotle’s definition of the human being as zoon logon echon—the animal (zoon) that has logos (speech or reason). Derrida even goes so far as to claim that the distinction between animal and human constitutes the tradition of Western thinking. In following what he writes about the animal, therefore, we are led from the issue of animal rights, a sub-specialty of philosophical thought, into a deconstruction of philosophy itself.
It is indeed a question of following Derrida, who is in turn following the animal. The “je suis” of his title means “I am,” but it can equally mean, “I follow” (“suis” is the first person singular of both être, to be, and suivre, to follow). When Derrida, therefore, says “I am,” he is, at the same time, saying “I follow,” and what he follows is the animal. That is, he is on the track of the animal, he is pursuing it (he? she? does the animal have a gender? an important question for him). He is “after” it, in the dual sense of trying to catch it and of coming after it—the animal precedes him; it is in some way his precursor, his abysmal origin which can never be captured or recaptured.
When Derrida says l’animal que donc je suis, then, he means he is the animal, more or less. He is the animal but he is also following it and “therefore” is not it, for how can we follow ourselves? However, in another turn or re-turn in his thinking, he is indeed following himself, tracking the traces of the animal in his writings from the beginning. In a retrospective view, he goes so far as to say that the question of the animal has been at the center of his thinking from the beginning, even in his critique of Husserl’s phenomenology. For phenomenology ultimately affirms the indubitability of bodily presence, which, in Derrida’s eyes, cannot be maintained. To think can never mean to be present; thought turns back, reflects, follows what has preceded— philosophy has known that for a long time (recall Hegel’s image of philosophy as the owl of Minerva—another animal—which spreads its wings only at dusk of day). But it is not only thinking that turns back; all life carries traces within it and follows them (if only the traces of the genetic code). Indeed all that exists is not only what it is but what it is no longer; it can never coincide with itself. Identity contains difference (or différance, to use Derrida’s word) within it. Therefore, as Sartre might say, I am the animal in the mode of not being it. That is, I am an animal, more or less.
When I follow the tracks of the animal that I am, I write the story of my life; I am, therefore, as Derrida says, an autobiographical animal. The conference in Cerisy in 1997 at which Derrida first delivered the seminars in the book was entitled, by his choice, “The Autobiographical Animal.” Derrida is an autobiographical animal— as we all are; we all carry the traces of what we are (following), and these traces can be considered to be the original form of “writing.”
To follow Derrida, then, I would like to write autobiographically and recall some moments of my own engagement with the animal. Who is the animal that I am (following)? When I was a child, I lived in a world without animals (a state, Derrida says, that we are now in sight of)—not that there were no animals but that I was unaware of any. As I recall (and, like Derrida, I am suspicious of all recollection), none of my friends or relatives had pets. I do not remember a single animal on the streets of Brooklyn where I grew up. My first engagement with an animal came when I was about ten years old. I went to a party, one of my first, wearing new grey flannel pants. When I opened the door to the room, a dog sprang at me and tore a strip of cloth from my pants with its teeth. In my memory, the animal was following me; I was its prey.
My next animal came when I was seventeen and visited the University of Pennsylvania with a friend. Somehow, we wandered into a building that housed a number of rooms with animals in cages. The room we entered was presided over by an aging custodian who, for whatever reason, was eager to show us how the animals were being treated. He took a dog from its cage, injected it with a large hypodermic needle, laid it on a metal tray and then slit it from throat to belly. When he pulled back its flesh, we could still see its beating heart. I am haunted by the specter of that animal and by all the laboratory animals that, for whatever reason, “we” have killed. In this case, the animal was the prey.
Predator or prey—tertium non datur? A book by Donna Haraway speaks of the human animal as a “companion species,” one whose existence depends on the company of another being of a different kind (2003, p.2). In a lecture she gave at The European Graduate School in 2000, the example she spoke about was her dog, and she showed, as I recall, a film of her and the dog kissing, “swapping spit,” we used to say. Perhaps the metaphor is appropriate. Red Peter, the humanized ape who delivers the “Report for an Academy,” in Kafka’s story of that name (2013, first published 1917), (and is recalled by J. M. Coetzee’s character Elizabeth Costello in his novella, The Lives of Animals (1999)), says that he learned to become human by responding to the sailors who kept him captive and taught him to spit—and to get drunk (“man” therefore, being implicitly defined by Kafka as the spitting, drunken animal, a breach with the philosophical tradition, if not with the actual behavior of philosophers). I have never experienced such a companionship with an animal like the one of which Haraway speaks.
