Of course one can’t really be against memes, because it would do no good. It’s not like they can be voted off the internet island. But there are a few reasons to be suspicious. While cats worldwide are no doubt thrilled at the digital attention they always knew they deserved, humans, and especially labour and social justice activists, might have reason to be wary of the meme.
First, it’s important to recognize the origins of the idea itself. In his pathbreaking 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Oxford geneticist Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of a mimeme (or “meme”) as a way of explaining his interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. For Dawkins, genes, rather than individual organisms, are in a constant selfish battle for survival. Successful genes give their carriers certain advantages that allow them to survive, breed and pass on their genes. Dawkins wanted to explain how this same process (“universal Darwinism”) worked in other spheres of life and so coined the term “meme” as a thought-experiment to illustrate how “viral” ideas compete for our attention and our mental real estate, and get passed from person to person and down through the ages. Dawkins’s idea, in today’s terms, “went viral” and over the next few decades the idea of the meme became mainstream.
Partly this was thanks to a popular misreading of Dawkins’s book as a biological explanation and justification for human selfishness, a very popular idea in a neoliberal age when we’re all supposed to imagine ourselves as would-be Donald Trumps ruthlessly competing on the merciless free market.
Whatever Dawkins’s intent, by the mid-’90s unscrupulous advertisers, public relations gurus, dotcom snake-oil salesmen and breathless corporate motivational speakers had embraced the meme as a way to understand branding: the way individuals associate their consumer behavior and identity with iconic images and slogans. In a postmodern age where all “grand narratives” were apparently dead or dying, and where entertainment and information was increasingly doled out in convenient bite-sized chunks, the idea of the “meme” itself became the meme of the decade. It spoke to the way nifty ideas, brand logos, styles of dress, figures of speech and even fashionable charities and political causes could ripple through an increasingly isolated and alienated society.
But corporate shills were not the only ones to seize upon the meme. As early as the late ’90s, the Vancouver-based anti-consumerism magazine Adbusters started to employ the term, suggesting that, in an age where the traditional Left seemed institutionalized, boring, whiny, and generally defeated, a new breed of “meme warriors” could wage guerrilla warfare against our corporate overlords through culture jamming and other acts of cultural and artistic subversion. In addition to hijacking advertisements, Adbusters launched a variety of campaigns based around catchy slogans and simple ideas aimed at piercing the fog of corporate culture and inspiring resistance. Some of these, like Buy Nothing Day and Occupy Wall Street, were extremely effective and caught on. Some, like the BlackSpot Sneaker (a fairly traded alternative to Nike) less so.
In spite of the rise to fame and notoriety by Adbusters, it’s worth pausing a moment to ask if “meme warfare” is really the way of the future. Can complex political ideas be expressed in 144 characters or in a jammed Starbucks ad? Are memes a “gateway drug” that can introduce disaffected digitally savvy youth to social movements where they might get hooked on more substantial and meaningful forms of activism? Adbusters itself tends to be relatively light on sustained and thorough analysis, and is often outright backwards on some complicated political issues like gender-based oppression, the scourge of racism, the intricacies of indigenous solidarity and the persistence of colonialism. But, then again, their meme-ish call for a convergence on Wall Street in 2011 kicked off one of the most important social movements of the decade.
Another group that has employed the meme, with what I think is much greater thoughtfulness, is the Oakland- and Boston-based SmartMeme, a collective of social movement educators and workshop facilitators who recently, in light of the association of memes with online pictures of cats who can’t spell asking for cheeseburgers, changed their name to The Centre for Story-based Strategy. This outfit works directly with unions, migrant rights organizations, environmental groups and other social justice movements to develop narratives of struggle. The process of arriving at these narratives helps groups frame their objectives and ambitions and also helps them express these to broader publics. This is vitally important, as all too often Leftist groups imagine that all they need to do is tell “the public” “the facts” and, magically, they will gain the support they seek. In reality, we are all confronting and combating a system of exploitation and oppression based, fundamentally, on the stories we tell ourselves and one another about who is valuable and who is worthless, what is normal and what is unacceptable, how things came to be this way and what sorts of change might be possible.
As memes become associated with snarky online micro-satires, and as the Left tries to imagine how to dive into the brave new world of contagious digital media, we need to keep our eyes on the prize. Memes in and of themselves transform neither individuals nor society. The radical imagination is not stimulated by clever slogans or cute images. Rather, people find the antidote to an alienating and oppressive capitalist culture and society in solidarity and person-to-person relations. While a meme might have initially brought some individuals to Wall Street for an occupation, they stayed, camped, got arrested, and came back because they experienced real human community, in contrast to their daily life of market-driven ennui. While the Idle No More movement had important social-media dimensions, it drew on and fought for a living spirit of resistance grounded in people’s bodies and communities.
I fear that the rise of memes will reinforce some the worst tendencies of the Left, especially the highly institutionalized Left like NGOs, political parties and unions, who are easily tempted to imagine that our ability to change the world is merely a matter of engineering better PR and more widely broadcasting our righteous message. Rather, memes will be useful to the extent they bring people together in creating new forms of meaningful solidarity. That also requires person-to-person organizing and the long, hard work of building alliances. And that dance, in reality, hasn’t changed much in 10,000 years, though much of today’s Left has forgotten the steps. Solidarity is the original social media and there’s a world of difference between a raised digital thumb and a raised actual fist.