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METAMERICANA: TOO MANY COOKS Is a Political Statement Worth Hearing

METAMERICANA: TOO MANY COOKS Is a Political Statement Worth Hearing

The argument for the recent viral short Too Many Cooks
being a postmodern parody is easy to make—too easy, in fact. Sure, on the face
of it, Casper Kelly’s eleven-minute video for Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim”
viewing bloc is a deconstruction of the opening credits often found on
cheesy 80s sitcoms, police procedurals, and sci-fi knock-offs. And yes,
the fact that the running conceit in the video is the power that language has
over us (the actors’ names, which appear beneath them in the usual way of all opening
credits, ultimately become a terrorizing force more human than the humans
they’re attached to) does tend to support the claim that the
postmodernist principle that we are all constructed by and in language is in play. But Too Many Cooks is mixing together too many opposite inclinations, effects,
and plot structures to be adequately described as “postmodern.” Instead, it
seems to intend, as so many Adult Swim videos do, to be inscrutable rather than
analytical, contradictory rather than instructive, and simultaneously
deconstructive and constructive rather than merely deconstructive.
 
For
all its fragmentation—the video moves rapidly between
television subgenres, even as it endlessly recycles the same theme song
(with
slightly different lyrics each time)—Too Many Cooks has a story to
tell that’s surprisingly conventional. First, there’s a villain: a
mysterious,
cannibalistic killer who’s introduced early on, whose name isn’t known,
whose
motives beyond bloodlust are inscrutable, who’s frightening in
appearance, whose
early victims are caught unawares, who understands his local environment
much
better than any of the good guys, and who towards the end of his
homicidal spree faces a “final girl” (an attractive young female more
canny than all the victims preceding her).
Sound familiar? It should, as it’s every horror movie ever made, other
than
meta-commentaries like Scream or Joss
Whedon’s A Cabin in the Woods. Too Many Cooks even features hapless law
enforcement, as several police officers fail to notice the killer even when
he’s literally right under their noses.
 
Just as it has a fairly conventional villain, Too Many
Cooks
has a hero whose placement is conventional even if certain of his
descriptive particulars are not. Smarf the Cat, described by The New Yorker
as the product of “Alf mating with a cat rather than eating
one,” is
introduced early on in a way that makes him endearing. Smarf has special
gifts that
others don’t immediately see (e.g., he can shoot rainbows from his hands
and
lasers from his eyes), has an apprehension of danger that exceeds that
of law
enforcement and all the other good guys, and in the end kills the
villain but is
gravely injured himself. Smarf’s role in Too Many Cooks is undergirded
by such a human inclination that it belies the fact he’s the only
non-human in the video: he’s trying to put everything back to normal.
“Back to normal,” in
the terms of the world of Too Many Cooks, means finally ending the
opening-credits loop all the characters in the video are caught up in;
Smarf, though grievously wounded, does
this by pressing a giant red button, after which he appears to die.
But—surprise!—he doesn’t die. In fact he’s fine, though the
cliff-hanging ending of Too Many Cooks suggests that Smarf’s still
caught up in the cycle of danger we’d assumed he’d escaped. All of which
should surprise no one,
as it’s exactly how the hero of a conventional horror film is dealt
with.
 
So why are so many commentators in major media (including not just The New Yorker, but also The Daily Beast and others) referring to “Too Many Cooks” as postmodern, or using terms common to postmodernist literary theory
(like “parody”) to explain the operations of Kelly’s intricately networked art-house flick? The
answer seems to be that “postmodern” is the term we use habitually, even
instinctively, for things we don’t understand and don’t really care to. Too
Many Cooks
is blindingly fast in its transformations, and
repeatedly obscure in its deconstructions of iconic images and ideas, so it
must be “postmodern” in some way—that is, beyond our understanding.
 
