Missing : Thangam Ravindranathan
Missing is not so much a concept here as a conceit, a trick, and I cannot say for sure whether I am the one playing the trick or the one tricked.1 Here’s how I might quickly tell this sticky, burdensome, embarrassing tale, less like an albatross than like a dog. There is a part of me that feels secretly, inordinately anxious in the presence of concepts. Do not worry, I said to that part of me, you and I can come to an understanding. We shall find a concept that allows you a way out. When I say that “Missing” is my political concept, you will know to hear: my political concept is missing. So we shall continue to walk together a little longer, you and I.
Only, that part of me watches my every word now, to see whether I keep to my promise. With each sentence, it senses the danger that I may betray it. Sometimes I wish I could escape its expectant eyes on me, its intense, panting attention to each of my moves—how very literal it is in its understanding of promises! Let me be, I think to myself (but I dare not say it out loud), let me go and live in the world of concepts! But its continual disquiet dogs me. It seems to fear that beyond my arrangement with it, I have other arrangements with the world, and that in the final analysis it will be paved over by concepts. Along with its fears come also disproportionate delusions. For it has come to think it is the missing to my concept, what will always be missing in my concepts. That it is concepts’ way of missing themselves. It thinks that, precisely because it cannot be grasped by a concept, it is the one place of truth behind all my constantly-churned-out postures of bad faith. It plants in my readings and my writings portraits of itself.
Probability of a Dog
For some years now, this passage in Jean Rolin’s Un chien mort après lui has troubled me:
Un chien mort après lui (A dead dog after him) borrows its title from the closing line of Malcolm Lowrie’s Under the Volcano (1947), relating its drunken protagonist’s wretched end: “Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.” Rolin’s book follows a curious idée fixe: steeped in nineteenth century travelogues and historical novels, he travels to cities in post-communist Europe and the Global South, tracking stray dogs. His search carries a secret dimension that is at the same time too obvious to approach directly: while stray dogs might not be deemed ecological indicators in the same (nice, wholesome) way as are, say, frogs or hedgehogs, whose populations reflect the life-sustaining properties of natural environments, they no less expressively indicate a particular unfinishedness of the work of the political over environment, their appearance invariably bearing witness to poverty, regime instability, social conflict or transition—circumstances where state or local authorities might be ineffective or unsuccessful in managing the secondary ecologies of urban living.
Because Rolin inverts the realist relation of priority between text and place, looking for example in Cairo for a certain kind of big yellow mongrel that Flaubert saw 150 years earlier, the cities, squares and neighborhoods he visits in the course of his curious quest often assume an unreal, ghostly aspect. Except it is not the places themselves, of course, that are ghostly; it is the dogs, those creatures of furtive ways and brief intense lifespans. It is the searching for them that turns the places into strange things, settings of suspense, and that turns dark alleyways, vacant lots, public gardens after hours, into scenes of probability of a dog. Such probability is not necessarily consummated. Stray dogs, elusive enough when you’re actually looking for them, are even more so when you come looking for them a century later—Rolin would be particularly unsuccessful in Cairo. At times it is clear that the purpose of the journey is not exactly to find the dogs, for when a dog is found it can hardly be beheld for long and in any case there is hardly anything to say about it. Rather, various kinds of texts—orientalist travel writings, but also novels and stories from various parts of the world, media reports, histories of dogs, various studies of the species, letters, conversations “from the field” featuring dogs and so on—carry any number of dogs that seem to add themselves seamlessly to the ones Rolin does find, and to fill in for the ones that he doesn’t. One of the book’s wagers, then, is to use writings about places of the world as still-meaningful, indeed all-meaningful guides and maps to those places, in this sense perhaps what is in one sense non-realist is in another sense hyper-realist, given the literalism with which Rolin goes around metaphorically carrying a passage from Flaubert or Nerval in hand to ask passers-by, Excuse me, would you happen to have seen this dog?
