Motion Pictures

Gifs are photography’s revenge on cinema

“Myth escapes from ritual like a genie from a bottle. Ritual is tied to gesture, and gestures are limited: what else can you do once you’ve burned your offerings, poured your libations, bowed, greased yourself, competed in races, eaten, copulated? But if the stories start to become independent, to develop names and relationships, then one day you realize that they have taken on a life of their own.” —Roberto Calasso


Like all units of language, there’s something chemical — and chemically finite — about memes. Their structure follows the basic formula for how we’ve expressed ourselves for thousands of years: an image combined with a caption. And like a science fair volcano’s vinegar and baking soda, it first fizzes, then fizzles, its energy soon spent in circulation. It’s a reaction anyone can begin and no one can undo.

In the chemistry of language itself, words are metaphors that similarly lose their spark. The fundamental Proto-Indo-European units of language — tokens for irreducible concepts like sun or cut or burn or die — once gave breath to the ancient gods they inspired. Now etymologists trace these particles back to their elemental origins, while the rest of us are left handling spent fuel.

Not only can we see millennia of metaphor “fossilized” (as Emerson once wrote) in our modern linguistic compounds but also the traces of social struggle. “History does not merely touch on language,” Theodor Adorno observed in Minima Moralia, “but takes place in it.” One of humanity’s great Borgesian projects would be a lexical map of this history — the borders of metaphors, languages, technology, culture — and how time has shifted and traversed these borders, shaping and reshaping them. More within our reach would be a mapping not of every extant moment in history but of the cardinality that relates one moment to another, a cartographic grammar of light and line, of demarcation, conjugation, and juxtaposition. To see this history take place, one has to understand how it is that different ways of telling, of showing — and different ways of reading, of seeing — abrade one another, even reject one another.

If the movies have taught Americans to view their country cinematically, they’ve simultaneously taught the country how to make itself seen

“Left to its own devices,” linguist Ferdinand de Saussure wrote, “a language has only dialects, which do not overlap … But as civilization in the process of development increases communication, a kind of tacit convention emerges by which one of the existing dialects is selected as the vehicle for everything which is of interest to the nation as a whole.” Here civilization stands in not only for technological development, cultural organization, a politics, and a system of laws but also violence. Linguistic conventions are imposed by a ruling class, for example, or dialects erased by war and disease. In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure dispels with any 19th century arrogance regarding linguistic teleology, prescribed vocabularies, or stability: “All parts of [a] language are subject to change, and any period of time will see evolution of greater or smaller extent … The linguistic river never stops flowing.” Memes, and emotive gifs, the meme de la mode, share in this heritage of experimentation. They reiterate the formula, image and caption, but they don’t improve on it so much as allow it to express different power relations.

Like language itself, such methods for transferring and disseminating information may evolve naturally from human interaction and reflection, but (also like language) the consequences they have on society do not necessarily reflect anything inherent about the potential nor the efficiency of those technologies.

If a technology is, as Rebecca Solnit defined it, “a practice, a technique, or a device for altering the world or the experience of the world,” then metaphor itself is a technology. In fact, by allowing for imaginative production, metaphor may be the ur-technology from which all other technologies have sprung.

The deployment of a new technology with such power, the power of metaphor, is irreversible. One could look all the way back to the ruins of Troy and its remnants in our culture to see what creativity — what curiosity — can set in motion. In Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, one of his primary obsessions is the moment at which the unity of mythology shatters into literature. The Greeks told their mythic tales with different plots: Helen was at Troy and Helen was not at Troy. Calasso writes, “The repetition of a mythical event, with its play of variations, tells us that something remote is beckoning to us. There is no such thing as the isolated mythical event, just as there is no such thing as the isolated word.” But literature, Calasso asserts, surrenders that open-endedness, that ability to permit multiple versions, and with it, that remote sense of unity. It tends to operate under the assumption that there is a definitive text, one true version of each story. It makes a far more limited sort of unity explicit. “The novel, a narrative deprived of variants, attempts to recover them by making the single text to which it is entrusted more dense, more detailed,” he writes. Literature presents its orphans as immutable, unchangeable. As with linguistics, this isn’t necessarily an advance in storytelling’s evolution, but simply a dominant technology asserting itself.

