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The Meme is Dead! Long Live the Meme!

May 13, 2010

The thesis of the last post is somewhat self-servingly reinforced by the fact that it was only half the post I meant it to be. To articulate one point more explicitly: when one communicates, one is conversing with the audience on two channels. The first is the explicit, nominal level of straightforward discussion of the ideas that the exchanged words are actually concerning, while the second level is the more subtle dialogue on the subject of what the communicator is trying to get the audience to think of that communicator as a person, thinker, artist, whathaveyou. In that sense, whereas I emphasized the failure of attention devoted to the person-to-person relationships that are affected by Internet-age communication, what probably should be more interesting in the hyper-speedy Internet age is the resultant effect on the message itself. After all, any respectable audience will still evaluate the speaker-qua-speaker by assessing the quality in the actual message, not just the grandiloquent diction used to communicate that message (even though that stylistic level of analysis exists independent and apart from the content).

When it comes to art and communication in their own right, the dangers of losing sight of the substantive message in the new media are real, if somewhat benign. Message denigration seems especially likely when the degree of audience participation dictates that not everyone can actually engage in the substantive dialogue, and instead participates through either sheer repetition (e.g., linking without the commentary) or meta-commentary and sarcasm (e.g., commenting “FIRST!”). Which is why so much internet content is so post-modern and meta. Think of the RickRoll, exclaiming “WIN” or “FAIL,” Keyboard Cat, or any other meme. Memes may be democratic and participatory, but only really add cultural value on the level of what the participant is saying about themselves and their ability (at best) to recontextualize the same content. The content itself is usually just a vehicle for self-acknowledgment as a communicator rather than an independent instance of art or worthwhile thought, which makes sense given the genetic and evolutionary roots of the term meme. And with poetic similarity to their analogous evolutionary traits, communicative memes necessarily expend themselves through repetition and overuse until achieving the maladapted states of boredom and passé.

On this point, Joe Randazzo, editor of The Onion, has published an earnest plea for the death of the meme, and it’s one worthy of serious consideration by anyone who finds humor in the mere fact of citation.

What used to be an amusing byproduct of Internet use has mutated into something horrible: an insatiable parasite that impairs its host’s judgment, rendering it totally useless. Instead of acting as an organic cultural touchstone, the modern meme — from LOL, which hasn’t been used to signify physical laughter since 1997, to Lolcats — now sucks the joy out of our interconnectedness. It destroys uniqueness. Once an “enjoyable thing” becomes a “meme,” we stop enjoying the thing for its own sake, but consume and regurgitate our enjoyment of it as a symbol of hipness, as if to say: “I am aware of this thing’s popularity — therefore I, too, exist!”

That the mere democratic cognizance of an idea in a debate is tantamount to acknowledging its inherent validity is particularly relevant in the context of the radically increasingly populistic political landscape America faces.  That is why many politicians have been very effective in their choices to rouse the rabble in a surge of anti-elitism and thereby communicate that they are aligned with the disenfranchised electorate and not the real establishmentarian power holders (even when the explicit rhetoric is entirely nonsensical).

There is, however, another way to look at the worldwide surge of populism. The real problem of traditional elites may not be too much power, but too little. The lack of trust in political elites is linked to a suspicion, which is not entirely irrational, that elected governments have little authority. The real power, people suspect, is lodged elsewhere – on Wall Street, in the unelected EU bureaucracy, in the Royal Thai Army and the Royal Palace.

These politicians have cast their lot with these Sarah Palin-supporting, anti-elitist Tea Party Jacobins in an effort to ride the tide of populism to electoral success.  But how long can the mob support any one demagogue in the face of such radical democratization of power?

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

[W]e need to see it as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

That undeserved sense of self-importance combined with the playing field-leveling democratic revolution overtaking the media is ushering in a whole new era of meme: one that I would call “the political meme.”  The political meme stands for the set of forces that create momentum for a given cause or candidate on the basis of its allure to individuals seeking a political position that can justify their preferred consequences.  That individual then does not have to validate or verify the political meme’s claims; the individual need only cite the meme and then ironically declare all detractors “biased.”  As discussed above, their political purposes aren’t to say anything in terms of the actual policy or merits of the debate.  Rather, they only seek to say something about themselves and their preferences, and take the intermediate step of identifying some idol or rallying call that serves to validate of the given preference.  But since all humans are mortal–and political causes doubly so–these political memes will die out soon enough after the fever pitch of attention and scrutiny exposes enough glaring inconsistencies and discomfort as to move the factions onto their next idol.  Perhaps in the long run, there is wisdom in crowds.

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