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New Semester, New Memes to Exploit

January 14, 2009

Welcome back! It’s now the spring semester, and I have two new seminars I’m teaching — The Illustrated Novel and Literacy in the 21st Century.

This post originated on the Illustrated Novel course blog, but since its topic and theme fit so well here, I thought I’d bring it over. Enjoy!

Behold Spike, the makeup-wearing punk sea kitten:

But what does this have to do with Illustrated Novels? And what’s a sea kitten, anyway? (Kinda looks like a bluefin tuna, to me.) Click the link below to read all about it.

One of the points I make over and over again on this blog (and that the students in Illustrated Novel will be seeing again and again this semester) is that visual information is important to our processes of interpretation. As people-who-read, we’re used to print disappearing, in fact. We crack open a book, and within a few words (if it’s a well-written book), the black lines on the page vanish and we’re “seeing” the events of the book.

So, in a course like The Illustrated Novel, the fact that the look of the prose and its relationship to images included with the prose will be important to our understanding of what the prose means (and what it’s trying to make us think and feel), is a little odd. It goes against our usual patterns and habits of reading, especially reading for school/class.

But outside of school, we’re used to visual data and rhetoric. We see logos all over the place and we can instantly identify many products just by the look of their packaging.

In the advertising world, this is called “branding,” but it also shows up in non-advertising contexts. Media consultants like George Lakoff work very hard to “frame” concepts and approaches to create connotative impressions in the mind of the hearer/reader. Conservatives use framing often, as when they decided to go after the inheritance tax. To reframe the idea in the minds of voters, they took to calling it the “death tax.” Now, not everyone is wealthy enough to leave a substantial inheritance to their surviving family and friends, but everyone dies. And voila, the “death tax” started gaining ground as something that even the poorest people could want to abolish.

And so we get back to Spike the sea kitten. PETA has launched a new campaign aimed at making fishing morally repugnant to more people. They’ve renamed fish sea kittens, because:

People don’t seem to like fish. They’re slithery and slimy, and they have eyes on either side of their pointy little heads—which is weird, to say the least. Plus, the small ones nibble at your feet when you’re swimming, and the big ones—well, the big ones will bite your face off if Jaws is anything to go by.

Of course, if you look at it another way, what all this really means is that fish need to fire their PR guy—stat. Whoever was in charge of creating a positive image for fish needs to go right back to working on the Britney Spears account and leave our scaly little friends alone. You’ve done enough damage, buddy. We’ve got it from here. And we’re going to start by retiring the old name for good. When your name can also be used as a verb that means driving a hook through your head, it’s time for a serious image makeover. And who could possibly want to put a hook through a sea kitten?

The phrase “sea kitten” by itself is a visually evocative one — when you hear the words, it’s hard not to immediately picture a kitten in the ocean — but to cement the idea that fish really are the kittens of the sea, they’ve launched a web site with bright, colorful graphics that shows you what sea kittens are really like.

As you can see from Spike, they’re adorable.

But if you want to really delve into the sea kitten phenomenon, you should take a minute and read this report from NPR about PETA’s latest campaign. It’s a hoot. Or a gurgling-meow. Or something.

And if you really think about it, picturing a kitten in the ocean isn’t a very happy thing at all. Most cats don’t like to swim and aren’t fond of being immersed in water. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m reminded of the horrible practice of drowning litters of kittens tied up in sacks by throwing them into the river. That’s horrible! And while at times kittens can be white-hot balls of raging feline fury (I have the scars to prove it), there’s no way a kitten (even a kitten of the sea) could survive an encounter with a large aquatic predator. Oh no, swim faster Mr. Fluffynuts!

Categories: Media, Meme Watch, Visuality
  1. Liam
    January 24, 2009 at 1:59 pm | #1

    The re-branding backlash is gonna result in feline sushi, I just know it…

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