Darwin and Derrida on Human and Animal Emotions: The Question of Shame as a Measure of Ontological Difference
Williams, Linda, New Formations
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe That all was lost.
Milton Paradise Lost (9.782-4)
I REGIMES OF AFFECT
Until quite recently raising questions about the range of emotions experienced by animals (insofar as such questions were asked at all), no doubt arose largely in anecdotal accounts of companion animals in domestic life, or in reflections on the cultural realm of literature, art or fairy tales. From the seventeenth century the gradual development of the professionalisation of enquiry in Europe meant that the study of animal cognition or emotion in serious scholarship aimed to be strictly segregated from subjective regimes of affect associated with the arts, or from any sense of tacit knowledge drawn from personal encounters with animals in the domestic realm. Furthermore, the possibilities of inter-subjective communication in human-animal encounters, or the potentially more demanding question of to what extent our emotional lives might be compared to those of animals, have not generally been regarded as topics of serious enquiry.
There were certainly exceptions to this scholarly tradition, not least in the works of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century, or in the work of such distinguished twentieth-century animal behaviourists as Jakob von Uexkiill or Conrad Lorenz. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that the standard scientific approach has for some time privileged the view of animals as objects of study rather than sentient, or feeling subjects as such. Notwithstanding the objectification of the animal however, the question of the extent to which the privileging of rationality over other forms of experience was in itself steeped in deep cultural and theological legacies was not generally raised. Moreover, if we acknowledge recent claims by ethologists such as Marc Bekoff that to argue against the existence of animal emotions is now simply regarded as poor biology, (1) then the prevalence of techno-scientific objectifications of the animal are likely to remain a source of ethical tension.
The ethical tensions raised by the emotional life of animals objectified as items of utility in the laboratory also extend to the emotional experiences of animals in conditions of hard labour, factory farms, or slaughterhouses. Especially since the common emotional engagement with companion animals or our enthusiasm for 'wildlife' offers such a stark contrast to these other darker, yet comparably affective regimes of feeling.
Despite the fact that these kinds of inconsistencies have long been a part of the complex web of contradictions constituting human-animal relations as a condition of modernity, they have recently been thrown into heightened relief with the emerging crisis in mass extinctions and serious loss of bio-diversity. (2)
In this context of mass extinctions, the prevalence of domesticated animals (including domestic animal companions) represents inexorable environmental problems. Yet what remains visible of the use of domesticated animals in everyday life, and particularly the immediate proximity of companion animals, provides possible close encounters with animals that have the potential to reveal some of these contradictions. To be sure, our largely mediated encounters with wildlife through television, film or zoos, also offer glimpses of these wider contradictions. But it is companion animals that are in a privileged position to offer us daily encounters with animal alterity, and hence more frequent opportunity for reflections on our deep historical interdependence with animal life, or how human emotions might resemble those of other ontological states of being and becoming.
II CLOSE ENCOUNTERS
In The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008) Jacques Derrida recalled such an encounter with his small companion cat that took place in his bathroom one morning. In one of his last works, he recalled how the cat looked at him directly: the naked figure of the philosopher, and after returning her gaze, Derrida then recounted this brief interlude as a critical reflection on his sense of embarrassment and shame before her. (3) It is this human, and I would suggest humanist, sense of shame that concerns me here, and its differences from the range of emotions Darwin so eloquently compared as common to most mammals, including humans.
I will also consider Derrida and Darwin's approaches to shame in the context of how social theorists have attempted to understand complex emotions, whilst also acknowledging that poetry has given us some of our most precise images of human shame and its deep connections to the mythology of original sin and humanity's fall from grace.
Derrida deconstructs histories of shame with the same rigour as his other radical reconfigurations of received textual knowledge; yet while his responses to Darwin's legacy in the late essays on animals do not deviate from the view that science is also shaped by rhetoric and metaphor, (4) they nonetheless seem to me to be tempered by a general acknowledgement of traditions in what Stephen Shapin referred to as the truth-value of science. (5) Though deconstructionism and radical scepticism may be of great use in the general clarification of the politics of scientific rhetoric, it need not extend to undermining the scientific basis of evolutionary theory any more than it need extend to criticising the Copernican world view or the scientific consensus on climate change.
A case in point is evinced in Derrida's earlier essay And Say the Animal responded? (2003) (6) where he cited what he describes as Lacan's Cartesian logic, in his view of the animal's fixed reaction to meaning in the mirror phase rather than a reflective response, as the reason animals are denied access to the symbolic, and hence to the unconscious. Deprived of the capacity for pretence, lying, or differentiating good from evil, Lacan's animal is thus as innocent as those in Eden before Adam's fall from grace, and yet for Derrida it is anthropocentric dogma rather than reason as such that leads Lacan to these assumptions on the qualities of the animal mind.
Furthermore, Derrida sees a profound trauma arising from such assumptions, emerging in response 'not to humanity's first trauma (Copernican), nor the third (Freudian), but the second (Darwinian)', (7) and it is the global implications of this scientific trauma to theocentric logic that he expands on in the later essay.
For Derrida, this contemporary trauma is as profound as the original myth of Genesis itself, to which he gives poetic coherence by drawing on Paul Valery's revolutionary reappraisal of the 'I'/'Who am I (Following)?' in Ebauche d'un Serpent. In this work Valery revealed a serpent in a world long fallen from innocence. And this serpent (unlike Milton's great seducer) is essentially an emissary of Enlightenment, the messenger of post-Darwinian knowledge that we are no longer in a position to disavow.
In this essay in 2003 Derrida clearly acknowledged his debt to Darwin in the radical reassessment of Lacan's essentially Cartesian animal, and later, in his philosophical speculation on shame in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008), his expansive refutation of the twenty-first-century prevalence of the legacy of Genesis also extends to its antecedents in the nineteenth century. Hence his refutation extends to scientific discourse shaped by humanism and, if not to Darwin's findings as such, then perhaps to some of the rhetorical means by which they were conveyed. Like Darwin, who included everyday observations of companion animals in his works, Derrida drew on his daily encounter with his companion cat as the foundation of his reappraisal of human-animal relations in general, and of the human animal in particular.
For Derrida the cat could never simply be designated an animal as such, since he is careful to observe that the term 'animal' conveys a violent repression of the ontological differences distinguishing her from the vast bio-diversity of beings whose specific qualities are eradicated by the singular term 'animal'. Further, the term 'animal', whether reptile, invertebrate or mammal is similarly suspect as a sign subsumed by the remarkably resilient theocratic category of that which may be regarded as simply sub-human.
This particular cat does not serve as the messenger of mythological evocations of the feline, nor of the many stories of encounters with cats in human cultural histories, but is regarded as a being whose presence, he decides, requires a meditation on the conditions and specific emotional qualities that constitute the human animal.
While Donna Haraway acknowledged his respect for the ontological specificity of this cat and recognised Derrida's resistance to speak for the cat as a subaltern, (8) she also regrets that he is then simply 'sidetracked by his textual canon of Western …
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Publication information: Article title: Darwin and Derrida on Human and Animal Emotions: The Question of Shame as a Measure of Ontological Difference. Contributors: Williams, Linda - Author. Journal title: New Formations. Issue: 76 Publication date: Winter 2012. Page number: 21+. © Lawrence & Wishart Spring 2008. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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