Monsters in Eden: Darwin and Derrida

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2006
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,719 words

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[(essay date April 2003) In the following essay, Milburn analyzes the commonalities between the approaches taken by Darwinism and deconstruction, positing that both Charles Darwin and Derrida challenge humanist metaphysics.]

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? --W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.--Mary Shelley, Preface to Frankenstein

I. Hideous Progeny

Monsters, denizens of the borderland, have always represented the extremities of transgression and the limits of the order of things. In the work of Jacques Derrida, the figure of the monster embodies a means of thinking otherwise--a means of passing "beyond man and humanism" and reaching for other posthuman futures--that has traveled under the name of deconstruction. The "event" of the Derridean text, signaling a "rupture" with the discourses in which it gestated, terrifies with its unprecedented deformation of the normal and its threat to the boundaries of conventional thought. And there are many who will "turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity."1

This startling metaphor describes the violent appearance of poststructuralism through the language of evolutionary biology: the monstrous birth is a speciation event. The monster represents "the species of the nonspecies," the nascent germ of a species about-to-become. An unprecedented mutation, the monster is "yet unnamable," but perhaps heralds an entire population of hopeful monsters whose aberration remains to be classified. The very possibility of this symbolic "infant" and "terrifying" species, deviating from the humanist tradition which sees it as an enemy, depends here upon the rhetoric of evolution and the relevance of monstrosity to evolutionary thought that owes more than a cursory debt to Charles Darwin. Not only does the metaphor of the Derridean monster arise from a discourse authorized by Darwin, but the Darwinian attack on essentialism and humanism forms the preface to Derrida's terrifying project. Derrida has never claimed Darwin for an intellectual ancestor, but I suggest that certain family resemblances nevertheless exist.2 My purpose is to enable a theoretical discourse drawing equally from the deconstructive imagination of Derrida and the evolutionary imagination of Darwin, reading Darwin and Derrida through each other. Together, Darwin and Derrida enact a critique of artifactual constructions of nature that disrespects boundaries and emphasizes the deviances, the perversions, the mutations, and the monstrosities of the world.

Monsters disrupt totalizing conceptions of nature and destroy taxonomic logics, at once defining and challenging the limits of the natural.3 Spliced together--already a monstrous combination of texts--Darwin and Derrida advance a teratology that recognizes the importance of monstrosity as an object of scientific inquiry and as a semiotics of radical alterity itself. Derrida often describes his texts as threats to humanist metaphysics, signaling the advent of thinking otherwise and the monstrous transformation...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100073086