Taking Turns with the Earth
Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice
Matthias Fritsch




Chapter 1 argued that intergenerational relations must take into account the question of world formation: when thinking about the future, generations cannot presuppose a given world, but must reflect on the sources and shape of worlds left for the future. Apart from specific normative issues—from the number and identity of future people to socioeconomic infrastructure, institutions, and the environment—the issue includes ontological questions about what a world is, how a world is sustained over time, and what its relation to the natural environment may be. Subsequent chapters then presented two models for reconceiving justice between generations. In each case, I stressed the importance of the fact that intergenerational relations take place in a context—a world or worlds—that both precedes each generation and surpasses it toward the future. Chapter 3 argued for reciprocity obligations backward and forward, but stressed that the benefits received from past generations are inseparable from gifts of nature. Chapter 4 detailed taking turns with the earth as a model of justice, but emphasized toward the end that generational turn-taking depends on a lateral turning of the earth with human turn-takers.

This final chapter elaborates the relation thus indicated between earth and worlds. The overall argument is that, if living beings in general have their being constituted by turning to contextual others in seeking to return to themselves, then these contextual others are not just nonpresent human generations, but nature or earth. Earth is one name for the “hetero” in the auto-hetero-affection that defines life.

I. Globe and World

Today, humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 earths to provide its resources and absorb its waste. It now takes the earth just over one year and six months to regenerate what we humans use in a year. This figure, calculated by the Global Footprint Network, varies greatly from country to country. For instance, if everyone lived like a resident of the US, we would need over four earths; if instead we all lived like residents of India, that figure would be 0.49.1 So-called Earth Overshoot Day—the day humanity as a whole uses up the terrestrial resources available that year, if we are to need no more than one earth to sustain ourselves—is reached earlier each year. Perhaps we should understand the recent intensification of, and attention around, the search for exoplanets—planets believed to be sufficiently similar to earth to sustain life as we know it—against this background: if we humans don’t love earth (anymore), or earth doesn’t love us back, perhaps we can leave it.

It seems to me, though I will not argue it here, that such reveries should be linked to the belief—central to the account of the human-nature interface in the Enlightenment, especially in Kant (see Oliver 2018, 2014)—that humanity can (and will) be unified to the extent it lives only on the surface of the earth. Superficiality on a spherical earth means that humans will come into contact, and so will have to interact with one another in view of a living space they have to share from a common vantage point.2 This unifying vantage point makes of the earth a superficial globe that today affords an increasingly fast-paced, techno-scientific, and economic globalization that tends to take the earth and its resources as given—as opposed to, in the words of Jean-Luc Nancy, a mondialisation (a “world-wide-ization”) in which the natal-mortal formation of human and terrestrial worlds is foregrounded (Nancy 2007; Gratton and Morin 2012) and, as we do here, linked to its intergenerational and environmental sources (on Derrida’s use of the contrast globalization vs. mondialisation, see Li 2007). The globalized vantage point distances humanity one step from the earth, turning it, in the well-known words of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, toward “the starry skies above me and the moral law within me” (Kant 1992, 1).3 Kant’s friends chose this passage for the tombstone to mark the place where his corpse is buried in the earth.

Given the overuse of the earth, it is incumbent upon our times to rethink the relation between the human world and the earth. To do so, the remarks that follow take their lead from Derrida’s cursory but significant references to the earth-world relation in the last seminar he gave (The Beast and the Sovereign, volume 2), a seminar in which he reflects on human sovereignty, mortality, and burial in the earth (enterrement). My argument in this last chapter will proceed in the following three steps: If (as Derrida argues in many places, including BS2) it is as if I am already dead while living (BS2 50/87; see GL 19/26, 84/97; VP 82–83/108–109), and if, second, my corpse—whether inhumed or cremated, or in some other way—will be claimed by terrestrial elements, then I am living my life as already interred: in-earthed-in-earthing, enterré-enterrant, beerdigt-beerdigend. I am living with others in (and not merely on) the earth. Humans are both interred (agonistically belonging to a larger time and space here called earth) and interring (marked from the beginning by outliving and being outlived, and that means by responsibilities for returning others as well as one’s remains to earth).

In the face of the tremendous un-earthing of fossil fuels and its intergenerational consequences, from environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity to climate change, we will want to consider this condition of interment in its association with what Derrida calls the promise of the earthy bond between singular lives.4 Perhaps the human condition is not so much un-earthing in the sense of disclosive, or un-earthed and erect in the sense of revealed or opened to revelation; perhaps it is closer to the earth than we tend to think. I will take these three claims in this order and discuss their inferential links: first, (a) life as what we have called, with Derrida, lifedeath or lifedeathbirth; second, (b) the terrestrial claim over the mortal body, and third (c) life conceived as interred and interring. I use “interred” in the sense of indelibly and co-constitutively linked to a preceding, unpossessable, and fear-inspiring context that we may call earth. “Interring” is meant in the sense that each member of a generation is charged with handling remains and corpses, as it is already in the process of, in turn leaving its legacies and remains to another generation. I will here begin by introducing the three claims that will be elaborated further in subsequent sections.

(a) The first claim is that life is lifedeath: life depends on the “gift of death,” as the English title to one of Derrida’s books has it (GD). While robbing the living of the plenitude of and mastery over life, death, as we’ve seen Heidegger and others argue, also gives life in making its world possible. Life may prefer life—and self-reference or self-affirmation has always been one way to mark off the living from the dead and inorganic—but only in differing-deferring death; thus, death is not simply opposed to life, as if it were located on its outside. An immortal life, a life without death, would have nothing to give, to itself or to the other (see BS2 100n13/153n2). The disclosure of the phenomenological “living present” depends on a being-toward-death that Derrida argues is, in Heidegger as well as in Levinas, still too humanist, too removed from life, animality, and earth. The world is the world of life and death.

