It has been dismissed as a tempest in a teapot, but the recent brouhaha over JC Penney’s now-infamous Hitler teakettle may be more significant than it initially appears.
Far from being an isolated incident, it is merely the latest in a long series of news stories in recent years about the “discovery” of Hitler’s face in unusual objects.
Since 2011, the mainstream media has published sensationalistic reports about cats that look like Hitler, fish that look like Hitler, a stinkbug that looks like Hitler and even a house that looks like Hitler. Much of the attention has been tongue-in-cheek and featured on the back pages of tabloid newspapers in Europe and the United States. But established news organizations, such as CNN, have covered the phenomenon, too.
In attempting to explain the proliferation of Hitler “sightings,” journalists have invoked a range of theories. Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson invoked the idea of “pareidolia,” referring to the human tendency to perceive familiar shapes in abstract forms — for instance, bunnies in clouds. This phenomenon, which taps into the same tendencies measured by a Rorschach test, may partly explain the phenomenon. So, too, may the impulse toward anthropomorphism, which has been visible in everything from Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Renaissance-era vegetable portraiture to Jesus Christ sightings in grilled cheese sandwiches.
Yet this formalistic explanation begs a deeper question: Why is it Adolf Hitler, of all people, who keeps being spotted in random objects?
To answer this question, it helps to understand the wave of Hitler sightings in conjunction with the rise of what has been called the “Hitler meme.” Memes have become commonplace in Internet culture in recent years, having assumed myriad incarnations in the form of viral videos, images and catch phrases that have swiftly assumed iconic status. Prominent examples encompass everything from the film “KONY 2012” (about the brutal Ugandan guerilla leader Joseph Kony) to phrases such as LOL (“laughing out loud”) to emoticons.