Genus: What Has Been Cannot be Unseen
Host: Shock Websites, blogs, forums
Geography: Worldwide Web
Associated Diseases: Visual Trauma
Transmission: Through the act of seeing and telling
Vaccine: Not seeing
Antiviral drugs: N/A
Best-known Cases: The arrow in the FedEx Logo
Malcolm Gladwell describes a meme as “an idea that behaves like a virus—that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects.” If this is truly the case, the meme “what has been seen cannot be unseen” shall be a deadly virus that is highly contagious and resisting to any cure. It is often associated with visual trauma: after visually experiencing displeasing photos or videos, one literally cannot forget or get rid of its memories. The film The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes makes a much-quoted example, which depicts the process of forensic pathologists performing autopsies. The ostensibly detailed measurement and examination challenges the viewers’ ability to look. Personally, the experience of watching it has been one of the most uncomfortable and unforgettable one.
Though “what has been seen cannot be unseen” is mostly associated with such shock pictures and videos created with disturbing intent, the phrase is later extended to images with hidden designs. Once the hidden design is pointed out to a person, one continues to notice it. Well-known examples include the FedEx logo and the LG logo.
What is the fun of seeing what was unseen and cannot be unseen once it is pointed out?
As much as people complain about continuously seeing what was unseen, they seem to share a passion for sharing such visual discoveries. Part of the fun comes from being able to see things differently. Take the FedEx logo for example. The negative space may be easily ignored if one is used to interpret the letter logos as they spell out. The discovery occurs when one take a different perceptual pattern and look actively into the negative space. By finding the arrow between the letter E and X, the design becomes a mixture of both letters and symbol, more stylish and visually dynamic. The arrow will then be instantly recognizable when one perceives the logo with both positive and negative spaces.
The fun of participating in this “Cannot be unseen” meme is to mock the meaning of the original design—to be able to see what was not there and to find more than what is intended for. Rotating the LG logo for 45 degree and slightly moving the letter L, the icon changes from a solemn looking face into a cheerful pacman, an alternation that the LG Company has never expected. By rearrange the visual symbols and finding small details that bring out a bit of light laugh, the newly acquired visual understanding transforms and subverts the meaning of the original image.
It seems that most of the examples in “what cannot be unseen” meme consist of idiosyncratic details and by sharing “what has been seen” one derives an immense part of the amusement. In a sense, to participate in this meme, either to look at an image from a new way or to share the visual discovery, is an active act to remap and recreate the visual pattern.
Is it true that what has been seen cannot be unseen?
I reckon Arnheim would disagree with this meme. If seeing is truly an active behavior, one can learn to see and unsee in the way that we play with the optical illusions and visual phenomenon: when one look at two jumping dots in the “Stroboscopic alternative motion”, one can forces one’s perception of the movement by adding vertical and horizontal bar to the image. The “real perception” of motion is impossible, and it can be trained and forced. What happens when one participates in this meme—trying to single out idiosyncratic details and making fun of an existing visual convention is similar to the process of training and tuning up one’s visual perception. It is thus theoretically possible that one can forget what has been seen and return to the original perception pattern. However, in practice, one does become more visually alert to the new visual pattern and cannot return to the original state of visual unconscious—one will never see the image the same way as it is before. In the Book Beautiful Evidence, Tufte uses Erle Loran’s explanatory reconstruction of the multiple perspectives in Cezanne’s paintings to show the mapping of pictures. Loran illustrates with four pairs of eyes floating round the perimeter of a map, pointing out the cubist table, the skewed top of which is covered by a tactfully placed clothes. Tufte comments on the reconstruction diagram, “readers of Loran’s book will never see Cezanne quite the same way again, which is largely for the good.” Straying away from Tufte’s argument, I am trying to figure out whether to be irrevocably transformed in perception pattern is truly a good thing or not. It seems that “cannot be unseen” is not only an innocuous invention that bring about a light laugh, so what’s the rhetoric?
What is the rhetoric for “what cannot be unseen”?
The meme “what has been seen cannot be unseen” is later expanded into wider realms, such as “what has been heard cannot be unheard”, “what is known cannot be unknown”. Now, it is not only the recreation of visual patterns, but also the thinking patterns—how do we understand and process certain information. A marvelous example would be the Chinese “Grass Mud Horse” and “River Crab” that thrive from the Internet and find popularity in both verbal and visual forms. It is a meme against the Internet censorship in China. The Chinese government advocates for a “harmonious society” and forbids demonic, pornographic and politically antagonistic language in the cyberspace. The unhappy netizens appropriate this expression by make “harmony” (He Xie) a verb, indicating to the action of deleting and filtering certain sensitive vocabulary on the Internet. Later, to avoid being harmonized, homophones are adopted in online posts. Curse words and sensitive phrases are transformed into a series of homophonic words, and with uncertain intention the alternative vocabulary has evolved into a list of imaginative animal names. The netizens further develop these new animals by giving them visual forms based on some unrelated species in real life. For example, The “Grass Mud Horse” (pronounced as “Cao Ni Ma”) is created to replace one of the most common swearing in Chinese. This Kuso interpretation is accompanied by images and videos of Alpaca, which is a kind of animal that lives on high lands. The “River Crab” (pronounced as “he xie”) is adopted to replace “harmonization”. The political struggle between the netizens against the internet censorship is translated into a grand fight between the “Grass Mud Horse” and the “River Crab”. It is exactly that Alpaca is obviously unrelated to the political struggle makes the meme more compelling. The subversive representation of the Internet Censorship changes the contemporary language irrevocably. Contemporary Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei acts this meme out with his outrageous self-portrait. In the picture, he is completely naked except for the stuffed animal he holds in front of his crotch. The gesture gains a double meaning: it can be understood literally as the stuffed “grass mud horse” is hiding the center of the body; or it can be read with the obviously rebellious message that he tries to convey, “Fuck your mother, the Communist party central committee” (“草泥马挡中央“). In this way, he makes use of homophony once more to refer back to the central government. Like a virus, the meme works against an organism by penetrating into its cells and subverts them against its original system. The meme in itself is a form of recreation and subversion to the mainstream culture.