How Memes play an important role in changing the world
If you want to take somebody with you, show them where you’re going. Not Tennyson nor Sassoon can capture the horrors of war with their prose, no words can describe what it is to see a woman undress. This flat form is doomed to be upstaged by that command word, show. To witness the Sistine chapel is to be hypnotized, to see Braveheart was to be energized; that film won Scotland a parliament in two years, a goal the Scottish National Party could not achieve in sixty-three. To distill an idea into an image turns concepts into visions and makes the impossible seem achievable. The vision asks the soul to carry the body forward, and often leaves the brain behind.
Artistic visions underwrite enduring political projects. The popularity of Che Guevara against Fidel Castro instantiates our love of image, with every hipster shirt upon which Guevara lives as a Lazarus testifying to his deathless cause. That the necrotic remains of 20th-century totalitarianism survive in the minds of some, rather than none, can be blamed on romantic, or Soviet realism. Each frame – of film and picture – is hung on the hopes of those whose senses are overruled.
While century-old ideologies refuse to fade away, neoliberalism dies without a dirge. What did it look like? A red-faced David Cameron pumping up, the superficiality of Thomas Friedman, or the smoking ruins of a newly liberated Middle Eastern country. Or perhaps nothing at all. This thing which only communicated on the material level never won our hearts, we never dreamt of its unrequited life.
Our politics is too boring for art. Conditions are bad for art in the Academy too. Its preoccupation with politics, non-binary Joan of Arc, and tasteless offense on the fourth plinth leaves little energy for it. But energy cannot be destroyed, it can only be transferred, forced to the margins, and made the preserve of the outsider.
Today, amongst the most powerful ideas, and the art that makes them so, are memes. Their makers, when their visual messages diffuse into the real world are practicing something sometimes jokingly called ‘meme magic’. But going by Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic, “causing change to occur in conformity with Will,” the joking is only partial.
Memes are a form of art – it communicates on a higher register and transmits a signal to our eyes and ears. Memes also have a special advantage because we are exposed to them in a state of suggestion. When you’re scrolling through your Twitter feed, you are like an automaton, locked in system 1 thinking. This is the same mode in which you operate while driving: it’s why you can travel a great distance and have no recollection of the journey – yet your brain processed and acted on all the visual information it experienced in that black hole. You are acting on instinct, with your subconscious at the wheel. You’ll know how suggestible this can render you; if you’ve ever been in this condition and have been asked a question: you instinctively answer yes, only to then ask what the question was.
Meme magic manifested as a concept during the 2016 US presidential election. Supporters of then-candidate Trump found a mascot in the cartoon frog Pepe, a character from a 2005 comic, whom they co-opted and remade into a symbol of their cause. Pepe became a sigil, charged with the intention of the memers, and was fired out into the internet. The meme, from the Greek mimema, meaning “imitated,” replicates in this fertile ground, like bacteria in a damp corner, until with enough momentum it breaks out and climbs the walls and spreads about. The idea was that mass exposure to individuals locked into their system 1 thinking protocol, would impart a subliminal message, and perform a type of hypnosis.
Not only did the idea climb the wall: it went straight to the penthouse suite. The frog glyph was shared by Trump and his son Don Jr. After Trump’s victory, Vice asked occult-researched Théodore Ferréol to explain the phenomenon. ”I think meme magic is going global,” he said, “and I think that believing in meme magic is a motivational key to success […] These people are channeling power.”
If it seems fanciful that the proliferation of a cartoon frog could influence real-world events, consider the case of anti-monarchist protestors who were arrested for holding up paper signs. After these arrests, protestors raised blank signs to substitute, and those holding up the plain paper were again threatened with arrest. This same happened in Russia, protestors went from signs to blank paper. After they were bundled into the back of vans they merely held their hands up as if they were holding a sign, and were snatched off the streets just the same.
Centers of power would not be concerned with cracking down on A4 paper, or the gesture of holding a sign if they weren’t all too aware of the power of symbolism, and they wouldn’t retweet Pepe if not for that same cognition. A symbol backed by force is more powerful than any text. The BLM protests would never have spread to the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, if not for the gesture of taking the knee. Traditionally reserved for God and marriage proposals, the gesture is a rare example of a successful leftist meme. It made its way around the globe, into television studios, and football games, where it lives on as a ritual. The charged performances and their symbolic power led to the absurdist spectacle of protestors lobbing bottles at unarmed Metropolitan police while chanting “hands up don’t shoot.” The facts didn’t come into it.