In the Iliad, Homer, by committing his language to one version of the events of the Trojan War, strikes against the polyphony of mythology and in the process becomes an author. This coincides with another transfer of power, from legendary heroes to ordinary people: “The fullness of the Homeric word, effortlessly bringing into existence whatever it names, is the last heritage of an earth filled and oppressed by the heroes, by their amorous and cruel trampling,” Calasso writes. “What follows is a new story, in which something has been taken away from the density of the body to house the vacuum of the word.” The heroes and their trials are replaced with writing and with literature, while myth ossifies into static language, its metaphors no longer reactive. At the same time, the gods make their final withdrawal from the earth, no longer willing to involve themselves in the lives of humankind. All at once, a mythology of metamorphosing deities, brutal heroes, and shifting stories cements itself into stone and onto papyrus.

All this, of course, because the Greeks lived to sing about it and later write it down. The Trojans did not develop a literature — or an alphabet — of their own. In the real-world ruins of Troy, on the Turkish peninsula, only one artifact provides any hint of the Trojans’ writing system: a seal from the early 13th century BC that, in Luwian hieroglyphs, identifies two scribes by name. In the history of writing systems, these hieroglyphs are suspended in a middle space, composed of both logographic words (like Chinese characters) and syllabic cuneiform denoting individual sounds. Like our modern memes, they are suspended between two orders of discourse. The Trojans seem to have been reaching toward an alphabet’s inexhaustible creativity, but like so many other languages in earth’s history, theirs met with a different kind of technology altogether, its tablets burned and its speakers slaughtered by a conquering army, and from there could go no further.

In The Doubles, Scott Esposito observes that, as Americans, “cinema is where we go to see our collective dreams projected skyscraper-high. No other medium has done as much to shape our morals and change the way we live.” In the 1980s, Baudrillard, visiting from France, agreed: “It is not the least of America’s charms that even outside the movie theaters the whole country is cinematic. The desert you pass through is like the set of a Western … The American city seems to have stepped right out of the movies.” If the movies have taught Americans to view their country cinematically, they’ve simultaneously taught the country how to make itself seen: It aspires toward the story it’s been assigned.

Expanding the power of the image by allowing looped animation, a gif doesn’t “freeze” a moment so much as echo it, like a scratch on a record

In River of Shadows, Rebecca Solnit links the railroad — and the violent westward expansion it made possible — with the nascence of motion pictures: “The sight out the railroad window had prepared viewers for the kinds of vision that cinema would make ordinary … At the same time it made the world itself a theater of sorts, a spectacle.” So too, she argues, did America make a spectacle of its own violence and brutality: the “wild Indian” of the West was “tamed” and reintroduced in vaudeville shows and, later, the Western films of the 20th century. It was also, she writes, “the era of rapacious exploitation” as industry stripped the continent of its lumber, minerals, and wildlife: “What was vanishing as ecology was reappearing as imagery.”

The West, the land itself, was a draw for many of the earliest American photographers who made their names with lengthy exposures of this “timeless” landscape: Muybridge, Adams, Weston, and countless others documented its beauty as it began to become overly familiar, ambiguously, as either a warning or a memento. Muybridge especially seems to have loved capturing mountains near calm rivers or lakes, in which their reflected peaks offer two contradictory Wests in one photograph: one crisper, colder, and climbing toward heaven; the other already fading as it drops away into darkness.

Photographs are “stills”; time is “frozen,” “stopped,” or “arrested.” By taking the Western wilderness outside of time, these photographers obscure history with an idealized and “lost” past. In these images, over a century of landscapes, settlements, and human beings could be shuffled into any order and co-exist simultaneously, rightly and wrongly. “This was the West,” the photographs say, without further explanation.

A true mythology, as Calasso suggests, subverts the authority of a unified narrative. In a nation like ours, a multitude of Western myths should subvert the single story of manifest destiny. “The fundamental metaphor” of American culture, Solnit argues, “is one of travel, movement, progress, exploration, discovery, of going somewhere in search of something new, a metaphor that links Columbus in his boats and Fremont on his trails with the Faradays, the Edisons, the Bells, in their laboratories.” If the stillness of photography threatened to slow down or freeze American life — if it welcomed contemplation and interpretation — cinema would, to co-opt a phrase of Robert Bresson’s, “defeat the false powers of photography.”

