Critical Theory Is for the Cats
I joked with a friend the other day that I start each morning by thinking about Derrida. This wasn’t meant as a hyperbolic comment acknowledging my fascination with French poststructuralism; it was simply an account of my typical workday routine. You see, each morning, just before NPR news gives way to the NET “Signature Story,” I step out of the shower and make eye contact with my cat, and in that moment, I think about Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am.
Derrida’s meditation on the shame he felt at being naked in front of his cat is something that sticks with me, but it wasn’t the first time that cats and critical theory became entangled for me. The first time I remember cats and critical theory facing off was in a 400-level Hermeneutics class that I took during my junior year of undergrad. In class, we were reading Heidegger’s Parmenides, and one of the other students in the seminar took issue with Heidegger’s reference to cats in a discussion of “the false.” In the text, Heidegger explains that “the term ‘false,’ in the sense of the wily, is also applied to animals” (29) and then states somewhat provocatively that “All cats are false. The feline is the false” (29). Heidegger then moves on to a discussion of the word katzengold (“cat’s gold”) for pyrite in German as an illustration of that idea. I remember finding the line funny when I read it, but several other students in the class, one in particular, were rather upset by the passage. We spent a good amount of time that class period debating the subjectivities of cats and their orientations towards truth, a tangent that led us pretty far away from Heidegger’s discussion of “truth” and “the false” in that text.
In addition to their occasional presence in the texts of theorists I was reading, my association of cats with theory has also been well cemented in my imagination because of often-circulated (both real and absurdly-photoshopped) images of theorists holding cats.
These were the types of images that grad students and faculty members had taped to their office doors next to New Yorker cartoons and that appeared on the types of t-shirts and coffee mugs that are given to academics as gifts. They were also the types of images occasionally projected by professors during lectures, likely with the dual intentions of entertaining students and also humanizing these writers of incredibly dense and difficult prose.
But cats aren’t just clever and adorable distractions from the content of theory; they have also been deployed to help elucidate content, as is the case in the now somewhat famous “Judith Butler Explained by Cats,” a Socratic dialogue working to help explain her famously difficult book Gender Trouble.
The ways that cat images are deployed in our world is interesting and deserving of further attention, especially because, as the example above shows, we are now relying on images of cats to do important cultural work, to serve as useful tools of complex meaning making. Echoing the somewhat famous maxim of the digital age that “the internet is for cats,” Jody Berland argues in “Cat and Mouse: Iconographics of Nature and Desire” that “no other animal image is today as persistently and prolifically circulated across the terrain of commercial culture” than that of the cat (434). Berland argues that cat images have become their own sort of currency in online environments:
These snapshots are portable items or tokens exchanged between people within specific mediated environments. Their value is not founded in their physical substance or direct usefulness but in symbolic values whose weights and meanings are defined by the social context and organization of their circulation. Materialized as objects, these symbolic values can be exchanged for others—ideas, friendship, community, and commerce. The circulation of cat images seems to offer communion with a group of like-minded people, a cat-nation if you like, with implicit but unstated codes and beliefs. Their meanings can fluctuate in response to changing contexts and values. (432)
For me, a really excellent illustration of the ways that cat images are deployed for their symbolic value in service of community and network building missions is how they have been used in the current U.S. presidential election cycle. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have active Instagram groups (@Cats4Hillary and @Cats4Bernie, respectively) where cat images are exploited for the political identities of cat owners. Curiously, there aren’t really equivalent movements on the political right in the U.S. There is a @Trump_Cats Instagram, but it exists more to mock Donald Trump than to leverage the symbolism of cats and cat ownership for political purposes. Perhaps this is because cats are more symbolically tied to Leftist political values in the American imagination (despite Ayn Rand’s significant interest in cats).
The exploitation of cat images (and, by extension, cat bodies) is striking and should perhaps give us pause. It is a serious issue for us (especially those of us invested in the work of Critical Animal Studies) to think more deeply about. And, of course, unease about the nature of pet ownership and the exploitation of our pets has a long history in critical theory. Deleuze and Guattari very much position pet ownership as pathological in A Thousand Plateaus. The famous and often-quoted line from that book about pets is that “anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool” (265), but I think that the sentence before is a lot more interesting to think about. Deleuze and Guattari write that pets “draw us into a narcissistic contemplation” (265). Kari Weil, too, picks up on that problem in her gloss of the passage in Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? Weil explains that “a dog or cat lover is a fool because the dog or cat is not really an animal, but a creature made by humans to confirm an image of ourselves we want to see” (53). I rather enjoy Weil’s use of the word “creature” in that sentence because of the ways it conjures notions of monstrosity. It also connects really nicely to Jack Halberstam's current book project on zombies which has positioned pets as a type of “living dead” (an argument that has been met with a fair deal of hostility from audience members at public talks Halberstam has given recently at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry and at Cardiff University).
I very much enjoy Halberstam’s work on the “living dead,” but because I am talking about cats and cat images, I can’t help but think of another supernatural creature—the witch’s familiar, and how that might provide a lens for looking at how we are using images of our pets in the digital age. In “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland,” Emma Wilby explains how the witch’s familiar is figured throughout folklore in slightly conflicting ways. The familiar is simultaneously an extension of the witch and, at the same time, a separate and autonomous entity able to do work in the world. It is both employed and free. I think about this dual nature sometimes when I use my cat to do my bidding in digital spaces. When I pose her next to a campaign button or up against the TV during a primary debate and use her to convey a message of mine, I am also acutely aware of the fact that images circulate and convey messages I didn’t originally intend, messages that will be out of control as soon as I press submit. And, of course, this isn’t just true for images of cats. Images in general, I would argue, function as our familiars in the digital age. Whether selfies or pictures of intricately arranged food on white plates, we craft and curate images as our proxies and send them out into the world to do work.
Our digital cats are, in many ways, false. They are anthropomorphized and exploited for myriad messaging purposes. But in the age of Instagram filters, isn't everything we post and share false in some sense? With my students, I often strategically avoid the truth/false and good/bad binaries with the "it's all rhetorical!" line in an attempt to avoid the moralistic connotation of those binaries. And I DO think it is accurate to say that our digital cats are rhetorically-designed images deployed for specific purposes. We now have multiple genres of cat images that populate our discursive landscapes. Still, there is something to be said about the fact that when I use images of my cat for biting social commentary or clever juxtaposition, my cat sometimes bites back. Sometimes the well-timed scratch that draws blood on my arm as I try to get her to make eye contact with the camera is a good reminder that I am deliberately exploiting an animal for my own narrative ends and that there is violence involved in such work.
Author’s Note: Though this post is somewhat of a critique of the employment of cat images in services of identity and impression management, I am perhaps the biggest perpetrator of that offense, and I feel it is important for me to acknowledge that. And on that note, I also have to thank my Spring 2015 English 254 class who undertook a systematic analysis of all of my cat pictures on Instagram and found that I have a statistically significant pattern of using my cat to talk about my vices (booze, food, TV, laziness), something I was entirely unaware of before they confronted me with the data. Their findings in some ways got me thinking about the ways that we use different type of images as surrogates for different aspects of ourselves.
Berland, Jody. “Cat and Mouse: Iconographics of Nature and Desire.” Cultural Studies 22.3/4
(2008): 431-454. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Continuum, 2004. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Parmenides. Trans. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. Print.
Weil, Kari. Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.
Wilby, Emma. “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland.” Folklore 111 (2000): 283-305. Print.