Domestic Cohabitors: Felinely Reconsiderations of the ‘Pet’

Pet. Product. Prey. Deity. Spirit. Spectacle. Spouse.

The roles into which humans have cast animals are innumerable. From ancient creation myths to premodern folktales of animal-wives and animal-husbands, to Disney’s anthropomorphised mascots, human culture around the globe is inextricable from the animal.[1] While this relationality reaches back into deep history, the ‘animal turn’ (as the contemporary increase in research on nonhuman animals is sometimes called) has precipitated reconsiderations and conversations, sometimes uncomfortable ones, about the ways in which humans relate to animals and the roles we assign them.[2]

No role has been more controversial, perhaps, than that of the pet. As Jack Halberstam’s recent book Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire has made clear, there is still much to discuss about our domestic human/animal cohabitation and care practices.[3] While Halberstam is critical of the entire idea of the pet calling them “an accessory, a fetish, an improper object of love,” I believe that conversations about what exactly it means to share one’s life with a nonhuman animal in the current culture of cohabitation can still lead to important shifts in the discourse around nonhuman agency.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Sleeping Cat, 1862, WikiCommons.
[Image description: 19th century painting of a cat curled up in a ball, asleep.]

Two possibilities for expanding the conversation include to move beyond dogs, which are the primary pet Halberstam discusses and which have been the subject of most scholars’ personal considerations of their own relationships with domestic animals, and to reconsider the word ‘pet,’ much like scholars have pushed to reconsider the word ‘nature.’ [4]

I live with two cats.

Both have been in my life, and cohabitating with me, for almost 12 years. I have watched them grow, watched their personalities shift and develop over time, and now I am watching them enter their elder years. As I would with a human/human relationship, I have learned the cats’ likes and dislikes and attempted to respect their relational boundaries because I understand them as separate beings from myself. I am not perfect (at times, I ruffle the wrong fur or misinterpret a meow), but I try to make our shared life harmonious. Seven of our years together I have been in academia which has created a space in which contemplating my emotions, language, and thinking in relation to the cats has become possible through exposure to animal studies.

The first time I was assigned to read The Animal That Therefore I Am by Jacques Derrida in a seminar, I remember thinking that it was an absurd piece of writing.[5] He begins his philosophical spiral with an anecdote about his cat looking at him while he is naked, and how it inspires a sense of shame within him. Caught up in what I perceived as the anthropocentrism of human shame being attributed to an encounter with a nonhuman being, and perhaps my own biases about what having a pet meant, I overlooked what Derrida was attempting to say about animal subjecthood in the rest of his essay.

To begin with, my use of the wordage his cat is incorrect. Derrida does not refer to the female feline living in his house as his cat, except to point out that this phrasing is unsuitable. He also does not use the word pet. He calls her the cat, thereby relinquishing ownership of the alive, singular being he cohabitates with. Already this abdication of ownership is a step in the direction that so many scholars in the environmental humanities have been proposing we go: an ontological understanding of nonhumans as agential subjects.

George Smith, Ham, cheese, eggs, lemons and a cat with a captured mouse, 18th Century, WikiCommons
[Image description: 18th century still life painting of a cat catching a mouse, surrounded by food goods such as meat and eggs.]

One of the ways Derrida frames this shift to agency recognition is through the concept of cross-species communication. He says:

“If, in order to hear it in myself, I were to undertake to overinterpret what the cat might be saying to me, in its own way, what it might be suggesting […] If, in a word, I assigned to it the words it has no need of […] But in forbidding myself thus to assign, interpret or project, must I conversely give in to the other violence or stupidity, that which would consist in suspending one’s compassion and in depriving the animal of every power of manifestation […]”[6]

He describes clearly the ever-present double-edge sword of anthropocentrism versus agential denial. This acknowledgement that his own behaviour runs the risk of removing the cat’s agency, either by “assigning it words it has no need of” or by assuming that its actions have no meaning and therefore denying it agency in a way akin to Cartesian reasoning, is a poignant articulation of the thin line that human/animal relationships sometimes walk. And Derrida is given the opportunity to consider these questions because he does live with this nonhuman animal.

This cat is not a pet, but rather a being whom Derrida lives with. Indeed, cats are barely domesticated in the first place, having had little genetic change from their originative wild form.[7] Unlike dogs who are frequently culturally portrayed as servile, from a DNA-based perspective living with a cat is more like living with a pseudo-wild animal who is concerned with mutual benefits rather than with service and obedience. Derrida and the cat share a space, she is not his, as arguably no ‘pet’ is ever truly ours. She watches him go about his tasks with a silent but heavy gaze, present if not necessarily participatory, concerned with her own interests and desires in a way that marks her as a distinct being from him.

Living with cats myself, I cannot help but think often of what they are trying to tell me, if anything, and how separate their internal lives are from my own. How little they care for my approval, making most sorts of traditional obedience a moot point, is yet another aspect of their agential being that can counter the idea of the pet. As Derrida’s concern about the cat’s judgement of his nudity points to, we do not and cannot expect unconditional obedience and adoration from cats as we would perhaps from dogs. The cat is a being with a private interiority.

While it is undeniable that the entire structure of domestication and pet-ing of animals is intertwined with processes of human desire for control and dominance over the nonhuman, I do not believe that this history forecloses on the possibility of thinking alongside, and through the lens of, domestic cohabiters. Just as folktales have long cast animals and humans as co-creators and co-existent in space and culture, so too can cohabitating with animals now, even in a domestication-coded space, lead to conversations about nonhuman agency that may in turn lead to a total reconsideration of the ‘pet.’

[1] On “animal-wives and animal-husbands” see: Laura Nuffer, “Of Mice and Maidens: Ideologies of Interspecies Romance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Japan,” Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations (2014).

[2] “Deep history” generally refers to the period of human culture before written records, in other words the distant past. For reading on the academic pursuit of deep history, see: Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Small, et. al, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011). On “the animal turn” see: Harriet Ritvo, “On the Animal Turn,” Daedalus, 136, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 118-122.

[3] Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

[4] Donna Haraway is a well-known example of this, being an avid lover of her more-than-human dog companion, see: Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). On the term ‘nature’: notable examples in the Western context, from which this article originates, include but are not limited to the work of Timothy Morton and Kate Soper, who both address the concept of ‘nature’ from the perspective of a separation between human/nature that was reified by Eurocentric philosophical discourse. The term ‘nature’ continues to be reconsidered in multiple environmental humanities contexts. See: Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, (Boston, Harvard Univrsity Press, 2007), and Soper, What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the non-Human (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1995).

[5] Jacques Derrida, translated by David Wills, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 369-418.

[6] Ibid, 387.

[7] For evidence of genome similarity between “wild” and “domestic” cats, see: Claudio Ottoni, et. al., “The Paleogenetics of Cat Dispersal in the Ancient World,” Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, no. 7 (2017), 2.

*Cover image: Sebastiano Lazzari, Still life with a cat, 1760, WikiCommons.

[*Cover image description: 18th century still life of a cat stealing sliced meat from a plate, accompanied by wine and peaches.]

Edited by Diana Valencia-Duarte, reviewed by Aly Kreikemeier.