Skolar cat hidez bahind hiz nollege: Methodologies of Stupid (NSFW)
The titular image is one of my favorites. It’s funny to me personally since I am, more or less, a scholar hiding behind knowledge; literally in that I am now sitting behind a pile of books, and figuratively in that worn cliché of “ivory tower” scholars using knowledge as social and intellectual defense.
It’s also funny because it creates a ridiculous anthropomorphism. This cat is no scholar. Cats can’t read. They are dumb animals—a point underscored by the poorly spelled and infantilizing caption. Moreover, the analogy between the photograph and scholarly life is poorly drawn. The image is banal: the books may stand in for knowledge, but they are crap books, the bookshelf is flimsy and unattractive, and the cat isn’t even cute. But it’s hard to criticize the image’s graceless metaphor. It’s a sort of stupid on stupid—and you can’t criticize stupidity in something intended to manifest stupidly.
Those of us regular to the Internet will recognize skolar cat as part of the LOLcats meme, which started with 4chan’s tradition of Caturday1. Caturday is everyday:
“Don’t you know what day it is?”
“Well, do you?”
“Post some fucking cats.”
Though 4chan started as an imageboard forum dedicated to anime and manga, now it’s the one place where you’d admit wanting to fuck General Cornwallis2. The site is both the cesspool of the Internet as well as the fount of every awesome meme online, e.g. LOLcats, Chocolate Rain, Rickrolling and Sup Dawg (though these examples are all relatively old, i.e., were popular around 2008).
http://cheezburger.com/View/530510080; caption by Harold
Memes are successful when one image or catchphrase begets many others, each slightly altered, most dumb as shit and a few unequivocally brilliant. With LOLcats, for example, a consistent format (picture of cat with text caption) results in an entire universe: Ceiling cat (God), Basement cat (Devil), Monorail Cat (public transportation system), L∞ngcat, Shortcat, Limecat, the Itteh Bitteh Kitteh Committeh, Gravity Cat, Serious Cat and so forth. The love of cats is 4chan’s sole redeeming quality3; otherwise it is full of porn and inane quasi-self-referential jokes about pedophilia.
4chan’s humor is intentionally stupid, and it thrives on both the banal and the extremely shocking (poop jokes, rape jokes, racist jokes). The heroes of 4chan, in fact, are people so stupid that they did everyone a favor by killing themselves4. But 4chan is also genius, the id of the Internet. Since most users post anonymously with no holds barred, the imageboard expresses thoughts often left unadmitted; for example, 4chan’s Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions,” and its underscoring Rule 35 stating that, “if porn cannot be found of it, it must be created.” For example, an open-mouth Batman drools cum from an erect penis to his right while proclaiming, “I’m the goddamn Batman.”5
I don’t recommend visiting 4chan to anyone. One rule of the Internet is that you can never un-see something, no matter how hard you try. There are things that should neither be seen nor even created, a concept well expressed by 4chan’s Shitting Dick Nipples meme, which refers to “any picture so freakish even the jaded population of the unholy imageboard can’t quite get a hard on for [it]….The meme goes well beyond rule 34 as it not only depicts something which does not exist, but something that should not have even been imagined.”6
This is some sick shit. To study it, to know about it, means to involve oneself in it in some way. I feel more engaged than is probably healthy. The humor is troubling; child molestation isn’t funny, and while I can appreciate the hyper-irony of the whole thing, to laugh at such barbs means to admit to some fairly twisted values.
