NO FILTER: Suffering, Finitude, and other supposed truths about animals

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Sauprellen, anon c. 1720, detail; from the Jagdschloss Grunewald (see also)

It is not uncommonly said that habitats generated by internal combustion engines and electronics lack the crowds of animals common to what are often called “premodern,” “preindustrial,” or “developing” habitats. It is supposed that medieval people were therefore “more in touch with” animals than their modern counterparts. The standard argument continues in this way: because medieval people relied on animal labor, traveled on animals, and because they could not have misunderstood where meat came from, they did not need to compensate for their “unnatural” separation from animals by surrounding themselves, for example, with overbred, useless pets. Their relationship to animal life was truer than ours, where “ours” equals that group of people most likely to be reading this chapter.

The faults of the argument stem first from its implicit narrative of a fall and decadence, as if the real came first, followed by a long slide towards our antiseptic present. This nostalgia for the origin and its attendant belief in the truth of first things can and has been traced from, for example, Plato and his Ideal Forms to present-day postapocalyptic literature (with its survivalist belief in the final return to the “underlying” – a favored spatial metaphor — reality of nature). The idea that people have a primary connection to animals as a whole (say, as children), that socialization as such is the culprit, that subrational “lived experience” is distinct from and more authentic than cultural practice, that getting before “modern civilization” is somehow going to save us and others, and so on, belongs to the precritical fantasy of origins and the fantasy of the superiority of an imagined unmediated contact.

In an animal rights context, the argument has been that industrialized production of meat somehow separates us from our “real” engagement with its real source in animal life and animal death. Supermarket culture is particularly to blame for shielding meat-eaters from the violence that feeds them. The shock of butchery, of getting past the hypocrisies of industrialized carnivorousness, is key to Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse art, or in the grand reveal, not without sexual violence, of the [I recommend not clicking on the link] industrial, cannibalistic dismemberment of female clones in Cloud Atlas. This argument follows the standard logic of ideology critique, insofar as it claims that only by coming face-to-face with the “reality” of the modes of production can we finally surmount the cruelty of our polyannish relationship to work and consumption. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in a variety of contexts, such claims are overblown: there may be some value in revealing what goes on in industrial farming – the very reluctance of these operations to open their doors to scrutiny is evidence enough of that – but what may be far more difficult to change is the consumer’s certainty that, in the end, their needs are worth it all, regardless.

Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning lambastes the “Messianic approach to art-making,” which holds that being “ambushed” by with the “truth” is an essential or even desirable goal of art. Nelson argues that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art may not require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction. Revelations of cruelty may be little more than revelings in cruelty. They might produce nothing but sensations of disgust, alienation, self-loathing, and guilt, or the self-aggrandizement of feeling that one feels more intensely or just more honestly than others, or that one has been exiled from bourgeois comforts (or that one has discovered some new way to épate them for their supposed hypocrisy). Revelations of cruelty might lead to still worse, titillation and enjoyment and from there to the desire for more cruelty, not because cruelty treats others as things, but because it recognizes that others can suffer in ways that things cannot.

Dominic Lacapra’s History and its Limits arrives at similar ends through its assault on conjunctions of the sublime, the transcendent, and sacralized violence, and on generalized, antihistorical obsessions with wretchedness, particularly as practiced in the work of Agamben, Bataille, and Žižek. When Lacapra turns his attention to one of Coetzee’s fictional creations, the animal rights activist and writer Elizabeth Costello, he joins Nelson in arguing against the notion that identification necessarily leads to empathy, and empathy necessarily to kindness. Coetzee’s Costello analogizes the death of animals to the Holocaust, accusing those who kill animals of being like the camp guards, whose fault, she insists, was that “the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims.” Lacapra observes that while this may be so, Costello’s argument that this cruelty can be blamed on a failure of identification can hardly account for sadomasochistic projection: no doubt, some killers and other villains can and do perceive their victims as like themselves, vulnerable and dependent, and therefore, for those very reasons, suitable targets of cruelty.

With all this in mind, we are now in a position to reconsider one of the most philosophically challenging, influential demands for an identification with nonhuman suffering. This is Derrida’s statement on the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. As Derrida observes in his The Animal that therefore I am (L’animal que donc je suis), when Bentham proposes that the important question about nonhuman animals is not whether they can speak or have reason, but whether they can suffer, this “changes everything” [change tout]. To a large degree, Derrida is correct. Where philosophers have traditionally excluded or included nonhumans within the human community of rights on the basis of positive capacities – for example, the capacity to make tools, form family relations, exhibit a theory of mind, or various forms of “lack” in Lacan, Heidegger, and their epigones – Derrida focuses on a shared non-capacity, what he calls a “nonpower at the heart of power,” the ineluctable, general exposure of animals and humans alike to discomfort, injury, and death. If thinking about animals and humans begins not with abilities, language in particular, but with a shared vulnerability, certainties about agency and freedom all happily collapse.

Derrida’s recentering of the animal question on suffering still has two problems: the first is that it raises the possibility that animals may be killed ethically so long as their suffering is eliminated. This would be “humane killing,” which comes as such a surprise that an animal has no time to experience fear or pain: this is the goal of the slaughterhouse design championed by Temple Grandin, developed through her identification with nonhuman sensory worlds. The second issue is that identification with the “nonpower at the heart of power” need not necessarily result in less cruelty or more kindness. An awareness of suffering need not necessarily result in the desire to end it.

These objections are perhaps too practical. Derrida’s concern is less with animal welfare than with philosophy. He is led to his logical endpoint by his approach to language, in which having language, this supposed distinguishing capacity of humans, is itself not a capacity, but an entanglement in an always shifting, preexisting, limitless network. At the furthest end of this “nonpower” lies the figure of the animal, preserved in Derrida’s analytic, despite his attempts to do otherwise, as a homogeneous figuration of abyssal mystery.

More to the point for my analysis is that Derrida arrives at this problem by aiming at “the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life” [la façon la plus radicale de penser la finitude que nous partageons avec les animaux, la mortalité qui appartient à la finitude même de la vie]. The truth of things may be an aporia, and therefore necessarily, anti/foundationally unreachable, but what it is not is in the middle of things. One has to follow things through to their end to find this truth of absence. Toril Moi’s championing of ordinary language philosophy identifies many of the problems in this, not least of all the fact that “Derrida’s deconstructive concepts at once enact and deconstruct such ideality,” thus requiring that concepts meet the demands of a presumably philosophical purity so that deconstructive analysis has something to disprove.

The purity in its most intense form, as an absence, Derrida discovers in death, suffering, and inability, all of which lie on the other side, at the before (the radical, from the Latin radix, root) and at the after (the finitude, from the Latin finis, a close or conclusion). The “nonpower at the heart of power” locates truth, even if that truth is a void, in suffering, vulnerability, violence, death, across borders, and at least implicitly across temporal limits. Whatever its dedication to upsetting pretensions to unmediated experience, nostalgia for origin, and all other myths of purity, it also needs these myths in order to preserve the grounds for deconstructive analysis.

All this is not to demand that human and animal difference should be conceptualized around differences in ability. I welcome a focus on nonpower, among other things, even if, as Dominic Lacapra observes, this focus goes rather “too far in acknowledging human disempowerment” in relation to nonhumans. It is rather to question both the centrality of suffering in Derrida’s analysis and the accompanying centrality of finitude, and the presentation of all of all of this as authenticity: Herbert Marcuse’s “Ideology of Death” should make us suspicious about any elevation of “a brute biological fact..into an existential privilege” (for introducing me to this essay, thank you to Aranye Fradenburg’s superb Sacrifice Your Love).

