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THE CULTURAL ROLE OF PIGEONS

While
the puffed up politicians vacate the streets and return to the nest to plan the
next round of shitting on us all, the UK’s city squares are left free for the real
pigeons to resume their similar public displays of proudly crapping everywhere
whilst simultaneously showing off their masculinity. Our media space, from
Buzzfeed to the BBC, has likewise been ‘politicized’ for the past few weeks, but
it will soon return to a stream of animal memes in which the pigeon once more
takes centre stage. We share our cities with pigeons, passing them on the
street every day, and now they litter our newsfeeds too, but an alarming lack of study
has treated these big questions: what cultural role does the pigeon play, and what
unconscious structures and ideologies control our responses to pigeons?

In an
earlier article for The Guardian on
the sad
death of Jonathan the Giant Tortoise
, Everyday Analysis discussed how the
animal/human relationship almost always has to do with projection: we see the acts of animals in human terms. In the
example below, with projection, the pigeon looks something like a Navy Admiral,
or a proud rugby player, showing off his wonderful crest for the female (or
rival male) to admire.

Perhaps
we find pigeons a little bit funny because they appear to think of
themselves as proud figures of masculinity but are often seen haplessly chasing
retreating females, confronting us with a failed masculinity. Although we know
this puffing-up is a part of successful mating, we laugh at its failure, the
female on the run while the male follows in futility. It seems pigeons might be
connected to failed masculinity in our language too, as with the phrase ‘pigeon
chested,’ used to describe a man with a weak or effeminate chest, even though a lot of men would kill for a chest like that displayed above.

But
this way of seeing it is problematic because it allows ideals of masculinity to remain in place. Laughter
at unsuccessful masculinity (something we often see) allows for the affirmation
of successful masculinity, creating a distance between the laugher and the
failed masculinity that is the target of the laughter, the poor pigeon.

On the
other hand, perhaps we are laughing, in a displaced way, at the behaviour
patterns and identities of humans and not of pigeons at all. As the two
wonderful memes below suggest, the posture and acts of the pigeon seem to
display a particular human ‘character type’. The first appears to be wearing
his bread like a rap star might wear a huge gold chain, whilst the second walks
in the style of flamboyant campness or with the swagger of a woman confidently
displaying a stylish outfit. Here it is the human identity that is mocked by
the image of the pigeon. It may be this that is really behind our laughter at
the mating pigeons too; what appears to be laughter at the pigeon’s failure
could be a displaced laughter at the similar attempts of the human male’s wooing technique.

There
is then, in a sense, what we might call a left- and right-wing response to the pigeon, just as there is left and right wing satire abound in our culture at the moment: one which
treats the pigeon as a mere ‘other’ to affirm the superiority of the human, and
another which sees the comedy as something that brings down our own structures
of human identity, mocking ourselves. But is the gap between left and right
really that big here?

Speaking
of satire, eighteenth-century English novelist Jonathan Swift writes that ‘satire
is a kind of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but
their own.’ For Swift, in satire we look
at the object of laughter as a mirror in which we project the image of
something we want to laugh at, but we leave ourselves intact and free of
mockery. Whether it is the pigeon or the rap star with the gold chain we laugh at, the position from which the laughter is issued remains safe and is affirmed as above the target of the laughter. The cultural role of the pigeon seems to show this, that a lot of our
satirical mockery, whilst it aims to mock all and everything, often leaves the
identity of the satirist intact. This is an interesting lesson that could be well applied to
the controversial politics of satire that we see playing an increasing role in television,
print and online media. Perhaps western satire, while it claims to leave nothing un-mocked, is also keeping something intact.

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