Derrida, on the other hand, refers to his own companion animal (his “familiar,” we might say), his cat. As we know, cats are a different species from dogs. They are not primarily for us but for themselves. They regard us from afar, as if our existence were no concern of theirs. When they look at us, we are seen by them. The scene that Derrida recalls (follows) is one in which he is seen by his cat (his “real” cat, he assures us, and not just a figure of speech or thought), and, moreover, seen naked. Seeing the cat seeing him induces in him a feeling of shame, one that leads to a gesture to cover his “private” parts, his sex (and it is only a sexed animal that can induce such shame). He is, we could say, being followed by the animal that he follows.
Derrida’s cat (unlike Schrödinger’s) was, perhaps, “real,” but it becomes a trope for asking who is the animal I am (following). Is the cat “responding” to him; can an animal respond? This question becomes a central one in his interrogation of the tradition; in Derrida’s view, the animal is denied that capacity in most philosophical thinking. But there is another related question that he pursues in his pursuit of the animal that is more urgent; it is the one raised by Jeremy Bentham who does not ask, can the animal speak (reason, use tools, have customs, build cultures, etc.), but, does the animal suffer? At once we have stepped aside from the question of thought, a question which differentiates the human from the animal on the basis of a capacity, and moved into the question of suffering, which looks at an in-capacity, a passivity or a passion. The question of who I am (following), then, no longer becomes a question for thinking (in which we reason about the animal), but one for feeling—for even, we might say, fellow feeling, since suffering, vulnerability, mortality, are things we assume in our own existence, things which follow us even as we try to overcome them in and by our thinking (the metaphysics of presence can thus be understood as an attempt to overcome death by denying time and consequently mortality as well).
This same track or trace is followed by Elizabeth Costello in the novella by Coetzee mentioned above. Elizabeth Costello is an Australian writer who has been asked to give a series of lectures at an American university. Her lectures are entitled, “The Philosophers and the Animals,” and “The Poets and the Animals.” In them she suggests that the philosophers, even those who seek to uphold the “rights” of animals, have failed to understand them; only the poets have been able to do so because only poetic language brings us close to the animal, gives us the animal in its bodily presence. What is more persuasive than her lecture (which remains “philosophical” in its reasoning) is her impassioned statement that she is “wounded” by the suffering of the animal, that it strikes her not in her understanding but, we might say, in her heart. In that sense, we could also say, Elizabeth Costello is “mortally wounded” by the suffering of animals; their suffering affects her in her own mortality. She compares what humans do to animals with what the Nazis did to the Jews, and suggests that our ignorance of what we are doing in our industrial food machines and animal laboratories is a willful ignorance, similar to that of the Germans or others who claimed that they didn’t know what was happening in the concentration camps and therefore were innocent of their “inhumanity.” Her lectures, however, are tiresome; she hectors her audience and fails to convince them. She is herself tired and old and, we might say, at her wit’s end. The lives of animals become more real to her as she herself approaches death.
The Lives of Animals was originally given as a series of lectures by Coetzee at Princeton University and was published under that title. The lectures were subsequently published as chapters (or what Coetzee tellingly called “Lessons”) in a later novel, Elizabeth Costello (2003). In this book we see not only the familial relationships which color Elizabeth Costello’s two “lectures”—already shown in the earlier volume—but also a wider context in which appear other lectures or lessons by Elizabeth Costello, by her sister Blanche (who has now become Sister Bridget) and by a male African novelist. In this plethora of conflicting perspectives, we begin to see that the views of “Elizabeth Costello,” the fictional character, cannot be identified with those of J. M. Coetzee, the “real” author of the novel in which she appears. Coetzee makes this clear when Elizabeth Costello, at the end of her life, finds herself “before the gate” (another of Kafka’s tropes) and is unable to pass until she tells the judges what she believes. She cannot give them the simple answer that they demand. As a novelist, she says, she is a “secretary of the invisible” (2003, p.199), relaying the words that come to her from without; she has no beliefs of her own. Moreover what she believes at any one moment may be different from what she believes at another; it is not even clear to her who “she” is, let alone what she “believes.” Finally, though, under the threat of never passing through the gate to the light beyond (“…strait is the gate, and narrow the way, that leads to life” Matthew 7:14), she affirms that there is one thing she believes in: the “little frogs” in her native country that wait in the mud until the drought is over and can then be “reborn” with the rain (2003, p.217).
