Erased (F)e-male Body: Processing Adolescent Female Trauma through a Surrogate in the work of Amanda Horowitz, Bunny Rogers, and Jacky Connolly

Allie Linn

Estimated read time: 24 minutes.

Revenge Poem (Theory of the LoFi Female), a thirteen-minute-long ballad attempting to understand the motivations for producing revenge porn and reconcile with its effects, opens with the artist, Amanda Horowitz, under a spotlight in a dark room. She describes the next steps that a target of the abuse can take, reciting instructions that are simultaneously projected on the wall behind her: “Feeling trapped? Become a porn star. Go on a killing spree. Never regret the feeling of your first kill. Embrace a journey laden in cum.” Her tone is conversational and inviting, despite the crude violence of her advice, and her deliberate lack of grief is strangely empowering. The volume of the percussive synthesizers in the background steadily rises as her message becomes increasingly urgent. “Filicide women, terrorist women, ugly women: you are my home, my porosity. Traveling through cell walls, you can escape.” Here, Horowitz first introduces the prospect of transcending the body as the ultimate means of release from a system that has birthed such a breach of trust, such a gross disregard for psychological repercussions. The target’s body has been publicized, reproduced, and manipulated to induce shame and humiliation, but the artist is not interested in the word victim.

The scene changes to display an avatar of an adolescent male in a tracksuit entering the digitally rendered bedroom of a young girl. Horowitz observes the scene unfold via a projection on the wall of the room she occupies so that the view of the virtual bedroom is televised to both the artist and the audience. Like Horowitz, the male delivers a monologue, speaking aggressively but nonetheless gathering some twisted sympathy with lines like, “Flashing clothes, I’m a dashing boy/ Trapped here.” One can attempt to mine the subtle wordplay of his verses in real-time, searching for motivations for the vengeful act in lines like, “I feel anonymous when I look at it, like America chose me to make this and then I put you in a dress.” It is not completely clear who is in charge of the situation; the male seems confined to the room, monitored under surveillance, but the female can only watch his diatribe remotely and passively. It seems unsettling that this violent character would be inside of a young girl’s room for any reason, but it is understood that he exists inside of a separate, constructed world. As a digitally rendered, sometimes glitching, avatar, he seems less dangerous and more pet-like, ultimately controlled and manipulated by the artist.

Horowitz has described this project as “a perverted feminism, one that is searching for a humanity outside of sexual morals and current economic and political structures.”1 Using revenge porn as a catalyst for a broader inquiry into gendered power dynamics, Horowitz searches for a nuanced understanding of the impact of trauma inflicted on the female body. She uses performance, language, and drag to fluidly transition between omniscient motivational speaker, abuser, and target of the attack. It seems that even revenge porn, the quintessential gesture of misogyny, should be investigated from many different perspectives, its motives scrutinized. Horowitz has said that Revenge Poem is a “defiant slaughter of the very idea that there is a female victim,” and she explores the nebulous space between target and predator poetically and powerfully, reserving empathy for both parties.2

Horowitz’s decision to eschew victimization and incite empathy, at times resulting in work that feels profane or, as she describes it, perverted, is echoed in the work of contemporaries Bunny Rogers and Jacky Connolly. Like Horowitz, Rogers and Connolly navigate the complicated implications of trauma through the inhabitation of avatars or surrogates, both physical and digital, within constructed worlds. Animated videos generated from computer graphics constitute the majority of Connolly’s practice, while Rogers and Horowitz incorporate animated avatars into larger installations that integrate craft practices traditionally characterized as feminine. The artists deviate from, and build upon, the body-centric work of Yoko Ono, Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneeman, and other feminist artists of the 1960s and 70s in order to extend the physical body into the infinitely pliable digital space of the screen. Speaking and acting through the guise of avatars, both original and appropriated, Horowitz, Rogers, and Connolly are able to translate trauma, often remembered in a fragmented manner, into a narrative structure. Whether reflecting on revenge porn, the Columbine High School massacre, or the September 11 terrorist attacks, the work investigates individual memories of universally experienced emergencies and their subsequent social and political ramifications. Recounted through a female narrator, the collective work also reflects on a broader experience of girlhood and adolescence in the dawn of the internet, identifying moments that have functioned as catalysts for premature entrance into adulthood.

N. Katherine Hayles writes that “trauma overwhelms the ability of a human to process it” and “traumatic events are experienced and remembered in a qualitatively different way from ordinary experience… Dissociated from language, trauma resists narrative.”3 She continues,

Experienced consciously but remembered non-linguistically, trauma has structural affinities with code. Like code, it is linked with narrative without itself being narrative. Like code, it is somewhere other than on the linguistic surface, while having power to influence that surface. Like code, it is intimately related to somatic states below the level of consciousness. These similarities suggest that code can become a conduit through which to understand, represent, and intervene in trauma.4

If “conscious is to the unconscious” what “language is to code,” as Hayles argues, then the digital realm can provide an appropriate platform for processing trauma, filtering language through the virtual body of an avatar. 5 An avatar “is generally conceived of as a passive puppet providing unmediated agency within the virtual world,” and Hayles explains the benefit of operating through this form:6

The contrast between the body’s limitations and cyberspace’s power highlights the advantages of pattern over presence… As long as the pattern endures, one has attained a kind of immortality…In a world despoiled by overdevelopment, overpopulation, and time-release environmental poisons, it is comforting to think that physical forms can recover their pristine purity by being reconstituted as informational patterns in a multidimensional computer space. A cyberspace body, like a cyberspace landscape, is immune to blight and corruption.7

Invincible, immortal, and immune to pain, the cyberspace body provides an ideal, neutral space for processing emotion, and because the physical body is so frequently a site of past trauma, its erasure in an artwork can represent transcendence from a psychological burden. The use of an avatar provides mediated distance for reflection on a traumatic event and further enhances the surreal and uncanny atmosphere of its aftermath. Horowitz utilizes the avatar to shift roles between male perpetrator and female victim in Revenge Poem, by way of occupying each character’s voice, while Rogers and Connolly insert themselves into cartoons and computer games, finding correlations with fictitious childhood characters.

In the writing that accompanies Revenge Poem, Horowitz describes the contemporary female as synonymous with a compressed digital image, prone to manipulation and distortion. “Like a JPEG, she has become pure data traveling through cyberspace, losing sharpness and becoming a lo-fi, genderless image.”8 assertion reiterates the integration of the virtual and corporeal that has been suggested by media theorists and cyberfeminists for decades, most notably by Donna Haraway in her 1985 seminal work, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” “By the late twentieth century, our time, mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we are cyborgs,” Haraway declares.9

 “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by the skin?”10 This merger between human and machine is not meant to eradicate the body but rather explore its limitations through a synthesis with the digital realm. Maria Fernandez explains that participation in the digital world actually heightens awareness of the physical body, writing, “We need to strengthen our presence in that greatly contested [digital] realm, but with a consciousness of our bodies and embodiment. In the celebration of our union with machines, it is critical to keep in mind that technology has been an integral part of the construction and sociohistorical positioning of identities.”11

Erasure of the physical representation of the body is an inherently radical gesture for an artist making work within a patriarchal structure. Artist and theorist Hannah Black has written, “The abolition of the body, [the] idea that if we were to abolish gender—if that could even be a serious political horizon—it would involve a complete re-imagining of the conceptual train of the body, an unthinking or de-creating of this idea of having a body.”12 This rather abstract way of thinking reimagines the potential of treating gender fluidly and, in regards to processing trauma, blurs traditionally defined feminine and masculine coping mechanisms.

For Horowitz, one of the most important reasons for utilizing an avatar in Revenge Poem is the ability to acquire “the perspective of the male cyber rapist, occupying his voice as a form of drag.”13 As the character delivers his monologue in the second act of the video, it quickly becomes clear that he has an extremely limited range of movement; after initially walking into the room, he stands completely frozen and unblinking, able only to jerk his neck mechanically. An inset occasionally appears to depict the artist watching the scene projected on the wall behind her. She seems to patiently wait for him to finish, wading through the hostility of his words in search of a logical reason for his violent and violating act. His words express a juvenile frustration towards being told no, and his final lines seem to depict him as a nursery school villain, simultaneously dangerous and naive.

Horowitz returns to her soapbox, now reciting her coded poem from a booklet in her hands. Occasionally, her words are interrupted by recorded protest chants and barely decipherable news and videogame clips. As she reaches the conclusion of her monologue, her sentences deviate from abstract poetry and become a more direct and confessional soliloquy:

Looking at the stolen images on revenge porn feeds, I feel a mixture of skin crawling disgust and confusion. I want to empathize with this boy, wrap my head around his motivation, turning his abuse into something substantial and greater than the senseless act, raising up its importance not as victim or perpetrator but as the forces that cast us in this technological projection. Using his attire, I want to be that girl and turn her into my bio-warrior.…

Horowitz “wants to empathize,” but she still cannot fathom the male character’s actions. In dawning his character to search for motives, she is now confronted with the possibility of also being guilty of an act of violation. The digital avatar of the male has provided space for cyberdrag and a pursuit of empathy, but it has also created discomfort and agitation. “Am I the cyber rapist?” Horowitz asks, momentarily pausing from her script, seemingly lost in the question. The video closes with a kind of duet; the male calls out the phrase, “Because my girl knows how to feel,” and Horowitz echoes, “Because I know how to feel.”

Revenge Poem was shown in Baltimore in December 2015 as part of i <3 my emergency, a two-person exhibition at Springsteen Gallery showcasing the work of Horowitz and Nandi Loaf. A group of sculptural objects by Horowitz accompanying the video are collectively titled Cloak of Earthly Objects. Three puppet-like sculptures sit on the ground, and vinyl text on the walls behind the figures display various poems by the artist: “A war is waged on/ Your pockmarks/ Your puberty/ Your butterflies in history,” and “You are a hysterical monster/ We shall never have to move,” and “Tidy up 9-1-1/ Look at the nice girl/ Standing by the airport/ Pantomiming typhoons.” The gallery text describes these works as a collective “multifaceted hyperobject of [the artist’s] experiences of 9/11.”14

In a subtle nod to Revenge Poem, Cloak of Earthly Objects also uses surrogate bodies to act as exterior vessels for processing trauma. However, the surrogates have now been realized as objects and brought into the physical world. Importantly, each puppet is fully functional and can be entered; they are shells of a collective memory waiting to be manipulated by the user. The exhibition seems to reflect less on the actual events of September 11 and more on the implications of a post-9/11 world, fraught with anxiety, suspicion, and the subsequent increase of discrimination towards non-Americans and immigrants. Brian Massumi explains:

The immediate shock gave way to lingering fear, relaying the danger into a remainder of surplus threat. 9/11 was an excess-threat generating actual event, which has perhaps done more than any other threat-o-genic source to legitimate pre-emptive politics… An event where threat materializes as a clear and present danger extrudes a surplus-remainder of threat-potential, which can contaminate new objects, persons, and contexts through the joint mechanisms of the double conditional and the objective imprecision of the specificity of threat. Threat’s self-causing proliferates.15

The first puppet, or “threat-potential” object, Rubble Rock, is constructed from yellow-orange foam and is covered in tire tread marks, indexical patterns of a traumatic, and possibly lethal, event. Rubble Rock resembles a frog and even potentially references the recently newsworthy meme character Pepe the Frog. The character has been listed as a hate symbol and banned by the Anti-Defamation League, following its cooption by various alt-right and white supremacist groups.16 Though the artist could not have foreseen how these events would play out, the allusion to a meme reinforces the fact that Rubble Rock is a character waiting to be manipulated and changed. The artist has imbued the figure with her own memory of the psychological aftermath of 9/11 and invites the viewer to do the same. The puppet is an empty vessel waiting to be directed, but the fate of the once-innocent Pepe the Frog serves as a reminder of the dark potential such a vessel possesses. Fear and anxiety can breed hatred and bigotry, and Cloak of Earthly Objects seems to document the artist coming to this realization at the young age of nine. She explains: “I think about my experience of 9/11 as still occurring, becoming a hyperobject that consumes an entire political climate of fear and hysteria.”17

On the other side of the gallery is A Buff Rose, a puppet with soft, purple felt skin, a lacy white dress, and human hair. Its eyes, eyebrows, nostrils, and mouth are beaded with hundreds of white, pink, and gold microbeads, a sock is stuffed in its mouth. Like Rubble Rock, there are signs of foul play; it seems that the puppet has asphyxiated. Horowitz’s play with language once again reemerges in the title of this character; “buff” might refer to nudity, strength of the character (despite its current frail state), or it might imply that the doll will be used to mop up the floors, presumably becoming as soiled as Rubble Rock over time. It feels appropriate that these puppets tread the line between toy and portent, as they represent an account of 9/11 through the eyes of a nine-year-old.

