The Tumblrst Tumbl Ever Tumbld: or, How I Found the Angel of History Trapped on the Flypaper of Social Media

By Dominic PettmanFebruary 20, 2014

The Tumblrst Tumbl Ever Tumbld: or, How I Found the Angel of History Trapped on the Flypaper of Social Media

Cathode angel. Spinning in glitchy grace. Ageless sylph gyroscope. What unearthly message do you bear our lost kind?

ONCE UPON A TIME — May 20, 2013, to be exact — the perennially uncool multinational company Yahoo announced that it had acquired the new and hip social networking site Tumblr for 1.1 billion dollars. The panic amongst its user base was swift, global, and of course “shared” through Tumblr itself, as its overwhelming young fans unleashed clever, angry memes to voice their complaints and concerns at being integrated into arguably the least hip corporate mothership of all. Several months later, however, and little seems to have changed in the site’s daily functioning. Tumblr is still one of the most popular online places to exchange bits and bytes with mostly unknown “friends” for little more than the pleasure of doing so, although censorship of taboo pornographic content is no doubt more vigilant than before, with the increased resources available. Indeed, it was just such content that led to Tumblr’s exponential growth, and its impressive “stickiness” with users (referring, beyond the innuendo, to the addiction quota which lures people back to their own Tumbls, and away from other distractions of the day, such as Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest, or Facebook).

But to simply place Tumblr inside the massive and seedy red-light district of the internet would be a mistake, despite the sheer quantity of unclothed human anatomy on offer. For one thing, everything on Tumblr instantly becomes “porn” once the upload is complete; that is, in the recently adopted sense of the word: a generalized fetish for any object whatsoever. Whether a Tumblr’s microblog is dedicated to pets, cupcakes, celebrities, cars, fonts, medieval manuscripts, or global wind patterns, everything on the site is — by virtue of its minimalist operating system and mandate — porn. Hence we have food porn, cute porn, architecture porn, design porn, book porn, earth porn, data porn, and every other type of porn imaginable. What’s more, these new porn-forms are then mixed and matched together, according to the zeitgeist’s penchant (if I may mimetically mix linguistic poachings), for maximum hybrid effect.

The good-old fashioned type of porn on offer (flagged by Stephen Colbert as Tumblr’s raison d’être, during an interview with its founder, David Karp) spans the entire spectrum — from peek-a-boo vanilla cheesecake to edgy LGBT chocolate chip with cherry swirls. The overwhelming majority of erotic imagery on Tumblr, however, is self-consciously just that: “erotic.” This is “tasteful” porn, shot by men, mostly, but circulated by chicks, for chicks. Chicks halfway through their undergraduate degree in English (and, no doubt, the savvier guys who want to seduce them, most likely by reading them Keats or Milan Kundera). A typical user might pair an image of a topless model in stockings and suspenders — staring out from a Parisian balcony, halfway through winsomely reading a letter — with a quote from Anaïs Nin or Lana Del Rey. (Herself a torch-singer for an age more interested in the nocturnal glow of the smartphone.) Or even more likely, they might put up an animated gif of Anna Karina arguing playfully with Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman; complete with captured subtitle, expressing a sentiment which precisely 34,000 fellow Tumblrs appreciate and can relate to (according to the number of “notes” attached to said image — this community’s equivalent of “likes” ... which in turn denotes an automatic “share” along viral vectors. Hence the name, as images tumble around and around the internet, like a giant tumble dryer).[1]

Despite literally millions of exceptions, then, the rule and heart of Tumblr is a shared aesthetic that is at once nostalgic, romantic, dreamy, timeless, sexy, and allusive. (Of course all such terms should be read with invisible scare quotes.) As such, Tumblr seems explicitly designed to embody that old chestnut, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Instead, it is a new type of digitized nostalgia-lite, at countless removes from any locatable mnemonic pain or visceral spasm. And so, it crystallizes the collective visual memory of a generation that is neither collective nor blessed with memory. This, of course, leaves only the visual — overflowing with floating signifiers of untasted elsewheres and elsewhens (precisely its appeal, no doubt). Tumblr is a promiscuous yearning machine, untroubled by such random juxtapositions as 1920s flappers, a young Marlon Brando, an aging Ron Burgundy, rich Japanese impressions of French desserts, an idyllic tropical beach, stills from Czech New Wave films, a random steampunk cosplay selfie with sepia filter, a three-second grab from a 1980s anime film, sad Etsy boyfriends, a baby elephant tripping over its ears, supermodels tripping over their heels, a teenage girl proudly showing the scars from a recent suicide attempt, the kinds of old timey objects you’d find in Wes Anderson movies (gramophones, hat boxes, vintage sextants, etc.), and, of course, cats. Lots and lots of cats.

