Updated: Dec 31, 2020
CW: Contains a spooky image.
Fig. 1: Paul Valéry, photographed in 1925 by Henri Manuel
In his 1928 essay "The Conquest of Ubiquity", poet-philosopher Paul Valéry made the following prediction:
“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign... “
We are of course able to do exactly this, and much more, with a tap and a swipe. It takes hardly more than a few hundred milliseconds to dive into your Saved folder on Instagram or Twitter — and only a few more to find a ready-made response to current events, breakups, or the death of an especially reviled pop culture enemy.
Perhaps that perfect response needed to “epically own” a specific Republican Senator is already committed to tactile memory: favorites-mid-April-2020-one-and-a-half-swipes. Otherwise, you could take a gander with GIPHY, the moving-image library where at least 70% of the entire range of human emotion lies in pixelated zooms and reality-TV double takes. As for quick conversations in which you would prefer a rough facsimile of reality (or would like to lie in tandem sushi beds with your companion), try Bitmoji, where you can create your own personalized cartoon avatar.
Fig. 2: The author (right) and his editor (left) lie in tandem sushi beds. Thanks, Bitmoji.
Online, our modes for expression have multiplied, our language has evolved, and our capacities for empathy have radically changed (for better or for worse); but the depicted experiences of humanity have remained the same in some fundamental ways.
In the reaction image, there is room for pathos: images of sheer despair are a roaring hit on online communities such as Twitter or Tumblr. There is also room for rage, confusion, lust, fear, irony (lots of it), contempt, and exclusion. Even as we debate the origins and the merits of this esoteric iconography, we recognize the reaction image as an essential and ultimately accessible tool in our online discourse.
Maybe these cropped, free and anonymous images aren’t obvious heirs to the physical artworks of old. But you have to admit:
These Resemblances Are Uncanny!
1. The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jane Van Eyck / Rolfe and Kermit React
2. The Lamentation of Christ (c. 1480) by Andrea Mantegna / “He passed out from crying lol”
3. At Eternity’s Gate (1890) by Vincent Van Gogh / Devastated “Wojak”
4. Portrait of a Lady (1460) by Rogier van der Weyden / “LMFAOOOOO” Guy
5. Two Beauties with Bamboo (c. 1795) by Kitagawa Utamoro / I Already Ate All My Quarantine Snacks
6. Narcissus (c. 1597-1599) by Caravaggio / In Her Feels
7. The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch / Red Glitch “Wojak”
8. Christina’s World (1948) by Andrew Wyeth / Cat Standing Up
9. Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper / Squidward Heading Out
10. Man at the Crossroads (1934) by Diego Rivera / Spongebob Transcending
Victor Xia is an associate editor at The Incandescent Review. His writing has appeared in Sine Theta Quarterly, Crashtest Mag, and the Eunoia Review, among others. He's also a dedicated filmmaker and believes storytellers should not limit themselves to one form; catch up with him (@vlctir) or his latest work (@lplne) on Instagram.