Copses of rainbow bunting across the West have manifested the existence of potentially infinite genders. Whether you believe it or not, that fact is as much a legal and social reality as the fact you’re reading this article right now, maybe more. Whether it is true, is unimportant because when men brandish gender recognition certificates on their way into women’s prisons and changing rooms, it becomes true. Just as Pepe made Trump real, the rainbow flag has created new genders into our world, and afforded them rights in reality.
Magic isn’t a cheap suit devouring a card hustler – or one of Criss Angel’s cheesy stunts, it’s the art of manifesting belief. A more rational way to consider the phenomena is as the power of intuition: if a large enough mass of people believes in something, it becomes true for all intents and purposes. One of the most interesting examples from history comes from the Vikings. The Nordic warriors forged their swords in furnaces fuelled by the skeletal remains of their ancestors, in the belief that this method would charge the sword with the power of their dead forbears. While this might sound like superstitious nonsense, it was a highly advanced practice. When bone is exposed to extreme heat, it produces what is known as bone coal, which combined with iron produces proto-steel. The Nordic people had little access to iron ore, they made their weapons from bog iron, and if not for this ritual and their tuned-up swords, they might never have made it much further than Lindisfarne. Their intuition was ultimately more advanced than any scientific knowledge then available.
There’s also the well-known placebo effect, where the belief that medicine will help actually improves the condition of a patient. Less well known, however, is the nocebo effect, where the expectation or prediction of ill health manifests in the body, and can even lead to death. As the BBC reported: “to die, sometimes you need only believe you are ill.” There are plenty of anecdotes of Witch Doctors who prognosticate that their patient has two weeks to live, and surely enough the patient dies on the appointed day. It’s said that an 18th-century medical student died when his classmates pranked him with a mock guillotine – the blindfolded student died at once as a wet cloth smacked the back of his neck. But it’s not all tall tales. Countless peer-reviewed studies demonstrate the existence of the nocebo effect, its ability to impart real physical harm, and even kill believers. These psychogenic effects can, like memes, go viral, and have been blamed for the deadly dancing plague of 1518 and a spate of night-time deaths of Hmong people in the USA in the 1980s. What’s more, studies demonstrate that witnessing a patient in pain when undergoing a particular procedure will heighten the pain of the witness when it’s their turn to endure it. And as with memes, these beliefs can be imparted subliminally into the subconscious.
One example of a kind of nocebo effect is the 1995 bout between boxers Chris Eubank and Steve Collins. Eubank, then undefeated in ten years, and reigning WBO super middleweight champion pleaded with the Boxing Commission to call off the St. Patrick’s Day fight with the Irishman. Collins was working with hypnotist Tony Quinn, who he claimed was hypnotizing him to feel no pain, and see punches thrown three times slower than a normal man. Eubank argued: “I’m fighting someone who is mechanically orientated and that is just an unknown area. If mentally you are in a trance or every time you should stop you’re going to keep going, what’s going to happen? There has to be a line drawn here […] I shouldn’t do this, I shouldn’t be in that ring tonight. This is wrong. It’s unfair. It’s cheating.”
After a brutal fight, Collins won the middleweight crown by unanimous decision. His first act was to reveal that “we fooled the world.” The hypnotism schtick had been a hoax – it wasn’t real – but because Eubank believed it was, it was.
The sterile zone of our politics forces pent-up mana to burst out into new and interesting ideas. Take Anglofuturism. This month, British manufacturer Gravity Industries demoed jetpacks in the New York harbor. Leaping from the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Royal Marines showcased the Royal Navy’s latest gadget to the world – flying across the water at great speed before returning to land on the ship. The Space Navy had arrived. This emergent pattern, and the noticing of it, is what would be termed by occult practitioners as synchronicity. That is, a coincidence. But not all coincidences happen by chance – a morsel of that adventurous spirit is pounced upon and shared by those who channel it, as is every gigafactory, zeppelin and power plant. Momentum builds up in those small corners, until as though bursting through a damn it escapes into the mainstream and travels up the walls. Therefore, we can expect Anglofuturist memes to be retweeted by MPs, AF fringe meetings at Tory conference, and academic peer-reviewed ethnographic studies carefully detailing and describing just how dangerous it is.
The Guardian bemoaned in 2016 that “Memes are ruining democracy, [they] thrive on a lack of information – the faster you can grasp the point, the higher the chance it will spread.”
This is the advantage of a meme; it is the fastest means to transmit a complex idea by channeling a feeling, or a vibe. Change likely won’t come in the form of a book or a pamphlet – it will take the shape of an image, a vision, which will instill confidence and inspire. Those who will conjure it up won’t be darlings of the academy or apparatchiks of the system, nor likely remembered by history, but they will have shaped it nonetheless.