The political GIF: the never-ending loop in presidential races

18 minutes to read
Iris Cuppen

"Words matter," Hillary Clinton said towards the end of the first U.S. presidential debate in 2016; "Words matter when you run for president." That is certainly true. Once words leave the mouth of a presidential candidate, they are endlessly repeated in the papers, discussed on talk shows and ridiculed on the Internet. Often degraded to sound bites or headlines, these words are removed from their original context, trapped in an infinite media spectacle that drives the presidential race forward. Every few decades, a piece of technology comes along that reshapes this spectacle and forces the candidates to adjust their presentation. It happened in 1924 when Calvin Coolidge showed that he was a natural on the radio, which many historians believe helped him win the presidency. It happened again during the first televised debate in the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy — who was essentially an unknown senator at the time — destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, because Kennedy turned out to be more charming and confident on the screen than Nixon.

Today, the candidates still try to persuade voters through televised debates, but their reach goes far beyond the stage that NBC is offering them. Not only do they have to make sure that their performance on television leaves the intended impression on voters, they also have to control their image, which is constantly reshaped and re-edited on the Internet. Before, during and after the debates, millions of tweets, texts and blog posts were shared on different digital platforms that discussed the likeability of the candidates. New media gave the people a voice to react to the debates that the television broadcasts and, needless to say, words play an important part in these discussions. But then, a new (or actually rather old) piece of technology came along that adds a remarkable medium to this verbal discussion: Graphic Interchange Formats (GIF). In these tiny animations, political debates are reduced to soundless gestures that seem to be capable of summarizing a reaction (of both politician and user) better than words could ever describe it. 

The GIF seems to be the embodiment of ‘endlessness’.

While Clinton was emphasizing the importance of words in her speech, I will argue that animated GIFs, and the way they depict gestures, have a great influence on contemporary politics. When it comes to news events like presidential debates, the voter can easily feel overwhelmed by the endless storm of discussions, debates and opinions. Animated GIFs allow for a different kind of consumption of all the available information, one that is recyclable and personalized, and therefore a remarkable and enduring addition to the public debate surrounding political elections. In order to understand the power of the political GIF, we have to go back to the beginning days of cinema, in which the moving body was explored from a distance – e.g. through a screen – for the very first time. By exploring the influence of film on gestures, we can analyze political gestures in and through the animated GIF, beyond the point in discourse after which the power of language ends and another, more elusive, realm of communication begins.

Gestures captured on screen

The nineteenth century invention of moving images changed our experience of everyday life tremendously, as it allowed viewers to turn their gaze backwards in time, to perceive aspects of reality that would otherwise remain unnoticed. In his famous piece 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1969), Walter Benjamin introduces the idea of 'the optical consciousness': the notion that the world that opens itself before a camera is different from the nature that the naked eye is capable of seeing. Benjamin argues that, before moving pictures existed, people were locked up in the spaces they lived, worked and travelled in. Then film came along and it "burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second" (p. 15). The camera revealed details that were already registered in people’s senses but never got processed consciously:

"With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. (…) Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride." (Benjamin, 1969, p. 16)

The technology of film made it possible to turn moments of unnoticed gesture into objects of inspection. Already in the late nineteenth century, Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography, Eadweard Muybridge’s split-second photographs of human and animal motion, Jean-Martin Charcot’s photographic analyses of hysterical tics, Gilles de la Tourette’s indexical charts of the footprint, Alphonse Bertillon’s comparative photographic charts of the physical features of criminals and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s analyses of and prescriptions for efficient industrial production, all broke down images into their smallest possible constituent parts and reassembled them as a series in order to focus on the human body – and on human gesture in particular. In all these studies, gestures were divided, systematized, analyzed and classified, in order to reveal aspects of bodily movement that could not be seen by the naked eye. Benjamin believed that these new technologies would provide human beings with unprecedented acuity, out of which “a less magical, more scientific form of the mimetic faculty was developing” (Buck-Morss, 1991, p. 267).

The movement in these studies was in fact an illusion: movement was not actually seen, but imagined in the gaps between instances of stillness. Muybridge, for example, started capturing human models in a variety of action sequences, including walking up or down stairs, hammering on an anvil, carrying buckets of water, or throwing water over one another. He put these images on a disc and then ran them through a zoopraxiscope to give them the impression of motion. As an effect of these filmic experiments, familiar movements were isolated and decontextualized, which allowed for a new understanding of human embodiment. However, as Sam Rohdie argues in his book on montage, “these reproductions, though sequential, were composed of intermittent, discontinuous immobile units, in effect, a series of snapshots. Nothing moved, no body, no animal, no stick, no ball, no hand nor eye, nothing went from here to there” (2006, p. 3). Muybridge had his models imitating rather than enacting movement while posing for a sequence of gestures; it was all about making the illusion of movement believable, rather than scientifically accurate. Muybridge’s work was therefore “not an analysis, but a spectacle”, as Rohdie concludes (2006, p. 4).

