Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Seeing Like A Cat

Cats and dogs are the most familiar among the animal archetypes inhabiting the human imagination. They are to popular modern culture what the fox and the hedgehog are to high culture, and what farm animals like cows and sheep were to agrarian cultures. They also differ from foxes, hedgehogs, sheep and cows in an important way: nearly all of us have directly interacted with real cats and dogs.

The Truth about Cats and Dogs

I am a cat person, not in the sense of liking cats more (though I do), but actually being more catlike than doglike. Humans are more complex than either species; we are the products of the tension between our dog-like and cat-like instincts. We do both sociability and individualism in more complicated ways than our two friends; call it hyper-dogginess plus hyper-cattiness. That is why reductively mapping yourself exclusively to one or the other is such a useful exercise. You develop a more focused self-awareness about who you really are.

Our language is full of dog and cat references. Dogs populate our understanding of social dynamics: conflict, competition, dominance, slavery, mastery, belonging and otherness:

Finance is a dog-eat-dog world
He’s the alpha-dog/underdog around here
He’s a pit bull
Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka, na ghat ka (trans: “the washerman’s dog belongs neither at the riverbank, nor at the house;” i.e. a social misfit everywhere)
He follows her around like a dog
He looks at his boss with dog-like devotion

Cat references speak to individualism, play, opportunism, risk, comfort, mystery, luck and curiosity

A cat may look at a king
She curled up like a cat
A cat has nine lives
Managing this team is like herding cats
Look what the cat dragged in
It’s a cat-and-mouse game
Curiosity killed the cat

There is a dark side to each: viciousness and deliberate cruelty (dogs), coldness and lack of empathy (cats). We also like to use the idealized cat-dog polarity to illuminate our understanding of deep conflicts: they are going at it like cats and dogs. Curiously, though the domestic cat is a far less threatening animal than the domestic dog (wolf vs. tiger is a different story), we are able to develop contempt for certain dog-archetypes, but not for cat-archetypes. You can’t really insult someone in any culture by calling him/her a cat (to my knowledge). But there is fear associated with cats (witches, black cats for bad luck) in every culture. Much of this fear, I believe, arises from the cat’s clear indifference to our assumptions about our own species-superiority and intra-species status.

That point is clearly illustrated in the pair of opposites he looks at his boss with dog-like devotion/a cat may look at a king. The latter is my favorite cat-proverb. It gets to the heart of what is special about the cat as an archetype: being not oblivious, but indifferent to ascriptive authority and social status. You can wear fancy robes and a crown and be declared King by all the dogs, but a cat will still look quizzically at you, trying to assess whether the intrinsic you, as opposed to the socially situated, extrinsic you, is interesting. Like the child, the cat sees through the Emperor’s lack of clothes.

Our ability to impress and intimidate is mostly inherited from ascriptive social status rather than actual competence or power. Cats call our bluff, and scare us psychologically. Dogs validate what cats ignore. But it is this very act of validating the unreal that actually creates an economy of dog-power, expressed outside the dog society as the power of collective, coordinated action. Dogs create society by believing it exists.

In the Canine-Feline Mirror

We map ourselves to these two species by picking out, exaggerating and idealizing certain real cat and dog behaviors. In the process, we reveal more about ourselves than either cats or dogs. Cats are loyal to places, dogs to people is an observation that is more true of people than either dogs or cats. Just substitute interest in the limited human sphere (the globalized world of gossipy, politicky, watercoolerized, historicized and CNNized human society; feebly ennobled as “humanism”) versus the entire universe (physical reality, quarks, ketchup, ideas, garbage, container ships, art, history, humans-drawn-to-scale). There are plenty of such dichotomous observations. A particularly perceptive one is this: dog-people think dogs are smarter than cats because they learn to obey commands and do tricks; cat-people think cats are smarter for the exact same reason. Substitute interest in degrees, medals, awards, brands and titles versus interest in snowflakes and Saturn’s rings. I don’t mean to be derisive here: medals and titles are only unreal to cats. Remember, dogs make them real by believing they are real. They lend substance to the ephemeral through belief.

Cat-people, incidentally, can develop a pragmatic understanding of the value of dog-society things even if deep down they are puzzled by them. You can get that degree and title while being ironic about it. Of course, if you never break out and go cat-like at some point, you will be a de facto dog (check out the hilarious Onion piece a commenter on this blog pointed out a while back: Why can’t anyone tell I am wearing this suit ironically?).

But let’s get to the most interesting thing about cats, an observation that led to the title of this article. My copy of the The Encyclopedia of the Cat says:

It is not entirely frivolous to suggest that whereas pet dogs tend to regard themselves as humans and part of the human pack, the owner being the pack leader, cats regard the humans in the household as other cats. In many ways they behave towards people as they would towards other kittens in the nest, ‘grooming’ them, snuggling up with them, and communicating with them in the ways that they would use with other cats.

