Bogna M. Konior
When the ax came into the forest, the trees said:
‘The handle is one of us.’
——Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy
Human thought, whether in word or meme, has long been molded by the fact that the Homo sapiens are a species of ape, living on a rock surrounded by a deafening void, circling around a slowly dying star. Philosophy trades in re-articulating this matter, from Nietzsche’s poetic vision of humans as “clever animals,” whose knowledge cannot save them from the universe’s relentless entropy, to Ray Brassier’s recent attempt at unbinding philosophy from the paralysis of unthought solar extinction. “A refounder of future ruins, if you like,” writes François Laruelle, “that’s the best definition of philosophy.” This ostensibly cosmological problem casts its shadow over human affairs. It is historically ubiquitous to believe that things are not
only worse now than they had been before but that, despite our cosmic insignificance, our times are the most significant of all: the end times. Who would not want to witness the end of the world, to feel that one dies without regret, leaving nothing behind?
In 1995, Jean Baudrillard wrote:
Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvellous as being there at the beginning […]. Let us therefore apply ourselves to seeing things — values, concepts, institutions — perish, seeing them disappear. This is the only issue worth fighting for.
The desire for destruction, apocalypse, and disintegration takes different forms, from eschatological to bloodthirsty. “There are no breaks on this train!” proclaims a popular meme series that pictures the President of the United States as the alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog, helming what can be identified as “the rapetrain,” which in this memeplex functions as a symbol of joyful, unstoppable victory through destruction. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages outlines how medieval Christendom abounded in apocalyptic movements, where the book of Revelations was considered indispensable to political comprehension. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State shows how the cataclysmic vision of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi echoes violent Christian millenarian movements in the 16th century; and in Divine Destruction, journalist Stephanie Hendricks studies contemporary Christian Dominionists, who believe that climate change should not be stalled but accelerated in order to bring about the Second Coming of Jesus and the beginning of God’s Kingdom on Earth. No breaks on the planetary train! Physicist Stephen Hawking and engineer Elon Musk present us with an atheist version of the Final Judgment, warning that accelerated technological progress will bring about an artificial intelligence singularity and a de facto end of the human species once the ai realizes how immoral or inefficient humans are. In the Greco-Christian narrative, ever since Apollo spat in the mouth of the oracle Cassandra, history has been filled with prophets of doom to the extent that, as Justin Clemens perceptively writes, “a certain apocalypticism is perhaps a condition for […] thinking as such.”
If, as we can read in a quoted passage in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, “memes should be regarded as living structures […] when you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain,” then a prominent subspecies of these brain parasites that we call “memes” — units of digital culture with substantial cultural and now also political capital gained through circulation — feeds on various strains of apocalypticism. While eschatology remains indispensable to diverse cultures, these days it is especially visible in English-language memes, also for the fact that they are the most visible on the Western Internet, whose social media interfaces are provided largely by American corporations. An early sign was the first wave of disaster memes that rose just after the dust of the World Trade Center fell. Analyzing 398 of these “collage jokes,” as she labels them, Giselinde Kuipers suggested that they were a coping mechanism for dealing with an exceedingly “unreal and fiction-like” world by deploying humor. These images were, for example, of King Kong fending off terrorist planes on top of the World Trade Center, with a caption: “Where was King Kong when we needed him?” or of Osama Bin Laden in an advertisement for “Taliban Airlines: Exploring New Destinations!” Similarly, one of the first viral videos was about the end of the world, uploaded to YouTube shortly after the website’s launch, the light-hearted “End of Ze World” (2003) by Fluid, which generated millions of views and has since warranted a sequel,
“End of Ze World… Probably For Real This Time” (2018), which laments neo-Nazism, Donald Trump, the refugee crisis, terrorism, nuclear danger, climate change, and Twitter as possible signs of doom. While the original is hardly political, dealing rather in harmless humor based in national stereotypes, the sequel addresses global news headlines through the lens of crisis clothed in campy digital aesthetics.
