“Bring me Fegelein, Fegelein, Fegelein!” – yells Hitler in one of the numerous parodies on YouTube of the film “Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich” (2004). Fegelein, according to the digital folklore, is the prankster in Hitler’s headquarters who has just glued the Führer to his chair. What is funny in these video clips is the incongruence between the meaning of the original German audio and the subtitles added, which often comment on present-day events such as the death of Michael Jackson, the newest iPad model, the closing down of the website Chitanka, etc. The parodies of Hitler are a typical example of video memes – video clips which spread “virally”, generate thousands of hits, and trigger a wave of copies and variations among communities connected through social networks (Burges 2008: 108). We are going to examine video memes as a key example of digital folklore. Just as all folk tales, according to Propp, start with a lack, with something missing, so does our analytical tale of cyberfolklore start with the absence of Fegelein. Together with Hitler, we set off to look for him following links far, far away through perilous forests of visual codes and social practices, research traditions and metaphors.
The digital folk? Hitler – a victim of an Internet scam
The “discovery” of folklore as an object of research to a large extent coincided with the Industrial revolution. Counter to the mechanization of production, the changing urban landscapes, and the miserable way of living of the urban proletariat, German romantics developed a cult of nature, of the traditional village and the authentic bond with the homeland. In opposition to the rationalist metaphor of society as a mechanism, they proposed the organic metaphor of the folk as a body, as an organism (Hafstein 2001). The spirit of the folk-body was sought at various places, but most often it was found in the common law customs, in language and folklore (at first, mostly in folk songs and tales). The Grimm brothers can be pinpointed as the leading figures of German Romanticism both for their linguistic studies and for their work on collecting folklore. Herder’s role is no less important with his programmatic philosophical writings on language. It is interesting to examine how these authors conceive of the folk. Who are the folk? Herder makes a distinction between the noble folk who bear the noble tradition of the authentic German spirit and the poor folk out on the streets of his own neighborhood:
Volk does not mean the rabble in the alleys; that group never sings or rhymes, it only screams and truncates (quoted in Bendix 1997: 39-40).
The folk is an idealized whole which is not here – in the cities, and not now – in the present. Authenticity in folklore is what comes from the heroic, genuine and pure past which becomes contaminated and loses its authenticity once it comes into contact with the present. Folklore by definition is on the verge of extinction. Therefore, it has to be saved, collected, and preserved. In the 19th century oral folklore was collected according to strictly scientific rational methods, combining Romanticism and Rationalism in paradoxical ways, in order to have it published afterwards in collections which became the handbooks of the nascent German nation.
It is no accident that the heyday of the printing industry was in the 19th century. The folk and the author constituted each other as concepts. They were equally authentic, equally unique in their opposition to machine-made copies. It was pure genius that spoke through them. Goethe wrote down folk legends which he later reproduced in his own works. The oral tradition of the folk was the dark spirit that the writing author-genius could draw on. The tension between high and low, collective and individual, went through a range of transformations throughout the entire 19th century, until in the beginning of the 20th century Hans Naumann (1922) put forward the radical theory that every folklore item was a cultural good created by the aristocratic circles (the only ones capable of creative genius), which only afterwards descended to the folk. The life of the folk, i.e. the bearers of primitive non-individualist culture, was a communal way of life that Naumann likened to the way of life of animals such as ants, bees, monkeys, etc. (Bendix 1997: 113). Naumann’s sympathies for Nazism would hardly come as a surprise. The interesting thing is that the Party did not publicly support his theory because of its rather elitist character which went against the traditions of German Romanticism. We can hardly emphasize more the role that societies for folklore preservation played in the rise of nationalism in Germany.
The construction of the Balkan nations also entailed collecting, publishing and studying ‘authentic’ folklore. Even today questions such as “Whose is this song?” can provoke a scandal between neighbours. Alan Dundes traces in an amusing and ironic way the debates between Balkan folklorists in the 1980s on the origins of the ballad of the immured bride, and on the question: which version is the nicest? After presenting the arguments of a Romanian author who claims that the Romanian and the Serbian versions are the most beautiful and the most original ones, Dundes quotes the very same argument of aesthetic excellence offered by a Hungarian author who claims that the Hungarian rendition exemplifies the purest form of the ballad (Dundes 2007: 116). The strange coincidence of the nationality of the authors with their hypotheses of aesthetic excellence makes Dundes appeal to stop, once and for all, nationalist disputes among researchers.