The third figure is less of a puppet and more of a sandwich board; a flat, cut-out female figure, hinged at the top of the head, wears a forest green cloak over a body covered in images of war, maps, the desert, Hummers, butterflies, and military planes. The title, Eracer Girl, similarly lends itself to various interpretations. The E-Racer is a homebuilt, single occupancy aircraft, loosely relating to September 11, but the name is also a play on email, e-waste, eBay Inc. Alternatively, the word might be a play on “eraser,” and Horowitz may be alluding to an erased childhood or loss of innocence. Whereas Rubble Rock and A Buff Rose encapsulate an indescribable feeling for Horowitz, operating more like her poetry, Eracer Girl attempts to illustrate, functioning more like a diagram; Eracer Girl is an aggregate of the media she experiences.

As self-defined hyperobjects, a term coined by Timothy Morton to describe entities “that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans…[and involve] profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to,” Horowitz’s marionettes attempt to encompass a wide spectrum of anxieties induced by the aftermath of 9/11.18 Morton would probably argue that these art objects alone hardly constitute a hyperobject, but it is interesting to begin to try to understand what the hyperobject at play might be.19 More so than the actual event, Horowitz is attempting to reconcile with the development of a Homeland Security Advisory System, perpetually lingering at a nervous yellow, and the surge in xenophobic and Islamophobic hate crimes. The hyperobject, maybe, is a subsequent racism that, indeed, this election season has proven to be quite rampant. “I’ve thought about those sculptures as representations that embody an abstract power network, one that spans back and forth between time,” Horowitz has said. “The puppets… can be entered and possessed, which was very important to me in thinking about them as almost voodoo objects.”20

The conversation becomes gendered when we begin to consider the shared grieving within a post-9/11 landscape and the traditionally feminine characteristics this grieving is usually assigned. “When I was making those objects,” Horowitz writes, “I was thinking about an effeminized country, the use of paranoiac foreign policy as a type of domestic hysteria—a symptom once put on housewives who were trapped and repressed and now embraced as an entire national subjectivity.”21

Now an obsolete medical term, hysteria came to prominence as a medical diagnosis in the Victorian era to explain a variety of symptoms ranging from anxiety to irritability to fainting spells in women.22 The creation of the condition, and its continued acceptance for centuries, “illustrates how Western society pathologized women’s sexuality both as a mystery and as a problem.”23 For many years, hysteria justified the classification of women as frail, weak, dramatic, and volatile, and, though now outdated, it is curious to see similar feelings of paranoia and anxiety regarded as heroic or patriotic through a masculine, militaristic lens. Freud later linked the condition to sexual abuse and other childhood traumas, stating that, “the subject has retained an unconscious memory of a precocious experience of… sexual abuse committed by another person; and the period of life at which this fatal event takes place is earliest youth—the years up to the age of eight to ten.”24 Again, the age of “eight to ten” is emphasized as an important time of transition and development during childhood, specifically girlhood; that these vital years of Horowitz’s are marred by a national crisis represents something of a twisted rite of passage. The “fatal event” that Freud describes on an individual scale is not unlike the broader “fatal event” faced on a national scale, and the two carry mirroring ramifications.

Both Revenge Poem and Cloak of Earthly Objects seek to address trauma in rather abstract terms; the artist’s writing is often deliberately cryptic and her props enigmatic. The sculptural objects, especially, seem to develop intuitively, materializing first before being completely understood by even the artist. Possessing the capacity to be entered and controlled, Horowitz’s puppets become tangible surrogates for both the artist and the viewer to impregnate with memory and emotion. They are vessels for emotional labor, concurrently laden with a universally shared experience and infinitely vacant. The puppets anthropomorphize suspicion and anxiety and surveillance, but they also ask to be played with, comforted, held. The avatar in Revenge Poem, similarly, seeks some kind of empathy, and Horowitz enters this shell, too, to search for it, but ultimately comes up empty handed.   

*   *   *

Grappling with collective trauma through physical and digital surrogates similarly centers the work of New York-based artist Bunny Rogers. Often, Rogers masks trauma within seemingly innocuous, utilitarian objects, and she integrates her poetry into installation-based work via animated characters. Her recent installation at Greenspon Gallery in New York, Columbine Cafeteria, transforms the space into a modified representation of the cafeteria of Columbine High School, the site of the 1999 school shooting by students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. The exhibition, a sequel to Rogers’ earlier work on the subject, Columbine Library, is multifarious and immersive, and it feels much more fully-realized than the previous iteration. Rogers researched the event extensively and obsessively in preparation for both installations, poring over police reports, news articles, and online forums. The accompanying gallery text explains, however, that Rogers is not interested in a purely objective and straightforward translation: “The artist likewise melds fantasy and fiction with forensic data, suggesting that our experiences reside in the flux between the two.”25 The cafeteria tables and chairs have been painstakingly re-fabricated, while fictitious characters are implanted in the scene, generating a surreal amalgam of reality and fantasy.

Coincidentally, Rogers was also nine years old at the time of the Columbine massacre, the same age as Horowitz at the time of the September 11 attacks. Like Cloak of Earthly Objects, Columbine Cafeteria reflects on the larger implications of a nationally experienced crisis, seeking to visualize an experience that is difficult to articulate but has undoubtedly influenced the collective childhood of a generation. “Research into social absorption of the Columbine Massacre registered as a complex puzzle necessitating subjective assembly,” Rogers explains in an interview with Mousse magazine.26

Nearly eighteen years later, the Columbine shootings are still regarded as a pivotal turning point in the history of school violence, forever changing the ways in which bullying, mental health, and gun violence are addressed in school. Columbine Cafeteria is an ode to a tragedy and its victims, as well as a reflection on the dawn of a new age of anxiety and fear. Like Horowitz, Rogers is interested in searching for a motivation for the horrific event, unsatisfied with the blanket accusation of mental instability. She proposes the irreverent idea that the depression and anger and loneliness experienced by Klebold and Harris are emotions experienced by all young adults.

The individual works in the exhibition demand slow interaction, and, as in much of Rogers’ work, some of the most poignant moments are found within the details, betraying the artist’s hand. Rogers has written that furniture holds the potential to become “vessels for extreme events and extremes of emotion,” noting that they, too, can become worn down and distressed.27 “When I look at old pieces of furniture, I kind of see a silent scream.”28 In the case of Columbine Cafeteria, many of these memories of “extreme events” are buried under sumptuous materials, and the objects require careful visual excavation. Their emptiness is significant.

The front room of Greenspon contains a large velvet-lined vitrine displaying outfits and ballet shoes. A standard circular cafeteria table is surrounded by fourteen purple and beige chairs and covered with apples, carved to resemble jack-o-lanterns. Various stained glass windows, framed portraits, and a cafeteria tray slide (poetically referred to as a ballet barre on the image list) adorn the walls. In the adjacent room, a tableau of an overflowing trashcan and a mop and bucket, seemingly soaked in wine, rests in a corner. An animation is projected on the wall.

The animation, Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria, portrays a 3D avatar based on the character of Mandy Moore from Clone High, a short-lived animated series centering on a high school populated by clones of historical figures.29

 Moore sits at a piano inside of a rendering of the school, while snow falls from the ceiling and covers the ground. The virtual space is both interior and exterior; the structure has failed to protect its lone resident, and a scantily clad Moore is exposed to the cold. There are no footsteps in the snow or other signs of life, and the chronology of the scene is ambiguous. Does she perform in the present, or has the viewer been transported back to 1999? Moore plays three Elliot Smith songs on the piano, despondent odes to adolescence, pausing only to drink from her bottle of wine.

The viewing space for the video closely replicates the animated scene; the bench in the gallery is a physical reproduction of the animated one that Moore sits on, and artificial snow also falls from the gallery ceiling, covering the floor. More carved apples, holding candles, are scattered around the floor. Moore’s world mirrors our own, and the boundary between virtual space and real space is temporarily lifted, allowing the viewer to virtually enter Columbine High School. The physical room, and specifically the piano bench, provides space for processing the tragedy while listening to Moore’s memorial performance.

Rogers seems to acknowledge the potential irreverence of inserting her own body into a tragedy she did not experience firsthand. Her decision to use a surrogate, one that can be recognized by the audience, creates a separate space for processing the Columbine massacre. Rogers can only investigate the event a decade later through online forums; her fabricated character, however, can travel to the virtual site to mourn and fill the space with music. Moore’s character seems to embody innocence and purity; she is referred to as angel in Clone High, and, in the adjacent room, she is depicted wearing a halo.

Other characters function more literally as autobiographical surrogates for Rogers. Poetry Reading with Gazlene Membrane, a video from Columbine Library, features an avatar of Gaz, the younger sister of the protagonist from the animated television series Invader Zim. Gaz is described as “the other primary, and most powerful, character… cruel, strong, and brilliant” and notably has an absentee mother, harboring childhood distress of her own.30 In a panel discussion at Yarat Contemporary Art Space in Azerbaijan with Suad Garayeva and Michael Connor, Rogers explains the kinship she feels with both Gaz and Joan of Arc, another character from Clone High that frequently appears in her work, including a stained glass piece in Columbine Cafeteria,

“I related to both of these characters because… they were really outwardly angry and didn’t hold back about expressing cynicism or their sarcastic senses of humor or desires to get vengeance. I think it started with realizing that the two of them seemed like sisters. Gaz is eleven, Joan is seventeen, so I saw them as sisters but also as myself at different ages.”31

In Poetry Reading with Gazlene Membrane, an animated Gaz, whose head and purple pigtails are many times larger than the rest of her body, walks into a rendered depiction of the school’s cafeteria and climbs up onto a table. As in Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria, the depiction of Columbine High School is mimicked exactly, down to the measurements of the room and the positioning of the furniture. The sprinklers are running and the chairs, which have been knocked over, are submerged in water. Gaz reads from a book, Cunny Poem 1. Cunny Poem 1 is Rogers’ published anthology of poetry from 2012 to 2014, and, performed in the somber setting, lines that would otherwise seem angst-filled and melodramatic achieve more poignancy and power: “I look at you and I have no idea who you are.” “With art, feelings are clear.” “Remember this crushing day.” Rogers has successfully infiltrated a character that she has admired for some time, and it is surreal to hear her monotone voice emanate from the small cartoon mouth of Gaz. Time is compressed, fusing the Columbine massacre with childhood memories of watching Invader Zim and Rogers’ own current writing.

