The Truth about Cats and Dogs

derridas-cat When I play with my cat , who knows if I am not a pastime to her , more than she is to me?  ( Montaigne, quoted in Derrida)

Sometime towards the end of the last millenium the philosopher Jacques Derrida made a nocturnal visit to the toilet and was met, expectantly , by his cat. Derrida, naked, was also figuratively undressed by the experience.

‘Why should it matter to me, that my cat, who I presume it does not matter to , meets me naked, and  what does the impact of that concern mean in terms of how we meet as Beings ?’ , he thought, except in French, and with a lot more rigour and quotations. And carried on thinking about it over  a lecture series later published as ‘The Animal that Therefore I am’

You might imagine that would be a pretty exhaustive amount of liminal pondering. However twenty years have passed and the ethical climate has changed as far as interspecies interactions go.

Over that period connotations of the word ‘Derrida’ have moved away from images of the Johnny Rotten of philosophy Gallicly-gobbing all over sacred texts to the bewildered spluttering of Oxbridge types rowing their logical-positivist punt gently down the stream, and onto a cuddly Mon Oncle of oracular ambiguity , comfortingly referenced in popular song, biopic and every self-respecting artists catalogue notes, with the reassuring option that we loved him because he was surely too complicated to take seriously, like pretend-butter-wouldnt-melt in his mouth.

Thus Derrida s piece on The Animal is adapted from a ten hour lecture series he gave annually in a French chateau to a bunch of his Bachelaureated pals. That is – we ll book you a castle, you turn up and talk about what you like for a few hours and we ll turn it into a book for you.  Pretty much middle-aged-don fantasy land. We should probably be grateful there is , as usual, some body to it.

Derrida, I like to think, because my Derrida was amazingly knowing, willingly gave up himself (or part(s) thereof) up as a text. For example , the Man Who (failed to ) Encounter His Cat and therefore remained unfortunately left behind in the Anthropocene, as out of date as the Metal Box, yet having made possible all useful thinking ( or music) since.

Thinking concerning the animal , if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. Thus you have a thesis – it is what philosophy has essentially had to deprive itself of.

(intro, The Animal.., Derrida)

There will be a T shirt somewhere.  It might even be in my wardrobe.

Donna Haraway revisits the encounter in her Where Species Meet.. and wants to challenge Derrida for failing to give space to what the cat may have wanted, and to make a true encounter.

The question of suffering led Derrida to the virtue of pity , and that is not a small thing. But how much more promise is there in the questions – can animals play? or work? And even, can I learn to play with this cat? Can I the philosopher respond to an invitation or  recognise  one when it is offered? What if work and play, and not just pity, open up when the possibility of mutual response without power is taken seriously as an everyday practice available to philosophy and to science. What if a useable word for this is joy?  And what if the question of how animals engage one another’s gaze responsively takes centre stage for people? What if this is the query, once it’s protocol is properly established , whose form changes everything? My guess is that Derrida the man in the bathroom , grasped all this but that Derrida the philosopher had no idea how to practice this sort of curiosity.

Elsewhere in her essay Haraway does (thankfully) acknowledge that D may have had other fish to fry in his lectures ( animals as an example of ambiguous categorization, deconstructive critique of  how philosophy usually operates and how it fails parts of reality and human experience by cramming experience into binary categories, what it means to be naked ,  that sort of thing). However she is also deliberately using his exalted status to dare to suggest there may be a royal road into intersubjectivity and Being , in the ruins of a precarious world, through concrete relations with non-humans, and this requires an overturning of some sacred cows (although not, of course, actual ones, unless with their consent).

Haraway is particularly interested in what it means to touch a living animal. These then are the embodied encounters at the margins , limits or chiasmic zones ( depending on your French philosopher of choice) which involve processes of consent and trust , risk and play , which are mutual and negotiable , and of course non-verbal – at least on the side of the animal.

Her interest, which I am allowed to find sentimental , is mostly in dogs , which I am allowed to find ‘unnatural’, but also creates a more general challenge to what is acceptable ethically ( what rights do companion species have?) and as discourse  ( can we build a usable body of work out of anecdotes about our pets/lives/subjectivity?).   One claim which is indisputable is that the sentiment of people towards animals has been written out of sciences such as ethology ( and in my experience, ecology, where the quadrats were never quite as randomly thrown as they were supposed to be) , and the influences that animals may have had on scientists may be narrating our histories as we narrate theirs.

The work of Vincianne Despret is wonderfully revealing of this.

