“Criticize the Old World in Content and Advocate a New One in Form.” Metahaven in Conversation with Aaron Peters
Monty Python once fantasized about a joke so funny it could kill; whoever heard it or read it would die laughing. “Jokes warfare” would spread as a deadly virus. Carl von Clausewitz famously stated that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” The same goes, quite frankly, for jokes: as a strategy of political disruption, jokes can be a cunning means to win.
This is the issue under investigation in our e-book, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics, which was published by Strelka Press in April 2013. The essay deals with the dictatorship of austerity in Europe, the “rational” framework of a “common sense politics,” and the forms which resistance against such a politics takes. The essay delves into Anonymous, Rick Astley, Stock, Aitken and Waterman, Lolcats, the Invisible Committee, Dominique Strauss-Kahn as a “half man, half pig,” the Impact typeface, the legacy of “political graphic design,” and many more things.
As part of the research, we interviewed Aaron John Peters, who is a Doctoral Candidate at the New Political Communications Unit, University of Royal Holloway, London. Aaron presents (together with James Butler) Novara, a highly recommended political radio show on Resonance FM. He is a contributor to Open Democracy’s Our Kingdom section.
In our conversation, Aaron shed an informed, detailed, and striking light on the joke’s proper place in a larger repertoire of political disruptions. We couldn’t quote all of his words in the e-book, so here is our exchange in its entirety.
Is there a relationship between those who get an in-joke, and political collectivity or movement? Can jokes designate collectives you think?
Perhaps. What is central to social movements is a sense of shared grievance and a shared antagonist against which such grievances can be articulated. Within that, humour will probably be multiform. Social movements within the network society, are heterogenous, polyarchical and fluid and they are seemingly designated more through attempts to evade subjectivities as opposed to actively attempting to construct them. Where the deployment of the ‘joke’ fits into that i’m unsure if I am honest.
Can a political opponent, at least in theory, be defeated by a single joke?
The joke as a disruption of the symbolic order is useful in taking on the antagonist not through a formal and recognizable disagreement in content but instead as an attempt to negate the form of legitimate rational debate as they might have otherwise naturally presumed.
Central to political contention, from protests to riots is disruption. Disruption of the circulation of goods and services during an industrial strike, a disruption of the reproduction of space with an occupation, a disruption to all social relations (or at least many of them) with the riot or insurrection. The joke, as one manifestation of the disruption of symbolic order can be seen in a similar vein in that it disrupts the circulation of discourse and is not *meant* to happen at the level of form when one engages in ‘politics’. One sees this in jokes on placards at protests or stupid costumes - when protests aim at this alone they appear impotent and a meek attempt at ‘subversion’ which is ultimately bereft of power. This itself might be understood as the symbolic disruption of order as opposed to the disruption of the symbolic order, a key difference between spectacle and antagonism.
However when combined with other protest repertoires, the occupation, the strike and the riot such ‘jokes’ become disconcerting for decision-makers. For instance amid the fires, darkness and violence in Parliament Square (from both police and protestors) on December 9th 2010 (the apex of the Uk student movement) the only visible speech acts were frequently jokes, such as ‘comedy’ placards. It is this mixture of the disruption of the symbolic order at a number of levels, both the physical and the communicative that disconcerts the powerful the most. When one has physical disruption but maintains a communicative order with demands then such disruption is still capable of mediation. However - when done at both the level of the symbolic and the physical the powerful inevitably ask, ‘what do these people want?’ One can not surmount counter-claims through ‘debating’ in content, instead, negation of the form and structure through which they seek to extend their identities and reproduce themselves as agents should be seen as imperative.
One might choose to offer another example. At the London bookshop, Foyles, students let off a smoke bomb just as AC Grayling said he was happy to assuage the concerns of those particular individuals who had been heckling him for the previous thirty minutes about his proposed ‘New College of the Humanities’. His desire to converse with those students was born of the hope that he could win the ‘debate’. Of course as an elder statesman of the British academy his preference for such a form, the premised, Socratic dialogue would inevitably favour him - it is after all a form and a structure which privileges the privileged - hence why it is offered to the rest of us with such regularity and familiar ease by those such as Grayling. The idea of a consensus decision, where all voices are heard regardless of eloquence borders for such individuals on the absurd. Even on those rare occasions where such individuals do lose ‘the debate’ on their own terms this rarely inhibits them from proceeding with their various projects regardless.
