And Say The Philosopher Responded When Animals Look Back

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"And Say the Animal Responded?" is the title Derrida gave his 1997 lecture in which he tracked the old philosophical scandal of judging "the animal" to be capable only of reaction as an animal-machine. That's a wonderful title and a crucial question. I think Derrida accomplished important work in that lecture and the published essay that followed, but something that was oddly missing became clearer in another lecture in the same series, translated into English as "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)."25 He understood that actual animals look back at actual human beings; he wrote at length about a cat, his small female cat, in a particular bathroom on a real morning actually looking at him. "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 the earth, the felines that traverse myths and religions, literatures and fables" (374). Further, Derrida knew he was in the presence of someone, not of a machine reacting. "I see it as this irreplaceable living being that one day enters my space, enters this place where it can encounter me, see me, see me naked" (378-79). He identified the key question as being not whether the cat could "speak" but whether it is possible to know what respond means and how to distinguish a response from a reaction, for human beings as well as for anyone else. He did not fall into the trap of making the subaltern speak: "It would not be a matter of 'giving speech back' to animals but perhaps acceding to a thinking . . . that thinks the absence of the name as something other than a privation" (4i6).Yet he did not seriously consider an alternative form of engagement either, one that risked knowing something more about cats and how to look back, perhaps even scientifically, biologically, and therefore also philosophically and intimately.

He came right to the edge of respect, of the move to respecere, but he was sidetracked by his textual canon of Western philosophy and literature and by his own linked worries about being naked in front of his cat. He knew there is no nudity among animals, that the worry was his, even as he understood the fantastic lure of imagining he could write naked words. Somehow in all this worrying and longing, the cat was never heard from again in the long essay dedicated to the crime against animals perpetrated by the great Singularities separating the Animal and the Human in the canon Derrida so passionately read and reread so that it could never be read the same way again.26 For those readings I and my people are permanently in his debt.

But with his cat, 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. Derrida is among the most curious of men, among the most committed and able of philosophers to spot what arrests curiosity, instead nurturing an entanglement and a generative interruption called response. Derrida is relentlessly attentive to and humble before what he does not know. Besides all that, his own deep interest in animals is coextensive with his practice as a philosopher. The textual evidence is ubiquitous. What happened that morning was, to me, shocking because of what I know this philosopher can do. Incurious, he missed a possible invitation, a possible introduction to other-worlding. Or, if he was curious when he first really noticed his cat looking at him that morning, he arrested that lure to deconstructive communication with the sort of critical gesture that he would never have allowed to stop him in his canonical philosophical reading and writing practices.

Rejecting the facile and basically imperialist, if generally well-intentioned, move of claiming to see from the point of view of the other, Derrida correctly criticized two kinds of representations, one set from those who observe real animals and write about them but never meet their gaze, and the other set from those who engage animals only as literary and mythological figures (382-83). He did not explicitly consider ethologists and other animal behavioral scientists, but inasmuch as they engage animals as objects of their vision, not as beings who look back and whose look their own intersects, with consequences for all that follows, the same criticism would apply. Why, though, should that criticism be the end of the matter for Derrida?

What if not all such Western human workers with animals have refused the risk of an intersecting gaze, even if it usually has to be teased out from the repressive literary conventions of scientific publishing and descriptions of method? This is not an impossible question; the literature is large, complemented by a much larger oral culture among biologists as well as others who earn their livings in interaction with animals. Some astute thinkers who work and play with animals scientifically and professionally have discussed at some length this sort of issue. I am leaving aside entirely the philosophical thinking that goes on in popular idioms and publishing, not to mention the entire world of people thinking and engaging with animals who are not shaped by the institutionalized so-called Western philosophical and literary canon.

Positive knowledge of and with animals might just be possible, knowledge that is positive in quite a radical sense if it is not built on the Great Divides. Why did Derrida not ask, even in principle, if a Gregory Bateson or Jane Goodall or Marc Bekoff or Barbara Smuts or many others have met the gaze of living, diverse animals and in response undone and redone themselves and their sciences? Their kind of positive knowledge might even be what Derrida would recognize as a mortal and finite knowing that understands "the absence of the name as something other than a privation." Why did Derrida leave unexamined the practices of communication outside the writing technologies he did know how to talk about?

Leaving this query unasked, he had nowhere else to go with his keen recognition of the gaze of his cat than to Jeremy Bentham's question: "The first and decisive question will rather be to know whether animals can suffer. . . . Once its protocol is established, the form of this question changes everything" (396). I would not for a minute deny the importance of the question of animals' suffering and the criminal disregard of it throughout human orders, but I do not think that is the decisive question, the one that turns the order of things around, the one that promises an autre-mondialisation. The question of suffering led Derrida to the virtue of pity, and that is not a small thing. But how much more promise is 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 recognize one when it is offered? What if work and play, and not just pity, open up when the possibility of mutual response, without names, is taken seriously as an everyday practice available to philosophy and to science? What if a usable word for this is joy? And what if the question of how animals engage one another's gaze responsively takes center stage for people? What if that is the query, once its protocol is properly established, whose form changes everything?27 My guess is that Derrida the man in the bathroom grasped all this, but Derrida the philosopher had no idea how to practice this sort of curiosity that morning with his highly visual cat.

