Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jacques Derrida on Heidegger on the Animal and Being "as such"

“I have just a few notes and I’ll propose simply an outline of what I would have tried to do if I had time and if we had the time together” –Jacques Derrida (pg 141)

            I feel like the text of The Animal that Therefore I Am is really all over the place. Most of the text seems to be a close critique of Descartes, Kant, Levinas and Lacan on the question of the animal. Characteristically, Derrida does a good job at finding the point in the text where an unfounded bias toward human beings (as ontologically distinct from animals) as a privileged species. In sum, one of the most important arguments is the claim that though animals can make tracks or follow tracks, they cannot erase their tracks, which ties into the arguments about deception, “pretending to pretend,” etc. Derrida argues that it is within the structure of the trace that it can be erased. However, “the fact that a trace can always be erased, and forever, in no way means—and this is the critical difference—that someone, man or animal, I am emphasizing here, can of his own accord erase his traces” (33). One suspects that this is the reason for Derrida’s extensive recounting (as we also saw him do in Aporias) of his own “traces,” his own previous works.

Derrida, more than any other thinker I know, is an expert at actually “reading” his own works—taking into account the history of his own traces and taking responsibility for them. In order to “authorize” his investigation into the animal, he recounts the several places throughout his whole career that critters have popped up here and there, which forces us to see his texts in a different light (see pages 36-41). As we have pointed out before, I cannot relegate this self-reference to mere narcissism, as Derrida is showing that he takes responsibility for his previous texts. Furthermore, he is performing the fact that he, as an individual man, cannot erase his past traces. By writing and signing a text in one’s name, he or she has committed to answer for these remarks. Derrida, therefore, is showing the consistency of his thought, recognizing that he is not saying anything “radically new” or different here. He is showing that he, as well as we, are merely “reading” his own works differently, with a different valence, in different language—taking the Animal (in the singular) as the subject.

Despite the richness of this entire text and his close readings of the entire philosophical tradition, it is the last, ex-tempore lecture on Heidegger’s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that deserves the most attention. We can see in this seminar Heidegger really struggling with his own thought (which is something I have always admired about Heidegger’s work). He claims something and then will say “but wait!” However, this is not the ‘but no!” of Levinas, which Derrida calls a “disavowal,” but rather a suspension of decision—a “modesty,” if you will, toward a definitive conclusion. Indeed, Heidegger, like the description of the animal he holds, struggles with his own encirclement: “life is nothing but the animal’s encircling itself and struggling with its encircling ring” (257).

Derrida’s critique of Heidegger is more subtle than Descartes, Levinas, Kant, and Lacan, because Heidegger still struggles with the question of the animal. He will not content himself to condemn the animal to the mere “imaginary” (as Lacan does) or affirm (unequivocally at least), that it is “the first person that is lacking from animal life, radically depriving it of any autobiographical relation to self” (Derrida 93). Heidegger, ironically, is less subject to Adorno’s critique of idealism: “Animals would be the Jews of idealist, who would thus be nothing but virtual fascists” (Derrida 103). This is because, for Kant, the animal is not only the animal as a being, but also the animal in the self—the animal in ourselves that is “taboo” and cannot participate in a Kantian morality of universalizable maxims. This is where Levinas gets tripped up: “Reckoning only by the measure of who we glimpses in a certain unconscious of pure practical reason, namely the cruel and merciless war that a virtual ‘fascist’ Kantian idealism decleares on animal life, calling Bobby a Kantian is no compliment” (Derrida 115, my italics).

And why does not Heidegger get the same treatment from Derrida? Because Heidegger is not trying to base his distinction between animal and human on clear distinctions between rational/non-rational, language/no language, response/reaction (at least not at first). Rather, Heidegger re-interrogates the concept of “world.” As Derrida points out, this comparative analysis that he takes, contrasting man as world-forming, animal as “poor in world,” and stone as worldless is rare for Heidegger. The concept of “world” here gets shaken, solicited, and deconstructed by Heidegger’s own text so that we cannot arrive at an easy definition.

Heidegger here is clear that the animal “has” world, but the animal “has a world” in a different way than man has world. Heidegger has a hell of a time trying to figure out how the animal “has a world.” He comes up with the phrase “poor in world” not as a sense of poverty as “less” than man. Heidegger does not want to make an evaluative hierarchal judgment, placing Dasein as superior to animal. So, Heidegger uses the language he uses to describe man to describe the animal: “Rather being poor means being deprived [. . .] the way in which it is in a mood—poverty in a mood” (Heidegger). Both man and animal, then, have in common that they are always in a “mood.” Our mood, as Heidegger writes in Being in Time and reiterates in the early parts of Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics is “Being-attuned” (B&T 172). And again, “A mood makes manifest ‘how one is, and how one is faring’. In this ‘how one is’, having a mood brings Being to its ‘there’” (173). So interesting enough, the animal does not lack mood, its mood, however, is one of poverty. Is man ever in a mood of poverty? In a way, is it not because we are in a mood that we are ‘limited’ in perhaps, the same way as the animal?

The way Heidegger writes about the animal’s world seems so similar to the way in which he understands the world of man: “Thus the intrinsic self-encirclement of the animal is not a kind of encapsulation. On the contrary, the encirclement is precisely drawn about the animal in such a way that it opens up a sphere” (Heidegger). Is the difference between man and animal, as he says at times, a difference of degree?