What Grayling failed to understand when attempting to initiate a ‘rational debate’ with those hecklers was that they did not wish to simply ‘win’ an argument. As a classical liberal within the Schmittian sense he sought to reduce the enemy antagonism to that of the intellectual joust. Such cognitive sparring is premised on a form and a certain set of parameters that inherently favours the powerful. Subsequently one can identify the smoke bomb as perfect, it did not even permit the framework that Grayling would have chosen to apply in order to exercise his superiority.
The joke is very similar, and for the powerful equally disconcerting. The disruption of the symbolic order is central in undermining power and the joke along with anonymity and certain other forms of more confrontational collective action are central to this. All evade the attempted capture of language and like a riot, resemble a strike at the level of discourse. This fits in quite nicely with McKenzie Wark when he writes ‘There is a politics of the unrepresentable, a politics of the presentation of the nonnegotiable demand’. The joke plays a major role within such a politics, as does a riot.
One of the signature features of mainstream politics is its intent to “frame” issues according to its own playbook. Mainstream politics thereby forces its challengers to frame their propositions on the terms of its own unimaginative and deeply ideological vocabulary. Memes seem to have the potential to refuse this offer without being purely negative.
Communicative power within mainstream politics, which is central to those systems where specific individuals seek democratic re-election (even if structurally such systems observably resemble oligarchies) is built upon on an assymetry in the ability to ‘frame’ discourse and agenda-set within the media. Subsequently such a media model neccesarily resembles the political class in so much as its model is that of the oligopoly. This in turn translates to a narrow understanding of ‘legitimate’ forms of political subjectivity and vocabulary. Attendant with the more obvious difficulty in attempting social change through winning public office the limitations within such a model extend far beyond the ‘right people’ winning’ elections to what is fundamentally a limited understanding of politics and of ourselves as political subjects all of this being determined by ‘their’ language.
We also know that politicians have long crafted their public personas precisely for this previously dominant media ecology. Subsequently when they engage with distributed communicative channels, without a client-server, or even decentralised ones such as Twitter, there is a clear tension in evidence. It is important to understand that within the old media model there is a ‘signal’ (the intended political message), the ‘channel’ (a newspaper column or soundbyte for print or broadcast media), the ‘sender’ (the politician) and the ‘receiver’ (the supplicant audience/ electorate). What is optimal for the sender is that the signal will be entirely distinct from noise and is not subject to change within the channel. Furthermore the audience has no means by which to influence the signal at any point.
We see within distributed and decentralised communicative channels a complete breakdown in this previous order - signals can no longer be sent and remain unchanged by the channel and the audience/ sender binary is elapsed. This is after all what is at the heart of online memes, signals whose meaning is fluid, subject to change and constantly rendered context specific for a particular individual, group, time or space.
Subsequently when politicians, with personas and ideological projects tailored for an entirely different communications ecology have to engage with distributed networks, they appear absurd. One only has to recollect Ed Miliband’s repetitive address to camera on the day of the J30 strikes where he repeated his ‘message’ half a dozen times. In any offline, authentic interaction such behaviour would have bordered on the deranged. However within the old paradigm it made sense - he had a signal which he wanted to transmit, a soundbyte for the headline writers and the six o’clock news. In the past such dysfunctional, ersatz behaviour was both neccesary and appropriate.
The problem is that other distributed channels of YouTube, e-mail lists and Facebook now have access to these signals in all their fullsome glory. As a result hundreds of thousands saw Miliband repeat himself rather idiotically and were able to play the file back repeatedly, sharing it, joke about it, commenting on it and so on. The application of the old content to a new form, the distributed network leads to a massive intensification of spectacle, with a sense of inertia within the political class that was not quite as evident before.
