Department of Film and Media Studies
University of California Santa Barbara
“Shock” websites, which confront their viewers with unexpected and unpleasant material, came into existence in the early history of the World Wide Web. The content of these websites—usually pictures or animations grotesquely depicting sexual or violent scenes—is often complemented by coding that frustrates users’ ability to navigate away from the pages. The increasing cultural visibility of shock sites such as Goatse and 2girls1cup invites investigation of their signifying processes. While the material depicted is semantically shocking, the form of these websites administers a syntactic shock in the form of a sudden loss of volition, disrupting an Internet user’s assumptions about the organization of information on the Web and preying on expectations about the Internet’s navigability. Keywords: shock websites, Internet syntax, initial experience, transitivization.
The World Wide Web promises relatively unfettered access to information that was previously difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. The Web has been celebrated for its “democratization” of information as well as its ostensible capacity to give a “voice” and an implicit potential audience to anyone who wants to publicly express something. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Web, very early in its existence, became a means for the distribution of mainstream pornographic material. Shocking and unpleasant material—grisly death scenes, cruel fetish porn—has also long been a (somewhat less publicly visible) staple of the Web.
As the content of the Web has expanded, people have found new ways to manipulate the manners in which websites are navigated and interacted with. Innovations of these kinds, it could be said, are like changes in the syntax, or the grammar, of the Web, in that they represent new forms of organization of the Web experience—organization that both structures Web-surfing on what is equivalent to a discursive level and, as a contextual framework, inflects users’ experience of individual web pages. As with spoken language, the manner in which content is manifested and how its expression is structured can contribute significantly to its roles in a discourse, and thus its “meaning.” An intuitively-accessible format for a shopping website, for example, can be like the Web equivalent of a good real-world salesperson, not only directing the shopper toward desirable items but also fostering a seamless and pleasant overall experience that, as in real-world shopping, may lead to more sales on the strength of its influence on the shopper’s experience of the situation.
The syntax of Web navigation, of course, can also be manipulated in the opposite manner, so that attempts to find one’s way toward desired information can be frustrating or, in some cases, alarming. These qualities are often simply the unintended results of bad design, though some websites intentionally evoke feelings of frustration and distress in ways that are parodic or expressive. It has been suggested that the reflection of paradigmatic themes and sentiments in the syntactic structuring of texts is an aspect of the poetics of any media form. Umberto Eco, for example, writes that Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” exploits its form to go beyond its seeming semantic simplicity to something more “semantically rich”
As for the content, it seems to offer the most elementary kind of information, the tautology for truism. In order to convey a tautological content the expression seems to rely upon an excess of redundancy…Nevertheless the message gives the impression of saying something that is semantically rich and therefore highly ambiguous. [This produces] an increase of informational possibilities. (Eco 1979, 270)
The syntactic forms taken by media—the ways in which they exploit the channels available to them and the ways in which they allow for determination of content or interpretation on the part of their users—thus influences and complicates reactions to and readings of their more paradigmatic content. Algirdas-Julien Greimas And Jacques Fontanille touch on this interaction in what are perhaps less-binary terms in their discussion of what they call the microsequence and the macrosequence. Greimas and Fontanille are discussing jealousy, but their observations are applicable to any situation in which general patterns and their more specific details work in concert with one another to contribute to an overall effect:
We can envisage the syntax…in two complementary ways: first, though a passional macrosequence characteristic of the whole configuration, which will encompass the presupposed…and the implied…and subsume transformations between arrangements; or second, through a passional microsequence that takes on just one of the arrangements. (Greimas and Fontanille 1993, 170)
Where Eco writes about organizing (syntactic) principles and their interactions with paradigmatic choices, Greimas and Fontanille’s discussion focuses on relative scales within the structure of an expression. Like Eco, though, Greimas and Fontanille are concerned with the ways in which semiotic units both inform the larger structures of which they are parts and contextualize their own component units of meaning. In a classic example of the mutual reinforcement of effects between the different aspects of a text, some websites that contain shocking and unpleasant imagery are also encumbered with frustrating navigational schemes. This confluence is typical of Internet shock sites—sites to which an (often unwitting) user is directed, at which point he or she is exposed to unpleasant material, usually in the form of a still image, a looping animated “.gif” image, or an embedded film. The content can take gory or otherwise repugnant forms; most often, it seems to involve grotesque depictions of unusual sexual practices.
