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ANGELAKI

journal of the theoretical humanities


volume 18 number 2 june 2013

C ary Wolfe’s response to “The Posthuman-


ism to Come” revolves primarily around
two central contentions: (1) that my article
draws upon a number of Derridean principles
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to which Wolfe is equally and explicitly com-


mitted; and (2) this shared affinity with
Derrida neutralizes in advance my suggestion
that Wolfe fosters a progressive or perfectionist
rhetoric. Certainly he and I do agree on a
number of points, from the political and
ethical urgency of affirming the precarity, pas- christopher peterson
sivity, and vulnerability to finitude that we
share with animals, to the rejection of the huma-
nist presumption that language, suffering, NORMAL MONSTERS
death, and mourning are exclusively human
phenomena. Indeed, “The Posthumanism to AND MONSTROUS
Come” not only concedes this mutual debt to
Derrida but it also acknowledges that What is
MONSTROSITIES
Posthumanism? theorizes posthumanism in a response to cary wolfe
terms of a disjunctive temporality whereby “it
comes both before and after humanism,” thus
apparently marking a departure from the logic series, conferences, journal articles, theoretical
of historical rupture that characterized some of approaches, and so on. Yet my claim is that
Wolfe’s earlier work.1 Summarizing this view, “posthumanism” is quickly becoming a
I write that “the posthuman is also the antehu- fetishized slogan, one in a long line of scholarly
man, the animality that ‘precedes’ the historical movements and reorientations that have chris-
elevation of the human above all other life tened themselves with the prefix “post.” Strictly
forms.”2 Wolfe is therefore absolutely correct speaking, all names are fetishistic in so far as
that his book explicitly argues against both per- they are signs of a disavowed absence of the
fectionism and the belief that posthumanism “thing itself” for which the name functions as
can fully separate itself from humanism. a substitute. Names are never entirely adequate
Of course, my central point was that he rein- to the task of signification to which they are
scribes a perfectionist scheme notwithstanding assigned. In order to underscore this inade-
his claims to the contrary. If posthumanism quacy, I concluded my article with a brief dis-
does not come after humanism, if posthuman- cussion of Derrida’s “Letter to a Japanese
ism is not finally “post,” then why continue to Friend,” which reflects on the unavoidable
insist on a term of dubious relevance and useful- deficiency of the term “deconstruction” in so
ness? Yes, books require titles, as do book far as it implies a negative or destructive

ISSN 0969-725X print/ISSN 1469-2899 online/13/020191-6 © 2013 Taylor & Francis


http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0969725X.2013.804999

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a response to cary wolfe

operation. Derrida certainly never shied away influenced by Derrida corresponds to a familiar
from using this term, yet he did lament that process of transatlantic exchange: a linguistic
both his champions and his critics tended to pri- and cultural translation through which Derri-
vilege it over other key terms that populated his dean insights into the human/animal relation
oeuvre, such as trace, différance, dissemination, have mutated into a language of posthumanism
specter, and so on.3 He was therefore obliged to that is quite literally absent from Derrida’s
wrestle with the implications of a term whose work.
initial attraction was largely attributable to the Indeed, Derrida never uses the terms “post-
dissonance that it sounded against the reigning human” or “posthumanism” anywhere in The
discourse of structuralism. As Derrida notes, Animal That Therefore I Am or in either
deconstruction became “associated with ‘post- volume of The Beast and the Sovereign.5
structuralism’ (a word unknown in France Given his suspicion toward the language of
until its ‘return’ from the United States)” “posts,” together with his scepticism toward
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(272). In “Some Statements and Truisms pronouncements of historical ruptures or


