Author Archives: Theo Plothe

Intertextuality and the Virtual World on Celluloid

Theo Plothe


Digital games have become an incredibly popular and influential industry within American cultural life, to the extent that digital games and the experience of playing them has been represented in many popular films. This essay posits two crucial elements for the representation of digital games in film: intertextuality and representations of player control. As discussed by Wolf (2001), videogames are intertextual by nature, drawing upon divergent texts and providing an interactive environment for users to read these texts. Cinematically, the notion of player-agency control is influenced greatly by this intertextuality, and player control has been represented in a number of films involving videogames and digital worlds. This essay looks at the use and representation of player-agency control in both the Tron and Matrix film series, as well as the recent film Wreck-It Ralph. There are three elements that are essential to this representation: 1) there is a separation between the virtual and the real; 2) the virtual world is written in code, and this code is impossible for player-agents to change, though they can manipulate it; 3) the relative position of the player to the player-agent, is one of subservience or conflict. I argue that not only is the notion of player-agency control representative, it is essential to the cinematic representation of videogames’ virtual worlds.


The digital game industry is now the largest, most popular, and profitable form of media on the planet. In 2011 alone, the industry accounted for nearly $14.5 billion in sales, from a selection of over 1100 games released across all platforms and consoles, including mobile and online downloads, and traditional disks (, 2011). According to the Entertainment Software Association, digital games are being played by more a diverse population than ever, with more than two-thirds of all American households playing some type of digital game (ESA, 2012). According to the PEW Internet and American Life Project, 53% of American adults play some kind of digital games, either on a computer, gaming console, cell phone, or handheld gaming device (Lenhart et al., 2008). Digital games, then, represent a large aspect of popular culture, and elements of games, from their narratives, characters, game worlds, and particularly game mechanics (discussed here as ludological features), are the object of representation and exploration in other popular media, particularly film.

Brookey (2010) discusses at length the convergence of the film and digital game industries, where films are adapted into digital games and vice versa. This is a rich area of scholarship in considering the effects of media convergence on both of these industries, as well as the similarity of digital games and film elements. In this essay I instead examine the representation of game experiences in narrative films. Cultural products such as these are important to study in order to consider the place of digital games in culture at large, the elements of digital games represented, and the ways in which elements of these games are considered. Burrill (2008) also notes the importance of studying digital games and their influence through the ideologies they impart to culture at large: “In a world where ‘play’ has become an operant word and war looks like a videogame, it is essential to avoid categorizing the games as simply dangerous or trivial” (p. 83). As game elements become part of larger cultural narratives like films, it is important to consider their greater impact in examining how elements of games are taken up in other media.

This essay examines the representation of digital games through three different films franchises: Tron (1982), Tron: Legacy (2010), The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003), and Wreck it Ralph (2012). Through a consideration of the gaming elements represented in these three films, this essay suggests important criteria for the representation of games in cinema: 1) the film must be as intertextual as the game itself, and 2) it must represent elements of ludological control, particularly player control, adhering to a rule-bound structure. Through an examination of the ways that each film addresses player agency and the intertextual elements of this representation, this essay emphasizes the importance of this concept in cultural representations of gaming.


As discussed by Wolf (2001), digital games draw upon divergent texts and provide an interactive environment for users to read these texts. They are rich, intertextual environments that pull references and techniques from a myriad of different media sources, particularly films. In defining intertextuality, Allen (2000) notes, “intertextuality is one of the most commonly used and misused terms in contemporary critical vocabulary” (p. 2). “Intertextuality” is a term coined by Julia Kristeva to describe the ways texts relate to and reference other texts, through devices such as allusion, quotation, pastiche, and parody. This term acknowledges that in reading a text, knowledge is not simply translated from writer to reader, but is instead filtered by cultural codes developed from other texts. A text could be anything from actual written words, to representation, to a physical article such as clothes, hair, or architecture. In digital games, not only is there text that appears onscreen as narration and description, but every bit of scenery, character appearance, and diagetic sound could be considered text.

As Kress (2000) describes, the term intertextuality has become theoretical shorthand for the dialogic nature of texts as continually referential (p. 135). Orr (2003) defines intertextuality as “the culminating critical term for processes of cultural interconnectivity centered on the printed text” (p. 170). Orr emphasizes the transformative nature of intertextuality in the ability of textual references to alter the work that came before it (p. 10). While Orr’s definition emphasizes text, she notes that electronic hypertext and interactive media have added “a further layer” to text, a “virtual text” (p. 170), and that intertextuality as a term can be applied to any medium conceived of after print, including film. Orr acknowledges that Kristeva’s grounding of the term intertextuality within French postmodernism separates her concept from other similar modes of cultural borrowing “as specifically highbrow” (p. 20). In unifying these ideas, I would argue that Orr’s concept of the transformative nature of intertextuality anticipates later definitions of remix; interactive media, then, are not simply added layers of intertexuality, but are instead fundamental to the process itself.

Orr (2003) does note that the interactive nature of hypertext brings writers and readers together (p. 51). This is a key aspect Meinhof & Smith’s (2000) definition of intertextuality, as “the process of viewers and readers interpreting texts which exhibit the dynamic interactivity of several semiotic modes, and interpreting them in ways that are partially controlled by this multimodality” (p. 11). These scholars see intertextuality as a process of interpretation, and through this process, the audience identifies references within a text to other media texts. A film that references a novel draws attention to the ways that different media forms trade ideas and concepts, yet these concepts are represented in a way specific to that particular medium. Ideas traverse media, but their representations are media specific. Conversations of intertextuality in television in particular emphasize genre conventions and the role of the audience, especially their role in shaping audience expectations for a particular media text. As Meinhof and van Leeuwen (2000) describe, a TV commercial will inspire different expectations and reception than a music video or news report. These authors, then, see intertextuality as also the blending of multiple genre forms.

Schumaker (2011) argues that analyses of intertextuality in film often lean too heavily on literary criticism or study the features of particular directors rather than the function of intertextuality within the genre itself. Schumaker uses the term “super-intertexuality” to describe an exaggerated version of intertextuality present in contemporary film, defining it as “a self-reflexive theoretical model evolving from the unique text-to-text relationships that start the intertextual discourse” (p. 129). Schumaker’s analysis of the superhero film Kick-Ass notes its connections both to digital game culture and contemporary music. The author describes a sequence filmed from a first-person point of view that “quickly evolves into a shootout reminiscent of first-person shooters, like Halo and Doom. In this sequence, the camera oscillates between the first-person perspective of Hit-Girl and the third-person, suggesting a shift from digital game storytelling to stereotypical film storytelling, and shows how the two mediums can coexist” (p. 141-142). The sequence is accompanied by a cover of the theme song to The Banana Splits Adventure, a 1969 children’s television program performed by The Dickies, an American punk band. This short scene, then, references popular culture texts in television and music through a digital game-like action sequence, demonstrating the complex function of intertextuality in today’s contemporary culture:

The intertextual path which leads from television shows to generically related games indicates that it is the games which activate the everyday environment of play. There the game show stands in a familiar circle of activity. Crossword puzzles are not solved by individuals, but form the center of social activities. (Mikos & Wulff, 2000, p. 106)

Digital games take individual, specific elements of other media and place them within larger contexts and situations. The rules of a simple game, then, becomes part of a larger social system of activity within an interactive digital game.

What makes intertextuality in digital games different from other media is the immersive and interactive nature of games. Texts and film have a hierarchical, or one-to-many, relationship with their audiences. While readers/viewers can make connections between the text and others, these connections remain at an individual level. Because it’s a singular experience and not episodic, intertextuality is limited as self-reflection and self-reception. Within the gaming environment, the ability to play with these other texts alters those texts and ultimately allows individuals to experience them in more dynamic ways. This research seeks to outline the intertextual nature of video games and the gaming experience, demonstrating how the experience of video game play is uniquely intertextual and encourages an approach to media that is also uniquely participatory. Because of the importance of intertextuality within digital games, intertextuality is also an important element of films that represent digital games, as Schumaker’s analysis of Kick-Ass demonstrates.