The earliest example of a shock site that I can recall seeing was a page featuring images of a woman having sex with a horse, which I saw some time around 1994 or 1995. The Web is now peppered with such sites; one of the first to become widely linked-to and referenced was Goatse, a now-offline site featuring an image of a man using his hands to stretch his anus open. A more recent example, and one that has become surprisingly visible in the public eye, is 2girls1cup. This site features a short film in which two women engage in coprophagy and emetophilia, activities that are (I would venture) inherently repulsive to most people. For some reason, 2girls1cup has caught on in ways that many of its ilk have not. It has provoked relatively widespread cultural commentary, “reaction videos” in which people videotape their friends seeing the site for the first time, and parodies, and it has received notice in the mainstream press. It was the burgeoning popularity of 2girls1cup that motivated this essay; the disgust (and subsequent dismay) that the site provoked in me was something that I wanted to better understand. That the site has struck some kind of public chord means that more people than ever are being exposed to Web content of this kind; the reactions that it provokes are thus an increasingly relevant part of human semiotic experience.
While avoiding much reference to the specific content of individual shock sites, this essay looks at these sites in the interest of examining how some of aspects of their meanings are constructed, especially as regards the first moments after navigating to such a site, at which time expectations about informational content and formal structure are upended. The semiotic theories of Eco and of Greimas can provide insight into the ways in which shock websites structure our experience.
Eco writes that a response can be “both authorized and elicited by [a] code’s existence.” He is writing about laughter as a response to absurd misuse of or contradiction within a communicative code, but his claim is very much applicable to the less-pleasant experience of revulsion typical of shock sites. Eco goes on to state that both fear and amusement can result from “contradiction within the code”:
One laughs because even though one realizes that [an absurd] situation is unthinkable, one understands the meaning of the sentence. One feels fear because, even though one realizes that the situation is possible, one does not like to accept such an alarming semantic organization of one’s experience…its meaning is unacceptable not because it is incomprehensible but because—if so accepted—it implies the restructuralization of our codes. (Eco 1979, 64)
Eco here captures the multifold nature of the formal play involved in the construction of confusing and unfamiliar linguistic forms. The websites in question provoke similar responses by similar means; they are an assault on both the level of paradigmatic content (forcing unexpected visual semantic information upon their viewers) and on the level of learned expectations of the syntactic organization of the Internet. The reaction connoted by shock websites is complex, as it involves not just surprising content within a mediated experience but also a sudden, forced reorganization of the viewer’s understanding of how that broader media experience is structured. Central to this meaning-construction is the concept of shock itself, and, more specifically, how this shock is achieved and how it functions in the context of other Internet use. Web shock sites offer densely packed initial semiotic experiences, surprising in both their forms and their content. There is a natural alarm felt on viewing an unexpected and disturbing, nauseating, or taboo image. The user also experiences a concurrent shock related to the sudden loss of the perceived self-determination that is a central aspect of Internet use. This experienced loss of agency and breakdown of the Web’s purported system of active access undermines one of the central metaphors that we typically employ when using and thinking about the Internet. Especially since the advent of the World Wide Web, people have tended to use spatial metaphors to describe both the Internet’s internal structural relations and the phenomenological experience of interacting with it: we go online; we visit websites, then navigate away from them. Shock sites can subvert this perceived spatiality and thus undermine the spatial metaphor. Upon encountering such a site, one is inclined to stop thinking in spatial metaphors and start thinking temporally—and not in temporal metaphors but in relation time itself. The phenomenological experience is, in an instant, shifted from “being like you are going somewhere” to “having something done to you.”
Shock sites thus go beyond showing their viewers unpleasant imagery and stripping them of their agency; they in fact impose a form of linguistic patienthood on those who unwittingly navigate to them. The commonness of this kind of forced seeing in our increasingly visually-oriented culture calls for a word to describe it. “Show” is a transitivization of sorts of “see,” but “show” does not necessarily communicate all of the important qualities of the phenomenon that I am describing here, as a key modal aspect of this forced seeing is that it is an action imposed upon the viewer. In the phrases
I showed the dead body to him
SUBJ/AGENT VERB OBJ/PATIENT PREP. IND. OBJ
I showed him the dead body
SUBJ/AGENT VERB OBJ IND. OBJ/PATIENT
“Him,” whether it occupies the direct object or the indirect object position, is not in the patient position relative to the verb; the dead body (an example appropriate to the topic at hand) is always that which is being shown. The sense for which I am looking here is something more like an imposition of looking, such that the one doing the looking is the semantic patient of the verb. I will therefore employ the neologism “sench” to describe this form of forced seeing. This word is modeled on a strongly causal transitivizing inflection that is already present (though rare) in English: a causal form of “drink” is “drench” (in the sense of administering a drink, usually to an animal), a causal form of “quell” is “quench.” “Sench” would, then, function as follows:
I senched him [the dead body]
SUBJ/AGENT VERB OBJ/PATIENT IND. OBJ/AUXILLIARY
(i.e., “I forced him to look [at the dead body]”)
These transitivized verbs connote the administering of an experience; the effect is similar to that of the syntactic organization of some shock sites.
