I’ve been thinking a lot about the proliferation of channels on YouTube devoted to unpacking pop culture through obsessively detailed textual analysis, usually in unproductive ways. Shows like Cartoon Conspiracy and the entirety of MatPat’s output go into almost ridiculous detail in pop culture to uncover “hidden meanings” within the text.
In regards to these videos, we should ask the question: what does these readings produce? Or rather, are these productive readings of these texts? Sometimes there can be the occasional productive reading, such as MatPat’s analysis of Youtube shift towards amount of time streamed instead of amount of clicks. But usually they are insular that aren’t actually productive in understanding a text in a new or innovative way.
These readings ignore various modes of production, typically with an overemphasis on specific modes of consumption, namely obsessively detailed theorizing that often fails to achieve much of anything. A great example occurred quote recently on Cartoon Conspiracy theorizing that instead of flying away with a flock of pigeons, Pigeon Man, a character on Hey Arnold!, committed suicide in front of Arnold. Reasons supporting this theory include:
- a flock of pigeons can’t actually lift a man (this claim ignores the possibilities of the fiction world as distinct from the real)
- Pigeon Man’s last words to Arnold sound finite (that’s a stretch of interpretation)
- Pigeon Man appears to fly into the sun, which forms a similar pattern to Kamikaze sun pattern from WWII Japanese military flags (?!?!)
To be clear, there is no textual support for these claims. In this example, as in many others, the divide between the real world and the fictional world in the text is erased, leading to that often throws logic in support of the claim. What’s great about this cartoon conspiracy is the creator of Hey Arnold! (i.e. the author of the text) comes in at the end a directly refutes the claim, noting that such theorizations ignore the actual modes of production in the creation of such texts. People want to find dark, hidden secrets of pop culture, usually eschewing the modes of production, or asserting faulty claims, that the author’s vision was hampered by the studio/the censors/etc. However, these claims are usually largely unfounded, and have no basis in reality, like mush of these kinds of videos.
I can appreciate such theorizing when engaging with media that is specifically designed as a puzzle, a riddle, a mystery. Mat Pat’s theorizations are pretty good with Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared and Five Nights at Freddy’s (except this trifle video that speculates how much force the bite of ’83 would require – again, a lack of boundaries between the real world and the fictional one). But most pop culture is not designed this way, making these kinds of conspiratorial readings rather unproductive productive, as they end up with faculty understandings of texts.
(As a side note, clearer definitions of what it means to read a text vis-a-vis our relationship to media objects can help with these issues of interpretation, but this is outside the scope of this post.)
In identifying this new wave of YouTube interpretive communities, I stumbled back upon PBS Idea Channel once again, and realized that some of their output also fell into this vein. I rewatched their video on Jurassic Park as a Commentary on Capitalism, and realized that it fell into some of the same problems. excavating why helps illustrate the needs of sustainable criticism.
While I already wrote a blog post about some of the limitations of the video, what’s more apparent to me now is that the video attempts the same kind of “hidden meaning” approach that is ultimately unproductive. While the video asserts that the film is a cirque of capitalism, there is no clear positionally in the text.
While the video names Jurassic Park (specifically the film, because books are boring amirite?) as a ‘commentary on capitalism’, we cannot call such a reading even that, as there is no positionally. How can we truly claim capitalism is critiqued in the film? Looking at the text form various angles, there are no productive routes towards such a conclusion. From a standpoint of political economy, that is, one that engages in the modes of allocation, production, distribution, and consumption of texts, the making of the film lies within traditional capitalist filmmaking. After all, many films that attempt to critique capitalism are made by alternative film collectives that avoid the Hollywood division of labour. And while there are plenty of anti-capitalist films made in Hollywood, Jurassic Park is, frankly, not one of them. So from a political economic approach, there are no clear paths towards a critique of capitalism.
What about textual pathways towards such a critique? Well, this would have us ask the question: just what is Jurassic Park about anyway? It’s about the vulnerability of large scale systems, in which capitalism is a sub-category. Hence the books illustrations fo fractal systems and engagement with chaos theory. Dr. Ian Malcolm’s trick with the water droplets is not only a scene of him hitting on the paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. It is this of course, but also illustrates the nature of chaos (his specialty), while also adding another aspect of the film’s water imagery (water is connected throughout the film as a symbol of uncontrollable nature).
Fractals serve as a visual illustration throughout the book.
There are other forms of criticism one could use to approach the text, but none lead to the bold conclusions of PBS Ideal Channel. In lieu of this, a more productive reading would be an ecological approach, where Jurassic Park functions as a critique of humans trying to extract value from nature. This is a much more productive vein, partially because it falls in line with the series’ underlying fascination with system theory, as well as resonating with conceptions of nature and humanity’s relationship with it.
In short, culture conspiracy videos are attempts at textual criticism that usually fall short and are not only unproductive, but potentially have negative effects on the standards of textual criticism. After all, if people really want to get at the darkness hidden within pop culture, it’s not hard. One merely needs to engage with literature that recognizes the multitudes of problems in pop culture, from capitalist exploitation, to racist appropriation, and more.