Nor am I denying the actual practice of cruelty. Animals can and do suffer, generally not just like people, but nonetheless in their own ways. Recognizing this suffering is no small matter. Furthermore, to say that revelations of cruelty may not necessarily lead to an end to cruelty is not to say that such revelations are valueless: possible results may range from individual kindness to wholesale assaults on an otherwise indifferent or worse social order. Or they may lead to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic assaults on (certain forms) of animal slaughter: good for some animals, bad for some people. I am challenging notions that center right action on the discovery of suffering, especially when this discovery of suffering is elevated into being a central truth – as it can be, strangely enough, for thinkers as antithetical as Bataille and Derrida — and on those that insist that the route to that truth is through the discovery of cruelty where it was otherwise unsuspected or unfelt.

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.

Day 1 – Intro – Bestiaries, Wolves, and Derrida

Day 1

 

The first class covered the following topics:

 

  • A recommendation of several books and scholars, including Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, Leslie Kordecki’s book on Chaucerian birds,Carolynne van Dyke’s anthology Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts, and Seeta Chaganti in general for studies of medieval dance.
  • A pocket history of medieval cultural animal studies. From the 19th century to roughly the late 1980s, medieval cultural animal studies was iconographic. It sought out animal symbolism as a key to understanding medieval texts. The lion ‘meant’ courage, or nobility, or any other set of categories (including, sometimes, tyranny). Certainly this helps us understand, say, Yvain, but more recently, medieval animal scholars have thought increasingly about animals as ‘real’ characters, symbolic like the human characters, but also not symbolic too. It’s taken a long time to think about the lion as lion.
  • A pocket history of some standard sites for thinking about medieval animals. The key genre here is the bestiary, and key recent work on bestiaries can be found in Susan Crane’s //Animal Encounters//. We discussed the following:
    • that bestiaries were not only books of beasts, but also books that considered trees, stones, and, especially humans. The “bestiary” may be a misnomer
    • that despite their reputation for total capaciousness, they actually drew on a very limited set of texts: Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (early 7th century), the Physiologus (2nd century), and Solinus’s Collectanea rerum memorabilium (3rd century).
    • Typically, you’ll encounter snippets of natural history followed by a doctrinal or moral gloss. The gloss doesn’t supersede the natural history but rather works with it to sacralize the mundane and possibly vice versa. Our test case was the lion
  • We also looked at the //Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi// (search term: ‘lion’) for a sense of animals in exempla.
  • ALSO (realized I forgot this one) we also looked at Bracton’s Laws of England, Vol 2:42 on Wild Beasts, where Bracton seems to compare the inherent liberty of wild beasts to the liberty of the air itself:
    • When they are captured they begin to be mine, because they are forcibly kept in my custody, and by the same token, if they escape from it and recover their natural liberty [naturalem libertatem] they cease to be mine and are again made the property of the taker. They recover their natural liberty [naturalem libertatem] when they escape from my sight into the free air [in ære libero] and are no longer in my keeping, or when, though still within my view, their pursuit is no longer possible
  • And finally, we looked at a couple particular exempla from the Middle English //Alphabet of Tales//.
    • We considered a story about a wolf snatching a maiden into the forest to pluck a bone from the mouth of another wolf. Perhaps the maiden as an analog of the Little Red Riding Hood story? We wondered why it should be a maiden (perhaps for purity? perhaps a link to unicorn stories?). We observed that humans also get bones caught in their throat, so the story stresses the bodily vulnerabilities shared between human and wolf. We noted that the wolves needed a human because humans have hands, and wolves don’t. What makes a hand? A thumb (‘the hand of the hand’, we might say, recalling Tom Tyler’s //Ciferae//).
      But here the maiden becomes the hand of the wolf, a technology the wolf goes and gets when he needs it. It’s not that wolves don’t have hands so much as they can get a hand when they need one, and, at any rate, wolves have their own bodily technologies, chiefly speed and howling (and the howl turns a terrifying forest into a site allowing long-distance communication). We played a bit with the wolves’ reluctance to let the maiden cry out, linking it to the story from the Physiologus on how humans lose their voices if wolves see them first.
    • The second wolf story, on the man from France who could howl and walk on all fours like a wolf, also grabbed our attention: why is he from France? did he learn to do this as an adult? Is this some kind of dance performance, perhaps?
    • We linked all this to William of St-Thierry on the human body: we got medieval for a while by imagining what would happen if we had to go about on all fours, without hands. The result? No writing, eating with our mouths, and mouths made into a hand, resulting finally in the loss of spoken language. We also wondered how the quadrupedal human would have sex (and why William of St-Thierry never talks about this).
  • We considered Augustine’s peculiar proof of human reason in On Free Will: how do we humans know we have free will? Because we’re reasonable. How do we know that? Because we can domesticate animals and not vice versa. There’s some quality in us that they don’t have and (drumroll) what better name for this than REASON. We all found this a bit of a logical leap. I pointed out how Ratramnus of Corbie makes the same move in his ‘Letter on the Cynocephali’: the dogheads domesticate sheep, therefore they’re human!
  • This of course led us finally into Derrida, whose The Animal that therefore I am stood as a standard text for the first wave of critical animal theory. We summarized several of the key points:
    • that the title in French, L’animal que donc je suis, puns on time and space: the animal is following me, or vice versa, as in a hunt, or as in a temporal sequence, and that the title responds to the Cartesian cogito by forming the human self not by itself, lonely in its study, but rather in some peculiar, often violent, way in relation to something else, namely, ‘the animal’
    • the category ‘the animal’ is asinine, anyway, as it encompasses dogs, horses, slime molds, vultures, and what have you, all in one great lump. Derrida demands we hear l’animot, which puns on the plural -maux sound with the word “word” (mot), and gives a plural noun a singular article. It’s like, say, ‘an animals’: it just sounds wrong, so it should make us uneasy and remind us that this category ‘animals’ is a word we impose on what we think of as them
    • and what can animals do? can they respond? are they more than instinctual? for that matter, are we? We considered the Alice in Wonderland cites (no matter what I said, he would always respond by purring)
    • can they think? reason? not the key question, says Bentham: what matters is whether they can suffer, which links us back to the story of the maiden and the wolves and this inability not to be vulnerable, this “nonpower at the heart of power.”
  • The last five minutes saw us rushing through the Orkneyinga Saga on the death of Earl Rognvald, whose hiding place was betrayed to his enemies by the barking of his lapdog: pets in the 11th century, notably, but also animals with their own agenda, distinct from that of human history, whose vulnerabilities don’t count for human history (Rognvald’s killed, but what happens to his dog?); we very quickly looked at the Souillac trumeau and Lydgate’s version of the 15 Signs Before Doomsday (where we asked, quickly: where in the destruction of all creatures are the creeping things!?)

What if Derrida’s cat had been a worm? Or coffee cup? And Derrida a table?

HELLO. I AM CAT.

HELLO. I AM CAT.

This Thursday I’m flying from Paris to State College, PA, for Robot Weekend: Being Human Gizmos,” where I’ll do my wormy song-and-dance. The conference starts with Anthony Clarvoe’s new playGizmo, which is fantastically good. I’m just thrilled to have been invited. I’d be thrilled, even more, if any inhabitants of Happy Valley (and I don’t mean Bhutan and its disreputable happy valley) saw fit to show me some of your fabled American hospitality. I hear you people drink glasses of cow milk. That’d be kind of fun to see.

I’ll be giving a version of my ecomaterial worms paper, starting with a question about Derrida, a cat, and worms. It goes like this:

At least for me, critical animal theory’s ur-moment is Derrida’s naked encounter with his cat [in case you doubt it: see Gerald Bruns in On Ceasing to be Humana lecture by Carla FrecceroErica Fudge; Laurence Simmons in the Knowing Animals anthology; and several blog entries — this last one rather more close to home than the others]. The cat comes across Derrida just as he’s emerged from the shower, and, so far as Derrida thinks, looks at his penis. 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.”