To be sure, we see notices of missing dogs and missing cats from time to time. Yet somehow with the notion of there being stray dogs missing, “missing” seems to find its most unnerving object. An object eerily equal to missing’s own conceptual complication, or defection. Missing’s dog, I could call this, taking my cue from Alice Kuzniar’s title Melancholia’s Dog. Whose melancholia is it? asks Kuzniar, who in asking this puzzles through the fact that around dogs the distribution of subjects and moods may turn fuzzy.3 The most interesting literary and philosophical writings on dogs to my mind—I think here of Vicki Hearne, John Berger, Colin Dayan, Kafka, Beckett—all suggest this in their very rhetoric and syntax: language goes weird around dogs, is intimately dislocated, because something happens to the clarity of the difference between outside and inside, proper and improper, human and animal, concepts and life.
Perhaps the dogs disturb the count because, to quote Roger Grenier (mis-?)quoting Rilke, dogs are “neither excluded nor included.”4 And if that seems like a paradoxical limbo to occupy, how much more soberly and really paradoxical that occupied by stray dogs, chiens errants in French (and therefore in Haiti)—wandering dogs—, perro vago in Spanish (and therefore in Mexico City)—vague dogs—, are by definition dogs without a proper place. If without a place to begin with, where do we begin to think their missing? A dog missing a place gives way to a place missing a dog, recalling the weird arithmetic of the Red Queen’s riddle in Through the Looking-Glass: “‘Take a bone from a dog: what remains?’” Answer: “‘The dog would lose its temper […] Then if the dog went away, its temper would remain!’”5 Replace temper with place and you get a placeless dog and a dogless place and the silly word trick seems to yield an obscure truth… but about what, exactly? About two perfectly inverse halves that do not join nor cancel each other out, but somehow make for any number of stray dogs on the one hand, and any number of missing stray dogs on the other. And I am troubled by this, because this forked scene of probabilities looks uncannily like the scene of the difference between “developing” and “developed” worlds. What would it mean to think of development, of reasonable places or subjects, of the world, as a matter of dogs missing, of missing’s dogs?
The Median Thesis
A chapter of Roger Grenier’s book Les Larmes d’Ulysse, translated by Alice Kaplan as The Difficulty of Being a Dog, opens with a line oft-spoken by enamored dog-owners: “He is missing only speech”!6 This formulation—Il ne lui manque que la parole7—happens to be listed in the Littré dictionary entry for the verb “manquer” as an idiomatic phrase used, starting in the late nineteenth century, “to indicate that an animal is very intelligent or that a portrait is very vivid.”8 Surprise surprise, several examples given in the Littré’s “manquer” entry feature animals, as for instance the sentence, taken from Jules Renard’s 1904 diary, “Quel admirable animal que le cochon! Il ne lui manque que de savoir faire lui-même son boudin”—What an admirable animal the pig is! It is missing only the skills to itself make the sausage.
Animals stand in the history of Western thought and use in an over-determined relation to missing. Missing’s most active, most paradigmatic agents. So much so that if animals had not existed perhaps they would have had to be invented, for missing’s sake. And in a sense of course they have been invented. No less and no more than the human. “The animal” is a series of missings, an aggregate of missings, the cubist collage of various missings. It is by definition what is missing all those things that are deemed to be properties of the human, that is “[clothing, speech, reason,] the logos, history, laugh[ter], mourning, burial, the gift, etc.” as Jacques Derrida recalls as his argumentative premise in The Animal That Therefore I Am.9 The key term here is the “etcetera,” indicating an “including but not limited to” logic, an open set, a dynamic, still unfinished negative production. So that it matters less what the animal is missing than the fact that it will always be missing something.
