Pitiable or Political Animals?


As first questions go, this one (actually posed by Jeremy Bentham) seems answered in advance, not only by the terminal emphasis with which Derrida stamps it, but by the felt preponderance today of a public pity for what is here posed only in the subjunctive. It is a pity about which a veritable war has been waged for two centuries at least, Derrida tells us; a pity whose fateful power it is, on the far side of modernity, to permit the two terms “animal” and “human” to enter once again into alignment. The war of which Derrida speaks was the protracted humanist effort, by way of innumerable atrocities and torture against other species, to enforce an absolute distinction between us and them, “the thesis of a limit as rupture or abyss” between two irreconcilable orders of biological substance, to disable and forestall any childish upsurge of emotion on behalf of life forms devoid of language and properly incapable of death and thus free to be experimented upon and industrially consumed without moral risk (398).

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