Reading Derrida Reading Life (Reading Life) from La vie la mort to the Geschlecht Series

Armando Mastrogiovanni
Baruch college, city university of new york

Volume 14, 2016

Geschlecht and Life

I will leave this word in its own language for reasons that should impose themselves on us in the course of the reading. And it is certainly a matter of “Geschlecht” (the word for sex, race, family, generation, lineage, species, genre), and not of Geschlecht as such: one will not so easily clear away the mark of the word (“Geschlecht”) that blocks our access to the thing itself (the Geschlecht)…

(“Geschlecht I: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference,” 7)

It will again be a matter, even more explicitly this time, of a thinking of “Geschlecht” or of Geschlecht. (I put it in quotation marks because it is as much about the name as what it names, and it is here just as imprudent to separate them as to translate them). As we shall see, what is at stake is the inscription of Geschlecht and of the Geschlecht as inscription, stroke, imprint.

(“Geschlecht I: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference,” 25)

We are going to speak of the word Geschlecht. I am not going to translate it for the moment. Probably I will not translate it at any point. But according to the contexts that come to determine this word, it can be translated by “sex,” “race,” “species,” “genus,” “gender,” “stock,” “family,” “generation” or “genealogy,” or “community.”

(“Heidegger’s Hand [Geschlecht II],” 28)

Geschlecht: Sex, race, nation, class, species, family, lineage, branch, generation, stock, genre, type. In Geschlecht III, Jacques Derrida confesses that this word “magnetizes” him.[1] Part of what draws him to “Geschlecht” is the fact that although its possible translations exhibit a common theme, a certain unmistakable “family resemblance,” they nevertheless refuse to be reduced to a single word. No one term stands above the rest with the sort of primacy that would neutralize their multiplicity and make it the unitary concept that grounds the whole series. Not even the word “Geschlecht,” which has a way of repeating within its own definition, can unify the sequence of its synonyms. It is, rather, only another item in the list. For Derrida, what is at stake is therefore “the inscription of Geschlecht and of the Geschlecht as inscription.” Even in the original German, the mark of the word resists translation—which is of course the very thing that calls for translation in the first place: “one will not so easily clear away the mark of the word (“Geschlecht”) that blocks our access to the thing itself (the Geschlecht).”

If we trust the referentiality of language, then the word or inscription “Geschlecht” should point us back to what Derrida calls “the Geschlecht,” that is, Geschlecht the thing. But the thing turns out to be an inscription. Indeed, Derrida repeatedly corrects his description of Geschlecht as a “word,” calling it instead a “mark,” precisely thanks to this incessant replication of the inscription (or mark) within the thing:

I have just said “the word ‘Geschlecht’”: that is because I am not sure it has a determinable and unifiable referent. I am not sure that one can speak of Geschlecht beyond the word “Geschlecht”—which is then necessarily cited, between quotation marks, mentioned rather than used. And I leave the word in German. As I have already said, no word, no word for word will suffice to translate this word that gathers, in its idiomatic meaning, stock, race, family, species, genus, generation, sex. And then, after saying the word “Geschlecht,” I amended or corrected myself: the “mark ‘Geschlecht,’” I clarified. For the theme of my analysis would come down to a sort of composition or decomposition that affects, precisely, the unity of this word. Perhaps it is no longer a word. Perhaps one must begin by gaining access to it from its disarticulation or its decomposition, in other words, its formation, its information, its deformations or transformations, its translations, the genealogy of its body unified on the basis of or according to the split [partage] of pieces of words. We are going then to concern ourselves with the Geschlecht of Geschlecht, with its genealogy or its generation. But this genealogical composition of “Geschlecht” will be inseparable, in the text of Heidegger we should be looking at now, from the decomposition of the human Geschlecht, from the decomposition of man.

(“Heidegger’s Hand [Geschlecht II],” 51)

Geschlecht” is not a word. Instead, it is the effect of a “decomposition” which at the same time “composes” its very “body,” both “forming” and “informing” it. That Derrida mobilizes here a language of life—one borrowed from the discourse of modern biology, which determines life and its history in terms of information—is surely not, as he would say, fortuitous. At work here is a link between Geschlecht and life, and this paper will examine the logic of their connection in Derrida’s thinking.

The recalcitrant insistence of the mark can be witnessed in the variations that invariably mark the translations of “Geschlecht.” Take, for example, Martin Heidegger’s effort in his reading of Georg Trakl to translate the word “Geschlecht” into its referent, and the commentary Derrida embeds within it in square brackets:

For one thing, it names the historical generation of man, mankind [das Geschlechtliche des Menschen, die Menschheit] as distinct from all living beings (plants and animals) [im Unterschied zum übrigen Lebendingen (Pflanze und Tier)]. Next, the word “generation” [“Geschlecht”] names the races [Geschlechter, in the plural: the word Geschlecht names the Geschlechter!], tribes, clans, and families of mankind [Stämme, Sippen, Familien dieses Menschengeschlechtes]. At the same time, the word [Geschlecht] always refers…to the twofoldness of the sexes.

(“Heidegger’s Hand [Geschlecht II], 54-55)

Worthy of an exclamation point, for Derrida, is the fact that the word “Geschlecht” names a plurality of Geschlechter. The procedure which ought to supply the referent, in other words substitutes the thing for the word, not only repeats the word but even multiplies it. The same effect can be witnessed in Derrida’s own lists of Geschlechter, to which he returns with an almost obsessive repetitiveness throughout the series, as well as his own use of quotation marks—which are “marks” in both their name and their function as non-semantic (graphic) elements of language: writing. To mark the difference, as it were, between word and thing, both in the case of “Geschlecht” and that of its translations, Derrida elaborates an indefinitely extendable series of substitutes (“‘sex,’ ‘race,’ ‘species,’ ‘genus,’ ‘gender,’ ‘stock,’ ‘family,’ ‘generation’ or ‘genealogy,’ or ‘community’”), and marks the mark—re-marks, as Derrida describes it elsewhere. And he does so precisely in order to demonstrate that the thing indicated by the first mark inevitably turns out itself to be a mark.[2]

The above passage exhibits a conjuncture between the irreducibility of the mark when it comes to Geschlecht (in other words, the irreducibility of “Geschlecht”), and the very thing which all the Geschlechter seem to share in their family resemblance: a common affinity with life. If we read the series Geschlechter simply as lists of words outside their mobilizing context (here, Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s reading of Trakl), almost all of them are concerned with life, especially with life conceived in terms of descent, inheritance, reproduction, and birth.[3] If we put the Geschlechter back inside their discursive context—say, Heidegger’s translation of Trakl’s use of “Geschlecht”—it becomes undeniable that the connection to life is both operative and high-stakes. The first “Geschlecht” Heidegger names is that which marks the difference between the human and all other forms of life. The second names the divisions of “Geschlecht” which internally divide that first “Geschlecht” of the human species, in other words das Menschengeschlecht of mankind itself, into a multitude of tribes, races, and families. The final referent of “Geschlecht” is sexual difference, the “twofoldness of the sexes,” a mark of division that necessarily traverses every division between family and clan, since it is precisely by means of sex that each of the latter reproduces itself, transmits its line down to itself from generation to generation and thus maintains itself as its own proper Geschlecht.

Embedded within the irreducible insistence of the mark within Heidegger’s attempt to translate “Geschlecht,” we find the silent insistence of another mark, another inscription—life. Though it remains unnamed in the passage itself, a thinking of natural or biological life in terms of reproduction (that which reproduces itself) is the common element which all the uses of “Geschlecht” the passage enumerates share in common, and which the multiplying effect of that enumeration can even be said figuratively to perform at the level of the word. But life is a problem for Heidegger. The fact that Geschlecht as the “twofoldness of the sexes” not only propagates across the intra-human Geschlechter but constitutes their condition of possibility suggests a question whose style is familiar to readers of Derrida, and which sheds some light, I think, on the specific strategy that determines Derrida’s selection of the word “Geschlecht” as a deconstructive lever in his reading of Heidegger. It also indicates how life is at stake in that reading. We might ask Heidegger whether Geschlecht as “the twofoldness of the sexes” is confined to the human Geschlecht, or propagates across its boundary in synonymity with the biological sexual difference by which many species of plant and animal reproduce themselves and thus constitute themselves as species (as Geschlechter). What is at stake for Heidegger in the possibility of translation, via the word “Geschlecht,” between the biological reproduction of nonhuman life and “the twofoldness” of the human sexes is the interaction between the life of the human Geschlecht (Man or Dasein), and the defining mark of that Geschlecht itself, which, because it is the possibility of a relation to the Being of beings, cannot (for Heidegger) be limited to an ontical determination like that of the biological. What is at stake, in other words, is the abyss of essence that divides the biologically determined mode of being of animals (to say nothing about plants), and the non-biological mode of being of Dasein. If, say, the “twofoldness of the sexes” communicates with animal reproduction across that abyss, or if the irreducible mark of the word “Geschlecht” appears on the nonhuman side—which would amount to the same thing—then the sovereignty of the human access to ontological difference would begin to tremble.

The question about maintaining the possibility of the opposition between human and nonhuman Geschlechter is familiar, of course, because Derrida establishes its logic in texts like Of Spirit (1987), Aporias (1993), The Animal that Therefore I am (published in 2006 but based on the materials written for a conference at Cerisy in 1997), and his final, two-year seminar, The Beast and the Sovereign (2001-03).[4] Such texts can be read along the spine of the Geschlecht series. Some, like Of Spirit and Aporias, seem to issue directly from its movement. Politics of Friendship (1994) also bears the signature of Geschlecht. Indeed, in its Forward, where what is at stake is the very concept of politics, Derrida makes the link between Geschlecht and life explicit:

The concept of politics rarely announces itself without some sort of adherence of the State to the family, without what we will call a schematic of filiation: stock, genus or species, sex (Geschlecht), blood, birth, nature, nation – autochthonal or not, tellurian or not. This is once again the abyssal question of the phúsis, the question of being, the question of what appears in birth, in opening up, in nurturing or growing, in producing by being produced. Is that not life? That is how life is thought to reach recognition.

