Permanent Saturday: Cat's Cradle


There is possibly no relationship in Garfield that better exemplifies the classic “Love/Hate” dynamic than that between the titular cat and The Dog Next Door. Much as he does in his other work relationships in the strip, Garfield dutifully clocks in to go over to Jon's neighbour's yard and get violently and angrily barked at by their dog. Absurd, yes, but how many of us work eight (or twelve, or eighteen) hour days in a job where we're only disrespected and demeaned? Some people are particularly unlucky enough to have a boss who seems to do nothing but scream and verbally abuse them. Those sorts of people might as well be a dumb, vicious guard dog with an explosively hair trigger temper.

But Garfield does still have an amiable relationship with The Dog Next Door. His design shows him to be a friendly chap when he's not on the clock, and he and Garfield have shown on multiple occasions they can get along just fine if they want to. Indeed, I think they not-so-secretly enjoy the unique relationship they share: They will speak of love and hate as if they're interchangeable emotions (and in some cases, I guess they can be) and they often make it clear to us and to each other they value and treasure the special time they spend together. How you interpret this probably depends a great deal on how cynical you are. Are we so starved for love, affection and companionship that we latch onto whatever relationship we happen to find ourselves in, no matter how abusive or destructive? Or, rather, is it more the case that we are all of us more similar than not and, if we were able to shed our borders, walls and categories we would come to understand that even sworn enemies can find common ground?

Today, however, it's business as usual, even though it doesn't appear to be at first glance. There's no barking and hissing, but even the most seemingly pleasant of conversations can hide hidden daggers and machinations. There is in truth no difference between debating and fighting, and this is a truth Garfield and The Dog Next Door know better than anyone-Watch how, over the course of today's strip, the two animal-neighbours deftly navigate the verbal minefield they have laid for each other. The Dog opens by asking the question “Heard the news?”. In doing so, he is attempting to secure himself a position of power and authority over his interlocutor: Knowledge is Power, The Dog Next Door knows something Garfield doesn't, and he wants to make sure Garfield knows it. Why else would he phrase his question in such vague terms? Lots of news happens every day, and there's no way Garfield could be expected to know which particular news The Dog was referring to.

Indeed, in this day in age we are our own newspapers and our own newspaper censors. We only expose ourselves to the news that concerns or interests us (or tells us what we want or expect to hear, no matter how horrific that might be), so we can probably safely assume The Dog's “news” is implicitly and by definition only going to be something that interests and concerns him, as a dog. From the outset than The Dog Next Door is trying to commandeer and control the discourse by singlehandedly defining the boundaries of what makes an acceptable conversation topic. He is operating firmly and exclusively within his own situated knowledge-space and actor-network (Things That Interest or Pertain to Dogs) and is either unwilling or unable to adapt a more inclusive perspective. Survey says unwilling, as this opening volley is clearly nothing more than a power play.

Garfield is at a disadvantage at the start then, caught blindsided and wrongfooted by this given not just his own lack of experience with whatever we may posit Being a Dog means, but also the deliberate open-endedness of The Dog Next Door's question. Because of this, he answers in the only possible manner left available to him: By asking another question back. “What news?” is fundamentally and by necessity a different breed of question than “Heard the news?”. It admits an ignorance and forces the asker to accept a position of submissiveness and inferiority. There was news, the senior party knows what it is and the junior party does not. Ergo, the junior party must be “educated” by the senior, read evangelized to the senior's perspective and point of view. This whole exchange is nothing but one person's attempt to assert dominance and superiority over another by manipulating the playing field in such a way submission is the only possible response.

Our suspicions about the subject matter of The Dog Next Door's news are confirmed in panel two, in which he claims (in a classic liberal argument from authority, wherein one is asserted to be by definition infallibly correct by pledging allegiance to and support from another, distant, higher and ill-defined authority) that “According to Science, dogs are smarter than cats!”. This is an eminently predictable move for The Dog to make given what we know about his positionality, even in just from these two panels. Not content with stongarming his way to the top with his opening salvo, he attempts to assert his authority and dominance again by allying with what he boasts is a superior category of being. But apart from the act itself, the doing is also revealing of the intellectual premises The Dog Next Door is operating from here: His claim of superiority is predicated on the allegation that he's a member of a superior class defined as such by an external force, but tellingly he's still the one who gets to define all the terms in the conversation.

The Dog Next Door says “Science” was what declared dogs to be smarter than cats, but he doesn't cite any results, any researchers or indeed any research. The scientific method works by subjecting testable hypotheses to experimental rigour and than making an inference from the results of the experiment. It is in this way scientific facts are constructed, but what we think of as scientific facts must constantly be re-evaluated and understood in the framework of the actor-networks from which they were created (and to head off any 90s kids who may want to bring back the Science Wars, this does not necessarily mean such constructed facts don't have material basis in reality). The act of doing science is not reducible down to a monolithic authoritarian body of knowledge: Rather, it is a constantly shifting and morphing understanding of the world from one specific positionality. But The Dog Next Door's hypothetical rhetorical ally here is not science, but Science, an all-knowing, all-powerful and unquestionable Modern God who distributes Facts and Truths from On High. This is the Science not of researchers, but of Missionaries and Crusaders (and, regrettably and destructively, most science popularizers and scientific press).

