Dirt: Step inside the unusual meme machine
Chaos—with a little hug
Patrick Nathan on the joys of virtual flotsam and jetsam
Every week, I unguiltily enjoy seven minutes of short videos. Before unpacking that adverb, I’ll introduce my favorite YouTube channel, “Unusual Videos.” Each Sunday, there’s a new, deejayed mix of TikToks, “ancient” Vines, Minecraft music, lots of birds, some seals, and online RPGs. These clips last an average of three or four seconds, and each compilation closes with a sleepy animal and a little koan: “Hey! mood changes change everything” or “Hey! it’s not always as it seems – anyway it’s getting late <3” Every week, chaos—with a little hug.
Unguiltily? Well, I watch a horrifying number of compilations almost like these. However, “unusual memes” are unique in their curation and editing; they have a velocity missing from similar channels—“Videos I Found on Reddit”; “TikToks with Vine Energy”; etc. It’s their velocity—an inflection of art—that absolves me of guilt. I am, I tell myself, having an experience.
Velocity is not pacing. Most prestige TV—and its contamination of cinema, turning individual films into “episodes” of Marvel, Fast/Furious, etc.—is fast-paced and action-packed, yet agonizingly slow. Nor does “white space” in novels signal velocity. A decade ago, I heard Marlon James say that gaps in writing create energy, which is true. But novels with energy—what @JoyceCarolOates (talk about unusual memes) called “wan little husks”—are not always novels with velocity. Conversely, James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings is a brutalism of prose, whose gaps primarily lie hidden between sentences, yet one of the highest-velocity fictions I’ve read. Another novelist, Rachel Kushner, is relentless with information, with texture; yet reading her novels is exhilaratingly like struggling to breathe with your head stuck out of a car window.
Art doesn’t need velocity. But it does need attention. Writing of Vija Celmins’s photo-realist paintings, Susan Tallman remarked that “Artworks are devices for engineering attention.” [Tallman, “I Just Look, and Paint,” NYRB, Dec 5, 2019] Even enthrallingly tedious work—a Glass opera, a Lydia Davis story—commands attention. Velocity short-circuits that command: it cancels the opportunity for boredom.
It’s a rare gift, in America, to go seven minutes without boredom. Boredom is why I prefer Vine to TikTok; the six-second limit forced a velocity that makes TikToks seem like wedding speeches. It’s why I find Twitter, the highest velocity platform, so seductive, and why its “threads” are unbearable. Boredom is why I double the playback speed on podcasts (often the most boring things ever made): you can’t drift off if you’re forced to keep up.
Boredom is a warning—that something may not be worth your attention. If the American ontology is “being-as-transaction,” velocity is attention on the cheap: you pay a little for a lot of experience. A hundred videos in seven minutes, say; or, with a writer’s notebooks, a lifetime of wisdom in 300 pages.
“What an artist chooses to do with that attention,” Tallman adds, “is the all-important question.” In Celmins’s case, she “hands it back to us.” Her paintings enshrine attention, and suggest how to liberate it from metaphors of capital. To have—instead of thousands of tiny, draining transactions —attention unclaimed, free to give. To question the manipulative aspects of velocity—in the joy of unusual memes, nonetheless there to generate ad revenue, or in traditional and social media’s threat of constant, and constantly withheld, apocalypse. Also, nonetheless, a source of revenue.
Velocity is art’s hustle—sometimes worth it, often not, and never precisely art’s fault so much as the environment in which art is made. That is, our environment—boring, traumatizing, and polluted by the imagination of money.— Patrick Nathan