*   *   *

The use of digital avatars and constructed virtual spaces to process trauma is arguably most prominent in the work of New York-based artist Jacky Connolly. Connolly constructs characters and sets within the computer game The Sims 3 and then records real-time computer graphics to develop animated videos, a technique referred to as machinima.32 The films explore childhood memories through reconstructed, virtual spaces in which fact and fiction can be interwoven. On her similar and pioneering work using Second Life, Chinese artist Cao Fei has reflected that her virtual city is “not a city of magical mirror, it doesn’t restore the full present, not does it recall our reminiscence of the past. It’s a mirror that partially reflects.”33 Connolly operates with a similar philosophy, selectively editing and altering her childhood memories. Like Second Life, The Sims provides access to an entire virtual universe, and the user can direct his or her characters to carry out a wide variety of tasks. Connolly directs and captures in-game scenes in order to create enigmatic narratives containing little to no dialogue. Initially, playing the computer game as a child provided an escape for Connolly, and it proposed the possibility of a fluid identity within a fictitious utopia, completely under her control:

The Sims was my window onto an inaccessible realm, a fantasy theater for enacting my imagined late teen years and early adulthood—a world without school where you could drive, sleep at a man’s house, or try out his heart-shaped hot tub. I would frequently roleplay as older women that I wanted to emulate, an amalgamation of various movie and book characters and cool teens that I would see at high school. I envisioned adulthood as a world of intrigue and possibility, a release from the ensnarement of a middle school nightmare. Real life could only disappoint these optimistic projections.34

The Sims remains “a fantasy theater” for Connolly, and she has explained that her work using the game “no longer enact[s] an imagined future, but reenact[s] the traumas of earlier life stages.”35 Her work Tales from the Borscht Belt, produced in 2016, follows a group of adolescent girls and women in and around a suburban house surrounded by rolling hills and trees. Unlike the work of Rogers or Horowitz, Borscht Belt does not point to a recognizable or historical moment as a singular catalyst for entering adulthood. Instead, the video attempts to illustrate the shared teenage experience of persistent angst and loneliness.

A female voice, presumably Connolly’s, narrates the video, reciting a poem later attributed to LiveJournal user “katythestrange.” Following the link to the user’s online diary reveals a website that has remained untouched since 2005; like so many web diaries of the early 2000s, katythestrange’s is preserved indefinitely online, capturing the sentimental and mawkish writing of her teenage years. Spoken overtop Connolly’s video, the words sound melodramatic but, at times, perplexing. “Once upon a time, long before clocks made sense, a little girl talked to rabbits,” Connolly recites, “Her worst fear was dying alone and in pain/ She built a shelter from the rain/ But one day it fell apart/ She couldn’t sing/ She’d lost her heart.” Katythestrange’s memories are interwoven with Connolly’s to create a shared experience.

Logistically, the game is an invaluable tool for Connolly, providing her with limitless access to actors, sets, and props that can be directed and transformed endlessly. The enormous expenses required for the production of a movie are wholly erased. However, beyond the pragmatism of the decision, the visual language of Connolly’s videos is extremely important to her narratives. The graphics are nostalgic, harkening to early computer games, and the repeated, algorithmically determined movements of a character’s breath or the swaying of the trees outside function as surreal temporal devices in the uncanny worlds. Connolly can seamlessly incorporate fact with fiction, retelling a narrative but allowing the story to evolve and change on its own. The rendered architectural spaces within her videos are filled with strange and dreamlike objects so that “signifiers of the domestic and of childhood (specifically girlhood) are redeployed as markers of personal identity and cultural affiliation.”36 This world very much belongs to Connolly, and the viewer is merely a passerby peering in.

The characters in Borscht Belt are never identified for the viewer. Most of the film depicts only small and mundane actions shared between them, though Connolly incorporates brief moments of violent or sexual acts to hint at an unseen underbelly masked beneath suburban banality. Observed from the point of view of a single character, these moments are often obscured and fleeting so that even the viewer is unable to pin down exactly what has transpired. These accumulated memories ultimately create architectural spaces that are filled with secrets and distrust. Like Rogers, Connolly is interested in the psychology of a room and its belongings:

In my scenes, the nightmares of childhood and the traumas of adolescence serve as an anteroom to hell. Anxious and foreboding nights spent in a suburban bedroom have shifted from being the context in which I was playing (as a preteen) to the subject of my film scenes. As an adult, I can now use this world for my own private film production. This is how the intrigue and possibility of the game lives on, in the sandbox world’s potential for mastery through reenactment.37

Heavy rain and a foreboding, howling wind can be heard throughout most of Borscht Belt, and the ominous weather keeps the characters trapped inside of the house for the majority of the film. All of the characters are mute, and it is difficult to discern the sincerity of the relationships they share because of the avatars’ standard, vacant expressions. During one moment of clear skies, two of the young female characters relax by the pool, while a third, the youngest, slides through a slip-and-slide on an endless loop, playing alone and keeping herself occupied. Connolly’s mise-en-scénes emphasize isolation and separation, and when the same young girl later witnesses two of the female characters undressed and in bed, she is alone, observing the scene through a closed glass door. The rain falls both inside and outside of the house, as seen in Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria; once again, the architecture has failed to protect its occupants, and the young girl is witness to a mature and confusing event, rushing her maturation to adulthood.

For Connolly, working with machinima seems to provide a sense of closure. After dedicating hundreds of hours to recreating architectural spaces and settings from her childhood, she can virtually wander through these landscapes, confronting the rooms that still hold potent memories. Notably, all of the characters in Borscht Belt are female. Connolly’s characters may be unnamed family members or peers or even many different versions of the artist at various ages. The narratives reflect on girlhood and imagined matriarchy, though Connolly is ambiguous in defining the space as utopian or dystopian.

For each of these artists, the inclusion of both digital and physical surrogates provides empty vessels for processing trauma and past memories outside of the body. Horowitz uses the digital avatar as a platform for cyberdrag, finding power in occupying the virtual male body, while Rogers and Connolly infiltrate computer games and television shows from their childhoods, subverting nostalgic pastimes into an interactive stage through which adolescent anxieties can be reevaluated. The code-based language of the digital screen becomes a conduit for translating trauma into narrative, while physical props echo the role of object as vessel, imbued with poignant memories and distressing emotions. Erotic and violent narratives are explored through tender artifacts of girlhood, as in Rogers’ ribboned mops, Horowitz’s smothered puppets, and the forgotten verses of poetry from an online diary discovered by Connolly. By entering into constructed, and at times virtual, worlds, these artists explore potent, distressing memories in order to process past traumas, either personal or universal, and explore the construction of contemporary girlhood and adolescent female identity.

Images and screenshots courtesy of Amanda Horowitz, Springsteen Gallery, Greenspon Gallery, and Jacky Connolly.

The Aesthetics of the Alt-Right

M. Ambedkar

Editor’s Note: This article includes an in-depth inquiry into the online activities of political groups for which misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism become defining features; as such, images and mentions of those topics are found in the text.

Estimated read time: 29 minutes.

For the greater part of the past year, I’ve been surveying the aesthetic sensibilities of nationalist internet hubs such as Breitbart, /pol, r/the_donald, and similarly affiliated Facebook pages. These communities constitute what journalists and theorists have come to refer to as the alt-right—online neo-fascist groups whose growth mirrors and informs the growing nationalist, nativist sentiment as it is represented in the recent electoral success of the UK Independence Party, the Trump campaign, Austria’s Freedom Party, the French National Front, and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland Party.

Briefly, before I begin thematizing the aesthetics of the alt-right, it is necessary to outline the definition of fascism that I am using in this essay. Fascism is an amorphous term with a multitude of definitions; the task of defining fascism has been attempted by numerous theorists including Deleuze and Guattari, Walter Benjamin, Arthur Rosenburg, Wilhelm Reich, and more. One useful definition I have encountered comes from semiotician Umberto Eco, who himself was a child during Mussolini’s fascist regime. In his essay Ur-Fascism, Eco identifies themes and rhetorical habits that underpin fascism (although his interrogation is limited to describing what fascism looks and sounds like, as opposed to the mechanism by which it emerges).1 Some of the characteristics that I will refer to in my aesthetic survey include:

 

  1. the cult of tradition which idealizes a primordial past (think Make America Great Again, or Mussolini’s call to build a new Rome, a call recently echoed by White Nationalist Richard Spencer2).
  2. fear of difference, whether difference be sexual, gendered, religious, or racial.
  3. a cult of masculinity that, tends to manifest itself in an obsession with sexual politics (refer to online pick-up artistry and the heteronormative gender roles embodied in the nuclear family.)
  4. a hostility towards parliamentary politics, criticality, and reason.
  5. a belief in permanent warfare and a corresponding cult of action for action’s sake.
  6. a worship of technology, not in the manner of an Enlightenment-esque worship of reason, but faith in technology to conquer and to reaffirm inegalitarianism.

 

The online neo-fascist movement, the alt-right consists of a number of different groups, although certain tenets (all of which align with Eco’s criteria for ur-Fascism) are quite consistent throughout these communities in some form or fashion—a preference for authoritarianism over democracy, scientific racism and misogyny under the palatable term “human biodiversity,” and suspicion towards what they perceive to be the cultural hegemony of the left as evidenced in the liberal leanings of the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and academia. Their economic views are difficult to discern, with protectionism, accelerated free market global capitalism, and anarcho-capitalism all being advocated in different communities.

(fig. a)3

Indexing these movements across a two axis chart (fig. a) is productive for the intents and purposes of this paper; however, what is most interesting to observe is instances in which these communities convene in internet “public spaces” (which are not public at all), most notably reddit and 4chan. Their creative propagandic images are disseminated throughout social media and oftentimes matriculate all the way up to the Twitter accounts of political leaders, activists, entertainers, and of course, into our national consciousness. As I will refer to this chart throughout this essay, I would like to clarify its organizational logic. Groups, terms, and individuals are plotted according to their variations on the central tenets of the alt-right’s ideological disposition, namely in regards to Nationalism and Faith.

Nationalism in general is a defining characteristic of the alt-right; however, within the nationalist ideology there are degrees of variation, particularly in regard to the status of Jewish people and Israel. Representatives from groups that more closely embody economic nationalism can still be considered mainstream figures since their rhetoric skirts around social issues such as race and religion. On the opposite side, the groups share a nationalist ideology, but the rhetoric takes on a distinctly racialized, often anti-Semitic, tone—a stark contrast to the staunchly pro-Israel economic nationalist groups epitomized in the Trump Administration itself.

Towards the bottom of the chart, the religio-philosophical underpinnings of the alt-right contrast.  On the left side of the chart are the individuals and movements that place their faith in inegalitarian readings of traditionally recognized religion. Perhaps echoing Julius Evola’s spiritual racism, various communities re-read Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, and Hindu polytheism, ultimately and bewilderingly drawing White Supremacist conclusions. On the bottom-right, we see a more technocratic, hypercapitalist neo-fascism that places its faith in markets, accelerated capitalism, and “empirical” science to reveal the truly inegalitarian hierarchy key of racial classification. In a sense, there is a loose historical allegory to be found here: the spiritual quadrant of the alt-right finds coherence in Julius Evola’s spiritual justification for fascism (a concept that was quite appealing to Mussolini), while the techno-determinist quadrant draws influence from Nazist racism, which uses a biological justification. Thus, opposite axes should not be understood as antithetical; the axes are constitutive and relational, accounting for variations in nationalism and faith.

