Those dogs were violating the law…
Franz Kafka, Investigations of a Dog
In October 2012, parliamentary deputies in Saint Petersburg were discussing amendments to the law relating to administrative infractions. The discussion concerned the requirement to “protect silence” and to penalize (in the form of administrative fines) the generation of various noises that could disturb one’s neighbours in the night. According to rumours circulating in the Russian mass media, these included: snoring; loud sex; the squeaking of beds; knocking; singing, and moving furniture and fridges – but also the sound of cats’ footsteps and the howling of dogs. Though most of these were not in fact present in the final wording, the law was humorously labelled “The prohibition of the sound of cats’ footsteps”.
Indeed, in their reaction to extensive mockery and critique (not only on the part of citizens, but also, for example, on that of the Public Chamber of Russian Federation, which characterized the amendments as “clownery”), deputies from Saint Petersburg did their best to deny that they were seriously mooting the prohibition of such noises. But who would believe the deputies of parliament, whose recent legislative initiatives included suggesting that all depictions of rainbows should be outlawed as “homosexual propaganda” (since the symbol of the LGBT movement is a rainbow)? “Propaganda of apocalypse” also featured as a target in the midst of a fantastic display of creativity in the legal sphere.
Apparently, the recent proliferation of new taboos in Russia knows no limit, nothing surprises anymore. Or, rather, everything is equally surprising, since the logic of the absurd is such that things cannot be predicted: absurd solutions always run one step ahead of every ingenious scenario of the possible. Anyway, some scarcely audible cats’ feet left their traces on the very letter of the law; cats’ footsteps, attached to the law forever, turn its absurdity into something really obvious.
As a kind of experiment, I propose here to dig within this fantastic area of the absurd and to try to imagine for a moment that deputies in Saint Petersburg successfully passed the law prohibiting cats’ trampling. To start with, we can offer three propositions, which, at first sight, may seem to be quite rational objections to the very idea of such a law:
1. Cats don’t trample;
2. Cats don’t know that they are not allowed to trample;
3. Cats don’t care whether or not they are allowed to trample.
These propositions represent the case, let’s say, from the cats’ perspective, and reveal a fundamental discrepancy, a radical asymmetry between the act of prohibition and those who are subject to this prohibition. However, if, besides cats themselves, we take into account one more group of actors, namely, the deputies, if we include them in this scheme, we can pass to another, more complex level of analysis and consider these three propositions in the context of three respective categories, each supposing a certain disposition of power between cats and deputies. In each category, the cats subject to the prohibition present some negative form of relation to the law, whereas deputies – who provide the external prohibitive instance – take this negative as a condition that makes the law possible, that provides the very basis of the law.
The first proposition – cats don’t trample – belongs to the category of nature, which apparently contradicts the letter of the law (within the feline family as such, it is not appropriate to trample: cats step rather silently. It is as if their paws are made of velvet, as if they barely touch the surface with their soft pads – this is how they step “according to their nature”). Let’s see how productive this contradiction might be.
First of all, from the point of view of the deputies, one could say, cats don’t trample precisely because it is prohibited. Here we deal with the retrospective power of the prohibitive law – the law, which retrospectively determines and imposes itself as primordial and eternal. The legal prohibition of trampling precedes the very phenomena of trampling: it’s not that trampling was prohibited because cats used to trample too much or too loudly in the past, no! They never trampled because the law always already existed, initially, perhaps, as a natural law, which now acquires a juridical form.
But then follows the second option: from now on, cats do trample, they can do so, precisely because it is prohibited. Now they can trample in spite of the prohibition, in the manner of a transgression, even though they never trampled before. Georges Bataille said that the law introduces itself as a condition of the possibility of its own violation, i.e., transgression: the law and the violation are interdependent. Thus the law that prohibits is characterized not by its retrospective power, but by its retrospective weakness: the law retrospectively creates the very action that it prohibits; it creates a phenomenon by naming it.
Here follows the third option, which can be described in terms of presumption of guilt. According to this option, precisely because it is prohibited, all cats trample, even if it is not obvious and even if it is impossible to prove. The problem is that cats themselves are not able to prove that they do not trample. Therefore, thinks the deputy, they actually do so. This legal mechanism was vaguely apparent in the context of the so-called totalitarian state: thus, in Stalinist Russia, those accused of being English spies (or something similar), were doomed to recognize themselves as English spies, in as far as they could not prove the opposite – and even if they did not recognize themselves as English spies, they were punished accordingly anyway.
In this form, the law borders upon the impossible, and at this borderline, an ideal crime emerges – a crime of which everyone can be accused, an absolute crime, something that cannot be done by anyone in principle, but nevertheless anyone can be considered guilty of in a way that is impossible to disprove. In the light of their presumed guilt, all cats potentially trample, and their crime is impossible to prevent, even if their owners make them wear especially soft, tiny slippers that, upon slightly touching a carpet, will produce the sound of silence itself. Neither cats’ attempts to step softly, nor their (or their owners) potential “disputing” of the fact that they stepped too loud, can be taken into account: they have already become a matter of concern for a certain totalitarian machine, or the machine of an absolute power, which first naturalizes and eternalizes the law, then produces a crime out of its letter, and then, finally, potentially applies it to everyone according to its arbitrary rules.
