Some Thoughts on Planking

by on Aug.11, 2011

Planking has been attacked for being dangerous, culturally insensitive, and just plain stupid. In their warnings, rants, and denunciations, the media, both mass and social, have tried to endow the craze with some of sort of cultural significance, but so far they have thoroughly missed the mark. One death and a few arrests is hardly enough to label the activity dangerous. On account of cultural insensitivity, it has been argued that planking, in both name and appearance, too closely resembles the particular way slaves used to be stowed into the cargo holds of ships for the transatlantic journey. I’d like to imagine that somehow all the white plankers function as unwitting participants in a massive re-enactment of the slave voyage, but for the most part, nobody’s paying much attention to this argument.

Surprisingly, it’s the third line of attack that may be the most productive. Here are a few examples:

I’d be curious to know what others think about these videos. It seems to me that they make race and class conspicuous in their absence. In other words, planking being stupid is not really the message here. At one point in the second video, the speaker mentions an episode of Cops in which an officer orders the person being arrested to “get in planking position.” This is about as close as the author of the video gets to addressing the issue: if planking speaks to racial tensions, it’s much less about slavery than it is about the more contemporary phenomena of gun violence and police brutality.

Those who participate in planking may or may not be sensitized to the above. Regardless, I think the photographs deserve a closer look. Here are a few preliminary observations.

People attempt a new level of intimacy with their surroundings through planking. It’s done on beaches and mountaintops, but it’s mainly a form of intimate engagement with the urban environment. The city becomes a stage.

Planking is not a “happening” or a situationist performance; no planking event is complete without a photograph and its dissemination through social media. Proper composition of the image is key. (Some of my favorites are where the body isn’t immediately noticeable in the photograph.)

The act being performed is a counterfeit death.

The best results are at once comical and uncanny: rigor mortis as an acrobatic act, in a setting that doesn’t quite want to accept either. It’s a complex gesture of surrender, encounter, and, excuse the pun, stiff resistance.

Some argue that planking is nothing new. Apparently it used to be called the lying down game, which reminds me of this Radiohead video:

Radiohead imbue the act of suddenly lying down in the middle of the street with a heavy load of metaphysics. That was in their Romantic era. Today we find Thom Yorke voguing and badly lip-syncing to his own song. No dramatic crescendos or well-wrought urns here.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Josef Horáček

    Addendum: This Twitter post corroborates my comment about race.

  2. Jared

    Seems to inhabit a similar cultural space as the recent and much-debated linguistic “cleansing” of Twain’s Huck Finn. The reason some take offense at the item is perhaps the first/best reason not to banish, to keep as a reminder the offending object/text, or here, behavior, to which some have other objections. Certainly this is current with the riots in the UK…

  3. Adam Henne

    Hundred stack — how you get it? N****, layin’ raps on tracks
    I wish I could give you this feelin’, I’m planking on a million
    I’m riding through yo’ hood, you can bank I ain’t got no ceiling

  4. Johannes

    It remind me of the performance artist Chris Burden’s piece where he lay in the middle of a busy road in LA and was arrested for faking an accident.


  5. Josef Horáček

    Jared, how do you see a connections with the riots?

  6. Nick Demske

    and that’s when i knew…that I should’ve been aborted.

    this is a sharp post, josef. good on ya.