3-Derrida and (Eco)Psychology: A funny thing happened on the way to the menagerie
Logocentrism is first of all a thesis regarding the animal,
the animal deprived of the logos, deprived of the can-have-the-logos.
– Derrida in The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 27
One understands a philosopher only by heeding closely what he means to demonstrate,
and in reality fails to demonstrate, concerning the limit between human and animal.
– The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 106
In what follows, I will introduce the project of ecopsychology and wonder about what gift – a notion to which Derrida devoted considerable attention – Derrida might offer ecopsychology. I will approach this question primarily through a reading of Derrida’s seminar The Animal That Therefore I Am. Alongside my ethical response to Derrida’s seminar, I will broadly consider the ethics advocated by those ecopsychologists inspired by phenomenological philosophy. I am unable to address numerous pertinent topics in the space of this paper, including the relevance of Derridean thinking to other-than-human non-animal beings and presences, and the crucial and complex matter of what constitutes life and the living, both for ecopsychology and for Derrida.
Broadly defined, ecopsychology is the study of human psychology in its reciprocal relationship with the other-than-human natural world. Ecopsychological perspectives typically understand human being as one of a vast array of expressions of nature. Such perspectives also render as social and psychological the larger-than-human natural world (Fisher, 2013). When psychologists understand humans as part of nature rather than as separate from nature, a new set of questions emerges that links ecological crises to disturbances in human selfhood and suggests that a number of problems from which humans suffer, such as dissociation and abusive relationships, cannot be adequately addressed outside of our dissociative and abusive relationships with the natural world.
The term ecopsychology, introduced by cultural historian Theodore Roszak in his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth, suggests the study of psyche in relation to its oikos, or dwelling. Roszak’s (1992) hope for the field was that it might “bridge our [Western] culture’s long-standing, historical gulf between the psychological and the ecological, to see the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum” (p. 14). Writing a new field into being, Roszak (1992) documented his version of a history in which “all psychologies were [once] ‘ecopsychologies’” in which inner life was neither conceptually nor experientially split from the “outside” world, as it is today (p. 14). With a focus not on the past but on the future that he and other ecopsychologists would like to usher in, Andy Fisher (2013) declares that ecopsychology is not so much a field as a project that has emerged in response to pressing historical need, and submits that “perhaps one day it will seem strange that psychologists were ever so deaf and blind to the natural world – at which point ecopsychology will simply be psychology itself” (p. 8).
Helpfully for those interested in understanding the scope of ecopsychology, Fisher (2013) has organized the ecopsychological “project” around four interrelated tasks: the psychological task of acknowledging and understanding the human-nature relationship as relationship; the practical task of developing therapeutic and what he calls “recollective” practices toward an ecological society; the critical task of engaging in ecopsychologically based social analysis of social and political “arrangements…that have historically sanctioned ecological degradation;” and the philosophical task of placing psyche “back” into the (natural) world (p. 7-23). For purposes of this paper, I am concerned primarily with the so-called philosophical task, which I will later link to a reading of a seminar by Jacques Derrida. James Hillman (1995), one of the most prolific contributors to this philosophical task of ecopsychology, took a Jungian approach to problematizing the dichotomy of inner mind and outer world, arguing that “[the] ‘me’ within human persons defined by their physical skin and their immediate behavior” keeps psychology “swallowed up in…caverns of interiority” that mask the enmeshment of psyche and world (p. xvii). Much philosophical support for ecopsychological principles has come, however, from phenomenological thinkers inspired by the work of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Taken up as a theory and praxis that promises to mend Cartesian influences on psychological theorizing, phenomenology has influenced a number of ecopsychologists who seek to (re-)establish human psychology as originally and necessarily in dialogue with the natural world that shapes our senses and physiognomies and responds to us. Notably, David Abram (1996) has argued that “the ‘life-world’ to which Husserl alluded in his final writings…has been disclosed as a profoundly carnal field…It is, indeed, nothing other than the biosphere – the matrix of earthly life in which we ourselves are embedded” (p. 65). A number of ecopsychologists have made use of the phenomenological structure of “being-in-the-world,” with its refusal to submit to conventional divisions between inside and outside, in order to maintain that psychology can best understand human being not as “locked up inside us [but as] a network of relations” (Fisher, 2013, p. 11).