Therefore, as a philosopher he knew nothing more from, about, and with the cat at the end of the morning than he knew at the beginning, no matter how much better he understood the root scandal as well as the enduring achievements of his textual legacy. Actually to respond to the cat's response to his presence would have required his joining that flawed but rich philosophical canon to the risky project of asking what this cat on this morning cared about, what these bodily postures and visual entanglements might mean and might invite, as well as reading what people who study cats have to say and delving into the developing knowledges of both cat-cat and cat-human behavioral semiotics when species meet. Instead, he concentrated on his shame in being naked before this cat. Shame trumped curiosity, and that does not bode well for an autre-mondialisation. Knowing that in the gaze of the cat was ""an existence that refuses to be conceptualized," Derrida did not ""go on as if he had never been looked at," never addressed, which was the fundamental gaffe he teased out of his canonical tradition (379, 383). Unlike Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida, to his credit, recognized in his small cat "the absolute alterity of the neighbor" (380).28 Further, instead of a primal scene of Man confronting Animal, Derrida gave us the provocation of a historically located look. Still, shame is not an adequate response to our inheritance of multispecies histories, even at their most brutal. Even if the cat did not become a symbol of all cats, the naked man's shame quickly became a figure for the shame of philosophy before all of the animals. That figure generated an important essay. "The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there" (397).

But whatever else the cat might have been doing, Derrida's full human male frontal nudity before an Other, which was of such interest in his philosophical tradition, was of no consequence to her, except as the distraction that kept her human from giving or receiving an ordinary polite greeting. I am prepared to believe that he did know how to greet this cat and began each morning in that mutually responsive and polite dance, but if so, that embodied mindful encounter did not motivate his philosophy in public. That is a pity.

For help, I turn to someone who did learn to look back, as well as to recognize that she was looked at, as a core work-practice for doing her science. To respond was to respect; the practice of "becoming with" rewove the fibers of the scientist's being. Barbara Smuts is now a bioanthropologist at the University of Michigan, but as a Stanford University graduate student in 1975, she went to Tanzania's Gombe Stream preserve to study chimpanzees. After being kidnapped and ransomed in the turbulent nationalist and anticolonial human politics of that area of the world in the mid-1970s, she ended up studying baboons in Kenya for her PhD.29 About 135 baboons called the Eburru Cliffs troop lived around a rocky outcropping of the Great Rift Valley near Lake Naivasha. In a wonderful understatement, Smuts writes, "At the beginning of my study, the baboons and I definitely did not see eye to eye."30

She wanted to get as close as possible to the baboons to collect data to address her research questions; the monkeys wanted to get as far away from her threatening self as possible. Trained in the conventions of objective science, Smuts had been advised to be as neutral as possible, to be like a rock, to be unavailable, so that eventually the baboons would go on about their business in nature as if data-collecting humankind were not present. Good scientists were those who, learning to be invisible themselves, could see the scene of nature close up, as if through a peephole. The scientists could query but not be queried. People could ask if baboons are or are not social subjects, or ask anything else for that matter, without any ontological risk either to themselves, except maybe being bitten by an angry baboon or contracting a dire parasitic infection, or to their culture's dominant epistemologies about what are named nature and culture.

Along with more than a few other primatologists who talk, if not write in professional journals, about how the animals come to accept the presence of working scientists, Smuts recognized that the baboons were unimpressed by her rock act. They frequently looked at her, and the more she ignored their looks, the less satisfied they seemed. Progress in what scientists call "habituation" of the animals to the human being's would-be nonpresence was painfully slow. It seemed like the only critter to whom the supposedly neutral scientist was invisible was herself. Ignoring social cues is far from neutral social behavior. I imagine the baboons as seeing somebody off-category, not something, and asking if that being were or were not educable to the standard of a polite guest. The monkeys, in short, inquired if the woman was as good a social subject as an ordinary baboon, with whom one could figure out how to carry on relationships, whether hostile, neutral, or friendly. The question was not, Are the baboons social subjects? but, Is the human being? Not, Do the baboons have "face"? but, Do people?

