Calacro on Derrida

I think I figured out what annoys me so much about Calarco despite his insightful commentary on animals. While looking at dense, very difficult philosophers, Calarco fails to identify and explain just how he reads these philosophers. It appears that Calarco believes his readers know the material he is analyzing well, and he believes that his readers will automatically agree with his readings.

In looking at Derrida, Calarco explores how Derrida stated that his (Derrida’s) philosophy always had the animal in view. Calarco states how Derrida challenges simply binary oppositions and questions the manner in which the Western tradition has separated itself from the animal. And then, he begins to really analyze Derrida’s texts, and this analysis is where he loses me as a reader; for instance, Calarco says that Derrida “gestures” at thinking otherwise about the animal, but “This positive project is… not fully worked out as his critical and negative projects” (105). Why does Calarco not give an example from Derrida’s work of this? What does Calarco mean when he creates this positive/negative critique (project) of Derrida’s work? Calarco goes on to explain Derrida’s strategies, “The first is to develop a series of ‘infrastructures’ (such as ‘diffarence,’ supplement, arche-writing, etc.) that are not exclusively human” (106). Here it would be nice if Calarco would clarify what he means with this statement. My understanding of Derrida’s “infrastructure” is that it is not a structure at all, and that many of these terms overlap, and furthermore, many of these terms, for Derrida, were undefinable. Why doesn’t Calarco explain to me, a Derrida reader, what I have “missed” as Calarco puts it? (106).

I believe Calrco means the loyal Derrida reader has missed that these terms meant to decenter the logos (and the human) apply to more than just humans (Calrco 106). However, any close reader of Derrida’s work on the animal would completely agree. Derrida’s complete project, in fact, has been to expose how ideas of purity (a pure distinction between animal and human, spoken and written language, pure/dirty, etc.) are problematic.

Derrida’s second strategy is to bring the animal “within the scope of the ethical and political” by using the first strategy. Calarco points out how Derrida brings animals within the discussion of ethics and politics, especially when Derrida employs Levinasian ethics to state that animals “confront us with as much ethical force as human beings do, if not more” (Ibid.). However, Calarco points out that Derrida’s work is context and text specific. Calarco goes on to explain that he will not have the time to go into the specific works (thinkers) that Derrida explores. Calarco’s imperative is to examine the ways in which Derrida’s works are theoretically important for the question of the animal. Derrida’s work opens up a space for a “’proto-ethical’ imperative, a “concrete ethicopolitical postion”, and a “reworking of the basic anthropocentric thrust of the Western philosophical tradition” (108). Calarco states that he will explain Derrida’s general positions on ethicoplotical issues, but I wonder how much of this outline a reading of Derrida or actually Derrida? Not that I think it matters because most would agree that Derrida’s is always looking at way to rethink and challenge the Western tradition. Therefore, Derrida’ s proto-ethical stance can always be used to rethink political position, including the anthropocentric and ethicopolitical position in question here.

Calarco examines Derrida’s analysis of why animals are being used for “the so called well-being of man” (Derrida qtd. in Calarco 109), and he states that besides Derrida’s questions, there are a number of other questions to be asked. However, the answers do not appear to be readily available. I would argue that the answer to Calarco’s questions—what besides technology, economy, population growth, and insensitivity could be the cause of so much animal cruelty—is all of the above; furthermore, it is because of all these factors of human chauvinism that the animal has been so radically othered and degraded. When asking these questions, some thinkers have compared the violence of the holocaust with the violence against animals, and here, Calarco has some insightful ideas that Peter Singer addresses in The Lives of Animals. The comparison might be extreme, but, to put it in Calarco’s terms “Perhaps the issue of violence towards animals can provoke thought in this philosophical context only if it is compared with the worst forms of interhuman violence” (111). In other words, the violence may not be one of equality (and comparing suffering, even among human beings, is always problematic), but the question examines how the species in power exercises its power over the weaker of the species. The comparison is searching for an (any) analogy to make and should not be dismissed outright.

Derrida’s position is to undercut the idea of natural and distinct oppositions, so can comparing human to animal suffering not be a way to blur the clear cut distinctions further? Calarco’s analysis is astute on this issue: “The very difficult task for thought here is to bear the burden of thinking through both kinds of suffering in their respective singularity and to notice the relevant similarities and parallel logics at work where they exist” (112). These comparisons break down the human/animal binary and open up a space for thinking about the animal question. Calarco astutely points out that the point for Derrida is that the very comparison, the questions of animal cruelty, and the tension between animal advocates and animal violence apologist illustrates just how important the question has become. However, Derrida remains ambiguous as to a possible solution or answer to these questions, which makes sense because posing an answer can fall into logocentrism and reinforce anthropocentrism. After all, Derrida is very suspicious of absolute answers; therefore, how could he ever propose any? For Derrida, anxiety is the mode of ethics. One can never be comfortable about ethical choices because one can never fulfill the ethical call to the other.

