Always already a meme: Post-humour politics?

Natalie Robinson (with Roy Coleman)

In our social media age contemporary political events provoke a particular sense of anticipation. It is almost an automatic reaction to check Facebook, Twitter and You Tube for the inevitable satirization: whether a simple text/picture meme, a Cassetteboy mash-up, or a ‘Tory-theme tune’ mix, there is, as ever, an abundance of choice.

The parade of actual and potential trauma, fraud and violence that characterises political decision-making in David Cameron’s (and now Theresa May’s) government is immediately (re)presented in the form of the internet meme. A typical dictionary definition characterizes a meme as any ‘image, video, piece of text etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users’. Riffing on popular cultural references, a simple statement set against a photograph can convey complex issues in short-form. As E.P. Thompson has shown there is a long history of working class humour, satire and ridicule (think gallows-humour caricatures in print media) that has galvanized challenge to power. Arguably, things have changed in a less challenging direction with the availability and circulation of the meme. Of late, there has been an increase (on my Facebook feed at least) in the sheer volume of this kind of political satire. Here is a recent one:

tmThe meme is important on an emotional level. Benjamin Nathan Schachtman’s observations re: black humour seem appropriate here: ‘the audience is not just sickened by tragedy or amused by comedy, but forced to experience the paradoxical emotions simultaneously.’ Indeed, memes can make us feel something between horror and hilarity, eliciting a response that blurs tears of laughter and despair. Such amusement perhaps provides temporary respite from any current political crisis, maybe even aiding with the ‘resilience’ we are constantly encouraged to inhabit in order live in the present. The meme can concurrently be used to make state violence legible, to point out the sharp edges of harmful politics through the production of a ‘viral’ communication (the medium is the message?)

In this way, it might be assumed that the funny stuff is the response, the resistance. No, says Baudrillard: reality has always already been effaced, replaced by the referent; the map (meme?) precedes the territory. Indeed, we only need to look to certain high-profile political figures in the UK and US to realise that they are deliberately meme-tastic. Many individuals in positions of power have been observed in the throes of their various attempt to harness comic personae (for example see: ‘Donald Trump Makes Fox News Laugh! 4/26/16: Funny!’ or Boris Johnson: The Funniest 10 Photos). For those in the limelight, such ridiculous front-stage shenanigans can (intentionally) obfuscate harmful policies. Do such self-presentations preclude any attempt to use emotion-humour in a critical way?

There is certainly a narrowing of opportunity, a squeezing of the space for us to insert oppositional humour. Jacques Rancière refers to the ‘absence of the void’ as defining characteristic of the ‘politics of the police’, and in this context we might read this as the active attempt to seal any cracks in which political satire might be cultivated. For instance, the recent Prime Minister’s Questions, described by the BBC as ‘light-hearted and jocular’, presents a particularly sickening example of the political hijacking of laughter: any outside attempt to make this ‘funny’ is complicit with the intention.

Are we increasingly finding ourselves in a post-humour society, one that is actively working to remove opportunities for satire as critique and resistance? As we see Boris Johnson swing in on a zipwire and share the pictures with friends as a nod to the joke that our political system has become, Johnson is laughing along with us, and perhaps slipping on a banana skin as well, for comedic effect.


The question remains: can we make a meme that makes a mockery of politics anymore? Or is this tantamount to participation in that which has been deliberately served up for our entertainment? More broadly, the shift identified here plugs in with postemotionalism (or the staged management of ‘fun’ politics). Here politics is glossed (and maybe even mystified) with a sprinkling of ‘entertainment’, ‘joviality’ and ‘personality’: a re-badging of populist politics for affect and legitimacy. Either way, we are increasingly being cajoled into ‘laughing’ without irony.



Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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