Sunday, February 27, 2011

Double double

There's an uncanny (yeah, I went there) degree of consonance between my research and teaching lately. I'm currently working on an article on the animals and children (and feral children), and one of the things I'm writing about is that there's usually a double mimesis at work in instances of the cute and the uncanny. For instance, in Sianne Ngai's example of a cute, "anthropomorphic" frog sponge, the sponge isn't just anthropomorphized. Instead, the sponge is made to look like a frog that has in turn been anthropomorphized. Likewise, these poor pets are animals that have been dressed up to look like children dressed as animals. Mimicry is thought to be the particular domain of children and animals. (This is why we always fear that kids will do exactly what they see on TV. I mean, sometimes they do tie a bath towel around their necks and try to fly. Mimics!) It seems that, faced with one another, children and animals just go the whole hog and mimic doubly.

Now a student rightly notes the same dynamic at work in Andrew Lloyd Webber's CATS, of which we watched a clip in class (since I am the meanest teacher). My student writes:
As I mentioned in class, I think maybe the core of the problem is that when I see Cats the Musical, I don’t see cats; I see people acting like cats.

After Tuesday’s discussion, I realized that the creepiness is actually one level deeper than that. It’s not just people pretending to be cats, it’s people pretending be cats pretending to be people. The reason why Mr. Mistoffelees gets a song/poem is that he does magic like a human magician. He hunts mice and whatnot, but he also does tricks with dice and cards, which require opposable thumbs (and...wit), which we have and cats do not.

I've had research and teaching converge before, but this is really kind of amazing. (It helps to have great students.)

(Posts related to the article in progress: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Ngai, Sianne. "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde." Critical Inquiry 31.4 (Summer 2005): 811-47. Print.

Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

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