One of the more well-worn ruts of my day job concerns the idea of context. We natter endlessly about why people make the decisions they do – and how that why changes depending on the context of their choices. People buy coffee in the morning for the ritual. They buy it in the afternoon because they’re bored. They buy it in the evening to be social. The situation shapes the decision, and it’s notable that in this brain-dead example (as in many scenarios), the actor and the outcome are the same each time, despite changing context.
One of the concepts those explorations of context eventually spawn is around something that’s been increasingly engaging my imagination – the changing importance of the idea of absence. Absence as I’ve been thinking about it, and as illustrated by a recent rash of online examples, actually often accentuates the centrality of context to narratives – traditional media narratives, brand narratives, the flow of your home, your expectations about how to interact with people, with pornography, with a website, with whatever – by removing all but the context.
Online, the subtraction of key actors (or a radical shift in a narrative’s perspective) has taken a few notable forms. The most prominent recent manifestation, of course, is Garfield Minus Garfield – the book and comic series that takes the cat out of the comic, leaving the pathos-inducing Mr. Arbuckle staring into space by himself.
Add to that awesome example, though, a litany of other high-concept subtractions:
*Dennis Knopf’s Bootyclipse (booty shaking videos in which the booty shakers have been removed)
*Waxy’s Meme Scenery (YouTube faves without the main characters)
*Unphotographable (a site of descriptions of pictures never taken)
*John Haddock’s Porn Sans People (porn! sans people!)
*And these Danish porn interiors of the 1970s (a focus on the furniture rather than the fucking)
Though online occurrences of conspicuous absence abound, the digital realm isn’t the only place to find what’s not there. Again for the day job, one of the observations we wrote about months ago was the Debranded home – a company that gives homeowners the chance to remove branding from everyday objects – soaps, shampoo, etc. It’s an exercise in deconsumption, surely – a way to buy cheap goods and transfer them into bottles that don’t look ugly. But it’s also a way to change the story of one’s home by taking away, by creating a conspicuous absence. (Similarly prosaic, Product Displacement is a blog that tracks the removal of product brands in movies and television shows.)
It may seem difficult to extrapolate anything useful from bootyless booty videos, missing cats and consumers choosing to debrand their lives, but absence is also at the root of the “local assignment” I noted on this blog the other day. (It seems like in a world of opinions and assholes, what isn’t here is still one of the great untapped opportunities for online conversation.)
So is Garfield Minus Garfield really an example of “late capitalist anxiety,” as Mother Jones said? Huh. Maybe. And maybe it’s some other things, too. Maybe it’s a simple manifestation of the fact that in a world of extreme exposition, silence and subtraction are becoming ever better ways to tell a story. Or maybe it’s an acknowledgement of a rising primacy of context over individual actor.
Reading over this, it’s obvious that I’ve failed to completely articulate why these ideas interest me, how they connect or even what they are (not to mention what insights one may draw from them). And that’s actually fine – and even fitting. Call me an idiot, but I rarely write what I know anymore. I more often make the effort when I don’t know – or when I know that something should be there, but isn’t. At least, not yet.
(**If anyone has any other examples of conspicuous absence, I’d love to hear them.)