GANGNAM SEMIOTICS: IRONY AND THE POSTIRONIC MEME CULTURE

I don’t know about you but my day job looks a lot like this.

And also this:

link
Link-swapping.

Ah, the boundless entertainment of the internets. Link-swapping is up there with my preferred methods of workcrastination, and kinder to the wallet than online shopping (just try to forget your credit card numbers once they’re memorized, go ahead and try). Furry baby animals are suddenly so much cuter when you have a life-crushing deadline hanging over your head, and I can totally get down with the seemingly endless  pro-sex/feminism/aliens/what-have-you Ryan Gosling Tumblrs as much as the next girl, but what about Psy?

If you haven’t already, start here. Now repeat. Sah guhd fer realz. Beyond the gumby-legged choreography and solid production value, this K-pop nugget has been pure gold for the memefactory of late. The masses are gaga for Gangnam.

Seriously, at a point where the average Internet meme has the life expectancy of a mayfly, this one seems to have a hardier constitution. Ellen just granted Britney her Twitter-wish (Twish? Is that even a thing?) with instruction from the master himself. Go easy on her, folks- a dance that cheesy ain’t easy. Having tried to bust the exact same moves a time or ten at the office, I assure you this outranks pat-your-head-rub-your-belly on the dexterity scale. Even these gifs can’t figure out the legs. But I’m almost certain it’s not the sideways rodeo that’s keeping this one in business… and it’s the logical/theory-loving/obsessive part of me that won’t leave it there.

SO WHAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?

The heavyweight title up top (which, if you’ve gotten this far hasn’t put you off entirely) seems to imply I have an answer to this question. If you’ve got that much trust for me, I’m afraid you may be misled. I have an outline, which is almost like an answer, but also sort of a copout.

Signification and the Meme

 From earnest to ironic and back again: Memes are the multiplication of an instance of pointing out the irony of an instance that was initially unironic (at least in intent). Allowing that the initial instance was not ironic in itself, did not signify irony until it was reproduced with the intention of highlighting that inadvertent irony, then when that ironic reproduction is reproduced repeatedly, the multiplicity eventually neutralizes the irony being signified by virtue of its redundancy. uhh….

Let’s take Potato/Beast Jesus (because there really are two camps, kind of like the thinking-person’s team Edward/Jacob dilemma only nobody’s put out t-shirts yet). The restoration of the 19th century fresco “Ecce Homo” by elderly Spaniard Cecilia Gimenez was intended as farce, despite her unique talent for flattening Jesus into an uncanny likeness of Mr. Potato Head. This, we may safely assume, had more to do with a lack of dexterity (eyesight? depth perception?) than a penchant for Neoprimitivism. Thanks to the rapidfire share culture of the web, we go from the earnest gesture to the ironic appreciation  (at which point we can trace the beginnings of ironic signification) in no time, and from there to meme status in less time, still. I feel like Malcolm Gladwell has a theory or two that could apply pretty neatly…  

The point at which Ecce Solanum Tuberosum (I guess it’s pretty clear which team I’m on… but also potato just sounds really cool in Latin) starts photobombing life-at-large is the same point at which the ironic signification seems to lose steam, until the irony of pointing out the irony of something that wasn’t really meant ironically isn’t so ironic after all. 

Let’s go local for a minute. Remember Momo Pasl’tempsd’niaiser? Mr homegrown tequila-and-heineken-double-fist-ftw hero was just having a good time at Copacabana – check out his Clarks – and minding his own. The ironic signification was not implicit, but attributed later. And then, the mushroom cloud of meme: the political Momogate, with posterfeit antics from both sides; Momobombs are dime a dozen online and offline (seen the sidewalk stencils, anyone?) But it seems the irony fell off in less time than it took Momo to finish his round. At one point, the reproduction of the irony just becomes aesthetic. But you don’t have to listen to me.

Antonio Lopez, the founder of sustainable media and critical-viewing thinktank World Bridger Media sums it up in an essay that appeals more than a little to my softcore-Zizek sensibilities:

Even our random conversations threaten to be infected with the viral advertising practice of peer-to-peer marketing. This is what happens when a culture smuggles persuasion techniques in “postirony,” the simulacra of irony in which phrases are merely signs of sardonic currency, but are vacated of any political or critical content. Post-irony is the embrace of contradictory ideologies as normal, acceptable and desirable. It’s kitsch cognitive dissonance.             

