Of Catfish and Cod

Curator's Note

During these final minutes of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's 2010 Catfish, Vince Pierce explains the film's title and names a phenomenon that would achieve infamy during the more recent Manti Te'o hoax. However, the popular meaning of catfish—a person who fakes an online persona for the purpose of deceiving others—is far more damning than in Vince's parable. Specifically, his monologue suggests that the "catfish in life" are essential to our well-being; without them we'd be "boring and dull."

While the editing makes it impossible to know who Vince alludes to when he "thank[s] God for the catfish," it is unmistakable that the filmmakers want us to believe he is talking about Angela, his 40-something wife who impersonated a young, single musician to woo Nev online. At first, the film alternates between Vince relaying the catfish parable from his porch and shots of seemingly random things in their home. However, as Vince's monologue reaches its zenith, Angela's image begins to punctuate his words at essential junctures: after he explains how catfish "keep the cod agile;" when he equates catfish with people who keep us "guessing," "thinking," and "fresh;" and following his thanks for the catfish of the world.

Together, these interwoven shots create a clear parallel between Vince's metaphorical catfish and Angela; her vacuuming even mimics how catfish suck algae from the bottom of tanks. But it is the mirror-image shots of Nev and Angela alongside their respective portraits that I find most compelling. While both Nev and his portrait occupy the foreground of the first shot, only Angela's portrait occupies the dominant foreground position in the second shot, suggesting that we should see her as more fake than real. Yet despite how these shots underscore Angela's artificial nature, Vince's monologue insists that we feel grateful for her and her type. Moreover, the high-pitched piano soundtrack that accompanies the montage cements such gratitude, evoking a whimsical acceptance of deception as an ingredient of contemporary life.

Therefore, to close this week's media hoax theme, I'd like to us consider whether the film's apparent advocacy for catfishing is laudable. After all, at a time when we are all curating our identities through various media and mediated environments, isn't there a little catfish in all of us? And isn't that what makes our "real" lives as cod more palatable?


The point about the crafting of online presentation/personalities/profiles is apt here, I think, as it begins to interrogate exactly what it is about the nature of fabrication that troubles us: is it fair to place editing of information on some sort of continuum with the hoax as a construct? In contrast to the constructed nature of the hoax do we assume that the process of creating online identities is analogous to sculpture in that some sort of underlying truth is being revealed? When talking to high school students about celebrity culture I discovered that many individuals could carefully articulate the ways in which a star's persona was crafted but that this process largely seemed to cause affront only when fissures were evidenced (and the larger the disjuncture the bigger the offense). In other words, it was being confronted with contradictory realities that seemed to trouble these students the most. In contrast, reading the ending of Catfish in this way seems to gesture toward an embracing of ambiguity that is perhaps informative as there are many examples in life where people are not only ever a single thing. Moreover, Catfish in particular also points to the way in which individuals understand and use online interaction/communities that are worth considering: How might individuals use hoaxing as a kind of play to test out their ability to affect their environment? What might the practice of Catfishing suggest about the ways in which individuals desire to connect with one another and the barriers that they might encounter when attempting to do so? Does Vince's position become tainted with cynicism in the real world such that the practice of "keeping us guessing" becomes one in which others are continually out to get us? As the week has gone on I have continually wrestled with the thought that I, as an academic, often endeavor to help students see the familiar world in new ways and that this practice, in some ways, shares something with the nature of the hoax. Is there a way to take a step back and to think about how we might apply a sort of "ethical hoax" (drawing from Stephen Duncombe's ethical spectacle) to inform our pedagogical practices?

By Anonymous

Vince's comment about the catfish points to some underlying truth that there seems to be not only a necessity for the catfish in life, but also the desire for the catfish in life. Throughout, the documentary Nev yearns for some aspects of the relationship to be false, while at the same time he's trying to uncover the falsities of the relationship. All throughout, the constant texts and phone calls continue to nip at Nev's fin. He does become agile and more receptive of the world. At the end of the documentary his demeanor contrasts so much with his demeanor in the beginning. The tone that he poses seems to be more cynical than before after his revelation. It may suggest the this was the wake up call the Nev has desired, that maybe the world isn't as perfect has he thought it was in the beginning.

I wonder if its the contradiction that is the issue (people are comfortable with all kinds of contradictions in their everyday lives, just listen to any political argument), or if it is an emotional investment. It seems the things that bind some of our topics together -- Te'o, celebrity deaths, and Catfish -- are not only that they provide interesting stories, but that they are emotional stories too. It is the emotional investment and subsequent betrayal that makes a hoax particularly interesting to start with and so devious in the end.

