thesis, a note on beware the cat

I’ve been thinking about how to better articulate my interests/motivation/inspiration behind the content of my thesis ideas/project. I realized it might make sense to revisit Beware the Cat and explain further why the novel interests me. Besides just being about cats, it’s actually a novel with a complex view of narrative with an important relationship to publication.

William Baldwin, beyond writing Beware the Cat, was well known in his time as a prolific writer and publisher. Beware the Cat actually came out after he died, and is one of, if not the first, piece of original prose writing in English. At the time, the printed book was a new cultural artifact. Before it there had been many English adaptations and translations of stories written in other languages but no truly original works. Beware the Cat is a satire of religious superstition, but it is also a polemical work very concerned with differences between the textual culture of Protestants and the oral culture of Catholics.

Gutenberg built his printing press in 1437 and the first press was built by William Caxton in 1477, so it took 40 years for the English to get a press, and untili he died fifteen to twenty years later. Caxton himself translated and published more works than everyone else combined. So obviously the printing press was very important for education and literacy, but the first works of fiction didn’t appear until almost 100 years after it first arrived in England.

Baldwin believed, and wrote Beware the Cat as a sort of proof of his beliefs, that Protestants were closer to god because they read the bible, and adhered to the text itself, while Catholics up to that point had a religion based on oral culture, and most of them had never actually read the bible themselves. Baldwin believed that oral culture lead to the kind of superstition that he satirizes in the novel, belief in witchcraft and other supernatural things that were not part of the Protestant world view.

Beware the Cat is presented as a record of a conversation with a man called Streamer, and Baldwin, whose name does not appear on the title page, is positioned as more of an editor, whose margin notes ridicule and contradict the account—which Baldwin himself, of course, has recorded—that Streamer gives of a complex story that is supposed to prove that cats can communicate with one another and have a social system as elaborate as people. The novel is a frame story, and Streamers account is also a frame story, each narrative is framed as a story told by someone else, all the way down to the cats who tell the original story to the Irish Catholics, who are supposed to be sort of savage, superstitious, peasant people, in what becomes an unreliable network of fictions (this is sort of ironic because Irish monks, who were in part responsible for preserving a lot of Western culture during the period before the printing press, also loved cats—there are many verses about cat companionship written by Irish monks during the era).

Anyway, the point is that Beware the Cat is very much an “intertextual” or “intermedia” text. Streamer’s account, which is written in a vernacular, loopy syntax that resembles James Joyce, represents the oral culture of the Catholics at the time, while Baldwin’s notes and introduction, serve as a frame through which the superiority of a textual culture is demonstrated. So I’m really interested in this moment of intertextuality, when a new technology is changing the way both information and narrative are communicated, much in the way we are experiencing now with new media. Baldwin’s novel is a layered and fragmented account, in which the storytelling techniques are interwoven with the story itself. That concept is present today in transmedia experience and the effect of interactive media, video games, etc., on traditional forms of storytelling.

In Baldwin’s era, it took over 100 years for this to start happening. It’s happening faster today, but a lot of implications and textual/media results are related. The layers of abstraction in the novel lend an absurdity which is necessary to the premise. Baldwin intends for the reader to realize for himself that the story is ridiculous and see the novel as a sort of hoax which proves that reveals the backwards process that creates the fiction. In fact, at the time, it was common, even for educated people, to believe in the supernatural power of cats and other animals. Baldwin saw print culture as an opportunity to spread the precise and uniform values of Protestantism.

It’s probably worth mentioning that while I find the novel fascinating, I am in no way a “fan” of William Baldwin. As Marshall McLuhan would write later, “Literacy creates very much simpler kinds of people than those that develop in the complex web of ordinary tribal and oral societies.” This is in fact what Baldwin advocated. Baldwin believed the Catholic modes of communication generated confusion and excess, and that oral and visual forms of communication stimulated the imagination and sense and promoted irrational behavior—conversely, literacy cultivates ones ability to make rational decisions and promote civil behavior.

So obviously it would be silly to take sides in this sort of dichotomy, but it is interesting to think about the effects of technology on the way that we understand the world and create narrative.

This is also why I’m interested in hieroglyphics and abstract forms of expression. The layers of abstraction in a narrative are interesting to me, and I see augmented reality and kinetic sculpture as ways of calling attention to those abstractions. This is why I don’t care about replicating the actual behaviors of a living cat. I want to explore the representations of cats in the digital world, and further abstract those representations with animatronic robots and stories.

So the kind of absurd relationship between the mythology surrounding cats in the early modern period and the internet cat phenomenon that we’re experiencing now. Neither have much to do with what cats are “actually like” or how they think or anything like that. It’s all about the anthropomorphizing that we do to create characters and myths. It’s a tenuous connection, but certainly enough to inspire an artistic process.


Author: owen ribbit


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