Idiot Media: The Culture of NekNomination Videos

Curator's Note

NekNomination videos – a social media drinking game which involves (mainly) young men drinking potentially lethal combinations of alcohol and then issuing an online challenge to their friends to do the same – has rapidly become a global phenomenon. The trend has mutated as it has spread, incorporating a range of other challenges, such as eating or drinking the blood of dead animals, running around naked in public spaces such as Wal-Mart, or being shot at repeatedly by paint ball guns and air rifles while downing alcohol. In its latest incarnation, the NekNomination video has been framed as a public spectacle of pain, performed for an immediate circle of friends, but often circulated to a wider anonymous public via YouTube.

Commentators have decried the practice as idiotic and argue that the Internet trend for irresponsible drinking—which in some cases has led to death—is as ‘dull and stupid as every other drinking game’ (Hood 2014). A counter position states that these public displays of Internet idiocy should be seen as a form of subcultural resistance that ‘offers some kind of identity to (young) people’ in an age of global recession (Martin 2014). Neither position, to our minds, is satisfactory: the idea of NekNomination videos as either simply stupid or subversive fails to explore how this circulation of online pain invests in, and reconfigures, our understandings of embodiment, affect, and the performative stakes of online identity.

To whom are these virtuoso performances of stupidity addressed? The publicness of these videos is central to their allure. For as much as they allow for an expression of besieged masculinity defined through the public performance of pain, they also implicate those who look on—whether in humor, disgust, horror, or boredom. Part of what is so interesting for us about the NekNomination video is the way that it seems to bind both performers and viewers together in a kind of collective idiocy, confronting us with moments of excess that seem to both solicit and foreclose a meaningful response. However, even in the extreme example of violent masculine posturing in this video, we can see a glimmer—however faint—of a different and more meaningful affective response that might be mobilized through idiocy, such as care and concern as the men douse out flames and pick glass from one another’s wounds. How might we reframe NekNomination as opening up an ethics of response?

Comments

Really interesting read. The notion of "virtuosity" within these videos could also be drawn out to a formal/stylistic examination. Within the example given - and a number of other videos of this nature - there has clearly been a degree (however small) of compositional/performative planning: switching position of camera; pre-determined involvement of various group members. Now I'm not saying it's Jancsó or Argento-esque, but it is interesting how a degree of formal logic can sit so much at odds with the "idiotic" content.

Thanks Patrick, that's an interesting observation -- one that definitely applies not just to this video but to many others within the NekNomination 'genre'. The bits toward the end of this video, where we see the most violent moments re-played in slow motion are especially interesting in this respect. On the one hand, they call to mind the slow-motion re-play feature familiar to televised sport commentaries. On the other, the long-drawn out groan has an almost experimental edge to it that highlights these performances as being as much 'about' mediation as the performance/act itself.

I find the elaborate nature of the violence at play in your example extremely reminiscent of the MTV show (and now three films) Jackass, which originally came out of the underground skate video scene, where people would perform stunts - usually painful ones - for the sake of the viewer's pleasure. The difference of course being the aspect of nominating the next person(s) who must take part in the process and thus upload the new video to the 'net. Is there any relationship at play culturally that you know of in the construction of these videos which functions similar to the roots of Jackass, or even to the point that here in the U.S. that show aired with warnings telling others not to attempt the stunts on the show, and here we get an inversion of that? And, is there a specific way you envision the digital sharing of these videos and their spreadability across continents, cultures, class, etc., which might be reflective of the change in the distribution of media content in other ways?

