JOLT! And The Glitch Aesthetic

Curator's Note

Earlier this year a friend recommended Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule and I quickly became enthralled with this offbeat series on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. The show’s creators, Tim Heidecker, John C. Reilly, and Eric Wareheim, are widely known for their quirky, unnerving comedic styles and unabashed abilities to buck normal comedic practices. Check It Out! runs in a parallel vein to the rest of their oeuvres with a few exceptions. For me, the most notable difference is the application of the glitch aesthetic and/or rude aesthetics.

Watching the first episode of Check it Out!, I was immediately jolted out of the show’s narrative with glitchy intercuts/frames of random footage such as pictures of crowded Indian city streets. After a few episodes I noticed that my attention to the show’s narrative sharpened more intensely just after viewing these odd glitchy segues. And then I began noticing this technique elsewhere, mainly in crime shows but also in other comedies. Adam Goldberg’s The Goldbergs uses a similar technique when transitioning from an episode’s beginning narrative to the show’s opening credits. Both examples have been included in my accompanying video.  

The question I pose to those reading this is—Do you share similar feelings to mine? I have visceral reactions to these techniques. I am shocked out of my suspension of disbelief and, for the tiniest fraction of a second, awakened into a meta-moment. A moment in which I realize I am watching a television program and then just as easily extracted I am plunged back into the narrative. This jolt makes me wonder if shows like Check It Out!, Nighmare Next Door, The Goldbers, Evil Kin, and iCarly have tapped into an aesthetic of the MTV generation. Is this how television producers compete for our attention? In a world of (arguably) superfluous screen time, gadgetry, instant gratification, and go-go-go!, is this a useful technique to refocus our attention? Or are these techniques fulfilling a nostalgic yearning for media artifacts of days gone by?




I'd probably vote for your last suggestion: that the technique signals a particular media materiality not otherwise evident in the show itself. Of course, CHECK IT OUT! also simulates a videotape that's been taped over many times, a palimpsest whose buried layers occasionally poke through, and in this sense is a (probably explicit?) nod to the video mixtapes of the 80s and 90s. (See here for some samples: I'm wondering, though, what you mean by these shows "tapp[ing] into an aesthetic of the MTV generation." Wasn't the MTV generation was 30 years ago? To me, the non sequiturs of these shows follow more the editing patterns of something like FAMILY GUY, which reminds me more of an aesthetic of hyperlinking than MTV. My post tomorrow will be on this era — and a bit on scratching and looping video, if not quite the glitch – so maybe that will provoke some more thoughts on the matter.

I find it interesting that most of the clips assembled in your video use (or emulate) analog video glitches -- and here your suggestion that the technique evokes "a nostalgic yearning for media artifacts of days gone by" seems to make most sense. The exception here is the iCarly segment, which uses a digital glitch of sorts (the blocky digital "artifacts" familiar from digital compression, though a bit too regular and stylized perhaps) as a transition. This latter, because it's a much more contemporary phenomenon -- and one familiar as a real glitch on digitally delivered television -- seems less nostalgic to me. It might nevertheless serve the purpose you're suggesting: to briefly disrupt investment in the diegesis only to intensify it. This would make sense, I think, if you think about the annoyance occasioned by "real" digital glitches, when images freeze or blocks appear on the screen while we're watching THE SEARCHERS on U-Verse or digital cable, for example. Such interruption indeed throws us out of the diegesis but makes us all the more anxious to get back in. I could see how emulating this might serve a similar function. But does the (faux) *analog* glitch do the same?

Oh yes, that's beautiful -- and I was indeed thinking of datamoshing (as the purposeful intensification of compression artifacts) when I wrote my comment. I wasn't aware of Baron and Goodwin's work with THE SEARCHERS, though. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

I also wonder if we can make a distinction between the effects (or affects) of glitches in digital and analog formats. As Shane notes above, digital interruptions and pixelations might signal temporary disruptions of a stream, but videotape glitch in some ways often represents a more violent, irreparable deformation of the image, and one felt more materially, I think. Celluloid, too, for that matter: I suppose a burn-out (as simulated in PERSONA, for example) would signal a complete failure of the projection.


I suppose what's underlying this is a greater sense of the materiality of the medium for the viewer. This is not to say that digital images have no materiality, but their (generally speaking) lack of a unique material form as an object means that our sense of their materiality is at least a step or two removed. (See Genevieve Yue's post in another IMR week on Basma Alsharif's HOME MOVIES GAZA:

A propos faux analog glitches and the nostalgia they generate, there's a new app in the news today that takes VHS quality video (and, according to TechCrunch, crappy audio as well) using your iPhone camera ( Commenter on Engadget ( "So hipster." Is that what all of this comes down to -- hipsterism?

