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, the Man Who (failed to ) Encounter His Cat and therefore remained unfortunately left behind in the Anthropocene, as out of date as the Metal Box, yet having made possible all useful thinking ( or music) since.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’..




Still life


John Bratby, Jean and Table Top ( girl in ayellow jumper),  Graves Gallery , Sheffield

My riff on the idea of belonging caught up on the double meaning of belongings , the kind of multiple way we feel part of something, and the stuff that we acknowledge as ours.

Earlier in the week I found a discarded blue tit nest woven out of sheep’s wool , moss and badger hair, to what looked like a fairly exacting standard, and then abandoned in a wood. This indicated a different way of being , of presence , providing no more than a holder for a bird, some eggs , those fledglings , and then gone.

The process by which it came back to my home is a little murky now, but I remember wishing others might discover it, and then not finding the right place. So it stuck. In my hand, and then my saddlebag and travelled a long way to become an object of meditation.IMG_20180807_194819580

What I noticed, meditatingly, is that it was, despite its craft, exactly functional, and of no interest to its maker, beyond that. It was in effect, a holder, much like ,  in my life, a bivvy bag – a thing to sleep in whilst you remain part of your surroundings.


I thought about my house/home which I inhabit. What in practice does this mean? That I follow trails around it, well marked and quite predictable, some more used than others, which make up a kind of territory, and around the trails are discarded objects of use – some positioned carefully, others at random, and their orderings , or disorderings, responses to patterns of movement, which will have been, once, subjectively purposeful, but in time ( as purpose recedes or is forgotten), have become, more or less, stochastically chaotic. Thus the instructions for a voltmeter, put aside in January, lie next to scrap of mini cucumber, left previous night to feed the pets,  phone charger cable , last week, and scrap of paper torn form a notebook , date unknown.


The lack of order, or maybe lack of control , creates  a sense of shame in me which is hard to explain. Maybe the best I can do is that things should have their place. At these points the house/home feels a place for their ordering , and me, a failing custodian , nervous about the prospect of visitors.

I wondered if I could invert this sense in some way by framing. I remembered looking at still lifes in a gallery.


This is on a table in the Ingleby Gallery. It might be an accident but i dont think so..

On one level I am always amused by the posing of objects to have their picture took. How stiff the apple looks , how carefully the geometry is imposed on chaos. Yet in other ways the things are relational to each other, and perhaps to the life that has mysteriously just stepped out of shot, off down the river of things.


So I took some photos of the things around the house, as they have fallen, and thought about the images I liked and why.


I realised also that I was approaching another sense of belonging – that of being a part of something, rather than apart from it. In one way, by putting myself behind the camera I was separating myself again. On the other hand, I was using the things, or at least their juxtapositions for my own purposes, and letting them influence me. And by creating something with the prospect of an audience, I am describing myself as citizen of a world who might care about such things , and in a particular way.

IMG_20180722_145534030I did not think about what my neighbours might think about me wandering around the house taking pictures of unmade beds and cluttered kitchen units. As I do now it is almost a wilful act of difference ( although I don’t actually know whether my neighbours a) care, or b) don’t do similar things).


I liked a lot of the photos. They made me like my life more – so it felt more like a place of busyness, of things in process, as opposed to abandoned ( although in fairness they could be read like that too). The individual objects seem ready to move – to spring, or topple, to be picked up , or smoothed. They have potential. The clothes seem to have retained the energy of a body in their rumpledness ( perhaps not the socks).


Clothes peg, pen and alarm clock may make up my coat of arms,which I have unsteadily sketched out in my notes and will soon register with the Lord Lyon, King at Arms (Parted bend sinister, clothespeg rampant on field of washed beech , alarm clock passant superior. Crossed pencils accosted.)


The vacuum cleaner crouches like a prehistoric beast frozen, waiting to spring or flee.


The downlit  bathroom objects suggest some surgical procedure taking place, the stuff that is increasingly the lot of ageing bodies being trimmed and contained, which we must approach sanguinely, and with a necessary sense of humility.


The photos end in the garden, seen from the inside looking out, across the last layers of  space junk spiralling out through the asteroid belt towards the unknown.

Ive never owned a garden before and am not sure how much I actually do – there is a document with a map on it which I was sent by the estate agent that says it belongs to the Earl of Linlithgowshire who can take it back if I keep any poultry. I therefore look on myself as a watchman..

If I feel that the still lifes in my house say something about the state of my unconscious, the garden says more about the play between my idea of what I present to the world , and the sense of home I want to present to myself when I return.


I spent a lot of time this summer painting my back fence ( the towering green twin canisters in the last pic speak of the incompleteness of the project. Still it’s the same with the Forth Bridge).  At the time it seemed no more than an inexacting task, and a form of exercise a little more practical and located than running in circles . Looking back , I wonder if I was saying something about my boundary. I was aware it was a readily noticeable activity ( although the fence also creates a little pond of privacy behind it), and I wanted  it to look like some other fences, but unlike the collapsing and chaotic fence attached to the garden of domestic rubbish next door.

That accomplished I don’t know what I am supposed to do with my enclosure. I wander round the village looking at the gardens – I  think  I can identify  three sorts. The first is simply an extension of the domestic life within –  – the photos of my garden looking out have that air. Then there is another type which presents a front to the world – of particular arrangements of space; a display . Regularly placed  sunflowers, matching coloured ornaments, interesting floral combinations or a regulation boot brown fence.  The third type may merge with the second, but the primary source of pleasure is for the resident.


My neighbour has lived in her house for fifty years , her garden has layers like  dendrochronology.  It has a model railway lapping round it, made by her recently deceased husband, and a actual tree at its centre. She rarely leaves its confines but is convinced that some one is breaking in to steal her fuscias. She has spotlights linked to movement sensors trained around the garden. They go off when I use my kitchen sink.

I find myself weeding  – pulling out the plants I know the names of and leaving the ones I don’t recognise that don’t grow so well .

Belonging might be about time passing, or activity, or an inner space of relaxation. But I think its probably about not thinking of an alternative. As in the phrases , ‘AH belong ORMISTON’, or ‘We ve aye been In Ormiston’, which are equivalents, with the main equivalence being the stress placed on the actionword, the emphasis implying that this an active state of being.