For the past six months or so, I have been working (on and off) on my Master’s dissertation on the political dimension and potentials of fan-made music videos. What this basically means is that I have spent way too many hours scouring YouTube, watching everything from a montage exploring the lesbian subtext in Buffy, The Vampire Slayer set to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License”,1 to a painstaking shot-for-shot recreation of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video in the computer game The Sims 2,2 to an earnest commentary on Britney Spears’ treatment by the media set to her belligerent song “Piece Of Me”.3 The video that fascinates me above all others, however, is still the one that drove me to write about this topic at all. A music video for the song “SLIME” by the British rapper Shygirl, it has a mere 2.525 views on YouTube (a gross injustice), and its anonymous creator goes only by the name of L. When I first watched it, deep in the lonely, lockdown-induced blur that was last winter, I was both repulsed and fascinated. Not that the imagery is shocking or gross, necessarily, but its very banality, its very randomness, seemed to render it somehow abject. It triggered shadowy, half-buried feelings that are difficult to put my finger on, exactly, but that relate to a horror of pointlessness, of chaos, of entropy. What I saw reflected back to me was a fear that things don’t have a meaning I can make sense of — a fear, however, which is not without a dark thrill of excitement.
The video consists of strange, apparently unrelated images, appearing in a seemingly random sequence, often flashing before our eyes, rapidly cross-cut to the beat. A clip of someone smashing the window of a car is intercut with images of a dead, mangled dog, followed by footage of someone filming themselves after they have apparently fallen down into an ice trench, an unsettling smile on their swollen and bloodied face. A plane crashing on an empty highway is juxtaposed with clips of indoor skydiving. Underwater footage of a kid wearing swimming goggles is followed by a clip of a body being rolled out of an ambulance on a stretcher by people in hazmat suits. A priest with a beard and glasses reads a sermon. Someone, filmed in night vision, walks through a bare, empty, concrete hallway. As Shygirl’s beat builds up towards the drop, footage of someone testing or demonstrating a laser gun is increasingly rapidly cross-cut with images of white horses running on a beach. We are driving through a tunnel, a polar bear is attempting to eat the camera, someone pissing against a wall is filmed with a thermal camera, two teenagers are running around in an empty apartment building and look out through a broken window using a flashlight, a puma is stalking through the woods at night. The video ends with a toddler wearing a genuinely disturbing troll mask and sitting on a man’s shoulder, staring into the camera like a tiny demon.
These are the kinds of images, of course, one frequently encounters in the depths of the internet — in old databases of pictures posted to derelict forums by long-forgotten users, in private Facebook groups (anyone remember Braakland?) dedicated to sharing and collecting the most inexplicable and disturbing images on the internet, on anonymous imageboards like 4chan, on the deep web, or on what people sometimes call “weird YouTube” — an elusive place which one cannot look for, exactly, but which sometimes reveals itself by chance, through some weird algorithmic pathway that leads the unsuspecting user to suddenly find themselves knee-deep in, say, quicksand fetish content. These images, floating around in the dark corners of the web, have long since lost any connection to the contexts that might once have supplied them with meaning. One gets the impression that they have ended up in L’s video almost by accident, haphazardly, as there is no discernible common thread or theme uniting them, no narrative we can impose upon them. Even the juxtapositions don’t really seem to generate any meanings. The images are grainy, pixelated, often blurry or desaturated. They are overlaid with a layer of bright blue and purple slime dripping over the frame, as well as Arabic lettering and the lyrics of the song. The frame is messy, cluttered, the images damaged and splattered with visual noise. They signify nothing, but they evoke a vague feeling of alienation and desolation, a sense of unease—perhaps, even, of disgust.
It is not simply that these images come from many different sources; they almost seem to have no origin at all. These random clips, gathered from the obscure depths of the internet, are impossible to retrace to any original context. They are prime examples of what filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl has called poor images. The poor image, she writes, is “an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution”.4 As the poor image “accelerates, it deteriorates”,5 which is why its resolution is usually very low. It is “a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletariat in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution.”6 Having been “uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited”, its “genealogy is dubious”.7 These poor images
are the contemporary Wretched of the Screen, the debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores. They testify to the violent dislocation, transferrals, and displacement of images — their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism.8
With their origins and context irretrievably lost, they almost seem native to the internet itself, its bastard offspring, generated by the conduits of what Jodi Dean has called communicative capitalism: a capitalism fed by endless flows of data in which all content is rendered equivalent — in which it is not the meaning of a message that matters, but the mere fact of its circulation.9 Poor images feel like the fever dreams of this machine, hallucinated by its innermost circuits. A kind of residue of our ever-accelerating, ever-intensifying culture of images — the dregs left behind in the murky, anonymous spaces visual information travels through. Sticky leftovers waiting for someone to collect them, to scavenge them, to wring from them the last bit of surplus. Someone, that is, like L.
