The Nine Lives of Cat Videos

Are cat videos mindless distraction or a radical form of pure entertainment? A visit to the Internet Cat Video Festival at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Jillian Steinhauer | Longreads | September 2015 | 15 minutes (3,800 words)

 

The following essay is excerpted from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, in which 14 writers address the following question: Why can’t we stop watching cat videos?

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The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself.

—Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament”

The spectacle creates an eternal present of immediate expectation: memory ceases to be necessary or desirable.

—John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”

The Grandstand filling up with people early in the night. This photo first appeared on Hyperallergic. Courtesy Jillian Steinhauer.

The Grandstand filling up with people early in the night. This photo first appeared on Hyperallergic. Courtesy Jillian Steinhauer.

1.

One evening in the summer of 2013, I joined 11,499 other people—give or take—at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand to sit and watch cat videos. I had spent the day leading up to the Internet Cat Video Festival (or CatVidFest, as it’s nicknamed) wandering the fair in extreme heat, eating assorted fried foods on sticks, watching butter sculptors, and paying money to take off my shoes and traverse an artsy blow-up castle with “rooms” of saturated color (think Dan Flavin goes to the fair). Hours later, dehydrated and probably sunstroked, I met up with a journalist from Minnesota Public Radio for a brief interview. He wanted to talk to me because I was an art critic, and because I had served as a juror for that year’s CatVidFest.

Seeking a relatively quiet place, we sat down on a concrete ledge just outside the Grandstand. As he readied his equipment, I readied myself, trying to pull together some thoughts about the jurying process and my love of cats. He was friendly, and we started with a brief introduction, a little banter to ease the awkwardness. Then he got serious and posed the Big Question he’d clearly come (and/or been sent) to ask: “Are cat videos art?”

It was, somehow, a query I hadn’t expected, even though I was in Minneapolis specifically to attend a festival of cat videos put on by an art museum (the Walker Art Center). I suppose this was because I found the question absurd—not to mention unanswerable and inaccurate. Asking me to determine if cat videos, in general, were art seemed like asking beauty pageant contestants to deliver a concise but convincing vision for the attainment of world peace. It was a question without an answer.

In her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” film critic Pauline Kael lays out the “simple, good distinction that all art is entertainment but not all entertainment is art.” Some cat videos may rise to the level of art, and some are even made by artists (see Cory Arcangel’s mashup of cats playing Arnold Schoenberg’s op. 11, for starters), but all cat videos are not art, nor are they meant to be. Cat videos, as a phenomenon, are “fundamentally amateur,” as critic Mark Greif once described most of the content on YouTube. They are entertainment in the vein of burlesque and talent shows and America’s Funniest Home Videos. They are good old-fashioned spectacle.

2.

Spectacles are one of the best forms of distraction we have. Ideally, an encounter with a work of art makes you think—it challenges you or causes you to feel so overwhelmingly that you’re compelled to figure out why. A spectacle, on the other hand, seeks to envelop, and in doing so invites you to dial down your brain. As Walter Benjamin once put it, “Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. . . . In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.”

Benjamin uses the work of art as his example, but why bother with it today when we have so many ready-made modes of distraction? If I’m in the mood to make an effort, I’ll watch the Antonioni film that’s been languishing in its bright-red Netflix envelope atop my DVD player for three months. If I want to unwind after nine exhausting hours of work, I’ll watch cat videos. YouTube has done art a favor in freeing it from the need to quickly gratify.

Distraction isn’t new; it seems safe to assume that as long as we’ve had to work, we’ve sought—and found a way to achieve—distraction. In 1926, critic and theorist Siegfried Kracauer published an essay called “Cult of Distraction,” examining the grand movie palaces of Berlin. The all-encompassing shows there, which featured live performers and orchestras in addition to film screenings, “raise distraction to the level of culture,” Kracauer writes. “They are aimed at the masses.”

Germany at the time was carrying out its first experiment with democracy. Censorship had been lifted, and journalism and photography were booming—illustrated magazines littered Berlin. Sound film was becoming a phenomenon; thanks in part to the failing economy, so was Nazism. Kracauer saw distraction as deeply political, tied to industrial capitalism and the plight of the worker. “Critics chide Berliners for being addicted to distraction, but this is a petit bourgeois reproach,” he writes. “The form of free-time busy-ness necessarily corresponds to the form of business.”

