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Like last year, in a team of five, we ‘deliver’ a philosophy course for a large group of governance and management students, called ‘philosophy of management and organisation’. Its main subjects – freedom and responsibility in organizations – are reflected upon by reading texts from thinkers such as Arendt, Weber and Berlin, which offer ample opportunity for discussion. The other day we (the team) were discussing a session on Panopticism by Foucault, a chapter from his famous book Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. This book does provide a historical analysis of how the modern penitentiary system has arisen – in its earliest forms in the eighteenth century, but this seems just a pretext for proposing to search for the anonymous techniques of power that are at work in typically modern societies. While they are democratic, promote free trade, and garuantee personal liberties, below the surface there are ‘invisible’ networks of power. Networks, or systems, that streamline the energies that arise from the growing masses of people in modern societies. The explosively multiplied members of the human species are suppressed, led and dominated in modern times not like their premodern counterparts by visible and violent force, represented in the body of the king, but by ever so many subtle signposts that direct their lives.

The development of modern power systems can thus be seen to endanger politics as such, as the free public exchange of views and ideologies. Power systems proliferate on their own, so to speak, and gobble up what Arendt has called action: free dialogue to make decisions about shared life. Two main principles are at work in the modern power systems, we read in the Panopticum chapter: discipline and exclusion. In other metaphors: training and purification. What has to be prevented are uncontrollable situations that result from the pure fact that numbers of people are growing, and that they tend to live in ever closer contact in large agglomorations. Foucault points to the historical fact that the large and deadly epidemics that plagued Europe gave rise to the first attempts to purify and train societies in systematic ways, introducing the idea of quarantaine, of regulating movement, hygienic procedures, etcetera:

“Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.” (p. 198)

This sentence now struck me, and reminded me of another sentence, in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and produced the following train of thought. Specters of Marx speaks, among so many other things, about ‘clandestine’ immigration – describing the undocumented as part of the – anonymous – ‘new international’: those who, across borders, crossing borders, undermine the powers that be. In Derrida’s sentence, we can recognize the same double strategy of normalization:

“One should not rush to make of the clandestine immigrant an illegal alien or, what always risks coming down to the same thing, to domesticate him.” (p. 219)

Making illegal, excluding, ‘purifying’ society of him, or domesticating, training or disciplining him. And these ‘run the risk’ of coming down to the same, says Derrida: both becoming mechanisms to stop the fear of the stranger, who is understood to ‘contaminate’ and ‘undermine’ the modern power systems. Systems that regulate modern mass societies. What modern citizens of the earth fear in the ‘people who appear and disappear’, without stamp of approval, without passport, health insurance or work permit – those who even ‘live and die in disorder’ – is the breakdown of orderly society – where we, inhabitants of the panopticum, content prisoners of modernity so to speak, are barred in by the securities we know. Those who do not live in them, but use them, who transgress their rules by their very living, making their living from those systems while disrespecting and disregarding them – they create the chaos that modernity fears and always again tries to supress.

Foucault and Derrida are often characterized as ‘postmodern’ thinkers. This means no more or less than that they seem to have been able to look beyond the boundaries of the modernist panopticum – describing what is at work in it. They were not utopians, sketching a new vision for societies, for utopias only make sense in the modernist belief in designed societies. So what have they done in their works? They have, to my view, tried to open the eyes of ‘the Romans’ that their world is coming to an end, so that they may be prepared for something else. What kind of something else? Disorganization and disease? Rebellion and violence? Not necessarily. Perhaps something that is modest and immodest at the same time: the coming of a public space, a space of action, of politics in the true sense of the word: exchanging views and… perhaps not ideologies, but rather experiences. Next to the violence and loud language of today I see people working to repair and transform spaces meant for dialogue and connection, recreate them from the waste of crumbling power systems so to speak. An uncertain undertaking, as the future is, as always, open.

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, 1977 [French original, 1975]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx, The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 [French original, 1993]

As promised, I will come back to last week’s conference, held in a Seminary in Lodz, Poland – where I presented mIMG_3413y paper with the above title. As usual, I stuffed in many different things – a methodological question (deconstruction versus decolonization), the relation between speciesism and racism, a note on the history of philosophy/ideas, and the question what characterizes (our) animality. Yes, I managed to boil it down to a 15 minute presentation, and those present pointed out many loose ends to help me rework the paper for the submission for publication. So here is this short version (missing some of the argumentations, but presenting the main ideas) of this work very much in progress:

Aren’t we Animals? Deconstructing or Decolonizing the Human-Animal Divide

“From the influential Thomas Hobbes on, who claimed that ‘natural men’ were like wolves (taken as violent predators) to each other, Western philosophy has been characterized by a great distrust towards the animal aspects of our humanity, and a great trust in the salvaging aspects of reason and civilization, that would raise us above the animals. Several recent thinkers however have attempted to criticize and undermine this attitude. Among those I will discuss anthropologist Eduardo Kohn who aims to decolonize the Western approach to nature (plants and animals), and philosopher Jacques Derrida, who sought to ‘undefine’ the concept ‘animal’.

