Ivan Knapp on Thu, 28 Jun 2018 12:11:33 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Rude Awakening: Memes as Dialectical Images by Geert Lovink & Marc Tuters

Resurrecting this thread in the hope of perhaps suggesting a different direction for the discussion, i offer the below work in process as an excerpt from a larger body of work. Comments and criticism most welcome. (p.s apologies to ted for plagiarising a concluding phrase)

Meme-work: Psychoanalysis and the alt-right’s unsafe spaces*


In thinking about how memes work, and what work they do, one is immediately confronted by the precondition of their operation and production in the social. A meme cannot qualify as such without the participation of several users. In this respect it belongs to the group and analysis can therefore tend to focus on those aspects of internet memes that reflect this collectivity, expressed most explicitly by the genre's inherent multiplicity and variability as a methodology of diffusion and dissemination. The obverse of this diffusion however, is the way memes also function to bring users together, most explicitly in associative vernaculars that bind users into a group. It is this latter capacity of memes that might legitimate the privileging of a singular image as valid object of analysis, a fethisization that could otherwise seem to misunderstand the very logic of memes. Notwithstanding the vexatious problems attending the criteria for selection of such an image, the singular meme, plucked from a torrent of similar images, can at least be held up for a less frantic form of contemplation as a site of, if not quite return, then at least of fusion or condensation into an article of collective identity. It is the mobilization of this capacity to generate group identity that has been as much a part of the political weaponisation of memes as their ability to exceed the frontiers of communities. Against this singular meme then, I want to very briefly pose a body of psychoanalytic work that would understand itself as a theory not just of the individual but of the social. For Juliet Mitchell, the journey from an 'I' to a 'we' and back again starts with a complex in which somebody is standing in someone's place. For Mitchell, it is only through resolving this situation through recognizing both sameness and difference, that we can proceed to a world of peer groups and seriality. The departure from reality to fantasy that characterizes group formation thus extends from anxieties rooted in the grammar of place and displacement and the psychic mechanisms by which division is entrenched, paranoia is reinforced and violence is sanctioned.

 ‘Pepe-Trump’ is one of the more successfully deployed alt-right memes. Tweeted by the president himself, the image endows the alt-right’s most infamous avatar and a recognized hate symbol, Pepe the Frog, with the iconography of a platform vested by the authority of the world’s most powerful political office.[1] Unlike memes which overtly demonstrate the stylistic tropes of image board or chan culture, Pepe-Trump’s comparatively slick production values are a better fit for the more polished aesthetics of the mainstream web 2.0 platforms it was designed to infiltrate and on which it has thrived. With a flick of the Photoshop wand tool the central figure is unmoored from the slightly billowing sheen of the flag, against which, dressed in a suit and smirking beneath an incredible coiffure, the frog squishes into Trump’s perimeter, filling him in and flattening him out. Encapsulating the alt-right’s self-congratulatory declaration after Trump’s victory in the 2016 election that they ‘have actually elected a meme’, the image speaks to the way the alt-right conceived of Trump as a vessel, a brand, a mutable image, that could be occupied and made to speak .[2] Beyond which, Pepe-Trump also suggests a way of addressing the identification mechanisms of the alt-right that leads away from the much touted subversiveness of Pepe the Frog and toward a more integral feature of chan-culture, namely anonymity. As Matt Goerzen has recognized, it is somewhat ironic that the right should have benefitted so manifestly from creative labour that eschews any notion of intellectual property.[3] The original Pepe character may have been the work of a professional illustrator however Pepe the meme - the much more valuable Pepe - was entirely the product of collective and anonymous authorship. [4] At first blush Pepe may share some similar features of the protest avatars of 2011.[5] Digital cultures specialist Paolo Gerbaudo recognizes in those symbolic vessels of projection a memetic quality that affords participation in an online crowd and collective ‘sense of self’. The protest avatar thereby ‘reversing the experience of individualization’ online and working to facilitate a ‘choreography of assembly’ as a form of ‘emotional scene-setting.’[6] However, unlike the avatars Gerbaudo has in mind, Pepe’s symbolic meaning is not vague or particularly post-ideological. This frog’s inclusivity is always secondary to its very specific threat of exclusion. What is on offer here has more in common with the kind of transcendental fusion that has been associated with the psychopathologies of fascist masculinity and its choreography of virile posing.[7] Further, the alt-right’s cultivation of an esoteric mysticism fronted by Pepe chimes with the fact of Trump’s election, one so unexpected it could have been magicked out of thin air.[8] >From here, the totemistic qualities of memes can serve as a reminder of the intimate relation between madness and sorcery, with animism and omnipotence enchanting the executive powers of the ‘possessed leader’.[9] However in the case of Pepe and Trump this fusion cannot be severed from the sexual character of two bodies conjoining as one; this is an infiltration of notoriously thin skin, a form of infiltration drawn from science fiction to be sure, of the amphibian body-snatching sort but nevertheless a penetration that undermines Trump’s status as a supreme penetrator, or pussy-grabber, in chief. Moreover, the ‘erotic ties’ suggested by Pepe-Trump provide a departure point for thinking about how anonymity in online antagonistic groups reaches beyond what has come to be known as the ‘online disinhibition effect’ and toward the identification processes of group formation.[10]

