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Am I a Person or Am I a Brand: Brian David Gilbert’s Postmodern Gothic Comedy

C O L E   C L I N E

look what i found 😳😳

–“Brad Best”

the true horror is the system itself

– Brian David Gilbert

In examining the work of Brian David Gilbert through the lens of postmodernism, the gothic, and a postmodern gothic, this paper will begin with an examination of these genres. In short, I will define the gothic as an exploration of terror, and relate the implications of terror to postmodern theory, examining them together as postmodern gothic. My focus on Gilbert’s work will relate to the videos “how to make jorts,” “building your online brand,” and “Earn $20K EVERY MONTH by being your own boss,” how they handle postmodern gothic themes, and what the videos convey about contemporary media culture.


The Gothic, the Postmodern, and their Intersections

The gothic genre emerged in 18th century England contemporary to the Romantic poets, and derived its name from the spindly, sharp gothic architecture of the middle ages. An architectural style so associated with churches and castles acts as a fair namesake, given how many gothic stories take place in ancient abbeys and decrepit mansions. The spires of cathedrals point up towards heaven, begging to be touched by God, they reflect stories in jagged colored glass, they loom with frightening grandeur. They are the intermediary places between the divine and the mundane, where the sublime can be experienced. Like the religious ecstasy of medieval mystics, the sublime is a complex experience of intense, opposing emotions: awe and terror.

            Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of the gothic novel, detailed terror in contrast to another type of fear, horror. Her essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry” separates horror and terror; only terror, she says, facilitates the sublime. Horror utilizes the blunt hammer of fear, based on shock and contrast. It leaves a dull and “transient” wound rather than a lasting revelation (5). Conversely, terror “expands the soul” by causing a frightful implication of something too intense to speak (5). It works by revealing just enough to allow the mind to wonder on the true, awful nature of what it has seen, and it needs only be an “outline” or “sketch” because it strikes at the foundation of a reality (6). Since the revelation must come from something of great power or significance, terror also contains awe. Radcliffe argues that the supernatural has the power to carry this message due to its intermediate and indeterminate nature.  

Terror creates the crack in reality through which the sublime can shine its shadow. Radcliffe references Edmund Burke in her work, specifically “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” He recognizes that negative emotion tends to be more powerful than positive emotion, an idea which has been corroborated by contemporary psychology, and that positive emotion is often derived from negative emotion itself, from fear (65). Emotions are symbiotic with their opposites, and so the very thing that is interacting with the sublime, emotion, is in itself a product of such contradiction. When engaging with stories, stronger emotional responses arise from scenarios that have an aspect of truth or reality, as there must be a base world to contrast against (71). The sublime emerges in the intersection of these tenets, where the truth is heightened by negative emotions and a sympathetic response.

The gothic reveals truths that strike at the foundation of how people understand the world they live in. Structures of gender, class, and ethnicity seem real to those that experience them, and nature is no longer the mysterious forest of ancient myths. Enlightenment ideals labeled the world and people embraced it. Of course, nature isn’t so clear cut, and the solid boundaries that people place are actually ephemeral. Foucault, in The Order of Things, separates Classical science from Enlightenment science through the transition of representations and classifications from relating an object to itself to relating an object to an abstract larger structure in which the object is isolated from its context. It is no longer in situ, describing only itself, but a piece in the larger system of reality where everything must prove its place, relevance, and purpose. To gain these ‘higher’ levels of meaning, more fundamental levels of meaning must be stripped from the object. The sublime, by pulling back the constructed higher meanings and leaving the object as an experience, elevates the object higher than man was able to through classification.

            For this reason, the gothic often contains the paradoxical emotions of the uncanny. In his exploration of “The Uncanny,” Freud claims that the key to its function is the terror of the familiar becoming unfamiliar (4). The states of unfamiliarity and familiarity exist simultaneously within the uncanny, just as the excitement of revelation and disgust at what has been revealed exist within the sublime at once. Doubles manifest this state of uncanny, as the double is the most familiar something can be, the self, yet it is made unfamiliar through physical separation. Though they are uncanny, doubles permeate the common spheres of life that go without question, namely in the concept of the mask or persona. Every individual has a mask that is different from their true self for the purpose of best projecting themselves in public. This mask is the self, but it is also not, being separated by the omission and addition of traits outside of the person’s identity. Whereas the double makes this distinction clear through splitting the mask physically from the body into its own vessel, the mask is always present in the individual’s life.

This is a threat to the Freudian ego’s understanding of the world it inhabits (13); a seemingly logical world cannot allow contradictory elements to exist simultaneously in one idea. In a system where objects must all have a clear function and order, the existence of the uncanny pulls at the loose threads of it. The understanding gained by the uncanny and sublime is unwanted, as it disrupts the comfort of the classification system, yet it is so powerful that it cannot just be shoved aside. It requires a reconsideration of how the universe functions.