Nowadays, in the meme-heaven that is Reddit, users chart “end-of-world scenarios that frighten you the most,” which include solar flares, sex comets from Neptune, overpopulation, nanotechnology, famine, nuclear war, super viruses, infertility and, of course, “that we run out of memes.” The anxiety-ridden, left-leaning in its focus on ecological overshoot subreddit r/collapse, with around 60,000 members, includes a monthly metathread in which users note down the signs of downfall around them, from crumbling infrastructure to rising unemployment. On some days, they discuss Ted Kaczynski’s neo-Luddite books, on others, they pick at major headlines, such as “Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich” (New Yorker) or “Silicon Valley Billionaires are Preparing for the Apocalypse with Motorcycles, Guns, and Private Hideaways” (Business Insider). A corresponding r/ LateStageCapitalism channel, with 260,000 members, is devoted to “zesty memes […] that critique [and mock] the decay of western capitalist culture” as it is “digging its own grave.” The subreddit also links to dozens of other channels, from apocalyptic fiction to survival guides. Lagging well behind is a young channel r/Cowwapse, which describes itself as “an antidote to the fear-mongering and doom porn of these subreddits” and focuses mainly on climate change denial (“Snow in Sahara Desert for third time in 40 years”) as well as on celebrating free markets and “the unprecedented equality of the 21st century.” The infamous r/The_Donald has in excess of half a million members, and labels itself a “national suicide prevention lifeline,” celebrating how Donald Trump’s election stalled the disaster toward which his supporters believed America had been heading. The alt-right alike relies on a reactionary civilizational decline narrative, as Angela Nagle writes, a testament to a long line of collapse thought that ties decadence to doom.
As Matt Goerzen writes in “Notes Towards the Memes of Production,” for years “memes were perceived as a negligible artefact until meme magic elected Trump.” Memes are now the focal point of an increasingly visible debate about the state of contemporary political divisions and the online cultural identity war. Circulated mainly within the sphere of American politics that is simultaneously a forum of global digital pop culture, they are associated with the alt-right’s strategy of trolling while “bypassing the dying mainstream media and creating an Internet- culture and alternative media of their own.” Yet, while Nagle writes that the alt-right successfully built its “transgressive” aesthetics by arguing that “we are not ‘five minutes to midnight’ as the anti-immigration right had long claimed but well past midnight,” the desire to grapple with or inhabit apocalypticism is present across the political spectrum. From Afro-pessimism to queer negativity, there is a rising conviction that, as an anonymous graffiti in France proclaimed to the world a few years ago, “another end of the world is possible.” One meme, for example, contrasts neo-reactionary philosopher Nick Land with Afro-pessimist philosopher Frank Wilderson III, denouncing the first as a “techno-commercialist” who advocates a “thirst for annihilation but [is] scared of Islam [and] not at all ready for meltdown,” while praising the latter’s work as a “total apocalyptic epistemic World negation […] unflinching paradigmatic dissatisfaction with humanity,” calling him a “doomsday scion who brings about Afrofuturist singularity.” Marxist scholar and science-fiction writer China Miéville alike advocates that progressives should embrace “a strategy for ruination […] a state of an undefeated despair because it’s done, this is a dystopia, a worsening one, and dreams of interceding don’t just miss the point but are actively unhelpful.”
Next to this apocalyptic cultural capital on both sides of the political spectrum are memes that do not connect easily with the existing political options. An interest in annihilation, at least on the surface, might be the attractor between diffuse political factions, which often share very little apart from their collapse drive. This interrogation happens alongside the debates around posthumanism, transhumanism, automation, extinction, and climate nihilism that have been drawing increased academic, political, cultural, and scientific attention over the last two decades. Pondering abstraction, dehumanization, and disintegration, they play out against the recent Euro-American history of “a not merely ‘non-political’ but a ‘post-political’ generation grappling with its own politicisation under the aegis of austerity, neoliberalism, and financial managerial political corruption,” and — we should add — the growing realization of geological peril on top of that. Questions about humanity, agency, and the very scale at which “politics” must be thought emerge as the main problem of this apocalyptic inquiry. Twitter’s meme culture, for example, is created by humans and bots alike and thus circulating memes on Twitter is a different form of meme commentary than if we were doing so on predominately “human” social media like Snapchat. A recent joint study at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at the University of Indiana and the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California estimates that up to 15% (around 50 million) of Twitter accounts are not human. Outsourcing human agency to machines and experimenting with a nonhuman vision of politics informs this variant of apocalyptic meme culture. Anonymous account @dogsdoingthings, for example, generates dismissive commentaries of human affairs: “Dogs exiting political discourse, preferring instead to lie prone forever in puddle of ooze,” or “Dogs asserting there is no such thing as history and citing the preceding eons of nothingness as evidence.” Add to that the general reputation of Twitter as a grim, soul-crushing place. Musician Mikel Jollett described it as such: “Instagram: My life is a party. Snapchat: My life is a quirky tv show. Facebook: My life turned out great! Twitter: We’re all going to die.” Aside from Twitter, many loosely distributed memes cultivate an appetite for void and a desire to relinquish human agency. Take two of the most popular memes featuring r/surrealmemes’s emblematic “Meme Man,” a bad 3D model of a human face. The first one introduces him as an open source figure for an unknown transformation: “meme man is a conduit through which tortured souls may channel their rage and misery into something more […] an entity which resides in the unspace between this world and the next.” Another portrays him opening a gift, inside which is an all encompassing obliteration that splits his face into pieces. “Thank you,” he responds.
