Long

Bored Senseless: Logan Paul and Meme Politics

On New Year’s Eve, 2017, the YouTube vlogger Logan Paul uploaded a video introduced as his ‘craziest’ and ‘most real’ vlog to date. The clip, which was deleted from Paul’s channel the next day, shows Paul and friends entering Aokigahara, a supposedly haunted forest in Japan, in which they want to spend a spooky night camping.[1]In addition to (and perhaps as a consequence of) its historical reputation for ghosts, Aokigahara has in recent years become known internationally as a suicide hotspot. Unsurprisingly, given the latter, Paul and his collaborators discover a suicide victim’s body hanging from a tree. They do not stop filming; the rest of the vlog documents their reaction to the body, which includes Paul describing it as ‘too real’ and one of the ‘top 5 craziest things I’ve ever experienced in my life.’ Only when questioned by another member of the party does he correct himself, calling it the ‘craziest’ experience. Paul and his team take the trouble to blur out the victim’s face, but include morbid close-ups of his purple, swollen hands. At the end of the vlog, Paul asks himself only once as to whether he should do his usual plug for channel subscribers, before going ahead with it anyway. He is wearing a Toy Story Little Green Man themed hat throughout. He does eventually remark that it was perhaps ‘a stupid hat to wear’, but at no point does it occur to him to take it off. The whole episode was met with public and celebrity outcry, as well as trenchant defenses of Paul by his fans, their argument generally being that he apologised, that ‘everyone makes mistakes,’ and that the backlash against him constituted its own kind of bullying

 

Much has already been written about the psychology of social media shaming and mob mentalities, and several authors offer characterisations of online group behaviour equally applicable to Paul’s defendants and his detractors. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed covers a number of incidents not unlike this one, at least in terms of the vehemence of the online reaction.[2]However, the video itself, as a particularly extreme example of online and meme culture, also merits critical attention, insofar as it reflects society’s troubled relationship with amusement and boredom, and provokes questions about what precisely one is looking for when one seeks distraction. Is Paul’s behaviour and the response to it a manifestation of a specific contemporary social angst, or the expression of something more fundamental about human society? Is it a symptom of a social problem, or a particular kind of social practice in and of itself?

At one point in the video, Paul remarks to his viewers that ‘this was supposed to be a fun vlog.’ By his own acknowledgement, it hasn’t met that expectation, and this is because what they found was ‘too real.’ The opposition of fun and ‘real’ here almost analyses itself; Paul’s alighting on these two concepts constitutes a fairly stark admission of what he sees as their mutual incompatibility. ‘Fun,’ for Paul, is the usual content of his vlogs, what might be described as ‘meaningless’ entertainment. Other vlogs include him skydiving naked, live-streaming himself playing video games, rinsing his sinuses and asking strangers if they are going to Coachella. In this case, however, the event and brute physical fact of the suicide exceed the limits of this kind of ‘fun’ to become something else: a demand to be taken seriously that is untenable within the context of Paul’s narrative style, a style he nonetheless recovered soon after the furore around the vlog. See, for example, this series of tweets from the 5th March, 2018:

 

The tone-deafness of Paul’s having uploaded the video in the first place, not to mention the content of the video itself, may precisely constitute a refusal (conscious or otherwise) to acknowledge that there are some events that categorically do not fit this tone of low-key amusement. Moreover, the apoplectic response, by latching onto Paul’s framing of the suicide, avoids engaging with the actual event: moralising becomes its own form of distraction or diversion. It is arguably easier to invest oneself in how disgusting or shameful Paul’s behaviour was, or to align oneself with the many other voices doing so, than to confront the brutal and difficult truth of the suicide itself.