Although Kracauer was critical of the picture palaces and the way they manufactured distraction, he also saw potential for a meaningful kind of distraction that would not be “an end in itself ” but rather “a reflection of the uncontrolled anarchy of our world.” He urged the theaters to “aim radically toward a kind of distraction that exposes disintegration instead of masking it.” Unfortunately, he didn’t specify what that would look like. I have trouble envisioning it myself, though if it exists at all—a twenty- first-century anarchist circus?—I suspect it lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

If Berliners in the thirties were addicted to distraction, it’s distressing to think what we must be today. YouTube is a black hole of amusement—it defines distraction. The danger is that it’s extremely difficult to get sick of the site; when you’re done with cat videos, you can watch an entire movie (in twelve parts), and when that’s over, search for clips from TV shows you watched as a kid. YouTube is a system lacking a meaningful shape. There are no categories, no sophisticated search function; there’s only a simple bar with a magnifying glass icon and a recommendation algorithm that attempts to drag you into its depths as it processes your user history.

But the other, perhaps more profound danger of YouTube is its easy availability: it represents the diffusion of the spectacle. We no longer need to get dressed and pay money at the nearest picture palace in order to dissolve into mindlessness. Virtual escape is constantly within our reach—even at work, where we often need it most.

“It is the opposite of dialogue,” theorist Guy Debord writes of the spectacle. “It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity.” When we watch cat videos alone in our rooms, when we give ourselves over to the infinite diversion of YouTube, we are disengaging from the world and all of its problems.

Could something be said for this aloneness, this separation from the crowd? YouTube may have diffused the spectacle, but it’s also liberated it from the teeming, swelling masses. We’re no longer the club-wielding mob of Metropolis, tearing down the machine that gives us life and death. By ourselves, at least theoretically, we might have more time to think—provided we can look away from our computers long enough to do so.

3.

If YouTube separates us, the Internet Cat Video Festival brings us back together. That’s part of its brilliance. Benjamin identifies the aura as an artwork’s “authenticity,” “the authority of the object” generated from its unique existence in time and space. Grainy, homemade YouTube videos, videos of our cats furiously chasing bottle caps down the hall, are not made to be singular. They are all reproduction and no aura.

CatVidFest introduces uniqueness where there was none; it brings an element of ritual to this free-floating, diffuse spectacle (which is likely why many people who work at the Walker Art Center are uncomfortable with it). It gives us a reason to gather. A 17,000-person grandstand is the picture palace of the twenty-first century, and we, as Kracauer writes, are the “community of worshippers.”

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images,” said Debord, and if you can get past his supremely pessimistic view of the whole thing, there is an edifying truth in this. The spectacle may depoliticize us, it may numb us to the pain, but it also unites us. In 2015, we may need that more than ever.

I didn’t know what to expect when I made my way to Minneapolis that summer, and from there to the State Fair, and from there to the Grandstand. I was excited and curious about CatVidFest, but also guarded. I knew there’d be a level of fandom I could neither muster nor understand. I didn’t dare admit I’d never seen a Lil BUB video before. I wasn’t wearing cat clothing because I didn’t own any. I hadn’t even paid the twenty dollars for my ticket (I was a guest of the Walker).

But there was something strangely marvelous in how, once we walked through those metal gates, we became a community. A bizarre one with exceptionally weak ties? Yes. But a community still—and one that really, really wanted to watch cat videos. In public. Together. To the point where, as the preshow dragged on with mediocre jokes and awkward interactions, the audience lost its patience and started chanting, “Cats! Cats! Cats!”

When the videos finally rolled, they looked different on the enormous screen. Not like works of art—no, some looked pretty shitty—but somehow more compelling. I felt an anticipation watching them, the kind of euphoria you get from experiencing synchronous emotions with a crowd. The glee is different when you know eleven thousand people are feeling it too. It expands.

Courtesy Jillian Steinhauer.

Courtesy Jillian Steinhauer.

4.

The glee died and the confusion set in on the following day, which I spent at the Walker. Following CatVidFest, the museum was hosting a book signing, the guests of which were Grumpy Cat, Lil BUB, and Will Braden, the filmmaker behind the YouTube videos Henri, le Chat Noir. The canary-yellow sign announcing the event in the museum’s Cargill Lounge literally listed Braden along with two cats—one of whom lacks opposable thumbs, neither of whom could be expected to sign anything.

But that wasn’t the strangest part. The strangest part was how, after the line of fans snaked into formation near the signing desk (on which Grumpy Cat lazed in a plush pet bed), it stretched down a corridor, around a corner, and down another hallway. At the end of that hallway was another lobby space and another table, where a number of humans—among them Charlie Schmidt, the progenitor of Keyboard Cat; Chris Torres, the creator of Nyan Cat; and Maddie Kelly, the voice behind the “Kittens Inspired by Kittens” video—sat, also ready to sign books; Torres would even draw you a free sketch, if you asked. No one was waiting to approach them.

Cats are not, of course, the first animals to be celebrities. Modern American culture has had its share of famous creatures, from Lassie and Rin Tin Tin to Mr. Ed and Punxsutawney Phil. But cats, so often written off as aloof and high minded, are having their moment. And its shape mirrors that of our wider celebrity culture.