One of the things which has been written out , and may be even more significant to how we do discourse, is that learning is always contextual and subjective , and is about learning with, rather than learning about.  And if we can take that approach we can dispense with futile discussions about the privileged position of the human subject – and instead acknowledge that difference is always given, but never essential or profound and only contextually significant.

If my source of love and warmth comes from an individual is it so significant that they are of a different species so long as the experience is mutually beneficial and consenting?

Perhaps, although I wonder how much pets can consent? Time to feed the gerbils..


The gerbils have found themselves in a cage in my kitchen. They might be in a burrow somewhere in Uzbekhistan, where they would be able to build a proper nest site, and find mates , but might also freeze or starve to death, or be predated by the steppe eagle.

I feel a kind of guilt about their lack of stimuli, and have tried to introduce sticks , outings and multi level living spaces for them to explore. I don’t know how to tell if a gerbil looks bored, but I ve assumed that a more active and less sluggish animal is somehow more fulfilled. This is what the wildlife docs tell me, but is probably psychological projection. Sometimes when in unfamiliarly exciting territory the gerbils stamp alarm calls, and move jerkily and restlessly. Other times not- one pleasant outing ended when they made a nest in the washing machine tub amongst the dirty clothes. This becomes a nice story-to-tell-about-our-pets – we exclude from it that there is no source of food and safety in the home environment (or beyond it appears, colonies of escaped gerbils in the UK have been recorded but have all died out, probably from starvation)- and we credit them with a discernment that recognises the washing machine as a suitable spot for a nest -rather than  carrying out a habitual and automatic behaviour futilely in an alien environment.


Who knows? I may be the Animal who speaks , but they are the other animals who don’t, and any interpolations are really guesses. I think that Haraway is saying something about this, that the sense of knowledge which is abstracted is in fact trapped in the assumptions of its authors, and what we have instead , truthfully, are emotional, embodied reactions to guide us.


 Interpollation is a term recovered by philosopher Louis Althusser to describe how sujects are constituted from concrete individuals by being ‘hailed’ through ideology in to the modern state. Today, through our ideologically loaded narratives of their lives, animals ‘hail’ us as animal people to account for the regimes in which they and we must live. We ‘hail’ them into our constructs of nature and culture, with major consequences of life and death, health and illness, longevity and extinction. We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. In that is our hope..   (Haraway from Where Creatures Meet)

‘Hailed ‘ is an odd term – I suspect at the end of two awkward translations, from medieval French , through the lexicon of the Ecole Superieure and into English. I read, instead, ‘challenged’ or ‘ situated’.   I wonder how much animals hail us, and how much other peoples ( cultural) expectations do?  In my own small experiment the eye of a hungry gerbil is hard to ignore, but you can avoid going past the cage – much like we choose not to look at factory farming, or the mass extinction of lots of species we don’t know much about.

Donna Haraway’s example of living with each other in the flesh seems to be mainly about dog training for obstacle courses, which is a sport where she is, well away, I imagine,from anywhere that races greyhounds.  Elsewhere she considers the world of champion pigeon racers. Both appeal to her as examples of cyborg living , bending the rules and boundaries of subject and object.  Vincianne Despret also talks about interactions between farmers and livestock, experimenters and lab animals, and trainers and parrots. She describes how an African Grey Parrot is motivated to speak by being ignored, and then rewarded, and how it required an engagement in the life of the trainer to continue to do so. But the significant thing was that this process was found by trial and error, and by negotiation with the animal.

The only way me and the gerbils approach interspecies play is around food. Food is probably the one incentive of a captive animal  around which it will negotiate with its captors. Its the traditional training treat of every circus and pet behaviour programme. We handfed the gerbils as an attempt to get them used to handling. They learnt to associate us with food, and our arrival in the kitchen as a potential feeding time, when they dance around their cage being very obvious. Gerbils have preferred foods they will eat in order, so there is also an interesting discourse about being fed (and accepting) less popular foods , or holding out, and importuning for better morsels. There is a certain dance around whether or when they will eat what they are given , and how much energy they will expend on requesting better. But if we give them what they want they are quickly gone.

In the midst of these relationships are moments when we (‘the humans’) are not sure what they are doing, and they (‘the animals’) guide them by their responses.  I guess the hope Haraway speaks about is that we may see a way of coevolving with others ( companion species) which is more appropriate to coexistence and does not alienate or exclude creatures from subjectivity or participation.  And in doing so we will be able to  move on from the generalizations and faux objectivity which have trapped our discourse over the last couple of centuries Then as Jim Morrison once said there might be a ‘store where the creatures meet’..




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