A website merely containing a disturbing image is not a sufficient condition for senching to occur; there must be a sense of imposition, a manipulation of the user’s navigation to the image. This often occurs through a falsified link or a page that is programmed to automatically redirect, after a certain amount of time, to the target image. In a discussion of the “narrativization of values,” Greimas describes the “syntagmatic emplacement” of values as “a discoursive [sic] organization that manipulates the constitutive elements [by, among other possibilities, transforming functions.]”(Greimas 1987, 90) Thus, the subject (S) of an utterance can be conceptually conjoined with or put into disjunction with its object; these, together, become the object of a new way of conceiving of the event. Thus, one’s way of perceiving one’s own role in an action can be transformed by the syntactic structures of that action, a forced reconceptualization that is akin to that which shock sites can impose on those who unwittingly navigate to them.
Greimas uses the term “realization” to refer to a process that conjoins the object of an action with its subject; he uses “virtualization” refer to the formation of a disjunction between subject and object that nonetheless transforms the subject and object, collectively, into a composite object. Greimas represents these transformations visually as follows (“F” stands for “function”):
Realization = F transformation <S1 → O1(S∧O)>
Virtualization = F transformation <S1 → O1(S∨O)>
[∧ indicates a conjunction; ∨ indicates a disjunction]. (Greimas 1987, 91)
The resulting conjunctive or disjunctive entity is conceived of as the object in a new formation, one instigated “by a metasubject operator whose formal status can be made clear only within the framework of an utterance of doing of the type:”
F transformation (S1 → O1). (Greimas 1987, 91)
In the context of shock sites, this conceptual transformation would be effected by the user’s crossing the boundary at which it becomes clear that the usual syntactic structure of the Web has been replaced with a model that affords the user less volition—or less subjectivity—than would typically be the case. To be senched is to be forced into a syntactic object position and a semantic patient position in a new kind of utterance that maintains the seeing relationship between the original subject and object while transforming the overall construction of the representation of the action.
S(a) sees O(b)
Becomes SENCHING (O(a) here is the same individual as S(a) above):
S(c) senches O(a) [Thus O(a) sees O(b)]
Greimas describes virtualization as a necessary first step toward establishing a realization. Virtualization puts the subject and object into a disjunctive relationship to one another; the establishment of this relationship makes a possible later conjunction possible.
While shock sites effect a transformation of syntactic systems that changes the viewer’s enactive relation to the text, the images have an inherent power that, in and of itself, asserts an active position vis-à-vis their viewer. The alarming nature of the images seems to (a) allow them, on a visual-representational level (what Greimas and Fontanille might call the microsequential), to maintain an evocative power of their own; and (b) permit them to “inform up,” instilling a sense of panic (in that one might understandably want to get away from the images as quickly as possible) into what might otherwise be the mere frustration of an unexpectedly structured syntactic experience.
(a) is made possible in part by the fact that a repulsive image calls for a response that a non-repulsive image may not. To Eco, a behavioral response can be “signified (or imperatively communicated)” by a sign. (Eco 1979, 55) In the case of sudden and unexpected exposure to repulsive images, the signified behavioral response is a recoiling from the image. In Eco’s passage, “signification” of behavioral response is used to distinguish imperative communication from elicitation of an automatic response (as from a machine to which a signal is issued). Repulsive images and people’s reactions to them can be very close to automatic; we can recoil from a threatening image in much the same way that we instinctively recoil from a physical threat. The inherent strength of these images affords them a special quality in that they, even if compositionally coherent and legible, can lead to an overall breakdown of meaning. Eco writes that if microstructures are not considered formally, “it is easy enough to assert that in aesthetic experience there exists a ‘je ne sais pas quoi’ that escapes ‘rational’ consideration.” (Eco 1979, 267) When looking at a change in a communicative system at the level of syntax, it can be easy enough to let paradigmatic considerations slide; however, when staring suddenly into an image of a man’s gaping anus, one might very well know what is eliciting an uneasy reaction. The response evoked by this paradigmatic shock extends upward, informing how the concurrent syntactic shock is interpreted.
If the terms “realization” and “virtualization,” as Greimas employs them, are contraries, or “two terms that presuppose each other” (Bouissac 1998, 566), we should be able to put them into a Greimassian semiotic square and elicit other useful categories with which to think about what shock sites do. The contraries:
Recall (from footnote 8) that Greimas portrays the functional transformations effected by realization and virtualization as follows:
Realization = F transformation <S1 → O1(S∧O)>
Virtualization = F transformation <S1 → O1(S∨O)>
To these, we can add our newly formulated contradictory transformations.
