No, I’m not going to post a You-Tube video of myself getting doused in ice water, and, indeed, by the time this posts, the ice bucket challenge will have probably morphed into something else anyway—most likely a series of parodies. Rather, I wish to submit this latest of virally-initiated fads to a semiotic analysis, seeking what it says about the culture that has so enthusiastically embraced it.
As always in a semiotic analysis, we begin with a system of associations and differences, and with some history. The actual act—dousing someone with a large bucket of ice water—of course, refers back to a once spontaneous, and then institutionalized, end-of-Super Bowl ritual by which the winning coach is sloshed with the melted remains of the Gatorade barrel. That is part of the system in which we can locate the current fad, but already we find a significant difference. That difference lies in the fact that the Super Bowl related ice bucket prank is not only an act of celebration but one celebrated by a highly elite masculine club (in fact there is a faint aura of hazing about it), while the ice bucket challenge is an act of pure populism. Not only can anyone participate, but it is, by definition, a mass activity through which individuals are “called out” to participate (indeed, there is a certain whiff of coercion about the matter, a trick-or-treat vibe that caused even Barack Obama to say “no thank you, I’ll just make a monetary contribution”). Thus, the ice bucket challenge can be associated with such medical research fund raising activities as wearing yellow Live Strong bracelets or participating in walkathons, but it is also a reflection of a hetero-directed society whereby (in this case benignly and for a good cause) individual behavior is dictated by group pressure.
America, which prides itself on its tradition of individualism (this is one of our chief mythologies), has a hetero-directed tradition as well that goes all the way back to the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For the people that we know as the “Puritans” (their own name for themselves was the Congregationalists) had a very group-oriented worldview, one that compelled every individual member in the Congregation to demonstrate to his or her co-religionists the signs of salvation, or face expulsion.
The tug-of-war between staunch individualism and hetero-directedness is one of the most enduring contradictions in American history and culture. In some decades (the fifties are notorious for this), hetero-directedness weighs more heavily (it isn’t called “hetero-directedness”, of course: we know it as “conformity”); in other decades, anti-conformist individualism is dominant (the sixties generation at least viewed itself as anti-conformist).
The tug-of-war at present is especially complex. On the one hand, digital communications technology has been a tremendous nurturer of hetero-directedness. From the sudden viral explosions that produce flash mobs, zombie walks, and, yes, the ice bucket challenge, to the constant sharing of individual experience on the world wide web, digitality has created a global hive that is always abuzz with Netizens caught up in a network of constant group behavior. But on the other hand, we are also living in an era of intense libertarianism, a hyper-individualism often expressed, paradoxically enough, by way of the same social media behind the global hive.
It is this sort of non-dialectical mixture of individualism and hetero-directedness that makes America such a culturally complicated, and, well, paradoxical place. While revealing such paradoxes does not resolve them, it at least helps us to understand ourselves as a society a bit better.