(Politics of Friendship viii, Politiques de l’amitié 13, emphases in the original.)

Geschlecht and life are nearly identified in these lines. It would appear that the different translations of Geschlecht are a matter of life, and that what is more fundamentally at stake in Derrida’s interest in the word is political, indeed the originary structure that links the political to life. Geschlecht: sex, race, family, generation, lineage, species, genre. Is that not life? Derrida might have produced this passage by taking another list of Geschlechter and expanding it, elaborating between the words a commentary that reveals what keeps drawing him back: life. The words all name a mark (or Geschlecht) of life. They are the signs or better yet the signatures of life, that by which life can be recognized, indeed identified in its difference from the nonliving. (“La vie, n’est-ce pas? C’est ainsi qu’on croit la reconnaître.”) They thus mark as well the “abyssal question” of phúsis and being.

It is unsurprising that The Politics of Friendship would be linked to the Geschlecht series, and indeed belong to its descent and bear its “Geschlecht.” The first in the series, “Geschlecht I: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference,” emerged from Derrida’s 1984-85 seminar, Philosophical Nationality and Nationalism I: The Ghost of the Other,[5] and the Politics of Friendship is concerned precisely with the originary stakes for the political of what, in the above passage, Derrida calls the “schema of filiation.” Indeed, “Heidegger’s Ear (Geschlecht IV)” is included in the French edition as its concluding section. The connection to the human, national, or even national-philosophical Geschlecht is easy enough to indicate. The Politics of Friendship might well be a translation of, say, The Politics of Geschlecht. But the configuration formed between the connection which that imaginary title names and life, insofar as life too is caught up in Geschlecht, is perhaps more obscure. How must the constellation between Geschlecht, life, and the political be read? Its significance is indicated by the shift from “the abyssal question of the phúsis” to the question of being. For Geschlecht (as sexual difference) is analogous to life in the existential analytic of Dasein: both are emphatically (which is to say symptomatically) excluded from it. Indeed, it is this link between Geschlecht and life as constitutively marginalized terms, and the system that couples them together, that makes life (as I will argue) emerge by the end of Geschlecht I as a fundamental stake in the engagement with Heidegger which Derrida pursues through the other essays in the series.

Now to argue that the Geschlechter share a common concern with life is not to say that they all belong to a single lexicon of life, or that they are controlled by a single concept or discourse of life that promises to clear away the insistence of the mark. The problem of “Geschlecht” cannot be resolved by supplementary reference to a language of life. Any attempt to show that the trouble with “Geschlecht” reduces to life—that what we talk about when we talk about “Geschlecht”—in some sense boils down to life, would immediately encounter a repetition of the problem, the insistence of the mark repeating this time in the necessity to translate “life.” One would immediately have to say what “life” means, or at least put some constraints on its sense or function. If “life” sheds light on “Geschlecht,” then in what sense? In what sense of “life?” In what context? What language, discourse, or text?[6]

If it is so easy to say that the loose band of Geschlechter shares in its family resemblance an affiliation, a certain bond with life, a certain concern with living, then this is perhaps because life is a matter of Geschlecht. If the Geschlechter seem so clearly linked to life, it is not only because the patterning of their family resemblance is structured by a prior determination of a specific conception of “life,” which would imply that “Geschlecht” (whether in the context of a philosophical discourse or German) must be thought from the point of view of a “life” whose specific sense we will preliminarily have to draw from a reading of the Geschlechter as they function in Derrida’s texts. What I would like to suggest, instead, is that life must be thought from the vantage of “Geschlecht.” To put it differently: what if “life” and its translations across and within languages and idioms belong in the list of Geschlechter as translations (in a certain sense) of “Geschlecht?” Derrida himself seems to suggest as much in the passage from Politics of Friendship above. What difference does it make to the word or mark “life” when it is thought and read after “Geschlecht,” from the vantage of “Geschlecht” and within the skein of its translations?

Toward the beginning of “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Freud’s description of the “psychical apparatus” as a “writing machine” prompts Derrida to suggest a protocol for reading the metaphor:

We shall not have to ask if a writing apparatus—for example, the one described in the “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad”—is a good metaphor for representing the working of the psyche, but rather what apparatus we must create in order to represent psychical writing; and we shall have to ask what the imitation, projected and liberated in a machine, of something like psychical writing might mean. And not if the psyche is indeed a kind of text, but: what is a text, and what must the psyche be if it can be represented by a text? For if there is neither machine nor text without psychical origin, there is no domain of the psychic without text. Finally, what must be the relationship between psyche, writing, and spacing for such a metaphoric transition to be possible, not only, nor primarily, within theoretical discourse, but within the history of psyche, text, and technology?

(“Scene of Writing” 199, “La scène de l’écriture” 297)

Now since “psyche” is another name for “life,” we might pose a variation of the question: what must “life” be if it is so easily inscribed within the series of Geschlechter, if the word or mark or trace “life,” in its translations within and across languages, is itself (themselves) a matter of “Geschlecht?” And what, in turn, what does the supplementary mark of life—or rather the cross-hatched biosignatures whose grid marks up and comes to overlay the network of the Geschlechter—say in turn about “Geschlecht” and its graphic recalcitrance? The problem of the mark “life” is analogous to the problem of the mark “Geschlecht.” They exhibit the same recalcitrance. Like Geschlecht, the mark “life” blocks our way to life the thing, “the thing called life,” as William Wordsworth put it in a strange, death-driven little poem called “Argument for Suicide” (Wordsworth 810). It jams the movement of reference by routing us to other marks that resist—despite their relative proximity, again like the Geschlechter—the procedure of subsumption that seeks beneath the multiplicity of difference some substrate of commonality to serve as the ground for the determination of their identity. What, then, must be the relation between “Geschlecht” and “life” for this analogy, this figural transition to be possible, first of all within Derrida’s theoretical discourse—which of course evolved from these very reflections on psyche (life), technology, and general textuality in “Freud and the Scene of Writing” to his readings of Heidegger in the Geschlecht series—and, second, within the history “life” and “Geschlecht?

In what follows I will argue that in the Geschlecht series Derrida is after another thinking of life, heeding his own deconstructive imperative from years earlier in “Freud and the Scene of Writing” (1967). One of the consequences of his engagement with Freud—and one response to his opening questions concerning the irreducibility of the writing machine—is precisely a deconstructive rethinking of life:

No doubt life protects itself by repetition, trace, différance (deferral). But we must be wary of this formulation: there is no life present at first which would then come to protect, postpone, or reserve itself in différance. The latter constitutes the essence of life. Or rather: as différance is not an essence, as it is not anything, it is not life, if Being is determined as ousia, presence, essence/existence, substance or subject. Life must be thought of as trace before Being may be determined as presence. This is the only condition on which we can say that life is death, that repetition and the beyond of the pleasure principle are native and congenital to that which they transgress.

(“Scene of Writing” 203, “La scène de l’écriture” 302)

This passage is embedded within a detailed reading of Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology that looks ahead, as the last line suggests, to Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It applies specifically to the paradoxical logic of repetition which Freud’s early, unfinished manuscript suggests. What Derrida’s reading of that logic suggests is that life is constituted by the differential movement of the iterable trace. Before the binary (and indeed metaphysical) opposition between the monoliths life and death, there is a dynamic movement of différance in which what is called life and what is called death are constituted as complex, cross-contaminating traces (of traces) of each other. Of death and life, there are only ever traces. Neither death nor life ever appear as such, either in the flesh or as objects of thought. They are not, for Derrida, concepts in the strict sense—but “phantasms” (The Animal, 22). In the moment quoted above, Derrida formulates this fundamental insight as a call to philosophical action, a deconstructive imperative or rallying cry that announces the task ahead, even a task to come: “Life must be thought of as trace before Being may be determined as presence.”

It seems to me that what Derrida is describing here is another, deconstructive thinking of life. Despite the necessity to meticulously show that within the heart of every figure of pure life, of life itself or life as such, there lurks a death’s head coiled like a worm, there is more to the deconstruction of life than what we might loosely call its critical operation, which demonstrates that life is constitutively entangled with death in order to reveal that life as such is not possible and perhaps does not exist as such. In addition to this radical displacement of life’s metaphysical determination (as pure presence, immediacy of self-relation, interiority, potency, etc.), deconstruction also involves an affirmative re-inscription of life, the development of another, post-metaphysical thinking of life.

The question of life reproduces the problem of “Geschlecht” not only in philosophy but in the modern discourse of biological science. Indeed, here the connection is perhaps most striking. We saw how, although the referentiality of language leads us to expect that the inscription “Geschlecht” will point us to “the Geschlecht,” Geschlecht the thing, that thing reveals itself not only to be another inscription, but a system of inscriptions layered on each other like a crosshatched pattern of marks. Like the word “Geschlecht,” the word “life”—to which, as we have seen, the mark “Geschlecht” seems to be identified—ought to refer us back to the “thing called life.” And what, then, is life? How is “the thing called life” determined by modern empirical scientificity? The thing turns out itself to be a code, a system that codes itself: a system of marks that marks and remarks itself. The word, mark, or inscription “life” thus refers us not to an extra-textual thing in the world, a thing obviously distinct in its essence from human sign systems, but rather to another system of marks. We might say about the word “life” in its modern biological sense exactly what Derrida says about the word “Geschlecht:” that we cannot be sure that “it has a determinable and unifiable referent” ((“Heidegger’s Hand [Geschlecht II],” 51). Is “life” only ever mentioned, rather than used?