In my paper I will oppose these different approaches to the human-animal divide, and will also relate them to the work of postcolonial philosopher Emmanuel Eze, who has brought to attention that white Enlightenment thinkers and their successors have been interpreting embryonic evolutionism and theories of progress in the sense that some groups of humans would be less ‘human’ than others – and therefore could be used as slaves, or as objects of ‘civilizing’ projectswe would now describe as cultural genocide. I will conclude by presenting the thought of psychoanalytic thinker Frantz Fanon, who highlighted the consequences of ‘animalizing’ human beings in a certain manner.

 

Selves and signs – In his book How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn explored Amazonian ways to understand animals and plants as ‘thinking’ – as living in sign worlds that overlap with ours, making communication on an equal level possible. He relied for this project on the philosophy of signs of pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. What Peirce did, Kohn explains, was to move beyond the understanding of signs as representation of something else (before an ideal rational subject) – taking them to “stand for something in relation to a ‘somebody’ [which] is not necessarily human […].” (Kohn 2013, 75) For selves are all ‘somebodies’ that are taken up in semiotic ‘activity’. Through many interesting examples taken from Amazonian village life he shows that not only animals, but also plants, and ‘spirits’ are selves – thus widening the ontological class of sign-users beyond the human to all ‘living’ beings, with or without bodies.

Deconstructing Animality – In a small, but profound study, Patrick Llored has made an effort to reinterpret the work of Derrida as, in effect, an enduring attempt to think animality. According to Llored, this is not a purely philosophical, but an existential matter to the philosopher of difference. Llored shows that early experiences of living in Algeria, especially in its ‘Vichi’ variety – leading to the expulsion of the Jew Jacques from school, formed the source of Derrida’s discovery of the link between racist and speciesist repression. And of its counterpart: the vulnerability of all living beings to violence (which is characteristic of animality).

In his own essay on the animal, Derrida indicated that deconstruction of the human-animal divide has three essential elements:

1) The divide (‘rupture’) doesn’t define two clearly separated domains – of ‘human’ and ‘animal’

2) The multiple and heterogeneous border of this divide has a history (the autobiographical history of anthropocentrist subjectivity) and should be traced as such

3) Beyond the human side (which is heterogenously lineated) there is not one category, ‘animal’, but a “multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead” (organic and inorganic). (cf. Derrida 2002, 399)

 

Enlightenment Racism – In Derrida’s work, we see the articulation of the intimate relation between speciesism and racism. This exemplifies his remark about the heterogeneous borders between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ animals. Not only are the animals not all one group, but certain groups of humans also segregate themselves from others by calling them animals. Even today, racists repeat the same imagery tirelessly, calling their targets animals, monkeys, pigs, or cockroaches.

In his work on Race and the Enlightenment Emmanuel Eze has shown, through textual analysis, that the Kantian and Hegelian construction of the idea of humanity as the center of ‘our’ understanding of the world (‘all philosophy is anthropology’) – was built on the simultaneous construction of an ‘other’, a not-quite-human: the ‘savage’, the black man. This other was not granted a culture of his own, let alone a political or legal system. Thus Kant could think that “the lives of so-called savages were governed by caprice, instinct, and violence rather than law [which] left no room for Kant to imagine between the Europeans and the natives a system of international relations, established on the basis of equality and respect […]” (Eze 2001, 78) And Hegel that “The negro is an example of animal man in all its savagery and lawlessness […] we cannot properly feel ourselves into his nature, no more than into a dog.” (cited according to Eze 2001, 24

The Need for a Psychoanalysis of White Philosophy – In Black Skin, White Masks(1952), young psychiatrist Frantz Fanon gave testimony of the difficulties of a colonial subject, a black man moving to the ‘centre of the world’ – to Europe – to affirm himself as a man and as a human being. The gaze from the other, which makes him black, confined in his skin, empties him out before he can speak. His revolutionary book is not your usual philosophical discourse, building a thesis on assumptions and by means of argumentation. It is written in a form which expresses what it tries to do: to think not from general concepts, but from failures.

