Smiling Through The Pain: A Response To Late Capitalist GIF Thoughts | Rachel Bochner

“Happy Hump Day😜!”

“Almost the weekend…😅”

“TGIF!🙌🏽”

Some might call this ‘smiling through the pain.’

The term “late capitalism” has recently become a particularly popular phrase used to refer to and criticize our modern economy. I interpret Fidelia Lam’s GIFs as a reaction to the overwhelming emphasis on hyper-productivity that is placed upon people in the workforce, as they are expected to perform (and outperform one another) with smiles on their faces. Potentially as a coping mechanism, emojis have proliferated into this company culture, finding their way into email subjects, reports, and more broadly in the ways in which employees communicate. Late Capitalist GIF Thoughts playfully but blatantly calls out the artificiality of corporate communication and the affective impact of late capitalism.

What makes Lam’s piece significant is that it takes a few moments of taking in the looping GIFs to fully understand what’s going on. Lam’s use of the GIF format, combined with the emoji keyboard, initially comes off as fun and familiar. Going a bit deeper, it also evokes a sense of a collective struggle, as emojis signify the universal digital language that has been evolving with technology and culture since its birth in 1999.

There is a dark humor in Lam’s work that makes it peculiarly relatable. The two GIFs that show the phrases “I FEEL EMPTY” and “I HATE MYSELF” surrounded by happy/celebratory emojis highlight the tension between the existential anxieties Lam mentions and the facade that masks them. The familiarity, and one could argue banality, of the visuals in each GIF comment on the normalization of these consequences of late capitalist priorities. The use of satire extends this familiarity further, as it is reminiscent of the postmodern, hyper-ironic nature of digital communication. 

Greed is a problematic byproduct of capitalism. Lam’s work is a response to the looming pressure for employees to contribute to their companies’, and ultimately their personal, economic success. Specifically in regards to jobs lower on the corporate food chain, fear of dispensability can take a toll on the mentality of the people in those positions. Simultaneously, Lam’s work takes on the neoliberal ideal that, with a “level playing field,” personal success is based solely on individuals choosing to take advantage of the opportunities available to “everyone.” Lam’s GIF ‘worth’ directly responds to this cognitive stress, as it features faces with dollar sign eyes surrounded by flying money over the text ‘I’M ONLY WORTH WHAT I CAN DO.’ Moreover, with the rising usage of team collaboration tools, such as Slack, such anxieties can be manipulated to encourage productivity. Since GIFs and emojis remain a huge part of these chatting platforms, it is clear that personal communication has found its place in the workforce… but not necessarily for personal benefit.

While viewing Lam’s work, I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the dark language with the carefree emojis. The combination feels unequivocally normal, as so much of the “internet humor” seen in popular content on social media platforms (aka memes) revolves around self deprecation and turning serious issues into jokes. These digital habits speak to the extensive impact that “late capitalist thoughts” are having on communication. The ramifications extend beyond the work environment and into digital culture as whole. Emojis have expanded how we convey emotions and subtleties online by offering visual aids that further illustrate what we are trying to say. “Lol” now means something different than “Lol😭.” “I feel empty” feels a lot more intense than “I feel empty🤪.” But does that mean the emotion is any more or less genuine? Why do we feel the need to downplay our negative thoughts and anxieties through ironic emoji use? While I can’t answer these questions definitively, I argue that what Fidelia Lam is trying to show us is that late capitalism has had a distinct influence not on how we feel things, but how we present our feelings in the digital sphere. 

You can view Late Capitalist GIF Thoughts here.

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Rachel Bochner is a Media Studies and Production major at the University of Richmond, and she spends most of her time creating and listening to music. When she’s not jamming out alone in her car, you can find her by the James River or snacking on some chips and salsa.

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