Under the zoological categories set out in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ Freud classifies small animals such as frogs as ‘substitutes for little children … undesired sisters or brothers’.[11] Nevertheless siblings remained of secondary significance for Freud, kept hidden behind the monolith of the Oedipus complex. For Mitchell siblings find their place along a lateral axis which, she suggests, runs across, but not in opposition to, the vertical parent-child axis of classical psychoanalysis.[12] The horizontal here is organized along the lines of inter-sibling relations which constitute the primary model by which a child understands and becomes embedded in peer networks, in other words the path that leads the subject from the family to the social. If notions of horizontality and peer relations within Mitchell’s sibling theory seem suggestive for debates on the way technology has intersected with sociality in the 21st century, the complex sitting at the heart of lateral relations is similarly pertinent. Whilst for Freud and Lacan ‘death can only be represented in the unconscious by castration’, for siblings it is the arrival of an-other infant who affords the complex its traumatic significance. This imminent arrival carries an existential threat because it is expected to deprive the infant of its unique subject position within the family unit.[13] The problem is one of recognition, of recognizing the ‘difference in sameness’ - understanding that the new arrival may stand in the same place and that therefore the infant subject must forge the differences that allow seriality to then unfold.[14] The challenge thereafter is to accommodate the more subtle differences between others who are first encountered as too much the same when positioned along the vertical axis, to do so is to accept the possibility of multiplicity and variation through which a plurality of subject positions can co-exist. Failure to acknowledge the subject position of others along this axis entails a denial of reality and separateness akin to that of Melanie Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position, which will assert itself on any level at which otherness and difference are operative – in other words, the social. This refusal expresses itself through the infant’s hysterical appeals to the parent for recognition and is accompanied by the violent eruption of incestuous and murderous desires toward the new sibling. Thus, hardwired into the psyche of the social, hate and the loss of boundaries between individuals assume a central position along the horizontal axis.[15] Unpacking these insights, siblings emerge as a productive area of inquiry in response to questions regarding the politics of recognition, especially when that politics rejects and refuses difference with such anxiety and violence.

The cry of ‘you will not replace us’ is a chorus that has been heard from every corner of the more recent fascist re-awakenings, from Charlottesville to Vienna. Re-packaged as ‘identitarian’ movements, the shift in presentational strategy exposes the displacement anxieties and insistence on recognition that Mitchell identifies with the first impingement of the social. Much of the alt-right’s success in leveraging these anxieties for political impact has been tied to a conspiracy which accuses Republicans of campaigning with rhetoric that speaks to white nationalism before abandoning their voters by governing with policies from the mainstream.[16] For Mitchell, susceptibility to conspiracy theories derives from paranoid fears of ‘displacement’ that strengthen the splitting processes by which wholly bad or wholly good objects are created. When such totalizing bifurcations are set to work on the level of the group - that is, the lateral axis of sibling relations - they also play an important role in sanctioning violence between groups through what Mitchell has provocatively termed the ‘Law of the Mother’. Preceding Lacan’s ‘Law of the Father’, this injunction prohibits violence between siblings on pain of the total withdrawal of protection and care - a threat perceived by the infant to be ‘tantamount to a death’.[17] The obverse of this prohibition of killing within sibling groups is the allowance that violence is sanctioned under the sign of brotherhood between groups selected as ‘not brothers’. Thus the Law of the Mother that forbids murderous siblings simultaneously guarantees intra-generational slaughter by groups and ensures, as Mitchell notes, that we are always at war somewhere.[18] Most importantly, as Mitchell goes on, ‘is that it is the prohibition against sibling murder that enables the symbolization of brotherhood’ within which ‘individual possessions and advantages count for nothing: the group is everything.’[19] Subsummation into such a group requires divesting one’s singularity and embracing the anonymity demanded by a symbolic fratriarchy based on foundational othering, antagonism and, eventually, violence.[20] Although I think that Mitchell's model has a very rich potential to address antagonistic online groups in a general sense, one of the areas that it can be most clearly observed within the alt-right is in the manosphere, especially Jack Donovan's advocacy and subsequent membership of the all-male, white nationalist, neo-pagan Wolves of Vinland community - described by Donovan as 'a brotherhood of barbarians', a community defined by 'face-to-face and fist-to-face connections where manliness and honor matter again'. Reading Donovan’s blog it’s hard not be struck by the way his articulation of the libidinous intensities of the organisation of fratriarchy elucidates what is at stake in the infant’s first symbolization of the sibling and then the group. In many ways, by organising to the exclusion of women and all non-white ethnicities in a retreat from the messy contingencies of the social, the Wolves of Vinland perform physically the psychic mechanisms at work within the alt-right more broadly.

