When confronted with a bottomless serving of fat or sugar, lab rats will stuff themselves sick. The theory goes that humans share the same mammalian evolutionary drive to gorge on as much macronutrients as are available to us, because our bodies still think famine could be right around the corner.
I wonder if, on some level, humans possess a similar predisposition to cram our minds with information; perhaps the bottomless shining vat of the Internet targets our brain-stems in the same way a plate of cookies does. We can’t out-read the Internet, but every day we try. There are always more photos to attach captions to, more blogs to reference, there is always one more comment on Tumblr. We post and re-pin our recipes, Autocorrects, and Texts From Last Night rather effortlessly, but we continue hungering for more. We know they are there, waiting to be consumed.
Irish author Mark O’Connell is interested in and troubled by what he calls this “frictionless sharing and flattening of affect,” particularly when it comes to what Internet inside jokes have nicknamed Epic Fails. You know the mascots: The Monkey Jesus Fresco, R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet, “Friday” (the official Epic Fail anthem). He’s written an e-book, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, published last month on The Millions, that dives into the surprisingly deep history behind our hunger for “disasterpieces,” and our often callous public treatment of the people who were unlucky enough to create them. This snickering ironic phenomenon, that one might imagine shares a birthday with 4Chan, can actually trace its roots back to Shakespeare, god-awful Victorian poets, and a haughty Irish novelist who inspired ironic fan clubs among Britain’s literary heavyweights. O’Connell connects these historic precursors to the current “You’re Doing it Wrong” memes, giving the lie to the truism that snark was spontaneously born online, but also illustrating the ways in which the the Internet has indeed altered the way we share and consume our snarkiness.
Epic Fail is fresh, funny, sharp-eyed, and challenging. You’ll never look at YouTube parodies the same way again.
The Rumpus: How did the idea for Epic Fail arise?
Mark O’Connell: It basically started with Amanda McKittrick Ros. I came across a reference to her in late 2011, and became quite taken with the idea of this early 20th Century novelist who attained a kind of cult celebrity from the sheer awfulness of her books. I was fascinated not so much by Ros herself, as by the idea that people like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien became obsessed with her, pressed her books into their friends’ hands, and held competitions at Oxford to see who could read from her work for the longest without laughing. This kind of ironic celebration of bad art was always something that I unthinkingly assumed was more or less contemporary—or post-Susan Sontag, at least. So, from there, I became interested in looking at people who became viral celebrities before there was such a thing as viral celebrity. And that became a sort of historical back door into a discussion of Internet culture, or of certain cultural tendencies that have been foregrounded by the Internet.
Rumpus: When doing your research and working through this book, did anything surprise you? Were there conclusions you came to that you didn’t expect to arrive at? Or patterns you found that you hadn’t considered?
O’Connell: The really interesting and surprising thing was the way that the parameters of the topic itself kept expanding as I was writing about it. Not just in the narrow sense of researching a thing and realizing how deep it goes, but in the sense that new examples of the phenomenon kept cropping up as I was writing it. Like, the book starts with Cecilia Giménez and the Spanish Jesus fresco, which now seems almost the quintessential example of the way the Internet cultivates this interest in disastrous art and the people who make it. That actually happened when I was quite close to finishing the project, but it would have seemed kind of absurd not to discuss it, so I had to go back and write Giménez into the thing.
That also happened in a slightly different way with historical “epic fail” figures. I’d tell people I was working on this subject, and they’d assure me that there was no way I could write about this stuff without discussing X or Y person. I’d never heard of William McGonagall (the famously terrible Victorian Scottish poet) when I started writing this, but a friend of mine, whose fiancée claims to be a descendant of his, told me about him and insisted that there was no way I could leave him out. Obviously he was one hundred percent right. That happened quite a bit, so that was really interesting.
Rumpus: Were there any primary or secondary sources you came upon that you’d recommend to us readers? (To be enjoyed either earnestly or ironically?)
O’Connell: Most of the things that I read while researching the topic made it into the book in some form or other. Some didn’t, though. I read a very interesting and seriously entertaining book called Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by a Canadian writer named Carl Wilson. It’s about Celine Dion, and more specifically about her album Let’s Talk About Love. Basically, he despises Dion’s music, but the book is about him trying to get to a position where he can appreciate it, and see the kind of value it might have for the gazillions of people who love it. I found that really fascinating and inspiring. I also read a lot of Susan Sontag, whose critical persona and voice I pretty much fell in love with while I was writing this. And then I read Claire Colebrook’s book Irony, which is a kind of short history of the topic, and has some really interesting things to say about how our understanding of the concept has changed and evolved.