To rescue his black reader from the objectivaton and dehumanization even the social sciences do unto her/him, Fanon articulates the humanity of the black person, although this should not mean integrating himself into the European idea of a supposedly non-race-sensitive humanity. This ‘Hellenistic’ idea of humanity, namely, considers black persons to be like animals (Fanon 2008, 127) – biologizing and sexualizing them, whilst desexualizing the white man as universal reason. In order to evade this dangerous situation, Black Skin, White Masks, seeks to submerge itself into the shadow side of white culture, and to investigate the fake aspect of this ‘animality’.Thus, although Fanon has the black individual in mind for his liberative project, implicitly he also criticizes, pre-figuring the Derridian approach, the idea of animality (being described as predator behavior, being driven by sexual urges, etcetera) in general as an artificial biological objectification.

 

Conclusion – In the end, we may conclude that decolonizing and deconstructing the human-animal divide, although they are different approaches, aim, in concert, to what we need in our days: first, an appropriation of the position of thinkers and selves by those colonized and animalized, exposing those who called themselves civilized and masters, and making an end to their reign; second, and simultaneously, a becoming conscious of (white) Enlightenment philosophy of its own shadow – cultural and physical genocide, enslavement and dehumanization of others, and in the shadow of that shadow – the brute desubjectization, use and abuse of ‘animot’; third, the deconstruction of the ‘rupture’ that has turned a difference into an instrument to torture and kill, and to not hear the voices of those we supposed to be ‘on the other side’ of humanity – the supposed ‘savages’. But also: the thinking forests, the wild animals, even the ‘domesticated’ intimate strangers living with us – having been equally colonized, under the cover of the civilization of ‘humanity’”

Literature –

  • Jacques Derrida ‘The Animal that therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418
  • Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 1997
  • Emmanuel Eze Achieving our Humanity. The Idea of a Postracial Future, Routledge, New York, 2001
  • Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, London, 2008 [1952]
  • Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think. Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, University of California Press 2013
  • Patrick Llored Jacques Derrida. Politique et Ethique de l’Animalité, Les Éditions Sils Maria asbl, Mons, 2012

I have never called myself a Marxist. Or a Spinozist. Marx and Spinoza are to me just thinkers, who added important new viewpoints to our understanding of our human selves and our human world. In their attempt to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, they created as many (philosophical and actual) problems. Confessing to the thought of one of them would mean to think those problems are not there, or can be overcome, which I do not. I have sometimes made an exception to my habit of not confessing to the work of any thinker as work that I could almost always in some way agree with. Sometimes I call myself a Derridian – to me that is less problematic, as Derrida never aimed to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, but just wrote endless commentaries to deconstruct any claim to universal truth. So being a Derridian is actually inconsistent in itself, and therefore less problematic to one who thinks, like me, that there is no such thing as a consistent philosophical view. Consistency is not nonsense, of course, but it is just a norm, indicating what we should strive for, like politeness, or maturity – no more.

Still, some months ago, when some colleagues were having drinks at a conference, continuing our learned conversations in a more easy tone, someone said that I lived in an Eco-Marxist bubble. Although I was rather surprised, I found it very funny, and immediately after my friend had crafted this expression, I knew I would be using it for my blog. The more so as it was used to describe the mindset of my internet personality, who was supposed to see the world through the filter of this epistemic shelter. Although it was said jokingly, I could understand that it was still meant to contain some real description of me. And I also immediately understood that it related to the subjects I tweet about on twitter. Indeed they often include articles that criticize how mining and deforestation threaten the lifeworld of indigenous peoples – the eco-part. As well as articles that criticize social problems created by neoliberal capitalism (the Marxist part). Still, I never was a Marxist, and I never adhered to any ecology movement or ideology.

Why, then, do I tweet about these subjects? And how do they relate to what I think about and write about here? My friend forgot one aspect, which is not so ubiquitously present on my twitter timeline, but that is because there is less interesting news about it – that is the aspect of the spiritual, especially in its more anim(al)istic manifestations. This forgotten aspect explains a lot about my interests and concerns, though, also those of a more ‘socialist’ and ‘ecologist’ character. It clarifies what motivates the other tweets. Let me first make it clear though that I am neither a spiritualist, a new ager, or a romantic traditionalist. I just take the approach to ourselves and our world that is often called animistic, and which I would rather call anim(al)istic, very serious. And I don’t do that because I fell for some new Latourian fashion. I have from a young age known this approach to make sense.

