Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Live Every Week Like it is Shark Week": Remarks on the Ecology of the Mediasphere

Friday morning, as the local and national media went on a feeding frenzy of sorts over Hurricane Irene,  complete with radar maps and rain-coated correspondents bracing themselves against the wind and rain, the following image, taken of a TV set in Miami made it onto youtube and into my facebook news feed.

I must confess that I posted it and shared it. And since one confession deserves another, I should say that I was shark obsessed as a kid. I would check out books on sharks from the library, and once even owned  a book called Shark Attacks, which was nothing more than a series of brief descriptions, like a police blotter only more gory, of every documented shark attack. This book was sold as part of a school book series, because nothing encourages young readers like death. My desire to post it was part of my lingering fascination and fear of sharks, which I would like to critically unpack here.

Initially, it occurred to me that this image, with its evocation of sharks riding storm surges into city streets and preying on beleaguered hurricane survivors, had already been done as film (albeit yet to be released) as an example of life imitating a bad movie.

It turns out that there is a third act to the story, it was later revealed that the image that made it onto the news is a fake, a doctored image. It is a photoshop of perhaps one of the most famous shark images to be produced recently. You can see the original, and read about it is origin here, an origin which includes a very different idea of sharks than the idea of Shark Week, one that presents them as animals, not monsters.

There is nothing exceptional about this little story, it is in some sense mundane, there are countless youtube phenomena that turn out to be fakes, but it does illustrate certain things. First, we have the TV news, which has responded to the decline in audience share and profits and the rise of  digital image capturing devises (cameras, smart phones, etc) by more or less outsourcing its news gathering." Send us your pictures, video, comments, and tweets," is the demand made every newspaper and television station. This might be a way to make up for the loss of reporters, or it might be a way to gain audience, perhaps the news editors figure that people will watch and read just to see if their images and comments have made it onto the screen. We could celebrate this breakdown of the distinction between author and producer, see it as the democratization of the news: "You Report, You Decide," or something to that effect. However, doing so overlooks at least two things. First of all, there is the news media's imperative to capture attention, in this case, to read the storm of attention by offering the most extreme photos and the satellite pictures with the most vivid colors. That this fake image got past the editors, verification and checking sources being a thing of the past, reveals something of this demand to out sensationalize other channels, other media. The might have the picture of the wind toppling a Mcdonald's but they do not have the blood thirsty shark cruising along the interstate. Second, and with all apologies to Walter Benjamin, any simple identification of the author as producer overlooks the way in which affects, such as fear, and imaginaries, such as the image of the shark, are disseminated just as fast as digital images.  The audience that produces is itself a product of culture industry, to frame this whole issue in terms of the Benjamin/Adorno dialectic.

This brings us to sharks, my childhood object of fascination and fear. It will one day be necessary to write the history of the shark as image, as spectacle (perhaps this has already been done). This history, at least the history that I am thinking of, begins with Jaws, which we all know begins the history of that unique cultural form, the summer blockbuster. Despite this success at the level of form, Jaws has not really been duplicated at the level of content or genre. There have been a handful of sequels, a few lackluster shark movies, and the occasional piranha or killer bear. (One is reminded of Nobuhiko Ohbayashi's remarks about the limits of the culture industry, "A hit movie about shark attacks leads to a movie about bear attacks. That is the best they can do.") What is more perplexing is that the shark movies that are made become more and more outlandish, sharknados, octosharks, etc., moving further and further from the fundamental fear of being in the water surrounded by unseen creatures. This failure at the level of fiction has been more than made up for at the level of fact, or pseudo-fact: we do not get a shark movie every year, or every few years, as we do slasher films, demonic possessions, zombies, and other variations on the horror genre, but we do get Shark Week. Jaws has permeated our consciousness in countless staged attacks by sharks on chunks of meat and dummies made up to look like surfers. 

Sharks have permeated our imaginary, become objects of fear, despite the fact that shark attacks are still incredibly rare. After all, that book on shark attacks that I once owned was incredibly thin and small. A book of highway accidents or bathtub accidents, or just people killed in hurricanes, would be much thicker. At the same time sharks, actual sharks, are becoming increasingly threatened, victims of the appetite for shark fin soup and the perils of being an alpha predator in a declining ecosphere. This is what it might mean to "live every week like it is shark week," to repeat the quote stolen from Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock, it is to live in a world of imagined fears, of shark attacks and wars on terror, on a continued heightened state of alert, without seeing the real dangers, and, most importantly, the role we play in creating them. The really depressing part is that we create not only the real dangers, the dangers of oceans on the verge of dying, but we create the fake ones as well, submitting our images and tweets, and, if necessary, inventing them. 

