- Otherwise than Universal: On Andrew Benjamin's Of Jews and Animals
Andrew Benjamin's book Of Jews and Animals is a welcome addition not only to the burgeoning field of animal studies but also to contemporary preoccupations with justice, universality, and particularity and the demands they make on philosophical, ethical, and political thinking. By implicitly questioning the turn toward the "materialist" Christian universality proposed by Badiou and Žižek, the book questions and repositions the terms of the debates about justice and universality by reconstructing a critical genealogy of the joined and dis-joined figures of the "animal" and "the Jew" in the history of Western philosophical conceptions of subjectivity, community and, indeed, universality. The book also engages contemporary thinkers relevant to this debate, including Agamben and Derrida. Needless to say, the figures of "the animal" and "the Jew" constructed by the philosophical and ideological work of anthropocentrism and anti-Semitism are dangerous abstractions, fundamentally different from animal plurality and from the diverse definitions of Jewishness that arise from Judaism itself.
The ambitious stakes of the book are articulated clearly in the introduction and carried out through detailed engagements with an impressive selection of philosophical texts and paintings. As Benjamin writes, the most urgent question his book addresses is:
[H]ow to account philosophically for a radically different situation, namely one in which the particularity of human being did not depend on forms of privation and thus sacrifice. And conversely where regional conceptions of identity could be affirmed. What would be the effect - the effect on being human and thus the thinking of that being philosophically - if both the maintained animal were allowed and the particular affirmed? If, that is, the without relation gave way to a fundamentally different form of relationality?(16)
As animal studies have shown, the figure of the animal has had the dubious distinction of marking a double difference: the difference between humanity and its others, that is, the difference that constitutes what is properly human; and a difference within humanity itself, that is, the difference between those who are properly human and those racialized or gendered others who are said to be inferior and who do not measure up to human essence. And even before the institution of the animal as a separate field of inquiry, a number of writers have contested this ideological role assigned to the animal. Consider, for instance, Virginia Woolf's playful remarks about the exclusion of cats and dogs charged with marking the hierarchy of sexual difference. As Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own: "Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare" (48). Woolf points to the remarkable longevity of Dr. Johnson's remark about women preachers, the remark repeated in 1928 about women musicians: "'Sir, a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all'" (54).
Benjamin's genealogical excavations of multiple figures of Jews and animals, together and apart, develop the discussion of animality and otherness by presenting a three-fold argument: First, the book reconstructs the violent but often invisible philosophical work of abstraction and exclusion that these twin figures were forced to perform in philosophy, theology, and art. Second, on the basis of this genealogy, it questions the status of these disciplines and the fundamental categories, such as universality, community, and subjectivity, that structure them. Third, it articulates an ethical affirmation of particularity and proposes a new philosophical concept of relationality. In his remarkable readings of Pascal, Hegel, Heidegger, Blanchot, Derrida, and Agamben, among others, Benjamin compellingly shows that the dis/joined figures of "the Jew" and "the animal" are implicated in the fundamental philosophical distinctions between the particular and the universal, friend and enemy, presence and absence, otherness and identity, on the one hand, and in the constructions of exteriority, singularity, relation, community, and justice, on the other. Benjamin claims that the figures of Jews and of animals reveal the way the dominant traditions of philosophy, theology, and, I would add, politics, are constructed...