Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Creative Mysticism and “Don't Hug Me I'm Scared”

I am a little in love with Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, the cult hit Youtube short and Tumblr darling (and 2012 Sundance Film Festival nominee(!), did you know that?, I didn't know that) by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling.

DHMIS and its sequels sit within the genre of subverted kids' show: it's a short in the style of an educational kid's show that quickly turns subtly creepy, culminating in full-blown nightmare fuel. But of course, there's plenty to delve into.

Let's take DHMIS at face value: as educational, or at least as a work responding to educational shows. Quoth the creators on their Kickstarter pitch:

Don't Hug Me I'm Scared is a show about puppets learning stuff.

That's common to all of the DHMIS videos so far: the main characters (three puppets: red, green, and yellow, with distinctive personalities) are taught about some abstract topic by a teacher figure. Topics as of writing include: creativity, time, love, and computers.

It's not a huge leap to say that The teacher-student "dialogue" in DHMIS mirrors that between society and the individual.

Here I'm using "society" to refer to a very generalised "main" memeplex; an amalgamation of the education system and media and advertising and business culture and pretty much everything that's in the business of declaring how people ought to think. Related but not the same: Fiorenza's "kyriarchy", Moldbug's "cathedral", caricature hippies' "The Man". (And, disclaimer: I'm restricting the scope of this claim to English-speaking cultures since [1] I have more familiarity with [i.e. ability to speak meaningfully to] the "Western society" memeplex and [2] that's the cultural context DHMIS originates within and critiques).

This interpretation is hardly unique. That said, I'm not familiar enough with the literature (as it were) on DHMIS hermeneutics to know whether it's the accepted wisdom.

Anyway! Let's talk about the first DHMIS. The teacher is Notebook, who I'll be using "she" pronouns for since that seems to be the Tumblr consensus and I'm a lazy fuck (but remember, the official line is that Notebook's gender is paper). The subject: creativity.

Lesson summary: creativity is bad news.

Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, 2011.

Creativity as a black box

— How do you get the ideas?

— I just try to think creatively.

There is no complete mechanistic account of how to be creative, no process summarised by an A4 flow chart. Instead, it seems that the creative process is a black box so far as monolithic organisations are concerned.

When Notebook says "I just try to think creatively", she effectively writes off the process of creativity as an inscrutable, atomic thing. She could have easily presented any number of actual suggestions, with all their varying pros and cons (e.g. any of the usual cliches: asking guiding questions, taking a walk, playing word association...). But she doesn't, and that's because (as a metaphor for "society") she has no interest in offering partial answers, in suggesting that there are pieces of the puzzle she can't provide. It's far more convenient to suggest that creativity is something that you either have or you don't.

The closest Notebook gets to providing constructive advice on the subject is "Listen to your heart / Listen to the rain / Listen to the voices your brain". Notice that these are all platitudes. They pattern match to some standard vague picture of what creativity is, but they don't actually offer any actionable advice.

(Compare to similar after-school special messages: "The power was inside you all along." "Real love prevails." Even when such platitudes do provide an account of something real, they do so in an entirely opaque way.)

A world of finite possibility

In The Gollum Effect, Venkatesh Rao defines combinatorial consumption to describe the limited ways in which we are allowed to interact, as consumers, with content producers.

[Our] potentially infinite range of... behaviors [are] reduced to paint-by-numbers consumption. Our lives are about choosing within the confines of a giant macro version of the Starbucks drink-construction decision tree.

Structure isn't anathema to creativity, but the kind of structure that society runs on is. We've inherited a civilisation whose lifeblood is checkboxes on standardised forms and fungible commodities, and so naturally we fall into the habit of thinking of creative expression as falling into a neat taxonomy. Here are the performing arts, here are the fine arts; here are things that hang on museum walls with accompanying placards containing neat, satisfying one-paragraph statements of intent.

The problem isn't that "creativity" is a square peg forced into a round hole; the problem is the expectation that once you've tried the round, square, triangular and star-shaped hole, you'll have fit your peg into something.

Hence Notebook's declaration that "green is not a creative colour". It's not simply that green is a metonym for nature and organic, unpredictable creation... though certainly there's something to the implication about spiritual communing-with-nature and/or environmentalism as restricted forms of thought.

No, green simply was never on the menu to begin with:

Choose your favourite colour out of any of these five options.
Choose your favourite colour out of any of these five options.
Still from Don't Hug Me I'm Scared.

Behold!: the instructions for arranging sticks into colours. Notebook's colour wheel offers five possible options: blue, yellow, red, brown, and peach. That was the yellow puppet's mistake: he failed to follow the rules of creativity; he was creative in the wrong way. He was told to think outside the box and made the mistake of interpreting that literally, rather than what Notebook really meant: "think inside this different box!".

Again and again we're shown that Notebook's conception of 'creativity' is incredibly restrictive. The puppets succeed in her estimation when they're finding shapes in the clouds: their voices in unison, their interpretations identical, their imaginations spurred by very deliberate prompts on her part. They fail if they go off script, painting a picture without her explicit prompting.

Any half decent self-perpetuating system of ideas needs to keep people thinking inside some box, preferably one it has a good handle on. Actual, unbounded creativity has the potential to be destructive. Yes, it sometimes means tags on fences or playing with one's food. But unchecked creativity can also turn into paradigm shifts, philosophical revolutions, better ideas -- all threats to the dominant memeplex, best avoided if possible.