While early stern photographers of the West allowed for multiple meanings — a polyphony of myths asserting themselves — American cinema, entangled in the Hollywood oligopoly, authored and promulgated one narrative, the American Myth. Cinema takes the simultaneous, contradictory images of lost peoples, the men who had them killed or driven out, and the landscape on which this invasion took place, and sequences them as a self-serving story of Western expansion and opportunistic capitalism. “The medium at its most influential,” Solnit writes, “was to be the fruit of the meeting of huge monopolistic corporations and their fists-ful of dollars with dreamers and self-invented people.” By narrating the stories of these venture capitalists and the men they employed to do their killing, decades of Hollywood westerns portrayed to American audiences, as Solnit explains,

a drama in which they played a heroic role. They embraced the idea that the West was ancient in natural time … But they wanted it to be utterly new in human history, and thus they tended to ignore or disparage the history of those who had come before them, the native people and the Spanish settlers. This newness was a vivid part of American identity, the newness of a people who saw themselves just starting out in a landscape of Edenic freshness and infinite resources, infinite possibility. Nineteenth-century Americans liked to contrast this freshness with what they portrayed as the decayed or decadent age of Europe so that lacking a history became a sign of moral virtue rather than cultural poverty. This encouraged the many kinds of erasure of California and western history: the erasure of the Indians, of the personal past, the destruction of resources, species, records. To come west was more often than not to abandon the past.

Deploying this dominant narrative, the movie studios are largely responsible for America’s renewable amnesia, just as literature, in Calasso’s account, can be seen as responsible for the erasure of Troy. The studios also played (and still play) their part in America’s refusal to take responsibility for its past or see as equal, or even human, those from whom it steals its resources. American culture, wrote Baudrillard, is “space, speed, cinema, technology … In America cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic.”

Writing of Ronald Reagan’s “illusionist effort to resurrect the American primal scene,” Baudrillard saw a generation of voters “neither fired by ambition nor fueled by the energy of repression, but completely refocused upon themselves, in love with business not so much for profit or prestige as for its being a sort of performance.” It’s no coincidence, either, that this was the first generation raised in the movie houses of American cinema’s “golden age.” In the 1980s, when Reagan threatened that “the real America is back again,” banished from collective memory was the complexity and dissensus that characterizes the postwar childhoods of his voters, creating in its place a utopian moment of American perfection, reinforced by a lifetime of cinema.

However, Baudrillard says, “If utopia has already been achieved, then unhappiness does not exist, the poor are no longer credible. If America is resuscitated, then the massacre of the Indians did not happen, Vietnam did not happen … The image of America becomes imaginary for Americans themselves.” After decades of turmoil — after the counternarratives of the ’60s and ’70s threatened to destabilize America’s silver screen image of itself — Reagan elevated “his euphoric, cinematic, extraverted, advertising vision of the artificial paradises of the West to all-American dimensions … This too is entirely Californian, for in reality it is not always sunny in California. You often get fog with the sun, or smog in Los Angeles. And yet you retain a sun-filled memory of the place, a sunny screen memory. This is what the Reagan mirage is like.”

There’s nothing particularly cinematic, however, about gifs — the new motion pictures. Once necessary in an era of slower modems, gifs now primarily serve to articulate a kind of “space” for a sequence of images. While the gif determines the order of its individual frames, its moving images nonetheless recall photographs more than films. Illustrating as it does a captured moment, the gif appears to lengthen photography’s exposure, broadening the form by allowing its subjects to move without blurring or doubling.

To experience cinema is to have its narrative unfold alongside you, in a sort of real time as you watch — you are the film’s contemporary. To experience a photograph or a gif produces a kind of relativity of seeing: No one glances at a photograph as it “occurred” in real time  — that is, no one looks for a fraction of a second. As Teju Cole observes in “The Image of Time”: “Almost every photograph appears instantaneous. But of course, there’s no such thing as ‘instantaneous’: All fragments of time have a length. In a photograph, the time during which the light is refracted by the lens, enters the aperture and is allowed to rest on the photosensitive surface could be 1/125th of a second, one-eighth of a second, half a second, a whole minute, much more or much less.” When we stand before a photograph, it’s this split second of exposure time that we see, repeated as long as we wish to look. The gif’s moment too goes on in perpetuity, repudiating the idea of real time.

