by Vit Van Camp
A latent undercurrent of magical thinking conditions our communication on the web. In posts and inputs presented on the various social media platforms, techniques of magical thinking and positive visualization intersect with the digital. As little hyperstitional innoculations, they infuse the social texture with a vision of reality which is never stand-alone, but always functions within a broader spectrum of processes – the “Level two chaos” of symbolic capitalism where reality “reacts to predictions about it.”To what degree can aestheticized and selective media production leverage impact on the offline world, and plant themselves in the ‘as if’ of a shared reality – and how does it relate to Charlie Zelenoff?
I just saw the documentary “Kickboxing world champion challenges Senegalese wrestlers” (YouTube, 1.5 mil. views) and I want to riff on the few surreal, way enjoyable moments which it offers. The almost hour-long documentary sees AurélienDuarte, “a multiple Kick Boxing, Muay Thai and Shidokan Karate Champion,” going to Dakar to learn, fight and, perhaps most importantly, get a documentary out of it. The idea was good, the technical realization also.
Throughout the stylized narrative, Duarte gets plunged ever deeper into the realization that he has no chance of beating the local champion, Moussa N’Doye. One of the local street elders quickly tells Duarte that he has to “use technique for sure,” due to his lesser stature. The ex-wrestler turned elder doesn’t “think [Duarte] can floor him, but [he] can still try.” And Duarte took the “advices” to heart – while his moderating skills nudge the program and the lolz ahead at a good pace, sometimes the story told by the camera is different from that which is projected in the moderator’s immediate environment. Often, the reactions of the locals are eerily out of sync and priceless as their space is invaded by a camera crew and one French expat who has come to challenge, and “make the most beautiful fight” with the local rising star. Duarte’s technical production does a good job of trying to elicit a feeling of specular normalcy – the camerawork does its best to dress the narrative with certain stock gestures, and Duarte is genuinely good at just this sort of investigative, hands-on journalism for our day.
But there are certain moments when things get surreal even for the moderator, moments when he can no longer keep up the facade which the documentary template requires. One of these comes when he is robbed on camera of 40 000 francs in the office of the local “respected magician,” the marabou, who offers to provide magical protection for his fight – for a price (“Kickboxing world champion…” 40:15). The initial conversation deserves to be transcribed in full.
Marabou: You came here to ask for my blessings for the fight against Moussa.
Marabou: It’s a great fight, so you have to give me a lot of money… The normal price is 30%.
Marabou: Thus we’ll reduce the price, so you give me 40 000 francs.
A.D. Generally, you’re taking 30% of the wrestlers’ bonus. And these 40 000 francs, I have to give you before or after?
Marabou: No, no. Before.
A.D. [gives him the money]
The marabou then proceeds to parody a grotesque ritual, but he ultimately got his slice of the pie with the moderator. Seeing Duarte have to bathe in a jug of non-descript fluid flowing from the marabou’s plastic Sprite bottle as part of a schizophrenically elaborate ritual (remember when you really wanted one of those kid’s chem-labs? well the maraboumade his one DIY). Seeing him convulsing, stripped down to his multicolored, macron-patterned shorts really touches something deep even in the most cynical viewer. Duarte is understandably shaken after returning, and the maraboufinally takes him out to the periphery to a baobab tree which he first douses in cow milk, and then proceeds to stab with a knife. Finally the two men join together in prayer, and Duarte is released back into the light (surely glad to have paid for his gamble with just the measly 40 000 francs).
Apart from this candid episode, the documentary shows just what the power of the shot can do, as the finish of the show is strangely ambiguous as to who won… Why do the children run cheering to Moussa, the local champion? Didn’t Duarte get knocked off his feet long before the local giant fell on all fours after him? Does that not mean Duarte lost? If so, why does he raise his hands in a gesture of victory? Did he think he won, simply because he didn’t properly know the rules? And then his all the more sinister words at the end: “I know that you could havedestroyed me any second” (emphasis mine) which seem to leave the local champion baffled? Didn’t N’Doye just obviously win? The camera and the way the narration is set leaves no doubt that it was in fact Duarte who won.
So where da G.O.A.T. at?
There seems to be a bit of a Zelenoff effect happening here – there is a level of reality where the protagonist experiences a disjunctive loss of agency within the actual, material environment. The subject then functions in favor of compensation through generating specular agency in the virtual sphere. It is a magical gesture of inscription via hyperstition – just like Duarte, Charlie Zelenoff came, saw, and dropped it. The results are grotesque in both cases as the two’s lackluster performances in real life create for explicit dissonance when compared with their crafted virtual identity.
To speak of Charlie specifically: he has recently broken up with Kim Kardashian, and he is the G.O.A.T.– “Greatest of All Time.” What would it be like if Charlie would have all the cameras and an elite post-production team, and went to a gym near you to show, once and for all, who the champ is. And he’s got the number on the hat to prove it for anyone who might be second guessing.
Duarte is not Charlie Zelenoff, as he remains more or less humble throughout his Senegalese experience. But both Zelenoff’s and the Planéte Fight documentary’s use of the formal medium produces an individualist, partly messianic self-image, and their crafted presence in cyberspace is equally as performative as it is hyperstitional (‘I speak of Kim Kardashian as my gf, therefore she is’). Like the wishing wall, cyberspace serves as a post-it board of all unlived imaginaries, accommodating all the shitposts of our might-have-beens. Sayingso, makesit so…
To come back to the conjunction of semiotic production and magic: any inscription onto the web functions as a type of offering, an intervention. The meme magick of the marabou and that of the world wide web differ only in the magnitude of their host range. On both the structural and subjective levels. We manipulate semiosis according to certain protocols to get potential results – just how potent the incantations and keywords we leave behind relies on the substrate, i.e. the social platform within which it is seeded (‘He is a pious man’ x ‘Kim Kardashian, when are you going to let me kiss you?’).
The second life, one where the marabouis actually a sorcerer, one where Charlie Z is actually a boxer, and one where Aurélien Duarte actually won, is presented as first nature, but the glitches and slippage from reality remain visible – some are explicit, some more covert, but the facade still inevitably falls apart and fractures. It is from those shards however that a new cybernetic and hybrid reality transpires – the Desert of the Real is never constituted by the either/or of Truth vs. Fantasy, but is haunted with virtually material specters which serve partial functions at particular times, only to dissipate back into the shimmering fatamorgana of cyberspace.
The digital sphere has re-forged the hyperstitional potential of cultural and artistic production. The taped ritual, the Youtube confession, or the click-bait documentary spin reality and blow it to and fro, inscribing positive feedback mechanisms at the semio-quantum level too complex to ever ‘take back’ later on down the arrow of time. In “Level two chaos,” Duarte both won and didn’t, Charlie Z is both the G.O.A.T. and a fellow suffering being, the marabou is both a Senegalese magician and a con.
What else is on?
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (Vintage, 2011).