Folcuin’s Horse and the Dog’s Gowther, Beyond Care

Hi gang!

IMG_1762Years back, I submitted a Frankenstein’s monster of a couple conference papers for a collection to be called Fragments toward a History of a Vanishing Humanism. 6 or 7 years ago, in fact. In the way these things go, with overextended editors making huge life changes, the collection died — or hibernated, as it turns out, because it’s now going to press, which means all this stuff — most of which I rewrote for How to Make a Human — could be rewritten again.

Which I just did, over the past few days, as I anticipate next week’s start of the CUNY semester. What I’ve done is a bit of LIFE THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING — sorry! — but it’s also in essence a wholesale rewriting of my book’s conclusion with an eye towards Book #2.

Background, if you’re a sadsack who never finished HtMaH:A&VitMA, are the pairings/readings of 2 stories: the tale of Folcuin’s horse, buried like a human, and Sir Gowther‘s brief encounter with a greyhound on his way to fulfill his penance. Here’s the new stuff:


The temptation would be to praise the stories of Folcuin’s horse and Gowther and the dog as examples of a more fluid, conjoined selfhood, indifferent to rigid binaries, firm boundaries, and hierarchies, all of which serve as the opponents – or strawmen –for critical animal studies, ecocriticism, and a host of other well-meaning modes of critique. Certainly, all of these have the advantage of eliminating any natural foundation for a decision. The “deterritorialized” wasp of Deleuze and Guattari, whose “molecular” becoming cannot be distinguished from the orchid it pollinates, nor finally from the “animals, plants, microorganisms, mad particles, a whole galaxy” with which we are all dependently enmeshed;[1] Haraway’s dog, whose co-training with her is a “naturalcultural practice” that redoes them both “molecule by molecule,” allows “something unexpected” comes into being, “something new and free, something outside the rules of function and calculation, something not ruled by the logic of the reproduction of the same”[2]; or, a less frequently cited example, Ralph Acampora’s Corporal Compassion, whose phenomenological notion of “symphysis” recalls us to our fundamental participation with other bodied beings—notably, not embodied, not minds in bodies – which is a matter of “becoming sensitive to an already constituted ‘inter-zone’ of somaesthetic conviviality”[3]: all of these ontologies describe the actual, mobile, intraactive productivity of things in which the self-other relations that make ethics necessary must be continually renegotiated. However, the danger is in thinking that this recognition is in itself sufficient, as if fluid metaphors were enough to save us, and everything else, from human supremacy. But, as Nicole Shukin reminds us, capitalism loves rhizomes too; it loves to blur boundaries; it loves motion, stirring up trouble, multiplying desire, and giving us new things to cherish.[4]

The key is to know all this and still make a decision, and still know that we will have always made a decision, however inadequate it will always be. The trope of the “blurred boundary” should be understood as just a call to be aware of decision-making. The key to any minimally decent “postdisenchanted”[5] approach to the human and animal is to recognize, for example, the rhizomatic ontologies of Deleuze and Guattari, while still remembering “the very real torment of suffering individuals,”[6] that in an assemblage of human and animal, only one is protected by laws forbidding murder, and that therefore nonhuman animals may have to be minimally singled out in assemblages as objects of care.[7] At the same time, we must also remember, with Donna Haraway’s account of training with her dog, that animals are not only passive victims that need to be rescued or let alone, and that our engagement with animals changes us as it changes them. Inspired by Haraway, we will throw open the doors of the philosopher’s study. In the case of Derrida and his now famous encounter with the fathomless, singular mystery of his cat, we should account for the individual and species history that placed this cat in this particular house fed by some particular meat by this particular world-class philosopher. One of the advantages of Haraway over Derrida is just this attention to the more-than-philosophical, material history of domesticated animals, especially in her Companion Species Manifesto.

In the case of Gowther, for example, we should also recognize that while the particular encounter between knight and dog may break open the circle of penitential exchange “so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return,”[8] violence still makes this encounter possible. In this brief, beautiful moment, Gowther and the dog are literal companions (with bread). The gift of bread is the gift of food; it is nourishment, life, and an invitation to this demonic nonhuman to seek out a companionship outside a lonely human conviviality. And this mundane, material attention to Gowther’s hunger interrupts his journey to satisfy his spiritual needs, with their hope of a final, celestial escape from responsibility for himself and for vulnerable others. Still, the exchanged object is bread. Jared Diamond famously observed that grains are the particular foodstuff of settled, urban, highly stratified civilizations, like those of Western Europe.[9] The gift of bread – and even more so for a gift of meat – should remind us of a system that bound most people to the land, as farmers, as slaves, as overseers, as owners, and as children made to tie one landowning family to another, and of the cultivation of larger and larger oxen and horses for labor, and to the elimination of competing animals and humans as “pests.” The dog bestows a gift on Gowther; the dog steals from others, reminding us, with this gift, that the dog’s victims are bound to a life of laboring for others. There is no way to get it perfectly right.

At a sufficiently large or sufficiently small scale, what Gowther and the dog experience does not matter. Nothing does. There is no possible perspective at which everything can matter. The scale at which Gowther and dog are both recognizable is nonetheless the scale where their existence matters, where they need to be fed, protected, and acculturated; it is the scale we might notice, if we slow down the poem’s push towards its saintly conclusion. However, everything else is also significant, including the fields of “background” violence that temporarily fulfill the needs of dog and knight. Ultimately, amid the always shifting field of stuff, oriented towards the preservation of a self that this very orientation is always transforming, decisions have to be made about who or what to cherish.