To answer your question - the old communicative ecology of channel, sender, signal and recipient - as generic understanding of the media and the passive audience - bears a great deal of responsibility for much of the imaginative, and as you describe, ideologically vacuous vocabulary that we are presented with by the political class. Subsequently, when this same political class attempts to engage with distributed networks - by putting a video of themselves on Youtube, starting a Twitter account or having a hashtag under which anyone can ask questions they find themselves invariably barracked with abuse and jokes. They are trolled. They appear absurd and bereft of power and this is entirely sensical given they no longer exercise control over ‘their’ signal nor control the mediation of their relationship to the rest of us. If we are to understand authority as ‘legitimate power’, then such legitimacy has historically required a certain ‘majesty’ in order to gain traction with the masses (such an idea goes back to Aristotle’s ‘Politics’). This ‘majesty’ should be seen as based within a certain epistemic and ontological distance from the people - the possibility of maintaining such a distance within distributed networks seems highly implausible. Lese Majesty seems almost the default when the powerful use Twitter, be it Rupert Murdoch or Nick Clegg, they are invariably trolled.
A minor and rather humorous example of this was the ‘AskEdM’ hashtag debacle on Twitter. This was a hashtag that was scheduled for an hour and presumably was undertaken at the instigation of one of Miliband’s press officers in the hope that his boss would discuss issues ‘directly’ with the electorate and in the process offer a veneer of authenticity. This is how social media consultancies pitch the new networks to politicians - that they can be managed with regards to signal and channel and that the audience is passive. None of this is true. On the AskEdM hashtag Miliband was trolled for the entire hour by the vast majority of tweeters who asked ‘questions’ which were variously irreverent, aggressive, ironic, cynical, laconic, violent, rude, hilaroius and outrageous. Examples of tweets included, “Have you ever worn the missus’ knickers to a big debate? You know, just for luck”; and: “If you organised a Tweetle Beetle battle with paddles in a puddle would it be a Tweetle Beetle paddle puddle battle muddle?”. There were quite literally thousands of tweets like this during the hour and they comprised the vast majority of the ‘conversation’ with those taking it seriously being in a tiny minority
I believe there is a major issue when those actors accustomed to centralised communicative networks enter non-centralised ones where the signal is no longer unidirectional and is subject to feedback. Such actors simply don’t know how to handle this new reality, after all their entire practice has been built for an altogether different understanding of communication. Meanwhile their piety, personas and (un)ideological politics have come to be seen as little more than a topic for comedy - thus potentially catalysing the fundamental abandonment of the ‘political’, which they and their institutions have hitherto monopolized, as the locus of change. The mask falls.
There is I believe an attendant and embryonic ideology that accompanies such an abandonment of any centrality or belief in the state as the locus of the political ‘good life’. This in turn signifies a move away from the twin ideologies of the 19th century; liberal nationalism and labour-based socialism. One also observes a move away from the party form and indeed political institutions as we understand them. Such an ideology seems built on an understanding that social production can have a tenable basis beyond the state and beyond the market - given that such a political settlement within those parameters is never going to be on offer one consequently observes an aversion to demands in the post-GFC social movements after 2008 that emanate from within such networks. As Californian students write in ‘Communique from an Absent Future’,
“…the Greek uprising of December 2008 broke through many of these limitations and marked the beginning of a new cycle of class struggle… as in France it was an uprising of youth, for whom the economic crisis represented a total negation of the future. Students, precarious workers, and immigrants were the protagonists…they made almost no demands…not because they considered this a better strategy, but because they wanted nothing that any of these institutions could offer. Here content aligned with form.”
