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I’ve read plenty of classic Derrida before, but my exposure to the work of his final years — say, anything written after 2003 or thereabouts — has been limited. So it has been something of a revelation, or at least a surprise, to read “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” the opening essay from the 2008 collection of the same title (more or less) published by Fordham UP. (Kudos to Fordham, by the way, for at least partially filling the void left by retreating humanities publishers like Stanford. Fordham’s “Perspectives in Continental Philosophy” is an invaluable series.)

The style of this essay — originally a talk, like so many of Derrida’s late pieces — is the first thing that stands out. Especially when compared to the incredibly dense, intricate, formally sophisticated style of his earlier texts (I am thinking especially of landmark essays like “Plato’s Pharmacy” and “White Mythologies,” as well as formally experimental books like The Postcard), “The Animal That Therefore I Am” strikes me as almost improvisational in its looseness. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it lends the essay an intellectual expansiveness, even openness, that many of those earlier texts lack. If early Derrida is akin, stylistically, to T.S. Eliot — every word carefully chosen, control exerted over every line at every moment — then perhaps late Derrida is more like Whitman: sounding his barbaric (alright, French) yawp over the rooftops of the world. Of course, I exaggerate; Derrida is still very much in control of his material here, and has lost none of his love of wordplay. Indeed, the essay coins several characteristically Derridean neologisms — in particular, “animot” (to connote the violent power of the philosopheme “The Animal”) — that approximate the usefulness of earlier desconstructive classics like “differance” (with an accent over the “e” that I don’t yet know how to insert!) or “hauntology.”

“The Animal That Therefore I Am” is the work of a philosopher who is highly comfortable with his own elite status — so comfortable, in fact, that he is willing to use the tableau of appearing naked in front of his cat as the springboard for 50 pages of philosophical reflection on the history of humanity’s creation and multiple usages of “The Animal” as a concept and category. Does this comfort make the essay a little too self-satisfied? Or does it rather, and in good deconstructive fashion, make it easier for Derrida to enter a place of philosophical discomfort — a place, that is, where the traditionally unquestioned primacy of “Man” over “the Animal” can be thrown into doubt? Fortunately, I think the latter tendency predominates — but part of me remains convinced that late essays like this one are simply never going to be as influential as those earlier Derridean interventions, written when deconstruction was still fresh, battle-ready, and (at least potentially) subversive.

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2 Comments

  1. Other relevant texts:
    — Georges Bataille: Theory of Religion. Some interesting observations on Man and Animal.
    — Giorgio Agamben: Nudities. A collection of essays on nakedness.

    • Yes, thanks! And also Agamben’s _The Open_, which the group read last year.


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