Ecopsychologists have so far made sparing use of the work of Jacques Derrida in the advancement of ecopsychological projects. Derrida is, however, mentioned with some regularity in the ecopsychological texts I have encountered in my reading – and I have noticed a theme. That is, I have noted a particular spirit with which Derrida often gets taken up by ecopsychologists and other scholars, such as deep ecologists, whose concerns overlap with those of ecopsychologists. Take, for example, Abram’s (1996) statement that, “while Derrida assimilates all language to writing…my approach has been largely the reverse, to show that all discourse, even written discourse such as this, is implicitly sensorial and bodily, and hence remains bound, like the sensing body, to a world that is never exclusively human” (p. 287, italics added). Fisher (2013) picks up Derrida only to drop him:
For Jacques Derrida and his followers, all signs endlessly refer to still other signs, such that the meaning of a text can never be decided or made present, being forever deferred. Linguistic signs, that is, do not mediate our contact with the world but continually put it off. This development is part of that modern syndrome in which the symbolic or formal loses it grounding in the experienced or felt (p. 129, italics added).
Eco-socialist Joel Kovel (2013) clearly views Derrida’s work as useless for purposes of liberation, ecopsychological or otherwise, writing, “There is nothing to be said within language – yet nothing but language: surely one of the bleakest perspectives ever advanced on the human condition” (as cited in in Fisher, p. 295). Charlene Spretnak (1994), a prominent ecofeminist, views Derrida’s deconstruction of centers and origins, and “reduction” of world to text, as an attempt to assuage men who experience their identities as “reactive and insecure,” suggesting that male egos afraid of their origins in nature and in women’s bodies posit deconstruction to “[shrink] the awesome creativity of the unfolding universe into the realm of human invention. Nothing matters, or is even real, except the projects of human society” (as cited in in Zimmerman, p. 258).
This representation of Derrida’s work as a threat to cherished ecopsychological principles – a threat whose influence must be at minimum avoided and at best reversed – has struck me as interesting for two reasons. First, as a scholar in ecopsychology with a fairly extensive background in the style of Lacanian analysis practiced by members of the Freudian School of Quebec, I feel a particular skepticism toward approaches that oppose the linguistic construction of experience to the centrality of the sensing and speaking body bound to a world in which it dwells. Derrida and Lacan certainly walk different walks, but I have now seen both critiqued for “making what is derivative [that is, language] primary” and in doing so denying the “original meaningfulness of the world” (Fisher, 2013, p. 130). I have experienced Lacanian analysis and have written extensively about Lacanian theory and praxis, particularly as it treats notions of symptoms and the body. I have also elected to pursue an ecopsychological dissertation and have even taken Lacan’s seminars with me on camping trips, yet I have not (yet) spontaneously combusted. My training in a psychoanalytic tradition that posits language as primary has in no way diminished my devotion to nature or my wonder at the synesthetic intertwining of my bodily senses and the natural world.
Second, shortly after beginning to study Derrida I became aware that works he produced in his final years of teaching and writing explicitly took up the theme of non-human animals, beginning (not that there was a beginning) in his posthumously published 1997 lecture, The Animal That Therefore I Am. Derrida’s penultimate seminar of 2001-2002 on The Beast and The Sovereign continued his focus on non-human animals, this time in relation to human law and political sovereignty, and his final seminar of 2002-2003 took up Heidegger and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe on “animality” and human being (Krell, 2013). Given the importance to ecopsychology of critiques of anthropocentrism, I could not help but wonder what Derrida had to say on the topic, and as I began to read and perceived that indeed, he had had to say it, I felt, in my sensing body, moved by deconstruction.