In another statement to emanate from the Californian student movement of 2009 ‘We Demand Nothing’ one sees the recapitulation of such sentiments,
“…from Chino to Paris, Australia to Athens, New York to San Francisco, these are only a sample of revolts worldwide that have increasingly given up on the desire to “demand something.” To the bourgeois press, the lack of demands is conceived of as a symptom of irrationality, a certain madness or pathology that plagues the disenfranchised. To the radical left, the absence of demands is seen as political immaturity, a naïve rage that can only exhaust itself in short bursts. But to those who’ve shared such deeds together, to those who’ve seen their demands become the means of their own suffocation, such a trend is a welcome sign of things to come….(a) struggle without demands is a strike at the level of language. By refusing the accepted form of presenting disagreements, the meaning and justification of the action becomes internal to its presentation. But not as immediately “symbolic” or “gestural”, rather it is mediated by all those things which make up alienated life: commodities, property, police, money, labour. The critique of existing society becomes not a verbal cry for a better world but a mute rejection of the entirety of this one”.
Instead of seeing the lack of a programme(s) from these global movements as a failure to articulate a coherent critique, one should perhaps instead understand them as a ‘strategy of refusal’ at the level of language that instead seek to reproduce contentious forms of collective action in a memetic and qualitatively new way that is initially difficult to comprehend. As the New York feminist communique “Why She Doesn’t Give a Fuck About Your Insurrection” explains in 2008,
“…no leader, no demands, no organization, but words, gestures, complicities. To be nothing socially is not a humiliating condition, the source of some tragic lack of recognition (to be recognized: but by who?), but on the contrary is the precondition for maximum freedom of action.”
A year later and once more in California students wrote,
“…without a particular demand, no mediation can be made to pacify them, no politics are possible to manage the dispute; “not” having a demand is not a lack of anything, but a contradictory assertion of one’s power and one’s weakness. Too weak to even try and get something from those who dominate proletarian life, and simultaneously strong enough to try and accomplish the direct appropriation of one’s life, time, and activity apart from mediation.”
I do not believe that such statements are negative. Instead I see them as the basis of autonomous, prefigurative projects that seek genuine forms of self-government, but more then that, fuller understandings of life. These are not civic movements, they are movements which are based around people and their immediate material, psychological and libidinal needs - this has very little to do with a ‘thicker’ understanding of citizenship as already understood or invocations to the politically powerful to do better.
The relationship between distributed networks of communication, qualitatively new forms of collective action that resemble P2P, memetics and the aversion by these new movements based on direct action towards any demands from political actors is not a coincidence. While it is the various grievances of the GFC; unemployment, inflation, foreclosure and debt which has catalysed such action one can also identify something very new at work, movements based on distributed networks which understand the irrelevance of political actors who have built their power for a different communicative, geographical and industrial paradigm. Furthermore these post-GFC movements view national/ institutional political actors as ideologically vacuous and within the context of global governance and the ascent of global finance capital practically impotent.
All of this is articulated in a feminist communique from Baltimore that sought to constructively criticize the 2011 American Occupy movement more generally and Occupy Baltimore in particular,
“We’re not asking for better wages or a lower interest rate. We’re not even asking for the full abolition of capital, there’s no one to ask.”
In the printed version of the same document this is changed to,
“We’re not asking for better wages or a lower interest rate. We’re not even asking for the full abolition of capital, because we know that whatever’s next will be something we make, not something we ask for.”
Implicit in the text is a recognition that public office holders at the level of the nation state no longer exercise either governmental nor communicative power and that any prospective politics that supplants such actors will be something ‘we make’. There is not just a practical/ political vacuum to fill but embryonic within the form of such movements, built on distributed as opposed to centralised forms of collective action there is a latent ideology waiting to supplant the old ones. These movements, when at their best, criticise the old world in content and advocate a new one in form - hence no demands.
Where is your research into the changing nature of social movements, political contention, and the network society, you currently taking to with regard to aesthetics and political communication? Perhaps to narrow down the question, could we invite you here to criticize memes for a bit?
It is evident that informational abundance increasingly seems to permit non-state, non-market forms of production. We see this more in the P2P economy with Wikipedia, the Pirate Bay and AAAAARG.ORG to name a few, the overall impact of these actors being observably deflationary on the economy. It has been estimated that open source annually destroys around $60 bn in revenues for the proprietary software sector. Even as P2P networks and Open Source forms of production creates an explosion of use or utility value it simaltaneously destroys large swathes of exchange value, and the areas into which such production norms are set to expand such as 3D printing and open-source forms of manufacturing means that this phenomenon is moving far beyond merely software and the production of information. Here the creation of surplus utility value can no longer be understood to correlate to increased rates of return for capital nor increased wages for labour, the whole notion of value and of what constitutes a ‘productive asset’ is now under attack. The entire relationship between utility value and exchange value as previously understood is possibly attenuated.