What addresses him is his cat, not, he tells us, “the figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the room as an allegory for all the cats on the earth.” It isn’t here “to represent, like an ambassador, the immense symbolic responsibility with which our culture has always charged the feline race.” Maybe. No doubt Derrida was fully cognizant of this maybe. As several other people have observed about this scene, cats are particularly useful for troubling humanism. A cat isn’t just any old kind of animal. They’re independent, nocturnal, clever carnivores we want to let stay with us, who kill without our supervision and often without our approval. A dog just wouldn’t have been as uncanny.

A cat is apt, yet there’s only so far it can go in troubling humanism. We’ve long set aside a place for them. Like a dog, a cat’s familiarity makes it easier than it would be with other critters to recognize the vulnerability that humans and nonhumans share. Recall what Derrida did with Jeremy Bentham’s question about nonhumans, not whether they can speak, or reason, but whether they can suffer. Derrida finds in these questions the “nonpower at the heart of power” of being unable not to exposed to suffering or at least to vulnerability. It’s relatively easy to think of sharing this condition—crucially, not a capacity—with a cat. It’s not hard to hear an ethical call from a cat, because who wants to hurt a cat? Who wants to let a cat be hurt? When Derrida talks about the injustice of human dominance, many of us will look at our cats and say, “I would never lord over you, bub, never,” or even, “if it came to it, I’d let you have the last spot in the lifeboat.”

But what if the cat were a maneater? I asked this question on Facebook, and someone quipped “it would have eaten his penis!” No surprise, Derrida doesn’t forget this. He talks about the cat’s looking at him “without touching yet, and without biting, although that threat remains on its lips or on the tip of its tongue.” That’s it, though, and I don’t think any of us seriously thought Derrida’s cat would castrate him.

Unless you’re a mouse or a songbird, or, like me, very allergic, a cat’s not much of a threat. Being a medievalist, though, I can’t help but wonder about anthropophagous animals, because my literature’s full of them. There’s the baby-eating pigs of the animal trials; there’s the whale that swallowed a fisherman named Within, who, before he’s freed, has to endure an eleventh-century analog of Who’s On First. There’s Partonopeu, who goes out into the woods hoping to be eaten by bears and tigers, and Ortnit, sucked out through his armor by baby dragons. How would our thoughts about vulnerability and ethics change if Derrida’s cat had been the lion that ate Ignatius of Antioch or the butchering boar of the Avowyng of Arthur?

Even so, maybe not much would change. Critical animal studies and animal rights philosophy both demand we reconsider the relative value of human and nonhuman lives. It’s not easy, but it’s less hard to do with charismatic megafauna, a category in which I think we can safely place whales, bears, tigers, lions, and maybe even baby dragons. But what if our anthropophagous animal didn’t have any eyes? What if it had been a worm, or a mess of worms? A cat is uncanny, but there are animals far, far more unhomely, namely, worms, the paradigmatic anthropophage in medieval literature, where we humans are all “food for worms” (see, e.g., the Cerquiglini-Toulet here).

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That’s where my introduction stops. Having just read Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology (discussed by Levi Bryant here and here), I can now imagine taking things in a radically new direction. What if Derrida’s cat had been, not a worm, but, say, Levi’s blue coffee mug? And what if Derrida had been a table? What if we had (because we’ve now become Graham Harman), on the one side, cotton and, on the other, fire? The first objection–cotton can’t see!–is the easiest to brush aside, since ‘seeing’ might be read as just a particular kind of apprehension or engagement whereby a subject (whether human, ceramic, or cotton) becomes an object to another (whether cat, Formica, or fire). Seeing of course has its own history and physiology, but there’s no good reason to elevate it above other modes of apprehension or engagement.

More tomorrow, maybe? When I might dig into Bogost’s diggings into the problems of object-oriented ethics in his section on “Metaphor and Obligation.”

Ce visage qui n’en est pas un

6749437115_497a6bfc56gain: so. I know others can teach 5 classes, raise a family, and publish a great blog and an awesome book (which I’m reading now when I’m not working my way through these), and do it all without cracking a beard, but not me. I taught 12.5 credits last semester (which will elicit either a “that’s IT?” or “sweet Anubis, you poor fellow” or “can it, brother: at least you have a job job“), which made the last bit of the semester a bit of a tourbillon: that, plus a November that saw me giving talks (or receiving honors) to Urbana-Champaign, to Ann Arbor, from DC, or, after a fashion, to my inlaws in Newton, New Jersey. And then in December, when I wasn’t grading, my wife and I packed, cleaned, and sublet the apartment, and, after two weeks’ vacation seeing friends in London and Istanbul, we moved to Paris, which will be our HQ from now until this conference. Surely there’s more I could say, mais–as I’m told on dit here, j’en passe, or, if you like, et patati et patata.

Excitement continues in my absence. This is both a properly Heideggarian position of ex-istance and/or, better, an ooo position of knowing that I’m the center only of my world. If even that. Some of the excitement, which you must have already experienced, include Eileen’s harrowing, that is, her renewal of her ongoing call to batter down (or sidestep) the gates. Reread it and live it, you. If you’re besieged, find your allies. Tunnel out.

As for me, my plan’s to get medieval. I have material from my November talks that wants to see you. Some of this, like what follows, belongs to my book, but just not in the frozen, published form. If, like Wordsworth or Langland or Gerald of Wales, I could keep tweaking my texts, this bit, on Yvain’s Wild Herdsman, would be in the book, sometime. As it stands, the blog serves, and I only wish I’d done the following (which I’m now recommending to anyone about to publish a book): end the acknowledgments with “Occasional Updates to this Book may be found online at the following url.” Next time, next time, next time. Let’s end the pretense of conclusion.

My book deals with the Herdsman on pages 151-62. There, drawing on Judith Butler’s last fews years of work, I argue that the meeting between the monstrous Herdsman and Calogrenant in a forest clearing is not simply a meeting between culture and nature, as it’s normally been understood, but rather a kind of witnessing to the violent emergence of the human from the animal. The Herdsman is human, as he claims, because he is lord of his beasts, and he is lord of his beasts not only because he beats them, but also because he hears their pleas for mercy as only imitative of proper–which is to say, human–cries for mercy. Calogrenant, at first terrified by the Herdsman, then asks the Herdsman to direct him to a wonder. He’s thus ceased to recognize the Herdsman as wonderful, which is to say, he sees him now as a fellow human. Calogrenant becomes complicit in the Herdsman’s humanity. Of course, human emergence doesn’t work perfectly: after all, the Herdsman’s face is a mess of beastly forms. We see, then, both the violent emergence of the human and the evidence that such emergence can only ever be partial.

Straightforward, right?

But I could have done more. It’s hard to determine what kinds of animals the Herdsman herds. Calogrenant says that he saw him herding “tors sauvages et esperars” [278; wild, excited bulls]; that’s David Hult’s solution to a difficult line, drawing from BN fr. 1433 and, also, Vatican, Regina 1725 (“torz sauvages et espaarz”).

tors saluages ors et liepars

(key line from BN fr. 794, via here)

Espars is a hapax, found only here and nowhere else in the Old French corpus, and it’s of uncertain meaning. Scribal confusion may have muddled the line from very early on in the romance’s history. Another manuscript (see above) speaks of “tors salvages ors et lieparz,” wild bulls, bears, and leopards (see also BN fr. 1450, “et tors savages et lupart”), while another subtracts the bulls and has, instead, three wild bears, and one leopard (“trois ors sauvages et .i. liepart” (BN fr. 12560)).

Medieval translations of Yvain—into Norwegian and Swedish, Middle High German, and Middle English—have their Herdsman guarding, depending on the translation, lions, leopards, and bears, stags and deer, serpents, dragons, and, in Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein, “all kinds of beasts that had ever been named to me” (405-6; aller der tiere hande / die man mir ie genande”–from here; trans. from here), but particularly bison and aurochs. Because Chrétien’s romance nowhere else speaks of the Herdsman as overseeing anything but bulls (see lines 285, 345, 706, and 792), editors have tended to brush aside these other animals and to take the hapax “espars” as an adjective describing the bulls as “roaming” or “lively.” Problem solved, but not without some editorial creativity.

