Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Le monstre que donc je suis

by J J Cohen

The ultimate stop on my B Tour is Barcelona. I'll be heading to Spain a week from today, but my hour long presentation is due to the translator on Friday. I finally have a draft, so I may actually make the deadline.

I'm taking part in a public symposium at MACBA (Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona; I love that when you follow that link you are greeted by an image of Gilles Deleuze). D'animals i monstres / Of Animals and Monsters is sponsored by the museum's independent studies program, a theory-heavy museum studies program "based on the rejection of notions of management and their techniques as the centre of the museum space." How cool is that? I was told to be as theoretical as possible, to cite lots of Derrida ... and not to worry that the 250 or members of the audience would be listening to me in simultaneous Spanish translation. Mm hmm.

My paper is a meditation on Derrida's essay The Animal That Therefore I Am, with swerves through Beowulf (a piece on Grendel's death song), Eric Santner, Frankenstein (on reproach, and love), and Bruno Latour's Aramis. It will be a small miracle if the whole thing coheres.

But I do have a what I hope is a catchy beginning, which I share with you below.


As a child I was haunted by monsters.

A spirit dwelled in my basement, a drifting whiteness that might also have been the work of eyes adjusting to dark. A vampire inhabited my wall, and I could detect the scraping of his fingernails on plaster whenever sleep was distant. A Crooked Man once entered my bedroom to whisper Listen to the night. He told me that whenever I put my head to my pillow, I would hear his nearing footsteps. On the day he returned he would take me from my bed. Stone Giants dwelled beneath our house. They would surface to threaten earthquakes and tidal waves, or (strangely) to bring me news of my grandfather in Maine. I was terrified of these inscrutable creatures … yet as I grew older and their visits ceased, I felt the loss of their regard. How much wider, how filled with anxious possibility are nocturnal hours roamed by monsters. They threatened me, they kept me awake while my family slumbered …. and yet I miss my childhood companions. The world is diminished for their exorcism, their having been driven away by the plodding force of the daily ordinary.

Fortunately I have two children, and with them the arrival of new monsters. My son Alexander was long haunted by Mr. Shadow, a phantom who lurked in the dim of his nursery, eyes a luminous green stare. Rather than allow Alex to sleep the night with his light burning, I suggested that he might talk to Mr. Shadow: perhaps there was some story he wanted to impart. The next day Alex told me that he and his monster had had a nocturnal conversation. Mr. Shadow, it seems, had once been a child named KidKid. This boy did not obey his parents, did not follow the instructions of his teacher, and was in every way therefore bad. The curse that he suffered was to become Mr. Shadow: always present, always watching, filled with vague menace but incapable of doing much more than watching young sleepers facing the same disciplinary regime against which he had lost his own battle. Another of Alex’s monsters was the Green Hand, known for scampering across the carpet whenever the lights dimmed. The Green Hand caused my son to spend many nights running from his bed to that of his parents, until I asked if maybe running to us wasn’t such a good idea since the Green Hand might grab him along the way. (From then on he simply screamed for us to come to him). My daughter Katherine, a pixie of happiness, spent almost six years of her life free of anxiety, and of monsters. I was starting to worry at her cheerfulness: could it be healthy? Don’t we need our nightmares to make us artists? Her first night terrors started soon after, and have mostly involved robots and dinosaurs – or sometimes (an ultimate paradox) robotic dinosaurs.

This monstrous genealogy illustrates, perhaps, the particular way in which a parent has passed his distinctive fears along to his children, as if they were a family inheritance. The particularity of these monsters matters. In an essay that I will contemplate with you tonight, Jacques Derrida writes compelling of starting from “unsubstitutable singularity” when meditating upon the other-than-human. “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” begins with a specific animal entering a precise domestic space: Derrida’s cat comes into his bedroom and beholds him unclothed. This threshold-crossing animal is not, Derrida insists, “the figure of a cat,” a sign or an emblem that might “silently enter the bedroom as an allegory for all the cats on earth.” Derrida’s pet is not a generic animal “ambassador” which must shoulder “the immense symbolic responsibility with which our culture has always charged the feline race” (7, 9). It is a real cat, a particular little kitty that enters Derrida’s chamber, regards the naked philosopher and causes him to compose from the encounter an essay about the work of animals and autobiography. Its feline singularity is of consequence, rooting us in the specific, even if we don’t know the cat’s name (I would like to think that Derrida called his cat Hegel or Pharmakon, but I fear it bore something less exotic like Whiskers or Skippy). So I offer my own monsters, my own family bedrooms, to grant “unsubstitutable singularity” to them, and to begin to wonder what the monster and the animal share.


