james hurley, new mexico, an atomic test, a shrieking tree
by Owen Vince
I. ‘James has always been cool’
In these five words, Shelley – a returning character to the revival of Twin Peaks – drops the biggest and most shameless lie in broadcasting history. James is not cool. James Hurley – forehead contorted into the bland echo of a mummified Incan princeling – can never be cool. He is ‘the original sad boy’. Sad reacts only.
In a televised world of glamorous, weird, eloquent, mysterious and dripping freaks, James is that guy; the guy who reads you hand-written notes from his copy of On the Road while you, mouth slack with fear and repulsion, begin dry heaving in a pret toilet. James is that guy; the guy who shares his tumblr page like a shit dead-drop in a suburban park. He symbolizes pure image, the counter of Laura Palmer who, on the outside, is ‘normal’ and ‘good’. Her harbouring a dark secret – well, secrets – attest to her complexity and therefore her realness. To the split personalities of the modern subject, our identity distributed through networked circulations of avatars, abandoned emails, draft documents, and unknowing photographs – the immense dispersal of the self online – Laura becomes the simultaneous modern subject; both of her arms – she tells us – ‘bend back’. The real figure is one distorted; James cannot bend.
I watch James squeeze his harley into a higher gear, face dense with sorrow and moronic teenage anxiety. The guy is too old for this. How James – as an image, a visual language – is made and remade is the crux of how the internet, as an artistic practice, calls out such baseness.
II. The image
James is a pinata; James has been decapitated, his too-large head severed from his lean, Brando-body with his father’s leather jacket that was not his father’s jacket. He tells you the jacket was the only gift his father ever gave him. James got that jacket from beyond retro. James doesn’t do drugs; James doesn’t do drugs because his dealer hates him.
The Twin Peaks meme community shuddered into existence in tandem with the return of TP to prime-time television; it was always memable. It was already always a meme. James became quickly its totem, its vile god-head. The first James memes elongated his body; the gestural glitching of his prominent forehead into a shuddering and powerful monument to being an edge-lord. Later iterations played upon his sadness, his lameness, his uncoolness. Where evil lies, and is depicted, James is rendered.
It was obvious that James would eventually be severed and his ‘poor image’ of a cutout head pasted onto the sick organ of the ‘right arm’, the tree which – screeching and vibrating – appeared in the deathworld of the lodge in season 3. The tree/arm – despicable and sad and confusing – seemed the natural place, the obvious place, to situate the head of James Hurley. James’ head has been slotted onto a spike at the gates of the city.
The meme – in general – almost exactly celebrates art theorist Hito Steyerl’s celebration of the ‘poor image’; it is not just a poor image sui generis, but an image made to be poor, low resolution, inexact. The decrepitude and weirdness of the meme – inexact cutouts, dodgy text, carelessly careful pasting and combination – celebrates the blurred pixel and smashed visage in an effort to create a kind of ironic mess in an internet world where the ‘good image’ (high res, soft focus, perfect) thrusts its way to the front and centre. The poor image is the image normal people contend with; it is why the stock image has become one of the infinity pools of meme culture and artistry. Ripped from its non-context of perfection and made screwy and given a context specific, the stock image and its handling on meme pages is an effort to claim ownership over meaningless (memeingless) visual communication; how dare you create an empty void which shows nothing ‘real’; the pixelated, fucked-around image is more real, because it speaks to a lurid commentary. A real. We know we’re being lied to. James – in so many ways – is also a lie. A blunt caricature. James is stock image; its absolute and final embodiment.
The meming of tpeaks affords infinite luxuries to its beautifully realised characters; the infinite cheer and goodwill and crazy resolution of Agent Dale Cooper. Cooper is hero; James, nada. Cooper is celebrated because he is pure; James is impure because he is a stock-image, a two-dimensional and lacklustre puppy at the centre of a universe in which the stereotype is a surface wound. Cut it out. If our eyes and ears have become adjusted to the algorithmic searching of modern social media technologies, then we look for patterns, and ways to distort them. The meme is a ‘good’ meme when it identifies a possible relationship between images (the more gnarled and obtuse the better), and unites them. It is algorithmic work, but stemming from the cultural brain rather than the blank computer.
