Permanent Saturday: Something about the presence of a cat


With deepest apologies to Chris Stangl, Permanent Saturday is a semiregular critical exploration of Jim Davis' comic strips Garfield and U.S. Acres/Orson's Farm.

The first level this strip works on is a standard joke about Garfield's ego. We see variations on this joke, just as we see variations on all Garfield's jokes, show up infrequently every so often: Jon will make a quip about how the world does not revolve around Garfield (though he is big enough for it to), or that Garfield is not the centre of the universe, which Garfield will either deny or quip back that if he isn't he should be. Sometimes the roles are reversed, with Garfield opening the strip declaring he's the centre of the universe, which Jon will then proceed to reject.

The impetus for the joke's setup comes from actual cat behaviour: Much of Garfield's personality is derived from taking humans' observations and interpretations of the things their housecats did and anthropomorphizing them: Cats are vain, cats are aloof, cats only care about me for what they can get from me, they claw things I don't want them to claw, don't listen to my commands like my dog does, and so on and so forth. So Garfield asks us to imagine how cats would display this behaviour if they could rationalize like humans do, and then, without missing a beat, turns around and points out the absurdity of its own question. Because for one thing, the joke is, of course, double-edged: Jon may mock Garfield and accuse him of having an inflated ego, but the cat is right. After all, whose name has the title of the comic been given, and who is its central character? The defense rests.

(Indeed, this may literally be the oldest joke in the book: Jim Davis has said that he *was* originally going to call the strip Jon, and just give his star a sarcastic and witty cat as a supporting foil, but his syndicate said the strip simply *had* to be about the cat, because that would make it an instant smash hit. This contradicts some other accepted wisdom about Garfield's origin, but it's funny, and that's all that matters. Deep time again.)

There are other ways Garfield gets amusingly bleak self-deprecating mileage out of this setup, but that's for us to explore Another Time. The variation this time has Jon trying to disarm Garfield with an existential quandary, attempting to force him to contemplate his own mortality and impermanence. This is first of all weaksauce, because Garfield is fully aware of that already considering every year he views his birthday with an ominous sense of doom and nihilistic despair, seeing it as one more step towards erasure and nothingness. But Garfield more or less has negative continuity anyway, at least when it comes to characterization and character development, so this is a largely irrelevant counterargument. Instead, let us consider the cosmological appearance of Jon's thesis.

First of all, returning to our initial reading, the world would not continue to exist without Garfield because Garfield is the world: It's his mark. This is one way to interpret Garfield's punchline, but not the only way. With noting also, however, is that Jon's argument consists of attempting to construct a facsimile of comic strip time though metaphor: He discusses the world before Garfield, that is prehistory, in the first panel, and talks about the world after, the unknowable next age, in the second. But in doing so, Jon neglects the present moment, which only makes sense: In our Eurocentric notions of “linear time”, we are forever obsessed with returning to or forgetting the past, while worrying about preparing for an imagined future that we don't realise our own role in shaping. Nobody in a modern hurrying, worrying society ever stops to actually live, because living isn't productive or profitable. The great irony here is that Garfield is fundamentally a strip about presence and impermanence, and while Jon seems to have an awareness of its structure such that he seeks to appropriate it, he is fundamentally incapable of unlocking the true ramifications of what he's playing with.

But while Garfield understands the modern and will sometimes adopt its mannerisms as a kind of drag performance for our amusement, as a cat he is fundamentally disconnected from it. Nonhuman animals live in the present, because they do not share our conception of what time is. So Garfield's question can also be read as a genuine lack of understanding about a human (really, European) conception of linear time. After all, as we now know, the phenomenon we perceive as temporality is really just quantum decoherence, and amusingly enough this is the second time in about a month Garfield has seemingly tapped into this. And this is what Garfield's question really gets at the heart of: Not just a commentary on his centrality to his own comic strip narrative or a communication breakdown between actor-networks, but an inquiry into why quantum decoherence itself happens and why we interpret it the way we do.

