Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What If Derrida's Cat Had Been A Dog?


Qui est la chatte de Jacques?                                                 

        Le Jacque soi-meme

"An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language.... Sometimes I look into a cat's eyes" (Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith [New York, 1958], pp. 96-97).

                                                      "Who looks at whom?"  (My cat Birdie)

“I must make it clear from the start,”writes French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his famous essay, ‘The Animal That Therefore I am (More to Follow)’, “the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat.”

For several years now, I’ve listened to animal studies folks of every stripe  invoke  this Ur-moment Derrida addresses when his pet cat catches him nu comme en ver as he steps out of the shower.

The surprise confrontation between cat and naked-as-a-jaybird Derrida as he describes it has become a veritable flashpoint for animal scholars interpreting this as everything from a very long  meditation on individual shame and nakedness and knowledge, to a slant acknowledgement of inter-subjectivity with "the other"  and  groundbreaking insight into  the troubling borders of animality, to ethics of care feminists embracing Derrida for his, well, "ethics of care."

Wow, the power of one little cat!

Now I’ve lived with cats more of my life than not, including one who currently refuses to let me, a la Derrida, have any privacy in the bathroom, and routinely ensconces himself like a statue on the closed toilet seat lid while I bathe, affixing me the entire time with his enormous gold-eyed stare. So I know the feeling. (Why, you might ask, don’t I just close the door? Anyone asking that question clearly does not share a home with a determined cat.)

Like Derrida, I, too,  have been curious as to what my cat is thinking when he stares at me.  But, unlike Derrida, I can’t remember a time when I wasn't wondering this. Or  pondering this odd relationship we humans have with our companion animals. Can it really be that in all his cat-owning life this was the first time the question hit Derrida?

Seems to me he's being given an awful lot of credit here for what is probably obvious to numerous cat lovers.  If he weren't Derrida, would anyone really care that he was traumatized when  his cat caught him in the buff?

Some have argued that Derrida's exposition of his feline encounter is one of the most significant commentaries on human-animal relationships .  "Nothing" Derrida writes, "will have ever done more to make me think through this absolute alterity of the neighbor than these moments when I see myself naked under the gaze of a cat" (380).

These observations have even been read as an antidote to philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous bat-as-alien proclamations in which Nagel  insists on the utter unknowability of the other. Is Derrida, as some have posited, espousing  a more dynamic, reciprocal way of being?

Can it really be that this  rather ordinary and familiar moment of a staring cat takes on  for Derrida the philosopher the impact of a tectonic shift, and so rattles him that he experiences—all pun intended--- serious philosophical pause?  Picture it: Derrida, naked and exposed, startled and vulnerable, under the cat’s penetrating and powerful gaze. Can this man so juddered and transformed by the cat in an instant be the same one who wrote the impenetrable Grammatology and forever changed the 20th century?

If Derrida were still alive, I’d want to say, alors!, Jacques, sometimes there is text outside the text, and real life delivered you this moment of thoroughly challenged discourse not just on the Otherness of the animal body and the shame of your own nudity (in the full Bergerian sense), but the Otherness of the Feminine which, interestingly, you largely ignore here except to add, “The cat that looks at me naked and that is truly a little cat, this cat I am talking about, which is also a female . . . ” (375).

Despite being presented as an afterthought, even close to a parenthetical, this little detail that the cat “is also a female” opens the door to the possibility that there's a whole lot more than at stake here than what Derrida (or his interpreters, for that matter) believe. I'm predisposed to thinking there's an inextricable link between  not just animal Otherness,  but noncompliant Feminine Otherness, that so alarmed the great man and prompted him  to reach for a towel.
Now whether this particular cat is female or male is actually beside the point, because cats, regardless of sex, have been, for better and for worse, historically associated with “the feminine.” Both in power and intelligence, cats have been traditionally ascribed with a purported connection to the mysterious and the supernatural. Historically, they have fallen in and out of favor with human beings, much to their own detriment. When they're revered, they're almost deified. When they're despised, they're tormented and subjected to unthinkable ends.

But the fact that Derrida finds the detail important enough to include, even as an aside, and without further examination, strikes me as worth looking at, because Derrida is the last person to play fast and loose with language.

