The Garfield comics reek of a dogmatic ideology. They formulate and endorse a brand of lazy cynicism that not only encourages readers to accept the status quo, but also frames the concept of going against it as imaginative and fantastical—in Garfield’s world, impossible. This is all the more frightening keeping in mind the comic’s enormous national circulation and lengthy career. The cemented place the strip has enjoyed within American culture speaks both to its palatability for national audiences and its ability to nicely coalesce with prevailing neoliberal capitalist ideology. But what about the comics builds this stance, and how?
The benefits of analyzing popular media should be obvious: if one drowns in erudition, one misses the Point. Glancing at American culture through its discursive and scattered self-contradictions is enlightening, but what is perhaps even more salient is observing the way unconscious norms and assumptions form and solidify the backbone for popular media—in particular, non-daring humor. Garfield is a good place to start with this.
Three themes permeate the strip: impotent critiques of bureaucracy; friction and miscommunication with the State; and solipsism and marginalization of the Other.
To the first point: What does Garfield mean when he deploys his catchphrase, “I hate Mondays”? It certainly means something more than literal; “Mondays” is synecdoche here. It refers (obviously) not just to the day of the week (and, by extension, the beginning of it) itself, but rather explicitly to the bureaucratic web that emphasizes and accepts as normal the 9–5, 5-day-a-week work schedule. The phrase is a reference to the whole system of capitalist ideology that not only relies on such a grueling work culture; it treats it as the only possible reality, one without viable alternatives.
Garfield’s attitude, here, is characteristic of modern anti-capitalist cynicism. It acknowledges the dehumanizing flaws of capitalist ideology but proposes nothing to change or correct them. It critiques the system from within the system. Garfield taps the curtain, is pulled up and trapped by it, blaming his misfortune on some cosmic, divine negative connotation that surrounds Mondays. But perhaps he just shouldn’t have tapped the curtain in the first place.
This is what makes the comic marketable; if it expressed anything more than just inert irritation then it would have been branded “Marxist” and cast to the wayside to be replaced with the Archies and the Far Sides of the newspaper world. Garfield brushes with the realities of bureaucracy but doesn’t at all question it; instead, he just incorporates it into the reality of what he already knows. For him, there is no alternative.
And this ties in well with Garfield’s relationship to his owner, Jon. It is characterized equally by autocracy and miscommunication. The fundamental inability of the two to lucidly communicate confounds and exacerbates Jon’s autocratic and absolute control over Garfield. Coupled with the latter’s disgruntled acceptance of bureaucracy, it is only reasonable that his relationship to Jon (the State, following this parallel) is a precarious and often ineffective one. Even in Garfield’s most earnest attempts to explain himself and his actions to his owner, it nonetheless ends dissatisfyingly in complete rupture, exposing exclusively in that moment the flaws in the system in which Garfield exists.
So too with Garfield’s relationship to Odie. Solipsism (via the Bootstraps Ideology) has been so thoroughly engrained in Garfield’s psyche that it pre-informs his perceptions of Odie. The bureaucratic conditions of Garfield’s reality have so shaped him that he exists in egoistic pessimism, viewing those around him in similar situations as useless and idiotic. He finds no allies among those around him, because via the prevailing capitalist ideology they have been divided and dis-united, so as to—within the system—become completely impotent as regards forming any kind of resistance to Jon/the State. Again, this is something accepted and effectively endorsed by the comic itself, exclusively due to its acceptance of these conditions as “normal”.
Garfield is the paradigmatic schmuck of late capitalist America. He is delusional, ill with a cynicism which, to paraphrase Marx via Žižek, “he does not know it, but he is doing it”; or via Sloterdijk, “he knows very well what he is doing, but still, he is doing it.”
There is undoubtedly much more to be explored within this strip, but I have elected here to put forth the groundwork for a future Marxist/Lacanian analysis of the comic, perhaps toward a Phenomenology of Garfield.