Diane Davis rejects that autodeixis, the subject’s capacity to achieve self-reflexivity, is the definitive ontological divide separating human and nonhuman animals. In “Autozoography: Toward a Rhetoricity of the Living,” she challenges the centrality of autodeixis in Western philosophy, not by  defending the autodeictic capacity of animals, but by questioning this capacity in humans. Though Davis offers numerous examples of language-using animal species, her key “question now is not whether animals have powers that humans have denied them as much as whether humans have the power to be or to do I in the way that philosophy and rhetorical studies has presumed” (Davis 536).

For, following Derrida, if no X is self-identical to X, then it follows that the relation “I” have to “myself” as “my self” must contain (and exclude) the “Not Myself” as the supplement of the “I.” There is no cogito independent of “the mediation/contamination of some outside”(540). Interior and exterior to “myself,” “I” am both the spectre and spectator of an “I” whose “autoaffection” originates not in an identification with sameness, but in the primal alterity of difference (540). I do not “possess” the “power” to “do the I.” Rather, it is the iterability of the “I” itself which grants the emergence of the “I.” As Davis puts it, the “I” that is “generated, each time, in the gap between me and myself, between the one recognizing and the one recognized, where an extrahuman rhetorical relation plays itself out” (537).

This is rhetoricity – the pre-originary responsiveness, condition and possibility for response, which allows for the iteration/iterability of “I.” Contra autodeixis, rhetoricity “cannot be innate because it cannot not be relational” (548). It cannot be “possessed” by an individual because it is the “relational condition” for singularity itself (533). Autodeixis is not a capacity inherent to humans nor a power wielded by the rationalist agent. Davis argues for a “rhetoricity before ontology” (547) which renders “self-reference” impossible in the very way that rhetoricity provides the conditions for “the identity and functioning of any living being” (547).

Two concluding notes regarding my own project on ethics and post-“identification” solidarity

  1. To reject a definitive human/nonhuman boundary is not to erase inter-species differences, but to infinitely disperse differences between and within species divisions. I leave open that a “responsible” “response” to some life – vegetable, parasitical, etc. – may still allow us to exterminate it for the protection and sustenance of other life. These different responses are not justified by arguable ontological distinctions, but by solidarity lines drawn in accordance with ethical stakes. 
  2. Though my own work does not focus on animal studies, this article the “Autodeixis” engages my project of exploring a “communion” not contingent on sameness. In particular, I am interested in exploring the social relations — including logics of domination and violence — are recoded by our encounters with alterity. Embracing rhetoricity  offers an account for a vulnerability that does not pathologize internal alterity as “mediation/contamination.”


Davis, Diane. “Autozoography: Notes Toward a Rhetoricity of the Living.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 47.4 (2014): 532-352.

Image credit: s.a. colclough. Adobe Photoshope, 2015.

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