about Neologisms, Newisms, Postisms, Parasit- “turns,” assertions that disavow the spectrality
isms, and Other Small Seismisms,” Derrida by virtue of which the past continues to
more directly confronts the language of the impinge upon the present, we can surmise that
“new” and the “post,” remarking that Derrida did not find the language of posthuman-
ism especially germane to his ruminations on
there was a time when titles and letterheads the topic of animality.6 That he did not avail
followed the establishment of the institution himself of the term posthumanism certainly
and the work of its founding members. does not mean that we ought to ban its use in
Today we know that it is sometimes better
critical discourse on human/animal relations
to start with letterheads and self-represen-
out of some blind act of fidelity. Far from pled-
tation. All the founders of institutions know
this. As for deciding if titles in “new” are ging a certain deconstructive allegiance, my
more efficient than those in “post” […] if it claim is that the effort to articulate a positive
is more appropriate to periodize violently definition of posthumanism ultimately betrays
and make the historicist telos the herald an effort to fortify its name and identity.
who announces a new era or the hero who out- What would it mean if we were to concede
dates or brings down an old dragon, it is a that posthumanism cannot finally be defined
matter of detail. It is basically the same or known? What if the question “what is posthu-
gesture, the cultural stratagem as the inevita- manism?” were no more answerable than the
ble by-product of the oldest of historicisms question “what is the human?”
[…] This recurrence of the stratagem is
The stabilization of “posthumanism” thus
sometimes widespread and reveals too much
risks reproducing the principle of perfectionism
impatience, juvenile jubilation, or mechan-
ical eagerness. It then becomes vulgar.4 that Wolfe overtly rejects. To “know” the post-
human, to define and delineate its boundaries by
For Derrida, the nomenclature of “poststructur- seeking to distinguish between approaches
alism” and “deconstructionism” betrays an called “humanist posthumanism” and “posthu-
appropriation of deconstruction that seeks pre- manist posthumanism,” presupposes posthu-
cisely to stabilize itself “each time that there is manism’s arrival in the present. To define the
self-presentation of a, or more problematically, posthuman, in other words, is already to
of the theory” (88). To be fair, Derrida observes announce its advent. It is therefore not enough
that the term poststructuralism, together with to assert posthumanism’s infinite deferral, as if
the stabilization that it seeks to enact, “isn’t we would know it when we saw it despite its
an evil, and even if it were one, it would be a impossible manifestation, as if what is or is
necessary evil” (88). Necessary or not, “posthu- not “to come” can be known in advance. That
manism” too is certainly not “evil.” Yet clearly the posthuman cannot fully present itself
its appearance in scholarship explicitly means that we would not know it from Adam,

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peterson

that its arrival would be no more presentable or again a rhetoric of self-knowing, deliberate
identifiable than “the first man” whose initial agency seeks to install a presumptive perma-
task of naming the animals sought to raise the nence. With regard to my invocation of bêtise,
human above the non-human, the Adam who he reduces this term to its conventional, uni-
asserted his humanness precisely through this directional force according to which it functions
primal act of species identification, just as the only as a term of accusation in which the one
posthuman aspires to name and know itself as who alleges bêtise remains utterly unscathed.
such. Posthumanism thus arrives on the scene This reduction thus completely ignores the
as an exemplary case of what Derrida calls mimetic structure by virtue of which the lack
“normal monstrosities,” which announce them- of judgment or error that one identifies in
selves in advance: “Monsters cannot be others can always be one’s own. No matter
announced. One cannot say: ‘Here are your how much we seek to soften or moderate its
monsters,’ without immediately turning the impact, any critique of the other, which is to
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monsters into pets” (“Some Statements” 80). say, any judgment of the other’s lack, defect,
Posthumanism resembles a normal monster or shortcoming implies an accusation of bêtise,
not only because it is sewn together with Fran- even if this word is never explicitly uttered.
kensteinian precision from the corpses of pre- Who can deny that every critique is motivated
vious postisms and newisms but also, and at least minimally by the pleasurable illusion
more crucially, in so far as it domesticates that we are invulnerable to the defects that we
those “monstrous monstrosities which never have discerned in the other? My point was
present themselves as such” (79). Once we thus not that Wolfe is unduly harsh on those
decide on what it is, posthumanism becomes whom he critiques, that he unjustifiably
far less unsettling, an all-too-tameable, disci- accuses them of bêtise, but rather that the self-
plined – and therefore disciplinary – pet. description (albeit implied) of his own work as
Wolfe may explicitly deny the possibility of “posthumanist posthumanism” functions to
the posthuman’s full and final arrival, but the rhetorically distance himself from those whose
language that he employs in response to “The work is judged wanting because it employs an
Posthumanism to Come” consistently stresses outmoded humanist methodology. This hyper-
stabilization, identity, and self-knowledge. bolic language thus seeks to inoculate itself
Consider his claim that “perfectionism and against the contagion of bêtise to which none
one-upmanship are not just irrelevant to my of us are immune.
argument, in other words; they are actively As Derrida remarks, the mimeticism of
impossiblized by it.”7 How can one not be bêtise is aggravated both by its equivocality in
struck by this recasting of “impossible” into a French and its resistance to English translation.
verb that is clearly designed to enforce perma- When one accuses someone of bêtise, one can
nence and stability, to foreclose the possibility never be entirely certain what one is saying. Is
that one’s language might say something other it stupidity, error, lack of judgment? Does it
than what one intends? Does not the assertion imply that the other is dumb as a beast? Is it
of an active, wilful impossibilization betray pre- an essential character trait or a circumstantial
cisely a penchant for one-upmanship, as if to and contingent phenomenon? Indeed, bêtise
imply an immunity to criticism thanks to can imply “an accident of what one does. I did
which one has always already outflanked the a bêtise, I did something stupid, does not
other? Responding to the suggestion that his cri- mean that I am bête but on the contrary: just
ticisms of other theorists for failing to transcend when I am supposed not to be bête, I let
humanism correspond to what Derrida calls the myself go, I surprised myself by doing a
“mimeticism of bêtise,” Wolfe asserts that such bêtise” (149). While bêtise often belongs to
a reading of his work is “actively and, as it were, the sphere of accusation, moreover, it can also
permanently undercut by the theoretical com- apply to unwanted or negative events for
mitments that frame the book” (192). Once which no agent can be held accountable: “If it

