Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What If Derrida's Cat Had Been A Dog?

                                   
WHAT IF DERRIDA'S CAT HAD BEEN A DOG? (with footnotes!)
                                                                                               

Qui exactement 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).





                                                    


What If Derrida’s Cat Had Been A Dog?
           
It seems unlikely that there’s been  in the last decade an animal studies-related conference, dissertation chapter, or anthology during which at some point a  speaker or writer doesn’t get around to citing Derrida’s cat.  As a brief refresher, Jacques Derrida won the adoration of many of ‘the animal people’ [1]with his now famous paper, ‘The Animal That Therefore I am (More to Follow).’ First delivered as a series of lectures at a conference in 1997, they  were  subsequently translated from the French into English in a 2008 publication. An examination on shame and nakedness and language, as well as the humanities themselves, Derrida’s lengthy essay is most often lauded as a moral meditation on the complex philosophical stew that comprises human relationships with animals or, what philosopher Kelly Oliver cites as  his attempt to ‘describe [...] a ‘naked’ encounter with another creature before or beyond concepts and their names, including male or female.’ (144)
To refresh memories, Derrida’s essay is triggered by an otherwise ordinary encounter with his own cat, who ‘surprised’ him one day in the bathroom while he was naked,  prompting him to pose numerous questions, including this concluding one:  ‘But cannot this cat also be, deep within her eyes, my primary mirror?’ (418)
Mirror of what, exactly? And what does the mirror ultimately reflect for the naked Derrida, who describes being faced ‘with the cat’s eyes looking at me as it were from head to toe, just to see . . . in the direction of my sex’? (373)
In the course of his essay, Derrida spends a great deal of time leading  us down   well-trodden paths of Biblical dominion, and the very Western historical and philosophical blindnesses to animals, from the Cartesian view of automaton, to Bentham’s ‘but can they suffer?’ interrogation that knocked a dent  in old Aristotle’s rational armor, and otherwise engaging the usual roundup of suspects (read: male, Western  philosophers) like Heidegger, Levinas, and Lacan in pondering the murky philosophical lines separating  Human from Animal Other. So what is new? I have to agree with other feminists like Carol Adams that the reason  Derrida’s essay matters so much--and matters to the animal people--is very simple. It’s Derrida. And it is he who in his nothing-short-of-revelation exhorts us to include animals within our moral consideration. But might we be giving Derrida too much credit for his cat encounter?
 ‘I must make it clear from the start,’ he writes,   ‘the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat.’(375) Emphasis is mine. 
Real cat, yes, but an additional detail he adds, which becomes  one of the most salient  features of the essay, is cast in a brief adjective clause, almost as an afterthought: ‘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).
Though the gender of the cat never comes into play in the essay,  the inclusion of that detail is deliberate and carefully chosen, and therefore impossible  for the reader  to overlook. Which is why, despite all his musings on dominion and otherness and shame, it is troubling that Derrida completely sidesteps the role of gender(s) (as well as other ‘othernesses’ in his meditation), regardless of the multiple ways one might read ‘female.’   Philosopher Lisa Guenther remarks on this glaring oversight, as well, but focuses her attention  more on Derrida’s ‘flirting’ with original sin ‘without fully interrogating its resources for articulating, and perhaps even disentangling, the relation between the human domination of animals and men’s domination of women.’ (152)
Is it possible that Derrida’s inability to see beyond himself into the mirror of the cat’s stare is, in part, a failure for him to move beyond language to take in more than ‘one otherness’ at a time, despite all of his writings that would lead one to think just the opposite? Since he acknowledges that the animal ‘has its point of view regarding me,’ through what embodied and experiential lens does he understand that ‘point of view,’ and what other multiple points of view might be  reflecting back that he does not acknowledge? The animal is not just an animal, but  an animal who is biologically female in gender, and an animal who regardless of gender is often associated with women, femaleness, and the feminine. [2] Real life delivered Derrida this moment of thoroughly challenged discourse on not only the Otherness of the animal body and the shame of his own nudity (in the full Bergerian sense), but on another kind of Otherness, as exemplified by his cat--the Feminine”--from which Derrida seems to quickly retreat.
            Odd that in this literally eye-opening moment,  Derrida is  blind to anything but a singular vision of ‘otherness,’ sandwiched between  the  shame of his human-ness, and the suffering humans cause to animals. Instead of embracing the numerous intersections (which might and should include any number of gender, racial, and cultural pressure points),  the animal gaze, as Derrida reads that moment,  becomes a closed self-referential circuit, leading him back to thinking  about his own human  body, apparently oblivious to the larger implications of his cat’s biological femaleness in relation to his own  maleness.  Given that he stands there  naked before his cat, mightn’t he have  contemplated  not only what it means to be human, but  presumably what it also means to be  a biologically male human  body as illuminated  through the gaze of the [feminine] cat? Perhaps it was   this inextricable link between  not just animal Otherness but  ‘the otherness of the feminine’ that prompts the great man to panic and reach for the towel? The very self-consciousness of his own shame  blinds him to true engagement in a potentially affective moment, which instead turns phallogocentric, and returns him to himself, his humanity, and ultimately his maleness. ‘To respond well to his own imperative to behold the animot,’ writes Guenther of Derrida’s identification with both the hunter Bellerephon and the monstrous hybrid and very female  Chimera, ‘Derrida would have to face not only the female non-human animal, but also the female human animal, the creature whose ambiguous position highlights the impropriety of both man and animal.’ (161)   
As scholar Maneesha Deckha so helpfully reminds us, that gender is not the only disruption that Derrida can’t seem to face.   ‘Race and culture are deeply imbricated in animal issues and disputes. At a foundational level, we can see that Western ideas of ‘man’s dominion’ over animals reflect a deeply gendered and imperial understanding of human relationships with animals.’ (537) And it is from this imperial understanding that I believe Derrida, despite his best efforts and sympathies, is ultimately unable to escape.
Let’s review the rather prosaic events of this  Derridean Ur-moment:   It’s an ordinary day Chez Derrida and, as he apparently has done on so many other days,  Derrida steps  naked from his shower,  where he is discovered there in his  bathroom by his  little female cat  who  catches him nu comme en ver. She fixes him in her stare, a stare he’s likely been fixed in numerous times before, but on this particular day it appears, from his account,  to be the first time he takes full notice and  actually  looks back.  And what is it he thinks he sees?
            ‘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).

