Anyone who has spent a certain amount of time on the internet knows the ubiquity of the cat. Whether videos, photos, or memes, these creatures cannot be escaped, even if you wanted to. While I love cats, I am naturally given to cynicism. The popularity of cat memes can seem like a result of the increasing fragmentation of society into atomised individuals, a placebo for genuine personal contact. As late capitalism dissolves all bonds of community and sociality, we grasp after an impersonal affection, one demanding nothing of us but the passive consumption of an image.
An antidote to such suspicions might be found in Kedi, a new documentary by Ceyda Torun that follows Istanbul’s many street cats. Visitors are often struck by the sheer number of cats, apparently everywhere, and they’ve long been a distinctive part of the urban landscape. The cats hunt the rodents that abound throughout the busy port city, and in return, the people share their homes and their public spaces with them, petting them and offering them food. Many of those interviewed in the film see them, in their constant coming and going, as emblematic of the chaotic nature of urban life, and the people speak fondly of the cats’ character—Psikopat, for example, is likened to a jealous housewife, and Duman is said to wait politely each day outside an expensive restaurant for his preferred meals.
Since at least as far back as Aristotle, Western philosophy has drawn a sharp distinction between human beings and animals in that we are ζῷον λόγοv ἔχων, “the rational animal,” or “the living thing possessing reason.” The Greek word used for “reason” here is λόγος, a difficult word to translate accurately; in this context, it has significant linguistic associations, indicating a sense of shared communicability. Even when humans cannot understand one another, they have means of articulating this, whereas animals can apparently only express pleasure or pain; according to the dominant tradition of Western philosophy, language is all that lies between us and the beasts. In Kedi, however, numerous interviewees insist that they talk to the cats, and that the cats talk back. It is a very rudimentary form of communication, to be sure, described by one person as like trying to find a common language with an alien. But for many, their relationship to their cats is as personal and reciprocal as that with any human being in their lives; the cats are likened to children, friends, and even lovers.
Cats have often been the spur of reflections on the blurry line between the animal and the human. Jacque Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, now considered a foundational text in animal studies, was inspired by Derrida being seen naked by his cat, an experience that seemed to unsettle him greatly. It is unsurprising that the recognition of oneself as seen, as in some sense passive, in the vision of one you did not previously consider to be an-other would be unnerving. Yet this recognition could also be received as a gift. The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote:
The intimate communion of one Ego with another gives rise to an affective kind of knowledge. It is an error to think that communion can only be a human relationship, that it is the attribute solely of human friendship. It is common to the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds, which all enjoy an inner life of their own.
Rather than being a self-contained cogito moving through a world of passive exterior objects, the purpose of which can be determined at will, one is drawn into a recognition of a vast multitude of non-human actors, each making demands on and contributing to our lives as any other person might. In Kedi, many speak of how the cats helped them through periods of bad mental health, and this should not be treated as mere sentimentality. People need healthy relationships—what Berdyaev calls “communion”—to be healthy themselves, but as neoliberalism eviscerates whatever little community is left, leaving a society of atomised consumers, mental health has descended into crisis. Cats are not, in and of themselves, a solution to this crisis (and having contact with non-humans exclusively would probably exasperate it), but any personal connection and reciprocity can provide a context for better mental health to develop.
Compared to such lofty reflections on communion and personhood, cat pics can appear like graven images, frozen in time, simulacra in an endless stream of content. Indeed, Derrida was insistent that the cat he spoke of was a real cat, looking at him face to face, not an abstract figure of the nonhuman. However, just as photos or videos of family or friends can act as a point of contact across temporal or geographic distance, so an internet meme can be a genuine opening to the Other. In classical antiquity, images were not seen as mere representations of things exterior to themselves. There are accounts of cities having statues of the gods punished for the failure of the gods to protect them from war or bad harvest.
In early Christian controversies over the use of images, it was ultimately decided (at least until the 16th century) that when one venerates an image of Christ or the saints, it is not the wood or the paint one honors, but the person depicted, in some sense made present. For many Christians, even to the present day, iconography provides a means of communion with the saints beyond the boundary of earthly death. Is it possible that cat pics might act as a similar point of connection? To compare cat pics with religious icons may seem facile or facetious, but Kedi does make an association between the street cats and the Divine. One man in particular speaks of how the cats brought him closer to God: “It is said cats are aware of God’s existence. While dogs think people are God, cats don’t. They just know better.” Here, the relative independence of cats is interpreted not as aloofness, as is often the case among their cultured despisers, but as a further, theological decentring of the human; the encounter with the other in street cats gestures beyond itself towards the true Other of the Divine, displacing human self-importance with a dose of pious humility.
Unfortunately, in contemporary Istanbul, there is a more literal displacement underway. The city’s human population has increased by 14 million since 1970, and Erdogan has made huge investments in infrastructure, including construction projects worth $100 billion in Istanbul. While this may be good for business—since 2004, economic production has more than doubled—it has resulted in widespread gentrification in working class and minority neighbourhoods. It was the attempt to turn Gezi Park, one of the last remaining open spaces in the city, into a shopping mall that sparked mass protests in 2013, which were only suppressed after weeks of clashes with the police. But it is not only the human inhabitants of Istanbul who have been affected by gentrification. In Kedi, one family tells us that it is not they themselves whom they fear for, but the street cats. They rely upon the relative safety and accessibility of the city’s streets, open windows into apartments and houses, the cafés and workplaces that leave the door open for them to come and go. The particular urban geography that has allowed for the unusual reciprocal community between them and their human counterparts is now threatened by development; the many alleys and drains are to be replaced by freeways, the houses and cafés by soaring tower blocks.
The street cats are inseparable from the lives of the city’s human inhabitants, and the open war on the working class and minority population in Istanbul has not left them untouched. Their shared fate represents a conflict between two forms of displacement; on the one hand, the displacement of the people, the destruction and destitution wrought by the combined power of capital and the state, and on the other, the displacement of the ego, a recognition of Otherness, reciprocity, and community, that, taken to its practical apotheosis, indicates the necessity of resistance against such powers.
Under capitalism, all media is assimilated to the commodity form; cat pics appear as mere consumer objects, self-referential images floating through cyberspace. As the image is emptied of its significance, communities are eviscerated and stripped of all that constitutes them as communities. But this process is never absolute; just as there remains a glimpse of iconographic communion in cat pics, even the most ruthless political order cannot eliminate all traces of reciprocity and solidarity. Cats are obviously not an answer to the problems of our age, but nor are they a merely sentimental attachment. Derrida referred to the glance of his cat as “the gaze of a seer, a visionary”—what new world was to be glimpsed in their mutual stare?
Jonathan Murden writes a monthly column of cultural theology. He is an Orthodox Christian and undergrad currently based in Prague.