Surprise, I’m in the same time (Oh ah)
Beneath the same sun (Oh yeah)
Oh man, you cut me to size (Ow)
My little buttercup (That hurt)
— Jack Stauber, “Buttercup”
In the early years of the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of lonely locked-down Americans took up TikTok, the social media platform “so random, divorced from context, ephemeral, that it is almost impossible to define what the platform is about” (Cervi 199). TikTok trends range from jokey memes, lip-synched pop songs, comedy skits, and makeup tutorials to creative life hacks, cute pets, cooking videos, and perhaps most famously, dance challenges, including the #floatingbodyparts challenge. This particular challenge involves users performing a bit of their own choreography while digital cut-outs of their own faces and assorted body parts float around the screen. (Many of these challenges use Jack Stauber’s pop song “Buttercup,” thus many of them appear under the tag #Buttercupchallenge.)
In what resembles a live-action Tetris game with body parts for blocks, the dancer periodically jumps, twists, or “pops” into perfect alignment with one of these floating appendages, at which point it seems to disappear behind or in front of the dancer’s body, as if absorbed by its rightful owner. Each sync point coincides neatly with the song’s dominant beats and is usually accompanied by a “click,” “pop,” “squee!” or some such sound effect added to the music.
Though the body parts move like Tetris blocks or Pong balls, floating into contact with a dancer’s well-aimed body, the basic form of the challenge bears a stronger resemblance to TikTok Duets. In these videos, users add themselves to another user’s or celebrity’s video, participating alongside (in split-screen) or behind or in front of (via green screen) the original performer. #Floatingbodyparts videos, however, draw the Duet’s form in on itself: they paste themselves “into” and “onto” their own image, reducing the Duet to a party of one. The self multiplies and folds in on itself in these videos, like it did for many of us when periods of lockdown left us home alone with only ourselves for company, staring at laptop screens and catching our own reflection as it stared back.
#Floatingbodyparts videos are temporally bizarre. It appears that the dancer’s challenge is to “catch up to” their own heads, arms, and kneecaps that float into the frame from another time and space. They seem to anticipate their floating body parts’ random trajectories, getting ahead of themselves in order to “get a head of themselves,” and an elbow, and a backside, and perhaps an ankle to boot.
The floating faces are often frozen in a comical expression – grimacing, scowling, wide-eyed, goofy looks that don’t match the full-bodied performer’s expression . . . until, at the very last millisecond, the dancer contorts their face just right and makes the jump. They transform themselves just in time to replicate and “reclaim” this floating body part, before moving on to the next appendage already floating into view elsewhere in the frame. Some users, like prolific TikToker issei0806, playfully emphasize the athleticism and precision timing ostensibly required to “match up” with their own appendages – to meet themselves where they are, as it were. In the hands of a skilled dancer/choreographer/editor, the effect is paradoxically suspenseful: with each successful “match,” the dancer enacts an uncanny resemblance, an astonishing feat.
Time seems to both expand and contract: anticipation elongates the split-second intervals between each startling sync point that goes by in a flash. Every instantaneous alignment of dancer and body parts draws the dancer forward (or is it backward?) in space and time to us, the TikTok audience, here and now. That viewing “now” is already multiple “thens,” of course, the trend having peaked in 2020, and your having watched the video just a moment ago, perhaps, at the links above and below.
A good #floatingbodyparts video is a Möbius striptease* that confounds past, present, and future. Each spatiotemporal sync point is a new entity, brought into being by the timely contact between dancer and body parts. The dancing body from the initial recording (present to us as a whole, here, now) converges with body parts that appear from somewhere off-screen, in the future. Of course, these body parts had been digitally extracted earlier from the “now” of the same recording of the same dance (which was no longer “now” by the time the editor cut into it). The dancing body is disaggregated, decomposed, and de-composited – that bit of business is invisible to us, of course, in more ways than one –– and then launched, piece by piece, into a “future tense,” from which it returns, presently, to meet up with its originator in the self-same spatiotemporal point it once occupied.
This is no paradox: déjà vu always works that way, moving both backward and forward in time. In that respect, this neat video effect garners “likes” for cleverness and comic appeal, but it may not be entirely innocent: “Perceiving what happens in the present as a past leads to a duplication of standpoints,” writes Stefano Micali, contemplating the phenomenology of déjà vu, “as if there were two selves: on the one hand there is a self that acts freely and spontaneously in the present moment; on the other hand, there is a self that feels itself being acted upon and determined: he/she (re)lives his/her life like an automaton. In déjà vu, this second self comes to the fore: everything seems already to have been decided. ... The feeling of inevitability becomes here particularly invasive” (5, my emphasis).
