Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am

Jacques Derrida has always made my head hurt, as he has the heads of so many others, but to me it's always been a good kind of hurt. (No, John Mellencamp, I don't need to hear from you at this point....) I've been puzzling around the edges of his ideas of animality for a long time, and this summer -- since I've had so much free time, and such an excess of uncommitted intellectual energy -- I decided it was time to read The Animal That Therefore I Am.

Unsurprisingly, it took me forever to read this book, about eight weeks, and as with everything Derrida, my attitude veered between finding it akin to obvious performance art, and finding it wildly ingenious. I've taught his brilliant essay "Before the Law" a number of times, even though I'm convinced I only follow maybe two-thirds of what he's talking about in that piece, and I can see myself trying to use sections of The Animal That Therefore I Am as well, and with the same effect on me.

Among the usual more open-hearted reviews of this book, there are some snide reviews online, and Derrida deserves them. After all, this book begins with his story of being naked in his washroom, feeling self-conscious because his cat is staring at him. Derrida's well aware that we don't (yet?) know what a cat would be thinking in such a situation, so the odd but quotidian domestic tableau leads him to ponder the essences of both animality and humanity, whether there is such a thing as animality-in-general, how we might even provisionally define (self-)consciousness, and dozens of other points. But still, we start with a naked philosopher, and that's trouble!

Among the book's many seductive passages is a lovely little insistence, though expressed in typically thorny prose, about his bodily experience of texts and ideas:
given the infinite complications that I am in the process of recalling, I have a particularly animalist perception and interpretation of what I do, think, write, live, but, in fact, of everything, of the whole of history, culture, and so-called human society, at every level, macro- or microscopic. My sole concern is not that of interrupting this animalist 'vision' but of taking care not to sacrifice to it any difference or alterity, the fold of any complication, the opening of any abyss to come. (p.92)
Do I follow all of it? Of course not. But in this book, even in a first reading, I get more of a sense of voice and experience and uniqueness than I've felt in anything else by him that I've read. As usual it's easy to call his prose style as singularly unpleasant, in that you have to read his prose slowly and repeatedly, irregularly but often circling back to the beginning of his accursedly long and parenthetical sentences, but you know what? I kind of fell in love with this book, much to my surprise.

If you want a taste of Derrida's writing about animals, Critical Inquiry posted a snippet online that it published as a short stand-alone piece. Good stuff, though barely enough to give you a sense of what you'd be in for if you tackled the book as a whole.


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