What gift might Derrida offer ecopsychology, and what then? The French title of the 1997 lecture, L’animal que donc je suis, can alternately be translated as “The animal that therefore I follow/come after” (Krell, 2013). In this seminar, delivered over a span of ten hours on his sixty-seventh birthday, at a conference he had titled “The Autobiographical Animal,” Derrida (2008) opens by asking what is happening when he is caught naked in the gaze of a cat, and not just any cat, or “the cat” as symbol, but his cat: “the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat” (p. 6, italics in original). He begins with the scene of being seen, before he could even be said to have begun.
Commenting on this opening, posthumanist scholar Donna Haraway (2008) writes, “Derrida knew he was in the presence of someone, not of a machine reacting” (p. 19). Indeed, the question of a putative distinction between response and reaction becomes central to his seminar, but I read Derrida’s encounter less as an encounter with presence and response and more as an encounter with something akin to what was “the question of the foreigner” in Of Hospitality and now becomes “the question of the animal:” as he is seen by the cat, and wonders how to look back, both he and the cat become uncertain. Nor do I read anywhere in the scene he describes that he “knew” what he was “in,” as Haraway suggests above. “I don’t know why we are doing this,” he says at the beginning of the final section of his seminar (2008, p. 141). The experience is not one of recognizing a present companion but of a disorientation that pulls the rug out from under the autobiography he might otherwise be able to write. He finds himself seen first, by an animal he follows or comes after, and to whose seeing he is perhaps indebted for all of philosophy: “The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there” (2008, p. 29).
For Derrida (2008), the question of the animal – of those traces, strewn throughout philosophy, of the gaze of animals – turns out to have been “the most important and decisive question,” a question to which he has dedicated his arguments “for a very long time, since I began writing” (p. 34). In this seminar, he visits with Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Levinas, and Lacan, taking them up “in a single embrace” as “the mobile system of a single discursive organization with several tentacles” (p. 91). He advances the hypothesis that each of these thinkers has had the experience of being looked at by an animal – looked at “from a wholly other origin” (p. 13) – , has registered that experience, but has then proceeded as though it had not happened, making animals into a category of being that is merely seen by humans. For Derrida, intent as he is on grappling with the question of the animal, this denial of being seen by an animal with its own perspective constitutes not “just one disavowal among others [but rather] institutes what is proper to man, the relation to itself of a humanity that is above all anxious about, and jealous of, what is proper to it” (p. 14). He is troubled that he has never – and he does use the word “never” – seen a philosopher take up the question of “the animal” in a way that questions “the general singular that is the animal” (p. 40) – that is, the undifferentiated lumping together of all non-human animal species into the category of “animal.” This lumping together that allows a single line to be drawn between “human” and “animal” is in fact “the gesture [that] constitute[s] philosophy as such, the philosopheme itself” (p. 40). It is thus to “animals” that humans are indebted for any philosophy that makes claims about humanity; it is because of “the animal” that philosophers have been able to say anything about what is “proper to” humans.
In response to the “asinine” indivisibility of the category of “animals,” Derrida (2008) asks of his audience that they attempt to hear him saying a new word (p. 41). He knows that his audience will hear him pronouncing the French plural animaux, and asks that they “silently substitute” a new singular, animot (p. 47). This singular noun that is a homonym for the plural “animals” forces the plurality of animals to be heard in the singular, thereby breaking open the comfortable reliance on a single limit that could be drawn between humans and “the animal.” It ends with the French mot, “word,” which Derrida hopes will invoke “the voice that names,” which philosophy typically reserves for humans and denies to animals (p. 48). In this way he (re-)names animals according to their hidden plurality and according to the operations of human dominion from which that hiddenness results. For me, the effect of repeatedly reading the plural in the singular and the effect of the repeated reminder that animot is in itself a word/name is quite dizzying, such that I begin to despair of ever being able to name “what” it is that defines my human limits. I want to cry, “Don’t ask me who or where I am!” In a way, the experience is akin to wanting what Derrida has elsewhere written about as hospitality.
