The Last Night and the Big Character Poster

Warning: Random social commentary post follows, which is quite out of the ordinary for this blog.  I apologize in advance, and invite you to come back again tomorrow for such riveting topics as “which Dragon Age character I would most like to sleep with.”

When I visited China a couple of years ago, one of the must-see sights on my trip was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, which is a little museum run entirely by one enthusiast – one enthusiast, I might add, who is either the bravest dude I have ever met, or the dumbest.  As an example, one of the exhibits on display is a poster of Mao, surrounded by his cabinet, addressing a crowd in Beijing.  It’s a fairly famous poster because it was frequently edited and reprinted as members of his cabinet fell out of favor and needed to be taken out, and the exhibit has multiple versions of it with handy annotations talking about who was removed.

China is pretty liberal these days, but that’s still a particularly ballsy move.

It may explain why the museum doesn’t have any sign visible from the street – literally, the way you get to this place is that you go to its address, walk back and forth a few times looking confused, and a security guard comes out, asks you if you’re looking for the museum, and then hands you a business card with a map on it to lead you to the front door.

I’m not kidding about any of that, by the way.

Anyway, while a lot of the museum’s posters can be looked at as art objects as much as political objects, there’s one small section that’s legitimately frightening to browse, and that’s the Big Character Poster section.  These aren’t printed posters, but rather hand-written, in huge characters (hence the name), to convey a single message.  During the Cultural Revolution, they were often used to attack specific people for not being proper revolutionaries, so you might show up at your work one day and be greeted with a huge poster out front calling you out, by name, with a list of your sins for all of your colleagues and any passers-by to see.

The Cultural Revolution, in general, is a fascinating period for me because it shows how originally good intentions can spiral completely out of control.  It’s also almost completely absent in popular culture, even though it would make a great setting for games or movies – the only time I’ve ever seen a mention of it was in The Red Violin, where the titular instrument is being hidden from zealots out to destroy all western instruments.

Anyway, internet culture has been reminding me a lot of these Big Character Posters recently, because it seems to be locked in a cycle where someone becomes internet-famous, followed by people scouring their posting history for signs of Wrong Thought, followed by an outcry once evidence of such is found.

It’s rather famously summed up by the Milkshake Duck tweet, reproduced below on the off chance you’ve never run across it.

To take it back a LITTLE bit from the Cultural Revolution comparison, the whole thing also reminds me of middle-and-high school, where there would be that One Weird Kid, who everyone mocked because, well, if you were all mocking the One Weird Kid, then nobody would be looking at you – and if anyone was looking at you, then you made sure to be twice as awful to the One Weird Kid, just to prove that you were cool.

The most recent example, of course, is The Last Night, a pixel art game that takes, shall we say, rather heavy inspiration from Blade Runner, and which made quite a splash during the Microsoft E3 presentation… enough of a splash to start the whole cycle of people raving about the game, digging up some old tweets by one of the developers, and then an internet mob coming for his job and to try to get his game dropped by his publisher and/or Microsoft.

It’s the sort of ridiculous momentary outrage that – well, I try to avoid referencing Orwell whenever possible, because “1984” is really the bath salts of literary reference, something you give as a gift when you can’t be bothered to find anything better, but what the heck – that really IS the Two Minutes Hate of our time, the focused tearing down of a person until the next Great Villain can be found, at which time the internet mob moves on leaving wreckage in its wake…

…and I kind of wonder how many of the participants are doing it just because they haven’t left the fear of being the next One Weird Kid behind.

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