Biodiversity and the Abyssal Limits of the Human
It has been often noted that Derrida said nothing directly about climate change. He did, on the other hand, say a lot about animals. While Timothy Clark can assert that “environmental questions look like a perplexing and seemingly expanding absence or even evasion in Derrida’s writing” (2010, 132), Cary Wolfe can state with confidence that Derrida’s essay “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” is “arguably the single most important event in the brief history of animal studies” (2009, 570). That these two statements may be equally true reveals a good deal about the evolution of environmental criticism and animal studies as separate enterprises. For all the burgeoning interest in Derrida’s late work on “the question…of the living animal,” a theme which, for him, “will always have been the most important and decisive question” (34), less emphasis than might be expected has been placed on its ecological implications. That is to say, there has been a surprising dearth of attention to the ways in which, despite his lack of explicit engagement with environmental crisis, Derrida’s interrogation of humanism and animality, of otherness and subjectivity and the ethics and politics that arise from that, returns us to the constellation of issues at the forefront of debates emerging in critical theory and elsewhere from the intensifying warming of the planet.
Specifically, if, as Adam Trexler and Adeline Johns-Putra summarize, climate change comprises “a phenomenon that allows us to deconstruct some of the ideological assumptions that underpin modern Western lifestyles” (2011, 194), Derrida’s animals work pivots on a central reference point for any such analysis: the “abyssal limit,” as he puts it, between “those who call themselves men and what so-called men…call the animal” (2008, 30). Repeatedly, emergent critical discourses on climate change insist on the name of man. The vast scale of anthropogenic ecological events has resulted in the coinage of “Anthropocene” as a descriptor of our planetary era that identifies the geological weight of humanity’s ecological footprint and emphasizes the remarkable degree of human influence since the industrial revolution. Although, in Tom Cohen’s words, the “swarming logics of climate change arrive to deconstruct the artefactual real of human modernity as if from [End Page 207] without” (emphasis in original), the appearance of such an “outside” is phantasmal (2010, 74). Climate change is the “threat without enemy, faceless” (72, emphasis in original), which can bear no name (or face) other than our own. As climate change announces for Clark the “closure” of modernity, “rendering its structures both newly perceptible and philosophically exhausted” (2010, 133), the idea of “the human” is one perhaps above all others that appears starkly visible and in need of urgent reconfiguration; particularly, that is, the ideal of an atomistic and unequivocally entitled human subject that stands as a central tenet of neo-liberal consumerist societies.
As a concentrated anthropization of the planet, climate change brings us, therefore, to consider established notions of the human and how they exist in relation to the nonhuman, not just as a problem of ethics and politics (how we acknowledge and legislate for our coexistence with other species), but also, behind and within these, as a problem of ontology: a question that David Wood dwells on of who “we” are (2007, 277). The profound inscription of human evolution into deep planetary time means, in Timothy Morton’s words, that “there is no longer any background…against which human activity may differentiate itself” (2010b, 5). Such erosion of the structural opposition between human and nonhuman has given rise to some sweeping pronouncements on the significance of our ecological moment. Famously, for Bill McKibben in the title of his 1989 book, we have arrived at The End of Nature. Or similarly, for Stephen M. Meyer in 2006, we have come to The End of the Wild. Nothing now can be said to exist entirely beyond human interference. Accordingly, Meyer’s projected ecological future lingers on the dramatic constriction of the criteria for other species’ survival: the “land and the oceans will continue to teem with life, but it will be a particularly homogenized assemblage of organisms unnaturally selected for their compatibility with one unnatural force: us” (2006, 4). A failure to account adequately for the consequences of our actions or to acknowledge fully a responsibility to other beings and the systems of life in which they are imbricated leads in Meyer’s prognosis to a greatly simplified biosphere in which the human has become the ultimate evolutionary force.