            Postmodernism at its core dismisses the folly of a clearly defined world, one where things can be universal and true in all places, for all people. As the promises of modernism crumbled into itself, the constructed nature of the modern world was revealed. However, it is not enough to just recognize that so much of our social reality is constructed. Slavoj Žižek, in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology and film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, points out that just because something is constructed does not mean it is without impact. Interacting with things as if they are real makes them “real”, not in the sense that they are true, but that they interact with and change the real; most of those who do not recognize the police as having true or real authority will still slow down when driving past a cop car (Sublime Object 36). Ironic distance from the power system does not rid us of them either, as “we are still doing” the things that make the system real (Sublime Object 30). This is especially true when ideologies reject logic by their nature, in the case of totalitarianism and fascism, since they do not have to make sense, only be blunt and powerful enough to force themselves into reality. This sphere of social reality is itself not real either, as we must be conditioned into it.  

            The personal mask or persona is a part of the symbolic order and the obfuscation of the complex nature of the individual. According to Žižek, “ego…is an alien force” that acts as the mask, and true liberation only comes from its destruction (Pervert’s Guide). In this way, it has very few differences from the façade of logic placed upon science and the natural world. The alien of ego commands the body (though the gothic would reject this distinction between body and mind) in accordance with the larger system that surrounds it.

            This leaves a world with no foundation or base, a spectral world, haunted by all the ghosts that exist at once and are equally true, despite there being no true reality. This is hauntology, first defined by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx. Political reality is mostly defined by these specters, “phantom-states [which] invade the socio-economic fabric…the general circulation of capital” (83) and by extension infiltrate the rest of life. The promised futures of modernism are also these specters, from communism to prosperous capitalist utopias. States and ideologies haunt through the mechanisms of the Ideological State Apparatuses, institutions of a society which reinforce the tenets from which the state and ideology arise (Althusser 1290). This haunting makes them gothic, as well as the apparatuses’ ability to control the tangible though they are ephemeral. Ideology needs these apparatuses to exist, but the apparatuses do not need the ideology, and can continue to exist even after their more tangible power is removed (1289).

Mark Fisher expands on this in his essay “What is Hauntology?”, where hauntology comprises “the failure of the future,” the optimistic futures left in the dust by capitalism (16). We can no longer imagine the future, let alone one beyond capitalism, as the future now tries to obfuscate itself as present reality (18). However, a spectral future “never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back” (Derrida 99). All futures, including the one we call our present, are ghosts haunting the house of reality, throwing plates around like poltergeists as they beg to be recognized by the minds that left them to die, after which they are resurrected, only to be killed again.

            Through this, the postmodern is inherently gothic, albeit in a different form than the gothic literature of the Regency and Victorian eras. The fundamentals of the dismantling of reality remains, but the illusion is different: rather than fears about race, gender, and class boundaries being destroyed, the terror derives from the realization that the fake has been made real, with capitalism and the nation-state asserting themselves into reality. The genre of the postmodern gothic is born out of the terror of capitalist realism and its ghosts, and continues to evolve. Rather than latching onto a desire for the illusion of reality to remain, gothic postmodernism bears “hostility towards accepted codes of reality” (Beville 16).

            In gothic postmodernism, the call is coming from inside the house: it is not an outside threat, but a threat that has seeped into every atom of society already, and it has only just been realized (Link 82). Like in the original gothic, there is no going back from an interaction with sublime ghosts, and one must find a way to live in this world regardless. One gothic postmodernist text would be American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, which places the reader inside the head of Patrick Bateman, an incarnation of postmodern hyper-capitalism. Rather than being an epistolary or told through the frame of a “normal” person such as the various characters’ diaries in Dracula, Captain Walton’s letters in Frankenstein, or Laura’s notes in Carmilla, there is no medium protecting the reader. Bateman’s naked violence is standing and waiting to be seen, is dying to be seen. While the reader was once an observer who may learn from the plights of the characters, the reader is placed in a more precarious position with their eyes pried open.

            The uncanny is inherent in this as the ghosts of capital and the state are at once real and not real, familiar by their omnipresence but never recognized. Once the ghost has revealed itself and been divided into the familiar and unfamiliar, it cannot be unified again, because it was never truly unified to begin with. This is the postmodern itself, the fragmented realities in which we all live. Rationalist, Enlightenment-era objectivity cannot exist here, though it was so desperately tried, it failed. It did not clarify reality as there is no one reality to clarify; it has been given an impossible task. Gothic cathedrals often have three entrances to represent the trinity. They all enter into the same place. Now, their structures lay inverted and multiplied, with one door where infinite places are shoved.