There was a time you had to be talented and do something culturally notable (act, play music or sports) to attain the status of a celebrity. The advent of reality TV in the nineties severely lowered those stakes; suddenly exposure was the whole game. All you had to do was allow yourself to be filmed while going about your life—maybe make an inflammatory statement or two—and you could become famous. The internet, and in large part YouTube, have intensified this phenomenon, allowing people to become recognized around the world simply for making really good haircare tutorials.

Similarly, many of today’s celebrity cats aren’t known for playing a pet on a sitcom or performing improbably heroic feats; they’re famous for being themselves. We love Maru because he happens to be a chubby cat obsessed with getting into boxes; Grumpy Cat cracks us up because of his permanently scowling face. We live in an age not just of the celebrity cat—which would be notable by itself—but of the reality celebrity cat. This is undeniably weird.

Some people hypothesize that our obsession with celebrities stems from our simultaneous closeness to (we’re all human) and distance from (they’re rich and talented and untouchable) them; within this formula, the proliferation of human reality stars makes a certain amount of sense—it narrows the gap to offer us a more attainable vision of fame. But why on earth does this carry over to celebrity cats? How did we get from The Real World to the Grumppuccino?

Attendees wait in line to see Grumpy Cat. Courtesy Jillian Steinhauer.

Attendees wait in line to see Grumpy Cat. Courtesy Jillian Steinhauer.

5.

Our relationship with animals is long, deep seated, and complex, but what seems to carry consistently across the millennia is an attitude of reverence. The ancient Egyptians venerated cats; cows are an important symbol in Hindu scripture. In critic John Berger’s telling, “Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” Think of all the folktales and fables that use animals as a path to knowledge and wisdom. (There are countless examples, from Aesop’s “The Hare and the Tortoise” and the tales of Brer Rabbit to E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, contemporary movies like Finding Nemo, and arguably even George Orwell’s Animal Farm.)

In the modern world, Berger says, our relationship with “animals of the mind” (as opposed to of the flesh, i.e., meat) manifests in two ways: as family and as spectacle. We keep, in other words, both our pets and our zoos (as well as our cartoon characters). In both cases, although we confine the animals, we cherish them.

Cat videos mark an intriguing combination of the two categories: we make spectacles of our pets. Here the reverence is twofold, both subjective and objective: Isn’t my kitty the cutest you’ve ever seen ever? and This cat has incredible prowess (even if she’s only using it to decimate a pile of leaves). Our own animals become our beloved entertainers.

A good many cat videos are predicated on the tension that their subjects are both like us and not—that cats seem sometimes to be so human and at other times so foreign. It’s a similar dichotomy to the one we play out with celebrities. This view involves a healthy dose of anthropomorphism, but also a certain acceptance of our own animal nature. “The pet completes him,” Berger writes. “The pet offers its owner a mirror to a part that is otherwise never reflected.” We’ve subjugated the animals, but we know that we still need them. We clean up their shit, but we remain in awe. The ancient Egyptians built statues; we make videos.

6.

Then again, let’s consider the primary ways in which we interact with animals in the twenty-first century: factory farming and then killing them for meat, placing them in captivity for our entertainment and examination, driving them nearly to extinction and then building “refuges” for them. In most cases, we have stripped the animals of their autonomy, bent them to our will, and in doing so, trivialized them nearly to the point of irrelevance. It may seem on the surface as though we still revere them, but in truth we no longer respect them. How else to explain videos in which cats are made to balance oranges on their heads or wear shark costumes for our amusement?

Okay, you say, but those are only some cat videos. In others, people simply record their pets asleep or at play, marveling at how wondrous they are; surely these display a genuine appreciation and affection. On an individual level, sure, but as a society, the keeping of pets at all indicates how we really feel about animals: we accept them only on our terms, as extensions of ourselves. We impose our values on them because we think they’re unworthy—or incapable—of their own. “In particular, our sentimentality toward animals is a sure sign of the disdain in which we hold them,” philosopher Jean Baudrillard once wrote. “It is in proportion to being relegated to irresponsibility, to the inhuman, that the animal becomes worthy of the human ritual of affection and protection.”

Cat videos are perhaps the most literal and obvious manifestation of this sentimentality. Heartwarming, laughter-inducing, completely ridiculous, and nothing else, they are a painful visualization of how far cats have fallen: from sacred subject to empty spectacle.

7.

The author with Grumpy Cat. Courtesy Jillian Steinhauer.

The author with Grumpy Cat. Courtesy Jillian Steinhauer.


Up until the turn of the twenty-first century, the cultural products most readily available for consumption were those produced by the culture industry: mass-marketed books, Hollywood blockbusters, TV sitcoms and dramas. The internet changed that by opening up a new, semiblank space for the creation of things: webpages, journals and blogs, artworks, videos. The process wasn’t all that different from what we’d been doing for centuries, but when it moved online, it went public. And going public offered new possibilities for interaction and community.

