Introduction: Of Biodeconstruction (Part II)
Of Biodeconstruction (Part II) ventures through the door left open by the emergent questions, hesitations, and provocations about deconstruction, the philosophy of life, and the life sciences advanced in Of Biodeconstruction (Part I). Although Jacques Derrida’s writings on autoimmunity, pharmakon, life-death, the question of the animal, Geschlecht, cloning, living-on, the genetic program, and epigenesis suggest an engagement—from the earliest publications to the last seminars—with biology, the life sciences, and the philosophy of life, it remains a question whether or not deconstruction is already “biodeconstruction.” Yet neither a critique of the biological sciences—contemporary or arcane—nor, alternately, a conclusion concerning the historical limits of deconstruction in our postgenomic era is primarily what is at stake. Rather than taking aim at a target from the outside or foreclosing on the future, the critical force of deconstructive readings and writings tends toward implosion and preemption. And yet: a step of retreat (the pas, the “not” of the step) perhaps hinders differential materiality’s foray into biological thought. Catherine Malabou, the honored respondent for the Of Biodeconstruction double issue, interrogates this hindrance in her many books—especially Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality and Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction—and further develops for the present Postmodern Culture issue a critical clarification of what she sees as a Derridean blind spot.
In Of Biodeconstruction (Part I), the essays by Vitale, Obodiac, and Senatore, for the most part, hold fast to Derrida’s critique of self-consciousness as living presence—phenomenology’s cornerstone—and the premise that différance and the trace not only organize and constitute all life, from the amoeba to the human being, but also subtend the animate and the inanimate: counter to a logocentric conception of the genetic code, the genome as a mode of arche-writing, a texture of differential traces, allows for an openness to the outside that might be compatible with contemporary findings in epigenetics, systems theory, and research into the plasticity of the genome. In addition, the conversation by Kirby, Schrader, and Timár, which headed up Part I, demonstrates that new materialist feminism, feminist science studies, and the analysis of the political economy of nature-culture find in biodeconstruction a critical ally.
If Part I situates biodeconstruction within the current critical context and the Derridean groundwork, Part II presents focused readings of Jacques Derrida’s concept of autoimmunity; Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the living being; Jane Bennett’s new materialist and Irwin Schrödinger’s genetic determinist conceptions of life; and Jorge Luis Borges’s bio-onto-theologic story “La escritura del dios.”
Framed against the backdrop of Roberto Esposito’s thesis that biopolitics mediates biology and politics by way of the immunity paradigm, the first essay, Elina Staikou’s “Autoimmunity in Extremis: The Task of Biodeconstruction,” explores the radical dimensions of Derrida’s concept of autoimmunity. Arguing that autoimmunity has made its appearance in Derrida’s work under various names—pharmakon, death-drive, the nuclear hypothesis—Staikou suggests that autoimmunity is a central principle for biodeconstruction, one that attends to both the nihilism and the affirmation that characterize life processes such as those played out in endosymbiosysis and apoptosis.
In “Biodeconstructing Merleau-Ponty,” Raoul Frauenfelder turns to the seminars on biology and philosophy Maurice Merleau-Ponty gave in the 1950s at the Collège de France. Frauenfelder identifies the development of the preformationism/epigenesis dialectic as a constitutive stumbling block for Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh of the world”—the master concept of his oeuvre—suggesting that this dialectic flattens out the radically differential nature of life-death: biodeconstruction puts into question the teleological closure reasserted by the phenomenological reading of the living being.
Jonathan Basile’s essay, “How the Other Half-Lives: Life as Identity and Difference in Bennett and Schrödinger,” takes up the work of Jane Bennett, Erwin Schrödinger, Immanuel Kant, and Bernard Stiegler to demonstrate how biodeconstruction differs from new materialist, genetic determinist, and anthropocentric conceptions of life. Binaries such as animate/inanimate, vitalism/mechanism, self/other, human/animal, and especially the binary identity/difference fail to account for the living being’s differential materiality.
The final essay, Riccardo Baldissoni’s “Of Other Jaguars: Glosses to the Writing of God,” maps Carl Schmitt’s secularization thesis onto modern biology. In an extended reading of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Writing of the God,” Baldissoni identifies a continuity between ontotheology and biological science: cyberneticists or mathematicians who simulate biological systems via the theory of cellular automata are not so unlike the Mayan priest who attempts to decipher a divine message from the patterned fur of the jaguar.
