The ‘Harlem Shake’ and the Western Illusion of Freedom

by Jason Hickel, Arsalan Khan

When five teenagers in Queensland, Australia uploaded a video of themselves dancing to a short excerpt of Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake” it immediately went viral, garnering some 400 million views and spawning well over 100,000 copycat versions.

Critiques of the fad thus far have pointed out that it looks nothing at all like the real Harlem Shake, and that – as Harlem residents have been quick to assert – it appropriates black working-class style without due acknowledgment, leaving no room for the original.  These are important points, but there’s yet more to explore about the Harlem Shake craze. As by far the most popular meme of the year so far, it begs for analysis: Why is it so infectious? What does it tap into in our collective consciousness that makes it work so well?

Of course, one might reasonably ask why anyone should care about the meaning of such a flimsy, fleeting fad like the Harlem Shake, which in a matter of weeks will be eclipsed by yet another viral meme. What is there really to say about such a bizarre collective ritual?  It’s just a bunch of young people having fun, one might say – leave it alone and enjoy its entertainment value.

But there’s more to it than that.  We suggest that the Harlem Shake videos have become so popular because they dramatize aspirations for freedom that lie at the very center of Western culture.  But the particular notion of freedom at play here is one that has been thoroughly co-opted by consumer capitalism in a manner that undermines the possibility for emancipatory politics.

To get at this, let’s begin by considering the general formula of the meme itself.  Each video offers 30 seconds of footage divided evenly into two parts.  First we’re presented with a mundane setting, generally formal or regimented, with a single non-conformist doing a random dance to which no one pays any attention.  By far the most popular is the one with the Norwegian soldiers, which has well over 50 million views. It presents us with CCTV-like footage of uniformed cadets in rigid lines, their bodies stiffened to attention.  Other popular versions include office workers – again, sometimes in uniform – sitting behind rows of desks and staring like zombies into their computer screens.

Then the bass drops, the music shifts, and the scene cuts to total mayhem: everyone wears unique costumes, generally with masks, often scantily clad, and each person engages in their own completely idiosyncratic dance.  The costumes and dances are usually absurd: one might wear a sleeping bag while squirming on the ground, bash against a wall while wearing a Viking costume, or stand in the corner with a dinosaur mask doing pelvis thrusts.  It all seems totally random; indeed, the more random the better.

A theory of freedom

These videos are so compelling because they stage a simple and elegant contrast between the rigidity and monotony of everyday life and work, and an indomitable spirit that aims to escape, to transcend, to overcome stifling social norms. In doing so, the meme taps into a long tradition of classical liberal thought, resonances of which can be found in thinkers as diverse as Voltaire, Emerson, and Nietzsche. This tradition holds that liberation – the emancipation of the individual – requires separating the self from social norms, resisting mass conformity, and questioning the rules imposed by arbitrary authorities.

This Western conception of freedom assumes a fundamental tension between the individual and society: the former is considered to be authentic (and prior) while the latter is considered to be artifice (and imposed).  There is nothing natural or universal about this idea.  Ethnographers have pointed out that people in other cultures assume no such tension between the individual and society.  Furthermore, on an analytical level it makes no sense, for individuals cannot exist outside of social norms. As Clifford Geertz has so famously put it, “there is no such thing as human nature independent of culture”; people without culture would be “unworkable monstrosities with very few useful instincts, fewer recognizable sentiments, and no intellect: mental basket cases.”

In an increasing number of the Harlem Shake videos, this individual-versus-society motif gets played out as a story of repressed libidinal energy. Polite, formal decorum in the first half turns suddenly into nakedness and overt sexual expression, suggesting that wild, chaotic desire always lies just below the surface of stable everyday life.  This plays up the Freudian version of individual freedom that is so popular in Western thought: the id, the source of authentic desire, always strives to rupture the artificial boundaries set for it by the ego (the rational, realistic self) and the super-ego (the moralizing force of church and parents).

The meme also has hints of a kind of anti-capitalist, or at least anti-bureaucratic, logic.  It recalls Max Weber’s famous assertion that capitalism is like an “iron cage,” typified by that distinctly modern institution: bureaucracy. Weber writes, “The bureaucratic organization, with its specialization of trained skills, its delineation of competencies, its rules and hierarchical relations of obedience… [is] in the process of erecting a cage of bondage which persons—lacking all powers of resistance—will perhaps one day be forced to inhabit.”