Despite the problematic subject matter that sites like 4chan offer, they form a prominent part of contemporary visual culture, yet to date few critics or scholars have subjected the site to serious analysis7. Until the past hundred or so years, scholars discussed vernacular and popular objects as “stupid”—though not in so many words—meaning made by unlearned communities or machines, without training, and without art. Scholarly interest in comic books, caricature and decorative objects echoed the rise in artistic interest in such materials: Duchamp’s readymades of factory-line products; Léger’s fondness for the Bébé Cadum billboards in Paris, grocery stores and delicatessens; Demuth’s use of advertising aesthetics for his poster-portraits.8
In the 1950s and ’60s, the use of the aesthetics of mass-consumerism and youth culture—as seen in the Pop artworks of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Richard Hamilton—emerged as part of a protracted crisis of modernism in which thinkers questioned numerous intellectual convictions and hierarchies.9
Pop artists maintained an open mindset towards cultural phenomena, as Lawrence Alloway wrote of the discussions held by the Independent Group from 1952–55:
We felt none of the dislike of contemporary culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically…We assumed an anthropological definition of culture in which all types of human activity were the subject of aesthetic judgment and attention.10
Hence, as Kobena Mercer notes in his introduction to Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, “Pop art signaled an epistemological break in the very conception of ‘culture’ by overturning vertically hierarchical definitions with a horizontally inclusive alternative.”11
Even if you consider artistic practice of any sort horizontal, scholarly practice has not followed suit. When scholars discuss caricature, postcards or comic books, these objects serve as illustrations and explanations of the culture from which they originate. Culture becomes the object of analysis, and the image or object becomes evidence of cultural phenomena.12 This type of approach lacks the intense engagement with the image or object—its construction, potential for multiple interpretations and phenomenal properties—that forms the basis of art historical method.
With 4chan, I thus find myself uncomfortably positioned between art history and cultural studies, a position made increasingly awkward by the evermore unclear distinctions between art and the popular cultures from which artists often appropriate.
The aesthetics and modes of production of 4chan, for example, appear in artist surf clubs: blogs maintained by a small group of artists who scour the Web for images, video, advertisements and such. The artist manipulates the image in some way and then reposts the material to a surf club of which she is a member. 13
cropped screen shot from Spirit Surfers; http://www.spiritsurfers.net/monastery/?p=1448
Surf clubbers understand their blog posts as acts involving both curatorial research and the conceptual art gesture made through appropriation.14 On Spirit Surfers, a popular surf club, each post is divided in two, with the “boon” posted above the “wake.” The boon, a word meaning both a request and the granting of a request, signifies to Spirit Surfers the selected and manipulated image, video, text or gif; and the wake is how the surfer arrived at the boon (commonly wake refers to the recirculating flow of liquid behind a moving solid body).15 As Kevin Bewersdorf, a longstanding poster to Spirit Surfers, puts it:
Try to wrap yourself around this cliché—if surfing is wandering for 40 days and 40 nights in a desert, the boon is the vision brought back from the quest and the wake is the path of the whole quest’s footsteps….Really the boon/wake is only meant to set up a dialogue that, through repeated investigation, might eventually take on its own definition and allow the post to be not just about itself but also about the greater structure around it.16
Surf clubbers see themselves as connoisseurs in that they see much but post little.17 As Guthrie Lonergan, one of the founders of the surf club Nasty Nets, put it, “I like to think of surfing as just being really critical of everything you see, going with the flow but only highlighting very little of it….It’s important to leave the finding of certain kinds of amazing crazy shit to sites like Boing Boing, 4chan, etc.”18
Lonergan may be right about Boing Boing and its compendium of science fiction, freak occurrences and crazy gadgets, but I have yet to see a consistent regard for “amazing crazy shit” on 4chan. Like surf clubs, 4chan’s users seem more interested in manipulating found images with Photoshop and text in order to re-present those images within a given set of discourses.
Surf clubs and 4chan are even more similar in that they both resist analysis. A few hours’ engagement with the material won’t do. Understanding the structures and word/image play involved requires months if not years of lurking. One clear difference, though, between the two seems to be that surf club discourses have to do with contemporary aesthetic and postmodernist concerns, while 4chan discourses have to do with the unimaginably stupid and malevolently banal.19
Gerard Malanga: If you were very stupid, could you still be doing what you are doing?
Andy Warhol: Yes.
Malanga: If so, why do you do it?
