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When well-to-do people can "relate" to a meme of a coup in a country beyond their time zone and GDP bracket, it says something of the monoculture we are are now part of.
January began with an attempted takeover of the American Capitol, and February began with a coup in Myanmar. What endured of the pain were memes—the man with a fur-lined Russian hat with horns, the American flag, like a devil’s fork, on his hand, and painted on his face, and a woman recording her dance-exercise video as the Myanmar military motorcade in the background was revving up for the coup. But the memes were double-edged. The humour that came out of it masked a reality that was rotten. The humour became almost a distraction from, as opposed to an outtake of, that very rottenness—the very objective of contemporary meme-ing.
Democracy Is Delicate, Always Becoming, Always Unraveling
The military took over in Myanmar, arresting Aung San Suu Kyi, the de-facto leader, and Win Myint, the president, among other officials. The delicate democracy has spent more years under “socialist” dictators and “capitalist” army chiefs than democratically elected leaders since its blood-soaked independence in 1948. But democracy is delicate, something Amanda Gorman’s beautifully performed inaugural poem reiterated. That even if it can be deferred, it can never be denied. That even as it is given, it can be taken away. That tenuousness of democracy is a present-continuous verb—becoming, unraveling, solidifying; the ing-ness of democracy. Democracy can never be an end goal, because it is predicated on elections that can overturn its very existence. Democracy can never rest. It’s a hustle. Democracy means always being at the precipice—the danger of spiraling inward or outward without ever forming the closed loop.
Look at India, a democracy on paper—we have an elected parliament, a judiciary, media. But the circuitous connections between the three, that was supposed to promise accountability, instead has congealed on its base desire for, and fear of a “strongman”. The state has becomes an invitation to violence—either you inflict it, or it inflicts it upon you. This is why political films like Rang De Basanti, and Trial Of Chicago Seven work rousingly, and viscerally. It is a direct assault on the idea that the state is the caretaker. Violence is not just a method of expression, but a method of existing too, because to not be violent would be to be violated.
On February 1, 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos, the scum of the earth troll, was scheduled to make a speech at Berkeley around 8 p.m., on an invitation by the campus Republicans. The weeks prior on campus were fueled with tension, with faculty signing petitions urging the university to cancel the event. I remember sitting at the Free Speech Cafe, a capitalist ode to the Marxist Mario Savio. The tables were buzzing with debate. The idea was that he had every right to speak what he wanted to, and I too, believed that. But then news came of how in a previous speech on his tour Yiannopoulos had harassed a trans student, putting their image on the screen and mocking it. The fear was he would do something similar in Berkeley, and so I went to protest his speech. Why should he be paid to spew hate?
I was outside the student center protesting with everyone. It was then that people with covered faces started throwing things, a tree caught on fire, and a generator was thrown into the glass sealed Amazon pickup point in the student center. The police fired pellets and I left, but I was in two minds—Is violence justified, if it is just the end and not the means to anything? If violence is not necessarily about bringing change, but expression, is that okay? My detached mind resented the idea of violence, but my beating heart was ho-humming around the question. Yiannopoulos didn’t end up speaking, and those who insurrected the violence were identified as ANTIFA insertions. Berkeley turned into a police state for the next few weeks, Trump tweeted about us, against us, and my heart and mind coalesced—no violence, never violence.
This role of violence in movement-building is something Gandhi dismissed. For him violence was the lack of discipline, which was why he called off an entire snowballing Non Cooperation Movement (that was just going to turn its attention towards the non-payment of taxes) against the Colonial British at its height in 1922, when the Chauri Chaura violence broke his spirit. This was, an ideological limitation of Gandhi’s Satyagraya, non-violent protest—it could never snowball into revolution, because revolution necessarily requires disorder. For Gandhi a mass movement was a dramatized, cultivated show of discipline, and thus he had, what Professor Karuna Mantena calls “an aesthetic revulsion to crowd”. (The word “cultivated” is important because it shows that discipline is not a prerequisite of mass-movement, but an outcome of it.)
So, when a state becomes this invitation to violence, the citizens are thrown into an identity crisis given how the notional citizen involves duties of allegiance to the state, but the reality is being in a constant state of provocation. In Jammu and Kashmir an entire generation is being raised to hate the state because of what the states does to them, where they just, after 550 days, restored the internet. 550 days. Five Hundred And Fifty Days.
