- Informal Observations. A review of David Farrell Krell, Derrida and Our Animal Others: Derrida’s Final Seminar, “The Beast and the Sovereign.”
Over the past twenty years David Krell has often eschewed the standard format of scholarly publications in favor of, for example, philosophical fiction (Son of Spirit; Nietzsche: A Novel); or books that allow themselves a more informal tonality and a type of modest pedagogical ambition, as in the case of Derrida and Our Animal Others. He dedicates his first two chapters to summarizing the Beast and the Sovereign seminars that Derrida gave in 2001–2003. The three following chapters discuss The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida’s critique of Heidegger on the animal, and Heidegger on apophantic discourse. A conclusion then proposes some directions for future research.
Yet Krell’s modesty is accompanied by a forceful denunciation of the parlous state of current intellectual effort, particularly as it participates in the “flatten[ing] and banaliz[ing of] our powers of expression” as a function of the “waxing illiteracy of our time” (158). Thus, whereas he mourns the loss of academic rigor and the sidelining of work within the literary and philosophical humanities, he finds those disciplines to be complicit in their own demise, descending to “rather vapid self-righteous discourses on biopower and biopoliticking,” or contributing to “exchanges within and without the walls, in our departments and colleges as well as at conferences, [that have] become increasingly mindless, overhasty, and testy” (93, 149).
A major aim of Derrida and Our Animal Others is therefore to hold up the late work of one philosopher as a shining example of how research and pedagogy should be conducted, even though Krell knows full well that the style of Derrida’s teaching and writing can produce reactions of impatience and charges of obfuscation. Krell is one of those (as am I) who have no doubt that Derrida’s work is to be admired and emulated, and his book is therefore replete with observations and commentaries that demonstrate the philosophical acumen and pedagogical strategies of the series of seminars—and writings around those seminars—that turned out to be Derrida’s final major undertaking before his death in 2004. One might, in that respect, call Krell’s book unapologetically partisan: for example, he finds Derrida’s somewhat contentious, even combative critique of Agamben in The Beast and the Sovereign “utterly devastating,” “exactly right” in substituting a philology of “rhetorical flourish” for the deconstructive reading he promotes (15).
So modest, in one sense, is Krell’s project of presenting philosophical thinking and teaching as it should be, that he is content to have the blow-by-blow commentary of “The Beast and the Sovereign” seminars, their “themes” and “theses,” fill well over a third of his book. Each sub-chapter in that first section begins with an annotated summary of the topics covered in each of the twenty-three seminars, including bibliographical sources. The same the section concludes with the admonition (tongue-in-cheek, I presume) concerning what “the granting agencies” could have done “for philosophy instead of against it”: i.e., “they could have used that money to fly dozens of us to Paris” (75). That summary even finds fit to discuss typos that appear in the English translations, restricted almost exclusively to incorrect German usages such as the scharfes ‘s’ (8n). Krell’s book is, in that way, about nothing if not attention to detail, and Derrida is especially valued for being the paragon of minutiae-minding (even if he was himself capable of typos and other inaccuracies).
“The Beast and the Sovereign” summaries lead into a similar discussion of The Animal That Therefore I Am, although by this point in Krell’s book, and for the remainder, Krell’s commentaries become more exegetical, as he expands the scope of his analysis to embrace a number of other topics, or to expand on—even gently critique—Derrida’s approach. For example, Krell attends to Heidegger’s concept of Benommenheit as developed in his1929–30 seminar, and he...