As it turns out, we’re not only fascinated by celebrities; we’re fascinated by each other (and ourselves). “What YouTube tells us, hit after millionth hit, is that we like watching amateurs,” Mark Greif writes in his essay “WETUBE.” “We like to see them perform, whatever the performance may be.” The uniqueness of YouTube is that it allows us to create our own spectacle—which changes the character of the distraction we seek.

Writing together in 1944, philosophers and sociologists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno laid bare the machinations of the culture industry in a relentless essay (titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in case their position was unclear). Their take—in line with Kracauer’s but harsher—is that the culture industry functions as an arm of industrial capitalism that feeds spectacle to the masses in order to keep them distracted and in line.“Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism. It is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor process so that they can cope with it again,” the pair write. “Entertainment fosters the resignation which seeks to forget itself in entertainment.”

This is a familiar idea: the creation of culture from the top down as an instrument of control. But the internet, and in many ways specifically YouTube, has upended it by allowing us to create our own entertainment. The tools of production are no longer amassed only in the hands of the powerful. Anyone with a cell phone or a computer today owns a camera and recording device; anyone can capture herself dancing to or parodying Beyoncé in her living room. The means of distraction are ours.

And importantly, we’re not always selling something. In their fluffy, adorable emptiness, cat videos—and videos of other animals and people paying tribute to their favorite pop songs—are a return to Horkheimer and Adorno’s idea of “pure amusement”: entertainment that has neither an ulterior motive nor a need for meaning. Entertainment that simply is.

8.

Or rather, they were. When cat videos first appeared, they held a kind of meaningless promise, just as YouTube and the wider internet seemed to offer utopian possibilities: a blank slate, a way to talk to among ourselves while avoiding the powers that be. But nothing lasts forever.

YouTube was created in 2005 by three people who, quite brilliantly, understood the potential of a video-sharing site. Within a year, it had become hugely popular, and in October of 2006, Google bought the site. Now that it’s owned by a monolith, one of the largest companies in the world, YouTube essentially works on two levels: as the silly peer-to-peer site we enjoy using every day, and as a tool in the arsenal of a commercial conglomerate that’s been known to breach users’ privacy and implement censorship. And the clout of relevant commercial interests should not be underestimated. As Greif writes:

So YouTube becomes another of these media without a recorded history—never mind that long-gone historical television clips disappear for copyright reasons as soon as the capital-rich media conglomerates discover them—never mind that there are ever more third-party companies devoted to discovering and rooting out this copyrighted material.

YouTube is not ours because we have it on loan—because it plays by the same rules as the rest of the corporate-controlled world.

What’s more, beginning in 2007 (in a limited way, and then more broadly in 2012), Google changed the fundamental nature of YouTube by introducing a “partner program” that allows users to buy into its ad network and make money off of their videos (this is also called the “monetization ecosystem”). I don’t begrudge anyone that money or the desire for it, but “pure amusement” this is not.

And so cat videos, which began as a bizarre curiosity in a corner of the internet, have blossomed into a cottage industry of mugs, calendars, books, belts, and coffee drinks. Celebrity cats have agents and get paid to endorse products like pet food. A handful of them seem to make far more money than I do (the Washington Post’s high end for Maru’s potential annual earnings: $181,600). Videos of cats we don’t yet recognize are followed by messages to “check out more of my videos!!” in the hopes that they’ll become the next feline stars.

Clips of cats leaping off counters and unraveling entire rolls of toilet paper haven’t ceased to be entertaining, but I’ve felt my good faith quietly slipping away. Cat videos still amuse, but now they’re also just one more way for someone to try to sell me something.

9.

I am watching a video on YouTube. A cat is wearing a turquoise shark costume, the kind you’d buy for a toddler, while sitting atop an iRobot Roomba, an automated vacuum cleaner that resembles a turntable. The cat and the Roomba follow a small duck over the surface of a tan tiled floor. The Roomba hits a wall, jerks around, and keeps moving; the cat barely flinches. The duck’s little feet continue waddling to the monoto- nous drone, and I begin to laugh. The camera angles change—one moment we’re seeing the scene from above, the next we’re down on the ground, watching Roomba Cat ride his swiveling ship like a captain on the high seas of suburbia. Soon a dog appears, dressed in a different shark costume that’s much too small, making him look as if he’s pouting while wearing an absurd blue beret. The dog joins the others in their mute, meandering malaise until suddenly the Roomba stops, and for a fleeting moment, all of the creatures stand and stare at the camera. Still life with animals and machine. Only one minute and thirty-eight seconds have passed, and tears of laughter have sprung to the corners of my eyes. One minute later, the video is over. I resume writing.

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“The Nine Lives of Cat Videos” is reprinted by permission from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Jillian Steinhauer