This post originally appeared on Lenin’s Tomb.
Memes are an interesting way in which people appropriate mass culture seemingly for their own ends – pictures taken from movie stills, stolen photographs, domestic cat pictures, or crude sketches, fixed to a slogan that is either cute, snarky, ironical, or emetically sentimental. The ways in which these work politically are complex, but particularly where sentiment is involved, a simple Barthesian analysis, with all its limitations, can be sufficient to indicate the dominant tendency. This is a particularly irritating example:
The logic of this image is profoundly ideological (Islamophobic, imperialist, chauvinist, etc), but in what way? It isn’t obvious, but nor is it concealed. There is no smoke screen. The ideology works by chains of connotation.
In and of itself, this image depicts a well-known ‘ex-Muslim’ neoconservative, who has participated in racist reaction in the Netherlands before joining the US right, next to a particularly banal sentiment that one assumes she has uttered at some point. Putting it more kindly, and in the light it is intended to be seen in, it shows a woman who has been raised as a Muslim and described her suffering due to a particular type of religious dogma, articulating a lapidary defence of secular liberal virtues. She has a dignified comportment and dress, a handsome face (yes, it shouldn’t matter, but…) and an intelligent expression. That’s the literal signification, or denotation.
The connotative signification goes something like this:
“Muslims are violently intolerant, a threat to liberal values of religious toleration going back to Locke. To refuse to acknowledge this and take the appropriate measures (kulturkampf), or to dispute it in any serious way, is to defer to a politically correct consensus that denies reality in the name of polite anti-racism. And what better answer to the politically correct brigade than this black woman who has experienced the worst practices of Muslims, who was raised Muslim and knows the threat that Islam poses in detail? Surely she is the one defending Western values, while their historical champions, liberal intellectuals, capitulate to obscurantism and reaction!”
As I say, nothing is concealed – everything is there in the open. The image works, rather, by establishing a myth, and naturalising the ideology it articulates. That is, if the signification of the image is accepted by its intended myth-consumer, it establishes an apparently natural link between the literal signification and the connotative signification. If read critically, the connotations begin to dissolve: one notices that tolerance is not an obvious, but a contested term; that Hirsi Ali’s idea of waging cultural war against Islam (banning Muslim schools, going to war, etc) has at the very least a dubious claim to tolerance; that the Islam she remonstrates and mobilises against is a static, essentialised, literalised, homogeneous bloc which by no means coincides with the complex, contested families of meanings and practices that one actually encounters as Islam; that the political forces she has allied herself with and supported aren’t even allies of liberal virtue, or Enlightnment in its real, historical sense; that the ‘West’ itself is every bit as dubious a concept as ‘the white race’, onto which it largely maps; and so on.
But the ideal consumer doesn’t read critically. S/he absorbes the whole mythological chain of meanings attached to the image, and thus absorbes a racist, belligerent ideology in pseudo-progressive get-up. It is exactly like an advertisement in its logic. One looks at Kate Moss advertising eye mascara; her indifferent, made-up visage, gazing at the consumer against a backdrop of swirling blacks and reds. The image connotes rebelliousness, power, sexuality, self-control and presence, both in terms of the colour scheme and fonts and the well-known back story of the ‘troubled’ model. There is no concealment of the advertisement’s meaning. The literal meaning (here is a beautiful model who is advertising her line of make-up) is as explicit as the mythical meaning (possessing this make-up gives one the presence, social power and independence of Kate Moss!). The connection between the two is naturalised, as are a chain of profoundly ideological, contested ideas – like ‘beauty’ for example, or like the idea that a woman’s worthiness for attention and power are contingent on her identifying at a symbolic level with the male gaze. Memes in this sense, and of this type, are advertisements for a usually dominant ideology, circulated voluntarily through social media, as unpaid labour.
There are a host of other examples I could have picked; one sees dozens daily. Earlier today, I saw a popular one: an image of a ‘poppy’ represented as a stainless steel lapel pin, with a banner slogan on it – “try burning this”. It was obviously a defiant, ironical retort to those Islamist desperadoes who (treason! infamy!) reportedly burned poppies a couple of years ago. And I believe the chain of connotations attached to this image are just as obvious, as is the reactionary ideology that the image reinforces. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of images like this colonizing the internet. One senses that in the rise of memes, the dissident, subversive possibilities are more than compensated for by their potential role as a new technique of governmentality made possible by social media.