Thank you Tanya and Tina for your post. I too immediately thought of Jackass as an intertext here. On one hand I do see the Jackass spinoff show, Wildboyz, as effectively a parody (and thus a kind of critique, if not exactly "resistance") of the sort of official masculinity displayed in wildlife and survival television, which is largely about white male bodies showing physical prowess and (relative) imperturbability in the face of physical challenges / tests vis a vis "nature." (If you're interested in this topic see my chapter in the new book "Reality Television: Oddities of Culture" Eds. Slade, Narro, Buchannon, Lexington press. 2014). The Wildboyz mock those possessing actual survival / wilderness / wildlife knowledge and skills, and instead mess with "nature" in a more puerile way. In this NekNom video I think there's still the lineage of exemplary masculinity that involves "taking the pain" ("and liking it, damnit!"), the imperturbable body, etc. and maybe this signals that this gender ideal exists now as much to mock as to perform in earnest. ? I agree with the slow-motion reference too, and thought this was especially significant in highlighting and replaying their own action performance. (Btw, my post tomorrow considers the UFC Phantom Cam and spectacles of bodily damage and durability. Please tune in!).

Thanks Matt and Matthew for your helpful posts. What interested us initially about the NekNomination phenomenon is the way that it draws from the lineage of exemplary masculinity that Matthew describes - one that is defined in relation to withstanding pain. This type of masculine performance is on display in so many other media forms, from Jackass (in a direct and literal way), to extreme cinematic traditions such as 'torture porn', where this 'taking the pain' carries over to characterise the spectator's willingness to be taken through an ordeal. Matt, I guess this would be one way of thinking about your question regarding the spreadability of digital media - what happens to this lineage when the spectacle of pain compels us not just to watch, but to take part? This is a question that we’re interested in pursuing in more detail in the future.

Really interesting/I don't know much about these but do viewers leave comments as they get shared via youtube/ and does this give a sense of the audience and their complicty or rejection or something else?

Just a few thoughts on this virtuosic idiocy via a favorite work—Avital Ronell’s 'Stupidity' (2002)—which more broadly grapples with the means by which “stupidity does not allow itself to be opposed to knowledge in any simple way, nor is it the other of thought.” Provisionally, Ronell allows in that book that “the question of stupidity is not satisfied with the discovery of the negative limit of knowledge; it consists, rather, in the absence of a relation to knowing” (5). This “absence of a relation” comes, over the course of her account, not to be redeemed (filled in, known, thereby obliterated as a critical object by taking on a positive relation to knowing), but to be an open sore, site for imagining other relations to the body, knowledge, language, and an ethics of alterity, an ethics towards the other given that “the other is stupid” (39). This is what is interesting about the interpellation of (challenge to) the friend in the form you are describing: Never able to glimpse their own reflection, the stupid circulate, return a reflection to the(ir) other(s) as body. This is a radical failure of self-reflection: “The stupid cannot see themselves. No mirror yet has been invented in which they might reflect themselves [. . .]. No catoptrics can mirror back to them, the shallowest, most surface-bound beings, the historical disaster that they portend” (18). Stupidity in the body is a body out of control as body, not in distinction to some whole un-stupid form (although one could as easily argue that embodiment proper—messy, finite, variable, failing, chaotic, excretory, burnable—is itself stupid). In Ronell’s book, stupidity is transmuted into idiocy via Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin and his epileptic fits: “Idiocy materializes itself in a kind of negative corporeal stylization, yet it points to the generality of a human predicament: idiocy has something to do with the nearly existential fact of being stuck with a body” (180) —So, in relation to these videos, do these men take this negative predicament of idiocy literally, embodying the predicament of being that which is materially “stuck” with a body against and not entirely under one’s will? For Ronell, and interestingly in relation to the issues of affect you address, the limits of language are encountered at the limits of material embodiment in the figure of pain; the “uncanny” experience of Myshkin’s fits (“elusive yet inescapable, the body presents itself as pure surplus of objectivity” [192]) is described as producing a sense of horror. The exhaustive vertigo of stupidity (which is never exhausted) and the tireless movements of ecstatic self-departure are structurally synonymous with the tumbling abyssal qualities of contemplation itself—Is this then (or, better: Can this function as) a kind of limit case for knowledge and (of) bodily integrity? — EB

What's also interesting here I think is the public character of this performance. In Neal Curtis' book 'Idiotism' he frames the place of idiocy as one in which neoliberalism has privatised life to the extent that no public life is really possible, that we are all 'idiots' - that is 'private' people. There is no longer the option to cross the boundary from the private to the public. In that sense we could see this performance exactly as a performance of the impossibility of public life being anything other than idiotic, in an way then akin to a weird accelerationist gesture. Is this pushing the boundaries of idiotism, making idiotism present to us as starkly and rawly as could be imagined? If the kind of 'action' that Hannah Arendt talks about, in which we literally make ourselves public, is now impossible this begs the question of whether such acts of publicity can, as a last resort, open a fissure to at least illuminate our idiocy. Perhaps that explains the success of Nigel Farage, you can't argue with an idiot, you just have to out idiot them?