Smuts began adjusting what she did—and who she was—according to the baboons' social semiotics directed both to her and to one another. "I . . . in the process of gaining their trust, changed almost everything about me, including the way I walked and sat, the way I held my body, and the way I used my eyes and voice. I was learning a whole new way of being in the world—the way of the baboon. . . . I was responding to the cues the baboons used to indicate their emotions, motivations and intentions to one another, and I was gradually learning to send such signals back to them. As a result, instead of avoiding me when I got too close, they started giving me very deliberate dirty looks, which made me move away. This may sound like a small shift, but in fact it signaled a profound change from being treated like an object that elicited a unilateral response (avoidable), to being recognized as a subject with whom they could communicate" (295). In the philosopher's idiom, the human being acquired a face. The result was that the baboons treated her more and more as a reliable social being who would move away when told to do so and around whom it might be safe to carry on monkey life without a lot of fuss over her presence.

Having earned status as a baboon-literate casual acquaintance and sometimes even a familiar friend, Smuts was able to collect data and earn a PhD. She did not shift her questions to study baboon-human interactions, but only through mutual acknowledgment could the human being and baboons go on about their business. If she really wanted to study something other than how human beings are in the way, if she was really interested in these baboons, Smuts had to enter into, not shun, a responsive relationship. "By acknowledging a baboon's presence, I expressed respect, and by responding in ways I picked up from them, I let the baboons know that my intentions were benign and that I assumed they likewise meant me no harm. Once this was clearly established in both directions, we could relax in each other's company" (297).

Writing about these introductions to baboon social niceties, Smuts said, "The baboons remained themselves, doing what they always did in the world they always lived in" (295). In other words, her idiom leaves the baboons in nature, where change involves only the time of evolution, and perhaps ecological crisis, and the human being in history, where all other sorts of time come into play. Here is where I think Derrida and Smuts need each other. Or maybe it is just my monomania to place baboons and humans together in situated histories, situated naturecultures, in which all the actors become who they are in the dance of relating, not from scratch, not ex nihilo, but full of the patterns of their sometimes-joined, sometimes-separate heritages both before and lateral to this encounter. All the dancers are redone through the patterns they enact. The temporalities of companion species comprehend all the possibilities activated in becoming with, including the heterogeneous scales of evolutionary time for everybody but also the many other rhythms of conjoined process. If we know how to look, I think we would see that the baboons of Eburru Cliffs were redone too, in baboon ways, by having entangled their gaze with that of this young clipboard-toting human female. The relationships are the smallest possible patterns for analysis;31 the partners and actors are their still-ongoing products. It is all extremely prosaic, relentlessly mundane, and exactly how worlds come into being.32

Smuts herself holds a theory very like this one in "Embodied Communication in Nonhuman Animals," a 2006 reprise of her study of the Eburru Cliffs baboons and elaboration of daily, ongoing negotiated responses between herself and her dog Bahati.33 In this study, Smuts is struck by the frequent enactments of brief greeting rituals between beings who know each other well, such as between baboons in the same troop and between herself and Bahati. Among baboons, both friends and non-friends greet one another all the time, and who they are is in constant becoming in these rituals. Greeting rituals are flexible and dynamic, rearranging pace and elements within the repertoire that the partners already share or can cobble together. Smuts defines a greeting ritual as a kind of embodied communication, which takes place in entwined, semiotic, overlapping, somatic patterning over time, not as discrete, denotative signals emitted by individuals. An embodied communication is more like a dance than a word. The flow of entangled meaningful bodies in time—whether jerky and nervous or flaming and flowing, whether both partners move in harmony or painfully out of synch or something else altogether—is communication about relationship, the relationship itself, and the means of reshaping relationship and so its enacters.34 Gregory Bateson would say that this is what human and nonhuman mammalian nonlinguistic communication fundamentally is, that is, communication about relationship and the material-semiotic means of relating.35 As Smuts puts it, "Changes in greetings are a change in the relationship" (6). She goes further: "With language, it is possible to lie and say we like someone when we don't. However, if the above speculations are correct, closely interacting bodies tend to tell the truth" (7).

This is a very interesting definition of truth, one rooted in material-semiotic dancing in which all the partners have face, but no one relies on names. That kind of truth does not fit easily into any of the inherited categories of human or nonhuman, nature or culture. I like to think that this is one treasure for Derrida's hunt to "think the absence of the name as something other than a privation." I suspect this is one of the things my fellow competitors and I in the dog-human sport called agility mean when we say our dogs are "honest." I am certain we are not referring to the tired philosophical and linguistic arguments about whether dogs can lie, and if so, lie about lying. The truth or honesty of nonlinguistic embodied communication depends on looking back and greeting significant others, again and again. This sort of truth or honesty is not some trope-free, fantastic kind of natural authenticity that only animals can have while humans are defined by the happy fault of lying denotatively and knowing it. Rather, this truth telling is about co-constitutive naturalcultural dancing, holding in esteem, and regard open to those who look back reciprocally. Always tripping, this kind of truth has a multispecies future. Respecere.

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