At the risk of travelling much further down the “fundamentally misinterpreting quantum mechanics” rabbit hole, consider the following though experiment. At the present moment, you are reading this essay. From the perspective of Lyman, this now is in his future, and from yours, Lyman's now is in your past. Everything exists in the present moment, but the present moment is determined by the individual observer's vantage point. So Garfield's question actually is an existential one, but not in the way Jon sets it up to be: How (more accurately, why) does the world continue to exist absent the persistence of the present moment from any given vantage point? Especially considering Garfield and the strip he gives a name to are both intrinsically bound up within the concept of presentness. How does this happen, how do we reconcile this and why bother carrying on in the face of it?

Quantum mechanics again provides the answer for the how: Each now-moment is intrinsically real, and there's nowhere for any one moment, experience, person or piece of information to physically go: Nothing ever ends or is destroyed, it just transmutes into a new form as the universe cycles through now after now. The vantage point of the strip will change (and indeed as of this posting it has long since changed), but it is always there accessible in the archive. Memory is the key here: Remember, as soon as you remember something it becomes the past, information that cannot be re-learned and re-experienced without forgetting first. But memory itself is nothing but experiential presentation anyway. Just go and click that “Prev.” button on the site navigation bar.

But the “why?” is the more important question. Why bother? What's the point? The answer, as always, is that this is what Life is. All of Life is a series of interconnected now-moments experienced by each one of us individually, and they only intersect at points. There is no death or cessation of existence, just the imagined boundary between one form of perception and another. What's the point of Being Alive? There has to be an answer, but the answer will not be the same for all people. But as you are searching to find yours, just keep in mind that life continues and that your story is the same as that of everything else in the cosmos. We're all in this together, and none of us are going anywhere.

Original Strip: November 4, 2016

Official Garfield Website

Garfield: Garfield

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


Austin Baker 4 years, 2 months ago

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Kit Power 4 years, 2 months ago

Utterly brilliant. Thank you.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

It is this one's pleasure.

Our only thought is to entertain you.

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David Faggiani 4 years, 2 months ago

I'm loving these essays. I'm sorry my grandfather passed away a few years ago, he was a big Garfield fan, he would have loved these too.

Amazing comment from 'Austin Baker' above. Maybe you should look into it.

Hey Josh, I've been rewatching huge swathes of ST:DS9 on Netflix with my partner, and, partly because I know you're going to largely hate it... can't wait for you to get back into it! :) Just so you know there's an eager audience!

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

As someone who has experienced similar loss, you have my condolences and, I hope you can believe, a kind of empathy.

Next week will probably be back to Deep Space Nine again for a time, if things continue according to schedule.

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Austin Loomis 4 years, 2 months ago

In our Eurocentric notions of “linear time”, we are forever obsessed with returning to or forgetting the past

We exist here. (I swear to the Prophets I drew that parallel before reading down to David's comment.)

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

Naturally you did.

Our meta-consciousnesses have got our back.

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John G. Wood 4 years, 2 months ago

Great stuff.

By complete coincidence, about an hour before reading this I was listening to a Big Finish story in which Paul McGann's Doctor discusses the end of the universe and comments that the universe ends in many different ways, adding something like "indeed, every second the universe is ending for some poor soul".

I was also reminded of an analogy wherein a person's life is regarded as a strip of film. When the light of the projector falls on a particular frame, they become conscious of that moment in time, with memory of prior frames and anticipation of subsequent ones. But if the order of the frames is randomised it makes absolutely no difference to the person, because that memory and anticipation is actually an aspect of the current frame rather than actually connected to the reality of other frames. The same could be true of Garfield's and Jon's lives in comic strip frames, though as outside viewers we are not subject to the effect. Accessing a random strip from the archive does not automatically give us any knowledge - however flawed - of surrounding strips.

Just a thought.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

I like this reading. It fits.

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