IV. The Racialized Reaction GIF
In the downloadable version of Kate Miltner and Tim Highfield’s article, “Never Gonna GIF You Up: Analyzing the Cultural Significance of the Animated GIF,” three GIFs are presented to readers at the text’s introduction. Because of the constraints of the published page, the three GIFs have been transformed into static images, thereby losing the most recognized hallmark at the center of the digital image format’s mediatic specificity. In what might be speculated as an effort to recuperate what was lost to the stasis of translation, Miltner and Highfield tie each image to a short vignette. These vignettes precede the disclosure of the images, both as a matter of structure and of pagination; the first page of the article bears the alluding descriptions of GIFs that are not divulged until the article’s second page. All three vignettes are written in the grammatical second-person, addressing the “you” who is reading the text so as to enjoin that “you” to imaginatively occupy the position of the otherwise universal “you” encoded on the page.
The first vignette positions the reader as an observer of the first presidential debate of the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In response to one of the many “egregiously sexist claims” made by Trump during the debate, Clinton responds with a smirk and a shimmy of her shoulders. The brief scene is characterized as having the potential to serve as a “witty visual response” to online debates about gender dynamics in American politics. The image is identified as the “Hillary Shimmy” in the main text of the article’s second page, only to be described as a GIF by subsequent association. In a similar register, the third vignette envisions the reader responding to the scandal-laden first one hundred days of the Trump administration, with particular attention paid to media accounts stating that former Press Secretary Sean Spicer had been seen “hiding in some bushes in order to avoid reporters asking questions” about the dismissal of James B. Comey, former director of the FBI. The idea of the Press Secretary avoiding the press is “striking,” and it “speaks to a recurring visual from a long-running animated TV show.” The reader is then said to “look for a way to make this connection, conveying [her] cultural knowledge references and political commentary at the same time.” The mystery image is revealed on the second page as a GIF which “remix[es] Sean Spicer with a clip of Homer Simpson disappearing into bushes.”
Conspicuous in the second vignette is the absence of reference to the political; in its stead, Miltner and Highfield proffer a narrative of curiously different ethos:
You are hosting a party to watch the season finale of your favorite reality TV show. Your best friend texts you to tell you that she will be late because she has forgotten to buy ice. You want to convey your irritation (but in a humorous way that won’t come across as harshly as text-only communication might) while simultaneously reinforcing your fandom for the reality show.
The unveiled context of the second vignette is revealed as precipitating the reader’s decision to send “a reaction GIF of NeNe Leakes from The Real Housewives of Atlanta” to the tardy friend. While there is much meriting attention in Miltner and Highfield’s introductory structure, I would like to draw attention to a second distinguishing trait of this second vignette and its associated revelation: the image featuring Leakes is the only to be characterized as a “reaction GIF,” and it is the only image selected by the fictitious “you” to display an affective disposition (irritation) that written language cannot adequately capture in its intended nuance. Indeed, of the three images, only that of Leakes is lexically linked to the GIF form in immediate proximity.
Briefly referenced in an earlier discussion, The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) is a reality television series that follows the lives of several affluent Atlanta women (the so-called “housewives,” though many have established, lucrative careers that seldom flourish coincidentally with the forms of labor the antiquarian term might connote). Several members of the cast, which has long consisted almost exclusively of Black women, have accrued cultural celebrity, though none is arguably more well known than long-term cast member Linnethia Monique “NeNe” Leakes. Leakes’ multi-season tenure on RHOA showcased her unapologetically confident personality and supremely sardonic wit, both of which were most frequently captured in confessional scenes featuring Leakes’ commentary on the program’s plot events. Her incisive commentary, often presented in sound-bite style, easily translated into the structural requirements of a panoply of digital objects that emphasize temporal contraction and seamless repetition. The frequent transformation of Leakes’ confessional scenes into GIF content led to the creation of an authorized account for the television show on Giphy, a major online GIF repository. Of the many GIFs featuring Leakes archived on Giphy (a search of her stage name, “NeNe Leakes,” yields over 1,500 results), I would like to draw attention to the above confessional-scene-turned-GIF, which was edited and uploaded to RHOA‘s Giphy account in November 2015.
