Bored senseless: Logan Paul and meme politics

Joey Hornsby
November 26, 2018
Online Only
"Already a meme." by MEMECAGE is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

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.

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.












All by
Joey Hornsby