Poor images, Steyerl writes, have been violently torn “out of context into the swirl of permanent capitalist deterritorialization.”10 According to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who coined the term, deterritorialisation constitutes “the most characteristic and the most important tendency of capitalism.”11 It is a “decoding of flows”,12 a process whereby capitalism rips things from their context, breaks down traditional codes, rules, identities, and social structures, in order to “unleash the flows of desire”13 — to create the promise of endless possibilities, of endless flux, energy, renewal, and transformation. While in a feudal society, one’s social rank and aspirations would by and large have been determined before one was even born, capitalism seduces us with the avowed possibility to become whoever we want to be, unshackled by fixed rules, traditions, or norms. By unleashing its powers of desire and production, capitalism is constantly pushing boundaries, its released flows incessantly seeking new markets for exploitation, dissolving old territorialities or forms of organisation, uprooting communities and collective forms of identity. This is the “swirl” of deterritorialisation Steyerl talks about: taken from its context, everything circulates and nothing is fixed, old meanings dissolve and new ones proliferate, origins are lost. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, capitalism is characterised by “[c]onstant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”.14 In it, “[a]ll fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air”.15 This process of deterritorialisation, write Deleuze and Guattari, “is being carried further and further, to the point that capitalism with all its flows may dispatch itself straight to the moon: we really haven’t seen anything yet!”16
But beneath this thin, shimmering veneer of limitless potential, infinite change, and unbridled creativity, capitalism is at the same time deeply conservative. Deterritorialisation functions like a mathematical limit, which capital is always striving towards but never attains. Too much deterritorialisation would threaten and destabilise the system, so it always mobilises simultaneous forces of reterritorialisation to counteract these tendencies. What modern societies “deterritorialize with one hand, they reterritorialize with the other.”17 Reterritorialisation is the establishment of new axioms, new forms of power, new conventions, after the old codes have been uprooted. After our desires and energies have been liberated from the old structures and definitions that fettered them, they are not allowed to flow freely, but are instead channeled into patterns of consumption, recoded into consumer identities that are amenable to the system, that can still be controlled and exploited.
Capitalism, then, produces an awesome “accumulation of energy or charge”, but against this it simultaneously “brings all its vast powers of repression to bear”.18 It “constantly counteracts, constantly inhibits” its inherent tendency towards decoding, “while at the same time allowing it free rein; it continually seeks to avoid reaching its limit while simultaneously tending toward that limit.”19 This “twofold movement of decoding or deterritorializing flows on the one hand, and their violent and artificial reterritorialization on the other”,20 is the defining dynamic of capitalism. It is precisely for this reason that, while capitalism promises innovation and generation of the new, in practice it tends just as (if not more) often towards homogenisation, towards endless variations of the same things. It is for this reason, too, that deeply conservative populist discourses and nationalisms keep returning, promising people fixed and stable identities after the old frameworks for understanding themselves have been uprooted.
The fan-made music videos circulating on YouTube today belong to a long lineage which has its roots in so-called “fanvids” or “vids”, montages of short clips from television shows or movies set to music — the first of these were created by Star Trek fans from the mid-1970s onwards.21 Still one of the most popular forms of fan-made music videos, the fanvid is not just any old montage of images taken from a TV show and set to a song. Vids comment on their visual source material, the original movie or television show. Fans appropriate existing material, take it from its original context, and enlist it to tell a story of their own; through cutting and juxtaposition, they construct alternative interpretations, create new meanings, and question, critique or transform existing narratives. The song further comments on the images — provides, in fan art scholar Francesca Coppa’s words, “an interpretative lens to help the viewer to see the source text differently.”22
From this lineage, other forms have since sprung. On platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, or Tumblr, fanvidding has become absorbed into wider practices of audiovisual remix.23 Here, different traditions and lineages of remix culture collide and enter into conversation with one another. AMVs, or anime music videos, are similar to vids but use material from anime shows instead of American TV shows.
