Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Joy and Pity: Reading Animal Bodies in Late Eighteenth-Century Culture

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Joy and Pity: Reading Animal Bodies in Late Eighteenth-Century Culture

Article excerpt

The two centuries I have been referring to somewhat casually in order to situate the present in terms of this tradition have been those of an unequal struggle, a war (whose inequality could one day be reversed) being waged between, on the one hand, those who violate not only animal life but even and also this sentiment of compassion, and, on the other hand, those who appeal for an irrefutable testimony to this pity.

War is waged over the matter of pity. This war is probably not ageless but, and here is my hypothesis, it is passing through a critical phase. We are passing through that phase, and it passes through us. To think the war we find ourselves waging is not only a duty, a responsibility, an obligation, it is also a necessity, a constraint that, like it or not, directly or indirectly, no one can escape. Henceforth more than ever. And I say "to think" this war, because I believe it concerns what we call "thinking." The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there.

- Jacques Derrida1

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida takes up directly the postmodern "question of the animal," revisiting René Descartes's separation of reaction and response. This meditation has generated a burgeoning secondary literature on what was already a topic of expanding conversation in posthumanist theory. The particular configuration of commentary and critique in play here is familiar, one in which contemporary theory (today's posthuman, like yesterday's postmodern) positions itself as "following" (and simultaneously undoing) the Enlightenment philosophy that is positioned prior to it. The "moment of negation-disavowal" is something of a signature in many post-structuralist arguments about "the Enlightenment," and Derrida centers his own meditation around his own problematic "following" of Descartes:

It would not in the first place call for following or pursuing, or even citing, in order to celebrate it, the ergo sum, the donc je suis of someone who, from the Discourse on Method to the Meditations, no doubt cleared the path of autobiographilosophical narration, of self-presentation as philosophical presentation, yet of someone who doubted - within a so-called mechanicist tradition that was also that of La Mettrie and so many others - that the animal was only a machine, even going so far as to make of this indubitability a sort of condition for doubting, that of the ego as such, as ego dubito, as ego cogito, and therefore as ego sum.2

Throughout Derrida's essay on "the autobiographical animal," we playfully track in dead seriousness the autobiographer, as he is defined as the animal who hunts the very animal by whom he is himself hunted. Derrida, following in the track of Descartes, pursues himself. And that essay, coming neatly as it does at the end of the life of one French philosopher, positions itself as bookend to era introduced by the other French philosopher as an era of modernity, predicated on an ontology that separates self and other, and does so precisely around the category of human and animal. The Cartesian mechanism that restricts animals to reaction, rather than response, serves precisely to privilege the individuated subjectivity of the Cartesian self, whose alienations, anxieties, and neuroses form the bedrock of literature and culture in Western modernity.

In this essay, I am going to revisit a set of cultural texts long ago discarded and set aside in order to discern within them evidence of a change occurring in the ways in which humans read and understood animal bodies as what Tobias Menely has happily termed, in another context, "somatically legible subjects."3 I want to identify that change with a cultural rethinking of reading practices generally, and how these changing reading practices at the end of the eighteenth century serve to privilege particular constructions of the relations of reaction and response, exteriority and inferiority, animal and human, history and ethics. …

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