Rebecca Walker, Southern Illinois University
In 2003, writer and
cultural critic Bill Wasik stunned the world with his newest
experiment, the MOB Project, which flooded the streets of New York City
with strange performances quickly labeled “flash mobs” by
participants and local media. With the goal of understanding the
communicative purpose and function of these new performance events,
this project analyzes the eight original flash mobs of 2003 through the
use of Kenneth Burke’s Pentad. Specifically, this essay explores
the agent, agency, and scene of the flash mob, arguing that the scene
was the dominant pentadic feature of Wasik’s act (the Flash Mob).
Additionally, this paper examines the specific social, cultural and
political influences of the flash mob and its participants with a
particular emphasis on technology and the hipster subculture.
Date: Wed, 25 Jun 2003 21:45:21 -0700 (PDT)
From: The Mob Project
Subject: MOB #3
(Apologies to those who received an incomplete version before.)
You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less. Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join.
Q. For a mob to be inexplicable, does it need to take place in an otherwise empty space?
Fred has a nice action shot of MOBsters applauding. Notice the smiles.
You couldn’t help smiling; it was gorgeous (Ginger).
3 July 2003
I just returned from Flashmob #3. This was called “The Grand Central Mob Ballet,” and was supposed to involve claiming to be waiting for a train, and writing the word “MOB” on a one dollar bill, but none of that came into play. Instead, we got a form saying:
*** MOB #3 ***
Change of Plans
If you are reading this, we have decided to change venues.
By 7:02, walk out to 42nd St. and look for the main entrance to the Grand Hyatt.
Enter and take the escalator up one flight to the main lobby. Loiter until 7:07.
At 7:07, start taking the escalator and elevators up one floor, to the wraparound railing overlooking the lobby. Stand around it, looking down. Fan out to cover as much of the railing as possible. If asked why you are there, point down to the lobby and say, “Look.”
At 7:12, begin applauding. Applaud for fifteen seconds, then
disperse in an orderly fashion (Note: the exit on that floor is
not a pedestrian exit.).(Danzig)
Figure 1. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010.
Figure 2. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003.Web. 12 July 2010.
Figure 3. Man, Myth, Morland. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010.
Figure 4. Satan’s Laundromat. 2 July 2003. Web. 12 July 2010.
Consider, for a moment, Figures 1 and 3. Figure 1 depicts multiple
flashmobbers gathered against the hotel railing, gazing down upon the
lobby, as instructed. Many, although not all, appear to be with friends
or loved ones, evidenced by arms around shoulders and other close, open
body language. In the hallway, a singular individual in a suit walks
by, casting what one can only assume to be a bewildered sideways glance
at the flashmobbers lining the balcony. Perhaps this individual wonders
at what they are all staring. According to Figures 2 and 4, which
depict the empty atrium lobby below, they were an audience for nothing.
Now look at Figure 3: Two individuals—perhaps friends, perhaps
strangers—stare down into the lobby like all the other
flashmobbers. However, the angle from which this photo is shot
intrigues: the photographer of Figure 3 seems interested in capturing
at least two things: first, the similarity of the two individuals in
the forefront, whose skin color may differ, but whose clothing and body
positions seem to almost mirror one another; and second, the picture of
what falls in these individuals’ direct line of sight—other
flashmobbers on the opposite side of the balcony, engaged in the exact
same activity (staring down into the empty lobby below). In a sense,
these flashmobbers at the far opposite end of the atrium balcony serve
as another reflection, or mirror, of the two in the forefront. One
begins to realize, or merely infer, that this flash mob—maybe
even all of flash mob creator Bill Wasik’s original eight
mobs—are not simply about the absurdity of the act, but also the
communal nature of the action. Wasik himself supports such a claim, in
his description of Mob #3, depicted above:
Then, all at once, we rode the elevators and escalators up to the mezzanine and wordlessly lined the banister. The handful of hotel guests were still there, alone again, except now they were confronted with a hundreds-strong armada of hipsters overhead, arrayed shoulder to shoulder, staring silently down. But intimidation was not the point; we were staring down at where we had just been, and also across at one another, two hundred artist-spectators commandeering an atrium on Forty-second Street as a coliseum—style theater of self-regard. After five minutes of staring, the ring erupted into precisely fifteen seconds of tumultuous applause—for itself—after which it scattered back downstairs and out the door, just as the police cruisers were rolling up, flashers on. (58)
Three of Wasik’s comments in this account stand out as strikingly important, and heretofore unexamined. First, Wasik takes care to point out one unifying characteristic of the flashmobbers—their shared status as members of the hipster subculture. Second, Wasik specifically mentions the scenic or spatial element of this particular mob, whose goal was to “commandeer” a space in two different ways. In so doing, he highlights the different nature of this mob from most, if not all, of the other seven, as a non-verbal performance event. Mob #3 was physical in nature—its directive being to move bodies around in a space and have those bodies engage in a shared act, applause, before dispersing out of the space. Finally, Wasik’s use of language points toward the communal or community-building nature of this mob. Wasik’s mob participants look across “at one another” and his mob applauds “itself,” acknowledging the “we” of community created in the act of participation.
As products of the digital age, flash mobs require a certain level of technological advancement to form, namely e-mail and text message technology created in the latter part of the 20th century. Every flash mob begins with an e-mail (often from an anonymous account or organizer using a pseudonym) announcing the date and time of occurrence, along with either a set of instructions for action or the promise of instructions to be delivered on site. Recipients then forward this e-mail to others in cyberspace through computers and cell phones, forming the mob (or at least its virtual potential) with each successive email or text message. Usually, upon arrival, participants are given instructions on fliers detailing what they should do during the flash mob. As a rule, flash mobs tend to last no longer than ten minutes (Wasik 66). Participants arrive at a site, perform their action(s), and then leave, often just before the police arrive. These actions range from shopping en masse for a rug, to pointing at a fast food menu and mooing like cows, to pretending to stand in line for Strokes tickets (Johnson, Wasik). This article uses Burke’s Pentad to examine the scene, agent, and agency of the eight original flash mobs organized by Bill Wasik in 2003, ultimately arguing that the scene served as the dominant factor for determining the agent and agency of Wasik’s act (the flash mob). However, before I begin this examination, a more brief description of these eight mobs, ending with a detailed depiction of Mob #3, offers the reader a shared point of departure.
