Updated: Sep 26
In 1989 Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy sat down for a conversation on the subject of the subject, that is the entity taken for granted in western cultures as the unique self, the basic arbiter of existence in an anthropocentric world––a realm in which reality, existence, and being are determined by thinking man. The history of the subject goes back thousands of years, but it got its modern form in Descartes's formulation "dubito ergo sum, vel, quod idem est, cogito ergo sum"––I doubt therefore I am, or what is the same, I think therefore I am." Which is another way of saying that being is assured because of the presence of querying man. For Descartes, only man thinks, not animals (probably not women on non-Europeans either, who until the eighteenth century were viewed as partly or entirely feral). By his thinking only man possesses subjectivity, not animals, which is why since the dawn of agriculture it was possible, without questioning, to own, cage, corral, bind, limit, and ultimately slaughter, sacrifice, and eat animals.
That thinking not only survives to this day but has been supercharged––animals be damned, never mind the environment. Derrida and Nancy don't ever say, That thinking's all wrong; we should rethink this, and maybe even cease eating animals. But they call into serious doubt the assumptions founding contemporary gastronomy. Cartesian thinking, and every other manifestation of humanism in the guise of philosophy, politics, theology, science, the law, and so on, are predicated on Descartes' anthropocentric, exceptionalist view of the self.
The discussion of the subject in "Eating Well" goes on for some time and takes to task the works of more recent thinkers as well, who tried to decenter or challenge the subject, including Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, Foucault, and Levinas. The problem for all of above, Derrida insists, is the contradiction in proposing to move past the humanist subject while retaining its basic anthropocentricity. For every one of these "revolutionaries," the subject remains incontrovertibly human. Not one entertains the possibility that animals might also possess subjectivity. And in a sense it gets worse. In the philosophy of arguably the most radical philosopher of the mid-twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who spoke of the need to "destroy" western humanism and reconstruct something new in its place, a project that included calling Cartesian assumptions into question, animals slip back into, or never vacate, their old position in Nowhere Land. In the language of Being and Time, "The animal is poor in world . . . a world that would be human." Derrida comments, "The Heideggerian discourse on the animal is violent . . . ." The irony is palpable. So much talk about destruction of a tradition, only to circle back and end up with the same bias Heidegger started with.
Derrida then toggles to the writing of the ethical philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Again he points out the old-school humanism at the core of his thinking, despite his claims to the contrary. For Levinas, humans only need to act ethically toward a subject "with a face" and––wonder of wonders––animals don't have one. Derrida quotes Levinas' comments on the injunction Thou shalt not kill, and remarks that, there again, the entity whose life should not be terminated is invariably human. Levinas remains in the humanist loop, never bothering to question his assumptions, though Derrida insists on doing just that: "I'm trying to underscore the sacrificial of the discourses to which I'm referring. . . . It is a matter of discerning a place left open, in the very structure of these discourses . . . for a noncriminal putting to death. Such are the executions of ingestion, incorporation, or introjection of the corpse. An operation as real as it is symbolic when the corpse is 'animal' (and who can be made to believe that our cultures are carnivorous because animal proteins are irreplaceable?) . . . . But the symbolic is very difficult, truly impossible to delimit. . . ." Which is just what humans have done, namely delimit the symbolic only to themselves. In other words, throughout time there's been some discursive fudging going on, not just at the level of philosophical but cultural discourse––anything to deprive animals of "a face," in order to maintain the status quo on the dinner plate.
When I read the transcript of the Derrida-Nancy discussion the first time it was as though I were struck by lightning. I understood perfectly well what was being hinted at but wasn't being said outright. For me it launched an entire research agenda, which up to that point had been centering around the whale in Melville's Moby Dick, in an entirely new direction. A mountain of books later, many of which were based on years and even decades of fieldwork on the subject of animal sentience, and many that dared to say what Derrida didn't feel comfortable expressing in 1989, when vegetarianism and veganism were nowhere near the cultural phenomena they are today––a mountain of books later it was clear to me a change in the way I thought, lived, and ate was in order.
That research became the linchpin for the writing of The Lede to Our Undoing. Molly's sentience points to that in the animal kingdom more broadly. And the struggles of Wren and Jake signal the dynamics of living a lifestyle that recognizes that sentience.