Sunday, November 22, 2009

Notes on Derrida's _The Beast and the Sovereign: Vol I_

I have started wading through the recently published assemblage of lectures given by JD over the course of 2001-2002 collected in _The Beast and the Sovereign_ . The series of talks from this seminar mark a continuation of many questions Derrida had been probing in the final chapter of his career: questions of sovereignty, decision, animality, force, law, friendship, and –of course—the enterprise of a “deconstructive” reading and its (always tenuous, yet I think, always interesting) connection to the issue of the political. Even for a reader not convinced of some of Derrida’s more elusive ethical-political (non)concepts—for example the old “democracy to come” idea that makes critics such as Terry Eagleton cringe—I would find it hard for any careful reader not to appreciate the rigorous, intelligent and fascinating performance of close reading here (this, for my money, is what makes Derrida such an important thinker and keeps me coming back to his texts). Luckily, _TBATS _ is full of several of these moments. Derrida performs careful and enlightening readings of a constellation of texts that probe the relationship between “the beast” and “the sovereign”, and the animal and the human: from Arostotle’s _Politics_, to Fontaine’s fable “The Wolf and the Lamb,” to Hobbes’s _Leviathan_, Machiavelli’s Prince with its elaborate comparison of princes and foxes, and Rousseau’s obsession with werewolves in _The Social Contract_.

Admittedly, I have only sampled about half of the lectures (the first, third, fourth, twelfth, and thirteenth sessions), but as is more generally the case, one can start to discern the general tenor of what JD is up to here. Beginning with La Fontaine’s fable “The Wolf and the Lamb” in the first session, Derrida uses the figure of the wolf in this text to open a discussion about how in several early modern texts the wolf is a literary figure man uses to tell himself the “story” of the origin and nature of political life. The figure of this “beast,” or similar manifestations of this theme in Rousseau and Hobbes, leads Derrida to posit that “man” becomes the middle term in a triad with the “sovereign” and “beast.” Picking up on a common strand of questioning of these figures initiated by Carl Schmitt and Agamben, Derrida describes how both figures are positioned outside the law: the sovereign as “above” the juridical order via “decision” (think Schmitt here), and the beast remains excluded from the law since his life (here, we can think of Agamben’s “bare life” of the homo sacer that can be killed but not sacrificed) is not protected by the legal order. Derrida calls for a re-thinking of these terms that eschews the binary opposition between nature and culture, man and beast, and nature and law. Here, I think we can see a place where the deconstructive practice of breaking down binary oppositions has direct political implications, as Derrida uses this framework to make explicit comments in response to Chomsky’s recent (2000) Rouge States. In the same way that calling one a “beast” excludes them from legal right and the protection of human “justice,” to construct a political program that labels the Other in such a way, has devastating effects:

“the Unites States, which is so ready to accuse other states of being rouge states, is in fact allegedly them most rouge of all, and the one that most often violates international right…[it is] the most perverse or cynical armed trick…the most inhuman brutality” (19).

He highlights, only briefly, our country's recent involvements in the Middle East and asks (what he explicitly calls the “subject of our seminar”) what is the relationship between “war” and “terrorism”? With an identification of the other that follows this strict opposition of “just” and rouge states (in which the enemy is figured as “beast”) how can one ever discern the difference? What Derrida wants us to see, is that this supposed non-identification (something like, “this other, this enemy, is not like me, therefore is not protected by the same laws that protect me) is actually a manifestation of identification. That is ,while beast and sovereign appear to be diametrically opposed—the former being excluded from what is proper to man, the later being above this through his decision without ground—each need the other figure in order to constitute their identity, and both share the similar position of being beyond the legal sphere.

The third session contains a very interesting reading of Rousseau’s sort-of-obsession with imagining himself as a “werewolf,” because his intensive reading and intellectual pursuits leave him excluded from civil society. What JD is up to here, I think, is another way in which we see the figure of the beast figured as one excluded from human society, but implicitly and always tied to that society—it is the pursuit of knowledge (culture) that paradoxically leaves Rousseau rejected from human society. Here we see another instance of how Rousseau’s text (think here of Derrida’s laborious reading of Rousseau in _Grammatoloy_) evinces that a hierarchy of nature vs. culture is always fissured.

