Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

John Bruni

John Bruni contends that Cary Wolfe’s latest book “Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame” discusses the “legal issues that inform our relationships with non-human animals.” Bruni writes that in doing so Wolfe dissects the process of law-making and appearing “before the law” as animals, which might be potentially harmful and eclipse the existence of animals beyond the human sphere. According to Bruni what distinguishes Wolfe’s perspective is that he does not promote any form of “ecological self-righteousness” but rather asks the question whether we need to move beyond species-based discourses that constantly pits humans and animals against each other in an essentially unwinnable impasse—to a more ethical approach that may expand the “community of living.”

Dibs Roy:

For other ebr essays by Cary Wolfe, click here.


My partner and I live with two pet bunnies, Marley and Clyde. Recently, it has been troubling us to observe a culinary trend in Midwestern restaurants of listing rabbit on the menu. Such a trend reminds us that unlike other companion species—for instance, dogs—rabbits can be killed without a second thought. And certainly without legal consequence.

Cary Wolfe’s latest book, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame, takes up the legal issues that inform our relationships with non-human animals, most pointedly, how the law determines which animals deserve protection. For other ebr essays by Wolfe, click here. There is, as Wolfe instructs us, a double meaning of “before the law” that does violence to animals such as rabbits. First, there is the “originary violence” as the law “installs its frame for who’s in and who’s out.” Second, there is “the violence of sacrifice for which the distinction between human and animal has historically been bedrock, providing for the law the ‘foundation’ for its exclusions that the law cannot provide itself” (9). In other words, there is no way to regard these “exclusions” (what Giorgio Agamben has called bios [political life] versus zoe [bare life]) as anything other than arbitrary—which, as we will see, has grave implications for all forms of life.

The book opens with two examples, one year apart, of animals before the law that Wolfe reads through biopolitics, summed up by Michel Foucault (in his lectures at the College de France) as “making live and letting die.” Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 247. As Wolfe explains, great Apes in 2008 were granted “basic rights” by a resolution passed by the Environmental Committee of the Spanish Parliament. Conversely, in 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that “about nine billion animals were killed in the United States for food” (11).  

How, then, to reconcile these two apparently divergent instances of the way animals are treated? One solution Wolfe’s argument questions, at the start, is granting rights to animals, as if it could be assumed they are individual agents. Wolfe insists that ethics, following Jacques Derrida, should be instead based on the “finitude” (vulnerability and mortality) that humans share with animals. We, moreover, share with animals an estrangement from language, because language is always/already before us. These ideas have been articulated by Wolfe in previous books. “Our subjection to a radically ahuman technicity or mechanicity of language,” Wolfe explains, becomes “a technicity that has profound consequences, of course, for what we too hastily think of as ‘our concepts, which are therefore in an important sense not ‘ours’ at all.” Refer to What Is Posthumanism?, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 88. I discuss Wolfe’s thinking about biopolitics in the conclusion to Scientific Americans: The Making of Popular Science and Evolution in Early-Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, forthcoming, 2014). What moves Wolfe’s thinking forward is his connecting Derrida’s recent lectures (in the two-volume collection, The Beast & the Sovereign) to biopolitics. In these lectures, as Wolfe explains, Derrida refines his idea that the distinction between humans and animals (the “who” and the “what”) hinges on what comes before and after the law, what Derrida calls the “autoimmunitary.” See Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud, trans. Geoffrey Bennington, vol. 1 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 183; Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, ed. Giovanna Borradori (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 128-29. In other words, any declaration of what life deserves protection before the law can only be expressed after the law: the “contingency” of the law is “what opens it to the future and the outside, the as yet unaddressed subjects—who knows how many?—of justice” (92). 

