cute object, cute subject
inbred dogs, the internet, female adolescence, performance vs. objectification, and other things
Recently I have been thinking about dogs I have seen. Dogs as a domesticated species have been subjected to some pretty egregious violence, I think. Initially bred for any number of uses, they are now, basically, aesthetic objects, and so subject to aesthetic dictates.
It started because of a now sadly deleted tweet about a heavily inbred dog, featuring the following text:
to be clear this means it's inbred twice with a dog named pimpy and 3 times with a dog named bape
and the following image:
This tweet opened up a new and terrible world for me. I was traveling a lot at the time, incrementally making my way from Nice to Massachusetts, and, consequently, spending a lot more time on my phone in bus stations and airports and trains and so on. I fell into the instagram sphere of the micro nano exotic Designer (™) bully breed, which is basically a bully dog that’s been inbred to be tiny, but muscular. I was trying to figure out what the appeal of this kind of dog was, and then I started seeing grotesquely bred dogs everywhere.
In Paris I saw a lot of pugs. The modern pug is downright shocking. What is appealing about this dog, to those who like pugs, is the fact that it is utterly sick and helpless. The sicker it gets the cuter it is. The fact that it has horrible diseases, the fact that it suffers all its life, actually makes it cuter. I don’t think anyone would admit this, but it’s true – people like pugs because of their silly little walk (which demonstrates health problems), because of their earnest, belabored breath (also health problems!) and their little barrel chests (health problems), which are all results of intentional breeding.
In New York City I saw a surprising amount of very young puppies. I don’t know why everyone in New York has a puppy, but there seems to be a relatively large number of puppies in relation to older dogs. I realized that what is cute about puppies is their total helplessness, the way that they meander, unsure, on a leash. I saw a puppy, clearly on one of its first ever walks, trembling in fear, staring confusedly at the busy street before it. It was totally dependent on its owner, and impossibly cute.
I have a friend with an Italian greyhound that once broke its leg by jumping off a couch. When we heard that story, we all made soft little ‘aw’ sounds. It’s very cute to be a creature so fragile that you break your leg when you jump about 45 centimeters to the ground.1
It’s easy enough, when faced with the above examples, to imagine that interacting with something cute is always an expression of sadistic power, but I would like to move beyond that idea. In my opinion, the aesthetic barrier of ‘cute’ is often a mediation between an individual and certain things that might be too difficult to interact with if faced head-on. I’m especially interested in the ways that cuteness interacts with medicalization. The dog example is related to this, as certain breeds of dogs live lives with lots of medical intervention: the nano bullies, for example, are inseminated artificially, and dogs like pugs require various degrees of medical care the older they get. The medicalized aspects of their lives are sometimes amplified and sometimes occluded by their ‘cute’ status. My friend’s Italian greyhound, for example, was even more cute with a cast, because it emphasized his fragility while hiding his disgusting wound. On the other hand, the artificial insemination of a dog, or the fact that pugs often develop a syndrome which causes their eyeballs to pop out of their sockets, are deemphasized, because these examples render the gore of cuteness too apparent and, in doing so, eclipse the aesthetic image.
This duality makes something apparent about cute: it is the abstract image of vulnerability and a need for care, whereas real care for a vulnerable person or creature is often disgusting or scary in some way. Cute stands in for the abject. Whimpering is cute; whimpering is often accompanied by bodily harm. If something cannot be comfortably represented as-is it probably has a cute counterpart. This goes even as far as death, occasionally – think of the recent (rather repulsive, in my opinion) representation of Halloween as ‘spooky szn’. Spooky scary skeletons! And the truest horror of human existence, the horror of the body, is, without fail, matched by its cute representation. Some people think old people are cute – old people, as a rule, have horrible things happening to their bodies. People think babies are cute – babies are helpless things which make horrible noises and constantly spew fluids, and they’re also very vulnerable to death, and they’re brought into the world in a horrific way. Men think women are cute more than women think men are cute, but the woman’s experience is so much more likely to incorporate some kind of mundane body horror than the man’s, and, for various reasons, they’re also more vulnerable to death. Body horror exists on a spectrum with cuteness, and the medicalized subject, which is in reality often hidden from view, usually has a cute analogue standing in for it in popular discourse.
