The animal rationale that is Jacques Derrida: a Response to “Of Biodeconstruction”
I am honored by and grateful for Eyal Amiran’s invitation to respond to the articles included in this fine double issue of Postmodern Culture, “Of Biodeconstruction.” While it is not possible for me to address each article individually, since several offer direct critiques of my work, I decided to present the position in regard to Jacques Derrida’s commentary on the living that I developed in “Déconstruire la résistance philosophique à la biologie,” most of which is translated here into English for the first time, as well as referring to some work on Derrida and Heidegger in my recent Morphing Intelligence.1 I thank the authors of these articles, therefore, for the occasion to consider again and reiterate my views on this matter. Contrary to what the authors here argue, I do still believe that if there is such a thing as “biodeconstruction,” it was never undertaken by Derrida himself. Biodeconstruction thus awaits its articulation, and this will require that a challenge be mounted to several assumptions within deconstruction. For instance, as I explain, the distrust Derrida shares with Heidegger in regard to Aristotle’s proposed definition of Man as “zoo-political” (Derrida, The Beast 349), in which Man is defined as a rational and political “animal.”
I adopt this approach because the articles in “Of Biodeconstruction” refer to texts Derrida wrote in the 1960s introducing a relation of solidarity between trace, writing, and program. As I have already presented a critical analysis of the texts from the sixties on several occasions, in the present context I opt to discuss later texts that take up the question of the animal and the relation to Heidegger, reexamining notions of writing and difference through “my” plasticity.2 Several articles in this issue are, in fact, critiques of plasticity’s critique, which I saw no point in repeating. I refer to it briefly, but I have developed my response elsewhere. Rather than diminishing the stakes of the dialogue undertaken here, I believe this approach allows me to alter the perspective of our exchange in productive ways.
1. Technoscience, Humanity, and Animality
Let me begin with a couple of reminders. According to Heidegger, the relational structure that connects the development of modern science to technological progress —a relationship revealed in the neologism technoscience —is determined by two significant metaphysical decisions, both of which grant a central role to life. The first, which emerges at the dawn of the philosophical tradition with Aristotle and governs it continually, is the definition of Man as animal rationale, in other words, as animal first and foremost. Heidegger characterizes this definition of Man as “zoopolitical” (Derrida, Beast 349). At the dawn of philosophy a biological and zoological concept of human “life” was thus established. Heidegger asks:
Are we really on the right track toward the essence of the human being as long as we set him off as one living creature among others in contrast to plants, beasts, and God? … But we must be clear on this point, that when we do this we abandon the human being to the essential realm of animalitas even if we do not equate him with beasts and attribute a specific difference to him … Metaphysics thinks of the human being on the basis of animalitas and does not think in the direction of his humanitas.”
Clearly, Heidegger considers the biological and zoological definition of Man implicated in metaphysics to be ontologically impure, dissimulating, as it does, the essential difference between life and existence, from which, alone, the essence of Dasein is conceivable. Right from the start, the originary complicity of metaphysics and life, its alliance with what must be called the biological even before such is the case, condemns the biological to being nothing but an instance of concealing what is essential.
The second decision concerns the subsequent biological characterization of life that results directly from the first metaphysical definition, which defines life as a program. In “The Provenance of Art and the Destination of Thought,” the lecture Heidegger gave in Athens in 1967, he claims that in our epoch, which is that of the “universality of a global civilization,” the “scientific world” is ruled by calculability and thus obeys the blueprint in which we find “the thoroughgoing calculability of everything, [which is] susceptible to experimentation and controllable by it.” Now in this “blueprint for a world,” “the activity of the individual sciences remains subordinated” (122). This subordination is especially visible in the field of biology.