Rumpus: I’ve been thinking about the line you draw between ridiculing the artist and ridiculing the failed art, and it led me to ponder Birdemic, which was called 2011’s The Room. I’m wondering if you’ve seen it. Also set in the Bay Area, it’s a slog of a low-budget, poorly-edited, and terribly-scripted film, about a flock of eagles that attack a sleepy seaside inlet as revenge for global warming. RiffTrax recently riffed on it live in theatres, including some pretty low blows at the film’s director. I wonder what it’s like to make an incredibly earnest environmentalist film like that, albeit a terribly-made one, and be mocked thusly. Then again, once you release your art into the world, I think to a certain extent you relinquish interpretation and ownership of it. I don’t know; what do you think?
O’Connell: I’ve never seen Birdemic, but I remember seeing the trailer when it came out. With the CGI birds that looked like something out of a Sega Megadrive game, and the low-grade eco-didactic dialogue. That looked truly terrible.
Actually, this might sound weird, but I don’t really find that kind of stuff all that amusing myself. The truth is I never would have watched The Room, say, if I hadn’t forced myself to sit through it in order to write about it for Epic Fail. And I actually found it unbelievably grueling to sit through. It was just not in any way a fun experience. Maybe that was because I watched it by myself, completely sober, at two-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon while taking notes, which is probably not the recommended mode of experiencing something like that. It’s funnier to read about or think about, than it is an experience per se. I found Tom Bissell’s profile of Tommy Wiseau way more interesting and entertaining an experience than The Room itself, for example. Same with Amanda McKittrick Ros. I wouldn’t go back to those books if you paid me to. (That’s not strictly true, actually. Can you pay me? How much? Let’s talk shop.)
But that doesn’t even begin to answer your question at all, I see. It’s a tricky question, and in a way it’s the question I try to answer in the book. And the problem, I think, is the ease with which laughing at a ridiculous film—or song, or poem, or whatever—shades into laughing at the person who made it. It seems pretty clear to me that the target of the ridicule provoked by, say, Rebecca Black’s song “Friday,” wasn’t so much “Friday” as it was Rebecca Black herself. And that’s obviously an extreme example, because she was so young, and because the whole thing was so stunningly vicious, but I think there’s an element of that to most instances of Internet viral fame. Even with Cecilia Giménez, I think a big part of the world’s love affair with the Jesus fresco was the idea that it was made by this hapless octogenarian churchgoing lady. That was a major aspect of the comic appeal of the thing, and she herself was inevitably affected by that attention. I mean, what an incredibly awful existential fate that would be—to achieve that kind of fame for those kinds of reasons. And it’s so completely random. So to an extent, I agree that when you release your art into the world, you relinquish ownership of it, but that’s quite a different thing to submitting to being washed away by a global tide of ridicule.
Rumpus: Also, when you raise the question of whether Tommy Wiseau knows he’s a joke or not, you bring up another kind of irony that these situations employ: dramatic irony, where the audience knows something the character does not. In the case of The Room screenings where Tommy Wiseau was present, the situation is supposed to be comical because Wiseau appears unaware of how the audience perceives him and his art. He thinks they’re taking it seriously, but we, the audience, know he’s the butt of a joke. But you open up the dramatic irony lens even wider so that the caustic questioners become the clueless performers, and the readers of your book become the clued-in, winked-at audience. It’s like the Greek dissemblance of irony can peel apart endlessly like an onion.
O’Connell: I suppose in a way, the idea of dramatic irony is actually pretty central to the book. Without wanting to sound overly conceptual—or, to hell with it, outright pretentious—part of what I wanted to do in Epic Fail was talk about the way the ironic position is so vulnerable to being ironized from other, “higher” positions. And I wanted to make it clear, in writing, how vulnerable my own irony in the book is, authorial and otherwise. The moment when you think you’re at your most commandingly self-aware is often exactly when you’re most susceptible to being ironized. I’m not fully confident that that makes sense. But sometimes contemporary culture, Internet culture particularly, seems like a kind of Mexican standoff of weaponized irony.
The most powerful ironization of the whole concept of irony I’ve ever encountered, by the way, is Zbigniew Herbert’s prose poem “From Mythology,” which finishes like this:
At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time. Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.
To which my only possible critical response is, “Wow…” (Although you know what’s even more ironic? The fact that, if you include that in the interview, the Herbert estate could end up crushing The Rumpus under its heels and adding it to their dishes. Probably not, I don’t know. Maybe they’re one of the good-guy literary estates.)
Rumpus: What do you think of the semi-ironic/semi-serious critical exegesis and analysis that has proliferated in response to Rebecca Black’s “Friday”?
