Mournful kitty is mournful. This collection of essays from Fordham University Press brings together proceedings from 'the eleventh Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium held at Drew Theological School in 2011'. It's animal studies from a Green-Christian bent, mostly, and the prime jumping-off-point, in terms of Theory, is Derrida's late writing about animals, most especially his essay 'L'animal que donc je suis (à suivre)' [which first appeared in L'animal autobiographique (1999), and subsequently appeared in English in 2002 as 'The Animals That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)']. One particular moment from that essay is cited by a number of contributors here, more than once paired with Donna Haraway's critique of it. It is Nude Derrida Meeting A Cat, also coincidentally the name of my next band. Jacques encounters the cat, and is aware of the cat's radical alterity, and the wrongness of seeking to assimilate the cat to a human paradigm. This he styles the cat's 'divinanimality', deploying one of his double-meaning pun phrases (which when I was an undergraduate I thought were so clever, but which now I tend to think are mostly just vexing). There's another, too: 'animot'. Since animals are named in the 'mot', or word, and that we need to give the word back to the animals and so on (or not that latter, precisely: 'it would not be a matter of "giving speech back" to animals but perhaps acceding to thinking that thinks the absence of the name and of the word otherwise, and as something other than a privation'). Thankee, Jacques.
When I feel so naked in front of a cat, facing it, and when, meeting its gaze, I hear the cat or God ask itself, ask me: Is he going to call me, is he going to address me? What name is he going to call me by, this naked man, before I give him woman?' [Derrida, 'The Animals That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)', 18]Moore's collection returns to this 'primal scene' repeatedly, to spin various cogitations about what it tells us concerning the abyssal alterity and heterontology of the animals as in some sense expressive of the divine, not only underwritten by but in some sense the truth of God. Which is all fair enough. Contributors also tend to see this Derridean encounter as insufficient, after the manner of Haraway's engagement with the passage.
Yet Haraway, who is thoroughly familiar with Derrida's animality work, is also deeply critical of it. She gives him credit for much, not least that when he encountered that little black cat in his bathroom it was not as a Cartesian that he appraised her ...[but] the philosopher faced with the cat however was able apparently only to philosophize. [Stephen Moore, 'Introduction: from Animal Theory to Creaturely Theology.', 7]Bad philosopher! Naughty philosopher! On your bed!
For Haraway, "Derrida failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking." In this regard, Derrida, for all his philosophical profundity, fell short of "a Gregory Bateson or Jane Goodall ... or many others [who] have met the living gaze of living, diverse animals and in response undone and redone themselves and their sciences. Derrida's full human male frontal nudity before an Other, which was of such interest in his philosophical tradition, was of no consequence to [the cat], except as the distraction that kept her human from giving or receiving an ordinary polite greeting." That Haraway's response seems to me fatuous would, if ever brought to their attention, surely alienate me from the authors of the essays in this collection. Is fatuous too strong a word? There Haraway is quoted from the beginning of the collection. Here she is quoted from the end, in an essay that reads two examples of New Testament apochrypha, the Acts of Peter, where St Peter meets and chats with a talking dog, and the Acts of Paul where Paul meets and chats with a talking lioness. Laura Hobgood-Oster elaborates.
Haraway states that "Derrida failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking or perhaps making available to him in looking back at him that morning." Peter and Paul were more curious; they did not miss the invitation. And, it must be added, neither did the dog or the lion. The lion even initiated the invitation by speaking first. [Hobgood-Oster, 'And Say The Animal Really Responded', 219]'It must be added', must it? Well, it must be added that, unlike Derrida's encounter with an actual dumb cat, these two encounters are stories, fables; and (it must be added) didn't really happen. Talking animals, of which there are of course a vast number in human culture, literature and film, are animals that have already had their alterity violated by being assimilated to human mores and attitudes. This is what strikes me as fatuous about Haraway's insistence that it is a failure for a human being not to grasp that the cat wants to swap polite greetings. Projecting human social protocols onto cats, like this, is to do violence to the very otherness that is the premise of the entire collection. And, actually, I'd say it's the smugness of Haraway's position that annoys me, her placid felinophilic insistence that if a philosopher 'opened himself' to the loveliness of communing with cats the encounter would 'undo and redo' all his/her basic assumptions. I am wary of snarking: I know a great many cat owners who genuinely love their cats, and who find solace and emotional security and strength in their relationships with their pets. Many people consider cats 'beautiful', and take pleasure in stroking them, feeding them and so on. There's nothing wrong with that. But kindness to others is not in itself reciprocity. The gesture of reciprocity being posited by Haraway is, as she suggests it, perfectly open. It could just as well be that properly opening herself to her cat would undo and redo her preconceptions -- maybe her cat holds her in contempt, loathes her, endures her company for purely practical reasons of food and a warm place to shelter. It could be that the cat is perfectly, flawlessly indifferent to her: a more profound alterity than the anthropomorphic assumption that cats are basically like people and want to be treated with such human values as courtesy and respect. To make only the most obvious point: Derrida's 'failures of courtesy' when he shared his space with a small carnivorous predator are functions of their respective sizes. Timothy Treadwell shared his personal space with a rather larger carnivorous predator, and was only too courteous and respectful of his ursine Other. Didn't do him any good.
