Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vox Omnium

One of the pluses of the blogspot technology, is the provision of stats revealing who saw which posts.  And it turns out, to our astonishment, that more Internauts are interested in penguins and hedgehogs and other Cute Critters  than in topos theory or Urysohn metrization!  Huda thunkit!

Well, vox populi, vox dei, as the (untrue) saying goes.  Yielding to massive popular demand (no really, several people), we here reprint a description of one of the most important developments in the noosphere of the last fifty years (along with the settling of the Poincaré Conjecture and the discovery of Dark Energy):  the Lolcats Phenomenon.

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We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

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Aus dem Munde  der gemalten Personen  ließ man  auf alten Bildern  Zettelchen heraushängen, welche als Schrift   die Rede brachten, die  im Bilde  darzustellen  der Maler verzweifelte.
-- Sigmund Freud, Die Traumdeutung (1899)

            The New Yorker, while politically always liberal, is institutionally (thank goodness) one of the most conservative publications in the world.  Since its founding in 1925, it has managed to preserve its look-and-feel, and a great degree of thematic continuity,  all along the heaving changes of the decades. It was founded as a sort of humor magazine, and although it is now one of the most serious, and often somber, witnesses to the great events of the day, it has never abandoned that mission, continuing to publish roughly the same number of single-panel cartoons as before, with similar themes and even similar drawing styles, and continuing to interlard its long thoughtful articles with funny one-pagers.   For long, it was very much an in-house sort of organ, the same stable of writers repeatedly appearing, and the same cartoonists.  If you happened to draw the world’s funniest cartoon ever, and mailed it in to them, they would thank you politely, and in a pinch even use (and pay you for) your idea; but the cartoon itself would have to be redrawn by one of their own artists.  That look-and-feel.
            Relatively recently, the magazine introduced a new genre to their cartooning.  Not simply a new motif  (the desert island, the evolving fish, and all that), but a new way of going about the enterprise.  Namely:  the regular staff supplies an image, the readership comes up with a caption.  A halfway step towards vox populi.
            The results have been all that might be wished, and more.  The magazine evidently has many funny readers.  But the thing to note here is that, unlike most contests – for  the feature is so structured – the winner, as such, is of no interest whatever.  The kick of the thing is in the three finalists, published before the anticlimax of the “winner” is announced:  Three utterly unrelated takes on the challenge of the mute image, often all equally funny. It is a weekly illustration of the truth beautifully embodied in Chesterton’s story “The Honor of Israel Gow”:  There are many ways to connect stars into constellations.  And it is not without implications for epistemology.   (Or for ignorant criticisms of CT, for that matter.)

            More recent still  is a brand of humor housed exclusively on the ‘Net, which we may denote by the title of its entry in the Wikipedia (final arbiter of all things), as “lol-cats”, although not only cats are depicted – one finds also hamsters, hedgehogs, bunnies, and --quite  fruitfully, as it turns out – walri. (Or is it walres -- I can never remember.)  These consist of humorously captioned photographs. Lots and lots and lots of them -- as it were, the stage of the hemi-demi-semi-finalists.
            There is a pale precedent to this genre, in the series of gag books of the early 1960’s titled Who’s in Charge Here.  Those photographs were in black & white, and generally involved political figures.  The fad died, and left no progeny.  Lol-cat derives from other than this.
            The genesis of the lol-cat version of the genre  lies on the Web, probably in the posting of originally uncommented cute photos of pets, which were then typically festooned with a trail of enthusiastic pseudonymous comments, whose semantic content was generally basically “awww”.   (Such is cuteoverload.com.)  The next step was to add brief captions on the photographs themselves.  And with this came a crucial transformation.  Unlike the case with cuteoverload, the photographs as such did not have to be cute.  Many become cute when appropriately labeled; others become rather ironic or what not; yet others start out cute, then become, after captioning, both cute and something beyond that, as with the eerie classic “Headcat is just a head”.  (To see the creature, just Google the phrase.)  At the fringes, this leads to charming but also alarming eisegeses of what lies before our eyes: the “invisible bicycle” motif and its kindred.  As this way of thinking solidifies, trenchant captioned images arise which, only a few months ago, would have made no sense.   This point is crucial:   the art is evolving in tandem with its audience.  As that splendid photograph of a starkly empty room, its only witness a cat, and captioned, “invisible everything”.   Without preparation (as that of the Wu Li master), this makes no sense at all.  Yet the whole of Berkeley’s philosophy is there summarized, along with probably a fair chunk of Zen, and more than a smidgeon of Chestertonian Christianity.

