IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - On the Animated GIF
A GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) is a string of computer code with particular characteristics, although in everyday usage the term describes looped animations, often sampled from a commercial source, formatted to play on a variety of digital platforms. Considered solely as animations, GIFs are fairly rudimentary. Many exist simply to catch your attention, like spinning disks revolving in the wind outside a shop.
Others are visual one-liners: a loop of Oprah Winfrey shaking her head with a caption saying no, no, no; Benedict Cumberbatch frowning and saying, what? Users insert these reaction GIFs into the social media stream the way players in a game of trumps discard hot cards, each time aiming for just the right spot.
GIFs, as Professor McCarthy explains, are expressions of craft. The word carries many connotations. All are relevant, although we must start with the ways that GIFs emblemize in a digital register the craft of making do, a knowledge base formed from experience, touch, and know-how, a practice of making sometimes called tinkering, known in various trade argots as jury-rigging, pantsing, or kludge.
Makers of GIFs follow a comparably improvisational logic of assembly. GIFcraft, let's call it, a certain feel for one's materials, the latter treated as if they are tactile objects. As examples of GIFcraft, we will look at GIFs that display the form's capacity as a social and political language. Originating in an online culture that values sophisticated impudence, millennial cuteness, and the interchangeability of truth, belief, and commitment, GIF making is a communicative means for collective politics in the age of digital content.
Professor McCarthy finds some small hope for a form of public sphere in the anarchic cultural mixing that GIFcraft embodies. Still, it must be noted that within the larger sphere of cultural production, the same expedient talents that GIF-making hones often find expression in far more insidious forms. One well known example is what is known as "fake news": digital press releases that circulate on Facebook and propagate falsehoods, often with audiovisual evidence attached. (In the days leading up to the recent U.S. Presidential elections, for example, one such item explained to users that every anti-Trump demonstrator receives $1500 from philanthropist George Soros.)
The public sphere of online culture is a millennial realm in which statecraft, the craft of policing, the entrepreneurial craft of self-making, and the craft of deception coexist and, indeed, constantly confront each other in the marketplace for our minds. Identifying the symbol-making logics of GIFcraft is a step towards identifying the tendencies and conflicts that shape, with all its vulnerabilities, the popular craft of political speech today.
This lecture is free and open to all.
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