Why, despite the taming of Kafka, Jean-François Lyotard’s cat does not exist


In order to merely indicate (in a very schematic fashion) how nonhuman animals retain the potential to enact a critical rupture – or at the very least open up a vertigo-inducing void – in contemporary discourse, one could take as an example Jean-François Lyotard’s later text The Inhuman (1988), in which a cat serves as both a marker and a wound of an anxious anthropocentrism.[1] Within its introductory polemic against the contemporary ‘restoration’ of traditional, metaphysical humanism, Lyotard argues that the human is buttressed—and undone—by inhumanity on both sides of its subjection. On the one side, the inhuman is the infans, that amorphous pre-discursive being that, in a certain sense, is yet to exist. On the other, there is the inhumanity of the materially institutionalised conditions that produce the ‘human’ as such; this latter is exemplified by all forms of education, none of which happen ‘without constraint and terror’ (4).

It is precisely at this point that the animal is introduced—and, despite Lyotard’s warning against a haste that crushes heterogeneity, rapidly sacrificed—in order to articulate the a priori interruption of humanism: ‘[i]f humans are born humans, as cats are born cats (within a few hours), it would not be … possible, to educate them’ (3). It is education then, or rather its possibility, which—in an anthropocentric gesture familiar throughout philosophy from Aristotle through to Heidegger and beyond—marks out the human as responsive over against the animal that only reacts. This difference and this possibility, writes Lyotard, ‘proceeds from the fact that [children] are not completely led by nature, not programmed’ as nonhuman animals are (3), but rather that there exists for the child an ‘initial delay in humanity’ which makes of him or her a hostage to the adult (‘instituted’) world. A cat therefore, programmed by nature within a few hours of its birth and thus existing already and without delay in its essential being-cat, cannot be ‘educated’—precisely the same fallacious argument previously used to justify slavery and, indeed, which analogously grounded the putative ‘animality’ of nonwhites.[2]

Here, the choice of the cat is probably not fortuitous: common sense dictates that (domestic) cats cannot be trained—that is, educated—but instead remain forever and always ‘only’ and ‘instinctively’ cat. The question remains, however, as to how can it be that a cat, lacking any such delay in which being-cat can be instituted, is incapable of hunting for food in a ‘reasonable’ fashion without having been taught to do so during its (comparatively lengthy) period of infancy? An education which, whether performed by an adult cat or a human, similarly ‘does not happen without constraint and terror’?[3] At the same time but from the opposite direction, can one simply exclude the human from what might be called an ‘instinctive-education’ such as is apparently undergone by cats, that is, can the human be so easily divorced from the inheritance of something like ‘species-habits’?

Perhaps then, rather than being taught an ‘instinct’ (such as hunting), education for Lyotard consists only being constrained to think, behave, or perform ‘instinctively against instinct’ according to a system of order words drilled by repetition. The concept of ‘education,’ in other words, considered only in its most common form of Victorian imperialism. Given that the constitution of the subject is only ever an effect, however, it is precisely the distinction between instinct and the contrary-to-instinct that can never be rigorously maintained. What, one might wonder, would it mean for a nonhuman animal to be described as ‘domestic(ated)’ according to Lyotard’s schema? And what of those cats trained from infancy to perform handstands on tightropes, among many other things, in the Moscow cat circus, to say nothing of lion taming?

If, however, we rightly refuse of Lyotard’s hasty refusal of any ‘initial delay’ to the animal, this in turn raises serious, and increasingly bizarre, questions concerning the ‘obviousness’ of the humanist distinction between human-response and animal-reaction. Is there, for example, therefore a nonanimal-animality at (or prior to) birth, an ‘inanimality’ which then requires institutionalised conditions of production (education) in order to become the particular being that it already apparently is? And what fantastic nonbeing-being might the ‘inanimal’ be? Is it the same non- or pre-being as the inhuman infans which is not-yet ‘human’? Or is it rather, as has been variously and repeatedly proposed, that the pre-discursive being-prior to its ‘humanizing’ is in fact ‘man’s’ animality—in the sense of unchecked drives and desire—and which normative structuring must exclude, co-opt, or subject in its instituting of the ‘human’? If that is the case, however, we find ourselves quickly overcome by a dizzying series of questions: Does inanimal normativity therefore exclude, co-opt or subject that other inanimality, and which is itself animality, precisely in order to construct the ‘animal’—and thus the animal (already) ceases to be an animal precisely in the moment of its becoming-animal? Already then, simply by taking into consideration a casual reference to another animal, Lyotard’s reasoned philosophical discourse suddenly begins to spin out of control.

For Nietzsche, who attempts to answer these questions, the line which marks the animal out from education and the institution of ‘proper’ behaviour is one which cannot be drawn. As he writes in Daybreak, ‘all we designate as the Socratic virtues, are animal: a consequence of that drive which teaches us to seek food and elude enemies.’ Not only is all putatively human ‘social morality’ found everywhere, but ‘even the sense for truth, which is really the sense for security, man has in common with the animals’. Other animals too, he continues, will check their drives and constrain their desires: ‘the animal understands all this just as man does, with it [sic] too self-control springs from the sense for what is real (from prudence). It likewise assesses the effect it produces upon the perceptions of other animals and from this learns to look back upon itself, to take itself “objectively,” it too has its degree of self-knowledge.’

To this we might add the lesson of Kafka’s fable (written perhaps with Montaigne in view) concerning a fantastic kangaroo-like animal.[4] This peculiar animal has ‘a tail many yards long and like a fox’s brush’ and a flat face that is ‘almost like a human face’ albeit ‘only its [sic] teeth have any power of expression’—a description which already puts into question the traditional ethical discourse centred on the properly human face, replacing its ‘flatness’ with the orificial expressiveness of the mouth. According to the fable, he or she repeatedly offers his or her tail towards a human touch, only then to withdraw it the moment someone makes a grab for it – giving Kafka’s human narrator the uncanny feeling that the animal is, in fact, trying to tame him.


[1] For a more extensive critique of the anthropocentrism underwriting Lyotard’s philosophy, see Cary Wolfe ‘In the Shadow of Wittgenstein’s Lion’ in Zoontologies, especially pp12-19.

[2] While I am by no means proposing the oversimplification of an isomorphic or directly analogous relation, the glaring contradiction within which so many humans live—human animals who justify eating flesh in general whilst at the same time counting specific nonhuman animals as members of their family—can at least be placed alongside that of the slave owner for whom the essentialist denial of reason and educability to nonwhites in general used to justify his exploitation was contradicted by every specific encounter, and by those who opposed the vote for women in general on similar grounds but who nevertheless were forced to recognise specific women as intellectual equals or betters. This same general/particular distortion, as is well known, serves to maintain racist, sexist, and speciesist ideologies (any contrary being dismissed as the exception proving the rule).

[3] The adult cat similarly cannot be excluded from (re)education in that, if instinct essentially determines the animal from ‘within a few hours’ of birth, thus making it wholly captured (programmed) by its specific environment, how is it possible that, within a single generation, animals are able to adapt to human, technological, or ecological transformations—transformations which, quite literally, produce new worlds?

[4] In Dearest Father, and reproduced in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings (1974: 17-18).

About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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