How can we understand this proliferation of apocalypticism in contemporary meme cultures? Slavoj Žižek writes that we indeed live in the end times, marked by the ecological crisis, the biogenetic revolution, accelerating social inequality, and struggles over resources. All of this is happening against the background of sweeping technological changes, which, as Alvin Toffler wrote, provoke a cultural “future shock […] the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future […] a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society.” While apocalyptic memes can be explained by the medium’s inherent — often ironic — humor, they are also the evidence of grappling with the insufficiency of politics at this moment of perceived crisis. Some express panic about civilizational decline, some joke about doom becoming our status quo. Others still wrestle with abstraction and, perhaps unwillingly informed by the possibility of actual extinction in the era that has been called the Anthropocene, challenge the idea of sufficient human agency. Dehumanization, anonymity, and doom are symptomatic not only of what the current (Western) political sphere on the Internet styles itself to be, but also of a larger shift in experiencing the inefficiency of human politics. Various theories of film and media already predicted this moment; tending toward posthumanism, they informed proto-meme theories of technologically mediated forms of anonymous or virtual political subjectivity. This legacy could explain online collapse cultures, and account for the rise of a specific strand of dehumanized apocalypticism, which can only be understood alongside a larger reconsideration of human agency in the age of socio-geological crisis that is the Anthropocene.
The Medium Is the Apocalypse
“There is no other world, but it can’t be this one.”
——@mckenziewark, January, 17, 2018
Barry Vacker, director of the Center for Media and Destiny affiliated with Temple University, writes that “media technologies can be divided into cosmic media and social media, while the media content itself can be understood in terms of memes.” For him, all media within this duplet, from telescopes to television screens, can loop apocalyptic messages because they contribute to revising prevalent forms of human subjectivity, placing it either within the context of the cosmos or the perpetually expanding and contracting network society. The Internet features prominently in his argument, as it represents both the destruction of stable meaning due to its multiple information flows, and a foreshadowing of the biological end of the human species, where the predictions about the singularity to come true. The link between the beginning of the “dehumanizing” industrial revolution and the ascent of moving image technologies, which prefigured digital images, is evident in cinema studies through the linkage of the train and the film projector. Both symbolize not only the onset of the age of technological innovation and environmental pollution, but a change in perception itself: to be able to perceive the world in movement while ourselves remaining stable and still, whether from the window of a moving train or on the cinema screen, changed the very speed at which people viewed reality. No longer, as it was in Renaissance painting, was the human eye the holy perceiver and meaning-maker for which the whole universe arranged itself geometrically and purposefully. Early cinema theorists, such as Jean Epstein and Dziga Vertov, wrote that alongside the telescope and the microscope lens, the inhuman cinema lenses participated in decentralizing the human ego, displacing it from its position at the center of the universe. As Jacques Aumont writes, these technological changes were not only reconfiguring how people experienced spatio-temporality but morality itself, producing new desires such as “the desire for acceleration or the wish to sever roots.” It is within this genealogy that we understand media as a crucial component in posthumanist debates. If, following Marshall McLuhan, we agree that the medium is the message and that every medium destroys some form of subjectivity to introduce another, we can also repeat after Vacker: “the medium is the apocalypse.”
While this linear story bypasses alternate options both within and outside of the “West,” it could partially account for why apocalyptic memes express both a sense of aggrandizement and a desire to relinquish control at the same time. It would be a way for humans to deal with what Vacker describes as the paradoxical effect of the media: a sense of insignificance that they produce by exposing the negligibility of humans within the world, as the telescope and the microscope did, and a sense of importance within a networked system that we experience as centering on us, as social media are purported to do. The train, the symbol of this accelerating, schizophrenic industrial modernity appears in one popular meme. Already mentioned, the “Rape Train” is a reference to a tactic used in Call of Duty, when the player creates a string of zombies following him and eventually stacking up to be easily defeated. When it became apparent that Donald Trump had a legitimate chance of winning the election, it mutated into a “Trump Train,” which celebrated the supposed accelerating destruction of “the elites,” often represented by the Democratic Party, or the “fake news” media. This genre is decisively about asserting control rather than relinquishing the centrality of human agency, yet its interest in destruction and its unintended connection to accelerated media modernity, where humans exist as mere carriers of an unstoppable force, make it a part of a larger apocalyptic tendency in memes, or, as some would argue, in the Internet at large.
