Essays

Prolegomena to Any Future Poetics of the Cat Video

Henri le Chat Noir (screenshot via YouTube)
Henri le Chat Noir (screenshot via YouTube)

“As an extra, a surplus, a hiatus even, form is conceived by the cat video as a pause in the work of signification, which also alters the nature of signification. … The cat video suggests that form stops us in our tracks of thinking, and inserts itself in that moment of stillness. To attend to form is thus to admit some other kind of mental attention.” [1]

“Le chat pour le chat, sans but, car tout but dénature le chat.” [2]

“The importance of not being in earnest is precisely what makes the play of the cat video important.” [3]

“It is not the cat video’s place to ask you to learn. … Any cat who wants your particular admiration is, by just so much, the less cat.” [4]

“In this inner diversity of the cat video, therefore, we have renewed proof that it is essentially a game, a contract valid within circumscribed limits, serving no useful purpose but yielding pleasure, relaxation, and an elevation of spirit. … And it is precisely its play-quality that makes its laws more rigorous than those of any other art.” [5]

“If I agree to judge a cat video according to pleasure, I cannot go on to say: this one is good, that bad. … The cat video (the same is true of the singing voice) can wring from me only this judgment, in no way adjectival: that’s it!” [6]

“A cat video holds its own and remains unintimidated by the analytic zeal that Hegel ascribes to the Understanding. … The cat video holds its secret by allowing us to divine that it has one. I see no reason why it should yield to the analytic pressure of the Understanding: each has its own privileged way of acting in the world.” [7]

“For the cat video comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” [8]

All these quotations from critics, philosophers and poets — you may recognize a couple of them — have been changed. I have replaced a key word with “cat” or “cat video.” (You can find the original words at the end of this essay.) In each case, the sentence appears to hold just as much truth. And the reason is this: cats in general, and cat videos in particular, appear to test, and sometimes to confirm, familiar ideas about the essence of art. In particular, they test the set of ideas we are used to calling aestheticism (as explored, most recently, in Angela Leighton’s terrific book On Form). Cats, like art, are serious play, beyond purpose, promising us a way into another order, an escape from the practicalities of this world.

(via Wikimedia)
Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase by John Keats (via Wikimedia)

Cats; not other pets, nor wild creatures, or at least not to the same extent. “Cats … pursue their own agenda, they cannot be relied upon to share our feelings, their minds are less open to us, and they seem quite immune to human or canine guilt,” writes Katharine Rogers in The Cat and the Human Imagination. “Seeing them as essentially different from ourselves, we are better able to appreciate their qualities, and we even idealize them for the self-assured independence and the freedom from inhibitions that we feel we should restrain in ourselves.” Like John Keats’s urn, that “friend to man,” they imitate human action without depending on it, and they befriend us by staying distant from whatever we want for them or for ourselves. Like the urn, they suggest timelessness, even perfection.

Cats have purposiveness without a knowable purpose (Immanuel Kant’s much-cited criterion for true art). Cats are mysteries; their agendas, beyond food and sleep and sunlight, may constitute a kind of knowledge endlessly deferred. (They are born aesthetes, but also born deconstructionists.) All cats, writes Charles Baudelaire in “Les Chats,” partake of the ineffable, indecipherable “noble attitudes” of the sphinx, at least when they dream; and no human being knows what they dream. Without trying — for cats there is no try, just do or do not — cats seem to instantiate the criteria of the aesthetic, so that to defend the aesthetic is to defend the feline, or vice versa. Cats are like serious art.

But cat videos are not, quite. The genius of the cat video may be the way it combines the essence of cat — its mysteriousness; its purposelessness without purpose; its sense that cats neither make, nor acknowledge, mistakes; its existence as beauty in itself and for itself — with the opposite of that essence. Cat videos are antithetical to cats’ being in that so many of them show clearly fallible cats pursuing some clear goal — to grab string, to climb a high shelf, to ride a Roomba. (Do check out the Roomba.) They invert cats’ inviolable indifference: they undercut their subjects (sometimes literally), as farce and broad comedy almost always do. They show that the cat (as Auden writes of Yeats) might be “silly like us.”