As we all know, cats and various imaginings of their connections to feminine power go way back in time and can be found in numerous cultures.

Witness Bast of ancient Egyptian myth, with her cat’s head and woman’s body, and her revered role as a household goddess, the protector of women and children, as well as fertility and birth. Likewise, the Egyptian warrior goddess, Sekhmet, depicted as a fierce lionness who alternately served as fierce huntress and bearer of disease and cures. Other cultures have revered cats, like the luck-inducing Maneki Neko of Japan, often featured as a ceramic statue with the famously raised paw, around whom a number of legends have collected.

Katherine M. Ball, in Animal Motifs in Asian Art, writes, “While the cat, with many nations, has been associated with women, particularly old women, in Japan, the geisha, ‘singing girl,’ appears to have been selected for this distinction, doubtless due to the witchery she exercises over the opposite sex.” In addition to serving as a force for luck, the Maneki Neko figurine also symbolizes youthful, female sexuality.

The popularized Maneki Neko

But the dark side of feline history with humans is revaled at times when cats have also been regarded as deeply suspect, invested with mysterious and supernatural powers, capable of shapeshifting to trick and deceive. Historically associated with women, the cat has been implicated in black magic and communications with devils.  So-called "witches" were accused of turning themselves into cats and performing spells. Black cats, in particular, were viewed as evil manifestations of Satan and considered bad luck. Cats also functioned as the familiars of witches (often women who lived alone or did not otherwise conform to traditional notions of gender role) who, in turn, were considered to be in league with the Devil. It was believed that their cats played roles in the casting of spells, and were responsibile for sucking life’s breath from innocent infants. And, of course, cats have long represented unrepentant and unfettered female sexuality. The word for “cat” in several languages, including German, is a feminine noun (dogs are masculine). In addition, though the cat has often served as a symbol of feminine power and sexuality, it is equally associated with the occult, and the unknowable, the night and the untamable.

Pope Innocent III decreed in the 15th century that cats, along with witches, be burned. 
The wide-scale torture  and burning  of cats also provided great amusement in early Modern Europe.

Of course, in the West, as cats, both male and female, demonstrated their skills as mousers to fend off disease and plague, their status was elevated  at various points along the way. In fact, in a 2006 survey, cats were counted as the number one household pet, not only in the U.S., but around the world. Still, many in the veterinary and animal rescue business will tell you that, for a host of reasons and misconceptions, cats are far more likely to be neglected and abused than dogs. While neglect may be connected to the misconception that cats can fend for themselves, I have long surmised that this may due in part to the cat as a figure of the noncompliant feminine. “Get off the countertops,” I feebly order my two cats, who look at me as if I’ve dropped from another planet. No sooner have I lifted them off, then they leaped right back up and, ignoring me completely, begin washing their paws. A dog, who may not always get things right, at least generally makes the effort.

This dog's not naked!  No cat would ever submit to such humiliation.

I can’t help but wonder if Derrida, for all his smarts (and who I am to question Derrida?), is, in that moment, startled, not so much by not just the “figure of a cat,” as he calls her, but a manifestation of —and here I go one step further—the “otherness’ of the feminine: in other words, that which for him is unknowable, but which he might also not have noticed had he not himself felt so vulnerable in his nakedness.

Click to enlarge!

By his own admission, he’s not talking about a metaphorical cat. His cat is as real as a cat can get.

By design, cats are prefect predators and obligate carnivores; and though they’ve been in the company of human beings for centuries, their co-evolution with nonhuman animals differs in ways very distinct from that of dogs who have been much more easily genetically manipulated for size, shape, and purpose. In fact, so-called domesticated cats, even the ones snoozing on our beds or winding between our legs and purring, still retain much of “the wild” in them and, though many scientists claim that cats raised by human beings exhibit more kittenish than adult behaviors, they appear to their human companions (perhaps wrongly) as more aloof, stealthy, and independent than dogs, which is arguably part of the charm of living with them.

Predator and prey

Cats, unlike dogs, can also go feral more quickly, usually in one generation (though the life of a feral cat is not usually a happy or long one, nor is this observation meant to in any way suggest that it’s fair to dump a cat off to fend for herself).