Digging into the decentralized, leaky archive of viral digital culture, we might uncover a pervasive sense of crisis and anxiety around new forms of political subjectivity that informs early investigations into the politics of the Internet. In 2002, the Institute for New Culture Technologies in Austria, led by Konrad Becker, hosted a tactical workshop, “Dark Markets: Infopolitics, Electronic Media and Democracy in Times of Crisis”, with guiding questions like “has the Internet still its digital potential to foster a ‘network democracy from below’” or “can the Internet be reclaimed as a digital commons”? The conference marked a rapid decline of trust in the ideals of global democracy once ecstatically arisen with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and then quickly put to rest as the project of the free market guided by the EU, NATO, and the IMF was already turning into a “disaster,” signaled by, among others, “the rise of Europe’s populist and ‘culturalist’ right,” “global warming and the Kyoto treaty drama” and “the astonishing roller coaster ride from dotcom mania to plummeting stock markets.” The conference already questioned whether anything like an “electronic democracy” can exist but, nevertheless, in a then-popular spirit of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, advocated for a “rhizomatic” decentralization of digital networks and “a rigorous involvement and implementation of social movements into technology.” The becoming-networked of the human species was only about to begin, and while many watched with uneasiness the decentralization of markets, the idea of a decentralized, subversive, anarchic digital politics held sway in the early 2000s. Crisis in consequence of technological advancement could model forms of political subjectivity that were considered productive precisely because of their deindividualizing form.
This decentralized political subjectivity is connected to the ideals of anonymity and cyber utopian virtual realities that were prominent in early Internet scholarship. Throughout the 1990s, the promise of these ostensibly non-hierarchical spaces was their ability to erase any physical manifestation of identity and central control — where, under strings of avatars, we would be able to escape the scanning gaze of repressive social structures, which befall us because our bodies appear to others in terms of ethnicity or sex. In “The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic,” Thomas Foster outlines how the idea of posthuman or machine body appears in tandem with a machinic desire: desire for machines or desire to be like one. Anonymity, mutability, and invisibility that online spaces afforded were the revolutionary horizon for feminist critiques, such as in the novels of Melissa Scott, which saw emancipatory potential in the diffused world of alternative and virtual realities, where utopias could be constructed anew, and identity would no longer be defined by what we cannot control: the racialized and sexed ideologies projected onto our bodies. As Donna Haraway noted, “social subjects who are already [used] to thinking about their bodies as constructed, usually by others, and therefore available to reconstruction” would be most incited by the freedom from bodily determinism that living in the meatspace forces on us. It was the left-leaning, posthumanist space of socially transgressive and technologically inclined science fiction that advocated for a maximum subtraction of physical markers of identity by engaging the medium of the Internet.
In the early 2010s, it was still argued that politics could be projected into an endlessly mutable digital space, where basic social and political terms would have to be remodeled. Heather Brooke’s The Revolution Will be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War argues that technology will break down social divisions by creating an even playing field. Yet, as Nagle noticed, this kind of anti-establishment, DIY online culture “that cyberutopian true believers have evangelized for many years” has taken a specific political form in the meme magic of the alt-right, who embrace “the freewheeling world of anonymity and tech” but reinforce a reactionary order of things, rather than creating a mutable space for a new social order. In their Kickstarted book, Neoreaction: A Basilisk, Elizabeth Sandifer also notices that the “neoreactionary” (by their own designation), racist-libertarian movements connected to the alt right aped the cultural techniques of the left to portray themselves as rebels, while evoking the aesthetics of “Basilisks, Cthulhu, and shuddering voids of inescapable reality.”
