Images without Viewers | Jodi Dean | Monday, 18.01.2016

Images without Viewers: Emoji

A smiley face streaming tears of joy was the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2015 word of the year. That an emoji is not a word didn’t matter. Or, better, it is what actually did matter. “Face with tears of joy” was chosen to mark the fact that images are taking the place of linguistic expression of feelings and ideas. They are blending into, merging with, and displacing words and sentences in digitized personal communication. Visuals accompany and absorb text just as physical gestures augment oral communication. Multiple, repeatable, and generic images are less “of” than they are “for”– for circulation in the rich media networks of communicative capitalism.

Finding the right words to convey complicated, likely conflicting emotions is challenging. It’s hard to do it in person, in writing, and in 140 characters or less. It’s even harder to do it quickly and well, in ways that will be funny, charming, interesting, or, at the very least, not inept. So more and more screen-mediated communication features emojis and other images. Imparting their little affective charges, images circulate more easily than words, so easily that we enjoy them unawares.

If emojis are used in ways that are unclear – was the emoji meant to be ironic? To mirror someone else’s emotional state? To express one’s own response? – well, digging in for some deep emotional or intellectual confrontation is off the table. That’s the benefit of emojis. They condense and displace complex, multifaceted expression. When interpretation is too hard, when making an argument takes too long, little images are ready stand-ins. This is not because their meaning is clear. It’s because they sidestep questions of meaning. They keep up the communicative flow by preventing it from getting caught up, bogged down, or sidetracked into preoccupation with what it means. I saw a great example last week on Facebook: on a long thread filled with detailed and contentious comments, someone posted an emoji to refute another’s point. The response: “Your emoji defeated my argument. Defeated.”

What’s not clear to me, though, are the conditions under which people might want to communicate with each other through emojis of Kim Kardashian’s torso (fingernails, face, or ass, all images in the kimoji app she released on the app store). The easy answer is to say it doesn’t matter. Kimojis are just another instance of commodification – the commodification of communication, celebrity, Kim K. herself. If people might use a reaction gif of Kim yawning or crying, (that they can make, share, and find on Giphy), then surely they would buy kimojis. The app set is just another quick money advance of the Kardashian empire.

This explanation isn’t wrong, but it’s not interesting. It’s a comment that functions itself like an emoji as it forecloses nuanced consideration. Maybe in this case, though, it’s what we need. Not everything needs to be dissected and diagnosed – especially when there is pressing political work to be done. In communicative capitalism’s intensely mediated settings where we are constantly enjoined to respond, and when we demand this of each other, communicative short cuts are godsends, useful adaptations to conditions in which detailed analyses and complex arguments are increasingly out of place. I wonder if this would be a good place to insert a kimoji.

There’s a pleasure in sharing emojis that exceeds regular texting. They add a little bit of humor to any expression, especially the ones of flamenco dancers and snapping fingers that I send to my seventeen-year-old daughter (she acts like she finds this uncool but I think she’s posing). People send them just for fun, for no real reason other than the repetitive enjoyment of sending and receiving. Even a mad face is still a little yellow smiley face with a grimace and smoke coming out its ears. Just today I texted a colleague who had not answered a couple of emails, telling him he needed to respond right away. He texted back saying that he would get right on it, adding an emoji of a cat with wide eyes and its paws up on either side of its face, like the famous picture of the kid in the Home Alone movie.

In communicative capitalism, images circulate more easily than words and words take on features of images (for example, word clouds). This is not just a matter of advertising, television, brands, mainstream media, and the like. It characterizes one-to-one, one-to-few, one-to-many, few-to-many, many-to-few, and many-to-many communication. Social media and texting rely on images of all sorts – emojis, photos, videos, memes – deploying them in multiple combinations. We live montage.

Jacques Lacan uses montage to explain the psychoanalytic concept of the drive. Unlike instinct, which has a biological source, a specific object, and an aim that can be satisfied, drive links together disparate components in a repetitive circuit. The drive isn’t satisfied. It consists in a repetitive intensity, one that can cut through or go against what Sigmund Freud and others have presented as natural instincts. For Lacan, drive as such is death drive, a persistence beyond what seems good, pleasurable, or balanced. Enjoyment accompanies persistence, repetition, circulation, not achievement or results. Instead of a big bang, there are little charges, just enough to keep us fascinated, to fasten us in.

This psychoanalytic concept of drive helps illuminate the enjoyment that we derive from the repetitive practices of communicative capitalism. Conceived in terms of drive, networked communications circulate as multiple systems of repetition and capture, delivery systems well-suited to the peculiar and uncanny human propensity to become stuck on minor activities and minimal differences. We link and click. Having found one cool gif, we look for others, without looking for anything in particular. We scroll through our feeds – Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat – enjoying the smooth surface of the phone, the swiping gesture, the cat photos, the familiar faces. The flow of words and images don’t tell stories and they don’t make arguments. They rarely appear as separate objects. There’s not one image. Instead, out of repetition emerge trends, bubbles, and aggregates, common images through which collectivity momentarily shines.