The word “life” is thus replaced by a text, a life-text. Rather than leading us to an extra-referential thing ready to assume the role of an object of knowledge for positive science, the word “life” decomposes, disappears into a genetic text which is at once the referent of the word “life” (the thing which “life” names), and the condition of possibility of words and human languages in general—since the so-called natural languages, not to mention writing and texts in their restricted, everyday senses, issue from the history genetic writing. This, at least, is what we find in François Jacob’s The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity, which Derrida examines at length in his newly published 1975-76 seminar, La vie la mort. The sovereign moment in which biology constitutes itself as an authentic science of life is marked by an abandonment of the word “life.” Serious biologists, says the serious biologist, no longer take seriously such airy questions as the “definition” of the word or concept “life:”

Recognition of the unity of physical and chemical processes at the molecular level has deprived vitalism of its raison d’être. In fact, since the appearance of thermodynamics, the operational value of the concept of life has continually dwindled and its power of abstraction declined. Biologists no longer study life today. They no longer attempt to define it. Instead, they investigate the structure of living systems, their functions, and their history.

(The Logic of Life, 299; emphasis added.)

If Jacob’s book recounts the “history of heredity,” then that history ends with the birth of biology. Biology, for Jacob, did not become a mature modern science at all until it refigured “life” as an object of possible knowledge by determining it as a system of information, which transformation of its “episteme” it accomplished by borrowing a certain “model” from cybernetics: the program. The program conforms to the figure of a text:

The model that best describes our knowledge of heredity is indeed that of a chemical message. Not a message written in ideograms like Chinese, but with an alphabet like that of morse code. Just as a sentence represents a segment of text, so a gene corresponds to a segment of nucleic acid. In both cases, an isolated symbol means nothing; only a combination of symbols has any ‘sense’. In both cases, a given sequence, sentence or gene, begins and ends with special ‘punctuation’ marks. The transformation of a nucleic acid sequence into a protein sequence is like the translation of a message received in morse that does not make sense until it is translated, into English, for example. This is done by means of a ‘code’ that provides the equivalence of signs between the two ‘alphabets’.

(The Logic of Life, 275)

The function of deoxyribonucleic acid could now be grasped, and its code read—translated, as it were, into human understanding (which is to say human language). As Francesco Vitale has demonstrated in Biodeconstruction, his recent study of La vie la mort, it is on the basis of this constitution of life as an object of possible knowledge that (for Jacob) biology attempts to shore up its own condition of possibility as science, and thus establish itself as a legitimate science. This is where biology has gained what Jacob calls its “statute.”

Life extends itself in time. And it possesses its own structure of historicity, not only for individual organisms but also for populations, species, and indeed the biosphere as such: evolution by natural selection. For Jacob, life is essentially a structure of heredity. Without genetic inheritance, there would be no evolution and therefore no individual living systems at all, no individual living beings. Heredity proceeds by reproduction: “Living organisms…exist only to the extent they reproduce” (292). Life produces itself as reproduction. The triumph of modern biology—with the discovery of the structure and function of DNA together with the translation of the genetic code it archives—is, in Jacob’s view, to have isolated the mechanism of reproduction and ipso facto the mechanism heredity, the very logic of life. I claimed above that life is a matter of “Geschlecht.” The fact that heredity is a constitutive factor in the structure of life is a rather obvious, not to mention gigantic (as big as life itself) datum which might be adduced in support of it. Jacob’s “history of heredity” is the history of the understanding of the logic of the historicity of life: it is a history of the knowledge of a Geschlecht, of something already historical. And it implicates itself in its object precisely along the fractal division of a Geschlecht.

This paper will first draw up the indications Derrida has given us about what his other, deconstructive thinking of life might be. Then, I will outline why, within those coordinates, life seems to be at stake in Derrida’s reading of Heidegger in the Geschlecht series. But life in what sense? The answer, I will argue is as follows: in the sense given to life when life is thought from Geschlecht. This I will do through a reading Derrida’s engagement with microbiology in La vie la mort. By thus reading Derrida’s reading of genetics back through the Geschlechter, we will see how a thinking life as Geschlecht is one variation, one mode, of what he calls the “another thought of life.”

Another Thought of Life

“Life must be thought of as trace before Being may be determined as presence:” It seems to me that what Derrida is describing here is another, deconstructive thinking of life. Despite the necessity to meticulously show that within the heart of every figure of pure life, of life itself or life as such, there lurks a death’s head coiled like a worm, there is more to the deconstruction of life than what we might loosely call its critical operation, which demonstrates that life is constitutively entangled with death in order to reveal that life as such is not possible and perhaps does not exist as such. In addition to this radical displacement of life’s metaphysical determination (as pure presence, immediacy of self-relation, interiority, potency, etc.), deconstruction also involves an affirmative re-inscription of life, the development of another, post-metaphysical thinking of life.

Toward the end of his career, Derrida begins to insist—and it seems with increasing urgency, as though the survival of his legacy, his thinking, is at stake—that deconstruction has always been about a new thinking of life. Nowhere is it more pronounced than the interview he gave to Le Monde shortly before his death in October, 2004:

No, deconstruction is always on the side of the yes, on the side of the affirmation of life. Everything I say—at least from “Pas” (in Parages) on—about survival as a complication of the opposition life/death proceeds in me from an unconditional affirmation of life. This surviving is life beyond life, life more than life, and my discourse is not a discourse of death, but, on the contrary, the affirmation of a living being who prefers living and thus surviving to death, because survival is not simply that which remains but the most intense life possible.

(Learning to Live Finally, 51-52)

He thus spends some of his last words asserting that what distinguishes his thinking from the whole philosophical tradition that precedes him is a new, post-metaphysical thought of life which he here calls survival or survivance. He further insists that this new thinking issues from within his very living being, autobiographically as it were, as a performative affirmation of life itself. Derrida, then, would appear to be a philosophical partisan of life. Indeed, he almost seems to suggest that he is the only philosopher in the tradition who, at least as a philosopher, thus takes the side of life.

Unsurprisingly, some of Derrida’s most explicit statements about his philosophical invention in the thinking of life occur in The Animal that Therefore I Am (1997), his examination of anthropocentrism in logocentric metaphysics. In it, he identifies a structural feature of logocentric metaphysics in the obligation of the classical philosophical tradition not only to think the self as exclusively human (endowed with the power of the logos and thus able to represent itself to itself[7]), but also to think the logic of symbolic self-relation exclusively in terms of death—as though the rotational movement by which the self constitutively returns to itself always turns on death. The stakes and the force of the investment become clear when one attempts to account, in classical philosophical terms, for the fact that any self worthy of the name is also alive. Ipseity bears the Geschlecht of the living. When one tries to locate the proper place of the living self (or even a living non-self) within the conceptual organization of a given thinker, Heidegger for example, the symptoms begin to multiply. In order to immunize Dasein against the being determined as a rational animal (in which case it would be a compound enigma, life plus logos) he excludes life from its existential structure. But the existential analytic reveals that Dasein is essentially determined as being-toward-death. Dasein is thus essentially mortal yet not essentially alive:

Heidegger’s Dasein…however much it may appear as (possible-impossible) being-toward-death, does not in the first instance declare itself to be a living thing. Paradoxically, it is a mortal, indeed, one who is dying without essentially having anything to do, in its being-there, in its “I-am,” with life. And if Heidegger in Being and Time starts by calling subjectivity into question and by explaining why he must avoid applying the nouns man and life to Dasein, the existential analytic still begins with “I am,” picking up the ontological examination where Descartes left off, yet an “I am” that, for Heidegger as for Descartes, does not first and foremost say “I am living” or “I breathe.” At the heart of all these difficulties, there is always the unthought side of a thinking of life (and it is by means of that, through the question of life and of the “living present,” of the autobiography of the ego in its living present, that my deconstructive reading of Husserl began, as well, in fact, as everything that followed from that. (110-111)[8]

We have here a movement of filiation, a sequence of philosophical interventions. Descartes, says Heidegger, focused on the structure of the cogito but forgot the question of Being buried in the sum. Heidegger, says Derrida, recalls for us the question of Being and radically reinvents the figure of ipseity on its basis, re-inscribing the cogito as Dasein in the existential analytic. But both Heidegger and Descartes, says Derrida, failed (and for systematic reasons) to account for the irreducibility of living within the structure of ipseity. Be it a res cogitans or a being-there, it’s living and breathing from beginning of its little stretch of time to the end. Here Derrida indicates a mark of difference between the classical philosophical tradition, a “discourse of death” whose specular machinery of the “I am” turns on death, and a deconstructive discourse affirmative of life and whose figure of ipseity would perhaps “first and foremost say ‘I am living’” or “I breathe” (Learning to Live Finally 51-52, The Animal 111).

I am living, I breathe. The “I am” vanishes into a repetition, and the punctual unity of its subject is carried away by a process of duplication. It is even stretched out by the words themselves (“I am living,” “I breathe”), which suggest a complex, rhythmic movement in time, if not precisely protention and retention. The specular circle of self-reflection of the “I am” is swallowed up by a (living, breathing) body that first names its own life, declares itself alive, and then, in a second act of self-reference which in fact divides in two again, utters a doubly marked reference to the very mouth that both says “I breathe” and breathes. What sort of a figure of ipseity is this? It is complex and embodied; it clearly has flesh. The specular circle has given way to a mouth which is both pneumatic apparatus and speaking device, an orifice that must open up and expose its insides to the world to perform either function. When it breathes, and breathe it must, it takes in its very life in the form of pneuma from the outside in a constant economy of respiration with the world. When it speaks, saying “I breathe,” it seems retroactively to constitute itself by means of a performative act of self-reference, a performative that functions precisely by hovering undecidably at the edge of constation. For what it utters is in fact a description—“I breathe.” Its fabular act of self-reference merely reports that without the process of breathing which it describes, there would be no description and therefore no performative act of self-constitution. Its logic is something like Francis Ponge’s “Fable,” which fascinated Derrida—“Par le mot par commence donc ce texte / dont la première ligne dit la vérité”except that the overcoding operation serves only to indicate the radical dependency of the code itself on the survival of a sort of archival substrate which is appropriately insubstantial: breath, breathing (Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume I, 8). The self-declarative utterance issues from a body which it names indirectly; what it names (or indeed marks) directly is the very exhalation on which it is imprinted. As the “first” utterance of a figure of a living self, it names as an originary principle what Derrida claims the classical tradition cannot but secondarize: “existence as life, as livingness [vivance]” (The Animal, 110). “Vivance” is another name for life re-inscribed by deconstruction, rethought in view of the trace and constituted by the movement of differance as survivance.