Memes, as is common knowledge by now, became a tool of choice in this new cultural war. Despite the resulting claims that “the left can’t meme,” discussed also in this collection, the political potential of memes themselves was first celebrated by leftleaning scholars, and not so long ago. Considering contemporary digital culture in times of austerity and in a post-financial crisis Europe, which they describe as “the Pandora’s box of disastrous consequences,” in Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?, the Metahaven collective believe that jokes, including memes, can operate outside of state power because they disrupt what counts as political reality management, that is, what counts as reasonable within public political discourse. Discussing Anonymous, the Arab Spring, the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism, and 4chan’s trolling of the Church of Scientology in 2008, they go as far as to suggest that memes can be an alternative to representative democracy: an idea previously advocated by scholars who saw the Internet as a permissive space where those who could not access real political representation could nevertheless claim it. In this vision, memes could have been the realization of Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of the public sphere, a non-legislative space of communication for the people, which Habermas dates back to the eighteenth century and the ideals of the Enlightenment in Europe.
Before the alt-right became the most visible dealer of memes, there were at least three noticeable traditions of proto-memepolitics on the left: one in the 1990s, which celebrated the anonymous, mutable spaces of the Internet as a way of erasing oppressive identities; the other two in the early 2000s, when the Internet was portrayed both as a disruptive space of nonsensical humor, and an accessible public sphere. And yet, Goerzen writes that it was the neo-Luddite thinking on the left, which forgot its own roots in political techno experimentations, that led to the right reappropriating the techniques of the avantgarde, such as provocation, anonymity, and irony to advocate for a return to a paleo-libertarian value system. This is true enough — equally visible in Internet scholarship are works that lament its ascent as the end-all of politics. Hubert Dreyfus’s On the Internet builds on Søren Kierkegaard’s impressive hatred of the daily press — “Europe will come to a standstill at the Press and remain at a standstill as a reminder that the human race has invented something which will eventually overpower it” — to argue that a disembodied experience characteristic of the online sphere is in itself a political catastrophe. For Dreyfus, anonymity and information overload turn everyone into a dilettante and a nihilist. Kierkegaard despised the principle of equivalence that the daily press introduced into information flows. He found the idea that God was “equally concerned with the salvation of humanity and the fall of one sparrow” the expression of utmost nihilism, an annihilation of political relevance and concern. We can only imagine his outrage at Mark Zuckerberg’s famous claim that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” a comment that prefigured the trouble he was about to get in after Trump’s victory, when Facebook had to withstand a lot of criticism pertaining to its information bubbles. Dreyfus alike tells us that because of the Internet, there is nothing worth dying for — everything matters equally, invading your attention span with equal force. Stands are to be taken no more! Flow of information postpones action indefinitely, memes drown us in their self-replicating digital flood, rabbit holes down subreddits tear you away from practice and insert you into an information-producing machine, until you are nothing but an ever-sharpening set of refined “views on issues.” You have become an epistemological halo, trapped in the apparatus of the Internet, which produces knowledge but stalls action. This process, as Dreyfus tells us, rests in the fact of the Internet’s “deindividualized” and “abstract” nature, detached from local practices. Kierkegaard predicted that this abstract, mediated public sphere will proliferate apocalyptic prophecies, proposing that humans, overwhelmed by the nihilism brought on by the media, will refuse ethical thought entirely, prioritizing instead involvements in the aesthetic sphere, where the goal is to “make enjoyment of all possibilities the center of their lives.” He would probably say tha it is not the content that makes memes apocalyptic but rather that all aesthetic production that the media sphere necessitates is hopelessly rooted in the annihilation of ethical concern. The medium is the apocalypse.
These traditions — one pro-Internet, the other anti — disagree primarily on the points of abstraction and dehumanization. Starting from the same point — the Internet is abstracting and disrupting politics — they arrive either at a utopian vision, in which digital spaces become materials out of which a new politics can be borne, or generate a dystopian disengagement with politics as humanity is increasingly trapped in aesthetics. Habermas was immediately critical of how the public sphere worked, complaining that it deteriorated into mediocrity and conformism, but he still believed in rescuing it. Kierkegaard, however, predicted that for media nihilism to occur, “a phantom must first be provided, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all encompassing something that is a nothing, a mirage — this phantom is the public.” Of course, for him, this was an entirely deplorable fact, a monstrous, occult uprising of unethical and perversely aesthetic nihilism. Any type of harm can be waged in the name of “the people” as they are but a phantom, delighted by aesthetic speculation and detached from localized practices. A faceless online army, we could say, spewing apocalyptic prophecies, entertaining themselves with unethical, aesthetic nihilism, is precisely what Kierkegaard feared that the media would produce.