As much as this attests to Homo sapiens’ extraordinary power, it also, paradoxically, adds a certain instability to how we think of the human. Derrida’s interrogation of human subjectivity is “autobiographical,” which is not to say that it is a narrative of his own life, but that it is an account of the ways in which “the human” declares itself to itself as a distinct and uniquely privileged form of life (which is why Derrida insists on the “so-called human”). This self-construction proceeds through what Giorgio Agamben posits as the “anthropological machine,” by which “Homo sapiens…is neither a clearly defined species nor a substance; it is, rather, a machine or device for producing the recognition of the human” (2004, 26). Fundamental to this self-identifying operation is the differentiation of self from other that occurs through the designation “animal.” As Derrida puts it, “the gaze called ‘animal’ offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or [End Page 208] the ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say the bordercrossing from which vantage man dares announce himself to himself” (2008, 12). Historically, this delimitation of human being has prospered through the attribution of a series of—now increasingly contested—privations to the animal other (the lack of language or lack of technicity et cetera), which then allow “us” to announce what is “proper” to “us,” the ostensibly distinctive characteristics that constitute the exceptional fullness of man among other animals. The hyper-humanized future that Meyer depicts invites us to frame this process macrocosmically: that is, as a self-construction that hinges not just on a differentiation that occurs in relation to individual animals, but which we must now situate on a larger scale in relation to the denuded complexity of animal life. Climate change heralds an infinite deferral of the ends of man that disrupts the conventional narrative of the transcendent emergence of the human out of the natural world of animal life over evolutionary time but still in contra-distinction to it in present time. For this reason (which is one of many reasons why the posthuman is increasingly spoken of), anthropocentrism may ultimately be held to deconstruct itself. The tighter the human is held on to as the exceptional basis for ethical and political thinking, with all the catastrophic consequences this has in part given rise to, the more what is being held changes into something else.
This provides two good reasons for turning to Derrida’s late essays and interviews on animals to buttress the critical theoretical engagement with climate change. First, we need to rethink (as indeed many scholars have been doing for some time) what we mean by “human” and “animal” because climate change, among other interlinked factors, has made it impossible for these terms to mean what we thought they meant. How is it possible now to think unproblematically of “the animal” as the nonhuman or the more-than-human? Second, we need to rethink what we mean by “human” and “animal” because it is in doing so that we might begin imagining an alternative logic for our planetary existence that might be one, as Leonard Lawlor hopes, of “a lesser violence” (2007, 44). An important task in the name of this second cause is, as I will argue, to unravel the ideological structures behind attempts to advance an ecological agenda through the anthropocentric logic of the marketplace.
As the epoch of anthropos proceeds hand-in-hand with catastrophe, Derrida’s engagement with animals goes to the conceptual heart of ecological crisis, and also in the process highlights the value of a renewed awareness of the intimacies between environmental criticism and animal studies. While Cohen may see animal studies (reductively in the form of Donna Haraway’s recent companion animal studies) crystallizing into “an anthropo-colonial dossier of one’s pets” (2010, 84), the analysis of the human/animal dichotomy ongoing under this umbrella label complements and deepens environmental criticism’s formulation of climate change’s giddying impacts. As a leading influence in this field, Derrida’s animals work offers more than a “regress, or play to the humanist reader,” as Cohen characterizes Derrida’s “raids into [End Page 209] animality” (2008, 84). It offers more also, I will suggest, than what Clark identifies as “a notion of…subjectivity as openness to the other” (cited in Cohen 2010; 88, n9).
Derrida’s work on animals is dense, suggestive and at times evasive, covering a vast tract of philosophical and literary ground from Alice in Wonderland to the Bible and incorporating discussions of Lacan, Levinas, Nietzsche and, most centrally, Heidegger. It has given rise to a good degree of scholarly contention, perhaps most notably regarding its negotiation of the competing claims of biological continuism and metaphysical separationism as means of conceptualizing human/animal difference. The crux of this concerns whether the distinction of humans and animals is most accurately characterized as a fundamental ontological breach or rather as part of an evolutionary gradation that imagines a more intimate connection between them. Instead of allocating Derrida’s animal work to either one of these apparently contrasting views (as some critics have done), Lawlor prefers a reading that moves towards a position that is “more sufficient than the reductionism of biological continuity and the separationism of a metaphysical opposition” (2007, 44). The force of this middle way is to “make the separation between human existence and animal life uncertain” (45, emphasis in original) and so to approach the whole question of being in such a way that established ways of thinking about species difference become unstable. This allows for a renegotiation both of the meaning of the human and of the meaning of otherness that leads, in Wolfe’s words, to the possibility of seeing “nonhuman animals not as the other-than-human, but as the infra-human…as part of us, of us” (2003, 17, emphasis in original), which, in turn I argue, offers grounds for a different ethical bearing in our approach to the Anthropocene.
