Do Cats Know They Rule YouTube? Surveillance and the Pleasures of Cat Videos

Radha O'Meara

Abstract


Did you see the videos where the cat jumps in the box, attacks the printer or tries to leap from the snowy car? As the availability and popularity of watching videos on the Internet has risen rapidly in the last decade, so has the prevalence of cat videos. Although the cuteness of YouTube videos of cats might make them appear frivolous, in fact there is a significant irony at their heart: online cat videos enable corporate surveillance of viewers, yet viewers seem just as oblivious to this as the cats featured in the videos.

Towards this end, I consider the distinguishing features of contemporary cat videos, focusing particularly on their narrative structure and mode of observation. I compare cat videos with the “Aesthetic of Astonishment” of early cinema and with dog videos, to explore the nexus of a spectatorship of thrills and feline performance. In particular, I highlight a unique characteristic of these videos: the cats’ unselfconsciousness. This, I argue, is rare in a consumer culture dominated by surveillance, where we are constantly aware of the potential for being watched. The unselfconsciousness of cats in online videos offers viewers two key pleasures: to imagine the possibility of freedom from surveillance, and to experience the power of administering surveillance as unproblematic. Ultimately, however, cat videos enable viewers to facilitate our own surveillance, and we do so with the gleeful abandon of a kitten jumping in a tissue box

What Distinguishes Cat Videos?

Cat videos have become so popular, that they generate millions of views on YouTube, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis now holds an annual Internet Cat Video Festival. If you are not already a fan of the genre, the Walker’s promotional videos for the festival (2013 and 2012) provide an entertaining introduction to the celebrities (Lil Bub, Grumpy Cat, and Henri), canon (dancing cats, surprised cat, and cat falling off counter), culture and commodities of online cat videos, despite repositioning them into a public exhibition context.

Cats are often said to dominate the internet (Hepola), despite the surprise of Internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee. Domestic cats are currently the most popular pet in the world (Driscoll), however they are already outnumbered by smartphones. Cats have played various roles in our societies, cultures and imaginations since their domestication some 8-10,000 years ago (Driscoll). A potent social and cultural symbol in mythology, art and popular culture, the historical and cultural significance of cats is complex, shifting and often contradictory. They have made their way across geographic, cultural and class boundaries, and been associated with the sacred and the occult, femininity and fertility, monstrosity and domesticity (Driscoll, Rogers). Cats are figured as both inscrutable and bounteously polysemic. Current representations of cats, including these videos, seem to emphasise their sociability with humans, association with domestic space, independence and aloofness, and intelligence and secretiveness.

I am interested in what distinguishes the pleasures of cat videos from other manifestations of cats in folklore and popular culture such as maneki-neko and fictional cats. Even within Internet culture, I’m focusing on live action cat videos, rather than lolcats, animated cats, or dog videos, though these are useful points of contrast. The Walker’s cat video primer also introduces us to the popular discourses accounting for the widespread appeal of these videos: cats have global reach beyond language, audiences can project their own thoughts and feelings onto cats, cats are cute, and they make people feel good.  These discourses circulate in popular conversation, and are promoted by YouTube itself. These suggestions do not seem to account for the specific pleasures of cat videos, beyond the predominance of cats in culture more broadly.

The cat videos popular on the Internet tend to feature several key characteristics. They are generated by users, shot on a mobile device such as a phone, and set in a domestic environment. They employ an observational mode, which Bill Nichols has described as a noninterventionist type of documentary film associated with traditions of direct cinema and cinema verite, where form and style yields to the profilmic event. In the spirit of their observational mode, cat videos feature minimal sound and language, negligible editing and short duration. As Leah Shafer notes, cat videos record, “’live’ events, they are mostly shot by ‘amateurs’ with access to emerging technologies, and they dramatize the familiar.”

For example, the one-minute video Cat vs Printer comprises a single, hand-held shot observing the cat, and the action is underlined by the printer’s beep and the sounds created by the cat’s movements. The patterned wallpaper suggests a domestic location, and the presence of the cat itself symbolises domesticity. These features typically combine to produce impressions of universality, intimacy and spontaneity – impressions commonly labelled ‘cute’. The cat’s cuteness is also embodied in its confusion and surprise at the printer’s movements: it is a simpleton, and we can laugh at its lack of understanding of the basic appurtenances of the modern world.

Cat videos present minimalist narratives, focused on an instant of spectacle. A typical cat video establishes a state of calm, then suddenly disrupts it. The cat is usually the active agent of change, though chance also frequently plays a significant role. The pervasiveness of this structure means that viewers familiar with the form may even anticipate a serendipitous event. The disruption prompts a surprising or comic effect for the viewer, and this is a key part of the video’s pleasure.