I would never argue that we should take more care of the planet because we would otherwise destroy it, or because otherwise the future of humankind would be at risk. We should take care of the world we live in, because taking care in itself is meaningful and makes life better. There is just nothing attractive or meaningful in using up everything around us and transforming it into waste. It hollows out our life, and that of the other creatures around us. I would also never argue that wealth should be distributed more evenly for the sake of making an end to the reign of capital, or to create a classless society. I would not know what that would mean, nor if it would help us. I do think however that amassing wealth on one side, and creating poverty on the other, should never be a goal of one’s actions, as that makes – again – no sense. It is ugly. Destroying nature and giving the economy complete free reign makes for a very ugly world. So is my position an aesthetic one, then? Again, no. I do not value beauty in itself. It is just one of the things to enjoy, like tastefulness, warmth, or bodily movement.

The point is, my hunch is, that, first, a human life can be best enjoyed when one knows one’s limits – having enough to not constantly think about food or money, and not so much that it creates its own worries. That ‘enough’ is not exactly the same for everyone is okay by me. My hunch is, secondly, that in conditions of ‘enough’ one can most easily search those experiences that create real joy, and those are of the relationship kind. Enjoying the shadow of the tree, the whispering of the grass, the flowering of the weeds, even the torture of the wind on a stormy day. Enjoying the kindness of animals, and among these, the kindness of our fellow-humans. Also their otherness, that challenges our own being. Their mystery that makes us wonder. That seems to be a good life for most of us.

It is generally called animistic to value grasses, winds, and other things as things with which one can enter into a relationship. Yet we do so all the time. Not just with natural things, but also with those of our own creation. We miss ‘the old house’, we grieve a thing that has been broken, we get frustrated at an instrument that doesn’t work. As I said, I take that approach very seriously, as it makes me understand a lot of our behavior. So why add the ‘al’ – creating the word anim(al)istic? To remind us that we are animal, and that the other animal is our relative, and that we can best learn from our close relatives how to be animal in a better way. We humans constantly wander astray from our animality, which is strange, to say the least, as it is the beginning and the end of all human life.

 

It created a trip down memory lane, to read the Derrida biography. At first because I saw the rebelliousness of some of my generation in the 70ties as the echoes of the anti-traditionalist choices of the young Derrida and his likes around 1950. Reading the chapters up to the eigthies, I was accompanied by memories of my first boyfriend, who studied French literature at first, and then followed me into philosophy. I saw him reading, always (and me being annoyed by it) – the whole of Proust, but also many authors unknown to me, and figuring prominently in ‘Derrida’: Philippe Sollers, Jean Genet, and more. He wrote his master’s thesis on Derrida, and now I am certain that the name of Agacinski (Sylviane, the unofficial second woman in Derrida’s life between 1975 and 1984) was also mentioned in the conversations between his supervisor and him. I wasn’t interested in biographical stuff back then, though, ‘just’ in philosophy itself. The voyeuristic pleasure of discussing the sinful lives of ‘great men’, practised by some professors of the French Institute and their students, was hard to understand for me, having been raised in a very idealistic, almost monastic catholic atmosphere. Trained to always look beyond the human and the all too human towards the transcendent for which we were born into this world.

Then, reaching the eigthies in the book I remembered hearing of some events in the breaks between class as they took place – like Althusser having killed his wife and being put in a mental clinic. Someone making fun of it, that Marxism was not healthy. Then, in the nineties I found a reference to that one visit of Derrida to the Netherlands (I never knew it was only that one), where I was present: in 1997 he went to Tilburg. I remember not so much of what was said then and there. I remember several things that are confirmed in the biography, though, things that struck me: at first his healthy, vital presence. Brown skin, lively brown eyes, awake, a silvery grey suit which held an admirable middle between the dull and unsized suits of normal philosophers, and the overly tailored suits of Italian machos. It was just right. Then it struck me that he spoke a very understandably English – without the accent of those Frenchmen who seem unable to respect any other language than their own. And thirdly it was remarkable how open, serious, and clear he reacted to questions and criticisms brought forward by the Dutch philosophers present.

