David Firth is of course most familiar as someone who made a meme hit flash video in the mid-2000s (Salad Fingers), but I want to reclaim what he does as, if not necessarily ‘high art’, then at least something extremely profound (and if nothing else, at least, much higher than the contemporaneously popular ‘Badger Badger’ video).
Firth’s animations are sometimes accused of being ‘nightmarish’ or ‘surreal’. They have been said to function like dreams. Other people try and tie their scattered, constantly broken-off narratives down to the safe dry land of allegory: comments on YouTube try and tell you that the inexplicable, namelessly terrifying thing you just saw definitely stands for x, y, z. Well, maybe they are like dreams, but that’s a rather trite way of putting it. The point has to be that they do not unfold straightforwardly as a unified narrative might. They are fragmentary, and as such avoid answers or false reconciliation (one series, ‘Spoilsbury Toast Boy’, ostensibly unfurls backwards; although it is for all this marked not by a dimunition of the lead character’s plight but rather by it, through the medium of memory, coming closer into view). Firth can thus be considered an heir of sorts to Kafka and Beckett.
Beckett in particular, in fact. There is something distinctly Beckettian about the mode of madness and perversion exhibited by Firth’s characters. And for the most part they exist in a detritus of the mundane. People are offered Wispa Golds or Christmas Hampers like they are relics of a disappearing nature that we no longer quite understand (and perhaps for that reason are often prepared to murder in order to cling on to it). On first viewing these sort of references can seem merely silly, non sequiturs. But they are in their silliness precisely integral to what Firth is trying to do.
Adorno says that the fragmentary musicality of Kafka’s writings (to be likened, we must suppose, to the work of the Second Viennese School) allows him to express, through the medium of language, something that is closed to us in this fallen world: the theological, the possibility of redemption. Really we can only do this negatively: the possibility of redemption can only be expressed by our being shown that it does not, under present conditions, ever take place. In fact, that under present conditions we cannot even imagine what it would look like. Firth’s eschewal of conventional narrative and his frequent employment of apparently nonsensical imagery serves a similar purpose, in these worlds he presents us with where, as in both Kafka and Beckett, the obstacles are constant and insurmountable, and happiness is apparent but never something can ourselves genuinely experience, or at least not for long. ‘Pulch: The Good Times’ presents us with a glimpse of a human existence, which then immediately disintegrates with Luxembourg’s illness and death.
Firth’s work resembles music and can be experienced like music; unlike a conventional film or work of literature it can be played on repeat and one will get a new experience of it each time.
If Firth’s work is to be described as nightmarish, then it is our bureaucratised, scientistic world, frozen as a nightmare. In ‘Sock 4’, a man is having a medical experiment performed on him that involves his “cheeks melting”. He complains to his captor about this, but is told, as we all are by scientists, necessarily so that they can maintain their world-view (just think of a neuroscientist who wants to tell us, by reference to our brain states alone, that we do not have free will), that it is perfectly OK, that he never really said this, he actually said that he was “swell, just swell”. “And I’m glad to hear it!”, the doctor replies. In the ‘Health Reminder’ videos, doctors chastise their patients like cruel schoolmasters as they reel off a nonsensical string of scientific-sounding words for vitamins and such that we are explicitly told we can or should not understand, and slip back-handers to the abstract concept of pain, who they tell us is an “honest chap” who works by particular rules, who we should love (and then we actually follow their imperatives).
The Spoilsbury Toast Boy is enslaved by an apparently omnipotent and omnipresent race of beetles who perform bizarre (and ultimately fatal) surgical procedures on himself and his sister. The beetles declare themselves to be, as a race, “good doctors,” and use their scientific expertise to draw conclusions such as, if you have a build-up of mucus, you “don’t deserve to breathe.” Their rule is characterised by injunctions such as “pleasant thoughts are unhealthy,” as well as sexual violence (most apparent in episode minus 2 which is, presumably due to the rape scene, not on YouTube). Of course, the suggestion, conscious or not on Firth’s part, is that Only This Is Science. And of course we must think that if this sort of thing is experienced as dream-like, then it is particular historical-situated individuals who are having these dreams. And ‘we moderns’ are, in our ongoing oppression, enslaved by nothing more than we are modern natural science, and its method that itself monopolises sense-making, as in: the making of statements that ‘make sense’. Simply in not making proper sense, Firth’s animations would challenge this, even if they were not also addressing the problem more directly.