Matheus shared an old blogpost of mine on Twitter earlier today, in which I argued that the right can’t seem to recognise memes anymore. This sentiment is relevant in Peru right now, he notes, because “Rafael López Aliaga, face of the Peruvian extreme right,” has used “the example of ‘imagine you have two cows …’ to explain ‘communism'”. This is presumably a dig at the newly elected socialist Pedro Castillo. “Such an ‘explanation'”, Matheus explains, “had become a meme during the last campaign in Peru to ridicule the intellectual flatness of the right.” Basically, Aliaga takes a meme ridiculing right-wing repetitiousness, and repeats it, humiliating himself.
We’ve certainly seen similar things happen over in the UK, but it is a particularly interesting example and made me think of a few things that I’d like to add to the old argument, as a way to explain why exactly the contemporary right has lost its meme literacy. (And how the left occasionally makes some of the same pitfalls.)
This is important to consider because the far-right was not always this inept. What defined Trump’s memetic election in the US in 2016 was, of course, a new “alt” right-wing coming to see itself as culturally influential political outsiders. And in being outside of a liberal orthodoxy, if not communicative capitalism’s networks of information exchange, their message was able to spread because it made convincing attacks on the system at large. It was an invading virus and, appropriately, went viral.
The viral analogy is important precisely because it captures the paradox at play. When the right started to meme, it infected the Republican Party in the US with a virus of its own creation. It got inside and began to replicate. This replication is a kind of creative destruction. Viruses attack the very systems that are allowing them to spread. And, as with a real virus, once a meme starts to replicate inside a system, it can start to cause serious damage through this replication process, perhaps to reputation or hegemon. But it is arguably the immune response, the fever, that makes us feel the most rotten.
What was so effective about the alt-right’s memes wasn’t just the types of messages they were sending, which were often aesthetically innocuous and banal, but the perceived damage that the meanings of these symbols were doing to the world at large. The meme itself isn’t that telling; what really makes us sit up and take notice is the immune response. Beyond the realm of biology, an immune response isn’t always a good thing. It shows what sets you off, reveals your weaknesses — at the level of politics, maybe even your irrelevance within the modern world. This is rule 101 of internet trolling: whatever makes you mad is immediately used as a point of leverage. That an idea, even a joke, can wholly disrupt and humiliate neoliberal management systems in this way is a powerful thing.
But what happens when you win? The alt-right’s meme campaign was successful. Their memes were no longer challenges to reality but became reality — and when that happened, all of the alt-right’s big names were gradually flushed out of the system. No longer “threats”, they faded into irrelevancy, digging their own graves, no longer on the outside pissing in but shitting themselves in public. Once the system built up an immunity to their provocations, working with their suddenly unavoidable presence, their repetitious personalities became old hat quick and were neutralised.
Though producing some juicy schadenfreude as the most nauseating pundits found their careers disappearing in media quicksand, we nonetheless transitioned into a world where we’re supposedly meant to accept the presence of a new right-wing, just like the coronavirus. “It’s like the flu, it won’t go away, we have to learn to live with it”, all the while ignoring the ways that we complacently allow or otherwise encourage the virus to replicate. It’s a bit like the “pingdemic” going on here in the UK, where the national immune response comes under attack, rather than the virus itself. In fact, most right-wing pundits in the UK have struggled with the pandemic precisely because they cannot see the virus, and so do not “see” the need to attack or react to it on an individual level. They fight for “common sense”, but nothing is more ideological than the apparent absence (or illegibility) of ideology. In much the same way, that the right cannot “see” memes is demonstrative of how complicit they are in the system under assault. They cannot see them because they are no longer invaders, and that is a problem when the virus is still ripping your cells apart.
It reminds me of a Zizek meme someone sent me the other day. Indeed, that blindness to your own politics is “pure ideology” is an acutely Zizekian point to make. But Zizek really is the perfect reference here, for both memes and the coronavirus response. To stick with Aliaga, that he is using “imagine you have two cows” to denounce communism as an ideology, when the whole point of that joke set-up is that it can be used promiscuously to illustrate the ridiculousness of any ideology, perfectly demonstrates Zizek’s point in The Sublime Object of Ideology, when he writes:
the social effectivity of the exchange process is a kind of reality which is possible only on condition that the individuals partaking in it are not aware of its proper logic; that is, a kind of reality whose very ontological consistency implies a certain non-knowledge of its participants — if we come to ‘know too much’, to pierce the true functioning of social reality, this reality would dissolve itself.
