Memeing Politics

Yesterday’s post was written, somewhat tangentially, with the cover for Mike Watson’s The Memeing of Mark Fisher in mind. I’d already been thinking about Deleuze’s approach to history and its relationship to present appraisals of Mark Fisher and the Ccru the day before the Zer0 tweet went live. The book cover and its literal dramatisation of a weird Oedipus complex, with a kid whose Dad is Adorno looking at Mark Fisher memes, dovetailed with the sentiment I was already exploring. Beyond that, it wasn’t really a direct comment on it. But there was some debate about it on Twitter afterwards…

Tweeted out by the Zer0 Books Twitter account yesterday, the cover seemed to be everywhere by the evening, and for many people it crossed a line. I was particularly surprised that many people affiliated with Repeater Books, who would usually keep their criticisms private (in my experience), suddenly began tweeting about it disparagingly. Always the gobshite, I didn’t really think twice about adding my own two cents on Twitter…

Everyone talking about it negatively apparently had egg on their face, however, because the cover is ironic and didn’t your mum ever tell you not to judge a book by its cover? But the problem is perhaps that the cover is indicative of Zer0’s general output of phoned-in culture war provocations, filtered through their Frankfurt daddies. It unfortunately epitomised everything that a lot of people really hate about the present version of Zer0 Books.

Later that evening, someone shared the book online. I had a quick read-through and, thankfully, it is far from as provocative as the cover itself. It is tempered and thoughtful and engages with different meme trends, wondering how they express certain structures of feeling and relate to different philosophical concepts and movements. Though I still think the previous post is applicable to how it anachronistically treats its historical antecedents, the book hardly seems like the disaster the cover suggests it is.

So why choose that cover? Why pick something that is going to be such an obstacle for many people to get past? Isn’t that Fisher’s problem with aestheticised politics in the first place? Zer0 obviously runs on the belief that all press is good press these days, and so some of their fans saw the cover as doing its job, but that’s hardly applicable to Fisher’s own interest in online culture and parody. Why embody the absolute worst of what you’re intending to talk about in order to entice people into your argument? Have we learned nothing from accelerationism?

The go-to example for memetic politics I always think of is the bootleg Jeremy Corbyn Nike tick t-shirt from the 2017 UK general election. That tongue-in-cheek combination of designer clothing and socialist politics was exactly what Fisher meant by “designer communism”. It hijacked an already existing symbol, synonymous with desire and a certain kind of streetwear luxury, and somehow made a old socialist like Corbyn sexy by association. The lesson learned was a simple one — if you can’t sell a t-shirt, you’re not going to be able to sell the revolution. That’s the counter-intuitive provocation of Fisher’s postcapitalist desire.

Zer0’s various attempts to go viral in a similar way falter. Their intentions are suspect. Instead of grassroots organising and political consciousness, it’s all culture war bullshit and debate bro strategies. And because it doesn’t really have a material basis or a popular culture to attach itself to (beyond the one it attempts to create for itself), it always looks self-serving.

That sums up my problem with Zer0 Books and its various attempts to sell books to a market of memers more generally. Watson distances himself from this (unconvincingly), but that’s alright. For the sake of not judging the book by its cover, perhaps it is better to consider the publisher-wide problem people seem to think the book cover is somehow indicative of.

For all the attention Zer0’s various authors give to internet culture, memes and the political potential of the right aesthetic messaging, imploring the left to learn to meme and engage with contemporary culture… The reality is that most don’t need a lesson. They’re way better at it and smarter about it than Zer0 themselves are. They don’t need meme culture to be translated into Frankfurter talking points. Many are already making their own culture that is tapped into now. Maybe there’s a way of using that to make older works of political philosophy more accessible? But most attempts to turn Frankfurters into memes come across as anachronistic and weird. They’re ugly and didactic, having very little aesthetic merit whatsoever — not even ironically. It feels like meme politics as folk politics.