This does not seem to be the case at other moments in the text. I would argue that if the animal is “like” us in the sense that it has a mood, then there may be two ways to distinguish man from animal. The first is that the animal is always in a mood of poverty, whereas man finds himself in different moods—moods like anxiety (of course, this returns us to the question of death, the structure of care as fear-for-one’s-own-being). Alternately, can we say that Dasein  is its possibility in a way that the animal is not? That is, the animal is not “free” in some sense. That is, taking Heidegger’s phrase in all of its active connotations the animal is not world-forming à as in, it does not make its world? Heidegger may imply this when he writes,

Every animal surround itself with such an encircling ring, but it does not do so subsequently, as if the animal initially lived or ever could live without this encircling ring altogether, as if this encircling ring somehow grew up around the animal only at a later stage. (Heidegger 257)

Could it not be that Dasein, fundamentally, has the possibility of expanding his ‘encircling’ ring? Could it not be that ‘subsequently’ we can expand the ring to which we see something ‘as’ something? Is this not the power of language, the power of language as metaphor to see something “as” something else, to see something in a new way?

The other distinction we could focus on is that between ‘affect” and “gripped.” Heidegger says early in Fundamental Concepts, “the fundamental concern of philosophizing pertains to such being gripped, to awakening and planting it. All such being gripped, however, comes from and remains in an attunement” (Heidegger 7). In contrast, the animal can merely be affected: “Yet it is certainly true that the animal does announce itself as something that relates to other things and does so in a way that it is somehow affected by these other things” (Heidegger). So, perhaps man’s attunement is in “being gripped,” which allows us to form “Begriffen” –concepts, so that we are the “philosophical animal.” Indeed, Heidegger characterizes Dasein in Being and Time as “This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being” (B&T 27). Can the animal inquire into its own being, into its “meaning of being”?

On one level, Heidegger traps himself by saying that the animal is “self-absorbed” which is so close to the structure of care that Heidegger maintains is an essential existential condition of Dasein: “In this rejecting things from itself we see the animal’s self absorption” (Heidegger). So how is man’s ‘care’ or how is the ‘as’ of the as-structure different for man? Rather than focusing on Dasein as possibility, Heidegger ends up re-affirming the metaphysical priority of the present-at-hand! Heidegger, the thinker who made me think outside being as being-present-at-hand returns to this privileging in metaphysics. Heidegger, the thinker of the everyday, the ready-to-hand—the thinker of the meaning of being, the thinker who realized that the theoretical attitude (mood) of looking at a thing as a ‘thing’ is only one possibility of Dasein returns to the present-at-hand. A few passages to show this conclusion:

“If it is the case that the animal does not comport itself toward beings as such, then behavior involves no letting-be of beings as such—none at all and in no way whatsoever, not even any not letting-be” 

“But nor does this relational aspect belonging to behavior represent an attentiveness to what is present at hand within the environment

“It does not let anything present-at-hand stand as it is”

“However, this also implies that animals do not comport themselves indifferently with respect to beings either. For such indifference would also represent a relation to beings as such”

“The behavior of the animal, contrary to how it might appear, does not and can never relate to present-at-hand things singly or collectively”

And so we see that in order to relate to beings “as such” we must understand the primary importance of being present-at-hand, which, to me, refutes the whole power of Heidegger’s analysis of the everyday existence of Dasein. If I have to give this up in order to distinguish between man and animal, I would prefer for it to remain an open question.

For then Heidegger seems to want to think assertion and the proposition as the primary mode of understanding: “We formally traced the as-structure back to the propositional statement” (Heidegger). The proposition is then somehow, in this text, more originary. Compare this passage from Being and Time: “In its function of appropriating what is understood, the ‘as’ no longer reaches out into a totality of involvements [. . .] This leveling of the primordial ‘as’ of circumspective interpretation to the ‘as’ with which presence-at-hand is given a definite character is the specialty of assertion” (Heidegger 201).

This is the problem of Heidegger moving back to Aristotle in Fundamental Concepts: “Aristotle tells us: Discourse is what it is i.e. forms a sphere of understandability, whenever  there is a ____ of a ___,  whenever a being held together occurs in which there also lies agreement” (Heidegger). This is how Heidegger describes words: “this fundamental relation of letting something come into agreement and holding it together are words” (Heidegger).

But this denies the material and specificity of writing as something that leaves traces and that can never be fixed to a particular reference. Here, Heidegger denies the history of a word, of language, and, its untranslatability. The impossibility of a true “agreement” in terms of language. This is the problem with the “as-such.” The “as-such” is somehow the propositional, the “objective,” but it is Heidegger more than any other thinker—for me at least—who put the very possibility of the ‘objective’ in question! Even Dasein can never “let beings be in their being” in a kind of indifference (an ‘objective’ indifference), for this is merely the “theoretical attitude.”

I will end by following Derrida’s conclusion—or I suppose—he is following my conclusions—who follows who?

Can one free the relation of Dasein (not to say ‘man’) to beings from every living, utilitarian, perspective-making project, from every vital design, such that man himself could ‘let the being be’? For that is the relation to the being as such, that is to say, the relation to what is inasmuch as one lets it be what it is, that is to say, that one doesn’t approach it or apprehend it from our own perspective from our own design. (160)

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