Above all, Derrida’s thought on animals insists on the heterogeneity of life. Among the most powerful, and often quoted, facets of his argument in The Animal That Therefore I Am is his condemnation of the widely-used general singular “the animal.” Such usage, he argues, compresses “the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, … the ant from the silkworm, or the hedgehog from the echidna” into a “catch-all concept” that too straightforwardly opposes the human (2008, 34). To ignore the myriad differences within his inventory of otherness and to insist against all the evidence on the singularity of animality constitutes for Derrida “one of the greatest and symptomatic asinanities of those who call themselves humans” (41). Hence, Derrida does not believe in a “single, indivisible limit” between man and animal (47); any consideration of Derrida’s investigation of the so-called human/animal divide must incorporate an attention to biological diversity, to the “heterogeneous multiplicity of the living” that exists beyond the “edge of the so-called human” (31, emphasis in original).
Accordingly, biodiversity loss is a theme that surfaces more than once in The Animal That Therefore I Am, as well as elsewhere in his late work on animals, albeit not in any systematic way and sometimes as a seemingly confused addition to the distinct if related issue of the industrial organization [End Page 210] of the lives of farmed animals. Among his description of the “unprecedented transformation” of the Earth that “we who call ourselves men or humans” (24) have produced, Derrida notes that “the number of species endangered because of man takes one’s breath away” (26). This on-going event forms part, he adds, of an “alteration…in the being-with shared by the human and by what the human calls the animal” that “has been accelerating, intensifying, …for about two centuries, at an incalculable rate and level” (24-25). Thus, anthropogenic planetary processes and the declining diversity of species provide a vital ecological component of Derrida’s animals work.
To expand briefly on this context, biodiversity loss may currently be proceeding at as much as 1000 times the “natural background rate” of extinction (Djoghlaf and Dodds 2011, xv). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that “20-30 per cent of species assessed would be at risk of extinction if climate change leads to global average temperature rises greater than 1.5-2.5°C” (Campbell et al. 2009, 9-10). Biodiversity is imperiled not just by the simple inability of some organisms to adapt to a rise in temperature, but by a range of associated causes, including habitat loss, altered precipitation patterns, “extreme events,” the increase in pathogens and parasites, decreased food supply and declining fertility (Campbell et al. 2009, 25-28). Significantly, biodiversity loss is not just an effect of climate change, but also a contributing factor to its acceleration. In supporting the health of ecosystems, biodiversity is key to climate change mitigation and adaptation, notably through the role of many organisms in the carbon cycle. Biodiversity is indispensable for human flourishing. As Ahmed Djoghlaf and Felix Dodds conclude, ‘biodiversity is OUR life’ (2011, xviii, emphasis in original).
Living as we are in the midst of Earth’s sixth great extinction event, generally referred to as the Holocene extinction (although the Anthropocene extinction would be more accurate), presents humanity with a complex set of challenges. International attempts to limit biodiversity loss have been on-going for many years. The 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species aimed to address one aspect of the problem. The 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) had a broader remit, embodied in its three goals: “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources” (“Sustaining Life on Earth” 2012). In a further push to bring meaningful recognition to the gravity of the problem, 2010 was designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Biodiversity. Not only do these initiatives appear to have been largely ineffectual, but they have also stimulated some sharp criticism on ideological grounds, perhaps most trenchantly in Vandana Shiva’s work. The CBD, Shiva asserts, “started out primarily as an initiative of the North to ‘globalise’ the central management and ownership of biological diversity” in order to advance the portfolios of large corporations at the expense of the local interests of inhabitants of the postcolonial tropics where the majority of the world’s most biodiverse [End Page 211] ecosystems are located (1993, 151). Central to this trajectory is the advent of “bioprospecting” through which corporations aim to uncover the occluded potential usages of nonhuman life, most commonly for pharmaceutical purposes (Shiva 1997, 21). For Shiva, this attention to the economic potential of genetic information for corporate biotechnologies constitutes “the ultimate colonization of life itself,” a penetration of capital into the biological fabric of the planet that raises profound questions over the supposedly egalitarian agenda of the sustainable development at the center of the CBD (1997, 5).