Feral cat

And so I pose for myself the question,  what if it had been Derrida’s dog who sauntered into the bathroom that morning instead of his cat?

This may or may not be the dog I imagine for Derrida, but he certainly

looks "startled."

So, what if in lieu of the predatory, self-possessed, enigmatic cat, the animal who confronted Derrida that day as he emerged from the bath had instead been his loyal, devoted (imagined)  mutt who, as scientific evidence now demonstrates, has, along with his other canine brethren,  been modified to evolve with the ability to actually read human facial expressions, and to adapt his own actions accordingly? In other words, the goal of the dog's stare would be to suss out what Derrida was feeling and what he was going to do next. Are you happy, Master? Are we going for a walk?

The eyes of carts are relatively larger than those of human beings and they typically protrude. Since cats are predators, their eyes face forward in their heads, and many cats have what is known as “binocular vision,” the ability for wide-angle vision, as well as terrific peripheral vision. Cats do not blink as often as we do, which accounts, in part, for the intensity of their stare though, interestingly, they actually see the world in a softer focus. But the very physiology of their eyes allows their stare to feel “fixed” and to be far more disconcerting, as if we were being read as prey.


Though dog stares can also be intense and even sometimes signal aggression, recent research has indicated that dogs, like humans, share a “left-gaze bias” that no other non-human animals, including our primate cousins, share. In other words, they "read our faces," just as we humans do. Therefore, a dog’s gaze might more likely mirror emotions like devotion, curiosity, and a desire to please. Unlike the cat's predatory stare, the adoring glance of a dog, eager to please and submit,  might serve as a balm for the “narcisstic wound.”

The cat remains more mysterious, more elusive, and more “other” to us humans than the dog. For starters, the history with us human animals has been very different for each. Whereas dogs and humans co-evolved, exerting relational exchanges on each other in a mutual adaptation to social structures, as Donna Haraway asserts in The Companion Species Manifesto, the cat is a sort of clever architect, manipulating our human responses in order to maintain control. (See the study by Karen McComb, University of Sussex, on what she calls the “solicitation purr” and how it causes us humans to leap into action for our feline friends.)

The question with which I began, “what if Derrida’s cat had been a dog,” is obviously just rhetorical, because I confess to no particular interest in speculating on what Derrida would have done had it been his canid that ambled into the bathroom on that fateful day and caught a glimpse of the fully monty---both physical and pyschic.

From a human perspective, it  may often appear that dogs look at us, and cats see through us. 
In the first line of her fabulous essay, “Pedagogy of Buddhism” from Touching Feeling, Eve Sedgwick asks, “What does it mean when cats bring small, wounded animals into the house?”  and then proceeds  to muse that “ . . . people interpret these as offerings . . . to please or propitiate . . the cats’ humans.” But, writes Sedgwick, basing her observations on the work of anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thompson who knows better, “Where we had thought to be powerful or admired, quasi-parental figures to our cats, we are cast instead into the role of clumsy newborns requiring special education.” (153)

In this essay, otherwise undevoted to cats, Sedgwick posits that it is possible that we do not want to learn the lesson the cat is patiently trying to teach us—how to hunt. Instead of the adulation we desire, we receive instruction. Put another way, the cat offers her skills as a corrective to human failure, which is a blow to our fragile egos.

"Here, insufficient human, I've brought you lunch; now, you try, though it's doubtful you'll succeed."

Unlike their canine counterparts, cats are not as dedicated to pleasing us in the ways we might imagine. Though I would argue that cats are every bit as loyal to their human caretakers as dogs, and they actually do wish to please, displays of affection and obedience are often  given and done on their own terms. In part, because of their unwillingness to do our bidding when requested, cats can be often be read as defiant.

 At the worst moments in their community with human beings, they have been despised, and perceived as objects of torment, hatred, and fear. The Western Middle Ages are an excellent example of  large-scale hatred of cats, many of whom who were burned, boiled, hanged, disemboweled, and impaled. Associated with the occult, and the night (they’re actually crepuscular), they were often blamed for misdeeds and illness, and, like the Cheshire Cat, could seemingly appear and disappear at will, leading people to describe them as “sneaky” and “untrustworthy.” (The Cheshire Cat, though typically represented as “male,” and a figure popularized in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, might have had a real-life analog in Alice’s own female cat Dinah.)