Vivance is always already survivance, which Derrida explicitly compares to Dasein in Learning to Live Finally: “survival is an originary concept that constitutes the very structure of what we call existence, Dasein, if you will. We are structurally survivors, marked by this structure of the trace and of the testament” (51). Perhaps most important of all, then, in Derrida’s fable of living ipseity, is the fact that “living” and “breathing” occupy the position once reserved in the existential theater for the “is” of the “I am”Being. Moreover, the articulation of cognition and Being—which links the soul of the cogito to the Being of the sum, and maintains the passage from Descartes to Heidegger, who has an easier time neutralizing cognition than the “I am”—has been replaced by living and breathing, indeed an iterative life writing: “I am living…I breathe.” Dasein might very well be nothing like the Cartesian soul; it is not first of all (or essentially) a subject, or human, or even alive, but the relation to itself that forms within its relation to the question of being (and Dasein is just that, the questioner) nevertheless produces an “I am,” which, as Derrida puts it here, begins the analytic. When it speaks, it speaks first and foremost in the language of Being: “I am.” By contrast, Derrida’s living ipseity speaks “first and foremost” in a language of life. The wager here is precisely to place life before being.

But is this possible?[9] It’s worth noting that in the passage we have been reading, Derrida conjures the figure of a living ipseity negatively, as that which remains unthought by philosophers of the classical tradition, like Descartes and Heidegger, who think life on the basis of being and are thus obliged to secondarize it as a constitutively marginalized supplement (if not actually to negate it) in conceptualizing the self. And they do so at the price of considerable difficulty. Dasein is a case in point: a being which is not essentially living but is essentially mortal, indeed dying in its very essence without essentially being alive. At the “heart” of all of this trouble, Derrida now says, there is another thinking of life. The “I am living, I breathe” is perhaps emblematic of it:

At the heart of all these difficulties, there is always the unthought side of a thinking of life (and it is by means of that, through the question of life and of the “living present,” of the autobiography of the ego in its living present, that my deconstructive reading of Husserl began, as well, in fact, as everything that followed from that. (The Animal 110-111)

What for Descartes, Heidegger, and the other thinkers he reads The Animal that Therefore I Am, has been a source of considerable trouble and produced a whole matrix of symptoms, has been for Derrida—and from the very beginning—his resource.

Indeed, he alludes to it in Voice and Phenomenon. Phenomenology depends on a notion of life which nevertheless escapes the phenomenological reduction. It is thus unable to account for its own condition of possibility—a philosophy of life which cannot conceive of itself as such in its own terms:

One sees in fact very quickly that the sole kernel of the concept of the psychē is life as self-relation, whether the relation is produced or not in the form of consciousness. “Living” is therefore the name of what precedes the reduction and escapes finally from all the distributions that the reduction brings to light. Life, however, is its own distribution and its own opposition to its other. By determining “living” in this way, we just therefore named the resource of the insecurity of discourse, the point at which precisely it can no longer re-secure its possibility and its rigor in the nuance. This concept of life is then grasped in an agency which is no longer that of pre-transcendental naivete, in the language of everyday life or in the language of biological science. But if this ultra-transcendental concept of life allows us to think life…and if it has never been inscribed in any language, this concept of life perhaps calls for another name.

(13, emphasis in the original.)

That other name is trace, différance, life-death, survivance. I argued above that the question “what is life” either produces a dispersion of figures or the mechanical repetition of blank desertion. Here Derrida seems to have come up with an answer to the life question (though it is not the case, as we will see, that he is in any way advancing a definition of the essence or nature of life). He puts forth self-relation as the minimal, irreducible structure that characterizes the life of the living. Wherever there is life, there is a relation of a self to itself. Self-relation, here, does not presuppose the presence of consciousness or a subject. On the contrary, they presuppose life—which exceeds them just as it exceeds the conceptual limits of phenomenology.

Here, Derrida reverses course and travels back along the path of deconstruction’s development to what, in this autobiographical register, is its beginning. That is, he’s using “deconstruction” autobiographically as the name of his discourse. That beginning is the opening “move” in Derrida’s deconstructive reading of logocentrism: the substitution of the trace for speech, sign, and signifier. At one level, this passage describes the philosophical consequences of this move. To put it really crudely, the trace structure and the movement of différance don’t exclusively “apply” or “refer” to human language or human culture. If language is a system of difference without positive terms, then the movement of difference and the propagation of the iterable trace can’t stop at the frontier of man, but overflow it and propagate outward to affect every region of being. The trace structure divides, complexifies, and makes permeable what once appeared to be the pure opposition between man and animal, life and death. This is because language and life have really just been systems of difference without positive terms all along. Life, like language, marks and re-marks itself, synthesizes traces of itself. It is a system of difference without positive terms. In other words, within Derrida’s discourse, “mark, gramma, trace, and différance” all refer, as marks to the things language and life—or I should say they all participate, as marks, in the reference of the theoretical apparatus to the things language and life. However, this is only because the things called language and life are constitutively systems of reference. Their relays are constituted in their very originarity by the structure of the iterable trace and the movement of différance. The things thus marked by Derrida’s discourse were already marks: marked, re-marked.[10]

When Derrida says that life is constituted by the movement of the trace, he is talking about actual living creatures, and he is thinking about the sciences of life as information: biochemistry and genetics, neuroscience and immunology.[11] If the hetero-affectivity whose differential movement constitutes the auto-affective self is a biological signal system, then a question arises: what is the relation between the auto-affectivity of the living being and reference? Is auto-(hetero-)affection a mode of self-(hetero-)reference? This is the question Derrida poses in The Animal that Therefore I Am, and here we can begin see the Derridean life-text. Later we will see how, on the far side of Geschlecht, Derrida seeks the boundary-line between the human being’s “I think,” and its ostensibly ideal self-symbolization on the one hand, and animal auto-affection. Both will be modes of self-relation, and both will be inscribed within the wider movement of a trace whose marks are the molecular marks of the genetic text.

Life (A Matter of Geschlecht)

It seems almost too easy to identify thematic connections between Geschlecht and biology. Geschlechter can be detected everywhere: in the literal, “sexual” uses of the word, of course, sexual difference and sexual reproduction; but also in the biological understanding of heredity as a function of reproduction, for example at the genetic level, in the passage from gene to character; or at a higher scale, in the “strikes” and “blows” of natural selection that constitute the machinery of speciation through the slow imprinting, as it were, of differential species-types onto populations in order thereby to inform the structure of the historicity of evolution; or, to descend again to the scale of micro-structure, in the molecular marks imprinted by evolution into a genetic code which is then translated into another system of marks, that of the phenotype; or, at another interface between types of inscription, the epigenetic possibility of transmitting acquired characteristics, which marks a second-order level that pertains to the history of the science of life rather than to the history of life itself, since theories of heredity that bear the Lamarckian Geschlecht seem to be in the process of regaining scientific legitimacy. Here we can mark in turn yet another mode of Geschlecht, that of the institutionality of knowledge and all of its archives, together with its codes governing transmission and regulation, including those that mark the difference between fact and right. And here we can detect the mark of the another Geschlecht, the sovereign, and with it all the abyssal questions of its relation, as Geschlecht, to life. This movement along the chain of Geschlechter is enough to show that what is more fundamentally at stake than any theme in the link between Geschlecht and biology is the irreducible insistence of the re-mark, the tendency to multiply its sequences, scales, and dimensions. Life and the knowledge of life, and knowledge in general, constitutively remark the mark. Life constitutes itself by its incessant remarking.

If the word “life” gives way to a thing which it is possible to know scientifically, then we might reasonably expect to find the essence of that thing in its microstructure—in genetics and molecular biology. What one then finds is that this microstructure is itself a system of reference in which chemical patterns and processes serve as markers for each other. This is what we will see confront Jacob in his examination of the interaction between DNA and the macromolecules which it encodes.

It is useful, though, to keep in sight another relation between so-called natural language in which one finds the word “life”—in other words the language philosophy and common sense—and the chemical system of nucleic acids and proteins which it signifies—the insistence of which the professional researcher in the science of life has to handle. For the insistence of mark, at the level of the chemical code, will echo an interference of the other mark, the word or mark life. At stake is an overwriting and a mutual interference, a feedback of inscription, between these two orders of code.

In the decades after Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the certain rather vocal non-use of the word “life” by molecular biologists seems to have become something of a refrain. In 1962, biologist Ernest Kahane published a book whose title—presumably in the spirit of the reduction of biological phenomena to what Jacob calls the molecular “unity of physical and chemical processes”—literally exclaimed, La vie n’existe pas! A somewhat more recent example is a book by coauthored by Nobel laureate P.B. Medawar, Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology. Naturally, a self-declared “philosophical dictionary of biology” is obligated to contain an entry for “Life.” That entry occurs not under “L,” but “D,” and rather than providing a definition of the word “life,” offers a discourse on the unseriousness of the question of the definition of “life.” The entry, “Definition of Life and Other Terms,” first places into question the desire for “definitions” in general:

In certain formal contexts—mathematical logic, for example, in which a definition is a rule for substituting one symbol for one or more others—definitions are crucially important, but in everyday life and in sciences like biology, their importance is highly exaggerated. It is simply not true that no discourse is possible unless all technical terms are precisely defined; if that were so, there would be no biology.

