Why Cat Videos Matter

My most recent video is about the importance of cultural participation to the formation of community and the development of people as citizens.

Here is a transcript (added 2012-06-17):

I got into trouble with some of my friends in one of my previous videos when I suggested that Star Wars perhaps was better than most YouTube cat videos. So this time I’m going to talk about why cat videos matter.

You know the twentieth century was an exceptional time. It was a time of great cultural transformation, when culture, changed from something that we do into something that we consume. Where before we used to play sports now, for the most part, we watch sports. Before we would sing or make music with an instrument; now we listen to music that’s already been made by somebody else. Whereas before in the nineteenth century a good middle-class girl in the United States would be expected to learn a musical instrument, where I believe the United States government kept statistics about the percentage of families in which all the members could play a musical instrument, now most people can’t play an instrument at all and such statistics would come out being absurdly low – not the double digits that i believe that they were then.

But the change started even before that, back when people lived on the land. They sang songs; they told stories; they made their own clothes, their own furniture their own tools. Things that today we might see his art or design for them were simple traditions of how to live. Human beings throughout our existence have had rituals and traditions to bring us together into communities, and to establish identities as members of those communities.

But with the industrial revolution, this started to change. When the peasants were pushed off the land to go and work in factories, their new employers required long hours. They didn’t want work interrupted by people singing on the line or taking a day off now and then for a festival or a feast.

As I’ve described in another video, the idea of the romantic author arose, which separated art from society so that artists were someone special outside everyday normal life. In the twentieth century in the late nineteenth century we had the introduction of many technologies – sheet music, inexpensive newspapers, radio, the gramophone – that further professionalized culture.

I’m going to illustrate the change with a particular story set in New York in 1947, when a movie called The Naked City was made. I got this at my local library, and on the DVD you could see an interview with a guy named James Sanders. Sanders talks about why this is an important film. First because it was actually made in New York: until then, Hollywood usually mocked up New York in a back lot in California somewhere instead of actually going there. The other reason is because it showed what New York was like at the time. And New York at the time had a vibrant street life, where children were playing in playgrounds, people were leaning out of windows, people knew their neighbors – and this was a working-class neighborhood of immigrants. As Sanders says, it feels like Rome or Paris or some European city, not like what New York became about thirty years later in late seventies and early eighties.

But what sanders says that’s really important, he says, “what you see in The Naked City, in virtually its last year of existence, is a kind of a way of life . . . until that year or the year after and then it would all change.” The reason it changes, he says, is
because a couple of years later television came to New York city: and when that happened, instead of sitting out on their stoops and talking to passersby, many people went inside to watch TV. My wife grew up in China and she saw the same thing happen there in the late seventies in the early nineteen eighties. Her neighborhood is still pretty vibrant, but she says how she could see in the evening when the TV shows came on people left the streets to go in and watch TV.

In Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, he details a steep decline in social participation, in social capital, community involvement in the last third of the twentieth century in the United States, from the nineteen sixties onwards. One of the chief factors he points to is the advent of television. In particular, he mentions a Canadian study of a community up in Canada’s north. When TV arrived there in the sixties a team of researchers went in to see what would happen: and indeed the community life changed and faded away.

What we’ve done effectively is we’ve outsource our culture. Where before it was something we did ourselves, now it’s something that’s done by others for us. So we come to see culture as something that we consume, and not something that we do.

Which brings me to cat videos.

Now cat videos are often seen as not being very good. But that misses the point. The point is not whether cat videos can compete with the output of Hollywood, but the active participation of the people who create them: that someone who makes a cat video is doing culture rather than simply consuming culture, and by doing that that person sees themselves as an active participant in making the culture in the society that he or she lives in.

Now it’s true that I’ve said as audiences we contribute significantly to the meaning and value of popular cultural works. But that situation is quite different, because by law, and as we see ourselves, we’re acting within somebody else’s world. As long as someone who creates a fan production based on Star Wars can only do so with George Lucas’s permission, then they can’t see themselves as acting publicly in the same way. It’s certainly possible that we can construct our laws and our culture differently, but that’s not how it is right now.

Historically we’ve had significant contributions that we’ve made to the communities that we live in. We used to physically build them. Barn raisings in the early United States in which people would get together to build a barn for a neighbor are one example. Historically also we’ve built the culture that we live in. But now the distance between our culture and our actions is quite great. Even the distance between the things that we do do for an employer is quite great; what I do for my job may only have an effect far away in the world and have very little impact on my community.

So we don’t see ourselves as investing in our lives and the society that we live in in the same way. But culture and participation in that gives us an opportunity to do so. This has a relevance for politics too. We often pretend that the vote of an individual makes a difference. But the truth is, as we know deep inside, it almost never does – and in any case voting is a very weak form participation in democracy. The truth is if we want to make a difference to how we are governed and the society that we live in, we need to collaborate with other people. And the relationships and values that we form around and through culture are fundamentals of that, just as is our identity and our sense of ourselves as people who act, who are active in our society and contribute to it.

Unfortunately, the habits of the twentieth century die hard. Corporations have become rich in a model where they are at the center and we are at the periphery; and they make the content and we consume it, often individually. They want a fight to maintain the profits that they’ve made. Where a model has worked they want to continue with it. Even if we contribute as audiences they want to capture and control that value for their own interest. So they’ve been warping the environment under which we can again participate in our culture. But I’m going to talk about that more in detail in other videos.