Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment

By Kelly Oliver | Go to book overview

FIVE
Elephant Autopsy: Optic Machinery and
the Scale of Sovereignty

One thinks of this elephenomenelephant that was no longer looking at
them but could have seen them, with its own eyes seen the king see it in
its own autopsy.

— JACQUES DERRIDA, The Beast and the Sovereign

Derrida asks us to read (hear) his seminar The Beast and the Sovereign as a fable, similar to the fables of La Fontaine that punctuates the text. Just as La Fontaine’s fables often employ two (or more) characters—animals— to teach us lessons about political power, the seminar is the story of two characters—two animals—the beast and the sovereign, engaged in a lifeand-death struggle, in which the sovereign turns out to be the more beastly of the two. If Derrida’s Beast is a fable, we might ask, what is its moral? What lessons are we to learn from it? In a word, we could say it is a lesson about the workings of sovereignty, but of course it is also much more. Indeed, it is a sort of counterfable set as counterweight to the fable of sovereignty, particularly the fable of human sovereignty over animals. Although various animals show up in this text (and in Derrida’s work more generally), one story that illustrates some of the stakes of his counterfable about sovereignty is that of a big elephant and a little king. Derrida asks us

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