A principle purpose of definition is to bring peace of mind. Sometimes, though, it is too dearly bought: a “definition,” as the word itself connotes, has a quality of finality that is often unjustified and misleading and may have the effect of confining the mind instead of liberating it. (66)

The entry for the “Definition of Life and Other Terms” begins with a reflection on “the uses and abuses of ‘definition’ for life,” as it were. When it comes to an (ostensibly) a priori science like mathematical logic, “definitions are crucially important.” Mathematical formalism would not be possible without rules for the substitution of symbols. Without definitions so defined, the operations and indeed the systematicity of a highly “formal context” like formalism itself would be utterly unthinkable. When it comes to knowledge (supposedly) sheltered from the a posteriori, which is to say from the experience of life, definitions are indispensable, nothing less than a condition of possibility. But when it comes to “everyday life” and “sciences like biology”— the science that studies life, the science whose purpose is to know life—the situation is the reverse. Biology would be impossible if it required mathematically precise definitions.

Definitions have a certain “quality of finality,” that, when we can get our hands on them, give us a certain “peace of mind.” For definition, here, is indirectly according to the function it serves relative to the mind. And mind is another name for life. A definitional palliative might be good for life under certain circumstances, but it is rarely good for science. Medawar thus excludes the particular question of the definition of “life” from the circle of scientific pertinence, in order finally to wonders about the intellectual sophistication of nonscientist outsiders who somehow imagine that an “animated” debate about the meaning of the word “life” would make any difference at all in the laboratory:

A great many nonbiologists believe that animated and contentious discussions of the definition of “life” are a principle preoccupation of institutes and university departments of biology. In reality, the subject is not mentioned at all, except perhaps to disparage the rather simple-minded people who believe that an agreed-upon definition of life will lead to a better comprehension of biology. Biologists already have a working comprehension of “life” that is good enough for present purposes; we do not believe that any current research enterprise is at all impeded by the lack of a more formal definition. The trouble is that “life,” like many other technical terms in science, has been pirated from the vernacular and is used in scientific contexts far removed from those that might arise in common speech. (66)

The thing called life is indifferent to the names which human languages apply to it by. Call it what you want, says Medawar, nature does not care. Indeed, researchers already have a precomprehension of the concept—which they have obtained from life, from lived experience and their experience of life—which is sufficient for the purposes of present research. Everyone knows well enough what life is, and the manipulation of nominal definitions will not affect (for example) the machinery of protein translation.

Medawar is not a molecular biologist, but rather a researcher in organ grafting—which life experience supplies him with an example of the limits of the common language which has been “pirated” into domains of research far from realm of everyday life which it nevertheless purports to explain:

Situations do certainly arise in real life in which a definition of “life” (or anyhow an exact description of all that “living” connotes) is genuinely important. Consider, for example, the decision whether or not to use for grafting the kidney or other organ of a potential donor whose heart may still be beating. Such a decision turns upon a number of technical evaluations that belong to a world far removed from the entries in a sematological dictionary: the assessment of brain function especially, and the question of whether the condition of the possible donor is reversible or not. These are factual, empirical questions that reference to a dictionary will not help to answer. (66-67)

The entry for “life” in a “sematological dictionary” will certainly not put its reader in a position to diagnose brain death in the potential donor. Nor will its definition offer anything like a substitute for the education provided by medical schools. What is striking, however, is that Medawar gives us an example of a real life situation in which a decision of life and death is to be made, one in which life is at stake for both the donor and the possible recipient of the graft. The overwriting of “life” upon “life” here is concealed by Medawar’s appeal to technical knowledge. What he describes is indeed a matter of life thanks to the ethical dimension introduced by the fact of the decision. It is a matter of life in the sense of the object of knowledge known by medical science and acted upon it in order to perform the transplant. It is a matter of life, too, because biological knowledge interacts with a diagnostic matrix that cannot but admit into its system a theological residue, first because the notion of brain death alluded to here communicates with a notion of the psyche or the subject as the seat of life, and second because what is at stake in the decision is precisely a question of the value of the lives involved. Some of the senses of “life” thus overtyped upon each other are equally distant from the technical knowledge of medical science as they are from the entry in a sematological dictionary. This applies above all to the critical analysis of the interaction between the overwritten domains of life. Indeed, the definition of definition with which the entry—a rule for the substitution of formal symbols, a procedure foreign to real life—itself undergoes a substitution; it is replaced by the decision concerning the substitution of biological organs in a graft. In this substitution of scenes of substitutions, the thought of a single “definition” of the word life, which Medawar not unreasonably dismisses, decomposes into a body of overwritten Geschlechter of life in which one might read, not only this or that concept of life, or even this or that theory of life, a difference of a nonfinite plurality of thinkings of life. This pattern we will see repeated at the level of molecular microstructure, where, indeed, scientific knowledge has found that biological life operates precisely according to a set of formal rules of substitutions.

Let us return now to molecular biology, the model—or rather the typesetting—of the pattern having been established. Take DNA, the enormous molecule at the heart of all cells and many viruses. Its function, of course, is to store information. But that information is of more than one type. Its genes can encode the molecular structures of proteins and certain types of RNA—but genes can also encode the regulation of gene expression itself. Indeed, in order for the chain of nucleotides to divide into genes at all, the boundaries between them must be marked, which is accomplished by means of “start-codons” and “stop-codons.” The systematic differentiation of the information encoded requires a pattern of self-marking, the genetic system has to mark itself. This appears to be what Derrida has in mind in The Animal that Therefore I Am, when he argues that “every genetic system in general” requires a structure of self-reference: “in every genetic system in general…each element of the genetic writing has to identify itself, mark itself according to a certain reflexivity, in order to signify in the genetic chain” (91).

Between “Freud and the Scene of Writing” and his 1975-6 seminar, an erasure occurs. “The only condition on which we can say that life is death” becomes, simply, “life death:” La vie la mort. By means of this strangely abrupt title, where a once typographically emphasized “is” has now disappeared, Derrida names the two gigantic themes that will be double subject of the next fourteen weeks, taken up in readings not only of Jacob, but also of Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Freud. He names his two primary themes, but he leaves their connection totally unmarked, linking them neither with a graphic element like a comma (“Life, Death”) or with a word, like “and [et]” (“Life and Death”), or with what seems at first to be a rather paradoxical “is [est]” (“Life is Death”). They are linked by nothing, indeed, but the blank of the page that separates them. Why has he withdrawn any determinate mark of their relation? In order, he tells his students, not to engage the logic of position—and thus the logic of opposition, whether dialectical or not—which would in principle, if not in fact, translate the “and [et]” into an “is [est].” A sentence like “Life is Death” is not anti-philosophical at all. Nor is it illogical. It’s the hallmark of Hegelian sublation—which operation belongs to a “logic of life” developed long before Jacob first dreamed of describing the integrative capacities of complex living systems in a language liberated from (which is to say positioned against) metaphysics. What Derrida would like to explore, he tells his students on the first day, is another logic, a logic other than that of positionality and oppositionality—no mean task, since this other logic must not be opposed to the logic of oppositional metaphysics from which it nevertheless has to differentiate itself.

Derrida’s opening remarks of the 1975-76 seminar suggest that his enigmatic qualification in “Freud and the Scene of Writing”—“the only condition on which we can say that life is death”—is not intended to guard against a violation of the principle of non-contradiction, but defer the activation of a classical logic whose machinery of sublation is perfectly comfortable with such a formulation. Its identification of life with death only names the negative whose sublation returns as the profit of more life and higher powers of abstraction and self-integration. Radical and punchy though the phrase from “Freud and the Scene of Writing” may be, its activation of the copula, ironically intensified by the cautionary use of italics, is still too metaphysical. And so, when he has to give his seminar a name about ten years later, Derrida experiments with another way of marking the possibility of a thought of life as trace before being is determined as presence, and drops the “is” altogether. This erasure, as his introductory close-reading of the seminar’s title seems self-consciously and a little ironically to underscore, is itself only another way (next to italics and quotation marks) of marking or setting off the word “is.” It is a “use” sheltered within the brackets of a “mention” which is itself effected or performed (that is, used) by the use of an elision.

The trouble which the word “Geschlecht” exemplarily presents to the logocentric presupposition of the unity of the referent is not simply the self-reflexivity of a feedback loop. The real trouble does not consist in the fact that, for example, certain proteins feed back onto the nucleic acid chain from which they have just been translated in order to regulate the process of their own translation. The irreducibility of the mark can be witnessed, instead, in the fact that within the internal system of reference, within the complex network of chemical relays that constitutes the physical phenomenon called “life,” “life” seems to vanish as something positively determinable within the logic of the microstructure. Consider, again, DNA, whose chain of nucleic acids is organized by the genetic code into triplets called codons, each of which specifies a particular amino acid. The sequence of codons within a gene thus corresponds to the chain of amino acids from which a particular protein can be assembled. Protein synthesis is accomplished by “translating” a chain of nucleic acids into a chain of amino acids, which, once manufactured in the ribosome and folded into the correct three-dimensional configuration, comes to life, as it were, and carries out the dynamic activity of the cell. The processes and functions of life are carried out by a complex network of interactions between proteins. But DNA—the giant polymer archive from which all the proteins in a cell must be translated and on which all their whirring activity depends—does nothing on its own. It is, as Jacob says, “inert.” Its inertia is a structural condition of its stability as an archive, which is required both for the functioning of an individual cell and for its transmission into the future of what Jacob calls the “chemical message” of heredity (The Logic of Life 305, 275). But here a problem arises in the sequence of necessary conditions. Sealed up in its chemical silence, DNA cannot perform its own translation. Instead, DNA finds its translator in an assemblage of molecular machines which can only be synthesized by means of translation from the genetic code.