Other fan-made music videos differ more fundamentally from vids — videos, for instance, that consist of footage of the artist or band, usually taken from official music videos, live performances, television or red carpet appearances, or clips taken from the artists’ social media. In the most accomplished videos of this type, the images have been carefully chosen and edited to fit the rhythm, the lyrical content, the emotional qualities, and the overall tone or atmosphere of the song.24 Here, contrary to vidding, it is the music that comes first and determines everything else; the images are secondary to it.
Finally, multisource video remixes, like vids, combine existing clips into a new montage structured by juxtaposition. Rather than commenting on a single media text, however, they take their material from a wide variety of sources. They tend to function as a kind of audiovisual collage, often bringing together different aesthetic worlds. Sometimes, the images, however disparate, still seem to tell a more or less coherent story, or to convey a message. One example from the early days of YouTube is a video by user mgarthoff, consisting of images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other highlights of George W. Bush’s political career.25 The video is set to George Michael’s “Freedom”, which provides an ironic commentary on the images (“All we have to do now / Is take these lies and make them true”, sings Michael, as we see images of various members of the Bush administration speaking, or “Posing for another picture”, over photographs of smiling American soldiers with tortured and humiliated prisoners in Abu Ghraib). While the images come from many different sources, they are consolidated into an unmistakable statement. In other videos, however, the images appear to have been selected almost at random, as there seem to be no narrative, contextual or even aesthetic links between them. It is to this final category, of course, that L’s video for “SLIME” belongs.
What all these types have in common is that they use found footage (this is the case for the vast majority of fan-made music videos), and that these images are all in some way deterritorialised. They have been taken from their original context (TV shows, movies, official music videos), liberated from the framework in which they were originally understood, and are free to circulate, form new combinations, take on new meanings — they have been, in other words, decoded. However, this freedom does not always last, especially in the case of fanvids. Fanvids often focus on the arc or development of a single character, sometimes bringing a minor or secondary character to the forefront, or focussing on aspects of a major character’s personality that are neglected in the source material. At other times, they create a romantic relationship between two characters that is not present in the original (shipping), or bring to light hidden aspects of existing relationships or friendships — usually by focussing, as fan scholar Henry Jenkins writes, on nonverbal interactions: “exchanged glances, gestures, and expressions” become loaded with significance, “reveal ‘hidden’ aspects of television characters.”26 These moments, once “stripped of their original narrative context and divorced from the delivered dialog”, take on new meanings and become the building-blocks of new narratives.27
So while the images used in vids are briefly liberated from the narratives constraining them, they are swiftly recoded into new narratives, which structurally resemble the stories told in the source material — tales of romance, heartbreak, revenge, or redemption. Rarely are they ever allowed to enter into weird, baffling new combinations; as soon as they have been decoded, they are recoded into a slightly different, but structurally very similar variation on the original narrative. They are reterritorialized — channeled back into the conduits of homogenisation and repetition, of conventional, familiar narratives. The same thing is true for many multisource remix videos — take, for instance, another work of L’s, their video for Slayyyter’s song “Mine”: a montage, set to Slayyyter’s glittery, sugary sweet hyperpop song, of early 2000s paparazzi footage (dominated by stars like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian), occasionally interspersed with Hello Kitty imagery. These images may have been liberated from their original context, but they are not recombined in any unexpected ways. Their potential for taking on strange and different meanings is immediately curtailed by placing them within a context where the proliferation of new interpretations is foreclosed — that is, surrounded by more of the same.
In L’s later video for “SLIME”, something different seems to be going on. Here, we are right in the middle of the “swirl” of deterritorialisation. There is no fixed narrative, no clear way of understanding these images. Not only do they have no origin, they have no destination, either. They are not locked right back into a conventional narrative. They are true poor images, digital orphans, seething in the underbelly of communicative capitalism, always still open to interpretation.