Here the key term might be vintage, but it is not of any specific vintage per se; as if the sommelier poured wine from a bottle simply labeled “vintage wine.” Taken one by one, each image may have its own modest modicum of aesthetic merit, even if the overwhelming majority would be discounted as pure kitsch by your local art history professor. But whatever the expert opinion, these serve as mini-portals to escapist fantasies the viewer may not have realized they even had, not so much indulged in as archived for a later date that never comes. The viewer may drool over an obscenely exhibitionist grilled cheese sandwich or a handsome couple tangoing in 1940s Buenos Aires, but not for longer than it takes to scroll down to the next temptation, lifted from a brochure of a life out of reach. Fantasy, which has nourished and compensated the modern soul since Madame Bovary, is now more ubiquitous than ever, focus-grouped for easy digestion. (Think Wallpaper magazine as guest-curated by spambots.) As such, this is photography sans punctum, drained of the potential to prick, wound, or transport. An iconic eulogy to indexicality, and the intimacy it used to bring. A reference to a reference of a reference. It is Adorno’s menu, covered in the saliva of other diners who similarly failed to be served the actual meal. These images are “the scattered fragments of the aura”[2]; replicant memories[3]; tiny splinters of pre-scripted daydreams; libidinal Muzak ... the polished scales shed by the snake that already ate itself. And as a consequence, Tumblr has the emotional resonance or power of an advertising company’s “mood board” for the latest B-list celebrity fragrance.


But isn’t it the case that I am caricaturing an entire demographic or generation, just as these photos are caricatures of someone else’s enviable lifestyle? The question of the appeal of Tumblr, despite its empty and sterile scopophilic promise, should be finessed and contextualized. Clearly, the site is a millennial nexus, offering clues to the psyche of a generation traumatized by terror attacks, ecological catastrophes, economic collapses, crushing debt, anxious futures, and reality TV. They are besieged from every angle, working precarious jobs, if they are luckier than their friends. Who would begrudge them a bit of vicarious travel porn, between sending out mindless promotional tweets from the cubicle in their suburban startup (soon to be wound down)?

The very moment that technology affords escape from the tyranny of geography, economic realities ensure that these will be almost always only virtual escapades. And just as space becomes strangely elastic, time too loses its traditional shape and direction. In the 20th century, troubled people in the prime of their life at least had the comfort (i.e., art) of collective alienation, and the compensations afforded by melancholia. But today, as cultural critic Mark Fisher points out, “loss is itself lost,” thanks to the eternal present of YouTube’s — and indeed Tumblr’s — “conditions of digital recall.” Fisher goes on to discuss the “temporal bleed-through” of this novel form of anachronism, created in large part by the flattening archive of Google’s perfect memory. Here we are all not only witnesses but signatories of “the slow cancellation of the future” (Berardi). The 21st century is thus marked by inertia. “But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement. The ‘jumbling up of time’, the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that it is no longer even noticed.”[4]

Such a situation only highlights the lack of revolutionary potential within contemporary media. For while it is the God-given right of every older person to be shocked, appalled, and confused by the signifiers of the young, today is shocking by its very stubborn (over)familiarity. “Rather than the old recoiling from the ‘new’ in fear and incomprehension,” writes Fisher, “those whose expectations were formed in an earlier era are more likely to be startled by the sheer persistence of recognisable forms.” The result: we are faced with cultural accumulation and stagnation to an unprecedented degree, but whipped into a superficially appealing frappé by the well tended blenders of Brandingland.

Justin Clemens and I have previously called this form of mediatized glut “sampling”: whereby recognizable units of (pop) culture are recycled to the extent that their origin and powers of allusion become lost.[5] Sampling, we argue, functions according to a different logic to former historical modes, such as quotation or appropriation, in which the reference is shared and understood. In the latter, a social fabric of legible signs and landmarks help us navigate the quicksand of collective meaning. So even as Marcel Duchamp draws a moustache on the Mona Lisa, the viewer recognizes the Mona Lisa, and thus the irreverent mischief behind the gesture. And while I presume almost all Tumblr users still recognize the Mona Lisa, even if they couldn’t name the artist on the spot, the currency of shared references has been depreciating exponentially by virtue of its memetic circulation. (And here Baudrillard was indeed a prophet.) Sampling removes the proverbial quotation marks used to acknowledge a piece of reified and exchangeable culture, so that it may — paradoxically but inevitably — escape the confines and orientation points of origin. Henceforth, every possible statement, gesture, action, or interaction unfolds within generalized quotation marks — so much so, they no longer need be signaled. This is why your life is a patchwork of old TV shows, movies, ads, pop songs, and music videos, to the extent where it would be redundant to identify any of them by name. (In this sense, Tarantino is the last of the fanboy trainspotters, still caring about which cinematic tic comes from where, even as he undermines the wider motivation to do so, through sheer generic overlay and repetition.) As one of the latest instances of sampling, Tumblr images are bubble-gum cards that no longer connect to a discrete narrative, but offer a single scene or snippet, surgically removed from context. The meta-frame of “film” or “ad” or “TV show” is removed, so all stories flow into all others, resulting in enough brownish stale backwash to drown a continent.