Bill Wasik, cultural critic and Harper’s Magazine editor, produced eight flash mobs that acted upon the streets of New York City in the summer of 2003. The first, an utter failure, occurred on June 3, 2003, at the site of a Claire’s Accessories store in the East Village’s Astor Place. Mobsters were instructed to gather inside the store and on the street at 7:24 p.m., at which time those outside the store would point at those inside and chant “Acessories!” until the mob dissipated at 7:31 p.m. However, as stated earlier, the mob failed because one of the individuals receiving an e-mail invitation informed the police of its occurrence. When potential members of the flash mob arrived upon the scene, they found six police officers and a police truck blocking their entrance to the store.
Wasik remedied this problem by only disseminating a spot at which to gather and receive further instructions for his subsequent mobs, thereby preventing any potential participants from alerting the police as to their actions or site. Mob #2 occurred a few weeks later on June 17, when a few hundred people gathered in Macy’s rug department to shop for a “love rug” for their supposed commune in Long Island City. After a few minutes of shopping, the mob abruptly left the store. Mob #3, described below, took place in early July at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where mobbers lined the atrium balcony, stared at each other, and then burst into spontaneous applause before quickly leaving the site.
Wasik’s fourth mob took place on July 16, 2003, at Otto Tootsi Plohound, an expensive shoe store. Participants gathered to pretend they were tourists from Maryland, proceeding to examine and appreciate the store’s expensive footwear as if the shoes were relics from another universe. Mob #5 followed, where participants gathered along a ridge in Central Park West and made a variety of natural and ironic bird calls before leaving. Often the most discussed of Wasik’s eight mobs, Mob #6 occurred at the Toys ‘R Us in Times Square on August 7th, 2003, when participants gathered to cower in false capitulation before the store’s animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, leaving just as police arrived.
Wasik’s last two mobs took place outdoors, with Mob #7 occurring on the sidewalk outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where participants lined up single file, informing anyone who asked that they were waiting for tickets to a concert by The Strokes, a popular hipster band. Wasik’s final mob took place in an alcove on Forty-Second Street, where mobsters gathered to await instructions from “the performer.” The performer turned out to be a portable radio, or boom box. However, the mob was so large and unruly that they failed to hear the performer’s instruction. When a participant (later discovered to be a local performance artist) opened his briefcase to reveal a neon sign reading “Café Thou Art” and then proceeded to hold up two fingers of his right hand, participants believed this man to be “the performer” and began chanting “Peace!” over and over for about a minute before dispersing.
When viewed within the larger context of all eight mobs, Mob #3 gains added significance as the last of Wasik’s highly self-reflexive first three mobs. Mobs 1–3 focus largely on the mobbers themselves—they are the accessories (Mob 1), they are a commune (Mob 2), they applaud themselves (Mob 3). After Mob #3, Wasik’s mob project turns toward the other, if only in jest. The performers play with tourists (Mob 4), nature (Mob 5), religion (Mob 6), and culture (Mob 7). Wasik’s final mob shifts the game completely by telling his performers, the flashmobbers, to simply serve as an “enthusiastic audience” for a sidewalk performer (Bemis). The move from self to other seems more than coincidence. I believe Wasik used his first three mobs to create a scene, and in so doing, created a community, a powerful “we” whose influence and membership expands to this very day.
Crucial to the creation of Wasik’s scene was the socio-cultural and historic climates of New York City in a post-9/11 era, as well as the spatial layout of the city itself. These material and philosophical realities created the environment, or scene, where Wasik’s acts took place. Drawing upon Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic theory, I argue that the scenic element—more than anything else—allowed for the act (the creation of Wasik’s flash mobs) to occur. In addition, two other heretofore unexamined elements—Wasik’s agents, the hipster subculture, and his primary agency, cellular phone technology—function as tangential, necessary elements in the more dominant scene. I first examine these secondary components and ultimately end with an extensive discussion of scene and its relationship to culture and community in the flash mob.
Noted literary critic, philosopher, and rhetorician Kenneth Burke expanded the fields of contemporary rhetoric and performance studies exponentially through his Pentad, created as a method for divining rhetorical motives out of literary dramas. According to Burke, in order to understand motives, one must begin by identifying and examining the five elements (or questions) of his Pentad: “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (xv). Contemporary rhetoricians use Burke to examine not only literary dramas, but also those occurring in politics, media, and society. Performance teachers often use Burke in their introductory classes as a way to teach students how to examine and perform literature. Taking cues from both, I expand and apply Burke’s Pentad to the flash mob, a contemporary performance event, to identify the flash mob’s components and examine the relationship between them.
In simplest terms, the agents of the eight original flash mobs in this study are New York City hipsters of 2003. Although one might argue Wasik, as originator of the idea of the flash mob and sender of the invitational e-mails, is the primary agent of the flash mob, he places himself within the larger group of actors by retaining his anonymity and e-mailing his original and subsequent invitations not only to his friends, but also to himself.2 As such, anyone who shows up and takes part in one of these flash mobs becomes an agent of the act. Before examining the particular makeup of the New York hipster of 2003, further elaboration on Burke’s theory of the Pentad is necessary.
Identifying the five elements of the Pentad in regard to a particular act is the first step in determining its motives. The second, and ultimately more important, step examines the relationship between each of the parts. Burke labels this relationship their ratios or “principles of determination” (15). In other words, Burke highlights the intermingling between elements, those points where one part of the Pentad merges with or strongly differentiates itself from another. Within these ratios, Burke locates the dramatic tensions that reveal the motivations behind particular rhetorical strategies. Burke identifies and discusses ten possible ratios arising from his Pentad; I focus on two: scene-agent and scene-agency. These two ratios, unlike the other seven, directly address the subjects of this essay: the scene, agent, and agency of Wasik’s flash mobs, as well as the dominant relationship existing between them.
