Saturday, April 03, 2010

Wills, David. Review of Jacques Derrida, THE BEAST AND THE SOVEREIGN. NDPR (April 2010).

Derrida, Jacques. The Beast and the Sovereign. Vol. 1. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. This is the inaugural volume of the proposed complete transcription of seminars taught by Derrida from 1959-2003, being published by Editions Galilée in French and the University of Chicago Press in English translation (the editors have helpfully provided page references to the Galilée edition in the margins of the Chicago volume). The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume 1 is the first part (2001-02) of a two-year series on the topic announced by the title, the second of which (from 2002-03, the last year Derrida gave his Paris seminar) is currently being translated. Volume I contains 13 sessions held from December 12, 2001 to March 27, 2002. The seminars will initially be published topic by topic in reverse chronological order. For the complete scope of the project see the Foreword and General Introduction; details regarding American editions are available at, website of the Derrida Seminars Translation Project (in which, I should disclose, I am a participant). One could approach from various angles the gambit, and gamut, of Derrida's project in The Beast and the Sovereign. The question of sovereignty is an explicit concern of Politics of Friendship (1997) and Rogues (2004), and in the index of the seminars it can be traced back as far as 1984. From Rogues, especially, we know that sovereignty is for Derrida part of the larger question he calls "ipseity," the possibility of selfhood, which, for the ten-year period 1991-2001, was posed under the heading "Questions of Responsibility." A formal or textual origin for that question is identified in Benveniste's etymology, which relates the ipse to the exercise of power: "The sovereign, in the broadest sense of the term, is he who has the right and strength to be and be recognized as himself, the same, properly the same as himself" (66). The explicit focus of the 2001-2003 classes, as reinforced by the posthumous publication of The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008), which dates from the 1997 Cerisy conference and one of whose chapters (on Lacan) is inserted into Session 4, is the animal. But, I would hasten to add, Derrida's treatment of the topic exceeds the perspectives generally represented by movements for or toward animal rights or animal studies, and develops a more radical critique of speciesism involving the status of what lives [le vivant]. Thus the work exposed in The Beast and the Sovereign can also be related back to the seminars on "La Vie la Mort [Life/Death]" of the 1974-75 academic year, which Derrida footnoted on more than one occasion, and which he seemed to have been wanting to rework for some time. The book's self-presentation is formulated on a number of occasions throughout the seminars, so that the broad-reaching nature of Derrida's problematic is clear: "The choice of the title for this seminar . . . was designed in the first place to keep bringing us back . . . to the immense question of the living" (176), where "the living" is a matter not of "those who live" but literally "that which lives [le vivant]." Or, in another formulation:
As those who have been following this seminar for a few years know well, through what we have tried to think together under the title of forgiveness, pardon, the death penalty, and sovereignty, what we were attached to was always . . . to try to think the living in life (219).
For example, that goes as far as asking -- especially given the regularity with which mechanical animals are brought on stage whenever thinkers or writers evoke distinctions between the human and other species -- what the living in life of a marionette is; as far as assuming the consequences of the fact that "one must . . . inscribe death in the concept of life" (110). Another angle from which to approach the analyses Derrida undertakes here, also made explicit more than once, is that of the systematic -- call it "classical" -- deconstructive critique of false oppositions that we associate with his work from its beginnings. The distinctions on the basis of which the human species is separated from other animal species, properties that the human is supposed to possess whereas animals don't, are all called into question by Derrida. . . . Read the whole review here:

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