Cats and dogs smithsonian

Jean-Baptiste Huet, Heads of Cats and Dogs (c. 1775) | Smithsonian open access

In the (mildly) infamous opening pages of The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008), a text that has become central to animal studies, Derrida stands naked in front of his cat. This is not the figure of a cat, he says, nor an allegory of a cat—“believe me,” he implores the reader looking for a trap—but a real cat. This encounter with a real, actual cat provides the jumping-off point for an investigation of the question of “the animal” in political theory: how the animal in the singular has functioned as the simultaneous outside of the human and its substrate and how it has substituted for the plurality and open-endedness of animal being. This question links human and nonhuman life; for Derrida and some of his readers, it means linking a critique of factory farming of animals to the animalized aspects of humans.

In The Beast and the Sovereign (2009), Derrida does not present any additional personal encounters with individual animals, but references to actual, real animals do abound. Derrida, to our knowledge, has not encountered these actual animals in person, in his bedroom or in the wild, but rather via other textual sources. To a certain extent, their solely textual presence probably blunts their impact. As Haraway suggests, if touch modifies accountability (or at least the gaze of a little kitty cat modifies philosophers), then these textual references to actual animals do not hold the same transformative power. But in addition to Derrida’s broader tracing of sovereignty-animal relationships, the passages where “actual animals” emerge (mostly in the first, third, and fourth seminars) nonetheless provide a kind of spur to Derrida’s thinking in some ways similar to his thoughts about his actual little cat and raise some interesting questions about how real animals—like those on Isle Royale—relate to thinking about sovereignty.

Derrida opens the first seminar with some introductory remarks on the steps of a wolf as a linguistic figure: stealthy, discreet, silent, and present even before we have seen the wolf itself. In the fables surrounding political life, where wolves figure prominently, Derrida means to draw attention to the ways that sovereign power, too, operates in a wolflike fashion. It is never quite seen directly (nor can it be) and is somewhat “ungraspable” (2009, 7), yet it is precisely this ungraspable aspect of sovereignty that gives it power. Wolves, like the sovereign, are outside the law, yet as figures they also constitute the meaning of sovereignty.

In the midst of these ruminations about metaphorical wolf steps, actual wolves make their appearance. “Without asking permission,” Derrida writes, “real wolves cross humankind’s national and institutional frontiers, and his sovereign nation-states; wolves out in nature as we say, real wolves, are the same on this side or the other side of the Pyrenees or the Alps, but the figures of the wolf belong to cultures, nations, languages, myths, fables, fantasies, histories” (4–5). Yet wolves are, of course, not the same on either side of the mountain, nor on either side of the border. Wolves vary culturally across packs, across geographic regions, by individual temperament, and by social context, including interspecies context. As the failed effort by Smits to introduce captive wolves to Isle Royale suggests, wolves are enculturated as much as they are instinctual and are products of nurture as much as nature. Whatever the variation in cultural representations of wolves, it seems to be matched by the variation of wolves themselves.

Derrida’s explicit commitment in these seminars is in fact to trouble that very binary between nature and culture. Albeit only very carefully, he aims to show “the fragility and porosity of this limit between nature and culture,” but he warns us “no more to rely on commonly accredited oppositional limits between what is called nature and culture, nature/law, physis/nomos, God, man, and animal … than to muddle everything and rush, by analogism, towards resemblances and identities” (15–16). But if we are to move somewhere in between these strict, binary oppositions and perfect analogical resemblance in the case of other animal societies, what are we to make of these “natural wolves,” wolves with sophisticated social structures, sensory abilities, playful sensibilities, and complicated forms of communication? We cannot simply assume that real wolves, the wolves in nature, make no meanings for themselves or that they are outside political and historical being entirely. Derrida, later in the fourth seminar, suggests as much, stating, “The most positive science today … shows that some animals (not that hypostatic fiction labeled The Animal, of course … ) have a history and techniques, and thus a culture in the most rigorous sense of the term, i.e., precisely, the transmission and accumulation of knowledge and acquired capacities. And where there is transgenerational transmission, there is law, and therefore crime and peccability” (106). So perhaps, if stated carefully enough, wolves have something of what we usually reserve for human politics.