The management of biodiversity loss, therefore, provides a useful point from which to interrogate a hegemonic discourse of “sustainability” that aims to harmonize environmental concerns with the imperatives of the market, a development that has been described as the ‘ecological phase’ of capitalism (DeLoughrey and Handley 2011, 19). As an intensification of the liberal humanist discourse Derrida’s work is so useful in unpicking, this context is worth dwelling on. In the global system challenged by Shiva, biodiversity represents what is increasingly described as “natural capital.” Indeed, emerging out of the 2007 TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) project initiated by the G8, a website named The Bank of Natural Capital now exists to communicate the “economic impact of biodiversity loss,” which boils down, as they put it, to the simple equation, “do nothing, and we lose trillions.” Biodiversity in this and other sources appears (hardly surprisingly) as a sine qua non of economic stability and growth. As Djoghlaf (the CBD’s executive secretary) summarized it, “without biodiversity, Wall Street has nothing to base itself upon” (2008, 3). The financial imperative behind this remark has resulted in an intensive effort to quantify the economic value of various facets of biodiversity in the name of a new, harder-edged commitment to conservation. After all, as The Bank of Natural Capital declaims, “You can not manage what you do not measure.”
TEEB, then, has set about calculating the “costs of biodiversity loss” (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity). In the United Kingdom this market driven approach to ecology has been most prominently represented by the 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK-NEA), which provides “a comprehensive overview of the state of the natural environment in the UK and a new way of estimating our national wealth” (Selbourne 2011, 3). Publicizing this ground-breaking document, the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, was drawn inevitably to the same rhetoric as TEEB. “We need to recognize,” she explains, “that if we withdraw something from Mother Nature’s bank, we’ve got to put something back in to ensure that the environment has a healthy balance and a secure future” (qtd. in Johnstone 2011). Spelman’s vision of nature as bank contains ecology in a fantasy of total economics that might be characterized as “deep management” or “deep anthropocentrism”: a neo-liberal backlash to “deep ecology.” In short, it aims to put a price on the environment, factoring in to decision-making what one of the UK-NEA’s authors Bob Watson calls nature’s “hidden value” (qtd. in Feilden 2011). Accordingly, the value of pollinators to UK agriculture [End Page 212] is estimated at “£430 million” per year (Synthesis of Key Findings 2011, 33), while the “health benefits of merely living close to a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year” (Feilden). Biodiversity in this schema is reduced to three related forms of capital: the value it offers to “ecosystem services” (through pollination, for example), the value of genetic resources (those targeted by bioprospectors) and the value of the more vaguely realized “cultural services” (“the environmental settings that give rise to the cultural goods and benefits that people obtain from ecosystems”) (UK-NEA 2011, 81, emphasis in original).
