Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Cat Is Not On The Mat

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/07 at 03:30 PM

Our own John Holbo, in his most recent post on Jacques Derrida (to which I also referred in my previous post), added in the comments section a wonderful and amusing aside:

For example, the thought most reliably caused by utterances of ‘the cat is on the mat’ is ‘why do analytic philosophers always use that sentence as an example?’ All the same, the sentence does not REPRESENT this thought.

Let’s look again at the phrase “the cat is on the mat,” which, as Holbo observes, has become ubiquitous wherever philosophy tackles the problem of language.

I’m convinced that explaining why that cat is on that mat will help us explain why literary critics turn so frequently to the likes of Sigmund Freud and Derrida. After all, we need some alternative to the pejorative explanations – for example, the idea that English professors like Freud because they don’t understand science and neither did he.

(A note before I begin: John’s point about Derrida is abetted, but not determined, by his references to animals. I encourage you to read the post, and the comments that follow, and to respond. I will be doing so after I finish giving Of Grammatology a second look.)

To the literary critic, unless the fact that the cat is on the mat is contested, it is absolutely without interest. The statement, however, is quite interesting. To adopt the terms of John’s post, the concepts being represented, not the thing, is significant.

***

The cat emerges gradually. In John’s post, it begins here:

But it hardly follows that writing is nothing but representation of speech. If that were true, the only thing we could write about would be sounds. But obviously we can write about all sorts of things—dogs and cats, numbers, the sun. The list goes on.

Here cats, dogs, numbers, and the sun stand metonymically for the list of all nameable things. Numbers and the sun are fairly readable in terms of the philosophical tradition: both of them refer to Plato, and complement each other, since mathematics is the proof of anamnesis, and the sun is the analogy of the Good.

In the West, associating the act of naming with cats and dogs irresistibly summons this:

And the Lord God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name. And the human called names to all the cattle and to the fowl of the heavens and to all the beasts on the field, but for the human no sustainer beside him was found. (Gen. 2:19-21, trans. Robert Alter)

In the wake of the Book of Genesis, animals in general, and most particularly domesticated animals, represent the nameable object par excellence, because they are the closest thing to human beings that lack the ability to reciprocate naming (a reciprocity closely linked here to the sustaining function of the woman). The ability to name an animal demonstrates both the dominion of human beings over the animal kingdom, and institutes an original divide between the namer and the named thing that guarantees the objective (i.e. non-conceptual, non-subjective) status of the animal.

***

John writes, “it really has nothing to do with the meaning of the written word ‘dog’ that it is associated with a certain sound. The word doesn’t mean any sort of sound. It means a kind of animal.” In response, one could subpoena any number of puns or pun-crazed authors, but let’s stick to “the cat is on the mat.”

It rhymes. The effect of the rhyme is at least threefold. First, the rhyme tends to blur the sounds together, creating an effect that (given enough repetitions) verges on babble. The phrase is repeated constantly, since philosophers like to try to work with each other’s examples and within established traditions, right down to borrowing each other’s simple phrases. Doubtless we use this particular phrase even more because it rhymes, and thus is easy to remember. Ironically, though, the effect of a tradition that bases its appeals to objective consensus on the repeated analysis of a six word mnemonic is an ever-decreasing objectivity wherein a clear declarative becomes a cacophony of sound.

Of course, a man of sound mind and firm will can clear out these cobwebs and examine an argument about “the cat is on the mat” on its merit. But he does so without being able to be sure that he is not doing so at the expense of clarity. He is choosing to ignore obvious signposts to a love of order and mastery, and he is buying into an unrealistic picture of tradition where repetition and conservation always produce clarity rather than mechanical dullness.

The rhyme also recalls primers and other books designed for children. It smacks of the schoolhouse, and the famous image of a student learning to spell (or ignorantly misspelling) “c-a-t.” So it arrogates for linguistic analysis the whole normalizing experience of first lessons (including their apparent self-evidence), through which the child enters into the intersubjective compacts of his society. Ironically, “the cat is on the mat” acquires some its strength through its reference to intersubjectivity, despite the overt reference to an objective world.

Finally, the cat is on the mat. In essence, this means that the cat is in a home, occupying its designated place, a place foregrounded by the small, delimited mat. It is a scene of order, of stasis, and of enclosure, and it anticipates the philosophical explanation of words as containers (mats) for real content (cats).