This is a large part of why institutional creativity, be it corporate team-building exercises or primary school classrooms, is what it is. It lets people channel their creative energies within a circumscribed safe space. And it's to our detriment. Exploring a playground can be fun, but exploring uncharted territory can be meaningful. If the latter option is closed to us as individuals, we collectively lose out.

"I use my hair to express myself."
"I use my hair to express myself." Ibid.

Rigid, implicit constraints is the name of the game here. Nobody ever says out loud that there are only five valid colours. That would call the illusion of creative freedom into question.

Notebook uses her hair to express herself, but what's left unsaid is that this is supposed to be the archetype of self-expression. (We all learn by ostension; if you only ever show a child examples of self-expression involving clothing and surface appearances then that's the mental model they'll form.) It's part of a lifetime of subtle hints that any drive for self-expression can be, should be, channelled into this form.

It's not meant as a lie, either. Spend long enough in the system and it's easy enough to believe that pieces of flair are a reliable proxy for creativity and individuality.

Type errors

What's your favourite idea? Mine is being creative.

What do we make of the first spoken words in the song? "Being creative" is an idea in only the loosest interpretations of the word "idea". They're closely related concepts, but the way they're conflated is unmistakeably absurd.

"Category mistakes", roughly speaking, are the linguistic act of describing something in a way that's absurdly inapplicable. When we ask with genuine literalness how tall love is, or say that our shoelaces are asleep, we are committing a category error. This is different to metaphor: "my computer is angry with me" isn't a category error if it's not meant literally.

(My programming background means that "type error" springs to mind; both phrases have similar connotations.)

Describing "creativity" as a "favourite idea" is essentially committing a type error. So too is "collect some leaves and sticks, and arrange them into your favourite colours".

I say "essentially": to the former, there is such a thing as the "idea of creativity"; to the latter, arranging sticks into words is certainly a perfectly doable thing. But it's still so very, very wrong. The way in which Notebook describes creativity as an idea conflates the relationship between process and product, blends them into an inscrutable hole. And the leaves-and-sticks exercise suggests that the English word "blue", that assortment of letters, is itself a suitable substitute for the colour blue.

Just as the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, the words for colours are not the colours themselves. It's a strange exercise -- no more so than many real-world classroom activities, but then again, maybe that's the point. Mistaking words with their extensions (fingers with moons) is an exceedingly common form of category mistake. It may well be intrinsic to human experience.

All these type errors and category conflations lead, eventually, to a kind of naive monism that treats everything related to creative expression as interchangeable. Colours are letterforms; the creative process is the creative product... if you truly buy into the fungibility of the creative process, then of course you're going to undervalue art and decide that your amateur work is as good as any veteran craftsperson's.

Granted, overly restrictive categorisations can stifle creativity, as we've discussed above. But false attitudes of monism and fungibility aren't transcending categorisations, they're squeezing everything into one box. This does creativity (and all of us who benefit from its artful exercise) no favours.

On the "Disney acid sequence"

Yes, the lightning and the nightmarish shaking and screaming is how Don't Hug Me I'm Scared fulfils its mandate as a subverted kids' show. It makes excellent use of the uncanny valley with the costume swaps (a technique repeated later in DHMIS 4). The cacophony of the discordant violins builds calculatedly, inducing an almost physical discomfort response in the viewer. But why the specific grotesque/frightening images that the puppets encounter when they let their imaginations roll free? And more importantly, what is it about this Disney acid sequence that precipitates Notebook's change of heart and memorable final line?

Notebook's reaction to the nightmare sequence suggests an interpretation: it represents the dangers of thinking outside of the box. (...from her point of view, of course.) This is the section where the narrative framing is least in her control.

Consider:

  • The puppets clap with excitement as they cut a cake, revealing innards and gore inside. An allusion to the meat industry, perhaps? The smooth exterior of the cake compared to its contents suggests a more general relationship too, that between the pristine surfaces of our consumer goods, and the suffering and other 'unsightly' things that went into their production.
  • The "costume change" -- switching to human actors for the yellow and green puppets during their dancing, is deliberately ungainly and awkward, a deviation from the classical kids'-show visual appeal of the puppets into something more unsanitised and visibly imperfect.
  • The green puppet writes "DEATH" and smears skulls and crossbones across the page. The red puppet takes a very real heart and covers it with glitter. There is an acknowledgement of the grotesque here, and further still, a willingness to engage with it, to incorporate it into art. If the abject is always kept hidden away then there is something truly radical about playing with it and allowing it to become part of a thing of beauty.

From Notebook's point of view, this is the moral of the story: free association and unconstrained creativity is horrible; it's discomfiting; it's to be avoided wherever possible. Stick to naming pictures in the clouds, because if you go off the beaten track you may not like what you see.

(And really, what could be worse than not liking what you see?)

I would posit that the authorial message here is quite different to Notebook's. Yes, the nightmare sequence is unsettling. But it's not intrinsically depicting the puppets doing anything wrong or bad; most of the creepiness is in the framing. And like most shocking pieces of media, one can become desensitised to it, feeling less fear or revulsion on subsequent views. Perhaps the same could be said for the off-the-wall thinking that the sequence represents: it's confronting, but most of that comes from the initial novelty and surprise. There's much more to see once you learn to suppress the flinch.

Of course, that's assuming we'd want to engage with it. Notebook may be authoritarian in warning us away from these forms of thinking/expression, but she panders to a very human desire to avoid negative stimuli. It only takes a shift in mood to go from siding against her to with her.

...Let's all agree to never be creative again.