And like all broad comedy, they highlight failure. The cat herself, or himself, maintains a mystery, believes in her own mystery, whether or not we do. But the cat of the cat video undermines that mystery by taking ridiculously comprehensible action (its intelligibility reinforced, at times, by subtitles or title cards, as in a silent film). The cat video at its best, moreover, must contain both extraordinarily dignified, and remarkably graceless, elements: the gray-and-white monument, the longhair in her majesty, the mountain of fur, eyes glaring as if to repel the gods them- selves, accompanied by the caption “I peed in the sink.”

Why not dog videos? Dogs are too much like us (too obviously silly like us): their purposes are almost never mysterious, and so there is nothing paradoxical, often not even remarkable, when they fail. And dogs’ failures shame them; laugh, and we shame ourselves. Cats don’t care whether we laugh at their failures, which stops us feeling guilty when we do. Rogers adduces not only Baudelaire but H. P. Lovecraft, whose essay on felinity “expressed his disgust with society through a contrast between feline independence and canine need to conform.” The contrarian poet and the defiantly loutish fictioneer unite in their sense that their art should be catlike, that cats’ independence is part of what makes them fascinating (rather than useful or morally good). That same independence licenses us (especially if we are — as Baudelaire was not — kindly disposed toward our peers’ ethics) to laugh when cats fail to do something on their own. As for internet videos of what veterinarians call exotics — ferrets, hedgehogs, chinchillas, quintorcoups — they tend to show these admittedly super-cute mammals simply being themselves, twitching, puckering, cuddling: they do not try to do odd things and so do not fail — if they do, they count as honorary cats.

An images from the Walrus Bucket Saga (image via walrusbucketsaga.com)
An images from the Walrus Bucket Saga (image via walrusbucketsaga.com)

Then there are LOLcats, which need not be cats: the best — the epic — use of LOLcat style so far is the Walrus Bucket Saga, 140 gifs (most from 2008–10) that began with a two-photo shot of a zookeeper and a walrus: “I Has a Bucket,” says one; “Noooo they be stealin’ my Bucket,” complains the other. Successive pictures — crowdsourced and still being made — follow the walrus’s fruitless quest for his lost bucket all over teh worldz. A polar bear embraces a walrus on the beach: “Hugz? Won’t Bring Back Bukket!!!” Walrus on an ice floe: “I is lonly widdout bukkit.” Walrus nuzzling, or speaking secrets into the ear of, another walrus: “Pleez find mah bukkit ur mah only hope.”

What the walrus bucket saga tells us about cat videos is this: we are all on a quest for something pointless, something empty in itself, as the walrus’s bucket was empty. Someday it may again hold tasty fish, but for now, it is Stevens’s jar, Keats’s urn, the inner life of the sphinx, a thing desired, but empty and outside time. Moreover, our quest — our need for purpose, our need to jump up a wall chasing a laser pointer — precedes any acknowledged goal or education; we want what we want even when we do not know quite what we want, and certainly before we know why we want it. The walrus is like a preschooler in this respect, but also like all of us, and preeminently like cats; the appellation “lolrus” — walrus + LOLcat — reminds us who came first. And if the walrus bucket saga reminds us how much we might want what is finally empty, the fifty-nine-second video called “Kido’s First Shell Game” reminds us — as all cat videos remind us — that we are also free to refuse: Kido simply does not care what’s under, in, or around the big thimbles that her owner picks up and puts down. She exists outside human purpose, outside her owner’s time.

If, as many of us can confirm, the internet is 90 percent porn and 9.5 percent cats, and if — this part is true by definition — porn has a purpose (to get someone off ), then 95 percent of the non-porn internet offers a refuge from the relentless purposiveness of modern life, where we have goals and seek the shortest means to those goals, either at work or amid the NSFW. But cat videos are neither work, nor are they NSFW, not even for most of their human creators. Even more than punk rock, scrimshaw, macramé, or conventional lyric poetry, cat videos are made by people who do not expect to make a living from the form. The merch may cost you, but the screen time is always free.