That these mechanisms are manifestly apparent across the alt-right is unsurprising. Hanna Segal, following Wilfred Bion, recognized that whilst groups are much more prone to irrational behaviour than individuals, the regression to psychotic processes  ‘is a particular danger of political groups’ which ‘seem to embody most easily feelings of superiority, messianic missions and convictions of righteousness and paranoia about others.’[21] Bion’s own work with psychotic patients was heavily informed by his pioneering work with groups from which he elaborated his distinction between the ‘work group’ and the ‘basic assumption’ group.[22] Although any group oscillates between the two modalities the former is better able to function on a realistic level whilst the latter draws its strength from premises that are consistent with those described in the work of Klein, which include; splitting, paranoia, a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle of hostility and anxiety as well as phantasies of infiltration, raids and conspiracy. It is to those chaotic premises that the individual regresses as a condition of their admission to group life and upon this admission that the ‘group exists as distinct from an aggregate of individuals’.[23] By the same token, that this aggregate of individuals can be observed to be a group is evinced not just by each constituent member’s loss of ‘individual distinctiveness’ but by the experience of each member of the same regressions that are characteristic of the group.[24] These regressions are also to be found in the group’s chosen hierarchy. The leader of this type of group need not themselves be a member of the group, or indeed ‘a person at all, but may be identified with an idea or an inanimate object’, even a cartoon frog.[25] What is important is that the leader represents the particular pathologies of the group. The problem with this arrangement is that the group tends to thrust its own omnipotence onto the leader, perpetuating and increasing the latter’s own megalomania and further dissolving any meaningful link to reality.[26] Pepe’s strange union with Trump seems to incarnate this psychotic relation between group and leader; caught within the phrase ‘we have actually elected a meme’ is the omnipotent conjuring of fiction into reality - turning a cartoon into a president is surely wish fulfilment of quite historic proportions, trumping, if you like, the transformation of a frog into a prince.[27]

Cohering the libidinal and the official, the doubled leader stands as a rebuke to the necessity of submitting to the social, the image giving license to roam in delirious landscapes of magical possibility. Yet although Pepe-Trump, like any meme, exists for and in attention economies that may be less tolerant of the type of sustained reflection psychoanalysis prefers, there may be some purchase to be gained by holding on to a few of these images in their singularity and reading them against a body of theory concerned with the complex affective relations that exist between individuals. Psychoanalysis has developed a highly sophisticated conceptual vocabulary concerned precisely with translating and exploiting encoded messages passed between subjects and the forces that they both enact and conceal. It specializes in word play, humour and fragmentary symbols. To this extent, memes would appear as a novel but no less uniquely appropriate field of study in which psychoanalysis might be set to work. As a theory of the social and of the individual, it has always been attracted to wild and erratic associations which nonetheless contain within them the fragments from which reality and all its difficult negotiations starts to be pieced together.

[1] Trump posted the meme in October 2015. For the artist Mary Kelly, the function of certain modes of dress or ‘armours’ is to afford such a ‘place’ from which to speak (Iverson, M. & Kelly, M. p. 128).