When asked by her judges which of the two affirmations of belief or non-belief that she has made are true, Elizabeth Costello replies (responds) that they are really asking, “which is the true Elizabeth Costello: the one who made the first statement or the one who made the second. My answer is, both are true. Both. And neither. I am an other.” “You have,” she says, “… the wrong person before you. The wrong Elizabeth Costello.” The interrogator, like my immigration official, refuses to accept what we might call her “more or less,” and insists on asking, “do you speak for yourself?” to which she can only reply, “Yes. No, emphatically no. Yes and no. Both.” When she then insists, “I am not confused,” he says (turning her words back on her, as all good interrogators do), “Yes, you are not confused. But who is it who is not confused?” At which point, Coetzee writes, the panel of judges “titter like children, then abandon all dignity and howl with laughter (2003, p.221)
These passages should caution us about the truths that the poets claim to give us (or, perhaps, that philosophers claim the poets give us). Their statements are true—more or less. And the non-identity of the persons who utter these statements, their non-coincidence with themselves, is indeed cause for laughter, especially once we come to realize that it is our own identities that are being spoken of. Existence, we might say, is a joke.
However, the matter is not so simple, if it ever was. Elizabeth Costello’s ultimate affirmation of belief (her “confession” or credo) is uttered with such passion that we become convinced that she does believe in the frogs (in their “resurrection”), just as we were convinced before that she was wounded by the suffering of animals (their “passion”). There is in fact a disjunction between her pedagogy (her “lessons”) and her testimony. We believe her when she testifies, not when she lectures.
Similarly, in The Animal That Therefore I Am, there is a disjunction between Derrida’s deconstruction of the tradition and his testimony regarding the suffering of animals. In the latter case, we believe him—and here I am not willing to say, “more or less.” If he can testify to the passion of the animals rather than to their resurrection, this is perhaps no more than we could expect from one whose thought, as is appropriate to his own tradition, wanders away from its origin and is caught in a perpetual search for its own traces.
Does deconstruction end in an affirmation of belief? Does our “more or less” ever find its appropriate measure? Is there, as my teacher Werner Marx asked in the title of his book, “A Measure on Earth?” (1987). Derrida’s trenchant analyses of Descartes, Kant, Levinas, Lacan and Heidegger reveal the problematic nature of the question of the animal (or what Derrida chooses to call “l’animot,” a made-up word for their singular plurality); his analyses problematize the binary distinction between animal and human that these thinkers maintain, despite their attempt to free themselves from the tradition. But at bottom (in its origin), it seems to me, this “secretary of the invisible” does testify to the suffering of animals and, in so doing, reveals the sympathy that ties us to all living beings. Another name for this sympathy is “love.” What else can teach us where the truth lies? And here we come, perhaps, to a sort of resurrection after all. Can we speak not only, as Derrida does elsewhere, of a “democracy-to-come,” (2005, p.77), but also of a “life-to-come,” a way of living that would include mortality, vulnerability and, yes, animality within it? This would be a resurrection of the body of l’animot within time and not beyond it.
What will we say when we are before the gate, as we are in fact right now and at every moment? Will we, at the end of our thought, testify to our belief? And will the panel of animals who are our judges abandon their dignity and howl with laughter? We can only hope that they will show us more sympathy than we have shown them. And we can only hope that at that time we will have found our measure on earth.
- Derrida, J. (2008). The animal that therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press
- Haraway, D. (2003). The companion species manifesto: Dogs, people and significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
- Kafka, F. (2013). Report for an Academy. Kartindo Publishing House.
- Coetzee, J.M. (2003). Elizabeth Costello. New York: Viking.
- Marx, W. (1987). Is there a measure on earth? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (Original work published 1983).
- Derrida, J. (2005). Rogues: Two essays on reason. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Reference for citations
Levine, S.K. (2023). Human or animal: Deconstructing the difference. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 4(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)