Cat Class

The [no longer] last line in my “about” description, “I like cats,” is a bit of a private joke that may merit some explanation. Several years ago, I was taking a seminar called “Writing and Emerging Technologies” and working on a paper that talked about various generic qualities of Web pages when someone — it may have been me — made a reference to “I like cats” home pages. It seemed an apt description of those pages many of us in the seminar were familiar with: usually hosted on GeoCities or Tripod, #FF99CC or #CCCCFF background colors, white-haloed animated .gifs, various badges and hit-counters at the bottom, blink tags, lots of exclamation points, and lots of pictures of the page author’s cat in various poses, accompanied by descriptions of the cat’s activities, the page author’s favorite books and hobbies and other favorite things, all described in breathless prose. In this context, the declaration “I like cats” is a tool of rhetorical ethos: it positions the author in relation to two groups of people, those who like cats and those who don’t. (The male geek equivalent to the “I like cats” page that most of us in the seminar were familiar with was the “I like Pam Anderson and Deep Space Nine” page.) In using the phrase “I like cats” to describe these pages, there was an unfortunate rhetorical sneer, at least on my part. I was engaging in snobbery, constructing the “I like cats” authors as real life versions of Jean Teasdale. In that sense, for me, “I like cats” became a class marker.

This construction of a public self via likes and dislikes is no new phenomenon, of course. (I’d go for the gratuitous Cicero reference here, but I’ve already blown my weekly pedantry allowance trying to ingratiate myself with The Happy Tutor, so maybe the rhetoric of the personals ad is a reasonable substitute, or even its debasement in the Playboy centerfold’s “turn-ons” and “turn-offs” — do they still do that? — lists.) It’s common because it’s so easy: rather than explaining to someone all about yourself, you simply point to a few goods, and people draw their own conclusions. You drink Montrachet Grand Cru, drive a Saab, and wear Birkenstocks? There’s a good chance you voted for Nader, and an even better chance that you’re a vegetarian. (This is a cheap, crass amateur version of the sort of analysis Bourdieu performs in Distinction.) It’s been suggested that this pointing rather than explaining (parataxis over hypotaxis) may be one of the distinguishing characteristics of Web discourse, thanks to the ways in which the hypertext link facilitates it.

I think the form has reached new heights in the phenomenon of the wishlist. (Disclosure: yes, I have one, but I’m so embarassed about the materialism of the genre that I’m not about to link it here.) What’s interesting is that not only do instances of the genre serve as class markers (if anybody has found a wishlist that just screams class alliegance, the URL would be quite welcome), but the genre itself is classed by access to the internet and also by the nature of gifts. For one thing, you’re not going to find too many wishlists with, say, toilet paper or cat food or smoke detectors. (I mean, you wouldn’t even if Amazon sold them.) This is partly because things that people need every day aren’t as classed as the unique objects that people give as gifts, and partly because the demand for such objects is less elastic. But what this means is that wishlists are really only good for people with incomes above a certain level, even if people with incomes below that level have internet access. So using wishlists to construct a class identity for yourself via the internet public’s perception of your tastes is still determined by wealth, or, as Chris insightfully put it, “Perhaps it’s a privilege of wealth to be able to make choices based on taste.”

Does that mean that tastes reproduce themselves via economic means? Somehow I don’t think so; I come back again to the figure of the impoverished academic who wishes her friends’ tastes were as sophisticated as her own. Erik compellingly described how the economic structure reproduces itself (and gave me some additional insight into other nations’ class systems in the bargain), but how do tastes reproduce themselves? If, as Erik points out, “In England, you are a Lord even if you are dirt poor, and no matter how rich you get, you are still considered working class if your parents were,” and class mobility is therefore apparently nonexistent, how intrinsic are your tastes to your economic position? Does that tell us anything about the U.S.? There’s an American saying about the transitory nature of economic gains: “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Still, in the past, it may have taken many generations for cultural markers of class to erode, despite any economic changes. Part of my heritage is that my dad’s family is from the American South, which has its own class connotations here in the North, and I’m proud of and value and cultivate some aspects of that heritage (not the South’s history of racial bigotry), despite the fact that I was born just barely south of the Mason-Dixon line. (It helps that I was stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia for a number of years.) Not only are classes and class markers changing, but also the way that class reproduces itself is changing in our global culture and post-Fordist economy. Maybe we see reason to position ourselves within webs of signifying objects (a la the Amazon wishlist) because they are somehow more tangible than our unstable and evanescent capital-C Culture. (And maybe that’s complete nonsense.)

Finally: the other reason for my saying “I like cats” is because, of course, it’s true. The new (adopted this afternoon!) and currently rather sleepy additions to my household:



All together, now:


Cat Class