HA HA AWESOME THIS IS TERRIBLE: My Essay on the Kuso Aesthetic, Plus Exciting Bonus Material
September 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
A few months ago, I wrote an article about fan engagement with so-bad-it’s-good media content. I focused specifically on Troll 2, which is the greatest terrible movie ever made (and is the inspiration for countless tribute videos). Open-access media studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures just published the piece, the full text of which is available here. Here’s a portion of my conclusion:
[4.2] Although proponents of the “so bad it’s good” aesthetic may appear to subvert the hegemonic meaning of a particular text by imposing some new or wholly unintended meaning (Hall  1980)—for example, by laughing at a statement or scene not intended to be comical—they adhere to larger and more pervasive cultural conventions that must remain intact for the subversion to function. In the case of Troll 2, these conventions have to do with the “correct” way to write, produce, cast, edit, and perform in a film. Troll 2‘s scathing critical reviews echo this point, particularly James Kendrick’s (2010) insistence that the film commits “infinite and varied sins against the traits of good cinema.” A person who does not accept these conventions—which ultimately are arbitrary; they could be otherwise, but they are taken to be natural and necessary—would have no reason to laugh at the glorious failure that is Troll 2. There would be nothing to laugh at.
[4.3] Of course, only those who have fully internalized the rules (about filmmaking, about television production, about video game design, about anything else to which these sorts of conventions may be affixed) will be invested in the degree to which they are followed. Not everyone has the access to the requisite materials, education, or time to pursue these types of leisure interests, nor the inclination to care one way or another. In this way, giddy engagement with “so bad it’s good” content is as much an indication of privilege, my own privilege as a white middle-class American academic very much included, as it is an expression of a particular comedic aesthetic. In fact, I would argue that in this case, privilege and kuso are one and the same. You can’t have the latter without a certain degree of the former—a point that brings into sudden political focus the overwhelming whiteness of the fan audiences profiled in Best Worst Movie.
In a later iteration of the project, I ended up connecting kuso stuff to discussions of the New Aesthetic. That exclusive bonus section is after the jump!
The impulse to seek out and embrace the things that fail, that are odd, that are “so bad they’re good,” particularly in the context of digital culture, provides insight into emerging conversations about the New Aesthetic. Conversely, the New Aesthetic provides insight into fandoms surrounding this same content.
First, a bit of background on the New Aesthetic. A coinage often attributed to artist/futurist James Bridle, the New Aesthetic investigates what Bridle deems “technology-enabled novelty in the world,” and provides a framework for describing the impact digital technologies have had, and will continue to have, on creative expression. The New Aesthetic is said to subsume all art (and perhaps makes art out of all cultural artifacts) that cannot be separated from the technologies that created them, in the process “turning everything new, everything digital, even the past,” as Mike Rugnetta at PBS’ Idea Channel explains.
These artifacts— which include everything from satellite imagery to 8-bit graphics to glitch art to digital image processing to Tupac Shakur’s hologram—essentially “wave” at the machines in question (machines which, as Matthew Battles of Harvard’s Metalab notes, may just be waving back), thus calling attention to what art critic JJ Charlesworth describes as the “rapidly developing feedback loop between the new digital technologies and their users, in ways that increasingly interfere with the physical world.”
Due to the unwieldiness of the term (which critics frame as a fatal flaw and proponents frame as infinite, rhizomatic, crowdsourced possibility), consensus on the New Aesthetic—what it means, where to find it, if it even exists—has yet to be reached. Science fiction and technology writer Bruce Sterling, for example, has taken issue with the claim that the New Aesthetic and the artifacts therein are just that, wholly novel, resists the idea that the artifacts (said to be) subsumed by the term are any more coherent than a “heap of eye-catching curiosities,” and outright rejects the claim that machines are capable of waving back at the humans who use them, at least in the ways that New Aestheticists suggest.
