The Eternal Insanity of GIF Loops and Why We Love It

By Cheryl Hann

 

To write a 1,000-word piece on the foreverness of GIF loops, you have to watch a lot of GIFs. It is demanding, emotional work. In a single morning, you might see a GIF of Spider-Man crumping followed by one of Oprah torturing her audience with bees. Sobbing after completely demolishing your laughter threshold? You’re gonna need to take a long lunch break after that. Still, letting a GIF break your brain can reveal something about the way these loops operate on our minds. While researching GIFs, I uncovered a lot of information about when and where they originated but little about what they are for or what they do to us. Why do we love GIFs so much?

While taking my lunch/three Seinfeld episodes-break, I had an epiphany: We love GIFs because they do something for us on a deeply psychological, maybe even cognitive level. Hear me out. The GIF that sent me into hysterics featured two guys on the beach. Guy 1, let’s call him Allan, is throwing a dog (um, why?) to Guy 2, let’s call him Scott. There’s no audio, but I imagine their dialogue going something like this:

Allan: Scott, I’m going to throw you this dog. Make sure you catch it.

Scott: Allan, please. I’m definitely going to catch it. It is moving in a perfect arc towards my arm.

Allan: Okay. ‘Cause I’m throwing it a pretty far distance, and I’m not gonna hold back.

Scott: Allan, dude, I’ve got this. I’ve clearly had only like, four beers.

Allan: Okay.

Dog hits water with devastating splash

Allan/Scott:


At first I can’t believe what’s happening. WTF, Scott? Then I can’t believe that it keeps happening. Even after I’ve dried my eyes, after the scenario has stopped being funny, I’m still watching. It’s the repetition that holds my attention: a form of mesmerism. Splash-splash-splash. Scott-Scott-Scott. Three minutes pass and I’m still watching. This insane loop – Allan, Scott, dog – has taken me outside of time. GIFs  – with their infinite, repetitive, fluid motion – give the impression that things can exist, just as they are, forever. They connect us, through image, to a perfect time in a perfect world, where Scott will always miss the dog and it will always be hilarious. They suggest the possibility of immortality. This is the role of the loop form inherent to GIFs. This cycle that renews itself eternally helps us escape, momentarily, our fear of death: “If Allan and Scott can live forever, unchanged, maybe I can too.”

It is also important that what we see never falters. The repetition of the image creates a rhythm and rhythm is an invaluable escape. As Mary Oliver points out, semantic satiation is something we’ve all experienced it, even if we didn’t know term for it. You say the word “nuisance” in your head. You say it again so many times that it loses all meaning. You think, “Am I saying it wrong? Nuisance. Nuisance.” Eventually, you doubt whether it was ever a real word at all. This loss of meaning is known as semantic satiation. In a GIF, the visuals of the loop – like repeated words – form a kind of closed loop on themselves. “One utterance leads into a second utterance... which leads into a third, and so on... [A]fter repeated pronunciation, meaningful continuation of the [visual] is blocked since, now, [it] leads only to its own recurrence.”[1] Thus the GIF takes us from a sense of déjà vu to one of jamais vu. By making us foreigners in a previously familiar experience, GIFs suggest the absurdity of existence. Like life, the loop ceases to make sense and yet it persists. This may seem like a negative at first, but I believe it, too, is a form of therapy.

Freud believed in a concept called “repetition compulsion” wherein human beings compulsively repeat traumatic experiences as an attempt to retroactively “master” the original trauma. It is an attempt to turn passivity into activity – to gain agency in a traumatic event. He uses the example of victims of sexual abuse who, later in life, often engage in sexual relationships with older, more dominant partners. By choosing to engage in this kind of sexual relationship, they regain power over their trauma. Whereas before, they were passive participants in a painful experience, now they are active participants in a pleasurable one.[2] I feel this analogy can be transferred to our love of GIF loops. Whereas we are passive participants in the painful absurdity of human existence, we are active participants in the pleasurable absurdity of an infinite visual loop. We choose the meaninglessness that comes with repetition, as well as the meaningfulness. So, when I’m through watching Allan, Scott, and dog, I feel refreshed. I’ve experienced a catharsis. That is why we keep watching GIF loops. We love escapism. We need catharsis. An infinite loop of the insane turned mundane can provide both.



NOTES
1. Ian M.L. Hunter, Memory (Baltimore: Penguin, 1964).
2. See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Vienna: International Psycho-Analytical, 1922).


 

 





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cheryl Hann is a comedian and writer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has a combined honors degree in English and Philosophy, but has also been known to blow hot air, so, if you don't agree with the views expressed here, or wish to discuss them further you can email her at cheryldhann@gmail.com.


 

 

INCITE Journal of Experimental Media
Issue Number Six (Fall 2015)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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