Memes do Not Exist: Memetics as Anthropotechnics
[This is a posting of my article here.]
Memes are commonly understood to be discrete units of culture that spread in a manner analogous to genes, mutating and spreading by selective processes. Memes that are best able to spread and continue out compete weaker memes, and thus only the most virulent memes survive. Memes can range from religions, to melodies, to Internet images. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in The Selfish Gene is largely responsible for the development of the field of memetics which attempts to study these memes in a way analagous to Genetics. Richard Dawkins, in his essay “Viruses of the Mind,” tried to examine religions in particular as memes. What I would like to do here is to add a corollary to Peter Sloterdijk’s proclamation in You Must Change Your Life that “religions do not exist.” Namely, that memes do not exist.
That is not to say that there are no cultural units that spread by vaguely selective processes — far from it. But just as Sloterdijk said of religion, wherever we see a meme, or a meme complex (memeplex), we truly discover a deformed anthropotechnic structure. That is, a structure for the training of humans to act in a particular manner. What is necessary here is to shift our perspective further out to discover the set of exercises. Memes are seeds for anthropotechnic structures of exercises for transforming human activity. The way that memes are currently understood in the general consciousness leads to behavior somewhat like trying to understand trees by only focusing on the seeds. This is ignoring the fact that a discrete unit of culture cannot really be located. Wherever we find a meme, we find a memeplex, and this memeplex can be better understood as a training regime for shaping human beings. The problem with the genetic analogy is that, rather than adapting to its environment, what we typically call the culture gene, a meme, creates an environment. This is why a meme is not a meme, but an anthropotechnic mechanism: an exercise.
Due to the inherent difficulty of collecting real data about this, I admit this is largely composed of anecdotal “case studies.” I must also reiterate that I am not original in this examination, but rather expanding Sloterdijk’s hypothesis to Internet memes. Through an analysis of several cases, the usefulness of the anthropotechnic examination should be made clear.
/pol/, Kek, and the Doge
The infamous 4chan board /pol/, which stands for “Politically Incorrect,” has a controversial history as being a gathering place for racists, Nazis, political extremists of all kinds, and other types the average person might consider rather unsavory. The way that these types of people appeared is more subtle than one might first imagine.
“The Happy Merchant,” an antisemitic icon, is one of the most famous memes to come out of the board. In addition to numerous variations, it’s even spawned a left-wing spin off, “Porky” the capitalist.
They even have a name for the deified version of Pepe: Kek. An Egyptian chaos deity identified with the cartoon frog. Tara Burton writes:
“Most of the people posting about Kek don’t actually believe that Pepe the Frog is an avatar of an ancient Egyptian chaos god, or that the numerology of 4chan “gets” — when posts are assigned a fortuitous ID number — somehow predicted Donald Trump’s presidential victory. (Theodør K. Ferrøl goes into more detail about that claim here.) It’s a joke, of course — but also not a joke. As one self-identified active member of the alt-right told me, “I don’t believe in God. But I say ‘Praise Kek’ more than I’ve ever said anything about God.”
She goes on to explain how, beginning as a “joke” Kek became a real phenomenon with influence through its followers. It doesn’t matter if Kek is real, he may as well be. The general form of Internet anthropotechnics is revealed in how a joke becomes reality. As Voltaire said: “Any community that gets its laughs by pretending to be idiots will inevitably be flooded by actual idiots who mistakenly believe they are in good company.” This is not the whole picture though, and it does not explain why idiots really flock to these communities.
/pol/ begins with somewhat ironic racism, for example. There are some actual racists mixed in. The complex of “racism-training” emerges as the community begins to spawn humorous images that contain ideology. The humor and message does not really transmit a “meme.” That is oversimplifying things. The message contained is always an exercise, something that is repeated by the human and alters them. Someone might laugh at the ridiculous anti-semitic image of the merchant, or a cartoon chaos god, and share it with friends, or post it again on /pol/. The meme is not only copied, but the exercise of “copying” is part of a larger process of ensuring repetition of the exercise, and the drawing of the human into a training regime.