On the one hand, folkloristics deals with “corpses” – songs that no one sings any more, rituals that are no longer performed, because their contexts have changed. On the other hand, there are heated debates on the origin of these already dead traditions in order to prove the greatness of every single nation, thus ignoring some important versions and not pursuing a thorough analysis. This double paradoxicality points at the necessity to re-define the very notion of folklore. The word folklore is a combination of two words: folk – people and lore – wisdom. The Bulgarian translation usually is ‘art of the folk’. Dundes argues for a new definition of folk:
A folk or peasant society is but one example of a “folk” in the folkloristic sense. Any group of people sharing a common linking factor, e.g. an urban group such as a labor union, can and does have folklore. “Folk” is a flexible concept which can refer to a nation as in American folklore or to a single family. The critical issue in defining “folk” is: what groups in fact have traditions? (Dundes 2007: 176)
Whereas Dundes sees tradition as the core which legitimates the study of urban folklore, family folklore, etc., McClelland defines folklore through the rejection of authorship rights. Folklore is perceived as communicative behavior which does not “belong” to a given individual or group, and which is not subject to intellectual property rights in the contemporary legal context; it is transmitted spontaneously from one individual (or group of individuals) to another individual (or group of individuals), often without any remuneration expected. In the process of its transmission folklore often undergoes modification depending on the transmitter. While this definition underscores the communicative aspect, Elliott Oring underlines the aesthetic dimension of folklore. After presenting a variety of opinions, Trevor Blank endorses the definition of folklore as an outward expression of creativity – in myriad forms and interactions – by individuals and their communities (Blank 2009: 5-7).
It is obvious that redefining the notion of folklore leads to redefining the subject of folkloristics too. If folklore does not refer (only) to the folk as defined by Romanticism, or to peasant communities, but is conceptualized as communicative creative behavior, which is transmitted spontaneously, then it is absolutely feasible to have folklore on the Internet – cyberfolklore – created by digital communities. Furthermore, it is not correct to talk about the object of folkloristics, in as much as folkloristics itself is involved in the open interpretative process of the living folklore. Trevor Blank provides a rather exhaustive overview of the conceptual framework which legitimates the study of digital folklore (Blank 2009). Here, we would like to focus rather on one key transformation that is manifested. If at the turn of the 18th and 19th century folklore was perceived as a counterpoint to mechanization, today it is more and more connected to the Internet in terms of its preservation, creation and distribution. What is meant here is not only the migration of offline folklore to online environments (data bases of anecdotes, photographs of folk costumes, digitalization of rituals such as funerals, weddings, etc.), but above all the folklore which is born online (memes, spam, chain emails, computer games jargon, etc.). Sometimes the difference between the two is too subtle. One shouldn’t also forget folklore about the net (the fear of viruses, pedophiles, etc.) which is, again, most often distributed over the net. The Internet has become the universal media which more and more erases the once existing difference between institutionalized and non-institutionalized knowledge. In the (self)conceptualization of contemporary cyberfolklore an intriguing fusion between the metaphors of organism and mechanism has taken place, best articulated in the word “meme”. “Meme” is a term coined by Richard Dawkins as an analogue to “gene” in the field of transmitting information among people. Memes undergo mutations and are copied and distributed like viruses. Information is increasingly interpreted as “viral”.
Burges, who prefers to take caution when using biological metaphors, sees video memes not so much as viruses but as mechanisms of mediation, by means of which cultural practices are initiated, transmitted and preserved within the social networks (Burges 2008: 102). From the representatives of the German cultural nation, who read the tales of the Grimm brothers, to the transnational group of Internet geeks, who amuse themselves with parodies of Hitler, the purpose of folklore is to create a feeling of community and empathy, to initiate us into a given group by “enlightening” us about its cultural codes and practices. At the same time, in the parodies of Hitler it is obvious that national language competes more and more with international English which supplements it, without replacing it, and makes possible the production of additional layers of meaning.