There is in fact an evolutionary theory that while humans deliberately domesticated wild dogs, cats self-domesticated by figuring out that hanging around humans led to safety and plenty.

I want to point out one implication of these two observations: cats aren’t unsociable. They just use lazy mental models for the species-society they find themselves in: projecting themselves onto every other being they relate to, rather than obsessing over distinctions. They only devote as much brain power to social thinking as is necessary to get what they want. The rest of their attention is free to look, with characteristic curiosity, at the rest of the universe.

To summarize, dog identities are largely socially constructed, in-species (actual or adopted, which is why the reverse-pet “raised by wolves” sort of story makes sense). Cat identities are universe-constructed. Which brings us to a quote from Kant (I think).

Personal History, Identity and Perception

It was Kant, I believe, who said, we see not what is, but who we are. We don’t start out this way, but as our world-views form by accretion, each new layer is constructed out of new perceptions filtered and distorted by existing layers. As we mature, we get to the state Kant describes, where identity overwhelms perception altogether, and everything we see reinforces the inertia of who we are, sometimes leading to complete philosophical blindness. Neither cats, nor dogs can resist this inevitability, this brain-entropy, but our personalities drive us to seek different kinds of perceptions to fuel our identity-construction.

Dogs, and dog-like people end up with socially-constructed, largely extrinsic identities because that’s what they pay attention to as they mature: other individuals. People to be like, people to avoid being like. It is at once a homogenizing and stratifying kind of focus; it creates out of self-fulfilling beliefs an identity mountain capped by Ken and Barbie dolls, with foothills populated by hopeless, upward-gazing peripheral Others, who must either continue the climb or mutiny.

Cats and cat-like people though, simply aren’t autocentric/species-centeric (anthropomorphic, canino-morphic and felino-morphic). Wherever they are on the identity mountain believed into existence by dogs, they are looking outwards, not at the mountain itself. They are driven to look at everything from quarks to black holes. In this broad engagement of reality, there isn’t a whole lot of room for detailed mental models of just one species. In fact, the ideal cat uses exactly one space-saving mental (and, to dogs, “wrong”) model: everyone is basically kinda like me. Appropriate, considering we are one species on one insignificant speck of dust circling an average star in a humdrum galaxy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, remember, has a two-word entry for Earth: Mostly Harmless. This indiscriminate, non-autocentric curiosity is dangerous though: curiosity does kill the cat. Often, it is dogs that do the killing. We may be mostly harmless to Vogons and Zaphod Beeblebrox, but not to ourselves.

Paradoxically, this leads cat-people, through the Kantian dynamic, to develop identities with vastly more diversity than dog-people. It is quite logical though: random-sampling a broader universe of available perceptions must inevitably lead to path-dependent divergence, while imitative-selective-sampling of a subset of the universe must lead to some convergence. By looking inward at species-level interpersonal differences, dog-people become more alike. By caricaturing themselves and everybody else to indistinguishable stick-figure levels, cats become more individualized and unique. The more self-aware among the cats realize that who I am and what I see are two aspects of the same reality: the sum total of their experiences. Their identities are at once intrinsic and universal.

That’s why the title of the article is Seeing Like a Cat. We see not what is, but who we are. Cats become unique by feeding on a unique history of perceptions. And that makes their perspectives unique. To see the world like a cat is to see it from a unique angle. Equally, it is the inability to see it from the collective perspective of dogs.

If you are a lucky cat, your unique cat perspective has value in dog society. That brings us to Darwin.

Dogs, Cats and Darwin

To intellectualize something as colloquial as the cat-dog discourse might seem like a pointless exercise to some. And yes, as the hilariously mischievous parody of solemn analysis, Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics demonstrates, it is easy to get carried away.

Yet I think there is something here as fundamental as the fox/hedgehog argument. As I said when I started, we have both cat-like and dog-like tendencies within us, and the two are not compatible. Both sorts of personalities are necessary for the world to function, but you can really only be like one or the other, and the course is set in childhood, long before we are mature enough to consciously choose.

Where does this dichotomy come from though? Darwin, I think.

When we think in Darwinist terms, we usually pay the most attention to the natural selection and survival of the fittest bits, which dog-belief societies replicate as artificial selection and social competition. But there’s the other side of Darwin: variation. It is variation and natural selection. Variation is the effect of being influenced by randomness. Without it, there is no selection.

Cats create the variation, and mostly die for their efforts. The successful (mostly by accident) cats spawn dog societies. That’s why, at the very top of the identity pyramids constructed by dog-beliefs, even above the prototypical Barbie/Ken abstractions, you will find cats. Cats who didn’t climb the mountain, but under whom the mountain grew. Those unsociable messed-up-perspective neurotics who are as puzzled by their position as the dogs who actually want it.

Source - Ribbonfarm


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