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Human Exceptionalism on the Line

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 2, 2014 (Issue 134)
pp. 50-67 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0028

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Given the advantage of hindsight, it seems fair to say that Jacques Derrida retained an enduring interest in the question of human exceptionalism throughout his career. Since he was a thinker of origins, we should not be surprised by his forensic attention to what is particular about human genesis—those capacities whose unique achievement and comparative complexity are purportedly without precedent. Our analytical interest in this meditation will focus on the radical break that separates human identity from its others. Does it actually exist, and what are the implications if we fail to find an inaugural signature that authorizes this extraordinary status? Derrida will argue that the reasoning that motors all of western metaphysics rests on the belief that human identity is isolated and irreconcilably alienated. It then makes sense to explain human exceptionalism as a special case of perversion, a unique status which is essentially unnatural.

The scene of human arrival, cut adrift “with an ax” (Of Grammatology 121) from its surrounding history and environment, is routinely explained in terms of error, corruption, mistake. I have written elsewhere of Jean Hyppolite’s attempt to indemnify the human as a special case in the face of Derrida’s insistence that nature writes—a suggestion that calls into question the acquisition of language as a unique capacity in human self-definition (Quantum Anthropologies 16-20). Here we might think of language as patternments of discernment that are biological, environmental, even geological, wherein nature’s metamorphoses manifest the play of legibility, the materialization of systems in potential. Importantly, although Hyppolite is persuaded by Derrida’s argument and concedes nature’s literacy, he balks at the accompanying suggestion that nature could possess agency, intention, or by implication, even forethought. This sense of an organizing center or subjectivity is normally assumed when we refer to reading and writing, and for this reason Hyppolite is understandably puzzled. It seems that nature may write randomly, as if by chance, or even programmatically, for both possibilities could involve a sort of technological facility which, despite complex outcomes, would lack conscious intent. However, according to Hyppolite, human literacy represents agential and intentional capacities that are radically different from the contents of what could only be a form of proto, or automatic writing. Surely, the very assumption that language means, that it has significance, is what renders it synonymous with human accomplishment. Given this, Hyppolite wonders how we should understand the workings of a non-human language. He asks,

Can this sign without sense, this perpetual turning back, be understood in the light of a kind of philosophy of nature in which nature will not only have realized a mutation, but will have realized a perpetual mutant: man? That is, a kind of error of transmission or of malformation would have created a being which is always malformed, whose adaptation is a perpetual aberration, and the problem of man would become part of a much larger field.


I want to explore this suggestion, commonly held, that the human is inherently unnatural, a “perpetual aberration” whose bastard identity and ontological difference from the rest of life represent a continuing and unprecedented threat to life. Of course, the corollary here is that the unique capacity to choose and to decide on the fortunes of life could, just possibly, exercise a reversal of such prospects, answering menace with salvation. However, before investigating the specifics of this seemingly capricious power game, some general observations can be made. As the arrival of the human is understood as a break with what was—a break with the natural order—it is interesting to note that the significance of this event is cast in theological terms, even when the analysis is self-consciously secular. There is invariably a sense of innocence lost, the purity of the unwitting sundered and spoiled by an enlightened prescience whose calculating force proves as cruel as it is irresistible. However, the cost of this forward movement involves an ironic twist, a lingering apprehension, even melancholy, that there is something lamentable about the human condition. The original sin of human genesis, the difference that marks its manifest destiny, inaugurates guilt and regret for personal and collective violations against a...

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