Brian David Gilbert’s Postmodern Gothic Comedy

In 2018, the online gaming journalism website Polygon began to upload a new series to their YouTube channel. This series, Unraveled, was hosted for a little over two years by Brian David Gilbert. A multidisciplinary artist, Gilbert has made a career in posting wide varieties of content online, from short films and video game analysis, to covers of disco songs with the lyrics changed to be about vampires and werewolves. Though his tenure at Polygon was not lengthy, his internet career began before and still continues after Unraveled. Through music, film, Blender animation, and other creative media, Gilbert has a gained following of over a million subscribers on YouTube in recent years.

The first Unraveled video, “Solving the Zelda Timeline in 15 Minutes,” Gilbert begins the video speaking to the camera, dressed in a suit, and holding a cup of coffee. The video itself is fifteen minutes long and features Gilbert working himself into a frenzy over the complex canon of the Legend of Zelda video game series. By the end, he is somewhat disheveled and yelling at the former president of Nintendo of America to “take fucking notes,” as he “saved [his] ass with Monopoly” (“Zelda Timeline” 14:24-14:31). This was the genesis of Gilbert’s persona: a thorough, sophisticated, and dedicated academic who loses himself in intense analysis to the point of off-the-cuff frustration. In this genesis is the key to the persona, the fact that it was created at all.

Together, all the Unraveled videos have a view count of over eleven million, and with so much exposure, there came to be an understanding by fans of Gilbert’s persona. Satire outfit The Hard Times posted to their Hard Drive sister site an article titled “Brian David Gilbert Begins Comprehensive Deep Dive into How to Get Health Insurance Now” around the time the Unraveled series came to an end (Holt), and one of Gilbert’s releases in October 2022 was a half-hour explanation of health insurance terminology (“the terrible terminology”). This perception is based only in Gilbert’s work for Polygon, however. Gilbert recognizes the Hard Drive piece in his health insurance video, and is at minimum, aware of this image.

            During and since his time at Polygon, Gilbert has considered issues of bodily integrity and identity in his videos, and reflect a burgeoning, postmodern type of commodification of creatives. The parasocial relationship has morphed into an interaction between the persona, creator, and audience that is tangled with power and identity. It raises questions of where the persona and creator begin and end; what is the product, and who is it being sold to? Internet content creation as a job is new and uncertain, often hinging on crowdfunding and sponsorships (Gilbert himself has a Patreon, a website where fans pay him directly on a monthly basis and receive benefits for support). To communicate the web of what is the self and what isn’t, and how communicating that at all blends them further, Gilbert utilizes tropes of the gothic.

The internet is itself a gothic space by virtue of its double existence. It is held in wires, in computers, and plenty of physical objects, yet it is also a space that exists parallel to reality. The internet and reality have an uneven impact on each other, where a change to one does not always mean a change to the other, yet it is a possibility. People can choose to include and exclude parts of themselves on both ends and create an uncanny mask, a double self that is contradictory by nature, being two entities with the same name. In this way, the internet is the mask of reality, where individuals construct their doubles together. This gives it the function of the public space that has largely become ephemeral, but the internet itself is ephemeral. The public space, like contemporary objects in post-Enlightenment science, loses its visible self to the larger system; it disappears through expansion.

The first epigraph of this paper is a message sent to me by my grandfather on Facebook, reading “look what i found 😳😳”. However, this was several years after his passing, and his virtual corpse had been possessed by a scammer. The internet allows the mask to transcend death beyond just memories; it allows the mask to become its own ghost with a pseudo-physical presence, independent of the true body. My grandfather’s mask was puppeted by capital beyond his death, but the internet allows capital to expand beyond that to possess the masks of the living. Gilbert’s mask is handled by capital through the external forces of the YouTube algorithm, but also the pressures of his audience, the ones who pay him directly and whose viewership pays him. Whether they want to or not, his audience is manipulating him in the name of capital by watching his content. They encourage a more tangible persona, one that is able to be classified, so that it may be understood within the system they are accustomed to, but also so they know how to consume.

            Given that Polygon, Gilbert’s former employer, is a gaming journalism website, the content Gilbert produced for Polygon is centered around video games. While he created other work posted to his personal YouTube channel during his tenure at the website, his Polygon work is separated by this content focus. Two videos in particular from Polygon address some concerns about the body, one more directly than the other. The earlier example is from the Unraveled series, “Which Dark Souls boss is the best manager?” and begins the second season of the series.