Benjamin argued that film offered a healing potential by the slowing down of time through montage, creating “synthetic realities as new spatio-temporal orders wherein the fragmented images are brought together according to a new law” (Buck-Morss, 1991, p. 268). Industrialization shattered the capacity for experience and not only caused a crisis in human perception due to the speeding up of time and the fragmentation of space, it also caused a crisis in human gesture. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben famously argues in his short essay ‘Notes on Gesture’ (2000) that, referring to De La Tourette’s observations of walking disturbances and Muybridge’s action sequences in the 1880’s, the Western bourgeoisie lost their true gestures at the end of the nineteenth century. The shocks suffered by patients with Tourette’s syndrome interrupted their gestures, and these therefore remained unfinished, open-ended: “a proliferation that cannot be defined in any way other than as a generalized catastrophe of the sphere of gestures” (2000, p. 50). 

While examining GIFs of the American elections of 2016, it became clear that a lot of these animations do not display important statements but show ‘in-between’ moments: the turning of a head, the wink of an eye, the pointing of a finger or the wave of a hand.

In Tourette’s observations and Muybridge’s sequences of movement, Agamben noted a mode of vision that “is already a prophecy of what cinematography would later become” (2000, p. 49). These sequences both reified and obliterated gestures by fixing them, in the first place, into static images: the model’s body was decomposed, before it was recomposed in a sequence of discontinuous cuts. By linking the gestures this way, the static images preserved the dynamic force of movement (the so-called dynamis). According to Agamben, this dynamis needs to be liberated from the static spell of the image in order to lead it “back to the homeland of gestures” (2000, p. 55). “In cinema”, Agamben wrote, “a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record its loss” (2000, p. 52).

Referring to Deleuze’s coupes mobiles (images in movement), Agamben argues that the mythical rigidity of the image has been broken in cinema, as a consequence of the liberation of the dynamis. Therefore, the main element of the mending of stills (i.e. cinema) is gesture and not the image (2000, p. 54). For Agamben, this gesture is neither a means to an end nor an end without means; it is a means as such: the manifestation of pure gesturiality. The gesture is therefore characterized by a state of constant suspension; it exists in between desire and fulfilment, in “a sphere of pure and endless mediality” (Agamben, 2000, p. 58-59). 

This ‘mediating nature’ is in the first place physical. The simple movement of waving a hand mediates, or transitions, between two static states: the orientation of the hand before the wave begins, and after the motion of the wave is completed. The cinematic gesture ‘displays’ this mediating nature by focusing attention on the process or nature of the transition, rather than on the starting or ending point of the hand. Film director and essayist Jean Epstein recognised this refusal of gestures to be limited to a beginning and ending by suggesting that “on the screen, the essential quality of a gesture is that it does not come to an end” (Epstein, 2012, p. 273). This way, cinematic gestures inform the narrative without being bound to it, a characteristic that brings us to one of the main features of the animated GIF.

Animal locomotion, Plate 44

Outside political narratives

While examining GIFs of the American elections of 2016, it became clear that a lot of these animations do not display important statements but show ‘in-between’ moments: the turning of a head, the wink of an eye, the pointing of a finger or the wave of a hand. Like the cinematic gesture, the GIF ‘displays’ a mediating nature here by focusing attention on the process (the loop), rather than on the starting or ending point of the movement. To discover the political aspect of these mediated movements — which is the main focus of this paper — it is useful to look at Agamben's 'Notes on Gesture' (2000) once again. He wrote: "because cinema has its centre in the gesture and not in the image, it belongs essentially to the realm of ethics and politics (and not simply to that of aesthetics)" (p. 55). By repeating very detailed moments over and over again, GIFs isolate and decontextualize the gestures that Agamben earlier described as ‘the manifestation of pure mediality’. We could therefore say that his diagnosis of the potentiality of a gestural motion in cinema, returns, in a concentrated form, with the birth of the animated GIF. 

The GIF's temporal scope is so limited that it is just enough to carry a dynamic, captivating movement (Agamben’s dynamis), while its short duration and infinite looping still invite us to closely examine and analyze this movement outside its original narrative (its gestural nature). In “The Digital Gesture: Rediscovering Cinematic Movement through Gifs” (2012), Hampus Hagman therefore argues that the GIF is characterized by the attempt to make movement ‘strange’ again. The loop is “liberated from the responsibility of making it mean and carry out narrative goals” (2012). He claims that the GIF performs a sort of decontextualization whereby (recorded) movement is given a second life outside the structures of the narratives from which it originates. Its existence as a fragment therefore does not serve as a prelude to the restoration of the whole: it eternalizes a continuation of the fragmentary. As accentuated by its endless looping, it does not desire to belong to another stream of narrative; it only wants to exist for its own moment.




