Reason, Freedom, and Animality: Week 2.5, Derrida and Animal Names

Among the now famous feline musings of the first chapter of Derrida’s The Animal that therefore I am is this one, about the cat’s name:

But even before that identification, it comes to me as this irreplaceable living being that one day enters my space, into this place where it can encounter me, see me, even see me naked. Nothing can ever rob me of the certainty that what we have here is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized. And a mortal existence, for from the moment that it has a name, its name survives it. It signs its potential disappearance. Mine also… (9)

Derrida never gives the cat’s name (it’s “Logos,” purportedly, from the Greek, rather than the plural of logo, although, somewhat confoundingly, λόγος and logo are etymological siblings). Later in the talk, Derrida continues considering names by examining a moment in what’s commonly called Genesis’ second Creation narrative, where God brings the animals before Adam to watch his first ensouled creation name each of them in turn. Derrida says:

More precisely, he [that is, God] has created man in his likeness so that man will subject, tame, dominate, train, or domesticate the animals born before him and assert his authority over them. God destines the animals to an experience of the power of man, in order to see the power of man in action. (16)

Derrida here conflates Genesis’ two creation stories by linking Adam’s naming to the domination God granted humans, man and woman both, in the first creation story over “the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26 and 1:28). He conflates the two accounts, in fact, despite being otherwise quite careful to distinguish them.[1]“The original naming of the animals does not take place in the first version. It isn’t the man-woman of the first version but man alone and before woman who, in that second version, gives … Continue reading Read this way, Adam’s naming of the animals combines surveillance and sorting: it’s Foucauldian, in other words, and Foucauldian too because the “power of man” creates the categories of man and animal simultaneously: you’ll recall that “power” for Foucault is never simply repressive, but rather always at once constraining and generative. So, having made man in his image, God wants to see Adam perform his own little act of creation, making the animals his, each in turn, by giving them what they never asked for or wanted, a name of his own.

Or it would seem that way. But two elements here go awry, because Derrida conflates the two creation stories — more on that, below — and because the name is not simply an “assert[ion] of authority” but also a mark of mortality and absence. For the name, as Derrida observed many times, outlasts its recipient. His Memoires for Paul de Man observes:

In calling or naming someone while he is alive, we know that his name can survive him and already survives him; the name begins during his life to get along without him, speaking and bearing his death each time it is pronounced in naming or calling, each time it is inscribed in a list, or a civil registry or a signature. (49)

In developing this point, he must have had in mind something like Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, that mode of being that Heidegger claimed was uniquely human, or at least unique to humans who live authentically:[2]On Heidegger’s contempt for those leading an inauthentic existence, those unconcerned with Being itself, or for the particular being of particular places, those who devoted themselves instead … Continue reading Dasein, existence in German, combines two words, Da, there, and sein, being, which Heidegger decides to take as pointing to the human need to confront the character of existence itself. A key aspect of existence is that it exists before we arrive and will exist after we depart. When we come to know ourselves as dasein, as those beings thrown into a preexisting existence, we become those beings uniquely concerned with their own mortality. Our name too is already there by the time we become aware of it, and it will, for a time, carry on without us.

Derrida too must have had in mind something like his friend Roland Barthes’ remarks on posing for a photograph. Here is Barthes:

the Photograph…represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter. (Camera Lucida, 14)

Derrida’s long philosophical project of questioning all claims of presence, authenticity, or foundations — the project of deconstruction, in short — coalesces here, in the problem of the proper name (considered at length as early as 1967, in On Grammatology, where he treats Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological investigations of certain cultures that forbid the use of proper names). Names remain words to conjure with. We think of our names as a sign of who we are; when we sign our name, we leave behind a sign, we think, of our being there, and of our having given our volition. Derrida’s concern was with the name as a sign of our having been there, and with the certainty that we will no longer be there; with people using our name after we are gone; with our name circulating without our being present or without our consent. Furthermore, those of us whose names bear the history of their being forced on them;[3]Oladuah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative: “While I was on board this ship, my captain and master named me Gustavus Vassa. I at that time began to understand him a little, and refused to be … Continue reading whose signatures are not signs of their volition, but of their coercion; who are obligated to answer to names mangled in the mouths of people who feel no need to bother to try to get them right: these were not Derrida’s concerns, not that I know of, but surely they too are signs of how names can be as much signs of dispossession as they are signs of possession.

To return to Adam’s naming: in giving the names, are animals really, then, “experienc[ing] … the power of man”? Even for Foucault — whom I reference for his subtle, and, well, powerful analysis of “power” — the Power/Knowledge of naming does not emanate from a single source. “Power,” for Foucault, is diffuse, acentric. Adam as the name-giver is drawn into a system of names whose enormous creative and constraining power he can never wholly control. For who guarantees the name? In giving a name, the giver loses control over it, while the recipient, or victim, can hardly have it all to themselves either. For the name necessarily comes to belong to everyone who recognizes it as a proper name. Nor is God, even, an all-controlling force, at least not in this story. So long as we stay in this story, and eschew the pieties of any theological insistence on God’s omnipotent, omniscient might, we can read this verse for what it offers us: “And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name.” To see what he would call them: as Derrida rightly observes, God here seems capable of surprise (17-18); for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name: Adam, not God, is the name-giver, but Adam, already having been named, is himself subject to the name’s play of presence and absence.