* * *

(fig. b)

Economic Nationalism

The faction of the alt-right that I’ve labeled as “economic nationalist” (fig. b) is the most recognizable aspect of the alt-right; it can be argued that they now occupy the executive branch of the United States government. At the very least, they (via the appointment of Breitbart News executive chair Steve Bannon as Trump’s new strategist) occupy the position of the President-Elect’s right-hand man. Beyond Bannon and Trump, self-identified major contributors of the public alt-right include Breitbart, its tech editor Milo Yiannopolous, and international populist movements such as the National Front. These movements, figures, and publications have found a receptive audience in a number of online communities that are defined by gamer culture and what has been in the past referred to as the Manosphere. Almost exactly as it sounds, the Manosphere refers to a loose affiliation of anti-feminist men’s rights groups across the internet, including the subreddits r/theredpill, r/mgtow4 and forums such as bodybuilding.com and a variety of smaller blogs.5 The Manosphere also focuses on pickup artistry (PUA) or seduction training, which attempts to pathologize female personality types and empirically develop strategies to seduce them. One popular figure in the Manosphere is social media personality Mike Cernovich, who was recently profiled in a New Yorker article entitled Trolls for Trump.6 Cernovich is the author of The Gorilla Mentality, which epitomizes the interests of “the mansophere,” including gender essentialism, pickup artistry, “alpha-male” culture, rape apologetics, anti-feminism, and being redpilled7.

(fig. c)

This image (fig. c) is pulled from the Facebook meme page Edgy Memes and Fashy Dreams. In it, we see a number of racist and fascist tropes—the depiction of the animalistic black male figure pursuing a white woman epitomizes the basic dynamic of world depiction in many fascist movements. The other is presented as both a subhuman degenerate and an existential threat; in Eco’s words, he is “at the same time too strong and too weak.”8 Alluding to the overlap between the manosphere and the gaming community, signifiers of virtuality—the game-packaging design, the logo, and the title Europe Simulator 2016—place faith in the computer simulation in accurately modeling a current state of affairs. Note that there is nobody to identify with in this depiction; we are certainly not the foreigner and, since we are entering from a fundamentally male space, we are not the victim. It is only possible for us to identify as the simulation itself. This is a motif that, as I will describe throughout this essay, is highly desirable for the alt-right. Ultimately, this religious faith in technology to make sense of and organize the world reflects the alt-right’s faith that science will undermine the propagandic, false ideology of racial egalitarianism, revealing that people of color truly are, empirically, beasts to be subjugated, rejected, or annihilated.

The overtly sexual-political fantasy here cannot be ignored of course; after all, a key rhetorical strategy against immigration has been to pigeonhole the immigrant as a rapist, drawing from admittedly real and troubling events such as the New Years 2016 Cologne sexual assaults. Trump’s comments that labeled Mexicans as rapists during his campaign serve a similar role to these fear-mongering tactics. However, we find a contradiction in the perceived threat of rape, since the Manosphere tends to engage in rape-apologetics and victim-blaming. Thus, we can postulate that in this image, the alt-right and its Manosphere constituency does not take issue with rape itself (which is not to say, of course, that rape and its depictions are not of great importance and concern), but that the rapist is black. This fear and revulsion at the prospect of a black man having sex with a white woman has been analyzed by a number of prominent figures that precede my discussion, most notoriously by Frantz Fanon9 and in a more autobiographical manner by Malcolm X.10 Furthermore, it is not difficult to associate this image with the full-page ad taken out by Donald Trump calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of black and latino youths that were accused of sexually assaulting a white female runner. Years later, DNA evidence revealed that the youths were not in fact guilty; however, Trump adamantly refused to change his stance.11

(fig. d)

(fig. e)

The alt-right’s perception of the black-male as a sexual threat is further reinforced by the alt-right’s insult of choice, cuck, used in a manner similar to the word faggot—a weak, “beta,” or emasculated man (fig. d). This word has matriculated into mainstream political discourse, with the term cuckservative referring to a conservative who is willing to work across the aisle or moderate his position on a hardline issue, nominally immigration.12 Returning to the racial question, it is imperative to note that the term cuck has a distinctly racial dimension—the word refers to cuckoldry, a genre of porn in which white men with white wives invite black men over to have sex with their wives while they watch (fig. e).

(fig. f)

(fig. g)

The reactionary vision of futurity that the Europe Simulator image (fig. c) describes is depicted as what will happen if immigration policy is dictated by the liberal left—as exemplified by the German Christian Democrats iconography and the EU flag presented at the bottom of the packaging. Although the visual language of this image is defined by European geopolitics, as I have described, anti-immigrant rhetoric tends to evoke the same visual tropes. Thus, it is unsurprising when the God-Emperor himself, Donald Trump (fig. f), is presented as the protector of the sanctity of idealized white women against the primal hordes of ethnic Others. Depictions of Trump evoke a sun-swept Manichaean battlefield; the gilded Greco-Roman architecture in the distance evokes Mussolini’s promise of a New Roman Empire or the taste of Hitler’s “Great German Art Exhibition.” It is not difficult to make the leap to these classical fascist aesthetics from Trump’s own personal taste, which is similarly gilded and gaudy. The cult of masculinity in the images is self-evident (even in the images in which Marine Le-Pen is the protagonist, she is deliberately rendered androgynous). The aesthetics of war and technology have been updated for the youthful tastes of the alt-right—we see references to the role-playing game Warhammer, the Pepe the Frog meme, transhuman aesthetics via films such as The Matrix and Blade Runner, Dragonball Z, and videogames such as Counter Strike, all of which reflect newer notions of futuristic warfare. Again, the overtly racial narratives are hard to miss with certain memes reappropriating images of the first Crusade. “Deus Vult”—the rallying cry of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre—is copied-and-pasted into the comments incessantly (fig. g).13


(fig. h)

The futuristic gilded war-machine will presumably defend against the black rapist, the Syrian terrorist, the Chinese bureaucrat, and the Jewish cultural Marxist; however, just as investments into technological development during the cold war resulted in innovation outside the realm of defense, to the alt-right, the same mechanism that produces this gilded war-machine will also take us to the moon and beyond. The image of astronauts wearing red “Make America Great Again” Trump hats with Newt Gingrich (also wearing a Trump hat) in the distance is a direct reference to Gingrich’s 2012 campaign promise to colonize the moon (seriously) (fig. h).14 Here, we see the expansionist rhetoric of neo-fascism; just as science will liberate us from political correctness, it will also take us beyond our earthly confines. This notion of space colonialism is reflected in the music of one alt-right tastemaker, Galactic Lebensraum or CYBERNAZI, who fuses vaporwave and fascist aesthetics, providing a soundtrack for the future digital space reich.15 There is an emphasis on the infinite in these images as well, perhaps national expansionism with a corporate logic of unlimited growth. This reflects Trump’s own business history of course; in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes how expansionism, as a political doctrine, borrows directly from the private sector.16 Thus, Trump’s experience as a business magnate (or at least, a symbol of a business magnate) allows the neo-fascist imagination to run wild with expansionist fantasies.

(fig. i)

The extent of mechanization goes even further than the colonization of outer space. Ultimately, the aesthetics of the alt-right betray an expectation that the subject himself will transcend his human form thereby liberating himself from sexual agony and ambiguity. The images certainly have suicidal implications—one image (fig. i) in which the viewer looks upon Trump and can comprehend emotions only as numbers embodies a sort of violence of self that occurs as the subject attempts to transcend his humanly state. The reasons for this mechanized suicide are manifold—one could point to a normalization of high suicide rates of white males in middle America or a latent self-awareness of the consequences of a Trump presidency on the environment. These propagandic images embody multiple manifestations of representation-as-violence—sexual, epistemic, racial, physical, and self-inflicted. When Susan Sontag writes on Leni Riefenstahl, she describes fascism as unmistakably creating a cult of death; the aesthetics of neo-fascism reaffirm that claim.17

* * *

(fig. j)

White Nationalism/Ethnonationalism/Nazism

There is, of course an explicitly fascistic portion of the alt-right (fig. j): the literal neo-Nazis, white supremacists, who will readily admit to identifying as such. Most of the images that I will survey come from the digital publication The Daily Stormer, which is a contemporaneous reboot of the Nazi publication The Stormer. Pictured below is the front page of one issue of The Stormer (fig. k) with the headline “die juden sind unser unglück”—the Jews are our misfortune. Additional content comes from the alt-right subreddit and the web publication The Right Stuff, which hosts two podcasts, one entitled Fash the Nation and another called The Daily Shoah (shoah refers to the Hebrew word for the Holocaust).


(fig. k)

Also considered within this category (although there is less of a visual culture to these organizations) are two institutions that have received significant media attention recently: the National Policy Institute, headed by Richard Spencer whose recent DC rally was documented by the Atlantic,18 and American Renaissance, a magazine founded and edited by Jared Taylor, a former Harvard University Japanese professor turned white nationalist.

(fig. l)

 

Most of the imagery circulated within these communities consists of direct allusions to Nazi propaganda (and is thus less creative and less interesting); however, since German fascism did include a sort of technocratic idealism, these newer images have been updated. One thread on the Daily Stormer is particularly illustrative of the aesthetic taste of these neo-Nazi communities (fig. l); 80s comics and sci-fi content offer normative gender roles, hyper-masculine futurist heroes, hypersexualized women, and a variety of visions of humans transcending their bodily limits via technological innovation.

 

(fig. m)


(fig. n)

In an animated gif (fig. m), the viewer is situated in the audience of the Nazi Red Skull from the second Captain America film. The Nazi soldiers (which the viewer initially assumes the perspective of and therefore identifies with) themselves resemble mechanical automatons—another instance of the viewer being articulated as a cyborg, further betraying a self-awareness that the members of the alt-right themselves might be harmed under the political conditions they seek to realize. This image is notable for its use of the “echo brackets”—triple parentheses which are used by many sections of the alt-right in order to designate someone of Jewish descent in larger paragraphs of text—that act as a digital gold star (fig. n). One member actually created a browser extension for the web-browser Google Chrome that inserts echo brackets around any individual of Jewish descent.19 The goal of echo brackets is to bring attention to the omnipotence of Jewish people within different media organizations, affirming the conspiracy theory of the cultural hegemony of Jewish people. In addition to being derived from the fascist hostility towards critical paradigms, echo brackets also evoke the Paleoconservative Pat Buchanan’s (also an idolized figure by the alt-right as the “previous cultural candidate for president”)20 conspiracy theory of “cultural Marxism” which can be understood to be dog-whistle anti-semitism directed towards criticism descended from the Frankfurt School (and other ideologies which might take the form of linguistic redefinition, political correctness, and identity politics).

(fig. o)

 

This image (fig. o) references popular circulated images of the electoral map which circulated after the Trump victory, highlighting how the Electoral College was split along race and gender lines. This image takes that logic of identity politics (it can be argued that the alt-right in general represents the strategies of progressive identity politics appropriated by white conservatives) and uses it to reinscribe the notion that multiculturalism and tolerance are holding the human race back from achieving its scientific potential. The idea that fulfilling its scientific potential is the responsibility of the human race is virtually axiomatic to the intellectual faction of the alt-right, but can also be identified as the opinion of more mainstream cultural figures including Francis Fukuyama, Elon Musk, and Peter Thiel; this image describes how quickly that logic can lead to white supremacy.

(fig. p)

 

These memes (fig. p) are from a Facebook page called “Counter-Signal Memes for Fashy Goys,” with “goys” being short for goyem, the term for  a man who is not of Jewish descent, and fashy being internet slang for both fascism and fashionable, perhaps unintentionally evoking Mussolini’s 1919 Naples speech in which he remarked on how “fascism brings back ‘style’ in people’s lives.”21 Here we see caricatures of Leftists; their “hashtag activism” is ridiculed and their identity politics are exposed as both hollow and convoluted. Given the connotation of identity politics with “cultural marxism” among the alt-right, it is unsurprising that aesthetic strategies used by fascists to caricature Jews (most notably exaggeratedly crooked teeth and large noses) are projected and conflated with stereotypes of the Left in general—the figures have dyed hair, piercings, buzzed haircuts, don’t wear bras, etc. This smug liberal trope is an exaggerated version of a stereotype invoked by conservatives quite often—it was certainly levied against Kerry, Gore, and Clinton. In a sense, the vast Jewish conspiracy and its somewhat more palatable cousin of “the cathedral” (as articulated by alt-right intellectual Curtis Yarvin) is not dissimilar from mainstream Trumpian rhetoric that brands the “Washington Establishment” as “the swamp.” Here we see a direct opposition to critical thought itself, to any gestures that create questions instead of answering them, that complicate instead of reduce. This can be understood as the alt-right follower turning away from what Freud might call the dark continent (both the racial and gendered uses of the term are prescient here); the fact that he can never know or comprehend the experience of the Other renders her an ontological void whose unknowability is too agonizing, thus he finds refuge in representation and, as this image describes, parody.

