When the Cats Got Your Tongue(1)


Referring to the work of Derrida, the author brings into question the traditional distinction—going back to Descartes, Kant, Heidegger and Lacan himself—between man and animal, according to which animals lack language or lack the ability to respond, to pretend to pretend, since they are unable to react. Taking the example of a cat who demonstrates his ability to respond by pretending to pretend, René Major raises a question regarding the limit between reaction and response, claiming that there is as much response in reaction as there is reaction in response that is linked to the repetition of signs and signifiers, that is, to the logic of the unconscious.

– Have you ever been watched by a cat? Have you ever been fixed by a cat’s gaze, watching you with its eyes wide open, waiting for a response: a response to its insistent question or a response to the why and wherefore of your appeal that it hastens to answer?

– No. I don’t know. Maybe. But I remember what Baudelaire said about the cat’s gaze “that I see in myself…”, of the gaze and the specter that Rilke talks about in Scharze Katze, or Martin Buber who asks, looking into his cat’s eyes, “Is it possible that you address me?” The cats in Alice in Wonderland have a very bad habit: whatever you tell them, they always purr in response. “If only they purred to say ‘yes’ and meowed to say ‘no’, or followed some such rule so that one could converse with them!”

– The question perhaps isn’t, most certainly isn’t, knowing whether the animal talks, but whether it’s possible to know what it means to respond. I’m not the one who puts the question this way, but a philosopher who—make no mistake—had the experience of being nude, quite literally, before his cat’s gaze, before the gaze “of the completely other, more other than any other and which they call an animal, for example a cat, when it watches me nude, at the very moment in which I present myself to it—or rather, at that strange moment when, before that date, before even wanting it and knowing it myself, I passively presented myself to him in the nude, I am seen, and seen nude, even before seeing myself seen by a cat. Even before seeing myself nude […].” Can you guess which philosopher could have exposed, could see himself exposed nude, see the animal fixing its gaze upon his naked member, and talk about it without biting his tongue?

– It’s certainly not Descartes, nor Kant, Heidegger or Lévinas. I don’t know. The cat’s got my tongue,* so to speak.
– That’s precisely the point: when the cat’s got your tongue. Not in reference to the cruel punishment that perhaps lies behind this expression, nor as a symbolic deprivation of the use of speech as a reliable means of not responding. But in a completely different sense. Either one ascribes or gives one’s own language to the cat, or to animals in general, as they say, or one accords the cat with one’s own means of communication in wondering whether it simply reacts or really responds. The philosophers you were talking about, from Aristotle to Lévinas—including Lacan, who on several occasions raised the question about what it is that distinguishes man from animals—all agree in saying that animals are unable to respond: that they lack a response that could be strictly distinguished from a reaction. According to the Discourse on Method, animals are unable, not to emit signs, but to compose signs “as we do in order to describe our thoughts to others,” “arranging them in various ways in order to respond.”

– Yes, but doesn’t Lacan—whom Derrida would probably describe as not having left the Cartesian tradition behind —consider, already in “The Mirror Stage” which he wrote in 1936, a specular function—“the other’s gaze” as you described it—as regards sexualization among animals and even in the sexualization of animals? Drawing on Harrisson’s works published in 1939, Lacan reintroduced biological experimentation to the field of mental causality. Separated from other pigeons, does the female pigeon still ovulate? “Placed in the same room with other members of both sexes, but in prefabricated cages so that the subjects cannot see one another, while still being able to perceive the others’ odors and cries, the females do not ovulate.” I note that in 1946 Lacan attributed to pigeons the quality of being a subject. However, “it suffices that the two subjects are able to view each other, even through a glass pane that prevents any mating ritual from being initiated, for ovulation to recommence, even if the separated pair of pigeons are both females […] But what is even more remarkable is that just seeing it’s own reflection in a mirror is enough to trigger ovulation in two and one-half months.” It is thus just a matter of the specular gaze as a triggering factor, without any other stimulus. Neither olfactory nor aural.

– And yet, even though Lacan makes the animal a subject, he does not make it a subject of the signifier. Why? Because, in his view, animals do not erase their traces. They do not make traces of which deceit would consist in passing for false what is true. But is this so? Take the cat, for example. I elsewhere (Major 2003, p. 109) described a cat that, in order to have me find where it was hiding, would push a door, making it creak: sometimes to make me believe that it was behind the door, while it would run away to hide someplace else; sometimes to make me think that once again it wasn’t there, while in fact it was. Isn’t it pretending to pretend in tracing real false leads? Derrida notes that for Lacan, “passing by the mirror forever immobilizes the animal in the net of the imaginary, thus depriving it of any access to the symbolic.” One sees quite well that this frontier of the imaginary and symbolic is not as undivided and solid as it may seem. The fact that Lacan talks in terms of the subject as regards animals while claiming elsewhere that it is by a symbolic assumption (refused to animals) that speech constitutes the subject’s being, remains no less problematic. Despite what could have been an advance in relation to the traditional dogmatism concerning an insurmountable limit between man and animal, the Lacanian discourse of the animal subject goes no further than the “fixity of a code” or a “system of signals” that only allows for the possibility of reactions to stimuli and not responses to questions. When bees apparently “respond” to a “message”, they are not responding, but reacting. They are only obeying the fixity of a program, while the human subject responds to the other, to the other’s question. Without objecting to this logic, it seems difficult for Derrida “to set aside, as does Lacan, the differntiality of signs to human language and not to animal codes. What Lacan attributes to signs ‘in a language’, understood at the human level, ‘whose value is due to their relation between one another’ and not only to the ‘fixed correlation between its signs and reality’, can and must hold for every code, whether animal or human.”

– It’s true that if we consider the problem on the basis of the human subject and say, as did Lacan, that it is prey to language or the prey of language, and that the logic of the unconscious is based on an automatism of repetition, this logic of repetition and this repetitiveness of signs and the signifier will always inscribe some kind of automaticity, however reduced it may be, in every response. And this unquestionably marks a limit of the absolute difference or distinction between reaction and response. Aren’t there reactive responses and responsive reactions?

– This changes many things. Keep in mind, Lacan passes from the question of response to that of “responsibility” and that which underlies his concept of the subject: “From then on, the decisive function of my own thought appears, and which is not only, as is said, that of being received by the subject as an approval or rejection of its discourse, but of actually being acknowledged or rejected as a subject. Such is the responsibility of the analyst each time he intervenes by way of speech.”

– And if, in pretending to pretend, your cat responded?(2)

Translated from the French by Marcel Sima Lieberman


Derrida, J.:
– (1999) “L’animal que donc je suis”, L’animal autobiographique (Paris: Galilée).
– (2003) “Say the Animal Responded?” (Et si l’animal répondait?) Trad. David Wills, Zoontology, The Question of the Animal, Ed. Cary Wolfe (Minnesota Univ. Press).

Lacan, J. (1966) ), “Le stade du miroir”, “Propos sur la causalité psychique”, “Fonction et champ de la parole”, “Variante de la cure-type”, “Subversion du sujet”, “Position de l’inconscient” in Ecrits (Paris: Seuil).

Major, R. (2003) De la démocratie en cruauté (Paris: Galilée).


1) French title: “Donner sa langue au chat”. In French, this expression has the usual meaning, with reference to riddle, of ‘giving up’. The author here is using the expression in a more literal sense, exploiting a double meaning : to give one’s own language to the cat and / or to accord the cat its own tongue. [Translator’s Note]

2) The quotations cited in the text are from Jacques Derrida (1999; 2003) and Jacques Lacan (1966).

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis