Ethical Community as More than Human: Food Animals and Aporetic Decision

Jessica Carey


Jacques Derrida made many provocative suggestions about our relationships with other animals in the few years before he passed away in 2004. A question that he did not pursue very far is one that I would want to ask him forever: What is your final position on vegetarianism? One of Derrida’s enduring legacies is his assertion of the ethical imperative that we explore “eating well” or “determining the best, most respectful, most grateful and also most giving way of relating to the other and of relating the other to the self” (1995: 281-82). The urgent context of this imperative is the factory farm, which as Derrida argued, is the site of an unprecedented assertion of human biopower over other animals, and which buttresses a particularly imperious form of human subjectivity in theprocess.1 However, to the disappointment of theorists from David Wood to Paola Cavalieri, Derrida refrained from endorsing vegetarianism as a means of eating well. His reticence is no doubt due to his wariness of ethical programs which as Cary Wolfe has argued “reduce[] ethics to the very antithesis of ethics by reducing the aporia of judgment in which the possibility of justice resides to the mechanical unfolding of a positivist calculation” (2003: 69). While it is crucial to keep such reductions in mind, I posit that Derrida was overhasty in his rejection of vegetarianism. I take as my central provocationMatthew Calarco’s conclusion that Derrida’s reticence to embrace vegetarianism is not what matters most. As he puts it,Derrida is not our pastor or physician, he should not serve as our guide to eatingwell. If Derrida is hesitant to openly declare that, for those who live incontemporary western, urban societies, vegetarianism is generally a morerespectful way of relating to animals than meat eating is, then we should proceedwithout him. (2004: 197). Instead, Calarco argues for continuing Derrida’s work in the mode of countersignature—following Derrida according to the spirit of his work and not its letter, which often implies a certain not-following. In Calarco’s words, to approach Derrida’s work in countersignaure is “to think through the disjunction of deconstruction and vegetarianism in order to bring deconstructive thinking to bear on the undisclosed anthropocentric and carnophallogocentric limits of the dominant discourses in animal ethics and vegetarianism” (ibid.).2 In other words, if vegetarianism seems too ethically reductive sometimes, there is no need to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, as Derrida perhaps did in this particular instance. I say this is with all due respect of the fact that he so rarely did throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, maybe we can think vegetarianism otherwise, in ways that would hold more water—with Derrida, with ourselves and with other people who aim to be as thoughtful as possible about ethics.

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