This sentiment is expressed most poignantly in the videos that show nameless workers performing mundane tasks in a drab, boring environment.  The image here is one of pure alienation and the dehumanizing force of modern labor, which is then transcended through the indomitable spirit of the individual.  This explains why the video of Norwegian soldiers has become so popular: it sets up arbitrary authority, rigid rules, and mass conformity for attack, and explodes against them with a veritable orgy of craziness.

Resistance without politics

Now, what’s interesting about the Harlem Shake videos is that the program of resistance and freedom that they espouse has no substantive political referent.  The meme taps into a deep and pervasive urge for a more egalitarian and equitable political-economic system but then offers absurdist fantasy as the best solution.  Resistance is focused solely on non-conformist individual self-expression, to the point where pelvis-thrusting octopuses and light sabre-wielding Yoshis become icons of liberation.  Wild desire and absurdist behaviour come to substitute for political activism, suggesting a rather grim outlook on the possibility of emancipatory politics in our age.

The concept of resistance that these videos perform is not really resistance at all.  In fact, it participates in wider discourses about libidinal desire and individualism that are central to our contemporary capitalist moment (as we argue here). A quick survey of billboards, television commercials, and magazine ads would be enough to reveal that libidinal desire and individualism have become stock-in-trade for corporate marketers.  Companies make a great deal of money by setting up the idea of conformist alienation and then selling products that promise to help consumers express their real, authentic selves.

Rebellion, in this sense, is no longer a threat to the establishment; rather, since at least the 1970s onward, it has become a commodity that is openly bought and sold on the market.  The cultural critic Thomas Frank has aptly referred to this process of co-optation as “the conquest of cool.”

Along these lines, we can see the form of resistance that the Harlem Shake meme dramatizes as deeply complicit with the logic of consumer capitalism. It is a form of resistance that operates as capitalism’s own recuperative frame: its logic (namely, the imperative to desire against all constraints and to give full rein to individual self-expression) offers an avenue for rebellion that loops back to support the goals of capital accumulation. 

This meme has such global appeal because it embodies the great promise of capitalism. It juxtaposes two extremes: the extreme of mindless, monotonous work with the extreme of libidinal freedom. This is the great promise that capitalism extends to youth around the world: if you spend your days and nights doing the menial, repetitive tasks that corporations depend upon, then your reward will be an orgy of unlimited freedom in the form of consumptive power.

Absurdism and class privilege

But there’s yet another element of the Harlem Shake that is worth drawing out, namely, the absurdism that it promotes.  Absurdism has gained widespread social currency over the past decade, particularly among upper middle class youth and college students.  In addition to the Harlem Shake videos, consider the recent “planking” craze, where individuals place their bodies in a rigidly horizontal pose in random public spaces, take pictures, and then post them on Facebook.  Facebook is increasingly littered with absurdist photographs along these lines.

One might read this fascination with absurdism as an expression of political nihilism or even escapism: young people who have worked hard in pursuit of success realize that the old certainties that their parents enjoyed are no longer guaranteed.  Given the realities of climate change, financial crisis, economic decline, and the capture of the political system by corporate elites, students graduating from college may not be able to find stable careers, command secure salaries, save money, buy houses, start families, and participate meaningfully in the democratic process.  Absurdist behaviour reflects these anxieties.  It says: “the world is riddled with chaotic uncertainties; there’s not much hope, so we might as well have some fun.”

There is some value to this perspective.  After all, anxieties about one’s place in a rapidly changing economic landscape run deep.  But the people who deploy absurdist symbols –primarily middle and upper middle class youth – are not the ones who are really being screwed by the system.  In light of this, a more accurate reading might be that absurdism becomes a means with which to signal privilege, a way of saying: “I am so certain of success that I don’t need to take myself too seriously.”  Working or lower-class youth aspiring to middle class status are much less likely to violate norms of decorum in the face of authority; they know what’s at stake, and they have too much to lose.  They literally cannot afford to be absurd.  

