The Politics of Cats.

Cat, n. Small mammal with an attitude problem.

I imagine that cats are aphorists, composing dialectical koans and licking their whiskers at the elegance of their arabesques. Though I recognise that Adorno himself noted that aphorisms were not admissible in dialectical thought, which should always abhor isolation and separateness (1951/1974:16), I concede that cats are separate and aloof. Since they are never owned by their humans, they stand apart, domesticated only by choice, self-grooming, dreaming of mice (rather than hubcaps – go figure), ignoring us in ways that transcend normal social, political and geophysical categories. We know these routines already, and recognise their outsider status with a mix of awe and disregard.

Projection. The anthropomorphic charge is more difficult to lay upon our conception of cats, yet it does apply. To think of them as yoga-masters, or as independent outsider spirits, is still to malign them as merely human. I am sometimes paranoid in thinking that my cat is mechanical. A twisted automaton designed especially to distort my brain. Uncle Bill Burroughs said that paranoia was being in possession of all of the facts. So let us consider the evidence: cats purr – this could be very cute, or is it rather the calculated industrial production if cuteness?; cats wash themselves with their tongues – and if they were electric they would short-circuit (though consider how coffing up a hairball might just be that); cats growl and hiss when interrogated – clearly they could be detained as non-combatants if only we had the will, and a strong leader. Cats have whiskers… More examples would only trap us in a dialectical game of catch and release, and so cats will have once again won. They always do, toying with us; ask the mice.

So I think we need to learn to learn from these philosophers of composure. First of all I imagine Uncle Bill, stoned in the Bunker, communing in some feline comprehension with his cat Fletch: ‘wouldn’t you?’. But why is it that Lévi-Strauss exchanges a look of understanding with that cat at the very end of his book Tristes Tropiques? Why a look; a visual metaphor for knowledge? Well, not so much a look of knowing, but a ‘brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness’ (1955/1973: 544). Do cats forgive? Are they theorists of hospitality? That look bothers me some. If I were to elaborate on the metaphors of vision for knowledge I would ramble on about the way our disciplines are divided up into fields; how one strives to see the point of an argument; how instead of seeing your point, I hold a different view – so many ways in which the assertions of knowledge are visual. But with cats you do not know – the enigmatic Cheshire smile prevails.

Kurt Vonnegut died recently, having once written a great book called Cats Cradle (1963) which was later accepted by the University of Chicago anthropology department as a Masters thesis. In that book, the narrator, Jonah (referencing Moby Dick) investigates the life of the now deceased Felix Hoenikker, developer of the atomic bomb. Of course we all know Felix is a quintessential cat’s name (my first cat), and this Felix is appropriately enigmatic also, concerned only with higher science, the pursuit of knowledge as calculation, and absent-minded outsider. Though I suspect a certain identification on Vonnegut’s part, only this narrator, as Jonah, could hunt him down, tempt him with the fish perhaps… It’s not just the bomb, Felix invents a substance that threatens the planet – Ice-9, and his children take it and… To tell more would ruin the story for those who have yet to read it – as far as thesis goes, its anyone’s guess how Chicago Anthropology managed to assess this as a scholarly work. Credit due.

Burroughs also pursued anthropology. This at Harvard as part of the G.I. Bill, where returned WW2 service personnel were offered places in university. Uncle Bill reports that he found the department grim: ‘I had done some graduate work in anthropology. I got a glimpse of academic life and I didn’t like it at all. It looked like there was too much faculty intrigue, faculty lies, cultivating the head of department, so on and so forth’ (Burroughs 2001: 76). It makes me wonder how any of those cats ever get their act together and sit for their degrees. Concentration seems awry; consistency suspended. And a mischievous outsider’s critical countenance continues to leave them disturbingly set apart.

Burroughs in London in 1970 was strangely prophetic when he described America as vulnerable: ‘extremely vulnerable to chaos, to breakdown in communications, particularly to a breakdown in the food supply [a typical cat concern]. Bombs concentrated on communications, random bombs on trains, boats, planes, buses could lead to paralysis. But you must consider the available counters. We spoke about the ultimate repression that would be used. Once large-scale bombings started you could expect the most violent reactions. They’d declare a national emergency and arrest anyone. They don’t have to know who did it. They’ll just arrest everyone who might have done it’ (Burroughs 2001:156).