More broadly the move to distributed networks for collective action seems to dismantle orthodox assumptions inherited from Olsonian rational choice theory and this has implications for social and economic production. This is nowhere more evident then with contentious forms of collective action and social movements. After all, social movements explicitly aim at contentious manifestations of collective action, be it the strike, the occupation, the riot or even, in more tranquil settings, reading groups that are centred around particularly heterodox, heretical or subversive texts or rituals. If we accept that collective action is transformed by the increased ubiquity of distributed networks within the network society and a distinct move away from centralised ones with unilinear channels that previously encouraged more non-participatory practice we might also accept that such change neccesitates a fundamental re-examination of the social movement. The role of the meme within the increasingly ubiquitous distributed networks of everyday conversation and coordination is important here and the production and reproduction of memes at an increased velocity compared to even a decade ago means we may be at the beginning of a seismic shift in how community, identity and subjectivity are understood, internalised and acted upon.
But what is a social movement one might ask?
Mario Diani maintains that social movements are a ‘distinct social process’ consisting of the mechanisms through which actors engage in contentious collective action, these being;
(a) An involvement in conflictual relations with clearly identified opponents. Social movement actors engage in political and/or cultural conflicts that are meant to promote or oppose social change. This meanings an oppositional relationship between disputing actors, who seek control of certain resources or political, economic, or cultural power (Tilly 1978; Touraine 1981: 80–4).
(b) Links through dense informal networks. One can understand such networks as differentiating social movement processes from the innumerable instances in which collective action takes place and is coordinated, mostly within the boundaries of specific organizations (Della Porta, Diani, 2006).
( c) A distinctive and voluntarily shared collective identity. Social movements should not be understood as merely the sum of protest events on certain issues, or even of specific campaigns that sometimes characterize movements with many heterogeneous elements. On the contrary, a social movement process is in place only when collective identities develop, which go beyond specific events and initiatives (Della Porta, Diani, 2006).
To these one might add that social movements can also be based around shared protest repertoires or an agreed set of protest repertoires, although is not always the case.
What then is a meme? A meme should be understood as a symbolic packet that travels easily across large and diverse populations because it is easy to imitate, adapt personally and share with others. Dawkins understands memes as network building and bridging units of social information transmission similar to genes in the biological sphere . As the current cycle of anti-austerity struggle progresses it seems that memetics increasingly appears to offer compelling explanatory power in understanding episodes of contention that are undertaken with little centralised coordination and very few resources. The greatest example of this hitherto was the global mobilization of political protest on October 15th 2011 when demonstrators rallied across the world in some 951 actions in 82 countries. All of this took place with limited resources, in a short time-frame and with minimal involvement from institutional actors.
If one accepts the premise that ideas, symbols and practices are culturally disseminated through memes, then memetics will obviously prove to exercise an impact on how successful social movements prove to be. If what is required is a shared identity, a shared political antagonism and informal networks then contentious ‘connective’ action mobilized through the production and reproduction of memes within distributed networks neccesitates a fundamental rethinking of social movements over the coming period.
If what is required for a social movement is a shared identity, political antagonism, informal networks and a particular set of protest ‘repertoires’ (tactics) then it is possible to understand social movements as sets of memes revolving around these four variables. Within centralised networks, memes can be inhibited from reproducing with relative ease. After all access to communicative ‘channels’ are limited by high costs of entry to most people and when such groups actively seek proprietory ownership of them the cost of entry is almost always prohibitively high. This ensures that most people within centralised information networks have limited access to new memes (as either ideas or practices) and they subsequently feel compelled to resort to ‘legitimate’ channels of centralised media, offline discussion with friends, minor political parties, or at best a local radical bookshop or cafe where they might organise and discuss around issues of immediate relevance to their own lives. For those who did decide to organise within this paradigm such as within radical political parties or social movement organisations, what frequently happens is that the desire to gain sufficient organisational resources to capture such channels frequently meant that they neglected their founding mission and succumbed to the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ - mission drift. Failing that general tendency such organisations rarely accumulated sufficient organisational resources to ‘compete’ with better-resourced private interests or the state apparatus.