***

None of this is cause for contempt. I have no absolute objection to a love of comfort and order, and I’m not wracked by anxiety over the dividing line between human beings and animals. In fact, I don’t even mean to suggest that, to paraphrase Jacques Lacan’s Seminar XX, “the cat does not exist.”

However, if I’m going to agree to use a phrase, I want to know what it means. I don’t want to play a rigged game where a philosopher says, in effect, “let’s use a random yet clear declarative phrase,” and ends up proving that language has the properties of objectivity and order by analyzing “the cat is on the mat.” That particular phrase is hopelessly over-determined as ordered and objective by a discursive history to which both Freud and Derrida would have been acutely sensitive.

In response to the objection that (in a given philosophical text) the phrase specifically does not represent those things that, speculatively, it could mean in a larger context, I am bound to answer that it certainly does not represent a real cat either, at least not for me in my presently catless apartment. The statement ends up having to represent a whole (albeit vague) scene in which the objectivity of “the cat is on the mat” would be self-evident.

Two theses follow. First, anyone who has not felt sheer terror, along with a sense of invaded privacy and a reflexive fear of rabies, upon hearing the alternative phrase “a cat is on the mat,” will never be a philosopher.

Second, an altogether different phrase would incline towards highly different demonstrations. I will suggest such a phrase later on – for now, I must go. I have forgotten my umbrella.


Comments

Very amusing, Joseph.

The most well-known poetic cat on mat is, I think, Stevie Smith’s (from My Cats:

Hey Brown and Fry and Hyde my cats
That sit on tombstone for your mats.

Perhaps the interpolated tombstone is a sly gesture towards the deadness of this philosophic phrase.  I wouldn’t put it past Stevie.

Luther Blissett also referred to this in the course of proving my contention that there are no poetry readers who do not become poetry writers:

We cats hate humanism,
we love Derrida,
and we’ll bite you

So the cats themselves do not *stay* on the mat, but rather leap to defend Derrida from these carpings.

By on 04/09/07 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reducing the window size momentarily transformed this:

Of course, a man of sound mind and firm will can clear out these cobwebs and examine an argument about “the cat is on the mat” on its merit. But he does so without being able to be sure that he is not doing so at the expense of clarity.

Into this:

Of course, a man of sound mind and firm will can clear out these cobwebs and examine an argument about “the cat is on the mat” on its merit. But he does so without being able to be sure that he is not doing so at the expense of the cat.

My, what a surreal post that would’ve been.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/09/07 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A related question: why is furniture—and particularly tables and chairs—always used to illustrate the question of substance/essence and accidents?  One can envision a student walking away from a philosophy class believing that only pieces of furniture have essences.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/09/07 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Invisible elephants, too.  One can also imagine a student walking a way from a philosophy class believing the world will end when elephants perfect cloaking technology.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/09/07 at 06:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I really did want to throw in something about the connection between the domestic image of the pet (the cat) and the habit of using objects in one’s study as examples for ontology. Jean-Paul Sartre has an eerie tendency to use his own hand, arm, and writing implements as examples, which pushes immediacy about as far as it will go.

Plenty of writers—Emerson, for example—would hold suspect any philosophy that appeared (by its rhetoric and choice of examples) to be as stuck in the house as I am right now.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/07 at 06:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cat is on the rat;
Freud is on the reading list;
Like white is on rice.

My job is done, 5-7-5. You figure it out.

Invisible elephants, too.

But pink ones, on parade, that’s surreal Disney. Uncanny (really).

By Bill Benzon on 04/09/07 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ahem. I fear you are overlooking the crucial distinction between the meaning of ‘the cat is on the mat and the meaning of the cat on the mat. Harrumph. I have just written a book on the subject, in Platonic dialogue form. The the fools at the presses won’t let me publish. They say I’m mad, MAD!

[I’m only half kidding.]

By John Holbo on 04/10/07 at 09:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The book sounds great; its light shouldn’t be kept under a bushel.

OK, so what is the difference between ‘the cat is on the mat’ and the cat is on the mat? Does it have to do with the hypothetical nature of the statement—that is, that the statement stands for language rather than for a cat? If so, I haven’t missed that point. I’ve flatly rejected it, on the grounds that rather than dispelling the specificity and fictionality of the statement, it’s actually made it much worse by pre-supposing an entire context in which the statement could be inarguable, and thus could stand “on its own” for any effective communication.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/11/07 at 03:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll send you a copy, Joseph.

By John Holbo on 04/11/07 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cheers!

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/11/07 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: