Kittens, Kittens, and the Online-Cultural Crisis of Propriety

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This week’s memetic-research news begins with an experimental human-subject trial I conducted the other day — the human subject being my seven-year-old daughter, whom I deliberately exposed to the viral video “Kittens Inspired By Kittens”. As you probably know, the video features an adorable little girl doing adorably inventive voice-over kitten impressions while paging through her copy of the children’s photo book Kittens, all of which you might think would have been too much for the young test subject to resist. Interestingly, however, subject displayed high levels of immunity to the video’s virulent cuteness, responding only when the little girl’s uncanny rendition of the sound of a tiny, fluffy, impossibly cuddlicious white kitten going pee-pee managed to elicit a chuckle — and even then perhaps only because the manifest amusement of subject’s father suggested it might be polite to play along.

What can we conclude from these results? Given the small sample size — not to mention the conflicting results in at least one report from the field — some might say not much. But as the hour is late and I have a point to make, I say we agree the experiment proves exactly what I suspected all along: That “Kittens Inspired By Kittens” is, for all the childish charm of its content, a peculiarly adult entertainment.

By which I do in fact mean pornography, in a sense, though not that sense. I’ll clarify momentarily, but first let me also clarify that it’s a peculiar sort of entertained adult I have in mind: Not the mass of grownups who will click on any old babies-do-the-darndest-things video that washes up in their inbox, but a particular crowd of maturing Internet sophisticates (BoingBoingers, MeFiers, Slashdotters) who pride themselves on their mastery of the memetic canon and their relatively discriminating taste in memes. It is this bunch, I assert, that has proved most susceptible to certain core seductions of “Kittens Inspired By Kittens” — and for reasons that, on close examination, appear to have everything to do with certain core anxieties haunting contemporary online culture.

For starters: LOLcats. Needless to say, you fail (sir) the online-cultural-literacy test implicit in this video if you do not recognize it as, first and foremost, a sly yet winsome commentary on the LOLcat uber-meme. In this regard, KIBK is not unlike the more frankly knowing, faux-vintage “Laugh-Out-Loud Cats” comic strip also beloved of BoingBoing, yet it is precisely the video’s relative innocence that makes its transformation of the meme so seductive. Where the “Laugh-Out-Loud Cats” conceit makes it clear we’re all in on the joke together, the Kittens girl invites us to believe she’s unaware that what she’s doing — giving amusingly off-kilter captions to pictures of cats — mines a comedy vein already worked nigh unto exhaustion by a subculture of millions. This allows us to smile at her naivetĂ© while at the same time vicariously partaking of it. It’s a one-two punch, irresistible to anyone who has ever worried (and who among us hasn’t?) that the time we spend consuming or even creating LOLcat imagery is time lost in a labyrinth of soul-crushingly self-referential banality. Without asking us to sacrifice our hard-won Web hipness, the Kittens girl invites us to rediscover the kernel of unjaded child’s play at the heart of LOLcattery and meme culture generally — and to see our participation in that culture redeemed thereby.

Then there’s digital piracy. Yes, like it or not, “Kittens Inspired By Kittens” is what the intellectual-property establishment would almost certainly deem a flagrant act of copyright violation, deriving unauthorized “inspiration” from a protected work — the Kittens photo book that supplies fully 95 percent of KIBK’s visual content — to an extent that other YouTubers haven’t even come halfway close to before getting knocked offline by lawyers from the record and film industries. Yet who would dream of ordering the Kittens girl to cease and desist? If ever the cause of remix culture had a poster child, she is it. Scrupulous in acknowledging the source of her visuals (not only in the video’s title but, more carefully, in its second shot, a 5-second image of the Kittens title page crediting the book’s author-producer team of David Gibbon and Ted Smart), “Kittens Inspired by Kittens” both models and, again, redeems the sort of loving, fan-driven appropriation we free-culture advocates are forever defending against charges of theft. More often than we acknowledge, I think, we are defending it also against our internalization of those charges — against our own gnawing sense that online culture’s freedom with intellectual properties may indeed verge on moral terpitude. Yet to spend a minute and a half imbibing the purity of the Kittens girl’s “piracy” is to feel that insecurity washed away.

Lastly, there is the Kittens girl herself, her very presence a subliminal allusion to the ever-roiling cloud of worries about the vulnerability of children online: children stalked by online sexual predators, children stalked by online advertisers, children exploited by YouTube-whoreish parents, children bullied by other children, children sending each other naked pictures of themselves, children arrested for sending each other naked pictures of themselves, and on and on. That the Web-hipster crowd is not wholly immune to such concerns (its online-libertarian tendencies notwithstanding) can be seen in reactions to two other cute-kid videos posted on BoingBoing around the same time as KIBK. First came “David After Dentist” (a.k.a. “Kid on Drugs”), the hilarious portrait of a seven-year-old strung out on laughing gas (“Is this real life? Do you have four eyes?”) that launched a long debate on the parental wisdom, or lack thereof, displayed in thus exposing David to the Web’s amusement. There followed the “Naked Baby Plays a Synthesizer” vid (in which a nine-month-old in nothing but a short shirt jams adorably on a Korg MS2000) and a remarkably extensive pile-on of comments eager to refute the first commenter’s suggestion that the video might technically be child porn.