That is one reason why the Simon’s Cat videos, terrific as they are, are not really cat videos; they are the cartoonist Simon Tofield’s beautiful and diligent exercise of his vocation, which he was lucky enough to make into a financially sustaining profession; they could exist even if Simon Tofield had never owned a cat. The presence of advertising banners and intertitles on cat videos, however, can augment their greatness, rather than change their status: thirty seconds of someone caressing a kitten’s ears, twenty seconds of the same silver kitten parading pointlessly over the crowded top of somebody’s fridge, get better — defy human purposes more completely — when we encounter them over a sans-serif, all-caps banner reading, “LEADERSHIP IS NOT OPTIONAL.” Clearly, if you’re a cat, leadership is optional: if you’re a cat, in fact, everything is optional, except for obedience to your own fathomless nature, which compels you to undertake activities that human beings can understand only as play.

Cats do all sorts of things — and many sorts of nothing — in cat videos, but perhaps the most common is stalking. The tabby paces warily around an innocuous object at a distance of, say, three feet, and then spirals in for the pounce (or for the failed pounce). The nightstand then topples sideways, taking the cat and the hat, pen, or shoelace with it; or, in an entirely successful pounce, the cat appears to realize after the fact that the shoelace or pear core cannot be cat food. Pounce videos work when the cat chooses, herself, to pounce — it’s less funny when there’s a cat toy (say, a fishing rod), and they don’t work at all if the object pounced upon is alive and can feel pain. However, when a cat seems to choose to stalk a thing the cat should know can’t be food, the cat obeys her inner laws — acts out her mystery — and what we see is the fulfillment of her nature in a way that seems incongruous to ours. Conversely, cats cuddling with animals that could have become their food (but now, we gather, are safe from being eaten) make good cat videos; again, we know what the cat has tried to do, what the cat has decided to do, but not why.

There is a taxonomy of cat videos, just as there is a taxonomy of anything that is, or is like, an art form: there are minimalist cat videos, in which the Manx simply blinx; there are pratfalls (cat jumps off a roof, cat falls out of the cabinet); there are attempts to fit into too small a space; there are meetings with other kinds of cute animals; there is the pounce (see above); there are meetings with water (apparent disasters, though we can be sure the cats ended up dry and fine); there are videos and photomontages in which human beings wear cats as clothes; and there are videos in which cats do cat things while dressed up as (or riding on top, or pretending to be) something else — “Cat in a Shark Costume Chases a Duck While Riding a Roomba,” for example, the turducken of cat videos, or perhaps the Salome. This last category — perhaps the most important (along with the pounce) — reminds us that the behavior in cat videos is at once totally “natural” (no one told the cats to be that way) and obviously, flagrantly, artificial. Cats do as they like, but the frames we place around their actions, and the electric-blue, toothy, plush shark heads, are ours.

There is no entry for “cats” in the index to Sianne Ngai’s magnificently provocative study Our Aesthetic Categories, but there should be: all three of Ngai’s contemporary categories — the zany, the cute, and the merely interesting — apply to cat videos, as the so frequently studied, older categories of the purely beautiful, the sublime, the erotically attractive, and the instrumentally useful do not. Cats are (as Rogers says) by default feminine and domestic, and smaller than people, which makes them cute. They circulate on the internet because we forward them and click on them, which makes them (almost by definition) interesting. And they parody our own attempts to complete our human tasks, so that their disproportion of effort and result (and the resulting slapstick) makes them — with their “image of dangerously strenuous activity” — zany. The zany cat falls off the roof; he tried hard to stay on. The zany worker in silent film falls off the roof, or out of the social safety net. Both are modern. Both are also Chaplinesque — and Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque,” as some of you know, concludes with “a kitten in the wilderness,” one who perhaps grows up to read cummings and Don Marquis, survives the crash of 1929, and becomes the world’s oldest LOLcat. For Marianne Moore’s friend’s cat, Peter, in her modernist poem “Peter,”

It
is permissible to choose one’s employment, to abandon the wire
nail, the
roly-poly, when it shows signs of being no longer a pleas

ure, to score the adjacent magazine with a double line of strokes.
He can
talk, but insolently says nothing. What of it? When one is frank,
one’s very
presence is a compliment.

This cat wants to be in a video, but he cannot be; he is free, unattached, above laughter, uncompromised.

