Memes, Facebook’s Moral Relativism . . . Pre-Linguistic Westerners

What I am noticing, increasingly, on social media, Facebook in particular, I guess, is the that people too lazy to think, or take the time to write out two or three sentences, will resort to posting “memes”. This seems to be a cottage industry now. The second part of the meme phenomenon has to do with moral relativism, and psychic disconnect. Erasure of empathy, really.

“Meme “was a word coined by Richard Dawkins I believe, back in the ’80s, to describe how ideas spread or metastasized through societies, or sub categories of society. I’m not here to write a history of internet meme evolution, but to suggest that the posting of memes, those already created for you, is suggestive of intellectual atrophy, and that the entire construct of social media lends itself to this form of non communication, Memes are manipulation. Now, it’s worth noting that the majority of memes are “cute kitten” type memes, as Ethan Zuckerman has written about here: “The Cute Cat Theory ….”

Now there is an activist purpose, as Zuckerman explores, and the comparison between these purposes (kitten kitsch and political action) is worth examining. In a few, pretty narrow, contexts, political dissent travels by meme. Screen shots are used, or Google map images, or borrowed media of the sorts and Zuckerman’s description of Chinese bloggers creativity is pretty cogent — because China DOES block Human Rights Watch, but not ordinary web 2.0. What is stunning in this is that the Chinese, by necessity almost, are politicized, while the US public is encouraged to wallow in their own smugness and ignorance. Michael Anti, who Zuckerman quotes, was a Chinese blogger (now a Nieman fellow) who was shut down by the Chinese govt., points out that the Chinese traded political freedom, for personal freedoms.  It’s not the picture, certainly, one gets in the West of those horrid Commie censors. But it is fascinating to consider the US as now the most totalitarian and repressive country in the world. If not at the top, it’s in the top four.  This becomes about appearances in a sense. NGOs are  not subversive anyway, and really more a tool of the state than anything else. A political band aid to quell or contain dissent from spilling over into revolution. But back to memes…and their effects. The red/pink equal sign and its embrace as a symbol for marriage equality. Joel Penny has written about it here: ViralPoliticsBlog

But see, what I find interesting is the idea that its not pathological to think of visual identity at all. What does that mean? Changing your profile picture is “more” than just a simple post, says Penny. Is it? I mean I’d argue its likely less. It’s also, again, infantile. It is dressing up a persona as if it were a political act. This is one of the core issues here. Now, as I’ve spent all morning, well, two or three mornings, reading media specialists:  Clay Shirker, and Zuckerman, Jay Rosen, and Dan Gilmor. And what strikes me about the manufacture of memes, is that it’s corporate, like most everything. And with the exception of Gilmor perhaps, there is a tacit belief in a world mediated by electronic technology, and not serious critique of the effects of that mediation. The “Harlem Shake” story is the perfect example. From George Miller and DJ Rodrigues  (by way of Albert Rucker two decades back), the cogent part of this is Maker Studios in Los Angeles … who are, as they describe themselves on their web page:

“Entertainment is changing. Millennials are living a mobile, social, on-demand life. Maker is the #1 producer and distributor of online video to this diverse, tech-savvy group attracting 4.5 billion+ monthly views and 340 million+ subscribers. Home to online video’s top digital stars, channels and content, Maker is dedicated to developing talent, creating premium programming, and building lasting brands with engaged audiences.
This is the culture of distraction, and the business of distraction. And as Dan Gilmor writes,

” The technology may have changed, but the money still flows the same way: to creators of contracts not creators of content.”

The attention economy, the harvesting of time and attention, and the homogenizing of consciousness. Now, there is another aspect to all this, to the new rise of liberal or left memes on social media. Most are alarmist and exaggerated and manipulative. Most sample pop culture, from star trek to Disney cartoons or sometimes just iconic photos of Che or Fidel or Booker T. Washington, or Rasputin. It doesn’t matter. Then often there is a quote, but sometimes there is just someone else’s text inserted as narrative … so that Che is speaking the words of a Hollywood screenwriter. Or there are the animal torture memes. Emotionally manipulative, and often tacitly dishonest. Now, very often, and this is the biggest problem, very often the information IS correct. The point is politically supportable and morally supportable, but it carries its message via a corporate delivery system. And that taint, that curious shadow manipulation is palpable. And more to the point; it is another form of self branding in a sense. The red/pink equal sign as profile picture is NOT a political act. And posting memes about whale death or factory farming serves, perhaps, as a form of agitprop, but it also forms just a cog in the constant 24-hour a day cycle of image circulation. For a culture who forgets before it has even digested the information. It is just image fodder in the great tsunami of pointless crap that flows across your screen.  So that factory farming indictments are given the same emotional importance as lolcats.

