Look, Listen, Dream and Become
“Once upon a time, I, … dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man, dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man a butterfly there is necessarily a barrier. The transition is called Metempsychosis.” (Chuang Tzu 1926:32)
Chuang Tzu concludes The Identity of Contraries with a dream. Derrida begins his deliberation on – in my humble opinion – similar subject with a gaze. In dream, one becomes the other. In looking, one is opposing the other. Dream is the conclusion. Looking is the beginning.
Looking is the beginning of a humanism that produces “the knowledge of identities, differences, characters, equivalences, words” (Foucault 1994:386). This is a humanism Derrida intends to transcend – with a proliferation of words, equivalences, characters, differences and identities – after the gaze, and after the shame.
But why shame? Is it really about “[the] impropriety of a certain animal nude before the other animal” (Derrida 2008:4)? I believe the word “animal” is only a trope. After all, “animals”, in common sense use, are not ashamed of being nude in front of each other. Only humans do. What he actually means, is cat the human person. The initial shame comes from his realization that a cat is a human who looks back. This moment of shame is a moment of transcendence over the human-animal distinction. It is to be celebrated. The second wave of shame, “ashamed for being ashamed” (Derrida 2008:4), however, comes from the realization that by treating the cat as human he only transcends humanism on humanism’s terms – it is not a real transcendence. Foucault’s quotes from Montaingne is never more salient: “There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things; and more books about books than on any other subject; we do nothing but write glosses on one another (Facault 1994:40). The gaze prompts the shame, and the shames prompts the proliferation of interpretations and words, many of them in an incestuous relationship.
Hence Haraway’s criticism of Derrida, that he “missed a possible invitation, a possible introduction to other-worlding” (Haraway 2008:20), a participation in animals’ socio-cultural world(s) as Barbara Smuts did in her interaction with baboons (Haraway 2008:23-25). By allowing himself dwelling in canonic thoughts and language, Derrida stays comfortably in “this world”. And by ignoring “philosophical thinking that goes in popular idioms” and people “who are not shaped by the institutionalized Western … canon” (2008:21), Derrida missed other humanistic ways to approach the “other world”.
What is happening here and now might have happened there and then. The gist of the present is probably in the past. Chuang Tzu’s dream concludes a text – it also concludes, tentatively, a period of humanism (or in Chinese, ren 仁 with an individual on the left and a “two” on the right) the farthest extension of which to animals came when Mencious praised a king for his kindness to spare animals because he heard their whining on their way to the slaughter house: “If you have the sympathy for cows and sheep, you will have sympathy for your people”. Sympathy – and empathy – is one of the foundational concepts proposed by contemporary human rights writers (Ignatieff 2001:95). The domination of a Confucian humanism in the next two thousands years indicates that it might not work.
It’s not enough to listen, to look, to read and to write. What may be needed, is to dream, and to become.
1926 [286 BC] Chuang Tzu. Herbert A. Giles, transl. Shanghai:Kelly & Walsh Limited.
2008  The Animal That Therefore I Am. David Wills, trans. New York: Fordham University Press.
1994 . The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne
2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnisota Press.
2001. Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Derrida’s cat emerges as a real cat, not part of “Kafka’s vast zoopoetics” (Derrida 2008:6). But in “Eating Well”, when asked “why do you … limit yourself simply to the animal?”, he answers “nothing shall be excluded. I said ‘animal’ for the sake of convenience and to use a [classical reference]” (Derrida 1995:269). Is there any contradiction here?
- Upon Derrida’s death, both the New York Times and the Economist published negative obituaries. The criticism is focused on his obscure style. What’s your opinion?