            “Dark Souls boss” begins with Gilbert in his signature suit look, with the addition of a fake mustache and messy wig. He jokes about this, before removing them and revealing a new haircut and real mustache. Then, he states clearly to the audience that he is “not your friend, and you have no say over what I do with my body” (“Dark Souls boss” 0:18-0:22). This is delivered in the same tone as his joke reveal, but he is serious; the shot grows closer into an intimate close-up and the music cuts away. This joke relies on the tonal dissonance of the creator directly denouncing the manipulation of his bodily mask. Gilbert still references this in his livestreams on Twitch, where he uses an exercise bike while playing video games. It is an explicit rule for his live chat to not comment on his body or anyone else’s, and at the end of the rules is a link titled “don’t make me tap the sign” (“briandavidgilbert”), which displays a captioned screenshot of the aforementioned “Dark Souls” video quote.

            Another video from Polygon outside of the Unraveled series, titled “Hey what’s up with all these hand eye bosses?” discusses the video game trope of enemies that are giant hands with eyes in the palms (“hand eye bosses”). This is a look into the origins of hand-eye imagery, including the Hamsa and Japanese yokai demons, but within this is an analysis of what Gilbert personally finds appealing about this game design. As he states, the crux of the design lies in part that when the enemy has a hand open to find the player this reveals the eyes, making it vulnerable to attack. This revealing of weakness occurs when it aims to do what it has been programmed to: destroy the player character, and it performs its job better when this intimate part is exposed.

There is also an element of uncanny terror to the enemy, combining two very familiar parts and distorting them. It becomes two things at once, both an active force via the hand, and a passive force via the eyes. Being in an intermediary state of existence that derives from the meeting of opposites, the hand-eye boss is couched in issues of identity. Gilbert’s interest in this trope is not directly mentioned in later works, but these ideas are present in his analysis before they begin to take form in his original works. Like the hand-eye boss, he is also vulnerable if he shows his true self in the public sphere, and must put on his mask, exchanging his ability for more intimate connection for security. Gilbert will, however, reject this clear dichotomy later on.

Gilbert also creates one of his most directly gothic videos during this period (on his own YouTube channel), “how to make jorts.” The video involves Gilbert’s eponymous character making an instructional video about creating cut-off jean shorts (jorts), though it diverges from its initial light-hearted tone. As this title suggests, part of the terror lies in the subverting of expectations. The work is less concerned about his identity individually as a creator, but this subversion is critical to the expression of identity in his later works. What is notable is that the video continues to be comedic as it shifts towards terror, existing in a blended genre identity. The climax of the video occurs in “step 1E” of creating jorts: fear. Gilbert is in bed, sharply awoken with the lights switching off, and finds in his hallway his jeans walking. The emotional response of this is changed entirely by the context introduced when before this, where Gilbert spills blood on the jeans, which begin to become saturated with blood and speak to him. If this did not occur and the video remained solely comedic in tone, the jeans walking would be funny; this idea does not have an inherent valence, but is dependent on the presentation.

Ambiguity within the emotional character of the jorts is gothic; both lifeless and animated, they are uncanny. They are also an extremely mundane object, seen by the humor of the video as fundamentally unserious, as that makes both ironic and unironic enjoyment of them appealing. It is not a haunted painting, Necronomicon, or weapon, like many uncanny objects, and this makes them more uncanny. They have not been determined to be standard images of ambiguity, but they are a transformed object, one that has shed their form and adopted another. All that limits them from fulfilling their gothic role is the fact that they are jorts, which have been assigned on a societal level a connotation of being embarrassing. In subverting reality through the postmodern gothic, this makes the jorts a stronger symbol as it has to deal with the conflicting emotions of humor and terror.

Jorts within the video are also defined by their nature as cutoff pants, rather than an item that one buys as short-legged jeans. They must be an item that an individual has transformed themselves, rather than one that has been given the illusion of being worn in. Gilbert’s character states that the jeans must be “well-lived in, and well-loved in” (0:45-0:50), otherwise, one has “committed the greatest sadness: a jean jorted before its time” (0:50-0:55). The jeans must only be turned into jorts when they are ready, a state that seems to be inherent or natural to the jeans themselves, as defying that nature is “the greatest sadness”. Specifically, the word “committed” frames it as a crime or sin, as if there is a sort of law that this act would defy, yet he does not say crime or sin, but sadness. It is less a violation of law than a violation of what should be law, a concern of propriety and respect of the jorts’ nature. They are at the whim of the individual who creates them. It is quite easy to violate their nature, as external forces easily violate the nature of the person by shifting the mask into reality.

