- Still Anthropocentric
Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am has become the touchstone for anyone working in critical animal studies. Although, as Demenageries editors Anne Emmanuelle Berger and Marta Segarra point out, Derrida was concerned with animals in many earlier works, his posthumously published book is a culminating interrogation of the long humanist tradition exalting homo sapiens above all other forms of life. This is a timely critique, because, as Berger and Segarra assert in their introductory essay, humanism seems to have exhausted itself at the same time that ecological disaster threatens life on the planet (p3). Derrida sought to deconstruct traditional ideas of human/animal relations and open the way for fresh thinking about the place of animals in the biosphere, about human animality, about animal thinking and human logos. He explained that such a re-examination is necessary because our relations with other animals have reached an unprecedented transformation in the past two hundred years that has turned traditional forms of hunting, fishing, and domestication upside down. Advances in biological, zoological, ethological, and genetic knowledge and the industrialization of food production are causing a holocaust in the stockyards of the developed world, and genetic engineering threatens the very sources of life and species.1
Demenageries is a welcome effort to take up Derrida's challenges; however, editors Berger and Segarra have chosen to focus their collection, not on real animals and the major ontological and biological questions Derrida raises in his characteristically playful but deeply serious manner, but instead on how animals stimulate the human imaginary in texts: 'it is ultimately the basic correlation between subjectivity, self-reflexivity and human language that needs to be rethought and reformulated' (p5).
Several essays in the collection attempt to mimic Derrida's habitual word play as a method of exploring the many layers of connotation and complexity lurking in the language we use to consider these matters. Perhaps descending from Heidegger's lexical strategies, such tricks are often productive for Derrida but also occasionally silly and digressive. In the hands of his disciples, they can lead to self-indulgent solipsism that verges on the ridiculous. The title Demenageries seeks to pun on attention to, or dismantling of, animal menageries and the ordinary French verb for moving house. Leaving aside the awkward contrast of tone and situation between the two meanings, we might assume the pun suggests that the collection will move beyond Derrida [End Page 198] to fresh considerations of real animals from biological, ethical, and ethological perspectives and the resulting consequences for better understanding of ourselves and changes in our relations with other animals. In fact, few of the essays move beyond Derrida or have much interest in actual animals. In several early chapters, names of animals are gleefully teased from Derrida's writings, so that for example, the 'que donc' of Derrida's original French title (L'animal que donc je suis) becomes an allusion to the word 'donkey' in English for Marie-Dominique Garnier in 'Animal Writes: Derrida's Que Donc and Other Tails'. Never mind that the original audience was French and that the French word for that animal is 'âne'. Similarly, French words such as vers for English 'verse', rêve, and pervers become hunting-grounds for lurking worms (vers) that point back to Derrida's late essay 'Un ver à soie' about silkworms he raised as a child and all the innuendos about identity and sexuality that can be interpreted in the tiny form of this creature. Most of Demenageries is concerned with texual matters, particularly in Derrida's writings, that the animal question can lead us to trace and decipher.
Before looking more directly at the range of essays in Demenageries, it will be useful to remind ourselves of Derrida's main emphases in the complex texture of The Animal That Therefore I Am. Revisiting Montaigne's famous question from 'The Apology for Raymond Sebond' about whether when he played with his cat, 'who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to...