Thus Derrida’s unfinished list is followed immediately by a parenthesis: “(The list of ‘what is proper to man’ [read here: the list of what is missing in the animal] always forms a configuration, from the first moment. For that very reason, it can never be limited to a single trait and it is never closed; structurally speaking it can attract a nonfinite number of other concepts, beginning with the concept of a concept.)” Derrida’s critique here is aimed at the deep logic of a whole history of Western thinking, most prominently and also poignantly Heidegger and what is sometimes referred to as Heidegger’s “median thesis” on animals, as formulated most completely in his 1929/30 lecture course Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Between stones that have no world, and humans who are world-forming, stand animals who are essentially, inescapably, poor in world, because they are in the world, do live and die, can bask on a rock in the sun (as in the case of Heidegger’s famous lizard), yet cannot enter into a relation with rocks, with the sun, with being or with death as such, that is, precisely, one might say, because they are missing concepts for these, and more precisely, to follow Derrida here, because they are missing even “the concept of a concept.”
Derrida’s answer (his signature argumentative strategy) would, of course, not be to restitute what is said to be missing to the animal kingdom but rather to worry away at both sides of the missing, at what it refuses or negates on one side and what it produces on the other.10 On the one hand, it is legitimate to ask whether the animal does not obviously have some relationship to its environments, to its own body and to its death, and whether in this sense there may not be something that precedes and exceeds the “as such” of conceptual grasp, a way of relating, of tracing, that would in fact describe the non-masterable work of significance beneath all our concepts. On the other hand, are we really so sure, Derrida would ask, that humans themselves relate to being, world, and death as such, that we do not also stand there, vis-à-vis these things, in various relationships of missing?
In suggesting that Derrida in his two-pronged undoing of the missing machine brings concepts’ claims and missings to blur and bleed into each other, I want to point also to one of the furthest stakes of this blurring and bleeding. For there is a place (in the world as described by the median thesis) at which a point de basculement is reached, an undeterminable tipping point (or switching point), at which the direction of the missing is reversed. Or perhaps it is the peculiar, bifid nature of the verb “missing,” the tense distribution of its transitive and intransitive senses—to be missing something vs. to be (merely or sheerly) missing (with the French “manquer” offering a comparable bifidity11—that makes it, in my thinking, particularly seem that way, seeming then to provide the secret key to why Derrida cannot do away with Heidegger’s median thesis: because it is impossible to entirely do away with the suspicion that animals’ poverty in world imperceptibly carries as its shadow an irrational, prophetic knowledge about its inverse. Or, more strongly, that it carries, encrypted, concealed as its inverse proposition, a self-fulfilling prophesy. And that in this entirely unthought sense, then, it is a truthful thesis. That would be to say: behaving as we have as if animals were poor in world, we will unwittingly or wittingly have made thinkable a world poor in animals.
One could restate this in fairly non-controversial material historical terms: the idea of animals as being impoverished, insufficiently meaningful forms of life has accompanied and authorized the destruction or devitalizing of habitat for countless species (along with the mass industrialized zombie production of a chosen few). It is on the conceptual level that the real trick as it were is perceived: “Can one, even in the name of fiction, think of a world without animals, or at the very least a world poor in animals, to play without playing with Heidegger’s formula […] according to which the animal is ‘poor in world’ [weltarm]?”12 As he goes on to ask how fundamentally and irreducibly—or secondarily and dispensably—the animal, or being-with-the-animal, stands vis-à-vis operative concepts of world and being-in-the-world, indeed thereby raising the very question of what makes (or can still be made to pass for) the world, or “the being-world of the world,” Derrida is not far from suggesting that we hold the world to (soberly recognize it for) what it can bear to