Practically, jorts allow a worn or thread-bare piece of clothing to be further used, and thus are associated with lower class status. To buy a pair of pre-made jorts is to seek the aesthetics of the lower class on an artificial level. The pre-made jort is made through the act of the “greatest sadness” and it attacks the principle of the object. It gives the illusion of a historied object, when it is instead ready-made and without true character. The jorts are removed from their context, where they naturally belong, and this forces a consideration of what they actually are. Commodification and depersonalization of the jorts is itself the “greatest sadness” that Gilbert speaks of, and it is like what his own created mask experiences. The jorts, though already existing in the form of the jeans they are made of, are still a created object, formed of another, just as a mask is made from the person who wears it.

Gilbert’s character in the video is defined entirely by jorts. They are the only things he really interacts with at all, and he laments that the jeans know him better than anything else, better than his friends and family. This is juxtaposed by the fact that the video being about jorts is part of the joke in and of itself. Jorts are funny, to put it plainly, and it’s uncertain how the appreciation he has for the jorts actually functions. As Gilbert shares a name with the character, it is then hard to define who is who, and who likes what. Are these eponymous characters Gilbert or not? The obvious answer is no, because those events did not happen to him, but uncertainty of identity is part of the fabric of the work. It is a both/and situation, as is the appreciation of jorts. This involves potentially layers of irony, and how many there are is uncertain. Is he being sincere while aware of irony? Is he past ironic enjoyment and being ironic to the irony, poking fun at the initial irony? It’s hard to say, and that is the irony. “Jorts” calls attention to the existence of the mask by having Gilbert refer to himself by his real name, pointing out that the Brian David Gilbert on the viewer’s screen is not the real Gilbert. It would be absurd to believe this is a true story, but it could be equally absurd to believe that the persona of Unraveled is true. 

This leads to the actual terror of the video, where the jeans are haunted in their transformation. They are tainted by the process of creation, where Gilbert’s character’s blood mixes in with the object that is being formed. Part of his bodily self is put into the new form, and this is what haunts them. He is embedded in the fabric of the jeans, made inseparable, unable to be washed out. Trying to clean the jeans only makes them bleed more. His attempt to make jorts (a mask) without embedding himself in this creation is futile, and trying to remove his personal, original self only opens the wound further. By the end, Gilbert’s character cuts the jorts, and a pained expression covers his face as he drops them to the floor. His mask, a complex and haunted object, is unbearable for him to hold.

            The video “building your online brand” also addresses the terror of the mask, starring Gilbert as a character named “Hugh Brandity” and frequent collaborator Karen Han as an unnamed student of Brandity. Brandity’s name is itself a pun that Gilbert implements in the work, as he is “here to help your humanity into your hu-brand-ity” (0:22-0:26) in the format of highly edited seminar footage. The song is a bizarre soliloquy fretting over the nature of the mask online, due to the fact that it is not controlled entirely by the one who creates it. It becomes a double outside of the original’s control, and Brandity presents the only solution to be embracing the nature of this mask completely.

More obviously comedic, “online brand” derives a portion of its humor in the aesthetics of the fake seminar. Behind Brandity is a neon blue and black grid, reminiscent of 1980’s technological imagery and synthwave retrofuturism. Much of the text on screen moves in shapes and patterns, and is displayed with a drop shadow or three-dimensional effect similar to Microsoft WordArt. This is directly contrasted with the references to contemporary social media websites and culture, again being in an intermediary state. There is also no visual language for a future such as this, due to the late capitalist inability to imagine new futures described by Fisher. This too is uncanny, disrupting the supposedly linear nature of time. If considered, this is a terrifying state of reality, but it is used as a humorous backdrop. Instead of awe, it is humor for Gilbert that mixes with terror to create the feeling of the sublime. The disconnect between the topic of the video and the outdated aesthetics are part of the joke and part of the terror.

The gothic, even through its name, plays with time in the same way. Old, beautiful structures and ancient wonders fulfil the awe of the sublime, while the ghosts of the past comprise the terror. This is inherent to many gothic character types, such as ghosts and vampires, which are both fascinating and evil through their undeath and conquering of life. The past is an object of fascination because it appears unreachable, even though the uncanny allows it to continue to live.

Gilbert’s costume for Brandity consists of a tan blazer, pink shirt, red tie, and blue jeans, topped with nearly shoulder-length slicked back hair and a painted-on beard. His look is business casual and absurd, with his facial hair paint being flat in appearance and a poor color-match for his own hair. Later in the video, Han’s character will come to adopt this same attire, painted beard and all. She becomes his gothic double, the persona made into a separate physical reality. This personhood is made obviously and comedically artificial by the costuming, but that does not stop it from being real.

