The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume IIby Jacques Derrida
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Following on from The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume I, this book extends Jacques Derrida’s exploration of the connections between animality and sovereignty. In this second year of the seminar, originally presented in 2002–2003 as the last course he would give before his death, Derrida focuses on two markedly different texts: Heidegger’s 1929–1930 course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. As he moves back and forth between the two works, Derrida pursuesthe relations between solitude, insularity, world, violence, boredom and death as they supposedly affect humans and animals in different ways. Hitherto unnoticed or underappreciated aspects of Robinson Crusoe are brought out in strikingly original readings of questions such as Crusoe’s belief in ghosts, his learning to pray, his parrot Poll, and his reinvention of the wheel. Crusoe’s terror of being buried alive or swallowed alive by beasts or cannibals gives rise to a rich and provocative reflection on death, burial, and cremation, in part provoked by a meditation on the death of Derrida’s friend Maurice Blanchot. Throughout, these readings are juxtaposed with interpretations of Heidegger's concepts of world and finitude to produce a distinctively Derridean account that will continue to surprise his readers.
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The Beast & the Sovereign
By Jacques Derrida
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFIRST SESSION
December 11, 2002
* * *
I am alone. Says he or says she. I am alone. Let's hear this sentence all alone, followed by a silence without appeal, or a final period. I am alone. Not: I am alone in being able to do this or that, to say this or that, to experience this or that, but "I am alone," absolutely. "I am alone" does moreover mean "I am" absolute, that is absolved, detached or delivered from all bond, absolutus, safe from any bond, exceptional, even sovereign. Taken on its own, this declaration: "I am alone" can, successively or simultaneously, in a given pragmatic situation, with a given intonation, signify sadness or joy, deploration or triumph: "I am alone," alas, or "I am alone," thank God, alone at last, etc.
I know a sentence that is still more terrifying, more terribly ambiguous than "I am alone," and it is, isolated from any other determining context, the sentence that would say to the other: "I am alone with you." Meditate on the abyss of such a sentence: I am alone with you, with you I am alone, alone in all the world. Because we're always talking about the world, when we talk about solitude. And the relation of the world to solitude will be our subject this year. I am alone with you in the world. That could be either the most beautiful declaration of love or the most discouraging despair-inducing testimony, the gravest attestation or protestation of detestation, stifling, suffocation itself: it would be all right to be alone, if at least I could be alone without you. Being alone with myself.
I am alone with myself.
Am I for all that bored? What does "I'm bored" mean? The French expression "je m'ennuie" is difficult to translate into many languages, with the exception of German where one can say sich langweilen. And die Lang(e) weile will even, no doubt, be at the center of our seminar this year, especially das Sichlangweilen that Heidegger talks about in a seminar from 1929–30.
But what does "s'ennuyer" mean? What does the relation to self of the "s'ennuyer" signify? To be bored [s'ennuyer] does not necessarily mean to bore oneself [s'ennuyer soi-même]. To bore oneself is something quite different from simply being bored, contrary to what [French] grammar might lead you to believe.
Can beasts be bored?
Can the sovereign be bored? Can he not be bored? "The King is amused [le roi s'amuse]," they say sometimes, but also "The King is bored." Is one always bored because one is alone or else can one be bored as a group, with others, intersubjectively, as the other guy would say, or else do people bore each other, which is something else, or again, which is something still quite different and almost the contrary, do people sometimes miss each other [s'ennuie-t-on parfois l'un de l'autre]? Was Robinson Crusoe bored? Was he even alone, this man, because this man is a man, a human and a male human (not a woman), let's never forget it; nothing equivalent or similar, analogous, was ever, to my knowledge (but I may be wrong) written about a woman alone: like an island in an island. Was Robinson Crusoe bored? Was he even alone: when, how, to what extent, up until what moment? For the moment I'll abandon these questions on the high seas, we'll see where they come ashore, but you can sense that they are not simple questions of language or one particular language, of semantics or translation.
And I come back to my first words:
"I am alone." Says he or says she. "I am alone."
Could someone (male or female) be alone who could not say or feel an "I am alone"? Could he be alone? Could she be alone? Could one say of him or her that he or she is alone? And could one say of whomever can neither feel nor speak this solitude that he or she is not alone, meaning—meaning what? Is not alone in a given social bond or else, which is something quite different, is not alone in the sense that there is not even a social bond yet, no being with the other, no community allowing, precisely, the experience or even the manifestation of solitude? So many formidable questions.
Before even proposing to you a sort of protocol for this year's seminar, let's now, by way of an exergue, try out a few sentences, try them out like warm-up notes for one's voice or vocal chords. You will see that these sentences already have a consonance, a resonance with the first of my sentences today: "I am alone" and if I add the complement that often rounds off the "I am alone," i.e. "I am alone in the world," we'll be even closer to what will be the protocol of this year's seminar. In it we shall be speaking of the world, of world in every sense, of every world, no less.