It is not so much that Derrida intends to dizzy me as that he, and I, find ourselves written in such a way that we cannot anymore easily track ourselves. His movement through the seminar steers clear of any impulse to erase a line between human and “animal” (as though he could). It consists, rather, in “multiplying [the limit’s] figures, in complicating, thickening, delinearizing, folding, and dividing the line precisely by making it increase and multiply” (2008, p. 29). He does this in part through a series of switchbacks in which he questions the philosophical basis for denying that animals have access to traits considered proper to humans, all the while continuing to multiply the differences between various animals, for example by bringing in zoological evidence that “certain animals dream” (2008, p. 62, italics added). He then engages with specific philosophical works in order to question not that certain animals do not possess properly human traits but in order to question the curious confidence by which philosophers claim that humans do. In the process of critiquing Lacan for his assertion that only human animals are capable of “covering their own traces,” Derrida describes his own movement in this way:
It is not just a matter of asking whether one has the right to refuse the animal such and such a power (speech, reason, experience of death, mourning, culture, institutions, technics, clothing, lying, pretense of pretense, covering of tracks, gift, laughter, crying, respect, etc. – the list is necessarily without limit…). It also means asking whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution (2008, p. 135).
I attempt to track Derrida’s doubling-back and discover questions abandoned on the trail: By what authority do I propose to answer the question, “Who am I?” By my own authority? The authority of philosophers? And to which others are we indebted for the self-assuredness with which our response to the question presses up against a limit?
It is to response, in particular, that Derrida turns most often in the course of the seminar to say something about the stakes of this unfolding deconstruction. When he disturbs the foundational philosophical assumption of a clear distinction between “reaction” and “response,” with reaction traditionally on the side of the animot and response on the side of the human, the question of the animal becomes “a kind of ‘Trojan horse’ that Derrida introduces into the citadel of metaphysics itself in order to question, if not overthrow, its philosophical oppositions” (Nass, 2010, p. 234). What if, to give one small example out of many, Lacan’s notion of the logic of the unconscious, which makes possible his ideas about the responding, responsible subject, are infiltrated by “a logic of repetition, which…will always inscribe a destiny of iterability, hence some automaticity of the reaction in every response” (Derrida, 2008, p. 125, italics added)? Derrida is not concerned with granting to animals the responsivity philosophers have assigned themselves, but in multiplying the differences between “reaction” and “response” such that they can no longer be seen as opposites. In doing so, he effectively “cast[s] doubt on all responsibility, all ethics, every decision” and renders necessary a new “’logic’ of decision” that would “[reinscribe] this différance between reaction and response, and hence this historicity of ethical, juridical, or political responsibility, within another thinking of life…within another relation of the living to their ipseity” (2008, p. 126). I will make one final comment on this challenge, and the anxiety that he acknowledges it will cause, before surrendering to the impossibility of summarizing this seminar well.
Similarly to Fisher’s casting of ecopsychology as a project that has emerged in response to troubling historical conditions, Derrida makes it clear that his call for a new “thinking of life” is a response (or is it a reaction?) to a critical historical juncture in the human subjection of animals to violence. Earlier I referenced his “diagnosis” of a kind of disavowal on the part of philosophers who refuse to engage with their having been seen by animals. Derrida’s concern with this disavowal, which supports the violence of human confidence and which has reached “unprecedented proportions” (2008, p. 25), runs through the text of the seminar:
No one can deny seriously any more…that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves; in order to organize on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence, which some would compare to the worst cases of genocide (there are also animal genocides: the number of species endangered because of man takes one’s breath away) (2008, p. 25-26).
The violence that, for Derrida, is behind both the naming of the undifferentiated category of “animal” and the technologies that Fisher (2013) would say “resource-ify” other-than-human animals into “brute objects” (p. 163), is linked to a symptomatic disavowal which Derrida says “remains to be deciphered” (2008, p. 14).