Jacob formulates the problem of translation between nucleic acid and amino acid as a causal paradox where each side of the system existentially depends on its complement (its “translation”):

The genetic message can be translated only by the products of its own proper translation. Without nucleic acids, proteins have no future. Without proteins, nucleic acids remain inert. Which is the hen, which the egg? (305)

DNA’s translator is at once other than it (not only in its molecular alphabet but in its form: proteins are folded three-dimensional structures, while the nucleic acid sequence is a linear “tape” on which the program can be “read”) and itself a translation of what it actively translates: a re-translation, a reproductive translation, as Derrida puts it in his reading of Jacob in La vie la mort. “Without proteins, nucleic acids remain inert,” in other words, proteins animate nucleic acid; they give it life. But the life thus given, the animation thus induced in nucleic acid is only the synthesis of other molecules like protein or a regulative operation, which is never done by DNA directly, in the flesh, but only ever effected by its molecular regents. During the whole process, the molecular chain of nucleic is as still and silent as a string of inscribed letters. The segment of the chain under translation does of course physically move during the process, but that movement is effected by other molecules. So the process of motion for which Jacob’s rhetoric of animation serves as a complex metaphorical conceit (protein translation) is a motion that belongs to molecular agents other than the DNA molecule. By moving on its behalf, proteins animate the self-animation of DNA in them, the DNA that moves in translation through them. In the system of the relation between nucleic acid and amino acid, proteins thus live up to the literality of their name; they are “first things,” at least as far as DNA is concerned—and in the specific sense formulated by Derrida in “Freud and Scene of Writing,” when he demonstrated that the origin, the first thing, is necessarily as repetition.

But by virtue of the same logic—which is the logic of supplementarity—these proteins depend for their very lives on nucleic acid, not only because they only come to life through the process of translation that synthesizes them, but because they have no “future” without the nucleic acid code that bears their code. The possibility of the reproduction of the proteins, both within an individual living cell and in future descendants of that cell, depend on the “survival” and reproduction of the nucleic acid code. This is not a figural sleight of hand that treats individual assemblages of amino acids like individual living beings with an interest in survival and reproduction. It follows, instead, from the function of proteins within a living being fundamentally determined (by Jacob) by the telos of reproduction. Note how, in the following passage, the complex network of reactions among proteins is what gives the cell, as a living being, the characteristic of animate life, and what, through that very animation, guarantees the replication of the chromosome without which the proteins themselves have no future:

Like relays in electronic machines, regulatory proteins react to the presence of a chemical signal only above a certain threshold. Their response comes from the oscillation of the protein between two possible states. It represents a choice between two alternatives, between activity and inactivity, on and off, yes and no. All that the protein can detect, in fact, is the presence or absence of a given compound, a specific chemical pattern. Such binary systems function at all levels of metabolism to coordinate their diversity. They continually intervene to adapt functions to the needs of the cell and to the state of the environment; to adjust catalytic activities in reaction chains; to decide which genes must be translated into proteins; to allow the reproduction of the chromosome once per generation, and once only; to coordinate cell division. (284-285)

Where, in all of this, is the Geschlecht of life? Where is the sign of its Geschlecht? And where is the trouble with Geschlecht (the irreducibility of the mark) which I have argued is what makes life a matter of Geschlecht in the strong sense? When it comes to the translation of information stored inside DNA, the insistence of the mark consists in the division between (and translation across) two molecular codes, both of them inanimate. The mark (of the trouble) of Geschlecht is in the repetition of the sign for life within the thing called life: “lifelifelife.” It is as if the thing itself, the living thing, arises by echoing names of itself, an “Echonarcissus” weaving itself together in the lines of reference traced by the signals its elements address to each other. The organ has been replaced, not by the sign, but by the mark. Every element that thus says this is life, so to speak, is not itself life. Neither the mobile army of proteins, nor the silent genetic archive from which they are translated, are alive. Life is nowhere present anywhere in the system; it emerges as trace in the différance of between at least two systems which function irreducibly as codes of each other, neither of which is either living or dead in a sense that cleaves to the standard oppositional understanding of the relation between life and death.[12]

The paradoxical relation between amino acid and nucleic acid is a matter of Geschlecht, because it involves an irreducibility of the mark that decomposes the living being into marks whose plurality refuses to be reduced by the imposition of a unifying conceptual lever—like, for example, of the opposition between life and death. This, indeed, is precisely why the insistence of the re-mark is so likely to be formulated in terms of the problem of what, in a primitive living system like a bacterium, is the mark of life. Take the following reflection, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink, contemporary researchers in the origin of life. “It can be asked,” they write, “just what in this cell, is ‘alive.’” They continue:

A bacterium is composed of inanimate molecules. A DNA molecule is certainly not alive, in any sense that any rational person would accept. The cell itself is composed of myriad chemical workings, each, taken alone, being but an inanimate reaction of chemistry. Perhaps nothing is alive but the whole cell itself. If we are to understand how life first arose, we need to find a minimum cell that can accomplish this with the fewest molecules and reactions. (40)[13]

Reason itself, say Ward and Kirschvink, forbids us from ascribing life to a molecule of DNA, at least “taken alone.” What Jacob calls “inert” is described here as “inanimate.” Inanimate, too, are the cells myriad other “chemical workings”—at least “taken alone,” that is, outside the total context of the cell. Now this procedure, which posits the whole system of the bacterium as the totality within which each of the elements obtains its function and thus their determination as living, would be familiar to Kant and Hegel, not to mention Aristotle. It is the teleological principle that determines the being of the organ as a function of its position within the network of relations that constitute the whole organism as the final end of the system. And it is one reason why Derrida, in La vie la mort, is so skeptical of Jacob’s abandonment of the concept of “life” for that of the “living being,” on the thought that biology, having reached scientific maturity, no longer needs to take recourse to the airy abstractions of metaphysics.[14] The difference between “living being” and “life” to which Jacob appeals is, of course, that between a physical system which is objectively present and therefore able to be studied empirically, and the transcendental concept of “life” in which (a philosopher might argue) it participates in its life.

Consider again Jacob’s declaration of the independence of biology from metaphysics—except this time together with the supplementary qualification that effectively plunges the liberated science back into the depths of the very abstraction whose “power,” he writes, is now fading:

Biologists no longer study life today. They no longer attempt to define it. Instead, they investigate the structure of living systems, their functions, and their history. Yet at the same time, recognition of the purpose of living systems means that biology can no longer be studied without some constant reference to the ‘plan’ of organisms, to the ‘sense’ which their very existence gives to structures and functions, an attitude obviously very different from the reductionism that was long dominant. In the era of reductionism, to be really scientific, analysis had to exclude any considerations beyond the system immediately under study and its specific role. The rigour imposed on description required elimination of that element of finality which the biologist refused to admit. Today, in contrast, one can no longer separate a structure from its significance, not only in the organism, but in all the chain of events that have led the organism to become what it is. (299-300)

Confronted with the insistence of the mark as it repeats and divides within the electrochemical microstructure, each signal at once seeming to say “life” even as it constitutes that life it thereby names in the translational process of its signaling, Jacob rejects reductionism and looks to the higher and higher levels of integration for the emergent finality that gives “sense” and “significance” to those structures. The effort to substitute metaphysical reasoning about the definition of the “abstraction” called “life” with positive science becomes an effort to read markers of life within the object, and concludes with the judgment that the “sense” of life is to be found elsewhere: in the existence of the living being itself, and in the total context of life. The spatially integrated unity of a bacterium is not, of course, the total context.[15]

That total context extends not only into the outside world—the space of the ecological milieu in which the little bacterium floats suspended, which always includes a population of fellow bacteria, probably its “sisters,” as Jacob calls them—but into a structure of historicity which is determined above all by reproduction. The cell, right down to its double-stranded molecule of DNA, is a reproduction, and its finality is nothing other than reproduction. For Jacob, after all, a bacterium is only a microscopic factory whose purpose is to produce another, identical factory equipped with an identical machinery of self-re-production.[16] But the past and the future of which the bacterium is a reproduction, and which determines it as a function of the finality of reproduction itself, are not present. Here, then, is the insistence of the mark: the word or mark “life,” abandoned in favor of an empiricism of the molecular mark, forces a reinstatement of the word or mark “life,” together with the most classical characteristic (mark) adduced philosophically to “define” the living being: the self-relation of finality. Now Derrida, it seems to me, does not have a problem with finality as such. The problem is rather that the appeal to finality covers over what molecular biology, represented in Jacob, seems to have discovered—or rather encountered—in the insistence, within it, of the mark and in its constitution of itself in its insistence of the mark: a thinking of life before the establishment of the opposition of life and death (that is, “life death”), before the determination of being as presence.

In La vie la mort, Derrida links Jacob’s symptomatic failure to maintain the exclusion of “life” in favor of “living beings” to the perhaps more fundamental failure to fully establish the concept “reproduction” implied by the elevation of heredity as the defining feature, the Geschlecht as it were, of living beings. No concept of reproduction, Derrida argues in the fifth session, can be adequate without first explicating the concept of production of which it is the repetition.[17] Derrida notes that the concept of production is never directly addressed in Jacob’s text. Implicitly, the reason for this is clear; the structure of life as it is revealed by molecular biology appears to be irreducible to the concept of production in its metaphysical determination. In the relation between nucleic acid and amino acid Derrida sees an insight not recognized by Jacob. He takes seriously the “metaphor” of translation and proposes that reproduction is an effect of translation: the living being produces itself as self-re-translation. Life lives as self-re-translation. It (re)produces itself in its re-translation of itself. One of the most radical insights in La vie la mort is when Derrida rethinks the auto-affectivity of life not only as text, but as textual-self reference, which is itself understood in as self-re-translation. The life of the genetic text lives, as it were, in the iterative process of auto-affective self-reference and translation. What best illustrates this self-translational system of Ponge’s Fable, which produces itself through an internal self-reference—at once repetition and translation, a specter of self-reproduction, therefore. Life constitutes itself through the fabular act of its own self-retranslation.

