In the September issue of the Brooklyn Rail, philosopher Catherine Malabou asks how can Derrida’s deconstruction can be renewed today. In her effort to formulate an answer, she suggests that Derrida—along with his forerunners and contemporaries like Heidegger and Foucault—were too dismissive of biology as a scientific discipline. Read an excerpt from the piece below or the full text here.
Derrida’s focus on novelty prevents any examination of just how much metaphysics there still is in the Heideggerian critique’s rejection of the zoological and the biological. It does not do justice to “zoology,” ignoring the discipline’s profound renewal since the 19th century through the contributions of phylogeny, biochemistry, population genetics, animal physiology, ethology, and ecology. It fails to explain how these other disciplines have in large part destabilized traditional notions of animals, of the relation between man and animal, of the relation between man and non-animal life, and so on.
The way in which Derrida likens biology to a programming endeavor actually prevents him from discerning its deconstructive potential. The current epigenetic revolution thus escapes him. Epigenetics is the science that studies the mechanisms that transcribe the genetic code for each individual, each phenotype. Transcription proceeds along internal, programmed chemical mechanisms but depends also on environmental factors, such as milieu, habit, experience, and education. Which means that the symbolic—a term that in this context I prefer to culture—is already at work at the heart of biology. That the entanglement of the organic and of meaning could itself be one of life’s structures, that the symbolic conceals itself from ontology by taking on life—now, this is an idea that could allow deconstruction to advance its own political project: on the one hand, the critique of anthropocentric sovereignty; on the other, respect for the animal cause.
Image of Catherine Malabou via Brooklyn Rail.