These figures floating and leaping through multiple, impossibly coincident layers of time, casting off and re-attaching their own body parts, recall early cinema’s audacious experimentation with bodies in time and space** and time’s recursivity in La Jetée and The Shining. But they speak more directly to the accelerated digital environment of today that makes TikTok possible and strategically necessary. These videos are a training exercise for the algorithmic bodies that media scholars identify as a feature – its raw material, really – of late capitalist digital economies.
That training applies to creators and viewers alike. For example, “Julia, 19-year-old American amateur dancer, declares that it took her a lot of time and rehearsal ‘to learn how to hit the woah,’” explains political scientist and dancer Laura Cervi. “To ‘hit the woah,’ in Tik Tok’s slang, describes when a dancer makes a quick, small circular motion with his/her fists and leans into a freeze position when the beat drops (Cervi 201). The #floatingbodyparts trend requires training in similar dance moves as well as in digital editing: tutorials for both skillsets cropped up almost immediately on TikTok and YouTube in response to viewers asking in the videos’ comments, “how’d you do that?”
Dance challenges explicitly invite the viewer’s conscious attempts to acquire these skills, but Steven Shaviro reminds us that “digital recording and playback devices . . . interact with us on a subliminal level. They can sense our subjective responses and decisions in their incipient state, as they are just being formed, and before we ourselves become fully conscious of them. Under the control of large corporations, these media can then ‘nudge’ our responses in ways that are quite insidious …” (21).
Though we can’t feel ourselves being “nudged” at the deep level of computational processes and networked flows, these #floatingbodypart videos – like the video glitches and digital lens flares described by Jordan Schonig and Shane Denson, respectively, in their recent work – visualize on their surface the kinds of processes occurring (at infinitely faster speeds) in the substratum of the media technologies, which are felt powerfully, deeply, but pre-consciously, in viewers’ bodies. There, Denson argues, “the temporal comportment of the spectating subject” is “retuned or modulated in accordance with these disturbances in the external temporal flow of the moving images” (Denson, 58). Watching these videos with Shaviro, Schonig, and Denson’s recent work in mind, I realize now why watching a brief round of 15-second TikTok videos is utterly exhausting.
No one ever misses in a #floatingbodyparts challenge. Although we can, following Denson, draw a straight line in the affective register from “the dividuation of the image as a technical process to the dividuality of experience in today’s screen-and media-saturated control society more generally” (58), these videos always end in the restoration of order, wholeness, and unity, but only superficially. In their final seconds, they provide a fleeting moment for “recombobulation”: the dancer collects themselves like a frazzled airline passenger collecting their jacket, belt, and shoes after having been dis-mantled and de-composited by a metal-detecting wand and full-body scanner.
The viewer gets a brief respite, too, but one second of recombobulation is hardly enough to calm nerves jangled by 14 seconds of mayhem and disarray, on endless repeat. As Hootsuite’s marketing consultants cheerily announce, “70% of users spend an hour or more on the app every week. Can’t stop, won’t stop!” Tick, tock, tick, tock.
* Dominic Pettman coined this phrase in 2004, and it suits these videos to a tee.
** In fact, in one of my favorites, user Issei0806 chomps the air ferociously as a dozen cut-outs of his own gaping mouth descend upon him – a delightful reboot of The Big Swallow (Williamson, 1901). Issei0806, “Mouth puzzle.”
Denson, Shane. Discorrelated Images. Duke University Press, 2020.
McLachlan, Stacey. “What Is TikTok? Best Facts and Tips for 2023.” Social Media Marketing & Management Dashboard, 6 Apr. 2022, https://blog.hootsuite.com/what-is-tiktok/.
Micali, Stefano. “The Anticipation of the Present: Phenomenology of Déjà Vu.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Nov. 2017, pp. 1–15.
Pettman, Dominic. “On Being Shallow: A Rather Breathless Theoretical Mashup.” Public, 1 Jan. 2004.
Schonig, Jordan. The Shape of Motion: Cinema and the Aesthetics of Movement. Oxford University Press, 2021.
Shaviro, Steven. The Rhythm Image: Music Videos and New Audiovisual Forms. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.
Snyder, Molly. “Mitchell Airport Features World’s Only ‘Recombobulation Area’ Signs.” OnMilwaukee, 2 Jan. 2021, https://onmilwaukee.com/articles/recombobulationsigns.
Links cited in the text
The Big Swallow (Williamson, 1901)
Links to recommended #Floatingbodyparts dance challenge videos