Many animal scholars repeatedly credit Derrida with animating the cat beyond symbol to an actively engaged, dialogic presence that spawns his meditation on imagining, in part,  a more dynamic, reciprocal way of being with animals, challenging the very notion of what it means to be human. His sway is given impetus by both scholar Cary Wolfe and philosopher Matthew Calarco who each  credits Derrida, in slightly different ways,  for offering maybe the single most important  moment in animal studies to date.[3]  And yet the cat, for Derrida, never is allowed to be fully  a cat  in all her catness,  nor does she ever go beyond being a cat, or even an ‘animot,’ as Derrida designates her.  And, just on a practical level,  this surprise confrontation between cat and naked-as-a-jaybird Derrida would perhaps be  all  too familiar and habitual  to anyone who shares a life with an inquisitive cat.
Case in point, my household includes two, one in particular, Birdie (a neutered male),  who refuses me, a la Derrida, even one iota of privacy in the bathroom, and routinely ensconces himself like a sphinx on the closed toilet seat lid to observe me disarmingly through shiny gold eyes while I bathe. The whole time I am caught in his enormous, penetrating stare, so I know well that disconcerting experience of being stared at by a cat. (If you have to ask why I don’t just close the bathroom door, then clearly you do not have a cat.)
             Philosopher Martin Buber’s  own  ‘becoming-animal’  experience  with a cat offers a slightly more nuanced rendering:  ‘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[4], 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?” ’ (96-98) [5]
Unlike Buber, Derrida does not go on to explore a private relationship with a particular cat.  And unlike philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, another favorite with ‘the animal people,’ he does not grapple, albeit clumsily, with any identification of women as the Other.  In fact, as Oliver points out parenthetically, though ‘. . . he is rebuking both the animal difference and the sexual difference . . .,’ he does so ‘ (. . . in the problematic way of attributing it now to a cat rather than to a woman).’ (144) I would add that this is not a wild cat, but a domesticated companion animal who has lived in proximity to him for some time.
Perhaps this is a good moment to  pose the all too obvious question, which might go something like this: between daily interactions with his own cat, which would normally include embodied initimacies,  and his knowledge of Buber and Levinas et al., what took Derrida so long to notice? The power of one little cat in a fleeting moment  to reverse the binary gaze! A tectonic shift for Derrida, under the penetrating and powerful stare that leads to, all pun intended--philosophical pause—but then, oddly, after that,  the very real cat is gone.
Lynn Turner refers to  ‘. . . the disappearance of Derrida’s cat from ‘The animal that Therefore I Am,’--a disappearance hovering between a failure of curiosity and an ethical refusal … .’  (75) She observes, ‘Derrida does not look in order to cancel the other by seeing his own re-confirmed reflection (‘pointing’ straight back to him). Rather the response of the other always surprises.’ (76)
I would posit that had Derrida more readily recognized the implications of the cat’s femaleness, or at least the importance that femaleness  held  for him to mention it to begin with, his essay might have taken a very different turn. But, in fact, his reading of ‘otherness’ contracts itself  into fairly well-trammeled  terrain  with little acknowledgement of  the imbricated ‘othernesses’  informing one another as signaled by the body of his little cat.  Nor does he interrogate the detail  that it is a cat (not a dog, not a wolf, not a sheep, not a slug, not Nagel’s ‘alien’ bat) that engages his imagination.