            Further, the fact of naming allows certain cats to pass from the fleeting one-off of cuteoverload – or of life – into new and lasting characters, publically known.  (This essay could as well have been titled Ontologia onomastica.)  Thus, Headcat, Monorailcat, Ceiling Cat (watch what you’re doing when this one’s around), and a menagerie of others.  This result  then serves as input to the next stage of a process increasingly meta: It becomes a goal to uncover other instantiations of the archetype, among the corpus of photographs of actual cats. (Much as the traditional cartoonist strives to think of one more variation on the theme of the castaway on the desert island.)  Another set of meta-endeavors is the search for illustrations of certain snowclones (for which again see the Wikipedia, which knows all) – statement templates such as “I’m in ur X, Ying your Z “ (the most recent addition to the corpus).  The whole enterprise thus becomes richly layered and self-organizing, despite its anarchic origin among anonymous people unknown to one another  and probably residing in their parents’ basements.
            Equally noteworthy is the emergence – the rapid emergence of what can only be called, in strict literary-folkloristic orthodoxy, a number of new motifs.  This is a very rich addition.  There are only so many motifs around, and most of them go back to Homer.  Thus to begin with:  A sort of ur-motif is the symbol of the transitory pleasures of what Aristotle would have termed the anima vegetiva – basically, your inner Wimpy – here embodied in the familiar cheeseburger.   (The premier lol-cat site, icanhascheezburger.com, is named for this item.)  Superficially similar, but upon analysis  richly different, is the bucket motif.  This had its origin in a pair of photographs, which anyone might have taken at some aquarium park, and which – prior to the phenomenon now under discussion --  would have been glanced at by half a dozen people in one of those how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation sessions, and quickly forgotten.  (You can view them here:
The former depicts an enormous walrus (one had forgotten quite how large those creatures are), clutching a blue bucket in its feathery-flippery forepaw (blue, as in the blaue Blume), commenting, “I has my bucket.”  In the latter, he appears again, now with a pink-mouthed expression of quite exquisite alarm, apparently being deprived of said bucket (though it is really only the caption, “Noooo, they be stealin’ my bucket!”, that gives rise to this interpretation).  The result has been the ongoing “Bucket Saga”, in which our hefty hero goes off in winsome and persistent search of the lost bucket. The title saga is well-earned, for it can stand with honor beside those of the Norse.  Indeed I shall go further, and declare, that it is the latest oiketype of that most precellent ur-motif, the Holy Grail (itself the resurrected body of the Golden Fleece), and as such it helps to re-enchant the world.

            What to make of it all?  The first thing to observe, at the merely atomistic-statistical level, is that there are a lot of funny people out there.  The next thing is that the resulting level of humor is a non-linear function of the individual inputs: It grows into something unpredictably greater than it began.   Next, the resulting corpus provides a wormhole-way-in to a number of other online miniverses, via  for instance  the use (in the caption context) of much of the shorthand that grew up in other venues (omg, wtf, ftw, kthnxbai), the which, if baffled, you can look up in the Urban Dictionary.  And finally, this phenomenon is one more instance of the Scissors Effect (so dubbed, I believe, with regard to  and during the era of Sovietization):  as the scissors widen, they widen most quickly at the tips.  For the rest of the world, it’s tragic.  Is there any equivalent to such a publically available embodiment of this (partially new) brand of humor, even a demi-buttocked mini-equivalent, in French – German – Arabic -- Vietnamese?   Assuming that, percentagewise, there are just as many humorous Frenchmen or Danes, as Americans… Actually I do not assume that.  The anglophone nations, and America increasingly in particular,  have long led the world  in certain areas  even before the Internet provided the snowball of synergy: cartoons (both humorous and political), children’s books, and possibly humor overall.  (Not, to be sure, in the genre of the witty epigram.  Several nations outdo us there.)  But even were there such percentages, the endogenous developments would lag: there might be individually brilliant quips, but the metalayer that grows out of the mass of contributions, ungoverned by any one individual, would be slow to accrete.

            Well!  There we are.  A day’s work done.  Time to relax with – Ceiling Cat, you get down from there!

[May 2007]

Pour d’autres friandises
de la confiserie 
du docteur Justice,

[appendix  August 2007]

It is a bracing fact, that a lot of digital activity (whether online or on DVDs) is becoming in effect *more scholarly*.  You can no more understand the more recent lolcat captions without knowing the previous ones (along with a vast amount of popular phraseology, much of it, like "headdesk" or "wet willy", I first encountered on that site), any more than Chaucer's audience could catch it all without knowing their Homer and their Ovid. 

Likewise, the extraordinarily ambitious (and, what I've read of it, quite well done) lolcat Bible, would in many places not be funny, even make no sense at all, unless you knew the original.  It will literally have the effect of sending many people back to their Bibles -- but in a light-hearted frame of mind, appropriate indeed in this age when we have received the Good News.

[update March 2013]  The weekly New Yorker caption-this-drawing contest  presented a cat at a mousehole (the standard, generous entrance, in the shape of a semi-circular arch), confronted by a mouse with a pistol.   The readers had a couple of weeks to think about it.
And then, as usual, three entries -- but "one led all the rest":

Six bullets.  Nine lives.  You do the math.

That was funny, but more than that, it has the aspect of the solution to a puzzle -- like a chess-problem or mathematical brain-teaser.  Other funny captions could be invented, but none would fit the enigma of the picture  like a key in a lock.


  1. Well, sorry to comment on a mere aside, but:

    >Well, vox populi, vox dei, as the (untrue) saying goes.


    This maxim summarizes the very essence of *Catholicity* in its purest definition, which, as with all good things, is also in Latin:

    Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est.
    What always, what everywhere, what by everyone was believed in."
    (St. Vincent of Lerins [died AD 445])

    Now, a clericalizing tendency in the West predisposed that lung of the Church to an ill-placed trust in institutional authority figures.

    This is why, when priests in northern Germany in the 16th century abolished valid forms of true religion, the people did not burn them at the stake.

    Had a priest in 16th century Russia suggested that we ought not to pray for the dead, that old woman in the corner burning candles would have personally cut his heart out with a spoon.

  2. Ah! I stand corrected. Vox ecclesiae…
    When I wrote “untrue”, I had principally in mind, talk radio.
    Yet gemlike, the old saying has facets; and Dr. Massey has displayed its shining side.
    So we amend: Vox populi, vox dei -- *interdum*.