Reading the book I was disappointed too, as I feared I would be, as some of the natural halo of such a great philosophical writer was taken away. Benoît Peeters tried to picture Derrida as a normal human being. The book is no hagiography. Looking for what made Derrida so special is not Peeters’ aim. He shows how Derrida partook in all the petty fights for honour of philosophy professors, breaking up with friends who criticized him, staying publicly loyal to those who helped him, even if they were politically wrong. All for the building of the ’empire of deconstruction’ (my expression) – connecting globally, travelling endlessly, writing frantically, Derrida did everything for ‘changing everything about the way we think’. Peeters shows mercilessly, but without condamnation, the human all too human accompanying the road to success – the hurt friends, the painful love affairs, the wife who ‘took everything from him – from raising the children to finances’, the solely formally recognized extramarital son. Well, most people have comparable stuff in their lives, although talent and ambition add extra opportunities for them. Peeters shows the human successes as well, through the friendly words of his family, students and friends – his openness, his always giving time to students, his pleasant and humorous nature.

Focussing on the human, all too human, leaves a strange void in the book though. The frantic activity – Derrida wrote on average two books per year – is just described too, without judgment or attempt at explanation. The book is a fascinating overview of, mostly, Derrida’s public life, of all his writing projects and everything they brought with them. Peeters does a superb job connecting and explaining the content of all these projects. He does not touch however on the question of the source of this streaming fountain of words. It is not that I, as a reader, would want a psychological explanation of what he did (although that would be interesting too), but some questions asked about the anthropological aspect of the phenomenon Derrida the writer. One can highlight his ‘normality’, like Peeters does, but his writing, and the profoundness of much of it, is/was not normal. It was a miracle. And it always is a miracle how some people seem born with an urge to do or to make something that is so strong that it defies all possible odds. I do not mean to say it is something ‘supernatural’, but it is exceptional. I, as a reader, would have liked something to have been said about how this individual had to give himself to a writing which was almost compulsive. A writing that had prophetic qualities, always tapping in to the events of history, to the questions of politics and to justice to come. Perhaps it also had shamanistic qualities, helping to heal some of the wounds of the times, looking beyond time (‘our time is out of joint’).

Derrida himself wrote one of the most insightful pieces on Nelson Mandela. It conjures up the vision Mandela had for humanity, makes his politics and dedication understood. This is no hagiography either, but it might be judged to be somewhat ‘idealistic’ – taking the human being as a sign that directs towards ‘what is coming’ (democracy, justice). In Mandela’s life there were also painfully failed love relationships, children dealing with the consequences of having such a father, there were doubtful political decisions, and most likely there were hurt and disappointed friends. I learnt that my idealistic upbringing was wrong to pass over such stuff in its haste to see everywhere signs of the heavenly kindom to come. They are not things that don’t count. A son of another ‘great man’, Ken Wiwa (son of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and activist who was hanged in 1995) wrote a book about being in the orbit of such a life, dealing with the debris. Searching for reconciliation with his mostly absent, and now dead father, Wiwa shows how he succeeded, in the end, by returning to the letters his father sent him from prison, by visiting other children in the same position, mainly by letting his love grow. What I want to say is: it doesn’t help to pass the connection of greatness and littleness over – as if the facts of a life are just phenomena of nature. They are not, I think. They are answers to and effects of a calling, which can only be really appreciated if one, zen-like, meditates on the togetherness of a life’s seemingly contradictions. From beyond what at first sight seems good or bad, there may be an opening towards good and bad – what Derrida could have called, following Levinas, an ‘ethics before ethics’, which is neither human, nor transcendent(al). We know it only when those two (the human and the transcendent(al)) touch each other, creating fireworks anyhow.

Started reading Derrida, the biography by Benoît Peeters. Hesitantly at first, for I thought I would not need info on the life of the man whose work always challenges me. But won over when reading, on the first page that Derrida himself had said: ‘you must […] put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture, and the commitments, particularly political commitments, that they sign in their own names […].’ And on the second: ‘In his view, autobiographical writing was the genre, the one which had first given him a hankering to write, and never ceased to haunt him. Ever since his teens, he had been dreaming of a sort of immense journal of his life and thought, of an uninterrupted, polymorphous text […]’

So why, would I, a lover of (auto)biography, had hesitated to read his? I suppose out of some fear that when I would discover the ‘secrets’ behind his philosophical texts, they would become less cryptical and challenging. Like I always feared to write or even speak about the happiest childhood years I spent in a village along the banks of the river Maas. In both cases we deal with a source. A source of happiness, a source of thinking, a source of selfhood. It should not be dammed in, boxed in, written upon, for that might make it flow less freely. Recently, and now again, I discovered the self-deception in this line of thought. Good texts are porous, and leave the stream unhindered, only attract attention to it, like a beautiful bridge to a river.