Someone who posts /pol/ memes on the Internet a lot is, unsurprisingly, likely to visit /pol/ and be further drawn into the training regime. Not only are actual racists attracted into the website, but ordinary people looking for dark or edgy humor are also attracted. Repeating a meme is not a transmission of the meme, but an event that restructures the minds of the people who repeat it, drawing them towards new exercises that are a part of a larger complex. Other members of the complex can then introduce newer exercises — ones that can be much more harmful. Before you know it, you have a full-blown “ironic” Internet Nazi. As has been noted earlier, memeticists have identified “memeplexes,” but a successful memeplex is always structured in the form of a training regime, whether it be religion, ordinary meme sharing, Internet Nazism, or consumerism. As Sloterdijk observed, the common imperative “You must change your life!” is a constant. Memes must be understood as just one way of drawing people into training regimes. It doesn’t matter who they think they are, what matters is their training-plan.
Furthermore, unlike genes, memes tend to rapidly “die” over time and become old — particularly Internet memes — especially if they are hugely successful. Biological analogies such as overpopulation can apply here, but this misses the essence. The “Doge” meme which swept the Internet a few years ago appeared rapidly and has now almost vanished. Myself and my friends, in fact, cringe at the mention of it. An example is below. It featured a Shiba Inu dog (“Doge”) with comic sans captions in ironic, deadpan tone, typically in broken English.
It’s impossible to understate how Doge had a meteoric rise and then, just as quickly, became unbearable. This Google Trends chart should do the talking:
Why is it that a meme can become annoying and suddenly discarded? It is not because a meme is “unable to evolve.” A meme cannot be understood in such simplistic biological terms. We must examine the training regime. What training structures could poor Doge really introduce people into? It was not connected to any larger training structures, so when people had exhausted the exercise of repeating “wow” and posting the dog, they grew bored, and it failed to provide new avenues of exercise. This is why religions and ideologies are capable of extended propagation and Doge was not. A religion has exercises that can be repeated over and over again because they are entry points into a larger system of training with exercises, such as prayer, which can be endlessly repeated. First one is initiated; then one learns of the greater mysteries and contemplates them. In a similar fashion, /pol/’s memes remain virulent because they function in a similar way to initiation rituals. They introduce people into a training mechanism and as such are kept around with the new converts. When an exercise fails to provide further use to the trainee, they move on to something else. Building a theory of culture from memes is like trying to build a theory of swimming by examining diving boards.
Doge didn’t survive hitting the mainstream, because when it spread, it did not create “Dogeans.” Someone says it merely because it’s funny, and it spreads without creating a larger culture of appreciation, training, and production. Christianity on the other hand, creates Christians, churches, and pontiffs. That is an overly ideological example, however, as the same kind of thing can occur in sports. If a sport, game, or toy, doesn’t create a culture/training-regime that is different from the default one in the larger culture, it loses it’s value and fails to become virulent. Doge is to Christianity as Moon Boots competitions are to Football.
/pol/’s anthropotechnic structure is one that uses Internet humor as a medium of planting initiation exercises into the minds of unsuspecting users. These draw them into the “Internet extremism training regime.” The point of this regime is to create Internet extremists, the exercises are in place. Whether or not one bodybuilds “ironically,” one will still grow muscles. In this way, a community of people pretending to be idiots will not only flood itself with idiots, but transform everyone in it into real idiots.
General Form: The Irony Complex
Ironic complexes are a very general phenomenon, though they generally appear as “dead memes” that are resurrected and posted in an insincere manner, to annoy or mock. They develop a mean character. There are really two types of ironic regime. One is purely defensive, like in the above example, where it allows the covert deployment of exercises in a manner where the poster is able to always step back and say “It was just a joke!” Though humor can be used to tell difficult truths, it can also unfortunately be used for harm. How often have you seen people joke about anxiety or depression?
The other form of ironic regime is offensive and critical, used to destroy and discredit opposing training regimes. This latter form could vaguely be described as “satire.” Being a ubiquitous and historied genre, it should not be necessary to provide examples of satire, but on the Internet, memes typically labeled as “ironic” are of this second kind. A specific example of this are “Dank Memes,” which Know Your Meme describes as:
“an ironic expression used to describe online viral media and in-jokes that are intentionally bizarre or have exhausted their comedic value to the point of being trite or cliché. In this context, the word “dank,” originally coined as a term for high quality marijuana, is satirically used as a synonym for ‘cool.’”
The point of using ironic memes is that they eliminate damaged or dying training regimes by making them obnoxious and insincere. It is the scorched-earth strategy of training regimes. Satire is used in a similar manner. An idea or practice is parodied and brought to its logical conclusions, and it thus is eliminated. Consider how satire such as Don Quixote has literally destroyed anthropotechnic structures like chivalry. As Lord Byron noted, “Cervantes smiled Spain’s chivalry away.” The military doctrine of ironists is twofold: burn the crops of the enemy and replace them with your own, shielded by a veil of irony which makes it difficult to tell whether what is harmful from what is helpful.
