This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on June 23, 2017
Sticking with the problematic portrayal of animals in children’s fiction, this week’s theory bite focuses on Derrida’s concept of l’animot. Elucidated in the posthumous 2008 collection, The Animal That Therefore I Am, l’animot is a term Derrida coined as an alternative to the anthropocentrically problematic singular term, “the animal”, which he denounces as a “word that men have given themselves the right to give” (Derrida 32). Derrida is concerned with the way in which language conveys upon the human subject an illusory sense of difference, separation, and uniqueness, used in this instance to “corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” (Derrida 32). In other words, the term “animal” overlooks the many differences and distinctions that make up the diversity of life on Earth, by simplifying life into a simple dichotomy of human v. non-human animal. In its place, l’animot as a term both suggests multiplicity in its evocation of the French plural form l’animaux, but also symbolically corrects the invisible power dynamics conferred by human language by incorporating the word itself, or “mot”. Ecocritic Dawn McCance further points out that for Derrida, l’animot suggests a hybridity in its entanglement of the human and the non-human, highlighting the fluidity of human subjectivity that has come to be a founding principle of posthumanism (more on this fascinating school of theory another time) (McCance 67).
So what? Well, this notion of hybridity, and of diversity, is one that has particular resonance in children’s fantasy fiction in particular. As Zoe Jaques explores in Children’s Literature and the Posthuman, the chimerical and morphous creatures of stories such as Alice in Wonderland (where rabbits wear gloves and mock turtles tell tales), The Tiger Who Came to Tea (where the tiger not only speaks but is unsettlingly beast-like), or The Hunger Games (where genetically-modified wasps are weapons and dead humans return as cyborg-like dogs called “mutts”) frequently call into question the dividing line between the human and the “animal” (Jaques 1-21).
An excellent example of this can be seen in the Harry Potter series; particularly in light of the recent release of the 2017 film Fantastic Beasts, the question of human ontology in a subjectivity-shattering magical environment is a central theme in the series. For the purposes of this discussion, it is illuminating to examine one characters in particular: the central antagonist of the original series, Lord Voldemort. The question of Voldemort’s humanity is brought up time and again in the series: from the first moment Harry hears of him, he is told that Voldemort survived the fatal curse that led to his downfall because there was not “enough human left in him to die” (The Philosopher’s Stone 46). At the very end of the series, the part of Voldemort’s soul that Harry encounters after his death is described as a “small, maimed creature” (The Deathly Hallows 567), a “raw-looking thing” (578, my italics). Voldemort is physiological and spiritually entangled with animals – especially snakes – in the series, who keep him alive and embodied when he is weak, symbolize his power, and even house a part of his soul. As the ending in Deathly Hallows suggests, the result is he becomes something less than human himself (suggesting that “being” is hierarchical, with humanity at the top).
In descriptions of Voldemort throughout the series, therefore, Rowling emphasizes his exclusion from what is human – an exclusion which is directly aligned with both the evil in nature, and his ontological cowardice. But, if not human – then what is he? He is clearly more than an animal in strict Cartesian terms: in The Chamber of Secrets, for example, it is Voldemort’s linguistic ability to speak the language of both humans and snakes that gives him power over both species, as well as the ability to name himself. As a “parselmouth”, Voldemort can command snakes to obey him (Chamber of Secrets 146), and this marks the start of his rise to power in the human world; it also significantly allows him to rename himself – from Tom Marvolo Riddle, he becomes Lord Voldemort – in a symbolic inversion of the Derridian l’animot. Voldemort, then, is a “monstrous hybrid” (Derrida 41) of the type described by Derrida as typifying l’animot, whose hybrid nature not only blurs the boundaries of human ontology, but also gives voice and power to the animals aligned with him. In the trajectory of the narrative, snakes not only confer power upon him but, through the erasure of his own boundaries of being, they also weaken him and the exploitation (of all creatures) that he stands for.
Voldemort’s story suggests that it is unsustainable, ultimately, to exploit for power that which is inherently a part of oneself. Like Derrida’s l’animot, the human and the animal cannot be easily distinguished through the power of language; where this linguistic separation is breached, the resulting hybridity calls for a radical re-evaluation of the place of humans within the wider power hierarchies of the environment.
Is this a message readers are likely to take away from an engagement with the series? It is difficult to say: the series is complex, and many other elements of this vast epic can be read as reinforcing traditional ontological hierarchies. However, it is interesting to note just how pervasively the issues identified by Derrida have crept into the story. In children’s literature, it seems, to human is just one of many powerful possibilities.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Trans. David Wills. Fordham University Press, 2008.
Jaques, Zoe. Children’s Literature and the Posthuman: Animal, Environment, Cyborg. Routledge, 2015.
McCance, Dawn. Critical Animal Studies: A Introduction. State University of New York Press, 2013.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Bloomsbury, 1998.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Bloomsbury, 2007.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury, 1997.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.