Is it really the end times, when anthropomorphic chocolate gets less “sexy”? American TV host Tucker Carlson’s campaign against the supposedly woke redesign of the M&M “spokescandies” would suggest it is: “M&Ms will not be satisfied until every last character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous; until the moment you wouldn’t want to have a drink with any one of them.”
I doubt Carlson really longs to go for a drink with cartoon confectionery. But this isn’t the first culture war over the sexuality, or otherwise, of imaginary cartoon nonhumans. Last year, there was Minnie Mouse’s trouser suit, and in 2021, Space Jam’s Lola Bunny gained clothes and lost the bouncy boobs because, according to the makers of Space Jam 2, the previous depiction had “objectified” her.
These aren’t just a more than usually frivolous outcrop of the ever-present culture wars. They can also be read as evidence, writ small, of something bleaker: the accelerating collapse of cultural creativity into endless, stagnant, and usually woke reboots and remixes.
But there’s hope amid the despair: the M&Ms story offers a glimpse of emerging, net-native narrative forms that look nothing like anything from the print era. And this is a development with far-reaching implications for those currently preoccupied with how (or if) artistic renewal is possible.
This is a growing number, too. For it feels as though “culture” has hit the wall. The novelist Ewan Morrison lamented with this sense of stasis recently, arguing with the late cultural critic Mark Fisher that “the future has disappeared”. This has left us, he suggests, an oppressive sense of eternal present where, instead of new narratives, “the arts have been dominated by remakes, reboots, sequels, spin-offs and imitations, leaving an ever-shrinking space for genuine creativity and new ideas”.
Of the 40 “most anticipated films” in 2023, for example, only three were original screenplays. Goldeneye, a classic video game, has just been relaunched for Switch. Morrison deplores that “The techno-capitalist future will be a kind of Groundhog Day”, in which “we’re consuming the same reprocessed products again and again and again”.
And this threatens to strand us in what I’ve come to think of as “Human Centipede culture”, after that cult horror movie in which victims are stitched together mouth-to-anus, forcing each to consume the excreta of the one in front. For an onrush of generative AI technologies is already accelerating this proliferation of reboots. Buzzfeed has augmented its human writers with quiz-writing AI, while futurists predict a deluge of automated content in every field from art to pornography that will swamp our ability to tell who is human — or to care.
Battles about the latest reboot of some or other cartoon icon, in movies and advertising, likewise convey this sense of ever emptier culture-as-regurgitation. But where did all the original stories go? Morrison blames corporate entertainment conglomerates. But while this is part of the picture, it’s also a side-effect of the creative class coming adrift — alongside the ruling elites — from the material world.
And this is to a significant extent an effect of the digital revolution. As we slide further into that revolution, these changes are producing escalating class conflict riddled with surreal (and often bitterly controversial) phenomena, from the moralisation of pandemic policy, through declaring Black History Month more important than water, to the obvious cruelty and absurdity of letting males who identify as women compete against female athletes or be incarcerated alongside women. Throughout, the governing political cleavage today is over when — or even whether — the world as it is matters more than the world as it should be.
This has subtler effects too, on art and culture. The philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford argues that the hidden tradeoff of “user-friendly” modern technologies is in increasing our sense of mastery and control over the material world, at the cost of the more efficacious mastery that comes from understanding what he calls its “affordances” — which is to say potential, and limits.
Crawford cites the difference between a car or motorbike whose direct steering provides feedback on road surface and demands a tactile harmony with the vehicle, and how it feels to drive modern vehicles which are partially controlled by computer: a development that both empowers and de-skills the driver. Elsewhere, the essayist Beth Tilson makes a similar contrast between abstract knowledge, and what she calls “literacy of the fingers”. Tilson describes how learning to make bread required gaining this literacy, which she contrasts with the kind of abstract knowledge that is more generally privileged in the modern world – but is no less essential.
I agree: there’s an unbridgeable gulf between writing about bread, and knowing by touch when a bowlful of dough is ready to prove. This knowledge was once widespread, and echoed by a multiplicity of other tactile forms of engagement with the world. And this sense of rootedness in the physical, Crawford argues, is discernible in golden-era animation – a fact perhaps linked to the sheer laboriousness of making such work. I hadn’t appreciated just how time-consuming this is, until my daughter and I had a go at stop-motion animation; we produced, after an entire morning’s work, a single second of footage. The sheer volume of artistic work and skill poured into making the classic, hand-drawn Disney animations is staggering.
