Futures of Life Death on Earth: Derrida's General Ecology

Futures of Life Death on Earth: Derrida's General Ecology

by Philippe Lynes


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Life on earth is currently approaching what has been called the sixth mass extinction, also known as the Holocene or anthropocene extinction. Unlike the previous five, this extinction is due to the destructive practices of a single species, our own. Up to 50% of plant and animal species face extinction by the year 2100, as well as 90% of the world's languages. Biocultural diversity is a recent appellation for thinking together the earth's biological, cultural and linguistic diversity, the related causes of their extinctions and the related steps that need to be taken to ensure their sustainability. This book turns to the work of Jacques Derrida to propose a notion of 'general ecology' as a way to respond to this loss, to think the ethics, ontology and epistemology at stake in biocultural sustainability and the life and death we differentially share on earth with its others. It articulates an appreciation of the ecological and biocultural stakes of deconstruction and provokes new ways of thinking about a more just sharing of the earth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786609953
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 11/19/2018
Series: Future Perfect: Images of the Time to Come in Philosophy, Politics and Cultural Studies Series
Pages: 284
Product dimensions: 6.28(w) x 9.07(h) x 1.04(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Philippe Lynes is a Junior Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study and the Department of English Studies at Durham University. He held the 2017-8 Fulbright Canada Visiting Research Chair in Environmental Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, and earned his PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Concordia University in Montréal, Québec. Lynes's research situates itself at the intersections of contemporary continental philosophy and the environmental humanities. He is the author of Futures of Life Death on Earth: Derrida's General Ecology forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield International, and co-editor (with Matthias Fritsch and David Wood) of Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and Environmental Philosophy (Fordham University Press, 2018). He is also a translator of French philosophy, with a translation of and introduction to Jacques Derrida's Advances published in 2017 with the University of Minnesota Press. He is currently working on his second book Dearth: Eco-Deconstruction after Speculative Realism on Blanchot, Derrida and Heidegger.

Read an Excerpt


Survivance and General Ecology

Each man is called upon to take up again the mission of Noah. He must become the intimate and pure ark of all things, the refuge in which they take shelter, where they are not content to be kept as they are, as they imagine themselves to be — narrow, outworn, so many traps for life — but are transformed, lose their form, lose themselves in the intimacy of their reserve, where they are as if preserved from themselves, untouched, intact, in the pure point of the undetermined. Yes, every man is Noah, but on closer inspection, he is Noah in a strange way, and his mission consists less in saving everything from the flood than, on the contrary, in plunging all things into a deeper flood where they disappear prematurely and radically. That, in fact, is what the human vocation amounts to. If it is necessary that everything visible become invisible, if this metamorphosis is the goal, our intervention is apparently quite superficial: the metamorphosis is accomplished perfectly of itself, for everything is perishable, for, says Rilke, "the perishable is everywhere engulfed in a deep being." What have we then to do, we who are the least durable, the most prompt to disappear? What have we to offer in this task of salvation? Precisely that: our promptness at disappearing, our aptitude for perishing, our fragility, our exhaustion, our gift for death.

— Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, 143–44/139

An organism cannot be thought in terms of the present [un organisme ne se pense pas au présent].

— Jacques Derrida, La Vie la mort, session 1, page 12

In this chapter, my principal aim will be to unpack the difficult implications of Derrida's notions of survivance and life death in examining how the organism relates to death, others, its environment, time, and the future in order to elaborate the theoretical grounds for thinking both biocultural extinction and its sustainability. This will require a deeper elaboration of living-on as a negotiation between a restricted, dialectical economy and its nondialectical other: a death that cannot be survived, an unanticipatable alterity, an irreversible expenditure of energy or material resistance, and a future-to-come issuing from a past that has never been present. As suggested in my epigraph from Blanchot, this sustainability will thus less be a matter of actively preserving its objects as self-identical than thinking the relations and processes of differentiation, transcendence, impossibility, inorganicity, and unknowability that we, as organic life, share with them, along with the ethics of letting life live-on these seem to demand. Colebrook's work again constitutes an important point from which we can better approach these questions. I'd shown a certain interpretation of Derrida's general text — as a dialectically woven network of retentions and protentions — to foreclose deconstruction's possibility to think literal (actual) extinction for Colebrook. Relatedly, as she writes in Death of the Posthuman, the organism — particularly in well-known accounts of autopoietic structural coupling with its environment, or of equilibrium or homeostasis in neuroscience and cognitive science — properly speaking has no future. "The world of the organism is always the organism's own, unfolded from its own responses and potentialities; any properly futural future would be a break with the self-constitution of the organism's always immanent time." The notion of the organism as futurally determined in some way, however, is common in the scholarship Colebrook critiques. As I'll examine in more detail in chapter 2, Husserl himself writes of protentional striving as originary affect and instinct. Evan Thompson, drawing from Husserl, Hans Jonas, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in elaborating the organism's autopoietic "immanent teleology," reads the dimension of futurity, or protention, as more fundamental than that of the past, or retention. Francesco Vitale, in his work on La Vie la mort, develops a similar argument in elaborating the organism's laws of survival in relation to its environment: "If the production of an iterable trace, thus different from the presumed 'living present' of perception, answers to the necessities of living-on, one must admit that retention is organized and conditioned by the possibility of protention, and not the contrary. Protention opens the living to the future of its living-on." Derrida, however, says the contrary in Of Grammatology: "To be sure, what is anticipated in protention does not sever the present any less from its self-identity than does that which is retained in the trace. But if anticipation were privileged, the irreducibility of the always-already-there and the fundamental passivity that is called time would risk effacement" (DG 97/66e).

