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  • Morbidity and Vitalism: Derrida, Bergson, Deleuze, and Animal Film Imagery
  • Jonathan Burt (bio)

“It is a question of words, therefore. For I am not sure that what I am going to set about saying to you amounts to anything more ambitious than an exploration of language in the course of a sort of chimerical experimental exercise, or the testing of a testimony. Just to see.”

—Jacques Derrida1


Let us begin with death. It is difficult to avoid the presence of death, killing, and sacrifice at all levels of inquiry into animal representation. Within this arena of morbidity the animal symbol or image is understood not so much as a sign of absence, or nonpresence, but as a symptom of a deeper and more permanent loss. John Berger has famously exemplified this in his account of the disappearance or radical alienation of animals under capitalism.2 Furthermore, this is intensified by the idea that the symbolic networks that determine the relative status of living beings find their key dividing lines created and reinforced by the act of sacrifice: killing as the ground of difference.3 This inextricable linkage of animal symbols and death [End Page 157] becomes manifest in a bond between mourning and language that is somehow foundational to our sense of “the animal.”4 In addition, the absence of the possession of “language” by the animal is woven round with complex terminological strands: sacrifice, shame, redemption, and naming; in other words, terms that have their basis in classical and biblical accounts. This suggests, in turn, an anachronism in thinking about animal representation in contemporary history at the very least, if not for an even longer period. Jacques Derrida, in a text I will take as key in exploring many of these ideas, draws a direct line between himself and Adam in one of his late essays on the animal: “I have been wanting to bring myself back to my nudity before the cat, since so long ago, since a previous time, in the Genesis tale, since the time when Adam, alias Ish, called out the animals’ names before the fall, still naked but before being ashamed of his nudity.”5

This anachronism in the contemporary philosophization of the concept “animal” has significant consequences for the gaps it opens up, almost in spite of itself, between metaphysics (theology, ontology) and language on the one hand, and the animal’s specific place(s) in the contemporary world on the other. The morbidity of the former runs deep. In response to some of Benjamin’s and Heidegger’s comments on the muteness of nature, the mute stupefaction of animality, and the melancholic mourning of that silence, Derrida remarks that “every case of naming involves announcing a death to come . . . receiving a name for the first time involves something like the knowledge of being mortal and even feeling that one is dying.”6 The permutations of language and death form, unform, and reform around the figure of the animal like partners in a waltz.

The ease with which such thinking lends itself to a grander metaphysics that seems far removed from the realities of human–animal relations need not, in principle, be objected to. These traditions have long constituted much of our thinking about other beings, worlds, nature, and so on. But this conceptual version of the “animal,” with all the connotations of muteness and melancholy that underpin its symbolization, is a consequence of this thinking rather than constitutive of it, despite the claims of the theory that sacrifice is a foundational [End Page 158] act in the cultural categorization of beings. The animal is, in other words, a writing effect that latches onto a more generalized, and inflated, concept of otherness. Note the sequential logic here. The “ahuman” or “divinanimality” is the “quasi-transcendental referent.” The not-quite of the prefix “quasi-” already hints at an ambiguous impurity in this notion of transcendence.7 (A recognition perhaps that the animal is not quite so easily substitutable, that the equations of this particular system may be confronting a more resistant and problematic object than the too-many-names of the Other may be able to inscribe.) The ahuman is the “excluded...


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pp. 157-179
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