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After a long day I went to sit outside for a bit, and I watched the stars. Reflecting on the moment and on my life as it is now, a sentence came to my head: ‘I am just living my life and enjoying it.’ It was a humble thought, not a triumphant one. And then, this sentence of Derrida, which had vexed me for years ‘to learn to live, finally’ came to my head. I cite from the head now, but it is from his Specters of Marx, which I read for the first time about seven years ago. Upon my first read this book fascinated me, as it gave me so much new insights into the world we are living in right now. Published in its English version in 1994 (French 1993), the book foresightedly analyzes the post-Cold-War world, which was fresh and new back then, but of which we see the essential characteristics unroll more and more today.

All the same, the book contains long passages of which I could hardly makes sense, as Derrida always thinks along and against and through the many texts he read – of which many are unread by me. Even of Marx, whose name is in the title, I only have sketchy knowledge. For that reason, and out of the hope to understand more of the book, I proposed we would read and discuss it in depth in the postgraduate reading group I formed a few months ago. In my language (Dutch) we have a saying: ‘two know more than one’ – so seven would even know more. And they do. After three sessions (and having progressed unto page 33 of the book) I understand more than I did before. I see, among other things, how Heidegger and Marx dialogue in the thought of Derrida (Levinas always somewhere in the background) – or should I say in his writing? In the thought that springs up when reading his writing again.

We spoke also about this mysterious sentence – to learn to live, finally – we circled around it, but I still didn’t understand what these words, that reminded me rather of self-help literature (to learn to live, finally, in 7 steps – or something to that effect), were doing in a serious philosophical text. But now, looking at the stars, as the ancient philosophers must have been doing so much more than present day ones, I suddenly saw it: this sentence was Derrida’s answer and reference to Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates teaches his pupils, when he is in prison and about to undergo capital punishment for spoiling the minds of the young, that philosophy is all about learning to die. In the mind of Plato learning to die becomes focusing on the eternal (the stars), the unchanging – to overcome the pain and anxieties of this here life. So suddenly I was present at the grand U-turn Derrida makes – we can still look at the stars, but they aren’t unchanging, as little as anything in our world. After pursuing the Platonic gaze for more than two thousand years, attempting to learn to die in vain, we better try to learn to live, finally.

And that was also what I was feeling myself – after more than half a century on this earth I have learnt to see that nothing is unchanging, not even for a moment. Large as well as minute changes surround me and work in me. Just a few weeks ago I returned to a place where I had been last almost forty years ago, and although I could remember ‘me’ being there, no cell in my body is still the same as then. The fragile structures of my body have somehow translated the memory over and over again, untill it is a faint imprint of the first experience. One cannot even say the memory captures the ‘same’ experience. Or that the ‘me’ remembering is the same.

Everything is changing, but this is for Derrida not a trigger to go and look for eternity beyond this life – but, on the contrary, to take up responsibility: to see injustice in front of me, and try to invest myself to try to restore justice (a justice that has never been, in this world, but that attracts and commands us). Here is where Marx comes in – this thinker, he says, who is ‘mad enough’ to speak to a ghost. When we were discussing in our reading group I remembered Marx’ words about how philosophers ‘up till now’ have only understood the world, but that now it is also time to change it.  This incentive Derrida takes very seriously, where he sees Marx as the first thinker who turned philosophy around – from staring at the stars and wanting to escape life, to seeing even the stars as reminders that we are up to our knees in the endless open ended decision moments of this life, and that we should take up our responsibility to do something, even when we remain in the dark, finally, about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Do something, however, not arbitrarily – but under the gaze of the ghost that looks at us – the ghost (of Marx, of the dead, of the suffering who are not fully in this world, of those without civil rights, without papers, without birthright in the affluent societies) that horrifyingly shows us injustice every moment, and our involvement in it. Thus our uncertainty about right and wrong does not mean we can be unengaged, or that we can ever, even for a moment, be indifferent. Paradoxally, this ethical awareness, after the Marxian U-turn of philosophy, means that we are on the path to learn to live, finally. To learn to enjoy life – being part of it, not fleeing it, knowing we can do something, at every moment. Or just doing something, under the gaze of the ghost – without even knowing whether we really can.

 

I want to thank here my brilliant co-readers of Specters of Marx – you know who you are. You would obviously write a very different post about your reading experiences, were any of you to write a blog. This post just addressed one moment of looking at the stars, on one fine evening in August, by one of us, who realized her ‘me’ to be within this ever changing and changeable sphere which I might want to call life.

 

“How ‘to talk religion’? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day?”

Derrida 2002. Acts of Religion, p. 42.