Warhol: Because I’m not very smart.20
As Michel Foucault noted, Warhol’s genius lies in his embrace of the senseless:
This is the greatness of Warhol with his canned foods, senseless accidents, and his series of advertising smiles: the oral and nutritional equivalence of those half-open lips, teeth, tomato sauce, that hygiene based on detergents; the equivalence of death in the cavity of an evis¬cerated car, at the top of a telephone pole and at the end of a wire, and between the glistening, steel blue arms of the electric chair. ‘It’s the same either way,’ stupidity says, while sinking into itself and infinitely extending its nature with the things it says of itself; ‘Here or there, it’s always the same thing; what difference if the colors vary, if they’re darker or lighter. It’s all so senseless—life, women, death! How stupid this stupidity!’ But, in concentrating on this boundless monotony, we find the sudden illumination of multiplicity itself—with nothing at its center, at its highest point, or beyond it—a flickering of light that travels even faster than the eyes and successively lights up the moving labels and the captive snapshots that refer to each other to eternity, without ever saying anything: suddenly, arising from the background of the old inertia of equivalences, the zebra stripe of the event tears through the darkness, and the eternal phantasm informs that soup can, that singular and depthless face.21
If it is what it is and nothing else, and it’s all the same, then that’s stupid—because knowledge, as Foucault noted, operates through categories. The knowledgeable rectify error and distinguish truth from falsehood; to do otherwise is to descend into non-signifying sound and fury until an event tears through the void and informs something. Stupidity and knowledge, then, are sides of the same coin, and not opposites, as Avital Ronell convincingly argues.22 Any thing could go one way or the other, it could be stupid or it could be informed depending on observation (a sort of quantum physics of awareness).
It’s possible then to argue that art history and criticism should include study of the stupid banal things like 4chan—which aren’t instrumentally different from their appropriated manifestations in fine art—and to posit that such studies should look to 4chan as the analyzed object instead of as illustration of something more “important.” I’m not convinced that surf clubs’ boon-and-wake gesture is any more conceptual than Shitting Dick Nipples’ something-that-should-not-even-be-imagined-but-was-created-anyway.
Some studies of visual culture and vernacular art may already include such considerations, though I have yet to see any. And if most such studies eschew a close reading of the object, becoming more of a cultural history featuring art objects, then wouldn’t a study of 4chan tell us more about what the culture-at-large actually looks at?23 Instead, scholars still choose objects based on taste—they just hesitate to admit to such criteria in their histories. We uphold the value of artistic training and intellectual depth and criticize the work when that depth is not apparent.
I suppose that to study 4chan requires waiting for the illuminating flash that 4chan so vociferously resists. That flash could very well be an artist appropriating the aesthetics and productions of 4chan (perhaps surf clubs fit the bill, perhaps not). But in Foucault’s transcendent shift, the stupid does not remain itself. To study 4chan, outside of the clear unpleasantness of the task, means to end up doing it wrong24 by trying too hard.25 What may work with Warhol—who attempted to be utterly banal and stupid himself, removing the signs of his artist’s hand—won’t work for 4chan. Warhol ultimately never dropped the guise of the professional artist and the fine art context, despite playing with the notion. If he were stupid he could still supposedly have done the same work, but art critics and historians can unfold his work as insightful—as genius—and thus his stupidity is smart.
Unlike skolar cat, Warhol can hide behind his knowledge (extending the skolar cat metaphor, Warhol has quality books on his shelf instead of crap ones), while skolar cat cannot be entirely recovered from the stupid.
1. Caturday eventually transitioned to the now more popular and less offensive LOLcats site icanhascheezburger.com, beginning with Happy Cat on January 11, 2007. http://icanhascheezburger.com/2007/01/11/i-can-has-cheezburger-3/. Accessed May 10, 2010.
2. “4chan,” Encyclopedia Dramatica, http://encyclopediadramatica.com/4chan. Accessed on April 10, 2010.
3. For example, the events of mid February 2009, where somebody calling himself “Timmy” posted two videos of himself abusing his cat on YouTube. The 4chan community tracked down the video’s origin and passed the details to the local police department. “Timmy,” a fourteen-year-old Oklahoman, was arrested and the cat rescued. 4chan community members have also helped police track down users who post violent threats to the site.
4. “An hero,” Encyclopedia Dramatica, http://www.encyclopediadramatica.com/An_hero. Accessed March 30, 2010.
5. “Rule 34,” Encyclopedia Dramatica, http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Rule_34. Accessed April 5, 2010. The Batman image is particularly funny in that the phrase “goddamn Batman” echoes the oft-lampooned Batman series penned by Frank Miller, All Star Batman and the Robin the Boy Wonder. One infamous and frequently quoted frame has Robin challenging Batman for ordering him around, to which Batman replies: “What are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? … I’m the goddamn Batman.”