Hair is a key part of this costume with the painted-on beard and obvious contrast in hair colors. This makes sense for Gilbert, given his association with his hair. “Dark Souls Boss” has him use the idea of him changing his hair as the premise for a joke, due to the number of fans who commented on his hair. In one video, Gilbert shows how he styles his hair, and states that he is asked about it quite frequently, and does not like how often he is asked about it (“my hair: a comprehensive tutorial” 0:07-0:17). This video, while surprisingly straightforward, also involves him and Han cutting his hair to be truly comprehensive. Even in this moment where he obliges the request of showing how he styles his hair, he still subverts the expectation of his hair by cutting it, including into a bowl cut. Agency over his body through his hair is a common thread within Gilbert’s work, thus, costuming involving hair in a prominent role would suggest there is something to pay attention to.

Hair, as a traditional symbol for personal freedom, expression, and power, fits as a manifestation of Gilbert’s agency. For Han’s character to adopt Brandity’s facial hair into her appearance after her transformation is then indicative of a change in her control over herself. She must lose part of herself to this mask, though parts of her still remain. Most obviously, she is a different gender and race than Brandity, and also maintains the hair on her head. It is only the hair around her mouth that changes, not the hair coming up from her scalp. External expressions are changed, while her internal reality still exists, at least partially, beneath. The joke of the beard also subverts common jokes around women with facial hair. Rather than her costuming being funny because she’s a woman, the costuming remains funny no matter who wears it. It looks absurd on Brandity and on her, making the joke about the brand identity rather than about the people who wear it.

Again, Gilbert uses humor where traditional gothic works use awe. Dorian Gray’s portrait is similar to Han’s character here, though instead of a beautiful painting, the polarity comes from how absurd she looks dressed as Brandity and the examples of “brands” that she lists, including: teaching rodent fitness classes on Periscope, taking artistic photos of spilled cans of beans, and responding to tweets from politicians with pictures of her son bowling. She has fully embraced her persona, even though it is silly, because a persona is required to function in social environments. As she goes through the process of “holometabolous” in a cocoon, it is implied that she was once an inferior creature and is becoming her true self, achieving her fullest potential that she was fated to live in. Dorian Gray is similar, essentially not coming to life until he is faced with his own portrait and gives himself up, crying that he would “give [his] soul” for his portrait to grow old while he stays young (35). By speaking this, he makes it reality and himself vulnerable to Henry’s influence. Before Dorian’s breakdown, Lord Henry tells him that “to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul,” and now that Dorian is soulless, Henry can fill that void (26). Han’s character is empty before she allows the soul of the brand to consume her and leave her personal soul behind. The ‘true self’ of the brand was never true, derived as it is from the influence of others.

The seminar of “online brand” presents the idea of a combined brand and “personhood” as desirable, a meeting of “two sublime options” (“online brand” 0:10-0:20). Brandity explicitly states that the ideal self should be centered in what will give one internet fame. At one point, he supplies an anecdote: Sharing once that he liked ice cream sandwiches led to overwhelming numbers of fans tweeting at him about ice cream sandwiches. Gilbert is distinct from the character of Brandity, but they share a similarity here, as seen in the satire article around Gilbert’s Unraveled persona. Gilbert is expected to act and create in a particular way due to what he has made in the past, and Brandity’s expression while singing this section is genuinely distressed, as if he is reliving the terror of the “ice cream sandwich ding,” the notifications he gets from people replying to his tweets about ice cream sandwiches. In Brandity’s world, the solution is to immerse oneself in a “Brandity Brand Cocoon” (1:34-1:45) until the brand becomes personal identity. If taken as a serious suggestion that the rest of the self should be abandoned in favor of the brand, it becomes terrifying. In Dorian Gray, this terror is made clear in the disgusting image of the portrait. For Brandity, the terror lies in the both amusing and awful brand identities Han adopts.

Emotional labor, as defined by Arlie Russell Hochschild in The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, shares similarities with Brandity’s vision, and Gilbert’s character in “Earn $20K EVERY MONTH by being your own boss,” another more directly gothic video in the vein of “jorts.” Hochschild argues that in a service-based economy, workers have to manipulate their emotions to evoke the proper emotion for their work in others (7). As Karl Marx asserted in Capital that factory labor turns the body into a tool of capital (342), so emotional labor turns the soul into a tool of capital. Which is more deteriorating or horrifying is uncertain, but this emotional effect is especially prevalent for artists, when creation is a process that derives at least partially from identity. This is even more salient on the internet with the collapsing boundaries between character and creator. The mask attempts to eat the body that wears it, like a parasite that kills its host.