When I think about Mark Fisher memes — or at least memes he’d appreciate — nothing like a stock image with some fat text on it ever comes to mind, and ironic misunderstandings of his own concepts don’t seem to achieve anything, other than sending new readers down useless labyrinths of poor thinking. If there was a meme he’d like today, I reckon it’d be the one doing the rounds right now during the Euros, combining politics and football, as he liked to do. Every good performance is currently blamed on the England team’s embrace of Marxism. It’s a meme I’ve even seen right-wing pundits make. It’s hyperstitous, recognising the popular interest in football and a general desire the nation has (more or less) for its team to do well, and it ties that to criticism the team has got for taking the knee and infecting politics with “Marxism”. But as a prematch ritual, it looks like the Marxist gesture is working!

As a meme, it’s organic, it plants a humorously fitting seed regarding Marxist determinism for those in the know, but it’s utterly grounded in the present, and helps further normalise the message the team are hoping to send themselves. It might not have a pictorial format with text over image, but it is a joke, part of the fun of which is the way it is being widely shared and popularised. It’s a meme by any measure that uses something like Twitter to respond to an event (both literally and philosophically speaking), spreading a message about material conditions and politics in football.

(If you want a more dynamic and sustained masterclass in memeing yourself into the national conversation, without sacrificing on substance, you can also consider the UK’s Northern Independence Party.)

But whatever this video is above, and whatever that book cover represents, is something else entirely…

(The quote chosen in this video feels deeply ironic too, it must be said: “The less the culture industry has to promise, the less it can offer a meaningful explanation of life, and the emptier is the ideology it disseminates.” Welcome to meme world.)

Not being a fan of terrible meme cultures may make me elitist to some — I’m used to that accusation from members of the deeply cursed Mark Fisher Memes for Hauntological Teens group on Facebook — but the point is surely that aesthetics and cultural production really matter. The memes and the culture war videos and the book cover are misjudged, in much the same way a lot of Extinction Rebellion happenings are misjudged, for example — they irritate their target audience and the people they’re out to convince of their cause. The fact it’s much lower hanging fruit than XR only makes it worse. It stinks of a kind of detached hippiedom, which tunes out to the point it doesn’t realise how out of touch it is.

That was precisely the problem with psychedelic culture that Fisher first denounced. It prided itself on its detachment from the zeitgeist, in a lot of ways. It ignored material conditions and saw tuning out as a virtue. In some respects, it is, but meme tutorials feel like an instance of tuning so far out you can’t convince anyone but the already converted of what you’re talking about. It’s representative of leftist problems rather than a solution. It’s a problem of practice that preaches contemporaneity from within but already feels outdated from without. And that’s a shame, because there’s nothing really wrong with the theories being discussed and applied in themselves. But those theories are being turned into practices that rarely function as intended. So the practices undermine the application of the theory. To have something undermined entirely by its presentation, when presentation is also so much of the wider focus — it’s bewildering.

As @snowdriftmoon argued in a video response: if you make your literal book cover into a joke, don’t be surprised when people assume your work is a joke also.

But there’s also more to it than that. It’s symptomatic of a strange lag that they don’t seem to be aware of. This isn’t cutting edge cyber-praxis reaching out to zoomers on their own turf; this is meme warfare stuck in the left’s Twitter paroxysm of five years ago. Rhett made this point first and I think it’s a really pertinent one: Zer0 Books “are stuck in 2016’s trenches and they are just refusing to get out. I’m starting to believe that they are the first, real rear-garde of Trump nostalgia.” (Prat made a similar point as well.) It is a cultural approach that feels like it was built in response to an emergent alt right that had just broken into the mainstream by appropriating Pepe. But even if we were still living in that moment, clunky quotes on a stock image backdrop aren’t going to compete with that. It’s aesthetically minded but, ultimately, it’s aesthetically impotent. As such, it’s not memetic in any functional sense. These “memes” don’t spread in any positive sense. They’re always a backdrop to something else — book covers, YouTube videos… They’re captured within the publishing industrial-complex and are rarely seen outside their own context.

The Memeing of Mark Fisher likely doesn’t deserve the disdain and cynicism it has received over the last day or so, but the sheer amount of vitriol its central Mark Fisher meme has received from interested parties surely says something about how those responsible for it are able to navigate the very issues they are concerned about. And what it says isn’t good.


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