Three or four sentences, then, to seek a first accord between us.
First, a sentence in question form: "What is an island?" [Qu'est-ce qu'une île?]
What is an island? [Qu'est une île?]
If you hear [entendez] this sentence, or these sentences come to you borne by the wind or an echo: "Qu'est-ce qu'une île? Qu'est une île," if you hear them in French, if you hear them without reading them, you think you understand them, but you are not sure.
So long as you do not read them, so long as you do not have access to how they are spelled (une île: how do you write "il(e)"?), you cannot be sure, without context, almost totally isolated as you are, as though on an island, or a peninsula [presqu'île], you cannot be sure of hearing what you hear, i.e. of understanding what comes to your ears. An "il" [Une "il"] can designate that insular thing one calls an island [une île], the island of beauty, Treasure Island, Belle-Isle or the Ile de Groix. Or The Island of Despair, as Robinson Crusoe nicknames it on the very opening page of his journal. You remember, of course, that first page of The Journal, dated September 30, 1659:
I poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwreck'd during a dreadful Storm, in the offing, came on Shore on the dismal unfortunate Island, which I call'd the Island of Despair, all the rest of the Ship's Company being drown'd, and my self almost dead. All the rest of that Day I spent in afflicting myself at the dismal Circumstances I was brought to, viz I had neither Food, House, Clothes, Weapon, or Place to fl y to, and in Despair of any Relief, saw nothing but Death before me, either that I should be devoured by wild Beasts, murder'd by Savages, or starv'd to Death for Want of Food. At the Approach of Night, I slept in a Tree for fear of wild Creatures; but slept soundly tho'it rained all Night.
You already sense that in this single quotation, in this paragraph that opens Robinson's Journal, we have all the material we need for our seminar: the reference to wild beasts, to human "Savages" or "wild Creatures," the reduction of the narrator to a state of savage nature, almost that of a beast, since he has no house, clothes or weapon. And he is scared (he sleeps in a tree, having no house, "for fear of wild Creatures"): he is scared, that is his basic feeling, like Hobbes's man for whom fear is the primary passion, the one that originally leads to the foundation of the state and to that alliance, that "covenant" that, as we were recalling last year, can be signed only among men, according to Hobbes, and with neither God nor beasts. Daniel Defoe, we know, was a reader of Hobbes, among others.
But "Qu'est-ce qu'une île?" "Qu'est une île ?" can also be a play on words artificially misusing homophony: "une 'il,'" feminine conjoined with masculine, the conjunction of an indefinite feminine article (une) and the masculine personal pronoun (il), une which is il. La bête and le souverain, a beast that is a sovereign, for example. Last year we insisted a good deal on the sexual difference between the beast and the sovereign8 but also on a certain analogy between the beast and9 the sovereign, the beast that sometimes seems to be the sovereign, like the beast that is outside or above the law.
Qu'est-ce qu'une île?
Qu'est une île?
Let's leave this question isolated, abandon it for a while, leave it floating in the air that is carrying it: we have heard it borne by the wind but we have not yet read it. And let's continue to stroll on the shore where we have just set foot. We would then stumble, second, on another sentence, a second sentence, then, as though written on a pebble. This time the sentence is not only audible, like the others, but appears to be legible in that it is written. It appears to be legible, but perhaps it is not so, in the sense we give to "read" and "legible." That sentence would be:
"The beasts are not alone."
Let's act as though the seminar were now starting this way, on an island, in an island, starting with this sententious aphorism: "The beasts are not alone."
We would encounter this sentence too without a context. As though on an island, isolated as though on an island on which we had just come ashore. It would be preceded or followed by no other sentence. It would have the authority and cutting edge of an aphorism, i.e. a sentence that is separated, dissociated, insularized, a verdict, a judgment in the form S is P, subject + predicate, a sententia inscribed in stone, given over, entrusted to a stone found on the beach, on an island where we would have just come ashore. And we would keep turning over and over this polished stone and its enigmatic sentence ("The beasts are not alone") in order to find the beginning, the end, its hidden meaning, perhaps the signature. "The beasts are not alone." It would look like an encrypted telegram during wartime, or an encoded signal designed to reassure or worry, and that we would be trying to decipher. We would find nothing and spend an infinite amount of time, or at least a very long time, for example a year's seminar, trying to interpret, translate, i.e. project all the possible meanings of this assertion the form of which is as dogmatic as it is negative, the negative grammar of this assertion: "The beasts are not alone."
