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REVIEW: I am, I am following, I am after the animal: “Derrida’s Queer Cats”

I am, I am following, I am after the animal:
“Derrida’s Queer Cats,” a Lecture by Carla Freccero

New York University, 10 November 2010

On the heels of Elizabeth Freeman’s lecture about erotohistoriography, Carla Freccero, Professor of Literature, Feminist Studies and History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, explored another historiographic practice predicated on the queering of both time and (human and nonhuman) bodies. In “Derrida’s Queer Cats,” Freccero discussed how queer time, which exceeds or tests the logic of reproductive futurity, also denotes the way affect persists through history. Putting the purr in purr-sistence, Freccero laid stress on the vital importance of thinking both time and affect as a kind of point of friction of human and nonhuman interaction. To develop this argument, she turned Jacques Derrida’s depiction of “animate alterity” in his posthumous L’Animal que donc je suis (The Animal that Therefore I Am). Freccero considered the difficulties of “think[ing] and feel[ing] with non-human animate beings.” The lecture explored how both humans and texts continue to be haunted by these “fantastic, fantasmatic, fabulous,” figures who are “of a fable that speaks to us of ourselves.”

Freccero’s “Queer Cats” (and how can one resist repeating this title?) developed a patient and gorgeously argued case for this fantasmatic fable, building it out of Derrida’s confrontation with his very own, specific cat in L’Animal que donc je suis. As Derrida writes: “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” (374-375). Treating this interspecies encounter as just one (very important) example of the “event of the figure,” where the mere presence of a nonhuman animal has very real effects on the subjectivity of the human individual, Freccero went on to develop an interdisciplinary conversation between Derrida, Lewis Carroll, Paul de Man, Donna Haraway, Emmanuel Levinas, and Claude Levi-Strauss, to name a few. Mining the queer possibilities of the cat, Freccero argued, provides alternative modes of understanding ourselves, particularly in terms of the interimplications of sex and species, and points to the usefulness of crafting a queer ethics of relating in general. (Admittedly, while I’ve often contemplated my dog Gnocchi’s queerness, I’ve never acknowledged how Gnocchi’s very existence as my furry companion, in turn, queers me.)

What is particularly queer, or queering, about Derrida’s cat is that it/she is not “an allegory for all the cats on the earth” but is his specific cat—“which is also a female”— who follows him into the bathroom, regards his naked body “to concentrate its vision…in the direction of [his] sex,” and incites an eruption of human masculine shame (374-375, 373).

Meditating on the implications of Derrida’s own slippage from the neuter article to the gendered pronoun, as well as a mistranslation of another neuter possessive pronoun as a gendered possessive pronoun earlier in the text, Freccero argues that the appearance and disappearance of the cat’s gender reveals that “sexual difference and kinship are in trouble when animals enter the scene.” Regarding the politics of friendship, Freccero asks, “what happens to a fraternity of brothers when an animal enters scene?”

For Derrida, this instance of mutual acknowledgement, of “being seen” by “the” animal, spurs a moment of (self and mutual) recognition as well as desire, placing sexual (and species) difference into crisis:

Should I show myself naked when…looking at me, is the living creature they call by the common, general, and singular name the animal? Henceforth I shall reflect (on) the same question by introducing a [full-length] mirror…. The same question then becomes whether I should show myself but in the process see myself naked (that is, reflect my image in a mirror) when, concerning me, looking at me, is this living creature, this cat that can find itself caught in the same mirror… But cannot this cat also be, deep within her [sic] eyes, my primary mirror? (Derrida 50-51)

That the presence of the animal can incite shame and a Lacanian mirror stage, where the self (mis)recognizes his/her self in the mirror, reveals that the mirror stage may function as a psychic formation for nonhuman animals and a reading of sexual difference “that is many.” “The animal in the room or in the mirror,” Freccero proposes, “generates differences from difference.”

Queering happens in a moment of mistranslation that genders the cat—who looks at Derrida, who marks her as female—and enacts not only a mirror stage, Freccero suggests, but a turn to object relations predicated on the assumption that the primary mirror is the mother. Shamefully aware of the subjectivity of the other face (of his female cat), Derrida’s identification with the feminine human and nonhuman other cannot be accounted for by a singular (sexual or species) difference. In her own persuasive textual encounter with Derrida and his cat, Freccero opens a fresh path to queerness by prodding us recognize, and not disavow, the animal. As Derrida writes, and Freccero so beautifully challenged: I am, I am following, I am after the animal…

–Krista Miranda

Krista Miranda is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University and the Book Reviews Editor for Woman and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her prior graduate work includes an MA in Humanities and Social Thought with a concentration in Gender Politics and an MA in Writing and Publishing.

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