The Animal That Therefore I Am is the long-awaited translation of the complete text of Jacques Derrida’s ten-hour address to the 1997 Crisy conference entitled The Autobiographical Animal, the third of four such colloquia on his work. The book was assembled posthumously on the basis of two published sections, one written and recorded session, and one informal recorded session. The book is at once an affectionate look back over the multiple roles played by animals in Derrida’s work and a profound philosophical investigation and critique of the relegation of animal life that takes place as a result of the distinction-dating from Descartes-between man as thinking animal and every other living species. That starts with the very fact of the line of separation drawn between the human and the millions of other species that are reduced to a single animal. The Animal That Therefore I Am is a sustained meditation on the role of the ‘animal’ in philosophy. Derrida questions the logic, the ethics, and the rhetorical and philosophical effects of establishing (or assuming) a boundary that seems to distinguish so clearly, so finally, and so permanently the human from the animal. Derrida finds that distinction, or versions of it, surfacing in thinkers as far apart as Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Levinas, and he dedicates extended analyses to the question in the work of each of them.The book’s autobiographical theme intersects with its philosophical analysis through the figures of looking and nakedness, staged in terms of Derrida’s experience when his cat follows him into the bathroom in the morning. In a classic deconstructive reversal, Derrida asks what this animal sees and thinks when it sees this naked man. Yet the experiences of nakedness and shame also lead all the way back into the mythologies of man’s dominion over the beasts and trace a history of how man has systematically displaced onto the animal his own failings. The Animal That Therefore I Am is at times a militant plea and indictment regarding, especially, the modern industrialized treatment of animals. However, Derrida cannot subscribe to a simplistic version of animal rights that fails to follow through, in all its implications, the questions and definitions of life to which he returned in much of his later work.
How can so much heterogeneity be packaged into one thing (amoebas and antelopes and dolphins all being included, equally, in “the animal”)? The ‘animal’ appears in philosophy not just as an Other to the human (an Other that lacks an ‘I’, a face, an unconscious, or even death) but as a rhetorical invocation that appears to solve a problem: the problem of defining oneself, writing one’s autobiography; of what it is to have a ‘face’ or an unconscious; of the right to death (if animals died the way people die, how could there be abbatoirs?). In other words, we cannot say what a human is, but we can say what a human is not: an animal. The most provocative question he asks is, how has the violence against the ‘animal’ (conceptual, as well as actual violence) not so much violated but constituted the origins of human understanding, responsibility and ethics? Derrida’s challenge pushes the debates about the treatment of animals past sympathy and sentimentality, demanding that there is a full accounting for the distinctions that are made, prior to the ethical structures that seek to justify the distinction.
—Translated by David Wills#Derrida #Philosophy #Continental Philosophy #Animals #Species #Literary Theory #Ethics #Medical Ethics #Power Relations