Cats, Politics, and the Despair of Human Existence 


Writing about domestic cats may sound like an extremely apolitical endeavor at first. But it seems to be precisely the gesture of the apolitical that ensures that progressive left-wing political forces can learn a thing or two from this unique – and now often domesticated – species of animals. However, it is important to be precise here and to remember the dictum once proclaimed by Nietzsche: “You should not stare too long into the abyss if you want to avoid the abyss staring back at you.” Of course, this in no way means that cats – at least not in their domesticated form – should be regarded as monsters. Rather, Nietzsche’s quote seems useful in this context insofar as it provides the important indication that one should not even try to imitate the vulgar existence of cats, which is characterized by a lack of complexity. This can of course first be mentioned – with reference to Freud – because cats do not have an unconscious – resulting from repression – which exposes their existence to existential contraditions. At this point, Freud should of course be read with the degree of precision that he deserves: The fact that humanity’s existence itself is based on a repression of its own (animalistic) drives and instincts should by no means lead to the conclusion that this animalistic side does not exist in human beings and that the relationship between human beings and their domestic cat can be reduced to the simple antagonism between nature and civilization. Freud writes in Civilisation and Its Discontents that the concept of civilization

[…] describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes –  namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations. (Freud 1930: 89)

Even if humans have always been part of nature – a fact that we share with the domestic cat (or optionally with another domestic animal) – they are no longer able to return to the state of animal simplicity and unification due to the process of civilizing of their own heteronomy/instictual drives. Whether this circumstance is to be assessed as positive or negative cannot necessarily be answered unequivocally, as Freud himself repeatedly points out that the process of cultural development is to be regarded as a thoroughly ambivalent process – in some places Freud even points out (or suggests) that it is even comparable to the domestication of certain animal species.

This seems to show why the common domestic cat cannot be classified in the relationship between civilization and nature in relation to humans. Both are to a certain extent exposed to civilizational developments without their consent. Humans, in that they come to the realization that numerous areas of life – class struggle, love relationships, functioning in everyday life/jobs – cannot be achieved without a certain degree of affect regulation. The domestic cat, on the other hand, must also submit to civilizing tendencies by being neutered under certain circumstances and not pursuing its instinctive inclinations and, like its owners, adopting a specific sleep-wake rhythm. Even though humans and domesticated cats share these characteristics, there is a crucial difference: unlike domestic cats, humans are well aware of the existential dichotomy that characterizes their existence and know – qua their self-awareness – that their existence is characterized by finitude – which in turn explains the desperate refuge in religions or modern phenomena such as transhumanism. In this context, John Gray emphasizes that

[…] there’s something uniquely human about anxiety over death and constantly thinking of ourselves as mortal. This is where our incessant need for storytelling comes from. If you sit around considering your own mortality, you’ll be driven to invent stories about an afterlife so that the stories you fashion for yourself can carry on after death. This is what religions have done. And it’s what so-called transhumanists do today. They imagine all these technological solutions to death and they hope that our minds will persist after our bodies fade away. Cats have no need for these games. They don’t have this problem because they don’t have the concept of death. They die, of course, but they don’t fret over the idea of death. This need to divert ourselves is deeply human. So […] I just say that if you can’t live as freely as cats, and most of us can’t, then by all means return to the human world of diversion without regret and stay in it. Take up politics. Fall in love. Gamble. Do all the things humans do and don’t regret it. And you know, maybe that’s what a cat would say if it could philosophize. It would say, “Don’t struggle to be wise because it doesn’t lead anywhere.” Just take life as it comes and enjoy the sensations of life as cats too. And if that’s too austere for you, then you can always immerse yourself in the human world of illusion and distraction.

Of course, the most problematic aspect of Gray’s thought is that it ultimately consists in the anthropocentric speculation of what form of advice a cat would give to humans. Nevertheless, Gray raises a true point when he points out that the human desire to live like a cat is characterized by a constitutive form of impossibility. Here it is worth recalling the existential dichotomy apostrophized by Erich Fromm, by which human existence is characterized. According to Fromm, human existence is characterized by the fact that humans are thrown into the world against their own will – Fromm also compares this to the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise. Fromm comments: 

Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself; he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short lifespan, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside. (Fromm 1956: 8)

Due to the fact that humans trasncend the natural, i.e. heteronomous, conditionalities of their own existence by means of their own intellectual capacities, they are aware that they can no longer return to the pre-natal state, which is characterized by harmony and a lack of disruption. In a recent essay published by Sublation Magazine, Quique Autrey also pointed out – with reference to Ernest Becker and Fromm’s theory of the existential dichomy of human existence – that humans are gods with an anus. At this point, however, comes the decisive intellectual twist: the anus naturally leads to a diminishing of the cultural/civilizational domain, through which the civilized existence of man is shaped – but is at the same time its prerequisite. Cats, in turn, remind us that the attempt to imitate their existence is futile – humans must, with Fromm, attempt to find an own answer to the trauma of their own existence. For this reason, humans would end up in the abyss if they tried to imitate the existence of cats. But this is also where the emancipatory potential of domestic cats/animals lies: They remind humans that they are beings of civilization – and that this in turn is a prerequisite for becoming political and fighting for a fairer world. 

It is precisely at this point that it is possible to explain – to refer back to the previous articles I published at Sublation Magazine – why it seems to be far more sensible for human beings to delegate the enjoyment (or longing) for an existence characterised by less complexity to their pets: while the danger of delegating creativity and interpretation of the world to an AI would inevitably be accompanied by the danger that humans deprive themselves of their own potential for political change, the opposite is the case with animals – the interpassive delegation of our own hedonistic regressions to the domestic cat ensures that it takes over that task of resting for us while we can devote ourselves to important political matters.