There is more in the connection of Derrida and (auto)biography. When I read the words by his commentator Bennington, cited by Peeters on page 6, a chord of recognition was struck. Bennington wondered how to write on the life of the deconstructionist: ‘Is it possible to conceive of a multiple, layered but not hierarchised, fractal biography which would escape the totalising and teleological commitments which inhabit the genre from the start?’. Now I have to become autobiographical. It was in 2002 or 2003 that I first started reading the Vita by Victor Klemperer, about whom and which I have written before. What fascinated me was that Klemperer somehow did that – he kept to the traditional form of the autobiography, its chronology, its tropes, like trying to understand one’s parents to understand oneself – but all the same interrupting the totalizing narrator that he embodied, and sometimes interrupting the interruptor. He probably got the idea for this from the plays of Bertolt Brecht that he watched in the early German Democratic Republic. Thus he found the philosopher’s stone for writing a post-modern (auto)biography.

When reading Klemperer I knew: this is it! This is what I want to do when I am old. I am not so sure anymore now, but the idea of a ‘multiple, layered, not hierarchised, fractal’ biography has fascinated me from that time. Klemperer’s novelties were the deconstruction/verfremdung concerning the narrator’s voice, and at the same time the deconstruction/verfremdung concerning chronology. What I was trying to figure out was, how one could write separate lines of a life, going back and forth trough time, that related to different themes and important relations of the subject. For, like, telling the story of a person from the point of his work would be very different from telling it with a focus on his religious development, or his relation to his mother, his longtime friend, etcetera. A person can only be approached through the many faces (s)he shows. And these again change face through the process of interpretation – as the point of view of the narrator shifts according to the events and moods in the narrator’s life.

I never managed to solve the puzzle up till now, perhaps someone else has done it, or is doing it right now, and I don’t know of it. The writer of Derrida obviously abstained from it – for a reason that I like: not wanting to mimic a Derridian style, which ‘does not seem the best way of serving him today’. This is not only true for serving Derrida, but for holding on to something which was important to him, I think, as a lover of Nietzsche: that everyone should become her/his own. Doing just that, is the only way to understand the ‘posthumous friend’ (Peeters calls Derrida thus) a true thinker might become to me. As Nietzsche said in these famous verses:

Leg ich mich aus, so leg ich mich hinein:
Ich kann nicht selbst mein Interprete sein.
Doch wer nur steigt auf seiner eignen Bahn,
Trägt auch mein Bild zu hellerm Licht hinan.

Translated freely, this reads:

Interpreting myself, I project myself.That’s why I can’t interpret myself. But who climbs his own path, will also carry my image towards a brighter light.

Do these verses hold the secret to a post-totalizing (auto)biography? Pointing towards the inter-subjective and perspectivated character of understanding, they underline what first was understood falsely as the ‘death of the subject’ in postmodernity. The subject is not dead. It is not its own possession. It has no clear place it inhabits. It is an intersubject. In my 2005 book Return of Nature I explored the idea of the intersubject. An (auto)biography would also be a great place for such an exploration. While the impossibility of delineating and organizing a lived life in a final system of meaning shows how it (every individual life) overflows constantly in the lives of others, human and animal, in interaction with an inanimate environment too – and how the lives of these ‘externalia’ overflow at the same time in the life of the subject. The hero of a life’s story is also the one who suffers, from events and actions (s)he did not choose. The ‘deeds and works’ of ‘a great man’, as it used to be called, are only the chance instances where (s)he succeeded in reconstructing and redecorating fate to get a unique tasty personal flavor. A ‘Derrida’ flavor, or a ‘Klemperer’ flavor. Without such flavor, Derrida would admit to this, I think, we do not have general truth and universal history – we have nothing.

Citations are from Derrida by Benoît Peeters, first published in 2010, in English in 2013 by Polity Press.

About a year ago I wrote a post on the idea of ‘symmetrical anthropology’ coined by Bruno Latour. I was critical about the idea of such an anthropology back then. And principally I still am – one can not overcome the colonial attitude at work in researching ‘exotic others’ just by turning the colonial culture itself into the research object. One still didn’t listen to those ‘others’ nor has one put the problematic relationship between anthropology and the colonial project into question. The idea of anthropology itself, studying human beings apart from their self-understanding, just the non-literate, non-reflexive social phenomena that they produce could be seen to be, well, ‘racist’. When Latour proposed to turn the anthropological gaze around, and study the tribe of ‘the Moderns’, I couldn’t fathom how that would solve any of the negative effects modernity has had on relations between peoples.