According to Giphy, the GIF of Leakes, simply called “NeNe Leakes Shade GIF,” has been viewed almost 50 million times since its addition to Giphy’s catalogue at the end of 2015. This figure, notably, does not include the number of times the GIF has been retrieved from Giphy and then disseminated through unconnected platforms (e.g., if the GIF is downloaded to a personal computer and then shared from that computer, this would not affect Giphy’s recorded number of views). The figure also does not represent the number of times the looping sequence itself has been witnessed. This is because, as Giphy explains, its view-counting mechanism registers a single-unit increase in views (e.g., from one view to two views) each time a GIF is shared (rather than each time it is shared as well as each time it completes its animated sequence). Said otherwise, a GIF’s view count is not affected by the number of times it repeats its content by virtue of remaining within the visible boundaries of a particular digital interface.
Moreover, this figure includes no internally differentiating statistics about its use. That is to say, Giphy provides no information about the contexts of those 50 million views, meaning that there is no effective way to determine the sites of the image’s most frequent circulation. As with any brute quantification, the figure flattens out difference, and it cannot be assumed that each of those views was an instance of violently subordinating racialization, an instance matching the context of GIF circulation that serves as the analytical backdrop of my analysis. It is entirely plausible and likely the case that among those 50 million views are countless instances of Black cellphone users marshaling the GIF to subvert its racially subordinating imagery. This form of subversive use, effectively a caricaturing of the caricature, must not be discounted as unrelated to the broader analytical queries my discussion implicates. Nevertheless, I would dwell upon the possible reverberations that accompany this figure of 50 million views, and, to do so, I offer the following set of propositions, sequentially presented for clarity but not intended to capitulate to a logics of linearity that would obfuscate the multimodal and multitemporal valences that constitute the circulation of racialized reaction GIFs.
Insofar as the above GIF of Leakes is bound to metadata that discursively registers the many tropes and hyperboles of racialized violence and racist subordination (for example, as Jackson cites in her article, Giphy’s yoking together search phrases such as “Angry Black Lady” with inputs that do not lexically register racialization), its availability for circulation in contexts of interpersonal exchange–that is, in exchange patterns between one individual and another individual, such as via cellphone messaging systems–transforms Leakes infinitely looping image into immediately available fodder for the actualization of racist imaginaries.
The hyperbole for which Leakes is known and from which her celebrity derives becomes the means through which she is derisively caricatured in an endlessly repeating scene. Of the hundreds of GIFs whose content comprises Leakes’ varied reactions to the dramatic exchanges of the RHOA cast, dozens have view counts in excess of several million. In turn, it is not implausible to imagine that Leakes’ arrested dynamism, her quotidian reactions forcibly looped within an exploitative frame, her less-than-a-second of living, has been made to repeat several hundred million times. The relationship Leakes may have had (or may be abstracted to have had) with the notion of personhood prior to this “GIFing” has corroded in its wake; the hollow splicing and reproduction of her most allegedly “outrageous” moments would seem able to entertain only in the aftermath of this infinite loss. This is the characteristic consequence of the process of making-machine.
How this hollowing of the Black subject is effected, however, requires an interrogation of the scenes in which such GIFs are exchanged.
Let us return to the second vignette sketched by Miltner and Highfield. What distinguishes this vignette from the others, as I have maintained, is not solely its conspicuous detachment from the “overtly” political contexts that precede and succeed it. The second vignette is the sole narrative whose structure turns on the need to express an affective disposition for which language is expressly deemed deficient.1 Accordingly, the GIF of Leakes is shared, marking the interpellated protagonist’s lighthearted consternation directed toward the referenced friend as well as an investment in RHOA as a cultural object mutually shared by the protagonist and the apostrophized friend.
What Miltner and Highfield describe is a kind of pleasure that radiates from the availability of a GIF of Leakes that can be marshaled for an exchange between friends and, through that marshaling, can serve a polyvalent communicative need. This pleasure is tied, of course, to a desire to make meaning interrelationally, the only way in which meaning can be generated, and the pleasurable satisfaction of this desire is achieved when meaning is felicitously made. What their narrative occludes, however, is that the dynamic between this desire and its pleasure is shot through by systems of racialization and their concomitant ordering of the social, explicitly and implicitly, macrologically and micrologically, around racialized hierarchy. Operating under a white supremacist order of things, the racially “unmarked” position defaults to one that accrues the benefits of whiteness; though in terms of this default position within a racist order of things, the pleasure transited by the exchange of the racialized reaction GIF is the pleasure transited by the ephemeral practice of digital blackface, a moment of mutual recognition between protagonist and friend that reinstitutes the commodified fungibility of Blackness.