More interesting, perhaps, than this reading is the section in this session where Derrida complicates the distinction between dictatorship and democracy (via an explication of Schmitt’s “decision”), and makes explicit comments on why a political program based on “universal human rights” won’t work. It is worth quoting at some length:

“it is also in the name of man, the common humanity of man, the dignity of man, therefore a certain proper of man, that a certain modernity has begun to question, to undermine, to put into crises nation-state sovereignty…After having asserted that humanity as such cannot wage war because it has no enemy at least in this planet. The concept of humanity excludes the concept of the enemy, because the enemy does not cease to be a human being…the concept of humanity cannot be a political concept or the concept for the basis of politics” (70-71).

What Derrida points out is the hypocrisy of imperialist missions (think, our own nation’s recent foreign affairs???) that operate under the umbrella philosophy of “spreading universal human rights,” which he sees an insidious act of cunning that allows “sovereign” states to treat the other as outlaw, in the name of a law only the former can enforce. I think the paradox is pretty clear: we treat men like “beasts” in a mission take them out of this “beastly-ness, ” in the name of a universal humanity. By identifying the other as less than human we claim to attempt to bring them up to the level of humanity, based on some universal humanity (which would ,in effect, be “natural”), though an imposition of specific cultural ideologies. Again, we see this dialectic between what is “nature” and “culture”—what is inside and outside—is ever-present. Derrida’s goal:

“a prudent deconstruction of this logic, and the dominant, classical concept of nation-state sovereignty…without ending up with a depoliticalization, a neutralization of the political, but with another politicalization, a repoliticalization that does not fall into the same ‘dishonest fiction’…a repoliticalizaton and therefore another conception of the political” (75).

Since a detailed explication of all of Derrida’s close readings and an elaboration of his major themes in these lectures ( I would suggest checking out JD’s ongoing critical dialogue with Lacan that he picks up in the Fourth Session) is far beyond the scope of this tiny blog, I would just also like to point out the (very fun) responses to Agamben that JD makes here (I think this is “fun” primarily because Agamben gives some--in my opinion of course—sloppy readings of Derrida and takes a few underhanded swipes at his corpus of work in _Homo Sacer_ and _State of Exception_, which I think belies the fact that he has simply not read JD carefully enough). In the third session, Derrida playfully remarks on Agamben’s constant desire to be or find “firsts” ( ie… “Schmitt was the first to do this”… “Arendt was the first who recognized that…”). We see Agamben complicit, then, in the tradition of a “metaphysics of presence” or a quest for an origin that we know Derrida will want to put into question. In the Twelfth Session, Derrida directly engages with the concept of “bare life” and the distinction Agamben famously draws between zoe and bios, and demonstrates how this strict binary that Agamben sets up will not hold. Gesturing back to his earlier comments on Agamben’s desire for “firsts,” Derrida points out how Agamben strangely omits Heidegger from his analysis. (We are not shocked, of course, that Derrida wants to bring ol’ Heideger into this discussion). Heidegger seems to avoid the strict dichotomy drawn between these two translations of “life” and what Derrida wants us to see is that Heidegger was on to the problem that an over- emphasis on rationality or biology (Kant’s nous and phenomena?) misses the humanity of man. The major issue Derrida takes with Agamben is his desire to term this “bio-politics” as a “modern” invention. For Derrida, this is the problem of metaphysics he has been throwing into question since the early writings—the problem with thinking the history of the event as a singular event, discreet and easily located on a linear temporal schema. While this aspect of Derridean thought is often difficult to get our heads around, what Derrida asks us to consider is that we need to re-think history as linear and that there can be one “founding decision.” In the experience of this doubt, then, we have a responsibility—a responsibility to question our own desire for this ground.

I might have more to say about this text later.


  1. J

    Hi, I didn't find any contact info on your blog and so I'm going to use this to let you know I stumbled upon your blog a short while ago and must say we share, at least, the crush on Derrida. Anyhow, the reason I am writing to you is that I need your help with something I am writing. You see, I am writing these lines from Shiraz, Iran, and as you can imagine I don't have any access to anyone who knows more about theory, continental philosophy and literature than myself, i.e. i don't have anyone to judge my thesis. I'm working on something that can be briefly described as Monster/Thresholds-Interfaces. which ties into many works of Derrida, some of Deleuze and Guattari's ideas, Levinas's and Lacan's philosophy of the Other and so on. I have already written a text of 17 pages by the same title but there is no one to read and judge it. I wonder whether you would do me the favor; I am all on my own in the whole country. Thank you.
    Peace and Love
    Ali Rahebi

  2. Thanks for this! it is particularly helpful!