by Dirk Strydom
I remember an incident from my youth. I was in one of those inexplicable states of blissful excitement that we probably all experience as children – I was still a very young dog, liking everything, attached to everything. I believed that great things were happening around me, whose focus I was, to which I needed to lend my voice, things that would be condemned to lie languishing on the ground if I didn’t run on their behalf, swing my body around for them – childish fantasies that recede over the years, but at that time they were very strong, I was wholly in thrall to them…
Franz Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’ (4)
It is strange how we keep pets in our homes. They become characters in extensive narratives we create of them, both as objects apart and things coextensive with our own lives. Yet their lives are necessarily outside of these narratives and there is an insurmountable world of difference and incomprehensibility between what we recognise in them and the subjectivity they live out. It is in the light of this that I sense the need to provide answers: What am I? Who precisely are we who feel it necessary to keep a pet in the house? Who is doing this animation of the world from which identities proliferate as if by natural law? Of this animal whose life-workings we cannot possibly penetrate, yet so confidently narrate – is this narration not the markings of a subjectivity that can itself never be sure of where its own boundaries lie and where the world begins? Perhaps the human subject is, as Judith Butler reminds us in a reflection on Hegel, ecstatic in the literal sense of the term – that is, the human subject is always outside itself and trying to delineate its own self from various existences it has in the gazes and discourses exterior to it – and as such, the human subject can never, following each meeting with the other, return to what it was before (Giving an Account of Oneself 27).
In the first chapter of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), we are walked through the grounding difficulties of giving that titular account. Indeed, it proves to be quite difficult to do so in a manner that is at once concise and honest. And then, if one rambles sincerely, is there not a certain pointedness to one’s experience of self that remains elusive? Through an engagement with various thinkers whose thought addresses the problematic of establishing the ‘I’ and its history – Adorno, Foucault, Nietzsche, Hegel, Cavarero and others in passing – Butler elaborates upon this problematic by considering each thinker’s theoretical framework for its truth content as a form of experience. That is, Butler sketches out the formal preconditions under which each of these conceptions of an account of the self are actualized, both in terms of philosophical conviction and practical realization. In so doing, these conceptions of the self’s emergence are presented as interpretative frameworks to moments of recognition, affirmation and narration of the self, but only precisely that: frameworks; a framework necessarily delineates not only its mode of interpretation, but also that which is interpretable and that which is superfluous. The effectiveness in following through these frameworks is to foreground the heterogeneity of any postulated single event. In each framework of self-emergence, taken by its central problematic, we find an insistence upon an exteriority to the individual that, paradoxically, both drives the quest to found a coherent and transparent self and disallows the achievement of this self – whether this be a life trapped in arbitrary discursive codes preceding and exceeding the subjects, as in Foucault (GAO 15-17); a subject dissembled by its meeting with the other and perpetually forced to reconstitute itself, as in certain readings of Hegel (GAO 27-8); or in Nietzsche (GAO 10-14, 16) (as is similar in Freud), where the constitution of the narrating self is also a violence and a turning against itself in the face of an accusation by a power with jurisdiction over the conditions of one’s life. The “opacity” constituting the subject which emerges and seeks transparency within each interpretative framework is thus made into a condition that must be negotiated by the emerging subject under the fatalism of an endless reconstitution of that opacity (GAO 40).