For example, in Cat vs Printer, the establishing scenario is the cat intently watching the printer, a presumably quotidian scene, which escalates when the cat begins to smack the moving paper. The narrative climaxes in the final two seconds of the video, when the cat strikes the paper so hard that the printer tray bounces, and the surprised cat falls off its stool. The video ends abruptly. This disruption also takes the viewer by surprise (at least it does the first time you watch it). The terse ending, and lack of resolution or denouement, encourages the viewer to replay the video. The minimal narrative effectively builds expectation for a moment of surprise.

These characteristics of style and form typify a popular body of work, though there is variation, and the millions of cat videos on YouTube might be best accounted for by various subgenres. The most popular cat videos seem to have the most sudden and striking disruptions as well as the most abrupt endings. They seem the most dramatic and spontaneous. There are also thousands of cat videos with minor disruptions, and some with brazenly staged events. Increasingly, there is obvious use of postproduction techniques, including editing and music. A growing preponderance of compilations attests to the videos’ “spreadability” (Jenkins, Ford, and Green).

The conventional formal structure of these videos effectively homogenises the cat, as if there is a single cat performing in millions of videos. Indeed, YouTube comments often suggest a likeness between the cat represented in the video and the commenter’s own cat. In this sense, the cuteness so readily identified has an homogenising effect. It also has the effect of distinguishing cats as a species from other animals, as it confounds common conceptions of all (other) animals as fundamentally alike in their essential difference from the human (animal). Cat videos are often appreciated for what they reveal about cats in general, rather than for each cat’s individuality. In this way, cat videos symbolise a generic feline cuteness, rather than identify a particular cat as cute. The cats of YouTube act “as an allegory for all the cats of the earth, the felines that traverse myths and religions, literature and fables” (Derrida 374). Each cat swiping objects off shelves, stealing the bed of a dog, leaping onto a kitchen bench is the paradigmatic cat, the species exemplar.

Mode of Spectatorship, Mode of Performance: Cat Videos, Film History and Dog Videos

Cat videos share some common features with early cinema.  In his analysis of the “Aesthetic of Astonishment,” which dominated films until about 1904, film historian Tom Gunning argues that the short, single shot films of this era are characterised by exciting audience curiosity and fulfilling it with visual shocks and thrills.

It is easy to see how this might describe the experience of watching Cat vs Printer or Thomas Edison’s Electrocution of an Elephant from 1903. The thrill of revelation at the end of Cat vs Printer is more significant than the minimal narrative it completes, and the most popular videos seem to heighten this shock. Further, like a rainy afternoon spent clicking the play button on a sequence of YouTube’s suggested videos, these early short films were also viewed in variety format as a series of attractions. Indeed, as Leah Shafer notes, some of these early films even featured cats, such as Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats from 1894.  Each film offered a moment of spectacle, which thrilled the modern viewer.

Gunning argues that these early films are distinguished by a particular relationship between spectator and film. They display blatant exhibitionism, and address their viewer directly. This highlights the thrill of disruption: “The directness of this act of display allows an emphasis on the thrill itself – the immediate reaction of the viewer” (Gunning “Astonishment” 122).  This is produced both within the staging of the film itself as players look directly at the camera, and by the mode of exhibition, where a showman primes the audience verbally for a moment of revelation.

Importantly, Gunning argues that this mode of spectatorship differs from how viewers watch narrative films, which later came to dominate our film and television screens: “These early films explicitly acknowledge their spectator, seeming to reach outwards and confront. Contemplative absorption is impossible here” (“Astonishment” 123).

Gunning’s emphasis on a particular mode of spectatorship is significant for our understanding of pet videos.  His description of early cinema has numerous similarities with cat videos, to be sure, but seems to describe more precisely the mode of spectatorship engendered by typical dog videos.  Dog videos are also popular online, and are marked by a mode of performance, where the dogs seem to present self-consciously for the camera.  Dogs often appear to look at the camera directly, although they are probably actually reading the eyes of the camera operator.

One of the most popular dog videos, Ultimate dog tease, features a dog who appears to look into the camera and engage in conversation with the camera operator.  It has the same domestic setting, mobile camera and short duration as the typical cat video, but, unlike the cat attacking the printer, this dog is clearly aware of being watched. Like the exhibitionistic “Cinema of Attractions,” it is marked by “the recurring look at the camera by [canine] actors.  This action which is later perceived as spoiling the realistic illusion of the cinema, is here undertaken with brio, establishing contact with the audience” (Gunning “Attractions” 64).

