Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hello Kitty's Mouth

Jason Han, I Haz Mouth

There is something incredibly off-putting, to many people, about Hello Kitty's mouthlessness, that arguments from design pragmatism or relative degree of cuteness (rightly) don't quite squelch. The claim that it embeds her in an antifeminist position is well-taken, with the argument usually being that it reproduces a sense of the value of women as being contingent on their voicelessness. Jason Han's painting, I think, points a way through that impasse.

What we get, in this painting, is a suggestion that Hello Kitty with a mouth speaks not just imagistically, but that her speech is actually itself just a representation of her mouth. And, because of the very minimalism that supposedly accounts for her lack of a mouth, something even stranger – the speech bubble itself begins to look less like a representation of speech, and more like a third, incomplete Kitty, with the triangle at the bottom even serving as a potential ear. At a very basic level, then, we have the suggestion that when Kitty is given the tools of language, what she becomes capable of producing is a perfect partial self-representation.

The weirdness of this is compounded by the fact that the mouthless Hello Kitty is actually more expressive - there is an intuitive sense in which the !!! above her head signals something more concrete than the speech bubble with a mouth in it. Which is counterintuitive if you take the mouth to be something like the condition for the possibility of expression - in this case the mouth allows for the creation of an image which refers to an external language which itself is part of a specific discourse which is technologically and historically marked and gendered and so on, while the lack of a mouth allows for the expression of direct astonishment, which only after this is registered becomes ambiguous (is she astonished because her doppelganger* has evolved a mouth, is her astonishment a projection of envy, etc).

This ambiguity, though, is itself wrong, in a way. It is sort of weirdly genealogical, a reading forward through language the conditions of arriving at the beginning. That is, it is a sort of speculative historicizing, a guessing at the past on the evidence of its potential future. So to say something like that the !!! is one of envy, with the implication being that the mouthless Kitty has always desired a mouth, cannot help but be backwards, as we see in the painting itself that the expression of a desire for a mouth can only be predicated on actually having a mouth. Kitty can't want a mouth until she's got one – and when she does, it's what she's reduced to.

The equation, then, of a lack of a mouth with a lack of a voice, is made to seem outright perverse by this painting.** Which is, in itself, pretty great, but there is another aspect of Jason Han's painting that I think really cements its wonderfulness.

Renée Magritte, Les Deux Mystères

The most obvious way to read this painting is as a commentary on the more famous (and earlier) La Trahison des Images, where that painting is itself situated in this one, on an easel. Re-painting that painting certainly compounds the thematizing of semiotics, but instead of taking further the exploration of the insufficiency of the signifier, what we get is another realist representation of a pipe, and this one with no tagline disavowal. On the contrary, it almost seems to point up the interpretation that Foucault suggests of the earlier painting, that the painted words “ceci n'est pas une pipe” refer not to the pipe above but to themselves – this “this” is not “a pipe.” Because if we believe that the realist image must contain a linguistic disavowal to maintain the distance between a signifier and its signified, then mustn't we come to the conclusion, of this new pipe, that it is a pipe?

And certainly no one believes that pipe outside of the easel is any more a real pipe than the pipe within it. As Foucault also points out, the large pipe is not itself "in space" the same way the small pipe is - the large pipe could be on the wall in the back, but it could just as easily be floating in the foreground, actually the smaller of the two pipes; or it could be a sort of hazy apparition, no pipe at all but a dream of a pipe by the not-a-pipe on the easel.

Thus, the congruence; in one, the not-a-pipe that dreams a pipe; in the other, the mouth that speaks itself. Structurally, then, we have a sort of complicated coherence between the represented Treachery of Images and the two Kitties. Complicated because it is the Kitty who has been inducted into the linguistic order who is doing the dreaming, and the Kitty who is still outside of it that must, then, be the equivalent of the painted words.

This complication, I think, points to the basic disjunction in the mode of representation that exists between the pipe and Kitty. The whole argument of La Trahison des Images revolves around the pipe as representation, as it is its status as such that creates the space necessary to be able to coherently refer to it as not itself. Whereas with Kitty we are not dealing with a representation (in manifold, often very subtle ways) – such that a direct take-off of La Trahison des Images would necessarily mean something entirely different. A painting of Hello Kitty with “This is not a Hello Kitty” below it would necessarily mean something entirely orthogonal to the meaning of a painting of a pipe with “This is not a pipe” written beneath it.

The short of it, then, is that the gap between these apparently identical instances (of Kitty's potential mouth speaking only itself, and of the not-a-pipe that only dreams of a more-real pipe) is exactly the gap between an image and a representation. And, to put blithely what I've been trying to put subtly, that what this perhaps draws out is the insufficiency of a politics of representation to account for Kitty. Without, of course, simply shoving the question to the side altogether.

*One of the most basic ways you can tell a “real” Hello Kitty product from a counterfeit is that Hello Kitty always wears her bow on the left ear. Which means that the Kitty with the mouth would have to be either a counterfeit Kitty or, I guess, Kitty's twin sister Mimmy. I don't really find this particularly meaningful so much as funny.

**Two things: first, there are actually two ways in which Kitty has always been voiced, in that the first product of hers was a coin purse with HELLO printed in block caps over her head (thus her 'name' – although, canonically, her name is Kitty White) and also in that whenever she is put into a narrative context, or anywhere else where she needs to speak, she is perfectly capable of doing so. Second is that I think this is where the lolcats meme-speak of the title comes into play, for me at least, as that is exactly an example of voice being given to the voiceless as being infantilizing and generally the opposite of empowering.