Everyone is in on the joke. This is a frightening development. It used to be the case that only young people were in on the joke. But no longer. Now even the weatherman seems to know what’s up. There is a low pressure system over the Gulf of Carpentaria, he says. But for the savvier viewers at home, a knowing grin. Weathermen are not meant to be in on the joke. They are mostly not even trained as meteorologists, and were once dependably ‘lost’; uptight, obscurely confused, makeup caking their huge pores, dumb. But now look at him. The weatherman looks like he might have interesting opinions on some of Godard’s more obscure 70s agit-prop films. Or he knows the difference between Galician and Catalan vermouths. Or he’s friends with some sort of playwright. Or a choreographer, or something. This is unexpected from the weatherman, and yet, here we are.
YouTube vloggers are much more in on the joke than even the once humble weatherman. Vlogging is the end of artifice. Vlogging is not even breaking the fourth wall, it is not pulling back the curtain. It is a loving, lingering shot of the folds of the curtain. The sickly light of the vlog’s mise-en-scène, the indecent luminosity of digital video, encourages you to examine the thread count of the curtain, its dirt. The viewer knows that they can trust that dirt, that dirt lasts, it has nothing to hide, it speaks in a dusty voice, it is in on the joke.
But not only dirt. The temporal quality of vlogging is very much in on the joke as well. Vlogs tend to be both too long, and yet also beholden to a strange alacrity in the rhythm of the editing. The jump cut is the fundamental aspect of YouTube’s visual grammar. The jittery jump-cuts of YouTube videos pursue a rhythmic rather than narrative end; they exemplify what the Greeks would have called kairos, the quality of making the right action at the right time. You can't teach kairos; it's not something which can be repeated or copied, but something which exists in time, which is authentically of the moment. Every edit is a lie, but vlogging's particular staccato rhythm seems to sidestep questions of truth and fakery altogether. The rhythm is not wrong, the viewer gets it, they are in on the joke.
Does it matter that everyone is in on the joke? The occupational hazard of the joker is to forget that they are in on the joke. Fortune-tellers have a term for those who forget that they are joking, who come to believe in the power of their own artifice; these are the ‘shut-eyes’. They have closed their eyes, they don’t see the joke anymore, they’re not funny, just sinister. Lacan says that the non-dupes err, but then so does everyone, so, you know. Possibly the best we can hope for is to be an honest crook, to keep our eyes open, giggle a little, watch, be careful.
Christopher O’Neill is a PhD candidate studying the history and philosophy of tracking technologies at the University of Melbourne.