People seek out the ‘fun’ so as not to be bored. And yet Paul’s apology for the ‘real’ – the content that exceeds ‘fun’ in this vlog – seems to point towards an unwillingness to expend much psychological or physical energy in the alleviation of boredom. Tolerance for the challenging or unfamiliar only goes so far, as demonstrated by historic hostility to the aesthetically or politically experimental. The most infamous example of this is probably the quasi-mythical scandal of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and its Parisian premiere, but reports of derisory hooting and audience walk-outs, or simply general public outrage, attend most first public outings of work considered to have been in their time ‘avant-garde.’[3]

Hence the halfway house of having just the right amount of ‘fun’, of staying within the low-key, distracting amusement outlined above. Indeed, Paul stresses that the Aokigohara video is not ‘clickbait’ – generally underwhelming content with a sensationalist title – which tacitly acknowledges that this is exactly what describes most of his usual output.

Examples of this kind of low-key, putatively low-brow stimulation abound everywhere online. There is the often cited example of Buzzfeed and its seemingly endless supply of lists and quizzes, e.g. ‘Tell Us A Little About Your Morning Routine And We’ll Reveal Which Kind Of Egg You Are,’ or  ‘What Kind Of Cheese Are You Deep Down In Your Soul?’ Sites like reddit provide a space where this kind of distraction becomes self-generating and self-perpetuating. Particular subreddits, such as r/dankmemes, r/rarepuppers and r/surrealmemes have generated their own internal language, like that of the ‘I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER’ cat memes that peaked in the late 2000’s. The front pages and comments on these subreddits provide examples of ‘conversations’ in which nothing appears to be said. The entertainment seeming to consist in just watching or partaking in the subreddit’s tropes and clichés as they play out. At this point the phenomenon of distraction seems to start eating itself, becoming a sort of mise en abîme.

A selection from the r/rarepuppers front page

 

Subscribers discuss a meme entitled ‘Tardigrate Hours have B E G U N’ on r/surrealmemes

The so-called ‘Tide POD Challenge’ is an example of this kind of online content. What started as a meme joking about how delicious the pods of laundry detergent were becomes a meme about actually eating them, with Youtube videos proliferating of people performing the dare. This led Procter and Gamble to issue several statements warning of the dangers of poisoning, and Logan Paul to tweet that he would eat a Tide POD for every retweet.

The temptation is to wring one’s hands and lament the low intellectual standards of ‘millennial’ culture; how could such palpably banal and stupid content be the subject of tens of thousands of likes and retweets? But this response itself is in its own way banal, perhaps even more so than what it decries. The echo chamber of G O O D B O Y E s and doggos on r/rarepuppersis mirrored by that of the comments sections (and sometimes articles) of other publications, and indeed, conversations and small talk in general might often be more about taking part than actually ‘saying something’. The difference is that the subreddit makes no claim to be otherwise, wearing its performativity on its sleeve and often being genuinely funny. The absurdity of tone that verges on self-parody is, at least in some cases, doing so consciously. Modes of distraction come with moral descriptors attached, with lines drawn between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, between the ubiquitous and immediate ‘dopamine hits’ of the internet and social media and the more delayed gratification of a book or even a newspaper. Indeed, even the phrase ‘longform journalism’ seems designed to appeal to a certain conception of what we ought to be reading, to give its readership a pre-emptive pat on the back for putting in the time and effort.

But whilst there is no doubt much to be said about the changes the digital world has wrought on the way we inhabit the world, it is hard to see what is qualitatively ‘better’ about reading, for example, Andrew Sullivan’s article about his addiction to ‘living-in-the-web’ and how he overcame it, as opposed to watching a food vlog or reading a few funny tweets.[4]Sullivan treats the division between online life and living in the ‘world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time’ as ‘a zero-sum question’, which invites two banal observations. Firstly, the beginning of time precedes humans inhabiting any world by quite a stretch, and secondly, what world is the internet part of if not that inhabited by humans?

David Denby asks, in an article about the need to get teens reading, ‘Could a country that had widely read “Huckleberry Finn” have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second?’ Even taking for granted the several assumptions underlying this rhetoric, all of which are serious points of contention – that Trump voters are by default lesser people, that older Americans have widely read Huckleberry Finn, that reading is an a priori moralgood – Denby’s question begs a third banal observation: the voting age in the United States is 18, and in demographic breakdowns Trump’s 2016 vote share increased in line with voter age.[5][6]To blame the perceived decline in reading amongst younger people for Trump’s election constitutes a logical fallacy indicative of the ease with which argument slips into moral prejudices about forms of distraction. Perhaps, instead of endless rumination on the distinction between the digital and the analogue, there are questions to ask about what the online world tells us about who we already were. After all, beyond differences in context and vocabulary, a great deal of what we read or watch, whether ‘low’ or ‘high’ brow, constitutes ‘something to look at’, a series of baubles with various degrees of shine.

