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  • The Place of Animals in PoliticsThe Difficulty of Derrida’s “Political” Legacy
  • Nathan Snaza (bio)

Two books appearing in 2012—Élisabeth de Fontenay’s Without Offending Humans: A Critique of Animal Rights and Cary Wolfe’s Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame—highlight a particular difficulty in the now widespread reception of Jacques Derrida’s writings on animals. Fontenay’s essays survey the history of Western metaphysical reflection on the animal—and some overly simplistic attempts to break from that tradition—with a razor-sharp focus on moments when writers in that tradition (including even Aristotle) engage with animals in ways largely ignored by the increasingly influential interpretation of this tradition circulating within critical animal studies. Wolfe sets out to “radicalize” philosophical accounts of biopolitics by attempting to rethink its axioms and central concepts, beginning with the bodies, lives, and institutional capture of nonhuman animals. Significantly, both Fontenay and Wolfe build their central arguments around Derrida’s writings, and both take up the question of the place of animals in his politics, but Fontenay’s and Wolfe’s approaches could hardly be more different, especially in the ways they distance their positions from the dominant strand of animal rights discourse, which preaches legal status for animals through utilitarian philosophical argument.1

Even as Derrida’s engagements with “the animal” (a term he deconstructs and replaces with animot to signal the discursive and conceptual violence at stake in placing all “animals” under the same sign) have become a de rigueur point of reference in contemporary writing on animals, the specific conceptual and political legacy of his writings could not be less certain.2 In an interview with Elisabeth Roudinesco, Derrida writes:

However much sympathy I may have for a declaration of animal rights that would protect them from human violence, I don’t think this is a good solution. Rather, I believe in a slow and progressive approach. It is necessary [End Page 181] to do what one can, today, to limit this violence, and it is in this sense that deconstruction is engaged: not to destroy the axiomatics of this (formal and juridical) solution, nor to discredit it, but to reconsider the history of law and the concept of right.

(2004, 74)

For Derrida it is too simple to seek the insertion of animals into an already-existing framework of legal “rights.” What is required is something much more difficult and “slow”: the reconceptualization of “right.” And yet Derrida insists on not “destroying” or “discrediting” the existing juridical solution; animal rights are not a “good solution,” but perhaps their support is warranted under the circumstances.

I would like to draw out two crucial differences between Fontenay and Wolfe in this context. First, despite a certain shared political thinking with Wolfe signaled in the phrase “a community of the living,” Fontenay’s direct statements on the place of animals in politics rely on the logic and institutions of rights.3 Wolfe turns to biopolitics, in part, to articulate a political framework that mobilizes an entirely different vocabulary, one that is far more skeptical of rights and all the political concepts and institutions supporting them.4 That is, Wolfe and Fontenay differently emphasize the two distinct predicates of Derrida’s “it is necessary,” one negative and one positive. Second, both take up the human’s animality differently, and one can see this difference in relation to the title of Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am. Fontenay’s entire project is committed to distinguishing between the human and the animal, even as the vast majority of her attention is spent on demonstrating how that difference is nowhere near as simple or certain as a hasty reading of metaphysical and humanist philosophy would have it. For Wolfe, the human is an animal, and the human’s difference from other animals is of no greater magnitude than the difference between any two animals.

In order to situate Derrida’s thought, and therefore the difficulty it bequeaths to contemporary attempts to theorize the place of animals in politics, it is necessary to briefly trace both the emergence of what might be called the ongoing deconstruction of the concept...


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pp. 181-199
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