This post is part two of a three part series. Read part one here.

Jacques Derrida’s marathon lecture on ‘L’animal que donc je suis’ for the décade (ten-day conference) on ‘L’animal autobiographique’ at Cerisy-la-Salle in July 1997[1] can be seen retrospectively to have marked the ‘official’ entry of his work into posthumanism, within which it helped spark off the critical discipline of ‘animal studies’ as distinct from former animal rights philosophy, and even more specifically the prolific sub-field of ‘animal deconstruction’.[2] For Derrida, although Western philosophical tradition has defined the human as a rational animal endowed with speech/language (zoon logon ekhon),[3] it has done so in order to set the human apart and against all the other animals, erasing all traces of animality in the human as well as denying animalkind any of the humans’ presumed properties: ‘speech, reason, experience of death, mourning, culture, institutions, technics, clothing, lying, pretense of pretense, covering of tracks, gift, laughter, crying, respect, etc’.[4]

However, as Derrida also makes clear, before conjuring up an extended ‘zoo-auto-bio-biblio-graphy’ of those ‘critters’ that populate his ‘bestiary’,[5] his thought and writing have somehow always been concerned with what humankind, in spite of the extreme diversity of individual species, has reduced to the singular generic term ‘the animal’. Coupled in The Animal That Therefore I Am with the ‘autobiographical’, or ‘the presentation of self of human life’,[6] this concern can be made to chime with his adolescent desire, evoked in an earlier interview titled ‘“This Strange Institution Called Literature”’, to write in order to keep ‘a trace of all the voices which were traversing me’, ‘the unique event whose trace one would like to keep alive’ and which would be capable of ‘clear[ing] a space or organiz[ing] a dwelling-place suited to the animal which is still curled up in its hole half asleep’.[7]

Within a critique of the anthropocentric neutralisation or forgetting of the ‘zoic’ origin of the logos, Derrida’s conception of a more primordial arche-writing has been linked from its inception to that of the effacement of an animal trace. In a later rendering in The Animal That Therefore I Am of one of deconstruction’s age-old cruxes, Derrida recalled that ‘[m]ark, gramma, trace, and différance refer differentially to all living things, all the relations between living and nonliving’.[8] Thus, ‘[t]here is differance […] as soon as there is a living trace’, and ‘the elaboration of a new concept of the trace had to be extended to the entire field of the living […] beyond the anthropological limit of “spoken” language (or “written” language, in the ordinary sense) […]’.[9] Even before the explicit interweavings of ‘trace’, tracé (delineation) and ‘tracing’, across ‘graphies’ and tracks, in ‘Différance’,[10] and more generally the complexification of the border between animality and humanity in Margins of Philosophy, ‘Linguistics and Grammatology’ had stated that the trace, ‘arche-phenomenon of “memory”, […] must be thought before the opposition of […] animality and humanity’.[11]

Reinscribing or re-marking the metaphysical concept of trace, the Derridean arche-trace, or trace of a(n erased) trace, is affected by a structure of doubling and deferral. Such a structure accounts for Derrida’s challenging of those thinkers, like Jacques Lacan, who deny animals the ability to interact with traces, specifically the possibility of converting them into verbal language (for instance in a discursive structure of call and response or the autobiographical auto-affection of whoever says and writes ‘I (am)’) as well as of attempting to efface or protect them from effacement.[12] In this scene of an ‘archaeological’ uncovering of erased traces, the animal as living being whose primordiality had been forgotten may be aligned with the arche-trace or archi-écriture as primarily ‘zoographical’ – one could even say ‘zoogrammatological’ – as in the passage which establishes ‘writing as zoography as that painting of the living which stabilizes animality’ and reverses Plato’s and Rousseau’s distrust of writing as the painting (zoographia) of life (zoe) or of the animal or living being (zoon).[13]

Via the chance of a homophony in French, The Animal That Therefore I Am also pursues a strategic analogy between je suis: I am, foundational of the autobiographical subject who says ‘I’, and je suis: I follow, of the human ‘coming after’ the animal, both genealogically and as a hunter of animals who, if the focus changes from the perseverance to the persecution of life, can even go as far as to say je poursuis (I pursue).[14] Questioning the primordiality of the human as well as humanity’s predatory domination over the kingdom of the living,[15] Derrida’s text subverts the classical humanist assumptions that refuse to grant ‘the animal’ a full autonomous subjectivity. For instance, in ‘L’animal que donc je suis, à la trace, et qui relève des traces’ (‘The animal in whose tracks therefore I am (following), and who picks up traces’),[16] the self-deconstructing syntactical wording in French translates the synthetic reduction and subjugation afforded by Hegelian Aufhebung (relève), to which the animal has been subjected throughout the history of metaphysics (French relever de: to depend on, to come under the jurisdiction of), into the possibility of the animal’s self-conscious interaction with its own traces (as in relever des empreintes: to take finger- or footprints). In response to the oft-repeated, ontological as much as autobiographical question ‘who am I (following)?’ (qui suis-je?), Derrida’s posthumanist response is: I am (following/after) the trace of the animal, the trace (of the trace) as originary effacement by metaphysics of animality in the human.