[2] Anonymous user on 4chan’s /pol/ board, quoted in Lawrence, D. Mulhall, J. Murdoch, S. & Simmonds, A. p.47

[3] Goerzen, M. On the intersection between intellectual property, memes and commodification it is tempting to read as a death knell for Pepe’s political utility the auction of ‘rare Pepes’ held in New York on the 13th of January 2018 where images tethered to the Bitcoin blockchain ledger sold for up to $40,000.

[4] Pepe the Frog’s original author, the illustrator Matt Furie, disowned the character and killed off Pepe in a single page comic strip published in May 2017.

[5] The Anonymous V for Vendetta mask originated on 4chan and replaced the previous avatar of a man in suit with a green face in a nod to the logo of the site.

[7] Theweleit, K. Theweleit’s analysis draws heavily on the work of Klein and her school and argues that the fascist mode of psychological organization found its material _expression_ in the military formation but could not be separated from a fear and hatred of the feminine.

[8] Pepe is commonly portrayed as the mascot of a semi-ironic religion known as Kek. The name Kek is taken from the World of Warcraft computer games and evolved into an alt-right meme when the chan community discovered the Egyptian deity of the same name was often depicted with the head of a frog and associated with chaos and darkness. The alt-right have subsequently incorporated the notion of meme magic to the auspices of kek and produced insignia for the fictional country ‘Kekistan’ which mimics Nazi war flags, see also Southern Poverty Law Centre.

[9] Another of the most popular alt-right Trump memes is the God-Emperor-Trump, a construction whose Freudian associations require little unpacking (Freud, S.).

[10] Suler, J. 2004; Within the psychoanalytic literature concerned with anonymity on the internet it is striking that so little attention has been paid to the role it plays in group formation. Suler’s term rests on behaviours being explained entirely by ‘the absence of face-to-face cues’ as such it is a challenge to accept an online disinhibition effect having the capacity to address the breadth and depth of antagonistic and aggressive behaviours online let alone the role anonymity plays in group formation (Suler, J. 2017: p. 97, pp. 101-102).

[11] Freud, S. p.236; Adorno, citing the same passage, noted that comparing ‘out groups’ to small animals and vermin, was a ‘favourite device of Fascist agitators’ (Adorno, T. 1982: pp. 132-132).

[12] Mitchell, J. 2003, p. ix

[13] Mitchell, J. 2003 pp. 132-133

[15] Mitchell, J. 2017: p. 12

[16] For an account of the importance of conspiracy theorists and communities to the development of the alt-right since the 1990s, see Niewart, D.

[17] Mitchell, J. 2017: p. 7

[18] Mitchell, J. 2017: p. 2

[20] In this context it is hard to cleave the alt-right’s embrace of anonymity from the de-individualisation of combatants via the organisation of bodies into ranking structures and hierarchies within state militaries.

[21] Segal, H. p. 133

[22] Bion, W.

[23] Bion, W. pp. 141-142

[24] Bion, W. p. 142

[25] Bion, W. p. 155

[26] Segal, H. p. 134

[27] See also Nixon, M.

On 5 April 2018 at 20:38, tbyfield <tbyfield@panix.com> wrote:
It seems weirdly regressive that anyone would need to justify applying 'high' theory to 'low' culture at this point. Those arguments were made — and won – decades ago: they've become the premise of entire schools, disciplines, and even large-scale funding initiatives. When I see them now, it's mostly in the openings of PhDs, where hierarchical conflict is explicit — and has little to do with substance. So what's the blockage in this context? Is it that you're both upping the ante (with quasi-theological arguments with almost apocalyptic implications) and lowering it ante (with an abysmally amorphous object)? Or is this a warmup for some biggish-data project that'll need funding? I don't get it.

I sympathize: academia is really bad at images. Its main mode, maybe even its exclusive mode, is to relentlessly and obsessively reassert the primacy of word over image. Images are for being thought about in words; if you try to think about words through images, game over. But I also don't sympathize, because I want to suggest that this essay trivializes memes by drowning them in theory — in Walter Benjamin, no less.

There are a bunch of head-scratchers in this essay, but I'll pick out a few to make my point:

We should think of memes as local language games embedded within communities of practice and bracketed by the affordances of platforms.