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a response to cary wolfe

is bête that I cannot finish preparing my lecture we no longer know whose bêtise we are talking
because my computer broke down, it is bête about. If Wolfe thinks that my intent was to
although no bête is responsible for it, nor bite, in other words, then he is barking up the
anyone’s bêtise” (140). Depending on the wrong tree.
context, bête and bêtise can imply an accounta- To claim that no posthumanist project can
ble agent or an unaccountable happening or ever be worthy of the name that it gives to
event; in addition, these terms can equally itself is not to argue for a better or more appro-
suggest either an inherent trait or an accident priate title. Although I suggested that the post-
of circumstance according to which a person human is also the antehuman, this latter
who we do not judge to be “truly” bête neverthe- formulation is admittedly not very “sexy.” No
less acts bêtement. That both bête and bêtise one would champion a movement called antehu-
oscillate between describing persons and manism because it lacks the promise of novelty
events, as well as between designating essential and futurity, if not the jubilatory pleasure, that
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character traits and inadvertent, aberrative posthumanism affords.8 In any case, to substi-
conduct, underscores that these terms both tute one category for another does nothing to
assert and deny accountability. What is the displace the impulse to categorization itself.
origin and source of bêtise? To whom does That bêtise implies accusation, Derrida notes,
bêtise belong? Is bêtise precisely the sign of an means that it is “a way of categorizing the
impropriety that is not the property of any other” (1: 150). He goes on to remind us that
one, a property that is both communal and the Greek kategoria can imply accusation or
communicable? blame, a connotation that is never entirely
Derrida devotes two entire lectures to these separable from its more apparently neutral epis-
terms in The Beast and the Sovereign and I temological function of making known or know-
cannot fully reconstruct this complex analysis able. Radicalizing further, Derrida suggests that
here, but the crucial point that I wish to stress bêtise not only implies categorization and poss-
is the intersubjectivity of bêtise. To compre- ible accusation but also that categorization is
hend bêtise in terms of contagion means that exemplary of bêtise: “I would say that defi-
it cannot be understood outside the “phenom- nition, where it stops in the ‘S is P,’ in the defi-
ena of ‘being-with’ […] There have to be nite article le or la, is always bêise, the very
several of you at it […] One is never bête on definition of bêtise. Bêtise is defining as much
one’s own, that’s how it is, even if this excuses as defined […] The category is a signature of
or exonerates nobody” (1: 158). Wolfe can bêtise” (161). Ironically, definition is the defi-
come to the conclusion that my reading is an nition of bêtise. Definition defines bêtise as the
“ungenerous” and “irresponsible” characteriz- closure of meaning.
ation of his treatment of those theorists with What is Posthumanism? takes as its point of
whom he disagrees only by denying the departure the utterly diverse and often irrecon-
“being-with” of bêtise, that is, only by reducing cilable definitions according to which the term
it to the other’s error, lack of judgment, or stu- posthumanism has been employed by thinkers
pidity (Wolfe 192; Derrida 158). This reduction and theorists from a broad array of intellectual
is confirmed when he suggests that my reading traditions. Wolfe thus views this “confusion”
is “all bark and no bite,” thus conjuring the as an “opportunity” to define posthumanism
image of an animal whose actual potential for in more precise terms, to arrest its semantic
injury is unequal to its threats (Wolfe 193). promiscuity (xi). This reclamation of posthu-
Yet this metaphor presumes an aggressive, manism inspires the distinction that he makes
oppositional structure that denies the mise en between “posthuman” and “posthumanist”
abyme of bêtise. The allegation of bêtise can theory. Whereas the former is associated with
no longer bite, or at least its teeth are pro- thinkers such as Katherine Hayles, who
foundly dulled, once the boundary between (Wolfe alleges) envisions a transcendence of
accuser and accused is no longer assured, once human embodiment, the latter stresses a