Calculability finds its full expression in the notion of the genetic program, which is also associated, in Heidegger’s definition, with the cybernetic program. The cybernetic representation of the world “abolishes the difference between automatic machines and living beings” (“The Provenance of Art” 123). Cybernetics and biology engage in a circular relation. On the one hand, “the cybernetic blueprint of the world, the ‘victory of method over science,’ makes possible a completely homogenous – and in this sense universal – calculability, that is, the absolute controllability of both the animate and the inanimate world” (123). Yet, on the other hand, biology is the field in which “the prospect of universal calculability . . . can be fulfilled experimentally in the most certain manner possible.” Heidegger goes on to explain:
according to the method’s precepts, the defining idea of life in human life is the germ cell. This is no longer considered the miniature version of the fully developed living being. Biochemistry has discovered the scheme of life in the genes of the germ cell. This scheme, inscribed and stored as prescription inside the genes, is the programme of evolution. Science already knows the alphabet of this prescription. We speak of “an archive of genetic information.” On its knowledge is founded the firm expectation that one day we shall be able to master the scientific-technological production and breeding of the human being. The penetration of the genetic structure of the human germ cell by biochemistry and the splitting of the atom by nuclear physics belong on the same track, that of the victory of method over science.(124)
From animal rationale to life program there is but a single logic of subordination and mechanical and political instrumentalization of life, marked by the omnipotence of genetics and, once again, inseparable from the constituting of a “stock” or “heritage” whose goal, in Heidegger’s view, ultimately can only be a eugenicist principle.
Apparently there is never any consideration given to the possibility that this genetic omnipotence might one day be shaken by biological research. From the Greek origin of the zoological definition of Man to contemporary genetic manipulations, a single process unfolds. Biology has but one meaning, which is to obscure, if not to ruin, meaning. The “life” that biology grasps is a threat to “existence,” which is precisely that which never allows itself to be “programmed” or instrumentalized.
2. Derrida, and Heidegger’s Immunity
In Of Grammatology, Derrida highlights the importance of the notion of the genetic program, with reference to François Jacob. He comments on the fact that the cybernetic conception of program determines Jacob’s genetic definition, but he does not draw the same conclusions from this as Heidegger. Indeed, for Derrida, in Of Grammatology, the genetic program appears primarily as writing: “the entire field covered by the cybernetic program will be the field of writing … It is also in this sense that the contemporary biologist speaks of writing and pro-gram in relation to the most elementary processes of information within the living cell.” Writing is understood as a characteristic of “all that gives rise to an inscription in general” (9). Citing passages where Jacob compares the living to a text, Derrida demonstrates his complicity in the gesture that substitutes, for the essentiality of life, the economy of inscription and trace that is the “logic of life.”
Years later in “Faith and Knowledge,” an important text that offers a comparative study of religion and scientific reason, Derrida returns to the question of the relation of life to genetic program. But the project and tone have changed. In 1967, the program designates the unmotivated trace, the feature of writing that precedes the constituted identity of all individuals, an open necessity of some sort. In “Faith and Knowledge,” the program, which is inseparable from the machine in both its concept and functioning, is now characterized less as a mode of writing, less as a signature, and more as a certain implementing of time, a relation to the future as anticipation and calculation. A program consists of a series of operations that determine and orient the future, thereby averting in advance the surprising and disruptive character of events. The genetic program appears as a particular case of the undertaking of programming that typifies the overall “performativity” of “techné, of technoscience, of teletechnoscience” (“Faith” 46). In this framework, biology itself becomes “telebiotechnological,” a set of technical procedures that operate on life from a distance (“tele”) by working on its abstraction, virtualization, and uprooting (58).
Thus, Derrida does not question the term “technoscience” any more than he expresses real concern about the equating of biology with a mode of calculation. Even if he critically examines some of the assumptions of Heideggerian thought about science, he does not appear to break with the fundamental principle of this thought: from genetic program to technoscientific programming, the unity between the march of capitalism —with its imperatives of productivity, profitability, mastery, and control —and the fulfillment of metaphysics occurs in a continuous, univocal manner. In “Faith and Knowledge” we find this irrevocable claim, with its clear Heideggerian influence: “teletechnoscience … is always high-performance and performative by essence” (66). It is clear then that biology, subordinated to this performative logic, can only be viewed as a handmaid to techno-scientific sovereignty.