Dog videos frequently feature dogs performing on command, such as the countless iterations of dogs fetching beverages from refrigerators, or at least behaving predictably, such as dogs jumping in the bath.  Indeed, the scenario often seems to be set up, whereas cat videos more often seem to be captured fortuitously. The humour of dog videos often comes from the very predictability of their behaviour, such as repeatedly fetching or rolling in mud. In an ultimate performance of self-consciousness, dogs even seem to act out guilt and shame for their observers.  Similarly, baby videos are also popular online and were popular in early cinema, and babies also tend to look at the camera directly, showing that they are aware of bring watched.

This emphasis on exhibitionism and modes of spectatorship helps us hone in on the uniqueness of cat videos. Unlike the dogs of YouTube, cats typically seem unaware of their observers; they refuse to look at the camera and “display their visibility” (Gunning “Attractions,” 64). This fits with popular discourses of cats as independent and aloof, untrainable and untameable.  Cat videos employ a unique mode of observation: we observe the cat, who is unencumbered by our scrutiny.

Feline Performance in a World of Pervasive Surveillance

This is an aesthetic of surveillance without inhibition, which heightens the impressions of immediacy and authenticity. The very existence of so many cat videos online is a consequence of camera ubiquity, where video cameras have become integrated with common communications devices. Thousands of cameras are constantly ready to capture these quotidian scenes, and feed the massive economy of user-generated content. Cat videos are obviously created and distributed by humans, a purposeful labour to produce entertainment for viewers.

Cat videos are never simply a feline performance, but a performance of human interaction with the cat. The human act of observation is an active engagement with the other. Further, the act of recording is a performance of wielding the camera, and often also through image or voice. The cat video is a companion performance, which is part of an ongoing relationship between that human and that other animal. It carries strong associations with regimes of epistemological power and physical domination through histories of visual study, mastery and colonisation.

The activity of the human creator seems to contrast with the behaviour of the cat in these videos, who appears unaware of being watched. The cats’ apparent uninhibited behaviour gives the viewer the illusion of voyeuristically catching a glimpse of a self-sufficient world. It carries connotations of authenticity, as the appearance of interaction and intervention is minimised, like the ideal of ‘fly on the wall’ documentary (Nichols). This lack of self-consciousness and sense of authenticity are key to their reception as ‘cute’ videos. Interestingly, one of the reasons that audiences may find this mode of observation so accessible and engaging, is because it heeds the conventions of the fourth wall in the dominant style of fiction film and television, which presents an hermetically sealed diegesis.

This unselfconscious performance of cats in online videos is key, because it embodies a complex relationship with the surveillance that dominates contemporary culture. David Lyon describes surveillance as “any focused attention to personal details for the purposes of influence, management, or control” (“Everyday” 1) and Mark Andrejevic defines monitoring as “the collection of information, with or without the knowledge of users, that has actual or speculative economic value” (“Enclosure” 297). We live in an environment where social control is based on information, collected and crunched by governments, corporations, our peers, and ourselves.

The rampancy of surveillance has increased in recent decades in a number of ways. Firstly, technological advances have made the recording, sorting and analysis of data more readily available. Although we might be particularly aware of the gaze of the camera when we stand in line at the supermarket checkout or have an iPhone pointed at our face, many surveillance technologies are hidden points of data collection, which track our grocery purchases, text messages to family and online viewing. Surveillance is increasingly mediated through digital technologies. Secondly, surveillance data is becoming increasingly privatised and monetised, so there is strengthening market demand for consumer information. Finally, surveillance was once associated chiefly with institutions of the state, or with corporations, but the process is increasingly “lateral,” involving peer-to-peer surveillance and self-surveillance in the realms of leisure and domestic life (Andrejevic “Enclosure,” 301). Cat videos occupy a fascinating position within this context of pervasive surveillance, and offer complex thrills for audiences.

The Unselfconscious Pleasures of Cat Videos

Unselfconsciousness of feline performance in cat videos invites contradictory pleasures. Firstly, cat videos offer viewers the fantasy of escaping surveillance. The disciplinary effect of surveillance means that we modify our behaviour based on a presumption of constant observation; we are managed and manipulated as much by ourselves as we are by others. This discipline is the defining condition of industrial society, as described by Foucault. In an age of traffic cameras, Big Brother, CCTV, the selfie pout, and Google Glass, modern subjects are oppressed by the weight of observation to constantly manage their personal performance.

