After Jacques Derrida, ‘I would like to choose words that are, to begin with, naked, quite simply, words from the heart.’1
The direct flow of this sentence, metered by four commas, and issued with a cautionary conditional even as it shepherds words ‘from the heart’, closes the second paragraph of The Animal That Therefore I Am
. It is apparently simple in that no ‘jargon’ is in immediate evidence. However, invoking the beginning several times in these opening lines, explicitly invoking the testamentary stature of ‘In the beginning’, Derrida circles around the desire for origins, the desire not to repeat, the desire for a ‘time before time’ by which means we should sense the sheer cascading scale of that which he calls the ‘animal question’ as it jostles with the concept and figure of nudity.
The very idea that words from the heart might convey anything other than unalloyed innocence might steer us at first, crestfallen, towards the deceit, lying in the wings, awaiting the reactive activation of the binary machine (either innocence or deception!). But this work of political philosophy cannot proceed without poetic means (and does not try to do so). Those poetic means might thus recall what appears to be the utter idiosyncrasy of another little text in which a hedgehog curls amongst the invocation that we should learn by heart. There, in response to the demand from the journal Poesia
to answer the question ‘What is poetry?’ (a question posed to the first author published in each issue of that journal), Derrida addresses, ‘you’.2
That apparently direct address and demand for the presence of poetry – for it to be revealed in its naked truth, we might say, – do not result in a direct response or explanation. Rather, deconstruction has a taste for the oblique and this I have taken to heart. The oblique path responds to reasons both general and particular. Vis-à-vis the
general, Derrida’s work inherently cautions against the frontal engagement of ‘Q&A’ or classical forms of argumentation squaring off ‘x’ against ‘y’ since the very form of the question or of the argument will seek to predetermine what can be found. In this particular instance, the poetic itself is in question and it departs from both canonical formulations of genre and quotidian notions of poetry as the ‘ineffable’.3
Rolling two axioms up together, the poetic for Derrida is the invocation to ‘learn by heart’.4
This rolling bypasses the ostensible capture of synthesis to conjure an animal figure of vulnerability. Unlike its Romantic predecessor, this little hedgehog in the road is both curled up into a ball in upon itself and
remains exposed to the world, unable to see death coming.5
The two axioms take the desired organic and original spontaneity for naked words together with the demand for repetition and the committal to memory, to ‘mnemotechnics’ and ‘a certain exteriority of the automaton’.6
Rote repetition and the beat of the heart, the poetic – or ‘poematic’ – is both inside and outside, setting a rhythm that goes beyond any frame of opposition. Even that ‘beyond’ is freighted so that it does not signal the ascent of another form of transcendence but remains ‘down there … humble, close to the earth, low down’.7
Summoning up some of the animals in his previous works – including the hedgehog – in The Animal That Therefore I Am
, Derrida notes that ‘almost all these animals are welcomed, in a more and more deliberate manner, on the threshold of sexual difference. More precisely, of sexual differences’. It is true that Derrida’s now infamous nude scene before his cat generates a strong negative emotion, that of shame. We cannot, however, subtract that shame from the ontotheological conceptual history that would corral this cat to ‘the animal’ – identical to all the others, categorically lesser in kind than ‘the human’, while staining man’s knowledge with the so-called original sin. What is singular about Derrida’s work and why I draw so much from it is that he does not defend against his own, top-to-toe – or top-to-tail, implication in this history and in ways out of it. The threshold of which he speaks is one of welcome. The silkworms that Derrida observed as a child in Algiers do not issue an anxious lesson in sexual difference but a ‘marvellous’ secret secretion of sexual and animal differences. Not a word, not a snake. ‘In the beginning’, he writes – again – ‘there was the worm which was and was not a sex, the child could see it clearly, a sex perhaps but then which one?’8
This reverie from ‘A
Silkworm of One’s Own’ risks a primal scene that does not congeal into the repetition of a single fault, exceptional signifier or compensatory fetish as per the normative account of psychoanalysis.9
It thereby contrasts dramatically with the suite of ethical and political problems faced in The Animal That Therefore I Am
, emblematized by the elementary armature of horizontal and vertical. This seemingly purely physical, or geophysical, axis accrues metonymic ambition when it automatically, art historically, stands in for landscape and portrait. Worse, the verticality of that portrait then becomes the metonymy of standing upright. While it is ‘erection in general and not only phallic surrection’ that is ‘at the heart of what concerns’ Derrida, as I explore these axes across a number of films, any resistance to divisibility on behalf of the concept or of the sign can be understood as a defence against the mutability of detumescence.10