The market-driven ecological managerialism celebrated by TEEB and the UK-NEA imagines an ecological way-out through the final infiltration of financial planning into the world’s secrets. Of course, the vital importance of pragmatics should not be underestimated and any way forward might seem like a good way forward. But there are some significant areas of concern in this way of thinking. First, and rather ironically, there is a fundamental ambivalence to the kind of extreme anthropocentric position supported by Spelman and others in that it actually trumps consideration of human welfare except in so far as it pertains to the economic structures that circumscribe our lives (an outcome starkly illustrated by the stringent benefits and public service cuts in many countries since the “downturn”). Consequently, TEEB and the UK-NEA’s supreme privileging of the human is not in fact a privileging of the human at all, but rather a privileging of the system that purportedly (and at the very best inconsistently) serves to nourish and enrich humanity. Just as the arrival of the Anthropocene heralds the destabilization of ideas of the human, so the increasing prominence of neo-liberal economic environmentalism, for all its anthropocentric logic, ultimately emerges as another facet of our posthuman condition which reveals the underlying inhumanity (with all the ramifications of that term) of our current economic and political orthodoxies. As Shiva’s writing along with a substantial body of recent work under the aegis of postcolonial ecocriticism has demonstrated, the numerous ethical failures of an economically driven global environmentalism offer pressing grounds for skepticism, notwithstanding the gestures towards social justice that sustainability discourses invariably house. So, for all climate change’s radical challenge to the structures and suppositions of capitalist modernity, capitalist modernity does not seem to have noticed. As Frederic Jameson has suggested, ‘it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism’ (1994, xii). The “second nature” of our ideological lives has overwhelmed the “first nature” of our ecological existence. In doing so, neo-liberal environmentalism moves dangerously close to a kind of totalization that forecloses dissent from its worldview by aiming to incorporate it into the deep structures of planetary life.
A second area of concern is that the neo-liberal approach to biodiversity is ultimately haunted by the idea of uselessness. If the contribution of many species to the successful continuation of human activities is clear and [End Page 213] absolutely fundamental, other species are of less certain significance. In this instrumentalist mode of analysis, the ethical magnitude of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns appears self-evident, but the importance of the anticipated decimation of the world’s amphibian populations is obscure. We live, as Ulrich Beck has noted, in an “age of unintended consequences” (1999, 119) in which apparent superfluity may mask disastrous consequences. But, as Pavan Sukhdev and Christoph Schröter-Schlack remark, even now “[w]e know too little about why each species is important” and, critically, “[u] ncertainties lead policy-makers to hesitate” (2011, 170). Indeed, as Eric Persson concludes in his painstaking What is Wrong with Extinction?, “we will probably never have enough information to make a fully informed decision as to which course of action is the most rational from an anthropocentric instrumental point of view” (2008, 58-59). Addressing this deadlock, the argument in favor of the conservation of ambiguously valuable species on the grounds that they might prove to be vital is a prominent feature of anthropocentric environmentalisms. The UK-NEA announces that the “greatest value for biodiversity conservation will come from ensuring the persistence of as many different genes or compounds as possible” (“Appendix” 2011, 5). What currently appears to have limited direct or indirect economic value can at least be understood as having prospective value. The endpoint of economics is kept in suspension, as if it is only a matter of time before it is able to contain those recalcitrant beings that mark its limit. Expendability, however, is an inescapable part of this logic. The logic of economics is the logic of exchange: an animal’s presence exists in relation to some other process, scheme or use of habitat that might eventually be held to take priority over it. As Kathryn Yusoff concludes in perhaps the sharpest piece of critical commentary to date on the UK-NEA, “[a]ccording to the logic of this ‘natural capital,’ the nature that does not provide and service us has no place in the world” (2011, 5).
The question of biodiversity, therefore, hints towards a limit point (there are doubtless many others) of market-driven, anthropocentric approaches to ecological issues. Since there are almost certainly a lot of species we could probably do without at no obvious detriment to human civilization, discussions of the mitigation of biodiversity loss involve a consideration of possible forms of value that might prove meaningful at the limit of anthropocentrism and which might extend beyond a narrowing focus on economic interests as a transcendental determinant of value. Alternative forms of value are routinely, if it seems often half-heartedly, accommodated in the text of hegemonic environmentalisms. As Spelman writes in muddled terms, “[w]e also need to recognize the intrinsic value of biodiversity in the provision of the ecosystem services on which we all rely” (2011, 143). Evidently, any recognition of the intrinsic value of a service would not be an intrinsic value at all, but an intention to recognize the edges of anthropocentrism is nonetheless apparent. In this vein, forms of value that remain anthropocentric but which are not strictly instrumentalist have been frequently expressed. Meyer provides an example of this when he complains that a less biodiverse future [End Page 214] will be “less able to capture the awe and wonder of the human spirit” (2006, 90). This gesture towards a poetics of encounter constitutes, in the UK-NEA’s blunter language, part of biodiversity’s value as a “cultural service” and so remains embedded in a liberal humanist agenda (although certainly in a more promising way than a crude financialization).