In Derrida’s view, there can be no “unconditional hospitality,” read by Wolfe (against Roberto Esposito’s argument) as suggesting that all life forms cannot be protected equally. For Wolfe’s critique of Esposito, refer to Before the Law, 55-62. But there is also the exercise of justice itself that requires some form of a sovereignty backing it that must appear autonomous. Wolfe unpacks the complex relationship between hospitality and sovereignty through a thoughtful reading of the debate about synthetic meat, which allows us to identify what is at stake, biopolitically. It seems rather strange, Wolfe thinks, “that many of the most prominent advocates of sustainable agriculture actually oppose synthetic meat” (97). 

What this opposition reveals is that the ethics of eating “real” meat (regardless of the noble intentions of those who attempt to reduce cruelty to animals through advocating non-factory farming methods) foregrounds the necessity of sacrifice—in the logic Wolfe traces through Derrida, it is “what makes meat ‘meat’” (97)—the same rationale that illustrates the political/religious necessity of sacrifice to ensure sovereignty. Which means, as Derrida states, “[L]ife has absolute value only if it is worth more than life… .  It is sacred, holy, infinitely respectable only in the name of what is worth more than it and what is not restricted to the naturalness of the bio-zoological (sacrificeable).” Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, trans. Samuel Weber (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 50-51. At such a moment, we may imagine Marley and Clyde’s ears perking up. There is a killing logic at work, now fully revealed, and Wolfe pushes this point rather hard—he says, it is “a key export for the success of capitalist globalization, one borne on the backs of billions of dead animals” (101). He advises us to look at China: historically known for advocating vegetarianism, it has, signifying its economic and cultural modernization, changed to meat-eating, despite being spectacularly ill-prepared to do so, with global consequences (such as deforestation). Thus Wolfe contends, “[T]he very ecological sustainability of the planet is at stake in the repression of this violence against nonhuman animals” (101).

But I think Wolfe is far from advocating a stance of ecological self-righteousness. Nor does he recommend a utopian plan that could somehow transcend the contingency of the law. Instead, we need to recognize that the realm of the immunitary is where the most crucial choices must be made. It goes further, philosophically, than legal protection alone, for here (returning to Derrida’s distinction between the who and what) we are addressing the question of whose lives deserve self-protection. In a memorable turn of phrase, Wolfe remarks that 

the refusal to take seriously the difference between different forms of life—bonobos versus sunflowers, let’s say—as subjects of immunitary protection is, as they used to say in the 1970s, a ‘cop out.’ … We must choose, and by definition we cannot choose everyone and everything at once. But this is precisely what ensures that, in the future, we will have been wrong (103)

Why? Because, as Derrida points out, the paradox of unconditional hospitality: without it, there cannot be hospitality—but hospitality can never be without conditions, without limits. Some may, understandably, be displeased with where Wolfe leaves us—with an unsure biopolitical future that holds promise for “who knows how many?” Yet his remarkably passionate and concise book suggests where we can channel our energies: away from species-based discourse (where we are the only “who” that matters), from the contempt/debasement of animal life (disclosed by Agamben’s argument), from biological universalism (revealed by Esposito’s argument), and towards Derrida’s persistent questioning of the sacrificial logic of sovereignty. A world not structured by this logic, Wolfe concludes, would no longer set humans against animals; careful thinking about immunitary protection would expand the “community of the living” (105). 

We could, then, fully welcome Marley and Clyde into our future world. Not because we think they are more like us, but because, Wolfe would say, we are more like them: “we are all, after all, potentially animals before the law” (105).

Works Cited 

Bruni, John. Scientific Americans: the Making of Popular Science and Evolution in Early-Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture.  Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, Forthcoming in Summer 2014.

Derrida, Jacques.  The Beast and the Sovereign.  Ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud.  Trans. Geoffrey Bennington.  Vol. 1.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

—.  “Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.”  In Religion.  Ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo.  Trans. Samuel Weber. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.  1-78.

—. “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides—A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida.”  In Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida Ed. Giovanna Borradori.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.  85-136.

Foucault, Michel.  Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976

Ed.  Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana.  Trans. David Macey.  New York: Picador, 2003.

Wolfe, Cary.  What Is Posthumanism?  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.