(b) The second claim is that the earth, from sea to land and air, will absorb the corpse whose life it sustained. Earth here names the organic and inorganic context of living beings, a context that is co-constitutive of life, both in the sense of history and evolution, and in the more spatial-material sense of habitat. Derrida reminds us that life has always been defined by its self-referencing or auto-affection, but he insists that it must instead be thought as an auto-hetero-affection (BS2 170/244; AA 133/95). As we saw in the previous chapter, the attempted re-turn to the self, the autos, is always already re-routed through others, the hetero.5 Earth, I will argue, is one name—though of course not the only name—of the hetero that cannot be taken up by life without remainder.

(c) The first two claims entail the third claim: that the terrestrial absorption of life—the earth’s claim to the body—does not merely happen at the so-called end of life, as if before death the body was in the firm possession of its living bearer. Not by accident, as we will see, do we find this phantasm of sovereign mastery over the mortal body in early modern texts such as Robinson Crusoe and Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, the latter with its famous argument that labor extends ownership from the body to territory on the earth (Locke 1988, sec. 27). This dream of mastery is the principal target of both the death penalty seminars (DP1, DP2) and the seminars The Beast and the Sovereign (BS1, BS2). To expose sovereignty to unconditionality, as Derrida puts it programmatically in Rogues (R 141/195–196), is to expose the living body to its corpse-like and terrestrial corporeality—and that means, as I will propose, to the earth.

Death as the end of life—to which we have access, as Michael Naas has shown in several of his recent works, only phantasmatically and never as such (see Naas 2008, especially the essay “Comme si comme ça”)—works on the body as the earth nibbles away at life at each of its moments. To say that we are reborn at every moment is also to say that we die away with each breath, each drink, and each morsel of food that we exchange with the earth. Earth, then, may name the unpossessable and ungovernable context within which sovereignty seeks to assert itself.

Normatively and politically, I will conclude, sovereignty should be rethought as that which seeks to govern an earth that will not submit to becoming mere territory. The organization of politics into the state turns around the unpossessable earth while being turned about by it. The sovereignty of Eurocentric humanism consists in seeking to master death by pinpointing it as the end of life, by dreaming of “killing time,” and with it affectability by others, as Derrida puts it near the end of the first year of The Death Penalty (DP1 226/308; see also R 109/154). Because subjection to time and change signals receptivity, suffering, and relation to others, to contract time into an instant is to attempt to master time, to kill it, and to render the self sovereign, invulnerable to alterity. Instantaneity and anaesthesia go together here, as Peggy Kamuf has stressed (Kamuf 2012). Analyzing “a certain Cartesianism of [Dr.] Guillotin,” the inventor of the eponymous, allegedly painless killing machines—from the “instantaneism” of time as composed of “simple, discontinuous, discrete, and undecomposable instants” to mind-body dualism, mechanicism, and individualism (DP1 225/307)—Derrida underlines that the ideal of capital punishment in our onto-theological heritage is a death that is painless because instantaneous, an instant that is conceived as dividing life from death as sharply as the guillotine’s blade. Moreover, because it is a death that aims only at the head (“capital” comes from caput, head), it is a death that is meant to sever the head from its vulnerable, embodied connections to earth others: a death that is meant to un-earth us.

By contrast, and of course without doing away with sovereignty altogether, democracy-to-come articulates a different understanding of sovereignty. Putting this thought to work in the context of the environmental crisis, I proposed a thinking of time as nonmasterable turning or even a taking-turns: each time takes turns with the past and the future, with the dead and the unborn, as well as with the earth that turns us toward alterity, toward the others of human territorial mastery.

II. The Différance of the Earth

I will now elaborate and justify the first two claims—(a) life as lifedeath and (b) the terrestrial claim over the corpse—on the basis of my discussion of deferral and differentiation in Chapter 3. There I sought to show that, despite the seeming priority granted to time in the discussion of the intergenerational gift, différance also names a spacing that ties every gift to a material context and to nature as “the donation of what gives birth, the originary productivity” (GT 128/163). As briefly discussed there, deconstruction’s always to some extent historical and genealogical point of departure is to view an object as emerging out of its differential relations to others. These relations of difference are taken to be constitutive of the object; that is, the object is not seen as preexisting its context, but as owing itself to the environment of its emergence and being. Difference, as Saussure had it, is prior to identity. This priority may already counsel a certain caution with regard to the language of entity and context, self and environment, sovereignty and earth, a caution well-known in environmental philosophy (e.g., in Arne Naess’s critique of the “man-in-environment” model; Naess 1973).

But the context is not itself exhaustively analyzable, as if we could enumerate all of its elements in a complete list. A complete list would stabilize identity despite its constitutive relationality, because the relations would be bounded and travel along the same lines. Even if A needed to reference B to come to be “itself,” A and B would be fixed by their references. By contrast, the claim here is that the context is inexhaustible, not just because the list would be too long to itemize, but rather for the more essential reason that the context is itself undergoing change as it constitutes the elements of which it is made up.6 Each element in the context is in a similar position of changing with its context, the context changing with them, so that no element can be, or rely on another element to be, a stable identity. (The entrance of A into relation with B makes of B a B' and of A an A'. A, then, like B, is only ever between A and A', or A' and A<dp>, and so on.) Further, and for the same reason, the dependence on a constitutive context is not fully determining for an element, since it can be recontextualized; an entity can—indeed, it cannot but—shift from context to context.

It is these two moments of differentiation and recontextualizability (or iterability) that Derrida sought to capture economically with the neologism différance. The term is used to encompass both difference and deferral, that is, situation in context but without final determinability; anticipation of future environments (for not anything goes), but also exposure to the open-ended future the elements in an ongoing system cannot know or master. And despite having first developed it primarily in the context of structuralist accounts of language and culture, it is the notion of différance that Derrida sees as “co-extensive” with mortal life (Derrida 2001a 108; FW 16). He has from the beginning insisted that it holds wherever there are elements in a more or less holistic system, including genetic DNA and cellular and organismic life forms in an environment.7 That is why we can seek to think life in general along the lines of différance, as Francesco Vitale’s “biodeconstruction” suggests Derrida always did (Vitale 2014, 2018), and as I do below in terms of lifedeath.