One of the hypotheses of this article is that there are different types of digital folklore which are strongly determined by social circumstances. The digital folk creating video memes is a floating transnational community of weak ties whose territories are certain English-speaking online platforms such as 9Gag, 4chan, Reddit. The folklore character Krali Marko has been replaced by Trololo Guy, the folk singers – by trolls (see “Trolls online”. In: Seminar_BG, no. 7).
This, however, is only the partial truth which fails to take into account the other part of the digital folk which is closely related to the nation as understood in the romantic project – there are thousands of people who write in their mother tongue in online forums on military glory, history and politics, and upload video clips dealing with the realities of their home country. Nationalism consolidates itself on the Internet – it forms communities and becomes a lifestyle (Ditchev 2010).
What happens when a video meme from the transnational cyberfolklore is incorporated into the national cyberfolklore? A good example in this respect are the video clips with the Bulgarian Nyan Cat. Nyan Cat is a video of a cat with a biscuit body which leaves behind a rainbow while flying across the screen with an annoyingly cheerful Japanese tune playing in the background. This is one of the most popular video memes ever, which is fun mainly because it is utterly meaningless. There are myriad variations on the theme – a jazz version, a sad Nyan Cat, a real cat made over into a Nyan Cat, etc. (Klein 2011). One way of transforming the video is by replacing the rainbow with a national flag. Thus we get a French Nyan Cat, a Russian one, a Mexican one, etc. In the comments to the national variations of the video clip, all national stereotypes, biases and underlying animosities are activated. Next to one of the versions of the Albanian Nyan Cat there is a detailed description of the various styles in the Albanian folk music and the comments underneath develop into a battlefield on the issue of Kosovo. There are several Bulgarian versions too, each of them claiming to be original, official, etc., which sounds ridiculous considering the fact that the flying cat has been copied countless times. One of the comments to the Bulgarian Nyan Cat (Original) speaks for itself:
There should be more banitsa, stuffed cabbage leaves (“sarmi”), rakia and more stuff like that, but not gypsies, as you said. vamprireanica23 3 months ago 16
Under the video clip Bulgarian Nyan Cat (Official) HQ one reads the following comments:
The oscillation between the two languages – Bulgarian and English – is quite obvious. And the fact that the nationalist arguments have become the norm in the comments field is underscored by the following witty comment:
I'm not from Bulgaria and I don't hate Macedonians...wait, what am I doing here?
TheGenitalGrinder 3 months ago 50
Nevertheless, the video clip Bulgarian Nyan Cat [original] with Pasha Hristova’s song “One Bulgarian Rose” featured in the background seems to be holding the first place among the Bulgarian Nyan cats.
This is the most telling example of how misread the humor of the video clip is. The comical and ridiculous cat from the international meme is placed in the local Bulgarian context against the background of a pop song and a natural landscape to inspire national pride. Not getting the original humor makes the video even funnier, but at the same time it is indicative of the potential constitutive misunderstandings and transmutations of the new digital folklore.
No matter how hard we try to steer clear of the inherited paradigms of folklore, it appears to be impossible. In the best case, we end up with some weird hybrids as the ones discussed above. The paradox of the new situation is beautifully captured in the parody in which Hitler falls for an email scam and transfers 10 million to a relative of his from Nigeria, allegedly to get inheritance money in return. The video is a good illustration of self-reflexive folklore in which one Internet genre (video meme) refers to another (email scam). At the same time, in metaphorical aspect, we start understanding that we should be more cautious with the intellectual heritage of the past, for as socially constructed the nationalist ideology on folklore is, it still holds up, we are still “buying” it – both when creating folklore and when analyzing it. International video memes and email scams are inevitably altered when embedded in inherited historical, social and cultural contexts.
Transmediation. Hitler in Teletubbies.
