The two poster-boards shout at passers-by in clearly printed black marker. The signs are duplicates of one another, affixed at angles to a tree on a front lawn. The tree is set back far enough from the curb to not be mistaken for a city tree. Crucially, at the base of this tree is a neatly rounded pile of river rocks. At first glance, there are too many rocks to count. But the owners of the tree seem to keep close tabs on the total.
How I long to call on these people in a week or two and find out if they have seen an increase or a decrease in theft since they put up the signs.
For the signs to work as intended–as a deterrent against further theft–a few things have to happen:
- Potential and/or previous rock thieves need to come to the house
- Those people must be interpellated (that is, they must consider themselves addressed by the sign and identify as the intended audience of this sign’s imperative message)
- They must then feel remorse for their previous or intended actions
- They must not feel indignant, as that may lead to rebellion against the sign’s message
That you can see it from the street does not make it public; that you want it does not make it yours; that there are so many to begin with does not change the situation from the owners’ point of view.*
All of this being established, my inclination is that anyone who already feels it is their right to take something from someone else’s lawn will scoff at this feeble attempt to control their behavior and take more rocks just to spite the sign and the passive-aggressive people who wrote it.
I could be wrong. The four steps outlined above may happen. But until these rock owners get a security camera and law enforcement on their side, I do not think their rocks are going to stay put. Not with this futile sign as their only anchor.
* That I took a picture of what these people clearly consider to be their sole property is an ethical grey area, although not getting paid for this piece of writing nudges me more firmly on the “no worries” side of things.
A lithographed drawing of a cow, with the text:
“You’re useful and delicious.”
And now for some analysis…
The Humor Angle
So one reason humor “happens” is when two usually unrelated things are presented right next to one another. In this case, the cow is being simultaneously given subjectivity by an unseen speaker (the card/speaker addresses the cow in the second person–you) and is immediately objectified (made an object by the card/speaker telling the cow how useful it is as food and whatnot). So the humor is in the unexpected collision of these two states of being that are bestowed upon the cow: it is given subjectivity only to have it taken away in the service of a human smile.
It is also funny because it combines admiration and brutal honesty. The narrator of the card is writing this ode of appreciation to the cow because it can be killed and used for food and clothing and other human needs. The narrator is defining what the cow is in human terms. It is appreciating it for its lack of agency–its lack of subjectivity–even as it ironically addresses it as if it is a subject, not an object.
Expanding the Analysis
Of course, the entire card objectifies the cow–an icon both standing for itself as an individual who can be addressed (although not easily interpellated*) as a singular subject, as well as a representative of an entire category of non-human animal. The cow is an object that conveys humor to the reader, the consumer of the card. Who is a human. Who identifies with the sentiments expressed on the card in the act of chuckling at their meaning. Haha, cows are delicious and useful! That cow doesn’t know what it’s in for…ha! The narrator could be interpreted as tricking the cow, first lulling it into a false sense of camaraderie (you implies that the speaker and the addressee are equal in the sense that they can communicate with one another as individuals), and then destroying those expectations built just moments before by putting the cow in the place of being a mere representative of a type. A class of animal that humans have categorically created to be the very things that the narrator is seemingly praising the individual cow for being: useful and delicious. See cow? You aren’t a person. You’re just an object. A thing with desired characteristics.
It’s quite an instance of animal cruelty, when you think about it. Albeit a funny one that only the humans are in on. Which is in turn exclusionary and therefore rather mean.
*I use interpellation here in the Althusserian sense, although I’m also twisting it. For Althusser, the subject is always already existent, created by social processes. While I think the subject still has to interact with the social situation in order to become a subject of the interaction (uptake/use makes meaning!). Althusser contends that the social interaction itself creates subjects; that the structure makes subjects of what the structure hails. Maybe…I’m a bit fuzzy on this, actually. Grad school was a while ago.
ANYWAY, since I am of the nihilistic relativist opinion that there is no way to absolutely know whether or not you are communicating with another species–or even another human being who is ostensibly of “the same” culture–it would be very difficult indeed for the narrator of the card to claim that the cow it is addressing was interpellated with the narrator’s use of “you,” even if the cow chose at that moment to serendipitously look over at the narrator.