“An art of both caring and locking up”: Biopolitical Thresholds in the Zoological Garden


In the final sessions of the first year of his seminar on The Beast & the Sovereign, Jacques Derrida takes up the question of modernity as the epoch of biopolitics. In a remarkable close reading, he critiques Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on the threshold of biopolitical modernity, both in terms of conceptual content and, especially in the latter’s case, style. He takes as a prominent example the revolutionary transformation from princely menagerie to public zoological garden, as well as Carl Hagenbeck’s subsequent “revolution” in zoo design, which inaugurate, he suggests, not a new biopolitical apparatus of power/ knowledge, but only a different form of the same fundamental structure of sovereign power over the objectified beast. The stakes of Derrida’s argument are as significant as its history is burdened. It returns to elements of the longstanding polemic between Foucault and Derrida over madness and history, complicated here by Derrida’s reproach of Agamben’s own, more recent cruel admiration of Foucault. It engages with the question of historical thresholds, regarding both the development of biopower and the history of the menagerie. If we read the Eleventh Session on zoological gardens together with the Twelfth on biopolitical thresholds, their implications for contemporary thinking about human-animal relations become clearer. I will suggest, contra Derrida, that the modern history of zoological gardens does indeed cross important thresholds of biopolitical novelty.

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