So far in the analysis of the “art of the folk” we have examined which communities can be referred to as “folk” and who creates cyberfolklore. Now, we are moving on to the second component of the term – art. To what extent does the “art of the folk” in the contemporary context differ from high culture, traditionally pertaining to the artist-genius, and from mass culture, pertaining to the cultural industries? A cursory glance at the theory of art of the 20th century would suffice to notice that the author is gradually losing ground. He died somewhere in the middle of the century, his death sentence – signed and endorsed by Barthes and Foucault. Bearing this in mind, the assertion that unlike high culture, there is no author in folklore, can no longer hold up. The experiments of Max Bense and the Stuttgart Group with computer-generated random texts are well-known. The rise of information aesthetics in the period after the Second World War came to a large extent as a reaction against romantic nationalism and the cult of genius which were replaced with the objectivity of the machine (Rone 2011). In a sweeping gesture, information aesthetics dealt with the folk spirit and with the author-genius at the same time. It is worth mentioning John Whitney’s revolutionary films from the 1960s, e.g. Permutations and Catalogue. At the same time, the difference between art and mass production became more and more blurred – emblematic for the entire period is Andy Warhol’s studio, also known as the “Factory”, where screen-printed drawings, shoes and movies were produced for sale by the dozen.
Variability, hypertextuality, and questioning the boundaries between mass culture and high culture have become the principal markers of postmodern art. It is in this cultural context that the production and consumption of visual arts in the early 1990s were finally delegated to the computer which became a universal media machine. The arts have become digitized, translated into a binary code, hence – universally accessible and making selection, combining, and pastiche easier than ever. The principles of folklore have been adopted as the principles of high art, thus eradicating the very differentiation between high and low. There is no longer difference between spoken and written speech. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett points out, the electronic vernacular is neither speech nor writing as we know them, but something in between, and increasingly, with the convergence of technologies, it is becoming multimedia (Blank 2009:10). The basic principles of the new media, discussed by Lev Manovich in his already-iconic book “The Language of New Meda”, include: 1) numerical representation; 2) modularity; 3) automation; 4) variability, and 5) transcoding (Manovich 2001). It does not matter whether the product is a provocative artwork, a Hollywood blockbuster, or an amateur-made video pastiche: these principles are ingrained in technology itself, and on a deeper level bring together different types of artistic work.
The new media, according to Manovich, have not triggered a revolution, but have rather opened up possibilities previously ignored. One of the most interesting examples he gives is the so called spatial montage. The entire history of the cinema of the 20th century is dominated by temporal montage, in which shots are cut and then re-arranged so as to make a narrative. With the introduction of the new media, spatial montage, or compositing, started playing a key role. The textbook example of spatial montage in cinema is Zbigniew Rybczyński’s film “Tango” (1983), which deals with the issue of the overcrowded housing conditions under socialism, and more generally – with human co-habitation, the co-existence of different generations and the rhythm of life (Manovich 2001: 148). Compositing is used in Hollywood today to produce special effects. It allows, for example, superimposing the image of a dinosaur over the image of a street, thus conjuring up the image of a monster running across the traffic lights. Compositing is often used when making video memes. Most of the parodies of Hitler rely not only on adding forged subtitles to the original German speech, but also on laying popular culture images over the image of Hitler. Some of my favorite examples include: Hitler plans to become a Hippy – a long-haired Führer with John Lennon type of glasses proclaims that love and flowers are more important than tanks; Hitler is informed he is turning into Super Mario – the Führer is wearing the cap of the character from the video game “Super Mario” and calls for Fegelein (one of the comments to the video clip plays upon the popular line from the game “Thanks, Mario, but your princess is in another castle” by paraphrasing it to “Thanks, Hitler, but your Fegelein is in another bunker”); Hitler in the Land of Trololo – Hitler is trapped in an Eduard Khil video clip, singing “trololo”; and Hitler in Teletubbies – Hitler is the sun in a children’s animated film about Tinkie-Winkie. “Where are we?” – asks Günsche, to which Hitler replies: “Somewhere warm, and there is some kid laughing...”.