Another extreme form that plunges to the same depths would be to prohibit not something impossible, but something natural, elementary, banal and simple, or even to prohibit something, without which one cannot exist. Thus, deputies might prohibit breathing (sleeping, flying in one’s dreams, drinking wine, or walking on boulevards – the latter was actually the case during Russian uprising in 2012, when such walks in bigger groups were treated as unauthorized demonstrations). Of course, we will not stop breathing (sleeping, walking…), but each breath will remind us that the power in accordance with which the law is established is infinitely gracious and ready to close its eyes before our small delinquencies – until we express our loyalty to it. A universal prohibition thus gives birth to a universal corruption: everyone knows how to get round the law, though its sanction can be applied at any moment. A typical example of such a law is the prohibition of alcohol.
The second proposition – cats don’t know that they are not allowed to trample (or cats don’t know whether they trample or not) – brings us to the category of knowledge. There is a traditionally an opinion within some moral and practical philosophies, according to which nobody will do ill of his own volition: the prudence of living creatures consists in looking for what is good. Those who do ill simply do not understand what is good, they are not reasonable and do not know the difference between good and evil, or they are not familiar with the law. As far as the highest good and law are concerned, one might suspect that they are known only by a select few, the few who head up the state. As is well known, already in Aristotle, the hierarchical state system corresponds to a human nature itself, according to which the soul rules the body and the mind rules the emotions. Animals, being less prudent, must be subordinate to humans, since it is through humans that they join the highest good.1
Cats, of course, do not know the law. Therefore, the first option for them would be to observe the law without knowing it (they observe it, as far as they do not trample). The observation of unknown laws might, however, be quite painful – as it is in Kafka’s short story, “The Problem of Our Laws”, when his protagonist, who is either a man or a certain unnamed animal, says:
Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us. We are convinced that these ancient laws are scrupulously administrated; nevertheless it is an extremely painful thing to be ruled by laws that one does not know.2
However, in as far as the law exists, it can potentially be violated without the knowledge of doing so; which brings us back to the second option in the first category (the law paves the way for transgression), but in this instance, the transgression is blind; the law, again, names a crime, but the criminal always remains unaware both of the law and of the crime she (he or it) commits.
Even without being known, however, the prohibition has the force of law. The third option can therefore be expressed in the universal formula: “Not knowing the law is no excuse”. A cat does not know, but a deputy knows! The deputy infinitely outstrips the cat in terms of his competencies, and, beside, the full spectrum of possible applications of the deputy’s knowledge remains secret and non-transparent for the cat. This scenario opens up huge scope for “totalitarian” disposition, especially given that the law is bound up in secrecy, and especially if it is even prohibited to know that something is prohibited and what exactly is prohibited.3
The third proposition – cats don’t care whether or not it is allowed for them to trample – introduces the category of enjoyment. Cats can observe the law without caring about it, just as, by chance (option 1), they can openly violate the law, thus demonstrating their indifference and disrespect towards it, as if in spite of it (option 2). However, as a result, they still fall within the jurisdiction of the universal prohibition of enjoyment (option 3).
Indeed, this proposition is closely related to the second one – cats are unaware and therefore they don’t care. They are indifferent, they miss the very difference between the allowed and the prohibited. Thus, Georges Bataille was trying to interpret the borderline between human and animal in terms of their attitude towards the law. He claimed that, while humans ring fence their lives with restrictions, rules, laws, rituals and, of course, prohibitions, animals do not have a law to transgress, they are outside the law, they simply enjoy their unlimited freedom (and, above all, their sexual freedom: following Levi-Strauss, Bataille paid special attention to the prohibition of incest as a universal restriction, which, in a way, gives birth to a human society as such): “If there is a clear distinction between man and animal, it is perhaps sharpest here: for an animal, nothing is ever forbidden”.4
It does not matter, here, whether Bataille is right or wrong, whether animals know about prohibitions or not. This question is too abstract, and answering it depends on this or that research goal. What interests us here is a certain position, which can be characterized as jealousy (or envy) of the enjoyment of the other. Where animals are concerned, it can find its expression, among others, in philosophical speculations about the immediacy and immanence of the beast in its natural environment (a fish, stupidly swimming in water, or a bird, freely hovering in the air – elements in which we as humans cannot succeed without technology and technical devices: we cannot just take to the wing all of a sudden).5 Isn’t it the case that behind these speculations there is an assumption of a certain strange enjoyment that animals experience without knowing, and we know without experiencing? As Bataille puts it:
Man, despite appearances, must know that when he talks about human dignity in the presence of animals, he lies like a dog. For in the presence of illegal and essentially free beings (the only real outlaws) the stupid feeling of practical superiority gives way to a most uneasy envy…6
There are at least two kinds of envy: admiring (as in the case of Bataille, who was fascinated by the indifference, carelessness and sovereignty of the beast) and malignant envy (as, one might suppose, in the case of the deputy, whose anxiety is provoked by all those noises at night). What do snoring, loud sex, the squeaking of beds, and cats’ trampling have in common? They are all sounds, produced by neighbours, by the other engaging in enjoyment – while one is desperately trying to sleep without any other available options, or trying to concentrate. The other does not allow one to concentrate on one’s own, it harasses oneself – without even being aware of it, or simply without caring.