Burke describes the scene-agent ratio as a “synecdochic relation . . . between person and place” (7) or perhaps more simply as the “container and thing contained” (3). The container referred to here is the scene and the agent the thing contained. Burke provides literary examples for this ratio; however, as I am expanding Burke’s analysis outside of the literary realm into contemporary culture, I suggest a more apt example from the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The scene left by Katrina was one of utter devastation and destruction for the residents of both New Orleans and south Louisiana. Although many agents engaged in various acts, the entire nation looked toward one agent in particular—President George W. Bush. The scene of Katrina called for a response of urgency on the part of the President, the expression of concern, perhaps even a disheveled physical appearance as evidence of long nights spent working on solutions to such devastation. As such, the scene controls, or dictates, the requirements of its agent and act. President Bush’s initial act—the flyover of the area days after the hurricane—inspired outrage among residents because it appeared more the act of a curious tourist than that of a concerned President. In other words, the agent did not suit the scene.
I argue that the agents of the original eight flash mobs do suit
the scene. Modern hipster subculture emerges out of a distinct and
particular socio-cultural and historical scene, which I discuss in the
final section of this paper. Furthermore, Wasik states that the entire
impetus for flash mobs came out of his and his friends’ own
fascination with being a part of “the scene”:
seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender, it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene—meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work. (58)
In short, the very essence of the modern hipster lies in her association with and participation in the scene. However, before I address the scene-agent ratio in the flash mob fully, let me return to the question of the modern hipster: who is she, and how does she differ from other historical “hipsters”?
The term hip most often connotes youth culture and the materials associated with it (e.g., the new, often wacky clothes, music, and books that the youth of America deem fashionable at any given moment). New York Times reporter John Leland’s recent Hip: The History explains the connection between youth and hip, arguing that “hip is a culture of the young because they have the least investment in the status quo” (22). Hip, then, is often something new or different from the everyday. But where did hip come from? While acknowledging the cultural influences of the European avant-garde, Leland locates hip in the Americas, emanating along with the African slave trade. In his opinion, hip originates out of the exchange of African and European cultures on the plantation, with each group taking bits of the other’s culture and accumulating (and often refashioning) those bits into their own. For Leland, hip originates in America, particularly in the acquisition of African culture, without which he argues, “there is no hip” (18).
Following Leland, one’s hipness appears rooted in their knowledge of African-American culture. The term hip itself is often attributed to be a derivative of the African word hipi, which loosely translates as “to open one’s eyes” (Fletcher).3 Our modern understanding of hip and hipsters, however, arises out of the jazz and art scene of America in the 1930s and ’40s. Jazz, a uniquely American musical blend of African and European styles, produced a unique subculture among its largely black musicians, one which middle-class white youths found fascinating and ultimately sought to emulate. Shortly after World War II, rising young authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg sang the praises of the burgeoning hip/jazz scene in their novels and poems, becoming the faces of hipster culture. Norman Mailer, American playwright and novelist, sought to define the movement and its members, famously referring to them in his essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.”
Mailer’s essay extends the notion of hip beyond an adoption of black culture by highlighting the existential nature of the youth within the subculture. According to Mailer, young people strongly affected by both fear of the atomic bomb and loathing of conformity in middle America sought escape (and possibly rebellion) through their association with jazz and black America as well as their idealism of vagabond travelers such as Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty. A similar desire to escape the middle class and associate the self with the other or the unknown is evident in both the hippie and punk subcultures of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
However, the hipsters who chase hip are more than just vanguard thinkers and lovers of difference; they are also trendsetters. Hip perseveres because hip sells itself to the mainstream. In Hip: The History, Leland writes “where religion creates workers, hip creates consumers” (342). Hip is not simply a fascination with the dark other, or a reaction to the time in which one lives; it is a product to be sold. For Wasik’s New York hipsters of 2003, hip certainly involved all three.
Wasik’s hipster, or the modern hipster, is almost always
defined by her appearance. Some writers focus on the hipsters’
physical appearance, describing them as “fashion-conscious
twentysomethings hanging about and sporting a number of predictable
stylistic trademarks: skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear
bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses and a keffiyeh” (Haddow).
Other journalists focus their depictions on the hipster’s
psychological stance, arguing that “everything about them is
exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don’t
care” (Fletcher). Some take these psychological descriptions a
step further creating categories of hipster psychosis: “We know
that there are Sweet hipsters, who practice the sort of irony you can
take home to meet the parents, and there are those Vicious hipsters,
who practice the form of not—quite-passive aggression called
Critics often deride the modern hipster’s ironic stance and particular fashion sense as empty trademarks pointing towards a hollow society, or as some say, “the dead end of Western civilization” (Fletcher). Such remarks usually stem from the modern hipster’s fashion sense, one that, according to columnists like Christian Lorentzen, “fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.” In this reiterated fashion, the modern hipster, although a definite product of her time (both historically and capitally), distinguishes herself from her predecessors. Whereas 20th century hipsters borrowed from contemporaneous aspects of the other’s culture—such as jazz—to create their fashion, or simply created their own—as in punk—the 21st century hipster recycles the fashion of their predecessors.
Some of these reclamations appear to serve as acts of
identification, others as desperate attempts to collage a new identity
out of an older, more established one. An example of the former
appropriation is the keffiyeh—a scarf originally worn by Jewish
students and Western protestors as a symbol of support for
Palestinians—now sold in a variety of colors and patterns to
teenagers at the local Target. Douglas Haddow, cultural critic,
provides further examples:
The American Apparel v-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols and icons of working or revolutionary classes that have been appropriated by hipsterdom and drained of meaning. . . . such things have become shameless clichés of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class. (1)
These appropriations differ from those of early 20th century American teenagers wearing black turtlenecks and berets. The modern hipster revisits the past in search of authenticity, instead of looking around in the present for inventions of new meaning. Although one might argue such scavenging and re-assembling serves as a form of invention, many reporters and cultural critics view this desire to forage the past and assemble some sort of new meaning from its symbols and trends as a cannibalistic act:
Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates. . . . Simlarly, they devour gay style. . . . these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod. (Lorentzen)
Whether cannibalistic or inventive, the modern hipster sets herself apart as more of a historian and collage artist than an adventurer or explorer.