There would seem to be a difference or a doubling here between a future that would be the organism's own, the future [futur] toward which it (organically) survives (which, for Colebrook, would not be a future worthy of the name, incapable of thinking extinction), and another (inorganic) future-to-come [avenir] that would remain fundamentally inappropriable for the organism, that of the other or others. As Derrida writes in "Typewriter Ribbon," there can be no future except on the condition that we think both the machine and the event, both futures in a sense. We generally, "in good form," think the machine according to the inorganic and the event according to the organic. The future of the event-machine, however, would require a radical rethinking of such notions: the spontaneous organic event according to an originary technicity or machinality, and the inorganic machine according to a certain impossibility of repetition: extinction, in a word. As early as Of Grammatology, Derrida writes that "the future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only announce, present itself as a kind of monstrosity" (DG 5/14t). But the event-machine

would not resemble, it would resemble nothing, not even what we call, in a still familiar way, a monster. But it would therefore be, by virtue of this very novelty, an event, the only and the first possible event, because im-possible. That is why I ventured to say that this thinking could belong only to the future — and even that it makes the future possible. An event does not come about unless its interruption interrupts the course of the possible and, as the impossible itself, surprises any foreseeability. But such a super-monster of eventness would be, this time, for the first time, also produced by the machine. (PM 36/WA 73)

In fact, while Jacob closes The Logic of Life by noting that "today the world is messages, codes and information. What dissection tomorrow will break down our objects to reconstitute them in a new space? What new Russian nesting doll will emerge?" Derrida closes the final session on the latter in La Vie la mort by mentioning that "it is perhaps to anticipate too much from resemblance, with what we know now, to say that it will still be a 'Russian nesting doll,' sufficiently resembling, as 'new as it may be' a Russian nesting doll" (L6, 20). At stake for the futures of life death on earth will thus not be an ecology generalized widely enough to include the latest innovations in the nesting dolls of cybernetic information theory, but a general ecology that relates to its own impossibility and unforeseeability: the beyond-within of the general text. And while the future of biocultural sustainability that concerns this book constitutes nothing other than a material resistance against the monstrosity of biocultural extinction, it will not, for all that, be without some monstrosity of its own because it will defy everything about "good form," visibility, organic contour, Concept, eidos, or oikos with respect to the organic and inorganic, event and machine. The question will be as much of knowing what to do [savoir faire] in choosing between these futures, the worst and the best, as one of knowing to leave alone, to let do or let be [savoir laisser faire], or to let life live-on.

I begin in §1.1 by introducing Derrida's thought of life in différance through his readings of Freud and Jacob, revealing an originary technicity or ecotechnics, alterity, and relation to death at the heart of any organic process. Through Derrida's work on Blanchot, I then develop this as a certain doubling at the heart of survivance that opens onto the possibility of a shared apprehension of this mortality in an impossible relation to death. I proceed in §1.2 to examine Bataille's notion of impossibility in relation to his thought of economy and show, through Derrida's reading, the necessity of elaborating general economy as general ecology. In §1.3, I turn to the epistemological, ontological, and ethical questions of how a living being structures its milieu or environment in Derrida's reading of Canguilhem. Against the dialectical, immanentist account proposed by the latter, I argue that Levinas's ethics better allows for the transcendence required to maintain the unknowability and alterity of the other. I conclude in §1.4 by bringing these insights to bear on Catherine Malabou's dialectical understanding of futurity and organic life and disclose a similar deconstructive doubling of futurity for the organism through which we can better approach biocultural sustainability.


§1.1.1: The Economy of Repetition and the Impossible: Freud and Jacob

This section will attempt to think together two important claims of Derrida's mentioned in the introduction: that an originary dimension of survivance informs the entirety of his work and that deconstruction is an experience of the impossible. I will argue that there is a connection between Derrida's thoughts of life and the impossible that would be the key not only to understanding deconstruction itself but an appreciation of its epistemological, ontological, and ethical stakes in thinking the futures of life death on earth. I'll attempt to develop this through an examination of organic life as an originary dimension of repetition and show how Derrida's différance allows one to enter this into relation with the impossible. As he defines différance in For What Tomorrow,

Différance means at once the same (the living being, only deferred, relayed, replaced by a substitutive supplement, by a prosthesis, by a supplementation in which "technology" emerges) [this is what I'm calling restricted economy/ecology] and the other (absolutely heterogeneous, radically different, irreducible and untranslatable, the aneconomic, the wholly other or death). The differantial interruption is both reinscribed into the economy of the same and opened to an excess of the wholly other. (DQ 74/40t)

General ecology, I will show, is another name for différance because it allows us to think both the same, an economic delay and deferral, mechanical and machinelike repetition, also the mastery, sovereignty, and reappropriative power over the stakes of this economy in its calculability (this is what I call "restricted" ecology) and the other, an excessive and aneconomic expenditure without reserve, death, the impossible, the unknowability and incalculability of the event, the wholly other and the promise.