Derrida approaches a space where we might start to think about political life as something that might include multiple species, at least if we think about the “political” in a somewhat different way. But generally he does not cross the species threshold when it comes to pluralizing the animals that count as political. Animal societies, he says, have “complicated organizations, with hierarchical structures, attributes of authority and power, phenomena of symbolic credit, so many things that are so often attributed to and naively reserved for so-called human culture, in opposition to nature” (14–15). On the following page, in an astonishing passage, he extends this account:

[T]here are animal societies, animal organizations that are refined and complicated in the organization of family relations and social relations in general, in the distribution of work and wealth, in architecture, in the inheritance of things required, of goods or non-innate abilities, in the conduct of war and peace, in the hierarchy of powers, in the institutions of an absolute chief (by consensus or force, if one can distinguish them), of an absolute chief who has the right of life and death over others, with the possibility of revolts, reconciliations, pardons granted, etc. (16)

Yet having unleashed this long account of animal societies, Derrida says, then, “It will not suffice to take into account these scarcely contestable facts to conclude from that there is politics and especially sovereignty in communities of nonhuman living beings” (16). Why? 

His answer is twofold. First, we cannot make such attributions by reading cleanly from the human version of those terms onto animal societies, a point that cannot be overemphasized given the troubled history of ideas that circulate from humans to animal societies and back again. Because “sovereignty,” as humans understand it, is already bound up with animals in the paradoxical formulation mentioned earlier—that the sovereign is both above the animal and figured as animal—we cannot seamlessly transfer the idea of sovereignty to other animal communities on these terms. Because the sovereign and beast, and even criminal, have in common a “being outside the law” in ways that are mutually supporting, we cannot even think about animals as sovereign or political. It is literally inconceivable, or self-exploding. If sovereignty is something that will apply to, say, wolves or other nonhuman animal communities, then it will have to be thought anew and on different terms. Nor should we make the opposite mistake of trying to fully “animalize” politics and sovereignty by saying that the exercise of sovereignty is purely a “disguised manifestation of animal force” (14). For Derrida such a move would essentially commit the opposite mistake by subsuming or reducing important aspects of political life, such as language and abstractions like justice, to animality, understood in terms of drives to dominate or beastly urges to kill and conquer. Without thinking about animality in new terms, we cannot counter anthropocentrism only by insisting that humans are animals too.

While largely agreeing with this first answer, Derrida’s second answer is more problematic. He suggests that sovereignty is special because it follows a logic of exception: the sovereign can suspend the law and is therefore above it or outside it. Because, presumably, nonhuman animal communities cannot, or do not, operate under such a Schmittian logic of exception, they do not have this “minimal feature” of sovereignty (16). In other words, there is a baseline requirement for sovereignty based on a logic of exception and law, and thus the political can only come into formation through human faculties.

In sum, because sovereignty (like law) is, on one hand, so tied to animality in the way it is figured and yet, on the other hand, limited to the analogy between “the state institutions of animal societies and human state institutions,” Derrida seems to conclude that it is impossible for us to conceive of animal societies having politics at all. How can such societies be political, and how can they constitute sovereignty, without recourse to the vocabulary and imagery of “the animal”? 

But in insisting that the depth and complexity of animal societies cannot have sovereignty or qualify as evidence of political being, it seems that Derrida falls prey to the very linguistic exceptionalism that he so carefully dismantles elsewhere. Because it takes language to stipulate language as the key difference defining humans, because it takes politics (using language) to identify political animals, and because human sovereignty bootstraps itself into existence through the logic of exception whereby animal life is constitutively excluded, Derrida seems to be suggesting that the only way for a species to be political, or to have sovereignty, is if it possesses the linguistic capacities reserved for the human—in other words, response not reaction. At least with respect to the political, then, the lack of abstract language in animal societies appears here as precisely a kind of privation—an inability to be political in a true sense of the word by not exhibiting a minimal feature of sovereignty.

If there were to be found a kind of parallel in wolf society where “the human,” or, say, the “nonwolf,” is a recognizable part of the semiotic system, Derrida’s minimal threshold for sovereignty might be met. Although wolves in the wild do distinguish friend and enemy (and use other, more liminal social statuses as well) and thereby do demarcate a collective inside and outside, they do not appear to use a logic of exception to law to constitute sovereignty. Yet holding animal politics to Derrida’s standard continues a conflation between human politics and politics in general. It starts with the assumption that human sovereignty stands in for all possible sovereignty formations and, when it comes to nonhuman animal sovereignties, it ends there as well.

