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Ecologocentrism: Unworking Animals

From: SubStance
Issue 117 (Volume 37, Number 3), 2008
pp. 73-96 | 10.1353/sub.0.0019

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

. . . with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.

—Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (293)

Whoever is the wisest among you is also just a conflict and a cross between plant and ghost.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (6)

Ecology without Nature1

One of the things that modernity has damaged in its appropriation of the Earth has been thinking. Unfortunately, one of the damaged ideas is that of Nature itself. (I shall be capitalizing this word where necessary, to highlight its metaphysical qualities.) How do we transition from seeing what we call "Nature" as an object "over yonder"? And how do we avoid "new and improved" versions that end up doing much the same thing (systems theory, Spinozan pantheism, or Deleuze-and-Guattari type worlds of interlocking machines, and so on), just in a "cooler," more sophisticated way? What kinds of collectivity emerge when we think ecology without Nature? How do we coexist with nonhumans without what Dimitris Vardoulakis and Chris Danta in their introduction to this issue call the "social fantasies that create and sustain a collective 'we' in the name of whom violence is exercised"?

By "unworking animals" I reference Jean-Luc Nancy's idea of the "community of unworking" derived from Maurice Blanchot's interpretation of the Romantic fragment poem. If we make animals truly "political," if we include them on "this" side of social collectivity, this collectivity will be radically redefined. Yet "unworking animals" also emphasizes the deconstructive work of undoing the general category of "the animal," a work (or unwork?) begun by Derrida in his essay on the occasion of his cat looking back at his naked body ("The Animal That Therefore I Am"). For to encounter what we commonly call animals is to be confronted with the inadequacy of the idea of an essential, central "nature."

The issue is upgraded, but not transcended, in the notion of "environment," which tries to be a "new and improved" version of the reified substance or essence called "nature." Until recently, the left has failed to take ecology into account together with race, class, and gender. Ecology should be viewed as intrinsic to these complexly intermingled spheres rather than as outside or beside them. As Walter Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project, when the weather becomes a topic for collective imagination (as now), it stops being that thing over there called the weather. It "stand[s] in the cycle of the eternally selfsame, until the collective seizes upon [it] in politics and history emerges" (convolute K1, 5).2 Likewise, when nonhumans become politicized, they lose their place in "the eternally selfsame," and "the animal"—that mythical, invisible beast—withers away. Even "the animal question" (how like "the Jewish question") starts to look fishy.

The problem of "the political animal" is also a symptom of the failure of ecological thinking, and of deconstruction, to approach each other with anything like an understanding of their shared—even mutually constitutive—claims. Deconstruction is the secret best friend of ecology. Deconstruction is the way in which the collective can seize upon the environment on the micro level. Deconstruction is a rigorous thinking of difference and deferment or "spacing," deriving from what Derrida's seminal lecture "Structure, Sign, and Play" calls an awareness of "the structurality of structure" (278–80). If there were ever a structure whose structurality had begun to be thought, in tandem with the emergence of cybernetics and other contextualizing phenomena (Of Grammatology 8– 10), it would be the environment. Only consider the difficulty of thinking the climate, and of explaining the difference between weather and climate . Climate is a structure with a specific and highly complex structurality, which emerged through the early applications of systems theory. Derrida was already thinking deconstruction as the birth (though whether this organic metaphor holds is precisely at issue) of another...

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