At one moment, Derrida starts to  suggest, when he refers to the cat as a ‘chat/chatte,’ whether this particular cat is female or male is actually beside the point. I would agree, since cats, regardless of gender, have been, often to their disadvantage, historically associated with ‘the feminine,’ and  ‘women,’ and done so quite  disparagingly, particularly in relation to views of women’s sexuality and independence.   And as several scholars have pointed out, the term ‘pussy’ or ‘pussycat’ also doubles as  slang for female genitals, a fact that is not unique to English.  In addition, the noun for ‘cat’ in several languages, happens to be feminine (does that make dogs masculine)? The gaze into which Derrida entered into was as much a power relationship about gender (his and the cat’s)  as it was about animality, and the Foucauldian self-surveillance that ensued was, I argue, precisely that--internalization of the female gaze upon himself, even if ever so brief. Did he feel preyed upon? Pinned?  Objectified?
So in that  moment, Derrida’s response is to  turn away. And in so doing, he not only seems to forget his very real, female cat, but  ignores  an entire body of work by leading feminist thinkers and scholars who have also explored significant  connections point between human and nonhuman animals, and may have furthered his thinking.  An excellent example is the one Susan Fraiman chooses as illustration  in her  recent essay, ‘Pussy Panic,’ the famous encounter between  Barbara Smuts and the  primate Damien. Smuts had fallen asleep and was awakened by a curious baboon who was touching her fingernails. She sat up, and  they  looked at each other, whereupon she, in turn, examined his fingernails,  in a mutual exchange that she acknowledged as intimacy. In Smuts’ case, and in the cases of a number of feminist philosophers and thinkers, from Marti Kheel to Donna Haraway to Carol Adams, encounters with nonhuman animals have involved not only seeing and then pondering,  but mutual, physical touching and, in Smuts’ case,  moving directly to the realization  that  both sets of fingernails were so similar and familiar.   But instead of reaching out toward his cat, Derrida withdraws into his head, and not only from the cat, but from the feminine, perhaps in a self-protective (or self-centered?) gesture, comforted simply by his conclusion that the ‘other’ looks back. 
But  does this somewhat bland observation really deserve credit for what has  so startled Derrida?  And why does he retreat from all the other signifiers at play? It’s certainly easy to imagine the kaleidoscopic potential for multiple signifiers  launched through the cat’s ‘gazing eyes.’
For example, there’s the cat as  representative of the Dark Feminine, both Creator and Destroyer, and its recurring and powerful role in particularly non-Western traditions. [6] In both  power and intelligence, cats have been traditionally connected to the mysterious and the supernatural, as well as representations of home and hearth, motherhood, and female sexual appeal.  Witness   Bastet  of ancient Egyptian myth, with her cat’s head and woman’s body, and revered role as a household goddess, the protector of women and children, as well as fertility and birth. Or  Egyptian warrior goddess, Sekhmet, depicted as a lionness who alternately served as a fierce huntress and  the bearer of disease and cures.  From Japan comes the much worshipped,  and luck-inducing Maneki Neko, often featured as a ceramic statue with the famously raised paw, around whom numerous legends have collected. 
            The connection between cats and female sexuality is complex, and examples abound throughout the centuries in visual art (most often by male artists)  wherein  the cat is viewed as a symbol of both wanton sexuality and manipulation.  In her book,  Animal Motifs in Asian Art, Katherine M. Ball 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.’ (154) In addition to serving as a force for luck, the Maneki Neko figurine also symbolizes youthful, female sexuality. In more popular representations, the unrepentant and unfettered sexuality of female cat protagonists is most humorously exemplified in Don Marquis’ utterly irreverent and promiscuous  alleycat, Mehitabel, whose yearnings for the independent and unfettered lives of the Tom cats  includes her famous lamentation for the obstacles motherhood poses for  a woman artist, ‘what in hell have i done to deserve all these kittens?’  (66)