These essays, as well as the contributions presented in Of Biodeconstruction (Part I), signal that biodeconstruction’s scope of interest ranges from the present critical conjuncture, the philosophical archive that haunts deconstruction, and theory’s disappearing future. They also point to the growing number of conferences, articles, and books that fall under the biodeconstruction umbrella. Some of the books published recently in this field include Derrida’s La Vie La Mort (2019), Dawne McCance’s The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La Vie La Mort (2019), Francesco Vitale’s Biodeconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Life Sciences (2018), Mauro Senatore’s Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida (2018), Matthias Fritsch’s (ed.) Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and Environmental Philosophy (2018), Michael Naas’s Plato and the Invention of Life (2018), and David Wills’s Inanimation: Theories of Inorganic Life (2016). It would appear that a biodeconstructive turn is afoot in what is now half-seriously called “Derrida Studies.” Yet the question remains: is biodeconstruction an excrescence of deconstruction, a latecomer, or was it already undertaken, in a fashion, in Derrida’s own writings?
In her response to Of Biodeconstruction, Catherine Malabou argues that it “n’a pas été entreprise par Derrida” and that it remains still to come. In “Derrida en Animal Rationnel: résponse à Of Biodeconstruction,” Malabou observes that Derrida symptomatically retreats from challenging Heidegger’s rejection of Aristotle’s zoological definition of the human being—the zoon logon ekhon and the zoon politikon—and that the peculiar fidelity to this rejection bears analysis. Malabou suggests that this retreat will lead us to a wellspring of presuppositions concerning deconstruction, namely, the status of animalitas with regard to the human being, the schism between life and existence, the complicity between metaphysics and the bio-/zoo-logical conception of life, and the techno-scientific project of the life sciences, especially the cybernetic-genetic program. Heidegger denounces the calculability and instrumentality of cybernetics and the genetic program, yet does not consider, according to Malabou, that the character of biological science might change in the future. She also claims that Derrida retains this foregone judgment against biology all the while mobilizing François Jacob’s “logic of life,” or “genetic writing,” for the elaboration of arche-writing and the trace in Of Grammatology. Aligning the Heideggerian critique of technoscience and the rejection of the zoological definition of man, Malabou identifies a stumbling block that is left “intacte, non-déconstruite” by Derrida. Revisiting Aristotle’s zoon logon ekhon and the zoon politikon might yield a critique of the critique and, proposes Malabou, a conception of the human being that is surprisingly up to date with contemporary biology. Although Derrida does put into question ontology and the priority of Dasein, he does not take, according to Malabou, the direct path, as the crow flies, so to speak, i.e. the explicit subscription to man as animal.
We will leave it to readers to determine if and why this might be the case. Malabou, for her part, surreptitiously invokes “autoimmunity” to account for Derrida’s circumnavigation: in “Faith and Knowledge,” suspicious of the divide between the machine and the living being—the latter of which is traversed by automatisms and machinic principles through and through—Derrida would initially appear to buttress the defences of the programmatic, technoscientific understanding of life against Heidegger’s critique of it. And yet: the spotlighting of the machine only sends the zoon further into the shadows, reinstating Heidegger’s denigration of mere life. In this account, however, readers might wonder, again, whether différance, the trace, and arche-writing interminably destabilize and make inoperative any programmatic machine, even, as the Of Biodeconstruction double issue intimates, deconstruction as an autoimmunity machine: a question concerning the zoon logon ekhon and the zoon politikon that any future biodeconstruction might follow.
The contributors to Of Biodeconstruction Parts I and II warmly thank Eyal Amiran and Annie Moore for their editorial direction and management of this double issue of Postmodern Culture.
Erin Obodiac received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine and has held teaching and research appointments at UC Irvine, the University of Leeds, SUNY Albany, and Cornell University. Her writings address the conceptual antecedents of machinic subjectivity as well as the nascent technosphere that ushered in our geologic era, the anthropocene. As a Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, she began the research project “Robots at Risk: Transgenic Art and Corporate Personhood,” which explored the role of automata in the genesis of cinematic animation and contemporary biomedia. As a Mellon Fellow, Obodiac developed this project as the book manuscript The Transhuman Interface, proposing that we use a lenticular lens to view cinema and the anthropocene as one emergence.