 Kaaaa-ching! So right on the money. And also, kitsch cognitive dissonance is just the sort of existential condition you (I) dream about calling in sick to work with.

So what’s it got to do with Gangnam?

First, to the casual K-pop viewer, this viddy is catchy, but with the double remove – linguistic, cultural- the text/subtext/context are all guesstimates. Though I can’t have been the only one to get a skim-milk version of this feeling. Right? Nowhere in the collective North American cultural consciousness Rolodex is there an entry for the nuance of dissidence-via-K-pop. But then this happened…

and in addition to learning that I may indeed be a “soybean paste woman” (but what is life without a good Neve coffee on the daily?), well, I borrowed came up with:

If the irony exists in the initial instance, but also sort of doesn’t (due to the double cultural/linguistic remove), then perhaps the multiplicity of reproductions exist in a tension-space of irony/earnestness and therefore continue to retain their signification? Just a thought.

Also I thought about this lecture I attended yonks ago that Sianne Ngai gave about “The Zany Science: Post-Fordist Performance and the Problem of Fun”. It was really interesting, but I’d be lying if I claimed to remember the fine print. Maybe read this interview. And think about the dialectical relationship that Cute and Zany things can have… cute being the memes, zany being Psy. Read this part especially (I’m pasting it here, so you don’t have to read the whole thing…)

Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness. It hinges on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak, which is why cute objects—formally simple or noncomplex, and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening—get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled. So there’s a sadistic side to this tender emotion, as people like Daniel Harris have noted. The prototypically cute object is the child’s toy or stuffed animal.

Cuteness is also a commodity aesthetic, with close ties to the pleasures of domesticity and easy consumption. As Walter Benjamin put it: “If the soul of the commodity which Marx occasionally mentions in jest existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hand and house it wants tonestle.” Cuteness could also be thought of as a kind of pastoral or romance, in that it indexes the paradoxical complexity of our desire for a simpler relation to our commodities, one that tries in a utopian fashion to recover their qualitative dimension as use.

While the cute is thus about commodities and consumption, the zany is about performing. Intensely affective and highly physical, it’s an aesthetic of nonstop action that bridges popular and avant-garde practice across a wide range of media: from the Dada cabaret of Hugo Ball to the sitcom of Lucille Ball. You could say that zaniness is essentially the experience of an agent confronted by—even endangered by—too many things coming at her quickly and at once. Think here of FroggerKaboom!, or Pressure Cooker, early Atari 2600 video games in which avatars have to dodge oncoming cars, catch falling bombs, and meet incoming hamburger orders at increasing speeds. Or virtually any Thomas Pynchon novel, bombarding protagonist and reader with hundreds of informational bits which may or may not add up to a conspiracy.

The dynamics of this aesthetic of incessant doing are thus perhaps best studied in the arts of live and recorded performance—dance, happenings, walkabouts, reenactments, game shows, video games. Yet zaniness is by no means exclusive to the performing arts. So much of “serious” postwar American literature is zany, for instance, that one reviewer’s description of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White—“a staccato burst of verbal star shells, pinwheel phrases, [and] cherry bombs of … puns and wordplays”—seems applicable to the bulk of the post-1945 canon, from Ashbery to Flarf; Ishmael Reed to Shelley Jackson.

I’ve got a more specific reading of post-Fordist or contemporary zaniness, which is that it is an aesthetic explicitly about the politically ambiguous convergence of cultural and occupational performance, or playing and laboring, under what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the new “connexionist” spirit of capitalism. As perhaps exemplified best by the maniacal frivolity of the characters played by Ball in I Love Lucy, Richard Pryor in The Toy, and Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, the zany more specifically evokes the performance of affective labor—the production of affects and relationships—as it comes to increasingly trouble the very distinction between work and play. This explains why this ludic aesthetic has a noticeably unfun or stressed-out layer to it. Contemporary zaniness is not just an aesthetic about play but about work, and also about precarity, which is why the threat of injury is always hovering about it.

Yeah, I guess Psy is under constant threat of tearing a hamstring, but also, yes. Yesss. I’m going to leave it there- what do you think? Can you dance Gangnam style?

And if my definition / use of postirony has been depressing, I offer you an alternative. (http://postirony.com/)

postirony
A less bleak definition of postirony and also supposedly its first manifesto.

Freedom!

 Candice Maddy will be reading at the Pilot Launch at the Sparrow in Montreal this Sunday. She has work in the recent conceptual writing portfolio.

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