The Scamp

By Tom Poulos

This spring break I found myself sprawled out on the beaches of Miami; and of all the ones I visited my favorite was by far the small section of sand between 13th and 12th street on Ocean Drive. Native Floridians will frown at my taste, seeing as this section of South Beach is particularly “touristy.” However, for a boy who goes to school in a place where ice is the equivalent to beach water in Florida, the ostensible vacuity of Miami Beach-whether perceived in the hyper commercialization or the hot naked people-could not take away from pleasure to be got from the warmth of the sun and the salt in the spray. After a long session of tanning I picked up a newspaper and was surprised to come across an article that detailed the strange occurrence of what was literally being referred to as a “feral cat infestation” on South Beach. Hundreds of cats flooded the sand and, in a surreal display, tourists were returning to their hotel rooms with hookworms between their toes.

Anyone who had been reading the news over spring break would be familiar with the degree to which the tsunami in Japan and the war in Libya were televised. And as upon returning home from I sat myself on a sofa in front of CNN in order to keep up with the constantly streaming images of catastrophe. Tried as I did, I could not shake from my head the thought of feral cats roaming Miami beach, mewing the night through. Was I a terrible person? Guilt quickly set in. What kind of monster thought about cats when people were dying and when wars were being fought?

Sitting on the sofa, watching CNN, I slowly began to ponder the mystery of the feral cats, wondering why so global humans’ rights issues cannot occupy, with the same force and intensity, the mind of South Beach tourist to the same degree as the cats. We call it “apathy” at Macalester, the inability to engage in spite of oneself, but apathy didn’t seem like the right term. In fact, there were many who felt everything but apathetic about the cats! In the same moment, how could an entire community of people interpret something so seemingly superficial, like kitty poop, as more catastrophic than, say, war.

In order to address the question of the cats, I will have to momentarily digress.

Over the past three years I have received a handful of critical letters from Macalester students and faculty concerning my columns. Adjectives used to describe the things I say are as follows: snotty, arrogant, pretentious, back-handed, bitchy, bull, self aggrandizing, pompous, conceited, and acerbic. Upon first glance the letters seem to communicate to me that my columns are in poor taste. Upon second glace, however, I realized that the letters had much more to tell me. For every letter I have ever received regarding the “overly bitter” nature of my columns has been written by a white person. Every. Single. One.

The same kind of analysis works for the cats. Upon first glace they are a nuisance. But their mysterious, captivating quality does not come from their being such. Rather, they come, in my mind, to stand for the presence of a higher power that loves to play cruel jokes. The reactions you could have to the cats are endless and multifarious, but I could only have one, just like the tourists with hookworms probably had just one. By the same rate, the hate mail I receive could beget any number of reactions from me, though I have only one. Similarly, my assertion that all my vocal critics are white opens the artifact that is this column up to several interpretations. You could, for example assume that I am lying, or that I’m insecure and trying to say that all people of color are “on my side.” You could conversely be upset by the ubiquitous demographic of the vocal critics. It might signify to you a collective desire amongst certain higher classes to silence any and every voice that speaks out against their supremacy. Whatever. The content of the reaction is irrelevant. The point is simply that these letters have more to tell me than that my column is “snotty” and that the only way for me to access whatever meaning they hold is through self-reflection, paying particular attention to the way I react. So when I say that I have only ever received hate mail from white people, there is no way to know What That Means. And yet, encased within my response, a reading already exists.

I don’t know what it means that my vocal critics are all white, nor do I know why a cat infestation seems more urgently captivating to me than the spectacle of a tsunami. But the cats, just like the letters, are animated social artifacts, objects wherein the dynamics of a culture coalesce, producing a vast array of responses from those who come in contact with them. These objects are mysterious; they will always defy knowing. At Macalester we ask “Why are students apathetic when the world needs to be saved?” It’s the same question as “Why are the cats more important than the bodies of victims?” just as that is the same as “Why, Jens, are you such a brat?” What matters is not the answer to the question itself, but the material aspects of the inquiry-who is asking the question, how, where, when, and to what ends?

The job I see myself doing in these columns is to point out the mystery in my surroundings. In realizing that every object is open to interpretation, we begin to understand that our reactions presuppose a meaning-a meaning already, always projected before the words to describe it can form on our lips. “The eye perceives faster than the hand can draw,” and to slow down, to reflect, to unravel the fabric of cultural objects, perceptions, and reactions to the point where we can talk about them.what is that but the project of social commentary?

Jens Tamang ’11 is a biweekly columnist for the Mac Weekly and can be reached at [email protected]