PRINT January 2012


Jacques Derrida’s The Beast & The Sovereign

Jacques Derrida at home in Ris-Orangis, near Paris, January 6, 2001. Photo: Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images.

The Beast & The Sovereign, Vol. 2, by Jacques Derrida. Edited by Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud, Translated by Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 320 pages. $35.

JACQUES DERRIDA was buried in the cemetery at Ris-Orangis, near Paris, on October 12, 2004. But in this newly translated seminar, presented to students in Paris in 2002–2003, he already seems to speak from the grave. The book is a prolonged engagement with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), ostensibly considering its unlikely conjunction with Martin Heidegger’s 1929–30 lectures The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, as a way to explain what Derrida in the first volume calls the “obscure and fascinating complicity” of the beast and the sovereign. But although Derrida also mentions Marx’s interpretation of Crusoe’s solitude in terms of the individualism of bourgeois society, and Joyce’s having seen in him “the prefiguration of an imperialist, colonialist sovereignty, the first herald of the British empire, the great island setting off to conquer other islands,” the philosopher’s central preoccupation in these lectures is always death—not death as an ending, but death as a beginning, that which is to be outlived, the presupposition of all that is to come.

“I live my death in writing,” Derrida said in his final interview, and here he situates himself at the end of a chain of authors that runs from Robinson Crusoe as writer of his own journal; to the Crusoe who narrates the story that incorporates the journal; to Defoe, who wrote the book that Crusoe narrates; to Derrida himself, who comments on the book that Defoe wrote. Even as they give artificial respiration to their predecessors, all desire this living death, for a book is “a dead thing” that only resuscitates when “a breath of living reading . . . makes it live again.”

In the novel, Crusoe is afraid of dying a living death by being buried alive in an earthquake. Derrida interprets this fear through Rousseau, who, comparing himself to “those great voyagers who discover a desert island,” writes of the island of Saint-Pierre in Switzerland’s Lake Biel that “I was there in a refuge unknown to the entire universe, from which my persecutors would not dig me up.” Living on an island is like living in a refuge where you are besieged by your own defenses, Derrida suggests. Those “terrified desires or desiring terrors” of being buried alive are just another way of expressing the paradox of living “in the hole that is this island where I am, on this land, as if buried alive.”

If to be buried alive is to be isolated, what is an island? It is one of Derrida’s first questions in the seminar, immediately repeated, never to be answered. He might, as Carl Schmitt did in Land and Sea (1942), have turned to Shakespeare: “this little world; / This precious stone set in the silver sea, / Which serves it in the office of a wall, / Or as a moat defensive to a house.” But to think of an island in this way does not, Schmitt recognizes, explain how a great island can set off to conquer smaller ones. It fails to account for the transformation of Britain from “a nation of sheep-breeders into a nation of sea children”—a metamorphosis of which Crusoe is perhaps the most famous representative, and which represented a fundamental transformation in the political and historical essence of the island itself. “Henceforth,” Schmitt writes, “the land would be looked at from the sea, and the island would cease to be seen as a split chipped from the Continent, but rather as part of the sea: a ship or a fish.”

Looking at islands from the perspective of Rousseau, the citizen of Geneva, Derrida misses the possibility that the fixity of an island is a fiction, that any island might be uprooted and lose its territorial character, so that, in Schmitt’s words, “like a fish, it was able to swim to another spot of the globe.” Yet this is the other side of Robinson Crusoe’s story. In the end, he is no more marooned on his desert island than he was on the island of Britain. As Defoe’s sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), makes clear, both are just staging posts on the way to maritime empire.

In this context, Crusoe’s relation to the pairing of beast and sovereign seems more complex than Derrida allows. Following Schmitt’s definition of the sovereign as “he who decides the exception” and suspends the law, Derrida presupposes that both the sovereign and the beast “seem to stand above or at a distance from the law. Both are, in different ways . . . but in common, outlaws.” So when Crusoe, who spurned a career in the law in order to become a sailor, reflects on his situation on the island:

How like a King I look’d. First of all, the whole Country was my own meer Property; so that I had an undoubted Right of Dominion. 2dly, My People were perfectly subjected: I was absolute Lord and Law-giver . . .

his claim to absolute sovereignty places him not back within the law, but “like the beasts or the werewolf, outside the law, above the law.”

The complicating factor, however, is the difference between being an outlaw on land and at sea. Derrida does not account for the ways in which, as Schmitt suggests in The Nomos of the Earth (1950), the English legal construction of the state of exception was analogous to, and possibly based on, the notion of the sea as a “free and empty space.” Both the sea and a deserted island were considered res nullius (something belonging to no one that anyone could take), but the latter could be turned into property whereas the former could not. The sea, Schmitt writes, had “no limits, no boundaries, no consecrated sites, no sacred orientations, no law, and no property”; it was a zone designated for “agonal tests of strength,” for the “desolate chaos of mutual destruction.”

If there is an elemental difference between land and sea, the state of exception, as a reversion to the state of nature, differs accordingly. Whereas on land the state of exception is a void within the law, at sea the island is the exception—an exception to the state of exception—in that it is potentially subject to law. Following Hobbes, Derrida sees the state of nature as the domain of werewolves, but becoming a fish and becoming a werewolf are not quite the same thing: In the former case you are within an elemental exception, necessarily outside the law; in the latter, only contingently so, for you may always turn back into a man.