There are suggestions that all cats be detained in Guantanamo. We are close to such a repression. Just presenting the look of being an outsider is a dangerous thing. Cats threaten the western way of life in this time of ‘war on terror’, and do so because we cannot ever tell if they are with us or against us. And they are not afraid of sacrifice – they believe they have nine lives! They adhere to ancient cult traditions (from Egypt no less, training camps in the desert we suspect). They are long past masters of undercover operations (consider CatWoman’s wily ways of entrapping the hero of Gotham). Just read the old eastern book of war tactics, I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume (1905/2002) to see how internecine and dialectical warfare offers tactical advantage to these furry miscreants. Danger, hiss, pttfft, grrrr.

The thing about cats, aberrant and inscrutable, is that they are the antithesis of the rat-race, and for this reason alone it is worth changing their kitty-litter. Meow!

John Hutnyk (for Daisy Cumberland)

Refs:
Theodor Adorno 1951/1974 Minima Moralia New York: NLB.
William Burroughs 1971 Burroughs Live: Interviews New York: Semiotext(e).
Claude Lévi-Strauss 1955/1976 Tristes Tropiques, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Soseki Natsume 1905/2002 I am a Cat Berkeley: Tuttle Publishing.
Kurt Vonnegut 1963 Cats Cradle New York: Dell Publishing.

cats stretch
[& cat pic from Dr Who]

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Comments

  • benjamin  On 18/04/2007 at 1:09 pm

    It is difficult to imagine things as they might operate from the position of the supposedly domesticated cat, but I would think that, whatever else they regard people as, we are, as the Zionists say, facts on the ground. They operate as if choosing their owners, judging between available space and forms of life and usually giving over at least some part of their time to exploring the available options. When an apparently content feline suddenly disappears, those who imagined themselves as owners often assume an accident or that the cat is lost, despite the urban legends about cats and spatial memory – legends which seem to me to have a basis in reality. It rarely occurs to people that the cat has made a decision that life is better somewhere else, has gone through a process of acclimatising certain other people to the norm of feeding them, allowing them into shelter, etcetera, and that having done this is now in a position to make a switch. And should the new home(s) not work out as well as expected, or the new people leave, then the cat may try to return to the old ‘owner’ if they haven’t found and cultivated anything better in the meantime – those miraculous returns, which may only mean the cat walked back a few hundred yards, given contemporary human experiences of social space, the isolation involved in 21st century psychogeography of housing and movement.

    Cats do not seem to regard themselves as ‘owned’, but perhaps as having tamed useful beasts who now make up a large part of the environments to which they have had to adapt. Independence is not willingly relinquished, and alternatives are to be considered, reducing sheer material dependence.

    In comparison, dogs who are so famously loyal can seem a bit pathetic.

    Like

  • Maria Technosux  On 21/04/2007 at 2:22 pm

    Well, well, two of the MALE scholars I enjoy reading are interested in cats.
    Why oh why is it CATS of all animals?

    The feminist in me damn well knows why:

    Cats are basically the worlds tiniest women in cheap fur coats.
    - Dave Boyce

    Men prefer blondes like Marxists prefer pussies. Grrr!

    Tex.

    PS. The other male scholar here is Dr. Sven Lutticken who wrote a long piece on the use of cats in Chris Markers’ films to symbolize the pointlessness of contemporary protest: “Pas étonnant que les chats nous abandonnent”. “L’Image-chat; Over Chris Markers Chats perchés”, DWR 120, March 2006.
    http://dewitteraaf.stylelabs.com/web/flash/showfile.asp?file=WR120_Sven_Lütticken.htm

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  • John Hutnyk  On 22/04/2007 at 9:14 pm

    Hi Maria

    haha. Yes indeed. My funny pussy story has to do with a name we once chose for our cat back in the 1980s (as gorgeous Russian Blue). We chose Yoni, a name we got from the cover artwork from an album by the psychedelic band Gong. Yoni there was the cat-witch. My then partner’s father, a man from Meerut in India, always get upset when we mentioned our cat. We had not known at that time that the word Yoni signified female genitalia in India. He thought we were making a joke about pussy… but, ignorant teenagers as we were, we had no idea. We just liked strange 70s psychedelia. It was a long time ago (eeek – 28 years ago!).

    best
    John

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  • Perezoso  On 21/07/2007 at 7:58 pm

    “””Burroughs in London in 1970 was strangely prophetic when he described America as vulnerable: ‘extremely vulnerable to chaos, to breakdown in communications, particularly to a breakdown in the food supply [a typical cat concern]. Bombs concentrated on communications, random bombs on trains, boats, planes, buses could lead to paralysis. But you must consider the available counters. We spoke about the ultimate repression that would be used. Once large-scale bombings started you could expect the most violent reactions. They’d declare a national emergency and arrest anyone. They don’t have to know who did it. They’ll just arrest everyone who might have done it’”””” (Burroughs 2001:156).