* * *

(fig. q)

Esotericism/Spirituality

In a sense, an aesthetic analysis of the alt-right becomes more challenging when we attempt to approach its intellectual underpinnings, represented in the bottom two quadrants in fig. q. Although they obviously use visuals to supplement their blog posts, manifestos, e-books, etc., these intellectual factions do not use memes as their chief propagandic tool; rather, they write texts that aim to direct, discern, and laud the chaotic accumulation of the images that I have been referring to. However, this does not mean that the texts cannot be interrogated or thematized in a similar manner, but rather that more context and specificity is necessary, since there is a less rich visual language. Because both the accelerationist and the spiritual factions of the alt-right have their own sprawling associative canons, I would like to first contrast these two intellectual factions using a framework outlined by the Italian proto-Fascist philosopher Julius Evola. After that, I would like to focus on a mutual fascination for East and South Asia among these intellectual factions ultimately characterizing how they articulate different inegalitarian visions of futurity using Asia as both a historical inspiration and an empty container onto which this vision can be projected.

Julius Evola can be considered an ideological predecessor to the spiritual faction of the alt-right. Just as he was read and admired by Mussolini and printed in Nazi publications, alt-right blogs write about Evola admiringly.22 Additionally, Steve Bannon has presented at least a tertiary knowledge of Evola’s thought.23 An actual interrogation of Evola’s thought would be too significant a vagary from the general task of this paper; I am simply interested in invoking Evola’s distinction between two different kinds of racial inegalitarian philosophy in order to provide a helpful allegory for the difference between the spiritual and the accelerationist factions of the alt-right. In his text, The Social and Political Thought of Julius Evola, Cardiff historian Paul Furlong describes how to Evola, “race is an expression of [a supernatural] hierarchy. It is therefore seen as a vector of the divine impulse, a form of human commonality that combines both biological and spiritual characteristics … Evola seemed not to deny biological racism but to seek to relegate it to a minor explanatory role.”24 Furlong emphasizes that Evola does not base his racism in a belief in an empirical biological hierarchy in order to contrast Evola’s racism with that of Nazism, which relied immensely on scientific justifications. Ultimately, these two different justifications for racism between Evola and the Nazis serve as a potent allegory for the difference between the spiritual and the accelerationist factions of the alt-right intelligentsia; the former relies on religious, emotive, mythical tropes (both sourced from the past or created organically) while the latter relies on machines, logic, and science. I will begin by examining the aesthetics of the spiritual faction; in a sense, I regard the spiritual faction as having more rhetorical coherence with the Trump campaign since Trump is more of a neo-Luddite who grounds his racism in cultural arguments, as opposed to scientific ones.

fig. r

This image (fig. r) is from an article entitled Esoteric Kekism, or Kek as a Bodhisattva of Racial Enlightenment on the alt-right blog Atlantic Centurion. Atlantic Centurion is the blog of Lawrence Murray. In jargon-filled posts with eclectic titles including Proverbs of a Xenoskeptic Ethno-Nationalist, Murray blends political philosophy, a didactic narrative of the present, new media theory, and religious mythology into a bizarre brand of cultural criticism. In this article, Murray takes the alt-right’s favorite activity of rapidly accumulating political memes and drafts an understanding of that activity as a sort of religious ritual that can be concretized in images and text. Referring to the already notorious Pepe the Frog meme, Murray asserts that the alt-right has a central deity god, Kek, whose name is derived from a bastardized type-input error of the term “lol”; the letters l and o are next to k and i on the keyboard; the mistyped kik becomes kek through an assimilation of the phonetic form of the typo. Kek is a chaos god whose magical abilities, referred to as meme magic, can be invoked through distributing memes. Through Kek, whatever desire is expressed in the meme—for Trump to be elected, for the UK to vote leave, for WikiLeaks to release more emails, etc.—becomes reality. The alt-right meme warrior praises his/her god with the ubiquitous phrase “Praise Kek”. A number of theorists have written about Kek, with the most effective piece being Tara Isabella Burton’s essay Apocalypse Whatever, in which Burton remarks “it doesn’t matter whether Kek is ‘really’ a chaos god. He might as well be. Likewise, meme magic, to the extent that that it serves as a record of cultural engagement, is real too.”25 Thus, debating whether or not esoteric kekism should be regarded as a legitimate religion is beside the point; in my aesthetic analysis, I am more interested in why Murray invokes Buddhism as the model for his creative endeavor.

In fig. r, we see the repeated motif of Pepe the Frog operating as monks in a Nazi/Buddhist temple. An undead or cyborg-esque SS general is seen in the seated lotus position, in front of three different Buddhist figures, who are in turn all situated in front of a giant shrine to Hitler. The image is notably devoid of color in order to aid the assimilation of the Eastern imagery with its white supremacist implications; color constitutes difference, the desaturation operates as a visual reflection of Murray’s opening assertion that the Buddha was, in fact, white. This kind of historical re-reading is not a new invention; Murray’s whitewashing of Buddhism has historical parallels in the Nazi occultist Maximine Portaz (pseudonymously known as Savitri Devi) who sought to synthesize Nazism with Hinduism (Murray also begins his essay with a reference to Portaz) and in Evola’s fascism which drew heavily from Hindu scripture. Ultimately, the whitewashing and appropriation of Buddhist imagery allows the alt-right to reconcile cultural accomplishments by racial Others with its own ethno-nationalist conviction. It also gives the alt-right a transgressive, exhilarating quality—something that, as Milo Yiannopoulos wrote in his Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right, the alt-right prides itself on.26

fig. s

Of course, on a more rudimentary level, East Asian aesthetics appeal to the tastes of the demography of the alt-right—internet culture and its large constituency of young white male millennials have been fascinated with anime and cyberpunk long before the alt-right existed in its contemporaneous form. In the previous image also pulled from Atlantic Centurion, we see an image of a younger Trump flanked by light-skinned anime girls wearing Make America Great Again caps. Here (fig. s), just as rereading the Buddha as an Aryan religious icon became a rhetorical strategy to contextualise reblogging and reposting memes as a religious activity, a sign that lay audiences might associate with Asian (in this case, Japanese) culture actually functions as an endorsement of white supremacy. One attribute of the girls in this image that might not strike the viewer as unorthodox is the figures’ large eyes, which are obviously cartoonishly exaggerated and frankly made to look more European. This is not how anime eyes always looked, as  explained in media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s text Control and Freedom. Chun cites  Mary Grigsby, who recounts how “before the Japanese came into contact with Westerners they drew themselves with Asian features. After contact with the West, particularly after World War II and the subsequent reconstruction of Japan under the domination of the United States, they began to depict characteristics that are supposed to be Japanese with Western idealized physical characteristics: round eyes, blonde, red or brown hair, long legs and thin bodies.”27 Thus, we see something that should be contradictory—the representation of a non-European art form should be regarded as degenerate by the alt-right, but it actually becomes a Eurocentric statement; the Westernization of the anime girl is appealing to the alt-right viewer because it represents the perceived successes of Imperial domination, to the extent that a foreign adversary ends up taking care of the whitewashing itself.

* * *

(fig. t)

Transhumanism/Right-Accelerationism/Scientism/Libertarianism

The spiritual faction of the alt-right engages in practices of religious reappropriation and the construction of a new kind of spirituality based in the language and activity of the digital. On the other hand, the technological-determinist faction of the alt-right intelligentsia embodied in what can be understood as an ideological predecessor to the right, the Neoreactionaries instead place their faith in accelerated capitalism, technological innovation, and transhumanism. Pseudonymous cultural critic Josephine Armistead has outlined key tenets of Neoreactionism in her essay The Silicon Ideology; many of these tenets cohere with images I’ve already shown, including a faith in transhumanism, a preference for authoritarianism under a tech CEO or a super-intelligent AI, and essentialist inegalitarian attitudes towards race and gender under the more palatable term “human biodiversity”.28 Today, Neoreactionism has a contentious relationship with the rapidly radicalizing alt-right; however, while its well-known voices have distanced themselves, the ideas that Neoreactionism espouses are pervasive across the alt-right and in popular political discourse in certain parts of the country, most notably in Silicon Valley.

A key intellectual forefather of Neoreactionism is Curtis Yarvin who between 2007 and 2014, under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, laid the groundwork for Neoreactionism on his blog, Unqualified Reservations. Yarvin takes aim at democracy and egalitarianism, but his most enduring contribution has been defining and repeatedly levying verbal indictments at what he refers to as the Cathedral29—the combination of the University system, mainstream media outlets, and state legislatures which Yarvin regards as oppressive, stultifying, and indoctrinating.30

A more recognizable name in Neoreactionism is Nick Land, a media theorist, philosopher, and aesthetician previously affiliated with the University of Warwick. Nick Land is typically recognized for his advocacy for accelerationism—the notion that we should accelerate the development of capitalism. Accelerationism has advocates across the political spectrum; for the Left, accelerationism is appealing so that we can reveal the flaws of capitalism and bring about its end; for the Right, accelerationism is appealing to the extent that we can further reap the financial and lifestyle benefits of capitalism’s innovative capacities. Landian accelerationism is defined by an awareness that capitalism atomizes bodies, subjugates certain populations, and ultimately dissolves the domain of the social. For Nick Land, however, this is not a negative; he regards the creative capacity of capitalism entirely redeeming of its consequences on the body. Land believes that we should accelerate capitalism as we know it in order to unleash “thanatropic machinism” (here we again encounter the cult of death) which he defines as a collective productive engine that will emerge once man liberates himself from correlationalist (or anthropocentric) egalitarian models of society and subjectivity. To Land, we will, ultimately submit to the authority of Number which is not simply a quantitative unit or arithmetic concept but rather a dynamic scalable architecture that is alluded to by object-oriented programming languages, artificial intelligence, electronic music, and video games.

While the spiritual faction of the alt-right reappropriates East Asian texts (either religio-historical in the Buddha-as-white-nationalist-Avatar or pop cultural as with the Anime Trump meme) for the accelerationist Neoreactionaries, East Asia has a radically different function. Instead of serving as a site for historical excavation and reconsideration, Neoreactionism regards East Asia as a site of futurity—either an actual model to be emulated, or a sort of field onto which hypercapitalist totalitarian fantasies can be imposed.

