I had this professor in college who was a Marxist. A real Marxist! I didn’t know they still existed. He had this intense look and a wild, white beard that made him look like an Old Testament prophet. I’m pretty thoroughly non-Marxist, but he was still the best graduate professor I’ve ever had. I took three classes from him.

Anyway, he explained this theory about genre entertainment that is adapted from the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Jacques Lacan, and Fredric Jameson. It went something like this:

Most of us have anxieties in our daily lives that we don’t have an easy solution to. For example, stress or huge responsibilities. As a result, Freud argued, we will often have anxiety dreams—dreams which symbolically depict our abstract problems in a concrete form. So, the abstract problem of high stress in your life gets manifested concretely in a dream about your teeth shattering. Being naked in public in your dream suggests some insecurities in your social setting; falling from a great height suggests overwhelming decisions facing you; running in a maze you can’t escape suggests you have problems you don’t know how to resolve.

Now here’s the kicker. What if entertainment—mass entertainment, genre entertainment—functions for society the same way dreams do for the individuals? “Whoa!”—Keanu Reeves. Thus, if you take a look at what mass entertainment is popular in an era of culture, you will get a grasp on the culture’s irresolvable anxieties. So, the monster movies of the ‘60s suggest the anxieties of nuclear world with the Soviet bloc; the lavish, graceful Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire musicals of the Great Depression era were symbolic resolutions from the anxiety of being trapped in poverty. My professor noted that sales of dystopian and utopian science-fiction rose when economic times were bad and receded when they were good.

I bring this up to talk about cat videos and the Internet. What deep culture anxieties does our obsession with cat videos suggest?

(Standing cat video via Ohhaveyouseenthis. Thanks for the cat burglar tip, Njoy, Brad O’Farrell, Amber.)

Comments (45)
  1. I guess we now know why Snooky punched that baby. It’s good to be able to see the full picture.

  2. That metronome sure got a beat down.

  3. Well now I’m anxious that a cat’s gonna steal all my stuff.

  4. All these cat videos are making dogs overachieve:

  5. I for one am terrified that I am not seeing enough cute!

    But for real, excellent post. Maybe cute cat videos are an answer to the ugliness that surrounds us in our day to day lives? I have been watching a dancing goat video all day to soothe the anger and rage and sadness and other emotions elicited through reading the news.

    • Cats are smart enough to personify, but still cute and in awe of the world enough that we can vicariously not think about the horrible things going on all around us every day while watching them.

      At least that’s why I keep *my* around. I can’t think about the piles of school work I should be doing when I’m asking her who’s the cutest baby girl in the whole wide world! (*She* is! Yes she is!)

    • Sadly, I could not find a gif of the dancing goats video. But I did find a gif of a sheep surfing.

  6. “Shoes, socks, toys, a newborn’s soul, bathing suits…”

  7. I think our obsession with cat videos is that cats are us as we wish we could be. They are free to spend all day napping. They can spend hours fascinated by minutiae without incurring the wrath of superiors/significant others. They are free to destroy furniture with minimal punishment. They do not show affection unless it’s in their interest. Also, they fart with impunity and someone else disposes of their poop.

  8. This is what you need.

  9. I think you’ve got it backwards, werttrew.

    My irresolvable anxieties are manifested directly from what society chooses to be its mass entertainment.

  10. I, for one, have always been obsessed with kitties…in good times, and in bad.

  11. We have a collective cultural desire to be simultaneously adorable and aloof. We harbor anxieties of being unlovable and needy.

    Please upvote me.

  12. Our cultural obsession with cute cat videos reflects our societies fear in the face of its own fracturing. Where once families ate together and raised children together, now we all have our own television, and Zune, and computer and are isolated from one another and the cat video provides a central focus, bringing us together so that we can all feel the same about the same things again and feel that we are not disconnected, that we have some shared values across social, racial and gender lines.

    PSYCHE!

    Cats are just cute and shit.

  13. Our culture fears its increasing fragmentation. Where families once gathered together to prepare meals and raise children and work and worship, now we are detached and each have our own television, cell phone, Zune and computer. We are isolated and alone. We as a culture are drawn to cute cat videos as they are something that unites us, across racial, economic, gender and educational lines. It is the one thing we can agree on.

    PSYCHE!

    Cats are cute and shit.

  14. My anxieties always tend to fluctuate perpetually, not unlike a metronome. Deeper existential worries are fueled by the stress of the mundane. I can go from worrying that I forgot to lock the back door to asking questioning the reason for my existence pretty quickly. These tend to happen during the moments in between: walking the dog or a long commute. It can almost be paralyzing during the worst of it. But soon enough I calm myself down, comforted in the fact that my anxieties do nothing to better any situation. I tell myself that to be afraid is to be human and that even our most personal worries unite us as a species.

    It works for a while, or at least until the dog needs another walk or I get stuck in traffic. Even then, the fluctuation itself can be soothing. Back and forth. Back and forth, not unlike a corgi on a swing.

  15. After emo got co-opted by 13-year-olds somewhere around the year 2000, it’s become increasingly uncool for adults to have negative feelings. I watch cute videos to anaesthetize myself so I don’t accidentally express anything unpleasant ever.

  16. Talking about dreams and cats makes me think of this.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLDSE7RHvno&feature=related

    Just wait for the kick.

  17. Sometimes, a cat video is just a cat video.

  18. I, being unadorable, worry constantly about being adorable, whereas cats, being adorable, worry not at all, and, as a result, are.


  19. So what does it mean if I dream about this cat every night after viewing cat videos intermittently throughout the day?

  20. Thanks for the good belly laugh. I understand that good belly laughs are good therapy for whatever ails you. This one is wonderfully hilarious.

  21. It’s cat videos. Anything can be anything.

    Boom, solved

  22. I’m a Marxist, and a professor. Go figure.

  23. I’m going to be serious here and say that this internet cat obsession is related to the whole pet obsession which is due to people’s increasing self-obsession (probably due to heavy reliance on technology) and unwillingness to compromise in relationships with humans so a relationship with an animal is, in contrast, much more appealing.

    Or it could mean NOTHING AT ALL.

  24. Evolutionarily speaking (and like humans) cats are lucky. They’re smart and agile enough to avoid danger, smart and agile AND big enough to snare lots of high-protein food. Which last fact allows them lots of leisure time. Much like humans. We identify with them.

    But unlike humans, they aren’t burdened with a conscience. Unlike with humans, the universe sends them NO pangs of guilt, ever. Like, if a person is physically able to be cat-lazy AND they’re smart enough to know how much harder other creatures have it, they feel bad about it, usually. Cats have no such qualms.

    Humans amuse themselves with the stupidity of cats, because what else do we have over cats? That’s the only way we can gloat. This saddens a many of us. And so of cats we dream.

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