Spatial motage allows for superimposing layers of meaning in one and the same shot. There is no narrative in the parodies of Hitler, they do not follow any temporal order, but rather form theme-based cycles of variations. Every good idea is replicated with numerous minor transformations, some of which give rise to a new series of clips and so on and so forth, as long as there is interest in them. Anyone can make a parody but gradually some of the images are codified and acquire permanent functions in the video clips. The mythology, jargon and terminology of the clips are collected in the Hitler Parody Wiki. This website crafts a whole new world out of the parodies, by turning the film upside down and making up an alternative history – in terms of both plot and world history. Hence, Trololo Guy is often perceived as Stalin’s secret weapon in the Second World War. Parodies not only allude to each other. Their charm comes from the unrestricted borrowing from the full repertoire of mass culture. Video clips about Hitler feature Darth Vader, King Leonidas of Sparta, the already mentioned Teletubbies, Super Mario, and Trololo Guy, and an array of other popular online characters. Characters from blockbusters, favorite children’s games and TV shows unexpectedly appear in the bunker. The process of borrowing, however, is not only one-way – by the Internet amateurs. Many Internet characters in their turn appear in TV shows such as Family Guy, Bolshaya Raznitsa, etc. The very same characters and plots are transferred from one media to another, from one format to another. What we are observing is a process that can be defined as transmediation – selection and translation of ideas and images from one media format to another.
Given the intensive process of blurring the old hierarchies between serious and funny, individual and collective authorship, institutional and non-institutional, where shall we locate cyberfolklore? Ivaylo Ditchev points at the shifting focus in folklore behavior from reproduction towards orienting oneself in the proliferation of resources and codes. (See “Cyberfolklore: an outburst of creativity by the digital masses”). Cyberfolklore is becoming an interpretative framework, an attempt to navigate in the inter-audiovisual network. We are thus finally drawing near to the last root of the word “cyberfolklore” left unexplained – “cyber”. In Old Greek κυβέρνησις means steering a ship, the art of sailing. The role of cyberfolklore is to guide, to chart out directions in the contemporary crisis of worldview explanations, to connect the dots of the new information constellations.
At the same time, even if the boundaries between folklore and non-folklore are becoming blurred in the production of content, the situation is even more problematical when it comes to capitalizing on art. Categories such as copyright are still playing an important role there. The repeated efforts of Constantin Films, producers of the film “Downfall”, to take the video clips off indicate that the author may be dead but copyright is still alive and kicking. Andrew Clay’s article on the parodies of Hitler under the title “Blocking, Tracking, and Monetizing” (Clay 2011) looks into the YouTube schemes for handling claims of copyright infringement, in which the company primarily protects its own business interests at the expense of the users-authors. The creativity of the official film authors pays off, whereas the creativity of the amateurs experimenting with parody – doesn’t. Their video clips, however, generate views for YouTube and accordingly –revenue from advertising. The parodies are obscured by pop-up banners, advertising all sorts of things. The system of capital is trying to gain control over the “art of the folk” by channeling it, embedding it into schemes of transmedial narration (Jenkins 2007), parasitizing on it through ads. Nevertheless, spontaneous cyberfolklore, even if enjoying a variable success, manages to evade the ever more cunning schemes of control and to transgress them. As Dessislava Lilova notes, fan fiction not only upholds, but also undermines corporative control (Lilova 2011). There is always a surplus potential in cyberfolklore that does not render itself to monetizing.
The authenticity issue. Hitler finds out about the parodies of Hitler.
In the situation of emerging “hybrid media ecology” – an environment in which professionals and amateurs, companies and consumers, states, non-governmental organizations and informal groups interact in an ever more complex way (Benkler quoted in Lilova 2011), it is becoming particularly important for the Internet users to be able to recognize the authentic players and genuine cyberfolklore. The authenticity issue has been going hand in hand with folkloristics from its very formation as a discipline. While some find the authenticity of folk songs in their aesthetic value and “natural beauty”, authors such as Karl Lachmann insist on a rigorous historical and textual analysis, on comparing different versions and seeking out earlier manuscripts in order to find the original, authentic version of a text – be it a folk tale or a biblical text (Bendix 1997: 60-65). Commenting on the author function on the Internet, Ivaylo Ditchev points out that it breaks down into three:
an authentic amateur, a super professional enterprise, and a ranking mirror. Each of these new subjects plays the part of the author function which facilitates our understanding. 1) Making a video of a baby – the more authentic and unprofessional, the more real. 2) The YouTube trademark – the more commercial it is, the more certain we are that it offers us good quality. 3) The ranking mirror – the more “likes” we generate, the more “likes” we are going to generate.