I found it funny though, and that was why I read We have never been Modern in the nineties. The turning of tables was kind of naughty and potentially promised to realise a deconstruction of anthropology by using it against itself. Recently we are able to judge Latour’s project to the full, as his latest work, Modes of Existence, presents the outcomes of his anthropological research on the Moderns in a rich, full, thick volume. And in a website. As I promised to write a review article this month about the book, I set myself to reading it. And was surprised. I really really like the book. Latour’s anthropology develops into an ontology, or even a metaphysics – deploying the felicity and unfelicity conditions (a concept from speech acts theory) of the modes of existence that are factually recognized by the Moderns. The Moderns really are studied apart from their self-reflections, objectively, which is symbolized in the mysterious narrative figure of a female anthropologist. Latour describes how she tries to get behind their apologetical self-representations, and discover what they really hold to be real.

This kind of anthropology reminded me of a specific kind from the forties, not the more general approach that aims at description, but one that tried to overcome paternalism by reconstructing the ontology of a ‘non-western’ culture – taking it serious just like modernity does itself: the philosophical anthropology of Placide Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy. The idea that culture is grounded in ontology appears to me a very ‘catholic’, say neo-thomist thought. This approach searches to understand or describe not in terms of reductionistic science, nor just in those of self-expressions, but to dig into a layer of being being intelligible by the mind. The layer of the plan, so to say, of the Creator, readable by the schooled thinker. Every culture, in this view, gets dignity allocated to it by being outlined by the ultimate Source. This kind of approach is also present in Modes of Existence. The Moderns are not explained as a phenonemon in social evolution, nor are they taken by their own word, but they are questioned as to their deepest attachments – what they really truly hold to be of value, and thereby take to be real. Thus, Latour, hopes to open negotiation with ‘the Others’ – those the Moderns declared to be other, that is. A negotiation which is urgently needed in order to make a turn from economy to ecology. To negotiate with mother earth (‘Gaia’) before she decides to get rid of us.

Actually Latour goes about his business so seriously, and digs so deep into this cultured ontology of the Moderns, that one cannot not value the book. It makes distinctions you never thought about, it really puts your mind to work, and thereby stimulates the brain like a complex musical composition. After reading you will be able to understand more complex relations. Therefore Modes of Existence is great. It is also funny in the sense of putting those who always observed others in the role of being observed. And it is crazy in its many original ideas like that of the imaginary anthropologist, or the diabolical figure of ‘Double Click’, who aims at promoting the epistemological idolatry of unmediated access to an object.

Still, my old troubles with Latour’s project hold true. He doesn’t investigate the conditions of the negotiations he is aiming at. He doesn’t look into his own belief in the power of metaphysics – although it has become a pragmatist, speech acts kind of metaphysics. He has criticized so called postmodern thinkers for being ‘just critical’ and not doing real work to negotiate a different world. I have always thought that criticism to be unfair, for it is too early to know whether we are already ready to negotiate. Whether ‘we’ moderns are allowed to participate in the negotiation at all, and on what conditions. The real question lies hidden behind the seemingly accidental replacement, by Latour, of ‘the Moderns’ by ‘the Whites’, at the end of the book. Moderns, Westerners, Whites, Colonizers… Has the world been decolonized already? Has the reign of white mythology (made fun of by Latour in the figure of Double Click) already come to an end? Can we do anthropology at all? Should we not first accept the problems that the idea of anthropos has created? What to do with an analysis like the following: ‘To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.’ If that is true, what is there for ‘the Moderns’ to negotiate? The ‘warfront’ of modernity, as Latour calls it, then will not disappear but by the final defeat of the moderns. not by telling them that they were never really modern.

 

The citation in the final section is from The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

White Mythology is a paper by Jacques Derrida, discussed here.

Placide Tempels was a Franciscan missionary living in the former Belgian Congo, and his work on the ontology of Bantu’s led to so many discussions about ‘African philosophy’.

Modes of Existence was published in 2013. My review (which is not a longer version of this piece, but a separate article) of it will appear in ESSSAT News and Reviews.