Life in différance is a life born mortal, stretched between birth and death without thereby marking off, as we have been arguing all along, a presence or a “mineness” of individual life cut off from the time before birth and the time after death. A life that does not coincide with itself, that lives only by being stretched out toward the other as to another time, is a life that lives off dying and rebirthing every moment:8 a sur-viving [sur-vivance]” (see “Living On: Borderlines,” in P), a “lifedeath [la vie la mort],”9 or a lifedeathbirth (Fritsch 2017b). This lifedeath draws both on its natality and its mortality to set itself up as separate from its environment and its predecessors, but without ever being able to fully appropriate its birth, its death, and thus its life as fully its own. It responds to this tension between appropriation and expropriation by developing phantasms of self-birthing10 and of its own proper or authentic dying (PC 359/381–382; BS2 157/229). It is a spectral life that differs from itself since birth, and defers its proper self to a future it cannot make its own, a future that outlives the propriety of “my life” or “our life.”

With the help of différance, we can thus better understand the first claim of my overall argument in this chapter, the claim that life and death are not separated by a razor-sharp dividing line (such as the guillotine’s blade), but instead are co-implicated. In BS2, Derrida makes this point by arguing that, as co-constitutive of the world of the living (as Heidegger famously argued), death is not “merely the end of life” (BS2 93/145), and that its pleasures are “stillborn [mort-né]” (53/90). As we saw in previous chapters, life is a natal mortality or mortal natality, and thus constitutively related to nonpresent generations, the dead and the unborn, who are thus not simply absent. We are born into the light of day, but born only as mortal, mortally related to the other who gives birth to, or survives, the newborn. Birth and death thus take place in a world, a preceding-exceeding context that, as we will see below, will not remain unaffected by the births and deaths taking place not just “in” the world but as its very happening.

Let me then conclude my claim that life is essentially mortal. The timespace of différance is the reason Derrida speaks of life as sur-vivance—“sur-vival” or “living-on”: life lives only by overcoming death at each turn. Identity must of necessity be repeated, for an identity is never given once and for all. Each affirmation is already promised to a repetition that brings in the other once more (hence we should speak of iteration), so that the promise of return to oneself can never be finally fulfilled; it is a promise made to a future forever to come. As the “first time” that is to be repeated likewise never took place as such, life is a “living-on” suspended between the “absolute past” and “future to come,” neither of which took place or will take place as such, in the present. It is on this basis that Derrida may write that “it is as if I am already dead” (BS2 50/87; see Glas 19/26; SP 95).

III. The Terrestrial Claim to the Corpse

III.1. The Quasi-Ontological and Normative Claim

Life, then, is stillborn, dead-born, totgeboren. Its natal mortality links it from the inside to an outside, a constitutive exterior that includes (human and nonhuman) generations of the dead and the unborn. In this section, I would like to present my second claim: that the constitutive outside may also be called earth—the history and habitat of life—as the context in which différance plays out.

This second premise maintains that earth is one name for that which absorbs and claims the body of life. If différance is, as was argued in Chapters 3 and 4, timespace (the becoming space of time and the becoming time of space), then the unmasterable ties in which it casts living beings are not only temporal but also spatial, material, and fleshly. We are indeed born into different birth cohorts and generations, and one friend dies before the other. But we are also born in and of the earth. The earth emerges as that which relates and separates living beings and their worlds. Above all, it is that which receives and claims the corpse. To be mortal means to be inextricably inserted into a material space that precedes and exceeds a living-dying organism.

However, in using “earth” or “nature” to refer to this constitutive space, some precautions have to be taken: both earth and nature are often pre-comprehended as stable referents that resist cultural change and historical development, forever turning around themselves (see Chapter 3 on “nature” in Derrida’s Given Time). If, for instance, we track the references to “earth” in the death penalty seminars, the word is used (exclusively, I believe) in contrast with heaven, for example in the claim that here on earth, capital punishment is final and irreversible, some permitting themselves to believe, however, that by putting someone to death they are merely handing him over to God.11

But in a few other places, we do find a different use of common environmental or ecological terms such as “nature” and, in BS2 in particular and as we will examine shortly, “earth” (BS2 264/364–365ff.). In these more charged contexts, however, the terms are—and this should not surprise us—not used to denote the opposite of a binary, such as culture-nature, history-nature, man-earth, human-animal, and so on. In keeping with our discussion of différance, the term, as I will seek to show, denotes the context that is not just around but also inside the thing of which it is the context. It is the outside that is the inside spacing of life, demanding its overcoming of and turn toward the outside. This is the major reason why the second claim (that the earth claims the corpse) already entails the third (that the earth claims the living body). In the passages we will examine, earth names the mortal condition of life, and as such, earth is thus closely associated with receiving the corpse, whether buried, cremated, or whatever.

As habitat and natural history, then, earth may name that which absorbs and claims the body. By absorption, I do not just mean that the body decomposes and returns to the earth, as the Bible stresses, for instance.12 Rather, I understand this second claim in a quasi-ontological (and thus also quasi-empirical) sense following from what I said about différance above. We said that death is “inscribed” in life as its spacing or self-difference. This difference from itself forces life, in its very constitution, to be always already turned to its context of inscription without possibility of a return full circle. Even though a living self has to attempt it, there cannot be such a return to the self’s starting point, because the self-difference is constitutive and cannot be overcome. It is constitutive because the self can relate to itself only by relating to the other, “other” understood in a broad sense (i.e., not restricted to another self). The hetero in auto-affection always already inserted the living self, what Derrida calls ipseity, into a co-constitutive history, a context, an environment.