This is not a phenomenon particular to the digital age, and it is disingenuous to present it as such. Freak-shows and circuses are notable period examples, and there are several historic parlour games that stretch the limits of what can be called entertainment.[7]Inanity and the grotesque are nothing new.  It is not, moreover, the all-consuming epidemic that the tone of exaggerated moral panic surrounding it would have us believe. The Suncalled the Tide POD Challenge a ‘new craze’ that had ‘swept the world’, but contemporaneous recent searches for ‘Tide pod challenge’, ‘Cinnamon challenge’ (where one attempts to swallow a teaspoon of dry cinnamon powder, popularised in the mid 2000’s and ongoing) and ‘Cheese challenge’ (not, to my knowledge, a meme at all) produce 127,000, 1,170,000 and 3,890,000 results respectively.[8]No doubt some Tide Pod videos have been removed, but even so its number doesn’t quite match up to the Sun’s hyperbolic language. What does seem demonstrably true is that social media has lent this behaviour a visibility, a constant availability and a capacity to self-record that it never had before.

All this is to beg the question – why? Why do we perpetually seek to avoid the ‘real’ Paul speaks of, the encroachment of external events too significant to ‘take in our stride’? And is that in fact all that is happening here? What does the apparent universality of this behaviour, and an equally widespread inclination to moralise about it, tell us about ourselves? There is also the other side of distraction’s coin: if people are unable to cope with events above a certain level of drama, then why do they constantly avoid being bored? Indeed, at the most extreme level, the use of the deprivation of stimulation as punishment, through solitary confinement or sensory deprivation, shows an innate human inability to tolerate its absence. The Iranian exile Amir Fakhravar has spoken of being ‘not a normal person’ on his release from the Revolutionary Guard’s ‘white room’, a colourless and noiseless detention space. And the former Alcatraz inmate Jim Quillen’s description of his time spent in solitary confinement powerfully conveys the sense of desperation one feels at the precipice of having ‘nothing to do’:

Since total silence and darkness were to be my constant companions for twenty-four hours of each day of solitary confinement, it was imperative to find a way to keep my mind occupied. I invented a game simply to retain my sanity. I would tear a button from my coveralls, then fling it into the air, turn around in circles several times, and, with my eyes closed, get on the floor on my hands and knees and search for the button. When it was found, I would repeat the routine, over and over until I was exhausted, or my knees were so sore I could not continue.[9]

However, torture victims are not the subjects at stake here, and this can hardly be the whole story. What we seem to be avoiding, and to always have sought to avoid, is the state of having literally nothing to do. We therefore invite the dramatic – either taking action ourselves, or waiting for something significant to happen in nervous anticipation – but nonetheless remain hostile to what exceeds these theatrics, to what exceeds entertainment and threatens to point toward something challenging, a distraction of the wrong degree or kind.

Our preference, it seems, is for the continuous maintenance of a not-quite-static status quo, in which we are never quite fullybored and never risk inviting too muchdrama. To the extent that the political, if it is to be more than performative, must involve some degree of change, this preference is intensely anti-political. Benjamin wrote that boredom is ‘the threshold to great deeds’, ‘the index to participation in the sleep of the collective’, the incubator in which the dream of the next age would gestate. This can be read as a straightforward celebration of the oneiric, although the word ‘threshold’ is key here – boredom itself is no great deed, it’s just the gateway. In the ‘sleep of the collective’ the question of what to do becomes a real one. Boredom – real, deep boredom – engenders a choice.