Fantastic read. These videos are driven by the subjects’ -– often male, as you have pointed out – competitive desire to outdo another. We have entered into a period where art (if you can call it that) achieves its status with the help of a new currency – clicks. Take for example that FIRST KISS video (you know the one where 20 strangers awkwardly made out all over your news feed a couple of weeks ago). The success of any video posted online is now determined by the user’s accumulation of likes, follows, re-tweets, friends, hearts, thumbs, and comments. That said, what intrigues me most about these videos is the balance between performativity (the ‘nekking’) and competition (the nomination). Depending on the platform in which these videos are accessed, one of these two attributes is significantly centralized. Should one access a neknom video via a private Facebook feed, the performance is but a competitive byproduct. Watching these videos on Facebook enables us to trace not only the subjects in the videos but past subjects and their prior videos and future subjects and their forthcoming videos. This is of course done through tagging. In this case, the neknom is much like a chain letter with a virtual paper trail. Chances are that if you are accessing neknoms via Facebook, they will likely involve your own friends and acquaintances. As such, we are automatically granted access to the lineage of the competition, and the reactions from friends (and sometimes parents). The Facebook neknom is personal. The success of each video is determined by the subject’s own peer group. Whoever accumulates the most likes and comments can be deemed the winner. This of course forces friends to perform an extreme stunt (often involving pain, danger, humour, etc.) to earn an extreme reaction from their selected judges (their friend database). It would seem that the neknoms available to us on Youtube have been ‘leaked’ by peers or fellow competitors, perhaps even the subjects themselves. This draws the attention away from the competition and in turn emphasizes the overall spectacle of the nomination. Posting a neknom for the general public rips it away from its virtual paper trail and opens it up for public evaluation (not just a selected public). In this sense, there is no competition to win, only attention to be gained. As with everything else that gains notoriety on Youtube, the more danger, ridiculousness, or cleavage…. the better. Thus, I would say that on Facebook, the neknoms are about the noms, while on Youtube, they are more about the neks. Either way, they all fall under the idiot media umbrella.

Andrea - thank you for that enlightening post. It helps to answer Jamie's question regarding how these neknom videos actually get shared and circulated. The question of context, as you say, is central to how these videos are read and interpreted. I like your idea about how the meaning of these videos changes when they are ripped away from their initial viewing context and put on YouTube. And I am intrigued by your notion of a 'private' and 'personal' Facebook feed and the kind of distinctions you are making between different forms of social media and their users. I wondered how that might relate to Joss' point that the very idea of the 'public' has been eroded with the aggressive privatisation of neoliberalism?

It's interesting that, as Tanya and Tina point out, so many commentators see NekNomination as idiotic, when it belongs, surely, in a long tradition of much nobler, or at least less irrational, modern spectacles in which (particularly) men passively accept extreme pain, going back to at least Houdini who would invite audience members to step up and punch him in the stomach. One of the most striking things about the display here is not so much the violence, as the totally non-violent attitude of the recipient. It is by NOT fighting back, that he not only gains the right to nominate the next people who will have to go through this ordeal, but the very fact of his physical lack of reaction ends up making the violence he suffers seem more spectacular than physically threatening. And indeed, we can't always see what he is being hit with, or sprayed with. I'm not saying he cheated - I hope, for his sake, that he didn't - but a large part of this video could be special effects, including the colourless liquids he drinks, and the shard of glass in his foot at the end is not just a point of compassion, but also a reality effect, if only because it is slightly more visible than most of what has come before. So rather than teaching idiocy, I feel this video is modelling a kind of 21st century Stoicism in the face of pain, an ideal of non-retaliation. The violence that is transmitted is never against the people who are violent to you, but only to the next persons in the chain who you nominate. And it seems to be the ability to speak forcefully and clearly in the midst of this bedlam ("I neknominate xxx xxx and xxx" - surely the climax of the drama being played out here) that grounds the right to pass the ordeal on, not as punishment, but as initiation. Like Dostoevsky looking at Myshkin, to pick up on Eugenie's reference, these young men seem to see a kind of absolute virtue in absolute passivity. NekNomination as Satyagraha, anyone?...