Calling the earth’s relation to the corpse and the body a claim (an address, an interpellation, a demand) should help us to avoid a likely misunderstanding. In BS2, Derrida cautions us not to take this “in” or “into” in the sense of a container. In the phrase “beast and sovereign both live in the same world,” “in” the earth should not be understood as if the terrestrial outside remained outside, external to life. Rather, they live in the earth as “that within which all these living beings are carried” (BS2 264–265/365). Auto-affection entails a being of something that is also a being in something larger than oneself that generates the fear of being swallowed alive, a fear but also a desire that Derrida tracks in his reading of Robinson Crusoe: from his fear of drowning as his shipmates did, to the earthquake opening up the ground to swallow him, to the beasts or the cannibals visiting his island, coming, he thinks, to eat him. The differential reading of auto-affection shows that life requires a larger context that precedes and exceeds the living individual and always threatens to nibble away at it or devour it. Crusoe here, as we will stress again later, is read as emblematic of Western individualism and imperialism, the one that responds to its fear of death by seeking to master the island-earth and animals.

By the homonymic relation between dans (in) and dents (teeth), Derrida then links auto-affection to the mouth, to food, and to “self-taste” (see Elizabeth Rottenberg’s excellent analysis of this motif of orality and devouring in Rottenberg 2011).13 If auto-affection is only as an auto-hetero-affective relation (BS2 170/244), then tasting oneself is inseparable from being tasty to others, in particular to beasts. This being tasty to animals—or also, as in Crusoe’s case, to cannibals—is tasteless to the individualist and humanist conception Derrida is diagnosing here: being tasty is anathema to the dignity of the human who sees himself removed from the earth and its other inhabitants. As James Hatley puts it, humanizing nature above all consists in the (necessarily failing) attempt to “make over the space in which we live as if humans had become inedible and everything else is revealed to be more or less available for ingestion.” However, he argues, “the relative success of this endeavor should not fool us into assuming that the underlying predatory nature of the earthly space we inhabit no longer makes its claim upon us” (Hatley 2004, 15).14 Similarly, in her “Tasteless: Toward a Food-Based Approach to Death” (now collected posthumously in The Eye of the Crocodile), Val Plumwood famously discusses her experience of being attacked by a saltwater crocodile, an experience that made her rethink the relationship between the earth and its food chain. What she calls “the Western problematic of death” conceives the self either in its reductive naturalist version as ending completely with death, or as a disembodied spirit, one that sees life as a battle against death rather than also accepting that death is a part of life. Against this, she proposes a third way, in which the sovereign human learns to appreciate the corpse as a gift to the earth in a “chain of reciprocity” (Plumwood 2012, 19).

What is it, Derrida asks in Glas, to make a gift of the corpse? (GL 143/163). When Derrida complains, in The Animal That Therefore I Am, that much of Western phallo-logo-carno-centrism conceives of animals as so separate from humanity that they are unable even to look at us sovereign humans, we should add that much of Western culture conceives of our mortality as unconnected to the earth. In Plumwood’s words, we conceive of ourselves “[a]s eaters of [earth] others who can never ourselves be eaten in turn by them” (Plumwood 2012, 19). Against this one-sided Western conception of death, then, Plumwood pits what she calls the “indigenous imaginary”:

By understanding life as in circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors, we can see death as recycling, a flowing on into an ecological and ancestral community of origins. In place of the Western war of life against death whose battleground has been variously the spirit-identified afterlife and the reduced, medicalised material life, the Indigenous imaginary sees death as part of life, partly through narrative, and partly because death is a return to the (highly narrativised) land that nurtures life. (Plumwood 2012, 19–20)

Note that Plumwood’s “community of ancestors” is both ancestral and ecological. While the distinction between humans, on the one hand and, on the other, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and so on, is not thereby undone, seeing death as part of life inserts all living beings in the larger context of life, here called earth. The earth’s claim on the living being it supports is thus connected to the normative finitude that both prompts each to turn toward itself as well as to turn toward the others. For if a living identity does not come into the world ready-made, or nonrelationally, identical to itself, then it must strive for that identity, for its time and its space, for its world. Provoked by the environing context,15 it seeks to build a wall around the self that first of all marks the difference between self and world. With this striving for identity that is a response to self-difference, a striving that Nietzsche called will-to-power, what Derrida calls an “unconditional ethical obligation” (BS1 110/157) comes into the world.16 And this obligation out of alterity has relevance for both intergenerational and environmental ethics.

For we should note that life as lifedeath critically undermines not only the distinction between the human and nonhuman living being—the basis of humanism—but also the separation of past, present, and future generations into distinct entities. In the first volume of The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida criticizes Lacan’s typical claim that only man is capable of law and crime (and thus of the death penalty). If that were so, ethics would consist essentially in human fellowship and “fraternity.” In response, Derrida argues that extending this fellowship to the animal would not be sufficient.

[I]t is not enough to say that this unconditional ethical obligation, if there is one, binds me to the life of any living being in general. It also binds me twice over to something nonliving, namely to the present nonlife or the nonpresent life of those who are not living, present living beings, living beings in the present, contemporaries—i.e. dead living beings and living beings not yet born, nonpresent-living-beings or living beings that are not present. One must therefore inscribe death in the concept of life. (BS1 110/157)

We can gloss this passage by saying that ethics emerges with the unrecognizable, the méconnaissable (BS1 108/155), which is essentially tied to the death in life that makes life vulnerable to other forces beyond it. But if life is lifedeath, and is ethical only as lifedeath, then all mortals, and not just human beings, share a place in the moral universe. Note, however, that this conclusion is precisely not made by making this trait (the mortality of lifedeath), as is customary in environmental ethics, a nonrelational property as entry ticket into the moral universe. Death in life is precisely not a property, not something a being possesses as an ability or capacity. Rather, it names the nonpower, the unpossessable and unshareable source of ethical bonds by which we have always already been affected and related to earth others.17

What should be of further note here is that this deprivileging of the human goes along with a deprivileging of the present, the time of the living or sovereign present, as if our time was owned by our generation. If the present is not fully present to itself—if lifedeath relates the living to the nonliving—then justice cannot just be for the present generation but must from the very beginning take account of the dead and the unborn, the future generations that stand to suffer the most from the treatment of the earth as a human possession. On this view, as indicated, humanism, presentism, and territorialism are intimately linked, even if the links are also historical and contingent.