In the following passage Derrida seeks the boundary-line between the human being’s “I think,” and its ostensibly ideal self-symbolization, and animal auto-affection. Both are modes of self-relation, and both (at least according to Derrida in Of Grammatology) are possible thanks to the trace:

This would perhaps be the moment to clarify once more the both subtle and decisive stakes of the ‘I.’ No doubt it will not simply be a case of the relation to self, nor even of a certain auto-motion, an auto-kinetic spontaneity that no one, even the most negative minds vis-a-vis the animal, not even Descartes, disallows in the animal. Let me repeat it, every living creature, and thus every animal to the extent that it is living, has recognized in it this power to move spontaneously, to feel itself and to relate to itself. However problematic it be, that is even the characteristic of what lives, as traditionally conceived in opposition to the inorganic inertia of the purely physico-chemical. No one denies the animal auto-affection or auto-motion, hence the self of that relation to the self. But what is in dispute—and it is here that the functioning and structure of the ‘I’ count so much, even where the word I is lacking—is the power to make reference to the self in deictic or auto-deictic terms, the capability at least virtually to say ‘this is I.’ For, as Benveniste has clearly emphasized, that is what utters and performs ‘I’ when I pronounce or effect it. It is what says ‘I am speaking of me’; the one who says ‘I’ shows himself in the present of his utterance, or at least in its manifestation. Because it is held to be incapable of this autodeictic or auto-referential self-distancing [autotelie] and deprived of the ‘I,’ the animal will lack any ‘I think,’ as well as understanding and reason, response and responsibility. The ‘I think’ that must accompany every representation is this auto-reference as condition for thinking, as thinking itself: that is precisely what is proper to the human, of which the animal would be deprived. (94)

Derrida will not deny that certain non-human animals show no evidence of the capacity for “literal” auto-deixis. Nor will he exclude the idea that the genetic systems of which these same creatures are the products ought best be read, and indeed understood, as exhibiting their own form of biochemical self-reference:

Of course, the question is immense and abyssal. The critical reelaboration that I would be tempted to submit it to does not consist in denying, without ever speaking of the animal in general (which I’ll never do), that many animals in fact seem incapable of auto-deixis or literal auto-reference as in the visible form of an adept manipulation of the specular image or of the index finger turned back at oneself in order to speak or to manifest in saying “this is I who is showing me myself, I’ll answer for it.” Yet…it is not certain that this auto-deicticity is not at work, in various forms, evidently, in every genetic system in general, where each element of the genetic writing has to identify itself, mark itself according to a certain reflexivity, in order to signify in the genetic chain; nor is it certain that this auto-deicticity doesn’t take on certain highly developed, differentiated, and complex forms in a large number of social phenomena that can be observed in the animot. Who can deny that phenomena of narcissistic exhibition in seduction or sexual combat, the “ follow me who is (following) you” deployed in colors, music, adornments, parades, or erections of all sorts of auto-deixis? (95)

By the end of this paragraph, no one should be sure that there is any such thing as literal self-reference. Derrida begins by placating bad readers who worry he’s out to erase the differences between human beings and other animals, in this case by attributing to every non-human animal, from sponges to mole rats, auto-deicticity, the capacity to the transform one’s own body, or some appendage or organ system thereof, into a symbolic mechanism for self-reference.

To be sure, there are many non-human animals without the capacity for such symbolic self-presentation and the sort of self-distancing abstraction that implies. It is just as sure as the fact that there are many animals who either have no fingers or do not use them for pointing. Now Derrida pulls the camera in close and zooms in from the macroscopic scale of highly complex yet non-auto-deictic animals to the sub-cellular level, where RNA polymerase enzymes read DNA sequences in order to transcribe them, where kinesin motor proteins stride like automata along microtubules, and where, in the whole complex network of chemical signals, we perhaps can see (or rather read) at work, according to Derrida, “this auto-deicticity.” Which auto-deicticity? The auto-deicticity Derrida grants is probably lacking in certain highly complex multicellular creatures. When it initiates transcription, does RNA polymerase say, “this is I who is showing me myself, I’ll answer for it?” Derrida is referring to patterns of over-coding and reflexivity that modulate the complex feedback loops of biochemistry. What is striking, however, is not so much that a component of this system would bear a self-referential chemical marker, but that none of these elements are selves, and none of them, properly speaking, are alive. They are of life but they are not themselves alive. Yet they form, thanks to the self-modulation arising from their networks, living beings who fan their feathers and strut about singing. It is not certain, says Derrida, that this auto-deicticity is not at work in bird romances. The iteration of this points to no self, even while a whole array of figures of self-reference—transcription factors, birds of paradise, sexual combat—propagate across the paragraph. Each of these are traces of auto-deixis, though some are also possible factors in its genetic expression. The auto-deictic, auto-affective self is constituted as hetero-affection that is itself hetero-deixis, called into being by the workings of a matrix where there are no selves and there are no (simply) living beings.


01. To be more precise, Derrida attributes the “magnetism” to Heidegger’s reading of Trakl, in which the word “Geschlecht” figures prominently, and which Derrida reads in turn in the newly published Geschlecht III: sexe, race, nation, humanité. What the magnetism of Heidegger’s reading of Trakl acts upon, according to Derrida, are the other essays in the Geschlecht series: “Geschlecht I: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference”; “Heidegger’s Hand” (Geschlecht II)”; and presumably also “Heidegger’s Ear (Geschlecht IV).” For an indispensable reading of the status of that hitherto absent magnetic pole, see Rodrigo Therezo’s Preface to Geschlecht III.

02. For the insistence of the mark, see Derrida’s Dissemination. For the question of whether Geschlecht is a quasi-transcendental, see Katie Chenowith’s “Faute de frappe (Derrida’s Typos).” See also Geoffrey Bennington, “Geschlecht pollachos legetai: Translation, Polysemia, Dissemination.”

03. Though not all of them, like “type,” at least when it is considered in isolation from the rest of the series. The possibility remains, however, as to whether the possibility of “type” is maintained by a conceptual configuration that might, for strategic reasons, be given the name “Geschlecht.” “Type” might bear the typical mark of Geschlecht. It is worth quoting David Farrel Krell’s synthesis of the etymology of “Geschlecht,” not only because much of the philological information he presents in such a condensed form will be useful for this essay, but also because the presentation itself exhibits a drift toward life: Geschlecht: noun, neuter, deriving from the Old High German gislahti, from which the English words slay and slaughter are formed…The prefix gi-, today Ge-, refers to a collectivity, and means “all things involving or surrounding the root in question.” The root of Geschlecht, that is, slahti, derives from early forms of the verb schlagen, “to beat,” “strike,” “smite,” “stamp,” “coin,” but also to “play a stringed instrument,” “strike up a tune,” or, if the musician is a blackbird, “warble.” The oldest sense of Geschlecht, according to Hermann Paul’s Deutsches Wörterbuch, is equivalent to the Latin word genus, that is, a group of persons who share a common ancestry, especially if that group or family belongs to the Patrician class. Schlagen in this case means as much as “to cause to resemble,” or “to imprint or coin,” with particular reference to the passing on of family likenesses. Such a family might also expand to form a clan, tribe, or class. The Grimm Brothers emphasize that the blood relations and the clan ties of a Geschlecht found a state. Schlag might also indicate a species of animal, more properly designated by the German Gattung, or even a particular herd of animals, say, of magnificent horses. Furthermore, the community of persons may expand to include all of humanity, das Menschengeschlecht, “the human race.” It later comes to mean the entire assemblage of human beings who are alive for an identical period or era, a “generation.” At the same time, it refers to the genus masculinum and genus femininum, the two genders that, one might speculate, are somehow already implicated in all the other meanings. Thus the “sexual” sense of Geschlecht is as archaic as all the others, such that the word serves as the root for an entire series of words involving sexuality and reproduction: Geschlechtsglied, –teil, or –organ, the genitalia; Geschlechtlichkeit, the erotic and the sexual in general; Geschlechtstrieb, the sex drive; Geschlechtsverkehr, sexual congress or intercourse, and so on” (22-23). Here we have species, races (human, intra-human, and otherwise), ancestries, the musical emissions of both humans and “blackbirds,” “magnificent horses,” the victims of mortal strikes, and sex in every sense and of every kind: life thus seems have been entangled with the Geschlechter from the beginning, caught up with them from the very first Schlag. If “Geschlecht” in the later, “‘sexual’ sense” is implied by the earlier terms in the historical itinerary, so that the later usage had always haunted conceptually the word’s philological development, then the same must be true of life. Sexual difference, as Krell notes, is precisely a matter of reproduction—and therefore of life. Indeed, life is at stake here not only thematically but also philologically, since what Krell presents is precisely the development and evolution (the inheritance and legacy, which is to say the heredity, the coded transmission and the variations of reproduction: the life) of the word.

04. In the latter, he argues that not only in Heidegger but in the whole onto-theological tradition, the originary opposition between “man” and “animal” is internally divided by—and internally divides in turn—the co-originary opposition of the sexes.