In a way, that is already true here. Gilbert is at the mercy of the YouTube algorithm, demonetization, and has no intermediary between himself and the system, condemned to fight for his career survival against an opaque entity. The rules of this entity are often confusing, contradictory, and applied unevenly; it enforces ephemeral conformity in order to succeed, with any unacceptable presentations being stamped out by the algorithm. So, Brandity encourages conformity in his students: seen when Han’s character reappears towards the end after being absent from the start of the video, after her transformation, listing off the highly specific brand identities (“online brand” 2:30-2:32). This is in essence the opposite of what Gilbert has done. Where he once had a hyper-specific online brand of video game analysis, he now defines himself by eclecticism. But at the same time, he has also done the same thing as Brandity. Eclecticism is itself an identity that has a tactical use against the black box of the algorithm. The fact that it is an identity, however, keeps it from being entirely detached. Individual videos still have ways to be embedded into the wall of YouTube, through elements such as titles, thumbnails, and associated identifiers. Content creation is Gilbert’s career, and he still wants people to watch his videos, but on his own terms.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman describes the importance of expectations in the formation of the identity (24). Service economies obfuscate the cost of labor, mental and otherwise, and in the YouTube space, viewers take on the role of clients (Goffman 41). They mostly do not pay directly, but pay through watching advertisements and in the collection of their watch history data. Viewers do not see what they do as harmful, and thus create expectations of identity, which influences the creator. This is directly tied to their income by watch time and sponsorship participation. “online brand” shows the cost in the complete transformation, Yet, the audience still participates, and Gilbert needs them to. There is still the cycle of late capitalism, impenetrable.

A more directly gothic video is “Earn $20K EVERY MONTH by being your own boss”. The video only portrays Gilbert, playing a character of his same name, but one that is distinct from him. He, like Brandity, is advertising something: the program of a “Dorian Smiles” that allows the worker to make money by moving cells on meaningless spreadsheets for hours a day. It turns quickly away from this plot and to Gilbert’s search for Smiles, who seems not to exist. The bank even says that the deposits come from another one of Gilbert’s accounts, which Gilbert says is because he’s “[his] own boss” (“Earn $20K” 1:53-1:56). A parody of contemporary hustle culture and scams, “Earn $20K” asks what it means for one to truly be their own boss when the work is inherently meaningless, exploitative, or both. These sort of ‘hustle culture’ creators exist by marketing their lifestyle in an absurd capitalist simulacrum, in which the creator sells courses about how to make money quickly, but the creator’s wealth comes from these classes. They have no initial accumulation of wealth on which they are basing their advice. The consumer is how the creator makes the money.

Dorian Smiles is directly the double of Gilbert’s character, being depicted literally as such in the climax of the video, as he is also portrayed by Gilbert. His name leads first to an association with Dorian Gray, famous for his double which hides the disgusting reality beneath his mask. Smiles functions similarly, but notably, he also shares a name with Samuel Smiles, author of the book Self-Help, published in 1859. The book defined the genre and prevailing attitudes about self-improvement in the Victorian era, primarily a “bootstraps” mentality about success and performative identity. In Victorian Demons, Andrew Smith writes that Samuel Smiles’ vision of self-help is “really self-denial” and rejects one’s true self for societal standards and outward expressions of what a good person supposedly is (21). These components of Dorian Smiles’ name combine into a shadow self who contains the supposed boss inside Gilbert’s character. He has denied himself his personhood at the cost of success that is not real.

As a double, Dorian Smiles has an uncanny relationship with time and space. The address that he gives Gilbert’s character for “tax purposes” is in Nebraska, but the house on it has been condemned since the 1888 Schoolhouse Blizzard. He sends Gilbert’s character money from a bank account under Gilbert’s name, shares his voice and appearance, and is, of course, his boss. He is both separate and not separate from Gilbert’s character, a version of him from the future and a version of him from the past. 

Gilbert’s character here, like Brandity, is the end result of a person who has succumbed to their mask. Unlike Brandity, he confronts his persona directly, and must decide how to continue with himself; however, he is not able to fully address it. His work is without any real purpose, just moving symbols back and forth between spreadsheets for a few hours a day, and yet he is paid an exorbitant salary for this job. In this pseudo-tutorial, he even admits that he has no idea what it’s for, but spends the rest of his day worrying about what they are. As soon as he raises this concern, lamenting that he “do[es]n’t sleep anymore,” the video seems to glitch, cutting to other parts of the video and footage of him in dark rooms, before returning to his insistence that all one needs is a computer and internet access (2:15-3:30). This happens again at the end of the video, right after he sees Dorian Smiles. When he approaches Dorian in the woods where he supposedly lives, Dorian covers his face with his hands, and Gilbert’s character follows his lead. Dorian then pulls his hands away, and the video returns to the praises of his program. Though he sees it, there is nothing he can do.