This is, in a way, capitalist realism. The “two cows” meme, in its original usage, represents certain gaps in an ideological consistency. It is a virus that invades from without, encouraging us to throw off our non-knowledge; encouraging us to understand the subjective position that would allow us to laugh along. But when the far-right appropriates this kind of joke, glossing over its dissenting message, repackaging it — or trying to — as a message that works in its favour, it shows how reliant on a certain non-knowledge the right really is. The meme, in their hands, only functions as they intend it to if the person reading it has no knowledge of its other uses — that is, of its other ideological applications.
We saw the same thing happen to Trump. He began as a provocation, as a meme, as a virus that wasn’t going to change the system at large but just force itself into circulation. But once liberal society had built up an immune response, it was inevitable that he would be flushed out and humiliated, because he didn’t expand knowledge but relies on the ignorance of others to get by. That being said, if Trump taught the world anything, it was that he was never really a threat to the system as a whole, just a certain elite that had failed to recognise him as one of their own.
And he was one of their own. That was what was so funny about him when he first emerged. He represented a blind spot in a system that could not understand its own offspring. The alt-right, in particular, took advantage of this, taking Trump’s “joke” candidacy and inverting it, making not a mockery out of him but the wider system that could allow him to exist. And yet, once they had succeeded, the joke wasn’t funny anymore — not simply because Trump is bad but because jokes like him are a kind of jouissance.
This is what made Trump the “accelerationist” candidate for some people — not because he was simply the worst candidate, although he certainly was, but because he was surplus of the system itself. Trump is neoliberal surplus. And people don’t really like surplus — it’s uncouth and all too often taboo. Of course, we English don’t really have a word for it that isn’t wrapped up in economic language, but the French call it jouissance. The jouissance of sex is what makes sex so taboo, for example — for a God-fearing world that wants to insist upon sex’s utilitarian child-producing function, the pleasure of sex is surplus to requirements. So too are our other bodily functions — shitting and pissing might bring about their own sort of pleasurable bodily relief, but they are taboo activities because they are the evacuation of a filthy excess produced by the necessary (and often itself pleasurable) activity of eating and drinking. (It’s no surprise that our most excessive forms of pornography combine the two.)
This was how Trump inserted himself into a neoliberal system. To the Republican Party, he was like a big loud orgasm — the pleasurable release that their reactionary circle jerk had long been waiting for. For the Democrats, he was a piece of shit… But in each instance, he was the product of the other’s private behaviours and public policies. No one wanted to talk about him as one of their own, but he was nonetheless a product of their world. For the rest of us, it made sense. That a nation like America, having long played an integral and supremacist role in global capitalism, could produce an egotistical businessman as president was the country taking a deep self-satisfied drag on its own excrement. (The same with other ridiculous leaders like him around the world.) And that was the joke — at least at first. But the problem was that it was a joke too easily integrated back into the system at large. Trump started as (and remained) an “accelerationist” candidate for some — notably Zizek — but, in the end, he only helped demonstrate how the system at large functions. Because it is surplus that capitalism exploits most effectively. We are hooked on excess. It is this surplus that also keeps us stuck in place. Our desires are overfed, which at once produces a permanent desire for more, for revolution, but also keeps its realisation at bay.
Roland Barthes writes about this in his 1973 book The Pleasure of the Text, exploring how literature contributes to this same dynamic of consumptive excess. Simply put, the intensive experience of reading about the details of another’s life, of creating a life through fiction and immersing oneself in it, is an aesthetic jouissance. It is an excess that satisfies us, entertains us, preoccupies us, but it also rouses us, even forces us to break with our own subjective positions. This is what jokes do, and what cinema and theatre notably does for Bertolt Brecht. It is also what memes do, at their finest. The wojaks of this world are dangerous precisely because they are consciousness-raising tools. Wojak is a readerly subject who expands (maybe even annihilates) the subjective position of the individual and introduces him (and it is often “him”) to others like himself.
Memetic repetition builds momentum in this way, through its surplus, but it is worth noting that the memetic is dependent on the new in a way that is other to communicative capitalism as a whole, precisely because memes are surplus to the system as a whole. They are what is naturally produced when audiences have chewed up and digested the culturally familiar. They are truly beholden to a (post)modernist “(re)make it new” imperative. This is different to how capitalism functions because capitalism relies on stasis. As such, when a meme becomes a catchphrase, oversaturated in its usage, maybe utilised by a corporation or a political leader, it has lost its power. It is no longer new but a familiar novelty. It no longer challenges but is part of a collective language that can only ever repeat. That is why new memes are essential to the meme market.