The reproduction of memes as either ideas or practice within this prior context was very difficult and could at best be only locally organised (although there are of course notable exceptions as some groups did manage to accumulate sufficient resources to take on the state such as the Spanish CNT in 1936 and the Russian left before 1917). Consequently the memetic reproduction of the social movement was highly problematic to catalyse and was either dependent upon those organisations with their own (counter)channels (such as political parties) or emergent and unforseen ‘episodes’ which very rarely could do much more than momentarily disrupt power such as Mai ‘68, the Italian factory occupations of 1920 or the Paris Commune of 1870. The transmission of ideas, counter-identities and critique was nearly impossible to convey to large numbers of people at low cost and required access to prohibitively expensive channels in order to achieve at a larger level. This is completely transformed in distributed networks with near-zero costs of entry to information and coordination.
The occupy movement(s) and the tactics of square occupations have been memetically reproduced, as has a particular identity, set of grievances and political antagonism against an identifiable enemy. While all the partcipant groups within it are heterogeneous, there are identifiable genealogies of practice, symbols and increasingly ideology that can be extricated from Tahrir and the Spanish 15m movement to the Israeli J14 and finally the Occupy movement. Likewise one can identify certain memes in student movements across the globe in both symbol and practice - this is the case with a broad critique against the ‘corporate university’ in Chile, France, Greece, Italy, the UK, the US and Canada but also in ‘tactics’, from the occupations to the use of paintbombs or the book bloc which was memetically reproduced in rapid succession on the streets of Rome, London, Santiago, Manchester, Bogota, San Francisco, Paris and Berlin.
My impression is that these are merely the beginnings of much larger events and movements headed our way. Social movements as assemblages of identities, practices and rituals and have always been memetically reproduced, the point of online and distributed networks means that this now happens far more quickly and frequently to far greater numbers of people. Furthermore such mimesis tends to not know borders and has a very low cost of entry, thereby completely challenging the old formal principle that access to memetic production and reproduction was nearly exclusively the realm of powerful oligopolies whose favoured informational model was one of scarcity.
The changes one will observe with how the distributed network impacts the existing social and political apparatus through its impact on memes and memetic reproduction might prove as big as those it affected the last time the ‘software’ changed with the rise of typographic print and the printing press. Then too memetic reproduction of symbols and practice qualitatively sped up with the consequences being the Reformation, the nation-state, scientific rationalism and the formation of the modern public sphere as we understand it. We are only at the beginning of our own seismic shift however and we should bear in mind that after the arrival of the printing press the first pornographic novels came about within a few years, while the first scientific journals took a little over a century. What is clear is that the initial articulations of social movements within the distributed networks of the network society seem to be mobilized around a qualitative ‘speeding’ of memes as ideas and symbols to before - the implications and the attendant ideologies of what these movements may come to be is as not yet fully clear (although one can most certainly identify what they are not). What we do know is that we have a new ecology of production for informational and increasingly, non-informational goods and that this ecology is yet to have its own articulated ideology and fully understand the politics latent within it.
You are yourself involved in political protest against the current UK government. The UK appears to be a forefront theatre where workfare, “Big Society” astroturf, the Olympics, haute finance, poverty, social media monitoring, and general social exploitation have somehow all struck together in what Mark Fisher has referred to (paraphrasing) as a neoliberal therapy to electroshock the neoliberal programme back into life. Do you think memes could help a massive popular movement gain traction directed against running the country and society in this way? If so, what would be needed for such memes to become really massively popular without losing their critical content? (and perhaps not even on their own, but in combination with new forms of social organizing).