In my reading of Derrida here, he suggests that by denying that we have been seen by animals, and that the traces of this gaze have marked our philosophy, humanity reinforces a relationship to itself that is based on establishing ourselves as confidently human. We can be confident in who we are, confident in our power, possibility, and invulnerability, as long as we disavow that we are seen from a place – from a multitude of places – that are also alive, and that question us. In a beautiful passage that opens with a reference to Jeremy Bentham’s question, “Can animals suffer?” Derrida gestures toward compassion as a “suffering with,” in a way that makes me wonder if compassion might open into the new relationship of the living to life that he will call for later:
‘Can they suffer?’ amounts to asking ‘Can they not be able?’ And what of this inability? What of the vulnerability felt on the basis of this inability? What is this nonpower at the heart of power?. . .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 impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability, and the vulnerability of this anguish (2008, p. 28).
Not on the basis of non-shared ability, then (for example, the ability or inability to speak), but rather on the basis of a shared in-ability that causes power and presence to tremble, do we humans find ourselves most jarringly confronted with our relation to “our own” life and the self-life-writing that makes every animal (non)powerfully auto-bio-graphical.
My discussion of the seminar is necessarily incomplete. Having been dizzied by Derrida, I would like to respond, also incompletely, to some of the concerns of those ecopsychologists and ecophilosophers who worry that a Derridean deconstructive approach opposes itself to the philosophical task of “placing psyche back into the natural world.” Here is how I understand the ecopsychological concern motivating this task: the ability of humans to consider themselves autonomous, bounded selves separate from an exterior world leads to the delusion that human well-being is not only separate from the well-being of non-human beings and presences, but may in fact depend on the subjugation of the non-human world. The solution, then, consists in helping humans toward an experience of our selves as necessarily co-constructed by and co-arising with those beings and presences we mistakenly understand to be exterior to and separate from us. Transpersonal psychologists, deep ecologists, Western Buddhist scholars, and many others involved in ecopsychological projects advocate the nurturing of an expanded sense of self such that a rainforest becomes experienced not as a distant entity but as my own lung (Macy, 1991). The outcome of this solution is that psyche interpenetrates world and vice versa until they become virtually equivalent (an outcome achievable by phenomenologists, transpersonal psychologists, and Jungians alike – see for example Brooke (2008) on the equation of psyche and lifeworld).
I can justly be accused of being unfaithful to “the letter” of Derrida, since there is no “being faithful” to polysemy and, additionally, because I am unfamiliar with so many of his influences; but I nonetheless offer this particular reading, situated in relation to my own values, hopes, and experiences: my sense is that Derrida’s work does not inherently oppose a movement that would attempt to “return” psyche to the natural world – that is, he does not oppose movement. His work recognizes and responds to the ceaseless desire for return, for origin, for unity, and for a stopping place. He asks, however, that we recognize our desire. If we are to embrace the deconstruction of anthropocentrism, then we are called not to stop there but to see how our desire then resists the deconstruction of ecocentrism and of nature as a metaphysical fullness-of-presence. On our way to return psyche to nature, as we are swept along and written by our desire, can we be interrupted?
This is perhaps the threatening gift that he offers ecopsychology: the interruption of our desire for a center. Even when the self revealed through ecopsychological applications of phenomenology is described as “a network of relations…not locked up inside us, but…in fact spread throughout this web of worldly interactions” (Fisher, 2013, p. 11), I would argue that this purportedly de-centering and emptying rendition of self can in fact be hyper-centering and hyper-present: now, instead of an ego-center, my center is simply everywhere, and I am full of world. Here I do not mean to suggest that Fisher or other ecopsychologists are being disingenuous or that the theoretical alternatives they offer are not useful. I simply mean to suggest that human desire makes it so: human desire will pull centering and presence out of even the emptiest of hats. By multiplying differences among other-than-human animals, “between” humans and other animals, and among humans, Derrida keeps us grasping frantically for a center in a way that has been received “not [as] productive chaos, but rather [as] what Hegel called bad infinity: endless heterogeneity and fragmentation” (Zimmerman, 1994, p. 350). To this charge, I respond: the beauty of experiencing difference is that it spooks opposition.
