And Say the Animal Responded?

Derrida’s main goal is to deconstruct Lacan’s idea of a distinction between human and animal. Derrida says that a more radical critique of the cogito must take place. In other words, a critique more radical than a Levinasian ethics is needed. In “Violence and Metaphysics,” Derrida critiques the idea of such an absolute alterity (or exteriority or distinction, as such); he states that in Levinas’s “face-to-face” encounter is “the emergence of absolute alterity, the emergence of an exteriority which can be neither derived, nor engendered, nor constituted on the basis of anything other than itself. An absolute outside, an exteriority infinitely overflowing the monad of the ego cogito” (Writing and Differance 106). Derrida’s critique of this radical alterity appears again in this essay to critique the absolute distinctions raised by Lacan’s treatment of the animal.

Derrida proceeds to read Lacan and states that Lacan posits that the animal cannot preenter into the symbolic stage because the animal has no language and will never be “prey to language” (120). This Lacanian analysis of the symbolic order leaves humans as animals, but as speaking animals with desires and unconsciouses that are denied the animal. For Lacan, language is central because it is the structure of language that is related to the unconscious and because in the act of language, the unconscious emerges and finds its expression. In the mirror phase, the ego is constituted through its identification with the imaginary projection in the mirror. At the same time, the child meets with the “Law-of-the-Father” (acquires language) and becomes radically split/fragmented. The subject realizes it is different from other things/subjects and starts forming an identity. Derrida points out that there are certain animals that do this as well, however. There are pigeons that are sexed when confronted with other pigeons. Derrida points out that humans receive speech and technics “only inasmuch as he lacks something” (122). Humans only have language because of this radical split of entering language; whereas, pigeon only need a mirror to progress.
The animal is reduced to reaction to stimuli not to response; the animal response is merely an instinct response, and Derrida uses the example of a bee to illustrate Lacan’s point. Derrida has a little fun reading the dance of a bee and questioning the bee’s sign system as language or merely nature’s encoding. Derrida makes the argument that Lacan’s reading of language for animal language and human language are both sign systems: “What he attributes to signs that, ‘in a language’ understood as belonging to the human order, ‘take on their value from the relation to each other’ and so on, and not just from the ‘fixed correlation’ between signs and reality, can and must be accorded to any code, animal or human” (124). What one does through language is seek a response from the other, and both a bee’s dance and a human’s language do that.

Derrida emphasizes that he does not want to erase the distinction between response and reaction; he, on the other hand, wants to question the distinction itself—the binary purity of one thing being a response as opposed to one thing being a reaction. This erasing of distinction might requires to question the idea of responsibility “especially when…the logic of the unconscious is founded on a logic of repetition” which will complicate the idea of original thought especially when the thought is because of language (125). The very psychoanalytic idea of the subject founded in language makes Derrida question the idea of language as response or reaction. Furthermore, by problematizing this distinction, Derrida is afraid of the implication for ethics and responsibility; however, he addresses these concerns, stating that there should always be doubt and concern over question of ethics and responsibility—the very essence of ethics is doubt. Furthermore, it is not a question of erasing the difference rather “of taking that difference into account within the whole differentiated field of experience and of the world of life forms” (126). He wants to analyze the difference between humans and animals. Derrida seeks to establish another logos by returning to Lacan and following the ‘trace’ left by Lacan.

Lacan states that the animal cannot lie. Humans, through language, have the capacity to pretend. An animal can deceive, but it cannot pretend. As Derrida puts it, Lacan states that an animal has the “capacity to trace, to leave a track, but not to distract the tracking or lead the tracker astray by erasin its trace or covering its tracks” (128). Derrida deconstructs the idea of the animal’s inability to lie. It is because of man’s lack—because of the castration complex, because of the signifier’s rule over the subject—that man has language and the animal does not. What the animal lacks is precisely Lacan’s subject’s lack. It is this lack that gives humans their superiority over animals. The big Other allows humans to pretend by believing in something that animals do not partake in. At the end of Lacan’s seminar on the ‘Purloined Letter,’ Lacan states that the letter always arrives at its destination because the big Other reads the letter. The very symbolic order of the big Other—a thing that only exist in so much as the subject believes in it (and because of language) is what is denied the animal; therefore, the animal cannot pretend to pretend to believe in the big Other.

And then, I think, that Derrida wonders if since there is no Other for the Other, just as there is no Other for the animal, then could there not be a case for the animal as Other? Derrida explains: “In order to break with the image and with the likeness of a fellow, must not this beyond of partnership—thus beyond the specular or imaginary duel—be at least situated in a place of alterity that is radical enough to break with every identification of an image of self, with every fellow living creature, and so with every faternity or huma proximity, with all humanity? Must not this place of the Other be ahuman?” (131-2). The animal in the discourse of Levinas and Lacan is so radically other(ed) because of the Law-of-the-Father (Lacan) or because of divinity (Levinas) where, at one and the same time, these discourses fail to take into account the animal while at the same time not taking into account the animal because of these absolute beliefs. The animal is turned into a Lacanian Real (“indissociable figures of the same Thing”).

Derrida goes on to re-emphasize that he does not wish to attack this logic so much as to re-think it. By looking at these moments in Lacan, Derrida merely wants to complicate, analyze, and point out how the limits—the distinction—set up by the discourse becomes complicated. How can we distinguish a pretense, for instance. Again, by looking at Lacan’s discourse on the animal and human psychology, Derrida points out that both are not discontinuous. The animal might not be able to cover its track, but the human does the human actively, consciously cover its tracks? The problem becomes: what gives humans the right to say that an animal does not have something when humans can not be sure that humans can say humans have it; in other words, can humans say that they “possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution” (135). This questioning leads Derrida to question “tracks” which leads to an analyses of his idea of “trace.” Can humans say an animal does not cover its tracks any more than a it can be said that a human covers its tracks.

Derrida questions this trace—the trace the human leaves—and wonders if a human can cover (erase) its trace. The very idea of the trace means that the trace is always being erased and always capable of being erased. Derrida says the trace cannot be defined because it is an undecidable. The trace is the presence and absence of meaning. The trace is something like the “mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present.” This trace is always being manifest and always disappearing as the subject uses language; therefore, “In this regard the human no more has the power to cover its track than does the so-called ‘animal.’ Radically to erase its traces, that is to say, by the same token radically to destroy, deny, put to death, even put itself to death” (136). This anthropocentric stance, being able to erase the trace and of keeping the distinctions in place, is a result of wanting to be superior over the animal in the face of Darwinism.
Ultimately, humans cannot know how aware the animal is of pretense, just as humans cannot fully distinguish their own pretense. Derrida wants to break down the idea of a pure distinction among response reaction in order to reveal that there is no clear distinction between human and animal. In interesting kismet, as I finish writing this response, I have just read Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence’s article “Cultural Perspectives of Differences Between People and Animals: A Key to Understanding Human-Animal Relationships” where she posits just how alike humans are to animals. While Derrida blurs the distinctions by way of the trace and continental philosophy, Lawrence does it by science and research.

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