Given the failed utopianism of techno-anarchism on the one side, and the dystopian relativism of the memetic public sphere on the other, could a different opening still be created within this phantom politics? Rather than demonizing the phantom nature of meme politics, Tiziana Terranova suggests that “meme theory” is an appropriate way of understanding all technological mediation, precisely because “what Dawkins’ theory allows is the replacement of the individual by the unit” and if we should stick with the biological undertones of the original term, it is because of its “immense productivity of the multitude, its absolute capacity to […] mutate.” Putting forth the possibility of collapse as productive, she believes that such technologies enable “an acceleration of history and an annihilation of distance within an information milieu, it is a creative destruction” which allows for social reconstruction. Perhaps the desire to erase oneself, to anonymize the Internet, to thrust ourselves — as a phantom public — into destruction is not an entirely aesthetic project but, as any legitimately nihilist drive, speaks to a deeper impulse toward a revaluation of what counts as political in the first place. Could this phantom subjectivity that the media called into existence be also a specter of reformation?
Memes of the Anthropocene
“the question that once seemed to be: are
you happy? has been replaced with: can you
breathe? neither can be answered”
——@atlajala, August 2, 2017
Konrad Becker notices that “disorganization creates crisis cults or projective systems resulting from culture strains.” The Global Financial Crisis in 2008, which was, in fact, a doom event with disastrous consequences, surprisingly did not provoke a surge in meme production. In the same year, however, there were dozens of apocalyptic memes related to the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator and the possibility of creating a black hole that could swallow our universe. A status-indicator single site, active until today, titled “Has The Large Hadron Collider Destroyed The World Yet?” was launched. In 2012, there was a flood of catastrophic memes, this time devoted to the Mayan calendar, including images depicting the Nibiru Cataclysm, a theory of planetary collision first proposed in 1995 by Nancy Lieder who claimed to have received the prophecy from aliens. The theory was so popular that it compelled NASA to inform the Internet that Nibiru actually did not exist. Like the memes commenting on a doomsday scenario from just a year before fabricated by Christian preacher Harold Camping (The May 21, 2011 Rapture), the overall tone was mockery — as if we were going to die! Grumpy Cat, the Internet’s favourite cynical retort at the height of the mid-2010s obsession with animal reaction memes, provided a subtle celebratory tone: “The world is ending in December? Good.” In 2016, when Donald Trump ran for President, the “This is Fine” meme brought another brand of ironic defeatism to the table. Sourced from K.C. Green’s Gunshow comics, this continually popular meme portrays a dog sitting at a table amidst burning flames, assuring himself that everything is fine — “this is fine, I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently” — as the fire engulfs his house and eventually melts his face off. Elite Daily collected several end of the world memes to honor the end of 2017, which joke about Hurricane Ophelia in London and the possibility of a nuclear war. Donald Trump’s inauguration inspired many memes which equated it with no less than the coming of the beast. The unintentionally ominous picture of Trump, Saudi king Salman, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi touching a mysterious glowing orb, originally posted by @SaudiEmbassyUSA, was widely circulated and drew comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Marvel universe villains. The Church of Satan retweeted the photo, clarifying that it was not a Satanic ritual. John Hodgman tagged conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his retweet, asking him to “pay attention” as — it was implied — the orb was clearly about to jumpstart a communist-reptilian reckoning. It is not only the alt-right that trades in the aesthetics of civilizational decline.
In 1922, shortly after the October revolution, Russian historian Yevgeny Tarle wrote that “revolution is foremost a death, then a life; we risk forgetting that not far under the elegant carpet of our cabin there is a dark and fathomless abyss.” Based in his conviction that crisis was temporary, his strategy was to advocate for a calm resistance to the sway of the unknown, for asserting, rather than overthrowing the persuasions of the olden days. Or, the Internet would say, keep calm and carry on. Yet, what if crisis is not a transitory stage but the rhythm to which society marches without break? What if crisis is perpetually but unequally distributed? Mark Fisher uses the term “capitalist realism” to describe how capitalism manages to ostensibly unhinge itself from economy, where Karl Marx defined it chiefly through the production of surplus value, to encompass the past and the future, as if it was the only thing that ever existed and the only one that ever will. To sustain this tautology, capitalism trades in producing and maintaining crisis as its main cultural currency, thus naturalizing itself as the only alternative. Achille Mbembe describes a similar mechanism underlying necro-political states, which must maintain a sense of danger — you have no idea of the threat that is underway! — to justify large-scale physical violence toward (typically racialized) populations. Necro-political nation-states must then maintain both the sense of crisis and the fantasy of protection at their hands to stay in power. The difference now is that instead of analyzing how capitalism manages culture and crisis within the nation state, we should be charting a far more encompassing, planetary necropolitics parallel to what is called the Anthropocene. The power fantasy that it produces is not security but inevitability.
