Memes are the purest form of ideology, they form a cushion protecting against contact with the real. That is to say objective reality. Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ meme didn’t stand up to scrutiny during the six week election campaign. Yet its half life may be enough to carry her across the finish line. Sadly for Jeremy Corbyn he was saddled with his own ‘Unelectable’ meme, which insulated him from reality until the election campaign began.
A meme is basically something that you want to share. It’s a viral vector for good and evil content to traverse our brains and influence our worldview via humour. Memes thrive within their own social circle with few ascending to universal status. At their best they are an encapsulation of ourselves and aspirations, at their worst they are clubs for bashing political Other. Humans are complex, so often this means they are both at the same time, eh. Regardless of their use, memes are replications of our worldview in miniature. They are not just shareable content, they are about making morality visual.
Conservative message control is admirable and frankly slightly stalinist. It gave them the cushion to survive contact with reality for the last few weeks. However, paradoxically, it brought about the conditions of the May-memes’s own downfall: No Corbyn, no election. No election, no Maybot.
Criteria of fitness for office are defined by gatekeepers. For some the bar is high and for others the bar is slightly more modest I guess. The viral imagery can affect where the bar rests; The crowd’s outside QT in Cambridge reaction, transfixed by the sight of watching someone eat a pringle, shows that the bar is set at Human. This man is comfortable in his own skin and is capable of meeting other real humans.
Yet politics is about cut-through and the majority of the public still see Corbyn The Meme rather than Corbyn The Man. Mark Zarb-Cousin’s thesis that Labour started polling better the minute the fair coverage rules for the election period kicked in gives us a period in which maximum reality was allowed to collide with the original perception. As for the origins of May’s ‘Strength and Stability’ it’s clear that if every government cock up was treated the same way then the country would have ground to a halt months ago.
The civil service bureaucracy is basically a giant publishing machine in which information flows in one direction. Leaks are an important part of working around this. Romantic notions and biases make it easy wonder whether the Conservatives benefited from more effective gatekeepers of information while the Labour leader has had to deal in more public two-way communication via leaks. Leaks themselves motivated by the original branding of Corbyn as ‘unelectable’. Washing dirty laundry alone on the public stage makes people remember you for your stains rather than how clean your clothes look afterwards (not that public scrutiny is bad, it should just be more universal, eh).
Social Currency & Barbs
The easiest way to slander someone now is to make them a meme (see “car-crash” Diane Abbott). Memes are also lazy formulas that people trot out; they are essentially tired reposts of an ideological point they didn’t make themselves, used as currency to buy approval from conservative/liberal uncles and workplace seniors. Yet these sharp reposts are also forged into sharp knives, used in the sacred acts of binding communities. French Anthropologist Réné Girard argues that cultural stability is ordered around symbolic violence against an individual or collective scapegoat that takes on the burden of all social ills before being dispatched in ceremonial rites. One outcome of this election will be that that two new national scapegoats have become encoded on the left and right, Theresa May and Diane Abbott.
As May’s ‘Strength and Stability’ flows away to reconstitute into the scapegoat-meme, she emerges from the election most likely victorious but also thoroughly vanquished. The new meme is that win or lose, this is her last election. Diane Abbott was ritually sacrificed by Labour too, her twenty year, national career reduced to interview seconds of soundbytes. So while these memes have withered under the light of our vision, new ones emerge to take their place. Again memes are pure ideology, they mask more than they reveal. Partially because it’s difficult to have too much nuance on an image macro.
So what drives the memewars?
Internally, memes ascribe to Thanatos and Eros: the death and love drives. There are many levels to this, as each ideology generates its own eros or love and each its own urge to satisfy itself, death or the removal of the cause of its own urges.
For Jaques Lacan the reading must be, “the drive is the motor-force of life and its work is death – i.e. elimination of its own stimulus. Thus the drive is split in so far as it always already has death as part of its structure.”