How should we understand what must be acknowledged as Derrida’s fidelity to Heidegger? This question immediately prompts another: doesn’t this fidelity cause him to leave the Heideggerian critique of the “zoological definition” of Man intact, undeconstructed?
It is precisely this critique, and the fidelity to this critique, that I seek to interrogate. Why didn’t Derrida ever ask himself whether the zoological definition of Man was, in fact, best, if only considered from the point of view of the future? Whether, right from the origin of philosophy, it actually contained the possibility of deontologizing life? Indeed, read retrospectively in the light of contemporary biology, the Aristotelian definition of Man as rational and political animal makes it possible to resist the privilege accorded to Dasein over all other living beings, which is precisely what Derrida sought to do elsewhere.
I return for a moment to the Heideggerian critique of the concept of program. It is true that on this particular point, Derrida appears to distinguish his thought from Heidegger’s, thereby opening the way to a possible dissidence. In fact, in “Faith and Knowledge” Derrida presents a serious challenge to the possibility of tracing a clear dividing line between life and machine, and on first glance this would appear to unsettle the Heideggerian critique of the program, cybernetics, and genetics. In effect, Derrida says, the effort to protect life from the machine is immediately caught up in the mechanics of this same gesture, which repeats itself like an automaton. The critique of the program does not, itself, escape the program; it becomes a contradicting machine. As we know, Derrida named this excessive logic, situated at the limits of biology and politics, with a term borrowed from the field of biology: the autoimmune process.
In the same way that a living being with an autoimmune disease eventually attacks its own defenses, thought cannot claim to protect life from the machine without using the resources of the machine, without putting into operation a kind of mechanism that turns against it. Thus, it is not possible to immunize life against the machine without calling on the machine, without having recourse, in other words, to the resources of machinic repetition. Derrida writes: “We are here in a space where all self-protection of the unscathed, of the safe and sound, of the sacred (heilig, holy) must protect itself against its own protection, its own police, its own power of rejection, in short against its own, which is to say, against its own immunity. It is this terrifying but fatal logic of the auto-immunity of the unscathed…” (Faith 79–80). When defenses attack what they claim to defend, we have autoimmunity (82).
Therefore, there is no “life” on one side and “machine” threat on the other, “living being” and “program.” Their dissensual unity is originary and this is what reveals their shared source as “double.” Since any reaction, any reactivity is immediate and quasi-automatic, it seems that everything one imagines one is defending is, for this very reason, mechanically attacked and poorly defended. Autoimmunity is this potentially pathological mechanism inscribed in living beings, a biological anomaly that becomes a philosophical aporia. Autoimmunity is the program turned against itself —with this turning-against appearing virtually as its fulfillment. Gene against antigen, self against non-self, machine attacking itself. The anomaly that Derrida sees as contained in any program reveals its political meaning: autoimmunity is the infernal logic deployed as soon as one begins the process of identifying the enemy.3
Now one might expect that, having exposed this logic, Derrida would return to Heidegger in the last part of “Faith and Knowledge” to show how he mechanically becomes his own enemy. One might expect that the triggering of the play of autoimmunity would shake the foundations of the Heideggerian analysis of technoscience profoundly and enduringly. Once again, if any position of rejection is bound to mechanically attack itself, the reactive critique of science, along with its supporting ontology, should, strictly speaking, self-deconstruct. The equating of genetics with a mode of calculation should turn against itself, thereby already implicitly announcing the significance of epigenetics. The rejection of the biological definition of Man should also, at the same moment, reject itself. Loaning two of its categories —immunity and autoimmunity —to deconstruction, biology should simultaneously see itself invested with a new philosophical and critical role, finally leaving the ontological and technoscientific enclave in which it is constantly quartered by Heidegger.
Yet, strangely, at the end of “Faith and Knowledge” we witness an interruption in the autoimmunity mechanism. It must be admitted that ultimately the text produces no fatal malfunction in the Heideggerian defense. So what is it, then, in Heidegger that is secretly immunized by deconstruction? What is it? The zoological definition! This immunization of Heidegger is, to my mind, the greatest obstacle to the constitution of autoimmunity as Derrida thinks it, as an instrument of bio-deconstruction.