This would seem to go against the definition of terror put forth by Radcliffe, as he is not changed by this realization, but it is the postmodern context that changes his ability to respond. He has seen his double, but what can he do about it? The postmodern does not give him a way to deal with this situation. To kill his double would be to kill his own livelihood, regardless of how meaningless it may be. Instead, he is condemned to know the truth while his hands are tied. Destroying his double would not destroy this system, it would only force him to engage in another form of labor that may be just as draining to his spirit. Again, he is in contrast to Brandity and the character of “jorts” who have placed too much of themselves into their identity. Emotional distance cannot protect him, though. Either way, he will be annihilated by the mask he must put up, whether it contains his soul or not.

Yet, there remains a tension inherent to the postmodern: the question of the all-encompassing nature of ideology. Even if the power of prevailing ideology is gone, the metaphysical infrastructure still remains, the Ideological State Apparatuses, which can allow power to rebuild. The structure of the internet facilitates the Ideological State Apparatus, as it has begun to infiltrate every corner of contemporary life. As it seeps into the foundation of existence and becomes inseparable from existing, integral systems of communication, it becomes even more inescapable than it originally was for Althusser. In accordance with Derrida and Fisher, there is also no clear answer for what is left when ideology falls. Just as Carmilla’s body is fruitlessly dismembered and burned at the end of Carmilla, destroying the tangible system is not enough. The spirit remains. What will Gilbert do if the website (and the ideological pieces that hold it together) that he uses to post his videos crumbles? He is aware of this struggle, as his protagonists, who often share his name, are left unable to do anything about their realizations. They are left to continue doing what they have done before, but have been fundamentally changed, the same person they were but different. Now, they are the double. The public of ideology is made private, just as ideology is in Althusser’s framework.

            In the face of this postmodern despair, Gilbert continues to evolve his work, to the point where he has gained a reputation for defying expectations and refuting easy categorization. Though he cannot change the public world in the way it has changed his private world, he resists in the ways that he can. Brian David Gilbert creates the content he wants to, sets boundaries between him and his audience, and does not shy away from unveiling the mask. When fighting ideology constructed from artifice, the recognition of artifice is the first necessary action. Only then can he laugh at the terror with destructive, sublime comedy.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1285–311.

Beville, Maria. Gothic-Postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity. Rodopi, 2009.

Burke, Edmund. “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” Pre-Revolutionary Writings / Edmund Burke, edited by Ian Harris, Cambridge University Press, 1759.

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf, 1st ed., Routledge, 1994.

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Directed by Sophie Fiennes, DVD, P Guide Ltd., 2006.

Fisher, Mark. “What Is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 1, Sept. 2012, pp. 16–24. (Crossref),

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. Edited by R. D. Laing, Random House, 1970.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell, 1998, pp. 154-67.

Gilbert, Brian David. “briandavidgilbert.” Accessed 13 October 2022.

Gilbert, Brian David, and Han, Karen. “building your online brand.” YouTube, 29 May 2020,

Gilbert, Brian David, and Han, Karen. “Earn $20K EVERY MONTH by being your own boss.” YouTube, 25 October 2020,

Gilbert, Brian David. “hey what’s up with all these hand eye bosses?.” YouTube, uploaded by Polygon, 1 April 2020,

Gilbert, Brian David, and Han, Karen. “how to make jorts.” YouTube, 27 April 2019,

Gilbert, Brian David. “Solving the Zelda Timeline in 15 Minutes | Unraveled.” YouTube, uploaded by Polygon, 25 September 2018,

Gilbert, Brian David and Han, Karen. “A Terrible Guide to the Terrible Terminology of U.S. Health Insurance.” YouTube, 26 September 2022,

Gilbert, Brian David. “Which Dark Souls Boss Is the Best Manager? | Unraveled.” YouTube, uploaded by Polygon, 12 May 2019,

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin Books, 1959.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. 20th anniversary ed, University of California Press, 2003.

Holt, Andy. “Brian David Gilbert Begins Comprehensive Deep Dive Into How to Get Health Insurance Now.” Hard Drive, 28 December 2020.

Link, Alex. “The Mysteries of Postmodernism, or, Fredric Jameson’s Gothic Plots.” Gothic Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, May 2009, pp. 70–85. (Crossref),

Marx, Karl. “The Working Day.” Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, translated by Ben Fowkes, vol. 1, Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 340–416.

Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural Poetry.” Gothic Digital Series @ UFSC,

Smith, Andrew. Victorian Demons: Medicine, Masculinity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester University Press, 2004.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Chiltern Publishing, 1891.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. 2nd ed., Verso, 2008.



Cole Cline is a graduate student in English literary studies at Georgia State University focusing on the gothic, new media, and the queer/neurodivergent/postcolonial. He writes at

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