Expanding the power of the image by allowing looped animation, a gif doesn’t “freeze” a moment so much as echo it, like a scratch on a record. As Britney Summit-Gil observes in her essay, “Gif Horse,” these repeated viewings allow us to “take in more information, as inert details come to life and new elements are noticed, while the emotions triggered can be experienced repeatedly.” Like the Trojans’ hieroglyphic language, gifs occupy a semiological middle space between image and abstraction. Used primarily as memes, gifs are among the most advanced unfossilized language metaphors we see every day — a clear way, for those who can read them, to express oneself emotionally and intellectually, and yet still bubbling with energy, with fuel. Summit-Gil compares this energy in gifs to the seductiveness of the poet, which Plato had warned about in the Republic. “By enrapturing auditors with music, dance, and rhythmic wordplay, the poet wielded undue sway over the polis,” Summit-Gil notes. “Anyone who’s ever been hypnotized by a gif can probably understand.” Expressing oneself in the motion glyphs of gifs is not only communication but delight in communication — or at least delightful until they fizzle and fade. Eventually, one no longer sees the motion for what it is, only its intended meaning. It’s not every day, after all, that one sees in so many words — diurnal, daily, divine, journal, journey, dismal, diva, deity, adjourn, meridian, circadian, quotidian, dial, clear, clarity, psychedelic, jovial, July, sky, heaven, on and on — the god Zeus who fathered them all.

In 1868, following the International Exposition in Paris, the Italian novelist and essayist Vittorio Imbriani published “La quinta Promotrice,” a collection of his observations and theories on contemporary European art. This included his theory of color macchia, which Teju Cole describes in his essay, “Google Macchia,” as “the total compositional and coloristic effect of an image in the split second before the eye begins to parse it for meaning.” Approaching a painting, one is most likely to see before anything else its arrangement of colors, shapes, shadows, and space, and only afterward begin to understand those colors as flesh or flora, those shapes as human or stone. This visual macchia (Italian for “stain”) acts, in theory, upon the nerves before the consciousness can interpret it; like anything primal, it readies the human animal before the human being. “Imbriani’s was an argument for the inner life of pictorial effect,” Cole writes, “not so much about the way in which visual organization transcended subject matter but the way in which it preceded subject matter.” This seems to embrace Impressionism down to its most subconscious, emotional level, where one’s passions are excited prior to understanding.

The gif has captured how it was that we moved in that moment. It liberates motion itself from time and elevates it to a mythology of movement

Cole describes experiencing something similar when he uses Google’s “Search by Image” function to find “visually similar images” to his own photographs. The images Google turned up, he writes, “told me what I knew but hadn’t articulated about the pictorial idea of my own picture, its rhetoric of red and shadow and scatter. It was like hearing a familiar tune played on unfamiliar instruments, with dramatic changes in the timbre but the pitches staying the same.”

When one attempts this experiment with gifs instead of still images, Google doesn’t return visually similar images but instead ones that are contextually similar: gifs from the same films, for example, or the same moments on television. But that is not to say a macchia of motion does not exist. There are gifs that echo other gifs in their variations of movement, their choreography, as in Tumblr gif sets that assemble tapestries of images that move as synchronized dancers, separately but beautifully.

Unlike sets of gifs that recount jokes in multiple frames, the viewer doesn’t read these choreographed gifs sequentially, but opens her eyes to a quilt of motion that rejects sequence — and time — altogether. The delight is in that moment before the brain can see each gif individually, before it can understand. Porn gif sets, too, reveal the beauty of motion in sex. Posted as a series of motion images captured from a video, the emotional stain here is one of rhythmic synchronicity, of bodies transcending understanding; any narrative beyond the body’s narrative becomes inconsequential.