The cat’s aloof and diva-esque reputation  also serves as a punchline of many classic cat jokes  that include the following: ‘Dogs believe they are human; cats believe they are God’; ‘As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat’; ‘Dogs have owners, cats have staff’.  But this perceived aspect of feline character also puts noncompliant, autonomous cats at tremendous risk, as exemplified in the confession of the young male speaker in  Charles Harper Webb’s poem  ‘Tormenting the Cat.’
            ‘Something about our cat's fastidious/ licking made me want to mess him up. . . ,’ the speaker confesses,  before proceeding to detail  the heightened cruelties of some of the other boys who actually  set cats on fire. (9) He ends with the recognition that ‘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.’  (10)
The male speaker’s conflation of cats with  women, even his own cat whom he identifies as  ‘he,’ along with his inability to possess or control the cat, any more than he could a woman, speaks to the young man’s rising sexual frustration and his  inability to control another being.  The unadulterated and unapologetic aloofness of the self-contained cat refusing  to accord them the privilege they expect  leaves the speaker and his other male friends ‘writhing in their own flames,’ and consumed by a desire that remains unsatisfied. The cat qua woman--untamed and indifferent--a bewitching manifestation of the unattainable, offering  a refusal of masculine of control.
The association of cats with women of course extends well beyond the symbolic and, as Derrida acknowledges, he’s squaring off in the bathroom that day with a very real cat who is also a very real female. In their historic alignment with ‘women,’ cats have been  considered both friend to and familiar of women associated with magic, sometimes called witches, a term  that often included those  women who lived alone, or who did not otherwise conform to traditional gender expectations, or fit neatly under patriarchal control.  Black cats, in particular, were viewed as actual manifestations of Satan himself. The cats’ association with the occult connects her to the night, the unknowable, the unholy, and even to mortality. Imbued with mysterious and supernatural powers cats were believed in many cultures to shapeshift, trick, and deceive, sometimes even assuming human form and passing as one of us, again a troubling of any notion of distinct boundaries.
To the list of what confronted Derrida we might add  the ‘noncompliant feminine,’ a characteristic of human females that can have serious consequences in relations with men and male partners,  and which for  cats likewise puts them at risk with humans.  Statistics demonstrate that   domestic cats are  more likely to be neglected and abused than their canine counterparts. Neglected because it’s often falsely assumed that cats are ‘wild’ and can therefore readily survive on their own, if ignored or dumped. Actual physical abuse often occurs because of that cat’s  notorious refusal  to follow orders, and the need of the abuser to control the ‘out of control.’[7] 
Female cats, not unlike the fictional   Mehitabel,  are also reputedly  sexually  and uncontrollably promiscuous, reproducing at fast rates with any number of male partners, offering an interesting corollary to centuries of debate about who controls  human women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Additionally, cats are often criticized for being  sneaky and wily,  and highly skilled at getting what they want from humans.  In an interesting study,  Karen McComb of  University of Sussex, describes the ‘solicitation purr,’ a strategy simultaneously both powerful and seductive, insomuch as it induces the pet owner to respond and attend to the cat, with either food or affection. (507) This image might  just as easily be applied to a certain vision of human female manipulation, that is, the figure of the calculating woman who is able to trick  men into providing for them.

