Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Look at my cat!

In looking at the uncomfortable reading on the character of animal insults, I was most interested by Sarah Lipton's demonstration of the gradual erasure of directly disgusting imagery around the cat, as the animal alone comes to stand for heresy. While the images she discusses begin with humans performing disgusting acts on cats, they end with the cat standing alone, automatically associated with that disgust. In that vein, I thought it might be useful to outline the characteristics of contemporary cat hatred or love, to deepen our understanding of just how much or how little the cat itself takes part in its bad reputation, then and now.
In her book Pets, Erica Fudge describes the gap in contemporary animal scholarship produced by the pet figure; whereas the medieval cat may have been more easily reviled for its familiar unfamiliarity, while the dog was admirable insofar as it was in tune with human desires, the contemporary pet is seen as denatured, as somehow less than animal (in Deleuze and Guattari's terms, the Oedipal animal). I'm reminded of Pen and Teller's (infuriating) episode of Bullsh*t in which they attack pet owners who seem to understand their pet as more than just a dumb animal; modern pet owners, at least in theory, operate between the ideas that the pet is either just a subservient animal, and therefore an unnecessary object of misplaced love, or that it is less than an animal and that what we call love is somehow denaturing the pet, saddling it with our own emotional/cultural baggage, Oedipal or otherwise. In both cases, the dependency of the pet is what makes it contemptible.
What is most interesting in Fudge's analysis of the function of the modern pet for the purpose of this course is what she and Yi-Fu Tuan call the "ontological security" a pet provides in a modern human home. Pets receive the affection we're unable to lavish elsewhere in the isolation of modern urban society, and they "give secure meaning to humans in an insecure modern world; they allow humans to live as if with a self-assured identity" (17). While they confirm our humanity, for better or worse, and allow us the connection with animals whose lack is characteristic of urban modernity, the existence of an animal in the home undermines our authority as well in defying our capacity to bound inside from outside: the cat-flap, Fudge remarks, "reveals the lack of security that is created by the pet" (19). She again formulates the pet as "a being that can reflect back to us our fragility even as it allows us to express a sense of power and control" (20): while I don't propose to conflate the modern cat with its medieval precursor, this ontological security is tellingly reminiscent of the hierarchy of creation we discussed in class.
Cats in this respect remain very different from dogs: from Pen and Teller's standpoint (which, in accordance with the show's general assumption of "common sensical-ness", distills more general cultural assumptions about its subject), cat ownership appears as somehow degenerate a priori, while dog owners have more leeway to love and know their animals before it becomes unacceptable. There remains the idea that dogs offer us something in the way of a relationship that cats do not, the image of a cat whose love for us is entirely manufactured by our own loneliness, or even a similar inability to interact with people. Cats are excessive, desired just for being what they are rather than insofar as they relate to us directly: mainstream cat competition is purely aesthetic, while dogs have agility meets, and even the dog show demands that they run around the ring with their handler/owner/partner. For those concerned with denaturing the animal, however, the dog's need to please is more problematic than the cat's "independent" dependency (I do feel uncomfortable talking about dogs and cats in general, as though there were a general cat, but I'll correct for that in a moment). In terms of popular animal lore, lost dogs travel great distances to find home and may die of grief at their master's passing; we have the competing image of the fear of being an old woman who dies alone and gets eaten by her cats.
Particularly interesting for the purpose of this course is Fudge's tracing of the movement from dog to cat in philosophy. She notes Basil the Great's use of the dog as a figure for philosophy, "sniff[ing] towards the truth" (77). The dog is here abstracted, reminding us of the superiority of our thought to their scent in finding such truths (77); in contrast, Michel de Montaigne asks, "When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?" The cat challenges the domestic sphere in a way that the dog does not (one rarely hears cat "owners" refer to themselves as such), and Fudge remarks that Montaigne's statement here rejects abstraction in favor of the real everydayness of playing with a cat: "symbolic animals have no place in his argument as they are always already human constructions" (79).

And now for my own disgusting cat (shown above). Sophie, of gentle mien and powerful scent. Her beauty distracts me from God, and her litter box humbles me again. Or something like that. Fudge ultimately argues that it is our guessing at what could constitute animal joy that makes love possible in this relationship. My cat takes joy in things that smell horrible (the best way to lure a lost cat into his carrier? Meat-flavored baby food), in inconvenient things (my laptop cord=the best toy ever). But even as I absorb and inevitably repeat our various cultural myths about snobby, dominating cats, or crazy cat people, etc, my cat is somehow outside this. She's much more affectionate than the stereotypical cat (I could project a lot here about her being a rescue animal, but calling our relationship "gratitude" is really, thoroughly uncomfortable). She roams the apartment, does her thing, and we encounter each other throughout the day.

Erica Fudge. Pets. Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing, 2008.
Sara Lipton, “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisée,” Word and Image 8.4 (1992): 362-77.

See also Jezebel's "Myth and Reality of the Crazy Cat Lady" here:

1 comment:

  1. A very helpful meditation! We have not talked enough about pets in our discussions, largely because we do not have the evidence for medieval pet-keeping that we would need in order to make proper comparisons. I find it interesting that so much of the modern discussion revolves around whether we are "denaturing" the animals: surely, it is in dogs' and cats' nature to live with us, otherwise--like most of the animal kingdom--they wouldn't. I am thinking here of arguments that Michael Pollen made about roses and dogs: only a very few species of either plants or animals have been susceptible to the kind of domestication and selective breeding that roses and dogs have responded to. It is not that we "denatured" dogs; there would be no dogs without human beings--perhaps even vice versa--just as we would not have the wide variety of roses that we do without cultivation.

    As regards cats and dogs, it is not just that dogs and cats interact differently with their owners. Because you can walk dogs and thus take them out of the home into the larger society, dogs change our relationships to other human beings as well. Walking by myself, I am just another middle-aged woman. But with my dog alongside, I am a potential threat to every small child who may be frightened by her barking. I also have to negotiate with every other dog owner even as I watch my dog's interactions with every other dog (not always in harmony with what the owners are saying!). Cat-flaps may pierce the borders of our homes, but dogs--unlike pigeons, squirrels, possums, raccoons, rabbits, coyotes, and all of the other animals who inhabit the urban environment--participate not just in the home, but in society at large. Did Fudge talk about this aspect of pet ownership at all?