Cheshire Cat Tenniel.jpg

John Tenniel drawing of the Cheshire Cat  from 1866 version

The metonymic device of linking cats and  women, whether in crude sexual terms, or as a distinctive slur about feminine wiles and duplicity, is heart-breakingly rendered in the poem, “Tormenting the Cat,” by Charles Harper Webb. The speaker’s self-indicting observations about cats are neatly combioned with the boys’ distinctly misogynistic views:

“Something about our cat’s fastidious
licking made me want to mess him up. . . .

“Meaner boys than I kicked cats, sicked dogs
on them, lambasted trash dumpsters
with them inside. Sadists drenched strays
in kerosene and watched them streak like howling comets through the night.

None of us could leave in peace
creatures so graceful and self-contained,
so indulged and loved by women,
so indifferent as we writhed in our own flames.”

The refusal of the cat to confirm budding masculine power, and the cat's association for the boys with female independence and confidence implicitly frustrates their  desire for control. In addition, these are animals that are "loved by women," and whose feline company  may actually be more desired than that of men.


Macho cat on motorcycle

In Indiana, the anti-cruelty statute making animal abuse a felony came to fruition because of the headline-making news about a friend’s cat named Olivia who, along with a number of other cats and small animals, was rounded up by some sadistic college boys who trapped her, shaved her, poured gasoline over her, and set fire her to her. Olivia survived initially and became a kind of cause celebre, dragged through skin grafts and various medical interventions until finally she had had enough suffering, and died. Recently, in another highly-publicized case in Indiana, a drunk father ordered his small, terrified children to stab to death their female cat, Boots, with knives. When the children refused and tried to hide the cat, the father finished the job.


Abandoned and neglected cat

Dogs certainly take their fair share of abuse, but I believe such abusive  treatment often springs from different impulses. Dogs are often viewed through a lens of masculinity and have traditionally been thought of as good companions for young boys. Their evolutionary history with human beings  (often aligned with men) initially lies in their utility as hunters and herders. In the dog fighting world, for example, a dog who refuses to fight is quickly disposed of. Many male owners of dogs refuse to have their male canids neutered, feeling that it strips them (and "them" includes both dog and owner) of their masculinity. It's no laughing matter that nuticle implants have been made available for those owners who are willing to neuter so long as there are visible testacles, albeit fakes, to signify an "intact dog."  While those who live with and love dogs know that they are deeply sensitive, emotional creatures, they are certainly very different from cats. 

The lines from the Webb poem describing the cats as “graceful and self-contained” strike me as key here. It is these qualities, often associated with women, along with the cat’s indifference to them and their inability to exercise dominion, that incites the boys to cruelties.

On the flip side, of course, it's only fair to acknowledge a long literary tradition of male poets writing loving tributes to their companion cats, from the 9th century Irish monk who immortalized his white cat, Pangur Ban for his special art of mouse chasing, to Christopher Smart's acknowledgement of the many gifts of his cat Jeoffrey including his link to Divine understanding. And the speaker in French poet Charles Baudelaire’s outright love poem, “Le Chat,” to his cat, addresses  her as he might a volatile and female human lover:

“Come, superb cat, to my amorous heart;
Hold back the talons of your paws,
Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes
Of metal and agate.

When my fingers leisurely caress you,
Your head and your elastic back,
And when my hand tingles with the pleasure
Of feeling your electric body,

In spirit I see my woman. Her gaze,
Like your own, amiable beast,
Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart,
And, from her head down to her feet,

A subtle air, a dangerous perfume
Floats about her dusky body.”


