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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

I Can Haz Humanness? Anthropomorphizing in a Post LOLCat World

Last month I opened up my book pile for a vote to help me select my next read. The winner, which I am currently reading, was Watership Down by Richard Adams, a heroic tale of adventure centering around a group of rabbits that abandon their doomed home and begin a harrowing journey to find a new place to call their own.

What I find fascinating about Watership Down is the way that Adams uses distinctly rabbit-like behavior to tell his story. His bunny protagonist is not treated like a burden. Instead, Adams relishes the opportunity to explore bunny obstacles, bunny problem solving, and even bunny mythology and oral tradition. It is not a human story that uses bunnies in order to create a thinly veiled allegory. It is a story about rabbits. Though I do acknowledge that the book has themes about resisting totalitarianism, it is not nearly as obvious an allegory as say George Orwell's Animal Farm. These are not walking, talking bunnies (and certainly not revolutionary farm animals). These are rabbits living out their lives in a very rabbity way.

It is obvious that before writing this book Adams spent considerable time reading about and thinking about how bunnies actually behave. While he allows them a certain amount of human-like thought - feelings of brotherhood, affection, fear - he does his best to preserve their animal reasoning. More than once the protagonist bunny has described the terrified freeze that comes over him when confronted by the head lights of a car, a fear that he has little to no power to resist, or the emotional exhaustion of being frightened and exposed for long stretches of time without a hole in which to hide.

As I've been thinking about anthropomorphizing animals, I can't help but be carried from the elegance of Watership Down to the silliness of icanhascheezburger, the home for all things LOLCat. What is it about adding poorly worded captions to cat pictures (among other animals) that is absolutely hilarious?

Humorous Pictures

I think the humor comes from knowing that cats do not think or behave in a remotely human way, while at the same time we secretly suspect that they are capable of much more complex thought than we allow them in our minds. In film school, an acting teacher once taught me that one of the most difficult things for an actor to do on camera was simply to indicate to an audience that their character was actively thinking. That lesson comes to mind sometimes when I watch animals. Occasionally, I'm convinced that we are watching the animals think. Like watching a cat work out how to get from the floor to the top of the cabinet where that tasty looking fishbowl sits. What makes it funny is imagining that they are thinking just like us (only with poorer grammar).

Perhaps that's the beauty of what Richard Adams has done in Watership Down. He's not forced the rabbits to be creatures they are not. He has simply allowed them to think, allowed them to tell us their story, their thoughts instead of ours, their problems instead of ours. From where I sit, if you're going to anthropomorphize, this is the way to do it.


stu said...

How do you get to the fishbowl on top of the cabinet? You jump of course. UP is the natural habitat of all cats except my cat Bill, who prefers to live in front of the fridge.

Anonymous said...

Being a rabbit owner, it's incredibly tempting to anthropomorphize the poor dear. Without supplying "thoughts" for her, it would really be a bleak, one-way relationship. Now, I have the pleasure of knowing that she's "mad" at me for not giving her pellets promptly at 7:00 a.m. Though, I may just be looking for an excuse to let an animal run my life. It takes away that whole, "responsibility" thing.