Deconstruction is improper. In an interview with feminist faculty at Brown University from 1984 – in the decade when women’s studies programmes were gaining traction, Derrida muses that ‘there is always something sexual at stake in the resistance to deconstruction’.11
That something takes perhaps its most unexpected form in Derrida’s Death Penalty
seminars. After his long lament for the lack of a philosophy of abolitionism amid the calculus of pain that is the anaesthesia of the death penalty, the first volume ends with resistance by means of the beating of Derrida’s heart – and ‘the grace of the other heart’.12
That alone is arresting. But the next to last session of the second volume astonishes in the explicit and heartfelt alliance between deconstruction and feminism that it invokes. In that session Derrida returns to Sigmund Freud, following the red thread of blood as philosophy – and here psychoanalysis – shows itself to be unable to oppose the death penalty. Locating anxiety regarding the flow of blood, Freud finds himself turning his discussion of the defloration of women into one of female resentment born of penis envy (that is not the surprise). What is striking but, again, not surprising is Freud’s twofold transition from the so-called ‘primitive’ peoples to his contemporary moment (itself a familiar synthesis from his colonial orchestration of the Subject of Europe in his speculative writings).13
Firstly he locates the clearest instances of such resentment among ‘the strivings and in the literary productions of “emancipated” women’ in his own time.14
Secondly, Freud risks a ‘paleo-biological speculation’ that roots this impoverished condition on their thwarted desire to urinate standing up.15
some restraint, Derrida responds that is not that Freud’s ‘targeting lacks insight’ but that ‘the phenomenon he has not failed to identify requires an interpretation about which psychoanalysis does not utter a word’.16
With a heart-stopping divergence from the letter of Freud, Derrida aligns what he names the ‘original and irreplaceable role of literature in the feminist cause’ with the fact that it has been poets and writers generating abolitionist discourse – not philosophers ‘or even politicians’.17
In such a gesture he links it with his own writing, and the thought and the risk of writing in deconstruction in its broadest implication.
Resisting the direction in Freud that aligns moral rectitude and the rectitude or erection of the body standing before the law (or indeed a urinal), Derrida resists too the congenital figure of disability lodged in the logic of castration to which the resentful writerly woman is ostensibly destined. There is even a path emerging here that affirms the vulnerability of a resistant feminist emancipation with the ‘nonpower at the heart of power’ taking shape in The Animal That Therefore I Am.18
That nonpower is at the beating heart of the transpecific living, and it is sexual without opposition.
In the beginnings that follow, you will find an accumulation of scenes given sustained attention. Circling around the desire for origins and for ends without being able to calculate either with the exactitude ordinarily taken for granted, Poetics of Deconstruction inhabits films, art and the psychoanalyses by which they might make sense other than under licence of the subject that calls himself man. That fiction of autonomy, therefore, subsides.
This book draws most substantially from Derrida, making the proximity of deconstruction to bodies of thought such as psychoanalysis more pedagogically available without that proximity being resolved into identity even as the conceptual groundwork that psychoanalysis shares with our inheritance of the dialectical tradition must be set aside. Yet the book brings to light commonality with a number of other writers. On the one hand, shared grounds emerge because Derrida was not in the business of branding concepts to be applied, willy-nilly, regardless of context. Rather he attended to the condition of the living in general even as it aims for singularity: this time, this space, this sex, this animal. On the other, this book engages those who have nourished thought in feminist philosophy, posthumanism and animal studies
in ways that I find life affirming, most notably Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Cary Wolfe and Donna Haraway. In one of her lesser-known articles first published in 1987, written in response to the tall order of inserting the term ‘gender’ – or ‘Geschlecht’ – into a dictionary of Marxism, Haraway wrote, ‘The evidence is building of a need for a theory of “difference” whose geometries, paradigms, and logics break out of binaries, dialectics, and nature/culture models of any kind.’19
Yes, it is. Through your readerly progression to and fro across these chapters that unfold successively but also circle back, revise and resume, taking in primal scenes, death penalties, sacrifice, revenge, histories, autobiographies and apostrophes, perhaps that need can again take root.