Unselfconsciousness is associated with privacy, intimacy, naivety and, increasingly, with impossibility. By allowing us to project onto the experience of their protagonists, cat videos invite us to imagine a world where we are not constantly aware of being watched, of being under surveillance by both human beings and technology. This projection is enabled by discourse, which constructs cats as independent and aloof, a libertarian ideal. It provides the potential for liberation from technologized social surveillance, and from the concomitant self-discipline of our docile bodies. The uninhibited performance of cats in online videos offers viewers the prospect that it is possible to live without the gaze of surveillance. Through cat videos, we celebrate the untameable.

Cats model a liberated uninhibitedness viewers can only desire. The apparent unselfconsciousness of feline performance is analogous to Derrida’s conception of animal nakedness: the nudity of animals is significant, because it is a key feature which distinguishes them from humans, but at the same time there is no sense of the concept of nakedness outside of human culture.  Similarly, a performance uninhibited by observation seems beyond humans in contemporary culture, and implies a freedom from social expectations, but there is also little suggestion that cats would act differently if they knew they were observed. We interpret cats’ independence as natural, and take pleasure in cats’ naturalness. This lack of inhibition is cute in the sense that it is attractive to the viewer, but also in the sense that it is naïve to imagine a world beyond surveillance, a freedom from being watched.

Secondly, we take pleasure in the power of observing another. Surveillance is based on asymmetrical regimes of power, and the position of observer, recorder, collator is usually more powerful than the subject of their gaze. We enjoy the pleasure of wielding the unequal gaze, whether we hit the “record” button ourselves or just the “play” button. In this way, we celebrate our capacity to contain the cat, who has historically proven conceptually uncontainable.

Yet, the cats’ unselfconsciousness means we can absolve ourselves of their exploitation. Looking back at the observer, or the camera, is often interpreted as a confrontational move. Cats in videos do not confront their viewer, do not resist the gaze thrown on them. They accept the role of subject without protest; they perform cuteness without resistance. We internalise the strategies of surveillance so deeply that we emulate its practices in our intimate relationships with domestic animals.

Cats do not glare back at us, accusingly, as dogs do, to remind us we are exerting power over them. The lack of inhibition of cats in online videos means that we can exercise the power of surveillance without confronting the oppression this implies. Cat videos offer the illusion of watching the other without disturbing it, brandishing the weapon without acknowledging the violence of its impact. There is a logical tension between these dual pleasures of cat videos: we want to escape surveillance, while exerting it.

The Work of Cat Videos in ‘Liquid Surveillance’

These contradictory pleasures in fact speak to the complicated nature of surveillance in the era of “produsage,” when the value chain of media has transformed along with traditional roles of production and consumption (Bruns). Christian Fuchs argues that the contemporary media environment has complicated the dynamics of surveillance, and blurred the lines between subject and object (304). We both create and consume cat videos; we are commodified as audience and sold on as data.

YouTube is the most popular site for sharing cat videos, and a subsidiary of Google, the world’s most visited website and a company which makes billions of dollars from gathering, collating, storing, assessing, and trading our data. While we watch cat videos on YouTube, they are also harvesting information about our every click, collating it with our other online behaviour, targeting ads at us based on our specific profile, and also selling this data on to others.

YouTube is, in fact, a key tool of what David Lyon calls “liquid surveillance” after the work of Zygmunt Bauman, because it participates in the reduction of millions of bodies into data circulating at the service of consumer society (Lyon “Liquid”).  Your views of cats purring and pouncing are counted and monetised, you are profiled and targeted for further consumption. YouTube did not create the imbalance of power implied by these mechanisms of surveillance, but it is instrumental in automating, amplifying, and extending this power (Andrejevic “Lateral,” 396).

Zygmunt Bauman argues that in consumer society we are increasingly seduced to willingly subject ourselves to surveillance (Lyon “Liquid”), and who better than the cute kitty to seduce us? Our increasingly active role in “produsage” media platforms such as YouTube enables us to perform what Andrejevic calls “the work of being watched” (“Work”). When we upload, play, view, like and comment on cat videos, we facilitate our own surveillance.

We watch cat videos for the contradictory pleasures they offer us, as we navigate and negotiate the overwhelming surveillance of consumer society. Cat videos remind us of the perpetual possibility of observation, and suggest the prospect of escaping it.

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Keywords


cat; video; pet; animal; media; YouTube; cinema of attractions; Gunning; surveillance; consumer culture; user generated content; UGC



Copyright (c) 2014 Radha O'Meara

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