Joanna Zylinksa’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene is a recent, good attempt to deal with this nearly impossible demand. Synthesizing work on ontology and ethics by Henri Bergon, Emmanuel Levinas, Karen Barad, and Rosi Braidotti, Zylinska calls for a non-systemic ethics, without fixed answers, without stable goals, in which these singular beings we call humans do what they can do responsibly, engaging in “pragmatic temporary stabilizations of time and matter,” [10] while also aware of the scales of the very large and very small, the very slow and very fast, that will always escape our notice. She requires local decision-making that disturbs an always lurking universality, whose irrepressible presence undoes our satisfaction and smugness at believing ourselves to have done things right. Zylinska does not give us a posthumanism: she challenges human supremacy, as any ecological thinker must, but her attention to particularity means she abandons neither human singularity nor her own human position. Others may have agency; others may be subject to responsibility; others may come after us who do what we love best better than we do, if only we were to get out of the way. All of this may be true, but none of this saves us from the requirement for “the human to take responsibility for the differentiating cuts into the flow of life s/he is herself making with his/her tongue, language, or tools,” [11] without knowing in advance whether others are doing it better, or what we should protect, or why or if we are doing it wrong.

I will conclude by returning to Derrida’s naked encounter with his cat, surely an ur-moment for critical animal studies. [12] The cat comes across Derrida just as he’s emerged from the shower. From here, we get Derrida feeling ashamed, and a bit ashamed of his shame; we get a sketch of philosophical distinctions between self-aware nudity and unwitting nakedness, and from there, of course, another of Derrida’s dismantling of the pretensions of the humanist tradition. To suspend or refuse human domination, to break with what he calls carnophallogocentrism, Derrida lets himself be “seen seen” by his cat. He allows himself the uneasiness of being caught in his own cat’s eyes; he lets himself stay uncertain; and he opposes those who take “no account of the fact that what they call ‘animal’ can look at them, and address them from down there.” Derrida’s insistence that his cat is this particular being removes or preserves her from the undifferentiated, humiliated mass of creatures shunted into animality. This is a moment of wonder, of uncertainty, of an insistence on the individual, but even a bit of a threat, since the cat, with its fangs, looks curiously at Derrida’s penis. Though Derrida’s cat is a female cat, he often refers to her in the masculine as chat: had he consistently called it a chatte, it might have been more obviously a vagina dentata, since une chatte can be, as in English, a “pussy.” But that is a point to be explored elsewhere: needless to say, this little mixup at least multiples the singular cat into a growing and happily disreputable crowd.[13]

Derrida moves on from here, infesting the category of the “animal” until it bursts apart. Had he stayed longer with the cat and longer in his study, he might have undomesticated both, opening both to the larger – or smaller – world and to other animal possibilities. What if the cat were a worm or a hoard of worms? What possibility for an ethics of the singular could there be were Derrida faced with a faceless hoard, hungry and existing for all that? What if the cat were larger, and could, actually, have eaten the philosopher? Finally, what if the cat could have done this, and simply didn’t care to, or didn’t realize it might have? This possibility of the philosopher not being “seen seen” but being ignored by an indifferent animal offers another model for the groundless ground for our necessary decisions. We must suspend ourselves between two impossibilities: the unjustifiable need to defend ourselves from the appetite of others, and the dizzying fact of temporary mattering, our own and others, within a near universal indifference, where we must make cuts to care, even if what we protect takes no notice of us at all. Knowing all that we know, knowing what little good it might do, what harm it might do, and just how little it will do on any scale, we still have to care.

[1]    Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 262, 293, and 250.

[2]    Haraway, When Species Meet, 228 and 223.

[3]    Ralph R. Acampora, Corporal Compassion: Animal Ethics and Philosophy of Body (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 84.

[4]    Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 2011), 31-32.

[5]    I borrow this term from Carolyn Dinshaw, who used it in a roundtable discussion led and edited by Elizabeth Freeman, “Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” GLQ 13 (2007): 185.

[6]    I quote from the appraisal of Deleuze and Guattari in Elizabeth A. Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 163, whose work in imagining a “psychical corporeality” (and whose cautious use of Deleuze and Guattari) I have found inspiring.

[7]    For a rich elaboration of this idea, to which I am much indebted, see Leonard Lawlor, This is Not Sufficient: An Essay on Animality in Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 71-114. See also Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 84-86.

[8]    See Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 7.

[9]    Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine (May 1987): 64-66.

[10]  Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 31.

[11] Ibid., 87.

[12] But also see Susan Fraiman, “Pussy Panic versus Liking Animals: Tracking Gender in Animal Studies,” Critical Inquiry 39.1 (2012): 89-115.

[13] For the French, compare, for example, Jacques Derrida, L’animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 253, “devant un chat qui vous regarde sans bouger” [before a male cat who looks as you without moving], 255-56, “le chat qui me regarde nu…ce chat dont je parle, qui est aussi une chatte” [the male cat who looks at me naked, the male cat about whom I speak, who is also a female cat], and 257, “la chatte qui me regarde nu, celle-là et nulle autre, celle dont je parle ici” [the female cat who looks at me naked, that female one there and no other, the female one about whom I am speaking here]. For recent good appreciations of gender and Derrida, with special attention to cats, see Carla Freccero, “Chercher la chatte: Derrida’s Queer Feminine Animality,” in French Thinking about Animals, ed. Louisa Mackenzie and Stephanie Posthumus (Ann Arbor: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 105-20, and Jessica Polish, “After Alice After Cats in Derrida’s L’animal que donc je suis,” Derrida Today 7.2 (2014): 180-96.

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