I was probably watching 40 hours of TV per week as a teen in the 90s, and yet, I’ve never seen an episode of Melrose Place. If I had been watching Melrose Place in the 90s, I’d have been one of the millions of people who missed the subversive art disguised as props that had been smuggled into the show by an art collective known as GALA Committee.
Isaac Butler’s article, The Virus Inside Your TV, details this story about a subversive art movement that succeeded because it had the support of people on the inside of production, and it’s awe-inspiring to see the level of access to the production the group eventually won. Butler points out that this kind of action was known in the 90s as “culture jamming,” which was the idea of using the products of culture to critique the society that produced the culture. In the case of Melrose Place, the subversion was subtle. For example, during this time when unrolled condoms couldn’t be shown on broadcast television, GALA managed to sneak bed sheets and pillowcases that featured patterns of unrolled condoms into an episode of the show. In another example, they smuggled a blanked with the chemical illustration of the abortion pill, RU-486, printed on it into a scene.
This was a really cool art project, but what is the point of all that work if no one notices it? Typically, a prank, especially one of the culture jamming variety, requires a reveal in order for the messaging to be effective. This art project remained relatively hidden for decades.
As I was reading this article, it stirred ancient memories from decades ago of a class I took as part of my Film & Video Studies program. It’s actually the class that I think about most — a media class taught by Heidi Mau in the art school at OU (most FVS classes were in the College of Arts and Sciences, not the School of Art). The memory was of a chapter in a book that focused on subversive messages in TV. It contextualized those messages as a media viruses. The book was Media Virus! by Douglas Rushkoff (the cover of the book is a blast from the past for anyone who was around in the 90s – it screams “cyber”)
I believe this book was one of the earliest mainstream attempts to conceptualize what it means for media itself to be viral. In Rushkoff’s formulation, a media virus is not restricted to content – it can be an event, an invention, a pop icon — it’s any “shell” that is able to hook into pop culture and garner attention, and within these shells are the infectious memes (transmissible, replicable ideas) that can reshape culture. The Melrose Place / Gala Committee project may have been too subtle to have been unobserved. It’s when something like this does get observed that the culture sends antibodies to flush it out. The fact that this Melrose Place article generates, at most, nostalgia rather than outrage, suggests the possibility that this and other viruses were successful in mutating our culture to accommodate these ideas.
What I’m really drawn to, though, is the idea of the culture sending antibodies to react to the media virus. When Rushkoff was writing his book, media viruses moved through what he referred to as “the datasphere.” This included the internet, but it was dominated by traditional media. In fact, most of the book focuses on television because that was the dominant and most rapidly evolving mass media of the mid 90s. Participatory culture, in that context, was daytime talk shows and cable call-in shows where people were able to voice their opinions and interrogate the guests of the shows and their ideas, themselves. When a new media virus would emerge, the impact would be felt over weeks or months, with media’s most rapid ability to react and replicate the virus coming in the form of TV news and late-night comedy. Now, though…. Now we’re in a much different place.
The Discourse and the Milkshake Duck
Rushkoff’s datasphere still exists, but it is dominated by the internet, and we are the media. Every Facebook update, X post, Reddit comment… everything we publish is media. As such, how the culture responds to a new media virus has evolved. We generate the response in the form of “The Discourse.” If you think of discourse as all of the published social media about a topic and The Discourse as the collection of all of those little discourses, then you can begin to see how The Discourse would be drawn to new media viruses since we are so frequently looking for something new to talk about. The cultural body would have a generally consistent level of discourse floating around, maintaining the culture, but a foreign body would trigger its defenses, bringing the discourse to inoculate the virus.
This inoculation comes through a process of interrogation of these new media viruses. The full attention of the culture gives The Discourse the ability to perceive the virus through thousands of difference lenses until one perspective is able to undermine the virus. It’s why we have so many milkshake ducks – a milkshake duck is a person — a media virus – who has gained popularity through a positive narrative (and its supporting memes) but is later revealed to have a disqualifying, unsavory past. It is the culture neutralizing media viruses carrying potentially harmful memes.
Returning to the story of GALA Committee and Melrose Place, can you imagine what the same prank would’ve looked like today? A show as popular as Melrose Place was would already be subject to The Discourse, and with that many people watching, someone would’ve undoubtedly noticed the AIDS virus blanket, screenshot it, and tweeted it or TikTokked it, setting off a massive discourse about hidden messages in Melrose Place and a subsequent easter egg hunt through back episodes. In making the subtext text, The Discourse would then deliberate over the meaning of each of the individual memes (ideas), ultimately embracing or rejecting them, but neutralizing the virus’s effectiveness, regardless.
On one hand, we should be in awe of how we have evolved in response to our media environment. Even if we don’t all understand how media works, we are all fluent in media and have become the most important part of it. On the other hand, it has created this wearying behavior for us all, where we are constantly aware of what is happening in our culture and often conscripted to go and serve as part of The Discourse examining a new invading media virus. When you feel that the trend cycle is speeding up, it is really that each of our trends’ ability to survive as a media virus has been shortened by the discourse. Our attention is freed up to react to other media viruses, which is useful because there is only ever more to react to. It is a cycle; it’s exhausting; and you should question what it means for us to have this relationship to culture. Is participating in The Discourse an unpaid labor we didn’t know we were signing up for as culture was slowly reshaped around us, or is it the equivalent of voting, a civic responsibility that isn’t fun but is required to keep our culture running? I’m curious what you think. Drop a comment below to keep this discourse running.