Player Agency

The second element of these films is their representation of player agency. Player agency is the process through which gamers make decisions and intervene within digital gamespaces. Juul (2005) describes digital games as “rules and fiction,” containing narrative stories within specific ludic frameworks. (p. 12). Digital games are unique in that they are interactive; individuals have the ability to experience virtual spaces and interact with media in new ways through digital games. While digital games have structure and particular rules (just like any other structured system) there are an infinite number of ways through which the goals of a game can be achieved, and gamers are able to use creative invention and use their agency within the gameworld, usually through an avatar. The notion of player-agency has long been an area of inquiry in games studies (Behrenshausen, 2012). Scholars have looked at player-agency control in digital games, measuring its effect on education (Gee, 2003), motivation (Deterding, 2012), gaming practices (De Paoli & Kerr, 2010), and social meanings (Parsler, 2010; Wang & Sun, 2011). Morris (2002) describes the ways that gamers take an active role in the digital games they play, calling them “producers of fiction” within gameplay (p. 90).

Navarro (2012) calls controllable objects within the game “an extension of player agency” and describes the ways in which avatars allow gamers to interact within the space of the digital game. While many studies of avatars discuss player embodiment, player agency is interested more in the gamer imposing his/her will within the gamespace, which may or may not include a body, but is integrated through what Ensslin (2012) calls a “cybernetic feedback loop,” linking hardware, software, and the gamer. Brice & Rutter (2002) note that many digital games expand the parameters in which gamers can interact, even building levels, changing narratives, and adding characters (p. 76-77).

In cinematic representations of gaming, the notion of player-agency control is influenced greatly by this intertextuality. In order to represent the agency of players within a game, films rely on intertextual references: connections to digital games and other media. I posit that there are three elements that are essential to this representation of player agency within films about digital games:

1) there is a separation between the virtual and the real.

2) the virtual world is written in code, and this code is impossible for player-agents to change, though they can manipulate it.

3) the relative position of the player to the player-agent is one of subservience or conflict.

I argue that not only is the notion of player-agency control representative, it is essential to the cinematic representation of videogames’ virtual worlds. Throughout the rest of this essay, I will detail specific examples of intertextuality within the Tron and Matrix film franchises, and in the film Wreck It Ralph.


Burrill (2008) argues that the original Tron film, released in 1982, represents one of the first of many peaks for digital games within popular culture, tying it to the success of Pong and other game genres still popular today (p.94). Burrill also notes that the narrative of the film “functions as a series of games, or competitive segments performed by the avatars sucked into cyberspace and the preexisting programs populating the competitions” (p. 92). Intertextuality works throughout Tron and Tron: Legacy in that way, by representing digital game elements as small competitions that exist in the virtual space of the game.


Tron stars Jeff Bridges as computer programmer Kevin Flynn, a recently fired software engineer of the fictional ENCOM corporation. Ed Dillenger (David Warner) stole Flynn’s videogame designs and claimed them as his own, quickly scaling the management ladder as a result. Once elevated, he fires Flynn, left to running his own arcade and deviously hacking the ENCOM mainframe looking for evidence of Dillenger’s theft. The Master Control Program (MCP), an artificial intelligence written by Dillinger, repeatedly blocks Flynn’s attempts, until one day, the MCP manages to trap Flynn in the virtual world using an experimental laser to digitize him. Once in, Flynn attempts to defeat the MCP and save the world when the MCP seeks to overtake the Pentagon and Kremlin. When Dillinger learns the MCP’s plans, he is thwarted by the threat of the MCP exposing Dillenger’s plagiarism of Flynn’s incredibly successful games.

The first scene of Tron (1982) clearly demarcates the separation of virtual and the real as it opens in Flynn’s arcade and we hear a player and others talk about the Lightcycle game. We see the player start the game with a quarter and grab the joystick. The notion of a user in player-agency is very prominent from the start as the action shifts to the playing field inside the game. The virtual world’s antagonist Sark (also played by Warner) is shown in action defeating the player in a lightcycle battle. The MCP talks to Sark after the match mentioning that they have kidnapped some military programs” (via his intrusion into the Pentagon and the Kremlin) and asks if Sark would like to take them on next in more “lethal matches.” Sark bemoans the “cream puff accounting programs” he’s been sent to combat recently and readily agrees to engage these new virtual combatants.

Another example includes the following as we see Flynn being drawn into the gamespace.

In Tron users are worshiped as gods; being the unseen overlords who control their movements in the field and with an awareness that the programmers wrote the programs. Tron himself declares, “I fight for Alan,” a bold statement of loyalty to his creator. In another scene, a program, later revealed as “Crom,” is led down a hallway and can be heard complaining to his captors that he’s “Just a compound interest program. I work at a savings and loan. I can’t play these video games.” As his captors back him against a door he continues, “Hey, look. You guys are gonna make my User, Mr. Henderson, very angry. He’s a full branch manager!” The guard replies, “Great. Another religious nut!” From the guards’ perspective, Crom’s adherence to the user is repulsive. As with the MCP, the digital game rebels against its maker, seeking autonomy and independence from the user. Once in the cell, Crom’s neighbor introduces himself as Ram, welcoming him to their punishment and asking if Crom truly believes in the higher power known as the user. Crom replies that of course he does, “If I don’t have a User, then who wrote me?”

Although the virtual world is written in code, generally, the code is impossible for player-agents to rewrite, though they can manipulate it. As in digital games, there are many aspects of the game world that players cannot change, but they can use creative play to come up with solutions. This occurs most apparently when Flynn hijacks a broken down regulator, a flying war machine used to suppress enemies of the MCP. On the lam, Flynn and a mortally wounded Ram find a decrepit regulator among the cavernous outskirts of gamespace. Here, Flynn is able to revive the machine simply by concentrating on its repair and manipulating the code to fix the engine and the structural integrity of the ship. Ram’s eyes widen with awe and reverence as he questions whether Flynn is a user. Though pleased at the confirmation of his theological belief, Ram derezzes after praying to the users.

TronLegacyIn the sequel nearly 30 years later, belief in the user has changed dramatically. Tron Legacy presents a world where Kevin Flynn, as CEO of ENCOM International, disappeared in 1989. Two decades later, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has little to do with his father’s company beyond being its largest shareholder and playing a prank on its board of directors on the anniversary of his father’s disappearance.  Before long, Sam is transported to the Grid, the virtual world created by his father in the first film now ruled by CLU, Kevin Flynn’s original hacking program, now corrupted by jealousy and twisted desire for revenge. Sam is quickly captured despite his protests of “I’m not a program” when he first arrives in the grid. Eventually, he is captured and sent to fight in “the Games”, but is rescued his father’s “apprentice” Quorra, an isomorphic algorithm created by the game, a spontaneous program if you will. CLU sees these “ISOs” as imperfect aberrations and purges the system of them via mass extermination. CLU seeks to capture Flynn’s “identity disc,” unlocking its master key so that he can escape the system through the “I/O portal” and impose his idea of perfection on the real world.

The user (player) acts as an independent agent within the system. He retains control of his individual actions, and can affect certain spheres of influence directly around him, but the programs has grown beyond his control, as witnessed by the ISOs. In this sense, player-agency is only cursory; the player’s ability to play the game is defined by the boundaries constructed and enforced by the game. Contrasted with the first film, where Flynn was exploring the game and discovers his power as the player and exerts some sense of control, here he sees that the player is just another cog in the machine.  At one point, Flynn bemoans Clu’s betrayal and dominance “It’s his game now. The only way to win is not to play.”

The Matrix


Like the Tron films, The Matrix franchise also sets up a distinction between the real and virtual worlds. The Matrix is set in a futuristic world where machines rule and the reality that humans experience is a simulation created by a machine that uses humans for an energy source. Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer programmer, learns the truth about the Matrix from Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), the leader of a human resistance force that fights against the machines. After a series of training episodes resembling sparring scenes in a martial arts video game, Neo learns that Morpheus believes he is “the One,” prophesied to end the war between humans and machines. Neo returns to the matrix and he and Trinity fight Agent Smith, a being within the machine that polices it, in the Matrix and rescue Morpheus as a machine attacks their ship outside of the Matrix, which the crew destroys just in time with an electromagnetic pulse.

When Neo takes the now infamous “red pill,” he is thrust out of the Matrix, a virtual world he has always thought to be though real, a bit askew. As he awakens, he sees the world not as the machines wish him to, but as it is, that humans are farmed for their energy compositing stacks of batteries that stretch as far as the eye can see.neo-wakes-up-within-the-matrix1

Through training and his mystical abilities as “the One,” Neo is able to actually visualize the code of the game and through this, how can manipulate the code in a remarkably tactile way. In other words, though he cannot rewrite the code as a modder can do with a digital game or as a hacker or cheat code can do, he is able to change the parameters within the physical virtual environment, i.e. slowing bullets.

In the above clip, while Neo cannot destroy the bullets, they exist on both the virtual and physical plane, he grinds their progress through the air to a halt. As in digital games, there are many aspects of the game world that players cannot change, but they can use creative play to come up with solutions. Earlier in the film, Neo tried to dodge Agent Jones’ bullets managing to avoid nearly an entire clip while standing in space. After Trinity makes the save, she queries “How did you do that? You moved like they do. I’ve never seen anyone move that fast.”Matrix_Reloaded_4

The following film in the triology, The Matrix Reloaded, features Neo’s search for the source of the Matrix by finding the Keymaster and the Architect. The architect tells Neo that because he is part of the Matrix, he has a choice to either return to the source of the Matrix and reboot it, choosing the survivors to help repopulate the human colony in the real world, Zion, which is about to be destroyed by the Architect’s machines burrowing toward it ever closer. Or, he is told, he can choose for the matrix to crash, killing all humans, but leaving the machines. Neo chooses to save Trinity instead, rescuing her from the matrix by catching her from falling off a building and removing a bullet from her heart. Neo learns he can stop machines telepathically, but falls into a coma from the effort.

As he did with the bullets at the conclusion of the first film, Neo reaches into the code with a tactile approach, plucking the bullets from inside Trinity’s green shimmering body made of code. He cannot simply destroy the projectiles, removing them from the virtual world, he must remove them with the ludological constraints of the game.

MPW-58815The Matrix Revolutions, the final film of the trilogy, involves Neo visiting the Oracle and learning that Smith intends to destroy both the Matrix and the real world. Neo and Trinity take the fight to Machine City as the others defend Zion from the machines. Neo meets the “Deus Ex Machina”, the machine leader, and offers to destroy Smith for peace with Zion. Neo fights Agent Smith, who has taken over the virtual selves of everyone in the Matrix, and Smith assimilates Neo but is destroyed, as Neo is connected to the source. Zion is saved and the Matrix resets itself, but all humans will be offered the ability to leave the Matrix. While the third film has far less forays into the virtual, that the trilogy ends with a final battle between Neo and Agent Smith with the matrix is appropriate. Again, the relative position of the player to the player-agent is one of subservience or conflict. In that battle, Neo is tied to the Source, and his agency is tethered to that as well. Neo within the matrix is being played as much as he is playing, while Agent Smith, a rogue program at this point battles for sentience outside the game against his computer overlords.


wreckitralphposter1351814498073Wreck-It-Ralph is a Disney animated film about a video game character Ralph (John C. Reilly) who tires of his role as the villain in his arcade game Fix It Felix, Jr., and leaves his game to earn a medal and become a hero in another game in the arcade. His adventures take him first to the first-person shooter game Hero’s Duty, where he earns a medal, but unwittingly carries a virus with him into the racing game Sugar Rush. In this game, he befriends Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitchy character who takes Ralph’s medal to buy entry into the race. The head of Sugar Rush, King Candy, warns Ralph that letting Vanellope race would reset the game, threatening her existance. Meanwhile, Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) search for Ralph and the virus he brought with him in Sugar Rush. The four of them work to kill the virus (Cy-Bugs), as Ralph learns that Vanellope was part of the original game and encourages her to finish the race. Toward the finish line King Candy reveals himself to be Turbo, a character from an earlier racing game who manipulated the code of Sugar Rush to make himself king.  Ralph destroys the Cy-Bugs, saving Sugar Rush, and Vanellope crosses the finish line, resetting her game and restoring herself to a racer within it.

Unlike the previous films in this project, Wreck-It-Ralph is purely digital in that the protagonists originate in the virtual realm; no one enters it and no one leaves, yet the digital is fully aware of its position relative to the real. To its digital denizens, Wreck-It-Ralph’s characters see the real world from a very Cartesian perspective: within the old video game arcades, such as Litwack’s Arcade from Wreck-It-Ralph, the real looks in on their virtual worlds as if through a window in space. Ralph discovers the truth of Vanellope’s existence in the following clip by gazing through this window to the real.

One of the major in-jokes of Wreck-It-Ralph‘s digital world, is the normalcy of the characters lives. They wake up at the start of each day as Mr. Litwak opens the arcade, and work a 9-5 just as any working stiff might. But the digital worlds are still written in code. In this example from, the character, King Candy, is seen using a common cheat code that has significance within gamer culture to manipulate the code:

The cheat code is just another intertextual example of players utilizing creative play. During the “Bad-Anon” meeting at the beginning of the film, Ralph expresses a desire to leave his game and stop being the bad guy. He is quickly rebuked by his fellow villains, with Kano from the Mortal Kombat saying “You can’t mess with the program, Ralph.” What we can delineate here is the separation of the notions of the code and the program. The code is the bits and bytes that make up digital games, the building blocks if you will. The program is something far more esoteric and larger, more akin to “nature” or “life.” As any gamer can tell you, while the program may be less likely to be “messed” with, you can certainly change the code.

A following example of that distinction would be the earlier mantra repeated by legendary character Sonic the Hedgehog, who can be seen on video billboards, “Everyone. If you leave your game, stay safe, stay alert, and whatever you do, don’t die, cause if you die outside your own game, you don’t regenerate. Ever. Game Over.”

This discussion of “stick to the program” can be best parsed in the film’s initial foray into Hero’s Duty, a first-person-shooter (FPS) where a of team space marines mount an offensive against the evil alien swarm, the Cy-Bugs.

During the resultant chaos, we see Calhoun repeatedly turning to the FPS instructing the player on what to do. The player’s face appears on the flat screen as she does this, intertextually, this is action is common in gaming as a playable tutorial during which the game instructs the player on game rules and mechanics within the game’s narratives. When Ralph steps out of line, Calhoun pushes him to the side and nervously looks back to the FPS, proceeding with her instructions. After the beacon is turned on resulting in all the bugs flying to their death, Calhoun reads the riot act to Ralph (as Markowski), reminding him of the player-character’s subservience to the player. “What’s the first rule of Hero’s duty? Never interfere with the first-person-shooter. Our job is to get the gamers to the top of that building so they can get a medal, and that’s it! So stick to the program, soldier!” The interesting twist is that the Cy-bugs are mindless killing and eating machines who do not know they’re in a digital game. The beacon, acting as a giant bug zapper, has to be activated at the end of play in order to destroy all the bugs lest they overrun the game and infect other realms.


A larger question I consider in my research is the notion of game space, the relation of that space to gamers, and its representation in popular culture. How game space is represented in culture is important because the media help to inform audiences’ beliefs of gaming. This paper argues that in addressing player agency, these films comment how we can make sense of video game experiences and their growing place within our everyday lives.

King and Krzywinska (2006) note that film analysis of the meanings of films includes an analysis of the kinds of “personal characteristics” endorsed by the film (p. 126). What does that mean for games? Each of these films explore one’s ability for agency within a system, which in these films means a digital game. Each of these films gives the individual agency within the system. While in most cases they cannot change the underlying structure of the program (any more than an individual can change an economic or political system) one has agency to work within it. Using games as a metaphor through which to consider social constraints gives these three films a moderate view of the possibility for change. These examples suggest the importance of continuing to study the popular representation of games and game culture for their underlying messages.


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The Posthuman Blues


Donna Haraway’s seminal piece “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1985) smartly utilizes the word “manifesto,” declaring the idea of traditional feminism to be dead. Modern feminism or second wave feminism focused on identity, where women fit into society, and in a sense, living in reaction to a male dominated world. Haraway, rather, is not only suggesting a post-modern feminist construct but a posthuman construct. She uses the metaphor of a cyborg to move beyond the binary and past the standard limitations of traditional notions of gender, feminism and politics.


Let’s take a look at a visual representation of Haraway’s cyborg construct. We have an animal totem, a rejection of the Garden of Eden and the religious dogma of man’s separation from nature. According to Haraway, there are no rigid boundaries between human and animal. Nor is there a separation from human to machine. Note how there is a biological component to this connection in addition to the hands on the keyboard. Thus animal, human, and machine are all interconnected. As for the machines, Haraway notes the line is blurring. “But basically machines were not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream.” Notice the symbolism in the phallic. She writes that the boundary between the physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us. It’s all just sort of out there. The machines make it understandable. See, we’ve become cyborgs without even realizing it. “Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible.” Because of this omniscience, technology has become the new deity, and the technological determinists are her priests.

girlcyborgWhat is most fascinating for my scholarly interests is that not proposing this connection to communication systems is a positive or negative construct. She instead suggests that as women and femininity are being redefined by technology, that the postfeminist should be conscious of this technological system, which seeks to recraft the female body. Women should see the machines everywhere as empowerment and internalize those constructs by presenting and embracing themselves as cyborgs. Where once, machines framed women in a particular way, cyborgs can change the definition. Because we’re all connected, nature, human, and machine, and the boundaries are thus invisible, that women have the ability to define themselves outside of the context of a biological or culturally determined femininity. The cyborg is liberation.

Popular media, rather, often shows cyborgism assomething sinister and wholly inhuman, an important distinction from Haraway’s notions of posthumanism. The term posthuman provides a neutrality to the addition of the technological to the biological. But cybernetics on celluloid often accompany disfigurement and villainy. 


One of the first cyborgs on the silver screen may be one of the best examples of this ontological shift, Dr. No of the eponymous James Bond film from 1962. A brilliant scientist and former treasurer of the Chinese mafia, Dr. No falls victim to his experiments which cost him both of his hands, replaced with rather crude “bionic” ones, capable of great strength, crushing a metal statue as an example of their power. No exhibits characteristics of the classic mad scientist trope, popular in pulp, comics, and B-movies previously, and his grotesque metal hands (from his playing God with the evils of science, no doubt!) playing their part in his further isolation from normalcy and humanity. Ultimately, the hands prove his undoing; though imbued with crushing strength, their lack of manual dexterity cannot effectively help hime climb a ladder and he is boiled to death in the coolant of an overheating nuclear reactor. Bond in his hegemonic masculinity and heroic “humanity” escapes, saves the girl, and wins the day.

Cybernetic enhancement has so often equated with a loss of humanity (and ultimately an embrace of villainy) it has become a common trope in Hollywood. While brave Luke Skywalker of Star Wars has a cybernetic arm to replace that biological one his father has cut off, he never gives in to the same dark technological forces Darth Vader does. Vader forsook his humanity in embracing not only the dark side, but the cybernetic implants that transform him into something less than human. It’s an odd parallel, the Hollywood cyborg has augmented strength, superior intellect, and numerous advantages over his unspoiled human brethren, yet it is viewed as weak for “giving in to the technology.” Heroes such as Skywalker or Del Spooner of I, Robot can subject themselves to integration of the technology, but must reject becoming beholden to that technology. Posthumans are never seen as masters of their technology, only as slaves to it.

Being a cyborg isn’t about how many bits of silicon you have under your skin or how many prosthetics your body contains. It’s about Donna Haraway going to the gym, looking at a shelf of carbo-loaded bodybuilding foods, checking out the Nautilus machines, and realizing that she’s in a place that wouldn’t exist without the idea of the body as high-performance machine. It’s about athletic shoes. “On the other hand, if women (and men) aren’t natural but are constructed, like a cyborg, then, given the right tools, we can all be reconstructed.” I argue this is the crux of Haraway’s argument. If a posthuman can be made, designed like any common machine, than we can ultimately reject gender essentialism.

A Conductor of Acoustical Resonance

Left free to my own devices, I ruminated over which artist I would examine to understand dialogic meanings and music hybridization in contemporary culture. The first to come to mind was Moby, whose lush and rich textures seduce the listener with layer upon layer of dense auditory bliss. I also considered Radiohead, mostly because I think they’re the quintessential alternative rock band and the first “real” band many kids in my generation started listening to in college cleansing themselves completely of pop and radio friendly rock.


Instead, no other artist represents this notion of hybridity dialogic meanings better than Jack White. White is best known as the enigmatic leader of The White Stripes, formed in 1997 with then-wife Meg White (Handyside, n.d.), but also as the founding member of two following bands, The Raconteurs, formed in 2006, and The Dead Weather, formed in 2009. In addition, White has released his own music to much critical acclaim. The White Stripes were at the forefront of the lo-fi indy rock movement that began in the late 90s as a reaction to mainstream rock and the post-grunge scene that formed after the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley and the decline of Pearl Jam and the breakup of Soundgarden.

posterThe White Stripes not only looked different, a two piece band dressed in Meg’s signature peppermint coding scheme, but they sounded different. Melding garage rock and blues in a raw visceral way, the band rose to prominence with a string of hit records, including the cult-favorite De Stijl (2000), White Blood Cells (2001) and Elephant (2003). Of those early albums, AllMusic wrote, “Jack White’s voice is a singular, evocative combination of punk, metal, blues, and backwoods while his guitar work is grand and banging with just enough lyrical touches of slide and subtle solo work” (Handyside, (n.d.)a.). Later in the same article, the author Handyside bemoans, “All D.I.Y. punk-country-blues-metal singer/songwriting duos should sound this good” as he clearly had difficulty in describing the band’s unique sound. Even when the band broke up, they did it differently, no lead singer marching off to soar or fail as a solo star, no tabloid level brouhaha, just a quiet end to a remarkable run. “The White Stripes do not belong to Meg and Jack anymore. The White Stripes belong to you now and you can do with it whatever you want. The beauty of art and music is that it can last forever if people want it to. Thank you for sharing this experience. Your involvement will never be lost on us and we are truly grateful” (Greene, 20011)

jack_whiteWhile Jack White’s haunting guitar work made a name for himself, Rolling Stone ranked him No. 17 on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (Rolling Stone, 2013), it was a combination with the naiveté of Meg White’s drums that often made their work so distinct, (which he strongly defended (, 2010), and true to the lo-fi aesthetic. Jack could have probably played the drums for the Stripes as well he does for The Dead Weather, which had one critic raving “Perhaps it’s time for the hobby to become the day job” (Aizlewood, 2010).

Just as Janelle Monáe has her influences, one could say that Jack White has his “influence-ees.” White has collaborated with such music luminaries as Beck, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Alicia Keys, and even the legendary Bob Dylan. In 2004, White produced Loretta Lynn’s Grammy winning Van Lear Rose, and later in 2011, revived the career of the “Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson who enjoyed her first ever charting on the Billboard Hot 200 with The Party Ain’t Over after a near 60 year career in music. He even found time to produce a live comedy album for Conan O’Brien in 210.

Florida and Jackson (2010) investigated the economic geography of music, why certain places produced certain kinds of musics and what cultural and economic factors played a role in those creations. “Detroit has one of the most legendary rock music scenes around because of its status as the home of innovative and highly influential rock bands like The MC5 and The Stooges, as well as Motown, techno, and other musical styles—a robust pool of musical and business talent. White himself hails from Detroit and built the White Stripes’ sound and brand on that city’s musical legacy. The three other musicians in The Raconteurs are all originally from the Rustbelt— singer, guitarist, and songwriter Brendan Benson is White’s long-time associate from Detroit, while drummer Patrick Keeler and bass player Jack Lawrence are from a Cincinnati band, The Greenhornes. The question this article asks is: what factors and forces underpin this kind of relocation? Students of business location might say costs—perhaps Nashville offers a less expensive place to produce and distribute music” (Florida & Jackson, 2010, p. 310).

White left the confines of the Motor City for Nashville in 2005. Of the move, he said, “(Detroit) was so super-negative. It was draining me, I had to get somewhere where I could breathe again” (Associated Press, 2006). Florida and Jackson (2010) suggest “… the Detroit scene, which had fueled the emergence of the White Stripes signature stripped-down rock sound, had become too one-dimensional and constraining. It did not offer the broad range of sounds, genres, and mix of talent available to White in Nashville” (p. 319). The move did not predicate a complete overhaul of style or a complete country/bluegrass/folk buy-in. “The band dedicated an album to bluesman Blind Willie McTell and covered Son House’s classic “Death Letter” blues, but the two live in fear of having their authenticity evaluated. Says singer Jack White, “We’re white people who play the blues, and our problem was how do we do that and not be fake” (Filene, 2004, p.64).

It’s not just that White’s talent is so prodigious or prolific, with The White Stripes I witnessed him  individually play five different guitars, a piano, the mandolin, marimba, tambourine and a set of bongos. It is the fluidity of White as an artists to float seamlessly through disparate genres, styles, and sounds that will always stick with me. Just look at the first three tracks on 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan which starts with “Blue Orchid” whose unique sound is produced by playing a guitar into “a Digitech Whammy WH-4 with an octave-up setting, and an early Electro-Harmonix POG” (Rae, 2010). “The Nurse”, next, “combines marimba, lyrics evoking Dylan at his trippiest, and occasional bursts of drum wallop from Meg” (Walsh, 2005). The third track, “My Doorbell” was nominated for a Grammy, and can best be described as “a strutting piano soul number” (Murphy, 2005) and how it “marries the fizziest of pop melodies to a soulful ’60s Motown shuffle” (Walsh, 2005). Amazingly, that’s just the first three tracks.

