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On the Borders of Language and Death: Derrida and the Question of the Animal
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DescriptionDiscussion with reference to Heidigger's Being and Time
On the Borders of Language and Death:
Derrida and the Question of the Animal
Over the past two decades, Jacques Derrida has devoted considerable attention to what he calls “the question of the animal.” Although most readers have paid scant attention to this theme, Derrida himself has repeatedly insisted on its importance for a proper understanding of the strategies underlying many of his recent writings. What I hope to demonstrate in this essay is that Derrida’s short book on the themes of language and death entitled Aporias: Dying—Awaiting (One Another at) the Limits of Truth should be read as yet another installment in the series of works dedicated to the question of the animal, and furthermore that it is with respect to theme of animality in particular that we can begin to discern Derrida’s unique position in contemporary theory with regard to the key motifs of finitude, language, and relation.
As is often the case, Derrida’s posing of the question of the animal occurs within the context of a reading of Heidegger. This trend is continued in Aporias where Derrida takes as his guiding thread Heidegger’s often cited but seldom deciphered pronouncement from “The Essence of Language” regarding language, death, mortals, and animals:
Die Sterblichen sind jene, die den Tod als Tod erfahren können. Das Tier vermag dies nicht. Das Tier kann aber auch nicht sprechen. Das Wesenverhältnis zwischen Tod und Sprache blitzt auf, ist aber noch ungedacht.
[Mortals are they who can experience death as death. The animal cannot do so. But the animal cannot speak either. The essential relation between language and death flashes up before us, but remains still unthought.]
Before examining Derrida’s discussion of this passage, and as a means of approaching the central stakes of his argument in Aporias, I want to first make a brief detour through Giorgio Agamben’s interpretation of these lines in his book Language and Death. In this work, Agamben takes Heidegger’s remark as his point of departure in order to argue that the latter’s thinking of finitude and language remains mired in negativity, and, consequently, that the task for post-Heideggerian thought—assuming that thought is called to venture beyond the negative, and ultimately nihilistic, ground of contemporary politics and ethics—is to develop a non-negative, or affirmative, notion of finitude. For Agamben, such a project entails abandoning the idea that man’s relation to death and language constitutes any possibility proper to man. In contrast to Heidegger, human death and language is refigured by Agamben as radically ex-appropriating, and it is beginning from this site of exposure that Agamben unfolds his subsequent works on human community and politics.
My purpose for this schematic recall of Agamben’s argument is twofold. First, Agamben’s critical remarks on Heidegger’s thinking ...
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