The GIF’s abandonment of the narrative agrees with the ‘database’ culture that Lev Manovich (2001) described. Manovich argues that we are in the process of a shift from narrative forms as the key form of cultural expression to the database as the prominent cultural logic of the digital age. In contrast to narratives, the database form is presented as a collection of separate, yet related elements. Databases are in essence collections or ‘lists’, and therefore they are theoretically endless and always ‘in progress’. The GIF seems to be the embodiment of this ‘endlessness’. Wandering around like a traveller in the digital word, the meaning of a GIF is defined by a context and author that both seem to be forever changing. GIFs no longer seem to belong to an end or a beginning, but live in the ‘endless space’ (Castells, 1996) that we call the Internet. 

Despite the recognizable and meme-like character of the animated GIF, it refuses to act as a vehicle for achieving a particular goal (for instance narrative closure). Instead, it circulates and exists in multiple realms, re-inventing itself in every new context. It therefore remains in an in-between state of desire and fulfilment, in a sphere of pure and endless mediality. It could be argued that this ever-changing nature corresponds to our contemporary culture of distraction. Seen from this perspective, GIFs do not communicate any ‘real content’; they could be written off as pure entertainment in our post-modern society. This idea matches the broader concept of ‘phatic media’ that Vincent Miller (2008) describes in his essay 'New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture'. Phatic communication is a term first used by Bronislaw Malinowski (1923/1936) to describe a communicative gesture that does not inform or exchange any meaningful information or facts about the world. Miller used a modification of the term to describe the ‘flattening’ of communication on the Internet towards the non-dialogic and non-informational.

While I recognize the collective ‘sharing’ of GIFs as a sheer act of phatic communion, I disagree with the ‘postsocial’ society that Miller describes. Rather, Malinowski reminds me that we should not underestimate the importance of seemingly unimportant social activities. The GIF is the living example that popular culture plays a leading role in the construction of our reality. In order to meet the challenges of the altered world that digital images are constructing one pixel at a time, we have to look at the animated GIF beyond its reputation as a vehicle for pure entertainment. Especially since entertainment has become increasingly intertwined with political success. 

The GIF as a mode of expression in the public debate

As argued above, GIF's digital features allow us to manage the unfolding of time, to slow down and endlessly repeat movements. The physical and virtual bodies that are exhibited speak to us in many ways, while we, at the same time, constantly speak through them. Agamben wrote: “the gesture is essentially always a gesture of not being able to figure something out in language” (2000, p. 58). The endless digital gestures the GIF depicts and embodies, giving us the opportunity to wordlessly express our intellectual, emotional or physical beings, without using our actual bodies (except for the finger that controls the mouse). The GIF belongs to everyone and yet to no one, and therefore constantly exists between the private and the public domain. 

In 2011, Sally McKay wrote: "GIFs are designed to be viewed at home, in private, by people who are sitting at their computers. Yet at the same time these people are immersed in the hybrid, public/private environment of a personal computer connected to the collective public commons of the Internet." (McKay, 2011). By sharing GIFs with the endless space of the Internet, the producers and editors of these images reveal parts of their own identity. Not only are they zooming in on the human embodiment of politicians, to reveal their hidden gestures; the public image of the politician also seems to serve as an illustration of their private emotions. This sharing of private emotions in a public sphere could create new debates on both private and political issues. 

The (almost artistic) GIFs that mock Trump's double chin play freely with the visual material that this spectacle has produced.

In 'Everyday Iʼm Tumblinʼ: Performing Online Identity through Reaction GIFs' (2012), Katherine Brown claims that the users of GIFs remix political images and news sources to create a different type of conversation around the candidates in a presidential race. She speaks about a ‘new’ form of civic participation: a type of interaction that consists of the hybridization between news information and the emotive quality of GIFs (p. 32). Brown illustrates the complex roles that GIFs perform online and how they function as tools for digital activists: "Digital natives utilize the political reaction GIFs as a type of new media literacy to illustrate their currency in a typical top-down media stream" (2012, p. 39). Brown argues that the use of the remix of political images to simplify communication of complex ideas "can lead to a more fruitful and interesting dialogue" (p. 40). 

The Internet is, unlike television, not (yet) a broadcast medium. As a result, the viewers of political GIFs have the possibility to be at the same time its producers, editors and critics, as they can use their creativity to grab, touch and edit the carefully constructed images of the high and mighty politicians of our time. As I already mentioned above, political candidates struggle to control their images on digital platforms. Brown states that the users of the animated GIF overthrow this control through various means of surveillance and remixed creation, constructing emotional ties around the images of political leaders by twisting them to their own end. While these ties can make us feel as if we have a personal power over the image of a politician, the victory of Trump as president of the United States seems to suggest that it is still the politician (or in this case the billionaire) who is seizing the real power. 