The “lolcat” sub history is interesting, and also representative of a desire for the most dispersed and diffuse message possible. The anthropomorphizing trend in US entertainment, over all, is disturbing enough, but “lolcat” is a sort of distillation of the infantilization of the American public. But there are other echos here; boredom being one, but a social anxiety, too. There are countless YouTube videos on race, on hipster and geek culture, and most of it is framed in ways that make for easy circulation and comprehension.  And that means, self branded identity is a given. It also reduces the subject of racism and colonial history to a cute YouTube video of inoffensive race humor as a substitute for reading Fanon and Marx.

It takes all of ten minutes of internet searching to find articles on lolcats, and often by angry defenders of meme culture. Now, I find often that a generation bereft of real education has taken sampling, in and of itself, as somehow intellectually sufficient. That pop culture references or samples (lolcat imitating Spartacus or Forrest Gump) is, unto itself, a form of discourse. The problem is, this is also another class antagonism. Rich kids at exclusive Universities don’t do memes…usually. But they almost always are aware of them. So the class marker is what degree of irony you apply to the meme. How jaundiced your critique of lolcats. It is also the artificial creation of sub-divisions within classes. How many varieties of geek-nerd-hipster et al are really needed? The differences often come down to what kind of eyeglass frame you buy, and not even style, but brand, and price. Self created uniforms of acceptance exist in cyber space, too.

It is hard not to generalize on this subject, and easy to find almost limitless examples of crude racist and misogynist memes, you tube creations, and Flickr or twitter rants; and that’s hardly unexpected, but I think what troubles me more, is the sense of deadness emotionally, that I feel across the entire spectrum. How many petitions can one sign? Some are useful, most not. How many clicks of “like” can one exercise in support of ending animal testing for perfumes, or plastic bottles, or GM foods? All of which are supportable. I think food in plastic, in fact I think the entire packaging industry, is hugely under reported as problems go. But clicking “like” or ‘re-tweeting’, or putting up you tube scored montages of factory farming feels oddly disconnected. The world will slowly sink into a toxic floating radioactive plastic garbage patch, and as the putrid waters reach our fingers at the keyboard, only then, only when someone cant click “like” will the crisis feel real.

Now there is an entire more scholarly discussion to be had here, on semiotics and inter-titles in silent film, and the relationship to news coverage and slug lines in various media and on and on. And this is interesting stuff, but for my purposes here, I am more interested in the feeling I find I cant escape these days. The sense of horror I feel at a world in which compassion for sentient beings has shifted to preoccupation with memes about compassion, to put it reductively.  “I can haz compassion,” as it were.

The generalized autism that Debord mentioned seems increasingly the norm. The clinically non-affected begin to mimic autistic processing of information. The posting of memes seems only a trigger to group recognition, not to an expanding awareness of political and social issues. It is collective disassociation, a deadening of neural pathways I think; mental Novocaine. And it is ever more infantile. It is Teletubby rhetoric. It is an excuse not to type one paragraph. A few sentences, expressing how you feel. Expressing your opinion. And even that precludes dialogue. There is something about Facebook and social media that fosters aggression. It’s road rage on the information highway. And usually, people find it too much work to footnote themselves, or rightly attribute their sources. Well, memes take care of that. Without context, usually, and reduced to formula. There can be no real feeling in that. Genuine empathy requires reflection. It requires the time to locate that emotion, and to live with it, if only for a few seconds. But these days that seems asking too much. Things must be instant. Must be part of this manufactured “now” that exists 24/7.  The dissident uses of Twitter and meme creation in Egypt, and Tunisia, and maybe Ukraine or China in varying ways, is a quite different phenomenon. For the U.S. and most of the West today, the desire seems for a world as it is experienced by toddlers.

Almost pre-linguistic. And this sense of childishness has spilled over into writing on both left and right. Presentation of self. Cute, quirky, and funny. A bit like lolcat. Gravitas is so thirty minutes ago. Seriousness is eschewed in favor of glibness and brand.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He's had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.