A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

The Felt of Memory on YouTube

Craig Saper, University of Central Florida

Enculturation 8 (2010): http://enculturation.net/felt-memory

Gregory L. Ulmer (a.k.a., “GLUe”), the McLuhan of YouTube, argues that when the media packages messages about disasters, it often creates a situation where post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) becomes the defining condition of contemporary identity. The disasters are not outside the system of progress but are a crucial part of the system. If we did not filter out, or mythologize, the disasters' contradictory relationships with progress, and the centrality of sacrifice in this process, we would quickly become overwhelmed. Ulmer suggests considering this essential aspect of sacrifice-dependent progress as a Y choice that allows one to realize that there is another choice. When we consider the necessary sacrifice in direct relation to progress (economic prosperity, freedom, participation, technology, happiness, etc), then it makes the seeming inevitability a Y [puncept intended], it highlights the cultural mythology.

In the "Mr. Mentality" videos first posted on YouTube on September 3, 2009, Ulmer explores one such necessary sacrifice: the role of pets in our post-traumatic stress culture. The description on the YouTube video explains that the video is a "Pilot for a TV series that does for cultural studies what Mr. Wizard did for the natural and applied sciences," and the tags include “Mr. Mentality,” “Bataille,” “electracy,” and “the topic is Education” (Ulmer). As more of an introduction, “Floridagreg” (i.e., GLUe) leaves the following comment: "To put this project in a theoretical context: Mr. Mentality is a ‘conceptual persona’ in the sense developed in What is Philosophy, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. The three parts of a ‘concept’ in their terms are: a plane of immanence (the problem field), a concept (a singularity, a sentence, not a proposition), and between them a persona. Examples include Plato's 'Socrates' or Descartes' 'Idiot’" (Ulmer).

Figure 1: Mister Mentality Show

"Mr. Mentality" shares much with video conceptual art. It demonstrated how the false opposition (or at least distinction) between art, as conceived as an academic discipline, and theory prevents theory from incorporating vanguard problem-solving strategies and art from experimenting with conceptual issues. Ulmer coins the term "heuretics" to describe this process of problem solving. It is a process that involves the meme and recurring motif in Ulmer's work on the felt experience (from Joseph Beuy's artistic use of felt to other puncepts involved in that term). That process is staged in "Mr. Mentality" by borrowing a popular culture format, in this case a corny teaching video in which kids visit the teacher who explains some issue, and as the caption/explanation on the YouTube video explains, the teacher character is like Mr. Wizard. "Mr. Wizard" was a science TV program that premiered in 1951, and in which the host Don Herbert had a young assistant help him with an experiment. These experiments would always fascinate the audience because the experiments seemed impossible at first, but after the show, the young viewers could easily do the experiments themselves. Don Herbert later appeared on General Electric Theater as a "Progress Reporter" talking with Ronald Reagan to learn how we might "live better electrically." The Mr. Mentality character now serves as a "progress reporter," explaining an apparently impossible social and cultural experiment and situation. Later, the audience can try the experiment at home looking for the Y cultural contradictions and effaced choices in their own lives. Mr. Mentality looks at his own personal situation, the crucial role of euthanizing pets, to understand a usually effaced aspect of contemporary culture.

Ulmer, playing the role of Mr. Mentality, explains theoretical issues, sometimes paraphrasing George Bataille or Deleuze and Guattari, to two young boys. It looks and sounds like an episode of "Mr. Wizard" from the 1950's. The three sit down and talk over the problem of why people have pets, and Ulmer explains that it has to do with monumentality. He explains that pets dying “teaches you about how to mourn: how to deal with the loss of something you love and identify with." On a more general level, a nation has to learn this same lesson: how to deal with loss, disasters, and sacrifice. That is, we use monumentality as part of national identity to remember that although the “founding fathers are long dead,” we still have national identity. That identity is tied-up with participation and participatory culture. Pets are an important part of YouTube videos and our national identity epitomized by the phrase: A boy and his dog. Mr. Mentality helps highlight some of the crucial aspects of the Y pets choice.