Dissipation = F transformation < O1(S∧O)→S1∨O>
In dissipation, the subject is conceptually separated from the object and the two are no longer conceived of as part of a system upon which a metasubject acts. The disjunctive relationship between the subject and the object remains; this was a prerequisite for the establishment of the conjunctive relationship and the dissipation of the conjunction does not eradicate this preexisting relationship.
De-virtualization= F transformation < O1(S∨O)→S1∧O>
Here, the disjunctive relationship between S and O is eradicated. This has a somewhat different effect than does dissipation, in that it changes the role of the metasubject. External reference, according to Greimas,
calls the subjects and objects into a semiotic existence. Only when a value is inscribed into an utterance that describes a state whose function establishes the junctive relation between the subject and the object can we consider this subject and object as semiotically existing for one another…the loss of all relation between subject and object would result in abolishing semiotic existence and would relegate objects to their original semantic chaos. (Greimas 1987, 90-91)
Although Greimas does not give a name to the process that would lead to this semantic chaos, what I am calling “de-virtualization” seems to fit the bill. The position in the semiotic square occupied by de-virtualization (the “negation of the negation”) is, appropriately, the fundamentally “peculiar” position, writes Frederic Jameson: “this must be…the place of novelty and paradoxical emergence.”(Jameson 1987, xvi)
And so it is; it is the process described at this position that best gets at the confusing, contradictory, and repulsive quality of shock sites. The alarm felt at the sudden presentation of a repulsive image, combined with the concurrent breakdown of the expected syntactic systems of the Web, produces a reaction in which discernable meaning is ultimately undermined. To be senched is to be pushed in multiple directions at one time; the unpleasant sensation of having one’s volition undermined is superficially comparable to the unpleasant sensation of looking at a repulsive image, but the two sensations (the first an imposition and the second an affront) are in some ways at odds with one another. This opposition leads to the complicated reaction one has when first exposed to a shock site: confusion, frustration, and repulsion are interweaved in one moment, but they do not necessarily complement one another; their effects may, in fact, be contradictory.
This only begins to address one common kind of initial reaction to shock sites. The textual specifics of the sites deserve attention; some of them frame their shocking material in provocative ways, while some (especially those that feature video clips) seem to seek to build from their initial shocks to even-more-repulsive crescendos (2girls1cup certainly falls under this category). Some of the less-nauseating ones, too, can be quite funny. What I have called the “densely packed initial semiotic experiences” of these sites give way to less-complex signification; the role of syntactic shock, especially, rapidly disappears, and although paradigmatic shocks may continue to mount, they are only initially so dramatically inflected by their syntactic contexts.
Also worth consideration is the appeal of shock sites. Their popularity and persistence attest that they hold a fascination for some people. What about being exposed to shock sites can be compelling, and why would someone want to stay at a site after the initial shock? Many potential answers suggest themselves at the moment, most of them rooted more in pop psychology than in semiotic insight. That shock sites administer complex and multi-faceted initial shocks to their viewers is worth reckoning with, but it is only a step along the way to thinking about why these sites exist and what their increasing visibility says about the cultures and the creatures that have produced them.
Boissac, P., ed. 1998. “Semiotic Square.” Encyclopedia of Semiotics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eco, U. 1979. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Greimas, A. 1987. On Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Greimas, A. and Fontanille, J. 1993. The Semiotics of Passions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Jameson, F. 1987. “Foreword.” In Greimas, A., On Meaning Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 Greimas and Fontanille put their argument in terms of amounts—lengths of utterances or volumes of sequential information—rather than making a form-content or syntagmatic-paradigmatic distinction. This fractal approach, looking at functional confluences between the parts and the whole, is in a way much like Eco’s own discussion of aesthetic expression. To Eco, expressive manipulation can occur at any level of the object, which “suggests that the codes on which the aesthetic sign relies can likewise be systematically submitted to such further segmentation.” (268)
 Goatse. 8 October 1999. Now offline; archive accessed 30 November 2007. <http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.goatse.cx>.
 2girls1cup. 30 November 2007. <http://www.2girls1cup.com>.
 It is telling that we call such images “repulsive”; they do not physically repel us, but their psychological effect is powerful enough that we tend to talk about them as though they have causal power over the physical world.
 Meatspin presents an image of gay male sex, looped in a surprising and amusing way, and features an unexpected punchline if watched for long enough. Meatspin. 30 November 2007. <http://www.meatspin.com>.
E-mail the editors
Pour écrire à la rédaction
© 2009, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée