jump to navigation

Readings: The Politics of Cats June 5, 2007

Posted by elizabethwong in Anthropology-urban, Note2Self, Readings.

I hate the fact that he used this title before i did; I *heart* this man for writing something to chase the blues away. 🙂

(Stimulus->Respond Issue 18, June-July 2007)

John Hutnyk embarks on a consideration of dialectics, structural anthropology, William Burroughs, anthropomorphism and warfare in his musings on the aberrance of cats.


Cat, n. Small mammal with an attitude problem.

I imagine that cats are aphorists, composing dialectical koans and licking their whiskers at the elegance of their arabesques. Though I recognise that Adorno himself noted that aphorisms were not admissible in dialectical thought, which should always abhor isolation and separateness (1951/1974:16), I concede that cats are separate and aloof. Since they are never owned by their humans, they stand apart, domesticated only by choice, self-grooming, dreaming of mice (rather than hubcaps—go figure), ignoring us in ways that transcend normal social, political and geophysical categories. We know these routines already, and recognise their outsider status with a mix of awe and disregard.

Projection. The anthropomorphic charge is more difficult to lay upon our conception of cats, yet it does apply. To think of them as yoga-masters, or as independent outsider spirits, is still to malign them as merely human. I am sometimes paranoid in thinking that my cat is mechanical. A twisted automaton designed especially to distort my brain. Uncle Bill Burroughs said that paranoia was being in possession of all of the facts. So let us consider the evidence: Cats purr—this could be very cute, or is it rather the calculated industrial production if cuteness? Cats wash themselves with their tongues—and if they were electric they would short-circuit (though consider how coffing up a hairball might be just that). Cats growl and hiss when interrogated—clearly they could be detained as non-combatants if only we had the will, and a strong leader. Cats have whiskers… More examples would only trap us in a dialectical game of catch and release, and so cats will have once again won. They always do, toying with us; ask the mice.

So I think we need to learn to learn from these philosophers of composure. First of all, I imagine Uncle Bill, stoned in the Bunker, communing in some feline comprehension with his cat Fletch: “Wouldn’t you?” But why is it that Levi-Strauss exchanges a look of understanding with that cat at the very end of his book Tristes Tropiques? Why a look, a visual metaphor for knowledge? Well, not so much a look of knowing, but a “brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness” (1955/1973: 544). Do cats forgive? Are they theorists of hospitality? That look bothers me some. If I were to elaborate on the metaphors of vision for knowledge I would ramble on about the way our disciplines are divided up into fields; how one strives to see the point of an argument; how instead of seeing your point, I hold a different view—so many ways in which the assertions of knowledge are visual. But with cats you do not know—the enigmatic Cheshire smile prevails.

Kurt Vonnegut died recently, having once written a great book called Cat’s Cradle (1963) which was later accepted by the University of Chicago anthropology department as a Masters thesis. In that book, the narrator, Jonah (referencing Moby Dick) investigates the life of the now deceased Felix Hoenikker, developer of the atomic bomb. Of course we all know Felix is a quintessential cat’s name (my first cat), and this Felix is appropriately enigmatic also, concerned only with higher science, the pursuit of knowledge as calculation, and an absentminded outsider. Though I suspect a certain identification on Vonnegut’s part, only this narrator, as Jonah, could hunt him down, tempt him with the fish perhaps. It’s not just the bomb, Felix invents a substance that threatens the planet—Ice-9, and his children take it and… To tell more would ruin the story for those who have yet to read it—as far as thesis goes, it’s anyone’s guess how Chicago Anthropology managed to assess this as a scholarly work. Credit due.

Burroughs also pursued anthropology. This at Harvard as part of the G.I. Bill where returned WW2 service personnel were offered places in university. Uncle Bill reports that he found the department grim: “I had done some graduate work in anthropology. I got a glimpse of academic life and I didn’t like it at all. It looked like there was too much faculty intrigue, faculty lies, cultivating the head of department, so on and so forth” (Burroughs 2001:76). It makes me wonder how any of those cats ever get their act together and sit for their degrees. Concentration seems awry, consistency suspended. And a mischievous outsider’s critical countenance continues to leave them disturbingly set apart.

Burroughs in London in 1970 was strangely prophetic when he described America as vulnerable: “extremely vulnerable to chaos, to breakdown in communications, particularly to a breakdown in the food supply [a typical cat concern]. Bombs concentrated on communications, random bombs on trains, boats, planes, buses could lead to paralysis. But you must consider the available counters. We spoke about the ultimate repression that would be used. Once large-scale bombings started you could expect the most violent reactions. They’d declare a national emergency and arrest anyone. They don’t have to know who did it. They’ll just arrest everyone who might have done it” (Burroughs 2001:156).

There are suggestions that all cats be detained in Guantanamo. We are close to such a repression. Just presenting the look of being an outsider is a dangerous thing. Cats threaten the Western way of life in this time of ‘war on terror’, and do so because we cannot ever tell if they are with us or against us. And they are not afraid of sacrifice—they believe they have nine lives! They adhere to ancient cult traditions (from Egypt no less, training camps in the desert we suspect). They are long past masters of undercover operations (consider CatWoman’s wily ways of entrapping the hero of Gotham). Just read the old Eastern book of war tactics, I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume (1905/2002) to see how internecine and dialectical warfare offers a tactical advantage to these furry miscreants. Danger, hiss, pttfft, grrrr.

The thing about cats, aberrant and inscrutable, is that they are the antithesis of the rat-race, and for this reason alone it is worth changing their kitty-litter. Meow!

Theodor Adorno 1951/1974 Minima Moralia New York: NLB.
William Burroughs 1971 Burroughs Live: Interviews New York: Semiotext(e).
Claude Levi-Strauss 1955/1976 Tristes Tropiques, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Soseki Natsume 1905/2002 I am a Cat Berkeley: Tuttle Publishing.
Kurt Vonnegut 1963 Cats Cradle new York: Dell Publishing.


1. Sad Malay Lady - June 5, 2007

Hi Elizabeth,
This is totally unrelated, but I thought i need to highlight this article.
I am very scared our country is heading this way, with the statements coming out regularly from our males, and the way our government is operating.
Gaza jihad group “Swords of Truth” threatens to behead “immodest” women broadcasters,” from the Associated Press:
A Muslim extremist group threatened to behead female TV broadcasters if they don’t don strict Islamic dress, leaving the women terrified and marking a further downward spiral in Gaza’s anarchy.
The threat to “cut throats from vein to vein” was delivered by the Swords of Truth, a fanatical group that has previously claimed responsibility for bombing Internet cafes and music shops.
The new threat was the first time the organization targeted a specific group of people, and adds to a growing climate of extremism, fear and suspicion in Gaza.
In many parts of the Muslim world, religious conservative policies keep women out of TV anchoring positions or only let them take the jobs if they wear headscarves. But in some countries scarves are uncommon, like Lebanon and Jordan, and Egypt even keeps newscasters who wear them off its TV stations.
Most of the 15 women broadcasters on government-run Palestine TV wear headscarves. But they also wear makeup and Western clothing, which is not considered strictly observant by the extremists.
The Swords of Truth issued the statement Friday in an e-mail sent to news organizations. “We will cut throats, and from vein to vein, if needed to protect the spirit and moral of this nation.”
The group accused the broadcasters of being “without any…shame or morals” and said it knew where to find the women.
Prior to the statement, some women broadcasters said they had received personal threats through their mobile phones. It was not clear if those threats were from the same group.
One anchorwoman who does not wear a headscarf said she was too frightened by the threat to go to work on Saturday.
“It’s a dangerous precedent in our society. It will target all working women,” said the broadcaster, who declined to give her name out of fear. “The statement frightened us.”
Another presenter who wears a headscarf, on Palestine TV, said she couldn’t understand why they were targeted. “I hope they take it back. I hope not a bullet will be fired at us,” she said.

EW: Sword of Righteousness is a new-ish small gang, with less than a hundred members. There is a difference between a gaggle of rogues and the government. Nothing to do with Islam or even fundamentalists. Like the dif between Abu Sayaf vs. MILF. Fatah and Hamas are hunting them down. It’s never healthy to feed into one’s fears this way.

2. kittykat46 - June 5, 2007

Hihihi…I’m a cat….meeow !

EW: hehe 🙂

3. monsterball - June 5, 2007

And I am a male cat…meooow…meeow….meeow..[calling female cat kittykat}
But seriously….Sad Malay lady…Fear not. Susan has explained well and I simply like to add…as long as the people…especially the malays are getting more educated…they will think…and not simply believe. also now with bloggings…so much to compare what is right or wrong….and always..’the truth will saves us all”…amen!

4. V T - June 5, 2007

Hi Elizabeth, is Suaram coming out a chinese translated version of May 13th? could they also come out one in Malay and Tamil one?

EW: Dear VT, Yes to all versions! 🙂

5. WATTAHACK? - June 5, 2007

monsterball a pussycat? hehehehe

6. mob1900 - June 5, 2007

Err.. Monty, Kittykat46 is a DUDE! LOLX

Me prefer dogs, they’re dumb and happy all the time.

7. monsterball - June 6, 2007

no lah mob1900..kittykat is quite a smart lady’
hi wattahack..If I am a cat…I am Tom cat….not a pussycat.

8. monsterball - June 6, 2007

Have you seen ‘”CATS” ?…One of the best musical stage show ever produced. You all are so lucky it came to Malaysia before curtain closed.
It was always booked six months in advance in London for years…..and I had to pay terrible high black market price to watch it there.
The old man..the wise one…that’s what the Tom cat I am referring to….wattahack.

9. WATTAHACK? - June 6, 2007

Tom Cat? not so good icon leh! always out smarted by Jerry the Politikus…. hahahaha

10. monsterball - June 8, 2007

Actually kittykat is a MALE CAT!!…HAHAHAHAHA

11. monsterball - June 8, 2007

But Jerry politikus needs to always hide under a hole….yet is a great friend to Tom Cat…Is that not a cunning little politikus?

12. monsterball - June 9, 2007

Jerry politikus always love to get attention from Tom cat and audience. Look…she showed how cute she can be….and she can also show how sexy and shapely she can be….plus can cook like hell….thus Tom cat is always the sucker…although the house owner loves Tom Cat……but Jerry politikus have an art to smear bad news to house owners and get poor Tom cat into trouble.
However…this act is already boring….old fashion…out-dated…that’s why audiences now move to SHREK…in the third performances right now.

13. monsterball - June 9, 2007

I apologize sincerely again to Liz..saying Susan explained to Sad Malay Lady…which is Liz Wong….herself!!
Please forgive my silly mistake.

14. monsterball - June 9, 2007

Jerry politikus in her previous life must love dirty politics. look how she can twist and turn poor Tom cat around!!…hahahahahaha

15. monsterball - June 9, 2007

Jerry politikus have been making a sucker of Tom cat far too long.
Now the creator is making Jerry politikus read books at her rat hole bed during leisure hours.. …so that to finally end the long story….is to enlightened her with more knowledge and apologise to Tom cat and be friends for life.There goes the end of this team….no more siok…..SHREK is ten times better.

16. claire the cat - June 10, 2007

at the risk of sounding trivial, i like that bit about Vonnegut. i love Cat’s Cradle. It was part of my college undergrad awakenings.

if i were a cat, i’d be an alley cat. sad but true.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: