Memes of Dank Destruction
Memes have evolved. No longer are they marginally innocent image macros from the mid-to-late 2000’s. Instead, they are amorphous entities, built for maximum sharing and information dissemination. The rise of modern memes and the ‘edgy’ internet culture built around them reflects the culmination of the post-modern, irony-centric society in which we live. As many have written here, here, here and even here, memes today have been utilized by the conservative alt-right to push their agenda in novel and effective ways. The brutal irony behind the rise of alt-right memes and their normalization of their radical viewpoints is that their tool—derision, satire and irony itself—is one commonly associated with the political left.
Irony, postmodernism, critical theory and the like give agents tools to analyze and deconstruct existing societal structures and institutions. This can broadly be construed as a liberal tool. For instance, contemporary critical theory has been applied to analyzing existing systems of oppression in the Western world. On the other hand, conservatism generally speaks to those who wish to maintain existing societal institutions, or at the very least, moderate reforms to those structures. Regardless, postmodernism and its attraction to irony have pushed literary and cultural boundaries for years now, deconstructing and subverting tropes that have remained in the dominant canon for centuries.
However, there is one, fundamental problem with these broader tools: they are inherently deconstructive in nature. They are fantastic at pointing out flaws in a system, but they are not effective at constructing a new system. Although the jester at court may be the only one who challenges the King, the jester ought not rule the kingdom. Unfortunately, that is the case today in the United States, as triumphant alt-righters proclaimed that they elected a ‘meme’ as President.
That begs the question of what, then, is a meme? All modern memes are ironic tools, with varying levels of ‘dankness,’ which here means edginess, nuance, and authenticity in their satire. Meme purveyors, much like the norm entrepreneurs coined by Cass Sunstein and put forth by scholars like Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, strive to make dank memes that appeal to their own internet audience. Take meme communities on the website, Reddit, for instance. Whether they be poking fun at the terrible Star Wars prequels on /r/PrequelMemes, measuring their dankness on the internet ‘stock market’ of /r/MemeEconomy or exercising general edginess on /r/dankmemes itself, these memes are on the rise. However, once a meme has reached the mainstream where ‘normies’ live—normal people—the meme loses relevance, meme purveyors move on to new jokes and the bizarre cycle continues.
However, the breeding ground of dank memes was and still is traditionally found on the popular message boards of 4chan, namely on the ‘random’ /b/, basement-dweller centric /r9k/, and supposedly ‘ironically’ white-supremacist /pol/. The latter board, /pol/, is a textbook case of Poe’s Law, which states that, in the absence of an explicit indicator of an author’s intent, it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously farcical that it cannot be mistaken by some as a legitimate expression of those views. In the case of boards like /pol/, which at one point could generously be construed as places of edgy and ironic jokes poking fun at modern social norms, today make for safe spaces for actual racists and white supremacists. This phenomenon is not limited to 4chan. Reddit has become a hotbed for dank memes and alt-right cooption as well. The infamous Reddit community, /r/the_donald, was at one time merely an innocuous place to follow news related to Trump, until morphing into an impenetrable blob of coded racism, conspiracies surrounding Hillary Clinton, and alt-right memes.
With all of this being said, alt-righters defend their views and the memes that espouse them as a form of rebellion. Now-disgraced alt-right leader Milo Yiannopoulos once wrote in an infamous Breitbart article that,
“Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish “Shlomo Shekelburg” to “Remove Kebab,” an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide.”
In effect, the argument goes that memes peddled by the alt-right are merely cases of youthful revolt against modern institutions. In a way, Yiannopoulos is right. The appeal of the alt-right and the ‘dank’ memes they produce is that they poke ironic fun at modern institutions, whether they be NAFTA and NATO or feminism and racial equality. Much as previous postmodernists and rebels criticized conservative institutions, the new, nominally conservative youth now revolt against constraining norms of liberal decency. Although alt-right memes may stem from youth rebellion, that does not mean that these memes are to absolved of their transgressive impacts.
What makes memes unique—and chaotic—is the ease by which they can change and morph with social trends and the whims of meme purveyors. Trying to directly control memes is impossible. Take for example the creator of the once innocent “Pepe the Frog,” Matt Furie. After alt-righters coopted the green amphibian, Furie tried to canonically kill off his character. That was ultimately and unsurprisingly futile, as Pepe is still used by the alt-right.
The power of these memes is indicative of a greater societal shift. Fears of fraying institutions are on the rise. The fall of political decorum into total polarization between a radicalized right and an impotent American left is but one symptom. A fraying Western-led international order reflects this general discontent, as members of this system flirt with ideas of fascism and nativism, let alone trade obstruction and remilitarization. Anger against the nebulous ‘Establishment’ led to the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and nearly the election of Marine Le Pen in France. In the wake of deconstructed social institutions, segments of the Western populace are crying out for new systems. For some, farcical authoritarianism has been the answer.
What is left for those who believe in the banal effectiveness of institutions and democracy? Perhaps a post-ironic wave will take over as a reaction to this current societal malaise. However, such a nebulous societal change is immaterial when faced with the current political climate. It is possible that memes are simply an evolution of political cartoons and rebellious art of old, but this development is hardly benign. The democratizing effect of the internet has amplified these new forms of political and social expression, where the only gatekeepers are the masses themselves. Whether the masses are up to the task is uncertain. However, one thing is for sure: the immediate future may or may not be dark, but it certainly will be dank.
The views reflected in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo credit: "Generic Anti-Trump Meme" by Drake MacFarlane.