Cat videos have no consequence; they do not matter; they are pure form, as their stars seem inconsequential, pursuers of form or else natural artists of instinct. They do not appear to be work and do not depict work, even though they took both work, and luck, to create; they are impractical, silly even, and they promote the impractical as we watch them, taking us away from the insistent demands of instrumental reason, of economic exchange and exchange value, even if (as with the merchandising of Henri le Chat Noir, or the fact that some people buy books of poetry) we later return to economic models of exchange as we pursue the art.

Because cats do not tell us what they want — unless what they want is banal (warmth, water, food, catnip) — we assume they have mysterious purposes and that they often succeed; but a standard cat video plot shows a cat’s epic fail, which also swipes the mystery away, like the curtain that lifts on the Wizard of Oz. At the same time, the task at which the cat fails may seem pointless to human beings. Why is that giant Siamese trying so hard to enter that tiny box? Why does that Maine coon cat believe she can fit in the sink? It is purposelessness without purpose — but it is also a purpose shown, and not achieved.

Cat videos thus both present, and parody, central features of art, of the aesthetic, as we have been taught to consider it, especially but not only in prestige venues (museums, not rec rooms; the Norton Anthology, not Archive of Our Own) indebted to Romantic or Kantian concepts of art qua art. If we’re willing to defend any of those concepts, are we troubled by the extent to which the same defenses (play, purposelessness, escape from exchange value, freedom from instrumentality, purity, mystery, harmony with animal instincts) apply to cat videos? If we’re not troubled, should we be?

Cat videos, like high art, are for nothing, do nothing, “make nothing happen,” embody both a kind of passive reception and a spirit of play. In so doing, they show the thin line between an art that takes us out of this world, for play, and an art that cannot justify itself, a nihilism that cannot speak its name. (High art, as those of us who love it actually use and experience it, may be a lot more like fan fiction than most of us realize, but that is an argument for another place: see Anne Jamison’s Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World if you would like to visit that place.)

Which brings us (via Leighton, whose claims I have been tacitly following) to a particularly thoughtful cat, Henri le Chat Noir. Henri’s seriousness, a seriousness we associate both with Frenchness and with Art in one sense, plays against the frivolity, the pointlessness, the end-in-it- self-ness both of cats (who have no purpose beyond themselves) and of cat videos (which do nothing but entertain). Henri’s seriousness lets him see through the false, futile purposes adopted by human beings and less knowing cats: “the humans brush us for their own vanity,” to “no real purpose whatsoever.” Henri’s clichés come from the France of the postwar, of Camus and Sartre, of absurdism and existentialism, which tell us that we have no given purpose: we must make one for ourselves.

Except, of course, that Henri’s purpose appears to be nothing more than to be in a cat video, telling us that we have nothing better to do and that our lives have no higher purpose than his. This live Henri of the videos (videos which also look back to Monty Python’s parodies of Continental art film) takes his name from a famous poster of the 1890s. But the chat noir of that poster appears at home in his stylized element, insusceptible to the anomie, and the bad surprise, that afflicts both Henri the cat video cat (who discovers shaving cream is not whipped cream) and us, if we spend too long watching cat videos. The time-wasting delight of contemplating art, especially art that doesn’t ask much from us, is only a cat whisker or two away from the anomie and the self-accusation of realizing we have whiled hours away on nothing. Cat videos — especially the finest of the lot — show that the “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” Elizabeth Bishop describes in the making of art (and that we might find ourselves contem- plating in cats!) is only one notch away from a waste of time.

Key to replaced words:

1. Angela Leighton, On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 20–21: cat video = Barthes.

2. Benjamin Constant, 1804, quoted in Leighton, 32: le chat = l’art.

3. Leighton, On Form, 36: cat video = literature.

4. Ezra Pound, “The Serious Artist,” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1954), 46: cat video = artist; cat = artist.

5. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, trans. anonymous (Boston: Beacon, 1950), 188: cat video = music.

6. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 13: cat video = text.

7. Denis Donoghue, Speaking of Beauty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 24–25: cat video = beautiful thing.

8. Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005), 155: cat video = art.

“Prolegomena to Any Future Poetics of the Cat Video” is reprinted by permission from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Stephen Burt

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