    That fairly rocks (we don’t worship WSB’s writing and character–but he had a certain libertarian-anarchist spirit deserving of some respect). Unlike many of the granola-eater “leftists, “
    Burroughs realized that liberals–if not marxists—could implement that national state of emergency as easily as the conservatives might. Apres 9-11, Diane Feinstone, for instance, had her panties in a wad (and was on the phonestein to some of her IT pals in Siliconberg), and was all keen on a national security system–retinal screening, DNA samples, some cyber-ID card, etc.– which ALL Americans would need to submit to. Some of Di-Fi’s pals in the GOP were thinking of a similar nationwide e-Snitch policy as well (including Hillari, I believe). When the Feds come to take you away, there will most likely be 1 or 2 hot little dykes —or Senora Dykes—with badges there who will relish the events later on that evening…………(RE: cats—WSB was quite fond of egyptian motifs, right—such as that old feline icon. I wager he also had read a bit about the mayans and their interesting veneration of the jaguars).

    Intriguing blog. Buena suerte with your sort of retro-marxist beatnik jass with Lung Sunday crowd.

    Like

  • John Hutnyk  On 20/08/2007 at 4:16 am

    The Politics of Cats was published in Stimulus Respond.

    j

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  • unaha-closp  On 01/10/2007 at 3:29 am

    I am sometimes paranoid in thinking that my cat is mechanical. A twisted automaton designed especially to distort my brain.

    Toxoplasmosis

    Like

  • John Hutnyk  On 01/10/2007 at 9:20 am

    unaha-closp, your cat really is mechanical, its just forgotten that fact, as are we all, as are we all.

    cylons I mean, we are cylons who have forgotten we are cylons, then we make robots to serve us, they rise up and destroy us, they forget they are cylons, they make robots… this has happened before and will happen again… so say we all

    see here .
    j.

    Like

  • Anonymous  On 25/10/2007 at 5:32 am

    Such a nerdy blog.

    Like

  • Anonymous  On 02/12/2007 at 11:04 pm

    Juliet Johnsonï’s Cat Search

    If anyone doubts the warping effects on one’s brain of being on a faculty search committee that involves reading 100+ files and 100+ reference letters, perhaps this post will serve as evidence that the effects can be severe.

    We have had a cat vacancy in our home since last winter, so we convened a diverse and distinguished search committee consisting of three experts (us). We recently interviewed several candidates intensively, following the European model of interviewing all candidates at the same time (very efficient). We were, in theory, open to hiring at any level, and we did interview one very intriguing candidate who would have had to have been hired at a senior level, but we were unsure about how this older cat would interact with existing cats in our home department. And, although the cat appeared active during the interview, we couldn’t help wondering: would she essentially retire once securing a permanent position?

    Our short list of viable candidates ended up consisting entirely of kittens. None had had a previous home position before, not even as a postdoc. There can be a great risk in hiring such an inexperienced feline, but the rewards are potentially great if they thrive in their new environment and have a long and productive feline career in your home.

    We evaluated each kitten’s background, their potential for interacting with humans and other felines, and we tried to gauge their potential for creative (but not too creative) behavior. In the end, I must admit that we favored stereotypical kitten behavior over kittens who seemed to be pushing the envelope. The kitten to whom we made an offer (which was instantly accepted) actually looks a lot like some previous members of our cat faculty. We weren’t expecting this, but it somehow just happened, perhaps because we feel most comfortable with this type of cat and weren’t ready to deal with one that was too different from what we are used to.

    Introducing a new kitten into a home department dominated by senior felines can be tricky, and can involve some less-than-mature behavior on the part of senior felines, who feel threatened by the energetic addition. Even so, we are looking forward to the energizing effect our newest feline hire will surely have on our older faculty felines. We are reasonably confident that the new kitten will get tenure and have a productive career in our home, even if none of the senior felines has thus far been willing to be his mentor.

    Like

  • john hutnyk  On 17/07/2012 at 8:05 am

    There are other texts on animals – by Janet Harbourd, Michael Taussig et all, alongside my Politics of Cats, in this issue of Stimulus Respond: http://hutnyk.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/stimulus18.pdf

    Like

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  • By cats « trinketization on 25/07/2008 at 7:49 pm

    [...] And while we are on the subject of Cats. Perhaps I will start a reading list to add to my ‘Politics of Cats’ piece in an early Stimulus Here: [...]

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