In conclusion, White can best be described as a modern day Nikola Tesla, whom he mentions in the 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes. In chapter nine, “Jack Shows Meg his Tesla Coil,” while relating the importance of Tesla’s discoveries, Jack states “He perceived the Earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance” (Jarmush, 2005).

Since I couldn’t decide which to show, I put two of my favorite videos from “Blunderbuss” below. Enjoy.

Jack White – Freedom At 21

Jack White – Sixteen Saltines


Associated Press. Jack White leaves “super-negative.” (2006, May 25). USA Today. Retrieved from

Aizlewood, J. (2010, June 29). Jack White bangs the drum for mighty, meaty rock in Dead Weather. The Evening Standard. Retrieved from

Florida, R., & Jackson, S. (2010). Sonic city: The evolving economic geography of the music industry. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 29(3), 310-321.

Filene, B. (2004). O Brother, What Next?: Making Sense of the Folk Fad. Southern Cultures, 10(2), 50–69. doi:10.1353/scu.2004.0025

Greene, A. (2011, Feb 2). The White Stripes announce their break-up. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from

Handyside, C. (n.d.). The White Stripes: Biography. Retrieved from

Handyside, C. (n.d.)a. Review: The White Stripes. Retrieved from

Jarmush, J. (2005). Coffee and Cigarettes [DVD]. Espanya: Araba Films.

Jurgensen, J. (2011, Jan 21). The queen of rockabilly returns. The Wall Street Journal, D8.

Murphy, M. (2005, June 5). The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan. Pitchfork Media. Retrieved from

NME. (2010, March 18). Jack White defends Meg’s drumming skills. NME. Retrieved from

Rae, K. (2010). JACK WHITE of The White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather. The Big Muff π Page. Retrieved from

Rolling Stone. (2013, Dec 7). 100 greatest guitarists: Jack White. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from

Scaggs, A. 2008. Murder ballads and southern grooves: The Racon- teurs are back. Rolling Stone. June 12. http://www.rollingstone .com/news/story/20980717/

Walsh, B. (2005, June 11). The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan. Slant. Retrieved from

A Jedi Mind Trick

Like the collage artists of the Pop art movement, Janelle Monáe works with materiality, using found objects to create fascinating music remix not only other artists and their particular brand of sounds, but merging and distilling genres to create something unique, arguably more innovative than its source material.

DSC06895Having seen Monáe in-concert in October 2011 supporting her debut album, The ArchAndroid, it must be said that her live show is a revelation. She flew around stage with boundless energy, only gasping for breath and drowning herself in bottled water at the recess of each song. In a set that remixed much of the last 80 years of music, the woman was left physically drawn from such an exuberant performance. But what was fascinating most about Monáe’s concert was the seamless flow from a diverse musical palette with which she painted beautiful pictures. Among her sources of inspiration are legends such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Jimmy Hendrix; even elements from minstrel shows of the 1920s and singer-songwriters of the 1960s. Journalist Bernadette McNulty wrote, “I begin to worry for a moment that Monáe may not just be a humourless science-fiction nerd, but actually an android herself, created in a laboratory as a super-musical cross between James Brown, Judy Garland, André 3000 and Steve Jobs, invented to test the desperate incredulity of music journalists” (McNulty, 2010).

DSC06904McNulty was certainly not the only one to heap such high praise on Monáe, nor the only one to try and box Monáe into an easily digestible bite of genre. Slant Magazine’s Huw Jones penciled her in as “a unique gray area between neo-soul, funk, and art-rock” (Jones, 2010). Monáe remains too complex and too wide-ranging to be simply stamped categorically as one thing or another, or even a mixture of the two. Perhaps it’s because Monáe herself describes he own musical inspirations as so diverse they might never be seen in the same Grooveshark playlist or Pandora stream. Monáe describes The ArchAndroid’s influences as “all the things I love, scores for films like Goldfinger mixed with albums like Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust’, along with experimental hip hop stuff like Outkast’s Stankonia” (Lewis, 2010).

A number of authors have noted the ease at which music and parts of music pass via digital transfer. Whether it’s a hook from a 70s Disco track like “Ring My Bell” or just a bass track from Swizz Beats, the DSC06909circulation of samples and pieces of other musical influences circulate freely in the digital realm. Monáe’s “The ArchAndriod” uses this context as a license to play with influences and genre. Everything is game, and the entire catalog of music for the past 80 years serves as the source material, as if Monáe was writing from her own eclectic playlist. Her own references to time travel (NPR, 2010) emphasize the freedom she feels in playing with these influences, creating connections others might not see between musical genres. Replicating this approach in her timeless tuxedo, Monáe feels both like she could fit anywhere on the American music cultural timeline, and yet is distinctly of this era. Monáe’s work is made possible through this age of digital music remix. Listening to her album from start to finish feels like listening to an ipod on shuffle. While the tracks do blend together to form a cohesive whole, the mix of genres replicates this distinctly 21st century musical experience.

Critics love Janelle Monáe for all of these reasons. Not only is her work an homage to many of the musical greats of the last century, Monáe is also a lover of literature, specifically science fiction, and the intertextual nature of her work in echoing themes of Philip K. Dick and Octavia Butler. While her most recent album, The Electric Lady, made a quieter debut, she has also been a commercial success. Through more commercial pop hits like “Tightrope” and “Wonderland,” Monáe brings a remixed musical future to the mainstream.


Jones, H. (2010, Dec 8). Janelle Monáe (London, U.K. – December 5, 2010). Slant Magazine. Retrieved from

Lewis, P. (2010, July 12). Janelle Monae: Funky sensation. Blues & Soul. Retrieved from

McNulty, B. (2010, June 25). Janelle Monae interview: The android has landed. The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved from

NPR (2010, May 14). Janelle Monae: Dreaming in science fiction. NPR. Retrieved from


Voyeur to an Uncanny Valley

Our course discussions of the simulated has struck a mental note for me, and for this week’s writing, I could think of nothing but the uncanny valley, a concept most often associated with technology and robotics, but just as informative and interesting in any conversation about representation or imitation in photography. The Uncanny Valley was first termed by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970.

461px-Mori_Uncanny_ValleyOf Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) Mori wrote, “Climbing a mountain is an example of a function that does not increase continuously: a person’s altitude y does not always increase as the distance from the summit decreases owing to the intervening hills and valleys. I have noticed that, as robots appear more humanlike, our sense of their familiarity increases until we come to a valley. I call this relation the “uncanny valley” (Mori, 1970, p. 33). Freud wrote of a similar concept in 1919, Das Unheimliche, translated as “the opposite of what is familiar.” In Freud’s concept, it is the feeling where there is something familiar, yet completely foreign at the same time, resulting in an unnerving cognitive dissonance. The mind tries to rationalize this cognitive dissonance, but ultimately, it wholly rejects the object (rejection thus being far easier and more psychologically comforting than to rationalize). Man, I love those German thinkers.

Mori’s concept can be seen in film-making as in the images below.gremlinsWhether it’s robots, Mogwai, or digitally rendered dogs and flying bison, our minds rationalize these images within the realm of film, and possibly as supra-photogenic. Of 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, critic Dana Stevens warned, “With the possible exception of the title character, the animated cast of Tintin narrowly escapes entrapment in the so-called ‘uncanny valley” (Stevens, 2011). The motion capture and life-likeness of the animation proved too unnerving. Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired Magazine, was far more positive, suggesting “we have passed beyond the uncanny valley into the plains of hyperreality” (Kelly, 2012). In video games such as below, much the same is true. These digital images have achieved the hyperreality of the experience of playing games. The repulsion is non-existent for a collective of gamers who get to “be” the representative life-like image.facesBut what of photography? What of the images we consume in our print media and peruse through on internet sites? What does the digital nature of today’s photography mean for our cognitive in the uncanny valley? Does it alter the ritualized nature of our consumption?

Photoshopping has become accepted, where once it was as shameful and artificial as auto tuning in the creation of art, the practice of retouching photographs has become so engrained in the popular culture, it’s nothing but a mere afterthought. We used to assume that every model’s picture was photoshopped, now it’s as if we don’t care. In fact, we have video and memes when the digital is tasked for its retouching. Starlets routinely complain about the loss of authenticity in their glamour shots, arguing the poor message it send teen girls to the digital footprint it leave on the corporeal body. But what about those of us who live purely in the digital retouch?