Calarco turns his attention to Derrida’s engagement with other philosophers, first Bentham, explaining that while Derrida would agree with Bentham, Derrida wants to take Bentham’s question of animal suffering further. For Derrida, ethics towards animals should not be limited to suffering alone. The question of animal suffering carries a Derridian trace of the questions that come before it and questions it will lead to. However, Calarco states that to understand what Derrida is explaining here that one has to “pass through this idea of the event” (118). The Standford Encylopedia of Philosophy summarizes what event means for Derrida:

If we reflect on experience in general, what we cannot deny is that experience is conditioned by time. Every experience, necessarily, takes place in the present. In the present experience, there is the kernel or point of the now. What is happening right now is a kind of event, different from every other now I have ever experienced. Yet, also in the present, I remember the recent past and I anticipate what is about to happen. The memory and the anticipation consist in repeatability. Because what I experience now can be immediately recalled, it is repeatable and that repeatability therefore motivates me to anticipate the same thing happening again. Therefore, what is happening right now is also not different from every other now I have ever experienced. At the same time, the present experience is an event and it is not an event because it is repeatable. This “at the same time” is the crux of the matter for Derrida. The conclusion is that we can have no experience that does not essentially and inseparably contain these two agencies of event and repeatability.

And now I am lost again…

It is this kind of analysis that hinders a reading of Calarco’s argument. What does he mean that we have to understand the event? And then he goes on to discuss Derrida’s engagement with Levinas. It appears that Calarco is analyzing how Derrida the encounter with the animal is an “event.” The encounter with the animal is an event (I have an experience with the animal right now, which is predicated in the past but is happening now). In this encounter, I can now immediately experience the animal and this can motivate me to “anticipate the same thing happening again” with the animal. Therefore, my encounter with the animal “is happening right now is also not different from every other now I have ever experienced. At the same time, the present experience is an event and it is not an event because it is repeatable.” Therefore, I am less moved by my animal encounter because the animal embodies such a different from than mine. (maybe?)… I believe the ultimate point is that the question of animal suffering veers away from ethics in that rather than just treat animal ethically, the question demands the answer, and if the answer is no, animals do not suffer, then that answer justifies the mistreatment of animals. This question—and the possible answer—is somplicated because most human do not see the embodied suffering animals endure in the many ways animals are used for science, food, and entertainment. Pushing the Levinasian question further, the encounter with the face of the animal because the locus of animal ethics (just as it was the locus of philosophy for Levinas). The proto-ethical question is how can animals address humans?

Calarco examines Derrida’s statement that the latter has always had the question of the animal in his work. Here, again, Calarco uses loaded Derridian terms without a clear explanation as to how the terms apply for the former’s analysis. Calarco inspect Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am closely. His analysis is insightful; however, there is something uncomfortable about his close reading of Derrida’s insistence that the cat is an actual, real, little cat staring at him. Yet Calarco’s analysis is sound. Calarco takes up Steve Baker’s reading of the cat as cat and comments that Baker is missing the point: “At stake here among other things, are a number of questions that concern not only the problem of employing reductive language to refer to the Other, but also finding a nonreductive way to mark the effects of the Other within the very discourses…that are grounded on a forgetting of alterity of the other” (125). While I agree with Calarco, I also believe that Derrida is referring to an actual cat, and I agree with Baker who analyzes Derrida’s attempt of informing the reader that the cat is an actual cat and not a “figure” of a cat, precisely for the reasons Calarco points out. To refer to the Alice in Wonderland analogy employed, it appears dangerous to follow this rabbit hole to deeply. Derrida does not want to reduce the other (the cat) to a totalized representation of a cat, and Derrida is well aware that the language can too easily lead to such reductions; therefore, Derrida explicitly points out that he is referring to an actual cat and not some (playing with language) image of cat-ness. Other than this slight disagreement I have with this section, I believe Calarco’s analysis of what Derrida is doing in TATIA is extremely insightful.

In “Animal Subjects” the traditional discourses of animal liberation are examined, which Calarco says falls into “fundamentally anthropocentric” categories and thus forces an ethics on to animal studies because it uses the language of inherited scientific, biological, and philosophical language. Peter Singer, for instance, defends animal right by way of analogy (wouldn’t Derrida say all language is analogy/metaphor—never fully present). Derrida, of course, wants to question and examine these inherited ways of thinking. Calarco points out that using these ways of thinking are the same ways of thinking that work against animals. He argues that most humanist and ethicist draw lines and make distinctions and use the very logic that has gone against animals in order to try to argue for animals; he uses Tom Regan as an example, caliming that Regan fails to take into account animals without a higher order cognitive thinking. This critigue of Regan appears valid, but should the question not be how can arguments (even anthropocentric ones) be used as points of departure for animals’ rights. However, Calarco does say that Derrida’s questioning of the Western philosophical tradition is a “novel and provocative” thought in concern for animals.

Calarco then deconstructs vegetarianism unfairly in order to support deconstructionism. He claims that such a diet overlooks other ethical problems in food consumption, and on that point, I would agree with him to an extent. I am sure most vegetarians understand that even their vegetables and fruits might be ethically questionable in terms of who is picking the vegetables and fruit and how, but to say that it is “far from the ethical ideal” might be too strong a statement. While it can be easily argued that it is not “ideal” and that veganism is a more radical ethical statement, I would argue that vegetarianism is an immense political, ethical stance. This point along with what follows begins to come to dangerously close to an absolute; as if Calarco’s approach is the “best” (and it almost sounds like the “only”) way to approach the animal question. The two questions posed appear to be the same question worded differently (136).