It started on July 8, 2020 with a video posted by Buzzfeed’s food and cooking channel Tasty, captioned “These Are All Cakes.” The video shows a houseplant, a Croc, a bar of soap (with suds): all cakes. Other videos proliferated, and people quickly began to wonder if all the household products that populate our everyday life might actually be layers of cake with variously flavored frosting and a trompe l’oeil fondant coating.
Such disbelief of ordinary life lends itself to some performative mental distress, with one person posting another video of food items (an eggplant, an oyster, a bell pepper, mac ’n’ cheese) that are all, again, actually cakes: “guys i’m genuinely distressed i can’t take this shit anymore.” But I’d say the distress of these videos is part of their pleasure. They work not just because it’s fascinating to see someone cut into a shoe that turns out to be cake but also because they make us doubt reality, sometimes to the point of madness. And in this madness, they provide a brief respite from the known and true and often grim: from reaching out to touch something like a Kleenex box and knowing in advance that it is what it is.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s cake.
Internet trends seem to have ramped up since the recent Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant quarantine for much of the United States. And over the past few months, mimesis—the realistic representation of something—plays an increasingly important part of these trends. Since the beginning of quarantine, people have re-enacted famous paintings in their home, repetitions of childhood photos, and made watermelon that looks like ham, with others suggesting that “viral” memes are themselves reflections of coronavirus’s spread.
Mimesis has become one intensified way we engage with ordinary life under quarantine, but scholars and aesthetic philosophers have seemingly always known that the philosophical concept of mimesis has an important relation to everyday life. In the fifth century BC, Parrhasius won a competition by painting a curtain covering a painting, besting his competitor’s realistic depiction of grapes. He won not by masterfully depicting everyday life but by showing the mediation of that life—the curtain that we’ve come to expect covers the real painting behind it. Paintings represent the world, yes, but this also happens the other way around: the paintings we make shape how we view the world.
These internet trends similarly take up everyday life and, through mimesis, turn it into an object of aesthetic contemplation. It’s not just the remarkable similarity in color between reddit user echothatislove’s backyard and the grass in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, nor the pink dress, nor the exact hairstyle, but also the way that a cellphone camera captures the same angle, the same depth of field, Wyeth’s sloping vertigo. The recreation of the painting does what Wyeth’s original is celebrated for, but from a backyard: it manages to imitate not just the look of Christina’s World but rather the mimetic techniques that make that painting so extraordinary. In our contemporary exploration of mimetic representation, Wyeth takes the place of Zeuxis to echothatislove’s Parrhasius.
The recent pandemic and quarantine have exacerbated (but hardly created) a disagreement over the representation of reality. With many people doubting the reality of the pandemic’s extent, public health officials learning to effectively display data, police attacking the journalists representing recent protests and uprisings, and debates about whose speech gets to be free, digital technology seems to have simultaneously expanded our perception of the world, even as it causes us to doubt that perception. Reality’s representation seems life-or-death in the context of a virus that you can spread without even displaying symptoms, but mimesis’s coexistence with the ordinary world goes back at least to Zeuxis and Parrhasius. “The cakes,” as we’re calling them, play into these questions of perception and reality, and part of their potency comes from the ambivalent—simultaneously fascinated and horrified—responses they produce. We can’t look away from the very thing that makes us disbelieve our eyes, and yet that thing of disbelief is, bizarrely, familiar.To me, the most significant of the cakes surprisingly plays with our historical moment. It at first appears as a toilet paper roll but when cut, reveals pink and yellow layers. Toilet paper became something of an emblem of our new quarantine era, when people began stockpiling it, worried that failing supply chains would disrupt toilet paper’s availability. It was a frightening, confusing, somewhat hilarious moment, when for some reason the worst of our worries was how we’d wipe our asses.
But the toilet paper shortage also brought our practices of production and consumption into close, contradictory view. It’s not that people were using so much toilet paper that there was none left but that they were buying it at such ridiculous rates that it could not make it back onto the shelf quickly enough. The means by which we receive our consumer goods were outpaced by our consumption habits.
The cake qua toilet paper, then, reveals what toilet paper itself cannot: the mere existence of the consumer good without the worries of production and consumption. However, because of the way we receive it—the way the internet meme mediates it—the toilet paper cake becomes useless as either toilet paper or cake.
This partly explains the strong responses such a cake elicits. Even as global supply chains weren’t working hard enough to provide everybody with the toilet paper they were trying to hoard, the toilet paper cake reveals infinitely more effort than would ever be needed to produce a roll of toilet paper. Excess and uselessness begin to be as indistinguishable as the curtain and the painting of the curtain (similarly, many of the people who stockpiled toilet paper back in March are probably still working through their hoard).
So the cakes reveal something that Sianne Ngai claims all commodities reveal : put simply, that we all hate capitalism. In the move from production to consumption, Ngai points out that we all notice an imbalance between the value of labor and the lives that labor allows us to live. That the cakes would be met with overblown and hilarious horror mere weeks after it’s revealed that even our favorite cooking web series are made through exploitative, racist labor practices actually begins to make a lot of sense. “guys i’m genuinely distressed i can’t take this shit anymore” might equally be a response to the revelation that your toilet paper is secretly cake as to late capitalism’s creation of a toilet paper shortage. How, frankly, shitty.
The knife sinking into the commodity and revealing cake produces the visceral horror that seems to be the cakes’ dominant response. This is the strength of parodies where someone hacks at a Kleenex box or slices a real (is it? I can’t tell anymore) toilet paper roll. But in this dialectic of cake/not-cake, something else happens. In her book Looking Away, Rei Terada calls this “phenomenophilia”: the cultivation of misperceptions as a “fleeting relief from the pressure to endorse what Kant calls the world ‘as is.’” Phenomenophilia is Coleridge writing poetry about frosted-over windowpanes, Adorno studying the bright colors of the circus, me recoiling at a Crocs shoe with vanilla-chocolate layers.
In mimetic internet challenges (at least those that produce the strongest reactions) from recreating artworks to “the cakes,” we achieve something like the merely apparent redistribution of the world, not as it is but as it could be. You too could have a painting from MoMA’s collection in your backyard, you too could have your toilet paper and eat it too, you too could have a life that’s not immiserated in countless hours of labor with only brief breaks to scroll through Twitter and not even healthcare, public infrastructure, or basic necessities in return. Another world is possible. Or, in the parlance of another meme that’s been making the rounds: “Always has been.”
Adam Fales gets up early and stays up late. He tweets at @damfales.