This Derrida quote was above the abstract I sent in for the 23rd ISAPS conference, recently held in Vienna. My paper was titled “Bantu Philosophy” and the problem of religion in intercultural philosophy today. Going by the comments and questions after presenting my paper, I think I succeeded to bring some fresh questions to the debates on Bantu Philosophy, the 1945 publication by Placide Tempels, a Franciscan missionary in what then was called the Belgian Congo. Tempels’ book, which first appeared in Dutch and was later translated to French and English, kicked off the many debates on the existence and nature of African philosophy. Is philosophy localized, or universal? Was his presentation of a culturalized ontology a well-meant first attempt at intercultural dialogue, or can it not be taken outside of the colonial context in which Tempels worked? Or could both be true? In my presentation I wanted to go into another matter: Tempels’ attempt to sketch a solution to the loss of religiosity in what he called the age of industrialization – in the colonialized part of Africa where he lived as well as in Europe.

Although he culturalized ontology, Tempels still spoke of religion in the singular – a thing which we nowadays find hard to do, according to Derrida. Now there is much talk of religions, in the plural: we speak of the dialogue of religions, or their confrontation. To talk of religion, in the singular – to ask whether there is any meaning in religion as such, seems an obsolete question. Especially in philosophy. This would imply, namely, to discuss religious anthropology in a transcultural manner: to ask what human beings share in terms of religious desire. Tempels now, did exactly that. For him, ‘Christian doctrine’ was about receiving as a reality ‘the strengthening of life’. For him religion was all about

‘the aspiration towards the strengthening of life, the raising of it, the taking of it into the supernatural, its participation in the constant intensification and internal growth of our life through union, living union, with God.’ (80)

This rather unusual wording of what he saw as the essence of Christian religiosity he derived from his construction of what he saw as ‘Bantu ontology’ – which would be an ontology of ‘vital force’. In his view the people he had come to live amongst in the Congo had understood life, human life, and life in general, as a continuous possibility of intensification or decrease in vital force. Cursing another is meant to decrease his vitality, blessing her or him does the oppositie. Tempels’ initial motive to investigate and describe what he saw as original Bantu culture had sprung from his observation that all missionary work in Africa had actually failed, as European culture was brought over to African peoples in its new, materialistic and spiritually empty version, while religious teachers had never tried to understand the soul of those they aimed to convert, and therefore had not really conversed with them.

In the end however Tempels made an unusual double hermeneutical move – to first interpret what his African interlocutors taught him in terms of a metaphysics of life force, and to secondly reinterpret in its terms the languishing catholic metaphysics of salvation. This made him take Christ as the enhancer of life force per se, and as the counterforce in an age which, he feared, was about to empty the human person (African and European alike) of its soul, seeing progress solely in terms of industrialization and economic expansion. This was not just a hermeneutical circular movement avant Gadamer, as it simultaneously upheld the neo-scholastic claim to metaphysical knowledge of ultimate divine reality. Thus Tempels culturalized and contextualized what was supposed to sustain and transcend the contingent phenomenal world.

In my presentation I asked whether we should see this in the light of his confused non-professional philosophy (Tempels just took the two years of philosophy required in the study for the priesthood), or whether in the end his work contains elements for an answer to Derrida’s question: how to speak of religion without fear and trembling. If it does, perhaps some light can be shed in the discourse which only speaks of religious difference, without seeing how religion should be analyzed in a contextualized manner – as intrinsically related to the political and economic struggles that disturb our present times.

If we follow that road we could see that any philosophical search for truth (post – cultural relativism) has to move through analyses of the political and the economical. In Tempels work we see the beginnings of such a move – where he relates religion (in the singular: be it Christianity or traditional African religiosity) to the historical situation of industrialization and colonization – a situation that advertizes itself as civilization, but Tempels doubts this. He tries the idea whether it might not be better in a sense for Europeans to let themselves be taught by those they allegedly came to civilize.

‘We get the impression that these masses want to rise from their alleged lowliness, clothing themselves in the knowledge of their own lore and in their conception of the world; and thus standing before and looking down upon the small group of Westerners […]” (73).

To state, as Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha does in his article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica , that Tempels remained bound to a colonial outlook because he saw Christianity as superior to traditonal African religion is too fast a conclusion to my view. His Christianity did not speak (as traditionally was done in European religious discourse) of salvation of the eternal soul, but of a continuous intensification and internal growth of life through union with God – which to my view is a Christianity which had been transformed through its contact and dialogue with ‘Bantu philosophy’ – with his observation that ‘there is to be found in the depths of the Bantu soul an aspiration, an irresistable allurement towards an infinite strengthening of life.’ (81) This is not just a reformulation of traditional Christian ‘talk of religion’ – it is quite another talk. Of religion, across cultural and theological difference, positioned over against what Tempels saw as the false progress of industrialization and the only materialistic ‘development’ through colonialism.

 

 

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.