Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jonathan Basile reviews Biodeconstruction

Francesco Vitale. Biodeconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Life Sciences. Trans. Mauro Senatore. Albany: SUNY Press, 2018. 256 pp.

Review by Jonathan Basile

3 October 2018

Biodeconstruction—not just Francesco Vitale’s book, but the term and germ he is introducing into the academic ecosystem—is a deconstruction of the efforts of both biologists and philosophers to define life. Vitale draws from Jacques Derrida’s 1975 seminar La vie la mort (unpublished, though the Derrida Seminar Translation Project anticipates that the French edition will appear in 2019 and its English translation Life Death in 2020), which includes a deconstruction of François Jacob’s The Logic of Life (1970). Jacob won the Nobel Prize for his work on the regulation of gene expression and wrote The Logic of Life to argue that cybernetics could dispel the superstitions of vitalism by teaching us to see the living thing as the result of informatic programs stored in DNA. While Jacob defined life as a language in order to liberate biology from its debt to philosophical speculation (especially the Aristotelian definition of life as a form of teleology), Derrida shows that Jacob’s concepts of information, program, and language remain dependent on metaphysical logocentrism.

These are the twin tasks of biodeconstruction: to place in question the extent to which biological discourses escape the metaphysical definitions of life and to deconstruct that metaphysical tradition. In order to isolate the genetic program, Jacob must invoke the logocentric distinction between a deterministic “genetic memory” that purely repeats and a “nervous memory” capable of acquiring behaviors but only operative on the timescale of the individual living thing. Derrida’s deconstruction will place in question the logocentric idea of a pure repetition without difference on which Jacob’s definition of the genetic program depends. To keep repetition pure, Jacob must imagine that all of a living thing’s exposure to its outside, including sex and death, is a mere accident, external to the existing program.

The metaphysical resonance of this pure life without alterity is easily felt. Derrida turns to G. W. F. Hegel’s Science of Logic (1816) and Philosophy of Nature (1817) to show how the elevation of a pure life beyond death, capable of auto-reproduction, is the common ground of metaphysics and genetic determinism. In its stead Derrida speaks of life death, a living that is only living insofar as it is exposed and vulnerable, in a differential relationship with its others. Life death is not an equation of life and death but rather the need to endlessly take each into account to understand their differing from self. In Vitale’s words, “The living must relate to the other in order to be itself” (p. 3).

Vitale’s study also offers the opportunity to place Derrida in dialogue with some of his contemporaries on these themes. For example, Louis Althusser’s “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists” (a 1967 lecture first published in 1974), presents surface similarities in its thesis of a “spontaneous philosophy” underlying the practical work of scientists and his focus on Jacques Monod, who shared the Nobel Prize with Jacob.[1] A more patient reading could reveal in Derrida’s and Althusser’s different approaches precisely the difference between Marxist critique and deconstruction. Althusser’s philosophy of science depends on the idea that philosophy and science can be purely delineated, so that science will be proper when it restricts itself to its real objects and intrascientific materialism and improper when it succumbs to idealism and ideology (thus opening the space for philosophical critique). Althusser then pretends, when he begins to read Monod, that a “strictly scientific content” can be cleanly delimited from its implicit philosophy, and that philosophy will be able to discuss the latter while leaving the former untouched.[2] These and other critical or uncritical distinctions shaping Althusser’s discourse show the need for deconstruction in the philosophy of science. Far from sheltering an untouchable scientific core, Derrida’s deconstruction of Jacob displaced the very heart of his scientific work, the thesis of the genetic program as the executive power governing the living thing.

Vitale makes the case that while Derrida’s intervention may have seemed an “ingenuous Lamarckism” (arguing for the inheritance of acquired traits) at the time, it has proven prescient with the discovery of epigenetics (p. 69). Vitale’s thorough knowledge of contemporary biology sheds light at several points on the relevance of Derrida’s thought for current developments in the field. Moreover, for anyone with reservations about the precritical materialism and realism that dominates much theoretical work today, Vitale’s Biodeconstruction offers a potential revitalization.

[1] See Louis Althusser, “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists,” trans. Warren Montag, in“Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists” and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster et al., ed. Gregory Elliott (New York, 1990).

[2] Ibid., p. 145.