The Architectural Animal; Part 2

The second installment of The Architectural Animal continues the investigation of co-species cohabitation by taking a look at a few of our favorite fictional monsters and what they can show us…


The animal, what a word! The animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to another living creature [a l’autre vivant].
Derrida, “The Animal that therefore I am;” 392

“Chippetty Flip – Flippetty Chip
My only name is the Scroobius Pip.”
-Edward Lear, “The Scroobius Pip”

Cities are like living organisms. Though it’s hard to pinpoint when this analogy first came into vogue it’s clear that it’s been around for a while; disappearing and reappearing as cultural tastes shift between the techno-focused and socio-focused. Paris, with its ancient ring-road boulevards has appeared to be both organic and inorganic multiple times in its history. New York, the most rigidly gridded city of the 19th century has also seen public opinion sway between the supremely planned machine of urban living and an organic, perpetually expanding and contracting organism. Though it may be easy at first to agree with, it’s always slightly unclear what exactly the “city as organism” means. At times the city appears to act or behave in life-like ways — eating certain things (produce and imports) and wasting others (garbage) and there is, say in New York and Paris a palpable vibrancy that feels very much like life. But is the city really ever alive? Alan Berger in his essay “Drosscape” uses biological terms such as “nature,” “natural,” “organic” and “living” half a dozen times in the span of two pages while describing the state of the American city. Berger’s goal however is not to suggest that the city is in fact a literally living organism but operates similarly to an organism.

Cities are not static objects, but active arenas marked by continuous energy flow and transformation of which landscape and building and other hard parts are not permanent structure but transitional manifestations. Like a biological organism the urbanized landscape is an open system.


The strength of Berger’s essay is his ability to see beyond poetic and literal analogies of organisism. His weakness is that he never questions what constitutes an organism in the first place. It’s a tight line to walk. Cities in their unfathomable complexity, have certain apparently organic qualities, yet it’s difficult to consider them as living. But what if we were to think of a city, of a landscape, or the whole messy conflagration of land, buildings, roads and pasture, as a living organism. More over, what would happen if we included all of the things that actually live in the city into our civic-organism; the people, animals, insects and ecological systems? Such a perspective would force upon us a new conception of a city. Such a perspective might help us to become better planners, thinkers and actors in our new landscapes.


Between his birth in 1812 and death in 1888 writer/poet Edward Lear produced an astounding array of limericks and poems marketed mostly towards children, though many have a more than slightly off color content. By in large most of the works fall squarely into a category best described as nonsense. The poems are filled with lobster coiffed men, women who play the harp with their chins, and trees that grow silverware. Gibberish and fictitious characters abound in Edward Lear’s world of non-sense.  His most famous poem and my personal favorite is the Scroobius Pip.

The Scroobius Pip is a poem in four stanzas about a particularly peculiar animal. The pip, presumably the only one of its kind is a strange beast indeed. For those unfortunate to not have previously encountered the pip, he (if we can say “he”) is made/composed/embodied by some part of every species of biotic life, and the poem relates the tale of enquiry by other beasts as to what exactly constitutes this strange creature.

Tell us about yourself we pray!
For as yet we can’t make out in the least
If you’re Fish or Insect, or Bird or Beast.

With each stanza the animal kingdom sends a new member to speak with the Pip; first the fox, then the owl, followed by the whale, then finally the ant. Each creature implores the Pip to divulge his native species in vain. Each time the pip responds in a variation of the same retort, “Chippety Flip- Flittetty Chip, My only name is the Scroobius pip.” Whether it’s from stubborn pride, or for purely antagonistic reasons, the pip refuses to answer – and this further begs the question — can he?

In Derrida’s “The animal that therefore I am” the incommunicability of the animal; of the question of what it means to respond is the topic of much rumination.

To follow and to be after will not only be the question and the question of what we call the animal. We shall discover further along the question of the question, that which begins by wondering what to respond means, and whether an animal (but which one?) ever replies in its own name.

In the opening section of the essay (actually a transcription from the beginnings of a 10 hour address at the third Cerisy-la-salle conference in 1997) Derrida reflects on the event of being caught naked in front of his cat, and his bewilderment at his own sense of shame in front of it. In this essay, much like in Lear’s poem of the Scroobius Pip, Derrida is confronted with an animal; a being that is in some respects similar, warm blooded, alive, familiar, and yet completely and utterly outside of understanding; to put in Derrida’s terms “wholly other.”


Seeing oneself seen naked under the gaze that is vacant to the extent of being bottomless, at the same time innocent and cruel perhaps, sensitive and impassive, good and bad, uninterprable, unreadable, undecidable, abyssal and secret. Wholly other…

As Derrida will further expound upon in the essay this gaze that is at once bottomless and abyssal is an index of the gap between what defines humans as something other than animal and will eventually become an index of a fiction; it is a fiction that we humans tell ourselves to confirm our separation from the rest of the animal kingdom. This fiction for Derrida is manifest in the literal term “animal.”

The animal, what a word! The animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to another living creature [a l’autre vivant].

The fiction of the animal, Derrida would have us believe, is the oversimplification of the word; the complexities and fathomless differences of an (indefinite article) animal that it denies.There is more to this quote but we shall return to it in a moment. For now it is entertaining to think that the representatives of the animal kingdom in Lear’s poem felt something similar.  Though if not necessarily shame, they were all naked after all, the representatives may at least have felt  a sense bewilderment at this strange thing in their midst.

One of the issues raised by Lear in the Scroobius pip that is never addressed is why the animals would feel so compelled to discover his definitive species of origin. Is it for possessive reasons? That one species would like to lay claim over the other? Or is it just sheer curiosity. Of course if we take it too far we are forced to ask whether an ant, whale, fox or owl, would ever be curious in the sense that humans are curious, or would understand property, but really this is beside the point. What is similar between the two stories, the inquisition of the Scroobius Pip and Derrida’s anxiety in front of his cat, is that both the Pip and the Cat remain mute. The cat continues to stare blankly, abyssally at Derrida and the Pip confounds all requests with the same arrogant retort. Language, and indeed response, or more precisely the failure of language, is the central theme in both stories and each involves at least one character that is “wholly other.” Additionally, each story contains monsters. To be Continued…

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