Authenticity in YouTube is associated with amateurism, non-professionalism, sloppiness. We are all using similar devices and media, the major difference is in the degree of our mastery. Of course, it is possible to simulate amateurism, as in the infamous horror movie “Cloverfield”, combining allegedly amateur shots taken with a mobile phone camera. The numerous attempts to debunk mystified video clips, which claim to be amateur-made but aren’t, are also worthy of note (Wong 2008). Why is amateurism so important? Why do media scholars value so highly shots captured ‘live’ by protesters? Maybe this is yet another prejudice that we cannot and probably don’t want to overcome. It is the folk that speaks through these amateur shots; the folk that is genuine and authentic. A certain innocence of the image is what we are going after – a natural state, a noble savagery that the Euro-Atlantic civilization feels it has been losing for the last three centuries or so. The book “Sincerity and Authenticity” (1971) by Lionel Trilling lays out an interesting history of our attempts to pursue authenticity, lost with the death of God and sought in the beautiful folk songs, in mother tongue, in the subconscious, in existential epiphany, etc. Trilling shows how in the 20th century authenticity is pursued more and more in the field of the ugly, the repulsive, the shocking, the insane. The authenticity of the video memes is sought in the lack of artistry, in the unmastered use of technology – the lousier, the better.
Large-scale categories such as beautiful, ugly, sublime, are losing ground. If we were to develop a contemporary aesthetics of the video memes according to the user comments, we would single out three major categories: cute, WTF, and lol. Cute are the popular video clips with animals, babies, dancing children, etc. WTF (an abbreviation from “What the Fuck!”) is a curious category which includes all the absurd and meaningless videos that one watches without knowing why, whereas lol (abbreviated from “laughing out loud”) are those funny, parodical clips that make us roll with laughter. Of course, the three categories often overlap. Trololo Guy falls both in the WTF and in the lol category. What is striking in this kind of folklore is the total dismissal of heroics, grandeur, and glorification.
The primary characteristic of cyberfolklore is the rise of the mundane – it is a tendency that folklore and high art have in common. Starting with Don Quixote and his ridiculed and utterly inadequate heroism, through Madame Bovary, up to Joyce’s “Ulysses”, literature has been strictly following a course of dethroning heroics, submitting itself to the quotidian with all its ordinary and mundane repetitiveness. Needless to comment on Duchamp’s fountain or Warhol’s soup can. In this sense, folklore, too, today is not so much a spontaneous act of subverting the large-scale categories, as it is a resigned affirmation of the lack of such. Hitler finds out there is no Santa is one of the most popular parodies of the infamous dictator of the 20th century. In another video Hitler reacts to Chelsea’s loss to Arsenal, 3-5. There is a certain pleasure in the carnivalesque defiling of the character, in placing him in the context of mundane everyday life, in banalizing evil. One of the parodies is entirely based on the idea that Hitler is stuck in traffic. The demonical, the heroic, the dreadful, is stuck in traffic; turned into a parody, it goes into everyday circulation and loses its traumatic character. In one of the most amusing parodies, Hitler finds out about the parodies of Hitler and is enraged that this is all he will be remembered for:
The last example is interesting most of all for its self-reflexivity. It provides an important argument that memes are not just a form filled with content at random (here, we could recall the debate between Vladimir Propp and Claude Levi-Strauss on formalism and structuralism (Propp 1984)). The empty form already carries a meaning; in the case of the parodies of the “Downfall” it is the historical knowledge about Hitler and his closest associates. The fun draws on the fact that it is no other but precisely Hitler who becomes a victim of such ridiculous parodies and re-workings. A parodied version of the popular song What is Love can feature Jim Carrey, as much as Hitler. In both cases there is a parody. Yet the meaning is different. It is no accident that a comment to another version of the same song featuring Hitler reads:
At the same time, form is laden not only with cultural content but also with an emotional charge. Hitler’s visually explicit, bodily rage allows for using the clip in any rage-provoking situation. There are cases in which the fact that the video’s leading character is Hitler is a lot more relevant – for instance, in the video where a producer from Constantin Films, who is trying to take the parodies off the Internet, is equated to Hitler as an authoritarian adversary of free speech. In other cases, there is only playful manipulation of form, as in the video Hitler – upside down in which the image of the Führer is inverted.
