Tide pods. Eating these bundles of detergent is extremely dangerous, causing tens of thousands of annual injuries to small children. As per the prior link, the number of teenagers treated for pod ingestion in 2017 was 39, as of the article (a few weeks into the new year) 56 cases have already been presented at hospitals in 2018. A more recent news package suggests that another three teens have chomped a pod in the last two weeks. Even more recent news suggests that another forty or so folks bit into a pod in the last week. Frankly, the number of children injured by the pods should be reason enough to reconsider the existence of the product. My topic today is the discourse of the Tide Pod challenge and moral panic, which it seems has increased the rate of teens consuming the pods. The obvious first move for a critique of the Tide Pod story is to address the breathless news packages and proactive censorship to spuress images of the pods. The What if the point of the Tide Pod story isn’t that it is either a real threat or a moral panic? What if teens are intentionally producing the moral panic as an end in itself? So far the most hillarious expression of this moment comes from the Gronk.
The Meta-Modern Moment
I don’t know if you have noticed, but things are weird in American public culture. Any number of the mechanisms that Jurgen Habermas called “steering media” for the public sphere have broken down. Mid-century modern journalism has collapsed. The RAND corporation is publishing research on “truth decay” much as they once published on the advent of linear programming or the Soviet threat. Modernism is the discourse which supposes that there we now live in an enlightened time, that some moment or break, be that a scientific revolution or the adoption of Christianity by the Roman empire, has rendered the old times old and put us in a new position for access to the Truth. Post-modernism was an intellectual observation that the underlying metanarrative of enlighenment inherent in modernism was false. Whatever means made multiple cultural blocks appear commensurable was faulty, authority was never quite as supreme as it was supposed, the old culture definitely continued after the “break” with prior history. This debate did not simply appear with Lyotard and Baudrillard in the 1980s. Continuity versus Rupture is an academic pot boiler. Edifices around such binaries are so compelling that Derrida launched the entire program of deconstruction on a literary reading of an anthropological text searching for a foundational narrative.
What does all that mean? I’ll let Jonathan Margolis sum up this argument:
Just as we fervently believe we are living in a special time, and are a special generation witnessing a huge turning point in human affairs — so will our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Every generation thinks the same, and they’re always just a little bit wrong.
It is entirely possible that you are a card carrying post-modernist and you disagree with the above characterization. You likely will rely on a clear metanarrative about the progression of discourse and history to answer my argument. What for it — your post-modernism is sounding really modern.
So what is meta-modernsim?
Sort of post-modernism 2, but also not. Turner’s aphorismanifesto (does this portmanteau work for you?) is useful here. The theory of history proposed is not one of linear continuity or rupture — instead of progress history is driven by oscillations. It isn’t simply that the model of social progress is turned on it’s head but that the system is self-reflexive. Without belaboring this, or becoming overly theoretically precious, meta-modernism supposes that the author/artist/audience knows the context in which the work was made and that the work was always already intended to be a part of a flow rather than rupture.
Turner’s further introduction to metamodernism provides an expansive list of possible practicioners and objects of the metamodern. For the most part these are connected in relatively high culture (like David Foster Wallace) or quality television (like Parks and Recreation). Vermulen and van den Akker clarify that metamodernism is a structure of feeling rather than a coherent thing in itself — and perhaps most importantly that they were quite late to the discussion of this term. Given that much of the meta-modern is concerned with everyday cultural production and the new seemingly groundless extremist movements of the present day, it has always appeared to me at least to be a key theory for understanding aesthetic production on line, especially those of memes.
And ideology theory
If you know me, you have likely heard/read my gloss on theories of ideology with a special emphasis on the Sloterdijk-Zizek-Dean argument. Many folks, especially on the left, suppose that they have some sort of privilaged line on truth and that if average folks simply had the correct information they would change their minds. Ideology is the false consciousness that sustains the current order.
The psychoanalytic turn in ideology theory provides a different answer. It isn’t that people are duped at all, but that they know what they are doing. Instead of false false consciousness, people express enlightened false consciousness. This sustains and produces the social order. It also explains why the overly simplistic mapping of belief and desire inherent in ideology theory fails. People don’t want what you think they want. Desire is an especially important concept, I’ll write about that and fabric softener some day. There are any number of fissures in different academic theories broken open by desire.