I prefer to keep the Herdsman’s menagerie uncorrected, even if the leopards and other animals are just the fault of later embellishments or sloppy medieval solutions to a corrupt or obscure line. I prefer to think, at least, that later scribes saw an opportunity here, not only to increase the wonder of the episode, but also to say more about the Herdsman’s immersion and subsequent emergence from animality, and as well, to say more about the auto-humanizing effects of the Herdsman’s brutalization of his charges. The Herdsman beats his animals and doesn’t listen to them; he and Calogrenant mark the animals’ vulnerability as their proper lot rather than as an injustice to be rectified; in so doing, they confine all these critters, in all their heterogeneity, into the disdained and homogeneous category of animal.

Now, it would be one thing for the Herdsman to animalize only one kind of critter, bulls for example. Bulls like humans are their own species, so a binary of bulls and humans works well enough. But it’s another thing, far taxonomically sloppier, to take bulls, lions, bears, leopards, serpents, dragons, stags, and deer, and, heedless of their particular differences, to treat all these critters collectively as one thing, animals, collectively distinct from humans and collectively like each other. Depending on the version of the romance, the Herdsman does this to domestic critters, wild ones, fabulous ones, critters mundanely familiar to Northern Europe and others known only from bestiaries, scripture, encyclopedia, or romance. In Hartmann von Aue, the Herdsman does this, as hard as it is to imagine, to all animals. All of them, whether bulls, leopards, or dragons, become one thing, banished to the other side of the binary in the Herdsman’s declaration “thus I am the lord of my beasts” (353; “ainsi sui de mes bestes sire”). In sum, if we don’t go along with the editorial correction, if we accept the heterogeneous menagerie, we can much more clearly discern the homogenizing invention of the category of animal.

Derrida can help clarify what happens here [and those who know his work on animals will have seen this coming]. In his lectures on animals—classic and indispensable for critical animal studies—Derrida asked his audience to hear l’animot whenever he said les animaux, animals. L’animot puns on the homonymic mot, or word, in the plural maux-ending, and might be translated as “animals-animalword.” Its jarring solecism of a singular pronoun used with a plural-sounding word aims at least to unsettle humans by reminding them of the bêtise, the animal stupidity, of classifying all nonhuman critters, no matter how disparate, into the homogeneous category “animal.” Through Derrida’s coinage, animals might be understood, as Matthew Calarco glossed the word, “in their plural singularity rather than their generality.” Hearing l’animot rather than les animaux means refusing to allow nonhuman animals to be neatly collected as animals, all like each other in their nonhumanity. Refusing the category of animals would at least frustrate human self-certainty by transforming the hierarchical and anthropocentric binary of human and animal into an acentric meshwork of relations in which humans would be one node or intersection among many.

Here in the forest clearing, the essars, we have only a newly born community of two humans and a disparate crowd of beasts forcibly conjoined into a singular mass. Nonetheless the tiny circle occupied by humans has not quite been freed of animals: recall the Herdsman’s face, the mingled horse, elephant, owl, cat, wolf, and boar that, at first glance, look out mutely at the knight. Stuck with his face, the Herdsman doesn’t ever fully emerge from animality. Like us, he remains one of them, whatever his efforts. If this is forgivable in 2011 [make that 2012!], I want to call him the Herds/Man, with a slash between Herds and Man, for in this space of sylvan emergence, the Herdsman never quite arrives at being singularly human. He may deny his beasts a face, but he can’t lose his own. His own face dispossesses him. He can’t make his face one.

Epilogue excerpt: surprised by Oxen

2880162528_870fdef0e6To mark the occasion of being on the verge of sending my book manuscript into the great unknown, and as a kind of prayer for a happy return, I’m offering this post on animals. The book began in a seminar on medieval animals and critical theory offered by Susan Crane in Fall 2003. I had passed my oral exam that Spring, and, burdened with an M. Phil., I spent the Summer desperate for a dissertation topic. I settled on something about the fifteenth-century uses of “chivalry.” Three months into the research, I was already sick of it, and I decided to audit some classes to clear my head. Hence my presence in Crane’s seminar.

There I hit upon a dissertation topic and title, “Eating and Not Eating Meat in the Middle Ages.” Huge, and perhaps never to be realized, but that beginning conditioned everything I’ve said and thought about animals since then. Other scholars started with questions of reason, or love; I started with violence. And it’s only gradually that I’ve been able to think through and with animals with an eye for anything else. Here’s a lightly bloggified piece from the book’s epilogue representing some of where future projects might take me.

Paulinus of Nola’s natalicii poems for Saint Felix frequently speak of animals, and almost just as frequently praise the sacrifice of animals at Felix’s shrine. Pigs fly, and then offer themselves to death; oxen hide in the woods to escape this pious slaughter, and then, divinely inspired, give themselves up. But the animal miracle of Paulinus’s sixth natalicium (written in 400), saves its animals for love rather than for sacrificial, alimentary use. It speaks of a peasant who made a living by renting out his two oxen, which were dearer to him than his own children: “Neque cura minor saturare juvencos, / Quam dulces natos educere; parcior immo / Natis, quam pecori caro ” (PL 61: 495D; he devoted no less care to giving his oxen their fill than to bringing up his sweet sons. In fact, he fed his children more sparingly than the dear cattle) (this and subsequent translations from here). But the oxen were stolen. After a long and fruitless search, the peasant returned home to grieve; finally he prayed, first to God, and then at the shrine of Felix, whom he scorned for allowing the theft. He waited at Felix’s shrine until he was driven off, then went home in the dark to lay inconsolably in the filth of the oxen’s empty stall, caressing their hoofprints. Felix, amused by the peasant’s violent language, returned the oxen, and when they pounded on the door, the peasant imagined the robbers had returned, until the oxen identified themselves by lowing. As soon as the peasant began to unbolt the door, “juncti simul irrupere juvenci, / Et reserantis adhuc molimina praevenerunt / Dimoto faciles cesserunt obice postes, / Oblatumque sibi mox ipso in limine regem ” (PL 61:499D-500A; the oxen burst in together, anticipating his attempt to open the door, for once the bolts were released the door easily gave way). The oxen and peasant embraced one another:

Dum complectentis domini juga cara benignum
Molliter obnixi blanda vice pectus adulant
Illum dilecti pecoris nec cornua laedunt,
Et collata quasi molles ad pectora frontes
Admovet, et manibus non aspera lingua videtur,
Quae lambens etiam silvestria pabula radit. (PL 61:500A-B)

they gently nuzzled their kindly lord and fawningly caressed his breast in turn. The horns of his beloved cattle did him no injury; he drew their heads as though they were soft to his proffered breast. To his hands the tongues which by licking could scrape their food even from trees did not feel rough.

To be sure, the oxen’s love of the peasant may attest to perfect animal servility, as the peasant will presumably loan them out again. But the peasant’s sacrifice of himself and his family to the well-being of the oxen, as well as his shock and vulnerability at their loss and return, perhaps overflow the confines of simple utility to erode the borders of both human and animal.