First coined by the Dutch chemist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000, the term “Anthropocene” gained currency in 2007, when paleobiologist and stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz requested that the Geological Society of London’s Stratigraphy Commission review the case for a new geological epoch to replace the currently prevailing Holocene. While climate change and the Anthropocene are often conflated, in 2009 Nature published an article in which a team of scientists led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre list several different factors that, if accelerated by humans, would lead to the 6th global extinction. Climate change is only one of them, alongside ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, global freshwater depletion, biodiversity loss, changes in nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, industrial agriculture, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. Although these phenomena are environmental, the Anthropocene denotes their civilizational origin: industrial capitalism and fossil fuel extraction, the global slave trade, the Great Acceleration, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have all been suggested as the starting points of this geosociological, or socio-geological era. This prophecy of doom, however, grounded as it is in the scientific consensus, does not inspire apocalypticism in memes in the same way that everyday political headlines do. Climate change memes are popular but are rather didactic tools for educating the masses about the prescience of the subject, or deceiving them into climate change denialism.
If the Anthropocene informs apocalyptic memes, it does so in a less direct way. Precisely because the points of contestation discussed here are abstraction, phantom politics, and posthumanism, the Anthropocene as an organizing principle must tell us something about the vectors of dehumanization and doom that we currently inhabit. This extends beyond portraying current events as apocalyptic into a symptomatic denouncing of the importance of humanity as such. As a counterpart to Reddit’s collapse channels mentioned in the introduction, r/antinatalism and r/vhemt are devoted to antinatalism and voluntary human extinction movements, where human hubris is harshly criticized. Discussions there are resentful, defeatist, and often angry. Annihilation, some users argue, is what humans deserve, exhibiting a sentiment similar to the many millenarian movements throughout history. However, they advocate rather for a definite death of the whole human species as a moral duty — the Earth is already overpopulated and full of suffering — rather than a political purge of unworthy groups. In an indirect parallel to these are r/surrealmemes memes, where humans are often portrayed as a funnily insignificant element of a much more interesting and alien universe. A popular meme titled “Compared to him, they are nothing” portrays humans devoured by a presumably alien octagon, with a caption “They run, for he consumes their entire existence.” Another, “Sentient beings be like,” pictures a gigantic humanoid face in a meditative-hallucinatory state, with a caption “Yes, we observe the memes, but do we even fucking exist?” An “exploding brain” meme, in which each panel describes a more mind-blowing revelation than the last, begins with “confused screaming,” moves through “revolution and reform are two sides of the same utopian coin” and “awaiting ‘the collapse’ as if it were a singular event […] is merely a crude inversion of utopia” to end again at “confused screaming.” Neither of these memes are didactic about geo-social problems. Yet, the Anthropocene is “a social imaginary that has exceeded its intended categorization and whose parameters delimit ways of thinking about the world well beyond the confines of geoscientific debate.” On the level of politics and culture, this catastrophic narrative marks the moment when we are collectively redefining our idea of the “human” and the types of social agency that this figure might have in the times when our species seems both powerful enough to bring about our own destruction through technological expansion, and at the same time not powerful enough to save itself, or to even at a minimum provide a model of industrial society that would not be based in rapidly accelerating social inequality and political polarization.
Alexander Galloway writes that the Anthropocene narrative is a contemporary form of amor fati to which the allegedly rational moderns have surprisingly succumbed. Karl Marx wrote about the strange “ghost dance” of capitalism, where material conditions are reduced to an abstraction, while the intangible is made into something concrete — subjects become objects and objects become subjects, commodities seem more alive than the workers whose labor creates them. Marx described how the ruling classes mask the actual ways in which they organize labor, thus giving the impression of the market itself as a sentient being, separate from human agency. Galloway’s concept of the “warm pride” can be understood as an extension of this condition in the context of the Anthropocene and the climate, where humanity’s global geological agency is masked by a theoretical and aesthetic scaling down of humans to just one being among many others:
Like the “landfill” trashcan, the concept of the Anthropocene teeters with postmodern vertigo. It indicts mankind for its fiduciary failings, only to promulgate a new historical narrative with mankind at the center. Tell me I failed, then put me in the spotlight. Remove agency, then assign it again. Which is it? Are we special or aren’t we? Are we special enough to go toe to toe with the planet? Or are we merely another desiring machine, no different from the lowly mouse, or the deoxyribonucleic acid? […] [Contemporary theory would often tell us that] we’re impactful in matters of existence, but peripheral in matters of ontology, [it says,] I may display hubris toward the natural world, provided I subscribe to annihilation at the level of being; [it is the] pride of place in geological history within a declension narrative that only ends one way [— in collapse].