miss: “is the presence of life, of animal life, essential or not to the mundanity of the world?”13 Through his “play[ing] without playing with Heidegger’s formula” Derrida will have alerted us to the danger of “missing” sliding, by means of a stealthy syllogistic aberration, into obscene indirection: if animals can be missing world (of/in it yet without it), it may not be possible to recognize or avert (nor – the “trick” lying precisely here – to claim any understandable relationship between this missing and) the point at which the world in turn will be missing animals. In the final telling the animal facing the world will have had the resistance not of a concept but rather of a style,14 to follow D.A. Miller’s definition in his beautiful little book on Jane Austen: Style is my way of shutting out the world that would otherwise shut me out.15
Like a Dog
“Writers give themselves away when they write about dogs”, writes Grenier.16 He notes that many of his writer friends appeared a bit too interested when he told them he was writing a book about dogs in literature. “A fatal mistake!” he writes, “Since then everyone has been urging me not to forget: ‘Remember that dog on page 179 of the novel I published twelve years ago? I hope you’re going to talk about him.’”17
It is to Grenier that I owe the discovery of an extraordinary moment in The Family Idiot, Sartre’s 5-volume existentialist biography of Flaubert:
Sartre’s anguished dog is intended to demonstrate how culture or language can in the domestic animal become “the pure negation of animality by itself.”19 The animal, writes Sartre, experiences through its prolonged contact with humans the intuition of a minute distance removing it from its own nature, but without the delight of turning this negating distance into active self-consciousness, let alone transcendence through meaning. Instead this dog is simply “[h]aunted by the sense of something missing.”20 The occasion for this anecdote is the conjecture in these early pages of L’Idiot de la famille, that Flaubert, as an unloved child, did not perhaps start out very differently from a domestic animal. Docile, passive, he experienced his initiation to human culture as alien to him, did not see that there were acts that could be claimed as his own21: “He too suffers from the obsession with something missing,” writes Sartre, because “[culture] forms him and [yet] remains alien to him,” “makes him feel deprived. He is already spoken, like our lap dogs, but too late—he is spoken to rarely, distractedly and unsmilingly.”22
Ostensibly, vividly, the bewildered dog serves Sartre’s analysis of human self-consciousness and freedom as being injunctions to overcome one’s own dog life (to turn one’s “rage” into “revolt”). No doubt is seen here the influence over Sartre’s thinking of that of Heidegger, for whom the pet dog, even while it lives with us and eats with us in fact does not eat as we eat but simply feeds, and does not exist as we exist but merely lives, and so on, due to not having language and conceptual awareness.23 But Sartre in fact goes further: lending the dog awareness that it is missing something, he turns the scene into that of an unbearable threshold. In its suffering, the dog is not only the missing-of-concepts made flesh (which it is in any case whether it is aware of it or not), it also embodies, at those moments when it is forced to obscurely register this, the very paradoxical space of a concept-less awareness of concepts being missing. An excruciating space, this, to contemplate, and if it may initially appear a conceptual fiction, concepts’ fantasy of their own absence, the bleakness of it is unnerving to no end. Within the context of the passage, it verges on being a rare figurative inscription of Sartre’s néant, or nothingness (closer than one might expect to Lacan’s real). It is a space that we cannot bear, and that cannot bear us. At its most awful, when allowed to become a realized space and duration, it is the state of a radical loss of voice and of world, as described in accounts of extreme forms of dehumanization—torture, slavery—that history has forced us to find the conceptual means to describe. I think here of works by Elaine Scarry, Giorgio Agamben, Colin Dayan, and others on the making and unmaking of persons and world. I would say “biopolitics”—except that this word ever since I first heard it has made me feel miserable and uncomprehending, my heart pounds. There are concepts that make us feel like a dog. They speak of us deeply, gravely, yet to us only distractedly, unsmilingly. We stand formulated, spoken as it were, but precisely as if identified and pinned by that part of us that can no longer wander nor hide and yet cannot speak, for it has no words of its own, no world of its own, so that, borrowing its being from our concepts, it fears, with every word, that it might be too definitively named, or forced definitively out of what can be named.24