6. “Shitting Dick Nipples,” Encyclopedia Dramatica, http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Shitting_dick_nipples. Accessed April 5, 2010.
7. This may be attributable to the fact that the site is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are, however, a number of popular articles written on 4chan. Most of these have to do with the site as a haven for “trolls,” that is, people who intentionally post inflammatory off-topic material in an online community. “Trolls” often inadvertently help identify users new to the community (n00bs); as such, newbies are the only users who would respond to a trolling post in earnest. This is the sort of practice that can get depraved—comments on YouTube serve as a good example—and has occasionally resulted in the suicide of a harassed user. For further information, see Mattathias Schwartz, “The Trolls Among Us,” The New York Times Magazine, August 3, 2008.
8. Charles Demuth made a number of “poster paintings” for his friends (including the Stieglitz circle), the most famous of which is his painting for William Carlos Williams, The Figure 5 in Gold (1928). For further information on this history, see Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1999).
9. Pop art returned in the 1980s as concepts of appropriation, bricolage and deconstruction became key terms in cultural commentary.
10. Lawrence Alloway, “The Development of British Pop,” in Kobena Mercer, “Introduction,” Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures (London: MIT Press and the Institute of International Visual Arts, 2007): 8.
11. Mercer, 8.
12. For example, Tamara L. Hunt, Defining John Bull: Political Caricature and National Identity in Late Georgian England (Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2003); Saloni Mathur’s India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007); and David Kunzle, “Between Broadsheet Caricature and ‘Punch’: Cheap Newspaper Cuts for the Lower Classes in the 1830s,” Art Journal, 43 no.4 (Winter 1983): 339–346; to name but a few.
13. Paddy Johnson, “Art Fag City at Alt Wire: Surf Club Edition,” Art Fag City, March 16, 2009. Accessed April 8, 2010. http://www.artfagcity.com/2009/03/16/art-fag-city-at-alt-wire-surf-club-edition/.
14. I’ve noticed a number of homages to John Baldessari on these sites.
15. Not all surf clubs maintain the blog format with chronologically ordered posts neatly sequenced within the browser window. Double Happiness (http://doublehappiness.ilikenicethings.com/), for example, often bleeds well past the edges of any window, necessitating energetic scrollbar use.
16. Kevin Bewersdorf, in an interview with Gene McHugh on September 3, 2008, for rhizome.org. http://rhizome.org/editorial/19. Accessed April 10, 2010.
17. Paddy Johnson in “So You Want to Join a Surf Club …,” L Magazine, March 4, 2009. http://www.thelmagazine.com/newyork/art-fag-city/Content?oid=1147016. Accessed April 1, 2010.
18. Guthrie Lonergan, quoted by Johnson in “So You Want to Join a Surf Club …”
19. However, postmodern/conceptual and stupid/banal are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
20. Andy Warhol, interviewed by Gerard Malanga in 1963. Originally printed in Kulchur 16 (Winter 1964–65). Reprinted in I’ll be your mirror: the selected Andy Warhol interviews, 1962–1987 (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004): 47–52. Malanga was Warhol’s main studio assistant in the 1960s, who conducted a series of interviews with Warhol during this time. This was the first such interview with questions taken from an employment questionnaire that Malanga found, except that Malanga changed certain questions and repeated questions at times for what he described as a more “Warholian effect.”
21. Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977): 189.
22. See Avital Ronell’s introduction to Stupidity (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
23. In the past, the cultural studies approach has worked as an important corrective to earlier formalist studies that contrasted high art to low culture, to the latter’s detriment. As the argument went, ‘stupid pictures for and from stupid people’—a tactic that late-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century formalists used often when discussing non-white and non-male visual cultures.
24. “Doing It Wrong,” Encyclopedia Dramatica, http://www.encyclopediadramatica.com/Doing_it_wrong. Accessed March 30, 2010.
25. “Trying too hard,” Encyclopedia Dramatica, http://www.encyclopediadramatica.com/Trying_too_hard. Accessed March 30, 2010.