3. Derrida Reads Foucault and Agamben
Even if Derrida, in The Beast and the Sovereign, does question certain dichotomies again —between the living and machine, or dying and perishing —and even if he draws attention to Heidegger’s resounding silence when it comes to the animal, its subordination, and its suffering, he does not, for all that, displace the derivative character of the biological and the zoological in Heidegger’s work. Thus he leaves in the dark what he claims to elucidate, namely, the meaning of these very categories.
Derrida first returns to the claims Heidegger developed on the subject of the animal rationale in Introduction to Metaphysics. He writes:
Heidegger [asserts] the secondary character, the fundamentally derived, late-on-the-scene, and (from the ontological point of view) fundamentally very unsatisfactory character of a definition of Man as animal rationale or as zōon logon ekhon. Incidentally, he interestingly and unassailably calls this definition “zoological,” not only but also in the same sense that it links the logos to the zōon, and claims to render account and reason … of the essence of Man by saying of him that he is first of all a “living thing,” an “animal.” But the zōon of this zoology remains in many respects questionable (fragwürdig). In other words, so long as one has not questioned ontologically the essence of being alive, the essence of life, it remains problematic and obscure to define Man as zōon logon ekhon. Now, it is on this unquestioned basis, this problematical basis of an unelucidated ontological question of life that the whole story of the West, says Heidegger, has constructed its psychology, its ethics, its theory of knowledge, and its anthropology.(263–64)
Does Derrida, in turn, interrogate the whole “unquestioned basis” that shackles the Heideggerian analysis of the zoological definition of Man? Certainly, it is necessary to deconstruct the traditional zoological definition of Man put forward by Aristotle. But again, what does it mean to deconstruct? To intensify Heideggerian doubts? Or is it, rather, to attack these very doubts and to see in the Aristotelian definition the beginning of a self-deconstructive process at work, a sort of time bomb, which, rather than fixing something like an essence of Man for eternity, announces the possible birth of an animal-human subject? Derrida opts for the first of these two choices.
Indeed, one of the central themes of The Beast and the Sovereign is the critique of the Foucauldian concept of bio-politics and its reinterpretation by Giorgio Agamben. In order to level this critique, Derrida believes that he needs the doubts Heidegger brings to the zoological definition of Man. For Derrida it is a matter of countering the analysis of modern sovereignty as the emergence of the biopolitical (Foucault) and the ensuing lack of distinction between bios and zōē (Agamben). What counts for Derrida is showing that the Heideggerian distrust of the zoological definition of Man is the first critical analysis of biopolitics and that in this sense Foucault invents nothing new. Heidegger would thus have understood long before Agamben that the zoological definition of Man already undermined necessarily the categories of bios and zōē, biology and zoology.
If they had read Heidegger as they should have, Derrida asserts, Foucault and Agamben would have understood that there was nothing new in “modernity,” that the definition of Man as animal rationale and zōon politikon already initiated the program of biopolitics. Derrida writes: “I am not saying … that there is no ‘new bio-power,’ I am suggesting that ‘bio-power’ itself is not new. There are incredible novelties in bio-power, but bio-power or zoo-power are not new” (The Beast 330). Elsewhere he explains: “The zooanthropological, rather than the bio-political, is our problematic horizon” (65).
Derrida’s challenge, therefore, does not at all lie in attacking the way Heidegger himself attacks the notion of animal rationale, but rather in entering into a polemic with Foucault and Agamben that glosses over the fundamental importance of this Heideggerian gesture far too quickly, even though it prefigured their own critique in so many respects.