What deputies cannot tolerate in cats is that they supposedly take unlimited enjoyment in the scarcely audible steps of their own feet, which, together with all those obscene sounds produced by lovers in the next room, are generated in a space from which one is always completely excluded. The enjoyment of the other – who smokes, snores, champs, screams, moans, breaths, sneezes, tramples, – is always obscene and implies the exclusion of one who hears or observes it, who cannot share it and cannot, therefore, tolerate it.
Isn’t it the case that another of Kafka’s characters, a protagonist of his “Investigations of a Dog”, also finds himself excluded? A dog-philosopher tells us a story about a decisive life encounter, which happened in his life. Once, when he was still a puppy, he heard an amazing sound, a kind of music, bordering on silence, and he saw a group of seven strange dogs that, somehow, produced this sound:
They did not speak, they did not sing, they remained generally silent, almost determinedly silent; but from the empty air they conjured music. Everything was music, the lifting and setting down of their feet, certain turns of the head, their running and their standing still, the positions they took up in relation to one another, the symmetrical patterns which they produced by one dog setting his front paws on the back of another and the rest following suit until the first bore the weight of the other six, or by all lying flat on the ground and going through complicated concerted evolutions; and none made a false move, not even the last dog, though he was a little unsure, did not always establish contact at once with the others, sometimes hesitated, as it were, on the stroke of the beat, but yet was unsure only by comparison with the superb sureness of the others, and even if he had been much more unsure, indeed quite unsure, would not have been able to do any harm, the others, great masters all of them, keeping the rhythm so unshakably.7
What kind of dance did these creatures perform, a dance so striking for our dog-philosopher? All of a sudden he realizes that their movements are absolutely inadmissible for a canine community, that they are in fact walking on their hind legs: the seven dogs are practicing bipedalism, thus violating natural, generic law:
I became indignant at the thought and almost forgot the music. Those dogs were violating the law. Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too, I knew that quite well though I was a child. And having recognized that, I now noticed something else. They had good grounds for remaining silent, that is, assuming that they remained silent from a sense of shame. For how were they conducting themselves? Because of all the music I had not noticed it before, but they had flung away all shame, the wretched creatures were doing the very thing which is both most ridiculous and indecent in our eyes; they were walking on their hind legs. Fie on them! They were uncovering their nakedness, blatantly making a show of their nakedness…8
One might say that the scene with the dancing dogs that appears before this puppy, this child, is an obscene primal scene of enjoyment of the other (“they were uncovering their nakedness”), which opens up for him the door to the world of adults. Isn’t it the case that in the middle of the night, the same kind of desperate music disturbs the deputy, who hears it in every dog’s howl; isn’t it so that the deputy imagines the same kind of dance when he hears the sound of cats’ footsteps: perhaps there, behind the wall, those cats are even walking on their hind legs?
Those dogs and cats are violating the very law of nature – as if there was a natural prohibition of nakedness, which at the same time prohibited bipedalism. And as if a violation of this law sent an animal (or a man) to the threshold of a fundamental and painful knowledge (knowledge of prohibition, of good and evil), as if beyond this threshold (always on the other side) there lurked an enjoyment, always already supposedly experienced by the other (and this other violates the law!). In a sense, a strange and at the same time a very banal animal dwells in every one of us – an animal that gets stuck, again and again, before the gates of the law, and shifts its feet, stamps its feet, tramples there, on the threshold of prohibition, between nature, knowledge and enjoyment.
See Aristotle, Politics, Harvard University Press, 1944, 21.
Franz Kafka, "The Problem of Our Laws", in The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka, Schocken Books, 437.
See Slavoj Zizek, "Between taboo and enjoyment", New Literary Observer 120 (2013), http://www.nlobooks.ru/node/3238, where he discusses such cases with reference to examples from contemporary China and socialist Yugoslavia.
Georges Bataille, Lascaux, or the Birth of Art, trans. Austryn Wainhouse, Skira, 1955, 31.
For more on which see Oxana Timofeeva, History of Animals: An Essay on Negativity, Immanence and Freedom, Jan van Eyck Academy, 2012.
Georges Bataille, "Metamorphoses", in Georges Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-knowing, a special issue of October (1986), 22-3.
Franz Kafka, "Investigations of a Dog", in The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka, Schocken Books, 281.
Published 10 May 2013
Original in Russian
First published by New Literary Observer 119 (2013) (Russian version); Eurozine (English version)
Contributed by New Literary Observer © Oxana Timofeeva / New Literary Observer / EurozinePDF/PRINT