The prime anthropic distortion here, I suppose, is fitting the non-human semiotic forms of animals to a specifically human, Christian God. As far as that goes, it might have been interesting to have commissioned essays in this volume from Muslim or Jewish scholars, who would then be unburdened by that specifically central-to-faith non-animal incarnation. The editor's brief didn't run so far. What we're left with is a conceptual hole that none of essays even acknowledges, let alone attempts to address: Christ incarnated God as a human being. In Lewis's Narnia (also not discussed here) Christ incarnates as an animal, but a talking animal, because Lewis believed Christ to be the logos. I am unaware of any culture text in which Christ incarnates as a dumb creature. Derrida is at least aware that the logos is not the frame of a properly bestial being-in-the-word. I wonder if there's a sense that the animal theology of the moment hopes simply to elide that difference. In my blogpost on Andrew Linzey's most recent collection, I quoted him as follows:
"Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering ... Christians haven’t got much further than thinking that the whole world was made for us, with the result that animals are only seen in an instrumental way as objects, machines, tools, and commodities, rather than fellow creatures."I need a proper believer to steer me through this, I think: but to me the notion of (say) a dog crucified upon a cross flirts with blasphemy, even with Satanism. Linzey I suppose doesn't want to suggest anything so literal-minded; but he also doesn't explain to what degree it makes sense to call an animal 'innocent'. It seems to me that animals are neither innocent nor not innocent. Now, I'm being a little awkward when I say so, of course. In one sense (in frequent popular usage, for example) it's clear enough what is meant by 'an innocent animal': the IRA blow up certain British soldiers who happen to be parading on horseback. The soldiers are killed, but they chose to be soldiers, and so our grief for them is 'limited' by that fact. Ah, but the horses are 'innocent victims'; they never consented to being put in the line of danger. I don't agree with that, I must say; although I can I suppose see why people might believe it. But surely if we want to think the question through a bit more thoroughly, we have to ask ourselves: can it be meaningful to call a being innocent if there's no possibility of it ever being guilty? I'm not sure it can.
Christian theology also has problems, it seems to me, with what the New Testament actually says about animals. Laura Hobgood-Oster, above, cites two apochryphal books because they show St Paul and St Peter interacting with the animal kingdom on terms of mutual respect, and that suits her argument, and indeed the overall thesis of this volume. But neither she nor any of the other contributors discuss St Peter's vision of the sheet filled with all the world's animals in Acts of the Apostles chapter 10:
Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. [Acts 10:10-16]Rise, humans; kill, and eat. I'm not snarking about Christians picking and choosing which Biblical verses they want to follow and which not; I suppose that's how all but the most extreme Christians and Jews behave. But I am suggesting that this major strand in New Testament Christianity, one of the things that obviously separates Christian religious praxis from the praxis of Muslims and Jews, cannot simply be wished away, ignored or not discussed. In this context, of all contexts, especially not!
t could just as well be that properly opening herself to her cat would undo and redo her preconceptions -- maybe her cat holds her in contempt, loathes her, endures her company for purely practical reasons of food and a warm place to shelter.ReplyDelete
Steven Appleby's cats would agree with you. I'm thinking of one strip called "Psychopathic Cats" in particular; sadly it doesn't seem to be online.
It could be that the cat is perfectly and flawlessly indifferent to her: a more profound alterity than the anthropomorphic assumption that cats are basically like people and want to be treated with such human values as courtesy and respect.
I think this is a really good point and could be made more strongly - as in this very personal post from a while ago.
Phil: interesting post, that (not yours, I think).ReplyDelete
No indeed. I'm not sure what the author is doing these days, but he was still blogging a year ago (at another blog).ReplyDelete
Thanks for your reading of the book and your review! I feel similarly about Haraway's critique of Derrida. She flattens Derrida's face-to-face encounter with the cat down to the textual presentation of it, as if there were nothing else going on, as if he could not have intentionally held back details (the cat's name!). I think he's being coy for a variety of reasons---not least to avoid the presumption that he could possible know and understand what it is like to be a cat.ReplyDelete
This claim, though, is a bit off: "What we're left with is a conceptual hole that none of [the] essays even acknowledges, let alone attempts to address: Christ incarnated God as a human being."
In fact, being one of the authors fortunate enough to have an essay included in the volume, I can assure you that my piece does take up the topic of the Incarnation and what, theologically, to do with Jesus' humanity. I think there's room to see the incarnation as a kind of divine judgment upon humanity, rather than an endorsement of human exceptionalism. The essay is "The Logos of God and the End of Humanity"--and I'd love to know if you think it answers any of your objections here.
I should also say that my aim is not so much to validate or valorize Christianity, still less to work out some theological position that has freed itself from contradictions and tensions. Perhaps I differ here from Andrew Linzey--and I suspect many of the volume's other authors would as well. Rather, my hope is to use the cultural momentum of Christian symbols and patterns of thought to turn greater attention to the ways in which we interact with animals (mostly very poorly). The fractures and tensions in Christian thought and Christian scriptures are precisely the places where this sort of work is most productive. I could say more about the Acts 10 passage in this regard, but for now, I'll leave it at that.
Eric -- thank you for your courteous comment to this rather cranky blogpost -- not a review, more a set of initial reactions. I'm still working through the volume (so you're quire right: 'none of etc.' is not merited) -- I'll read your fascinating-sounding essay next.ReplyDelete