Wholesome memes are a relatively recent kind of meme that — as far as my research has revealed — originated on the Reddit board /r/WholesomeMemes. The general form of wholesome memes is an attempt at subverting the negative and ironic character of many memes to create a positive, sincere form. Here is an example from the subreddit:
The wholesome training regime is simple. One spreads sincerity and positive actions, feels good, and is brought into a training structure which attempts to construct a kind of upward training spiral. Pure, unironic love and support. The first few weeks I encountered these, it was liberating and exhilarating. David Foster Wallace predicted a kind of “New Sincerity” in his essay E Unibus Pluram, which these kinds of memes might be an expression of:
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.”
For a while, I was on board with this. Then it grew stale, very stale. What had happened to wholesome memes for me was the same thing that happened to Doge for everyone else. It ran out of possible exercises. There is only so much posting of “love and support” that you can do before you run out of expressions, and it collapses into kitsch sentimentality. We simply do not have a large enough vocabulary for a sustainable training regime of single-endendre principles, free of absurdity. Furthermore, the punchline is always the same, just like with “dank memes.” It becomes predictable, and you have already extracted everything you can in the first view. Furthermore, it seems the real “New Sincerity” is emerging as something much, much darker than Wallace could have expected. An anti-humanist (not that I am a humanist) embracing of reactionary politics and totalitarianism. Я Сам Asylum writes:
“What DFW did not predict was that the rebels of new sincerity would risk far more than ridicule. Cries of Sexist, Racist, Misogynist, Fascist, Nazi, Deplorable; threats of doxing; loss of employment; banishment from social media… Attacks were made by all levels of the establishment to stop and silence the rebellion. But their attacks were all in vain. They did not realize that their tactics were relics of the 20th century; of outmoded media.”
Asylum is perfectly correct in his assessment. The methods which are used to fight newly sincere movements, which emerge from an irony complex in a return to single-entendre principles, with a fully healthy and armed training structure, are completely outdated. The only solution I propose, is a kind of counter-memetics. What Wallace did not realize that the true path forward for culture, the only way that subjective freedom, creativity and individual health could be reconciled, was not a return to single-entendre principles, but to take a path blazing forward into zero-entendre principles. A training mechanism which merely trains people to maintain, or to return to some past state, will always be outcompeted by advanced training mechanisms which embrace the new, and embrace a constant will upwards and onwards. Creating culture that is entirely new, entirely unique, and incorruptible.
The general form of New Sincerity has been described, and now we enter into the post-ironic.
/s4s/ and Post-Irony
We return to 4chan, to a board that is quite different from /pol/ (NSFW. Also, please don’t touch the wildlife). At first glance, it appears to be a stream of meaningless stupid shit. Closer inspection reveals a complex training regime with dozens of subroutines and exercises. There is the mysterious Cowe, which people deliberately do not post in, so it can “walk to the last page” of the board and thus get removed (4chan threads that are not posted in fall lower and lower until they are removed). People who do post here always post “cowe.”
As you can see, this doesn’t seem to be a cow. Cowe.
There’s also the strange and pointless game of “beaning” which may or may not have originated on /s4s/. It has little point on a website in which you cannot tag people, or even have an identity, but it is nevertheless constantly repeated.
Then there is “Le Millenom Girl,” an important example as it is seemingly a parody of “rage comics,” but only in appearance. Le Millenom Girl is posted in threads sometimes 200 times in a row without interruption, and there seems to be nothing more to the process, yet it occurs on a regular basis.
Without a doubt though, the most successful character of /s4s/ is “the bury pink girl.” She affirms what is, undoubtedly, the truth about /s4s/, posted typically with the phrase “This is nice board.” She is the embodiment of the spirit of the board, something which is affirmative and creates kindness and creativity amongst seemingly meaningless repetitions of content. The image below contains a picture of her, and a variation on a pseudo-quote originally attributed to René Descartes:
While ironic memes can create a downward spiral of hate and loss of identity, /s4s/ embraces the diversity of meaning in its variety of memes which tell nothing. Furthermore, the lack of definite meaning or mechanism turns these into a sort of projective test. The memes here are empty; they don’t carry an exercise of their own. They are a call to apply an exercise. They are zombie memes that disembowel things that once had meaning, and instead of refilling them, they leave them filled with an emptiness that decries being filled. One merely sees a nice girl saying “this is a nice board.” How do you respond? With niceness in return, but the exact form of the exercise is always interpretative. Even on recurring threads where the same thing is posted over and over again, there is a kind of manic freedom in that there is not a single shred of irony. People legitimately find posting “lol” over and over again on this board to be hilarious. As this chart made by an /s4s/ denizen shows, it is a kind of absurdist sincerity.