Absurdism communicates a certain willingness to play with symbols that suggests a familiar ease with the world, with meaning, and with authority. This is the domain of elite class privilege, and particularly of white male privilege. We can go further still: absurdism not only reflects acquired status, it also enables access to that status.  Mastering absurdism signals one’s ability to speak a certain class language; it flags participation in a distinctly white-collar world of college educated youth.

If this is true, then we can circle back to add another element to the common critique that we raised in the beginning.  In the process of appropriating black working-class symbols, the Harlem Shake meme transforms them through absurdism to be totally inaccessible to working-class people and then – in a twist of cruel irony – uses them as markers of privilege.  This further underscores our point that the meme not only peddles an apolitical concept of resistance, it does so in a manner that bolsters the very system that it seeks to overthrow.

This should not be surprising to us, for, as Marx argued so eloquently in the Grundrisse, capital cannot abide limits to profitability; it always converts them to its favor.  This is particularly true when it comes to political resistance, which can so easily be neutralized or appropriated.  The take-home point here is that we have to guard against this tendency with vigilance, to ensure that our deepest urges for social change – our cries against alienation and domination – don’t get plundered of their true potential.  

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First published: 21 March, 2013

Category: Activism, Culture, Philosophy and Theory

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14 Comments on "The ‘Harlem Shake’ and the Western Illusion of Freedom"

By David, on 21 March 2013 - 13:25 |

Worth noting the more radical, subversive uses the meme’s been put to in the Arab world http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/14/harlem-shake-moves-radical-beat-tunisia

By Jay, on 21 March 2013 - 14:32 |

Majestic piece. From a marxist view, it made me feel guilty for not analyzing it deeper. We cannot ignoring the deeper implications and systematic effects that a institutionalized dogma of capital accumulation can have on the subconscious of popular culture… 

Thanks! 

By claire, on 21 March 2013 - 21:34 |

This piece is amazing. It’s well written and incredibly digestible for such an insightful analysis. It’s upbeat and powerful, I wish there was more of them… and at the same time it leaves me with an incommensurable taste of darkness… If ‘capital ALWAYS converts limits to profitability to its favor’, if rebellion is doomed to be co-opted, then what else is left? How can I trust your intervention or any other form of political resistance to be any different? What’s the point of critical analysis if it just brings me more awareness or of crying against domination and alienation? Behind the poignant analysis, the description of a rigid system makes me feel trapped and powerless, is it really that black and white?

By Jesse Colman, on 22 March 2013 - 06:32 |

This oversimplifies complexities of privilege to make a point against capitalism. Perhaps the adoption of this absurdist expression by upper middle class privilege is not some cruel way for privilege to dominate against the oppressed but instead in expression of a want for an experience that they are without because they are privileged.

By Tom, on 22 March 2013 - 09:43 |

“Working or lower-class youth aspiring to middle class status are much less likely to violate norms of decorum in the face of authority; they know what’s at stake, and they have too much to lose.”

What nonsense. Have you forgotten the absurd events of August 2011?

By Mercury, on 22 March 2013 - 13:07 |

Favorite line:

“Mastering absurdism signals one’s ability to speak a certain class language; it flags participation in a distinctly white-collar world of college educated youth.”

Good job boys.

By Tim H, on 22 March 2013 - 14:13 |

Intriguing reading, but question-begging. Are these videos actually about the “rigidity and monotony of everyday life and work”? Plenty of them start in situations that are neither rigid nor monotonous, but simply mundane and unremarkable; the humour derives from the subsequent contrast. It’s therefore not clear there’s any “espousal” of “resistance” going on at all. These seem more like explosive, carnivalesque releases of suppressed libidinal energy (as in the Freudian reading). Hedonism might therefore be just that, rather than some tool of workers’ emancipation. And since this “logic of resistance” point is doubtful, and hedonism is not some exclusively capitalist preserve (think of the party & protest movement of the 90s), it’s not at all clear that it is “deeply complicit with the logic of consumer capitalism” here. Moreover, is “alienation ... transcended through the indomitable spirit of the individual”? In part yes, but these are also mass raves, collective expressions. Indeed they only work because everyone, rather than one isolated figure, joins in.

