20 November 2008

- lolcats essay -

Andrew Sullivan doesn't like this essay on lolcats, but I found it to be a worthwhile read. I think I see what Andrew finds objectionable in it: the bit he quotes on his blog — "the cheeseburger is not really a cheeseburger -- it's a symbol" — is almost a comically silly observation. ("Duh" doesn't even get to surface of what's wrong with it.) But I think that sentence is an anomaly in the essay, one that, to be sure, a decent editor should have caught and asked the author to rethink. If Andrew is right in calling the author on the carpet for it, he should have noted that its presence mars and undoes what might have been a really rather excellent essay on its topic. (That's why the passage is so devastatingly disappointing.) Instead, in just quoting it and labeling it with "Poseur Alert," Andrew suggests that the passage is representative of the essay and the thinking in it, which I don't believe it is.

Phenomena like lolcats are in need of this sort of contemplation (even if the letters to Salon suggest many find contemplation of such object intolerable), and if I don't believe that Dixit quite gets to what's culturally at stake in lolcats, his essay is a better attempt at making sense of their distinct appeal than I have yet seen.


Here is a good letter that addresses one of the more important aspects of lolcats not dealt with in Dixit's essay: the grammar:
Let's be clear: the language used in LOLcat captions isn't simply "mangled English". The deliberate misspellings and misuses of words like the verb "to be" reflect the ways in which White folks misunderstand the way Black folks talk in America. Dixit Jay's article may elide any discussion of race, but postings like this one (http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_48pIyTbrm4A/Ruc4lWH0clI/AAAAAAAAADE/Xn7698M88ME/s1600-h/I+just+wishes+i+wuz+white..jpg) make it pretty clear that race is very much a factor in these posts.

I don't, in fact, find that the grammar of lolcats particularly resembles Black vernacular English, nor does it seem especially akin to the various entertainment versions thereof. The particular grammatical deformations of lolcats are, however, characteristics of pidgin language in general; the errors are also characteristic of the way children speak. I would argue that any resemblance to the Black English of the entertainment industry stems from the way in which the entertainment industry likewise juvenilized the dialect as part of its juvenilized representation of African Americans. And what lolcats grammar represents, I would contend, is this juvenile relationship to language.

Now, a more interesting point might be that the representations of lolcats are filling an analogous role for the cultural imagination as the representations of Black folks did in earlier generations. And a further question would be to what extent that otherness that is represented in the grammar is necessarily a racialized other and, if it is, to what effect.
But to me, many of these cartoons reflect an unconscious equation, in the mind of their creators, of Black people with animals, and of Black culture (as perceived, or mis-perceived, by people outside of it) as something to be ridiculed.

The author seems to assume that the representation of otherness is necessarily racialized. But it is not clear to me that this is the case; indeed the otherness of lolcats seems deployed as a mirror to reflect back an alienated image of ourselves where we can recognize aspects of ourselves not otherwise visible. This, I take it, is Dixit's point. And it is not necessary to demonize or ridicule the cats in order to see this reflection. Indeed, any ridicule in the humor usual rebounds to us. In any case, it's certainly true that the representation of the African American in the entertainment industry has similarly served this function, so to that extent the comparison of the letter writer is potentially valid. But the question remains as to whether the the representation of otherness must necessarily be racialized?

From another letter, which points to the juvenilizing effects of the language but also sees in that otherness an alienness that can speak truth to power:
I also enjoy the way the "mangling" follows very definite rules and has its own sound and rhythm, almost as if it were poetry, and the way it creates its own reality. Lolspeak plays into our view of cats as furry little anarchists, refusing to follow rules. It reinforces our feelings toward our pets as our "babies". It's playful. And play is a good thing. We don't get enough of it in our lives.