an excerpt from “Pet Me While I Eat”
by Chuck Rosenthal
At least domestically, the kind of line-of-sight hunting demonstrated by Romeo seems peculiar to cats. As well, cats demonstrate peculiar ways of taking possession. Aside from direct confrontation over territories like the food bowls, there are places in the house perceived as power places: the hassock in front of my chair, spots on either side of Gail, dining room chairs, Marlena’s room, the inside of my dresser, and others. In general, Romeo sits on Gail’s left on the couch, Nadine on her right. Nadine likes to curl up and sleep on the other end of the couch, too, and when she does Romeo will place himself on Gail’s right, between Nadine and Gail, facing Nadine. Often enough, if Nadine wakes up and sees him there, she’ll charge at him, but even if she is awake he might taunt her by throwing his tail in her face. This is ritualized now. Her lunges are generally without a show of teeth. Romeo raises a paw, even bats, but doesn’t extend his claws, though it can, on occasion, escalate to fangs and claws and Gail steps in and places Romeo back on her left. Nadine settles in on her right.
Anyone who has cats knows that they take possession and special positioning very seriously. Mucha Plata attacked the telephone that I held close to my face, as well as the Rololdex that I “petted” or stroked. Veronica, who for the most part ignores me, takes exception to my lap top, and will try to sit on my lap if I open the computer when I sit on my chair. Though Veronica and Yoko will share the hassock at my feet, Romeo will not share that space, and though he can intimidate one of them to move, he can’t intimidate the two of them. Any cat owner will tell you tales of their cats placing themselves between the book or newspaper that they’re trying to read. At this point, Romeo responds to the newspaper immediately; when I bring it in and put it on the kitchen counter while preparing breakfast, he sits on it. He sits on any part of the paper not being read at the time. He sleeps on the laptops in our business office. In the case of Gail, any object to which she gives her attention will be immediately sat on when she puts it down.
Dogs seem less territorial in that way, though they can be emphatically possessive of things they perceive as theirs. Avarice for food is not very abstract. When I’m carving the Thanksgiving turkey, Nadine and her three guest cousins are pretty univocal in their greed. Bones are a little more ambiguous. There are usually bones lying around the house and Nadine doesn’t want anyone other animal near them. She’ll chase away cats, take them away from other dogs. But a bone, no matter how old and flavor bereft, can still be seen as food, iconically if not actually, and the competition for it simply that, maybe. But Nadine will protect her toys, as well. H.D., who did not play with toys, would collect Piccolo’s toys under the dining room table and then lie down on them. Later I’ll look at Nadine’s use of bones and toys to mark territory.
The question is whether or not the act of taking possession of something implies any kind of proto-selfhood, if there is any semiotic progression from identifying an object or a territory as something to protect from others, a progression to some level of body awareness, a progression to recognizing oneself in mirrors as do the higher primates.
Animals look at us, more often than not because they want something. If Nikki wants a carrot she’ll face me and pound her hoof, or if I’m not looking at her, rumble and pound her hoof until I look at her. Nadine will come into the kitchen and woof or whine, she might even look at the spot on the counter where her snacks are kept, look at me, then look at the counter, then look at me, at my face, and then the counter again. This is very common behavior in dogs. When H.D. wanted to leave somewhere, she put her paw on my knee, looked at me, then looked at the door, or even in the direction of a door that was out of sight. Veronica will cry, take a step toward the cat room, stop and turn, look at my face and cry again, then step again. That animals point with their heads and bodies indicates a primitive use of indexes. To argue that it’s too primitive, that is, immediate and not abstract, eradicates the concept of the index entirely; almost all indexes anybody uses point right at something: that cup right there, that food on the counter, that door, or in H.D.’s case, out, let’s go home, a home many miles away.
But right now I’m more interested in eye contact. Obviously, in the way a cat will go straight to my hand if she wants to be petted, disregarding the rest of my personhood entirely, animals become very aware that our faces are what they have to relate to if they want something to happen. That’s how you get our attention. If Veronica wants to be petted while she eats, she enters the room, looks up at my face and mews. If I stop petting her while she eats, she turns and looks at me, at my face, and mews until I begin petting her again. She doesn’t rub on my hand, she looks at me face. This could all be seen as rote and simple enough. She has simply associated my face as the thing that gets her what she wants, my face and my eyes. But there are more immediate and obvious objects she could appeal to, like the food container itself or my hands that reach in and put the food in the bowls.
The other day, Veronica was hiding in the bamboo between the vacant lot and our house because Gail’s mom was visiting and Veronica leaves the house when we have any guests at all (Romeo is the opposite, if they don’t bring dogs, and crawls all over the guest, ambiguously exploiting the line between domination and affection). Veronica had missed breakfast, but when I got up from reading the paper and walked to the big windows on that side of the house, she sprung from her hiding spot, looked up at me across the patio and through the window into the house, looked at my face, and then scampered around the front of the house, through the downstairs door, and when I turned she was at the bottom of the stairs, looking up. Mew. Pet her while she eats.