On the alternative view proposed here, the generations of the dead and the unborn are not thought of as exclusively and exceptionally human, though we must also not permit ourselves to think of life in an undifferentiated form, without species and species preferences (see AA). The point is to recognize that tying the source of obligation to death in life, to the corpse-like nature of the body, and thus to an inappropriable nonpresence, upsets human exceptionalism and generational presentism. The différance of the earth contests, in a single blow, both presentism and humanism. To have recognized the former (presentism) but not deconstructed the latter (humanism) is the upshot of Derrida’s mini-essay on Levinas’s “humanism of the other man” in L’Animal (AA 102–118).

As we saw in Chapter 2, Derrida agrees with Heidegger that the call of conscience—the call to responsibly disclose and appropriate possibilities for being, acting, and understanding—stems from the noncoincidence of finite time, from a being that is always ahead of itself in being toward death, a death not shared by others. To flee from death by attributing death only to das Man, the “they” (along the lines of “one dies but not me, not now”), is to flee from one’s responsibility to oneself as stretched out in time, that is, as dying and being reborn at every moment (GA 2, §53, 297/336).

Derrida, however, also takes note of Levinas’s famous response to Heidegger, which is that death is first of all the other’s death: it is not accessible as such for my own appropriation, and so the call to responsibility is first of all to let the other live. Derrida’s thought radicalizes Levinas’s insight by making death even more other. First, volume 2 of The Beast and the Sovereign stresses with Freud and against Heidegger that we cannot think our death without presupposing us as thinking it, such that we don’t have access to death as such but only phantasmatically (BS2 157/227). Further, the alterity of death means that death is no longer tied only to the human face, thus overcoming a human exceptionalism that Heidegger and Levinas share. Ethics then begins with a call to responsibility that comes from alterity, without a primordial answer to the question, Why be moral?, so without a “because” whose scope reason determines and masters, the reason that has always been the reason of “man,” human and virile.

The alterity that prompts this response lies then in the other’s vulnerability. Levinas characterizes this vulnerability as a nonresponse: the death in life that shows the other’s “im-power” to respond, there where there are bodies that will be, that will have been, corpses. As Derrida argues, “Even if we were inclined to follow Heidegger when he speaks of “being capable” of our own death [‘pouvoir’ notre propre mort], it is certain that we are “not capable” of our own corpse, we will never see it and feel it” (BS2 161/233). If ethics, then, begins in mortal alterity, the moral call cannot be restricted to the human face. The call should not be seen to be extendable to animals, but should in fact “privilege,” as Derrida puts it provocatively in The Animal That Therefore I Am, the command to responsibility of the animal. This is not because animals are more valuable than human beings, but is the upshot of hearing the call of the human being herself differently. The call will then no longer come directly and exclusively from the human, the humanity of man, but from an even more ulterior and anterior place: a call that “calls within us outside of us, from the most far away, before us after us, preceding and pursuing us in an unavoidable way” (AA 113/156).

While the “before” in this passage cannot be reduced to an empirical natural history, it is as little separable from it as the gift of différance was seen (in Chapter 3) to be inseparable from a gift of ancestors. Nonhuman life on earth indeed precedes human generations taking turns with earth: this is one of the meanings of L’Animal que donc je suis, the animal that therefore I follow (AA 10–11/27–28). Having been born as occupants of the earth before humans—and thus being before me, behind me, after me, surrounding me—the animals (themselves preceded by other forms of life such as plants and bacteria) looked at us before we looked at them (AA 17–18/36–37).

As history and habitat of life, then, earth is inseparable from earth others. The claim to what we take to be “our” lives, the claim of the earth upon the living-dying body, is articulated by the hungry eye of the crocodile, and in fact not only when the body has become a corpse. That is why we can flip perspectives at times, and see cats as domesticating humans for their well-being, or wheat, rice, and potatoes as having grown us since the agricultural revolution to better populate the earth with their species, as Yuval Harari did (Harari 2014, 77ff.) The differential hetero in the auto-affection that defines life turns the inside of the self-relation to the outside and the outside to the inside, such that earth, nature, or environment name that which cannot be fully absorbed by the self. Rather, the environment is that which exceeds the self as the very result of its mortality, its self-difference as self-other splitting. The tie to what I here call earth (and I will soon try to justify this use of “earth” with respect to Derrida) cannot be overcome.

This is not in the first instance for the empirical reason that the earth is biologically needed, or too large and too cosmic to absorb—though of course all of this is true, and important. But these truths flesh out the quasi-ontological point (the “quasi” here indicating that the ontological and the empirical cannot be neatly distinguished) that absorbing the earth would mean that there would no longer be any outside to turn to, no other to permit the return to self, and thus no longer any self.

An objection may be raised that this “grounding” of an empirical truth in a quasi-ontological one (however weak the “grounding” is to be understood by adding further precautions) adds nothing but obfuscation. Earth is, the objection might continue, empirically and objectively a necessary backdrop to human life. My first response to this objection is that I fear this empirical objectivity makes it harder for us to think earth as the inside of life, as its constitutive finitude. Precisely by maintaining an objective standpoint above the empirical earth, it may suggest that with the help of objective science we may leave earth, or see it as merely one possible home for us, for now.

Further, one important thing the quasi-ontological considerations permit us to see is another aspect to the normativity that is usually sucked right out of empirical truths, stated as they are from a removed observer’s viewpoint that is then hard to account for. On the deconstructive view of earth, there can be higher levels of analysis, but there is no ultimate meta-level. Even the observer is engaged in the appropriation from context; in fact, observation is another mode of such appropriation. And this further permits us to say that the observer, too, is caught up in the ex-appropriation that demands that a remainder be left for others (on “ex-appropriation,” see Chapter 3 on the gift and its general economy). To put this in the terms used above, if the self cannot but appropriate from the earth while having to leave a remainder, an excess, then the earth must be left for others to appropriate. We cannot but—and also must—make a gift of the earth to future people and future animals, future plants and future fungi, bacteria, and so on.

