David Wills, Inanimation: Theories of Inorganic Life.
There is no doubt that 'life' has undergone something of a redefinition in the last few years, as there has dawned the belated realization that anthropocentrism is having irreversible ecological and geological effects. In the Humanities, a popular response has been to affix 'and the anthropocene' to familiar objects of study: Shakespeare and the Anthropocene! Modernism and the Anthropocene! I thought I'd made these up for laughs, but Google (Google and the Anthropocene, of course) says otherwise.
Before that practice became fashionable, however, there has long been in the history of philosophy a deep-rooted or even unconscious anxiety concerning the conviction with which our species ought to apply its paradigms of life across the board. The superficial confidence with which such paradigms have been instituted--by a Descartes or a Lacan, for instance--does not survive attentive reading. David Wills's latest book, Inanimation, traces some important instances of this trepidatious philosophical legislation, taking its cue from the work of Jacques Derrida--particularly his 'La vie la mort' ('Life death') seminar of the mid-70s, his 1997 'lecture suite' at Cerisy-la-Salle on philosophy's construal of animals (which became, sort of, The Animal That Therefore I Am), and his final seminar, La bete et le souverain. The book's other chief interest is in art, literature and philosophy which gesture towards more elaborated understandings of the human, the organic, and the living.
Inanimation is Wills's third book (after Prosthesis and Dorsality) to consider historical and philosophical parameters for the thinking of life. It is structured around three modalities of language--'autobiography', 'translation', and 'resonance'--which name its three sections. Each term undergoes a series of intelligent convolutions which shows it to figure a non-singularity operating right at the heart, so to speak, of philosophical myths of the 'purely' or 'organically' human--a phenomenon Wills defines succinctly as 'prosthetic articulationality' (p213). In essays on Descartes, Freud and Derrida, 'autobiography' is shown to encompass many modes of self-inscription across many forms of life in a way which unavoidably precedes and determines the more familiar anthropocentric sense of the term. 'Translation' names, in essays on Cixous and Celan, Benjamin, and Schmitt, Junger and Joyce, ways in which language neither marks a 'fall' from an organic unity, nor is such a unity, but is better understood as already a process or 'technologisation of life' permitting anything beyond spontaneity. 'Resonance', an even more flexible figure, describes how disjunction and interruption constitute life rather than impede its development. The terms sketch out different routes to Wills's consistent point, that 'language, as both mechanical instrument and conceptualizing function, fundamentally inheres in the technologisation of the human' (p195). But it is a point which needs to be relayed back, as Wills would have it, to show how it lays bare the human's anterior or dorsal intimacy with forms of life (animal, mechanical, 'non-') from which it is in the business of distinguishing itself.
Wills's essays are sinuous and should be read slowly, but the political import of his text is straightforward: it follows from the 'principal ethical exhortation' of The Animal That Therefore I Am, which is to acknowledge, as well as one can, 'the singularity and irreplaceability of whatever lives, however it lives' (p88). Accordingly, 'life' in Inanimation can refer to human, animal, and amoebic life, and also to the life of a phrase in a text, of things or ideas, and finally of a birdsong archived within a squeezable plush beanbag bird. In all cases, everything comes down to the question of 'inanimation'. In Wills's understanding of the term, 'inanimation' refers to the machinelike or mechanical starting-point of many organic lifeforms and their proliferation (Derrida's 'Life death' concept, broadly speaking), but also to the process of 'inanimation' from the verb 'to inanimate'--to imbue with life.
If Prosthesis, Dorsality and Inanimation comprise a series, it is because they are linked by an insistence that ostensible 'simplicity' is always already technologically primed: 'What we call life begins as a rupture vis-a-vis itself, an interruption of inanimate by an animate that has somehow lain inert, or inanimate, within the inanimate' (p69). Such a formulation--initially mindboggling, then persuasive, and finally indisputable--structurally is of Derridean stock, but what must be said about Wills is how frequently, when reading him, one is reminded that it is substantially a much simpler thing: a marker of philosophy done well.
Niall Gildea teaches critical theory at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary, University of London.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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