Distraction, then, may be a way of self-protecting against this ‘threshold’ condition, of tolerably sustaining an apolitical quasi-inertia, without having to be cognizant of what we are doing. If we slip into boredom and are to slip into distraction again, we must decide to do so, which forces us to confront our own complicity with that state, with lethargy and a refusal to act. But might distraction sometimes constitute an act in itself? Subreddits like the ones mentioned above offer, especially in their perpetuation of a particular language and grammar, not only a source of constant, undemanding distraction but also the stability one gains by expressing membership in a group. At the same time, however, they constitute spaces in which one can express a certain amount of creative agency. Human identity has often been hung almost entirely on agency, with the concept of homo faberor the positing of freedom to act as one of society’s highest rights and principles. There thus seems to be a paradox to distraction, if it’s seen as expressing a resentment of agency. But perhaps this paradox should prompt us to ask how ‘not doing’ might constitute its own form of ‘doing’, how this detached, seemingly inert state might be not just a part but a fundamental feature of the stuff of politics and daily life.

Angela Nagle has written for Jacobin on the links between the alt-right and meme/chan culture. The latter refers to imageboard websites like 4chan, which have a prerequisite of anonymity and therefore lend themselves to trolling, unrestrained conversation ranging from the relatively harmlessly absurd to the grotesquely violent. She writes of how the ‘empty, postmodern style’ of these cultural movements has fused with the alt-right’s ‘supremacist core’.[10]The subreddit r/dankmemes is a sort of send-up of ‘shitposting’, a facet of chan culture that consists in constantly posting very faintly amusing but largely unfunny content. But a generic flood of the banal, absurd and obscene can act as a convenient cloak for the genuinely vitriolic and violent, a façade that commentators are often all too happy not to look behind.

It is arguably precisely the promise of consumer culture that one will never be bored, never too far from the next distracting fetish. For Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, this is precisely what defined the ‘culture industry’ of entertainment production. The ephemeral but repetitive cycles of fashion permit a constant supply of novelty without ever escalating to shock: what Benjamin called Erlebnis, or ‘experience’ as something tangible and vital. In many ways the online phenomena discussed here constitute the natural consequence and escalation of that cycle, or at least its projection into a new medium.

However, this is not all they are, and perhaps what should be questioned is the very distinction between the ‘fun’ and the ‘real’ that Paul himself draws. When the response to ostensibly vacuous content is limited to a discussion of how and why it is vacuous, this is adistractionfrom what that content itself might be saying, and from the possibility that it might be  significant, in whatever political or ethical direction. It allows the real to slip in with the fun, and players on all sides and at all levels of the political spectrum can couch their rhetoric in a format so apparently low-rent that to engage with it as politics can be dismissed as unreasonable. The message comes wrapped in a form that handily pre-empts the very idea of criticism. This can play out in either direction; those who do try to engage with it in a critical way can be accused of a sense of humour failure, but one can also let oneself off the hook for not engaging critically with content that genuinely challenges a personal view, or simply makes one uncomfortable, by dismissing it on the basis of its form

Unreasonable, then, is exactly what we should be. It is not enough to simply dismiss Paul and his ilk as stupid, beside the point, not worthy of our time or our analysis. It is only by making the effort to take the ‘fun’ seriously that we can break distraction’s self-sustaining hold.

 

 

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[1]   The video was reuploaded by several other parties before being deleted from Youtube, and it can still easily be watched on other websites.

[2]  Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (London: Picador, 2015)

[3] It should also be noted that positive reviews from those deemed experts tend to turn the tide of outcry fairly quickly; our problem with the unfamiliar all but disappears once it has been vouched for.

[4] See: http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-my-distraction-sickness-and-yours.html

[5] See: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/books-smell-like-old-people-the-decline-of-teen-reading

[6] See: https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/polls/us-elections/how-groups-voted/groups-voted-2016/

[7]  An example is Are You There Moriarty, in which players lie down on the floor blindfolded and try to hit each other with a rolled up newspaper to no very clear end.

[8] Youtube searches conducted in May 2018

[9] Jim Quillen, Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock (London: Century, 2015)

[10] See: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/paleocons-for-porn


Joey Hornsby is PhD candidate in French at King’s College London. Her research explores the relationship between the revolutionary and the reactionary in the images produced by the early 20th century avant-garde, with a focus on representations of labour, consumption and speculation.