Meet Kota Koti, aka Dakota Rose. kota

From varied reports on the internet, she’s a 18 yr old Floridian who promotes herself online as a “living doll.” One of the ways she does so is with photos, like the one above described as “uncanny valley X high fashion” (DRESSMEMUSIC, 2012), and through her YouTube make-up tutorials and fashion blogs, even earning a contract with a Japanese fashion house. She tweets these photos regularly to her near 97,000 followers, many of whom are Japanese anime fans like herself (Hollywood Reporter). Without getting into the “Is it healthy for young girls?” (Whitelocks, 2012) or the “Does she use Adobe AfterEffects?” (Demmi, 2012) debates, I’d much rather discuss the question of it’s perceptible authenticity. It doesn’t matter to me whether Kota Koti is or isn’t digitally enhanced. It’s that for all-intensive purposes, she’s fine with that, and so are thousands or her fans. But for me, she has very much achieved a sense of the uncanny valley. I cannot look at her eyes and their plastic glaze without a shiver of cognitive dissonance. Something is off, and my brain recognizes the askew. Interestingly, in her quest for the doll like, she has in a sense, surpassed it by entering the hyperreality of a “post-photoshop” existence. Is this the future of photography, or have we been here for quite sometime, and the collective cultural cognition is just now catching up?


Demmi. (2012, Mar. 23). “Kota Koti.” Underyourbreath. Retrieved from

DRESSMEMUSIC. (2012, Apr. 15). “Enter the Uncanny Valley”. Dress Me. Retrieved from

Hollywood Reporter. “Teen Girls’ Provocative YouTube Beauty Videos a Growing Concern”. Fashion. Retrieved from

Kelly, K. (2012, Jan. 2). “Beyond the Uncanny Valley”. The Technium. Retrieved from

Mori, M. (1970). The uncanny valley. Energy, 7(4), 33-35.

Stevens, D. (2011, Dec. 21). “Tintin, So So”. Slate. Retrieved from

Whitelocks, S. (2012, Mar. 29). “Meet the real-life Barbies: Internet craze sees teenagers turn themselves into freakish living dolls”. Daily Mail. Retrieved from

A Luxurious Visual Experience

It can be argued that no other street artist speaks to vagaries of modern consumeristic life than artist Ron English. A most telling quote from him can be found during an interview in the very successful documentary Supersize Me. “The way I look at it is like, Cezanne was inspired by the mountain he saw out his window, and when I look out my window, I see no mountains I just see billboards and advertisements, so I use that as my inspiration” (Spurlock, 2004).

englishFor English, the monolithic paean to consumerism, the ubiquitous billboard filled with images urging urbanites to become just another cog in the capitalist system, has become his muse. Subverting and skewering the semiotic of modern advertising which dominates the metropolitan skyline has become his life’s work.

Most interestingly, in the interview above, English claims not Warhol and others in the pop art movement as inspiration, but the frenetic work of Pollock and De Kooning. He wants his art to be seen as the whole picture, something missing from much of street art, which seems to wish the to be considered as part and parcel to the place and time it is placed in. For English, his work needs no interpretation. Its symbolism is clear, and the semiotics are rendered somewhat unnecessary.

Take for example his famous piece Abraham Obama. “According to English, the Obama campaign wanted “street artists,” such as himself, to create supportive posters, particularly aimed at young voters, and the artist made sure to put his work up legally” (Seidman, p. 14). I sincerely doubt English would have been all that doubled by the legality, for him, his art often “acts out against society” saying “Legally, I don’t have a right to do this, but as a proponent of free speech, I have an obligation to do this” (Carvajal, 2006). As for the image to the right,  English’s piece is a remarkable remix of the 14th President with candidate Obama in 2008. “To associate a candidate with great former presidents has been a common approach that American poster designers have employed, but Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt had always been seen in the background. English’s creation was a unique exception to the rule” (p. 14). Not only the association of both Lincoln and Obama as representing Illinois ( and Obama’s oft repeated refrain that Lincoln was his favorite president), but clearly Obama’s position as the first black president connects to the issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation.

adsSome authors claim issue of interest with English is his relation to the internet, as his art is quite prolific, available, and recognizable. His use of the “corporate persona” as artistic subject fights back against a culture inundated with these identities, often by utilizing the very same means, methods, and subjects the consumerati uses. The World Wide Web (the Web) gives members of the digitally connected public new capacities to evade their subject positions as mere consumers of corporate imagery by providing technological means and social and cultural conditions for consumers to take the commodity signs of mass culture and transform these into popular culture and to create a popular legal culture in the process. By mass culture we mean mass-produced texts, images, and sounds— cultural artifacts circulated to a mass of consumers by centrally controlled media industries. Such a culture is unidirectional, or in Bakhtinian terms, monologic—it speaks from a singular place with a singular voice—and it does not let you talk back, or if you do, your voice is unlikely to be widely heard. You might strategically alter billboards with graffiti, as Ron English, the Guerrilla Girls, and the Billboard Liberation Front do” (Coombe & Herman, p. 920-1).

English is emblematic of a new kind of cultural democracy one which is reactive to the message sent by corporations trying to sell the masses its wares. Ohmann (2000) frames this discussion in Baudrillardian terms, noting the unrealness of corporate billboards are impossible to discern from the real, as they are encoded with the “orchestration rituals of the media” (Baudrillard, p. 21). “Billboards are prime examples of this hyperreality that is created by simulations. By specifically hijacking billboards and presenting a new idea in the fashion of the simulated one, English successfully combats the hyperreal by subverting its illusion-making process. In one of his more successful campaigns, English went after the “supersizing” at McDonald’s. The reality is that humans only need so much food in order to survive, but McDonald’s has convinced the American public that super-sizing is better and cheaper. Culturally, Americans believe that bigger is better, but English actively worked to bring a different awareness by creating an obese Ronald McDonald. In order to confront the hyperreal successfully, the text must include an image, making street culture jamming a very unique form of narrative” (Ohmann 2000, p. 94).

It is this confrontation that English’s work is most important for, especially concerning cultural democracy, which needs to be heard or seen in order to participate the realm of ideas made possible via this free exchange of ideas. As he says in discussing his mural on the United States-Mexico border wall just outside the small town of Penitas, Texas, “The thing about a wall is that people tend to see only one side of it, the side they are on. And for those with enough distance from the wall, it’s all together out of of mind… So how do you bring a wall that’s far enough away to ignore, close enough to see both sides? For me, the answer is simple. Paint it. Make it easier to see” (Parry, 2010).



Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan Press.

Carvajal, P. (Director). (2006). POPaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English [Motion picture]. United States: Cinema Libre Studio.

Coombe, R. J., & Herman, A. (2001). Culture wars on the net: Intellectual property and corporate propriety in digital environments. South Atlantic Quarterly, 100(4), 919-947.

English, R. (2008). Popaganda: The art and crimes of Ron English. Retrieved from

Ohmann, R. (2000). The function of English at the present time. Falling into Theory.  Richter, D., ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 89-95.

Parry, W. (2010). Against the wall: The art of resistance in Palestine. London: Lawrence Hill Books.

Seidman, S. A. (2010). Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the US presidency and visual design. Journal of Visual Literacy, 29.

Spurlock, M. (Director). (2004). Super size me [Motion picture]. United States: Kathbur Pictures.

A “Celebration” in Versailles

Jeff Koons presents a large conundrum to the art world. Here is an artist that has made millions from his work; in November of last year, his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie’s $58.4 million, a record-breaking sum for a living artist sold at auction. Koons produced a series of Balloon Dogs and the orange version was among the first of these to be fabricated.


In addition to these sculptures, Koons commercial success puts his work in rarified air. In 2011, “91% of Koons’s works on auction were sold, with an average sale price of $1.6 million”; in 2013, ” 78% of Koons’s works offered were sold” (Lane, 2004), all part of trend where the demand for Koons’ work weathered the financial crisis of the last decade quite well. The conundrum of Koons is in his position within the art world, where for many, he remains a divisive figure straddling the paper-thin border between pioneer and self-aggrandizer. Some of his stronger critics have dismissed his work as “crass” and “kitsch” (Galenson, 2006). Kimmelman (1991) criticized an exhibition of Koons in SoHo with “Just when it looked as if the 80’s were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade” Famed critic Peter Schjeldahl went so far as to write, “Jeff Koons makes me sick. He may be the definitive artist of this moment, and that makes me sickest” (Schjeldahl, 1988, p. 81).

