I’ve spent the last couple of posts coming up with a kind of bloggy “apologia pro vita mea.” Here’s the first, which deals with online publishing and the academy; here’s the second, which is about how blogging, writing voice, and (again) the academy. I’ve tried to make a case that this sort of work is at least potentially a valid intellectual project, even if it doesn’t look particularly “academic.” But for that case to be well and truly made, we need to banish from our minds the expectation that online writing will look like other kinds of writing, only, you know, online. If I’m not willing to go quite so far as to say the medium is the message, I can say at least that a medium will transform the style and therefore also the content of your writing.
And if this is so, then the medium has to be taken into account when we judge a piece of writing that has appeared in it. Common sense, right? You don’t criticize a sitcom for not having arias or an opera for not wrapping everything up in 22 minutes. So don’t write off a blog post, or the very medium of blogging, just because it has silly animated GIFs.
But then, why would you have silly animated GIFs?
One reason is very practical. Sooner or later just about every embedded Youtube video will go dead. It’s sad to see your archive looking like a dying mall, with more and more dark vacant windows crowding out the bright-lit ones. If I learned anything from migrating Dial M from Typepad to WordPress, it’s to have as much of your media under your own roof as you can. In my recent MC Richards post, for example, I mentioned the 1951 film of Jackson Pollock painting on glass. The point I was making about it (painting as fossilized action) is not necessarily intuitive, so I wanted both to show and tell. The easy way to do that is to embed the video. But where possible now I prefer to make a long GIF of the most relevant parts: that way, the image will be stable for as long as Dial M exists.
That doesn’t explain all or even most of the GIFs I post, though. The more obvious reasons to throw in an animated GIF are expressive or aesthetic: a GIF can leaven big blocks of text, make ’em laugh, or just look cool. In this respect they are (as friend-of-the-blog Graham Larkin pointed out to me) like the vignettes found in old books. The one Graham sent me is very easy to imagine as a GIF.
The obvious difference is that one moves and the other doesn’t. But while some GIF artists (and yes, that’s a thing) can use the medium to make images that are almost like little stories or comedy sketches, GIFS like the one above are far more typical in presenting an image in lively motion that nevertheless remains fundamentally static. GIFs are, as George Orwell writes of Dickens’s characters, “fixed up forever like little twinkling miniatures painted on snuffbox lids”:
As with the people one knew in childhood, one seems always to remember them in one particular attitude, doing one particular thing. Mrs. Squeers is always ladling out brimstone and treacle, Mrs. Gummidge is always weeping, Mrs. Gargery is always banging her husband’s head against the wall, Mrs. Jellyby is always scribbling tracts while her children fall into the area — and there they all are, fixed up for ever like little twinkling miniatures painted on snuffbox lids, completely fantastic and incredible, and yet somehow more solid and infinitely more memorable than the efforts of serious novelists.
And this quality gives us a clue of why the GIF can be so rhetorically effective in an online publications such as the one you’re reading right now. Each of Orwell’s images — Mrs. Gummidge always weeping, etc. — is a gesture. The distinct individual movement of a body is the stuff of which GIFs are made. If GIFs have meaning, it is the wordless meaning of the arched eyebrow, the curled lip, the shrug, the facepalm. True, you can always put a caption on a GIF, but that doesn’t really change anything. GIFs speak a language of gesture, an international language that nearly all human beings speak and understand as a mother tongue.
However, scholars have tended to scorn gesture as a bearer of meaning in favor of the spoken and written word, at least until recently. There is now a performance-studies literature that takes embodiment seriously. But even this scholarship doesn’t actually use physical gesture to make its points. In print media, you can only describe a gesture in words — at best, in conjunction with still pictures — and words are a very clumsy surrogate for direct visual representation. Online, though, you can use GIFs not only to show a gesture, but to isolate very small details within it, and so reveal an undiscovered country of subtle meaning in which we are nevertheless immediately and completely at home.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. In my last post, I was writing about how invoking “beauty” in academic contexts is liable to raise some hackles, and a shampoo ad slogan from the 1980s — “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” — popped into my head. Of course I went over to Youtube to see if anyone had uploaded one of those old commercials, and of course someone had. So I made a GIF of it:
That GIF is so choice. It’s not just the poofy 1980s hair and the stupid slogan; it’s that little simper the actress does just before she says the line: in-breath, left shoulder shrugging upward to meet a left-and-down tilt of the head, a languid bat of the eyelashes just a fraction of a beat later, a slight tightening in the corners of a smile, all in a quick cogent sequence, a tiny story told in body language.
And what does this story tell us? “I’m beautiful,” of course. However, since this is a commercial, where all beauty is converted into the promise of consumer pleasure, it is also, “I give pleasure.” The gesture is coquettish, inviting but guarded . . . an inner pleasure advertised, yet secured against easy knowledge. This is gonna cost you, big boy. In a phrase, what this little simper conveys is: mysterious inner pleasure.
Which, in the context of my post, is perfect. It conveys a little story’s worth of human nuance without demanding a single word. It conveys exactly what I didn’t want to say in that post, everything that is smug and self-pleasuring about aestheticist posturing. (I may be all about “the aesthetic,” but “aestheticism,” like any -ism, marks the degeneration of the notion.) It is an embodied gestural counterpoint to a abstract verbalized idea. I like that the blog medium allows me to orchestrate such counterpoints.