I am similarly wary of the impulse to frame cutting-edge technologies or representations thereof as wholly “new.” Even if a content creator is blindly collating what he or she thinks are empty bits of digital content—what would be described by many is pure, meaningless pastiche—these references are inherently citational. Take, for example, the checkered background in the “Diamonds” clip (around the 1:45 mark, though the whole video features New Aesthetic imagery).
At first glance, the pattern –white and gray checkered boxes– might not seem particularly significant. Just an aesthetic choice offsetting the rest of the seapunk weirdness. It is that, but white and gray checkered boxes is also the pattern one sees in Photoshop when one is working with an image without a background; it indicates that that space is meant to be transparent, a function with a specific purpose and history, and which was created under a particular system of social and economic relations. Whether or not anyone in the audience caught this reference, whether or not anyone is interested in its various and uneven technological precedents, the trace of its history remains. After all nothing, least of all digital tools, just appear. And more importantly, just because a person doesn’t recognize a reference doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Furthermore, and ironically, the impulse to sever New Aesthetic content from history risks gutting its considerable explanatory power, particularly when trying to understand the popularity and pervasiveness of online content that is celebrated for being “so bad it’s good.”
Consider the misadventures of homicidal sex monster “dolan duck” and his friends “gooby” and “pruto,” all poorly drawn and even more poorly narrated versions of iconic Disney characters (NSFW Know Your Meme entry here). These images and videos don’t just wave at technologies (to borrow Matthew Battles’ framing), they flip them off and laugh manically—a response predicated on, and perhaps even necessitated by, the creator’s (and audience’s) technological and cultural literacies. Some examples:
And here’s a clip featuring precisely the sort of animation associated with the New Aesthetic:
The appeal of Uncle Dolan and company is, in part, the subject matter, which can only be described as a grotesque re-appropriation of childhood iconography. Its popularity is also a function of the tools used to create this content, namely MS paint, garbled voice-to-text and inefficient animation software. By 2013 standards, these are “bad” tools, and are used just as badly, so badly that technological weakness becomes comedic strength. Audiences for these comics—and it is a large audience, by all indications white, male and technologically literate—are therefore engaging with the series at both an aesthetic and technological level.
In the case of Dolan comics, then, technology is aesthetics, and aesthetics is technology. One must be literate in both in order to know a) that the comics are meant to funny and b) precisely why they are funny—a response predicated on one’s experience with and understanding of not just the original cultural texts (Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto) but also, and just as importantly, the technologies in question, including all the subsequent advancements in photo editing, digital animation, and voice to text software that have helped render earlier tools outdated, inferior, and therefore funny to the intended— and technologically savvy—audience.
One could conduct a similar reading of additional New Aesthetic content (or if you prefer, content said to be subsumed by the New Aesthetic), particularly content that is celebrated for showcasing a winking sort of nostalgia—most notably 8-bit imagery, or anything framed as being “so dated it’s funny”—arguably the New Aesthetic equivalent of the giddy declaration that something is “so bad it’s good.” In either case, appreciation stems from literacy, and literacy can only be accomplished by and through educational and technological access—in other words, privilege. Consequently, the New Aesthetic generally and kuso online content in particular is unlikely to appeal to anyone outside the dominant group. No one else has any reason to care, and therefore any reason to laugh.
To summarize (for full effect, hit play on the above): because one must know what is good in order to know what qualifies as bad, because an appreciation of failure is predicated on a basic understanding of success (the terms “failure” and “success” can easily be replaced with “ugliness” and “beauty,” “frivolity” and “serious,” “kitsch” and “art”), content that breaks the rules, and more importantly, the audiences who celebrate this rule-breaking, implicitly point to the standards against which cultural output at a specific moment in history is measured—echoing Mary Douglas’ claim in Purity and Danger that the concept of “dirty” (in the context of cultural taboo) can only exist in relationship to an existing concept of cleanliness (1966). Show me what you think is bad, in other words, especially what you think is so bad it’s funny, and I’ll tell you what kinds of rules you’ve internalized—a point that is as applicable to cult movies as it is to seemingly nonsensical online content.