Karl Steel said...

Great stuff. I'm expecting that you're going to transition into the issue of 'being looked at,' as this is what Derrida's cat does. It's not just that it's singular; it's that its inscrutable eyes reverse the (human) subject/ (animal etc) object of philosophy. From there you might move into Haraway's critique of Derrida's reluctance to imagine PLAY with this cat, and thus more deeply into a childhood that feels less masterful.

My childhood closet monster, by the way, was named Yehudi. After the violinist I expect.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Fascinating. I'm inclined to wonder if monster and animal have the same capacity to call into question the integrity of the self because of their refusal to answer or respond, and if that's what the conversation with Mr. Shadow was able to undo for Alex. Sounds like an amazing essay, wish I were in Spain to hear it.


Karl> I love the name. Nothing scarier than a violinist, eh?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl and MK, thanks for your comments. Following Derrida, I'm looking at regard as a form of interrogation. Here's a piece from that piece.
The Monster Looks at Us (Thinking Begins There)

In the second portion of his animot essay (“But as for me, who am I?”) Derrida raises the question of animal communication through what he calls “chimerical aphorisms”:

All the philosophers we will investigate … say the same thing: the animal is deprived of language. Or more precisely, of response, of a response that could be precisely and rigorously distinguished from a reaction … The animal that I am (following), does it speak? … The animal in whose tracks therefore I am (following), and who picks up traces, who is it? Does it speak? Does it speak French? (32, 56).

The animal poses philosophical questions, certainly, but can it pose these questions itself, or only through an intermediary? Can it deploy language, good French even? Can it ask something unexpected, something I do not necessarily follow? The third portion of Derrida’s animot meditation is dedicated to Jacques Lacan, who adamantly refused the possibility of animal language (122-24). Derrida’s title for this section is a resonant question: “And Say the Animal Responded?” Let’s continue glossing l’animot with les monstres. And say the monster responded? What would that monster declare?

What passes between Derrida and his cat begins with the eyes. To understand the regard of an animal or a monster requires an attempt to inhabit their gaze, to see oneself being seen, exposed, fragile, a creature of uncertainty and ambivalence:

"The animal is there before me … -- I am who am (following) after it. And also, therefore, since it is before me, it is behind me. It surrounds me. And from the vantage point this being-there-before-me it can allow itself to be looked at, no doubt, but also – something that philosophy perhaps forgets, perhaps being this calculated forgetting itself – it can look at me. It has its point of view regarding me. The point of view of the absolute other, and nothing will ever give me more food for thinking through this absolute alterity of the neighbor or of the next(-door) than these moments when I see myself seen naked under the gaze of a cat." (11)

Under the gaze of a cat … or, worse, a vampire, or any of the demons who prefer to regard their victims nude in their bedroom. “Nudity is nothing other than that passivity,” writes Derrida, “the involuntary exhibition of the self”: the utter vulnerability of being seen and seeing oneself being seen, of realizing that “human” was not a very sturdy category under which to stake a claim to identity to begin with:

"As with every bottomless gaze, as with the eyes of the other, the gaze called ‘animal’ offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or ahuman, the ends of man" (12).

Perhaps this disquieting, disrobing power of the Other’s gaze explains why monstrosity so often involves the ocular. Think of Goya’s giants, and their irresistible line of vision. Think of Polyphemos the Cyclops and his hideous monocularity. To behold Medusa is to be turned to stone. A dragon’s eye can entrance. Think of the baleful light that shimmers from the eyes of Grendel in the Old English heroic poem Beowulf. The eyes are the entrance to the monster’s soul, and so I would like to speak about what point of view reveals of the monsters we are and follow.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Damn, but you can write. For real.

If you want tips on this B city, drop me a line. I can get you the hookup.