The cat  in the poem, like the woman she's being compared to, is dangerous, but also superb and amiable. The passionate speaker asks her to retract her claws, wanting to feel only the velvet paws. Touching her elastic body elicits for him sheer pleasure. The “electricity” of pleasure in their connection is eroticism at its most lyrical. But what perhaps stands out the most in this poem is that fact that as the speaker gazes into the eyes of the cat, the chilling gaze that is returned is almost identical to what the speaker sees in his woman lover, a look that “cleaves like a dart.” Here, in the cat's expressiot, is what the speaker most fears and loves: the look both “profound and cold.” It is a refusal, a turning away, that causes the speaker’s passion to burn and, in the end, it is no longer the cat the speaker is describing, but the female lover who, like the cat, is mysterious, with “a dangerous perfume [that] floats about her dusky body.”

Halle Berry as Catwoman

In Collette’s novel, The Cat, the young male protagonist Alain experiences a profound, and obsessive, love affair with his cat Saha whose company is more pleasing to him than that of the young girl he’s been convinced to marry. His interactions with Saha are described in highly erotic language, particularly in the charged scene in which he slowly feeds her a moth. The cat comes to represent a feminine sexual ideal who allows him to channel his real desires (some would say he is unable to advance into male adulthood and that his return at the end to his mother, along with Saha, signals this).

This devotion on the part of some men toward cats offers a neat counter-balance to the male terror of the feminine. Legend has it that the Prophet Muhammed was so in awe of his cat Muezza that he cut the sleeve from his robe rather than disturb her slumber.

A cat, not unlike the one in Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories, “walks by himself” or “herself,” as the case may be. There’s an old joke that circulates in various incarnations, purporting to illustrate a tangible difference between cats and dogs. The dog’s phone rings, and before you can blink an eye, the dog has dashed, panting, to answer it, barking breathlessly, “Hello? Hello? What can I do for you?” By contrast, when the cat’s phone rings, the cat, curled up asleep somewhere, simply ignores it, and waits for voice mail to pick up with the cat’s recorded outgoing message instructing the caller to “Leave a message if you want, and maybe I’ll get back to you when I feel like it.”

(See the study by Karen McComb, University of Sussex, on what she calls the “solicitation purr” and how we humans leap into action for our feline friends.)
Bubba and Lance
Human to Cat: Your every wish is my command. 
Cat: And that's all there is?

Compare with:
A dog displaying mastery of the command "sit"

"Sit, Rover."
"Yes, yes, Master, what else do you need?"

However, in an interesting sidebar, recent studies  have repeatedly shown that it is only because women, as opposed to men, generally  tend to interact more with their cats, creating  stronger social bonds, similar to what dog owners have. It's not that cats really prefer women per se,  since men who engage in the same kind of responsive behaviors, picking up on the cues their cat companions give them, also have very strong relationships with their cats.
cats 2.jpg

Man besotted with his kitty

So back to Derrida and his cat. What is it that catches him by surprise? Maybe it really is, as some scholars have suggested, shame of his nudity with the cat functioning as a kind of prolapsarian Eve in the garden after the serpent moment. And maybe he is having a moment of embodied compassion. But I believe it’s no accident the cat is a female, a fact Derrida chooses to include, but not expand on. Where Derrida describes  a “startle,” other men may feel  disempowered.

As Charles Harper Webb’s poem illustrates, the desire to interfere with the cat’s independence and sense of self-containment, characteristics not at all traditionally valued in females, reflects  a certain notion of masculinity destabilized by the power of the feminine.
Derrida’s startled reaction, I contend, is complicated by his own surprise at not being the one (male)  doing the looking, a traditionally masculine position, but being looked at (female). He’s not as much surprised by his own animality as some scholars have read his essay---- a surprise elicited by being naked in front of his cat----as he is by such a direct confrontation with the feminine. Masculinity, in this  brief encounter, doesn't automatically occupy the superior position.

 In truth, the feline gaze can feel both predatory and intimate. It is not only feminine but perhaps feminizing. To be looked at by a cat is to be, in some ways, to be objectified. Derrida internalized that gaze. He saw himself being seen. By another.  By other. And to be objectified is to be “othered.”