We can understand the import of what occurs here through Derrida’s lecture notes for the session that opened his course on “Hostipitalité,” or, as Gil Anidjar straightforwardly translates the word, “hostipitality.” As elsewhere in his oeuvre, Derrida forms a neologism that expresses his argument in miniature. “Hostipitality” incorporates the double meaning of the French “hôte,” which means both “guest” and “host.” As Derrida argues, a host who welcomes a guest in a limited sense—for a limited time, with a limited set of accommodations, and for a guest whose character, desires, and needs are already known in advance—has not been truly hospitable, because the host has measured the hospitality. A truly welcoming host must offer hospitality without limits, which requires that the host be overcome by an unexpected guest with unexpected wants. Thus the true host is unable to welcome, because to welcome means to decide when and how far to open the door. Nor can the true host know the character of the guest in advance, because this, too, reserves to the host the option of denying hospitality. By welcoming, the host risks being caught up entirely by the demands of the guest, even becoming hostage to the guest: hence the ethical and logical affinity of the opposing meanings of “hôte.” Hence too the presence of the Latin root “hostis,” meaning both “stranger” and “enemy”: the arrival of the guest “ruptures, bursts in or breaks in” upon the host, shattering the host’s sense of home, boundaries, and, ultimately, self, since the true host reserves nothing to itself. The oxen, too, burst in, “irrupere,” themselves determining when and how wide to open the door, stripping from the peasant, almost as soon as he makes the gesture, his capacity to welcome. Through a generosity that exceeds his ability to give, the peasant becomes hostage to his own guests. Furthermore, as Paulinus makes clear, the oxen are not entirely assimilated to the peasant’s bucolic domesticity: they caress the peasant, though they could also have injured him with their bulk, horns, and rough tongues. Faced with creatures of such strength, however, the peasant does not hold himself back, but gives himself over to them entirely, without guarding himself from any injury they might do him. Now a perfect host, hostage to his guests, and beyond all capacity to give, and thus beyond all capacity to be a host, the peasant abandons himself to vulnerability before the oxen. To return to the question from the Dialogue of St. Julien, “Ou porreit l’en cest homme querre?” (where could the man be found in here?). There is violence in this encounter, but it is neither the violence of human domination, nor the violence of animal’s claim of lawmaking violence for itself, like that of the boar of the Avowyng. This is the violence of the unexpected arrival that shatters all self-certainty, that evacuates the foundations where a human might stand or where a human might force an animal to stand before it.

(image from

(for other ways of reading this episode, see Willy Evenepoel, “Saint Paulin de Nole, Carm. 18, 211-468: Hagiographie et Humour,” in La narrativa Cristiana antica: codici narrativi, strutture formali, schemi retorici: XXIII incontro di studiosi dell’antichità Cristiana (Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1995), 507-20, and Dennis E. Trout, “Christianizing the Nolan Countryside: Animal Sacrifice at the Tomb of St. Felix,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3 (1995): 281-298.)

I Would Hurt a Fly

HC3x0By now, you’ve probably all seen Obama’s fly-killing prowess. You may have also heard about PETA’s much-mocked response:

But now People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling it an “execution,” wants the commander-in-chief to show a little more compassion to even “the least sympathetic animals.”

“Believe it or not, we’ve actually been contacted by multiple media outlets wanting to know PETA’s official response to the executive insect execution,” a blog on the group’s website explained. “In a nutshell, our position is this: He isn’t the Buddha, he’s a human being, and human beings have a long way to go before they think before they act.”

The group has sent Obama a device that traps a fly so it can then be released outside.

“We believe that people, where they can be compassionate, should be, for all animals,” PETA spokesman Bruce Freidrich explained.

With all the necessary statements about my dubiousness about PETA’s methods, I wonder what structures of power this mockery of consideration for the fly serves to sustain? What if Obama hadn’t killed it, but had, rather, contained the fly and set it outside? What would he have been giving up? Would he have endured mockery for his compassion? And what has he gained by killing such a contemptible animal so skillfully in so public a way?

I’ve assembled a kind of florilegia to answer the question.

Wido of Spoleto is denied the Frankish throne in 888 because of his frugal eating:

And as [Wido of Spoleto] wanted to enter that part of France they call Roman, crossing the kingdom of the Burgundians, there met him messengers of the Franks telling him to go back because, worn out by the long wait, as they could not be without a king for a long time, they had elected Odo with all assenting. It is said, however, that the Franks actually did not take Wido as their king on account of this. For when he was coming to the city of Metz, which shines most powerful in the kingdom of Lothar, Wido sent ahead his servant who was to prepare food for him in the royal style. And the bishop of Metz received an answer like this from the servant, when he served him much food according to the custom of the Franks: “If you give me at least a horse, I will arrange things in such a way that King Wido will be satisfied with a third of all this after he has feasted.” When the bishop heard this, “it is not proper,” he said,” for such a king to rule over us, who prepares himself a cheap ten-coin meal.” And so it happened that they abandoned Wido and instead elected Odo. (Liudprand of Cremona, Historia Gestorum Regum et Imperatorum sive Antapodosis, I.16; in PL 136:0801A-B; translation from 58-59)

Guiborc in the Chanson de Guillaume encourages her husband to return to battle after watching him eat:

‘Par Deu de glorie, qui convertir me fist,
a qui renderai l’alme de ceste pecceriz,
quant ert le terme al jur de grant juis,
qui mangue un grant pain a tamis
et pur ço ne laisse les dous gasteals rostiz
et tut mangue un grant braun porcin
et en aproef un grant poun rosti
et a dous traiz beit un sester de vin,
ben dure guere deit rendre a sun veisin!
Ja trop vilment ne deit de champ fuir,
ne sun lignage par lui estre plus vil!” (1422-32)

‘By the God of Glory, who caused my conversion, to whom I shall deliver my sinner’s soul, anyone who can eat a great, fine white-loaf, and not leave because of that his two roast pasties and eats up a whole great pork brawn, and after that a great roast peacock, and drinks a gallon of wine at two draughts, will wage harsh war on his neighbor! He’ll not flee cravenly from the field, or bring shame on his family!”

The Middle English translation of the Alphabet of Tales describes the character and appearance of Charlemagne:

And he ete bod littyl brede, bod at ans he wolde ete a quarter of a weddur, or ij hennys, or a guse, or a swyne shulder, or a pacok, or a crane, or a hale hare.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt addresses Farm Groups, May 14, 1935:

I have always supposed, ever since I was able to play around, that the acknowledged destiny of a pig is sausage, or ham, or bacon or pork.

Derrida, “Eating Well, Or, The Calculation of the Subject”

The subject does not want just to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, he accepts sacrifice and eats flesh. Since we haven’t much time or space here, and at the risk of provoking some kind of loud protests (we pretty much know from which quarter), I would ask you: in our countries, who would stand any chance of becoming a chef d’Etat (a head of State), and of thereby acceding ‘to the head,’ by publically, and therefore exemplarily, declaring him- or herself to be a vegetarian? The chef must be an eater of flesh….To say nothing of celibacy, of homosexuality, and even of femininity (which for the moment, and so rarely, is only admitted to the head of whatever it might be, especially the State, if it lets itself be translated into a virile and heroic schema. (281)

 

Strange Conjunctions: Patočka/Derrida and Sancho Panza

h2_1975.1.1416(Okay, so I’ve been writing. And reading. And standing to the side, just over here, watching our blog get along fine. Good! Warning: what follows is just plain silly)

Last night, reading The Gift of Death, I ran across something too familiar in the midst of one of Derrida’s paraphrases of Jan Patočka. He writes “Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place.”

Please compare:

“Since your grace has been locked in the cage, enchanted, in your opinion, have you had desire and will to pass what they call major and minor waters?”

“I do not understand what you mean by passing waters, Sancho; speak more clearly if you want me to respond in a straightforward way.”

“Is it possible that your grace doesn’t understand what it means to pass minor or major waters? Even schoolboys know that. Well, what I mean is, have you had desire to do the thing nobody else can do for you?”

“Ah, now I understand you, Sancho! Yes, I have, quite often, and even do now. Save me from this danger, for not everything is absolutely pristine!”

Don Quixote, Part I XLVIII, Grossman trans.

I’m reminded in turn of a scene in the film Derrida where our hero, when asked what he’d like to see in a documentary about a philosopher–say, Heidegger or Kant–responded, “their sex lives.” It’s funny, and would no doubt be telling, given the evidence of the picture above. One imagines Kant, by whose regularity in his daily constitutional the housewives of Königsberg would set their watches, as being as dutiful as Walter Shandy, who, contra the opinion of his son, generally “minded what [he was] about when [he] begot me.” I’m sure that whatever Hannah Arendt did with her Martin, or Simone Weil did with her God, would give us something.