Had The Dog Next Door actually wanted to have a discussion with Garfield about scientific research, he would have cited a specific study where a specific group of researchers came to a specific inference after conducting a specific experiment and asked his friend's opinion on it all. That would actually be in keeping with the way science is done in praxis. But of course, that's not what he wanted. He wanted to boast about how dogs (and by association him) were better than cats (and by association Garfield). He wanted a display of dominance that couldn't be challenged, and for that he needed something objective and unquestionable to legitimize his claim. Science would like you to think it has supplanted Religion as the bearer of such knowledge, and its in that context The Dog Next Door has mobilized it. That big, toothy grin of his in the final panel says it all: He's convinced he's won a fight with no challenge by destroying a vastly unmatched opponent, and he couldn't be happier about it.

Or perhaps it means he's just realised he's been schooled himself.

Because Garfield is not one to let himself get humiliated that easily. The cat has a mean streak and a razor wit of his own, he's an old veteran of this kind of exchange and he knows the territory well. This is not the first rodeo for either of these two. Garfield responds with an insulting satire, humour often being the only weapon left to those in his position. Perhaps it comes across at first glance as a weaksauce rejoinder, or a desperate act from someone out of options. Certainly, “Says the guy who drinks from the toilet” is far from the best burn I've ever heard from Garfield. On the other hand, it's a targeted attack on the very thing The Dog Next Door is trying to gloat about: His intellect. Garfield is questioning how anyone who would do such a thing could ever be considered intelligent, and in doing so bringing us back to questions of situated knowledge-spaces. “Intelligence” and “stupidity” are often subjective codewords used to define what knowledge is and isn't acceptable within a certain network. By bringing this up, Garfield has brought innate natural subjectivity back to a space that The Dog Next Door would bulldoze and level with the illusion of objectivity and divine right. In doing so, he reasserts his agency and, looking straight at us, reminds us to do the same.

Original Strip: April 4, 2018

Official Garfield Website

Garfield: Garfield

Garfield: U.S. Acres/Orson's Farm


divad40k 2 years, 9 months ago

I've been waiting for this. It's good to have you back Josh

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Przemek 2 years, 9 months ago

What's more, while The Dog Next Door is trying to assert his dominance by elevating the whole category of beings he belongs in (it's the dogs who are objectively better, not this dog alone), Garfield responds by humiliating this particular individual. This act not only brings back the natural subjectivity but also singles out The Dog Next Door and exposes him as a fraud. Garfield never attacks the statement itself; perhaps the dogs are indeed objectively better than cats. But this one isn't, and it's painfully easy to explain why. So easy that even a pretty weak rejoinder is sufficient for Garfield to win the debate.

It's also interesting that Garfield chooses that particular behaviour as the damning example of stupidity. Drinking from the toilet is not just gross, it's using things completely backwards. And what's more, it's not a behaviour that we would accept in humans under any circumstances. By drinking from the toilet, The Dog Next Door, however antropomorphized, goes back to being an animal. Garfield's intelligence allows him to regularly outsmart the humans, making him arguably more human than them. No wonder he wins the battle of wits with - and reasserts his power over - someone who acts like a lesser being.

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homunculette 2 years, 9 months ago

Welcome back, Josh!

This isn't particularly relevant to this post, but I'm really curious to hear your opinion on Heathcliff, specifically the current iteration drawn by Peter Gallagher. I had a few of the old George Gately Heathcliff books as a kid and they're very bog-standard Dennis the Menace type fare, but Gallagher's interpretation of the world is very bizarre and compelling to me, full of Garbage Apes, incredibly obscure cartoon references, and Edward Lear poems.

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John G. Wood 2 years, 9 months ago

Yay, welcome back! I was just thinking about your absence the other day.

All I can say is, in most things our dog is more intelligent than our cat, but not all. And that does not make him 'better'.

The one that my anthropomorphising head has the most trouble with is the cat's "door into summer" syndrome, whereby if the weather's bad out of one door or window he insists on being shown the view from all the others. By the time he's got all the way round he's usually ready to start again...

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 9 months ago

Thanks for the warm welcome back, everyone! Glad to be back :-)

I don't know if I can be back regularly yet or not though, I'm afraid-I sort of bet the farm on this new project, the necessary trip for which is now scheduled for early June. I don't really have much else to fill the gap between now and then, except the possible occasional entry in this series. And it's frustrating because I *do* have ideas for *other* projects, but not *quite* enough time between now and June to give any of them their proper due. I don't want to start something only to have to shelve that once I can start serializing this big thing. So I'm kind of boxed in a creative and logistical corner ATM.

Rest assured I've not forgotten EP and have still got a lot of things I'm working on in the background, some of which you'll get to see before June for sure. At the very least I'll try to pop in every now and again between now and then!

@Homunculette I'm not familiar with that take on Heathcliffe, but that does sound rather interesting so thanks for cluing me in to it!

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