Inevitably circling such debates are the counter-anthropocentric (biocentric) energies of deep ecology, something of the bête noir of environmental criticism, given the perceived violence of its antipathy to human interests. Indeed, as Wolfe notes, deep ecology’s focus on inherent ecological value boils down to a large extent to biodiversity as an “ultimate good,” in itself “independent,” as the Deep Ecology Platform insists “of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes” (2003, 23). The limitations of deep ecology, occasionally seen as a kind of proto-eco-fascism, have been often rehearsed and Wolfe’s account is among the most balanced, revealing in particular the “soft anthropocentrism” it reverts to in the caveat that humans have no right to reduce richness and diversity of life “except to satisfy vital needs” (2003, 24). There is a need, therefore, to think of biodiversity differently, beyond the either/or of a perilous anthropocentrism that defers value to a logic of exchange and a utopian biocentrism that evades questions of social justice. It is here that Derrida’s theorization of the ambivalence and heterogeneity of the supposed human/animal divide proves useful, specifically for the way it may provide the basis for a discourse of multiplicity that does not, indeed cannot, circulate around man as its organizing center.
Among the most striking and recurrent terms of Derrida’s discourse on animal otherness, and one already cited, is “abyss.” In all, “abyss” appears in various forms 18 times in The Animal That Therefore I Am (and more in this connection elsewhere), most frequently in the terms of an apparent break or space between the so-called animal and the so-called human. Thus, there is an “abyssal rupture” between “what calls itself man and what he calls the animal” (2008, 30, emphasis in original), while, as we have seen, the animal gaze opens up for Derrida the “abyssal limit of the human” (12). Significantly, the term is also an important one for Heidegger’s conceptualization of the human/animal division. In his “Letter on Humanism,” for instance, Heidegger writes of “living creatures” that “on the one hand they are in a certain way most closely akin to us, and on the other are at the same time separated from our ek-sistent essence by an abyss” (1993, 230). Heidegger’s unfamiliar usage “ek-sistent” encapsulates the radical un-traversable depth of this abyss. Thought, Heidegger explains, in terms of ecstasis (a literal “standing outside”), “ek-sistence means standing out into the truth of Being” (230). The difference of humans and animals is therefore that of access to the world as world. As Stuart Elden summarizes, “the lizard…though it suns itself on the rock does not understand the rock as rock” (2006, 275, emphasis in original). This results in Heidegger’s famous distinction that animals are “poor-in-world” whereas humans are “world-forming.” Heidegger’s analysis constitutes here what Matthew Calarco in Zoographies deems [End Page 215] “metaphysical anthropocentrism,” characterized by an “uncritical reliance on a logic of opposition in differentiating human beings from animals” (2008, 52) and which hinges, Calarco observes, on a “hyperbolic rhetoric of abysses and essential differences” (48).
In a later chapter of the same book, Calarco’s critique of Heidegger’s formulation of abyssal difference underpins a sense of disappointment that also emerges towards Derrida’s animals work. For Calarco, although Derrida had contested Heidegger’s diagnosis of the human/animal abyss in earlier work (notably Geschlecht II), his late essays and interviews on this theme with their insistence on the abyssal rupture between human and animal ultimately serve to reinstate Heideggerian separationism. So, Calarco complains that “Derrida resolutely refuses to abandon the human-animal distinction” (145). Framing this frustration is Calarco’s commitment to what might be seen as the central premise of animal studies, namely the impossibility of maintaining “a rigorous human-animal distinction” (147, emphasis in original), the very distinction which Derrida appears dogmatically to uphold. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to support Calarco’s reading. Derrida is adamant that “discussion is closed in advance” on the subject of a “discontinuity, rupture or even abyss” between human and animal, asserting that “one would have to be more asinine than any beast to think otherwise” (2008, 30). There is clearly a deliberate irony in the bestial hint of the asinine, a term he reiterates, with which Derrida forestalls debate of the human-animal abyss, but nonetheless the vituperation of the idea of continuity, that there is a biological gradation that links humans and animals, is forceful. Derrida is unequivocal in his desire be utterly distant from any “scatterbrained accusation of continuism” (30). His thought on animals is structured therefore, in Calarco’s analysis, around a false dilemma: “either we think of human beings and animals as separated by a single indivisible line…or we efface the distinction between human and animal altogether” (2008, 149).
