I just discovered (a few months late) the mesmerizing Tumblr “What Should We Call Me.” Each post on the blog pairs generalized descriptions of situations with animated GIFs, most often showing a facial expression or bodily motion. This almost perfectly exhibits something that Lisa Zunshine talks about in her paper “Theory of Mind and Fictions of Embodied Transparency.” “Embodied transparency,” as Zunshine defines it, is a class of fictional tropes in which a character involuntarily reacts in a way that reveals their emotions to others, whether through a facial expression or through a bodily movement. The GIFs on “What Should We Call Me” are the converse of this type of trope, conventionalized representations that follow in their wake once people realize that the reactions, once assumed to be involuntary, can be replicated (in this case literally) and subverted.
Zunshine writes that there is an “arms race” between artists who wish to convince the audience that reactions are genuinely involuntary and others who wish to turn them into tropes that can be performed. This causes mental states to appear to “retreat” from the possibility of transparent expression, as more and more tropes are proven subject to deceptive performance (78). But I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which the conventionalization of emotional expression can bring people closer to other people’s minds. I’ve long been a defender of artfulness over ideas of authenticity that exclude it, and conventional bodily reactions—or GIFs that get passed around in lieu of them—provide a way of expressing emotions whose intentionality can be clearly seen by all. They don’t transparently convey emotions, to be sure, but another level of expression can take place that appeals to the audience’s ability to understand the underlying intention, which does not involve communication through the act, but which is a precondition for all acts of communication.