How politics of the alt-right and beyond infected the meme, and the ideological virus of language

Sarah Rose // Features Editor 

“Language is a virus from outer space.” 

That’s beat author William S. Burroughs. 

In the throes of the 60’s, Burroughs evangelized the idea that language was a means to control us from space, which isn’t necessarily as far from the truth as it possibly could be. 

For all his demons including a lingering opiate addiction, closeted homosexuality, rabid belief in chaos magic and accidentally murdering his wife with a drunk gunshot, Burroughs had an acute ability to tear away facades and unearth – often haunting – truths. The simple phrase: “language is a virus from outer space,” quietly crumbles decades of cognitive beliefs about reality and the language mediated perception of it; maybe reality is facilitated only by the ambiguity and volatility of language. 

Incipit Burroughs, Language is a virus. 

Viruses operate autonomously, without human intervention. It merely attaches to a host and then replicates. Once infected with language, it continues to replicate and graft into other fragments of language in human hosts. This is exactly how online meme propagation works, except memes don’t require linguistic components. Rather, memes operate as their own language. 

“It’s dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate the fact there is nothing behind them,” that’s Jean Baudrillard in his seminal text Simulacra and Simulation. 

They can endlessly morph to suit different purposes and now it’s just part of mainstream discourse. “Internet memes may seem new, but memes and the idea of cultural propagation has always existed,” Kenyatta Cheese said in an interview, founder of meme encyclopedia KnowYourMeme. “This type of spread has always happened; what it makes you recognize it is the architecture. All of a sudden, you see these pathways that exist between an original idea and how it spreads throughout culture in ways that were hard to see before.”  

One of these emerging patterns Cheese is referring to is the alt-right, where the amorphous nature of the ideological movement is largely encapsulated and distilled by memes. The alt-right distinguishes itself from other radical political movements by not only it’s demographic, but the fact it exists primarily anonymously, online and uses memes to advance its agenda. Specifically, strange, surreal, low-quality renders of Millennial pop culture references like anime and Pepe the Frog; as seen worn by popular alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer when he was assaulted. 

Arguably, Trump’s presidency began on the alt-right image board /pol/ on 4chan. In 2009, Time named the father of 4chan Chris Poole aka “moot” the world’s most influential person. The online open poll had been subsequently raided by 4chan’s proverbial Anonymous gaggle of net users, bringing moot beyond the likes of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. 4chan and the internet’s influence was no more apparent than during the 2016 election. 4chan’s /pol/ felt like an alternate reality where Trump’s presidency was not only possible but inevitable. “We actually elected a meme as president,” wrote one 4chan user.  

“The distinction between these media efforts and the Alt-Right is two-fold,” explained political science honours graduate Cole Steele. “The alt-right has succeeded where other movements have failed in terms of reaching a large audience. It follows that the near entirety of the alt-right has access to the internet and engages with politics online,” said Steele.  

From determining the fate of an online poll to that of a nation, the agency provided to anonymous users on meme sharing platforms is their strongest – and sometimes only – tool for empowerment. Asking Google: “how memes elected Donald Trump” elicits a reem of responses and explanations from magazines and journals that read kind of like memes themselves. That’s closer to the point. 

In his work on a thesis exploring the alt-right in contemporary political discourse, Steele explores how things changed when Trump formally announced his candidacy in 2015. Spencer himself described it as a “paradigmatic shift” in American politics. In the intertwined, vacillating helix of Trump and Spencer, Spencer became the defacto official spokesman of the alt-right. From being practically unheard of, to doing media interviews with dozens of outlets, Spencer went on to declare: “Hail Trump” while performing a Nazi salute during a speech, and most notably, “we memed the alt-right into existence.”   

On Twitter, Trump retweeted a meme depicting himself as the eponymous, unofficial alt-right mascot: Pepe the Frog. Despite Trump’s hotly debated, unclear and loosely defined politics, even on more academic-esque platforms such as Spencer’s: “you don’t have to put in much work to find a reference to a meme, or other aspect of pop culture,” writes Steele.   

Memes are not dominated by the alt-right, though. In fact, memes are iceberged in a deep structure of ideological discourse. A visit to the subreddits r/blackholedmemes or r/nukedmemes reveals memes that don’t contain any comprehensible content at all. No text, no translatable image or pattern, just badly damaged, distorted and digital artifact laden images. Yet these are still considered funny, or to have meaning.  

Broadly speaking, jokes are funny because we have the contextual and occasionally visual knowledge to parse the meaning and create new, additional meanings. Meaning, and actual, physical body language differs between culture as well. Really, many jokes don’t mean anything or even translate outside of the linguistic community they originated in. Their encoded meanings are embodied by those who speak the language. 

Take The Philosphers Meme, a meme account on Facebook that morphed into a web based blog, running academic discourse essays broadly on the topic of memetics. Memetics (based on the work of Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene) is broadly the information patterns held in individual memory, capable of being transferred to another.  The individual retains the meme, but the transfer is a form of replication in a process of self-reproduction. In this way memes parallel themselves as a language to genes and viruses.  

Memes would not be memes without the ability to mutate. While Dawkins argued that cultural artifacts are passed on with the all-or-nothing quality of gene transmission, rather: “meme transmission is subject to continuous mutation” Dawkins wrote. The communication form of ideological transfer and representation of memes is such that it lends itself to transcending the political entirely. Hence, memes are not inherently created for the right, they’re just bodies of spreadable ideas. They’re the language developed by, and to engage with political discourse from young people online. That’s how Baudrillard conceives of images as language, of the concept of memetics. 

As Slavoj Zizek writes in The Sublime Object of Ideology: “Ideology is not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality; in its basic dimension it is a fantasy construction which serves as a support for our ‘reality’ itself.”  

The essence of memes distilled is that of simulacra, where the distinction between reality and representation evaporates. Memes are not language, not purely virus either, because they aren’t really anything. Rather they are signs, according to Baudrillard– “a material more malleable than meaning itself.” 

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