In 2009, music and entertainment magazine Paste published a two-page photo spread portraying “The Evolution of the Hipster 2000–2009” (Kiefer). Serving as an ironic timeline of the modern hipster’s appearance and perseverance on the cultural scene, Paste’s evolution points out many of the modern hipster’s recycled identifications in the names given to each year’s hipster: The Twee, The Fauxhemian, The Mountain Man, The Vintage Queen, The Meta-Nerd (Kiefer). Paste titles Wasik’s hipster, the hipster of 2003, “The Scenester,” writing “a gaudy tattoo appears on her chest, and she is never spotted without her iPod” (Kiefer). While this iPod is the only description in Paste’s entire evolution that references modern technology of any sort, the title “Scenester” excites me most. This label validates my contention that Wasik’s hipster of 2003 emerged not only as a product of her historical and socio-cultural scene, but also defined herself by participation in the scene of her own hipster subculture. Stated differently, Wasik’s hipster not only wore the proper clothes, acquired the newest gadgets, and cultivated the proper attitude of ironic distance and nonchalance, she desired to be a part of something: to be seen in the scene.
In 2003, Wasik, out of a desire to comment upon the prevalence of scenesterism within his own New York hipster subculture, created the flash mob, and inadvertently produced the newest scene of which to be a part. In the e-mail for Wasik’s first mob, he provides a frequently asked questions section. He answers the first question, “Why would I want to join an inexplicable mob?” with evidence of the scenester nature of the mob, stating, “Tons of other people are doing it” (Wasik 57). While this might explain why participants took part in the first two or three of Wasik’s mobs, it fails to provide an answer for why the mobs became so popular, not only within the New York hipster subculture, but within youth culture at-large. Perhaps the most important question we can ask of the flash mob’s hipster is not why she showed up, but why she kept coming back.
To answer such a question, I turn to the historical hip predecessors mentioned earlier—the beats, the hippies, and the punks. Each of these subcultures united themselves in fashion as well as in artistic taste, much like Wasik’s hipster. However, aside from a love of the same music, the same books, the same clothes, or the same art, something else also united each of these groups—participation in the scene of their particular era, a participation that yielded a feeling of separation from the mainstream, but togetherness with one another, a feeling Victor Turner labeled communitas. The term refers to a feeling of shared togetherness or communal spirit. One might achieve such a feeling by hanging out within the scene of a particular subculture; however, one is much more likely to experience communitas, at least according to Turner, if she engages in communal activities. Beats traveled together, hippies protested en masse, and punks raged as one. Modern hipsters, at least up until Wasik’s flash mob, failed to engage in any sort of communal activity outside of hanging out and traveling within their own scene—attending the same concerts, gallery openings, book signings, etc. What Wasik, unknowingly in my opinion, provided was a communal act—the flash mob.
Turner believed in a dialectic existing between ritualized, highly structured social forms of behavior, such as religious rites and playful, anti-structural forms of behavior, such as festivals and celebrations. Communitas exists within both realms of performative behavior. In other words, one might experience communitas while holding her hand to her heart and singing the national anthem alongside thousands of other fans in a sports stadium as well as begging for beads with fellow Mardi Gras revelers. With the flash mob, Wasik inadvertently provided a feeling of communitas between strangers engaged in a shared activity. If Wasik’s goal was to create an art project that mocked his own community’s lack of substance—the fact that they were “scenesters” appearing at the same spots just to be a part of the scene, not out of a love of the art within it—he probably did not plan on the power of such a “scene”: its ability to bring strangers together through shared physical activity:
You didn’t have to feel like you were cool. . . . It got a lot of people to do something . . . just because they thought it was a clever idea and they wanted to see what would happen. . . . but while a Web page can give you some notion of being part of a group, it’s very different to then find yourself in a physical space with all those people. It’s a virtual community made literal. Again, these weren’t people who knew each other. It wasn’t an established group who decided to put on an action. Whoever got the e-mail would attend, and they represented the interconnectedness of people in a city. (Bemis 4)
Wasik’s particular choices of place for the flash mobs also added to this communal feeling. Wasik purposefully chose small places in which the flash mob—even if it only consisted of a hundred people—appeared large and powerful. Furthermore, the flash mobs contributed to a feeling of hipster communitas by creating a performance in which hipsters highlighted their own “otherness” through showcasing traits such as their ironic humor and technological savvy. In sum, flash mobs were created by hipsters, for hipsters, or as Wasik reasons, “flash mobs were gatherings of insiders, and as such, could hardly communicate to those who did not already belong” (64).
By emphasizing the communal nature of the flash mob, I hope to draw attention towards the mob’s role as an influential performative act, undertaken by agents out of both curiosity and a desire for community. In so doing, I want to provide an alternative narrative of the flash mob, one in which the flash mob exists as more than the fad of a post-hip generation, a narrative which unfortunately tends to prevail among scholars of “hip:”
Urban anthropologists can spot post-hip by its prefixes and quotation marks, a politically incorrect mix of neo-shitkicker, neuvo-blaxploitation, and kimchi kitsch. To the above inventory, add metrosexuality, McSweeney’s, Vicodin, flash mobs, smart mobs, thumb tribes, “extreme” everything, free folk and the return of no wave (Leland 340).
The above definition and others like it relegate the flash mob to the category of trend and the modern hipster to the realm of ironic collage artist, assertions which are both somewhat unfair. Wasik’s flash mobs definitely excited many as the next new thing; however, their spread, continuation, and refashioning into new performance styles over the following nine years speak to their power as more than mere trend. As for the modern hipster, she may indeed be post-hip—fractured, wandering, in search of a center. However, if so, she is only a product of her time, a thing contained by a larger container which she did not make. In sum, she is a product of her scene—shaped by its structure and influenced by its technology.
At present, a decade into the twenty-first century, one easily forgets the truly radical nature of the mobile phone and its offspring: text messaging. Take someone’s mobile phone away for a day, however, and she begins to remember. Recently, I went without my mobile or “cell” phone for two days, and after the first hour of sheer panic, I recalled what life was like before the cell phone. I racked my brain for the phone numbers of my friends and family, all of which were stored in the memory of my phone, and realized I only remembered two. I phoned these two numbers from a family member’s archaic “land” line and realized the need to introduce myself to the person on the other end of the line—something I rarely do these days, as my phone’s caller identification system usually does this for me. Finally, as I spent a whole two days without my cell phone, anxiously wondering who had called and/or texted, I slowly realized the power my cell phone possessed. I wondered what Donna Haraway would think of me—a cyborg, yes, perhaps, yet also a woman relying upon Steve Jobs’ software to act as memory bank and personal identifier in her stead. Losing my mobile phone highlighted how essential a part of me it had become.
Haraway’s theory of the cyborg offers an insightful view into the relationship between humankind and the tools we create. Haraway, a feminist philosopher and biologist, defined the cyborg in her seminal “A Cyborg Manifesto” as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149). Haraway used her fictional and ironic cyborg manifesto to comment on both feminist theory and the technophobia she found arising in the latter part of the twentieth century. Her theory provides an understanding of the relationship between human and machine that is neither diametrically opposed nor completely fused, but rather based in an exploration of boundaries and borderlands. As Haraway, herself, reasons:
Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments: . . . first, the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality; . . . and second, taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. . . . Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. . . . It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. (181)
Haraway’s manifesto allows scholars to shift from an assessment of the power relations between a woman and her machine to an acknowledgement of the assemblage they jointly create. In Wasik’s flash mob, such an assemblage functioned as the primary agency (or means of production) of the act.
When Wasik’s flash mobs first appeared in 2003, most journalists linked their appearance more to the internet than to mobile phones, reporting that flash mobs were “arranged via Web sites and e-mails” or the even more vague description that they “organized anonymously through the internet” (Shmueli, Johnson). While true, to a certain extent, such reports fail to address the mobile nature of Wasik’s communiqué. A year earlier, in 2002, two mobile phones appeared on the market containing a surprising new feature—a full QWERTY keyboard—allowing for the rapid expansion and proliferation of one of the mobile phone companies’ pre-existing technologies: text messaging. One of these phones, the Blackberry 5810 (labeled “Crackberry” by many due to its addictive nature), contained an additional advantage: the combination of Blackberry’s existing e-mail, organizer and keyboard technologies with voice (or cell phone) capabilities. In so doing, Blackberry created the ideal conditions for the advent of Wasik’s flash mobs: mobile mass communication.
Communication scholar Judith Nicholson addresses this change in her article “Flash Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity.” Nicholson argues:
Flash mobbing shaped and was shaped by a worldwide shift in mobile phone use from private communication characterized primarily by mobile phoning in the 1980s and 90s to more collective uses dominated by mobile texting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This shift was evident in a corresponding change in sentiments and concerns regarding direct one-to-one mobile phone use versus indirect one-to-many mobile phone use. (2)
Nicholson’s quotation acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between the flash mob and the mobile phone, noting that each shaped the other. Mobile phone technologies, such as texting and e-mail, allowed for the rapid forwarding of Wasik’s initial e-mail, as his “inexplicable mob” invitation quickly bounced from one individual’s contact list to another’s. In turn, the advent of Wasik’s flash mob as a pop culture phenomenon spread large around the world showcased the possibilities for mobile mass communication contained in new mobile phone technologies.
As scholars such as Nicholson and Howard Rheingold point out, however, the powerful nature of mobile mass communication appeared on the public’s radar as early as the late 1990s, due to its use in the anti-globalization movement’s protests, most notably those of the World Trade Organization protestors in Seattle in 1999. Rheingold also describes the use of text-messaging and SMS (Short Message Service) technology to organize protests calling for the resignation of President Estrada in the Philippines in 2001. More recently, the world not only bore witness, but also took part in the 2009 Iranian election protests via the so-called “Twitter Revolution” by rapidly re-tweeting the updates of Iranian protestors under attack by the government. The mobile phone’s proliferation, along with its portability and advanced technological capabilities, contributes to its dominance as the preferred medium of one-to-many mass communication—not only for activists and politicians, but also for anyone with a regularly updated Twitter account.
Unlike the Philippine revolution and WTO protests, flash mobs (as an elaborate inside joke enacted upon the city of New York) promote play, and therefore stand out as one of the first cases in which mobile phone technology and one-to-many mass communication were used to stage a public performance without an overt political agenda. The idea of the flash mob is nothing really new. Similarities exist between the flash mob and similar performances created by Dadaists, Surrealists, Situationists, Happenings artists and even the Yippies. However, the speed and ease of the flash mob separates it from its predecessors. I do not want to suggest some inextricable link between the flash mob’s popularity and the rise of mobile mass communication. Rather, like Bill Wasik, I believe the flash mob’s appeal to be rooted more in its creation of community than in its use of technology. As Wasik writes, “I myself believe that the technology played only a minor role. The emails went out a week before each event, after all; one could have passed around flyers on the street, I think, to roughly similar effect” (58). Wasik and his flash mobbers used modern mobile mass communication technologies not so much because they were hip or trendy, but because they were readily available.
Kenneth Burke’s work supports the above. In Grammar of Motives, he writes, “Pragmatist philosophies are generated by the featuring of the term, Agency” (275). In other words, when making a choice between one form of agency and another, agents tend to choose that which is practical. Sending an email appeared more practical to Wasik than passing out fliers. Forwarding that email via their mobile phones seemed more practical for his flashmobbers than relaying the message in person. Consequently, I argue that the agency of the flash mob arose out of the technocultural scene in which it occurred, one which made mobile phones the easiest and most practical method of communication between Wasik and his attendees. Scene dominated and contained the flash mob’s agency, mobile mass communication, as powerfully as it contained its agent, the modern hipster.
On September 11, 2001, two hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, one hijacked airplane crashed into the outer barrier of the Pentagon, and a fourth airplane crashed on a field in Pennsylvania, after passengers valiantly fought back against the terrorist hijackers intent on crashing it into the White House. As the first attack on American soil since the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, the events of 9/11 changed America forever. For the first time in over sixty years, Americans lived in fear of outside invaders, and of an enemy who might strike at any moment. As a response, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act in October of 2002, dramatically reducing the restrictions placed upon law enforcement regarding the surveillance of American citizens deemed to be terrorist suspects, as well as increasing law enforcement officials’ ability to detain and deport suspected terrorist immigrants. A few months earlier, in March of 2002, the Homeland Security Advisory System emerged, as the result of a Presidential directive. The system consisted of a color-coded scale, used to inform Americans of the specific threat level of terrorist attacks: severe (red), high (orange), elevated (yellow), guarded (blue), or low (green). Each day, Americans could turn on their televisions to their morning talk shows, or monitor radio or internet broadcasts, to be advised of the specific threat level of terrorist attacks, which usually lingered between yellow and orange, the elevated or high end of the scale. The Department of Homeland Security, a new government agency designed to combine and focus the attempts of the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies, debuted in November of 2002 as the result of the passage of the Homeland Security Act. Finally, on March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush appeared on television to declare war on Iraq, providing Americans with a visible and known enemy in the heretofore vaguely-worded war on “terror” itself. Two months later, President Bush appeared again, landing in full pilot combat gear on an aircraft carrier full of soldiers, to announce (somewhat prematurely) America’s mission accomplished, and declare an end to major combat in Iraq. One month later, on June 3, 2003, Bill Wasik attempted his first flash mob at a Claire’s accessory store in New York City’s Astor Place, a primary shopping center and hangout spot of the hip, neo-bohemian East Village.