Perhaps the most (to date) under-priced impact, in cultural terms, of first the technologisation, and now digitisation, of everything, is the way it attenuates these tactile relationships with the world. As we lose embodied knowledge about the material world’s affordances, forms which previously seemed self-evident come to seem weightless, empty, and naff. We are deprived of affordances to think with.
This is perhaps easier to see in the built environment. Online advocates of “trad” architecture are fond of asking architects what’s stopping them building in classical styles, usually implying that this signals moral decline. But the actual answer is less moral than material: traditional, beloved architectural styles aren’t there for the pretty. They’re required by the limits of what you can build in brick, stone, or wood without the structure collapsing under its own weight. But modern materials such as steel girders and reinforced concrete eliminate many of those constraints, meaning architects are suddenly freer to build any shape they wish.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with anything, if you could build anything. In architecture, this produces sometimes mind-bending results: structures that play with the liquefaction of real-world material constraints.
The digital transformation does something equivalent to our cultural life. For Crawford, this is visible in the contrast between older animated works — with their clear if playful relationship to the laws of physics — and the weightless quality of contemporary Disney Club content. Here, there’s no sense of struggle with, or submission to, material reality. Instead CGI animations — a medium that’s always somehow eldritch and insubstantial, compared with hand-drawn styles — depicts storylines in which some kind of physical challenge is solved by the arrival of a deus ex machina technology.
And with culture grown weightless by the loss of real-world material references, no wonder we get stuck with reboots. There’s simply too little common material frame of reference left to do anything but re-work existing IP.
Meanwhile, the arguments about sexy cartoons keep recurring precisely because these serve as proxy for a running battle about how far the de-materialisation of everything can be pushed. McCartney, designer of pantsuits, spoke for the weightless when she crowed that “This new take on her signature polka dots makes Minnie Mouse a symbol of progress for a new generation,” explaining: “She will wear it in honour of Women’s History Month in March 2022.” It may seem absurd, but McCartney’s perspective simply reflects the fact that, in practical terms, for those now “liberated” from material constraints, sex dimorphism really isn’t very important — because for both sexes, “work” means staring at a computer.
Should this class and worldview prevail, the triumph of reboot culture is all but assured. But even if, as seems likely, this signals the end of art and culture as we know it, the final twist in the M&Ms controversy suggests storytelling may yet make a comeback in new, net-native, wholly de-materialised form. For it transpires that the controversy was, in fact, manufactured: a synthetic culture war incited to induce the predictable backlash, then inflamed further by announcement that the “spokescandies” would be withdrawn.
They haven’t. There will be a new M&Ms advert featuring them at the next Super Bowl. The whole thing was a confected, participatory, net-native drama, played out on the giant collective swarm-canvas of online culture-war controversy, with everyone – even Tucker Carlson – playing their part.
And the aim? To sell you empty calories. Nothing could offer a clearer illustration of how completely commerce and culture fuse, in the emerging narrative genre of mass-participation, online swarm theatre.
But there might be a way forward, and it lies in the germ of sense in Carlson’s protest against the “spokescandies”. He speaks for many in standing for the truth that the world isn’t actually weightless and radically liquid. The material world is still, well, material, for everyone outside the laptop class. For most people on the planet, water is considerably more important than Black History Month. And the affordances of sex dimorphism come sharply back into view the moment you do a manual job, or have a child, or in fact depart the realm of ideas for embodied life for any length of time at all.
And this, in turn, underlines the fact that we don’t need to resile into endless remixes. There is, in fact, no shortage of material affordances to think with. The biggest obstacle to reviving art and culture is the class with a stranglehold on the means of cultural production. For, whichever side of the political aisle they claim to sit, this class will fight tooth and nail to avoid relinquishing their technologies, and re-acquainting themselves with the constraints of the material world.
There’s a great deal of subterranean argument online about the whys and wherefores of creating “dissident art”. But it’s up against a monolith of determined de-materialisation, and the Human Centipede culture this produces. Perhaps our only hope lies in artists and storytellers willing to seek out beneficial constraints to think with – and able to transmute these into images and stories that still carry the world’s true weight.