The above GIF of Phaedra Parks, another RHOA cast member, has been exchanged approximately 150 million times according to Giphy’s view-count statistics. The image shows Parks manipulating her hand so as to create the recognizable gesture of “meaningless” talk. Indeed, to return to the notions of “tea” and “shade,” Parks is demarcating that the “tea” just spilled is not “tea” at all, for she perceives it as bearing no truth value. A single cycle of the image is difficult to discern, as its splicing has rendered the points that might conventionally denote beginning and end unintelligible. Through the repetitive looping of Parks’ gesture, the GIF of her image neither resists nor succumbs to narrativization or narrative temporalities. Instead, its looping vertiginously magnifies the dense hollowing to which Parks’ increasingly uncanny representation submits. The image of Parks is one whose content exceeds the boundaries of its own frame by retaining its neurotic cathexis of racialized libido within the compulsive repetition for which Parks has been forcibly conscripted. This racially subordinating libidinal economy self-multiplies and internally reproduces in sameness as Parks’ mechanistic repetition obsessively moves her outside the frames of the human by always containing the GIF’s gestural excess within those very frames.
The process of making-machine, instituted by the GIF’s continuous replay of scenes of racist caricature and hyperbolic violence, is the ascription of machinic automation to Black bodies. When images of Black persons are transformed into GIF content, their bodies are forcibly conscripted to the cycle of infinite representational repeat; the originating site of the GIF’s content becomes less vital to the meaning-making process than the congruence of that content with racially subordinating social narratives. Digital minstrelsy does not therefore depend exclusively on the desire to narrativize the scenes displayed. Instead, its condition of felicity is its resonance with prior tendential logics undergirding economies of violent racialization and its fortification of those logics through the deployment of similar GIFs in similar contexts. The above triptych of images was found via a search for the phrase “mammy” on Giphy. While I cannot claim to understand the algorithms ordering the search procedures on a website like Giphy, it is minimally evident that the “hashtags” associated with GIFs function as a kind of metadata, populating the images when the contents of searches match the “hashtagged” words or phrases. The word “mammy” was included on all three of these images, and each linked to the others in their recommended additional selections.
Here, the scene of a young white woman asking a grandly philosophical question to an older Black woman elicits a response from the latter that mirrors the content of the question. In effect, the answer provided is merely the question itself, syntactically differentiated by its declarative (and thus revealing) form. What is to be made of the interconnected network shared by these GIFs, with the lexical marker “mammy” functioning as the nodal point of their linkage? Toward the conclusion of his discussion on the role of desire in the felicity of the dialectic of recognition, Hegel avers that self-consciousness must recognize the ontological equivalence and difference of the other if it is to ever maintain a salutary psychic relation with itself and with the social. In the above triptych of GIFs, the marking of the Black woman as the second figure, the belated figure, the figure who follows the opening of the scene by the white woman, calcifies her position as other in a racist symbolic always already attuned to the instantiation of that subordinated position. If this woman is indeed the other, what is to be understood by her position as discursive speculum, reflecting the speech of the white woman back onto her in the absence of any frames suggesting that her position as other was heralded as one of ontological equivalence?
In the process of making-machine, the evacuation of subjectivity from Black bodies forced to perform as GIF content functions at both the level of the specific, that is, at the level of the individual captured, as well as at the level of the broadly social, for Blackness is, as Saidiya Hartman so powerfully demonstrates, the fungible commodity upon which the social depends for its reproduction.2
- My point here, of course, is not to implicitly suggest that the sign operates with a plenitude that exhausts the horizon of its possible meanings. With regard to the question of language’s deficiency, I am in accord with Milter and Highfield’s discernible, albeit unrelated, position: that the signifier will always maintain a relation to the signified paradoxically marked by both deficiency and excess. Where I must part ways with their discussion is at the juncture of responsorial praxis; that language can never do what it promises it can offers no justification for the assumption and dissolution of the other.
- For her brilliant elucidation of the relationship beteen Blackness, the commodity form, the Middle Passage, and contemporary manifestations of anti-Black violence, see Saidiya V. Hartmen, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 17-48.