Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Memes of Racism

I was talking to my wife the other day about memes, which, if you’ve been living under a rock for the last 15 or so years, are captioned pictures of viral content that have taken on almost organic consciousness on the internet. Typically they are funny, or they comment on current events specifically. I mostly know them as pictures of “puppers” and “doggos” eating “chimkin nuggets.”

In human history we have recognized symbols either tangibly or abstractly. For instance Moses from the Old Testament is a symbol of Christ (of Type) as a mediator between God and Man. A cross represents, and points to, the specific time in history when Christ was crucified. The invisible hand imagines an intangible force based on the movement of wealth in a free economy, as put forth by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations. Or, the statue of the Shinto god Hachiman could represent either war, or the essence of the god himself when present in a shrine. Personally, I believe that memes today are the avatars of pessimism and cynicism, products of the mutable post-modern age. And at the risk of misusing “post-modern,” because even the word means nothing now, post-modern typically is a junk drawer term for any deconstructed position that critiques reigning epistemological authorities or traditions of thought / belief.
One of the original instances of Pepe.

What got me thinking about memes yesterday was the hijacking of one such meme, “Pepe the frog” and its use by neo-Nazis and white nationalists (AKA the Alt-Right). 

Iterations of the Swastica used in Eastern cultures.

A famous example of a neutral symbol being commandeered for hate is the Swastika, which originated in a host of Eurasian religious traditions. In Hinduism, the symbol was associated with luck and general wellbeing. While the origins of why the Nazis took this symbol escape me, I want to say that it had something to do with the belief that India was once known as a seat of a powerfully advanced race of Caucasians, but don’t quote me on that. Anyways, regardless of the origin of the Nazi belief, the symbol was taken and used as a hate symbol. Also, the image of the cross of Christ’s crucifixion has also been co-opted by White supremacists and the KKK by using it to intimidate African Americans by burning them on their lawns, or public places. I think it’s interesting then that people have taken Pepe, something so ephemeral in the grand scheme of things, and created a hate symbol out of him.

A cross burning, carried out by the KKK.

While the swastika was a symbol of fascism, memes are self-assigned their meaning. People view them and ascribe meaning to them. In marketing language, viewing an ad (image or otherwise) is called an impression. So when we view memes they are impressions that we encounter. Fascist symbols are ubiquitous and are widespread. They are typically put in public places, or on medals of service, but they are not however inside a person’s living area, unless the symbol was put there. In that respect the symbol can be avoided. I think what makes viral media so impactful is that you can’t avoid it now that the internet is integrated with nearly every aspect of our lives. Not only that, memes already are an expression of the cynical and apathetic zeitgeist we currently find ourselves in. That a meme places the viewer at a disadvantage by making opposition to the image seem petty or disproportionate in use context, the power of hate symbols spreading on the internet as memes are amplified. Furthermore, the impressions are personal, inside the four walls of home. They have penetrated the inner space of our lives, and we cannot escape.

As a creator of content, the reality that someone can insert meaning into something I’ve created is extremely compelling. My heart goes out to Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe, because his symbol has been effectively stolen from him. His resulting anguish is depicted in his response to the hijacking of his creation:

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Justifying the Author

You can’t choose the formative moments in your life, the ones that warp your personality, for better or worse. It’s from these moments that creative expression is tinged. I’ve seen this is all my favorite authors. Eco’s novels are concerned with Semiotics. Grant Morrison with justifications of his alleged abduction into the “4th Dimension.” And Alan Moore copes with his abuse at the hands of DC.
Autobiographically speaking, my writing didn’t take hold of me until Post College. Even though I have written before (as early as ten years old) large novellas and attempted writing a serial/novel in Junior High and High School, these stories were regurgitations of pre-rendered material. I was imagining characters in my mind’s eye and throwing them into situations to see what would happen. Once I got out of college, I wrote a very poor novel, that would be re-written and overhauled significantly, until the end product would become my first book “Spirit of Orn.” During this time I discovered the truth behind the great lie that all of you (if you are near or around my age) heard in school: “Do good in school. Go to college. Live happily ever after.”
While I will not contest the value of college, why it’s incredibly important to be exposed to it, I will say that our reasons to going are catastrophically short sighted. It was my shortsightedness that brought me to all my formative moments. I was shown that we are not special (in the eyes of the controlling powers of world affairs), but that we are expendable, in an ever churning Nietzschean machine that compels us to become ubermensch, to escape intellectual poverty, only to subject our peers to that poverty and become tyrants to maintain our privileged superiority. (I’m speaking of CEOs, factory owners, Lawyers, Doctors, “professionals,” etc.) I discovered this at Apple, that despite my cognitive abilities, I was reduced to a brand mouthpiece for a technology giant. After leaving Apple for a short lived stint at a bank, which in hindsight was its own oasis from the horrors of corporate America, I “hit rock bottom” and had to get a job washing dishes for At Stone Brewing Company. I labored there for about 6 months, the bare minimum required to transfer to another position, and moved into production, the making and packaging of beer. Life was good, for a short while. But I soon became acquainted with the reality that every American factory worker faces: that we are not special, that we are unessential. My peers were systematic victims, culturally rich, but socially and financially impoverished. One of my own co-workers was killed in a forklift accident, and even though I did not know him, his death occurred during an incredible spurt of productivity and expansion that took it’s tool on all departments as we attempted to fill orders at breakneck speed. Around the same time, the boiler in the main brewhouse went critical, requiring the fire department to be called. I was told the boiler was purchased “used” to save money. But there was so much unreliable information communicated in the company that everyone was always ignorant of something. That too could have been idle chatter.
I struggled to be kind, I struggled to be sympathetic, I struggled to be forgiving because of my experiences at this brewery, and they inform my plots and characters to this day. I write about loss, about reputation, about intellectual conquest, and about exploitation. In most of my stories someone dies, in order that another might be saved. (This coming from my Christian worldview.) And I think all of this is important to be conscious about. Because when we realize this, we can grow deeper with our characters and plumb the depths of our experiences to make theirs more evocative and convincing. The Bottle Falls a short story featured in my recently released Tall Men and Other Tales is pulled directly from my work at the brewery. Some people read it and laugh because they know how much I complained about working there, but when they do they are missing the point: it was a traumatic experience in my life that made me into the egalitarian / socialist I am today, advocating education to anyone that can pick up a book and read, so that they aren’t taken advantage of a system designed to fuck us over.
So with me, other authors have been irrevocably influenced by their experiences. Understanding those biographical details helps readers to read between the lines, and get deeper insight into the story before them. There are many authors I could mention, but for time and space I’ll only mention those I am most familiar with.
When I was working for an academic press, Sequart Organization, I spent a year researching the works of Neil Gaiman, in hopes that I could write a book about his seminal work in The Sandman. My impression of Neil is one of a man acquainted with literature, not necessarily in an solely academic fashion—though he is very sharp—but as one with a profound love for it. Anecdotes, if my memory serves me well, place Neil in many libraries growing up, including a personal one, which inspired me to build one of my own for my children. There he would read endlessly, building his own literary acumen from a diverse pool of sources. The time he spent being a journalist put him in contact with real people of varying morality, social standing, religion, and status, and became an indispensable well for characters and creatures to build his world. I recall reading an article he wrote about staying in a Syrian refugee camp, and how he accidentally kicked over a water bucket in his tent that could only be refilled some distance away at a spigot used for the entire population. (I would append a link to the article here, but the BBC no longer has it on their site.) Also his being raised in the Church of Scientology seemingly had a profound effect on his philosophy of storytelling, though he has distanced himself from the church completely and no longer espouses to be a member, so I’ve heard. All these experiences distill down to Gaiman’s style and substance in his writing.
Umberto Eco, on the other hand is a different story all together. While I have digested his books slowly over the last two years I have discovered a man obsessed with meaning, and how duplicitous it can be. A typical postmodern as you would suspect, but also sympathetic to the medieval institutions that promised knowledge could be known. He is well acquainted with hermetic philosophy, and prone to make fun of it on many occasions. It was the subject of an entire book called, Foucault’s Pendulum. His awareness of traditions in epistemology and participation in academia place him in close contact with social issues and those in authority to make informed statements about them. My favorite collection of essays I’ve read of his are focused on aspects of truth and justice and their mutability (Inventing the Enemy). Even though I am a fan of the eponymous essay, his essay on the addition and subtraction of information as a form of censorship is still timely and speaks to how we utilize the internet to distract ourselves and, subsequently, dehumanize what we are as social creatures. Eco’s own personal library of approximately 30,000 books, comes through in his writing, which is encyclopedic in nature. And his proximity to anti-fascists and their protests during the 60s and 70s in Italy, give him a rebellious streak, though not one without wry deconstructions of the movements as just repeating the mistakes of their forebears.
          I had initially wanted to end this on the subject of Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, but I am still learning about their individual traits. Recently I’ve been attempting to understand Moore’s work, which is very unpredictable. His understanding of voice is profoundly accurate and can emulate the demeanor and mood of female characters better than any writer I have encountered. But his work is very moody, burdened by a history of being taken advantage of. He lacks the critical distance to see what he’s accomplished in his career, and prefers to downplay the contributions he’s made to the genre and the dozens of authors he’s inspired (Gaiman included). This figure that writes of apocalypses as transitionary events and not as catastrophes to be averted runs against the grain of Grant Morrison’s rock-star demeanor plots which are bombastic and playful, but also incredibly introspective and philosophical. His experience of being “abducted” has influenced every plot he has written since, continually through his creative artistry, attempting to justify his experiences as authentic and not the product of some drug fueled trip in Katmandu. Like Moore, Morrison fancies himself as an agent of the occult, with initiate knowledge into the hermetic traditions that have colored the history of Great Britain. Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that, whereas Moore accepts the changes offered by cosmic upheaval, Morrison’s work describes events that are evaded, and any Lovecraftian horrors waiting to consume our universe easily assailable.
          My point is, after all this, is that the author continually justifies him/herself in their writings. Every piece of fiction is an attempt to convince you (the reader) that the world is operating on a certain schema. And it’s good to be aware of these things, as this ability to discern affects our understanding of world and current events as well. If you are brave enough, consider your own lives and identify the Acts that divide your growth from young to old and maybe things will get a little clearer. If not for me, for science!

Happy July 4th!