This structure of erasure in the trace is also at work in what is tethered to the animal as ‘autobiography’, defined more generally as ‘the writing of the self as living, the trace of the living for itself, being for itself, the auto-affection or auto-infection as memory or archive of the living’.[17] Its approach bears a faint trace of the old philosophical problematic of writing as pharmakon, i.e. at once the poison and the cure,[18] redeployed here in a novel association with auto-immunity, or an organism’s ability to react against its own mechanisms of self-protection:[19]

[Autobiography] would be an immunizing movement […], but an immunizing movement that is always threatened with becoming auto-immunizing, like every autos […]. Nothing risks becoming more poisonous than an autobiography, poisonous for oneself in the first place, auto-infectious for the presumed signatory who is so auto-affected.[20]

This paragraph precedes the movement in which Derrida announces his own version of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, or what will come after the human, as a still unheard-of Ecce Animot, in which the nonce portmanteau word animot (animal + mot), ‘the chimera of this singular word’ sounding like the malapropism of somebody mistaking a plural for a singular in French (*l’animaux), attempts to retrieve the violent metaphysical erasure of the multitude of animal species under ‘the animal’:

Ecce animot, that is the announcement of which I am (following) something like the trace, assuming the title of an autobiographical animal, in the form of a risky, fabulous, or chimerical response to the question “But as for me, who am I (following)?” which I have wagered on treating as that of the autobiographical animal.[21]

Derrida’s posthumanism lies in redefining ‘animality’ as the all-encompassing term for ‘the life of the living’, and the Cartesian cogito, the thinking subject who auto-institutes itself as an ‘I am’, as a living animal: ‘Whosoever says “I” or apprehends or poses herself as an “I” is a living animal.’ And although no entity, ‘someone, God, human, or animal’ can be the master subject of a trace, since ‘the structure of the trace is such that it cannot be in anyone’s power to erase it’, Derrida’s generalised ‘autobiographical animal’ is animated with ‘a spontaneity that is capable […] of organizing itself and affecting itself, marking, tracing, and affecting itself with traces of its self’.[22]

– Shanghai Jiao Tong University, September 2020

This post is part two of a three part series. Read part three here.

[1] Published in English as The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). For the conference proceedings, see L’Animal autobiographique. Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999).

[2] See especially Oxford Literary Review 29: ‘Derridanimals’, ed. Neil Badmington (2008); Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Leonard Lawlor, This Is Not Sufficient: An Essay on Animality and Human Nature in Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Demenageries: Thinking (of) Animals After Derrida, ed. Anne Emmanuelle Berger and Marta Segarra (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011); Patrick Llored, Jacques Derrida: Politique et éthique de l’animalité (Mons: Sils Maria; Paris: Vrin, 2013); The Animal Question in Deconstruction, ed. Lynn Turner (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

[3] Aristotle’s well-known formula has remained one of the axiomatic distinctions between humanity and animality in Western thought (see for e.g. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages), which is discussed inter alia in Of Grammatology, pp. 183, 219, 247-8, and Margins of Philosophy, pp. 143, 151, 236-7. See also The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume II, ed. Michel Lisse et al., trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 218, 246 for a recall of Heidegger’s opposite conception of the animal as zoon alogon.

[4] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 135.

[5] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, pp. 34, 35-38.

[6] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 29.

[7] Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), p. 34. For an account of Derridean writing as an animal simulacrum which in ape-like fashion mimics the sacralisation of the subject who signs ‘I’, see Laurent Milesi, ‘Saint-Je Derrida’, Oxford Literary Review 29: ‘Derridanimals’, ed. Neil Badmington (2008): pp. 55-75.

[8] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 104.

[9] Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow…: A Dialogue, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 21, 63.

[10] Jacques Derrida, ‘Différance’, in Margins of Philosophy, trans., with Additional Notes, by Alan Bass (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982), pp. 1-27.

[11] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, corrected ed., trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 70.

[12] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, pp. 33, 39, 50, 128-9, 135.

[13] Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 292.

[14] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, pp. 3, 42, 54.

[15] Cf. Derrida’s notion of carno-phallogocentrism in ‘“Eating Well” or the Calculation of the Subject’, trans. Peter Connor and Avital Ronell, in Jacques Derrida, Points…: Interviews, 1974-1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), pp. 255-87 (recalled for e.g. in The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 104), and, in ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”’, trans. Mary Quaintance, in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. and intr. Gil Anidjar (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), p. 246: ‘there was a time, not long ago and not yet over, in which “we, men” meant “we adult white male Europeans, carnivorous and capable of sacrifice”’.

[16] Jacques Derrida, L’animal que donc je suis, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 2006), p. 83; The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 56. For the first occurrence of the formula ‘je le suis à la trace’, see H. C. for Life, That Is to Say…, trans., with additional notes, by Laurent Milesi and Stefan Herbrechter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), pp. 101-2.

[17] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 47.

[18] See Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, in Dissemination, trans., Introduction and Additional Notes, by Barbara Johnson (London: Athlone, 1981), pp. 61-119.

[19] The ‘general logic of auto-immunization’ is first described in ‘Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone’, trans. Samuel Weber, in Acts of Religion, especially pp. 61-100.

[20] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 47.

[21] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 48.

[22] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 49.

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