On Instagram, philosophical shitposters are adopting catboy-themed meme accounts to poke fun at neoliberalism and society at large
A cat-eared twinkjak lies in bed and dreams of trepanation. Two men crawl out of Plato’s cave only to be clouded by exhaust fumes. Depressed Wojak looks at an image of Jan Van Eyck’s “The Last Judgement”. The outstretched arms of a skeleton embrace stacks of piled-up, lifeless bodies. “Man living in this place is kinda depressing,” he says. “Sounds like a chemical imbalance to me, who wouldn’t want to be happy in this system?” nu-male Sojak responds. The sense of despair is palpable.
Delve deep enough into the memosphere and you’re bound to come across a corner of Theorygram (a pocket of Instagram dedicated to philosophy and critical theory) populated by catboys. Home to terminally quirked-up thembos and philosophical shitposters, these teens and 20-somethings are based and Extremely Online, with nihilistic humour that pokes fun at neoliberalism and society at large. Usernames include @catboy_deleuze, @catboy_descartes, @catboy_preciado, and @catboy_hegel. The banter is self-referential and esoteric. Post-left commentary is juxtaposed with genderqueer memes and tongue-in-cheek jokes about the metaverse.
What unites this zoomer leftist humour with a proclivity towards catboys – a humanoid character with cat-like features made popular on DeviantArt and cosplay circles – is the product of an insular online community of queer teens with anti-establishment sentiments. But it can be traced back to @catboy_deleuze (now @deleuzian_thembo) on Instagram earlier this year. They started the account as a way of “trying to avoid alienating IRL friends by posting insurrectionary hypermaoist memes”. Not long after, @catboy_fisher (formerly known as the now-deleted @leftist.swag) was born, followed by a deluge of other catboy-philosopher meme accounts.
“I started my account maybe two weeks after following the first catboy theorist account,” @catboy_descartes tells Dazed. “I’d been active on Theorygram for a while and I really liked the kind of stuff I was seeing. Initially, I didn’t think too much about the message; it was mostly just for philosophy posting and for the community. But as I grew, I decided that I increasingly wanted to share my own thoughts on capitalism, communism, alienation, and postmodernism – especially targeted at people who don’t know as much about it, but are interested in it.”
The presence of catboys in the online canon is nothing new. With roots in anime culture, they’ve been a fixture on 4chan and messaging boards since the early days of the internet. Often depicted wearing a maid outfit and knee-high stockings, the catboy is sexualised and submissive, gender non-conforming and comforting. On TikTok, the hashtag #catboy has been viewed 786 million times and pulls up videos of femboys in cat ears and paws (nya nya).
The catboy image, @deleuzian_thembo explains, is loaded with fantasy. “Imagine if I walked around with cat ears all day – and yet it’s a figure that does convey something real about a certain subjectivity,” they say. “It’s like a silent queerness that gives itself as pure spectacle, but also it’s a figure that seems inoperative. The catboy radiates inoperativity, it looks clumsy, as if the catboy can’t really do anything. Would you imagine a catboy at work? So it’s somewhat of a destitute figure, because it’s not an individual, it can’t be put to work, it’s just there, like an excessive presence.”
pov you upset ur disc0rd kitten h̷̪̹̍ẻ̸̹̈̉ͅ ̶̡̳̿́i̶̱͕̙͇̅ͅs̶͔̉͌͠ ̸̯͍̗̂ç̶̲̞̾͠ͅŏ̵̲̚̕ḿ̴̟͋̀i̵̡̞͗̕n̵̨͕̗͈͗g̶̨̦̮͈͎̀̏̅ ##catboy :3♬ FVN! - LVL1
“Catboys are just really cute!” adds @catboy_descartes. “But also, I feel a sense of liberation when I put on my cat ears – for me, it's a way through which I can express and understand my gender and sexuality, and explore how those connect to my politics and opinions.”
How catboys came to represent a queer pocket of online leftist discourse can be put down to their nebulous nature. The catboy’s very existence is genderfluid and unclassifiable. It rejects the binary categories of man and woman – and, by extension, subverts the framework on which society functions. “The catboy flies in the face of widely held and traditional values of sexuality and gender, it erodes the foundation and structure of our normative society,” expands @deleuzian_thembo. But it’s also palatable for mass consumption: “The catboy image embodies a form of ready-made, purely spectacular queerness that can be readily consumed by straight people.”
While the philosophers chosen as catboy namesakes differ from account to account – there’s undeniable common ground between them. Many, if not all, of the pages appear to have at least a baseline appreciation of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari – and their 1972 text Anti-Oedipus. Then there’s buzzy philosophy syllabus names, such as postmodernists Baudrillard, Lyotard, Debord, and Derrida. The works of Freud and Lacan also feature, as do former members of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit – in particular, Sadie Plant, Mark Fisher and, more contentiously, Nick Land.
Sometimes, cat ears are photoshopped onto these figures, but serve no profound purpose other than for memeic value. It’s nerdy, insular stuff – perhaps the product of outsider teens spending too much time in their bedrooms. Ultimately, this doesn’t matter – because it’s funny.
“Hegel has nothing to do with catboys,” says @catboy_hegel. “I think the awkward juxtaposition of Hegel, a seriously colossal figure, and the ‘catboy’ is kinda funny and reflects a shade of the era we live in.”
“I’ve had people send me messages annoyed about the lack of connection between catboys and politics and Descartes – and they’re quite right,” explains catboy_descartes. “I chose the username because I’m francophone and I study mathematics – it felt like an obvious choice. I’ve read some Descartes, namely Discourse on the Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, but to be honest I’m not a huge fan. It’s quite ironic, but whatever, the username’s stuck!”
While @deleuzian_thembo insists that “Deleuze’s philosophy does not apply to catboys”, there are some parallels between the posts (often composed of multiple slides and philosophically dense speech bubbles) and Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the ‘schizophrenic’ as someone who rejects capitalism and the codes and signifiers that order it. Similarly, the term ‘schizoposting’ is frequently used in meme captions – presumably a reference to their sprawling style and anti-establishment content.
Then again, as Mark Fisher pointed out, there’s no alternative to capitalism. “(Catboy memes) exclusively deal with capitalist signifiers – commodified sexuality and identity – but operate with them by highlighting their hollowness,” responds @deleuzian_thembo. Rather, these memes borrow from the capitalist lexicon to express something inherently anti-capitalist: “We don’t have the language to articulate our alienation, we are feeling something disquieting, we are suffering, but we lack the language to articulate this.”
Catboy or not, the likelihood is that we’re all trying to make sense of the world through the only means available to us: memes. Through memes, we can poke fun at capitalism using the language of capitalism – via channels that are the embodiment of capitalism, AKA Instagram (see my previous article on Mark Fisher). @deleuzian_thembo adds: “Leftist discourse, whether online or not, is relevant; it is relevant, because it is nothing but a moment in the reproduction cycle of capital. Communism is irrelevant. Insurrection is irrelevant. Deleuze is irrelevant.”