Updating Magritte

Updating  “La Trahison des images”  by Magritte for the YouTube age

Updating “La Trahison des images” by Magritte for the YouTube age

I’ve been doing YouTube for nearly ten years, and in that time I’ve done a lot of thinking about what being a YouTuber means. Perhaps it’s my training as an academic, but I can’t help but analyse what I do for a living, and the interaction of my workplace with society. For most jobs that would (I imagine) be terribly boring, but when your workplace is the most popular source of procrastination in the world, there’s some rather interesting thinking to be done.

The image above is one aspect of this, and to me seemed a concise and rather obvious summary of what YouTubers do. I previously tweeted it, but I wanted to also showcase it on my website because stuff gets lost on my twitter feed very quickly.

In brief, the original painting by Magritte displays a pipe and the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). The painting conveys the idea that a representation of a thing is not a thing itself. Magritte is quoted as saying that one could not stuff the pipe in the painting, therefore it is not a pipe. Were he to have written “This is a pipe” it would not have been true. The painting is a representation of a real thing. In my updated version I have abstracted one step further, writing “Ceci n’est pas une réalité” under the YouTube logo, itself a representation of YouTube. This makes the comparison less neat, but I thought the logo would be more visually pleasing than a screenshot of a vlog. I am not trying to say that a picture of the YouTube logo is not a reality, rather that the idea of YouTube is not reality itself, or more specifically that the reality that YouTubers portray is not a reality. If pipe-makers make pipes, and Magritte drew a representation of one, YouTubers make a version of reality, and then create representations of it. Neither the representation, nor the reality depicted are real.

Why is this important? Because people consume increasing amounts of digital entertainment and, for other reasons which I will go into in a further post, personal videos in the form of vlogs are incredibly popular. People watch these vlogs and, again for reasons that I’ll have to go into in a future post, assume that a vlog is a truthful depiction of a YouTuber’s life. Especially considering the young audience that many vloggers have, this is a dangerous and erroneous assumption. All YouTubers, but in particular vloggers, construct a universe or a reality that their videos take place in. They accomplish this through traditional film making techniques such as set design, music, and costume. This is the pipe that the YouTuber constructs, each personalised to the creator, and each designed to elicit certain feelings from the audience. For a vlogger appealing to a young audience this reality might be one of unending fun, of no swearing, of innocence. For a science YouTuber this reality is analytical, prestigious, and geeky.

The videos that these YouTubers make are representations of these universes - similar to how, for example, the TV episodes of Game of Thrones are depictions of the universe of A Song of Ice and Fire. The broader ‘reality’ of this universe exists within but also between and around these representations, even if only in the mind of George RR Martin. Each YouTuber, or more accurately, each YouTube channel, has its own constructed universe. Designed, consciously or subconsciously, by its creator, and depicted in videos. In the case of vloggers and other channels which are personal in nature representations (can) also include social media posts: tweets, stories, and pictures on Instagram. These representations are of course edited, curated depictions of reality the YouTuber wishes to portray. Because for all vloggers production of the representation must take place in the real world. Therefore to conform their raw footage of the real world to their designed universe it must be chopped and changed and edited and improved. I contend that their designed universe exists outside and between these representations, again even if only in their head (or the heads of their production team), and so that the act of editing does not itself create their universe. The act of editing augments and evolves their constructed reality, but it existed before they made their first video. This contention also allows for a consistent theory of YouTube when considering channels other than vloggers, but that’s beside the point.

Effectively what I am arguing is that a YouTube video is a second level not-thing: the representation itself is not a thing, but the thing that it represents is also not a thing: it is an abstract, imagined, designed reality. A reality that too many people assume is real. The effects of this are wide-ranging, and well-documented: people comparing themselves to their social media idols and growing sad and frustrated when they cannot make their lives like the lives depicted on social media. On the flip side of the coin, vloggers such as myself can feel pressured to make their real lives more like the version they have designed for their audience, in the name of making better video. Or rather, making their real lives more like the communally imaged version of their designed universe, as portrayed by their videos, in the minds of their audience, as portrayed by their comments. Third and fourth level not-things - perhaps a discussion for a future blog!

I made my updated version of Magritte to encourage discussion of the disparity between YouTuber’s constructed realities and the real world, and in the hope that people might view vloggers in particular with a more critical eye. I’m sure that this analysis and construction are not perfect, and that in particular there are some Solipsistic arguments to be made when comparing designed realities to our own personal ones, but this is a start at least. I plan on using this blog to discuss the more theoretical aspects of YouTube and vlogging in particular, so if you thought this was interesting then please stick around. For now, I need to get back to editing.