The famous solicitation purr:

MAN (besotted with his kitty): Your wish is my command.
CAT: And that's all there is?
One can only  speculate  on what might have been going through Derrida’s mind the day of his cat confrontation. But given the self-conscious attention he gives to his own nakedness, it is easy to imagine that from his point of view the cat in question  is staring specifically at his penis, with a stare that apparently penetrates, all pun intended.  This moment turns on the  privileging of not just his own manhood, but also his appeal to  the sense of sight, the sense that many human animals value the most.  But unlike human animals,  most other animals, like cats,  and like dogs, rely on multiple senses  to ‘see,’ including hearing and tasting and touching, and  perhaps most intensely the olfactory sense, which is eminently far more developed than that of humans. Therefore, while Derrida saw a cat looking at him, and at his penis, in particular, as he notes,  it’s also  possible the cat was actually  responding through a far more nuanced sensory network and maybe even to  a very different set of stimuli.  But by virtue of  the acutely  self-conscious attention his own nakedness, it’s quite possible that the  phallocentric focus that Derrida himself rejects in his writings, is prompted, under the cat’s feminizing stare,  by  a kind of unexpected  ‘ca(t)s-stration’  anxiety that fills him not so much with shame toward the ‘animal,’ as many have characterized this moment, but with terror of the feminine. And that would be feminine ‘with a bite.’  
The cat is not only a fully-equipped predator, but an obligate carnivore, and  anyone who’s been up close and personal with a larger cat, like a lion or a tiger,[8] has likely experienced  the utter sense of powerlessness in their presence when they look at you.  Because, they are saying, in effect,  I can eat you. I can  make you disappear. In this way, could Derrida be imagining  his maleness all but disappearing,  under the female cat’s gaze? She looks, but does not confirm what he thinks she sees—his humanness and his manhood. To take it a step further,  perhaps he fears being  consumed by her stare, triggering anxiety over the devouring feminine.[9] Instead of consuming  an animal, he risks  being consumed.[10]
            Another point to consider is that the intensity of a cat stare can also  easily be misunderstood by someone who is unfamiliar with  the underlying physiology of the cat eye, or  that, in fact,  cats do not blink as often as we do, even though they actually see the world in softer focus.