Lastly, it’s pretty patronising to assume that absurdism is “totally inaccessible to working-class people”, but if you’re right, how do we explain the meme’s popularity? If “Working or lower-class youth aspiring to middle class status are much less likely to violate norms of decorum in the face of authority; they know what’s at stake, and they have too much to lose. They literally cannot afford to be absurd”, why is the Harlem Shake a success? You seem to be arguing that the meme simultaneously appeals to the masses because it expresses a liberatory fantasy, and is totally inaccessible to the masses because of its “elitist” absurdism. How can both be true?

By Neil, on 22 March 2013 - 21:25 |

It makes me think of the mass social phenomena of dancing mania, historically called Saint Vitus’ Dance, that occurred widely in Europe between the 14th and 17th Centuries. The fact that these epidemics tended to occur during times of great hardship have led some scholars to conclude that people were dancing to relieve themselves of stress and put poverty out of their minds. One description I’ve just read (see wikipedia) mentions that dancers paraded around naked and made obscene gestures; some even had sexual intercourse. Others acted like animals and jumped, hopped and leaped about; sometimes dancing went on for days and people collapsed and some died from exhaustion and injuries. We post-moderns clearly still have some way to go but as we head towards a state of neo-feudalism little doubt that many phenomena prevalent in the middle ages will reoccur and intensify.  Personally I’m looking forward to seeing the next Thomas Munzer and Peasant millenarian revolt.

By Mr Workaday, on 24 March 2013 - 02:02 |

Cool, thanks for this, very interesting.. You might have underestimated how much this stuff cuts across class lines though. These video-memes are fairly egalitarian in terms of who’s participating - look at the video purely on a content-level…who’s being excluded? Participation isn’t predicated on anything other than the assumption that there’s some element of your life that’s in some way regimented…not a big leap for most people. If you don’t have that? You can still participate on any number of other levels for any number of other reasons, not least of which is “it’s reached critical mass at this point, so why the hell not?”
People of different classes are part of the same culture - a culture responsible for assigning and reinforcing status and value…I think partly the popularity of Harlem Shake and Gangnam Style is that participation is open to everyone and raises so few questions about who you are or how much cultural capital you have, what status or value you’ve been assigned. You can jump right in, no barriers to entry, no demands for you to make an evaluation. It’s not as exclusionary as you’re supposing, I think.

By testpattern, on 26 March 2013 - 19:24 |

I would like to see your data concerning your class analysis in this “majestic piece.” Did you watch all 11,000,000 videos that come up in the YouTube search? How could you tell the income levels and class backgrounds of all participants? Also, what are you basing your understanding of working class humor traditions upon? Where do you get the conclusion that poor people don’t get or used absurd humor?

By Moe , on 30 March 2013 - 05:12 |

I have a problem with the Anglo-centric purview that this comes from. Also alot of these assumptions aren’t really grounded on anything. You haven’t taken the complexities of globalization, and the reproduction of identities in the face of global political economy. This was a global trend, “White-privilege” is not apt in this context.Will you let the proletariat speak for themselves? Will you let the Sub-Altern speak? You def had great points, but this needs further work.

By Chris Tucker, on 25 April 2013 - 12:36 |

‘Proof’ of this thesis is the new Starburst advert, which appropriates the Harlem Shake meme to sell a commodity.  It depicts a man dancing in front of a shocked boardroom, as the result of him eating a Starburt.

By Den, on 02 February 2014 - 00:18 |

> It recalls Max Weber’s famous assertion that capitalism is like an “iron cage,” typified by that distinctly modern institution: bureaucracy.

This assertionis completely wrong.
First, capitalism is economic freedom. How freedom can be a cage?
Second, bureaucracy appeared some 2000 years before capitalism: even ancient Chinese had it.

By Red Dawn, on 11 April 2014 - 07:56 |

There is one little point i’d like to high light. Author ascertain two claims to rise of absurdism: First that its expression of anxiety that social structures are ephemeral, and then it says that its the way of expression for the bourgeois upper middle class that are less affected by this change. Sounds contradictory to me. By that token, i’d argue that upper middle class ought not be the absurdists but the proletariat. And assertion that the proletariat do not engage in such because they have too much to loose, is not backed by facts because we are talking about form of expression in arts not at workplace as the authors argument is based upon analysis of a video uploaded at youtube not an advertisement in professional journal.

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