This gift as (voluntary or involuntary) excess over economizing and appropriation may be stated from the viewpoint of the earth: it claims the (living or dead) corpse as its own. I’ve argued that self-affirmation does not actually begin with the self, but is in fact a response to insertion in context, even if the context would also not be a context without the self-affirmation that seeks to separate self and context. In this sense, the normativity of the relation between life and environment cannot be clearly located on one side only. As a result of its mortality, life claims earth, but earth also claims life. It demands that we breathe out for breathing in, defecate for consuming food, and be edible by other beings.

III.2. Earth and World

There are two instances in The Beast and the Sovereign in which this claim of the earth upon the living is particularly marked. I discuss the first one here; the second instance is discussed in the next section.

Toward the end of BS2, Derrida returns to the question with which he opened the seminar, that of world as shared—or not—between humans and animals, among human individuals of different cultures, or simply individuals, human or not (BS2 8–9/31). One of the things he says in response to this question of world in the last session—and I am not claiming it’s the only or a full response—is that, pace Heidegger, humans and animals both live as mortals, and that means that they co-in-habit the same world. In this world, humans and nonhumans are, Derrida writes,

co-diers [commourans], as Montaigne might have said, not that they die at the same moment, but they die together. . . . [T]these ones not far from those ones and in the same space (water, earth, air, fire) as those ones. . . . [T]he beast and the sovereign both turn out to be living beings that find themselves in the situation either of dying of old age, or else of finding death at any moment, and so they live and die together. . . . [T]hey co-habit the world that is the same. . . . This co-of the co-habitant presupposes a habitat, whether one calls it the earth (including sky and sea) or else the world of life-death. (BS2 263–264/363–365)18

When it comes to thinking life as inseparable from habitat, “the world of lifedeath” and “earth” (earth including sky and sea) name the same place: the space into which the living are born, live, and die. Already in the first session, we read that living beings “have in common the finitude of their life, and therefore, among other features of finitude, their mortality in the place they inhabit, whether one calls that place world or earth (earth including sky and sea)” (BS2 10/33). Here again, earth names the “mortality of place” that living beings share. Given that alterity is, in BS2, defined by reference to surviving the dead and receiving their corpse, earth as “mortality of place” is here one of the recipients of the corpse (BS2 126–127/188–189). If my mortality means that others decide over me and possess me in what Derrida calls “an irreducible non–habeas corpus” (BS2 144/210), then death is the (nonpresent) source of both vulnerable-ethical and sovereign-political connections among living beings, connections that also link life and death, the organic and the inorganic, me and the earth.

When Derrida says that earth is shared as the habitat of co-mortals, he does not, I think, intend “shared” in the manner of an objective empiricism or naturalist realism, for that would flatly contradict the phenomenological-deconstructive meaning of world as worlding (die Welt weltet, Heidegger writes [GA 7, 181; GA 77, 149], and Derrida agrees up to a point [BS2 12/36]). The “world worlds”: it opens a horizon of intelligibility from within which anything like “earth,” or nature or reality in the objective sense, becomes accessible first of all.19

In fact, we should recall that in the Tenth Session, only a page after the passage on earth I just cited, Derrida claims that the very human, very common idea of a shared world that is the same for all and that continues as the same with or without me, should be thought of as a way of denying death in “the name of a life insurance policy for living beings losing their world.” The “presumed community of the world” is a “refined utilitarian nominalism that is nothing more than an animal ruse of life, a life common to the beast and the sovereign” (BS2 267/367–369). Derrida does not just understand this useful presumption of a world untouched by death as a phantasmatic denial of death, I believe, but also as a quasi-transcendentally necessary projection of a common horizon of sense, without which the disseminative multiplicity of worlds could hardly be thought (BS2 265/366).20

Derrida sets over against this ineluctable phantasm, or this legitimate horizonal projection, of a shared world (call it world 2) two further senses of world: the world as island (world 1) and the world of lifedeath (world 3). Remember that he also calls this world “earth,” understood as one feature of finitude, namely, the mortality in the place of inhabiting. The solitary world 1 is the result of coming to understand that “the community of the world is always constructed, simulated by a set of stabilizing apparatuses, more or less stable, then, and never natural . . . always deconstructible” (BS2 8–9/31). The deconstruction of this construction removes the orderliness of world: in Latin and Greek, mundus and cosmos not only mean “world” but also “order,” that is, proper, good arrangement, harmony, and cleanliness (as in émondage, which means, for instance, tree pruning, trimming, and training). The result of this deconstruction of a common world is an insight into the fact that each living mortal engenders, at each turn, a different sense of world. Here, world is “the absolutely unshareable . . . the abyssal unshareable . . . separated like one island from another” (BS2 266/367).

But what is the position and role of world 3, the world of lifedeath or earth, with respect to worlds 1 and 2? Derrida does not pose the question in this form, but I think we can reconstruct it fairly along the following lines. Recall that lifedeath names the inscription of death in life, the self-difference that first of all provokes life qua life to seek to separate itself from its environing world, thereby “constructing” both itself in self-affirmation and the world in other-affirmation. World 1, the world as island, is the consequence of each living being projecting its world, from its unique positioning in context, and in response to its attempt to return to itself from out of the finite-mortal environment. It is along these lines that a common world (in the sense of world 2) may be assumed to ensure “the longest survival” (BS2 267/368), even if it remains phantasmatic and merely assumed. World 1, the world as island, can emerge only in the difference from other worlds, just as islands are unthinkable without the sea that connects, but also separates and engulfs, them.

