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By Gerald L. Bruns


The Montréal Review, November 2011


 "On Ceasing to Be Human" by Gerald L. Bruns (Stanford University Press, 2010)


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"Bruns has written yet another interesting book on his lifelong passions: the relation of literature and philosophy to their language; and the theme of poetry and ethics belonging to the domain of openness, responsibility, the singular, and the irreducible-versus traditional respect for rules . . . Overall, this short book is a wonderful aid in understanding current French thought on the title's topic . . . Recommended."

--S. Correa, CHOICE

"On Ceasing to be Human is a must read in terms of recent discussions relating to the man/animal distinction. It does a brilliant job of bringing together strands of intellectual history-Deleuze, Nancy, Derrida, Agamben, Bataille, Blanchot, and Levinas-whose interconnections enable us to read French theory in an entirely new way even as they inform questions about the end of the human."

--Herman Rapaport, Wake Forest University




Ceasing to be human is a fugitive event; it can't be captured by a single narrative or conceptual context. Perhaps the proper way to pursue the matter is by way of historical inquiries into the forms and occasions of its appearance. The ancients, for example, imagined themselves as porous subjects exposed to divine or demonic powers of transformation, as in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Meanwhile moderns worry about the pervasive rule of illusion. Recall Nietzsche's "Truth as Circe.-Error has transformed animals into men; is truth perhaps capable of changing man back into an animal?" (Human, All Too Human: § 519). Arguably the possibility of such a change is one of mankind's enduring obsessions, as if in recognition of the fact that the integrity of the human is subject to variable and unmanageable conditions of finitude. Tragedy, for example, examines the limit-experiences that produce outcasts, madwomen, and monsters. In "Macbeth Appalled," the philosopher Stanley Cavell reads Shakespeare's play as "an expression of the wish to escape the bounds or bonds of the human, if not from above then from below. I call it the human craving for, and horror of, the inhuman, of limitlessness, of monstrousness" ("unsex me here," cries Lady Macbeth, "fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty" [I. v: 41-43]). Comedy by contrast is made of clowns, misfits, and rule-breakers improvising lines of flight. In mathematics and various scientific contexts such flight-lines are called "singularities" in which things escape recognition, definition, or the rule of identity. A good deal of European thinking during the twentieth-century, a time frequently given to rounding people up and putting them away, has appealed to concepts of the "singular" as an alternative to the logic of universals and particulars, categories and distinctions, rules and principles-the logic that governs, among other things, what Giorgio Agamben has called "the anthropological machine," a device that "functions by excluding as not (yet) human an already human being from itself, that is, by animalizing the human, by isolating the nonhuman within the human" (The Open: Man and Animal). In The Inoperative Community Jean-Luc Nancy says that we (whoever we are) are not likenesses that fit together but "singularities," and "singularity never has the structure of individuality. Singularity never takes place at the level of atoms, those identifiable if not identical entities: rather, it takes place at the level of the clinamen [swerve], which is unidentifiable." A singularity in this sense is not one of many but someone who escapes the relation of the many and the One, like Agamben's figure of the homo sacer who is driven or possibly aspires to live outside all human determinations, and thus occupies a "threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion" (Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life). Agamben's examples of homo sacer are the bandit and the werewolf, but the paradox of such figures is that their exteriority is not a just state of deprivation but also one of freedom, as in Jacques Derrida's famous motto: "I'm not one of the family":

"I am not one of the family" means: do not consider me "one of you," "don't count me in," I want to keep my freedom, always: this, for me, is the condition not only for being singular and other, but also entering into the singularity and alterity of others. When someone is one of the family, not only does he lose himself in the herd, but he loses others as well; the others become simply places, family functions, or places or functions in the organic totality that constitutes a group, school, nation, or community of subjects speaking the same language. (A Taste for the Secret)

"I want to keep my freedom": for a communitarian philosopher like Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) this is a nightmare of what freedom might be, but Derrida's position with respect to being "singular and other" is comparable to a negative theology or negative anthropology or, for all of that, a negative zoology that renounces all predications, as if hurling back in God's face Adam's gift of attaching names to things. For the point is to extend the freedom of singularity to whatever exists. This is the argument of Derrida's The Animal That I Therefore Am, and arguably it is the upshot of much of his philosophical work, with its complex disposition toward language, which is at once an object of philosophical suspicion and a literary passion characterized by puns, neologisms, and what he calls, in "The Ends of Man," the need "to speak several languages and produce several texts at once," particularly against a background made up of things like Hegel's "Philosophy of Spirit," which elevates "man" to the status of a universal concept that effaces all multiplicities, heterogeneities, and indeterminacies that constitute the real existence of anyone's (or maybe anything's) life in the world. In any case Derrida would certainly concede that his conception of freedom is, whatever else it is, utopian. He might refer us to Michel Foucault's later writings in which freedom is not simply autonomy but an open-ended task of self-formation" ("The Ethics of Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom"): open-ended, as if freedom were itself a fugitive state, even a practice of self-evasion. "My way of not being the same," Foucault says, "is, by definition, the most singular part of what I am" ("For an Ethics of Discomfort"). In his book on Foucault Gilles Deleuze put it this way: "The struggle for a modern subjectivity passes through a resistance to the two present forms of subjection, the one consisting of individualizing ourselves on the basis of constraints of power, the other of attracting each individual to a known and recognizable identity, fixed once and for all. The struggle for subjectivity presents itself, therefore, as the right to difference, variation, and metamorphosis" (Foucault). Difference, variation, metamorphosis-like ancient Proteus. To this list of rights Maurice Blanchot adds "the right to disappear" ("Michel Foucault as I Remember Him"). Blanchot: a French writer and intellectual notorious for his solitude and self-effacement. He never received visitors, never gave an interview, and never allowed himself to be photographed. In our electronic culture of self-exposure-of Blogs and Tweeting and Facebook-Blanchot is a singularity (or misfit) worth remembering.


Gerald L. Bruns is William P. & Hazel B. White Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent books are On the Anarchy of Poetry and Philosophy (2006) and The Material of Poetry (2005).


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford University Press, 1998.

-----------------------.The Open: Man and Animal. Trans. Keven Attel. Stanford University Press, 2004.

Blanchot, Maurice. "Michel Foucault as I Remember Him." Michel Foucault and Maurice Blanchot, Foucault/Blanchot. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman and Brian Massumi. New York: Zone Books, 1987.

Cavell, Stanley. "MacBeth Appalled." Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays by Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Trans. Sean Hand. University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That I Therefore Am. Trans. David Wills. Fordham University Press, 2008.

---------------------. "The Ends of Man." Margins of Philosophy Trans. Alan Bass. University of Chicago Press, 1982.

----------------------, and Maurizio Ferraris. A Taste for the Secret . Trans. Giacomo Donis. Polity Press, 2001.

Foucault, Michel. "The Ethics of Concern for the Self as a practice of Freedom." Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, vol. 1, Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth. Trans. Robert Hurley, et al. New Press, 1998.

----------------------. "For an Ethics of Discomfort." The Politics of Truth. Trans. Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth. Semiotext(e), 1997.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Connor, et al. University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Trans. R. J. Hollingsdale. Cambridge University Press, 1986.


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