Ulmer explains that he’s been working on a monument that “recognizes the contribution our pets make to our American national identity." We need a surplus of available animals to allow for everyone to have a pet and to practice mourning. In a version of a Bataillian analysis (with a mix of Jacques Derrida’s work on archive fever and memorialization), Ulmer explains patiently that the left over has to be wasted (1 pet is euthanized every 1.5 seconds or 8 million a year). The pets make a sacrifice for national identity, and wasting the pets is the price we have to pay for the practice of having a pet: “It shows we are sincere.” At one point, as he explains monumentality, the visual track shows an old movie scene of a human sacrifice where the shamanistic priest rips out a young woman’s heart. We still make human sacrifices and recognize those in memorials to soldiers killed in war. A reluctance to make sacrifices could either mean a contradiction in our values (sympathy and love for available pets versus the need to avoid having animals overrun cities and towns) or it might mean we do not know ourselves as a nation. “We don’t realize that our existence depends on an enormous amount of waste.” Loss is complicated as part of a circuit from waste to sacrifice to mourning to identity formation, and that loss cycle depends on the sincere effort to progress.

What is the Y participatory equation that our media messages usually efface? The sheer scope and reach of interactive and networked YouTube videos changes the quality of the form expressed. It is no longer simply messages in a convenient digital form. It has more to do with a sociopoetic experience. The YouTube peculiarities change the boundaries and definition of video, cultural memory, and participatory democracy as well. The elastic, virally connected, large audience defines not only contemporary communication but also the new gadgets that are defined by their distribution mechanisms to an extent not seen before. In traditional scholarly terms of the past this new type of media (similar to printed books, CD's, and canvases) might have been known as post-form (or post-media). Instead of those awkward labels, one might simply call them sociopoetic.

The term sociopoetic describes heuretic texts that use social situations or social networks as a canvas; intimate bureaucracies being a type of sociopoetic work. The term sociopoetic does not define my methodology. Instead, the term describes an aesthetic approach that asks to shift the focus from formal issues or cultural contexts or social scientific surveys, toward examining how situations function poetically (or sociopoetically) (Saper).

Although it is a well-worn truism of media studies that Walter Benjamin's hypothesis, that the reproduction and mass distribution of art and media will lead to reader's becoming writers and a collective enervation, the extent of this effect has recently increased and intensified. One might, therefore, need to update Benjamin's eloquent description of this process to include the networked element. Instead of a reader becoming a writer, the sociopoetic process resembles a spectator becoming an artist and, more importantly, becoming part of a mobile, contingent, and vast art group or movement. Within that heuretic experience, one finds the effaced sacrifice necessary for participatory culture. It is not that a single person gains class-consciousness as in Benjamin's model by being in a laughing or crying audience, or even that the entire audience gains this consciousness together. Rather, the visceral experience, rather than consciousness, of networks resembles joining an art group (or simulating that experience). Y consciousness begins with the recognition of becoming part of an art movement-like experience while choosing to watch any particular video: both the largest and shortest lived movement ever—a flash-mob sensual simulation of political participation and cultural memory transmission as if the audience member had become a modem and router.

A number of groups have claimed to represent the largest art movement in the world. Mail artists, with their elastic networks of participants, serve as a useful comparison to the current reading situation. One might imagine taking the largest phone book in the world and putting an art movement's name on the cover. This is absurd, and sounds like an avant-garde art-stunt except this is precisely the process that occurs regularly in the forming of groups with individuals joining, unsubscribing and moving out, visiting, commenting, reading without commenting, networking with avatars, etc. It is especially prominent in "choosing" to experience being Rick Rolled by the meme-viral video. That particular sociopoetic experience no longer has our attention, and the collective memory has forgotten (euthanized) it.

The situation most closely resembles ants making hills, whereby ants push pieces of dirt around until two pieces land on top of each other and an ant hill forms. In fact, the biologist Lewis Thomas explains that ant colonies and hills are more like one organism than a collective of individual ants; they are parts of one animal. Deleuze and Guattari describe these rhizomatic connections and smooth flows of intensities that defy the gridded space. The image of the grid is precisely the metaphor that many seek to resist by living off-the-grid but networked. The amorphous, changing, contingent, and massively connected nature of the off the received gridded organization of knowledge defines the situation.

