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  • Political Animals
  • Geoffrey Bennington (bio)

In this essay, as my title might already suggest, I want to look again at a very famous passage from the opening of Aristotle’s Politics (indeed one of the most famous passages in all Western philosophy), according to which man is by nature a political animal and is so, more at any rate than some other political animals, because he, and he alone, is an animal possessed of logos. More especially, I want to look at this passage in the light of more or less recent readings of it offered by Lyotard (especially) and Derrida (somewhat). In passing, I’ll also look at what is a little less obviously a reading of this passage in Aristotle, in Hobbes’s chapter “Of Commonwealth,” that opens part 2 of the Leviathan. And in conclusion I’d like to refer to Heidegger’s commentary on this passage of Aristotle, as recently published in English in the 1924 lecture course Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy.

The context for those readings (in Lyotard and Derrida, at least) is an effort to rethink the concept of animality, or the supposed specificity of the human as against the animal, which Derrida especially thinks is a crux of Western philosophy’s “metaphysics of presence” and logocentrism, more specifically insofar as it forms part of a problematical concept of sovereignty. In the case of both Derrida and Lyotard, this look at animality has (or is supposed to have) political consequences, or at least consequences for how we might think about politics.


In the case of Derrida this political aspect is reasonably straightforward, if only because his quite brief look at the passage from Aristotle takes place in the context of his final seminar series, entitled The Beast and the Sovereign. The reading of this passage from Aristotle (which is perhaps more like a reading out than a fully-fledged reading: this whole final session is the transcript of a largely improvised session) is in part aimed at questioning Agamben’s confidence in the possibility of making a clean distinction between two Greek terms for “life,” bios and zoé. You will remember that in Homo Sacer, Agamben wants to claim that zoé corresponds to his own notion of “bare life,” whereas bios is always a form or mode of life, as in, for example, bios politikos. Derrida is unimpressed by Agamben’s attempt to secure this distinction, and more especially to secure it in the light of the opening pages of Aristotle’s Politics. One of his main purposes in this final session is to suggest, contra Agamben and to some (lesser) extent contra Foucault, that so-called bio- or zoo-politics must be seen to begin at least as early as Aristotle, and cannot therefore be presented as proper to or definitive of “modernity.” Here at any rate is the end of the seminar: [End Page 21]

You remember the distinction Agamben was trying to make, which seemed to me untenable, between the definition of the zōon politikon as essential attribute or as specific difference. But precisely, what Aristotle says—and this is where this distinction between the two attributions does not work—is that man is that living being who is taken by politics: he is a political living being, and essentially so. In other words, he is zoo-political, that’s his essential definition, that’s what is proper to him, idion; what is proper to man is politics; what is proper to this living being that man is, is politics, and therefore man is immediately zoo-political, in his very life, and the distinction between bio-politics and zoo-politics doesn’t work at all here—moreover, neither Heidegger nor Foucault stays with this distinction, and it’s obvious that already in Aristotle there’s thinking of what is today called “zoopolitics” or “biopolitics.” Which doesn’t mean—as I suggested last time and I’m stressing today—which doesn’t mean, of course, that Aristotle had already foreseen, thought, understood, analyzed all the figures of today’s zoopolitics or biopolitics: it would be absurd to think so. But as for the biopolitical or zoopolitical structure, it’s...


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