By aligning these events, I do not wish to assert that Wasik’s mobs were a reaction to 9/11. Instead, I argue that Wasik’s mobs are products of their time, reactions to a heightened level of surveillance, a desire for community, and perhaps, even to the President’s admonitions for Americans to get back to normal by going shopping.4 In this section, I seek to address both the historic and sociocultural scene described above, as well as the physical scenes chosen by Wasik for his eight flash mobs. In so doing, I hope to provide an understanding of the flash mob in relation to its context, and draw attention to the fact that the scene, or container, is often more important than the things it contains: acts, agents, and agency.
Nicholson alludes to the effect of context upon the mob when she
queries, “Can flash mobbing . . . be considered a response to the
social and political conditions of 2003, particularly conditions that
existed in New York where the trend was started?” (11). According
to Christian Lorentzen, cultural critic and writer for Time Out
New York, the answer is yes. In his infamous “Why
the hipster must die” article, Lorentzen points to the
loss of menace among the modern hipster subculture, arguing,
“[Norman] Mailer, who traced hipster psychosis to the Holocaust
and the atom bomb, would likely point to September 11 as the event that
left hordes of twentysomethings whispering, ‘We would be
safe’” (1). For Lorentzen, the recycling of trends among
hipsters and lack of an overt agenda in the flash mob allude to the
effects of fear upon the youth of America following the events of 9/11.
Others disagree, locating the power of the flash mob within its very
existence in a post 9/11, hyper-secure society. In a 2003 article for
the Chicago Tribune, reporter Maureen Ryan quotes the words
of one particular flash mob participant: “Honestly, it seems like
a way to tweak the nose of those responsible for security, since things
have gotten so tense since Sept. 11, flash mobber Eric Longman said via
e-mail, ‘Remember, the 1st Amendment specifically protects the
right of the people to peaceably Assemble’” (1). Whether
the flash mob is a safe, sterile event created by the modern hipster
out of a desire for safe artistic play/transgression, or the slightly
more risky tantrum of a surveillance-weary youth culture, it
undoubtedly exists as a product of its historical time, specifically of
the events of 9/11. As such, the flash mob sits as a marker of its
time, a monument to the effects of 9/11 upon the consciousness of
America and its youth.
We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization—a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new. (1)
Haddow’s rant, while somewhat melodramatic, speaks to the sociocultural scene of the flash mob. At the dawn of a new millennium, the modern hipster finds herself the focal point of a generation trying desperately to find itself. Amidst a terror-stricken and surveillance-laden backdrop, she turns towards conspicuous consumption, as so many youth before her have done. However, even here, she finds no novelty, only recycled artifacts of older generations readily available for ironic display. She frequents those establishments full of like-minded and similarly dressed souls, purchasing communion through participation in the so-called scene. Her rebellion consists of a well-rehearsed posture of ironic distance—an ability to mock the mainstream, as well as her own scene, instead of seeking to change it.
Wasik’s flash mob also mocks the mainstream, as well as the
hipster subculture from which it is constructed. However, the physical
nature of the mob—its ability to appear and hold dominion over an
actual space, if only for a moment—provides the modern hipster
with something new: the ability to act out. While full of
self-reflexivity and ironic commentary on its own participants, the
flash mob also acts as a form of cultural noise: the tantrum of a
childish subculture against the authoritarian structure(s) monitoring
its every move. When viewed in such a light, one begins to see the
flash mob as more than a mere prank. Instead, the flash mob appears as
a slightly subversive, and also somewhat safe, playful form of cultural
As a reminder, Wasik chose retail stores as sites for four of his eight mobs: Claire’s Accessories, Macy’s, Otto Tootsi Plohound, Toys “R” Us. These choices might lead the critic to believe Wasik wanted to make some commentary on capitalist culture in America. However, when viewed within the broader historical timeframe, another distinct possibility appears. In his address to the nation on September 21, 2001, President Bush took special care to ask Americans for their “continued participation and confidence in the American economy” (1). Although Bush’s request was rather typical, in light of the fact that the attacks of September 11th as well as the destruction of the World Trade Center created a slump in both the stock market and general economic activity, the media reacted rather strongly to his request. Headlines such as “If in doubt, go shopping” and quotes such as “And for God’s sake keep shopping!” flooded the newspapers and magazines, and even led to critiques by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election (Riddell; Pellegrini). As candidate Obama once quipped, “Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping” (Ferguson). When read in such a light, one might argue Wasik’s flash mobs take on the role of cultural critique. Nicholson, when discussing the sites of Wasik’s eight mobs, suggests “these sites were potentially made even more significant to Americans in light of George Bush’s plea to get back to normal living following the 9/11 attacks by going shopping” (9). Against the backdrop of earlier generations who supported their war efforts through rationing and volunteerism, the directive to conspicuously consume given to the millennial generation may have felt like a slap in the face—a dismissal of their abilities due to their inexperience. After such dismissal, one naturally seeks to act out.