Attacking the Heideggerian attack instead of justifying it would have meant leaving aside this polemic in order to effectively emphasize all the metaphysics still bound up in Heidegger’s rejection of the zoological and the biological. It would have meant, firstly, raising doubts about the very term zoology, an appellation upon whose outdated use, even already in Heidegger’s time, Derrida does not once comment. For a long time now there has no longer been any zoology, but rather a biology of organisms. “Zoology” has radically renewed itself by integrating the contributions of phylogenetics, biochemistry, population genetics, animal physiology (which develops from biochemistry and cellular biology into comparative anatomy via histology), ethology, and ecology, which studies the interactions between living beings and their environment and which is as interested in animals as in plants, fungi, and abiotic elements. Attacking the Heideggerian attack would have meant attempting to state the extent to which these disciplines have largely enabled a destabilization of traditional concepts of the animal, the relation between Man and animal, and the relation between Man and the non-animal living … by perhaps offering a new meaning for “political animal.”
Can’t we claim, in fact, that there is a non-“zoological” animal and hence a non-metaphysical definition of Man? That in the Aristotelian definition there is perhaps something that contains an extra-metaphysical meaning of biology – one that would therefore announce a philosophical revolution?
Contemporary developments in “zoology” are indeed mentioned in Derrida’s seminar, but they are immediately reduced to being no more than actors in the general program of instrumentalizing the living and subordinating the animal that is implemented by “teletechno-biology.” Derrida writes of “the joint developments of zoological, ethological, biological and genetic forms of knowledge, which remain inseparable from techniques of intervention into their object … the living animal” (The Animal 25). These techniques include “farming,” “regimentalization,” “genetic experimentation,” “industrialization,” “artificial insemination on a massive scale,” “more and more audacious manipulations of the genome,”
the reduction of the animal not only to production and overactive reproduction (hormones, genetic crossbreeding, cloning, etc.) of meat for consumption, but also of all sorts of other end products, and all of that in the service of a certain being and the putative human well-being of Man.(25)
Biological “knowledge” —and here again, of course, we run into the phobia of everything genetic —thus leads straight to catastrophe. As Derrida reminds us, “the order of knowledge is never a stranger to that of power” (The Beast 279). Like power, biological knowledge has the right to life or death over its object.
As an example of this power, Derrida comments on the dissection of a large elephant from the Jardin des Plantes in 1681 (Ellenberger qtd. in The Beast 275). This is, in fact, the only example he offers in the seminar on “zoological knowledge.” In this example the link between zoological knowledge and sovereign power appears in full force, revealing “mastery, both political and scientific, indissociably political and scientific, over an animal that has become an object of knowledge – knowledge of death, anatomical knowledge above all – for the sovereign, the king or the people” (The Beast 273). Later in the text, Derrida reasserts the strength of this connection:
Knowledge is sovereign; it is of its essence to want to be free and all-powerful, to be sure of power and to have it, to have possession and mastery of its object. And this is why, as you had understood, I began and ended last time with a dead body, an immense dead body … I’m speaking, then, of the picture of the dissection of an elephant under the orders and under the gaze of the greatest of kings, His Majesty Louis le Grand. The beast and the sovereign is here the beast as dead ob-ject, an enormous, heavy body under the gaze and at the disposal of the absolute knowledge of an absolute monarch.”(280)
The meaning of zoology is thus fixed once and for all with this example, which extends from animal anatomy to zoo science.
It is now crystal clear that Derrida interrogates zoology and biology neither to provoke a rejection of the Heideggerian rejection, nor to examine the ways that contemporary definitions of the animal in particular, and of the living in general, might destabilize not only political sovereignty but also what must be recognized as ontological sovereignty. As we have seen, even without any examination, the question is already settled. Biological “knowledge” upsets nothing, and in any case, it’s not what’s at stake. What counts is not attacking Heidegger, but rather protecting him against those who do not read him, or who do so poorly, even as they claim to know something about the Greek meaning of bios and zōē. First and foremost, it is a matter of salvaging the primacy of the Heideggerian analysis, marking it as a logical and chronological antecedent of subsequent thought on biopolitics.