Nowhere in Itself
I take this to be what Colin Dayan means when she writes, in The Law is a White Dog, that “[o]nly with dogs before us and beside us can we understand the making and unmaking of persons.”25 In this strange and moving book, Dayan retraces and connects the various fictional, analogical, phantasmatic, compensatory ways in which the dog, and particularly the stray dog, has through European and American legal history prefigured, accompanied, belied, and survived (as its ineradicable residue) the arrival of the human at personhood. Through the evolution of the law, she shows dogs to have had the status of inconvenient, “imperfect” property: that is, more person-like than property, yet less than persons, in a way that demonstrated precisely how a person too could be made to be less than human, more like a dog.26 Thus the dog is a reminder of the ambivalence of legal processes that have on the one hand produced personhood and made it possible to bear rights even while on the other hand producing forms of disfigured personhood, stigmatized bodies banished outside the body politic, deprived of the right to have rights. An overdetermined figure in Dayan’s analysis, “so empty of substance that it can accrue to itself all kinds of projections,” the stray dog is a wandering, unwanted fleshly reminder that banishment, expulsion, radical depersonalizing are not exceptional instances where the law is suspended, forgotten, or weak, but rather where it shows its never-renounced archaic, occult side, its power to make unreal the claims of personhood and thus to produce ghosts.27 The dog “itself” is a paradox in the end, writes Dayan, “the dog exists nowhere in itself.”28
The Ecology of Stray Dogs
In 1970, Baltimore still abounded with stray dogs, whose vivid circadian rhythms formed a parallel, shadow ecology to those of people. (So suggests this chart featured in an ethnographic study by Alan Beck.29) Do we know what is missing when stray dogs are missing? Some sort of truth about our narratives and our world seems to be available only through such flickering means. In the end I am not surprised to see Colin Dayan, in her latest book, With dogs at the edge of life, continue as if haunted to write about dogs and about missings.30 The book’s last section “Pariah Dogs” turns to stray dog populations (in Turkey, Mongolia, etc.) and efforts to control or exterminate them, as depicted in recent films. These are stories (like many in Rolin’s book) about the onward march of modernization, gentrification, and finance capitalism, and about the fate of errant, homeless bodies. Unscripted, passionate forms of solidarity emerge, attaching old inhabitants of these cities to their disappearing dogs. “I feel there’s always something missing when I am in a city with no stray animals. I realize that I actually feel lonely,” a film producer confesses at one point.31 What was embedded deeply, rawly in the argument of The Law is a White Dog here is everywhere on the surface: In writing about dogs, one is perhaps never writing about dogs at all, who are nowhere in themselves, who, at their most unformulatably intense and moving, coincide entirely with their missing. These are “creatures that can still feel, hear, touch and remember all that has been and will be destroyed,” writes Dayan.32
So the dog will not have allowed me here to think missing apart from it. Thus I will have continued to mull over Rolin’s obscure observation: Il y manque des chiens. I should perhaps make clear, to conclude, that neither in the French nor in the English are Derrida, Sartre, or Dayan (or anyone I cite) working explicitly with the lexicon and slipperiness of missing. Yet missing is something these writers have allowed me to think, and if it feeds back here ghost-like into my reading of them, it is because through its lens certain “tricks” they register (optical effects, tricks of language/meaning through which matter and thought—concepts—do their work) become momentarily visible—not least the curious subject effect, as one might call it, by which animals and other disappearing things become the live agents of (an always possibly intransitive, that is, objectless, limitless, self-swallowing) missing.
Thangam Ravindranathan is Associate Professor of French Studies at Brown University.
