In the posthumously published book The Animal that Therefore I am the notorious poststructuralist thinker Jacques Derrida vividly recounts a peculiar encounter with his pet cat. Derrida describes the palpable discomfort and shame he felt when he found himself naked in the company of the cat, the cat’s lamppost eyes burrowing deep into his naked form. The book, finally published in 2008, threatened to open old wounds revolving around scandalous rumours that Derrida became insatiably obsessed with cats toward the end of his life. Stories abounded that Derrida would routinely dine in lavish Irvine restaurants with a cat perched upon his shoulder feeding his various feline companions decadently on scraps of buttered lobster and truffle shavings. Indeed, some acquaintances swear that the original preface to The Animal that Therefore I am explicitly implied that Derrida believed the volume to be a collaborative effort with a particularly tenacious Russian Blue who frequented the Derrida garden during the summer of 1996. In turn, it has been alleged that the book was withheld until 2008 so that the publishers could carefully erase any reference to the mercurial co-author, affectionately known as Monsieur Boutons.
Despite the best efforts of the Derrida Estate to suppress Derrida’s fascination, fragments of an interview Derrida gave in early 2000 illustrate the extent to which mousers began to occupy his philosophical thinking. In the interview an earnest eyed Derrida stares intensely at his interviewer declaring, “The cat is perhaps the ultimate paradigm of being’s metaphysical contours. Take, for example, the perceived paradox of Schrodinger’s cat. The paradox suggests a fluid image of reality, yet offers the specter of revelation, the vibrant intervention of truth in the form of an opening. Being resembles the figure of the cat trapped in a box. But this box is always already open. Truth is not promised in the horizon of an opening, truth constantly overflows, and this is why it is impossible to separate dasein from the context that engulfs it. You see being is the cat itself and the cat alone …” The interview ends abruptly at this point with a hand placed directly over the camera lens, accompanied by faintly audible muffled profanities.
The depiction of poststructuralist thinkers through feline imagery has been prevalent since the middle of the 19th century. For example, residents often recounted tales of being roused from their slumber to the sounds of Kierkegaard’s yowling and caterwauling at the gates of various churches in the darkened hours of the Copenhagen morning, and one witness vividly describes how Nietzsche responded to a particularly resistant opponent by standing erect on his haunches with his hackles up. Even in present day, Judith Butler can often be observed sculpting her hair with the licked knuckles of her right hand. Yet, despite the almost universal acceptance that poststructuralist thinkers regularly engage in these unusual, and clearly cat-like, behaviours, there appears to be genuine anxiety in acknowledging the centrality of cats to the wider poststructuralist project.
Evidence of the poststructural proclivity to draw upon the metaphysical interplay between cat, being and subject is easily unearthed. Nonetheless, this pivotal moment in poststructural discourse has been routinely ignored by contemporary writers. For instance, Foucault’s declaration that “it is not power but the subject of cats which is the general theme of my research,” is relegated to the status of inconsequential frivolity by Foucaultian scholars despite Foucault’s own insistence that the cat represents the true figure of modern resistance, a subject entirely inassimilable to disciplinary practices. Faced with the wholesale denial of the role played by cats in the poststructural oeuvre, I found myself absorbed with the flickering possibility of a mass conspiracy aimed at the reconstruction of an entire discursive lineage.
I broached the precarious question in the company of a learned scholar who had spent their lengthy and illustrious career championing poststructuralist thinkers within the field of international politics. After a half-hearted reflex denial, they sighed and began to recount the forlorn and apologetic tale of their complicity in the whole affair. “Obviously,” the scholar stated, “most poststructuralists know that about 90% of the literature is directly concerned with cats, and a large portion of the other 10% deals exclusively with the invention of terminology, primarily involving bracketed negative prefixes. The problem is, if we were to admit this absurdity, how could we possibly acquire funding, jobs, and the academic prestige that we all secretly crave? The strategy, therefore, is to erase the blasted cat-talk, and replace it with security, institutions, gender, war and other proper topics.”
Distraught as I was, I nevertheless understood the tormented shame assigned to any would-be poststructuralist hoping to work within the academy. It is not the shame of being found naked in the company of the cat, rather, it is the shame that you will be discovered with the underling feline predispositions of your intellectual heritage laid bare for the world to see. Walking home with my tail between my legs I felt like some form of trapped animal stretched across twin planes where myth and truth are exhausted in their own pedantic reverberations.