(fig. u)

This image (fig. u) is not a juxtaposition of picture and text like the previous highlighted images—it’s a photograph of the Singaporean authoritarian leader Lee Kuan Yew.  This image comes from an obituary post on Nick Land’s blog Outside In after Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015.31 The post is titled “Greatness”, and it praises Lee Kuan Yew for being a Neoreactionary before anybody knew what that term actually was. Land chooses to highlight how Kuan Yew refashioned the Singaporean state based on a model of widespread privatization. Land’s assertion that Kuan Yew is the most influential leader of the 20th century echoes a sentiment expressed by Slavoj Žižek in his text First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Žižek quotes philosopher Peter Sloterdijk who also makes the assertion that Kuan Yew will be remembered as the most influential figure of the 20th century. Žižek continues to elaborate on Kuan Yew’s influence, attributing to him a living, compelling example that capitalism and liberal democracy do not necessarily require each other but might actually be antagonistic toward each other, and that capitalism might function better under authoritarianism.32

(fig. v)

I choose to link Žižek’s pairing of Capitalism to “Asian Values” with  Land’s admiration for Lee Kuan Yew because they both embody a kind of techno-Orientalist idealization of the Far East as a testing ground or prototypical society where we can observe what transpires when the embodiment of capital itself becomes the organizing mechanism of state power. Furthermore, if we take the transhuman aesthetics that underscore much of Land’s thought (particularly through his analysis of William Gibson and EDM33), the Neoreactionist vision of society includes a relegation of the social and the physical body to capital. Thus, I return to an image (fig. v) that was not pulled directly from a Neoreactionary blog (it was found in a recent Vice article about an alt-right EDM movement called fashwave34), but that I believe represents the endurance of Landian accelerationist techno-Orientalist fantasies of authoritarian capitalism. Here, we see a futuristic skyline in which every single building seems to be part of the Trump corporate ecosystem.  It’s not that far in the future—perhaps drawing inspiration from the Japanese economic miracle; the image projects a vision of growth that is exponential as opposed to incremental. The skyline operates as a Western caricature of East Asian futurity—it resembles either Shanghai or Tokyo—but, the repeated pyramid is familiar sign of a hierarchical, totalitarian order. Furthermore, the fact that the new galactic emperor appears to be Trump’s son, Barron, implies that this future state does not hold democratic elections but, instead, relies on a dynastic monarchic transition of power.

Few other buildings are labeled at all; however, it is possible to make out two other building signs. One is a cocktail bar, presumably an expansion of Trump’s Las Vegas and Atlantic City casino properties. The other is an arcade which, at a glance, is a nod to the gamer demography of the alt-right. However, just as images like this seem to betray a fundamental understanding of the ecological crisis (to the extent that this image is also immensely hazy) it also betrays a totalizing melancholy that the alt-right constituent either tacitly enjoys or isn’t willing to overtly disclose. After all, if this utopian vision is so grand, why is the escapism of a giant institutional arcade necessary? Surely, in this fantasy the enjoyment found in video games could be found in everyday life. The fact that in a projected techno-utopian ethnostate there is an increased need for escape reveals that this vision is not one of emancipation but one of a glitzy self-indulgent annihilation. As the urban development continues to accelerate, the imperative to evaporate into an invented world becomes stronger. Thus, we see the tragedy of the alt-right—it has no legible end; even when it tries to articulate a vision for the future, it relies on recycled 80s tropes and ultimately looks more or less like a barbaric version of status quo: corporate rule coupled with an alienated, atomized public.

In attempting to theorize German fascism, Walter Benjamin wrote that at the heart of fascism is a revolutionary impulse; however, this impulse, when devoid of class consciousness, becomes animalistic and libidinal, an urge that lashes out without fundamentally targeting or changing the economic status quo.35 Within the new fascism we are currently witnessing, the revolt is not against capitalism itself but against capitalism’s brand—namely globalism, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism. Unable to liberate themselves from the fundamental religion of capitalism, neo-fascists actually double down on its perceived graces, namely that of technological innovation. The ultimate repudiation of what Zizek calls ethical capitalism36 (think of a Hillary Clinton campaign ad—capitalism with a multicultural face or environmentally conscious, recyclable, brown exterior) takes the form of a new penchant for imperialism, colonialism, and environmental destruction. Ultimately, this newfound (currently largely performative) indulgence coheres quite efficiently with the classic fascist fetishization of war and finds itself temporally prescient in responding to the current migrant crisis that has brought Europe to its knees.

We also have something quite powerful in terms of critical paradigms insofar as these images betray their own delusion, insecurity, or ideological context. To decode them is the first step in fighting back, presumably; it is a far more effective option than simply generalizing or digging one’s head further into the sand. Furthermore, thematizing neo-fascism empowers the individual to identify what Deleuze and Guattari might call microfascisms37—fascistic tendencies on a small scale which are pernicious throughout everyday life or, in the case of Adorno, personality types that are predisposed towards authoritarianism.38 Boris Buden, in his recent op-ed for e-flux titled “Contemporary Fascism and the Limits of Historical Analogy”, concludes by asserting that “drawing analogies between contemporary fascism and historical fascism is far from our worst analytic tool for confronting the dangers of today’s crisis-ridden global capitalism. So we might as well make productive use of it, but only insofar as we have another tool at hand—a knife.”39 Buden is not wrong that criticism, analogy, and metaphor are insufficient tools for combating neo-fascism; however the aesthetic nature of contemporary fascism is, in a sense, an undeniable affirmation of the power of propagandic images in today’s visual culture. The right has outpaced the left in terms of how deftly they have used these images and have thus built a coalition of large swaths of voters in the US and Europe. Thus, the knife is probably not the best tool either; the most optimal tool for combatting neo-fascism is the image, the algorithmic sorting mechanism, and the narrative, all of which can be employed as a means of redirecting society from performances towards politics.

Correction: In the initial version of this essay, M. Ambedkar misrepresents the origins of the term “kek”. It is not, as he writes, the result of a typo but in fact has origins in the World of Warcraft community. In the game, different races have language filters such that when an enemy of a different race speaks to the player, the letters are changed; when an Orc says “lol” to an Alliance member, it shows up as “kek”.

Credit to Mal Scott (and many other commenters) for pointing out this error.

Graphic Design as Spectacle

May Kim

“Spectacle” derives from Latin root spectare, meaning “to view” or “to watch,” and as such, embeds a consideration for audience before scenery. In its earliest definition, “spectacle” was considered an important element of theater performance as one of the six components of tragedy defined in Aristotle’s Poetics (alongside plot, character, diction, thought, and song).1 The description of spectacle has since expanded rapidly to include a vast array of contexts with the development of media. In Guy Debord’s 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle, its definition takes new shape, “the spectacle is simply the common language that bridges this division [between reality and hyperreality]. Spectators are linked by a one-way relationship to the very center that maintains their isolation from one another. The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness.2 The evolution of an attitude towards “watching” is visible here, as well as the emergence of issues in the performance of spectacle, including the cultivated “one-way relationship” that unites the spectators by forcing them to participate and engage (within the dynamic of an isolating relationship).

It seems impossible to grasp or redefine what spectacle would be in a contemporary culture in which continuous onslaught of information and images is the norm. Society is too developed to avoid the forced “one-way” engagement, or the physical performance of spectacle. Designers persist in creating spectacles to engage or construct a so-called “user-experience.” The ubiquitous infusion of design in every aspect of society lives unnoticed, as we fanatically praise the Crystal Goblet.3 However, the real problems that are deeply rooted aren’t always evident: commodity racism in package design,4 gendered bathrooms, for-profit prisons, cultural appropriation, and even a client’s support for unethical organizations. Redesigning the website won’t solve the problem, producing more pins won’t save the world,5 so what do we do to design with social responsibility?

Figure 1. Commodity racism in Aunt Jemima packaging

In 1994, Jean Baudrillard famously coined the term “hyperreality” in Simulacra and Simulation, defining the term as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”6 This is to say, a sign or representation without an origin to simulate. As designed realities continue to take root in the relationship between people and world, it’s crucial to recognize the responsibility in being a designer and contributing to the cumulation of signs that assumes the role of reality. In Baudrillard’s criticism of hyperreality, he points to the blurred line between reality and simulacra as a point of danger. Being a designer in a contemporary visual culture means working directly in the medium of spectacle and being responsible for the public sphere it contributes to. Scrolling down Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has become a structural part of daily routines for not only the youth (yes, “Millennials”) but also the general public involved with business, advertising, marketing, public relations, and everything, really.

To understand design as spectacle, it’s necessary to properly place what is canonized as propaganda. The canonization of coercive techniques can neutralize those techniques’ potency, so when one studies the 20th century hypnotic brainwashing posters of the Nazi party that plastered the walls of Germany, we recognize the thin nature of those tactics while often remaining vulnerable to new tactics. The poster’s appropriate use as a medium at the time relied on its ability to be easily mass-produced and to reach large audiences, ranging from the hearts of cities to small towns in more rural areas. Realizing the power of imagery and repetitive messages, they attempted to familiarize bias into the lives of the general public.

Figure 2. The Eternal Jew poster (1940)

The media phenomenon of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s serves as a benchmark for one of the most active uses of design as the driving force of political movement. Designers started to think about accessibility, mass production, and the possibilities beyond publishing literature (though Mein Kampf’s role in spreading the ideas of National Socialism to the general public in 1926 was integral). Hitler and Joseph Goebbels established The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in the early 1930s, which aimed to “ensure that the Nazi message was successfully communicated through art, music, theater, films, books, radio, educational materials and the press.”7

Figure 3. The Eternal Jew screen capture (1940)

 

Figure 4a and 4b. Screen captures from Warner Bros. “Tokio Jokio” (1943)

For the Nazi regime, depicting the enemy as it envisioned became effortless after the introduction of sound and color in filmmaking. The Eternal Jew (1940), an anti-semitic film directed by Fritz Hippler, portrayed Jews as “plague,” comparing them to footage of rats destroying and contaminating food. At the time, similar political propaganda in the United States was depicting the Japanese. The infamously banned cartoon Tokio Jokio (1942), produced by Leon Shlesinger and Warner Bros and supervised by Corporal Norman McCabe, is one such example. In this cartoon, stereotypes and slurs take shape through a series of Japanese broadcasters and characters, depicting exaggerated accents, body language, and physical appearance—unfortunately, images that still find place in dominant ideology.

Following the US government’s role of taking part in these paradigms for ideology distribution, the introduction of U.S. private-sector propaganda was developed during the Post-War period. Driven by the self-defensive need to start a revolution against police brutality inflicted upon African-American people, the Black Panther Party was established by activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Newton described their group’s symbol, the Black Panther, saying he “doesn’t strike first, but if the aggressor strikes first, then he’ll attack.”8 The group was formed specifically with the title “for Self-Defense,” and as such, used imagery that embodied the traits of a provoked force fighting against systemic and institutionalized racism and empowered African-American communities. The Black Panthers also used posters to promote and emphasize their voice, often carrying flags of the printed logo of the Black Panthers and the fist of Black Power.

Figures 5a and 5b. Black Panther promotion
Figure 5c. The Black Panthers march in protest of the trial of co-founder Huey P. Newton in Oakland, CA. (1968)

After the civil rights movement, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more artist communities joined in on the conversation of equality and social responsibility. In 1977, Jenny Holzer made a body of text-based work titled Truisms comprised of a series of truth telling sentences. She “typeset the sentences in alphabetical order and printed them inexpensively, using commercial printing processes. She then distributed the sheets at random and pasted them up as posters around the city. [They] eventually adorned a variety of formats, including T-shirts and baseball caps.9

Figure 6a. Holzer Truism Cut-off (1982)

The sentences were witty, political, and thought-provoking statements that assumed a repetitive format. Using the simplest formal qualities, such as cheap colored paper and typeset Futura Oblique (as also used in Barbara Kruger’s text work), Holzer was successful in distributing her messages across the world, even gaining opportunities to project her statements in large scale onto government-owned buildings associated with the development of such techniques of propaganda.