Simple debunking doesn’t work. Resolving ideology can take three directions: providing new correct information, using violence to correct actions of those who are unable to handle this new truth, or lying/exaggerating to induce action in the direction of the truth (that’s right, the new truth is a lie — looking at you environmental doomsayers). Of course this view can’t deal the sort of rhetorical mode that is common in communication studies. And why should it? Rhetoric on a disciplinary level replaces certainty with probability and Truth with that which you might persuade someone of.
Perhaps my fifth favorite cliche is: you can’t bullshit a bullshitter. In the meta-modern moment, everyone is strategic. Everyone is an influencer. Everyone is a bullshitter. Traditional ideology theory supposes that you are the only bullshitter — the truth is, you are almost always talking to one. You are just going to take a quick bite on your phone, the followers you gain during the few minutes the video is up will be worth it right? You are definitely not stupid enough to eat a Tide Pod.
And the Death Drive
People do a lot of weird and self-destructive things. For someone invested in a fairly simplistic view of ideology, these self-destructive moments are caused by false consciousness or perhaps some kind of disorder. Psychoanalytic theory supposes that there is a destructive drive that drives people toward destruction. In some ways this seems like cheating right? It does explain a lot of things.
The death drive, or as Freud called it the death instinct, offers a way of explaining any number of contradictory behaviors in people. It also offers a much more balanced view of the interaction of forces in a natural system than the sort of evolution driven model implied in other social science fields. What if the death drive was an important aspect in perpetuating human culture? If the instincts that drive creatures are purely adaptive on a surface level, they would be incredibly risk averse. How many models in the world really have one single force without a counter force? The death drive is a useful idea, even if you don’t like psychoanalysis.
An important aspect of meta-modern discourse that is often overlooked by academic commentators is the tendency for the discourse to overtly play with the idea of the death drive. Existential vibrations are totally normal for young people. This is not new. Kafka is an old favorite of mine, not because I enjoy giant beetles. Metamodern discourses are often quite explicitly about the death drive. This is important because it challenges the smooth narrative of abundance and natality commonly associated with modernity. Toying with a tide pod would make sense if one WANTED to do something dangerous and frankly stupid.
What does any of that have to do with Tide Pods?
Young folks engaged in meta-modern performance are not seriously proposing to eat Tide Pods. They are working to amplify an oscillation that could result in a moral panic. When people are suprised when they actually “get a rise” out of someone, it is because they were operating in this meta-modern mode and actually moved the needle. Ultraright and new communist online operatives are meta-modern. Facebook’s clumsy attempts to moderate affect on the feed are distinctly modern — part of their failure. People will sustain and reproduce the Tide Pod story because they are involved in a complex recirculation based on the prospect of the lolz, which in this time period are tied to an insight about the fragile, surreal facade of reality.
Tide pods tell us about how individuals are not duped. They are making tide pod references to maintain the recirculation. Of course Tide Pods are dangerous, don’t put them in your mouth as a surrealist artistic method. Just don’t.
Of course YouTube, Facebook, and the world in general took the bait. There are people hard at work making news packages advising against tide pod ingestion, there are YouTubers worried that they monetization schemes will be disrupted if they DON’T chomp a pod, and public health officials are working on what would fairly clearly be a massive meme joke. Rob Gronkowski took some time out of resting up for the SuperBowl to tell you not to eat a pod.
If you thought meta-modernism was the ninth season of Parks and Rec. It isn’t. Don’t comfort yourself by relying on mass and high culture examples of meta-modernism.
People making videos about eating laundry detergent to force large corporations to make funny sounding statements — there is the real future of television. Almost as if public figures might intentionally deploy obscenity to induce media to repeat it. Or as NHK World Host James Tengan remarked while concluding a human interest story on the day of a particularly nasty comment by President Trump, “There will be no obscenity in this dictionary,” ending the news cast with a knowing smile. This can also help you see why folks looking to “get a rise” out of folks might be confused by the intensity of a reaction — they were just looking for some proof that they could influence the trajectory of the system, to move the needle, thinking it would just move a little. When it wobbles back and forth like the VU needle at the opening of Motörhead’s Killed By Death, they get antsy.
Don’t worry, for bloggers claiming to be oppressed by tide pod suppressive activity this is a booming business. Also, bakers have frosting.
This is the image I have to use.
Lincoln Kirkeide contributed key arguments about the death drive to this article.