In November 2016, during an off-the-record meeting with a group of thirty of the most high-profile members of major American television networks, the soon-to-be president Donald Trump reportedly took issue with a very specific aspect of their media coverage: his double chin (Gold, 2016). He mentioned a reset with the 'dishonest' media by asking them to stop sharing unflattering images of his face. As a result, thousands of images appeared on the Internet mocking or accentuating Trump's double chin in different contexts and visual languages. 




While we know a great deal about the private lives of the presidential candidates, the spectacle of their performance is further removed from reality than ever. The (almost artistic) GIFs that mock Trump's double chin play freely with the visual material that this spectacle has produced. Most of the shared GIFs around the presidential campaign, however, were not that extreme in their visual language. They simply showed the silly laughs, awkward walks or insecure winks of the candidates, directly copied from the different debates broadcasted on television. While these silent gestures in-between sentences seem to reveal a human side of politicians like Clinton, by intentionally leaving out the scripted speeches and rhetoric, Trump mostly showed exaggerated, almost cartoon-like gestures. In one of the most popular examples of these GIFs, we see Trump contorting his face into a dozen different shapes during the second Republican debate. In a few seconds, Trump rolls his eyes, raises his eyebrows, mocks surprise and feigns laughter.


It can be argued that this composition of strange faces reinforces the idea that Trump is a loud-mouthed buffoon who is not capable of controlling his emotions. At the same time it may have helped boost his campaign, or at least his profile. In fact, it even seems that Trump is satisfying the thousands of GIF creators (and spin doctors) with his delivery and movements. Since he is both the creation and a participant of popular media, it is no surprise that he seems to be the perfect showman and therefore the dream come true for every GIF creator. As Kira Hall, Donna M. Goldstein and Matthew Bruce Ingram have argued, Trump's campain was successful because it was entertaining, not only for the supporting voters, but for the 'public' at large: 

"Trump’s opponents interpret his gestures as truth of discriminatory attitudes that exist beyond the comedic act; his supporters read the same gestures as truth that he is not afraid to express his opinions, even when confronted with the censorship ideals of political correctness." (Hall, Goldstein and Ingram, 2016, p. 82)

The sharing and editing of his facial and bodily expressions, either in a supportive and humorous way or in an intentionally mean-spirited and mocking manner, opened up an 'optical consciousness' that Benjamin could only have dreamed of. However, this consciousness does not necessarily seem to make Trump more human or 'real'. On the contrary, even these in-between moments seem to be scripted, waiting to be shared and edited in the contemporary media environment. Like Muybridge's sequences, Trump seems to imitate rather than enact his own gestures and the GIFs that capture these gestures are not an analysis of his credibility, but part of the succesful spectacle around his persona. 




The political impact of the GIF

Searching for the key words #Trump and #face on the GIF engine GIPHY gives us almost 50.000 results. The way these GIFs are edited and constructed in different contexts gives us an idea of the impact that this medium can have on the image-making of contemporary politicians. Even though these bits are not in every case meaningful in themselves, they become significant in intertextual chains of reference. The enduring bits of gestures that wander around in the database culture that Manovich (2001) described, together form new narratives of political candidates outside the carefully constructed images presented in other media. Moreover, the continuation of these fragmentary gestures gets eternalized all over the Internet. The moment Internet users start to edit these fragments, a new cycle of hybridization starts "where the hybrid from an original parent source becomes a parent itself for a new hybrid" (Brown, 2012, p. 40). 

While this never-ending loop of never-ending loops far exceeds any type of authoritative organization, we cannot over-simplify them as something 'fun' or 'silly' to share online. On the one hand we can see that animated GIFs create a significant amount of pressure for politicians, who now have to have huge teams of social media interns working for them, just to monitor Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter for potential land-mines. On the other hand we can argue that, if these candidates do not have an animated GIF of their performance the day after the debates, they probably will lose the elections anyway. 

Clinton was right when she stated that words are important in the 2016 election. The moment she uttered this statement, however, her face was already shared, mocked and changed by thousands of silent animated GIFs made by people all over the world. The influence of these tiny moving images on her (lack of) popularity should not be underestimated. This form of image politics signals the absence of speech (and facts) by emphasizing gestures, rendering the deeply familiar as strange and, more importantly, calling representation itself into question. While GIFs display the seductive dangers of democracy captured in memes (as Trump's victory showed), they also reveal important processes of contemporary politics that deserve our attention, now more than ever. 

Hungry for more info on (political) GIFs? check out 



[1] The zoopraxiscope is an early device for displaying motion pictures. Created by photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge in 1879, it may be considered the first movie projector.



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