But still, we peer through windows into worlds that don’t remind us of anything in particular, except perhaps the last time we felt a similar moment of pseudo-mourning for the very loss of lost experience. (A déjà–déjà vu, if you will.) What’s more, exchanging such tokens, click by click, exacerbates an ADD-OCD shuffle-button experience of affect: the “next, next, next” impulse of Chatroulette. Feelings of pathos, hunger, “squee,”[6] regret, lust ... they all swirl together into a fractal, centrifugal sense of self. Melancholia here would be the eternal acting out of our refusal to let history go, despite the fact that it has long left the building, and us — only partially ravished — in our attractively disheveled underwear. Not seduced and abandoned, but seduced by abandonment.

It would be too easy, however, to condemn Tumblr as nothing more than yet another manifestation of the paradox of disconnected souls, sharing their alienation through overconnected technologies: Sherry Turkle’s update of the movie palace’s experience of being “alone together.” (Even if that is patently true on one level.) Perhaps, despite everything I have said thus far, it is a gathering place for a new form of belonging. A Trojan horse made up of glossy commercialized images, allowing less astroturfed desires to realize themselves in ways as yet unvisualized. Especially if we read these images as examples of what new-media theorist and artist Hito Steyerl calls “image spam.” For Steyerl, the stock photography and human clip art that flows through our modems like blood plasma of neo-liberalism represent “our message to the future.” “Who are the people portrayed in this type of accelerated advertisement?” she asks. “And what could their images tell potential extraterrestrial recipients about contemporary humanity?”

The Tumblr species of image spam are — like their pop-up cousins —

horny, super skinny, armed with recession-proof college degrees, and always on time for their service jobs, courtesy of their replica watches. [...] A reserve army of digitally enhanced creatures who resemble the minor demons and angels of mystic speculation, luring, pushing and blackmailing people into the profane rapture of consumption.

So while “[i]mage spam is addressed to the vast majority of humankind [...] it does not show them.” Meaning, “it is an accurate portrayal of what humanity is actually not. It is a negative image.” But rather than merely bemoan the ideological misrepresentation at work in this scopic economy, Steyerl asks a fascinating and provocative question:

What if actual people — the imperfect and nonhorny ones — were not excluded from spam advertisements because of their assumed deficiencies but had actually chosen to desert this kind of portrayal? What if image spam thus became a record of a widespread refusal, a withdrawal of people from representation?

From this counterintuitive perspective, all the alluring bodies that populate Tumblr are the avatars of a voluntarily vanishing of the vowel-challenged. “If photography was a civil contract between the people who participated in it,” she writes, “then the current withdrawal from representation is the breaking of a social contract, having promised participation but delivered gossip, surveillance, evidence, [and] serial narcissism.”

It makes sense, then, that Fisher agrees with Steyerl that withdrawal is probably the only way to short-circuit this default mode of connection, sharing, liking, and binging. “Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal,” he writes, “from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms.” However, “the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before.” Aesthetically, the Spectacle through which we live is suffering from a severe “temporal pathology,” which manifests itself in generalized repetition-compulsion. (Is that a real 1980s pop hit, or a new hipster pastiche? Does it matter?) Meanwhile, underneath the screen, as it were, massive upheavals are occurring on the level of production, consumption, and all the things — and people — these structure socially, economically, and psychologically. The more things change in one sphere, the more they stay the same in another. No doubt, this arrangement suits the architects and engineers of both.[7]


Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 3.58.04 PM

In my own semi-hypnotized travels through this interactive utopian-dystopian coffee-table book, I was brought short by one particular animated image, so perfect and unshadowed in its form that even Plato himself might have pressed the “re-post” button.[8] It was a two-second animated gif, necessarily looped: the pixelated quintessence of everything I’ve touched upon. It depicts the top half of a young woman, or girl, anywhere between 10 and 30, in a medium shot self-consciously rendered as “cinematic” and “analog.” She twirls in silhouette, with a setting sun behind her, close to an unseen horizon. Her faced is as washed out as the saturation. The stock is warm: the green-yellow-brown palette of 1970s Polaroids, but in motion. Despite the lack of orienting clues, the viewer feels the scene is scooped up from California or the Southwestern desert. Either way, it is beamed to us from the nowhereland of carefree childhood, which we all have a right to remember, even if it never existed. At one point in this circular nano-movie, the invisible frame jumps down into sight, as if shifting uneasily in the sprockets of a Super 8 projector.[9] The waif’s long, blondish hair flares out like a halo, complementing the subtle solar flares and grainy textures of the “film stock.” Here, truly, is the Tumblrst Tumbl Ever Tumbld.