Wasik, however, offers a different perspective on his choice of locations for the mobs. According to him, the scenes of his inexplicable mobs served two purposes: first, to comment on the changing nature of public space in America; and second, to “create an illusion of superior strength” (Wasik 65). Although in most early interviews Wasik denies the existence of any political aim at work in the flash mob, by 2004 he admits to at least one, the liberation of public space. In an interview with LA Weekly, Wasik acknowledges:
The more I did them, the more I realized the mobs actually did have a deeply political value. The nature of public space in America today has changed. Its shopping malls, large chain stores, that kind of thing. The presumption is that you’re going to purchase something, but once you try to express yourself in any other way, suddenly you’re trespassing. New York City is blessed with a bunch of real public spaces, but at this point, if you’re young in America, chances are you have grown up without authentic public space. I discovered it was political to go into one of those stores. (Bemis)
In this sense, one might argue that the sites of the flash mob, at least to some extent, are dictated by the overarching historic and sociocultural scene. These dictates may be obvious and apparent, such as the shift in location from Grand Central Station to the Grand Hyatt Hotel due to increased security threat levels mentioned earlier. Others may be more subtle, such as the use of mass shopping in the Macy’s and Otto Tootsi Plohound mobs to highlight the overarching spread of corporate or retail space and the diminishing of space in which we can freely exercise our right to assemble. I hope to explore whether or not Wasik and his flashmobbers purposefully sought to communicate such sentiments in future research. Regardless of intent, Wasik’s mobs emphasized the changing nature of public space in America, thereby contributing to the production of the larger sociocultural scene while simultaneously existing as one of its productions.
Necessity also contributed to Wasik’s choice of venue. In order to create the feeling of a group of insiders—a community—Wasik needed to make the mob feel powerful. As he takes care to remind the reader, flash mobs “drew their energies not from impressing outsiders or freaking them out but from showing them utter disregard, from using the outside world as merely a terrain for private games” (65). Although often prodded by bloggers and other mob participants to hold mobs in more open spaces, where more than a few employees and passersby could witness their “game,” Wasik sternly refused. In Wasik’s opinion, in order to make the mob feel big, he had to choose venues which were small, and easily overpowered by a few hundred participants. To do otherwise, and set the mob inside a large, open space, would only serve to highlight its frailty—its rather small size of participants. Wasik elucidates on this aspect of the mob in his 2006 coming-out article: “I never held mobs in the open . . . but this was entirely purposeful on my part, for like Colin Powell I hewed to the doctrine of overwhelming force. Only in enclosed spaces could the mob generate the necessary self-awe; to allow the mob to feel small would have been to destroy it” (65). Wasik uses Howard Dean’s rapid rise and decline in popularity during the 2004 election as an example.
Prior to the Iowa caucuses, Dean’s campaign appeared at the forefront, thanks in part to a virtual community of chat rooms, bloggers, and other online web supporters. According to Wasik, before the caucuses, Dean supporters were on the rise, due to the confined communal nature of Dean’s online virtual community, which led supporters to believe they were part of Dean’s faceless, “seemingly numberless throng” (65). However, when a paltry number of Dean volunteers showed up on-site in Iowa to travel door-to-door and wrangle support before the caucus, the Dean campaign allowed itself to feel small and outnumbered, thereby (at least in Wasik’s opinion) destroying its chances at success. For Wasik, small, enclosed venues were imperative to the success of the flash mob, for without such sites participants would not feel part of a powerful, “hip” game, but rather mere participants of a silly and unsuccessful prank. As such, Wasik used the scenes (physical sites) of his flash mobs to create a feeling of scene (in a sociocultural sense) within his flash mob.
Finally, the flash mob managed to create a scene entirely its own by employing carnivalesque tactics to dominate and transform physical space. By employing these tactics and creating a carnival-like atmosphere of fun and frivolity that simultaneously provided participants with an opportunity to blow off steam, flash mobs unknowingly seduced a larger audience, that of the public and world at large. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a little transgression, a little reversion, and a little carnival now and then?
Flash mobs share a number of similarities with aspects of carnival emphasized by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World. To begin with, the choice of a public forum such as a department store or downtown city street, as opposed to a more traditional theatrical venue, situates the flash mob as “a play without footlights” (235). One of the foundational aspects of Bakhtin’s carnival is that it occurs in the marketplace—the public forum—and thereby erases the usual boundaries between spectators and participants. As anyone who has attended a Mardi Gras festival can tell you, no one simply watches a carnival. Even those who choose not to participate in the throwing and catching of beads and excessive eating and drinking still participate in the carnival. This is primarily because carnival time is a specific sort of time—one which is calendrically regulated and set apart as distinct. Therefore, even the solitary citizen who does nothing during carnival season but sit inside his house and peer out the window at the activities below is a participant, as he is not living life as usual, but as though on vacation from the normative behaviors and structures of society. In much the same manner, the flash mob operates under a distinct set of temporal rules that allow for an inversion of typical structural patterns.
The strictly regulated ten minute time period of the flash mob allows the rapid formation of a likeminded mass or mob out of a throng of distinct, singular identities. During the brief interval in which the mob swarms a specific site, they are able to disrupt its typical operating patterns of behavior. An example of this disruption and inversion can be found in Bill Wasik’s sixth mob in 2003. In Mob #6, Wasik instructed participants to gather in front of a robotic dinosaur in the Times Square Toys “R” Us and—on cue—fall to their knees and cower before the dinosaur for a set time before leaving. This cowering of the participants took the form of individuals sitting on their knees, arms extended above their heads and repetitively bowing to the floor. In the normative, rule-based act of consumption typical of such a corporate, public space, consumers arrive at a site (such as Toys “R” Us), peruse the products for sale, perhaps asking for help, and then carry their chosen purchase to a cash register where they pay for their goods and exit. Consumers are not supposed to fall to the floor and raise their arms in adoration or capitulation to an item on display, such as the robotic dinosaur. When employees of the Toys “R” Us witnessed this behavior, they were unsure of how to respond, and although the mob participants were doing nothing illegal, they quickly called the cops who managed to turn off the dinosaur just as the mob was dispersing. Other spectators—such as out of town tourists shopping in the Toys “R” Us that day—were compelled to stop their normal behaviors (shopping) and engaged in extraordinary behaviors (such as taking pictures of the mobbers). In these small ways, both store employees and random customers were forced to acknowledge an inversion of structure and react to it, thereby becoming participants in the carnival-like atmosphere the mob created.
