26 April, 2010Issue 12.1Philosophy

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Legacies of Reading

Paul Earlie

foerJacques Derrida
The Beast and the Sovereign
The University of Chicago Press, 2009
368 Pages
ISBN 978-0226144283

Having just provided his seminar students with a gruesome account of an elephant autopsy conducted under the probing gaze of Louis XIV, Derrida paused to offer the following précis of this very real apposition of beast and sovereign: “inventing limits, installing limits, that’s the art we’re speaking of here.” A characteristically idiosyncratic response, one might think, but for Derrida, the episode provides a pithy example of the principle theme of what was to be his final seminar series: namely, the abiding question of the uncertain border between the animal and the human.

Derrida pursued this question in a series of seminars held in Paris just before his death in 2004. The Beast and the Sovereign, the first in a projected series of over 40 volumes, is based on the original typescripts of these seminar sessions, in which Derrida aims to demonstrate the porousness of the frontier between man and beast. Nowhere is this fluid boundary more evident, or so he claims, than in the surprisingly ubiquitous and “overdetermined” analogy between the beast (the wolf, the fox, the lion, to name just three examples in a long history of zoological similes) and political sovereignty. Why, he asks, does Machiavelli instruct his Prince to behave as if he were a beast? Why does Hobbes compare his ideal state to the biblical monster Leviathan? Why, in short, has the authentic homo politicus always in turn politicised the animal? The art and artifice of this limit between the beast in man and the man in beast is the leitmotif of the 13 two-hour sessions transcribed here.

As ever, Derrida’s theme is the ghostly, the undecidable. It is fitting, then, that the French word for “session” is séance, which accrues in its grafting into English a number of connotations of revenence, spiritual conjuring, and ghostly prophesy. There is a certain irony here, for the editors of Derrida’s seminars locate in the many séances collected here something of value in the invocation of the philosopher’s ghostliness: in the “General Introduction to the French Edition”, for example, we are promised “unprecedented contact with the philosopher’s teaching voice”, an entirely “different experience of his thinking.” No doubt the spectrality of these published seminars (transcriptions of a recording based on a written text) would have amused Derrida, who never ceased, from his meditations on “the spirit of Marxism” to the question of Geist in Heidegger, to interrogate and privilege the liminal position of the ghost.

It is certainly tempting to see the publication of these séances, in their attempted communion with the ghost of a departed philosopher, simply as the most recent manifestation of the commodification and fetishisation of deconstruction and its reluctant founder. Indeed, there might seem more than a hint of bad faith at work in the editors’ insistence on the novelty of Derrida’s “teaching voice”, which is manifestly far from a freshly mined commodity. Particularly in the latter stages of the philosopher’s career, as his notoriety began to assure an increasing tide of invitations to international colloquia and seminars, Derrida’s voice and image were captured and recaptured in an ever-growing archive of audio and video recordings, which have, through the medium of YouTube, steadily made their way into the public domain.

The principle worth of these seminars, then, will not be found—at least not exclusively—in their promised proximity to Derrida’s ghost, the philosophical equivalent of a backstage pass to the green room of poststructuralism. Nor may we find it in the novelty of the analyses conducted here, since a considerable portion of Beast and Sovereign (almost a quarter, in fact) has already been published in one form or another.

Nonetheless, for all the hidden ironies of the spectral invocation of the seminars, and for all their gesturing toward the familiar commodification of the name Derrida, there is much of value to be found in a séance with the father of deconstruction. Their chief virtue in this regard, which goes unmentioned by the inaugural volume’s French or English editors, concerns less the time at which the seminars or lectures were originally delivered than the time at which they have now begun to appear: there has never been a moment in which we are more in need of Derrida’s teaching voice.

The unhappy truth is that much of what occurs today under the sign “deconstruction” is scarcely Derridean, scarcely deconstructive, and sometimes scarcely even intelligible. A 2008 survey by the Times Higher Education Supplement concluded that Derrida is the second most cited author in the humanities today. And yet, despite the annual proliferation of hundreds of texts which inscribe the name Derrida in their discourse, perhaps only a handful remain true to the philosopher’s spirit of radical questioning, in which, as he here tells his students, “no indivisibility, no atomicity, is secure.”

In his final interview before his death in 2004, Derrida remarked that in the entire world there were probably only a few dozen “good readers” of his work, leaving him with the impression that his corpus “has only begun to be read.” These seminars form, no doubt, an integral and inseparable part of that corpus. Yet it has often been difficult to follow Derrida, given his scrupulous insistence, for reasons no doubt both philosophical and strategic, that deconstruction was not a method and could not be reduced to one. This insistence, incorrectly understood, has often shrouded and obscured the vitality and richness of his approach to reading.

If deconstruction cannot be reduced to a programmatic methodology, this does not mean that we cannot have any insight into the work of analysis and exegesis which consists in showing how the text deconstructs itself. Perhaps more than any other of Derrida’s texts, the seminars take us back to the scene of deconstruction; they demonstrate, often with painstaking subtlety, the effects of lighting, of emphasis and outline, of tone and timing, necessary to give centre stage to what the author has often done his best to relegate to the wings: those obscure points in every text at which its implicit logic begins to undermine and fold back upon itself.

Like the postcard of Plato dictating to a seated, scribbling Socrates, described with such pleasure in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and beyond (1980), it is Derrida’s pedagogical ghost who now stands behind us, guiding, from his lecture podium at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, both our thought and our reading. His panoramic reading proceeds like a scanner, racing across the entirety of the Western philosophical and cultural tradition. He is equally at home uncovering a thread common to the 17th-century fables of La Fontaine and the post-9/11 rhetoric of George W. Bush, devoting several pages to an analysis of a single idiomatic expression (the French word “bêtise”, stupidity, is singled out for an extensive treatment), or speculating on the parallel histories of the mental hospital and the zoological garden. Almost daunting in scope, this first volume of seminars exemplifies clearly and compellingly the technique of analysis needed to bring the latent deconstruction to the surface.

This approach is by necessity panoramic, even flighty, since its goal is the unmasking of philosophical biases and prejudices, symbolic relations and figural analogies, which by their very nature have persisted for centuries, securely locked away in the most banal metaphor or the most unusual etymology. And yet, it never flounders in superficiality: the entire virtue of deconstructive reading lies in its capacity to unite an often extreme diachrony and synchrony, demonstrating like no other technique of analysis that there is no such thing as a reading which is too close, too meticulous, too microscopic.

Given Derrida’s many years of experience as Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, it should not surprise us that his seminars are a potent example of just how powerful, how relevant, and how vital scholarship in the humanities can be today. It is clear from his frequent asides to students, from the way in which he diligently provides references to his own works, and from the manner in which he assumes an easy familiarity with his own conceptual lexicon, that Derrida intends his seminars to outlast him. They are his legacies of reading. And as he often pauses to remark, presumably with a hasty glance toward the clock, it is up to us to “continue reading in our own time.”

Paul Earlie is reading for a DPhil in French at Balliol College, Oxford, examining the intellectual links between deconstruction and psychoanalysis. He spent a portion of the summer of 2009 examining the Derrida Archives at the University of California, Irvine.