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[20.0] Coco Klockner
Where is main character energy flowing?
Inadvertently, Divine Innovation contributed to a zeitgeist-y great awakening in the main character energy hot takes realm. My dingdonging on a keyboard coincided with a glitzy (??) New Yorker article about the same topic. Great minds?
But rather than ride the flume of derivative pontification, I thought it best to reach out to Coco Klockner—who wrote, imo, the original critical essay on main character energy—and dive into the phenomenon as they understand it. Straight from the source!
A writer and artist based in New York, Coco approaches main character energy and cybernetic solipsism through a cinematic lens. In this fast-paced convo, we discuss OSHA, simulations, and whiteness. A delight:
Divine Innovation: What drew you to the topic of main character energy in the first place? How does it relate to your larger artistic/writing practice?
I’d written about the topic before it was so explicitly described as “main character energy” through the TikTok trend. Like plenty of others, I was introduced to TikTok during the pandemic, and I was skeptical (before falling deeeeep into my own “for you page”). I saw the trend emerge and mostly recognized it as something I was already thinking about—something that was now taking shape through the specific set of tools provided by TikTok. I just thought it was synonymous with (or closely adjacent) to what I’d described elsewhere in other pieces of writing.
As a quick aside: What’s your FYP like?
Bless OSHA. In your essay, you frame cinema’s history as a self-mythologizing one. Do you approach mythology here in a metaphorical or spiritual sense?
I just mean the way that it stabilizes its power by thematizing its own history over and over again.
I’m also interested in the boundary between “living in a movie,” as you identify in your essay, versus “living in a simulation,” a Muskian trope. I’m wondering if you can comment on the difference as it relates to main character energy.
I’m mostly talking about emotions and the way we recognize them.
As far as “living in a simulation,” my sense is that [Elon] Musk gets attributed it merely because he has the biggest bullhorn, but that refrain actually seems like a blurry Venn diagram/knights of the round table meme between Baudrillardians thinking culturally, physicists thinking theoretically, and then—I don’t know—Radiolab centrists who are just like, “Wow, current events are crazy—this is a completely brand new thing and it has never happened before.”
“TikTok users playing with the idea of ‘main character energy’ are not identifying with individual actors or larger-than-life roles but rather with the materiality of cinema itself,” you write. “They absorb its logic and distill it down.” Why is cinema the go-to cultural barometer? And are there worlds beyond cinema in which you locate main character energy’s roots?
I feel like the public treats cinema as a fairly dead medium—its logics have been so distilled down to the form they take in comic book movies that it’s like they’re completely “solved,” each movie a sleepwalking object navigating the way it is supposed to navigate.
But it only seems like cinema shouldn’t be the cultural barometer anymore on first glance because so many cultural forms are more dominant, despite the fact each of those forms adopts these logics. It feels more like cinema simply “won” when it comes to culture. Video games are more cinematic than ever, partisan news shows regularly use cinematic convention to manufacture consent, even the most sugar-rushed corners of TikTok looking like experimental Ryan Trecartin films from the late 2000s simply complete the century-long cinematic trend of shortening cut times. As far as worlds beyond main character energy, they exist but I don’t think we have access to them currently.
Why don’t we have access to those worlds yet?
Just because we’re still in this world.
Makes sense! At the end of your essay, you discuss the idea of the non-playable character, the opposite of a main character, an automaton lacking interiority; the term, you mention, is often used by fascists as a dehumanizing insult. Given that linguistic deployment, how do you relate main character energy to whiteness?
Well, part of cinema’s history is that a cornerstone of its conventions were forged through D.W. Griffith’s pro-KKK, 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. And I don’t think it can be overstated how much the refinement of a cinematic tradition really did from there to forge how whiteness stabilized and reproduced itself throughout the 20th century. It tracks that if a structure of feeling gets shaped through that visual lexicon, a relationship is there.
But I wouldn’t say main character energy is synonymous with whiteness—there is a mode of white main character energy that is essential for weaponizing white emotion, for performing white innocence, and for deferring white responsibility that can absolutely be highlighted amongst the umbrella of affect that gets shaped by cinema. And there’s plenty of main character energy out there that is not white! It’s one reason I’m not interested in pointing to main character energy within any moral dogma, but I think clarifying the forces that shape it is a necessary way for understanding it.
There are moments of intersection though: Glissant’s idea of “opacity,” specifically his framing of it as an anti-colonial right to otherness, ends up being totally relevant. The legibility of interiority that main character energy demands from people—especially when the understanding of “social media platform as information factory” gets increasingly adopted—emphasizes that subject transparency is the commodity of value here. The fact that we’re witnessing a Black creator strike unfold on TikTok and reach mainstream news outlets is absolutely an indication of that.
Your essay has clearly resonated with me and other writers :) What do you think is next for your main character inquiry? What’s next for main character energy writ large?
I’m pivoting back towards more non-verbal projects in my studio art practice—a couple video projects on the docket will probably intersect with these ideas at some point.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.