On the surface, we can see eros in constructive Original Content (OC), the sole reason for going online (don’t worry, naked pictures are OC too). The second, thanatos, is the urge for self destruction; here we have postmodern irony willing the subject of its cynical ridicule back into existence. However there are those that do it unironically too: ISIS may be seen as the fullest expression of Thanatos online.
Political meme-ing treads a fine line between the two. They are easily digested talking points for use with like minded colleagues and family members. They work as a smooth social currency; You accept the underlying premise and you use them to ceremonially put the boot in rather than utilising your own thought. These are passive memes.
Original Content, the active meme, is the memebase which generates enough online energy to cut through with simple messages about the human condition. See the explosion of interest in ‘late stage capitalism’ as one result of this. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and now Jeremy Corbyn have benefited from this, as people are inspired to actively create on their behalf.
The problem we find is that eros and thanatos dichotomy is a matter of perspective.The Trump supporters appropriating Pepe (that frog meme) may be fulfilling their own eros as easily as the Sanders supporter. The Sun may propagate the eros of the affluent and unequal society against the thanatos of the Corbyn supporter on Facebook. When discussing the meme-politique we must see which drives and aims are at play. Luckily humour and taste helps this process greatly.
Coming Soon: Internment, or our Youtube comments sections are leaking
Memes are a common social identifier for deciding who was in on the joke and who wasn’t, occasionally involving ritualised racism, sexism & homophobia. This was sadly set into the DNA of our memes for all time; setting the tone of acceptable conversation low and then evolving towards Holocaust denial and Nazi apologia to keep up with the increasing entrants into the inside cool club.
Internet comments sections act as a festering deposit for the poison of our subconscious. We are as racist, sexist and homophobic as ever and the internet amplifies all of this through echochamber and network effects. There is no such thing as Manichean progress, instead the same cultural battles have to be fought every generation in whatever new guise they appear in.
The horrendous attacks in Manchester and London have met with a howling upsurge of meme-bile, calling for the return of internment. Yet anyone advocating this position outside of emotional social currency (right-wing virtue signalling) needs to be aware of Britain’s recent history of internment. Seriously, look up the 70s. Internment just turned prison camps into terrorist training camps. More terrorists walked out of internment camps than went inside them.
If you want to see the corrosively simplistic effects of memes on the body politic then look no further than the role Northern Ireland has played in this general election.
Northern Ireland has become a meme
Ascending to meme status is to lose Northern Ireland’s place as an historical actor. On his deathbed awaiting his own ascension into the Roman Pantheon, Emperor Vespasian remarked “Woe is me, methinks I’m becoming a God”. Ascension into the national consciousness is the annihilation of complexity basically, as people become unable to question what you really are. With most memes the real interesting things are what have been omitted.
Sadly the Troubles have become a meme too
Questions about the IRA and Corbyn have flown since the start. But in true Meme fashion what is interesting about these questions is what they omit. It was rare to hear anyone ask Corbyn if he had met Loyalist terrorists. The IRA existed in a vacuum apparently. It is also dishonest to not describe the sectarian, quasi theocratic statelet that Northern Ireland was for most of its history prior to the 1960s. The Troubles arose from the power imbalances, the inbuilt despair of being an unwanted minority consigned to shit decrepit housing, a life of no job prospects and with sectarian gerrymandering and a democracy for property holders only (one vote per property).
The origins of the conflict had more to do with a lack of British values like democracy. Even rough categories for the belligerents (Catholic-Nationalist and Protestant-Unionist) are a symptom of dehumanising simplification. All fueled by the fallacy of seeing the province solely from the viewpoint of the sectarian headcount. But Memes can only deal in simplification.
To not understand the context of the Troubles is to do more harm than good. You must ask yourself? Do you really care about Northern Ireland or is it just another stick to beat a political opponent with? Again the barriers to high office seem quite low when one is running for the right party. Peter Robinson, Former Northern Irish First Minister, actually invaded the Republic of Ireland as a sitting MP in 1986. A very patriotic chap.
With Northern Irish history featuring so heavily in the UK political debate it’s imperative to sort the memes from the facts before they become myths. Here’s some FAQs on the conflict to get started.