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

While  dogs seem to look at us, often trying to read our faces, cats appear to see into and through us. The structure  of their eyes allows their stare to feel ‘fixed’ and for those it fixes on to feel like prey. The eyes of a cat are relatively larger than those of human beings, and  typically protrude. Like other predators, cats’ eyes face forward in their heads, and many cats have something called  ‘binocular vision,’ the ability for wide-angle vision, as well as terrific peripheral vision.      Though dog stares can also be intense, recent research has indicated that dogs are the only non-human animal (and that includes our primate cousins) who  share with humans a ‘left-gaze bias.’ Therefore, a dog’s stare might more likely mirror familiar emotions like devotion, curiosity,  and a desire to please.  Unlike the cat’s, the adoring gaze of a dog might also serve as  a balm for the ‘narcissistic wound.’
Whereas dogs and humans co-evolved, exerting relational exchanges on each other in a mutual adaptation to social structures, as Haraway asserts in The Companion Species Manifesto, the cat can be viewed as kind of  solo  architect, cleverly shaping and managing  our responses to maintain control.
            Consider for a moment if, instead of Derrida’s cat who wandered into the bathroom that fateful day, it had been Derrida’s dog (and here I will take the liberty of imagining one for him, a medium-sized, flop-eared mixed-breed hound with soulful eyes and undying loyalty, ever watchful in the hopes the slightest shift in his master’s body language might signal that a treat or a walk is in store.) The sort of  dog, who may not, in his clumsy way,  always get things right,  but at least generally makes the effort to please.  This is, in part, of course because we humans have selectively bred and hard-wired dogs to do just that; over the centuries we have manipulated their genetics  for shapes, size, and purpose which accounts for the fact that a chihauhau, a Great Dane, and a husky all fit under the same rubric: dog.  Loyal companion.  Devoted friend. Obedient worker. No other animal has been this genetically malleable, with such diverse phenotypic results.             
            But  cats, those  perfect predators and obligate carnivores who  have certainly shared the company of human beings for centuries,  demonstrate a very different historical co-evolution with nonhuman animals, distinctly separate from that of dogs. In fact, so-called domesticated cats, even the ones snoozing on our beds or winding between our legs and purring, still retain, according to their human companions, a predatory wildness that make them far more ‘other’ than dogs. This is often part of the appeal, particularly as we are more and more removed from wildlife.
            So if  that day, it had been Derrida’s  amiable canid who  ambled into the bathroom and caught a glimpse of the fully monty, and that’s not just physically but psychically, as well, perhaps we would never had had Derrida’s words on the subject of the animal.  To the dog he might   have said, ‘good boy,’ the dog would have thumped his tail, and gazed back at him in familiar and adoring affirmation, while Derrida toweled off and  went on about his daily business.  Instead, perhaps   we have that  unabashed gaze of the Feminine gazing on the biological evidence of his manhood to blame for throwing   Derrida for a loop, a refusal to care about  or confirm his maleness.
Since Derrida never reaches out, or touches  the cat, nor otherwise engages with her body, or she, his,  his moment of ‘startle’ takes place strictly through the act of ‘looking,’ and further distances him  from the cat as he enters  into a cerebral meditation on otherness. Neither does he fully credit the cat, for her ability to instruct him,  and what  animals actually  have to teach us, a subject Eve Sedgwick raises briefly in her essay, ‘Pedagogy of Buddhism’ from Touching Feeling. ‘What does it mean,’ she asks,  ‘when cats bring small, wounded animals into the house?’ She proceeds to  muse that ‘ . . . people interpret these as offerings . . . to please or propitiate . . the cats’ humans.’ (153) But, basing her observations on the work of anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thompson who knows better,  Sedgwick adds, ‘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 a piece otherwise undevoted to cats, Sedgwick postulates that we humans do not want to learn the lesson the cat is patiently trying to  teach us--in this case, how to hunt, but there are other lessons, as well, because what we want is  adulation,  not  instruction.  Put another way, the cat offers us her skills as a corrective to human failure, and for some of us, that’s a blow to our egos.[11]