The new, Barthes notes, is one way that jouissance appears to us. The new, more than the familiar, is rousing. Not always, of course – “nine times out of ten, the new is only the stereotype of novelty” – but jouissance “may come only with the absolutely new, for only the new disturbs (weakens) consciousness”. What separates the new from mere novelty is perhaps a kind of excessive value in itself. Novelty is the new already captured. For Barthes, the new “is not a fashion, it is a value, the basis of all criticism”. The new, no matter how it appears to us, shocks us out of our complacency. It is always surplus to requirements by exceeding the bounds of the familiar. It is in this sense, Barthes argues, that “all official institutions of language are repeating machines: school, sports, advertising, popular songs, news, all continually repeat the same structure, the same meaning, often the same words: the stereotype is a political fact, the major figure of ideology.” This is what happens when Aliaga repeats a meme once used against him. He does not puncture meaning but reveals his own ideological blindness. He adopts the familiar as if it were new, and humiliates himself. The absolutely new, instead, confronts the familiar, and it is blissful and thrilling when it does so. But the new is always doomed to become familiar eventually. It is caught in this strange time warp, so familiar to us in the present. In response to this strange paradox, Barthes throws a peculiar and provocative accelerationist gesture: “There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it”.
Barthes seems to insist we go back to the future. As in the film of the same name, when Marty McFly finds himself performing at his parent’s school dance, anachronistically shredding on his guitar, like Chuck Berry with a few Hendrix moves thrown in. He is caught up in his own mode of expression, exercising genre tropes he is abundantly familiar with, but unaware that the audience before him are gobsmacked. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet”, he says when he realises that he has utterly exceeded the musical expectations of the occasion. “But your kids are gonna love it!” That is what is required of the revolutionary new, which is more than mere novelty. It must retreat ahead of itself – nothing less than engaging in a form of time-travel. We don’t know it when we see on most occasions. But it is that which we always declare “ahead of its time” in hindsight.
Of course, Barthes is not so wanton in his approach as Marty McFly. He also considers the other side of the new – not just shocking difference but mutative repetition; “one can make a claim for precisely the opposite”, he says – “repetition itself creates bliss.” One need only think of dance music or certain kinds of surrealist comedy and the dozens of examples of blissful repetition found therein. But this repetition is still done to excess. It still makes a mockery of pre-established value-structures. Barthes speaks of “obsessive rhythms, incantatory music, litanies, rites, and Buddhist nembutsu, etc.: to repeat excessively is to enter into loss, into the zero of the signified”. Capitalist repetition is of another order. “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions – these are repeated, but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, new films, news items” — new memes — “but always the same meaning.”
But Barthes also suggests that this humiliated repetition can be humiliated in itself. Isabel Fall’s appropriation of the “attack helicopter” meme, for instance, humiliated an over-used right-wing joke and made it radically new. There are strategies available to us that use capitalism’s humiliating categories against itself. But more often than not, right-wing meme appropriation is incapable of such a manoeuvre. They preach radical replication but only succeed in humiliating themselves, only making novel what was once new. (Even a try-hard left-wing meme culture falls into this trap, with the Zero Books crew in particular only capable of turning canonical theory into market novelty, whilst the new itself unfolds elsewhere.) They attempt to look like Marty McFly, but the rest of the world sees the tensions underneath. Just as Marty flexes his virtuoso chops, patronising the black backing band that they should try to keep up, we should note that they do so without a problem. The zero of the signified lurks in the background, playing rhythm, like black creators on TikTok who recently engaged in a cultural boycott, resisting the cultural appropriation of dances that they create, which are later picked up and monetised by white influencers.
This aspect of meme culture is more worthy of our attention than reheated 2016 culture wars. Indeed, memes require a certain negativity to function, a certain outsideness, and it is telling where that negativity most often emerges from. From words like “woke” and “Karen” to TikTok dances to the legacy of black Vine, the absolutely new predominantly emerges from below and, in our present cultural moment, from blackness. It does not come from those mechanisms of capture: “school, sports, advertising, popular songs, news”, to which we might add a whole number of other digital categories… But not all.