Friday cat blogging


When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?
Montaigne

In an earlier Friday Companion Species post, I wondered what would happen to Donna Haraway’s ideas about relating to the other if they were modelled on cats rather than dogs. I wrote that the constant mutual attention that Haraway proposes from her experience of training dogs, perhaps is simply not in a cat’s nature.

This week, I came across an announcement for a posthumous book by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, published one and a half years after his death, this spring. It is entitled L’Animal que donc je suis. Derrida in the book similarly sees the animal as Other, and Derrida was more of a man for cats than for dogs. The French newspaper Libération writes:

Derrida évoque son «petit chat» un vrai chat, pas une allégorie : «Souvent je me demande, moi, pour voir, qui je suis moment où, surpris nu, en silence, par le regard d’un animal, par exemple les yeux d’un chat, j’ai du mal, oui, du mal à surmonter une gêne. Pourquoi ce mal ? […] Devant le chat qui me regarde nu, aurais-je honte comme une bête qui n’a plus le sens de sa nudité ? Ou au contraire honte comme un homme qui garde le sens de sa nudité ?» On ne peut le demander qu’à l’autre. Mais qui est ici l’autre, pouvant, et me répondre et répondre de moi ? L’animal, altérité absolue.

Derrida writes about his “little cat” as a real cat, not as an allegory. He often asks himself who he is at the moment that he is surprised, naked, in silence, by the eyes of his cat, when he finds it difficult to surmount a certain shame. Is he ashamed like an animal who no longer has a sense of his nudity, or, on the contrary, like a man who maintains that sense of nudity? One cannot ask anyone but the other. But who is the other here, who can respond and take responsibility for me? The animal, the absolute Other.

Unlike Haraway, then, Derrida does not look for a mutual relation with his little cat, but sees it as an Other that cannot be related to. Also unlike Haraway, he thinks it a sheer impossibility to think about the Other without anthropomorphizing the animal. Donald L. Turner writes that in Derrida’s view our language forces us to see the other in terms of our selves:

Derrida questions any claim to transcend a humanistic or anthropocentric frame of mind, arguing that reliance on language “ceaselessly reinstates the new terrain on the oldest ground,” re-establishing one “more naively and more strictly than ever” inside the realm one purports to transcend (Margins 135). […] For Derrida, description of an encounter with truly absolute alterity is a practical impossibility, for one cannot describe that which one can by definition have no comprehension — there must be some similarity for a self to recognize an other as existing at all. [1]

[1]Donald L. Turner, “The Animal Other: Civility and Animality in and Beyond Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida” in Disclosure 12.

Update: Fido the Yak today has a link to an introduction on Joint attention, Communication and Mind, and Mixing Memory reports on human infant and chimpanzee altruism.

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2 thoughts on “Friday cat blogging

  1. Pingback: {clausmoser|com} » Das Tier und wir

  2. I tried to respond re derrida’s cat on another blog but it was restricted to members so.. do not know if that makes my visit here serendipitous, but —

    Derrida should have worked harder to convince philosophers that we are all animals rather than invent a word to make animal/s like fish singular/plural), but to restrict myself to his cat observing his nakedness, as i read his feelings about what the cat may have been thinking, i recall feeling, he sure has not thought much about his cat’s thoughts. See what you think about THE CAT WHO THOUGHT TOO MUCH (mine, not derrida’s), 100% viewable at Google Books.

    I was most upset by Derrida’s categorical error of making the yet unlearned communication from Alice’s kitten stand for all cats and all of Descartes’ animals. Why does the philosophical community let him get away with it?

    OK, that was the comment I luckily copied before not sending to the other blog. Here, I would like to add that using the excuse that we cannot think of what other animals think without anthropomorphizing is like saying we cannot guess what other people think without reading ourself into them. All the psycho-social sciences would be useless.

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