This thought spells out a paradox, an asymmetry in line with Vacker’s diagnosis that it is the combination of both decentralising and narcissistic effects of cosmic and social media that makes all media forms prone to apocalypticism. In this context, it is hardly surprising that apocalyptic memes are plentiful on the Western Internet — through colonialism, Western European culture was “the first memetic global pandemic.” The Anglo- Saxon colonial empire at the center of the Industrial Revolution that led us to the Anthropocene is now generating apocalyptic signifiers, because it is — perhaps — witnessing its own end. If everyday events in the West provoke apocalyptic panic, it is because the empire cannot picture itself as peripheral to history and so it embraces apocalypticism to turn inevitability into a comforting thought, removing unknowns by predicting the end. This could account for many of the doom memes that relate quite visibly to current political events. However, if the Anthropocene maps both a recognition of the power of colonial industrial societies and an embarrassment at any suggestions that this power could be used to erase its own ill effects, political agency in itself becomes one of the most important questions. The ways in which less obviously political memes inhabit the aesthetics of collapse could signal a shift in how (post)human agency is experienced against the background of a looming extinction event, which — despite its specific historical origins — interpellates humanity at large as the subject.
Such warm pride turns the Western Internet into an apocalyptic space of dank dystopia, where anonymously sharing doom memes becomes a commodified version of cyberpunk utopia and its failed promise of equalising facelessness. If for Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro the Anthropocene announces that for the first time in known history that a dominant geological form — humans — is self-aware, the proliferation of apocalyptic memes signifies the desire of that force for its own dissolution achieved by memetic automation and dehumanization of political subjectivity. Within this submissive fantasy, the scale of current and coming geo-social damage is experienced as far too great to comprehend, much less to act on. Humans are insignificant and anonymous in the face of planetary collapse. Abandoning themselves to anonymous, ever-replicating networks of doom memes provides the solace of discarding the idea of a sufficient human agency, alongside any values that this species-being may confer, including what is coded as political or ethical. Humans, newly clothed in a self chastizing impulse and perceiving themselves as just one element of the ever-expanding planetary cyberspace, are but survival bunkers for memes, who spread their power both across the biological space of the human organism, planting and replicating ideas, and the digital space of the Internet, where they travel as image. Becker already diagnosed this desire to renounce human agency by filtering it through media networks, writing that memes “[live] off humans, eating brain when they do not battle themselves in memetic cannibalism, preying on each other like flip-flop cellular automatons.” In his dystopian novel World War Z, only one of hundreds of literary and visual dystopias that have flooded popular culture over the last two decades, Max Brooks describes how, in order to survive a zombie apocalypse, some humans started impersonating zombies, convincing themselves that if they could become like those who want to eat them, they will not be eaten. (They all died.) Relinquishing the idea of a sufficient individual, human presence within the global crisis narrative could function in a similar way — withdrawing humanity into these surreal, fatalistic, apocalyptic memes corresponds to the general experience of human politics as either heading toward grotesque failure or being insufficient as a rule.
Yet, this does not necessarily mean that apocalyptic memes translate into passivity or that they want no part in constructing the future. They map — at times with pleasure and curiosity rather than fear — both the decline of the Western empire and the global reckoning with the crisis of the Anthropocene. Crisis cults function as a way of identification with a set of values, even if this value is the mutual agreement on the impossibility of the present and coming world. In this world that is “increasingly unthinkable,” to use Eugene Thacker’s term, either on the level of perceived political catastrophe and civilizational decline or on the planetary scale of the Anthropocene, the way that these memes grapple with the insufficiency of human politics is valid. How is it at all possible to think about politics unless they are scaled up to a planetary level, where the dehumanizing abstractions of capitalism, the laments about civilization decline, and the extractions of what used to be called “natural” converge? Apocalyptic memes do not provide an answer but they do express a crisis in the conventional experience of human agency in an orderly world, and as such a willingness to pose the question.
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