Figure 6b. Holzer Protect, Protect (2009)

Following Holzer’s public conversations, the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in New York in the March of 1987, collecting artists around the city to create public works to rebel against silent doctors who rejected proposals for researching the causes of AIDS. One of the founding members of ACT UP, Jason Baumann, designed Silence = Death poster in that same year. “In essence and intention, the political poster is a public thing. It comes to life in the public sphere, and is academic outside of it. [The poster] is a product of collective world-making, the sort of collectivity which moves every one of us, as individuals and as a culture, and which is transformative.10

ACT UP members agreed that when New Yorkers need to talk to each other, “there is always the street.” To open the public lines of communication, they worked on the poster to become a powerful symbol of LGBT activism at the time.  As Baumann explains, most of the posters on streets are meant to be “declarative, provocative, and meant to stimulate inquiry.11

Figure 7. Silence=Death Poster by Jason Baumann for ACT-UP (1987)

The poster as spectacle, as a thought-provoking medium, seems to maintain relevance to this day. For a contemporary example, Ficciones Typografika is a curatorial practice that is based on collective design and is founded by Erik Brandt. Brandt is based in Minneapolis, where he curates three wooden bulletin boards outside his personal home with works submitted by designers from around the world. Brandt curates posters that illustrate a zeitgeist, or that exemplify experimentation pushing the boundaries of graphic design. A recent Nike ad that featured Serena Williams as “greatest athlete ever” with the word “female” crossed out, successfully sparked conversations within the sports community about sexism that regularly affects female athletes in not only income but also career development.12

Figure 8. Ficciones Typografika display installed July 17, 2013.
Figure 9. Unlimited Greatness campaign, billboard installation (2016)

Spectacle in contemporary society appears to open itself to easy co-optation. Its frequent use by corporations, institutions and politicians that abuse the power of spectacle reveals intent similar to that embedded in those earliest models of government deployed posters. When spectacle repeats itself and stands back to back with other spectacles on billboards, screens, and publications, those individual forms eventually cumulate a sensory overload that desensitizes spectators (the readers, the audience). Ad-funded news providers overplaying graphic videos of police brutality, overdrawing attention to unnecessary spectacles (celebrity gossip, false scandals, articles with no fact-checking), and emphasizing false hyperreal imagery (e.g. photoshopped models) deliver heavily biased, unfiltered information to spectators. Spectacle can be used in a way to provoke critical thinking and begin conversations about devalued issues, and contemporary graphic designers can take part in this process, especially in the fields of marketing, advertising, and mass media.

As the World Wide Web developed wider accessibility in the 90s, the art world also shifted towards the new mediumdigital media. What the internet offered was far more shocking than the televised spectacle of the Vietnam War in the 1960s because it introduced what grassroots political efforts had worked towards for decades: an equalized agency over information distribution between individual and authoritarian forces, be they public or private ones. A notable point in this history includes the addition of social media accounts to the standard array of platforms included in corporate marketing portfolios. In this shift, one can observe efforts of authoritarian forces to mimic the grassroots formal qualities of user-generated content, especially because it is so much easier to discern (and tune out) advertisement in a field of user-created content on an internet platform than it is on other media (which often have no user contributions to contrast with). In this phenomenon, we return to the topic of Baudrillard’s hyperreality as a touchstone.

Figure 10. The slap heard around the world, Real World Seattle

Another platform that highlights increased agency of users is the genre of Reality TV programming, in which the content consists of “users.” Media theorist Misha Kavka discusses the similar dynamic, stressing that the genre can be simultaneously compelling and threatening because of these programs’ ability to bridge the once-firm division between spectacle and experience, between the staged event and actuality, through mediated intimacy. These symptoms mark a larger shift and indicate a new global arena of power dynamics. Kavka points towards a globalized media culture in general, arguing that the public no longer recognizes the external [or, the physical] world as real. In 2002, Samuel Weber wrote in his text War, Terrorism and Spectacle, “in order for something to be a spectacle, it must, first of all, take place. Which is to say, it must be localizable. Whether inside, in a theater (of whatever kind), or outside, in the open, a spectacle must be placed in order to be seen (or heard).” In both Kavka and Weber’s arguments, they stress concerns on banality of creators of the spectacle–whether it’s blurring the line between virtual reality and reality or, from a designer’s perspective, simply publishing your projects into the public sphere.

Where does this leave us? What is the future of spectacle in a shifting media landscape? A history of spectacle reveals that it can be used to normalize toxic ideology as readily as it can subvert entrenched social structures. Currently, we’re familiar with the forms it takes in a networked public sphere to normalize and need to ask how it might instead subvert, as we have seen it function in previous media landscapes. All things we design take place out in the world, but the responsibility that comes with that task is underestimated too often. We designers are left with a vague critique, but one that might be useful: are we neither bringing in enough fresh sets of eyes, nor spending enough time thinking, nor doing enough research on history of given content? If we know we’re not considering ample time and budget to create an ethical work environment, we can look towards the past to continue this work.

Language is a Construct: Let’s Build the One We Want

Anna K. Crooks

“I think I am done with many of the words of the past hundred centuries.—I am mad that their poems, bibles, words still rule and represent the earth and are not yet superseded.”

– Walt Whitman, An American Primer

There’s an idea floating around that language is changing rapidly right now thanks in large part to the omnipresence of the internet, that a new brand of English is being forged on the web and is rife with misspellings, abbreviations and slang. The accusation, of course, is that the way our language is changing is bad, that this change shows how dumb we’re getting. The suggestion is that the English language is a static thing and that any changes to it are negative, but this ignores the fact that English has been and still is a constantly-changing form, ever-fluctuating to suit the times. Over 150 years ago, people were having very similar conversations about English as it was spoken in America and Walt Whitman participated in this conversation by writing “An American Primer.” The Primer is an unfinished essay written by Whitman sometime in the middle of the 19th century which was posthumously published by an acquaintance in 1904. For reference, I’m looking at the City Lights 1970 first edition, which includes a forward by the original publisher. It’s short, 35 pages of easy to read ranting and you can read the whole thing online.1

It’s hard to find information on this weird essay, and actually I don’t know what led me to it in the first place. Briefly, the Primer is a treatise on and defense of American English. It is an unfinished essay, full of pieced together half-thoughts and weird, erroneous mis-information. Some of Whitman’s commentary is a little bizarre, but when he gets it right, he gets it really right. I’ve found that though there are definitely more scholarly, researched, and organized essays on American English to study, these essays don’t suit the big, goopy mess that is the English Language or Language In General. “Do you suppose the liberties and brawn of These States have anything to do with delicate lady-words? With gloved gentleman-words?” begs Whitman and answers himself resoundingly, “no.” An American Primer is a coarse, scattered, erratic exaltation of the English language as it was and is spoken in these United States of America, and is perhaps the most appropriate defense of a fluid, changing English language.

Whitman wrote the Primer at a time when “America” was still a new concept, and in the essay, he argues that Americans should be speaking English differently than people who speak English in other places because America is different than those places. He says Americans, for example, might name their child Tom instead of Thomas and that the reason is that Americans are always in a hurry and like to be direct, that they are a candid and straight-speaking people. In the same way that the English language is a mush of all the languages of the many peoples who occupied, resided in or conquered England, American English should represent the many languages of the many people who reside therein. Additionally, says Whitman, the language should reflect the landscape, the plains, the mountains and rivers, the language should reflect the uniquely American lifestyle, the American industries, struggles and victories.

Whitman advises casting away “names” (words) that don’t fit us. Once we do, it quickly becomes clear how much of contemporary culture is still made up of archaic structures. Let’s look at the calendar, what does the word “July” have anything to do with Americans and the way we live? July is a word that celebrates the birth of Julius Caesar, wouldn’t it be better if we had a word that celebrated the birth of our nation? Or a name for how hot July is, or how sunny, or how merry? Whitman encourages us to find the words that suit us, but acknowledges that this is not a thing that happens overnight. A good word is like a good nickname; it sticks when it’s right, when it’s familiar and natural. This is how our language is formed; we all decide on a name that is the right one for “the thing.”

Cheyenne Woodward
Cheyenne Woodward

It’s useful to think of language as a social contract. As speakers of English, we agree that certain sounds in conjunction with one another indicate certain ideas. “T-R-E-E” signals a big plant with leaves and a very hard sturdy stem. Or “C-O-M-P-U-T-E-R” signals an object that takes a user to the internet where they can spend hours looking at Facebook. The way we use these sounds, or “words,” is constantly changing. We don’t have to say “yea and verily” every time we want to say “rite.” Same goes for outmoded vernacular like “in a jiffy” or “lickety split” or “jive” (that seemingly can now only be said with a self-aware twinge of irony) — we can break that clause and feel totally fine and normal about it. If the best way we have found to communicate a lighthearted tone through text is “LOL,” then that is the way we should be communicating.

“language is so cool,” says Steve Roggenbuck, self proclaimed internet bard,“i can type out these shapes and you can understand me.” Roggenbuck is a member of the Alt-Lit movement, where writers are manipulating our web dialect as a way to communicate more meaningfully with their audience. For Roggenbuck and others, the platform is as important as what’s being said. When the poem should be abbreviated, its Twitter, when it needs to be shown and heard, he creates a video for YouTube. “my message is this: if our job is to move people with our language, these platforms give us endless and powerful new ways to do that. the tools to make our language visual and auditory have been democratized.” This includes the tools to build our language and spread it, to decide what parts of it are important. Roggenbuck embraces typos, spelling errors, etc. because this is part of the way we communicate online.

Within the social contract of “language,” spelling (orthography) is a clause that says “this is the way we will mark down this series of sounds so that the sounds can be recreated in the mind and mouth of the person who reads it.” But spelling changes as often as words do. “For many hundred years there was nothing like settled spelling,” says Whitman, and he’s right. Looking at ancient English manuscripts, you’ll notice that words often aren’t spelled the same way twice, even in the same piece of writing. Whitman lays down this beautiful battle cry for anti-spellers everywhere; “the spelling of words is subordinate.” Even going on to say that “morbidness for nice spelling … [means] … impotence in literature.” In this sense, Roggenbuck’s poetry actually gains strength from its “errors” because it is communicating directly to his audience in the language they speak. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, originally abhorred by critics and censors alike, struck home with America’s populace and is considered an American masterpiece because it embraced the informal, ever-changing language of the American people. Our language grows and adapts to fit the terrain, and to be strict about how our language is spoken or written eliminates the opportunity for this growth and stunts our ability as speakers to understand and be understood.

* * *

A dialect is defined as “a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.” If you grow up in the south and you don’t speak the dialect, you are less likely to be understood by your fellows. Dialect is important as a way of communicating directly to the people who are your peers, a way of excluding outsiders and infiltrators and making a safe space for yourself in language. In the second chapter of her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks outlines the development of the black vernacular as a counter-hegemonic tool, a way to reclaim the space slaves were forced into.2 “To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English we create the ruptured, broken, unruly speech of the vernacular.” When older generations don’t understand new slang, when white folks don’t understand black vernacular, or when tourists have difficulty understanding the locals,  it’s because they are intentionally excluded from participating. It’s the utilitarian purpose of that dialect to exclude those that won’t understand, no matter how it’s said.

This concept falls in line with Edward T. Hall’s theory of high-context cultures,3 and is applicable to the vernacular of native persons, working- and lower-class persons, foreign persons and all those who would be forced to adapt their language to suit the class structure. Dialect in these cases is resistance. From Whitman, “The words continually used among the people are, in numberless cases, not the words used in writing, or recorded in the dictionary by authority… Many of the slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, are powerful words. These words ought to be collected—the bad words as well as the good. Many of these bad words are fine.” These words garner shame because they are words of the classless, the uneducated, and the dangerous to society.

“Words are not original and arbitrary in themselves—words are a result—they are the progeny of what has been or is in vogue,” Whitman reminds us. Those who act like words are anything else, the people who say slang is not a normal part of how people speak, actually shame people for speaking and writing that way, as though there haven’t been countless ways of spelling and speaking English over its thousands of years of existence. When we shame others for how they spell and speak, we are really trying to shame them for where they grew up, where they went to school, how much money their family makes, their ethnicity, and so on. Shaming people for how they speak and write is an act of class warfare. Being attacked in this way is a challenge to build a language that defies class and the construct that there is a good way and a bad way to speak.