But others like Danto (2004) argue for a less vitriolic response, noting “It is widely acknowledged that Jeff Koons is among the most important artists of the last decades of the twentieth century” (p. 27). Were art critics polled for their opinion regarding Koons, “we would encounter a fair amount of resistance to the idea that Koons is anything more than a clever opportunist who has pulled the wool over the rest of the Art World’s eyes” (Danto, 2005, p. 286-287). Danto acknowledges the acrimony towards Koons, but argues this contempt held toward him justifies his preeminence, “That by itself would be evidence of his importance” (p. 287).

Nowhere is Koons’ importance more evident than within the well-known series of Balloon Dogs discussed at the beginning of this post.

Often labeled as Post-Pop, Koons emulates Warhol’s extensive use of the materiality of pop culture, specifically in art that imitates commercial mass production, but takes the notions of materiality, consumerism, and what’s discarded to further degrees. Where Warhol used soup cans and boxed soap, Koons does giant balloon animals.


The most celebrated series is aptly called “Celebration”. These large-scale sculptures and paintings of balloon dogs, Valentine hearts and Easter eggs were conceived in 1994, but some are still being fabricated. Each of the 19 different sculptures in the series comes in five differently coloured “unique versions”. The most coveted have luminous, reflective surfaces. “The ‘Celebration’ series made Koons the number one contemporary artist and pulled up the value of the rest of his work,” says Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of contemporary art at Sotheby’s Europe. (Thornton, 2009)

Remarkably, Koons claims his work has no subtext. “A viewer might at first see irony in my work, but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation” (Koons & Rosenblum, 1992, p. 82). He presents his cultural refuse without interpretation, and what could be more disposable than balloon dogs? By their very nature, balloon dogs are disposable art, made by clowns and magicians for the enjoyment of children meant to attract their attention for a few minutes only to eke air slowly to die on a bedroom floor days later, or an shattering explosive death by popping soon after their fabrication. Koons’ dogs are quite the opposite, large, durable, but just as garish. Perhaps that’s the meaning in the materiality, begging the question, what if the materiality of these temporary items achieved permanence? 

Art is not without the notion of place in its materiality. Just as temporal considerations conditions the available material and methods, adding the space where the art is consumed is integral to its meaning. Amongst a number of small protests, a number of pieces from the Celebration series including Balloon Dog were on display in the Palace at Versailles.

Seeing Koons’ work placed in such a monumental site is intriguing. The enormous catalogue of the exhibition is, aside from the ability to transport oneself back to the latter months of 2008, the closest one can come to fully experiencing the impact of Koons’ work at Versailles. The catalogue is full of wonderfully clear images of the sculptures in situ. The images are undoubtedly seductive; the ornate ceiling decoration and elaborate textures of the palace tapestries are mirrored in the reflective surfaces of Koons’ Balloon Dog, placed in the Hercules Salon, and Hanging Heart (Red/Gold) in the alcove of the Staircase of the Queen. (Rychen, 2011, p. 2)

Rychen (2011) for her part, acknowledges the paradox of seeing Post Pop Art in such a setting as she refutes the hand-wringing of Christopher Mooney in his review of the exhibition for Art Review (referring to it as “viral and virile” and “abominable whimsy”) while another review in French weekly Valeurs Actuelles bemoans the loss of a perception for the millions of visitors experiencing Versailles for that “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

What happens to their perception of Versailles if the one time they see it is with a large hanging lobster in the Mars Salon and an enormous pink balloon dog in the Hercules Salon? Does the existence of Koons’ art destroy the authentic experience that the visitors are expecting and possibly deserve? The article claims that the Koons exhibition is the result of an agenda that does not consider Versailles’ main audience. (Rychen, 2011, p. 8)

In this way, we begin to understand the meaning of Koons pretense that he has no hidden message. Is there any place more opulent than Versailles, and is there any better way to assuage the viewer such pretentiousness than with a giant balloon dog with its reflective metal skin?




Danto, A. C. (2004). Kalliphobia in contemporary art. Art Journal, 25-35.

Danto, A. C. (2005). Unnatural wonders: essays from the gap between art and life. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Galenson, D. (2006). “You Cannot be Serious: the conceptual innovator as trickster”, National Bureau of Economic Research.

Kazakina, K. & Boroff, P. (2013, Nov. 1). Koons’s Puppy Sets $58 Million Record for Living Artist.Bloomberg.

Kimmelman, M. (1991, Nov. 29). “Jeff Koons”, The New York Times. Retrieved from

Koons, J., & Rosenblum, R. (1992). The Jeff Koons Handbook. Thames and Hudson.

Lane, M. (2014, Feb 14). Christie’s, Sotheby’s Post Robust Sales. MarketWatch: The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Mooney, C. (2008). “Jeff Koons,” Art Review, no. 28.

Rychen, J. (2011). Abundance and Banality: Jeff Koons at the Palace of Versailles. Shift, Graduate Journal of Material and Visual Culture4, 1-11.

Schjeldahl, P. (1990). The “7 Days” Art Columns, 1988-1990. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures.

Thornton, S. (2009, Nov. 26). “Inflatable investments – The volatile art of Jeff Koons”, The Economist. Retrieved from:

Vogel, C. (2013, Nov. 12). At $142.4 Million, Triptych Is the Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold at an Auction. New York Times.


Pop Goes Paolozzi

As discussed in a previous post, intertextuality is a theory which is often used to describe the ways texts relate to and reference other distinct texts. Of course the theory of intertextuality would lend itself to art, as pieces are of art are simply organized pieces of separate texts. Perhaps no better era of modern art best exemplified the notions of hybridity and intertextuality than the pop art movement begun in the late 1950s.

The pop art movement can be simply described as a challenge to long held conventions of classical fine art; traditions kept sacrosanct for nearly a millennia. Pop is essential postmodernism, utilizing texts from mass culture, often incorporating found items, and subverting the materials original employment to make comment on the elitist nature of the art world, or of the culture at large. The use of materiality is most interesting in the critique so often rendered in such pieces, criticizing the commercial consumerist nature of Western culture by using throw-away items from said culture, everything from comic books to tin cans were used to make such commentary.

One of the most influential of the artists of this period was Scotsman Eduardo Paolozzi, and as the focus of this post, three of his more iconic collages will be discussed. Paolozzi was an earlier forerunner of the postmodern art movement, and a prominent surrealist who worked in a wide variety of mediums including screen printing, found object, ceramics, and perhaps best known for his intricate sculptures. Writes Toiani (2000), “Impressed by the Surrealists experimentation with ‘readymade metaphors’ using objet trouve or found objects, Paolozzi used images found in American magazines to create his collages” (p. 3). Paolozzi became well known as a founder of the Independent Group (IG) in 1952, whose members included such luminaries as artist Richard Hamilton, sculptor William Turnbull, photographer Nigel Henderson, architects Alison and Peter Smithson, and critic Lawrence Alloway. It was here where he first exhibited what can be argued a seminal piece of pop art canon, I was a Rich Man’s Plaything (1947).

Messages Image(1415682102)

“Eduardo Paolozzi presented to this assembly a chaotic collection of clippings and collages that he called Bunk!, which involved a number of theoretical proposals, among them that the hierarchy between high art and popular culture-industrial design” (Myers, 2000, p. 65).

I was a Rich Man’s Plaything was composed of images mostly from a number of magazines given to Paolozzi from American ex-servicemen. (Tate, 2012), and that the use of such “advertising images from American magazines was formative and fed into a general collaborative interest in such material” (Stonard, 2007, p. 609). Amongst the artists affiliated with the IG tear sheets of advertising images were readily available in homes and studios and frequently shared.

Myers (2000) writes that two conventions regarding the collage are incorrect “illustration in pulp magazines-was a false one” and “collection and curation were a species of art practice,” noting “the first two have been the governing assumptions of much art since, though they were clearly charged and polemic claims in the early 1950s” (p. 65). Instead he argues, it is “that erotics and irrationality inhabited even the most innocuous of mass-cultural representations” (p. 65) that merits further investigation.

“The collage traffics in a hokey, lowbrow polysemy-pop gun, poppa, popping cherries, soda-pop, not to mention popular. These words are made into a handful of caricatures in the collage: the bottle of Coca-Cola, the gun, the ‘rich man.’ This polysemy, nonsensical except in its repetition-pop, pop, pop-extends to a series of formal rhymes between red-brown circles: from the stained red badge of the Coca-Cola advertisement, to the Real Gold fruit juice insignia, to the bulging fetish cherry near the center of the collage, to the round curves of the woman’s posterior, breast, and thigh. Each hums with a fetishistic appeal, the appeal of the ‘idealized’ feminine form on the left, and the appeal of the constellation of commodities on the right” (Myers, 2000, p.70).