            Whatever you name it, Derrida’s  ‘startle’ has to do, as he says,  with ‘being looked at’ by a being he acknowledges as unrecognizable, and  yet who exerts a special kind of power over him.  Derrida is briefly confronted not only by his own animality but the estrangement of  the unmediated and unmitigated feminine: predatory, instructive,   seductive,  defiant, and intimate, and non-confirming.
The  cat’s feminizing stare places  Derrida in a destabilizing position that undermines his masculinity, which mostly remains unquestioned throughout the essay.  Though Derrida refers to his cat as his ‘primary mirror,’ he  seems to see mirrored back only a limited reflection, as through a glass darkly, one that takes him only so far before returning him to himself.
In  the reversed gaze, the power or control belongs as Laura Mulvey might contend,  to the spectator or,  in this case, the female cat, the one who does the looking.  [12] In that act of being looked at, the object of the gaze   internalizes ‘the gaze,’ leading to a distorted sense of self, though  the distortion here signals  for Derrida a revelation he wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Certainly it is not a look of confirmation, one that says, ‘Hello, there, you are Derrida, a man, a philosopher, and very famous.’
            Despite a chance to leap free of inhibiting cultural and anthropocentric filters, and move toward a reciprocity of subject and other, in all its multiple layers, Derrida fails to fully take into account the significance of his  cat’s gender or, in general, the cat’s long historic association with the feminine. While some scholars suggest  that Derrida experienced shame regarding his own  nudity with the cat acting as a kind of prolapsarian Eve-in-the-garden-after-the-serpent moment, I strongly suspect otherwise; that it was the collision with the unabashed feminine, an otherness even greater than what he attempts to examine across the ‘animal/human’ divide.
            And while certainly he deserves credit for feeling shame over the unmitigated  horrors of the human treatment of animals, to which he generously refers, he never really strays that much beyond Bentham himself in his conclusion that we should treat animals better. In addition, he misses the gender boat altogether. The woman may have not been recognizable because her form was not human. In addition, in Derrida’s stroll through the literary and philosophic pantheon that he uses to support his meditation, the presence of his female cat never triggers for him the recognition of a collective tradition of women philosophers and thinkers, perhaps because he simply doesn’t see (or hear) them.  In addition, by privileging sight, Derrida also misses the fact that the cat, this very real, female cat would have also been smelling, and listening, all at once. While  he fixated on what he thought he was seeing, his ‘not-a-metaphorical’ cat might well have been  processing the moment  through a complex lens  of integrated sensory experience, of which Derrida was only one factor. She might also have simply been hungry, and was reminding him her bowl was empty. Though Derrida claims to perceive his cat in that moment as serving as ‘my primary mirror,’ there is much he does not see. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by a veritable  hall of mirrors,  reflecting back not just the multiple and complex possibilities of Animal nature, but feminine, too,  with both a small and capital ‘f.’ As the cat seems to end up joining the general bestiary of suffering creatures, Derrida concludes the essay with himself, with the  question  ‘But, as for me, who am I (following)?’ I would suggest he is following himself.






