Losing Manhood: Animality and Plasticity in the (Neo)Slave Narrative - Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (Boundaries: Public Lecture)
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson
Assistant Professor of English, George Mason University
Abstract: In “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” the late French philosopher, Jacques Derrida contends “the question” of “the animal” in philosophy refers “not to the animal but to the naive assurance of man.” In critically approaching the “bestiary at the origin of philosophy,” Derrida would later clarify that it is less a matter of asking “whether one has the right to refuse the animal such and such a power…[than of] asking whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever posses the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution.” At the close of what is assuredly a towering work of philosophical inquiry, a number of interrelated questions at the heart of what he calls the “philosophical bestiary” nevertheless remain. In particular, if sexual difference and its attendant Oedipal anxieties structure the foundational violence of the Western philosophical tradition, how might a consideration of the mode by which sexual difference is cut by racialization clarify the terms and stakes of his inquiry? This presentation attempts to investigate this constitutive lacuna in Derrida’s thought, by thinking a being where the normative symbolics of gender and personhood do not take hold due to a concerted attempt to apportion and even forestall the attribution of exalted characteristics presumed to be proper to Man in accordance with the dictates of a racializing law. In a reading of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative and Toni Morrison’s Beloved in relation to philosophic and bioscientific discourses on the plasticity of life, I offer a consideration of how blackness constitutes and disrupts the historical and philosophical terms of Derrida’s meditation.
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson is an assistant professor of Black Feminist Theory, Literature, and Criticism in the Department of English at George Mason University and Affiliate Faculty in Women and Gender Studies. Professor Jackson’s book in progress, tentatively titled “The Blackness of Space Between Matter and Meaning,” clarifies the nature of the proximity between blackness and animality in the history of Western science and philosophy and investigates black literary, visual artistic, and philosophical responses to the reciprocal production of discourses of racialization and speciation. Professor Jackson has published work in Feminist Studies (2014), GLQ (2011 and 2015), and has forthcoming work in Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences and Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, and Technoscience. In a reading of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative and Toni Morrison’s Beloved in relation to philosophic and bioscientific discourses on the plasticity of life, Jackson offers a consideration of how blackness constitutes and disrupts the historical and philosophical terms of Jacques Derrida’s monumental "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)."