Here, how we communicate and comment on the internet is very important. The internet is a new frontier for language platforms. When we are limited by the factors of the medium (the very quantitative, SMS defined character count of twitter; the haste of texting; the bizarre syntax of memes; or even just the implied attention span of the average scroller), the way we speak changes. Abbreviations, changes in spelling, syntax, typos, intentional or not, it’s all there. But there’s more to it than that, as predicted by Marshall Mcluhan; the internet has made us a global community with a global dialect.4 We are more able than ever to police language that is no longer relevant, that is insidious, that reflects problematic social structures. Conversely, we have a platform to create words, images, and hashtags that empower us; the ability to cast out sexist, ableist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, hateful words from our global language and to build a language that suits the diverse and powerful people that inhabit this community is a crucial part of this relationship. Roggenbuck reflects “if u complain about they/them pronouns not feeling natural or being “correct”…who cares? refer to ppl how they want, & shut up. it’ll b Ok”

We can stop pretending that language isn’t something we just made up and start reveling in the power we have to shape language as something that is useful for us. Instead of criticizing things as being “politically correct,” it’s time to celebrate that we have found more tolerant ways to speak, to break down the need to label different types of people all together, to destroy the language of caste, categorization, separation, segregation. Let’s build a language of help, health and support. Break all the rules of language, make our own rules to be broken again. Whitman says, “The English language is grandly lawless like the race who use it,” but I would go so far as to say “language is grandly lawless like the race who use it.” It’s time to embrace our lawlessness and build the language we want.

Anna K. Crooks is a poet and artist living and working in Baltimore, MD. She is a member of the artist collective Open Space and co-founded the poetry programs Proliferate and Tender F.M.

Image: Cheyenne Woodward

__________________________________________

1. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1904/04/an-american-primer/376193/

2. hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

3. Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1976.

4. McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

The Search for the Satisfying Snack

Fiona Sergeant

The Realization of the Search 1

There is a system or cycle of thoughts that exists in this world that I have only recently begun to consider actively and find words for. It is something of a snack cycle that is made up of a continuous flow of small desires and potential small satisfactions. In this cycle there is generally a moment of desire followed by one of three temporary resolutions:

  1. I acknowledge a loose desire for some kind of satisfying snack but am overwhelmed by the options when I press the decision further. I ultimately postpone the search.
  2. I determine a specific snack that I hope will be satisfying, but upon eating it, I decide that it is not quite right and am still left unsatisfied. I might feel a little bit bad about consuming meaningless, unsatisfying calories.
  3. The third (and most rare) situation is that I make a lucky selection and am satisfied by the snack. Even in this best case scenario, the satisfaction that I feel is only moderate, and I generally feel a new craving for the next snack within (at most) a day.

The Contemporary American Snack

It is empirically felt that snack consumption has been on the rise in the United States during the last few decades. Various studies show that there has been a significant increase in both the average number of snacks consumed daily by individuals as well as in the percentage of daily calories that are consumed through snacks. According to Richard D. Mattes, Ph. D., professor of foods and nutrition at Perdue University, “between 1977 and 2006, snacking in the American diet had grown to constitute a ‘full eating event’ or a fourth meal, averaging about 580 calories each day.”2 Another report put together by the NPD group, a market research company, shows that the traditional three meals are getting smaller, often becoming “mini-meals” while snacking is on the rise. The report states that “one out of every five eating occasions in the U.S. is a snack and over half of Americans (53%) are snacking two or three times a day.”3

This data is not surprising for anyone active in the American public sphere. The idea of leading busy, hectic lives has become built-in to the contemporary American Identity. There is a desire to participate in the growth and prosperity of the contemporary world; to experience this directly is to feel overwhelmed and hyper productive. The very existence of on-the-go and convenience-oriented foods may function especially to reinforce the idea of the always-busy, on-the-go American who doesn’t have the time to sit down to a full meal. By choosing the product for the busy individual, the individual tells themselves (and others) that they are busy.

An increase in snacking may also be due to the incredible abundance of snacks available in the contemporary environment. Aside from the overwhelming diversity of snacks one can experience at any local convenience store or supermarket, “Mintel Menu Insights data shows that restaurant menu items incorporating the words “snack,” “snackable” or “snacker” have risen 170 percent since 2007, and further growth is expected as restaurants pile on this new trend.”4

In contemporary culture, food and food marketing have become incredibly developed languages. Food objects and situations have gone beyond acting as passive signs where they are read for their often slowly established, passive, historic and cultural connotations and have now become a language that is heavily written by food marketers attempting to keep up with the contemporary conceptions of reality. It is the aim to both give the people what they want and make them want things they had not expected. One of the key strategies of food marketing presently and historically is to sell people on the new. Because of these marketing efforts, products in the snack, candy, and cereal aisles of any given supermarket seem to mutate like bacteria, there is a line-extension to fit any taste.

There is an inherent lack of limits built into the concept of the snack. Snacks can be any food (or really, any thing); snack-time can be any time (as long as it involves a snack), and the creation of new snack foods embraces the unorthodox. In some ways, snacks and treats function as the fiction and fantasy of food in the same way that America (or the idea of America) functions as the fiction and fantasy of countries. They are both in some ways connected to a history, but that history is defined by youth (that is to say, by a state of freedom from the weight of history) and revered more for its power of influence than any other factor. The more important aspects of these fantasies are tied to the ideas of creation, innovation, and the progress of technology. Both attempt to offer innovative formats for easy, accessible, modern living, and both exist heavily in media [they are heavily mediated].

The 100-Calorie-Snack-Pack

A key period in the recent history of American snacking was the rise and fall of the 100-calorie-snack-pack. In theory, the idea makes sense; if people are simply given smaller bags of snacks and told their caloric worth, individuals will have no problem knowing when to stop. They were marketed as a form of pre-fab portion control. The catch is that these smaller packages tend to cost twenty to thirty percent more than their large-bagged counterparts. For a while, people seemed to be willing to pay the price. They were introduced by Kraft in 2004 with the launch of Oreo Tin Crisps, Wheat Tin Minis, and Nabisco Mixed Berry Fruit Snacks, and in July of 2007 the New York Times reported1 the sales of these 100 calorie snack packs to be past “the $200-million-a year mark.” They quickly fell out of style, however (notably during the onset of the financial crisis), and by June of 2009 were dead enough to warrant the article title “The Demise of the 100 Calorie Pack” on the marketing blog MarketingProfs.6

It is both ironic and telling that as a culture we have arrived at and gotten past the point of pre-portioned 100-calorie-snack-packs of processed foods since it was the discovery of basic cooking, initial forms of food processing, that allowed our ancestors to access and consume the calories necessary to support the cranial development that makes us human was we understand it. The 100-calorie-snack-pack marks the concrete moment when it was literally more valuable to the consumer to have less than to have more. Here, now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is our extreme proficiency at gathering and consolidating calories that has become one of our main cultural epidemics.

Post-Utilitarian Consumption: The Snack

Snack foods, as they exist in America, are made to be fun (60% of Americans report snacking for fun rather than hunger).7 Snacks let you treat yourself and take a break. In kindergarten, snack time is generally built into the schedule. Although there are some diet plans built around having many small meals throughout the day rather than the standard three square meals, generally people don’t eat snacks to survive. In the case of those diets, one eats mini-meals rather than purely snacks. Because snacks are primarily non-utilitarian, they enjoy the most freedom in expression.

When I was a kid, I used to (and still do) take enormous pleasure in trying to think up new snacks and treats. While lying in bed trying to fall asleep or staring out the bus window on the way to school I used to think up fantasy treats; I performed numerous experiments on the textures of various things after being microwaved or frozen (there was an especially in depth series of experiments regarding the achievable textures of marshmallows in the microwave). This kind of experimentation is at the heart of snack culture. Nothing is sacred and everything is at least worth trying. Snacking is a perfect low-risk environment for play and creation. I was not the mother of the house; I did not have to cook and provide for the family. I am the daughter who is free to cook to provide for her own interests and imagination. Because snacks are frivolous, they are free.

Doubt and a Lack of Satisfaction

The grand total of all varieties of snacks available on Walmart.com (including candy, cookies, chips, crackers, nuts and trail mixes, and granola bars) is 4879 options, as of November 2013. When attempting to make the right choice regarding the search for the satisfying snack, this overwhelming number of options is the primary hurdle. I, at least, experience a slight doubt that I’ll choose correctly when the options become too great (this is common, also, at record and thrift stores where most options are probably great, but I have no way of knowing which are the best). Mathematically, the odds of choosing correctly are not in your favor. What ways can one ensure a correct choice? A friend recently told me, “If I only have rice to eat, I will be satisfied with rice.” With this thought, it seems that one way to achieve satisfaction is to deal with the reality of the situation and decide to be satisfied.

But what if there is satisfaction in the lack of satisfaction experienced in the search for the satisfying snack? At our most ancient cultural roots, humans are hunter-gatherers. The acquisition aspect of the utilitarian hunt has become too easy to be totally satisfying. The never ending search for the satisfying snack comes about as a way of staying un-satiated in order to never tire of and never complete the hunt. There is something pleasurable about wanting.

Info-Snacks

Snacking today is not just limited to food-snacks. Rather, snacking has become our primary mode of consumption in most areas. Food, media, relationships, thoughts, even the acquisition of objects. We deal in frequent short bites of varied things; with the advent of the internet and the ever growing global economy, the proliferation of accessible, consumable goods has followed. Snacking is just a way of coping with this information overload, this overload of possibilities as it allows one to make more choices and sample more bites. While the world has always contained more than any one human could comprehend, humans were rarely ever confronted by the whole world all at once. Now, even just one company, Google, can provide access and answers to more inquiries than any individual could ever ask (even if all the questions were asked, there are still the images to browse and the maps to wander).

This overwhelming everything has created a new system of self-definition. Rather than being defined so heavily by what you do and where you are, it seems that a lot of how people are defined today is by What They Are Into and How/How Much They Are Into It. With the accessibility of information and quasi-experience available through the internet and other media, there are no longer many limits of what an individual may have been exposed to given their geographic location or social status. Anyone has the ability to have heard of or to be interested in anything. This makes it seemingly all the more important to define and declare oneself. The declaration has become especially image-based rather than action-based due to the rise of screen-based living. Much of life on the internet centers around consuming and producing all of the info-snacks that make up the whole [persona].

As our known universe continues to expand with the progression of history, invention, and discovery, there will continue to be more and more of everything, but the individual will continue to be individual. Individuals may not be able to act of the scale of the universe and take it in all at once, but we can always make the attempt to sample it all and eat on the go. In an article titled, “Snacking Could Be the Future of Eating,” Gary Stibel, executive of New England Consulting Group (whose clients include Frito-Lay) predicts that “You and I will continue to snack more and sit down to meals less.”8

Who knows.

Photo : Dylan Thadani

  1. “I can never not eat the whole bag. Except usually I’ll stop when there are just 5 chips left at the bottom because I know that if I take one more handful I’ll have eaten the whole thing. So I always have a bunch of bags of chips with chip clips on them that have only five chips inside.” -anon.
  2. “Snacking Constitutes 25 Percent of Calories Consumed in U.S.” – IFT.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  3. “U.S. Consumers Adhere to Tree Meal Times Daily But Define Meals Differently and Snack Often, Reports NPD.” – NPD. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  4. “Bite Sized Bliss.” Food Processing InPerspective™ by Cargill Salt. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.
  5. Peters, Jeremy W. “Fewer Bites. Fewer Calories. Lot More Profit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 July 2007. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  6. Mininni, Ted. “MarketingProfs.” MarketingProfs Daily Fix Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  7. Wyatt, Sally L. SNAXPO2013-for-Webinar. N.p.: SymphonyIRI Group, 2013. PDF.
  8. “Food Processing.” Food Trends: Snacking Could Be The Future Of Eating. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.