If I have the experience that I am irreducibly different from a protozoon and a dolphin, I will have great trouble envisioning myself as somehow existing in opposition to them. But hang on, protest many ecopsychologists: I am no more likely to oppose myself to them if I experience myself as not different from the protozoon and the dolphin – as interdependently co-arising with them. I have no problem with this objection as long as ecopsychologists maintain curiosity about whether their drive toward one-ness with the other-than-human natural world is “motivated by the same control-impulse that animates all centrisms” (Zimmerman, 1994, p. 139). Even to those who have not read Derrida it cannot come as a surprise that the most well-intended efforts at alleviating oppressive imbalances in power can unwittingly reproduce power structures. In his comments on the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights, toward which he feels great sympathy, Derrida cautions that “domination is exercised as much through an infinite violence, indeed, through the boundless wrong that we inflict on animals, as through the forms of protest that at bottom share the axioms and founding concepts in whose name the violence is exercised” (2008, p. 89). Ecocentrism, then, does not solve the problem of anthropocentrism. For ecopsychologists, the appeal of a Derridean approach may lie in its invitation to reckon, maybe for the first time, with what is singular and de-centering in the gaze of unique animal others from whom we are split, yet by whom we are addressed and interrogated. Indeed, metaphysical assumptions founding phenomenological and other philosophical approaches within ecopsychology run the risk of providing a shortcut around the gaze of the animal that looks at us from somewhere other than we are expecting, somewhere other than we are prepared for – we who are prepared for presence and absence, fullness and emptiness.
There is no intrinsic problem with the desire to consider human psychology as an expression of nature, as long as we do not fool ourselves into thinking that human desire will not always manage to exclude as others those to whom we are indebted for our supposed limits, our “identities,” and our confidence in the face of mortality. On the way to “returning” psyche to nature, we must hold our quest lightly, remembering the philosophical inheritance that will always at least partially direct our course, undoing from within what it also makes possible. We must carefully interrogate the shifting boundaries of self for traces of the gaze of an other that will always be held outside, in opposition. Ideally, we might shift between modes governed by our desire for origin and modes of affirmative play “without security” (Derrida, 1978, p. 292), maintaining our capacity to be interrupted even as we pursue our desire – to break formation, midway through the journey, when we pick up the trail of an unfamiliar scent leading who-knows-where.
If language splits us in some way from a direct experience of the world, then that is not the same as saying that we do not experience, or that our experience is then necessarily “indirect.” As a child playing, and even now when I paint, did/do I tap into direct experience? What if I do not know? What if the claim that my experience is full, present, and direct makes as little sense to me as the claim that my experience is partial, deferred, and inaccessible? Either claim would protect me from exposure to the other: on the one hand, I co-opt the other into a full presence known entirely, and on the other hand, I surrender any possibility of being reached. In between the two, I am uncertain. I am sniffing as I go along. This is my vulnerability. The truth is that I do not fully understand my humanity either through the radical ecopsychological call to “return” psyche to nature or through Derrida’s strategy of disseminating difference. I no longer know with any confidence what I can do. Here where I find myself not-able, surely anyone capable of suffering can experience “a surge of compassion, even if it is then misunderstood, repressed, or denied, held at bay” (Derrida, 2008, p. 28). I am ending with confusion, a word with its roots in the overthrowing of a given order – not in order to evoke pathos, not even in hope of evoking the “fundamental compassion” that responds to vulnerability among the living (Derrida, 2008, p. 26), but simply because in being seen, I have discovered that, for the time being, I am lacking a logic according to which I could decide and respond. For now, not to know, allied with an undeniable surge of compassion felt bodily as a preparation for acting (nevertheless) in ignorance, may be my most ethical response to the other.
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