And yet: sex and death. It’s a bit operatic, don’t you think? How would philosophy had [grammar edit!] have been different if it had built itself upon what else no one can do for you? Where would philosophy have tended if Patočka or Heidegger had remembered eating and its natural end, a kind of being-toward-supper (Sein-zum-Abendessen?)? If Plato had imagined creation as something other than a globe consuming its own waste?

When the sequel to Derrida comes (something like this), if someone asks me his question, I know what I’d like to have seen: Adorno in his kitchen, and perhaps elsewhere.

 


 

I like the Foucault reference. It also reminds me that I had thought about sex, Jeffrey, as akin to death in its being something that no one else can undergo for you. This doesn’t work, however, for several reasons: a) assuming one doesn’t believe in Christianity, no one’s death can prevent yours: it can only delay it (this bit from familiar faces paraphrased at some length in Gift of Death). Sex, on the other hand, can be put off forever. Maybe; b) if–and this is such a bit if–sex is never a direct relation, but always directed through fantasies, memories, hopes, our constitutively false imago, &c., then sex is precisely that which someone else always undergoes for you. In that way, it’s entirely unlike death, or eating, or shitting, unless we want to believe–and why not?–that there is something intimately ours about our orgasms, consumptions, or defecations, even if they’re always strange to us, even if they’re not entirely recognizable precisely because they are so intimate and hence beyond or below the typical networks that sustain our self-identifications.

I’ve started wondering what Derrida could have done had he turned his considerations on the gift to a consideration of the (singularly?) American locution “to take a shit.”

Eileen, that abstract from Jessica gave me one of those “well, of course!” feelings that we get when we encounter an argument that just looks inherently right and makes jumbled, incorrectness suddenly snap into sense. SEMA’s going to be so great.

I wonder, however, if we can make something of the structural analog here between the woman (on the philosopher’s back) and the hole (into which the philosopher falls). In what way is a woman like a marle pit? Well, The Miller’s Tale has much to say about that; so does Kristeva too, I’m sure.

=========

I’m sure there’s a longer post in here somewhere, but I want to say just now that I’ve found this post’s soulmate.

One guess.

That’s right!

My library just bought Valerie Allen’s On Farting, whereupon I checked it out, and, even though I should be reading Dinshaw, getting party prep in order for our big summer blowout, working on my piece for the Babel anthology, etc., I couldn’t stop myself once I, uh, slid down into this book. A few choice quotes:

“In the midden, one finds the most unlikely bedfellows and is constantly surprised by the connections between objects rather than any coherent whole that depends on an internal connection of deductive reasoning” (4) This belongs to her anti-Introduction, which swipes at notions of presenting a package with pretensions to wholeness, to having a clear beginning and end. With this book–as we are here–we’re always in the middle. Like a fart, Allen (would) say(s).

Or, for my imagining Adorno in the kitchen and perhaps elsewhere, Allen reminding me of the story of Herakleitos, who was discovered by travelers, philosophical tourists, “in the kitchen, warming himself at the stove”: but kitchen, Gk ipnos, Allen points out, only primarily means oven/kitchen, and secondarily means privy/dungheap. Nice.

Or, the scatological mnemonics or schoolroom Latin?

tourde in thy tethe merda dentibus inheret
I am almost beshytten sum in articulo purgandi viscera

Now, I’m not deep enough in the shit to get dirty with the argument. For now, like any good anal scholar, I’m just hoarding details.

Highly recommended!

===

I can’t think of any examples off hand of permanent sparing, but it’s just that ‘spared for a while’ that our thanatologists–Heidegger and Patočka and (depending on how close he hews to them in this book) Derrida–focus. JD writes “I can give the other everything except immortality, except this dying for her to the extent of dying in place of her and so freeing her from her own death. I can die for the other in a situation where my death gives him a little longer to live, I can save someone by throwing myself in the water or fire in order to temporarily snatch him from the jaws of death, I can give her my heart in the literal or figurative sense in order to assure her of a certain longevity. But I cannot die in her place” (43).

Sleep is a great example. As is dreaming. Your question is excellent, and I’m hoping something will come to me soon–probably while I’m drifting off!

– See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/07/strange-conjunctions-patokaderrida-and.html#sthash.MQRMMuOb.dpuf

QOTD: Chrulew on Derrida in Eden

1410418922_a4ddf6f9ebSpeaking of Science Fiction writers, last week, Matthew Chrulew (who, so far as I can determine, is a doctoral student at Monash University) did me the honor of letting me read his excellent article “Feline Divinanimality: Derrida and the Discourse of Species in Genesis,” published in what looks to be a fascinating journal, The Bible and Critical Theory. I very much enjoyed it, and what’s more, I experienced a not wholly unwelcome feeling of uncanniness: Chrulew’s conclusion and my dissertation’s epilogue have much in common:

Interestingly, Derrida does not name his cat, but, in denying with his appeals to its reality all of the appropriations that necessarily accompany its appearance in his essay, he seeks to retain only the untranslatable pro-noun that marks its individuality: ‘It is a matter … of rendering oneself to the truth of the name, to the thing itself such as it must be named by the name, that is, beyond the name. The thing, save the name’ (Derrida 1995b: 68; see also 58, 89; see also Derrida 1995a: 67). What ultimately guides these (un)namings is the ‘paradisaic bestiary’ (Derrida 2002: 405/287) that haunts Derrida’s philosophy, the vision of an unfallen language more paradisaic even than both the Priestly and Yahwistic creation accounts, which naturalised from the first the cultural distinction between wild animals and livestock (Gen 1:24-25, 2:20). In seeking, chimerically and impossibly, naked words in Eden, he evokes a spectral naming to haunt our relationships with animals: a truly Adamic naming in which man would not differentiate himself (through his shame) from ‘the Animal’ as such, but rather be (unashamedly) in relation to all of the animot in their multiplicity, according to their differences: as species, perhaps, but also as unsubstitutable singularities with their own point(s) of view, every singular existent called by his/her/its proper name. Through this prophetic and profoundly anti-anthropocentric vision, we might approach an unconditional hospitality open to the absolute exemplarity of the unsubstitutable other, in which tout autre est tout autre. Such a naming-to-come would erase the name in search of ‘the proper name in its pure possibility (it’s to you, yourself, that I say “come,” “enter,” “whoever you are and whatever your name, your language, your sex, your species may be, be you human, animal, or divine…”)’ (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000: 137–139). It would be in this sense, mythic and nude, that we should inhabit Eden, where ‘whatever the man call[s] each living creature, that [is] its name’ (Gen 2:19).

What’s next for all this? At my defense, Samuel Moyn suggested: “nominalism.” Strikes me as a good idea.

Caninophilia II

After Kzoo, I wrote a post reevaluating my thoughts on animals. A revised version of the reevaluation became my diss’s conclusion–epilogue, rather, as that sounds less final to me (since in this usage “epi” = “in addition to,” what could be a better encapsulation of supplementarity than epilogos?). I’m defending in a few weeks, in the week after my Brooklyn College job starts. Although I’m able to take a break from dissertatin before the hammer drops on Sept 6th, I’m now in the mode of mad preparation for the 3 courses I’m teaching (Med. Lit., Bible as Lit., and Composition) : in other words, my blog contributions will likely be minimal until I get my footing.

I offer this post as, I suppose, my steward until I return to cast off my wretchedness (can you tell I just reread Sir Orfeo?). I expect that some of you may want to see what your comments wrought on my ideas. For the interested, here you go: a long post, my epilogue, very minimally edited for placement here. If you’re tired of all this, or even if not, please do keep on with discussing Eileen’s excellent course or keep the fun of the ITMBC4DSoMA going.