Indeed, if I could put one image in a time capsule to distill and represent the spirit of the times, it would be this one. Faceless yet gendered, modern yet vintage, moving yet trapped, evocative yet empty — the visual equivalent of a late Boards of Canada album. That is to say, the sound of one world-historical-nostalgic-nihilistic system clapping. It crystallizes the unspoken but unanimously understood ethos that “Dasein is design” (Lovink), and Being is whatever (Agamben, by way of Honey Boo Boo).


In his famous allegory for the catastrophic progress of history, Walter Benjamin employed Paul Klee’s angel, blown forward into the future, while staring back at the destruction from which the angel came. Were Benjamin writing in the age of the internet, he may have chosen a different avatar for his reading of “time out of joint.” Instead of bipolar-linearity, the frenetic and futile energy of an angel twirling like a spinning top.

Twirling, twirling, twirling ... until dizzy. While not moving an inch.



[1] One of the most intriguing aspects of this informal rating system is the common occurrence where two seemingly interchangeable images are separated in popularity by tens of thousands of votes.

[2] Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom: The Kitsch Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 84. Kitsch is thus “the leftover of modernity’s own dreams of transcendence” (ibid.). So to say, “Beginning with the nineteenth century and the process of commodification, remembrances underwent a second death that made them into souvenirs, ‘dead’ objects lacking mystical charge, secular relics liable to the contaminating touch of the world. Not content with this, modernity struck remembrances a third mortal blow — ironically, one that offered them dialectic movement. The destructive lightning strike was mechanical reproduction, and the shattered remains left after this major electrical storm were none other than kitsch” (81).

[3] “Replicants are obsessed with photographs. Where the Replicants can’t be entirely sure of the validity of their own pasts, pictures provide a visual totem, a physical connection to the implanted “cushion” of their memories. In our world, photographs — as well as the phonograph records of Benjamin’s critique — have long since given way to digital reproductions. We’ve managed to abstract the media even further, by manipulating the digital to evoke previous analog formats. As filters on digital photos make images look “vintage,” and digital effects make recordings sound like scratchy vinyl, we are facing crisis of context. It’s not just longing. It’s the undermining of that longing.” (Roy Christopher,

[4] Fisher rightly identifies Frederic Jameson as one of the most prescient cultural critics in the 1980s and ’90s to recognize this “alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history.” See “An Extract From Mark Fisher’s Ghosts Of My Life,” The Quietus, August 28, 2013. (

[5] Dominic Pettman & Justin Clemens. “A Break in Transmission: Art, Appropriation and Accumulation,” Avoiding the Subject: Media, Culture, and the Object (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004).

[6] A new word describing the clutch of nonsexual desire elicited by cute pictures, almost always fluffy animals.

[7] Jodi Dean’s work on “communicative capitalism” is essential here, as is McKenzie Wark’s on the vectoralist class. The question of Tumblr-coded architectonics, and the types of political communication they allow (in contrast to, say, Twitter), is an important one, deserving of a more focused treatment than I can offer in the present essay. However, I would note here that I originally intended to publish this piece on Tumblr at the address:, but the site refused to allow the word “tumblr” in the name of the blog. Surely a systemic sign of unwillingness to be self-reflexive.

[8] For reference, at time of writing this image had 226,576 “notes” or “likes” attached — a spectacularly high number — reinforcing my initial hunch that this was Tumblr crack. It was originally posted at: on April 26, 2012.

[9] In a different piece, Steyerl eloquently skewers the sensibility that fetishizes such obsolete technologies, identifying: “a quite ludicrous analog nostalgia in a specific corner of the artworld. Next time I see another 16mm film projector rattling away in a gallery I will personally kidnap it and take the poor thing to a pensioners home. There is usually no intrinsic reason whatsoever for the use of 16mm film nowadays except for making moving images look pretentious, expensive and vaguely modernist, all prepackaged with a whiff of WASPish art history.” (


Dominic Pettman is the author of Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (2011) and Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (2013).

LARB Contributor

Dominic Pettman is chair of the culture and media program at Eugene Lang College, and professor of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. His books include Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (2011) and Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (2013).


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