It seems to me, however, that closer attention to the specific language of Derrida’s evocation of the abyss (to what you might call the texture of the abyss) leads to an alternative possibility. Having dismissed on the grounds of self-evidence any requirement to discuss the discontinuity of human and animal, Derrida outlines what may be a more productive line of enquiry:
The discussion is worth having once it is a matter of determining the number, form, sense, or structure, the foliated consistency, of this abyssal limit, these edges, this plural and repeatedly folded frontier. The discussion becomes interesting once, instead of asking whether or not there is a limit that produces a discontinuity, one attempts to think what a limit becomes once it is abyssal, once the frontier no longer forms a single indivisible line but more than one internally divided line; once as a result, it can no longer be traced, objectified, or counted as single and indivisible. What are the edges of a limit that grows and multiplies by feeding on an abyss?(2008, 30-31) [End Page 216]
Differences are not reducible here to a simple question of the opposition of divided terms, but instead are understandable as a series of edges that are, most interestingly, of a “foliated consistency” and “repeatedly folded.” These curious phrasings evoke in the first case a layering and in the second a turning back inwards of the limits between one being and the next which in both cases return separation to a kind of intimacy. What a limit becomes once it is abyssal is perhaps a kind of involutedness in which beings are both closed off from and participants in one another. The passage’s final, seemingly baffling rhetorical question gives a further indication that Derrida’s reiteration of a self-evident discontinuity does not preclude a form of connectedness between beings. “What,” indeed, “are the edges of a limit that grows and multiplies by feeding on an abyss?”
In this formulation, abyss does not appear as a dividing chasm but as a source of (a kind of) nourishment or as a point of origin out of which limits grow and multiply. The resonance of this is amplified in “But As for Me, Who Am I (Following)” when Derrida in a discussion of Paul Valéry writes that the “‘animal abyss’ (a phrase from Valéry’s ‘Silhouette of a Serpent’) is not a hole, a gulf, but too much being”; it “brings to light not nonbeing but being, a spark in the place of nothingness” (2008, 66). The abyss then is not a vacuum that marks out a metaphysical compartmentalization in which beings are discovered in their isolation from one another, but rather a potentiality from which beings in their incontrovertible differences all emerge. The abyss is not that which marks out the absolute separateness of different beings, but is something that different beings share.
This needs further explanation. As a first point of clarification, elsewhere in The Animal That Therefore I Am there is a somewhat different orientation to Derrida’s usage of abyss. In describing the animal gaze as “uninterpretable, unreadable, undecidable, abyssal and secret” (12), Derrida reminds us of the epistemological gap between so called man and so-called animals. We do not and cannot have access to their subjective realm. But in the long passage quoted above, Derrida is positing abyss as a way of imaging the ontological question of how we can conceptualize the heterogeneous relationships of different forms of being. Here Morton’s work is valuable in elucidating what we might mean by abyssal being, largely for the stress he places on the consanguinity between deconstruction and Darwinism. Much of Morton’s recent work extends from the premise that, in strikingly similar terms to a deconstructive approach to text, the “further scholarship investigates life forms…the less those life forms can be said to have a single, independent and lasting identity” (2010b, 1). In demonstrating this lack of biological coherence, Morton goes to the “basis of life”: DNA. Rather than the popularly conceived blueprint for life in which is inscribed the distinctive essence of divergent organisms, DNA, Morton explains, is actually far more ambivalent than this, most importantly in that it is without any “specific flavor.” So, there “is no chimp-flavored, no human-flavored DNA; we share 98 per cent of out DNA with chimps and 35 per cent with daffodils” (2010a, 66). Indeed, “there is [End Page 217] no DNA-flavored DNA” (67). ‘A rabbit’, by this argument, “is not really a rabbit…. All the way down there is no rabbit, no rabbit flavoured DNA. And all the way up rabbits act like rabbits’ (2010b, 5-6, emphasis in original).
