The entire history of human expression, slightly abridged
It’s entirely possible that an effort to unify viral videos through an aesthetic sensibility is quixotic, wrong-headed, and/or poorly considered. It might be any or all of those things. Even if it’s not any of them, it still demands the same requirements that the articulation of any sensibility requires, an analysis of which is still “one of the hardest things to talk about” (Sontag 1). The challenge is different than Sontag’s for any number of reasons, including the way in which camp was something less than an open secret in 1964 when Sontag’s essay was published in the Partisan Review. Talking about why memes are memes—why viral videos go viral—is daunting because too much has been said, written, and vlogged about it, and not because not enough has been written on it.
A note on purpose, here: The goal here is not to define for now and all time the rules of meme aesthetics. I don’t claim expertise in this area; I also think expertise in this area (however you, reader, choose to define that, as a scholar, critic, or professional) necessarily precludes one from being able to assess accurately or, at least, somewhat objectively, how these things work. A hammer sees nails. Similarly, specialists will tend to see a topic as vague, prevalent, powerful, and hydra-headed as meme aesthetics as, naturally, being defined in terms native to their vocation. What the field needs is more citizen opinions; I offer mine here.
But it seems to me that the aesthetic that encompasses Numa Numa, Webcam 101 for Seniors, Miss Teen USA 2007-South Carolina answers a question, and Gangnam Style—described obliquely, gestured toward, and it seems in some fundamental ways to be related to camp as defined by Sontag. First, it seems related to innocence and naïveté. In Numa Numa and Webcam 101 for Seniors, that is the most powerful draw, probably, the innocence of the part of the artifact creators. These people don’t know what they are making (in Webcam 101 for Seniors, they literally have no idea that the camera is even on) in the sense that the performances are earnestly, even unwittingly made. Even Gangnam Style was intended to be function within the dialogue of K-Pop (intended, I assume, for native Korean speakers and members of the Korean diaspora). Even Psy must have been surprised, somewhat, when the video became the most-watched video on Youtube, unseating Justin Beiber, whose public persona and music has been constructed with exactly this kind of trans-media domination in mind. The point isn’t that these aren’t performances; the point is that the performers don’t know exactly what is inside these performances, and that even the slightest glimpse of self-ignorance provides a shock of novelty for the audience.
There are two big differences between camp as it’s described by Sontag and later re-defined (kind of) by Douglas Wolk and the kind of aesthetic that we are talking about here. The first is that Low Camp (defined in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening) wields at least as much cultural power as High Camp (sorry for the capitalization oddities; I’m using Wolk as a guide here and not Sontag). Numa Numa is Low Camp; low production value, a focus on personal identity and expression and not on baroque hairdos and lavish sets (Gangnam Style and South Carolina don’t fit into this definition, of course, but I am arguing that these two modes have equal power, that that shift is new, or at least as new as the Internet).
This change is related, I think, to the switch from a Read culture to a Read/Write culture. High Camp wields more power, comparatively, when we are all digesting culture written by ten thousand (or however many) culture makers. When everyone is a culture maker, the value of production drops (right?). People are looking for whatever they are looking for; humor, identity, STORY. They’re not trying to choose between Will and Grace and Friends (not that either of those is camp, try as W&G might).
The second shift is that this aesthetic of the meme does not stop at “sweet cynicism” (Sontag 13). The differentiation that Sontag draws between “sweet” and “ruthless” cynicism is, by the way, a moral one. I believe that Sontag is defining her tribe and those who are not in her tribe; celebrating schadenfreude is not camp, so take it somewhere else.
But this impulse—to revel a bit in human misery, or at the very least to find yourself willing to laugh in the face of someone else’s very real suffering—is a part of the meme. Best Cry Ever, for example, or the iPod jokes that sprung up in the wake of Mitchell Henderson’s suicide (described on this amazing episode of On the Media). This is part of the meme, and his has nothing to do with camp as defined by Sontag and (again, sort of redefined) by Wolk. And it’s related. From the shore of these shores we can spot South Carolina saying “such as” over and over, unaware of how many people will laugh at her unfortunate answer. No one was actually hurt; the clip isn’t shown at end or at the beginning of some devastating episode in someone’s life. Watching women argue on Flavor of Love isn’t the same as watching someone eating a lightbulb on Celebrity Rehab; I’m not even sure I’m comfortable claiming that watching one makes watching the other easier or more attractive. But the impulses to watch—and re-watch—and share—videos of both are related.
I suspect that this kind of aesthetic sensibility was present in 1964, also, but that Sontag chose to define the term—her term, we might say—in a way that excluded this more ruthless cynicism. Now, in the Youtube search box, we each get to define our aesthetic terms however we wish to, repeatedly.