Now let me finally clarify that “Kittens Inspired By Kittens” is not at all that kind of pornography. Quite the opposite. Though the Kittens girl is indeed a visually cute six- or seven-year-old, we see her for just a few initial seconds, after which the only paraphilia that could possibly be aroused by the visuals is some sort of kitten fetish. Even more remarkably, there is scarcely a whiff of parental exploitation in the comedy that the child herself provides. Unlike 90% of YouTube’s cute-kid videos, KIBK presents a child not “caught in the act” of doing something unwittingly funny (as dictated by the genre’s roots in America’s Funniest Home Videos) but actively participating in the creation of an inventive remix, not just composing and performing her own lines but literally (note her sotto voce instructions to the camera person at 1:18) calling the shots. If “Kittens Inspired By Kittens” puts our anxieties about kids online into play, then, it is only to melt them immediately in its warm assurance that this kid, at least, is all right.

Which of course is the same sort of move it works on our anxieties about online memes and online piracy. “Kittens Inspired By Kittens,” in other words, is that kind of pornography — i.e., roughly the same kind William Safire meant when he called the W.-era West Wing‘s fantasy of a Kennedy-esque White House a species of “liberal pornography.” KIBK is a compact orgy of wish-fulfillment: a 1-minute-31-second vision of an online culture blissfully untainted by the nerve-wracking ambiguities that dog the real one.

I will suggest, furthermore, that KIBK’s fantasy is all the more satisfying because of its underlying, and intensifying, coherence. Memes, piracy, kids at risk — it seems at first a grab bag of concerns. But behind them all lies, I believe, a single, unifying fear, a fear as old as human culture but peculiarly excited by the things that happen when human culture goes online. The right ordering of relationships between ideas and individuals — between words, symbols, images, and the bodies that generate and consume them — is among the most hard-won constructs of any given culture, and the fear that this ordering is coming unhinged is thus among the most intense of cultural anxieties. It is the essence, for example, of taboo.

And taboo may in fact not be too strong a word for what we sometimes sense is threatened by the promiscuity with which ideas come loose and circulate in the online world. But I’m going to propose a primmer-sounding alternative: Propriety. The word has an obvious relevance to discussions of children online (in which the closely and etymologically related notion of the “inappropriate” is constantly deployed). But it shares etymological roots with “property” as well — both words deriving from the Latin proprius, meaning variously “one’s own,” “peculiar,” “permanent,” “characteristic” — and I believe that it could only improve the discussion of online “intellectual property” if that oppressively legalistic conceptual abomination were trashed entirely and replaced by a more humane, more ethical conception of intellectual propriety, of words and ideas bound meaningfully but never exclusively to the individuals who generate them. The word fits even in discussing the cultural problematic of memes, which seem to have an alien, viral life of their own and to disrupt, with their productivity-draining invasiveness, our sense of the proper relationship between work and leisure.

In short, I am saying that wherever online culture threatens the established sense of where and with whom and to whom ideas belong, we are dealing with a global renegotiation of accepted definitions of propriety. What it gains us, analytically, to rethink online culture in these terms is, as they say, a subject for further research. But at the very least, I think, it shines some light on the discreet charms of “Kittens Inspired By Kittens.”

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Steven Shaviro  •  Mar 1, 2009 @8:00 pm

    A very interesting analysis, which I will not dispute. I can only say, enlarging on what I told you originally, that my kids played it over and over again (I bookmarked it for them, at their request), as well as playing many of the response videos on youtube over and over again, as well as trying to do their own versions of it (Adah even asked me to video her doing this, which I couldn’t do since the iPhone doesn’t do video).

  2. Matthew Battles  •  Mar 2, 2009 @11:38 am

    Your discussion of proprius and taboo is especially compelling to me here. I want to say there’s been an inflation of amour-propre in the Rousseavian sense, leading to a bit of derangement when we ponder the abyss between the properties of the civilized self and the unhinged creativity of the memetic world online. Maybe it’s time to re-enchant the meme–to give it back its otherworldliness, and even its otherness. At one time memes were spirits, after all, with which we had liberty of congress rather than the responsibilities of property.

  3. David Sahlin  •  Mar 2, 2009 @11:54 am

    Brilliant! I’d probably have more to say but this post-epiphany buzz has my brain dancing.

  4. Lara Thurman  •  Mar 6, 2009 @2:52 pm

    Just noting that the small test audience may indeed not be a norm ;). My kids giggled and laughed the entire video. They begged me to watch it over and over. And I suspect when their other two siblings come home, they will tell them to watch it as well.

    Otherwise a very fun read

  5. Denise  •  Aug 16, 2009 @11:01 am

    Whoever you are (and I’ve read your extensive Wikipedia entry), this was pretty brilliant. I will pass it on to my small cohort of academic friends who still have a sense of humor, an admittedly dwindling but still vibrant species that can be spotted on the rare occasions when their guard is down. I hear in this work echoes of Jim Stafford’s also lovely “Goofus, Gallant, Rashomon” in McSweeney’s some years back. I look forward to your treatment of Mugumogu’s YouTube oeuvre starring Maru, an intrepid and photogenic Scottish Fold, which spans the last year or so (“Big Box and Maru,” etc.).

  6. Yawn  •  Dec 4, 2010 @12:15 am

    yawn, and wow, so much effort to take apart a simple slice of modern entertainment in it’s simplest form.

  7. Elba Scholze  •  May 27, 2011 @7:25 pm

    Gotta love cats, you hafta see the youtube movie link I left, it is SO freaking adorable!

  8. Michael Freudiger  •  Dec 13, 2012 @3:12 pm

    just an FYI, Zimbabwae actually got worse, they issued one trillion dollar notes after this billion note was issued. (i have one in my currency collection). I wonder when they will start issuing a BAJILLION dollar note..ha ha ha ha

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