While some credit the imagery to Paolozzi’s fascination with “the glamour of American consumerism” (Tate, 2012), it should be argued that ultimately, Bunk! and its series of collages speak to viewer of Paolozzi’s understanding that his work not only found value and reflection of the current reality, but that it acted as a critique in a response to the very contemporary culture which created it. In a very literal sense, Paolozzi ensured that his art was understood as a product of his environment. To do so, Paolozzi stuck new ground in using the found objects of pop culture in collage. “The projection of a heterogeneity of messages generated from SF magazine covers, car ads, animated film clips, and military images appears to have had a bewildering impact. No one had taken mass media imagery that seriously before” (Robbins, 1990, p. 94).

Messages Image(1652606009)He also expressed a desire to exhibit these objet trouve as the artist and the viewer’s bodies, in other words, the body as commodity. No better example of this in Paolozzi’s oeuvre than Evadne in Green Dimension (1972) “explicitly stamped with ‘male’ power: its diagram of an erect phallus, superimposed with the curves of a glamour girl, graphically embodies the association between possession of goods and of women” (Spencer, 2012, p. 332). Paolozzi used the male body to criticize a mass media, dependent on “overt construction of gendered stereotypes in order to sell goods.” Spencer deftly dissects the Bunk! critique which presents the male subject – the American strong man Charles Atlas, his modesty preserved by a leopard-print loincloth – as defined in relation to objects offered up for literal and metaphoric consumption. The glistening slice of strawberry pie, the car and the glamour girl establish a set of coordinates for male identity, constituting an anthropological study of stereotypically masculine self-construction in capitalist society. At the same time, the image insinuates that the mass media can itself be navigated anthropologically, as a set of signs and symbols to be understood and arranged to achieve a specific cultural construct, predicated in this instance on the pursuit of social mobility and sexual conquest” (p. 332).

Ultimately, pop art owes its existence to this materiality, which fed the collective worldview of the IG who were “united in their conviction that multiple visual phenomena demanded the same degree of scrutiny awarded to ‘high’ art” (Spencer 2012, p. 316).


Myers, J. (2000). The future as fetish. October, 94, 63-88.

Livingstone, M., Pop Art: A Continuing History, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990

Paolozzi, E. (1947). I was a rich man’s plaything. Tate. Retrieved from

Paolozzi, E. (1972). Evadne in Green Dimension. Tate. Retrieved from

Robbins, D. (ed.) 1990, The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, M.I.T Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Spencer, C. (2012).  The Independent Group’s ‘Anthropology of Ourselves’. Art history. ,  35 (2), p. 314-335.

Stonard, J. P. (2007). Pop in the Age of Boom: Richard Hamilton’s’ Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?’. The Burlington Magazine, 607-620.

Troiani, I. (2000). There’s nothing Wrong with being “Ordinary”: Beauty in the architectural campaigns of the Smithsons and Venturi, Scott Brown. In Habitus conference proceedings, Perth.

Whose Sad Keanu Is It Anyway?

Digital memes transcend time and space, as each meme carries a multitude of meanings, timestamps, and geo-locations. Every time a meme is consumed, each one lies “pregnant with all past and future specifications” (Barthes, 1957, p. 58). Authorship is lost in part due to the fact that for every successful meme, thousands more fail in other iterations. By constantly jockeying for position as the most successful variation, these memes partake in a survival of the fittest, ensuring its own survival chiefly through connecting to people on more than simply a cultural level, resulting in an easily digestible image or macro to be consumed by as many people as possible.

It is this discussion of authorship that enters a Baudrillard-ian sense of hyperreality, the author reasserts ownership of digital images that are experienced in ways and places far different from the original ontology. That is to say, that despite assertion of provinciality, the very nature of the digital meme fundamentally breaks apart the limited interpretations considered by the author.

Witness the example of Sad Keanu. In 2010, the image below (Asadorian, 2010) was posted by redditor rockon4life underscored with “I really enjoy acting…Because when I act, I’m no longer me.” The thread entitled “Keanu. More sadness in comments” was moved to the website’s frontpage, quickly exploded to over 281,000 page views (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010).


The “paparazzi shot of a seemingly dejected-looking Keanu Reeves” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2012, p. 51-2) is most interesting for the purposes of this post not for its memetic qualities of spread, growth and recognition, but for its contested authorship. Shortly after the image gained traction on Reddit, a number of pop culture sites including Urlesque, BuzzFeed, and TheDailyWhat covered Sad Keanu as the next big meme. (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010). For much of the resulting month, photoshopped images of Sad Keanu in other contexts flowed across social media including its own Tumbler, It was this repository of Sad Keanu images that received a Digital Media Copyright Agreement (DMCA) “takedown notice.” Splash News, a celebrity and entertainment news outlet online, claimed ownership of the images, and demanded any site showing the images immediately remove them from those servers.

According to Dan, a blogger on SadKeanu, over 270 posts were to be taken down despite their contention “that it can fall under ‘fair use’,” but that “both myself and my partner don’t have any time or resources to fight it” (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010). This stems from the misapplications and misconceptions of fair use and DMCA as much as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” and essentially, “don’t care,” nature of today’s memetic and remix culture. Roth and Flegel (2013) note this incongruence, “When fans with little or no legal expertise invoke and interpret copyright, they reveal that copyright does not attend to the complex realities of creative production, nor the very active consumption, engagement with, and re-articulation of cultural artefacts and texts in society to effectively police at the grassroots level” (p. 216-17). Copyright has not kept pace with the advance of of technology nor the speed at which images and memes are transmitted, and has ultimately lost the “hearts and minds” of users in its war on transgressors of fair use. Lankshear and Knobel argue the manipulation of digital imagery is part of the new literacies. “Provided with a proper toolkit of digital affordances that even a person who lacked artistic talent could “create a collage of images and text to contribute to a popular online meme, such as the Sad Keanu meme” (p. 51).

Keanu-1In addition, in using these affordances, multiple hyperrealities are created, as meaning is added and subverted to be experienced by viewers in vastly different ways. A viewer experienced with The Simpsons will interpret the inclusion of Sad Keanu in a markedly distinct way as compared to someone unfamiliar with the Simpsons or Keanu Reeves for that matter. At the moment of experience, the application of the various cultural values at work are transformed into a new hyperreality.

It should be understood that Splash News suffered no direct damage here; they weren’t impugned or denigrated by the Sad Keanu macros and remixes, although in some cases, some rights holders use copyright as suppression beyond commercial purposes. As Goldman (2012) points out, takedown orders unnecessarily “provide(s) a protocol for folks trying to suppress truthful negative information–acquire the copyrights to the content containing the unwanted information, and then use the newly created threat of copyright infringement to force that information off the Internet” and that this protocol is much easier to enforce given “visual/aural content than purely textual content because (a) people need to see/hear some things with their own eyes/ears, and (b) it’s much easier for others to extract and repeat textual information without running afoul of copyrights” (Goldman, 2012).

Individual users simply making a macro for a snide reply to a friend, or even in the subversion of the image for political commentary should not expect cease and desist letters marking them as delinquents. The genie is out of the bottle, and the efforts of Splash News to stuff it back into a container so limiting and unavailable to those with affordances described above only serve to harden resolve against copyright. What could be seen as a benefit to these burgeoning artists simply remains as a boon upon their shoulders, weighing down their creativity and limiting any chance of creating and subverting meaning through digital remix.


Asadorian, R. (2010). Sad Keanu. Image. People. Retrieved from,,20442843_20446944_20883614,00.html

Barthes, R. (1977), On the death of the author: Image, Music, Text: Essays, Second Edition, HarperCollins UK

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press

Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Goldman, E. (2012, May 14). The dangerous meme that won’t go away: Using copyright assignments to suppress unwanted content—Scott v. WorldStarHipHop. Eric Goldman Tech. & L. Blog.  Retrieved from

Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu. (2010). Know Your Meme. Retrieved from

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2012). ‘New’literacies: technologies and values. Teknokultura. Revista de Cultura Digital y Movimientos Sociales, 9(1), 45-71.

Roth, J., & Flegel, M. (2013). ‘I’m not a lawyer but…’: Fan disclaimers and claims against copyright law. The Journal of Fandom Studies, 1(2), 201-218.