But the gif’s capacity for a macchia theory is easiest to see in collected gifs from veteran film directors. When Susan Sontag observed in On Photography that quoting “from a movie is not the same as quoting from a book,” she certainly did not anticipate the gif, which allows us to isolate and linger over a cinematic flourish as long as we like. Quoting a set of motion-images from the works of Quentin Tarantino or Sofia Coppola or Steve McQueen allows us to study the passages intensively and deeply, yet it does not arrest or neutralize their cinematic palette of color, camera movement, and depth of field; nor does it prevent the actors, whose expressions and gestures are crucial to a film, from moving as they’re free to move in the larger cinematic narrative.

The gif’s unique macchia of motion is what makes them valuable to meme makers. Pairing a gif with an expressive caption ignites a delightful reaction: moving there in the frame is an array of colors, a pacing of movement, and a unique choreography, and all of this our nerves register before, first, understanding what’s literally in the taking place in the gif; second, reading the caption that’s been assigned to it; and third, completing the juxtapositional association so we can perceive what the meme is trying to say.

Of course, these memes risk entering our everyday language; they become part of our standardized vocabulary of motion. As Summit-Gil points out, “sharing a gif now has been streamlined and democratized by the rise of searchable databases like Giphy and by the integration of gifs into phone apps. Finding just the right clumsy puppy or celebrity eye-roll is as easy as finding the right word in the moment, making communicating through gifs commonplace.” Proliferating as they are across multiple platforms of text-based communication, the risk of unique gifs cementing themselves to specific connotations, and later denotations, increases exponentially. For example, in her essay, “We Need to Talk about Digital Blackface in Reaction Gifs,” Lauren Michele Jackson notes the role that gif search engines play in creating these clichés of motion — often with harmful results. Observing the commonplace deployment of “black reaction gifs” by nonblack users, Jackson describes how “these are the kind of gifs liable to come up with a generic search like ‘funny black kid gif’ or ‘black lady gif.’ For the latter search, Giphy offers several additional suggestions, such as ‘Sassy Black Lady,’ ‘Angry Black Lady,’ and ‘Black Fat Lady’ to assist users in narrowing down their search.”

Of course, a shared vocabulary of motion is hardly a product of the internet. Since the 1950s, communities of gay men have quoted not only the dialogue from camp films, but the motions as well — Anne Baxter’s hand gestures in The Ten Commandments or Bette Davis’s shoulder shrugs in All About Eve. For decades now, covens of young people have quoted every frame of Monty Python and the Holy Grail from memory. What has changed with the internet is our ability to quote motion in writing.

Via gif-based memes, our person-to-person language of motion is gaining a writing system. Like the photograph, which clips a moment out of time and freezes it forever, the gif has captured how it was that we moved in that moment. It liberates motion itself from time and elevates it to a mythology of movement; and it’s in this technological middle space where we find ourselves, right now, able to write this captured motion but simultaneously experience it as art.

When the Greek alphabet arrived, the Iliad and the Odyssey appeared almost instantaneously, having cycled through centuries of songs, memorized through hexameter and word-pairings, or epithets. These were readymade stories for this new system of telling. With Greek drama, these same stories served as foundations for the earliest plays. Centuries later, after drama had evolved into Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, Racine, Wilde, Ibsen, and others, this advanced form of storytelling fed the earliest narratives of a new art form: cinema. The imagination often precedes the technological sophistication of its deployment.

If literature is our culture’s rejection of myth; if photography is myth’s revenge upon literature; if cinema is the director’s authorial defense against photography, the gif is photography’s revenge upon cinema. This new motion picture frees itself from narrative and from time. Outside of time, these images, like those myriad forms that came before, exist simultaneously and contradictorily; they make themselves available for any sequence, any authorial vision. Today, the emotive gif is elusive, evasive, a delight that won’t be pinned down; tomorrow it may step into the tar of definitions and prescriptive usage, studied thereafter only as the bones of what was, not what is. In this moment, it’s impossible to foresee what literature will be written in these hieroglyphs, but history suggests a masterpiece or two.

Please, go out and look for them. Like the divine metamorphoses that transpired before the Iliad cleaved language from myth, moments like these present themselves rarely, and the rifts they open in time do not stay open for long.

Patrick Nathan is the author of Some Hell. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Gulf Coast, Pacific Standard, Boulevard, Ninth Letter, Longreads, the Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. His second book, an essay on photography, art, language, and the antifascist imagination, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press in 2021.