“Hospitality is the deconstruction of the at-home; deconstruction is hospitality to the other, to the other than oneself, the other than ‘its other,’ to an other who is beyond any ‘its other.'”

Derrida, “Hostipitality.”

“An hous he made of riligioun,

For to singe for Sire Bevoun

And ek for Josian the fre:

God on here saules have pité!

And also for [Bevis’s horse] Arondel

Yif men for eni hors bidde schel.” (4613-18)

Bevis of Hampton

“If I am unsatisfied with the notion of a border between two homogeneous species, man on the one side and the animal on the other, it is not in order to claim, stupidly, that there is no limit between ‘animals’ and ‘man’: it is because I maintain that there is more than one limit, that there are many limits.”

Derrida and and Elisabeth Roudinesco, “Violence against Animals.”

My dissertation identifies a dominant method by which humans identified themselves as human in the Middle Ages. In a double process, humans claimed a set of capabilities for themselves—reason, language, authentically upright bodies, and immortal souls—and denied them to animals, which regardless of the differences among animal individuals and animal species, were all construed as fundamentally distinct from, and inferior to, humans. Animal life was finally only biological, as evidenced, for example, in the argument by the thirteenth-century Cistercian Helinand of Froimont that “s’il n’est autre vie, / entre ame a home et ame a truie / n’a donques point de diference” (if there is no other life, then there is no difference at all between the soul of a human and a sow). Yet unmistakable but persistent resemblances between humans and animals baffled human claims to uniqueness. Like animals, humans are made of flesh and blood; each hungers, each defecates, each dies, and the corpses of each rot and turn to dust. Human flesh was reputed to taste like animal flesh; it certainly could be cooked like it. Rational-seeming behavior in animals—for example, the wolf that, according to Albert the Great, had perfected its pig-snatching technique by practicing on a log—especially disturbed human confidence in their unique identity. As Nature observes in the Roman de la Rose, if animals were reasonable, “mal fust aus omes” (17779; it would not be good for humans), since animals might at the very least band together in rebellion against human oppression: “jamais li bel destrier crenu / ne se laisseraient donter, / ne chevaliers aus monter” (17800-2; never would beautifully maned chargers allow themselves to be broken nor to be mounted by knights) and “ja chien ne chat nou serviraient, car senz ome bien cheviraient” (17813-4; no cat or dog would ever serve us, since they can get along well without humans). Worse still, if animals and humans were each reasonable, then humans might be no better than animals: to rephrase Helinand, if there is no difference between the soul of a human and a sow, then there might be no other life.

As I have argued, in the face of such threats, humans established their difference through acts and discourses that subjugate animals. If animal reason would enable them to throw off their bonds, then surely animal degradation demonstrates their irrationality, and human mastery over them demonstrates human rationality. Augustine, for example, answered the question “what proof is there that men are superior to animals” by observing that “animals can be domesticated and tamed by men, but men not at all by animals.” Thus, domesticating, killing, and eating animals were instrumental in human self identification. Indeed, simply valuing human above animal life and producing written discourses that disparaged animals served this purpose. Humans could seal off their humanity from animality by declaring that wolves and other clever animals possessed not reason but only an inferior “estimative sense”; by relegating animal communication to being a mere “oonde”; and even by complaining, as Palemon does in the Knight’s Tale, that “when a beest is deed he hath no peyne / but a man after his deeth moot wepe and pleyne” (I.1319-20). My concern throughout these chapters has been to show that in this system, human identity was an effect of the action of domination, not an essence that preceded, and justified, the act. The centrality to human identity of this dynamic relationship between humans and animals revealed any claim to essential humanity as merely staged. Human identity was therefore constitutively restless, always seeking a foundation that it could never attain. No human could abandon the domination of animals without abandoning human identity, but in a sense, there was no human identity to abandon except the act of domination itself.

At the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, in May of 2007, I described this relationship between human identity and the humiliation of animals to account for medieval reports on the supreme deliciousness of human flesh: as I explained, human superiority was apparent even in the flavor of their flesh, and human deaths could be a source of pleasure in a way that animal deaths could not. Thus, when a wolf, having tasted “savoury” and “pleasant” human flesh, refuses to “eat the flesh of other beasts, though [it] should die of hunger,” its pleasure and longing pays tribute to human uniqueness. In response to my paper, Jane Chance first spoke about her cats; during a conversation at a party the next night, James Paxson produced his cell phone, on which he had stored a picture of his dog. Such responses to my argument for human identity and animal degradation are usual, and I have usually dismissed these attestations of love for pets as mystifications of the brutal, fundamental truth of the human power of life and death over animals. After all, few, if any, humans would sacrifice themselves for their pets, despite their love for them; fewer still would sacrifice the life of an unknown animal instead of the life of an unknown human: but humans commonly give their lives for people they love and even for human strangers. Furthermore, as I have argued, the utilitarian calculations that might elevate an animal to equality with a human tend to do so only because the animal possesses to some degree the characteristics of an idealized humanity: this is not so much a system of animal rights as it is a more expansive anthropocentrism.

Lately, I have wanted to reevaluate my approach to the question of human identity. I have sought inspiration not only through a more generous remembrance of people’s love for their pets but also through Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto, which declares that “we [humans and animals] live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope.” Stories are of course a way of promoting and concealing ideologies; but, as Haraway hopes, the individual characters in stories can also overflow the restrictions of ideology and its generalizations. I have thought also of Derrida’s cat in his “The Animal that Therefore I am (more to follow),” which Derrida insists is “a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the room as an allegory for all the cats on the earth.” Derrida’s insistence that this cat is this cat removes or preserves it—her, rather (as she is une chatte)—from the undifferentiated, humiliated mass of creatures confined to l’animot. This individual relationship between human and animal may suggest another, less fundamentally violent way for the human to be, or even, as I will finally propose, a way for the human to cease to be altogether.

Of course accounts of such encounters between individual humans and animals are not confined to the present day. Folcuin of Lobbes’ Deeds of the Abbots of Saint Bertin tells the story of the horse of a ninth-century bishop of Thérouanne, also named Folcuin. The horse loved Folcuin so much that “ante eius feretrum preisse” (it went before his bier) at its master’s funeral procession, and “omnem deinceps hominem ferre recusasse, nec passus est post menbra tanti pontificis voluptatibus deservire alicuius hominis” (afterwards it refused to carry all men, nor, because of its great delight in the bishop, would it suffer the limb of any other man). It would be simplistic to proclaim the horse’s love for Folcuin as just another instance of animal subjugation. The horse submits only to the bishop, not to humans in general, and once the bishop dies, it refuses to be mastered at all; it has ceased, then, to occupy the position of an animal. The humans attempt to reestablish a proper role for the horse after its death when they give it as food to the dogs, as this is a disgrace no human corpse should ever suffer. But the horse’s great love for the dead bishop protects even its carcass, since “a nullis illorum est attactus” (it was touched by none of [the dogs]). Finally:

Et merito cadaver eius canes non poterant lacerare, super quem ymnidica cantica Christo decantata erant sepissime. Quod videntes cives, eum humano more sepelierunt, quem nec bestiae nec volucres tangere presumpserunt.

And because of the merit of its carcass, upon which hymns to Christ were so often chanted, the dogs could not mangle it. When the citizens saw this, they gave a human burial to what neither beasts nor birds would presume to touch.

Edit A reader (who can identify him/herself if it wishes) writes, “If the Latin is as you’ve transcribed it, I think it’s likely that ‘merito’ is an adverb meaning ‘deservedly, justly’ (Lewis and Short, s. v. ‘mereo’) and “cadaver” is a neuter nominative or accusative. So the first bit would be something like ‘And justly dogs were not able to mangle its corpse.'”