And then, to keep my promise: Derrida indeed conflates two stories, once, and does so despite his care in separating the narratives. The first creation story, to be sure, is absolutely a story of human power, delegated as it is. God creates man and woman together, and twice grants them dominion over animals. The second creation story, however, is a story of cohabitation and negotiation. God creates Adam after the plants, not because male humans are the pinnacle of creation, but because he wants a gardener (“and there was not a man to till the earth,” Genesis 2:5). And he creates animals because he worries that Adam will be lonely (“And the Lord God said: It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself,” 2:18). He brings the animals before Adam, to see what he will name them, “but for Adam there was not found a helper like himself” (2:20). Adam stays lonely, for a time.[4]For a scandalous medieval interpretation of Adam’s frustrated loneliness, see this blog post from me from 2008.

But about this second narrative, where Adam, alone, names the animals, Derrida writes:

He has them come forward; he summons them, the animals that, as the first narrative was saying, he had, moreover, created—and I firmly emphasize this trait, which is fundamental to what concerns us—he summons them in order to ‘‘subject’’ (Chouraqui) them to man’s command, in order to place them under man’s ‘‘authority’’ (Dhormes). (16)

Derrida allows two words from the first narrative to impose themselves in the second, each from two French translations of Genesis 1:26: assujettir and l’autorité, or, in the Douay Rheims translation, “dominion.” But neither word is there, not in the second account. Instead, we have Adam tending a garden, and perhaps looking for a companion, or being watched to see if he will select one as a companion. One imagines him not dominating the animals when he names them, but rather speaking somewhat more plaintively, hoping for someone to keep him company, or only gradually becoming aware of a need to cohabitate with someone. Adam’s naming of the animals, pace Derrida, therefore cannot be an instance of Adam’s “subject[ing], tam[ing], dominat[ing], train[ing], or domesticat[ing] the animals born before him and assert[ing] his authority over them.” We just don’t know why God wants to see what Adam will name the animals, and perhaps the best way to honor the narrative is not to explain away its uncertainties.

Names, finally, function differently depending on whether they are proper names or species names. Derrida’s concern is with the “unsubstitutable singularity” (9) of his cat, while collective treatments of animals, in this talk, are for him always at best stupid (animal-like: the French is une bêtise), and often far worse:

Everybody knows what terrifying and intolerable pictures a realist painting could give to the industrial, mechanical, chemical, hormonal, and genetic violence to which man has been submitting animal life for the past two centuries. (26)

This ethics centers its care on the individual and its own particular mortality, which, as Derrida says elsewhere, cannot be exchanged with anyone else, but which, at the same time, can never belong fully to us either. The mortal individual, dispossessed by that individuality, is the key sign of the “nonpower at the heart of power” (28) that so concerns him.

But Adam does not name the animals as individuals, presumably: not Jeff, and Steve, and Mable, but Cow, and Bonobo, and Anemone, these were the names he gave them. In giving them these names he is not giving them over to mortality, not exactly, but rather (also) to perpetuity, for species names are names of collectives that endure.

We know now, of course, that species are ever-shifting groups, always on the move evolutionarily, fading and splitting and joining. Theologians believe otherwise, as do most of us in our practical lives: a cow is a cow is a cow. Basil of Caesarea, a fourth-century bishop who worked in what is now Turkey, wrote that:

Nature always makes a horse succeed to a horse, a lion to a lion, an eagle to an eagle, and preserving each animal by these uninterrupted successions she transmits it to the end of all things. Animals do not see their peculiarities destroyed or effaced by any length of time; their nature, as though it had been just constituted, follows the course of ages, for ever young.

In our anthropogenic present, we know that names of species are also the names of mortals: the dodo, the Javan rhinoceros (only 60 individuals remaining), the trilobite (some 20,000 species over the course of their existence, but wholly extinct for 252 million years). We know too that collectives are how animals live, with the collective of their environment, and with the collective of other members of their species: what is an oyster by itself, or a passenger pigeon, or a human, all by themselves?

One last point on names, then, because I’ve already gone on long enough: l’animot is one way of naming animals, as such, but naming an animal a dog, or a raven, or Riftia pachyptila offers us something quite different. We read one fable together, and you have probably read others on your own. The animals of fables have no proper names, although in at least one case — Reynard — the proper name supplanted the original species name. The names of animals in fables, sheep, wolf, rooster, and the like, mark both their species persistence and their species-specific needs and proclivities. Though not individualizing like a proper name, they still individualize, because no fable is about the animal in general. As much as it is a genre that trots out animals to make them perform a lesson in morality or social cynicism for us, it still trots them out as particular animals. And in their concern for getting it right so the narrative works, they also concern themselves with getting it right for the animal: putting the fox where it wants to be, and the sheep, and so on, each of them not as an animal, but each as their own individual species. Could the name here be understood as a sign of care?


1 “The original naming of the animals does not take place in the first version. It isn’t the man-woman of the first version but man alone and before woman who, in that second version, gives their names, his names, to the animals. On the other hand, it is in the so-called first version that the husbandman, created as God’s replica, and created male-female, man-woman, immediately receives the order to subject the animals to him” (15
2 On Heidegger’s contempt for those leading an inauthentic existence, those unconcerned with Being itself, or for the particular being of particular places, those who devoted themselves instead to rootless cosmopolitanism: well, see Peter Trawny’s Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy.
3 Oladuah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative: “While I was on board this ship, my captain and master named me Gustavus Vassa. I at that time began to understand him a little, and refused to be called so, and told him as well as I could that I would be called Jacob; but he said I should not, and still called me Gustavus; and when I refused to answer to my new name, which at first I did, it gained me many a cuff; so at length I submitted, and was obliged to bear the present name, by which I have been known ever since.”
4 For a scandalous medieval interpretation of Adam’s frustrated loneliness, see this blog post from me from 2008.