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peterson

materiality and corporeality that humanism has we mean” when we say someone or something is
historically disavowed. I wholly agree that bête affirms a linguistic equivocality that
humanism’s disavowal of animality betrays an extends well beyond idiomatic French. That
attendant disavowal of materiality. Yet how the “posthuman” has been employed in funda-
can the distance that one takes from this dis- mentally incompatible and irreconcilable ways
avowal be meaningfully inscribed as posthuma- underscores that its horizon of signification is
nist rather than posthuman? Except as a no more limited than that of bêtise. This
consequence of their arbitrary nomination, broad scope of meanings that have attached to
how does “posthumanist” semantically imply the posthuman demonstrates that we can never
embodiment whereas “posthuman” infers dis- be entirely confident that we know what we
embodiment? The fragility of such semantics, are saying with this word. Given that humanism
together with the assertion that Derrida’s and largely presumes that language means what it
Luhmann’s work (and, by extension, Wolfe’s) says, that the gap between signifier and signified
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marks a “decisive turn of a thinking that is gen- can be closed, perhaps the only posthumanist
uinely posthumanist” (as opposed to an gesture (somewhat) worthy of
inauthentic or “false” posthuman(ist) theory?), the name is one that affirms its
makes it difficult not to read him as arresting own impotence in the face of
signification precisely with the “S is P,” as the predicative injunction – one
settling on what posthumanism finally is (xix). that “knows” that it cannot
Regrettably, I do not possess the same degree finally know itself.
of ontological certainty, and thus I cannot claim
that my reading of Wolfe is invulnerable to
bêtise. Indeed, I cannot take shelter in the
notes
impossibilized possibility that I might be hope- 1 Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapo-
lessly, impossibly wrong. To be “impossibly lis: U of Minnesota P, 2010) 121.
wrong” means to be terribly, incredibly mista- 2 Christopher Peterson, “The Posthumanism to
ken – so wrong that one’s wrongness cannot Come,” Angelaki 16.2 (2011) 138.
possibly be right. The impossibly wrong is the
wrong that both admits its error and impossibi- 3 Jacques Derrida, “Letter to a Japanese Friend,”
trans. David Wood and Andrew Benjamin, in A
lizes itself against it. The impossibly wrong
Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. Peggy
either does not wholly believe that it is wrong
Kamuf (New York: Columbia UP, 1991) 275.
or is not finally as wrong as one believes. As
Derrida asks, who 4 Jacques Derrida, “Some Statements and Truisms
about Neologisms, Newisms, Postisms, Parasit-
does not feel a little confusedly unjust, isms, and Other Small Seismisms” in The States of
unjustly wounding, when accusing someone “Theory”: History, Art, and Critical Discourse, ed.
of bêtise? Who does not feel that we are David Carroll (New York: Columbia UP, 1990)
ignoring or denying, through this aggression, 68, 73.
however bête the person appears to be or we
5 Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am,
want to say he or she is, the person is not that
trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham UP, 2008);
bête, at bottom, not so bête through and
idem, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. 1, trans.
through, and that at bottom we are never
Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: U of Chicago P,
sure of knowing what we mean, that we are
2009); idem, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. 2,
in the dark when we claim that the other is
trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: U of
bête? (1: 166)
Chicago P, 2011).
When we claim that the other is bête, we necess- 6 In Rogues, for instance, Derrida rejects the
arily invoke a predicative formulation that seeks notion that either a political or ethical “turn” can
to define bêtise as much as it seeks to define the be identified in his work beginning in the
other. That “we are never sure of knowing what 1980s. See Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans.

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a response to cary wolfe

Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford:


Stanford UP, 2005) 39.
7 Cary Wolfe, “Response to Christopher Peter-
son, ‘The Posthumanism to Come,’” Angelaki 16.2
(2011) 191.
8 For an analysis of the privileging of novelty in
academic scholarship, see Chris Fleming and John
O’Carroll, “Revolution, Rupture, Rhetoric,” Philos-
ophy and Social Criticism 38.1 (2012): 39–57. They
argue that novelty has ironically become an ortho-
doxy that encourages hyperbolic assertions of
scholarly innovation.
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Christopher Peterson
School of Humanities
and Communication Arts
University of Western Sydney
Locked Bag 1797
Penrith, NSW 2751
Australia
E-mail: c.peterson@uws.edu.au