Start and you'll see that one year might not be enough to make a complete inventory of all the meanings and all the possible implications of these five words of everyday language, which are beginning to look like the title of a novel we have not yet opened. You would have to read the novel to find out what the title was announcing. The seminar would be that novel. "The beasts are not alone": S is P, proposition, subject, copula and predicate, an assertion, of course, but negative in form: "The beasts are not alone," and we should not forget to emphasize the generic or specific plural: "The beasts are not alone," and not "The beast is not alone." So let's say that it's engraved on a stone, abandoned or placed deliberately on the shore of an island and that we stumbled upon it, that we tripped over it as though it were a stumbling block. Hang onto the stone, it's the example Heidegger takes when, in a seminar that is nowadays quite well known and to which we shall return, he compares the relations to the world of the inanimate, the animal, and man ("The stone has no world," he says, der Stein ist weltlos, "The animal is poor in world," das Tier ist weltarm, "Man is world-configuring or world-forming," der Mensch ist weltbildend [H, 261/176]). The stone is an example of a lifeless thing, and is the only example Heidegger gives in that series. After which, he gives no further example, he says in a general way, with no examples, "the animal" and "man." Why does he take the example of an inanimate thing, why a stone and not a plank or a piece of iron, or water or fire? One of the reasons, no doubt, is that the generality "inanimate," with no example, would have raised the question of life, which Heidegger does not wish to raise here as such, and which would leave hovering the ambiguity of vegetables and plants, which are more animate and living than the stone, and about which one might wonder what Heidegger would have said (the plant, and therefore wood, for example, living wood if not dead wood—but then what is to be said about the dead animal or the dead man, the cadaver?): would Heidegger have said that the plant is weltlos like the stone or weltarm like the living animal? Let's leave it there for now: the question will catch up with us later. When he takes up again his three questions, Heidegger says at a given moment that the subject of the comparative examination comprises: material things (materiellen Dinge (Stein) [stone]), animal (Tier), man (Mensch) (H, 263 / 177).
So we stumble on this stone. That's what it is to stumble, to hit against an obstacle, generally a stone that interrupts one's progress and obliges one to lift one's foot. This stumbling block [pierre d'achoppement] that speaks to us as if to say "The beasts are not alone" would also set us going and determine the pace of this seminar that, while trying everything in order to get past it, would find itself constantly going round in circles and winding up having to think that in the dry economy of its five words and three functions (subject, copula, attribute), in its negative and plural form, this stumbling block will have become an unavoidable touchstone.
Take note that the point will not merely be to explore the semantics of a discourse, the meaning of each of these words ("beasts," "are," "alone," etc.), but also all the rhetorics and pragmatics, i.e. all the concrete situations, all the contexts, all the gestures that can determine and transform the sense, meaning, or sought-after effect in the inscription of this sentence that one imagines only a human could have written (for example in French) and that only a human could stumble upon while trying to decipher it, like a Robinson Crusoe setting foot for the first time on his Island of Despair.
To give only one example among ten thousand of what I mean here by rhetoric, pragmatics, or discursive gesture, one might imagine (one hypothesis among a thousand) that the unknown and invisible signatory, perhaps never to be identified, perhaps dead for an indeterminate length of time, might have meant, and said: "I am a friend of the beasts, there are all over the world friends of the beasts, the beasts are not alone. The beasts must not be alone, long live the struggle for the beasts, the struggle goes on."
But you can just as well imagine his adversary meaning: "The beasts are not alone, they do not need us, or else they do not need friends, etc.," or else "there are already enough of them, too many, even, and they have too many allies and hidden accomplices in this war we have had to wage on them all this time, our war against bestiality and the axis of evil." Those are one or two hypotheses among a thousand others as to the interpretation of this petrified statement that we are here abandoning to its solitude (for it is, like this stone, isolated, insularized, forlorn, singularly solitary). This statement is itself like an island. It is an island that for its part is both bounded by the sea and infinite. Shores without shores. One never gets to its shore. And among all the things we do not know, is whether the sentence is signed "he" or "she," by a man or a woman, which would not be without some impact on its meaning.
These sentences are exergues: I have not yet reached the protocol of this seminar. But before even introducing more directly and less elliptically this year's seminar, especially for those who are following it for the first time, you can already sense that it will have to do with island, insularity, loneliness (it will, if you like, be a seminar on solitude: what do "being alone" and "I am alone" mean?). But as being alone also means being singular, unique, exceptional, set off, separated, we shall have also to say that if the beasts are not alone, a sovereign is always alone (that is both his absolute power and his vulnerability, or his infinite inconsistency). The sovereign is alone insofar as he is unique, indivisible and exceptional, he is the being of exception who, as Schmitt says—and this is his definition of the sovereign—decides on the exception and has the exceptional right to suspend right, thus standing, in his own way, as we were saying last year, like the beasts or the werewolf, outside the law, above the law. The sovereign is alone in exercising sovereignty. Sovereignty cannot be shared, it is indivisible. The sovereign is alone (sovereign) or is not.
Excerpted from The Beast & the Sovereign by Jacques Derrida Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was director of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, and professor of humanities at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of many books published by the University of Chicago Press. Geoffrey Bennington is Asa G. Candler Professor of Modern French Thought at Emory University and the author of numerous works, including Interrupting Derrida.
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