[1] By “animal people,” I refer to a broad range of scholars, writers, thinkers, and activists who share deep concerns about our human treatment of non-human animals, and generally ponder what it means to be “animal.”

[2] Clearly, terms like “woman,” “female,” and “feminine” signify a range of meanings, which this essay will not address.  As opposed to interrupting my discussion every step of the way to explain the use of the terms each time they appear, I hope they are signifying more  freely in different contexts , and do not ever refer exclusively to “biologically-determined women any more than “woman” presumes a category of  “white Western woman”).

[3] In her wonderful essay, “Pussy Panic,” Susan Fraiman points out: “If Derridean animal studies seems poised to corner the contemporary market, I am troubled in part by its revisionary history--the way an origin story beginning in 2002 serves to eclipse the body of animal scholarship . . . [and] dozens of books going back some forty years long before Derrida’s essay was brought to the attention of the English speakers.  Much of this pioneering work was by women and feminists--a significant portion under the rubic of ecofeminism--and all of it arose in dialogue with late-centry liberation movements, including the second-wave women’s movement.” (92)

[4] The “touch of my own glance,” though a translation, is a lovely linguistic gesture toward honoring the multiple senses involved in exchanges with the bodies of others.

[5] Derrida also quotes some of the same material from Buber in his essay, though I have chosen to cite the original source.
[6] Derrida includes no references to anything outside a predominantly male Western canon.
[7] The now well-accepted link between domestic violence and animal abuse is worth mentioning here, particularly since household pets and other animals  often become “stand-in’s” for the human (usually a woman, and possibly her children, too). According to the ASPCA, abusers typically batter animals to exercise control, enforce submission, punish independence, and isolate the victim and her children. http://www.aspca.org/fight-animal-cruelty/domestic-violence-and-animal-cruelty.aspx.   Randall Lockwood’s study on the subject indicates that cats are killed at higher rates than dogs, both in situations of abuse and hoarding cases.

[8] At the nearby Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, IN, a legitimate sanctuary for abused and neglected captive “big cats,” I have experienced being “hunted” by a cougar, with just a chain-link fence between us. It was both thrilling and terrifying--the enormous power and beauty.
[9] Though “vagina dentata” is a very real, if even rare, condition in human woman, it was difficult not to imagine the carnivorous cat operating as a symbol of castration terror.

[10] Derrida is considering what Westerners conceive of as  a “companion animal,” not a farmed animal, intended for consumption; had he been looking instead into the eyes of a pig or a cow or a chicken, that is, an animal that might end up on his dinner plate, where might his meditations have led him?   
[11] With animals that we consume, it is even more important to maintain the bright-line borders in order to justify  human domination and exploitation.

[12] According to Mulvey, “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” (48)




Works Cited

Carol Adams Interviewed by Tom Tyler, first published in Parallax 38 (Jan-Mar 2006). 120-28
Katherine M. Ball, Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meaning        and Aesthetics, Dover Publications, 2004 
Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith [New York, 1958]
J. M. Coetzee.  The Lives of Animals, Princeton University Press, 2001
Maneesha Deckha. ‘Toward a Postcolonial, Posthumanist Feminist Theory: Centralizing Race and Culture in Feminist Work on Nonhuman Animals,’ Hypatia, vol. 27, no. 3, Summer 2012.  527-545. 
Jacques Derrida.  ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).’
            Trans. David Wills.     Critical Inquiry 28 (Winter 2002). 369-418.
Susan Fraiman. ‘Pussy Panic.’ Critical Inquiry 39, August 2012.  89-115.
Lisa Guenther, Derrida Today. Volume 2.   November 2009.  151-165
Tom Herron, ‘The Dog Man: Becoming Animal in Coetzee’s Disgrace,’ Twentieth Century Literature, 51.4, Winter 2005.  467-490.
Randall Lockwood, ‘Cruelty toward Cats: Changing Perspectives,  State of the Animals III, D.J. Salem and A.N. Rowan. (Editors). 2005.   Washington, DC: Humane Society Press.  15-26.

Don Marquis, The Best of Archy and Mehitabel, Everyman’s Library, 2011
Karen McComb, Anna M. Taylor, Christian Wilson, and Benjamin D. Charlton, ‘The  Cry Embedded Within the Purr,’ Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 13, July 14, 2009. 507-508.
Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’  reprinted in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, edited by Amelia Jones, Rutledge 2002.  44-52.
Kelly Oliver, Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, Columbia University Press, 2009.  144.
Eve Sedgwick, ‘Pedagogy of Buddhism,’ Touching Feeling,
            Duke University Press, 2003. 153-182.
Lynn Turner, ‘When Species Kiss: some recent correspondence between animots,’ Humanimalia 2:1.  60-85.
Charles Harper Webb, ‘Tormenting the Cat,’ And We the Creatures, Dreamhorse Press, 2003. 9-10.








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