Derrida skates over it, but the point can be illustrated by the one recorded rebellion against Crusoe’s dominion—that of the feral cats. Crusoe had brought two cats ashore with him from the shipwrecked boat. But as he records, one of them, “having multiplied by I know not what kind of creature,” produced numerous progeny that ran wild in the woods and “became indeed troublesome to me . . . for they would often come into my house, and plunder me too, till at last I was obliged to shoot them,” save for two “which I . . . preserved tame.” Becoming feral requires the possibility of being a domestic animal, for there is no direct transition from the wild to the feral state. The difference between the feral and the wild would therefore seem analogous to that between the outlaws of the land and of the sea (where there are no domestic animals, and no feral ones either).

Where does this leave Crusoe, once part of England’s metamorphosis into a fish roaming the seas in search of plunder, now defending himself from plunder by cats? Sovereign and outlaw in both cases, what sort of protean beast is he? The concept of the “rogue,” with which Derrida aligns the werewolf and the outlaw, is of only limited assistance. Prompted by the Bush administration’s concern with “rogue states,” Derrida developed (in Rogues [2003] and in the first volume of these seminars) an account of the rogue that encompassed both the sovereign who stands outside the law and rogue wild animals, such as elephants that “behave like ravaging outlaws.” But the analogy, based on the idea that both exempt themselves from “the customary practice . . . of their own community,” is inexact. Derrida claims that “there are only rogue states” because every assertion of sovereignty is itself founded in illegality, but just as an animal may be wild without becoming rogue, the sovereign may be rogue without being a rogue sovereign (in the sense of being a rogue even among sovereigns, in the way that a rogue elephant is a rogue among wild elephants). The feral, the rogue, and the wild animal may all be outside the law, but not the same law, and not in the same way.

Frontispiece and title page of the sixth edition of Daniel Defoe’s The Life, and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe . . . (W. Taylor, 1722). Photo: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

We seem to have drifted far from the theme of death, but here, as in every story, there is a detail to bring it back. Crusoe notes that, unlike the feral dead, his original two cats were “interred near my habitation by my own hand.” Derrida passes over this incident, yet it gives substance to his suggestion that when Crusoe is afraid of being buried alive, “he is less afraid of dying than of dying without being buried . . . afraid of the pre-social and pre-institutional savagery that would have him die without a funeral . . . afraid of dying like a beast.”

The likelihood that he will remain unburied is a necessary consequence of Crusoe’s solitude, but how can the fear of being buried alive be equated with the fear of being left unburied? It is here that the much-promised, but barely realized, alignment of Robinson Crusoe with Heidegger’s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics comes into play. “Circumscribed by the boundless ocean, cut off from mankind,” Crusoe appears to be, like Heidegger’s animal, “poor in world,” absorbed in himself, encircled by a ring that opens only to allow him to satisfy certain instinctual drives. It is a state Heidegger calls captivation, and in some respects, Derrida notes, Crusoe seems close to it, obsessively preoccupied, “too captivated by various urgencies to get bored.”

Derrida previously engaged with Heidegger’s controversial and sometimes contradictory account of the animal in Of Spirit (1987) and The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006), where he interrogated Heidegger’s tripartite distinction between humans, who have world; animals, which are poor in world; and inanimate objects, such as stones, which are worldless. Here, he focuses on Heidegger’s claim that animals cannot “die,” that their lives can only come to an end because they cannot confront death as such. If this is the case, Crusoe’s fear of dying like a beast is in effect the fear of not dying, the fear of the living death of living without the possibility of death. In which case Heidegger’s animals are just as much castaways as Crusoe himself, forever trapped within the limitations of their own situation like someone stranded on an island. Unable to communicate, they are inevitably poor in world, for world is made possible by language, and without it the world is lost.

According to Derrida, this sense of world-loss pervades Robinson Crusoe: “whether it be Robinson’s nostalgia for the world he has lost (die Welt ist fort, as Celan would say), [or] the nostalgia he will feel at the end for the island he has lost after returning to that other island, England, where he will continue to dream of returning to his solitary island.” Ultimately, as Derrida argues in a finale of tumultuous eloquence, it is world-loss that unites the beast and the sovereign. For if there is no common world, and “the presumed community of the world is a word . . . the name of a life insurance policy for living beings losing their world, a life-belt on the high seas we pretend to be leaving,” then we are all “separated, like one island from another by an abyss beyond which no shore is even promised,” left only “with the abyssal un-shareable, then, of the abyss between the islands of the archipelago . . . the solitude of worlds, the undeniable fact that there is no world . . . [only] the solitude, the isolation, the insularity of islands that are not even in the world, the same world, or on a world map.”

The metaphors are revealing. Derrida, who throughout this seminar treats “the sea and the earth” as an undifferentiated pair, does not register the significance of shifting from one element to another. Yet it emerges unbidden. Without the world we are at sea, for in the sea there is no world, only, as Schmitt says, the “desolate chaos of mutual destruction.” Here, Derrida’s failure to acknowledge the land/sea distinction feels like a willful indifference to the historical and sociological specificity of this world-loss. In The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt identifies the sea with civil society, as opposed to the state, and sketches a trajectory that provides the missing link between Robinson Crusoe and Heidegger. It was by turning to the sea, Schmitt suggests, that “the English isle became the agency of the spatial turn to a new nomos of the earth, and, potentially, even the operational base for the later leap into the total rootlessness of modern technology.” In other words, Crusoe himself is one of the unknowing instruments of the turn from land to sea that produces modernity and loses the world, his isolation a proleptic realization of the world-loss experienced not just by beast and sovereign but by every modern person.

In this context, the authorial desire to be buried alive seems like the longing of the shipwrecked sailor, adrift on the high seas, to return to land; above all, to be buried on land, to be landlocked. It is not so much a desire to live a living death as the desire to live in the past before modernity dissolved the world.

Malcolm Bull teaches at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.