Derrida’s own startled reaction might even be linked to the bewildering realization that his “privilege,” maybe even what academics delight in calling “male privilege,” has been stripped away. Whatever you name it, Derrida’s “startle” has to do with “being looked at” by a being he is not only unable to recognize, but who exerts a kind of power over him. Is it possible this is about a reognition of his own animality and more about the surprise of the unmediated and unmitigated feminine? In that brief but significant encounter, Derrida falls under the feline gaze, one that is both predatory and intimate, defiant and seductive. Perhaps most importantly, the cat’s stare is not just feminine but also feminizing.

In the now classic Ways of Seeing, John Berger points out that the female model of a male artist is always engaged in a complicated public act, in which she watches herself being seen. Taking this a step further film theorist Laura Mulvey who coined the now ubiquitous term “male gaze,” helps us analyze more specifically  the impact of the phallocentrism extant in visual media. Power or control, she contends, belongs to the spectator, the one engaged in looking. Out of the work of both Berger and Mulvey sprang smart  and important readings of the way gender and power operate through the very act of viewing. In addition to being looked at, there is also the potential for internalizing “the gaze,” leading to a distorted sense of self.

So rather than reading Derrida’s face-to-face moment with his little cat as an eye- and heart-opening Elizabeth Costello-esque moment of embracing animal otherness as our own, as many optimistic scholars have claimed, I think instead he is as (unconsciously?) alienated by the feminine as Thomas Nagel is of the otherness of his bat. Philosopher Martin Buber was prompted to see already the potential for “becoming-animal” when he wrote that "An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language.... Sometimes I look into a cat's eyes . . . The beginning of this cat’s glance, lighting up under the touch of my own glance, indisputably questioned me: ‘Is it possible that you think of me? Do you really not just want me to have fun? Do I concern you? Do I exist in your sight? Do I really exist? What is it that comes from you? What is it that surrounds me? What is it that comes to me? What is it?’”

Unlike Buber, Derrida does not explore a private relationship with a particular cat. And unlike philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, another favorite with “the animal people,” he does not grapple clumsily with an identification of women as the Other. I might add that while Derrida has his own problems with feminism, for Levinas, women remain little more than a mystery for men.

More to the point, Derrida does not think to include the role of the “feminine” in that brief moment. In fact, despite a chance to leap free of inhibiting cultural and anthropocentric filters, and to perhaps move toward a reciprocity of subject and other, Derrida had–gulp!--- a failure of imagination.

So, I ask, what is it about Derrida’s little female cat? Is it really, as some scholars have suggested, shame of his nudity with the cat acting as a kind of prolapsarian Eve-in-the-garden-after-the-serpent moment? Or is it, as I suspect, the collision with the unabashed, powerful feminine, an otherness even greater than what he perhaps attempts to embrace across the “animal/human” divide?

Derrida, despite the chance  to  confront inhibiting cultural and anthropocentric filters, to experience a moment of free-fall, loses his grip, and has a failure of imagination. In addition, my guess is that Derrida, for a split second,  internalized that cat's gaze. What he saw in that moment was not just  a cat looking at him, but a woman looking back. Lots of scholars have mentioned shame, but no one has mentioned terror, in particular, terror of the feminine.

                                                                 Works Cited

Katherine M. Ball, Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meaning and Aesthetics, Dover Publications, 2004, p 154

Charles Baudelaire. “The Cat” (“Le Chat”), — translated by William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

J. M. Coetzee. The Lives of Animals, Princeton University Press, 2001

Jacques Derrida. "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Trans. David Wills. Critical Inquiry 28 (Winter 2002): 369-418.

Tom Herron, “The Dog Man: Becoming Animal in Coetzee’s Disgrace,” Twentieth Century Literature, 51.4, Winter 2005, pp. 467-490.

Karen McComb, Anna M. Taylor, Christian Wilson, and Benjamin D. Charlton, “The Cry Embedded Within the Purr,” Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 13, R-507-508, July 14, 2009.

Thomas Nagel. “What Is It Like to Be A Bat?” Philosophical Review, pp 435-450, 1974, online http://organizations.utep.edu/Portals/1475/nagel_bat.pdf

Eve Sedgwick, “Pedagogy of Buddhism,” Touching Feeling, p 153-182,  Duke University Press, 2003

Charles Harper Webb. “Tormenting the Cat,” We the Creatures, Dream Horse Press,

p 9, 2003.

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