The earth, then, as the world of lifedeath, and including the sea names the self-difference within the island that differentially connects with other islands. The island is an island only by belonging to the sea, which in turn belongs to the earth. But earth here does not indicate the stable shore as compared to the tumultuous sea in which human life so easily drowns, and whose visceral envelopment of the skin so touchingly and emblematically symbolizes the autoimmune attraction and repulsion that makes up our embodied being-in-the-world. If Robinson Crusoe felt saved from the sea by being stranded on an island, the feeling doesn’t last long. He soon discovers that the island is subject to earthquakes: it opens up, divides and differentiates itself, leaving a gaping wound, an open mouth ready to swallow him just as the sea devoured his shipmates: “When the earthquake happens, Robinson [is] terrorized by the earth itself, terrified by the earth and by the possible interring of his living life [Au moment du tremblement de terre, Robinson [est] terrorisé par la terre même, terrifié par la terre et par l’enterrement possible de sa vie vivante]” (BS2 79/125). So when Derrida says the earth is shared as the world of lifedeath, as the place of co-dying, death is that which both separates and relates, across an abyss, individual living beings to each other. If earth as habitat is shared, it is shared not as a common possession from which we are removed. As we saw above, we are not united, as in Kant, by our shared sovereign ownership of the earth’s surface on (rather than “in”) which we live (see Derrida 2000, 16n1221). Rather, the earth is shared as that which no one can possess: the unpossessable, the im-power of death at the heart of life, the hetero in auto-hetero-affection. Earth names the nonpower of sovereignty, its unconditional exposure to alterity, its mortal body or its corpse. The corpse—we cannot even write “my corpse”—signifies above all that agency, the power to live, move, go out into the world (of the earth) and come back to oneself, comes to an absolute limit with the interred condition of the corpse. The corpse signifies death as nonresponse, the incapacity and passivity that ties the living body to that which it cannot absorb, interiorize, and incorporate, but which will have engulfed it, if we can say so, from the inside out. Earth is one name, even if only one, for the preceding and exceeding context of lifedeath that I cannot appropriate for myself but must leave for the other, the surviving sovereigns as well as the earth as recipient of the corpse.

When, in the Fifth Session of BS2, Derrida lists the others that Crusoe is afraid will bury him or swallow him alive, and to which his life is in fact “delivered over, in his body, defenseless, to the other,” Derrida first names, before beasts and cannibals, the quaking earth “as a kind of external and foreign element” (BS2 138/203). In fact, we should recall that each time Derrida writes, as he does here, of Crusoe’s fear of “being buried [enterré ou englouti] alive,” there is a reference to the earth [terre]. “Earth” names the way in which the living body is claimed by its other, by the other par excellence claiming the living body.22


1. See I do not mean to suggest that all human earthlings should live in poverty. These comparative figures indicate the well-known need to balance sustainability and economic development, and, as suggested at the end of Chapter 3, to situate economics in earth and world.

2. Kant 2017, 56; see also 97. For a discussion of these references with respect to Kant’s conceptions of property and cosmopolitan hospitality, see Oliver 2014. Oliver suggests a link in Kant between the shared terrestrial surface and the imaginary passage beyond earth in regarding humanity from the perspective of the universe, even as Kant admits that other planets are uninhabitable for humans. Kant writes in 1754: “Should the immortal [human] soul remain forever attached to this point in space, to our Earth for the whole infinity of its future duration, which is not interrupted by the grave itself, but only changed? Should it never obtain a closer view of the remaining wonders of creation? Who knows whether it is not intended to get to know at close quarters those distant spheres of the solar system and the excellence of their arrangements that already excite its curiosity so much from a distance?” (Kant 2012, 307; 1900ff., 1:367–368).

3. The moral law depends on the noumenal world of freedom, which, while merely thinkable, is unaffected by nature, for the latter is, for the Kant of the first and second Critiques, the world of causality, whereas free (and thus possibly moral) action must be conceived as self-beginning (Selbstanfang) (Critique of Pure Reason B 474; Kant 1998, 484).

4. There are two places in which Derrida speaks of something like the promise of the earth. In the first, he speaks of the promise of the bond between singularities (singular people prior to citizenship), a noncommunal, spectral bond made up, he says, by the issues of life, animality, and earth (NII 241). In the second, one that we will examine in greater detail below, he speaks indeed of “the finite promise of the world,” a promise according to which it is “up to ‘us’ to let survive that which ‘we’ inadequately call the human earth” (AV 47/39).

5. “If the autoposition, the automonstrative autotely of the ‘I,’ even in the human, implies the ‘I’ to be an other that must welcome within itself some irreducible hetero-affection (as I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere), then this autonomy of the ‘I’ can be neither pure nor rigorous; it would not be able to form the basis for a simple and linear differentiation of the human from the animal” (AA 133/95; see Lawlor 2007, 60ff.).

6. See Vicki Kirby on evolution and the environment as a force that speciates and individuates “itself” in the organism (Kirby 2018).

7. Derrida, “Eating Well,” in Points (PI 268–269/282–284 et passim); see also TS 76–77. As commentators have pointed out, some of Derrida’s metaphors and analogies in the last ten years of his writings, beginning in particular with “Faith and Knowledge” (FK), are also drawn from biology (e.g., autoimmunity).

8. “I am” Derrida writes, means “I am (not yet) born,” and wonders “Who ever said that one was born just once?” (PI 339/349).

9. “La vie la mort” is the title of a Derrida seminar (so far unpublished in its entirety) on the notion of organic life from 1975, parts of which have been published in The Postcard. The term “lifedeath” appears frequently there, in a discussion of (Freud’s) legacy and leaving remains more generally (PI 41, 273, 277, 284–285, 359–360, 367).

10. For Derrida, phantasms of self-beginning and self-birth are, at least implicitly, phantasms of matricide: “Birth, being born (not the being born nothing or from nothing, but always the being born from . . . or in two’s, me and before me the other me): this is neither the beginning nor the origin nor even, save the phantasm, a point of departure. A dependency, no doubt, but not an origin or point of departure. A generation, perhaps, but without origin. The word generation is big with all these ambiguities” (NW 91). For more on Derrida on birth and maternity, see Boelderl 2006, 2012.