How, then, can we read this video? A clue is found in the title L has given it: “Shygirl - SLIME - Lyrics/Visuals (BM - Cyberpunk)”. The label “cyberpunk” might seem incongruous here, perhaps even gratuitous. What does this video have to do with the dystopian visions conjured up in William Gibson’s Neuromancer or David Cronenberg’s Videodrome — with the cyborgian human bodies, melded with machines, populating these science-fictional landscapes? Of course, I have no idea why L added this descriptor. Maybe there is some elaborate and idiosyncratic theory behind it, maybe they simply thought it was cool. But something about it feels right, and since — confession time — my writing and reading practice is mostly built around following vague hunches and intuitions, let’s ride out this vibe, shall we?
Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction, among whose most famous proponents are David Cronenberg (especially with films like Videodrome, Crash, and eXistenZ), Philip K. Dick, and, above all, William Gibson, whose 1984 novel Neuromancer is widely considered to be the genre’s foundational work. Cyberpunk narratives are set in dystopian futures, which are simultaneously incredibly technologically and scientifically advanced and characterised by anomie, social breakdown, general malaise, and the extreme concentration of power and control in the hands of corporate monopolies. Everyday experience is invaded, penetrated by bleeding-edge technologies, AI, vast amounts of computerised information, and even the human body is often modified by or merged with machines. Cyberpunk protagonists usually live on the edge of society, operating in the margins as scavengers, outlaws or saboteurs. Fredric Jameson has called cyberpunk “the supreme literary expression (…) of late capitalism itself.”28 To see in what way this could be said to be true, we need to take a closer look at the word “cyberpunk” itself.
The first term in the compound comes from cybernetics, which has its origin in the Greek kybernan, “to steer or pilot a ship”, and, figuratively, “to guide, govern”, and which is, essentially, concerned with control. Cybernetic systems are self-regulatory, meaning the system has some built-in mechanism to control itself, to be able to adjust its future functioning to feedback about its past performance. A cybernetic loop is formed, in which the system performs certain actions based on a goal it wants to achieve, and then collects and processes information on the effect its actions have had, which is fed back into the system, allowing it to adjust its own operations. Feedback, then, is crucial to cybernetic systems: it is their ability to record and evaluate their own performance, and to adjust their functioning on the basis of this evaluation, that makes them cybernetic.29 (This means, as an aside, that while we associate the word “cybernetic” with computers or high-tech machinic systems, living organisms are cybernetic too, as they are constantly adjusting and regulating themselves based on feedback.) As Mark Fisher points out, cybernetic systems are systems of control rather than domination.30 For while domination is external, coercing from the outside, control “is immanent to the system — the machine corrects itself”.31 While many cybernetic systems (such as living organisms) are characterised by negative feedback loops, which merely keep the system stable, others form positive feedback loops — vicious cycles, spiraling exponentially.
According to Fisher, capitalism itself, which “has always functioned as an adaptive, self-compensating system”, is now becoming “increasingly cybernetic”.32Cultural theorist Scott Bukatman, whom he frequently cites, points to the globally interlinked system of finance and of banking computers, forming a worldwide “structure which is very nearly self-regulating”.33 We have already witnessed these systems’ propensity to create destructive positive feedback loops, leading it to spiral and, ultimately, crash. Multinational communicative capitalism’s positive feedback loops drive an endless process of expansion, creating an all-encompassing electronic system which incorporates the user. Because it is constantly self-correcting, everything that occurs within the system that is contrary to its goals is incorporated into it, used to fine-tune its methods, to further perfect its functioning. If we do something online that strays from our “profiles”, our statistical doubles that algorithms have compiled on the basis of our online behaviour and the traces we have left, the profile is simply adjusted to absorb this change. Rather than rebelling against this system of control, we have simply given it more information, helped to make it even more accurate.
In cybernetic capitalism, resistance and criticism are, according to a particularly pessimistic reading, “superseded strategies which are easily fed back into ‘the system’”, which in fact even “requires them” as an integral part of its functioning, allowing it to learn and evolve.34 As has also been noted by Jodi Dean, communicative capitalism works not “by suppression, or repression, but through participative processes”:35 we are incorporated into the cybernetic loop, come to be part of its feedback systems. There is no outside the system: the circuits are closed. In a cybernetic system of immanent control and positive feedback loops, subversion of the kinds advocated by the Situationists and the Dada movement — to which multisource video remixes, with their practices of montage and collage, consciously or unconsciously refer — is rendered largely meaningless, purely symbolic:36 their détournements are already part of the system, anticipated by it, welcomed by it, always already incorporated.
