On the Line

The dead cat trope

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in Features • Illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky

One of the most popular internet memes of 2019 is “cats meowing into microphones,” according to the online encyclopedia Know Your Meme, and it’s one of my favorites of the year. The trend refers to videos of pet owners shoving microphones in their cats’ faces, but you never see the people, let alone the grips of their hands. As the pets grow aggravated over these invasions of their privacy, their shrill meows and tense nose-breathing get amplified somewhere off-screen, baked in artificial reverb. The humor lies in how loudly their frustrated reactions emit from their tiny heads, or at least this is why I’ve chuckled over the videos. It’s the latest installment in the internet’s perennial obsession with felines, who were the subject matter of the first ever popular online meme (see 2007 I Can Has Cheezburger? phenomenon).

Over the past few months, this year’s meme has naturally overtaken the most popular results for “cat” and “microphone.” But when I recently Googled those search terms so I could track down the videos, I was instead directed to a more grotesque-seeming object, a furry muffler that goes around microphones to cancel out the sound of wind: it’s called a “dead cat windscreen.” One blog post on an audio gear site I found offers a guide to “dead cats,” shortening the phrase under the presumption that all gearheads have some familiarity with the device, and that there must not be any other “dead cats” out there to confuse with the windscreen. This thought is misguided, though the blog post’s title asks a question much more profound than intended: What are dead cats?

They’re many things, according to the Wikipedia page “dead cat,” which I stumbled upon while trying to find out more about this windscreen — initially, I wasn’t planning to do research on this dead cat, but I was intrigued by how nonchalantly it flaunts morbidity. In addition to that recording device, listed on this page are the “bounce,” which is when a falling stock slightly rises; the Irish comedy band of the same name, Dead Cat Bounce; and the “strategy,” which is a bombastic debate tactic that’s meant to distract away from “a more damaging topic” getting discussed. The Wiki is characterized as disambiguation as if it removes all of the reader’s confusion over why this bluntly morbid phrase is so prevalent, except it left me just as confused as before. It’s merely a directory to other pages that contain the phrase, lacking even the briefest explanation or theory as to why it’s incorporated into a multitude of clichés/metaphors. It’s also incomplete, failing to link to the entry on “curiosity killed the cat” or mention the idiom “No room to swing a cat,” even though the latter is without a Wiki and doesn’t outright say that the cat being swung around is no longer alive.

This disambiguation never acknowledges how its own presence is anomalous — there’s no dead dog Wiki, no dead elephant, no dead sloth, etc. The fact that it does exist reveals how, compared to other animal corpses, that of the feline is most sought after by the English language for some reason, and by extension it indicates pop culture’s drastic ambivalence towards cats: On the one hand people love to generate and retweet memes about them, on the other hand, they routinely kill them through language. No other animal conjures as many casual executions.

I noticed that the “dead cat” reveals flaws that belong to the different contexts in which its metaphorical body appears. The dead cat bounce, for instance, shows how economists have a weak grasp on zoology. Investopedia.com explains that it occurs during a “bear” (declining) market, which is the opposite of a “bull” (rising) market — meaning a bull can’t be a bear, but a bear can temporarily be a deceased cat. That’s biologically impossible. It’s mixed-metaphorical language, and the incongruity underscores the dullness and lack of creativity frequently seen in economics. Then there’s the strategy, otherwise known as “deadcatting,” which belongs to politics. As WaPo’s Dana Milbank wrote in a 2017 column on Trump, the president exhibits “a constant use of the ‘dead cat’ strategy: throw a dead cat on the table, and prior conversation on any other topic ceases.” I didn’t gather from the article what makes a feline corpse so much more shocking than other deceased animals. And if anything, just as they are to Trump’s despicable antics, I feel like people would be desensitized to seeing the body “on the table” after hearing about it in one cliché after another. That Milibank doesn’t realize its prevalence shows, albeit on a small scale, how politicians and pundits tend to insulate themselves from outside phenomena.

I don’t have much of a grasp on politics or economics (I hated my Intro to Macro class in college), so as someone not at all entrenched in either sector, I have a clear outsider’s perspective on how jarring and curious the two’s shared penchant is for animal death. Although they refer to different sectors, the mentioned two metaphors seem more alike than others that incorporate the feline corpse. Where the undesired outcome following a dead cat bounce — a return to the bear market — is inevitable, that of deadcatting is more manageable, since a politician or pundit can “divert discourse” for as long as they like so there won’t necessarily be a return to the “more damaging topic” in question. In both cases, the cat’s corpse is subject to the whims of human behavior: Failing capitalism hurls a bear towards the ground where, on impact, it dies and becomes a cat; and in Milbank’s telling, throwing a cat onto a table is the only way to distract a group of people.