James assumes others don’t have complexities or feelings; he ‘gets’ it, because he has vinyl.
The elevation of James to tribal hate figure in the meme community is a hopeful rejection of what we don’t want to be; sensitive and stupid, wearing ‘cool’ like second-hand Gosha street-wear bought in a Hackney flea market. James is pitiful and one-dimensional and crude. Confronted with the massive and enduring and electrifying and genuinely sporadic realness of Laura Palmer – the two-faced god – , James (boyfriend and wet sap), pales into a tepid and unappetising fluid. James is idly chewing voodo rays pizza at midnight – the paper plate folded into a crane or some such fuckery – while the Lauras and Coopers have left him there. He can take the night bus home; James likes the night bus. He rides it around ‘just to see the city’. James is the cretin we are fighting against.
III. Just meme something
The meme excavates our visual culture and reinserts the ‘good image’ into a new digital context; it means nothing, but also – formally – gestures toward its realisation as a kind of oblique language. The despicability of James – his being speared onto the body of shrieking foliage – is a recovery of his blandness (a blandness we all fear, let’s be real) and its mauled celebration; James is given a second life, a survival beyond life into the visual idiosyncrasies of ‘weird art’. If we ‘feel trapped and console ourselves with memes’, then the resurrection of James brings him within the orbit of internet sense-making; he is severed away from the stereotype and into the weird confluence of dispersed meaning (meming? Fuck i’m sorry) which constitutes shit-posting as an activity, as an artistic practice.
James – loner boy, witless pup – is bent and poured into a new mould which derides his ‘coolness’ posing as ‘realness’. The moody cur is taken down from his peg; because he is actually blind to the fact that life is more freaky and inexact and uncertain than his own selfish posturing can account for. James drives away on his bike only to circle back. He cannot escape how utterly strange life is; living on the precipice always of catastrophe and hurt. London shudders on a knife-point; London bursts into flames. We are lacerated by insubstantial waves and forces which render every ‘ordinary’ (seemingly normal) person part of a flabbergastingly uncertain ‘reality’. Life is strange; James – posturing in Jack Kerouac, Marlon Brandon unrealness – stupefies that complexity because he claims he ‘gets’ his sadness and is outside of this complex of pleasure and fear which we are all subject to. Boo.
The meme – as an artistic practice – is the blunting of the visual and linguistic tools which attempt to create the stereotype that is force-fed, in bulk, to an audience who – for the greatest part – reject that language. Why then are we still obliterated with it?
I kept thinking back to Trevor Paglen, arguing that we have become used to a visual world where images have a ‘tenuous relationship to everyday life and truth’. James – head dire and retching from the spike of an imaginary tree – is made more real because of this. James spluttering on his crappy bike into the distance, shades down despite the grey, is the reverse of that; a stock-image; and the stock image will be obliterated by lols.
James – forehead smashed into an elongated pile – becomes the atom bomb which represents all of the vileness of humanity.
The ultimate aim of meme culture is to deflate and reassemble such horrors; to reimagine the poor symmetry we are handed as if it were a ‘really existing thing’. James, pretending he is loftily unique, is no more than a stock image of a stock image; the act of placing – pinning – his gurning visage onto a horror tree in a room which defies meaning and sense is not an act of vandalism; it is an acknowledgement that really the world is not what it seems, and nobody gets the right to reduce it to meaning.
About the Author:
Owen is a writer and visual artist living in London. His recent works and performances include ‘404 recurring’ (a sound/text performance and digital installation) performed at the Horse Hospital, London, and ‘the adrift of samus aran’, published by Fathom books in the US. He tweets @abrightfar.