Memes are perhaps the laziest form of protest ever. They are modern flags that instantly claim a specific space in politics, time and ideology. They are replicas of ideas that we agree with – but are not necessarily the idea itself – a kind of bumper sticker simulacrum if not just simulation. Similar, not same, since they can be co-opted by anyone. Look at Pepe the Frog as an example of a stolen meme now wildly used as racist propaganda. By racist propaganda, I mean Donald Trump supporters.
I take some of that back. Shopping is the laziest form of protest ever. But sometimes shopping and sharing they are driven by the same.
Richard Dawkins, when describing his concept of Meme (it is no longer his), and his subsequent naming of the thing, was looking for a name for the new kind of replicator, a noun that conveyed the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. It’s an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation. In a Burroughs (William S.) sense, memes are like language in that they are viral, can be easily mutated, and spread throughout a culture.
Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon Modern World does a nice job of showing this concept working in politics – with a nice nod to Silent Green.
And, it can change that culture when the culture is lazy enough. As a Pop-Culture artifact, memes can also tell is something about the ideology of Sustainability. Memes codify our ideology in a sloppy manner, but sloppy gets a pass these days.
Roland Barthes could have been describing memes in 1975 when he talked about mass culture. “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions—these are repeated, but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.” Always new memes.
Maybe memes and podcasts are the new books. Again, see The Modern World transmutation of language to idea to ideology.
One meme in particular that represents Dawkins’, Burroughs’ and Barthes’ commentary well is the Skeptical Third World Child meme. And for my purpose as a nerd, it has direct relationship to 70’s television, racism, and Sustainability. I can also plug that meme directly into Corporate Social Responsibility, Cause Marketing and Globalism and it will take a charge.
The origin photo for Skeptical Third World Child, was captured in 2012 in Uganda, during an aid trip confronting the country’s war with the Lords Resistance Army – a Christian cult which operates in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Heena Pranav, the woman in the photo, is a 28-year-old doctor who lives in Chicago said of the boy, “I was with a group of other medical students at the time, we were walking around and I saw this little boy, he seemed really sweet…his mom was nearby working in the market. I went up to him to play with him and say ‘hi’… he was the most animated child I’ve ever met.” This is the actual context of the photo, but, or course, it no longer carries any of the original context (as if anything does these days).
In First as Tragedy Then As Farce, Slovenian bad-boy, twitchy-philosopher Slavoy Zizek explores the concept of second revolutions, he’s speaking of course about Marxism and Capitalism, but we can blur the lines here and apply them for our own purposes in terms of Sustainability and Pop-Culture. The first (of maybe three) Third World revolution can arguably be given to Christian Children’s Fund and Sally Struthers.
As the advert said, for about the price of a cut of coffee you can feed a starving child in Africa (and presumably convert their Muslim ways to Christianity).
The modern form of this is Starbuck’s own corporate social responsibility advertising campaign. From their website:
“But when you buy Starbucks, whether you realize it or not, you’re buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You’re buying into a coffee ethic. … It’s good coffee karma. …Oh, and a little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the pace with comfy chairs, good music, and the right atmosphere to dream, work and chat in. We all need places like that these days….When you choose Starbucks, you are buying a cup of coffee from a company that cares. No wonder it taste so good.”
As Sally said, it’s enough to make the Angles cry. Indeed.
Zizek has been beating this drum for some time now. “When we are shown scenes of starving children in Africa, with a call for us to do something to help them, the underlying message is something like: Don’t Think, Don’t Politicize, forget about the true cause of their poverty, just act, contribute money so that you will not have to this.” This is the core of his Don’t Act, Think mantra and it makes a lot of sense when we think about corporate sustainability and the never ending launch of new and greener products.
Maybe a second kind of revolutionary care for Africa can be found in 1985 during Live Aid, at the very moment when Bono rescued 15-year-old Kal Khalique from being crushed against the security barrier. He entered the world stage as rock god, transformed into a humanitarian, and catapulted his career to ethical consumerism celebutante. His Product (RED) campaign partners with the usual suspects (Nike, American Express (UK), Apple Inc., The Coca-Cola Company, Starbucks, Converse, and so on) to launch special (red) products where “up to 50%” of these special Bono-blessed products to help eliminate HIV/AIDS in eight African countries.
Today we see the third revolution in the Skeptical Third World Child Meme. Rather than giving them a voice via some Christian mouthpiece organization, or Rock star, we apply the New Racism’s voice – Uppity. The child in the picture assumes the role of an black child that we are comfortable with (aka “known”.) This is Gary Coleman’s character Arnold from Diff’rent Stokes (back when ebonics wasn’t considered racist). But the broken language is also an indicated of the cultural void between the orphans and Mister Drummand’s Madison. We’ve seen this all before in Jimmy JJ Walker from Good Times catch phrase, and Buckwheat from the Little Rascals eye popping surprise. These things don’t happen without some push back on the cultural representations. Acclaimed actor Esther Rolles, Florida from Good Times, famously pushed back against the script writers when she was portrayed as “another single black mother,” a push which resulted in the hiring of her TV husband James plaid by John Amos. I guess I mention this because it offers a sense of hope in a world run by viruses.
Coleman’s catch phrase on Diff’rent Strokes is written in the same voice that the Skeptical Third World Child is: “watchu talking’ about Willis?” This is the TV version of this meme. It is precisely this kind of safe racism that perpetuates racism itself. It is the vulgar sexist racist joke that is permissible in social settings, but that props up the institution of racism and sexism.
World Hunger as meme is a bad third revolution, but it speaks to the role that frequency has on complacency. Memes are great at oversimplifying race, drug abuse, gender politics, politics, gentrification and eating habits. And so, then it should be no surprise, that memes oversimplify sustainability, and turn tragedy (climate change) in farce (liberal hipster nonsense).
But, this is not new. I would argue that brands have been doing that for their own purposes for years in their advertising of green products. Look at GE’s critically acclaimed Ecomagination campaign for clean coal.
Coal today is a tragedy. Models mining coal is farce.