- IntroductionFabled Thought: On Jacques Derrida’s The Beast & the Sovereign
“In the beginning was the fable.”— Paul Valéry
Jacques Derrida’s lectures on La bête et le souverain, given at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales from 2001-2003, comprise a remarkable set of reflections on sovereignty and its opposition and overlap with bestiality. Published in two volumes by Éditions Galilée, and in English translation by the University of Chicago Press, they touch on familiar themes and concepts from Derrida’s broader work, such as sexual difference, the nature of reason, decision and responsibility, the religious basis of humanism and fraternalism and the community of fellows. Yet most centrally, they revolve around the question of the bête in Western thinking about sovereignty and humanity, making use of the discourse of the beast and of fabulous animals to deconstruct the “onto-theologico-political structure of sovereignty” (B&S I 46).1 Derrida’s seminar swarms with fabled creatures from the Bible and La Fontaine, as well as from Hobbes, Machiavelli and Schmitt. Derrida traces the figure of the wolf in an impressive range of sources. He takes on Deleuze’s studious sarcasm and Agamben’s scholarly tics. He reads the poetry of Celan and Lawrence, the novels of Valéry and Defoe, prompting his auditors and readers to confront the philosophical ramifications of the richly fraught pairing of sovereignty and bestiality. In the second year of the course, he brings together two very different texts—Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Heidegger’s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics—around themes of world, solitude and encirclement. Musing obsessively on Celan’s line “There is no world, there are only islands,” he once more zeroes in on Heidegger’s famous claim that animals are poor in world, both having and not having world yet lacking properly human access to beings as such.2
Derrida’s recourse to the fable and to the deconstructive power of the fabulous animal in The Beast & the Sovereign might surprise some of his readers, especially those familiar with his book The Animal That Therefore [End Page 3] I Am. In this earlier essay, which has contributed heavily towards setting the agenda for “the question of the animal” in posthumanism, animal studies and related ethical and philosophical debates,3 Derrida in fact distances himself from the genre of the fable. The infamous primal scene of The Animal is an everyday encounter the philosopher reports having with his female pet cat, in which she sees him naked in the bathroom or in the bedroom. Derrida confesses to feeling ashamed before his cat, which looks at his naked body—and even his sex—somewhat aimlessly, “as it were just to see” (The Animal 4). In analysing his feeling of shame, Derrida insists on the reality and the literality of his cat:
I must immediately make it clear, the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the bedroom as an allegory for all the cats on the earth, the felines that traverse our myths and religions, literature and fables. There are so many of them. The cat I am talking about does not belong to Kafka’s vast zoopoetics.(The Animal 6)
While this scene of nudity remains in curious proximity to the mythical space and time of Eden (Chrulew), Derrida nonetheless repeatedly banishes the fable in The Animal to better account for the literal reality not just of his cat, but also of the other animals to which he refers—the multiplicity of creatures whose differences from one another (not to mention their similarities with humans) are obscured by the concept of “the animal” (in the general singular) in the service of carnophallogocentric violence. “We all know the history of fabulization and how it remains an anthropomorphic taming,” he remarks at one point, “a moralizing subjection, a domestication. Always a discourse of man, on man, indeed on the animality of man, but for and in man” (The Animal 37).
For all Derrida’s insistence on the real singularity...