Derrida consistently distances himself from the word “animal,” qualifying it, as we have seen, in phrases like “what so-called men…call the animal” (2008, 30) and in the neologism “animots” (a combination of the French plural for animal, animaux, and the word for words, mots) which expresses the “irreducible living multiplicity of mortals” that comprises “not a species nor a gender nor an individual,” but which also reminds us that “the animal” is “a matter of a word, only a word” (41): of naming not of being. Morton too finds “animal” unsatisfactory, preferring instead “strange stranger” as a coinage with a debt to Derrida’s conception of the arrivant that encapsulates “the strangeness of things” (2010a, 41) in a mesh of interconnectedness in which there is “no way of knowing which bits of our DNA are actually ‘ours’” (35). A similar emphasis emerges in Ted Toadvine’s connection of Derrida’s abyss to Merleau-Ponty’s thought on a “strange kinship” between humans and animals based on what Toadvine describes as the “reversible flesh of the world” (2010, 247). Each of these refinements of how we might re-conceptualize or re-name the so-called human/animal divide shares an interest in moving beyond species as a way of thinking about biodiversity. The ultimate conclusion for Morton is that “species don’t exist” (2010a, 126). Life for Morton, returning to Darwin, is less static, more continuingly mutating and more mutually constituting than the idea of species, with its implication of homogeneity, allows. “Evolution,” he writes, “jumbles bodies like a dream jumbles words and images” (65); it does not, as Derrida writes of the “intertwined and abyssal” relations across a “multiplicity of organizations,” “leave room for any simple exteriority of one term with respect to another” (31). Derrida’s abyss, read in this context, as “a spark in the place of nothingness” constitutes a relationship between so-called humans and animals that remains, in Toadvine’s words, “intimate without congealing into a continuum” (2010, 253). That the limit of the human should be abyssal identifies the human as one among a multiplicity of limits all of which are enclosed within and modulated by a kind of ontological groundlessness.
Conceiving of the human in these terms means to come to the realization that, as Wolfe concludes (to an argument that proceeds along different lines than this), “‘we’ are not ‘we’; we are not the ‘auto-’ of the ‘auto-biography’ that humanism gives to itself. Rather ‘we’ are always radically other, already in- or ahuman in our very being” (2009, 571). The designation of the “abyssal limit of the human” adds deep instability to the idea of human subjectivity and provides grounds for a renewed sense of responsibility towards the other abyssal subjects with which we share the planet that is far more meaningful than TEEB’s crude cost/benefit calculations. Indeed, as Wood, following Derrida, writes, “ethics…begins at the point at which calculation breaks down” (2006, 280). Morton’s work in particular, invites us to think of an ethics of biodiversity that exceeds the idea of species with the instrumentalist [End Page 218] values it has become laden with in the UK-NEA and elsewhere. This ethics is more than openness to the other because it adds a different inflection to how we conceptualize the terms self and other to begin with. It means that it becomes difficult to think of “the other” as an object, or element of exchange; it means that we must “reproblematize,” as Derrida puts it, how we think of “man,” “animal” and “world” (2008, 54). Thinking abyssally reinvigorates awareness of a shared finitude in a time of unprecedented peril. Living with attention to the shared emptiness of heterogeneous beings invites a greater determination to live harmlessly, in what Derrida calls the “dream of an absolute hospitality.” Of course, how to do this is the most vexed question of our time. As Derrida asks, “How to welcome or liberate so many animal-words [animots] chez moi? In me, for me, like me?” (37) A starting point at least is to insist on the evident fallaciousness of market driven approaches to biodiversity and to begin to think more ambitiously about the possibility of what Yusoff describes as “a transformation at the level of being” (2011, 6).
John Miller is a lecturer in nineteenth-century literature at the University of Sheffield. His first monograph, Empire and the Animal Body (2012), explores the representation of exotic animals in Victorian and Edwardian adventure fiction. He is currently working on the co-authored volume Walrus for the Reaktion Animal series and on his second monograph, Fur: A Literary History.