This chapter shows both a perennial and an evolutionary face of state sovereignty. On one hand, it shows the ways that state sovereignty has always been an interspecies formation, with wolf life presumed to be under its authority and material appropriation and the symbolic elements of wolf life used in constituting sovereignty itself. At the same time, the chapter shows the ways that interspecies sovereignty formations on Isle Royale have evolved and changed over time. This points to the important likelihood of future change in these formations. The inescapability of state sovereignty from ecological embeddedness cuts against prevailing ideas about the ontological autonomy of political discourse and ideas. It is important, then, in analyzing state sovereignty, to seek to understand its ecological being, both materially and symbolically. This is particularly so given the urgency of the current ecological crisis, but it is no less so for understanding previous periods of historical change.

But if states are in fact state practices and state practices are interspecies practices, there is a further implication, one that has to do with affecting a change in our understanding of ecologically embedded sovereignty that explicitly foregrounds sovereign practices of nonhuman life. If it is applied as a straightforward parallel to Westphalian sovereignty, this comes with major pitfalls, as this chapter examines. But if sovereignty itself is taken as an interspecies formation, then perhaps we can think more explicitly about what such formations do look like under conditions of ecological crisis (the Ecocene) and what they could look like in the future.

What sovereignty can provide, rather than a solution to the oft-twinned ethical question and scientific problem of “should we intervene,” is a way of thinking about interspecies relations in a more permeable, political way. The biggest challenge posed by the question of wild animal sovereignties is to the operation of human sovereignty, which itself is figured through animality and in some cases through animals. In a sense, the question ought not to be whether wolves are sovereign, or should have sovereignty, but how animal sovereignty might be thought of as a generative fabric that structures ecological pluralism, including a rejection of or nonparticipation in that very idea. By paying greater heed to specific animal communities as collective subjects of political engagement with which we constitute a shared existence, we might begin to negotiate the terms of collective existence more explicitly. The idea that nature itself has a stable balance has been a staple of scientific ecological thought, but it has perhaps an even longer life in public conceptions of nature. What the Isle Royale experiments have begun to show is that there may be no such quality to nature at all—the populations of wolves and moose do not reach a stable equilibrium. More broadly, scientists have reported that trophic cascades, with keystone species, have also become harder to establish. Without these ideas, which have been key to conservation policy and wildlife protection, there is a deeply uneasy, if certainly unintended, synergy between the forces aiming to exploit natural lands for profit and conservation science and policy. As a recent article on Isle Royale notes, “It’s difficult for agencies to make management decisions without a sense of the way things will unfold, and one of the main lessons from Isle Royale is that the future is unpredictable.” If we do not know what interventions or lack of them will result in a maximizing benefit for other life, then one interpretation is that this seems like a license to do anything in that space.

But this interpretation is mistaken. The breakdown of scientific certainty over the dynamics of nature on Isle Royale and beyond is in fact a very particular kind of knowledge, not an absence of it. This knowledge has two faces. One face is the inability to fully comprehend and then intervene in and control wolf life; the other is simultaneously accumulating great knowledge about the complex ways in which wolves live, die, relate, eat, socialize, and territorialize. Together these two faces are a revelation of the sovereign formations of wolf life on Isle Royale and of the shortcomings of sovereign visions of nature that have been key to the territorial Westphalian state in exploitative resource extraction and increasingly invasive interventions for conservation.

The great insight of IR [International Relations] regarding sovereign forms of political community has been that sovereignty is relational and there are modes of political life that exist specifically in this relational space. Rather than looking to the founding moments of sovereignty over or by its citizens through social contract theory, IR has long explored the ways that sovereignty is made through social and material processes between polities, whether the explicit forms of reciprocal recognition among states to determine membership, the changing cultures of state relations in international society, or the more tacitly social mechanisms of balance of power politics backed with violent force.

What Isle Royale highlights is that sovereignty is more than intrahuman and intrawolf, although this chapter suggests that it is those things too. It is also interspecific, and just as relational, with the potential for violence, recognition, and forms of collective security between communities. The sovereignty of wolf communities on Isle Royale is, in short, no more absolute than American sovereignty, either among wolf communities or in relation to American sovereignty. But neither is it less absolute, even when the power dynamics in these interspecies encounters are highly uneven. Once these sovereign wolves (and other political creatures) start to move through human political thought, as the earlier figure of “the wolf” once did in the political bestiaries Derrida illuminates, and once the (human) sovereign is a wolf that is no longer outside law but part of its own ethics, society, and law, we might begin to conceive of international relations between autonomous communities already admixed in the act of creating political lives.

Excerpted from Interspecies Politics: Nature, Borders, States by Rafi Youatt (2020). Reprinted with permission of the University of Michigan Press.