In spite of the similarities, it’s strange that people should need to kill a cat, or any animal, through language in order to get a point across. But it has its roots in a long-running cultural tradition. Cats have been associated with death and misfortune for centuries in societies all over the world. By killing a cat, you automatically sell your soul to the devil, or as the Irish believe, you get 17 years of bad luck. By drowning a cat, you yourself are destined to drown. And black cats are evil in general, so stay away from them. This cultural association has been perpetuated by more recent news-stories, like Oscar the therapy cat who “predicted” the deaths of 50 hospice patients, curling up next to each of them just a few hours before they were going to pass away. Because cats are harbingers of our demise, maybe we’re vengeful and we want to kill them through some other means, and doing so linguistically has become the safest, least superstitious solution.

However, in trying to get revenge on them, it seems we’ve been cursed by cats yet again as they haunt our efforts to clearly make meaning. Except for the bounce and strategy, whose dead cats get at similar ideas, none of the others are really alike. Apparitions of whiskers and cute pink noses now reside in a colloquial hall of mirrors and have manifested in double-maybe-even-triple-entendre. Dead Cat Bounce the Irish comedy band (who have a Wiki) is not Dead Cat Bounce the DC jazz-funk band (who don’t have a Wiki), neither of whom are a dead cat bounce though either may have used dead cat windscreens while recording albums.

That the common mythology has been flipped, so now cats are the ones receiving the death sentences, speaks to how far humans have raised themselves above the rest of the animal kingdom, and the degree to which they seek to obfuscate — or subjugate to the same lowly level — all the beings below them. Thinkers like Rousseau supposed that the first-ever metaphor was based on an animal. (“Care killed the cat,” which later morphed into “Curiosity killed the cat,” would’ve likely been the only well known “dead cat” during the Genevan philosopher’s time.) At the origins of humankind, people saw animals as “messengers and promises” and both “mortal and immortal,” as John Berger writes in his seminal essay “Why Look at Animals?” Metaphors allowed speakers to distinguish themselves as a species, but also to better understand the surrounding world by relating themselves to other species (which is Berger’s definition of anthropomorphism). There wasn’t a linear hierarchy; a community might’ve simultaneously worshiped cattle and killed them for food. Berger blames Descartes for narrowing the order and inspiring humanity to decisively regard itself as paramount, when the French philosopher put forth that humans had souls and, because animals didn’t, people could relegate them without feeling guilty.

Owning a pet is a milder sort of relegation (depending on who you ask — it’s certainly less cruel than, say, laboratory testing). “It is part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementos from the outside world,” according to Berger. As of 2012, over 36 million households own cats, yet in spite of their popularity and domestication, cats are still seen as disobedient and selfish. They know their own names, and you can try calling after them, but, as my own cat does, they’ll keep on ignoring you. They’ll knock a full cup of water off the table, or smack you upside the head when you least expect it (as my cat has gotten older he doesn’t do the latter anymore). After their mass integration into the domestic sphere, cats remain the peskiest of all household pets. However, Rousseau flipped this perception back on humanity. In a conversation with James Boswell, he claimed that one’s preference towards felines is a “test of character. There you have the despotic instinct of men. They do not like cats because the cat is free and will never consent to become a slave. He will do nothing to your order, as the other animals do.”

The “dead cats” imply an ideal held by the speaker — that is, to be the opposite of pesky. Whenever economists, pundits, or sound engineers use their respective feline metaphors, they could be airing domestic grievances in the workplace; their homes would be fine if only their cats listened to them, so they speak of cats as if they never existed in the first place. Or they could be implying how the mentioned ideal applies to each of their professions, that no one can afford to be pesky: Sound engineers aim to fix any technical or recording issues in an instant, economists need to stay on top of data all the time, and politicians typically need to abide by “civility” (of course our current president doesn’t feel this need).

In whatever way, peskiness factors into the phenomenon, Berger’s duality no longer applies to animal metaphors: Proverbial cats aren’t mortal anymore since they’re always dead — so they can never be immortal either. By relying on “dead cats,” humans are still setting themselves apart as a species, but they disembody themselves as well in erasing their culpability. In other words, we won’t admit that we’re responsible for killing the cats, and it’s not as if their deaths just appear out of nowhere. While the English language’s obsession with this phrase feels anachronistic, at the same time the obsession is intensely contemporary, in how it promotes a disengaged style of communication that’s conducive to an era of burnout, detachment, and fatalism.•

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.