In light of the previous answer I think that the transformation we are seeing in collective action both contentious and otherwise and its relationship to memetics means that the changes underway are far bigger then bringing down any single government or prime minister. The implications that memetics will exercise upon culture, identity and community within the network society are beyond our comprehension and our ambitions as both activists and intellectuals should equally extend beyond reacting to a particular government’s policies and contemplate the bigger picture - it is only by doing that we might begin to set the agenda rather than persisting in being reactive to it. As Dan Hind has recently written, for the first time in several centuries we have ‘a world to win’ so to speak.
That said, capitalist realism as a cultural logic to neo-liberalism is fundamentally dependent upon the old informational model. While neoliberalism represents a highly networked mode of capitalism with just-in-time distribution and the globalisation of commodity chains it was accompanied by non-networked labour which for the last several decades has been singly unable to fight back, hindered by its own anachronistic organisational forms and norms as well as national boundaries. What we see with the rise of distributed networks of popular communication is those networks of before being extended beyond the production process - this has negative externalities as well, the ‘social factory’ hypothesis for instance as well as consumer surveillance of individuals who use social networking sites - but fundamentally the extension of networks beyond the production process poses more problems in the form of the problem of the destruction of exchange value (as previously stated), falling rates of profit because of the increase of the ‘moral depreciation’ of fixed capital assets consequent to Moore’s law and most importantly the issue of a ‘post-industrial’ (un)prolateriat finaly having a means by which to socially organise and reproduce itself, possibly without recourse to previously neccesary market or state mechanisms.
One sees a cultural crisis with the move from centralised networks that previously maintained ideological orthodoxy and sense of social inertia (which Mark Fisher with refers to under the rubric of capitalist realism) to more distributed ones. When one talks about such centralised networks one is referring to the newspaper (primarily the tabloid) and broadcast media. Both embody a one-to-many principle and find themselves increasingly influential during the second half of the 20th century. Ultimately these medias along with publishing houses and the near omnipresence of commercial advertising in public space came to influence a cultural logic of postmodernity (Jameson) that was an ideological analogue for the economic reality of late capitalism (Mandel) or semiocapitalism (Bifo). What was utterly essential then to the zeitgesit of capitalist realism, postmodernity and the economic project of neo-liberalism was an increased tightening of political discourse correlative with the breaking down of previously strong organised labour movement(s). The tabloid form is central with twin logics of piety and cynicism, irony being being the abiding logic of postmodernism as late capitalist culture for Jameson as is the ‘media mogul’ (Murdoch in the UK, US and Australia, Berlusconi in Italy) who is quite simply, the personification of a system that moves increasingly towards oligarchy.
This previously supreme production model of information and political conversation was crucial to the neoliberal project from 1973 (the petroleum crisis) until 2008 (the GFC). The problem for the ruling class is that the centralised model no longer seems to have sufficient power to ideologically revivify the project of neoliberalism for electorates once more after the great collapse four years ago thus re-rendering its ideological hegemony. Quite simply in distributed networks of communication and coordination people can very quickly learn that there ARE alternatives, an abundance of them.
However just because ‘their’ old networks of communicative power are no longer sufficiently powerful to ensure the same levels of ideological hegemony as before, this obviously does not equate to them losing political power. While the adoption of centralised networks of communication is diminishing, it is clear that the adoption of distributed and decentralised ones has not yet reached a sufficiently critical point whereby public deliberation can be said to be informed within such networks. Indeed we are only just at the beginning and the first natives to be engaging with primarily distributed networks in how they access information are under ten years old. Already however we have seen its power in college and university students and the most recent cohort of ‘graduates without a future’ who graduated from university in the aftermath of the global financial crisis which began in 2008.
What we are presented with at the present moment is a break down in reality management by the powerful, contemporaneous with a massive and ongoing economic recession/ depression. Simaltaneous with that we see a new informational model for reproducding social and economic life as well facilitating conversation and coordination that is not yet sufficiently adopted to assume the mantle. Furthermore this new informational model has productive norms anathema to those of the previous one, particularly on issues of property rights, and on basic principles of information censorship and mediation - this will intensify and quite possibly lead to the increased criminalisation of certain P2P practices central to the new model.