In fact, the new avant-garde in the arts, and particularly
in the visual arts, very much wants to
be understood. It wants you to be able to follow with little difficulty what
you’re seeing, even as the effect it has on you pushes you simultaneously
toward several internally contradictory extremes. Too Many Cooks is at once funny and
horrifying, mesmerizing and cloying, exhilarating and depressing, filled with
obvious references to popular culture and entirely disinterested in whether you
can catch even a fraction of them. If it seems in a sense ironic—as it clearly
does take a dim view of the formal constraints that typified 80s
television programs—it’s also earnest enough to want to give you everything you
expect from a fantasy: a villain, a hero, a plot, some tragedies, some
emotional manipulations, and a resolution that both satisfies and keeps you
guessing about what could come next.
 
“Classic” postmodern art emphasizes that meaning falls apart
at every critical juncture, and therefore usually requires specialized academic
training to fully interpret and appreciate. If and when it seeks a popular
audience, it does so to shock, distress, or otherwise disgust its viewers; even
Andy Warhol’s paintings, while easy enough to “get” on a first look, were
intended to provoke anxious debate over what is and is not art. Too Many
Cooks
is a different breed of artwork entirely because it requires little debate
regarding its central premise but still provokes significant emotional anxiety among
its viewership. If postmodern literature usually sends us running to our scholars for assistance, Too
Many Cooks
is much more likely to have you singing its theme song in
the shower. We’ve moved from a time when avant-garde art wanted to
unsettle our
minds to a time when it wants to unsettle our nerves and give us
immediate pleasure simultaneously. What’s at stake in this
movement from the postmodern paradigm to what’s lately being called
“metamodernism”? It’s a good question, and by now there’s enough visual
art like Too Many Cooks out there that we do well to consider the
omnipresence of contemporary art that ostentatiously combines opposing ideas in a way most of us can’t
readily process.
 
Metamodern art like Too Many Cooks is trying to
do an end-around past those institutions we once turned to for communal
sense-making: mass media, the academy, and non-academic “experts” within
their subfields.
When Too Many Cooks was released, everyone began forwarding it to
everyone
else via social media and email, whether or not anyone doing the
forwarding had
yet processed their emotional reactions to the video. The currency of Too Many
Cooks
became attention itself, not understanding, and the power to pass
on that currency resided in any person with access to the Internet, not
just those specifically empowered with cultural capital (for instance,
via
higher education) to tell everyone else what’s worth sharing and viewing
and
what isn’t. If we live in a time of great cynicism about media,
academic, and
of course political institutions, art that’s designed to virally
infect all of us with emotions we can’t process is subversive by definition.
 
Consider the way Too Many Cooks moved through the culture:
it at once became a hot topic on The New Yorker, New York Magazine,
and CNN websites,
even as it was still burning its way through every discussion board on
countercultural hotbeds Reddit and 4chan. The disconnect between those
two
audiences—one attracted to High Art, the other, broadly speaking, to
Low—was so
great that Reddit and 4chan users were heard loudly complaining that
their
enjoyment of Too Many Cooks was being coopted by those whose values
and tastes they didn’t and can’t share.
In other words, Too Many Cooks was destroying class distinctions by
appealing
to basic human emotions all of us contend with, regardless of income,
education, or
institutional affiliation. To call Too Many Cooks mere parody when it
deliberately speaks directly to and about longstanding story structures
and
psychosocial conventions unfairly casts it as deliberately obscure. It’s
a strange thing: we
live in an age in which we treat as obscure that which is simple in
order to avoid
seeing that it’s our simplicities that unite us, and that we all
struggle daily to resolve contradictory ideas and emotions. Too Many
Cooks
may suggest a worldview troubled by the overload of information
we all experience in the Internet Age,
but it’s also trying to remind us that, for now at least, we’re all in
the same kitchen
and eating the same food.

Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, including two, Metamericana and DATA,
forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. Currently a doctoral candidate at
University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also Series Co-Editor for
Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015.

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