Although flash mobs portray a number of the characteristics of carnival outlined by Bakhtin—the inversion of hierarchical norms, an emphasis on the marketplace or public square, the formation of a large crowd of like-minded individuals, and the display of silly, somewhat foolish behavior—the flash mob is not a carnival. Rather, the flash mob should be discussed as a carnivalesque form of performance, referring to its carnival-like properties, yet distinguishing between this fractured form of a carnival and the carnivals of the medieval period to which Bakhtin devotes most of his attention. Bahktin explains that despite the efforts of bourgeois culture to stifle carnival and its forms, carnival did not die, rather, “it was merely narrowed down” (“Rabelais” 276). Peter Stallybrass and Allon White detail this narrowing down of carnival as a four-part process in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. According to the authors, institutions of law and order sought to wipe out carnival and festivity from European life between the 17th and 20th centuries. All sorts of ritualistic and carnival behaviors came under attack—feasting, fairs, processions, rowdy spectacles—and were suddenly subject to strategic forms of surveillance and control via the state. However, the rising nation states sought to co-opt carnival for their own purposes, reinventing it as military parades and national holidays.
Other factors, such as the rise of industrialism and the movement of people from rural country areas to large cities, where squares were quickly replaced by business districts, also contributed to the so-called disappearance of carnival. However, as Stallybrass and White remind us, carnival did not disappear. It managed to be both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The first process involved in the breakup of carnival is fragmentation. Certain elements of carnival began to be separated from others, in an attempt to maintain a more regulated control over the participants’ actions. For example, feasting becomes separated from performance, spectacle from procession, etc. Simultaneously, carnival became marginalized, both in terms of social class and geographical location. Until the 19th century, carnival was something in which all social classes participated, and it was only with the rise of the bourgeois as a class that carnival became seen as part of the culture of the Other—the uneducated, unrefined, improper other of the lower classes. Similarly, carnival, which had historically run rampant throughout entire towns, began to be pushed out of wealthy districts and neighborhoods, and eventually out of the town itself into the countryside or coastal locations.
The third process involved in the narrowing down of carnival is sublimation. Carnival behaviors involving excess and the grotesque become sublimated into the private terrors of the isolated bourgeois individual. In other words, those excessive appetites and grotesque bodily functions celebrated in carnival—feasting, drinking heavily, defecation, and waste—become the very things bourgeois members of society find repulsive and seek to hide from others. Finally, the behavior of the bourgeois body—particularly the female body—and not only its desires become controlled during the fourth part of the process: repression. In carnival, the grotesque body of the people is articulated as both social pleasure and celebration. Literally placed outside and apart from the carnival body, the female bourgeois body which longs to take part in the festivity creates a pathological phobia of being associated with the carnival body, knowing that if she were to give into her desires and join in, her status as different and therefore proper would be lost. This behavior is typical of the entire bourgeois class of the 19th century, who might allow the existence of fragmented, marginalized forms of carnival out of sentimentality for the past, but could never fully engage with it. Rather, they were forced to remain inside and apart, thereby defining their status as other and more proper against it.
Flash mobs, then, are a carnivalesque type of performance born from the fragmentation of carnival. In our post 9/11, terror-filled global society, one does not come across too many manifestations of the carnivalesque. As the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests taught us, crowds are often viewed as threatening, even when their actions may be non-violent in nature. Furthermore, a seemingly purposeless gathering of people engaged in silly sorts of actions stands out in our often humorless society. When faced with a performance such as the flash mob, one is forced to question what the purpose or goal of such a carnivalesque form of action might be. An initial answer lies in the realm of laughter, which Bakhtin reminds us is liberating in and of itself. Although fragmented and incomplete, notes written by Bakhtin towards the end of his life seem focused on the unique and powerful potential of laughter:
Irony (and laughter) as a means for transcending a situation, rising above it. Only dogmatic and authoritarian cultures are one-sidedly serious. Violence does not know laughter. . . . The sense of anonymous threat in the tone of an announcer who is transmitting important communications. Seriousness burdens us with hopeless situations, but laughter lifts us above them and delivers us from them. Laughter does not encumber man, it liberates him. (“Speech Genres” 134)
If laughter is liberating, then in the case of the flash mob, from what exactly are both its participants and observers liberated? Clearly further research into the flash mob’s purpose is required to answer such questions.
Flash floods, like the flash mob, distinguish themselves by their rapid appearance, dissemination, and domination/destruction of low-lying areas. They emerge on the scene without warning and within a matter of hours change its familiar appearance and function completely. Usually, after the rain stops falling, the flood disappears or dries up, often disappearing as quickly as it developed. Flash floods, like flash mobs, surprise us because they are unexpected, and as such, tend to leave us at a loss for what to do, other than notify the authorities of their occurrence.
In the introduction to Perform or Else, Jon McKenzie locates and describes performance as the “embodied enactment of cultural forces” (8). Although I disagree with many of McKenzie’s arguments, I find this definition of performance to be of use when considering both the scene as well as the purpose of the flash mob. Like most performances, Wasik’s eight flash mobs, as well as their subsequent offspring, provide their participants with an opportunity for the physical expression of cultural fears, desires, and tensions. Through careful analysis of their various components, we discover the objects of those fears, desires, and tensions: surveillance, community, space, and power.
In this article, I outlined the specific attributes of Wasik’s flash mobs’ agent (the modern hipster), agency (mobile mass communication), and scene (small, enclosed pseudo-public spaces in New York City’s post 9/11 society). I also discussed the dominant nature of the flash mob’s scene as the overarching container of its agent and agency, as well as the possibility for community building and communitas existent in the actions of the flash mob. Keeping these discussions in mind, future investigations of the flash mob’s purpose should focus not simply on why--but rather, why this particular type of performance, at this particular time, in these particular places, through these particular means, and perhaps most importantly, for this particular audience? Such questions, while obvious and mundane, serve as signposts leading to the Burkean scholar’s ultimate goal: discovering what Wasik’s eight original flash mobs communicate.
1. A term taken from ancient Greek theater, a skene
is the structure facing the audience forming the background, or
scenery, on which performances occur.
2. In a 2004 interview with LA Weekly, Wasik states, “I e-mailed the invitation to myself, then forwarded it from my own account to about 50 people.”
3. Others locate the origin of the term in “hop,” a slang term for opium, placing hip’s origins within both drug and Eastern culture (Fletcher).
4. In his first official address to the nation following the attacks of 9/11, President Bush made a point of encouraging Americans to continue supporting the economy. Media outlets created a number of news stories focusing on this admonishment, which I discuss in detail later in this essay.
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"Flash Flooding: A Burkean Analysis of the Scene-Agent and Scene-Agency Ratio in the Flash Mob" by Rebecca Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.