Even Obama: Irony in the Time of YouTube
January 16, 2009
If you’ve been following this blog, you know I put out a call for the community to help me find videos for my research for writing some upcoming talks about what I call “productive” fake documentary on YouTube. Although my numbers feel rather dinky considering the vast network of media-studies-type enthusiasts on the internet, I did acquire a pretty cool list of twenty YouTube videos, and associated ruminations, through my process. I’ve spent the past week trying to whip this up into shape, and happily can report that my thesis is now presentable to the public, and also, so timely, given the inauguration of the first YouTube president, that I decided not to wait until its official presentation in February at CAA and March, in Iowa, at their Avant-Doc conference.
“The week after the election, in a talk at the New York Public Library, Joan Didion lamented that the United States in the era of Barack Obama had become an “irony-free zone,” a vast Kool-Aid tank where “naïvete, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in” and where “innocence, even when it looked like ignorance was now prized.” Andy Newman, Sunday Styles Section, New York Times, November 23, 2008
Joan, seriously (umm…ironically?), have you spent much time on YouTube? You of all people must be aware that Barack Obama, heralded by The Washington Post, no less, as our first “YouTube President,” also announced after his election the commencement of weekly broadcasts of his presidency’s “fire-side chats” on-line and on YouTube. While the tone, form, and message of these networked national addresses are decidedly serious, presidential even, Joan, you’re savvy enough to get the joke, to intuit the wink, the implied aside to a history of worn out presidents, tired fires, and cornball communications. His move, like most on YouTube, is irony-full: a regal black American taking up the hot-spot, filling the usually-segregated head-shot, a new kind of president-talk produced through documentary’s oldest, most eloquent sobriety, fireside-hot, only to be elegantly plopped into his society’s silliest platform. Incongruity-free? Naïve? I’d say not.
Furthermore, Joan, with all due respect to your many past cultural insights, you’re using, like so many from the pre-networked generations, terms that seem downright outdated for getting at the heart of today’s innovative on-line ways. Garden-style YouTube irony is not oppositional to innocence, as you mistakenly suggest, but rather a bedfellow to playful performances of naivete and even ignorance. Think dead-pan rendering of a gravitas never to be taken at face value. Think millions of regular people’s video attempts at the facial under-performances modeled by the professional cast of The Office. Obama simply, perhaps masterfully, twists this riff. His YouTube jam goes like this: the serious usually marks the funny, but in his version, hah! Get this…the serious is the serious. Really. YouTube is all irony, all the time, and our YouTube President wittily plays it against itself. Sincerely folks, on YouTube, who came first, Tina Fey or Sarah Palin? I think you know the answer. On YouTube, what gets watched more: Obama’s fire-side chats, Obama Girl, Obama on Ellen, or Obama via Will.i.am? Yes we can. Irony-free? No you can’t.
Interestingly, I’ve been engaged in a similar irony-joust with fellow YouTube scholar, Michael Wesch, who also, but not due to age or non-native-status, views YouTube as a happy community-building Kool-aid dispenser. I’ve suggested in a variety of fora on-line and off—sarcastically, sorta—that his cheery findings must have to do with where he lives (Kansas), or perhaps his field of training (Anthropology: they do love a happy native). But in this talk, I will choose to move this question from the jokey realm of the blog to the more academic framework of the fake-talk: how and why do some see sincerity where us black-clad, red-state, Obama-loving bitter, city-dwellers see hypocrisy, or is that hope, or perhaps hope hiding hypocricy?
Which leads me to “The History of LOLcats” (this video was suggested to me by Julie, via HASTAC.) Like Barack Obama, LOLcats are a significant irony dividing line. Do you, Kool-aid drinker, think people actually find them cute—ooooh how delightful, so sweet—or, like me, would you posit that they enable a sarcastic viewing position: a calculated posture of slightly mean-spirited looking down upon that other person who thinks they’re unimaginably adorable. This critical distance, not cuteness, is actually the deep pleasure to be found in this ironic YouTube staple.
It wil be this talk’s contention (coming soon in March!) that YouTube has escalated our culture’s intense irony indulgence to heights so unparalleled that it has actually become impossible, if not downright unpopular, to see the difference between sincerity and satire. We can’t. And fan that I am of Obama, yes we can, and hater (or secret lover) that I may be of LOLcats, in my talk I will suggest that there are great dangers to a visual culture (and the real it is or will be) where irony becomes so dominant as to be invisible, the very plight, I suggest, that befell none other than the esteemed, and erudite Joan Didion and Michael Wesch. It’s easy to miss.