Fortunately, “cyber” is only one half of the compound. “Punk” seems to imply some possibility of sabotage or resistance. This is the possibility that cyberpunk fiction tries to imagine, to stage in its narratives. Referring to the French theorist Michel de Certeau, Bukatman calls cyberpunk fiction “a narrative of tactics”.37 Contrary to the strategies of the powerful, tactics are the everyday ways in which the dominated try to “outwit” the powerful, “pull tricks on them”, to reappropriate the structures that are imposed upon them.38 Cyberspace might be controlled by corporations, but the antiheroes of cyberpunk fiction, the “cowboys”, the “infiltrators, deceivers, and tricksters” continue to attempt to hack it, to subvert the mechanisms of cybernetic culture with “trickster tactics”.39
The trickster, of course — embodied by figures as diverse as Reynaert the Fox from medieval European fables, the spider Anansi from West African folklore, and Coyote in some American Indian tales, all of whom trick and outsmart the strong and the powerful — is a symbol of the resistance of the weak. While the trickster’s opponents are usually more powerful, wealthier, or physically stronger, often allegorically representing worldly or religious elites, the trickster nevertheless manages to triumph over their oppressors (even if only briefly) through sheer wit, cunning, and creativity. Not only that, but their resistance is a playful one, one in which they take real joy — which is, for an oppressed subject, perhaps an act of resistance in itself.
According to the trickster ethos of cyberpunk, cybernetic control is never complete, never fully totalising. There is always something that escapes from it, even if only briefly, before being recaptured or reincorporated. It is not a question of permanent victories, but of staging these little escapes over and over again, always trying to outwit the system before being absorbed into it again. While cyberpunk acknowledges the powerlessness and the “decentering of the human subject”, this decentering is simultaneously “undermined”, over and over again, as cyberspace is constantly penetrated “by the cyberspace cowboys”, who time and again introduce human subjectivity and resistance back into the “terminal realm”.40 While the first term in “cyberpunk” suggests totalising control, the second reintroduces the notion of resistance, even if it is only ever fleeting, even if it is never complete, even if it is a perpetual work-in-progress — not a goal, not a state to be attained, but a never-ending practice. If we accept L’s invitation to read this video as a cyberpunk narrative, we can perhaps see L as a scavenger, playfully, joyfully navigating the cybernetic landscape of late capitalism by slogging through its swamps of trash — the cyberpunk cowboy, the trickster, surfing on the sewage of poor images.
While Henry Jenkins’ conception of fanvidders also draws on the theories of de Certeau —borrowing de Certeau’s term, he calls vidders “poachers”, appropriating cultural products and media texts in order to re-write and subvert them —, the cyberpunk trickster nevertheless differs quite substantially from Jenkins’ poachers. The latter often immediately force the materials they have wrested free from their narrative constraints into new narrative constraints, thus getting caught up again in the movements of reterritorialisation, instantly reincorporated into the circuits, the wild lines of flight blocked up. Perhaps the only way of escaping, even if only for a short while, from the algorithmic control of communicative capitalism, is by acknowledging that we are drifting around in its trash, and by simply refusing to make something new out of it, instead emphasising its weirdness, its strangeness. By remaining aware that we are trapped in these circuits of cybernetic control, and, within these circuits, becoming the trickster. By telling stories that are too slippery to be captured, to be instantly incorporated. By stepping inside the machine and hallucinating with it.
L’s video, of course, is still absorbed into the infrastructures of communicative capitalism. It is shared on YouTube, and it is clearly parasitic on capitalist audiovisual production. Nevertheless, a video like this one is weirder, more unruly, than endless variants and reinterpretations of the same thing ever could be. Rather than making the images tell a story, forcing some transcendent meaning onto them, the cyberpunk cowgirl acknowledges that the images she scavenges and manipulates, as well as she herself, are part of the conduits, they are immanent to it, and she does not appeal to any kind of external narrative or signified. She flows through the circuits and sees where it will take us; surfs on the tide of poor images and sees where she ends up. She is aware that all resistance can and will be, ultimately, reintegrated into the system. She becomes slippery, slimy, perhaps — is it a coincidence that L’s cyberpunk is for a song called “SLIME”, that the frame is dripping with sticky goo? — always trying to remain one step ahead: a shapeshifter, growing digital weeds that keep pushing through the cracks, stubbornly regenerating, no matter how many layers of concrete are poured over them.