However, this opacity is also defined by where and what an interpretative framework attempts to see through. The opacity that is struck thus signals a limit to sight: from within a given framework, this limit is understood as the condition of the subject, but from outside this same framework, we can call it the framework’s own short-sightedness. Furthermore, the postulation of an opaque subject also presupposes certain transparencies; but its short-sightedness is also myopic and so certain complications, or opacities, are looked past in order to establish the conditions of the subject’s dividedness or exteriority to itself and the responsive emergences that follow. Essentially, each of the theorists Butler considers provides a history of the opaque subject, each therefore narrating the subject’s potential emergence (and/or the pitfalls thereof) through various modes of self-narration or recognition. It should be noted then that each of these theorists, as themselves being subjects under their own postulated laws of subject-becoming, necessarily develops their narration of the subject’s potentiality by conflict with apparent opacity or exteriority, and thus simply the attempt to theorize bears testimony to the limitations weighing upon narrations of the self – that it must be theorized is already an irretrievable loss. If each proposed condition of self-emergence is also an effective dialogue with the experience of opacity or the subject’s exteriority to itself, then we can also say, since it is through language that we are lost and endeavour to find ourselves, that opacity is thoroughly heterogeneous; for each search to establish the foundation of a coherent self is in conflict with a particular embodiment of or dialogic meeting with opacity. For this reason, Butler favourably reflects on Nietzsche’s conceptual employ of genealogy, writing: “it may be that to have an origin means precisely to have several possible versions of the origin” and then “[a]ny one of those is a possible narrative, but of no single one can I say with certainty that it alone is true” (GAO 37-8).
The subject then is not merely given as an opaque undifferentiated totality, but strikes a range of opacities in the process of recovering and delineating the self from the experience of a blinding totality in which an “I” knows of itself but not where and when the agency of this “I” begins or ends. To Butler, it is thus important to consider this meeting with the self’s unknowingness, which seems to preclude the possibility of a universally ethical subject, as the fundamental wellspring for ethical reasoning – for our unknowingness exists because we are bound to the other and the social realm of language in ways which disable the emergence of an autonomous “I” (GAO 40). Is the realisation of the radical impossibility of an autonomous subject, often conceived as a fatalism to individual agency and the potential to initiate social change, not precisely the real precondition for any ethical practice? This fact that we are only through others: there is no ethics which does not, however masked and corrupted through myopic desires, implicitly admit to this fact.
And yet there is much to be said on subject emergence and its ethical implications that stretch beyond the enclosure of the human self and the human other, but in which various figures of this relational analytic of being – including mutual recognition and emergence through narration – feature formatively. Plainly speaking, the subject emerges surrounded by non-human elements: the landscape, weather, urban infrastructure, equipment, playthings, other animals, etc. These non-human elements are also objects within discourse that a subject must recognise as such in order to maintain the recognisability and transparency of a subjectivity that is essentially relational. The mutually formative relation between “You” and “I” is mediated by the ability of each to form a nexus of value and understanding around an object or set of objects. This object may be concrete and material as food in the emergence of the provider and beneficiary or an axe in the emergence of the executioner and the sentenced, but their concreteness, which discourse wishes to narrate, is still compromised in its submission to subjectivity. Moreover, this subjectivity configures itself in accordance with the frustrations that abound from an exteriority which limits its own self-determination. The experienced concreteness of an object or thing out there is hereby a matter qualified by varying degrees and conditions of conceptuality.
Still, I do not want to carry this conversation into a quest for tracing the genealogy of the logos or nomos of the world or its spirit – or even of the things it renders invisible. I do not want to be distracted from the body I live – not here, at least. Rather, my concern here is with giving accounts; the content of an account may be determinately generated from a history and world that precedes and exceeds the subject, rendering the subject into a form of fiction, but that does not veil the real event of the account and its effects that unfold, regardless of its relation to truth or objective history.
Our discourse becomes ever more cyclical when we attempt to add each condition of a subject’s emergence. In this Butler is right in her unwillingness to forego our opacity and continuous meeting with limits in exchange for establishing the conditions of a transparent subject. So it seems appropriate, then, for me briefly to reminisce on an anecdote that concerns matters of giving account that revolve around domestic pets – an everyday fact of our lives that acts as a peculiarly enmeshed interstice of opacities: narrative accountability in the emergence of a subject; the performativity of the subject as an ecstatic life that the audience moulds; the recognition and dislocation of agency, which include matters of punishment; and the history and veils of the domestic itself.