We are only just witnessing the genesis of these changes at the moment and I would hesitate to discuss as to how memes and distributed networks might only facilitate popular resistance(s) against the neo-liberal, capitalist realist ancien regime as I think the dynamics at work are far greater than that.
However, one can perhaps draw a slight variation on the question you initially asked, “… in the interim period how effective will memes be in undermining those governments who can no longer sufficiently manage reality?”
While the emergent networks increasingly permit the disruption of information flows within the still (barely) hegemonic and centralised communicative paradigm of before - it is not clear how the old models in an increasingly intensified period of transition will respond. With regards to the memetic reproduction of social movements during this interregnun UKuncut, an anti-austerity group/network of activists in the UK offer an interesting example.
On their homepage UkUncut write,
“On October 27th 2010, just one week after George Osborne announced the deepest cuts to public services since the 1920s, around 70 people ran down Oxford Street entered Vodafone’s flagship store and sat down. We had shut down tax-dodging Vodafone’s flagship store…At that point, UK Uncut only existed as #ukuncut, a hashtag someone had dreamed up the night before the protest. As we sat in the doorway, chanting and handing leaflets to passers by, the hashtag began to trend around the UK and people began to talk about replicating our action. The idea was going ‘viral’. The seething anger about the cuts had found an outlet. Just three days later and close to thirty Vodafone stores had been closed around the country.”
The claim that UKUncut was ‘just a hashtag’ was, although humble, fundamentally incorrect. After the first action UKUncut already possessed the elements to become a social movement capable of imitation and reproduction. To briefly recapitulate Diani’s four neccesary variables for a social movement; Firstly, it had a shared identity of participants, British taxpayers or those opposed to tax avoidance and who favoured progressive general taxation as the fairest way of funding collective forms of health and work insurance as well as education and elderly care. Secondly, it had isolated a point of political antagonism and an ‘enemy’ - multinational companies and high net worth individuals who sought to avoid tax or minimize costs of tax through clandestine (albeit legal) means. Thirdly, it had the ability through online platforms such as Twitter to disseminate through informal networks very quickly. Fourthly, its chosen tactic of protest - closing down high street outlets of tax-avoiding multinationals such as Vodafone and Boots - was easily replicable on any British high-street.
One can easily isolate the areas that rendered UKUncut a social movement so appropriate for memetic reproduction. The costs of entry were low and hence high participation resulted. Furthermore the ease with which to replicate such action, antagonism and shared identity meant that UKUncut was, without the initial participants perhaps recognising it, the perfect example of how a social movement as meme might go ‘viral’.
While this phenomenon has been replicated again with actions such as those of the ‘Boycott Workfare’ campaign/group/meme, the most interesting development of memetic reproduction and contentious collective action since UKuncut and apart from the ‘Occupy’ movement (which is only really interesting as a global meme, as opposed to more nationally-specific one) has been the English riots. These riots to my mind exemplified the distributed network (more so than UKuncut as they were using SMS, BBM and mobile GSM networks as much as social media networks which have client-server ‘decentralised’ networks). As with UKUncut one saw a memetic reproduction of antagonisms and actions (looting, arson, fighting the police) that occurred within a very short turnaround (one night) among strangers with sense of shared identity/ antagonism across large distances. The media in their typically haphazard way referred to the riots as ‘copycat’ riots - but working on the basis of memetics all forms of collective action are to an extent ‘copycat’, new distributed channels merely intensify and qualitatively speed this process up. The police simply could not handle what were large groups of people organised along the lines of affinity groups of 5-15 which then congregated to make flexible, amorphous groups of several hundred or several thousand at a time. The basis of the riots, how they organised and how quickly they started doing what they did was a glimpse of truly distributed networks - the hierarchical client-server organisation of the police could simply not compete.
This interview was conducted by e-mail on March 23, 2012.
Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics by Metahaven is published by Strelka Press, the publishing wing of Strelka Institute in Moscow. Cover design by OK-RM.