Published on November 23, 2016
1. This is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at the Political Concepts conference held at Brown University on 10-11 April 2015.↩
2. Jean Rolin, Un chien mort après lui (Paris: P.O.L., 2009), 94; my translation.↩
3. “Whose longing and for what? Whose loneliness? Above all, whose muteness?,” asks Kuzniar poignantly, commenting on Derrida’s melancholy in The Animal that Therefore I Am. A little further, she recalls the 19th century German writer Jean Paul Richter’s answer to these questions—“Language. In the impossibility of bringing the animal voice into words I see the poverty of the letter”—to argue that it is “the human response to animals that needs to be assessed in terms of melancholy,” Alice A. Kuzniar, Melancholia’s dog (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 27 and 35.↩
4. Roger Grenier, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, trans. Alice Kaplan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 7.↩
5. Lewis Carroll, The Complete, Fully Illustrated Works (New York: Grammercy Books, 1995), 162.↩
6. Roger Grenier, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, 11; translation modified.↩
7. Roger Grenier, Les Larmes d’Ulysse (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), 19; plural modified to singular here.↩
8. Littré dictionary; my translation.↩
9. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 5.↩
10. Employed first (vis-à-vis the Heideggerian thesis on animals) in De l’esprit: Heidegger et la question (Paris: Galilée, 1987) and then in L’Animal que donc je suis/The Animal that Therefore I Am.↩
11. See the (often prepositionally marked) difference between “manquer de monde” (the transitive sense: to be missing world, to not have world) vs. “manquer au monde” (intransitively, to be missing to/in the world).↩
12. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 79.↩
13. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 80.↩
14. Discussing Descartes’ “methodological fiction” of a man who will have never seen any animals, Derrida soberly deems it henceforth “the horizon of a real hypothesis”: “the tableau of a world after animality, after a sort of holocaust, a world from which animality, at first present to man, would have one day disappeared: destroyed or annihilated by man, either purely and simply—something that seems almost impossible even if one feels we are heading down the path toward such a world without animals—or by means of a devitalizing or disanimalizing treatment, what others would call the denaturing of animality, the production of figures of animality that are so new that they appear monstrous enough to call for a change of name. This science fiction is more and more credible, having begun with taming and domestication, dressage, neutering, and acculturation, and is being pursued with medico-industrial exploitation, overwhelming interventions upon animal milieus and reproduction, genetic transplants, cloning, etc” (80).↩
15. D. A. Miller, Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 67; I paraphrase.↩
16. Roger Grenier, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, 62.↩
17. Roger Grenier, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, 63.<↩
18. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot. Gustave Flaubert. 1821-1857, trans. Carol Cosman (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), Vol. 1., 137-138. Since delivering this paper, I have learned that this passage has also been commented on by Florence Burgat: see “Facing the Animal in Sartre and Levinas,” Yale French Studies 127, Animots: Postanimality in French Thought, eds. Senior, Matthew, David L. Clark, and Carla Freccero (2015): 172-189.↩
19. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot, 138; translation modified in keeping with the French.↩
20. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot, 138. The French here reads “hanté par cette absence”; see Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Idiot de la famille. Gustave Flaubert, de 1821 à 1857 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 145.↩
21. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot, 137.↩
22. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot, 139-140 (page 147 in the French); translation modified.↩
23. Martin Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Solitude, Finitude, trans. William MacNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 210.↩
24. You might say this is to read Sartre’s dog too gravely. After all he does return to frolic and lick our hands. Besides, such misery if and when found in a human, would be overcome by love, the “missing mediation,” Sartre’s words, by which one is invited to recognize oneself as having wholly entered the world. From this solace should be drawn, and indeed political projects. Yet Sartre’s anguished dog is hard to forget, this anguish in the dog can hardly bear thinking, because never transcended (toward thinking) in the dog, only in the human. Love itself is valued differently on each side: For Sartre, even without love, the human has self-presence, self-consciousness, and therefore hope of proceeding freely and responsibly, whereas to the dog even with love the world still arrives blocked, carrying figures of its own missing.↩
25. Colin Dayan, The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 209.↩
26. Colin Dayan, The Law is a White Dog, 240-242.↩
27. “No country kills more dogs or imprisons more people than the United States,” notes Dayan (217-218); conservative estimates suggest 1.2 million dogs are euthanized in the United States every year.↩
28. Colin Dayan, The Law is a White Dog, 232; 248.↩
29. Alan Beck, The Ecology of Stray Dogs. A Study of Free-Ranging Urban Animals. (Baltimore: York Press, 1971), 13.↩
30. Colin Dayan, With Dogs at the Edge of Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016). The publication of this book uncannily followed by some months the first version of this paper.↩
31. Colin Dayan, With Dogs at the Edge of Life, 124.↩
32. Colin Dayan, With Dogs at the Edge of Life, 148.↩