The ends of (hu)man: following Jacques Derrida's animal question into the biblical archive

Strømmen, H.M. (2014) The ends of (hu)man: following Jacques Derrida's animal question into the biblical archive. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis engages with the biblical archive and its animals, asking what it means to read the Bible after Jacques Derrida’s “question of the animal”, that is, critical questions directed at the characterisations, representations and utilisations of animals past and present which deem animals distinctly different to humans in order to demarcate their inferiority. At the same time, it is a critical response to Derrida’s Bible. Derrida – arguably one of the most important and influential thinkers of the twentieth century – provides a significant philosophical contribution to the question of the animal. In animal studies, the Bible is treated as a foundational legacy for concepts of the “human” and is frequently held up to blame for a misplaced human hubris. Derrida too draws on the Bible in implicit and explicit ways to underpin his critique of human/animal distinctions. Building on Derrida’s work on animality, I provide close and critical interpretations of four crucial texts of the biblical archive. I argue that these biblical texts are caught up in irreducible tensions: on the one hand, these texts depict and describe how humans and animals alike abide as finite, fellow creatures under God as a justice to come which calls for a radical similitude and solidarity; on the other hand, animals are portrayed as objects that are mastered by humans to demonstrate God’s power over the living. God’s power thus resides in a double bind – it both displaces power from humans to show them as animals, and it simultaneously provides a model for human power over animal others.

In the first chapter I explore the significance of Derrida’s motifs of nakedness and shame over nakedness for his critique of human/animal distinctions, arising from his reading of Genesis. Critically continuing Derrida’s play on myths of origin, I tackle the question of the first carnivorous man, Noah, in Genesis 9 in order to show how this text can both be read as a license to enact the sovereignty of man over animals, and, how this text radically resists such a reading in God’s covenant with all life, human and non-human.

Following my exploration of myths of origin, the second chapter grapples with Derrida’s notion of a deconstructed subject through his emphasis on response and responsibility. Derrida puts forward the biblical response “here I am”, as the mark of vulnerability in every relation with the other. I explore what this responsible response might mean in the context of the Book of Daniel that portrays encounters between human, nonhuman animals and God. Developing Derrida’s injunction to follow the nonhuman other, I argue that the double context of Daniel conveys two distinct visions of the concept of the political as animal: one, in which a fantasy for a harmonious domestication and cohabitation amongst rulers and their human and animal subjects is fostered under the only true ruler, a benign God; and, a collapse of such a fantasy, where rulers – human and divine – are portrayed as carnivorous, ferocious creatures who turn their subjects from pets to prey.
The third chapter follows this collapse to Derrida’s critique of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” as a commandment relating only to humans and thus a detrimental Judeo-Christian legacy. Derrida draws on the story of Cain and Abel to discuss the way the killing of an animal leads to the killing of a brother. To explore questions of killability I, however, turn to the negotiations of such issues in Acts 10. In the animal vision of Acts 10, questions of clean/unclean animals are suspended and hospitality is apparently opened up between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. I demonstrate that the universalism associated with this text refers to an exclusive human fellowship which evades the actual implications of the animal vision. Yet, I posit that there are again two ways of reading the animal vision. In the first reading the analogical resemblance set up between animals and Gentiles implies that Gentiles too become killable as “clean” and thus the animal vision allows for indiscriminate killability amongst the living in general. In the second reading the cleanness of all animals is in fact a radical redemption of animal life for fellowship, in the same way that Peter accepts the fellowship and hospitality of Gentiles. Ultimately, the category of the living and the dead draws humans and non-humans together into what I call “mortability”; that is, the capacity for death shared amongst the living in the suspension of judgement until Jesus returns.
In the fourth chapter, I follow up on the suspension of judgement by analysing Derrida’s thinking of sovereignty and animality in relation to Revelation 17. Crucially, Derrida’s logic of sovereignty includes Christ as lamb, in his logos or reason of the strongest, despite its ostensible weakness as a diminutive animal. I explore this further by turning to the scene of Revelation 17 in which the Lamb is at war with the Beast and the woman riding it. Developing Derrida’s allusions to sexual difference as it relates to the question of the animal, I explore how Revelation 17 denigrates both animals and women by characterising them as the figure of evil: Rome. The logic of the animal representations sets up the divine as the good on the side of the weak in the figure of the suffering Lamb. But as the Lamb becomes a beast-like indivisible sovereignty that asserts its reason of the strongest, the figures of “evil” become the vulnerable weak victims – the animal others. Another image of Rome emerges, then, as a deconstructed sovereignty in the subjects that stand as powerless figures in the political order, namely the animals of the Roman arenas and the prostitutes of the Roman Empire.

The four texts I examine abide in the ambiguous tensions of an archive that can in the end neither be presented as animal-friendly nor as straightforwardly anthropocentric. The biblical archive is a complex compendium fraught with tensions that can, with its animals, only be held in abeyance. There can be no final “ownership” proclaimed of this archive and its animals, nor can any interpretive act dis-suspend them from such an ambivalent state. These very different texts do, however, provide the material and momentum to show central and crucial instances of how the biblical archive characterises its humans, animals and gods. My analysis reveals that the very same spaces in which these characterisations might be fixed as detrimental to animal life, are where the possibilities of seeing animals radically otherwise lie.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Jacques Derrida, bible, animal studies, Genesis, Daniel, Acts, Revelation
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BM Judaism
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BS The Bible
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > Theology and Religious Studies
Supervisor's Name: Sherwood, Professor Yvonne and Jasper, Professor David
Date of Award: 2014
Depositing User: Dr Hannah Strommen
Unique ID: glathesis:2014-6428
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 05 Jun 2015 13:36
Last Modified: 05 Jun 2018 10:21

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