Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Great Wisconsin Cat Massacre

In 1984, the great cultural historian of early modern France Robert Darnton wrote a seminal book entitled The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. The title of this book refers to one of his chapters in which he examines an incident in a printer's shop in Paris in the 1730's. The apprentices massacred cats in riotous fashion, mocking their master and, as Darnton argues, using the symbols of the master (the cats) as a symbolic inversion of their place in society. Pets were an upper class notion in the eighteenth century and these workers, using their identification with their trade, were protesting the heavy-handed control of their master over their unique form of early worker culture (1).

We may see shades of Darnton's apprentices in modern day La Crosse County, Wisconsin. Read the story about feral cats becoming an unprotected species in La Crosse County in the La Crosse Tribune.

Are these situations similar? In other words, can Darnton's arguments inform an interpretation of these developments in Wisconsin. Yes and no. Yes in the fact that it does reflect on how a certain culture will use rather unorthodox means to solve problems and define their boundaries over encroachment from nature.

Mostly, no, however. It seems that the citizens of La Crosse County, Wisconsin are merely responding to a growing problem in their area by the most direct means necessary. Animal control a-la-government cannot be relied upon to deal with problems such as this on a large scale. It seems that the good people of La Crosse County have decided to leave the government out and take matters into their own hands. Sure, they could call for the state to do something. If Wisconsin is like most states (and I have no reason to believe that it isn't), it would get lost in the DNR, legislature or some horrid bureaucratic hell. So, people of La Crosse County, I envy you. Stray cats are a problem in my neighborhood, but such a direct solution would certainly raise the ire of the more sensitive types in the area. I just want to shoot those furry little bastards.

In any event, read Darnton's book. It is a real masterpiece of relating culture to popular protest and the imagining of culture in the "long" eighteenth century. Inventive use of evidence and an engaging writing style make it a delight.

1. Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), 99-101.

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