It is hard to find one’s way through the propaganda wars going on now, at this moment, to try to understand the actual wars going on. Is Ukraine ruled by fascists? Is Putin a dictator? Hamas a terrorist organization? Or the state of Israel a cruel occupating power? I just mentioned some of the negative images of parties on some of the different scenes of so many fragmentary wars, and did not mention even so many others, in African countries a.o. going on all at the same time. Derrida – the philosopher who did so much to stimulate reading of events while negotiating between the abstract, universalist language of western modernity, and actual commitments to localized struggles for a place, a place in time of actual groups of people – confronted with the early stages of the conflicts that are dominating the scene now, tried a single denominator for these wars, and subsumed them in the expression “appropriation of Jerusalem”. Can this expression help to analyze what’s going on, or does it make matters worse?

Last year the English translation of a biography of Derrida appeared that tries to explain his developing stance in the post-world-war and postcolonial struggles of the world from his life’s experiences, among which the image his French colonial surroundings in Algeria reflected at him as a child being ‘a little black and very Arab Jew’. The author, Benoit Peeters, as well as the writer of another recent book on Derrida, Africa and the Middle East, Christopher Wise, struggle with the question whether Derrida has shown enough attention for the plight of the Palestinian people, or for islamic (and Christian) experiences, while digging into the interconnectedness of the heritage of the European Enlightenment and the resurging conflicts over religion. I must agree that I did not find any thorough knowledge of islamic sources or traditions in Derrida’s works. In his essay on ‘Faith and Knowledge’, from 1996, one finds a cryptic remark setting Islam apart from the other two ‘monotheisms’ before the question of the local survival of a people attached to God in times of unstoppable globalization (p. 91, in Acts of Religion). Because of remarks like this, and other ones in Specters of Marx, Wise criticized him to represent a soft version of zionism.

I think such criticisms, while focussing on the geo-political aspect of ‘the war for the “appropriation of Jerusalem”‘, leave another aspect of Derrida’s multifaceted analysis in the shadow: that of the interconnectedness of globalization, abstraction, and ‘tele-technology’. As he asks at the beginning of his Capri-lecture on religion (Faith and Knowledge); ‘Should one save oneself by abstraction or save oneself from abstraction?’ He does not choose either of those routes to salvation, but continues to negotiate between them, seeming brave at one moment, and cowardly at another, like his Shakespearian hero Hamlet. Behind the negotiating process lies his assessment that the processes of globalization and technologization do not only physically uproot people from traditional living localities as well as from living local traditions – but unhinge space as such, and make spacialization out of joint. Getting oneself buried on the land of one’s ancestors has become a myth without foundation – which makes the appropriation of a city, a land seem a lost battle, for trying to counter an inescapable current.

So what is to be rescued from the narratives of the so called ‘holy’ city? One could read Derrida thus: nothing but the assessment that human beings, in their longing for some kind of tribal, national, local belonging, actually rise up against the powers of abstraction that they have themselves unleashed. They kill each other out of the impossibility to feel the reality of something like ‘humanity’ apart from an actual place in space. But what is space, which comes before experiencing a place? Space is, according to Derrida, nothing but ‘making place’ – which reveals the higher dreams of humans of ‘hospitality without reserve’ over against someone who comes toward me, a hospitality that does not ask a commitment to ‘family, State, nation, territory, native soil or blood, language, culture in general, even humanity’. Unexpected turns in his texts like this one show a psycho-analytic frame at work: Derrida tries to focus our attention to the fact that all these cruel present wars, in which the warring parties try to surpass each other in atrocities (directing themselves to innocent civilians, mothers, children, unarmed men), can be understood as the frustrated expressions of the existential craving for, actually, a real democracy: for the impossible radical openness towards whoever wants to enter a society.

Missing this openness, which includes non-humans even, we mistake it for being in want of a homeland, a place, a city, where one can welcome the other. In order to heal the present condition of so many wars this one thing is necessary, Derrida seems to suggest: an analysis, a therapy, which makes humans accept the given that their fragile longing for a safe space can only by fulfilled by means of the ‘impossible’ act they should perform without warrant: welcoming aliens in. This can only install the home, the place to be, which can never be attained through war. In the end Derrida is not a revolutionary, nor a traditionalist; neither a coward nor aiming at bravery; he is an ethical thinker – leading his readers to seeing the necessity of making a moral choice. The choice for the only safe or holy city possible: the one which we create ourselves by taking the risk of welcoming the other -appropriation which does not use bombs or rockets but only the psychological mastery of fear.

 

Jacques Derrida lived from 1930 until 2004. He was born in Algeria, and died in Paris. All works referred to are to be found in the links under their titles in the text.