What most parodies of the “Downfall” have in common is the high degree of self-reflexivity. On the one hand, they refer to the personality of Hitler, on the other – to earlier parodies. That is how some interesting video clips parodying their own form and content are created: Hitler is informed the subtitles are wrong, Hitler is informed he is Hitler, Hitler is informed he is not Hitler, Hitler is informed he is a Jew, Hitler is informed he is being informed, Hitler is informed about nothing. This seems to be the right moment to bring up the question, what is the point of all this. The answer, we assume, is that it is pointless and that is just fine.
In praise of profanation. Fegelein is still in the bathroom.
The Critical Art Ensemble’s provocative and inspiring essay “The Technology of Uselessness” examines the two most widespread narratives on technology. On the one hand, utopists believe that technology will relieve us from the toll of production, so that we can indulge in hedonistic pleasures. On the other hand, those in favor of anti-utopia see technology as a powerful dispositive, machinery gone out of control, that is turned on and no one knows how to turn off, and that will eventually lead to the annihilation of humanity (e.g. the fears related to the nuclear bomb). The Critical Art Ensemble offers yet another perspective which is less emotionally laden but no less interesting. Could it be that technological progress will lead neither to an apocalypse, nor to utopia, but simply to uselessness? (Critical Art Ensemble 2001: 307). We all have home devices that we don’t use. Radio sets that function as alarm clocks, thermometers, and toasters; mobile phone applications that identify constellations, recognize music tunes, and analyze the consistence of your poo; gigantic war machines that can never be used because that would lead to the total destruction of the world. Aristocratic opulence and exuberance has been replaced today by a bourgeois surfeit of technological functions which are never put to use (Critical Art Ensemble 2001: 310). At the same time, production is expanding. Advertising, fashion and other mechanisms of this kind are brought into play to generate fake necessities so that the oversaturated market can continue consuming goods. On the other hand, products are deliberately manufactured so as to last shorter; expiration dates are shorter and shorter, and if a product breaks down, individual parts can seldom be replaced with spare ones – it is usually cheaper to buy a new one (Lapoix 2011).
In his essay “In Praise of Profanation”, Giorgio Agamben, quoting Benjamin, claims that we live by the religion of capitalism today. Whereas religion is generally founded on the well-kept separation between sacred and profane, the capitalist cult is founded on a single, multifaceted, perpetual process of separation, of alienating every place, every single thing, every person from itself, to the point that there is nothing left to separate. Profanation is defined as the restoration of something, previously separated, to the sphere of the sacred for common use. The most typical example of profanation, according to Agamben, is the game that sets sacred rituals apart from sacred words, and plays them out in most unexpected ways. The key thing in this game is that it doesn’t serve any purpose. It is a field of freedom where everything serious – economy, law, politics – is deactivated and given an alternative use. The harshest punishment of capitalism in Agamben’s view is that playing games in it is rendered impossible. In spite of the flourishing TV quiz shows, tango lessons and sport competitions, what our civilization lacks is the open game that seeks alternative uses for the things. Profanation is impossible because use is impossible. Pure use, writes Agamben, refers to things insofar as they cannot become objects of possession (Agamben 2007: 83). Under capitalism, we appropriate everything, and we consume it, destroying it at the same time. Only a denial of possession can guarantee the game, the pure use, but this is impossible. Agamben goes on with an impressive analysis of pornography as profanation that has been abducted by capitalism. Instead of an open field of experimentation with sexuality, pornography has become a colossal industry capitalizing on the exhibition value of the actors.