O’Connell: Actually I haven’t read much of it. I’m aware that it exists, and I looked into some of it, but it seemed pretty uninteresting. And sort of comically redundant, really. For me, there’s something almost poignant about the idea of someone sitting down and writing a critical commentary on Rebecca Black’s “Friday” for ironic shits and giggles. That’s the kind of situation where irony tends to rear up and bite the would-be ironist in the ass. There’s often a pretty serious lack of self-awareness with that stuff.
Rumpus: You seem to imply that perhaps we, as a culture, should check ourselves before unleashing such prolific ridicule on all these failed artists. The anecdote you tell about your boyhood experience crank-calling an amateur rapper called “The Executioner,” and the shame that memory still brings you, is so poignant. Do you have any ideas for how we can retain our ironic awe/glee at these “disasterpieces” while extending respect towards their auteurs, or is such a feat impossible?
O’Connell: That’s a really tough question. In a way, it’s quite hard to talk about this stuff without seeming preachy or prescriptive, and I was quite wary of slipping into that when I was writing. I mean, to the extent that the book is funny, it’s largely funny because of the inherent humor in the topic, and so I’m aware that what I’m doing here is always in danger of sailing a little close to the winds of hypocrisy. Or trying to have my moral cake and eat it. (Would you care for some more metaphors in your mixed metaphor salad, by the way?)
I guess what I’m talking about has in some sense to do with degrees or gradations of ridicule. Like the part of the book where I write about crank-calling “The Executioner” as a teenager was pretty obviously a case of overstepping a boundary. And that moment seems really stark to me in retrospect, because I was very explicitly stepping across a line separating, on one side, an ironic appreciation of a bad rap album from, on the other, an actual interaction with the guy behind it. And that now seems like almost another cultural era—not pre-Internet, but pre-social media. So now that line is nowhere near as clear. In some sense, it’s not even a line anymore at all. We’re now in an era of frictionless sharing of malice, amongst other things. So maybe the answer to your question, actually, is that this has indeed become impossible.
Rumpus: I wonder if all of this is the inevitable result of late capitalism. There is so much information, so much art, entertainment, and media, that almost everything references something else. We sort of view the whole body of work of human culture as our raw materials to deconstruct and work with, because so much is so readily accessible.
O’Connell: That’s largely true, I think. There’s just this ceaseless turnover now of “content,” this endless stream of decontextualized experience. This could be purely personal or idiosyncratic, but one of the things that strikes me about spending a lot of time online is that there’s this sort of flattening of affect that comes from being exposed to all this weird shit all the time. So a result of having this endlessly self-renewing source of diversion in our lives is that we’re never bored, and if we’re never bored, then in some paradoxical but fundamental way we’re always bored.
On a shallow, surface level, I’m totally amused by whatever latest hilarious thing—this amazing Tumblr, or that ingenious YouTube clip, or whatever—but on a deeper level, not even very much deeper, it makes me feel nothing at all. The same is true for things that are outrageous or terrible or wrong in some real and serious way. Being enraged by a new thing every day is, in effect, not that different to never actually experiencing anger at all.
I find I have to be constantly vigilant when it comes to this kind of corrosive dispassion, this leveling out of affect, that seems to go along with spending a lot of time online. There’s a point where frictionless sharing can lead to a frictionlessness of experience. I think that this inevitably has to have an affect on the way that we experience culture, and I worry about its leading to a political apathy, as well. By which I mean, obviously, that I would worry, if I weren’t so apathetic.
Rumpus: Wow, there’s something very Situationist about that insight. Guy Debord and Gang of Four would nod in agreement, I think.
O’Connell: I’m very taken with that idea.
Rumpus: You quote a passage by Elias Canetti, on the evolutionary nature of laughter. We laugh at someone because we can’t hunt them and eat them. Is there any science to back that up? Do you think it’s true?
O’Connell: I think Crowds and Power, as a whole, is at its most powerful when its claims amount to a kind of poetic truth. It’d be very difficult to justify any of it from a scientific standpoint, and I don’t think he means any of it to be taken that way. It’s like an appalled explication of human behavior that uses philosophy and sociology as masks for its own horror. It’s a hell of a book, but it has its own internal logic that’s much more poetic than scientific.
I don’t think there’s anything at all to back up Canetti’s explanation for why we laugh, but there’s still a very powerful feeling of visionary truth to it. In one sense I do agree with what he says, because it seems very obvious that a lot of laughter is sublimated aggression or violence. In another sense, I don’t agree at all, because laughing is also among the most human and most humane things we can do. Canetti seems to think about laughter symbolically. That passage that I quote near the end of the book is powerful, I think, because of how it works in an almost cinematic way, as though it were cutting back and forth between the image of one human being laughing at another and the image of a predatory beast eating its prey. So there’s a symbolic truth to it, that works by a sort of dreamlike association. As to whether it’s grounded in any solid scientific bedrock, I’d say surely not. Christ, I certainly hope not.