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  • Biodiversity and the Abyssal Limits of the Human
  • John Miller (bio)

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...


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pp. 207-220
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