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“Might sovereignty be devouring?”: Derrida and the Fable

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 2, 2014 (Issue 134)
pp. 37-49 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0014

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

“I have a taste only for that taste, for what is written by tongues/languages, from mouth to ear, from mouth to mouth, or mouth to lips…”

— Jacques Derrida in interview with Anne Berger

“To love without wanting to devour must surely be anorexic.”

— Jacques Derrida in interview with Daniel Birnbaum and Anders Olsson

I. Derrida and Orality

Few would regard Jacques Derrida as a genuine thinker of orality. But this is something of a misperception—as Derrida himself recognizes in a 1983 interview with Anne Berger. “People who are in a bit too much of a hurry have thought that I wasn’t interested in the voice, just writing,” remarks Derrida in that interview. “Obviously, this is not true. … What I like to do … is to give courses in my own manner: to let be heard in what I write a certain position of the voice, when the voice and the body can no longer be distinguished—and obviously this passes by way of the mouth” (Points… 140-1). Nowhere is Derrida’s interest in the problem of orality—in what passes by way of the mouth—more apparent than in the final course he gave at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris from the autumn of 2001 to the spring of 2003 on the beast and the sovereign. In these seminars, Derrida identifies the mouth as the place in which the opposition between the beast and the sovereign both expresses itself and collapses. “The place of devourment,” he says at one point, “is also the place of what carries the voice” (B&S I 23). The mouth is the site not just of sovereign speech but also of bestial devourment.

There is a long tradition of considering the mouth as an organ for both eating and speaking. “Throughout Renaissance writing,” notes David B. Goldstein, “the eating mouth and the speaking mouth are closely intertwined” (107). In his treatise on tongues, Renaissance humanist Erasmus observes that the same organ serves to “take in food and drink, to emit sound and to articulate speech” (qtd. in Jeanneret 33). Derrida follows this tradition in The Beast & the Sovereign. But he also provocatively extends it by using the double function of the mouth to deconstruct the opposition between human and animal. “Let us not hasten to attribute speech to the mouth of man supposed to speak and voracity or even the vociferation of the cry to the animal’s maw,” he notes. “It is precisely this simple and dogmatic opposition, the abuses of this oversimplification that we have in our sights here” (B&S I 65).

What Derrida tries to show in his seminars is that the beast and the sovereign are consubstantial figures or figures that share the same substance or essence. “In the metamorphic covering-over of the two figures, the beast and the sovereign,” he writes, “one … has a presentiment that a profound and essential ontological copula is at work on this couple: it is like a coupling, an ontological, onto-zoo-anthropo-theologico-political copulation: the beast becomes the sovereign who becomes the beast; there is the beast and [et] the sovereign (conjunction), but also the beast is [est] the sovereign, the sovereign is [est] the beast” (B&S I 18, original emphasis). As Derrida notes, this copulation of beast and sovereign is partly an accident of the French language. The French words for “is” and “and” are homophonous, so that when heard spoken aloud the French phrase la bête e(s)t le souverain could mean either the beast and the sovereign or the beast is the sovereign. Derrida also explains how the “oral saying” of his title produces an oscillation in the Francophone ear between feminine beast and masculine sovereign: “In French, in the French tongue, and I insist on the tongue and the genders it imposes on us. La bête and le souverain. Lale” (B&S I 65).

But anthropo-zoological analogy is not merely an accident of homophony, or a trick of the ear. It is also, crucially, a matter of the mouth. What links beast and sovereign—making them consubstantial figures—is the fact that they...



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