For a long time, we have been accustomed to talk about cats. They wander the streets, they live in our homes, and they populate the internet in the form of images and videos. While the latter is admittedly a new phenomenon, it does nothing to shake our firm opinion that cats have existed from time immemorial.
In reality, the cat is a recent invention, which only came into existence within the last two decades. This is not to say that animals with certain identifiable anatomical and physiological features did not exist prior to the late 1990s. Doubtless, people kept these creatures as pets, employed them to hunt mice, left food out for them. Yet what we know today as cat is an unheard-of innovation, which has shaken the entire Western episteme to its core.
The cat’s genealogy is not to be traced through the familiar apparatus of the zoological chart, which would place the feline genus among the mammals. Instead, we must turn to the series of shifts in the technological field that, while small in themselves, converged to create an entirely new regime of feline visibility — an epochal shift that would bring these private household animals into the public sphere for the first time, constituting a radical new concept of cat within whose horizon we still in some way live.
I am speaking, of course, of the deployment of the camera phone. What must be called the camerafication of the cell phone was at first doubtless a marketing gimmick, an attempt to distinguish certain phones from others by providing a differentiating feature that was meaningless and even useless in itself. Who, after all, had any need of a camera on a day-to-day basis? We ask this in all innocence, as though the camera was a familiar tool. We behave as though we can trace a steady development of the camera from its earliest “precursors” over a century ago, through to the handheld model, the Polaroid, the disposable camera, and its digital model. What we are accustomed to view as a gradual accretion of “features” and “capabilities” on a tool whose concept and nature remain constant, is in actuality a history of ruptures, breaks, disruptions, unexpected redeployments — of which what we could also call the phonification of the camera is only the latest and surely not the last.
It would require a quasi-infinite investigation to detail all the many shifts in the history of that related but not identical technology that we call the “picture” — all the discourses surrounding the distribution and visibility of pictures, the power-knowledge that invests their production and dissemination in the form of family albums, newspapers, old shoeboxes, bulletin boards, magazines, and all the other apparatuses that provide us with access to what we know as “pictures.” The decisive step in our genealogy of the “cat” is the deployment of “sharing” in the digital realm.
With the advent of “photo sharing services,” wholly new forms of display opened up, entire regimes of the ocular. And what did we share but our very cats. Those animals that had once been a byword for isolation — and here one would need to trace the vast and complex history of the deployment of the “cat lady” in the field of discourse — were now sharability itself. The cat as we know it was born.
We are the first generation to castigate ourselves for taking so many photos of our cats. The appeal of the figure of the “cat” is seemingly irresistible even as it seems trivial or even risible. The cat is put forward as our savior from boredom — at work, during lectures, on the subway — when in reality the entire technology of the cat is a deployment and production of boredom. And even when we finish reading this blog post, it is likely that we will turn to yet more pictures of “cats.”