My students have had troubles with the interface recognizing/accepting their registration requests, so I'm posting these comments (and I may have more), on their behalf: Zoya writes: In our world today, there are so many ways to fake an identity or create a whole new persona on the Internet. Some people think it’s dangerous, while others see it as a way to channel their desires into a life they would rather be living. It is an enigmatic world, where people can chose to be whoever they want, which becomes an extremely powerful tool. At the beginning of the movie, we see Nev develop a relationship with Angela, who reels him in with her fictitious stories. Like a catfish, Angela keeps Nev guessing about her life and eventually she becomes an interesting part to his life. Vince’s shrewd comment about catfish in our society signifies the necessity of having people like Angela around to keep life appealing and worthwhile. When creating identities on social media, we falsify some of our characteristics that may include physical attributes, intelligence, or wittiness, to enhance our lives for others. This does create skepticism in social media, yet it adds to the mysterious thrill people get out of meeting others over the Internet. People can explore different characters to help define themselves and create their niche in society. So, without catfishing slightly, our society would become dull and boring, causing there to be no gratification in people’s lives. And Victoria writes: I think it’s interesting how Vince’s explanation of this phenomenon paints “catfishing” in a very positive light. Today, catfish are portrayed as fakes, people who hide behind a false identity. But in this documentary, as Professor Lenaghan wrote, these catfish are considered to be “essential to our well-being,” showing how we need excitement and drama in our lives. This idea of catfish being a good influence in our lives is surprising to me, who heard about catfish first through the MTV spin-off series of this documentary. The MTV show portrays catfish as being part of “stories of deception”: not exactly the same type of catfish that Vince was talking about in this clip. I wonder if Vince’s ideas about catfish are due to his bias, since his wife Angela herself is one of these catfish. Is he the only person who considers catfish to be a good thing? And is it possible for catfish to have a positive reputation, or will the label forever be an insult?

Sumeer writes: I think it’s important to note that not only Vince, but the entire film seems to attempt to portray catfishing in a positive light. In today’s world I think catfishing is looked down upon. An important parallel to draw is that many things in the entertainment industry are known to be fake, such as movies and some TV shows. These are produced solely for the purpose to add excitement and drama to our lives, which are the same reasons that Vince said catfish are necessary in our lives. The question that I think is really important is whether or not catfishing is moral or not. People clearly think that other fake things solely designed to produce entertainment value are acceptable, so why should catfishing be any different?

Joe writes: The message of Catfish, emphasized by the closing scenes, does seem to suggest at the evolution and spread of deception into the online is inevitable. However, I don't think that the film is advocating praise or an acceptance of this as a part of our culture. In my opinion, the final moments of the movie express a view of catfishing not as something to make our lives more palatable or interesting, but as something to keep us aware and questioning of our surroundings. I believe the disappointment displayed by Nev is not indicative of someone invigorated by life's surprises. To me, the last scene depicts a man that that is slightly more cynical. He looks at the package from Angela with a different perspective than the others he received earlier in the film. The contents remain the same (artwork), but Nev opens them quite differently. He has become more careful and discerning due to his experience. This parallel created by the film can be applied to any media in order to promote audiences to take every headline with a grain of salt.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this week on Internet Hoaxes. Despite some technical difficulties my students had with setting up their accounts to comment, I think the process of reading through the posts and engaging with all of us in conversation and questioning was a useful one. More importantly, I think that the thoughtful responses my students made to both this post and others demonstrate the complicated, yet fascinating ways they are grappling with many of the same questions and issues expressed in our curated posts. In closing my contributions to this conversation here, I'd like to highlight and synthesize a few ideas and inquiries that I see as particularly productive ones to engage in our teaching, thinking, and scholarship. Literacy and Authorship: While drawing attention to the long history of media hoaxes, a number of posts and comments this week have also asked us to consider what is different about hoaxes and hoaxing on and in digital platforms. Without being determinist, I think it is safe to say that digital technologies enable many kinds of information to spread further and faster than ever before. As such, the "authors" of a hoax often find their work "authorized" by the media outlets and individuals who help expand its spread. However much I love how such practices perfectly exemplify the postmodern death of the author, I also think they demand media consumption and literacy practices that dig deeper and wider. And I think that such practices are especially important when we are confronted with information that confirms our beliefs and biases. Moreover, however thoughtful our consumption practices are/become, we should not be private about them. Cynicism and Emotion: Despite my call for thoughtful media consumption, I want to believe I am not demanding we approach life cynically. Rather, the emotional responses that media hoaxes so often engender should be embraced, as acknowledging them teaches us a lot about ourselves and the way we see the world. However, allowing emotion to be the only thing that guides our consumption is misguided; analysis and reflection must also come into play. Truth, Lies, and Authenticity: Hoaxes are one of many aspects of contemporary life that reveal the subjectivity of concepts such as "truth" and "authentic." But perhaps because of their definitional basis as lies, I do think that when hoaxes are uncovered or revealed, there is a tendency toward imagining that what is "real" or "true" is now within our grasp. It isn't. So perhaps rather than necessarily approaching a hoax as a lie, we might ask ourselves what truths or realities it already contains or suggests, as well as how they might square with our own worldviews or beliefs. In short, regardless of what broader issues or practices our consideration of hoaxes brings up, the productivity of what emerges relies on the types of conversation and questions we've been engaging in here. So thanks again to everyone for your participation, and especially to my students for moving our discussion outside our classroom walls.

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