Using Roland Barthes's category of the "receivable," the messages offer something that is neither traditional narrative realism (readerly), nor a modernist text that depends on a reader's responding as if s/he were writing the text (writerly) (118). Instead, the YouTube video resembles certain works sent to Barthes by his friends, the receivable. Barthes does not know quite what to make of these texts, but he gladly receives them. As he explains, this type of "unreaderly text catches hold, the red-hot text, a product continuously outside of any likelihood and who function—visibly assumed by its scriptor—would be to context the mercantile constraint of what is written" (119). Barthes did not intend this definition to apply to the experience of YouTube. Nevertheless, Barthes goes on to describe the receivable in terms of another key attribute: "this text, guided, armed by a notion of the unpublishable, would require the following response: I can neither read nor write what you produce, but I receive it, like a fire, a drug, an enigmatic disorganization" (118). Texts you receive like a fire, like the Rick Rolled experience, creates a fleeting enigmatic disorganization in the user.

The experimental tenor of the YouTube experience depends on a massively connected user-base resembling social scientific experiments. In fact, the experience of following a link to a YouTube video will often seem like an actual social psychological experiment. Stanley Milgram, best known for his "shocking" work on obedience where volunteer "teachers" followed orders to inflict supposedly fatal shocks to "students," did less invasive work to study "communicative webs" in the late 1960s (Milgram). He wanted to study how people are connected, and his work closely parallels the work of artists' networks (and the publications that grew from those networks). He began with a randomly generated list of people living in Omaha, Nebraska. Each person on the list received a package containing instructions to write their name on a roster and send the package on to someone they knew, a friend or acquaintance, who might get the package closer to the final destination (someone who lived in Sharon Massachusetts and worked in Boston). Milgram used the mail system, and a chain-letter-like experiment, to investigate social connections. He found that it took on average only six steps to reach the final destination. The phrase, "six degrees of separation," and the implications of our links to large social webs have been explored in the play and film of the same name and in the party game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

In the volume translated as Paper Machine, Derrida mentions that if computers were available when Glas was published, he probably would not have investigated the visual form of the page. One then wonders about the felt lining of YouTube, and how one might examine it. Although the actual memories are demonstrably lost with the explosion of participation and messages, the trace of the experience remains. The felt of memory appears with the sacrifice of memories on YouTube. The Y in YouTube marks that effaced choice between the progress of participation and its dependence on sacrificing our memories to the altar of Y Tube.

Marcel Proust wrote to remember, Friedrich Nietzsche to forget. Forgetting used to depend on remembering something to forget. Remembering depends on finding something forgotten. Participatory culture, what one might have called Rick Rolled, now adds a Y to this logic. YouTube archives the most mundane recollections, the most profound lectures, experimental video essays, clips from popular culture, and anything that one has a vague memory of seeing before (on TV or online). Much like an infinite Borgesian library, the abundance of remembering must inevitably lead to forgetting on a scale unknown in the history of memory techniques. It now approaches the impossible point where participants forget more than they have remembered. The very essence of participatory culture demands that sociopoetic experience: the simulation of forgetting and the surprise and delight of remembering. In a world beyond The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we now forget other people’s memories—personal, political, artistic, relevant, peculiar—even beyond what we have read, transcribed, or eavesdropped. In the movie, the effort to erase the hero’s painful memories of his love affair makes him remember why he does not want to forget. Participatory culture on YouTube allows everyone to forget as the messages literally sink to the bottom archived in an accessible (and therefore not pressing) heap. In the movie, one technician uses the hero’s memories to seduce the heroine (again) as if for the first time. In the participatory culture I love, seductions and frauds fuel the effort to forget by remembering. The asymptotic line of flight toward forgetting beyond remembering describes a forever receding and impossible unconscious. YouTube did not create the situation, but that endless chain of visual memories calls us into forgetting Y as felt experience.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977. Print.

Milgram, Stanley. "The Lost Letter Technique." The Individual in A Social World: Essays and Experiments. Eds. John Sabini and Maury Silver. Second Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. Print.

-----. The Small World. Ed. Manfred Kochen. Norwood, N.J. : Ablex Pub., 1989. Print

Saper, Craig. Networked Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory, perf. "The Mr. Mentality Show." YouTube 3 September 2009. Web. 16 August 2010.