Wow! So many great comments, I can't wait to sit down and really look through everything. Thanks for taking the time to read my piece, however, the focus of my piece is on the phenomenology of watching shows that utilize the glitch aesthetic. I can't wait to read Leo's piece on nostalgia. To be perfectly 100, I threw the last question in because I've read a great deal on vhs aesthetics as nostalgia and I didn't want to leave that important aspect of aesthetics out completely. Hugh Manon's rude aesthetics particularly is on my mind as I write this comment. Thanks again for the excellent comments and I will try to find some time today to sit down and answer your questions. I think--off the top of my head-- when I say MTV generation I'm indeed talking of the quick editing and rapid fire (fusillade-like maybe) images and its effect on how we experience television now that the MTV gen is all grown up. My piece argues that glitch aesthetics are a way to shock us back into the narrative after wandering -- again, a symptom of the MTV generation. Hope that helps. :)

While attempting to read your article, I'm reminded of my body's inability to multi-task (Sets coffee down, sighs, plops on couch). I turned my TV on (Golden Girls, of course), and I began reading your points from my computer, and simultaneously checking my email on my phone. It wasn't until I was through I realized, my brain was juggling three screens at once. A feat my body can't seem to master (spills coffee). My point being, I agree with ya, it takes a lot for an on-screen narrative to grab one's full attention nowadays. Our brains have become conditioned to “a world of (arguably) superfluous screen time, gadgetry, instant gratification, and go-go-go!”. And similarly, our understanding of the traditional on-screen narrative is conditioned. Dare I say it, “I'm bored!” These moments of glitch affect me so because of that break in tradition, both aesthetically and narratively. And I experience that “meta-moment” you refer to. It's during this flash that I'm hit with nostalgia. Because “glitch” can be traced back to the MTV era, at least, are we now conditioned to it as well? Am I now trained to spot the glitch and view it as a point of focus. And if so, what is the new phase for “glitch,” or what IS the new glitch?

Great read, Rebecca. Thank you, Sarah, for speaking directly to the author's post. I am a super fan of "Check it out with Dr. Steve Brule" and I definitely experience the show similarly to this post's description. One can't help but be thrown out of the narrative when crazy bits of nature footage or other random footage tidbits come crashing through the storyline. The meta-moment described is most interesting to me, I cannot think of another medium that uses the glitch aesthetic technique in such a way. Perhaps horror films or sci-fi, futuristic movies, but not in such a way that interrupts the viewer's experience so drastically. Though old schools film studies suggests the darkened room of a theater creates a special space to experience film, we live in a post-cinematic world in which our living rooms are just as effective as darkened theaters. When I see a film in a theater I'm very aware that I'm watching a film in a theater. Flashing cell phones, noisy patrons, the crunching of popcorn, people constantly leaving and coming back... But when I watch something from the privacy of my own home I'm much more easily able to suspend disbelief and sink into the story. Glitch-like aesthetics corrupt my senses. These techniques shock me out of whatever I'm watching and into the realization that I'm sitting at home watching TV, playing on my phone, reading something on my iPad... Maybe this is the new phase of glitch. A way to bring our attention spans back to the screen. I don't know but it's an exciting thought.

Purely from a consumer's standpoint, I concur with the curator of this publication. I can relate to instances when while streaming content off internet streaming media sites, unintentional glitches have certainly played a role in 'JOLTING' me back to the matter on hand. For example, while watching The Blair Witch project for the fourth time, a glitch in the streaming content froze the pane on a scene where the protagonist had her head turned towards the camera, and that was, for a lack of a better term, freaky. I found myself sitting up and staring at the screen with my mouth open. It had the effect of pulling me out of a state of inertia and completely immersing me in the supernatural. To quote Sir Issac Newton, "Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.", the glitch here was certainly an unbalanced force that made the content infinitely more interesting. I would go so far as to say that calling the glitch here a 'JOLT!' is an understatement. The "Check it out!" scene was another example where (perhaps) an intentional glitch made us the viewers go, "wait, this didn't really happen, did it?". I attribute that visceral reaction to The Glitch being strategically placed so as to break the monotony of pseudo-public access TV. We live in a time where perfection is strived for, and The Glitch is a not-so-gentle reminder that sometimes, a standard of grace is more important than perfection itself. Kudos to Rebecca for throwing light on this 'rattling' characteristic of the humble Glitch, instead of re-exploring its often and broadly accepted powers of invoking nostalgia.

I too am happy to see a phenomenological and affect-oriented approach to the glitch that is not interested in reducing it to nostalgia -- and the clarification above was helpful in terms of appreciating this. My own approach to post-cinema, both in terms of theory and in the creative practice I have begun developing, is heavily invested in glitches of various sorts -- and I am not at all interested in evoking nostalgia! On the contrary, glitches are for me about materialities of media that, especially in the case of digital, computation-based glitches, point to a level (and a microtemporality) of media that evoke an immediate, bodily response before -- and as a precondition to -- any more measured responses a la nostalgia (though I think it's impossible to discount the latter altogether). I think the idea of the 'jolt' resonates with this approach, as does Kapil's anecdote about streaming BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. My own comment, above, about watching THE SEARCHERS on digital TV and being interrupted by digital glitches was trying to say something similar (and it too was based in reality: this happened to me just last night). Like I said, that interruption jolted me out of the diegesis -- but with the effect of creating a feeling of urgency, that I wanted to get back in as soon as possible! This, I think, is a mode of what you described above with regard to Check it Out! (which I don't know well, unfortunately). Still, though, to return to my point above: I think we should think through the possible differences between the jolt of digital glitches and that of analog ones. It seems that the latter *are* too often reduced today to nostalgia-effects, but again I think they must have prior bodily effects as well, and as a precondition for that reduction. So I guess I would be interested about whether we have any means for detecting the difference, if any, between analog (or faux analog) and digital glitches at this more basal level of impact.

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