Culture and Revolution: Toward a Leftist Politics of Oscillation (Part 1 of 2)
Day 154: Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Of Memes and Revolutions
In its original definition, a meme is a cultural element or behavioral system that is spread through imitation and other non-genetic means. The term “meme” originated in evolutionary biology with Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976). It has since burst out of meatspace and leaped to cyberspace where it takes the form of an image, text, video, sound or fad copied and disseminated by internet users. The meme often appropriates a pre-existing cultural element reworked or juxtaposed with another to create a new and anachronistic entity that channels the old in an attempt to generate identification in the audience. You can see this in the meme template that is a still image of a mainstream movie or a pop culture reference. This image-based meme format creates new meaning every time the text written on it changes; yet it also reinforces the original meaning of the image itself through self-referential humor. This can also be observed in the text that repeats itself but is each time accompanied by a new image simultaneously changing and reproducing its meaning.
The meme has become the dominant form of contemporary text-image making and sharing through which the producer and the consumer often overlap, and intellectual property takes a back seat to replicability. In this sense, meme production is a collective endeavor democratized through the ability of everyone and anyone with an internet connection to create, share, and consume memes. Meme production, however, has also created social media celebutantes that chase personal fame by collecting reactions, controversy, followers, and a culture of instant and often misplaced self-gratification. In this sense, the meme resembles the revolutionary moment which, similarly opens up a space for utopian possibilities like social change and collective solidarity, while providing an opportunity for social climbers and other political players to reshuffle their cards — whether that comes organically as a demand to be allowed to participate in the dream or as a ladder to climb. Take, for example, memes that are signed with watermarks, an inherently contradictory practice given the artifact’s anarchic nature, which always escape ownership and elude intellectual property as they are endlessly replicated and shared.
A catalyst for collective and anonymous creators to push ever new boundaries, the meme partakes in the cyber-fantasies of the internet’s endless potentiality to promote share-ability and transgression of intellectual property, and of social media’s unique historical ability, albeit differentially materialized, to bring people together to organize and mobilize. At the same time, memes and the same digital tools that drive revolutions to spur and blossom also support the rise of reactionary forces. For instance, alt-right trolls and morality enforcers have coordinated attacks on individuals they deem “problematic” or threatening, while a demagogue rose to power by delivering the words people wanted to hear thanks to data harvesting and analysis without consent, the scandal of Facebook–Cambridge Analytica.
The meme partakes in the cyber-fantasies of the internet’s endless potentiality to promote share-ability and transgression of intellectual property, and of social media’s unique historical ability, albeit differentially materialized, to bring people together to organize and mobilize. At the same time, memes and the same digital tools that drive revolutions to spur and blossom also support the rise of reactionary forces.This collective/individualistic, utopian/self-serving, radical/reactionary contradiction is mirrored in the propagation of offline memes like protest chants. They function both as radical artifacts without owners-creators, traveling from one protester to another while materializing as the instant and personal gratification that comes with “blowing off steam.” This dichotomy can be seen in the race between collective euphoria and collective action. The former making one feel that they have done their part because they experienced the moment, and so things can return to normalcy until further notice. The latter understands the struggle, not as an event but rather a process endlessly renegotiated, and thereby assuming multiple lives. Instant gratification should only be embraced as a form of fuel that pushes the struggle forward as it unfolds in time. The race is long as in a marathon rather than a sprint. The urgency of now is a trap to be avoided.
Extraterrestrial Memes for Revolutionary Teens
In the late 2010s, the relatively obscure theories of one Latin American Marxist re-emerge as an online meme. Here I am not talking about a single text-image or artifact but rather a fad. Sometime in the late sixties, an Argentine Trotskyist, who went by the pseudonym Juan Posadas developed an interest in ufology and esoterism. This obsession led him to publish his 1968 pamphlet Flying Saucers, the Process of Matter and Energy, Science, the Revolutionary and Working-Class Struggle and the Socialist Future of Mankind. A peculiar synthesis of ufology and Marxism, Posadism argued that the visiting extraterrestrials must have come from a highly advanced civilization that was capable of intergalactic travel, and therefore, a civilization that must have already achieved their society’s full utopian potential. He proposed that Terran workers, as in the human workforce on planet Earth, should embrace these visiting “space comrades” as a lending hand for the coming revolution.
Despite its claim to be part of the tradition of historical materialism, Posadas’ argument was based on the synthesis of Marxism and a form of speculative fiction.This recently re-appropriated Posadism returned as an online meme with the ironic distance that should have been there the first time around. It isn't easy to tell if these neo-Posadists are serious about their claims, but it doesn’t really matter as good satire has always been a real and astute critique of contemporary politics. Despite its claim to be part of the tradition of historical materialism, Posadas’ argument was based on the synthesis of Marxism and a form of speculative fiction. Additionally, the occult dimension was part of the Sixties’ ethos that is no longer present, at least not in the same manner. Contemporary ufology is the domain of the reactionary right. One can find it overlapping with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, where shadowy groups are using recovered alien technology to control world governments, and with a racist worldview that sees it impossible for archeological sites in the Global South to have been built by so-called “primitive” societies without extraterrestrial intervention. The ironic distancing doesn’t entail that there is nothing to salvage in the Posadist tradition. On the contrary, Posadism gives us a much-needed critique of the contemporary left’s shortcomings, and the “shitposters” understand this. The line between the ironic and the sincere is blurred online. In her discussion of alt-right “meme magic,” for instance, writer Tara Isabella Burton characterized it as “a joke of course—but also not a joke.”