Some really good responses here! Joss and Genie’s posts open up questions about idiocy’s value as a certain reworking of an aesthetics/ethics of failure: failure of self-reflection, which means (in this context in particular) failure to distance oneself – or to become 'unstuck' – from one’s own chaotic body (even as these duplicate chaotic bodies circulate endlessly across media platforms). As Genie suggests, this predicament is also what might ground an ethics of alterity, premised on an absence or failure of relation, which might in itself become the site for imagining other relations (even if these are also subject to the vertigo of failure and repetition). Similarly, for Joss, idiocy signals a failure to act as a public body, to constitute the body in public as anything other than idiotic. As accelerationist gesture, idiocy would be subject to the same kind of vertigo, which doesn’t remake or transform itself into anything but more of the same, but might open a fissure that allows for a continued interrogation of the idiocy that collectively binds us. It's in this sense, I think, that these videos bind subjects and viewers together, in a failed relation of collective idiocy.

Thanks, Peter, for this great post! I absolutely love this idea of the NekNoms as modelling an ethics of passivity, but I wonder whether this characterisation relies on an understanding of violence as spectacle, rather than grasping the violence in the 'paying-it-forward' structure you describe? In other words, doesn't violence also inhere in the vocal performance, the structure, rather than (or in addition to) spectacle?

Ridiculous, perhaps, to post on this fascinating piece and comment thread almost two months after the fact, but here goes: One thing that strikes me in relation to Matt and Matthew’s posts regarding the connections to 'Jackass' is that, for all of the points of overlap, there is a real absence in the NekNomination video of the laughter that is so prevalent in Jackass (laughter among most members of the Jackass crew, both in front of and behind the camera, and laughter intended for the viewer). As Cynthia Chris has pointed out, one of the striking features of 'Jackass' is how fungible and mobile it renders the three positions in the triangulation of jokes posited by Freud in 'Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious': joke-teller, joke-object, and audience. In Freud, the role of the audience or onlooker is key to the “tendentious” joke’s function of lifting repressions or offering an opportunity for exhibitionism (in the sexual field) on the teller’s part—with both functions at the expense of the joke-object (comic butt). Distinctions among all three positions are broken down in 'Jackass', pointing in the direction of Freud’s later essay on “Humour” and his discussion of forms of laughter at the self that have a liberating element in the midst of failure or distress. 'Humour' for Freud signifies the ego overriding the superego, and a “repudiation of the possibility of suffering.” The ego insists “that it is impervious to wounds … in fact, that these are merely occasions for affording it pleasure.” As other comments here point to, the NekNomination video shares with 'Jackass' the mobility among the three positions, emphasized even further by the ritual of the nomination itself. Could these videos be seen to represent something like the affirmation of the ego and the pleasure principle in the face of suffering/failure described by Freud, but bypassing the laughter that characterizes related forms like 'Jackass', other prank videos, or reaction videos (again, despite many formal similarities like the use of slomo replay across these forms)? In the absence of laughter, which in 'Jackass' often seems linked to the experience of contingency (the moment when the prank/stunt totally works or totally fails), the formalistic/ritualistic quality of the Neknomination video comes to the foreground. So I’m left wondering whether this shift away from laughter/generic framing as comedy alters the aesthetic/ethical stakes of videos in the Jackass vein, or simply clarifies these stakes for us.

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