The useless technological functions we possess and the impossibility of use are closely interconnected. As a counterpoint to this situation, let us examine the production of video memes as profanation, as this liberating game Agamben alludes to when exclaiming: “The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the future generation!” (Agamben 2007: 92). Of course, we are far from assuming that the production of video memes entirely escapes the grip of capital. At any rate, we have mentioned the various ways of monetization of the parodies of the “Downfall” through advertising. And yet, the new cyberfolkore carries a liberating potential that shouldn’t be underestimated.
In 4Chan, where most memes first appear, it is anonymity and gaming atmosphere that rule. This is a website without memory, where old postings disappear; a website that promotes gaming itself, not so much its products which are to be consumed by the websites next in the chain. After seeing a good number of memes, what strikes us the most is their absolute meaninglessness. But that is also their value. Memes are in the domain of free use. They are interesting in as much as they cannot be appropriated, nor can they have any user value, exchange value, or exhibition value. It is believed that if a meme enters the mainstream, this is the end of it (Memes 2011). Memes are an error, a non-sense, a glitch in the system (Menkman 2011).
In the case of the video memes featuring Hitler it is history itself that is played out, thus acquiring new and unanticipated uses. Very often these uses are reactionary and have to do with resistance against authority, as it is in the popular parody Hitler vs. Chitanka.info. Not necessarily, though. Video memes are a game and as such they have their own rules, oftentimes beyond the moral code. The liberating transgressive factor is the absolute freedom in their making. Something is done only for the reason that it can be done. For instance, uploading a ten hour long video clip in which Hitler is calling for Fegelein. What is the point of this? There is no point. Nevertheless, the video clip is pointless but not useless. It is useful as a domain of freedom.
This seems to be the right place to comment on the political engagement of the group Anonymous. Different fractions of this group, associated with 4Chan, have organized and joined major political actions since 2008 – starting with the protests against the Church of Scientology, supporting the insurgents in Egypt and Tunisia, etc., up to joining the ranks of the Occupy movement. It is hard to tell who takes part in the individual actions of Anonymous, and to what extent the groups of hackers and geeks, operating under this name (or rather, without a name), are identical. (See the article “Trolls online”). What is clear, however, is that Anonymous is a phenomenon which cannot be ignored. The free transnational territory of games and rough jokes – 4Chan – becomes an incubator for some of the most provocative hacktivist groups. The shift from the register of the funny to the serious is also seen in the stylistics of the video clips by Anonymous, who, even if ironically, portray themselves in a heroic light with dramatic music in the background. But just as with everything related to Anonymous, we can never tell which clips are authentic, and which ones are just a joke that they are making or that someone else is playing on them.
Fegelein goes anonymous
In conclusion, let’s elaborate on Fegelein’s persona based on the world of the parodies of the “Downfall”. According to Fegelein’s parodic profile, he is in the habit of playing nutty jokes on Hitler and on anyone standing in the way. Given the dismal and depressing atmosphere in the SS, Fegelein wants to “cheer things up a bit”. He starts playing jokes on every high-ranking officer, typically to win a bet with friends, but often mainly to impress and entertain them. Thus, Fegelein orders one thousand pizzas to be delivered in Hitler’s bunker, and on another occasion sells his favorite dog on eBay. Even if we don’t accept the suggested explanation that Germany lost World War II because of Fegelein’s jokes, we cannot ignore the liberating, profanating, challenging power of laughter in the face of authority. No wonder that the Führer is infuriated and wants to deal with the prankster. But Fegelein is nowhere to be found. He has gone anonymous.
Julia Rone is a researcher at the Department of Theory and History of Culture in Sofia University. She has coordinated the project ‘New Youth, New Cultures, New Causes: Interdisciplinary Approaches in Cultural Studies’ and has participated in the Bulgarian Media Monitoring Lab. She is currently doing an MSc in Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute.
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