Taking Care of Business Cat
19 January, 2015
Problematizing stuff is great. Open up concepts, get down underneath ideology, deconstruct—important stuff. Viva la différance and all that. Today, though, let’s solvatize something. And it’s this: what’s up with all these cats online?
Tim Berners-Lee called attention to the question in a prominent interview (Vincent 2014). Surely there’s no single answer, but we can get a start in sorting things out, and with a very few exceptions (Meese & Lobato 2014, Miltner 2011, Shifman 2013, Wittkower 2012a, Wittkower 2012b), we just haven’t even gotten started on the question, despite that it so obviously calls for an explanation. I guess it doesn’t seem like serious enough an issue for serious scholars who take themselves seriously—but, seriously folks: as I’ve argued elsewhere (Wittkower 2012a), we would have expected that technological change suddenly providing the means of mass communication to a huge number of persons would have given rise to new political movements, decentralized production of goods and services, and increased access to and creation of pornography (voluntary and involuntary), but it’s hard to see how our current theories could have predicted all these cats.
We’ve got no good theory on it, and as a social effect, it doesn’t serve any obvious ideology—and this is obviously a thing that is real and that is happening and that is unexpected, so we ought to be trying to figure it out.
To keep this discussion manageable, let’s just look at one cat: Business Cat. Here’s the paradigm instance of Business Cat, to start us off (left).
Business Cat is a normal cat in any number of ways—he likes shiny things, balls, and pointless aggression, like any other cat (right). Surely some of the enjoyment which motivates the popularity of the meme comes from our enjoyment of living with and observing cats in general—but this itself needs to be unpacked. Regarding shiny things and pointless aggression, we might speculate, using some variety of the incongruity theory of humor (e.g. the several varieties discussed in Morreall 2012), that our bemusement at the cat arises from the poor fit between the cat’s violent behavior and the innocuous nature of its target.
But this does not account for e.g. the poop jokes—admittedly, a common omission in much theoretical work, whether cat-related or otherwise. The disconnect between the cat’s violence and its object is part of a larger amusing incongruity: the dissonance between the seriousness of the cat’s self-regard and the triviality of its concerns.
Schopenhauer wrote of our domestic animals that we enjoy their company since they embody a freedom from will and worry which we cannot attain:
It is just this characteristic way in which the brute gives itself up entirely to the present moment that contributes so much to the delight we take in our domestic pets. They are the present moment personified, and in some respects they make us feel the value of every hour that is free from trouble and annoyance, which we, with our thoughts and preoccupations, mostly disregard. (Schopenhauer 2014)
This speaks well enough to the cozy cat by the fireplace and the careless exuberance of the dog—but seems a poor fit with the cat in its active and wakeful state, in which it seems to constantly see threats and victims where there are none to be found in reality, engaging in sudden races from one end of the house to the other and destroying household objects. Perhaps an adaptation of Kant’s (1914) theory of the sublime fits better: we gain a kind of Schopenhauerian quieting of the will by seeing the will’s activity played out in the passions of the cat, wherein it appears to us in all its futility and meaninglessness, giving us a perspective on the will which is hard to gain in our regard of our own ultimately inconsequential cares, viewed as they are from the inside. Our ability to stand unmoved by this force—here, the will within rather than nature without, as in Kant’s dynamically sublime—provides a feeling of calm; a transcendence by proxy of the worry and striving which we too easily wind ourselves up into.
Schopenhauer himself obviously took pleasure in this externalization of the will, in which its cares—Sorgen in the Heideggerian sense (1963)—are played out; not only in the enjoyment of music, which he theorized in just this way (Schopenhauer 1958), but in his own writing itself as well, in which the elegance of his prose demonstrates a kind of rejoice he must have taken in transcending the will by writing the most awful, disheartening, pessimistic things about humanity and reality. Imagine him as he wrote:
The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other. (Schopenhauer 2014)
Do you imagine he did not smile?
But all this concerns the cat as proxy for the working-through of our own worries, and Business Cat does not present the triviality of worries in general, but the triviality of worries of corporate managers in particular. And not just this: also, the absurdity of management buzzwords, frustration with management interference and obstructionism, tail-chasing that follows from obsessions with new trends (below), unreasonable corporate demands, and so on. Business Cat’s corporate cares allow the meme to serve a critical function as well.
But does Business Cat have any teeth? Adorno and Horkheimer (1969) wrote that “Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment,” and I’m inclined to say that Dilbert—who never changes jobs, and whose office never gets any more tolerable—serves the same repressive and disciplinary function.
Is Business Cat merely an outgassing of pressure; a cathartic element allowing the toleration of the intolerable—or is the participatory element of memetic media transformative, allowing Business Cat to be progressive and meaningfully critical? To answer this, we must look at points of creation, use, and access of instances of Business Cat, and the discourses built up around him.
So let’s do it! It’s time for us to take Internet Cats seriously as an object of study, and look at how they shape and refocus discourses of power, resistance, and community. Let’s play around with this for a while and see where it goes.
D.E. Wittkower is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Old Dominion University
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Heidegger, M. (1963). Being and time. New York: Harper & Row.
Kant, I. (1914). The critique of judgment. London: Macmillan. Available at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1217
Meese, J. & Lobato, R. (2014). ‘cute’ [Special issue]. M/C Journal, 17(2). Available at: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/issue/view/cute
Miltner, K. (2011). Srsly phenomenal: an investigation into the appeal of lolcats (Doctoral dissertation). Available at: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/37681185/MILTNER%20DISSERTATION.pdf
Morreall, J. (2012). Philosophy of humor. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/.
Schopenhauer, A. (1958). The world as will and representation. Indian Hills, CO: Falcon’s Wing Press.
Schopenhauer, A. (2014). On the sufferings of the world. In Studies in pessimism. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Library. Available at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/pessimism/chapter1.html
Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in digital culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Vincent, J. (2014). Time Berners-Lee on creating the web: ‘I never expected all these cats’. The Independent, 13 March. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/tim-bernerslee-on-creating-the-web-i-never-expected-all-these-cats-9189946.html
Wittkower, D.E. (2012a). On the origins of the cute as a dominant aesthetic category in digital culture. In T.W. Luke & J. Hunsinger (Eds.), Putting knowledge to work and letting information play (167–175). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/288256/_On_the_Origins_of_the_Cute_as_a_Dominant_Aesthetic_Category_in_Digital_Culture_in_Putting_Knowledge_to_Work_and_Letting_Information_Play_
Wittkower, D.E. (2012b). Cats flushing toilets, Bic for Her, and the Lolcat Bible: collective expression and play outside of IPR. in media res, 21 Sept. Available at: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2012/09/21/cats-flushing-toilets-bic-her-and-lolcat-bible-collective-expression-and-play-outside-ipr