Memes are local? Memes are language? As distinct from language games that aren't embedded in communities of practice? 🤔 And platforms? MBA-speak tends to be pretty ahistorical, so trying to think through this kind of proposition — say, by asking what the precursors of memes might be — is, as Kierkegaard put it, "as baffling as depicting an elf wearing a hat that makes him invisible."

The problem is that, in trying to takes memes Very Seriously, you don't take them seriously enough. If you did, then I think you'd have to address a basic question: are they new, or are they derivatives of earlier ~genres? But rather than do the hard work of dredging up precursors and examining the similarities and differences in how they're used, you offer a grand analogy:

Meme genres can thus be imagined as a neo-medieval mise-en-abyme of spheres within spheres in which there will always be a more current meaning that you’re not yet aware of.


I guess arguing that they're neo-bumperstickers isn't sexy enough.

This substitution of high theory for base facts has one serious consequence: you get some basic facts wrong. For example, there's no official body that 'certifies' emoticons. There's a inter-institutional standards-setting process for *emoji* (the images), not *emoticons* (punctuation), but it's not a certification process. In networked context, distinctions between authorization, authentication, certification, etc matter. And in vernacular forms that play bog-standard games with appropriation and subversion, it matters a lot.

But rather than pick at this and that, I want to show you an example of how and why it's so difficult to think about how popular imagery works: your example of the red pill. Sure, you can call it allegory and talk about it Benjaminian term, but I think doing so misses the much more material il/logic at play in that image — which you yourself treat as emblematic.

Your essay gets it wrong — admittedly in a very conventional cult-studs way. The ur–red pill didn't originate in 1999 in the insistently green film The Matrix, it appeared in Verhoeven's 1990 film — *very* red film — Total Recall. In Total Recall, there was only a red pill, no blue, and it was bluntly presented "a symbol of your desire to return to reality." That's a much better fit than the Matrix's red/blue pill for so-called alt-right rhetoric, IMO. But distinctions like this are precious pedantry compared to the driving force behind the alt-right's identification with red: the GOP's deliberate seizure of that color in the 2000 presidential election. Historically, the informal rule was that the two main US political parties switched colors every election (for example, in 1992 Bill Clinton was red). How exactly that exchange took plave is one of those abiding historical mysteries: it relied on an opaque 'standards-setting' process involving tacit, backroom coordination between campaigns and national TV networks. I'm sure that when the GOP captured the red flag in 2000, it was due in part to a few GOP's power-brokers at the time who just liked red more than blue. But it was also a deliberate political strategy. It allowed the GOP to simultaneously *appropriate* the color associated with political threat — insurgency, revolution, and communism — while *negate* those same discourses. And it's on that basis that, a decade and a half later when the alt-right 'took the red pill,' we can see what they were up to: they tried to do to the GOP what the GOP had done to 'the left.'

But wait! There's more!

You cite Philip K. Dick — much as you cite Robert Smithson — more or less randomly, as someone who decades later thought "in similar terms" to Benjamin. But PKD figures much more directly in this: in the mid-'60s he wrote "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" on which Total Recall was based. If I remember rightly, there's no pill in that story, but there's no need to be so literal. His last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, hinges in part on the proposition that eating red things was central to Christian beliefs about the Resurrection. That novel drew generally on PKD's long-standing interest in gnosticism, but it drew very specifically on John Allegro's theory that Jesus wasn't a historical figure but, instead, was a mythological figure that originated in the ritual use of psychoactive mushrooms — Amanita muscaria.

By academic standards, this kind of associative chain is erratic to the point of madness. It leads everywhere and nowhere, unconstrained by logic, definitions, context, or method. And it drifts and leaps from one context and scale to another: from kooky theories to cinematic fragments to backroom agreements on the fringes of governmentality. But these delirious landscapes are *precisely* where and how memes operate. I don't think Benjamin's theories have much to say about this all — not without doing serious theoretical violence to the myriad specificities at play. And you concede:

One need barely ask how Benjamin would react to the film’s Platonic allegory. Of course Benjamin would take the red pill.

But we know how he reacted, don't we? I dimly remember — as if through a glass (or maybe a scanner) darkly — that his suicide involved a glass of wine, and even more dimly that it was said to be white, not red.



On 4 Apr 2018, at 2:46, Geert Lovink wrote:

Rude Awakening: Memes as Dialectical Images by Geert Lovink & Marc Tuters

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Ivan Knapp
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