I moved into a new apartment with my partner and from the first day onwards a few cats from the neighbourhood began entering through the windows. From these same windows we were also regular witnesses to their interactions in the adjacent park. One of them, a male ginger kitten who we eventually could conclude was homeless, has since been adopted by us. Another cat, the first to have entered our flat, is an older, weighty, black-and-white creature. Our first impression as this cat slowly walked through the apartment, curiously inspecting our furniture and boxes waiting to be unpacked, was that she was a pregnant female looking for a safe place to give birth. We then also speculated that the young ginger, who we called Victoria Beckham (now Vicky) based on one of his grooming poses, was from the black-and-white cat’s (who we now call Oukat – Old Cat) previous litter. Were they both stray cats? Or did the black-and-white cat have owners and secretly give birth to a stray litter? It was impossible to tell. It was also possible that both cats had a home, but that Vicky wanted distance from aggressive siblings – he certainly held tightly to the opportunity of shelter we offered. He began asking for food. We, being vegans, had nothing to offer. But soon he began to look and act in an ever more desperate manner. I believed he had no home to return to. Or that perhaps he was lost, straying as unneutered adolescent cats do.
One day we found him chased up a tree by an aggressively panting and unusually muscular ginger cat sitting on a lower branch. The black-and-white cat was also there, pacing up and down on the ground beneath them. The aggressive ginger cat, who we dubbed Vetkat (Fat Cat), left as soon as we came closer. We then thought it all the more likely that Oukat was Vicky’s mother, anxiously weaving around the tree where her kitten was endangered. Yet it was also possible that the other cat, Vetkat, was Vicky’s father, a violent patriarch of sorts. Perhaps then, both males were vying for the attention of Oukat. If Vicky was indeed from Oukat’s offspring, we were witness to a full display of a feline Oedipal event.
From then, Vicky’s behaviour began to unsettle us: when Oukat came inside, he jumped on her from behind while she ate some of his cat-food. Whether she was truly pregnant or not, his mother or not, it was not pleasant to see his attempts to mate another cat. The immediate conclusion, of course, was that we had to get him neutered as soon as possible. We accepted his behaviour in somewhat binary terms as part of natural cat behaviour and its expression was only so unsightly from the perspective of a society that is ‘unnatural’, but the best response was to afford him the opportunity of better adaption to this form of society which is the concrete reality, now - and regrettably - for the foreseeable future. But then, in a moment of closer inspection, it was revealed to us that Oukat was definitely not Vicky’s mother. He was a neutered tom, overweight and determined to eat as much of Vicky’s food as possible. He was rarely aggressive, and it thus seems he knew how to appear the victim. Of course we began taking the bowl away from Oukat, we understood Vicky to have only been trying to protect his territory, his food. When the food was no longer a given to Oukat, he began taking the offensive against Vicky, and we were indeed proud of “our little boy” when he succeeded in chasing the old victim-playing slouch away. And Vicky’s appointment at the vet was postponed for a month or two
If we are to follow Butler in insisting on the centrality of opacity to the conditions of ethical reasoning, which consequently means our ethics betray reasonability when these ethics depend upon the existence of transparent subjects, we can say that our treatment of these cats constitutes a sort of ethical failure. Of course, our intentions by each reasoning was to establish the best conditions for each cat and we were constantly open and attentive to possible changes in the cats’ narratives, yet quite plainly we held attitudes towards each cat based on pure speculation. We engaged with other living beings in brief glimpses of their lives, the rest of which was a complete opacity, yet we insisted on a continually making transparent possible histories for each in order to establish the conditions of our conduct. In addition, the possible gender and corollary family relations which fueled much of our speculation are perfect evidence that in any performance – and these cats certainly appear to perform – the awaiting audience and the stage itself are louder, larger than actors: “The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene” (“Performance Acts and Gender Constitution” 526). Often this extends so far back that an act itself and the act perceived need not by necessity bear any resemblance to one another. Cats and dogs are implicated in the family and the home. Their true movements are veiled to us, and still further veiled by us in our recycling of pet ownership norms. What I take from Butler then is that the search for an ethical life is not so much a case for us of becoming better actors, but becoming a better audience: an audience which truly permits life to play out in its stark discontinuity and which does not recognise it solely by the appearance of the similar and familiar.