Différance, as is well known, situates every identity as relationally constituted by a network of differences, both in temporal deferral and spatial difference. If difference is prior to identity, then one cannot postulate identity as an origin that would subsequently repeat or reiterate itself in its survival. One has the idea that repetition usually comes after some event as a translation follows an original. Différance by contrast situates repetition as originary; the origin begins by repeating. This thoroughly complicates the purity of any putative origin, any complete self-presence to one's activity and any notion of essence. An identity that can only be repeated is originarily related to others in a differential field and thus subjected to conflict, particularly in its passive exposure to vulnerability, suffering, and death. As Kirby puts it, "If divisibility is originary ... then we do not begin with the integrity of an entity that is then divided from itself. Strangely, Death would be internal to the very possibility of an entity's being itself, not simply at its birth, but throughout its ongoing re-production/othering of itself." A dimension of passivity is thus present within originary repetition. To say that this passivity is anterior to the opposition of activity and passivity is to extract it from a notion whereby it would still be the result of a choice; "I could be active, but I'm not." Rather, this passivity is constitutive, always operational and actualized, and not the converse of a will, choice, or potentiality. This entails for Derrida a profound reconfiguration of our most deeply held anthropocentric beliefs. While the renewed interest in the vitality of matter, processes, objects, and so on must also certainly be understood as a challenge to this anthropocentrism, much of their arguments rest on a very Spinozist line of inquiry: What can a body do? Derrida invites us to ask a different question: not to confer recognizability on nonhumans on the basis of some shared power or capacity, but rather to follow Jeremy Bentham in asking "can they suffer?" To ask this question interrogates a shared passivity, passion, and powerlessness before death between all living beings, famously explaining that

being able to suffer is no longer a power; it is a possibility without power, a possibility of the impossible. Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing the possibility of this nonpower, the possibility of this nonpower, the possibility of this impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability, and the vulnerability of anguish. (AS 49/28)

Anthropocentric thought for Derrida has always opposed a human freedom of active response to the mechanical reaction of other living beings. With originary repetition, one is called upon to think a certain mechanical reactivity at the heart of the human that not only casts doubt on the alleged being-ethical of any ethical decision or responsibility (such a doubt being in fact coextensive with ethics itself for Derrida) but allows ethics to take into account the vastly differentiated fields of experience within which all living beings structure and are structured by their environments. The distinction between active responsibility and passive reaction and the entire history of ethical, political, and juridical responsibility thus becomes reinscribed into a new thinking of the relations between life, the living, the mechanical, technology, and death, beyond the opposition of nature and culture. Originary repetition means that there is a machinic element of repetitiveness at the heart of any identity because an identity can only be what it is by returning to itself, but this return originarily passes through the detour of the other. The identity it returns to is not the one it was, and this process of differentiation in repetition is always ongoing, until it no longer can. What Derrida calls "iterability" designates the element of alterity in repetition. One is thus invited to think an originary technicity at the heart of the living organism: any living being, Derrida writes, "undoes the opposition between physis and technè. As a self-relation, as activity and reactivity, as differantial force, as repetition, life is always already inhabited by technicization" (NII 244). This technicization is the condition for anything at all to happen to a living being; a technobiological prosthesis constitutes every organic synthesis. It is itself the condition of living together with others and, he adds, "it is death in life, as the condition of life" (DJ 62/39). Ecotechnics, or what Nancy calls the tekhne of bodies, constitutes a prosthetic and technical survival at the heart of any proper body or living being in general; "the principle or drive to expropriation introduces therein death, indeed the other or time, without waiting" (LT 31/19t). This death is not only what the living being economically defers, postpones, and evades, but that which it draws on as the very possibility of this deferral. In other words, life has as its economic condition of possibility and its aneconomic condition of impossibility, an impossibility irreducible to the opposition of possibility and impossibility.


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Copyright © 2018 Philippe Lynes.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: General Text, Death and Time / 1. Survivance and General Ecology / 2. Transcendence and the Surviving Present / 3. Resistance and Ex-appropriation: Letting Life Live-On / 4. Animmanence: Life Death & The Passion and Perpetual Detour of Difference / 5.: Biopolitics and Double Affirmation: Step/nots Beyond an Ecology of the Commons / Bibliography / Notes

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