Meme magic’s paranoid currents explored
In Walden, published in 1854, Henry Thoreau warned that the advent of worldwide communication networks might be filled with gossip and tittle-tattle. Referring to the electric telegraph he suggested, ‘We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.’ Leaving aside Thoreau’s naïve expectation that mediated information would reflect reality, it’s worth noting the implicit distinction between ‘good’ information and that which is superfluous and lacking significance. This reflects other later dichotomies: high culture/popular culture, rational/irrational, real/fake news, productive/wasteful. The distinction does not hold for every information consumer; for some, all details of human activity hold significance and portent. Fifty years before Walden, Abbé Baruel and John Robison perceived hidden hands behind the American and French revolutions: advocates of the Enlightenment and followers of the recently banned Illuminati of Adam Weishaupt. Like them, current conspiracy theorists make connections and mine information for its hidden meanings. So too does the millennialist, seeking signs of the coming of the end in all things, all data potentially contains the Truth. Their fears intermingle; in 1798 Robison wrote of Weishaupt and those in his ‘remarkable lodge of eclectic Masonry’ that they comprised a ‘seminary of Cosmo-politism’ and that Weishaupt ‘had long been scheming the establishment of an Association or Order, which, in time, should govern the world.’ The cosmopolitan new world order is an idea that continues to haunt the forces of tradition and reaction with the spectre of the NWO (New World Order) looming large in the fear-filled visions of right and left conspiracy theorists, frequently with anti-Semitic over- and undertones. To conspiracy theorists of the right the intermingling of cultures and ethnicity in a cosmopolitan global environment is the source of the haunting: #whitegenocide their paranoid apocalypse. For left conspiracy theorists, globalised capital – its logic and culture – threatens to dominate the globe and remake the world in its own image: the monotonous freedom to consume whilst labour, leisure, taste, habit, personal proclivities and all human activities are quantified and commodified until the future dissipates in entropic apocalypse. Global communications networks have given form to a global cosmopolitan (dis)order and provide access to an ever-increasing number of portals to information but with a decreasing capacity to trust or understand them.
It is a truism of the internet that there are no content quality filters. One of the concerns of traditional news media has been that without editorial control internet news outlets are free to circulate fake news and alternative facts. To be sure, the traditional controllers of information have always operated from behind an ideological curtain and the advent of an uncontrollable rabble of ‘citizen journalists’ has allowed them to consolidate the illusion of their own objectivity but to an ever-dwindling audience. The problem for them is that Thoreau seems to have been onto something in 1854, the public (or masses, or multitude depending on who is trying to claim us as ‘theirs’) seems to like the filterless world and are unconcerned that what they are consuming may not be based on fact, objectivity or even rationality at all. Search engines, porn, shopping and entertainment sites top the list of the world’s most popular websites. The public sphere, then, is as polluted as the globe if we wish to hold on to the old divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ information. Where opinions about what matters in identifying ‘the truth’ do persist and encounter each other they do so increasingly from within the echo chambers of self-determining and ideologically policed communities. To be sure, all communities self-regulate but we are seeing an increasing intolerance and discomfort with voices that challenge the established beliefs of the group. Five years ago, Mark Fisher sought a way out of the vampire’s castle and yet we seem to be deeper in its dungeons than ever. The supernatural metaphor is well chosen because there is a strong whiff of the zealotry of Puritanism about English-speaking online discourse regardless of its political leanings. Here the playing out of the USA’s own neuroses on a world stage assured to it through the hegemonic influence of its cultural industries is felt through all cultural assemblages that draw upon its reference points. (And there are few of us whose imaginations are not at least partly colonised and drawn into rendering glocal perspectives that are seen through Uncle Sam’s eyes.)
The centre-right commentator Damir Marusic returns to the idea that America is riven by a culture war. He points his readers to sociologist James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book and suggests ‘his point was that everything in America was suffused with a religious sense of mission — even spheres we might normally imagine are completely secularized’. As Richard Hofstadter warned in the 1950s and ‘60s, mission and belief feed millenarian visions and paranoid fears that the secret hand of the enemy is active in all things; all information is potentially meaningful whilst the truths of the community are sacred and unquestionable. The weaving of religiosity into modern national psyches is not an unfamiliar idea and the anthropologist Michael Taussig has written of the elliptical presence of magic in the state, its rituals and the bond that its subjects feel connecting them to the wider community. The sociologist Emile Durkheim identified shared religious convictions as tying a community together and reifying those common values whilst Emilio Gentile has written about the centrality of political religiosity in fascism. But what happens when cultural boundaries are rendered obsolete by global communications and connections transcend and subnavigate the state? In a networked society where are our subjective borders even if we observe them in any meaningful way anymore? And what happens to the intangible connections and energies incorporated into the groups of believers that make up a nation? Well, this is one of the futural crises that are washing away the modern humanist man who Foucault explained was just a temporary configuration of knowledge and values.
The proliferation of meanings and destabilisation of the national subject is undergoing a centrifugal tearing away from centres that no longer hold. White nationalists spiral off into new wired collectives, virtual nations of whiteness whilst progressive solidarities coalesce around #metoo or #blm. These communities are netbound but aware of informational power and the reterritorialized nature of networked subjectivities. In tying together their values and beliefs in hashtags and memes the netborn communities of reaction and progression unconsciously generate sigils of belonging and membership. Or, especially on the right, consciously celebrate the tribal magic that bonds them to one another. 4chan and 8chan use meme magic to render dispassionate discourse obsolete; however tongue-in-cheek, the communities rally around their magic, tribalism and god-emperor with meme magic histories and DIY instructions providing a holy book to the maybe-faithful. In the 8chan Bureau of Memetic Warfare a pinned post declares ‘We are presented with a state of affairs unique to history, an age of ideological memetic warfare in which the controlling principles of mankind are loosed to spread with no physical barriers.’
Do we live in a globalised society or a global network of fractional and fragmented communities? The right (alt or otherworse) have decided on the latter and have abandoned rationality in an environment of looming AI governmentality and blockchained accountability. There, what it is to be human is to be unreasonable, irreducible and irrational and to turn to pre-Enlightenment practices of magic, religion and the primacy of the tribe. This is a bleak and frightened response to a world of change: a retreat from and surrender to the complexity of the kind of subjective becoming that digital global capital demands of us. The alt-right have intuited the end of existing order and have used tactics of confusion and irrationality to build a wall made of conspiracy, paranoia, magic and memes around themselves. A gated community of meaning hardwired in networked sigils. To work against them, then, their infolding should be countered by an unfolding: a reclamation of the possibility of a future and a renewed demand for the impossible: Utopian visions that undo their paranoid dystopia.
Andrew Wilson is a senior lecturer in Sociology at Derby University with research interests in extreme forms of nationalism, marginalised beliefs, and conspiracy theory.