11. For instance (and I pick a passage from Session One that I see as typical): “[O]ne cannot keep from thinking that the death penalty, inasmuch as it puts an end, irreversibly, along with the life of the accused, to any perspective of the revision, reparation, redemption, even repentance, at least on earth and for someone living . . . signifies that the crime it sanctions remains forever, on men’s earth and in men’s society, unforgivable” (DP1 45/78).

12. As in Genesis 3:19 (New International Version): “By the sweat of your brow / you will eat your food / until you return to the ground / since from it you were taken / for dust you are / and to dust you will return.” See also Ecclesiastes 3:20: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” These biblical lines must today be understood in the context of the dualism that is, of course, part of the long legacy of humanism: Ecclesiastes 12.17: “[A]nd the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

13. Derrida’s discusses “self-taste” further in one of the sessions of BS2 not published in the volume, but published separately as “Justices” (Derrida 2005). See the editorial note in BS2 xvin8/16n6.

14. My thanks to Ted Toadvine for pointing me to Hatley’s wonderful essay.

15. “Provocation” is the word Derrida uses in interpreting Nietzsche’s will-to-power and its dependence on obstacles; see “Nietzsche and the Machine” (at N 223–227).

16. For further details as to this connection between (quasi-)ontological concepts (world, self, identity) and normative ones (obligation, affirmation, promise), see Fritsch 2011a.

17. For an elaboration of the claim that vulnerability is not to be thought as a capacity, especially not in the context of environmental ethics, see my “An Eco-Deconstructive Account of the Emergence of Normativity in ‘Nature’” (Fritsch 2018).

18. Note also the reference to co-mourance, dying together or shared mortality, in Derrida’s conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in For Strasbourg. Derrida there notes that if Dasein is always Mitsein, then Heidegger cannot conceive of dying in entirely solitary terms. To think this togetherness in dying, neither dying for the people (as in the infamous §74 of Being and Time) nor being a member of a generation quite suffices for Derrida (FSC 21–22). He then links dying together to what he calls a “testamentary desire, the desire that something survive” of me “that does not come back to me” (FSC 23), what psychologists call generativity, or the desire to leave a legacy. He then distances this desire from the Spinozist claim that “[w]e feel and know by experience that we are immortal,” and says: “[N]aturally, I don’t believe in immortality. But I know that there is an I, a me, a living being who is related to itself through auto-affection, who might be a bird, and who will feel alive like me. . . . When I am dead, there will be a bird, an ant, who will say ‘me’ for me, and when someone says ‘me’ for me, that’s me” (FSC 26). Derrida thus conceives of co-dying in non-speciesist terms, and sees himself surviving, by proxy and without immortality, in the ant or the bird or another living being. We should connect this sense of co-dying to what we said above, with Derrida and Plumwood, about finding a third way to conceive of the death-earth relation, beyond the reductive-naturalist and the spiritualist-distanced conceptions of death. (On Montaigne’s commourans, see also Malabou and Derrida 2004, 7n2.)

19. Here it would be productive to relate this use of “world” in BS2 to Derrida’s early work on Husserl on earth and world. In Derrida’s introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry, for example, we read: “The language and consciousness of co-humanity are solidary possibilities and already given in the moment where the possibility of science is established. The horizon of co-humanity supposes the horizon of the world: it stands out and articulates its unity against [se détache et articule son unité sur] the unity of the world. Of course, the world and co-humanity here designate the single, but infinitely open totality of possible experiences and not this world here, this co-humanity here. . . . The consciousness of being-in-community within one and the same world establishes the possibility of a universal language” (IOG 74/79). Commenting on Husserl’s use of “earth” to name this presupposition of a common world, Derrida goes on to suggest in that early text that earth provides the ground of a consciousness of “a pure and pre-cultural we” (IOG 76/81), a consciousness of belonging to “one and the same humanity, inhabiting one and the same world” (IOG 76/81). But of course, as in BS2, this presupposition cannot be accessed in pure form: “[P]re-cultural pure Nature is always already buried. So, as the ultimate possibility for communication, it is a kind of inaccessible infra-ideal” (IOG 77/81–82). My thanks to Phil Lynes for pointing me to these passages. See also Lynes 2018.

20. Derrida here associates this projection with the idea of a shared lifeworld and links it to Habermas’s use of this idea, also in a quasi-transcendental argument, in his theory of communicative action (BS2 267/368). See also the afterword to Limited Inc, where Derrida claims that strong assumptions—for instance, that concept use must be governed by the logic of noncontradiction—are required for meaning. See in particular Derrida 1988 (114–130), which speaks of a “structural idealism” (120) that seems to me to be comparable to, though also different from, Habermas’s universal pragmatics and its analysis of inevitable idealizations. For more on this proximity see Fritsch 2011a.

21. Kant’s discussion of the “original possession in common [ursprünglicher Gesamtbesitz]” of “the earth’s surface as spherical surface [Erdfläche als Kugelfläche]” is in his Doctrine of Right, particularly property law, in The Metaphysics of Morals (Kant 2017, 56; 1900ff., 6:262–263). See also Oliver 2014.

22. Note that the English edition, by translating enterré as “buried,” loses the frequency of Derrida’s references to earth as the recipient of the corpse; “inhumed” would be better, as in German beerdigt, both of which refer to the earth. In Glas Derrida uses enseveli more often than enterré, ensevelir being more formal and referring to shrouding and placing a body not in the earth but in a sepulchre (Latin sepulturum, insepelire), thereby protecting the body from terrestrial elements. (In Glas, Derrida makes much of the fact that traditionally, it was the work of women to protect the sovereign separation of bodies from the earth, by cleaning and shrouding a corpse.) The contrast indicates that the discussion of the corpse in BS2 is earthier than in Glas. (Note: “terror,” “terrified,” etc. stem from PIE root *trem-“to tremble” and so seem not to be etymologically related to Latin terra, source of the English “terrain,” “territory,” which stem from the PIE root *ters-“to dry,” as in “dry land” (“thirst” also comes from this root).