A pandemic meta-cartoon

By JAK (Jason Adam Katzenstein), the New Yorker daily cartoon from yesterday:


“Personally, I worry that, with everyone wearing masks, readers won’t be able to tell who in the cartoon is speaking.”

The masks are part of daily life in plague time, and they conceal the wearers’ mouths. So in a cartoon you can’t tell who’s speaking. (In real life, there might be other clues, like vocal timbre.)

The characters in the cartoon have absolutely identical facial expressions, so no clue there. But one’s a man and one’s a woman, and the man is in the foreground of the cartoon. So some people might assume that the man is the speaker, because male characters are, ceteris paribus, more salient or significant than female characters; or because a character in the foreground is there because they’re the speaker. Or some people might assume that the woman is the speaker because she’s expressing concern for the readers and that such empathy is, conventionally, more characteristic of women than of men.

But such reasoning proceeds on the slimmest of support. We really don’t know.

Now, the subtle point. If the speaker had said readers won’t be able to tell who in a cartoon is speaking (with sg. indefinite a cartoon) or readers won’t be able to tell who in  cartoons is speaking (with pl. indefinite cartoons), then we’d just have someone talking about how people read and understand cartoons.

But instead JAK chose to have his speaker say:

readers won’t be able to tell who in the cartoon is speaking (with sg. definite the cartoon)

conveying that the referent of this NP is given in the context. The context of this utterance is in fact the cartoon it appears in, so this utterance is subtly, but significantly, meta: the characters are aware that they are in fact characters in a cartoon and they’re talking about that.

JAK could have gone for sledgehammer meta, with

readers won’t be able to tell who in this cartoon is speaking (with sg. demonstrative this cartoon)

but he did it with a much lighter hand.

2 Responses to “A pandemic meta-cartoon”

  1. Emily M. Bender (@emilymbender) Says:

    I also like how the cartoon characters also have to wear masks, even though the cartoon world could just as well not have been infected. Seems like it underscores the meta-ness somehow…

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      It’s very common for cartoons to exist in two worlds simultaneously — one an exaggerated version of the “real world” and one a fantasy world roughly mapped onto the first. (I have a number of postings about the phenomenon.) It hadn’t occurred to me to think of this JAK cartoon in these terms, but it’s an intriguing idea.

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