In common with the gesture of reversal and displacement at the heart of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida asks, ‘What, then, is true mourning
? What can we make of it? Can we make it, as we say in French that we “make” our mourning? I repeat: can we? … are we capable of doing it, do we have the power
to do it?’1
This chapter begins around a dining table set to stage conversations between men: narratives of the adventures of male dogs double that scene. That may not immediately evoke the work of mourning, but soon, it will. The chapter explores the double prescription of what I call an ‘animal cure’ as it is suggested by the beguiling film adaptation of Lord Dunsany’s 1936 novella, Dean Spanley
.2 My Talks with Dean Spanley
does not self-consciously extend itself to support a politics or an ethics that would include animals; indeed, it remains close to the problems we readily associate with fables or allegory (in which animals habitually figure only as ciphers for human beings, as the ‘beast’ for human ‘sovereignty’).3
However, by pushing this film in light of the work of Derrida especially as that work affirms a certain kind of psychoanalysis that cannot secure its principles as those proper to the human, I want to bring its more radical potential to light while acknowledging the problematic scenography that the film fields.
The animal cure in the sense that holds stronger narrative endorsement in this film is not for a sick animal, or animals in general, if there were such a thing.4
Rather Dean Spanley
enacts the ‘talking cure’ for melancholia as manifested in a cantankerous elderly man, Fisk (Peter O’Toole), by means of an animal. While the film self-consciously tells a tale of reincarnation – persuasively evoked through the cinematic convention of flashback, it is readily available to a conventional psychoanalytic understanding of the work
of mourning as that which is best processed by enabling trauma to be put into words.5
In the canonical sense initiated by Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer’s early studies on hysteria, that distressing experience for which language has been unable to give voice coincident with its occurrence, but which lives on symptomatically, can only be abreacted by finding the ‘words to say it’ in a subsequent therapeutic environment.6
In this film, the unmourned deaths of his late son, Harrington, and his wife prescribe Fisk’s extremely formal relationship with his surviving son, Henslowe. Meanwhile Henslowe (Jeremy Northam) becomes fascinated with the oddly convincing stories produced by the local clergyman – the eponymous Dean (Sam Neill), of his life as a dog when enjoying the scent of the rare Hungarian liquor, Tokay. Realizing that the dog, in whose name the Dean speaks, uncannily recalls the lost pet of his father’s childhood, Henslowe brings his animal cure into effect not by means of an actual psychoanalytic session but through reminiscences nonetheless, here provoked at the scene of a dinner party. From the moment that this pet, Wag, is ‘returned’ through the medium of the Dean’s apparent recollections, Fisk can begin to cry and thus to admit grief. Yet from this moment too, the intoxication with Dean Spanley fades: the normatively satisfying resolution of the last scene suggests a newly happy Fisk secured by a new pet dog.
makes a series of doubles between humans and dogs: son and dog (Harrington and Wag), dog and Father (in the Dean and also in Fisk) and also of dog friends and human friends (Wag’s doggy friend and Wrather the ‘conveyancer’ (Bryan Brown), Henslowe’s fellow conspirator in the supply of Tokay).7
It self-consciously does this with the key scenes of the film too – men assembled around a dining table/dogs running through fields. By convening the entwined narratives through a ritual meal, metonymized by Tokay, Dean Spanley
invites reflection on the primal feast and the legend of consanguinity between human clan and totem animal as invoked by...