A heap of broken images


[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

I’ve had these notes sitting around for ages now for some kind of pretentious essay on… The Waste Land and ‘oddly satisfying’ videos? Who even knows. I’m never going to write it up properly, so I may as well have a stab at it as part of this notebook project.

So, the original inspiration is David Chapman’s page on the atomised mode. This is mostly going to be an elaboration (or rip-off) of some of the ideas there. Particularly this bit:

In our present, atomized mode of meaningness, cultures, societies, and selves cannot hold together. They shatter into tiny jagged shards. We shake the broken bits together, in senseless kaleidoscopic, hypnotic reconfigurations, with no context or coherence.

Those ‘tiny jagged shards’ reminded me of something else, the ‘heap of broken images’ in The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

This isn’t just a random similarity. The Waste Land is about the same process of the fragmentation into shards of meaning, but from an earlier phase of the process. (In as much as it’s about anything, I mean. I realise it’s a poem, not a lecture, and reading it in just the reductive way I’m going to in this post would be a bad idea.) Eliot is writing in 1922, against the backdrop of systems of meaning all in flames. In the third section of the poem, The Fire Sermon, he uses the Thames and its centuries of accreted histories to explore this unravelling. He compares mythic imagery of the past:

Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores
Southwest wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells

to random bits of incoherent junk in modernity:

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

Only fragments of meaning remain, and the poem is made up from a disconnected collage of these. “Sweet Thames, run softly” is from Spenser’s Prothalamion. Possibly more echoes in there I don’t recognise.

(Not going to track down references because notebook blog, but my memory is that the coherence of meaning in the Elizabethan age is a recurring theme in Eliot’s critical essays as well. E.g. vividness and immediacy of imagery in Shakespeare and then the Metaphysical poets. Something like a ‘phoenix age’ in John Michael Greer’s retelling of Vico, to chuck in another reference.)

Anyway, it’s now nearly a century later, and we’ve hit new levels of incoherence. David Chapman’s example is Gangnam Style, which was current when he started writing the page:

Gangnam Style has been watched 2.9 billion times on YouTube. Even counting repeat views, it’s probably well-known to most young people on the planet. Its genre is, in fact, K-pop; but may be the only K-pop song most Westerners have ever heard.

Genre — which defined many subcultures — has disintegrated. Atomization seemed at first like subculturalism taken to an extreme, but it is a qualitatively new mode. K-pop may be a subculture in Korea, but in America it’s just YouTube. It’s normal for a Top 40 hit to mash up country-style pedal steel guitar with bubble-gum-pop vocals, hip-hop rapping, EDM bass, and black metal blast beats. “Authenticity”—the aesthetic ideal of subculturalism—is impossible because there are no standards to be authentic to.

I think atomisation goes one level deeper again, though. Gangnam Style lasts for whole minutes, after all, and is recognisably a song. It has a relatively stable theme, a recurring chorus, and similar images crop up throughout the music video. I’m interested in stuff that’s fragmented nonsense right down to the five-second level.

My favourite examples are from this wonderful article by John Mahoney in The Awl on chumboxes. Chumboxes are those ‘related article’ boxes full of terrible clickbait at the bottom of news sites, supplied by the likes of Taboola and Outbrain. The analogy is to buckets of chum: chopped up bits of fish chucked in the water to attract larger fish. Chumbox chum is designed to appeal at this same shark-brain level:

Like everything else on the internet, traffic flowing through chumboxes must be tracked in order for everyone to be paid. Each box in the grid’s performance can be tracked both individually and in context of its neighbors. This allows them to be highly optimized; some chum is clearly better than others. As a byproduct of this optimization, an aesthetic has arisen. An effective chumbox clearly plays on reflex and the subconscious. The chumbox aesthetic broadcasts our most basic, libidinal, electrical desires back at us. And gets us to click.

Mahoney clicked through chumbox after chumbox to get to the absolute worst chum possible, and analysed common themes. Here’s a couple of examples:

Top left: Sexy Thing and Localized Rule. We won’t dwell on the efficacy of a Sexy Thing in advertising. But do note this Sexy Thing, enhanced with a chummy sprinkle of sinister context (crime? Young women in handcuffs?). Here the Sexy Thing is combined with a more digital-age enhancement, the Localized Rule. Scouring a visitor’s IP for its geographic location, anxiety can be created by informing you of a brand new reason to find yourself handcuffed in the back of a squad car in your neighborhood.

Upper Middle: Oozing Food/Egg. A trend without an immediately recognizable psychological precedent? Oozing eggs are extremely common, and are possibly deployed under similar principles as Disgusting Invertebrates or Globular Masses Presented as Weird Food. Or perhaps the resemblance to an oozing pustular sore brings us back into the familiar realm of the Skin Thing?

The only aim of chum is to hit one-note reactions of disgust, body horror, horniness, nosiness, fear and greed, so that you click through. There’s no need to make sense at all. This isn’t confined to chum, of course. Other examples include:

  • those videos aimed at toddlers of opening Kinder eggs etc
  • ‘Oddly satisfying’ videos
  • ASMR
  • Some bits of TV Tropes would fit. Some of it is longer, more coherent narrative patterns, but some is just recognisable fragments of plot that appear on screen for a few seconds
  • Argument theatre. Short clips of the moment where ‘X DESTROYS liberal snowflake’, or whatever the 2020 version of this 2018 pattern is
  • Almost anything that’s bad on purpose to make you click

Surely this is the end of the line? I feel like we must be right out in the estuary of this process… can we even get much more fragmented than this? (Probably we can, and I just can’t see it.) This looks like the famous lines from the end of The Fire Sermon:

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

Broken fingernails of dirty hands would make a pretty good chumbox image, actually.

Maybe this post looks like I think this fragmentation is purely a bad thing. Chumboxes are pretty gross, and there there’s all the Waste Land comparisons. Eliot’s response was essentially reactionary, looking backwards towards an Anglo-Catholic traditionalism that he hoped could hold the line against incoherence. His friend and Waste Land editor Ezra Pound later turned to outright fascism.

Actually, I think atomisation is a lot more interesting and positive than that. Again, I’m ripping off Chapman’s take here:

This may sound like a problem. Overall, my description of the atomized mode may sound like a panicked condemnation. However, there is much to like about atomization, and—I will suggest—it provides vital resources for constructing the next, fluid mode.

Now I have some examples of my own to think about, this is making much more sense to me. Maybe they can help to illustrate what these ‘vital resources’ are?

There’s enormous power down at the chumbox level of meaning. All the fragments have been liberated from any top-down need to make conceptual sense on a timescale greater than ten seconds, and appeal directly at the visceral level. Everything is very vivid and raw.

Still, to do anything useful with these fragments we need to build with them. We need to figure out how to recombine them skilfully from the bottom up, while keeping the energy. The kaleidoscope is maybe not the ideal metaphor here; it makes sense of the heap of broken images by imposing a rigid geometric scheme. We need something more local, provisional and reconfigurable. I don’t really know what, or I’d be writing that post instead of this one! But ‘build upwards from the fragments’ at least points towards the right direction.

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