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Didier Fassin “Ethics of Survival”

Fassin, Didier 2010. Ethics of Survival: A Democratic Approach to the Politics of Life. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 1(1): 81-95.


The distinction between man and animal has thus become a difference between physical or biological life, which man has in common with the rest of the animal kingdom, and social or political, life, which renders him unique. (81)


Derrida: ‘‘Long before the experience of survival that I am presently facing, I wrote that survival is an original concept which constitutes the very structure of what we call existence. We are, structurally speaking, survivors, marked by this structure of the trace, of the testament. That said, I would not endorse the view according to which survival is more on the side of death and the past than of life and the future. No, deconstruction is always on the side of the affirmation of life.’’ (81)


Derrida: ‘‘No, I never learned to live. Definitely not! Learning to live should mean learning to die. I never learned to accept death. I remain impervious to being educated in the wisdom of knowing how to die.’’ (82)


Derrida: ‘‘Everything I say about survival as a complication of the opposition between life and death proceeds from an unconditional affirmation of life. Survival is life beyond life, life more than life, and the discourse I undertake is not about death. On the contrary, it is the affirmation of a living being who prefers life and therefore survival to death, because survival is not simply what remains; it is the most intense life possible.’’ (82)


[…] these two readings present life as what can be put to death (for Agamben), and as what is comprised from birth to death (for Canguilhem). The social sciences have largely drawn from these two repertoires: the former has been used to comprehend the government of populations and human beings; the latter has nourished the sociology and anthropology of sciences and techniques. However different they may be, these two models rest on the same premises. Both treat life as a physical phenomenon, whether it is ‘‘bare life’’ or ‘‘biological life’’ (both philosophers insisting that it is the dimension shared with the entire animal kingdom). And both assume that life can be separated, for scientific or political reasons, from life as an existential phenomenon, whether it is called ‘‘qualified life’’ or ‘‘lived experience’’ […] (82)


It seems to me that Derrida’s reflection shatters this distinction: ‘‘survival’’ mixes inextricably physical life, threatened by his cancer, and existential experience, expressed in his work. To survive is to be still fully alive and to live beyond death. It is the ‘‘unconditional affirmation’’ of life and the pleasure of living, and it is the hope of ‘‘surviving’’ through the traces left for the living. (83)


I see it as an ethical gesture through which life is rehabilitated in its most obvious and most ordinary dimension—life which has death for horizon but which is not separated from life as a social form, inscribed in a history, a culture, an experience. (83)


[…] it is not life that interests Michel Foucault when he speaks of biopolitics, but ‘‘populations’’ considered as a modern invention. (88)

  1. August 25, 2016 at 8:15 am

    Thank you for these notes. Some inspiring optimism from the father of deconstruction.

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