“Neither the one nor the other [i.e., Foucault and Agamben] refers, as I believe it would have been honest and indispensable to do, to the Heidegger … [of] Introduction to Metaphysics,” the text in which Heidegger shows that the logos was originarily a “zoology,” “uniting in one and the same body, or one and the same concept, logos and the life of the living, logos and zōē” (Derrida, The Beast 317, 321). This “zoo-logy or … logo-zōēy … will, according to Heidegger, have imposed its authority, even its sovereignty, its hegemonic predominance both over the originary interpretation of the Greek logos and over the Aristotelian definition of Man as logon zōon ekhon, the animal that has the logos” (321). As Derrida also writes, Genesis already said this: “[the logos] was life (zōē)” (313). From that point then, if a biopolitics exists, it is indeed because “there seems to be some ontological affinity between life, zōē, and logos” (314).
it goes without saying that when Heidegger on the one hand condemns biologism (and clearly modern biologism), and on the other hand denounces as metaphysical and insufficiently questioning the zoologism of a definition of Man as zōon logon ekhon or, a fortiori, as zōon politikon, he is going exactly in the direction of this whole supposedly new configuration that Agamben credits Foucault with having inaugurated.(324)
Focusing on this point, we thus discover that (1) at the explicit level of analysis it is impossible to make a clear separation between bios and zōē, thus invalidating Agamben’s analysis, and consequently also Foucault’s, for there is nothing “new” in biopower; (2) it is therefore impossible to deconstruct the Heideggerian rejection of the bio-zoological and the ontological background that supports it.
To conclude, there is no question that Derrida is fully aware of a transformation of biology. In the question of the animal he sees a new approach to life appearing, and this necessarily disturbs the weighty apparatus of the question of being and its consequent thinking of time and of history. Moreover, through its insistence, the animal question shakes up the ontological arrangement of the “always already” and threatens the Heideggerian rejection of the bio-zoological definition of Man. With the two instances of autoimmunity and animal, Derrida has a powerful machine (an autoimmune mechanism) with which to deontologize life (and to grasp the unprecedented political stakes of a redefinition of the political subject as a living subject).
And yet, as we have seen, this operation of mechanical deontologization —or self-deconstruction —does not occur. It remains stopped at its threshold. Although Derrida would not recognize it in these terms, I believe that the problem is indeed that of a loss of meaning, a threat of desymbolization, as represented by the idea of a deconstructive power within biology. The notion that the symbolic might elude difference, that it might start living. And that it might become animal, and thereby cease being what it is. Therein lies the problem.
How can it be thought? This question invites further deconstruction. Or perhaps something other than deconstruction. I hope to see this discussion develop in the years to come. Indeed, the stakes in contemporary biology concern not only the living, but also nature as a whole—in other words, everything constituted within contemporary ecological concerns. It is urgent that we continue to free biology from the hefty accusations of biologism that still burden it, in order to finally initiate the interrogation that the survival of Earth demands with utmost urgency.
Catherine Malabou is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Kingston (UK) and is teaching in the Comparative Literature Department at UC Irvine in spring 2019. Her most recent book is Morphing Intelligence, From IQ Measurements to Artificial Brains (Columbia University Press, 2019). She is working on a new project called Philosophy and Anarchism.
Carolyn Shread is Lecturer in French at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, USA and also teaches translation at Smith College. She has translated ten books, including five by French philosopher Catherine Malabou. Most of her published articles address two principal areas of research: the implications of Malabou’s concept of plasticity for translation studies and the process of translating Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Les Rapaces from French into English. She has a longstanding interest in feminist translation, and recently wrote an entry on “Translating Feminist Philosophers” for the Routledge Handbook of Translation Studies and Philosophy (2019). In addition to being Assistant Editor for the journal translation: A journal of transdisciplinary studies, for the past six years Shread has worked closely with the Haitian based journal Legs et littérature and the publishing house LEGS EDITION.
1. See my “Déconstruire la résistance philosophique à la biologie” in Rivista Quadranti, the short excerpt from the essay translated into English as “Deconstructing the Philosophical Resistance to Biology” in Brooklyn Rail, and Morphing Intelligence (49–51).
2. See Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing; Changing Difference: The Feminine in Philosophy; and “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance.”