If you’ve owned female cats, then you know that they have an uncanny understanding of the interior geography of your house. From the outside, they know where you are inside. Music Batty, who lived outside, would be at my feet the moment I walked out any door. In the early Eighties, when I lived in a huge apartment complex in Davis, California, my female cat, Kih-hen, found and entered our apartment from the second story back window. Recently we spotted Romeo sitting on fence behind the house next door, a good thirty yards away at a forty-five degree angle, looking toward our corner window from where he could see Gail, and from where, in her seat at the corner of the couch, she could see him. Call it accidental, but I’ll return to that.
Any pet owner knows that our animals don’t just look at our faces, they look us in the eyes. The eyes may be the window to the soul, but an animal needn’t know that they are windows to mine or theirs. If we lead and express with our faces, then the eyes are the action of the face. To get our attention you must get our glance. So I don’t believe that Veronica or any other animal knows she is looking me in the eyes, using her eyes to look at my eyes. She’s learned that she must get me to look at her to get my attention, though once again, that we meet each other’s gaze is uncanny.
Most people, in fact, do not meet my gaze when they speak to me, and I would have to attribute the gaze of an animal as remarkably unselfconscious in direct opposition to the same behavior in humans who must do it very consciously; attributing very different intentions to the same behavior when, upon inspection, the issue of the consciousness or self-consciousness is an arbitrary distinction, behaviorally or otherwise. When battling cats face off, they look each other in the eyes; we face off to request, to beg, to battle, to express our affection; it’s part of the body language of the act or gesture, animal or human, and once again, consciousness is not a process that resides in the mind or brain but in the whole body of the organism, the source of the icon is in the gesture. Eye contact is eye contact pure and simple and the symbolic meaning of it is something added on, something that comes after; the human request, “look me in the eyes” is the request for that simple gesture first and foremost.
Back to Romeo, staring into the house from thirty yards away, looking at Gail. When Gail and I watch TV, he crosses the room and jumps up onto the cabinet the screen sits on. He sits in front of the screen; he sits in front of the middle of the screen ten feet away. This is a little different than sitting on a laptop or a newspaper. Even if he’s simply dominating the object of our attention, like judging where the squirrel traveled, he must take note of where we are looking and place himself between it and us. Further, he cannot get on the flat screen. He must place his body in front of it. He must see where we are looking and place himself between us and the TV.
Because cats don’t empathize – I’ll discuss that more later – if I go to the television and put him on the floor, he’ll jump back up. He’s a cat. He can do that over and over. So I said to Gail, “Let’s conduct an experiment. Let’s stop looking at the screen and start talking to each other.” When we did, Romeo got down. And that’s how we get him to get down now. But to do so he must notice that we are no longer looking at him and the screen.
When Veronica displays in front of me as I sit in my chair, moving toward me then moving away, back and forth, flicking, then finally rolling on her back and exposing her prodigious stomach, she raises her head and looks at me from between her legs. I’ve seen this kind of display, i.e rolling head to head, between males and females during mating, though exposing the stomach is mostly done by the female. Loosely I might say that when she looks at me she’s looking to see if I’m watching her, yet if that assumes too much awareness on her part, then at least I can say that like waiting or hunting, she can’t display to no one for no reason. The display requires a context, an attitude, a desire for my attention and is an icon to me for that.
The act of getting our attention in any context requires that an animal desires the transition from one cognitive emotional state, say being hungry or wanting to be petted, to the state of having us give them food or pet them (or both!). Getting our attention is an action taken to solve that transition. It’s cognitive/emotional even if not premeditated. The animal must notice whether or not our attention has been achieved by seeing that our behavior has changed; now we’re looking at him. Now he can make his request, point, move toward, bark or mew, or all of those, other transitions. It’s absurd to try to explain that behavior without acknowledging those series of cognitive/emotional states, even if we might argue that the animal technically doesn’t notice that we see him, he only notices the behavior that next leads to getting what he wants, our looking at him.
Romeo’s sitting in front of the TV combines cognitive/emotional needs: his desire for attention and his desire to dominate; as I’ve stated above, these are difficult to separate. But unlike sitting on my lap or rubbing on me, it combines with line-of-sight hunting and the understanding of where we are looking. He doesn’t play with the images on the TV screen, as many cats will do, patting at fishes or birds – one of our cats, Ichi Bu, played with Jay Leno’s hands during his monologue and even ran to the television screen when she heard the Tonight Show theme – but he must comprehend on some level that we are looking at the screen, or that our attention is toward the screen. Whether or not he understands that we are now looking at him, though in fact we are, and he is looking at us, its roots lie in “getting attention” behavior, in the gaze, in a preternatural understanding of eyes and looking, demonstrated even more explicitly by his getting down when we turn our attention away from him, that being a transition similar to Nadine’s when she comprehends that the squirrel is no longer in the tree, though, of course, in this instance, a bit more sophisticated, and in this behavior lies the rudiments of self recognition demonstrated in primates and elephants and dolphins, the comprehension of being looked at, the rudiments of the social self in Mead’s conversation of gestures, Mead failing to observe the conversation of iconic repertoire involved. Here, in the icons of getting our attention, facial recognition, the rudiments of understanding that they are being looked at, in eye contact, in the gaze, in line-of-sight hunting. Here lies the early soul of selfhood, or in the words of Jacques Lacan paraphrasing Merleau Ponty, “ . . . we are beings who are looked at and it is this which makes us conscious.”