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Research in Phenomenology 38 (2008) 404–423 www.brill.nl/rp

Derrida’s Cat

(Who Am I?)

Gerald L. Bruns

University of Notre Dame


What is it to be seen (naked) by one’s cat? In “L’animal que donc je suis” (2006), the first of

several lectures that he presented at a conference on the “autobiographical animal,” Jacques Derrida tells of his discomfort when, emerging from his shower one day, he found himself being

looked at by his cat. The experience leads him, by way of reflections on the question of the animal, to what is arguably the question of his philosophy: Who am I? It is not so much that Derrida wants to answer this question as to be free of it. His task here is to determine the sense of it— where it leads, for example, when it comes to the nature of the difference between himself and his cat. Unlike animal rights activists (and unlike philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Cora Diamond, who have recently addressed this issue), Derrida does not want to erase this difference but wants to multiply it in order (among other things) to affirm the absolute alterity or singularity of his cat, which cannot be subsumed by any category (such as the animal). His cat is an Other in a way that no human being (supposing there to be such a thing, which Derrida is not prepared to grant) could ever be. And here is where “the question who?” leads as well, namely, to a path of escape from absorption into any identity-machine. As Derrida puts it in A Taste for the Secret: Who am I when I am not one of you? In a hospitable world one would be free not to answer.

Keywords animal, who, autobiography, nonidentity, freedom, Derrida I would say that for me the great question is always the question who. Call it biographical, autobiographical or existential, the form of the question who is what matters to me, be it in, say, its Kierkegaardian, Nietzschean, or Heideggerian form. Who? Who asks the question who? Where? How? When? Who arrives? It is always the most difficult question, the irreducibility of who to what, or the place where between who and what the limit trembles, in some way. It is clear that the who withdraws from or provokes the displacement of the categories in which biography, autobiography, and memoirs are thought.

Derrida, A Taste for the Secret © Koninklijke Brill NV, Lei

–  –  –

1. The Naked Animal How exactly does Jacques Derrida address “the question who,” and what does he make of it? This is what I would like to determine in this essay. My concern here is with a late but characteristically exorbitant and playful text, “L’animal que donc je suis” (LAN 15–79/ANT 369–418), the first of several lectures that Derrida presented at a conference on the “autobiographical animal” held at Cérisy-la-Salle in 1997, in which he tells of his discomfort when, emerging from his shower one day, he found himself being looked at by his cat.1 What sort of event is this? We’ve been told what it is to be seen by someone else— this, says Sartre, is how we know there are other subjects, and it is also how we know what it is to be an object, which means feeling the debasement of being a mere thing. More precisely (says Sartre), it means that suddenly my consciousness, which so far had been intentional and unreflective—that is, of the world and of things in it—is now inhabited by a self. But becoming a self in this way is, paradoxically, a form of alienation. Being seen by another, I fall out of the world that heretofore had been mine: “If there is an Other, whatever or whoever he may be, whatever may be his relations with me, and without his acting upon me in any way except by the pure upsurge of his being—then I have an outside, I have a nature. My original fall is the existence of the Other.

Shame—like pride—is the apprehension of myself as a nature although that very nature escapes me and is unknowable as such” (BN 344–53). So what am I? Or, more exactly, since my nature “escapes me and is unknowable as such,” Who am I?

This is the regulating question of “L’animal que donc je suis” and of my effort at a commentary on this text. The interesting question, as we shall see, is whether, for Derrida, the question “Who am I?” has any sort of answer. I will try to settle this problem in the last section of this essay. But before that we need to know what “L’animal que donc je suis” is about.

As Herman Rapaport has suggested (LD 100), Derrida’s experience of the gaze

of his cat is a kind of parody of Sartre’s story of the look. Derrida writes:


Papers for the entire conference were published under the title, L’animal autobiographique:

autour de Jacques Derrida (Paris: Galilée; 1999). Derrida’s lectures (nearly ten hours’ worth) consist of, among other things, close readings of philosophical texts on “the animal” from Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant to Heidegger, Levinas, and Lacan. See Cary Wolfe’s discussion of Derrida on the animal in Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, 44–97. See appended lists for complete citations of referenced works and abbreviations.

406 G. L. Bruns / Research in Phenomenology 38 (2008) 404–423 I often ask myself, just to see, who I am [qui je suis]—and who I am (following) at the moment [et qui je suis au moment] when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment.

Whence this malaise [ce mal]?

I have trouble repressing a reflex dictated by immodesty. Trouble keeping silent within me a protest against the indecency. Against the impropriety that comes of finding oneself naked, one’s sex exposed, stark naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see. The impropriety [malséance] of a certain animal nude before the other animal, from that point on one might call it a kind of animalséance: the single, incomparable and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing in truth naked, in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant. The gaze of a seer, visionary, or extra-lucid blind person. It is as if I were ashamed, therefore, naked in front of this cat, but also ashamed for being ashamed. A reflected shame, the mirror of a shame ashamed of itself, a shame that is at the same time specular, unjustifiable, and unable to be admitted to. At the optical center of this reflection would appear this thing—and in my eyes the focus of this incomparable experience—that is called nudity. And about which it is believed that it is proper to man, that is to say, foreign to the animals, naked as they are, or so it is thought, without the slightest inkling of being so. (LAN 18/ANT 372–73) Derrida in this moment is caught by surprise—surprised, not just by his cat, but by his embarrassment, the unexpected shame of his nudity before the cat (as if the cat could care!). Someone, not wanting to embarrass a naked human being, would perhaps look away, pretending not to see; a lover, for whom nudity could have its attractions, might look him or her in the eye, or up and down. But what can a cat know—or, for all of that, what can we know about a cat? Anyway Derrida’s sense of shame is doubled: imagine anyone, much less a philosopher (that sealed-off guardian of rationality), being embarrassed by a cat. Hence Derrida’s question: Who am I at this moment? Who am I that I should experience myself (and my cat) in this way?

Of course, what Derrida experiences is, first of all, just his own flesh, being in the flesh, “naked as an animal [bête]” (LAN 19/ANT 373), but also more naked, since an animal cannot (or so we are told) experience its own nudity, or animality: “In principle [but not in fact?], with the exception of man, no animal has ever thought to dress itself. Clothing would be proper to man, one of the ‘properties’ of man. Dressing oneself would be inseparable from all the other forms of what is proper to man, even if one talks about it less than speech or reason, the logos, history, laughing, mourning, burial, the gift, and so on” (LAN 19/ANT 373). To which Derrida adds a parentheses: (“The list of properties unique to man always forms a configuration, from the first moment. For that reason, it can never be limited to a single trait and it is never G. L. Bruns / Research in Phenomenology 38 (2008) 404–423 closed” [LAN 19/ANT 373]). That is, there is no one thing that sets us apart from animals, unless perhaps it is our occasional bestiality, just as there is no such thing as the animal as such: this is one of Derrida’s major theses in this text—as it has been elsewhere, in different forms, as in the various elucidations of différance, where the idea is not so much to clarify (or obscure) differences as to diversify them. The many (you and me, for example) are others of each other, but not of any One.

To be sure: “There is no nudity ‘in nature’” (LAN 19/ANT 374). There is flesh and the experience of flesh (cold, pain, hunger, desire) but not embarrassment or shame, that is (presumably), no experience of being naked. If so, of course, the joke is that if the cat had not looked at the naked Derrida, he (Derrida) would have remained (like) an animal, unaware of his nudity. The gaze of the cat is what makes him human—a point on which Derrida ruminates (and

to which he will implicitly return later in this text in his reading of Genesis):

“Before the cat that looks at me naked, would I be ashamed like an animal that no longer has the sense of nudity? Or on the contrary, like a man who retains the sense of his nudity? Who am I therefore? [Qui suis-je alors?] Who is it that I am (following)? [Qui est-ce que je suis?]” (LAN 20/ANT 374).

Who am I ? What is the sense of this question? Derrida does not say (here), but for him, the “autobiographical animal,” obsessed (as he confesses) with memory, “Who am I?” is perhaps the question of his philosophy or at all events of his elusive way of thinking—or of his elusive way of thinking of himself, as when he says, in A Taste for the Secret, “I am not one of the family”: “‘I am not one of the family’ means: do not consider me ‘one of you,’ ‘don’t count me in,’ I want to keep my freedom, always: this, for me, is the condition not only for being singular and other, but also for entering into relation with the singularity and alterity of others” (TS 27). Perhaps even the singularity and alterity of his cat.

2. The Other Cat (l’autre absolu) Who am I (if I am not one of you, whoever you are)? Framed this way, it appears that, at the very least, the question who aims to overturn the rule of identity or the rule of the concept. Derrida’s wide-ranging (digressive) reflections on his cat, on his relation with the animal-other, and on the way this relation alters his self-relation (including the whole business of being called “human,” or of being an “I”) are his way of allowing this question to do its unsettling work. For a start we should notice that Derrida asks pointedly 408 G. L. Bruns / Research in Phenomenology 38 (2008) 404–423 about a who, not a what (EW 96–119). In the same spirit he says: “I must make it clear from the start, the cat I am talking about 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 earth, the felines that traverse myths and religions, literature and fables. There are so many of them. The cat I am talking about does not belong to Kafka’s vast zoopoetics, something that nevertheless solicits attention, endlessly and from a novel perspective” (LAN 20/ANT 374). No beast-fable homonizations. The cat in question is a singular cat, Derrida’s cat, not a stand-in and interpreter from a philosopher’s point of view, not a literary cat like one of Baudelaire’s or Rilke’s—although, by way of comparison or contrast, Rilke’s famous “Schwarz Katze” would have been worth a

moment’s reflection. Recall how she lies there, indifferent to your look, until:

—auf einmal kehrt sie, wie geweckt,

ihr Gesicht und mitten in das deine:

und da triffst du deinen Blick im geelen Amber ihrer runden Augenstein unerwartet wieder: eingeschlossen wie ein ausgestorbenes Insekt.

–  –  –

But there is no metaphor in the look of Derrida’s cat, no embodiment of sinister felinity. Derrida’s cat, like the naked philosopher himself, is a who, not a what—one wonders why Derrida does not tell us his cat’s name, but only that it is a little cat. Perhaps the reason is that they encounter one another at the level of the singular and irreducible, not as man and animal, nor even at the level of the proper name, but face-to-face.

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