Not only does /s4s/ produce seemingly meaningless “drivel,” they also have a bandcamp page. They produce avant-garde music of varying quality, but they’ve produced more than a dozen albums and counting. Some of the music, while affirming banal themes like “birds are not important,” manages to be good for a group of people who are working together anonymously and whose only mode of communication is self-imposed broken English and emoji.
/s4s/ presents such liberationary power because it’s contentless structures aren’t even recognizable as memes to enemy training structures. How do you satirize something which doesn’t seem to have any message? Anyone who appears to attack these things becomes equally ridiculous. There is a kind of total loss of structure into a chaotic freedom, but instead of being an irrecoverable state of ennui, it creates a new ground of authenticity, one which is able to resist the pull of irony and equally to resist the development of hatred through universal positivity.
The people here are actually nice. They have their own radio show where the host spends hours reading posts, settling seemingly meaningless disputes and telling people to “stay hydrated my sicc dudes.” He gives advice, tells people he loves them, and is endlessly creative, just like the rest of the board.
The point here is that they have created a training regime which infects others and subverts them for a positive end of promoting simple fun, kindness, and affirmation. Where /pol/ asks you to pretend to hate minority groups for “fun,” /s4s/ asks you to just “pretend to be fun, nice, and creative.” And like that, it gets you. Even “rude” posts here can’t help but make one smile. Listening to one of the /s4s/ radio broadcasts left me feeling ecstatic for days, from being in such an unconditionally positive environment with boundless methods of expressing that positivity. This is not done through some “return,” but rather a radical uprooting — not of the postmodern ironic kind, but one of free creation. The very thing that makes /s4s/, the leading example of post-ironic humor, so revolutionary and subversive is that it says nothing. It has no rituals of initiation, no formal exercise structure, only a rallying cry around some principles that the user must find for themselves. There is merely exhilarating freedom of making your own sense. This is a zero-entendre game.
It provides a model for a kind of counter-memetics. The post-ironic meme, when understood in the scheme of anthropotechnic structures of training, is an exercise that, rather than cynically destroying other regimes for its own agenda, presents itself innocently and crafts simulacra of other structures — ones that can overtake the originals and bring back the dead. Not for some ulterior motive, for there can be no motive without definite message, but for enjoyment. Remember Doge? There is a thread about Doge almost every day on /s4s/, and there is no comic sans or irony. People legitimately just like the dogs and share pictures of them. If this model of post-irony cannot revive and reanimate a creative, positive culture, then nothing can. But that is exactly what these post-ironic memes seem to be: nothing.
These cannot be corrupted by politics or cynicism, or co-opted by a mainstream entity, for they’ve been turned inside out. Sloterdijk claims that the transition from antiquity from modernity, work became about works. That is, creating objects rather than a kind of self-cultivation or continuation. Labor, rather than being directed inwardly primarily and outwardly secondarily, is flipped around. Production, while it is a kind of training, takes priority over regular training. It is training-for-other rather than training-for-self, in a sense. The positive potential of post-irony lies in how it stochastically creates niche-communities in a non-ideological manner via divesting them of informational content. What really makes a meme a meme in our context is it being an exercises that carries a bit of information with it, like a joke. These don’t really have “jokes” in them. If there is a joke, it’s never clear or conventional, and only able to be appreciated after a significant amount of training and acculturation has occured. The jokes are not jokes relative to something else either, but jokes on their own ground, funny only in their surreal context. In a post-ironic training-regime, the exercises are primary, one changes themselves and creates an understanding. In the previous types, one understands, then changes themselves.
Examining memes, and meme complexes, as anthropotechnic training regimes allows for a more rational and properly scaled view. Memes are seeds and tools of a training regime. Rather than genetic units which are more or less passive, they are imperative exercises which demand repetition and change in their host which draw them into a structure of further exercises. What we call a meme is really a special kind of training mechanism, and by being aware of this, we can consciously control and subvert the way that training regimes — whether cultural or physical — affect us. By understanding them, we can propagate and draw ourselves into upwardly-spiraling training regimes which can protect themselves from irony and cynicism and provide a creative drive towards the future.