Yet somehow we exist in a moment where cute analogues seem to be so much more durable and concrete than their fleshly counterparts. The ascendency of the anime girl hardly needs to be discussed, but perhaps a more controversial thing to point out would be the cult of the dog as a way to abstract caring for a dependent being. Sure, toilet training a puppy is horrible, but there is a sort of cognitive dissonance in it – despite the fact that it’s shitting all over your house, it persists in remaining an adorable, inaccessible image. It is certainly possible to empathize and communicate with a dog, but it’s much easier to interact with it as an adorable thing, hence the inbred micro nano bullies and pugs and various other dogs which probably wish for death like the horrible creature that drags itself out of the machine at the end of Cronenberg’s Fly. Pet ownership, in some cases, functions as a kind of cute analogue for the excruciating experience which is caring for another being, subordinating your individual self to a relationship, allowing yourself to be changed by it. The use of ‘cute’ as a mediating aesthetic lens can create a kind of anti-other, a resistant icon which invites abstraction and deftly sidesteps being known.2
On a human level, the crystallization of cute is just another aspect of the depersonalization which is, I think, one of the great psychological problems plaguing many of my peers. It is as if there has been a slow outward creep of abject humanity, to a point where the human body is almost by definition something which cannot be interacted with, even when it is not expressing itself in some traditionally abject way (having sex, eliminating, bleeding, being dead). In this moment when everyone around me is expressing intense depersonalization and dysmorphia, the cute subject is on the rise. If the cute object is an anti-other, the cute subject is an anti-self, defined not by agency but by image. It is a conception of self which is utterly detached from will and body, but which nevertheless prioritizes self-reflection.
I used to see this a lot among women only, which makes sense, because women, as a rule, have to undergo the difficulty of being rendered cute objects more than men. More than enough women around me have expressed frustration with the fact that the men in their life don’t really seem to see them. Female adolescence, in my experience, often has as its center the agony of not knowing how to reconcile the agentic self with the objectified self. This is ideally, however, an adolescent experience, and the recovery of a sense of agency should come with maturity. The issue is that I now see men undergoing this experience, and I see women grappling with it in a way that seems more intense than ever before. This is probably because of the much-discussed contemporary fragmentation of the self, which comes about because there are now so many theaters of representation, not least the internet. It’s natural, I think, for the great ever-present Eye of online to depersonalize people, and it’s natural for them to struggle with agency under these circumstances of selfhood. In the context of the internet, ‘cute’ as the dominant aesthetic makes a lot of sense, because it represents a way for people to negotiate the abstraction of their selves. Natural as it may be, though, there’s a lot of pain bound up in this process.
It’s as if the entirety of the online population is going through a feminized adolescence, a process where the willful body is alienated from its own image. We can see this in the dual image of the woman online – the anime girl and the confessional writer. The anime girl is the ultimate cute object, a woman who is utterly deformed but who avoids (non-fantasy) medicalization. On the other hand, there’s the woman who writes the confessional essay, who talks ceaselessly about her body, the pain of it, the sexuality of it, the shame experienced by it. She is incredibly medicalized, and often covers medical subjects in her writing. Naturally, the anime girl is deified, while the confessional writer is something of a sacrificial lamb. In the gulf between these two poles, the cute subject has emerged – the person who lives part of their life online, who feels depersonalized, and who struggles to navigate agency in real life. The cute subject may dream of being fictional. They might try to embody an online ‘aesthetic’. There are lots of examples of the cute subject as it manifests online.
But the cute subject must live in agony, because the stubborn body refuses to be effaced. There are lots of aesthetic trends that incorporate cuteness, but there is something inherently strange or grotesque about all of them. Any person who makes an effort to look ‘cute’ in an over-the-top way is actually performing something deeply uncanny, because they render themself cute while retaining their vitality (a paradox). Cute isn’t really something that can be performed, because a lack of agency is one of its fundamental components. On the other hand, even if it exists naturally, it’s a quality that’s hard for a person to retain, because fleshly existence always exists on the edge of abjection, and can betray itself with the twist of a face in pain, or a certain movement of the body. Cute, as an abstraction which is imposed upon its subject, is not easy for a person to embody. It is bound to fail in real life.
All of this might be true, but I don’t really want to condemn the cute subject. To me it seems kind of like a proto-performance, like the germ of a character. It might be tempting to say that a return to a less fragmented subjectivity is necessary, but why not explore what a fragmented self has to offer? At least for me, the next step after the cute subject, which is just a self in pain because it is forced to mirror itself, is a self which is a collection of characters. There’s lots of freedom in this. There is agency and playfulness in performance, where the body is not effaced but instead coexists with its collection of costumes and masks. The cute object, the pug or bully dog which is bred to be a suffering image, cannot have agency by definition, but the cute subject must at some point reach a breaking point. It must mutate.
(In terms of online, I think we are seeing the slow turn from confessional culture, which seeks in a twisted way to recover the experience of being a coherent physical being through shame, painful ‘honesty’, and ‘authenticity’, to some kind of performance culture. I don’t know what this performance culture will look like, but I’m hoping that it might, at least, generate some interesting new art).
The existence of discrete dog breeds is really about the most grotesque thing I can think of. I was reading the book Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, this weekend, and one thing he mentioned was that the sled dogs used by the Antarctic exhibition did not conform to what we would understand as the husky breed — instead, they were just mutts of the correct size, build, and coat. In comparison, today’s companion huskies are riddled with health problems, images of utility instead of genuinely useful dogs. The hubris of man.
I certainly don’t think that all pet ownership is like this, and I know a lot of people who make admirable efforts to understand their pets as beings instead of just icons of cuteness. I also want to make it clear that I adore dogs and that i love interacting with them.