Updated 8/30/17:

The shark image resurfaced again after Hurricane Harvey and, like before, it made its way from the hoax infested waters of social media to the supposedly more serene and safer waters of journalism, proving once again that those borders are even less stable then they were six years ago. Or, to paraphrase a documentary about Jaws, the shark is still working. It still shows up, proving that people  often believe what they want to believe. 

It is possible to see the shark as the token image of the Anthropocene, of not only the destruction of the oceans and the environment, but our own self destruction as well, our inability to think through these dire times. Humanity jumping the shark.

Updated 3/24/18

It thus seems fitting that Donald Trump is obsessed with shark week not just because he is the presidency jumping the shark, a desperate attempt to revitalize a collapsing institution with every shameless trick, but because shark week is the logic of his politics. He lives off of invented threats from illegal immigration to the specter of transgender people in the military, making victims into villains and villains into victims all with help of memes and doctored images. To borrow a phrase from Félix Guattari, Shark Week is the collapse of three ecologies, natural, social, and psychic. No species can survive that. 

Updated 8/22/21

Once again "the shark is still working," it is still out there, ready to be shared anew with every hurricane. Is it still being taken seriously, or is it is a joke now, has it jumped the shark becoming a knowing meme about online lies and our tendency to believe them? And what sort of difference would that make? 

Updated 9/30/22

As with the wolf in the story of the boy who cried wolf, the hurricane shark appears to have become real this time. Video from Fort Myers seems to show a shark swimming in a park. The New York Times article on this charts the long history of the highway shark meme, to which I would simply reply, "I scooped you, you bastards." Of course in the story of the wolf everything comes to an end when the real wolf appears. The real shark might have killed the meme, or it may have finally jumped the shark to another species. I also saw this picture from the aftermath of Hurricane Ian of an alligator inside a house. I am no expert, but the lack of any ripple or distortion around the alligator suggests photoshop to me. It appears that this photograph is not unlike its more famous relative, the highway shark, it is a picture that circulates again and again with different hurricanes, typhoons, and floods. 

More importantly, or more to the point, this particular image existed first as a movie before it became a meme suggesting that we are still dealing as much with a crisis of the media produced imagination as the fossil fuel produced ecosphere.

These Hollywood images of sharks swimming down the highway or alligators cruising through living rooms are in some sense the screen memory of the anthropocene in two senses of the word, what screens us from confronting climate collapse and what comes to us through the screens that infuse our lives. When faced with an actual apocalypse we prefer to rerun the one that is in our head. 

Updated 6/14/2024

I lost track and lost interest in Trump's own shark obsession years ago. There was just nothing to be gained from it. However, the Nation ran this piece today, one that draws on fellow Hampshire alum and classmate Jeff Sharlet's account of the latest Trump rally. I generally agree with the perspective that these odd rants matter more to us outside of MAGA world than they do to those who are already invested. I would add one thing, however, and that is Trump's fascination with sharks does play to his base. If you are the kind of person who gets all of their information about the world from television, and from the mixture of entertainment and news that takes up much of basic cable, then you might share Trumps general perspective. The television world is one in which sharks are an ever present threat, where waters are "shark infested," and one could be attacked by a shark at any time. This is Trump's true talent, his ability to relate to people who relate only to television. It is not a talent, or an act, he does this not out of some Machiavellian ability to appear to be one of the people, but because he spends hours and hours watching television himself. He is not just someone who is famous on television: he is television. 


Mark Purcell said...

David Foster Wallace has some eerily similar ideas in the "A Supposed Fun Thing..." story, which is his account of 7 days on a cruise ship.

unemployed negativity said...

About sharks? Or hyperreality in general? I don't remember much about that piece, except that I loved it.

john xerxes said...

This entry got me thinking about "accidents." Namely the accident at the heart of JAWS - the fact that nothing worked on the "Bruce" puppet, which forced many of the scenes to be retooled. Hiding the shark made for a much more nuanced and suspenceful movie. An accidental movie - not the one Spielberg envisioned or planned. Then there is the whole shark attack as accident which opens up all sorts of differnt things as well.

unemployed negativity said...

Apparently I have underestimated the Killer Shark Genre:

unemployed negativity said...

John, I was going to write a huge rant about the accident in Jaws, and how creativity requires such accidents, accidents which digital effects have destroyed, but then I realized that I already included that rant in my review of Super 8.