In the final sessions of the first year of his seminar on The Beast & the Sovereign, Jacques Derrida takes up the question of modernity as the epoch of biopolitics. In a remarkable close reading, he critiques Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on the threshold of biopolitical modernity, both in terms of conceptual content and, especially in the latter’s case, style. He takes as a prominent example the revolutionary transformation from princely menagerie to public zoological garden, as well as Carl Hagenbeck’s subsequent “revolution” in zoo design, which inaugurate, he suggests, not a new biopolitical apparatus of power/ knowledge, but only a different form of the same fundamental structure of sovereign power over the objectified beast. The stakes of Derrida’s argument are as significant as its history is burdened. It returns to elements of the longstanding polemic between Foucault and Derrida over madness and history, complicated here by Derrida’s reproach of Agamben’s own, more recent cruel admiration of Foucault. It engages with the question of historical thresholds, regarding both the development of biopower and the history of the menagerie. If we read the Eleventh Session on zoological gardens together with the Twelfth on biopolitical thresholds, their implications for contemporary thinking about human-animal relations become clearer. I will suggest, contra Derrida, that the modern history of zoological gardens does indeed cross important thresholds of biopolitical novelty. While he is no doubt right to insist on the persistence of a human sovereignty that reigns over beasts, his argumentation obscures the emergence, specificity and significance of biopolitical care. Being able to understand and critique contemporary relations of power between humans and animals requires genealogical attention to the particularity of this dispositif.
Derrida’s lectures on the beast and the sovereign are erudite and provocative, if incessantly recursive. As he explains in the summary provided for the Ecole’s yearbook, his aim was: [End Page 124]
to study sovereignty, the political and ontotheological history of its concept and its figures. This year we deliberately privileged what intertwined this history with that of a thinking of the living being (the biological and the zoological), and more precisely with the treatment of so-called animal life in all its registers (hunting and domestication, political history of zoological parks and gardens, breeding, industrial and experimental exploitation of the living animal, figures of bestiality and bêtise, etc.). The point was not merely to study, from Aristotle to contemporary discussions (Foucault, Agamben), the canonical texts around the interpretation of man as a “political animal.” We had above all to explore the “logics” organizing both the submission of the beast (and the living being) to political sovereignty, and an irresistible and overloaded analogy between a beast and a sovereign(B&S I xiii).
Derrida explores the “logics” of this relationship between beast and sovereign—in which they both oppose one another and overlap, are posed in hierarchy and analogy—in the genres of fable, philosophy and poetry before turning to the more material register of the zoological garden and the question of biopolitics.
The implications of this treatment for contemporary discussion of the question of animal should be clear: it concerns no less than the place of the living and the animal within Western political thought. Most prominently in The Animal That Therefore I Am but also in these more recently published seminars, Derrida seeks to deconstruct human exceptionalism and the Cartesian legacy in Western philosophy and culture, and thereby offers fruitful resources for thinking through the animal question, and our ethical responsibility to nonhuman others, which have been taken up in stimulating ways (Wolfe, Lawlor). Yet there are limits and potential pitfalls to Derrida’s approach, particularly regarding its capacity to attend to the historically specific subjection of animal bodies to power. Donna Haraway (19-23) has questioned Derrida’s empirical and hospitable interest in knowing about the actual animals he lives with and writes about, while Dominique Lestel has pinpointed his lack of sustained attention to ethology and sciences of animal behavior, modes of knowledge outside of his disciplinary focus on a...