I think also of Yvain and his lion, whose relationship I contrasted with that of the Wild Herdsman and his beasts in Chapter IV. While the Herdsman beats his beasts and considers them incapable of reason, Yvain responds to the lion’s plea for sympathy and companionship as he might have responded to a fellow knight. Soon, Yvain can declare “l’aim come mon cors” (3792; I love it like my own body), and when the lion disobeys Yvain by joining him in the fight to rescue Lunete, the lion knows that its master “l’en ainme plus” (4539; loved it all the more). After the fight, “quant mes sire Yvains voit blecié / son lÿon, molt a correcié / le cuer del vantre” (4543-45; when my lord Yvain saw his lion wounded, his heart was filled with anger), to which Chrétien adds, “et n’a pas tort” (4545; and rightly so). Yvain converts his shield into a litter, and fills it with moss to cushion the lion; he then has the lion healed by the same maidens who tend to his own wounds. This relationship is not only that between human master and servile animal; it seems to be a relationship of companions, one of intense, mutual affection.

As intense as these relationships are, I should not be uncritically enthusiastic. In the story of the horse and the bishop, the horse’s special qualities may simply reflect the sanctity and power of its master. Given the lion’s gestures of fealty before Yvain, the lion’s relationship with Yvain may literally be one of domination. All of these relationships may be only instances of what Cary Wolfe called “the logic of the pet,” “the sole exception, the individual who is exempted from the slaughter in order to vindicate, with exquisite bad faith, a sacrificial structure.” Folcuin of Lobbes implicitly records what happens to other horses: after their master’s death, they are passed to other humans, and after death, they are not honored with burial but rather disgraced by being given as food to other animals. Yvain’s love for the lion does not dissuade Yvain from hunting, killing, and eating other animals. Nevertheless, even if the lives of other animals are not improved by this interspecies love, or, for that matter, by the interspecies love of twenty-first century animals and humans, the relationship between a human and the loved individual animal still bears further analysis. Because the love of the horse for Folcuin removes it from a relationships of domination, because Arondel’s love for Bevis perhaps fits it to be memorialized in prayer, and because Yvain’s concern for his lion outweighs his concern for himself (4558-60), we should do this love the honor of thinking it a site of possibilities, of relationships not available to mere animals or, for that matter, to mere humans.

Such a relationship may be illustrated in a Middle English romance in which the dog Trewe-love buries the corpse of its murdered master, Sir Roger, and eventually tracks down and assaults Roger’s murderer at a noble feast:

[Trewe-Love] starte up verament,

The steward [Roger’s murderer] be the throte he hente:

The hownd wrekyd hys maystyrs dethe.

The stewardys lyfe ys lorne —

There was fewe that rewyd theron

And fewe for hym wepyth. (532-40)

This story is much more than just another story of canine loyalty for its human masters. When Roger’s pregnant wife, Margaret, flees the ambush in which Roger will die, she looks back and “Syr Roger…dydd behold / He hewe on ther bodyes bolde, / Hys hownde halpe hym at nede” (322-24). When Margaret gives birth, she commemorates Trewe-love’s fidelity and courage by christening her son with the dog’s name: hence the name of the romance, Sir Tryamour. This name does not function as a simile, as, for example, in Chrétien de Troyes’ description of Lancelot and Maleagant as fighting “plus fierement que dui sengler” (more fiercely than two boars). Nor is Tryamour’s name an instance of animal degradation; unlike the primitives in “The Former Age,” or like the demonic knight Gowther, forced to eat with dogs, he has not been dishonored through his association with animals. In granting her son the name of a particular animal, her dead husband’s dog, Margaret at once frees the dog Trewe-Love from animal degradation and demands that her son live up to the dog’s reputation. Having become centered around honor wherever it might be found, Sir Tryamour has ceased to be anthropocentric. Honor may be a human quality that Trewe-love exemplifies, but it may well be a canine quality that Tryamour exemplifies. This moment of naming, then, is a far more radical reimagining of the human/animal relationship than anything else I have described so far.

Through each singular creature and relationship I describe in my epilogue I am trying to imagine identities outside the human power of life and death over animals; and, as it should be apparent, I am no longer focused on the Middle Ages, as I am convinced the model of human identity I have described is still prevalent. To reimagine human identity, I return to my introduction, which simultaneously raised and suspended Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of “becoming-animal.” In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari portray a world comprising not subjects but “events, in assemblages that are inseparable from an hour, a season, an atmosphere, an air, a life.” Their paradigmatic example is the “deterritorialization” of a wasp pollinating an orchid, in which the wasp “becomes a liberated piece of the orchid’s reproductive system” and the orchid “becomes the object of an orgasm in the wasp, also liberated from its own reproduction.” In this symbiosis, it is no longer possible to speak of the singular wasp or orchid; it is necessary to speak—to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology—of the becoming-orchid of the wasp and the becoming-wasp of the orchid, of the breakdown from molar beings into the molecular becomings of an assemblage. Creatures form alliances with each other in modes of desire that are not driven, as they are in psychoanalytic models, by the insatiable effort to correct or compensate for some lack. The wasp is far from the impossible effort of trying to establish or complete itself by dominating or abandoning itself to the orchid, and vice versa. In short, this is a world in which human and animal identities, and the tyranny of the processes that try to form these identities, are not the only ways of being. We might think of Folcuin and his horse, for example, as having formed a “sacred circuit” in which sanctity and voluptas interpenetrate and join horse and rider to witness to the love of each.

Like Wolfe, Deleuze and Guattari are impatient with love for pets, since they “invite us to regress, draw us into a narcissistic contemplation…anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool.” But, as Haraway argues, “caninophiliac narcissism,” that is, considering dogs to be childlike sources of unconditional love for humans, and other such precritical apprehensions of human and animal identity are not the only ways for humans and domestic animals to interact; as Harraway asserts, “co-habiting does not mean,” or at least does not necessarily mean, “fuzzy and touchy-feely.” The key to a “postdisenchanted” (to borrow a term from Dinshaw) approach to human and animal identity is to recall the insights of Deleuze and Guattari while still remembering “the very real torment of suffering individuals.” I imagine an approach that acknowledges the violence inherent to forming the two great separate categories of human and animal, that would acknowledge the human reluctance to sacrifice itself for what it identifies as animal, but that would hope for some other way of being with animals. We might try to stop locating ourselves through the humiliation of animals, but this approach would not entail treating pets as surrogate children or extend some form of “human rights” to certain animals.

To dislodge the grandeur and arrogance of human identity, I hope for something better, akin to Derrida’s Lévinasian conception of infinite, impossible hospitality: a way of being with animals and indeed with each other—a category that could in fact include animals—enacted with an awareness of our shared vulnerability, in which no one could act with any certainty that he or she was acting, or not acting, receiving, or not receiving, justly. As Derrida wrote, “If I welcome only what I welcome, what I am ready to welcome, and that I recognize in advance because I expect the coming of the hôte as invited, there is no hospitality.” We should welcome the other without losing our sense of difference from the other; we should apprehend a relationship between humans and animals, and indeed between humans and humans and animals and animals, that allows for multiple points of difference. At the same time, we should lose our certainty that any creature we encounter is an other. By abandoning our presumption of the other creature’s thoughts and character, either in its similarity to our own or its absolute difference, by abandoning our presumption of knowing ourselves, we lose the certainty of our identities. What remains is the imperative to welcome, which is both the beginning of ethics and, as Derrida remarks, of culture itself.

I conclude with Derrida’s cat, which may be the same cat that captures the attention of the camera in the film Derrida by staring out at us and meowing. This is an animal making noise, but it should be heard as something other than mere animal noise, more than an “oonde,” even if we cannot know precisely what the cat intends. We can simply be summoned by the meow to remember Derrida’s love for and indeed his vulnerability and embarrassment, his openness before this one cat. Before this cat, we can lose the certainty of our selves and cease to imagine that the animal is our other, without, however, losing our wonder at the cat’s singularity. In this moment, perhaps we will have ceased to be human, and will have ceased to wish for, and to defend, our human selves.