Wilfried Dickhoff & Marcus Steinweg

On Animality

The present issue of INAESTHETICS assembles contributions that address issues of Animality. The question of animality is not a secondary question in philosophy. It traverses all forms of human self-determination to the extent that the humanity of the animal rationale or zoon politikon remains thoroughly attuned to the animality implicit in it, however one may judge this attunement. The question of what the human being is is inseparable from that of what the animal is (if this singular even makes sense; an assumption Derrida has called into question). The history of man is the history of the community of fate that joins him to the animals and of his own animality, as well as a history of the practices he employs to distance himself from this animality. Animals, both as symbols and in reality, affect virtually all domains of human culture: as companions, as sacrificial victims, as food, as objects of research, as political codes. In each instance, the question of what is proper to man is defined by the efforts to distinguish his being from that of the animal, as though this distinction guaranteed human dignity and self-determination, and as though it were indubitable that such a being exists.

More recent philosophy has taken a critical stance regarding the possibility of isolating such an essential core of man. There is, it appears, no absolute—no divine or simply natural—prescription of the subject that would support an unambiguous distinction between animality and humanity. Man’s determination of himself, it appears, can become meaningful only in opening up toward the animal in a way that does not avoid the difficulty of drawing a line between the two orders, which are nonetheless inseparable. In all its historical sequences, the subject’s reflection on itself has placed it in relation to everything that is not, or is not supposed to be, subject: the animal, the child, woman. The act by which the modern subject rights itself involves the drawing of a distinction that decides what is not a member of the sphere of responsibility, of political decision, of freedom and self-determination as a subject.

The deconstruction of the concept of the subject in Derrida’s writings has accordingly led directly to the questions both of animality and of the difference between the sexes: There is a difference, but it is undecidable. The undecidability of the difference between man and animal means, first and foremost, that this difference is something other than pure opposition: "It is not the case that it is Man versus the Animal."1

Deleuze and Guattari similarly assume that art begins with the animal—at least the animal that demarcates a territory and builds a dwelling, activities that imply the emergence of sensual qualities (sensibilia) that are not merely functional but expressive.2 Expressivity transforms functions and celebrates qualities before extracting new causalities and finalities from them. This emergence, they claim, is already art, in its treatment of materials, in the postures and colors of the body, in the songs and cries. If that is the case: Does not then so-called man, in making art, realize humanity and animality as one? And is not then the animal already more than animalic, and man, more than anthropomorphic?

The question of animality touches upon all concepts and questions that neither deny the singularity of the human subject nor derive from it the need to install an absolute discontinuity between man and animal. The concept of life and the concept of politics and their conjunction in what Foucault and Agamben, for example, call biopolitics are directly related to the issues of animality, to the limits of humanity (Which human being is simply human? How much non-humanity and inhumanity are required to distance what we call man from what is outside him?) as much as the limits of animality (Where does the animal begin, and where does it end? Where does it mark a transition to the trans-animalic, which may already be the human?). Is the animal poor in world, the stone worldless, man world-forming, as Heidegger says?3 Is it that simple? Does not the animal have language? Is it not capable of social organization? Is it true that it is numbly tied up in its world without organizing, without forming a world by inventing and employing complex forms of communication?

With her book Le silence des bêtes (1998), Élisabeth de Fontenay has presented a comprehensive study, ranging from antiquity to contemporary philosophy, of the exclusion of the animal from the domain of the human.4 The ideal of a self-transparent ego cogito—the notion that man is, first and foremost, self-consciousness before finding his freedom of thought, judgment, and decision constrained by the fact of his vital foundations as well as his objective existence in the field of a socially, politically, and culturally overdetermined reality—must mediate itself to the share that darkness, the animalic and biological, has in it, instead of naively denying this share and losing its way in idealism. On the other hand, the hypostatization of corporeality and of the body that is virulent in contemporary philosophy runs the danger of being taken in by a regressive naturalism (and biologism) whose political consequences are alarming. Man is open to the animal, he is more than spirit and more than body, he is both in one, both at once. And the animal? In most cases, it is indeed not free to choose not to stand in relation to man, not to be subjected to his interests. To draw the conclusion that the animal is no more than an object, without any rights and without any self-determination, is not only ethically unacceptable; it is also, simply, bad philosophical thinking.

  1. Jacques Derrida, Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue, trans. Jeff Fort, Stanford: Stanford University Press 2004, 63.
  2. Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Graham Burchell, Hugh Tomlinson, London: Verso 1994, 163–199.
  3. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press 1995.
  4. Élisabeth de Fontenay, Le silence des bêtes. La philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité, Paris: Fayard 1998.