05. See Rodrigo Therezo’s Preface to Geschlecht III.

06. The dilemma specifically concerns the difficulty of knowing life (that is, grasping or conceptualizing it) when the supposed subject of knowledge is constitutively immersed in life, when life is the condition of possibility of any knowledge. It recalls Derrida’s reply in “Living On” to the infinitely regressive question that concludes Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Triumph of Life: “‘Then what is life?’ I cried…” Derrida responds: “But who’s talking about living?”: in other words, who can really speak about living? Who is in a position to? Who is already on the other side [bord], little enough alive, or alive enough, to dare to speak about living, not about one life, nor even about life, but living, the immediate, present, even impersonal process of an act of living that nevertheless guarantees even the spoken word that it conveys and that it thus defies to speak on living: it is impossible to use living speech to speak on living—unless it is possible only with living speech, which would make the aporia even more paralyzing” (“Living On,” 65). Any effort to reply to the question “what is life?” by supplying a definition quickly runs aground on the question of the mark, indeed the mark of Geschlecht. One ends up either restricting the field of reference to a specific type of thing named by the word (like natural or biological life) at the risk of excluding other senses of life (psychical, spiritual, phenomenological, social, and so on), the traces of which inevitably contaminate the concept so defined, and therefore any discourse that presupposes it. Or one includes too much by constructing a definition that, because it admits elements whose plurality it cannot reduce to the unicity of a single concept, is not a definition at all. A third alternative, unsatisfying to philosophical desire, is just to accept that when it comes to “life,” one is dealing with a cluster or family of figures or pseudo-concepts of “life” whose common theme, “family resemblance,” or even shared interest cannot be denied, but which nevertheless refuses to be unified under a single self-consistent and formalized concept. Such an irreducible plurality would arise thanks not to a plurality meaning (which would come down to polysemy) but rather to the dissemination of the mark, in other words the structure the trace. To be sure, anyone who sets out actually to define the concept of “life” once and for all would be more philosophically immodest than Derrida or Heidegger ever were. But the problem occurs even if one tackles it by limiting oneself to reading “life.” One might, for example, set out to read the function of “life” (its figures, discourses, modes) in Heidegger in order to get some purchase on the function of Geschlecht. For a related reflection on the relation between life and the possibility of the knowledge of life, see the “exordium” to Specters of Marx, xviii.

07. To clarify, Heidegger wants precisely to find a way to think of the human that does not take recourse to the subject, which is a compound of life and logos. The existential analytic of Dasein is that strategy. According to Derrida, however, other metaphysical attachments restore the anthropocentrism, and perhaps even the sovereignty of the subject, precisely along the pathways Heidegger carves out to prevent it. Really, the problem (I might argue) is that the avoidance of the life question and the thinking of Dasein in terms of death is what pulls him back into Metaphysics.

08. See also Of Spirit, 119n3: “If animals cannot properly question beyond their vital interests, can Dasein, properly and in all rigor?…Only being-for-death as such can seem to suspend and liberate the question in its rootedness in life. And this is doubtless what Heidegger would say. Later, he was to stress that animals cannot have experience of “death as death.” Which is why they cannot speak…But does Dasein have experience of death as such, even by anticipation? What could that mean? What is being-for-death? What is death for a Dasein that is never defined essentially as a living thing? This is not a matter of opposing death to life, but of wondering what semantic content can be given to death in a discourse for which the relation to death, the experience of death, remains unrelated to the life of the living thing.”

09. Compare the breathing ipseity he imagines here to what he says in Circumfessions: “I posthume as I breathe,” another pneumatic act of autobiographical (or rather auto-pneumato-graphic) self-reference that, as Michael Naas has argued, seems to put the accent on the side of death in the mutually cross contaminating weave of traces of survivance: “Derrida suggests that with every breath he takes he is already living on beyond himself, surviving, not at all immortal but living on as absolutely mortal in these marks emptied of all living breath” (Miracle and Machine, 274). Moreover, it was Derrida himself who, in Speech and Phenomena (1967), concluded from his discovery that iterability is the condition of possibility of ideality in general, that the statement “I am originally means I am mortal” (54), and that the statement “I am alive”—which looks rather like “I am living”—always translates into “I am dead,” whether or not it happens to be uttered “at the very moment when, if such a thing is possible, I have a full and actual intention of it” (54, 96-7).

10. Cf. Jacques Derrida, “My Chances / Mes chances,” Inventions of the Other, Volume I, 345-346: “Language, however, is but one among those systems of marks that all have as a proper feature this curious tendency: to increase simultaneously the reserves of random indetermination and the powers of coding or overcoding, in other words, of control and self-regulation. This competition between randomness and code disturbs the very systematicity of the system, even though it regulates that system’s play in its instability. Whatever its singularity in this respect, the linguistic system of these traces or marks are, it seems to me, just one example of this law of destabilization. Right here, among us, the effects of destabilization are at once multiplied and limited (relatively cushioned or neutralized) by the multiplicity of languages and codes that are intersecting with each other at every instant in an intense activity of translation. This activity transforms not only words, a lexicon, or a syntax (for example, between French and English) but also nonlinguistic marks. It mobilizes the quasi-totality of the present context and even what already exceeds it. It was in fact required that the text I am now reading be publishable; I was aware of this when writing it this summer. It is destined in advance to addressees [destinataires] who are not easily determinable or who in any case, as far as any possible calculation is concerned, command a great reserve of indetermination. And this arises, as I shall try to show later, from the most general structure of the mark. To try my chances over your heads, I therefore address myself to addressees unknown to you or me. But while waiting and in passing, it falls, as the French saying goes, upon you.”

11. If Derrida were writing today, he would probably be fascinated by the so-called “microbiome,” whole ecosystems of others teeming in the invaginated exteriorities swallowed up like a blastula by the animal body.

12. David Wills theorizes the complex interaction between the cell’s swarm of proteins and its DNA molecule—a process which is neither alive nor dead in a recognizable sense as inanimation.” Indeed, in his Introduction to Inanimation: Theories of Inorganic Life, Wills develops the book’s title concept with a reading Derrida read Jacob in La vie la mort.

13. Ward and Kirschvink continue: “One of the pressing problems in looking at this simple cell is that when examined in detail, it is in no way simple. Freeman Dyson has explicitly looked at this aspect of modern life, asking: ‘Why is life (at least life today) so complicated?’ If homeostasis is a necessary attribute of life, and all known bacteria contain a few thousand molecular species (coded by a few million base pairs in the DNA), it looks as if this might be the minimum sized genome. Yet all bacteria come to us today at the end of more than 3 (and perhaps more than 4) billion years of evolution. Perhaps the simplest Earth life is among the most complicated of life forms in all the cosmos” (A New History of Life, 41-42). This shift from “the minimum sized genome” to “the most complicated of life forms in all the cosmos,” from the floor of possible minimality to the maximum of existing complexity in the very cosmos itself, is, I think, programmed by the trace as constitutive of the living.

14. Derrida works out this argument in the fourth session of La vie la mort.

15. The principle Derrida formulates in “Signature Event Context” holds just as well for systems of biological signification as it does for those human language—the sense of a symbolic element is radically determined by its position within its context, but the determining bounds of that context are not themselves determinable extra-contextually, but only thanks to their contextual position.

16. “If analogy is to be used, the bacterial cell is obviously best described by the model of a miniaturized chemical factory. Factory and bacterium only function by means of energy received from the exterior. Both transform the raw material taken from the medium by a series of operations into finished products. Both excrete waste products into their surroundings. But the very idea of a factory implies a purpose, a direction, a will to produce—in other words, an aim for which the structure is arranged and the activities coordinated. What, then, could be the aim of the bacterium? What does it want to produce that justifies its existence, determines its organization and underlies its work? There is apparently only one answer to this question. A bacterium continually strives to produce two bacteria. This seems to be its one project, its sole ambition…If the bacterial cell is to be considered as a factory, it must be a factory of a special kind. The products of human technology are totally different from the factory itself. The bacterial cell, on the other hand, makes its own constituents; the ultimate product is identical with itself. The factory produces; the cell reproduces” (270-271).

17. For recent analyses of La vie la mort that touch on the question of production and reproduction, see David Wills’s Introduction to Inanimation, and Dawn McCance’s The Reproduction of Life Death, Chapter Four. See also Francesco Vitale’s Biodeconstruction, which locates La vie la mort within the early development of Derrida’s thinking, and follows that development toward the later thinking on autoimmunity.

Works Cited

  • Bennington, Geoffrey. “Geschlecht pollachos legetai: Translation, Polysemia, Dissemination.” Philosophy Today. 64 (2), 2020.
  • Chenowith, Katie. “Faute de frappe (Derrida’s Typos).” Philosophy Today. 64 (2), 2020.
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Animal that Therefore I Am. Translated by David Wills, edited by Marie Louise-Mallet, New York: Fordham UP, 2008.
  • ————. Aporias: Dying—awaiting (one another at) “the limits of truth.” Translated by Thomas Dutoit, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.
  • ————. “Circumfessions.” Jacques Derrida, by and Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, translated by Geoffrey Bennington, Chicago: Chicago UP, 1993.
  • ————. Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson, New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.
  • ————. “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” In Writing and Difference, by Jacques Derrida, translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1978.
  • ————. “Geschlecht I: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference.” Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume I, by Jacques Derrida, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth G. Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • ————. Geschlecht, Tome 3: Sexe, race, nation, humanité. Edited by Katie Chenoweth, Rodrigo Therezo, and Geoffrey Bennington. Paris: Seuil, 2018.
  • ————. “Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II).” In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume I, by Jacques Derrida, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth G. Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • ————. Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1987.
  • ————. Politics of Friendship. Translated by George Collins. New York: Verso, 2005.
  • ————. Politiques de l’amité. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1994.
  • ————. “Signature Event Context.” In Limited Inc, by Jacques Derrida, Translated by Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988.
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