Review article by Richard Iveson (first published as “Negotiating Without Relation” in Parallax, 17:3 (2011), pp.105-108)
Review of: Andrew Benjamin Of Jews and Animals (Edinburgh University Press, 2010)
Dogs run throughout Andrew Benjamin’s new book, both as figures and in their particularity. While Heidegger faces his dog facing him in the silence of indifference, another dog insists upon his or her presence before Goya. A third dog, meanwhile, forever awaiting a drowned human companion in a Turner watercolour, constitutes at once an icon of devotion and the moment of a “founding tear” – a rupture which opens the work to an unthought modality of friendship. Finally, in a doubling and displacing of the Heideggerian absence of relation, the indifference of the dogs of Piero di Cosimo announces a transformative co-presence which, incapable of being determined in advance, can thus only be lived. It is in running together, in this movement from indifferent silence to the in-difference of an undetermined co-presence which, Benjamin will argue, inaugurates not simply an importantly different philosophical project, but rather “a transformation of the philosophical itself” (p.19). In this, Benjamin’s latest work remains resolutely preliminary, in the sense of the tracing of a limit which marks both a closure of potential and the possibility of a radical new beginning and which, in the process, makes explicit the importance of the so-called “question of the animal” to the overlapping domains of philosophy, ethics, and politics. As a result, Of Jews and Animals is set to become a key text, alongside such works as Elisabeth de Fontenay’s Le silence des bêtes (1998) and Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006), in constituting a further and necessary move beyond the utilitarianism and neo-Kantianism within which “animal philosophy” has for so long remained mired.
Central to the book is how the “work of figures” institutes what Benjamin terms the “without relation.” Exemplary in this regard is the positing of the figure of “the animal” in a singular relation to “the human,” a positing which, unifying both elements in their absence of relation, serves to efface both the enormous diversity of species and the already existing complex of relations in the construction of an identity whose function is “predominantly external to the concerns of the identity itself” (p.4). Against this, not only does Benjamin disclose the insistent and originary presence of the animal with the human, but also the interarticulation of such figures which externally impose normative identities which then have to be lived out. It is this mutually-articulating “work” which both underpins the conjunction of Jews and animals in the title (an entitling which fully acknowledges the attendant risk which might appear at first glance to equate the one with the other) and at once serves to efface the working of this very conjunction.
By way of the naturalising construction of the other as “the enemy” within Plato’s Republic, Benjamin argues that, through the working of such figures, the threat of particularity comes to be excluded in the name of the universal; an exclusion, moreover, which, in its continuous reiteration, sustains that same universality. Hence, if this machinery is to be stalled, it thus becomes necessary to think a certain way of being just to particularity. One will recognise here, and in addition to the overlapping nexus of concerns with Derrida’s later work, the relation between Benjamin’s transformative project and that of deconstruction, a relation directly explored by Benjamin in this book both through Derrida’s notion of “play” [“jeu”] and through a critique of Derrida’s reading of Pascal in which, Benjamin suggests, Derrida fails to take account both of the doubling of “force” and of the link between justice and the figure of “the Jew,” both of which are integral to Benjamin’s own position. While never failing to acknowledge this indebtedness, Benjamin contends however that his argument for “a differential or relational ontology” necessarily leads in “another direction” (p.128). Indeed, by way of the notion of the “anoriginal” (which receives perhaps its most rigorous formulation in The Plural Event (1993)), Benjamin has been pursuing this project for many years. While the question remains as to whether the positing of a differential ontology can be so easily directed away from the founding gesture of deconstruction – a gesture which affirms the impossibility of a “finite living being, human or nonhuman, that wouldn’t be structured by [a] differential of forces”1 –, Benjamin’s new book, in seeking to systemically mark and in so doing move beyond the work of dualisms, nonetheless constitutes a highly original and provocative opening, the implications of which for the ecological and the aesthetic, as well as the philosophical and the political, cannot be overstated.
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