America was going through this for a while under Trump. His stupidity lost him the election. But he still got 75 million people to vote for him. Modi isn’t stupid, and that’s the fear. The verdict isn’t out on the Myanmar military’s stupidity.
But a verdict is certainly out on a shrinking world. Myanmar’s image in the West has been one of penury and Aung San Suu Kyi. When Madeline Albright, then Secretary of State, visited Myanmar, three images of the country circulated and became the image of country for the coming decades—"the wicked general, the faultless icon, and innocent people waiting for salvation.”
“An Associated Press clip of the visit shows Albright… sitting across the table from khaki-clad generals, everybody stone-faced, then meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, this time everyone all smiles, before cutting to a scene of the ambassador at a random Burmese village, the villagers, men, women, and children laughing and smearing sandalwood paste on Albright, who asks “Is it good?”, to which they reply “Hla-de” (“You’re beautiful”)”— Thant Myint-U (The Hidden History Of Burma)
But today, Myanmar’s image is about that woman dancing as the politics descends into anarchy, a meme that is at once humourous and “relatable”. That we can, today, use an “Oriental” country as a metaphor to explain why an “Occidental” country unraveled is testament to how the East and the West are slowly becoming merely directional adjectives, not implying the loaded vocabulary of civilization and development.1 What is helping in this is, according to Amitav Ghosh, environmental catastrophe, “The waters that are invading the Sunderbans are also swamping Miami Beach; deserts are advancing in China as well as Peru; wildfires are intensifying in Australia as well as Texas and Canada.” And in this ongoing cultural shift, I think the memes help.
The Meme Monoculture
The coup took center stage on Twitter not because it was a coup, but because Khing Hnin Wai, the fitness instructor was recording and rehearsing her dance-exercise routine as the motorcade rolled in, in the background. She had no idea what was going on, or going to happen, and the video blew up.
The first thing I noticed was that people were convinced and convincing others that the video was shot on green-screen—an inability to accept a kind of absurd even as they are living through another kind of it.
The second thing I noticed is people across the world using this video as a metaphor of their lives, our lives—an attempt at keeping your body and mind fit, or just “doing your own shit” as the world rages in chaos in the background. The humour was threefold: the oblivion, the dance, the coup. Without either of the elements, the meme wouldn’t have taken root the way it did.
From writers in Pakistan, to philosophers in America, the wide variety of people “relating” to this video was testament to the monoculture that memes beget. It is not saying that we live the same lives, but that we are performing the same lives. Or alternatively, our essence is the same.
Memes are a unique regime of ideas that took root in the post-internet refashioning of identity, where the mind-body distinction broke down. Think of how people have opinions on Twitter, opinions that exist on their own in the ether of the internet, without a body attached to it, “a civilization of the mind”. Your thoughts exist, and travel while you can be asleep, or on another app, or even dead. (When MF Hussain passed away, a friend innocently texted me on the side, confused about how his Facebook page is still posting if he is dead.)
This dissociation of thoughts from the body makes it easier for people to laugh, to be angry, to perform laughter, and perform anger. It is why so many people using dating apps are disappointed when they meet the same witty exhibitionist online in person—a shy shadow of their internet self. On the internet, dissatisfaction, like humour, like progressive values, has become a commodity.
“Posting photos from a protest against border family separation, as I did while writing this, is a microscopically meaningful action, an expression of genuine principle, and also, inescapably, some sort of attempt to signal that I am good.” — Jia Tolentino
This is why people feel the internet does harm to one’s self-image. It’s a marketplace and we are selling ideas of ourselves. Imagine being in a bustling market with goods you want to sell, but no one is interested in what you have to offer. You come back home dejected, exactly the way you shut your phone off, sighing, after your latest exhibition of wit as a tweet got only 2 retweets. It’s the same mechanism, the mythic algorithm is now the “invisible hand” of the market.
In addition to commodifying one’s ideas, what the internet, and specifically memes, also do is create a monoculture, because once the body, with its distinctiveness, is removed from the conversation, it becomes an abstract thing. Subtle Curry Traits and Subtle Asian Traits as Facebook groups have gained traction because of this—an idea of common experiences that make us feel like we are living the same life.
It is why a meme of a coup in Myanmar becomes relatable to a rich cultural critic in Pakistan. It is the desire to claim a common absurd as part of one’s life. It’s a kind of perception management.
This desire to be something else on the internet is at odds with John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a manifesto to keep the cyberspace, or the internet, a space of unfenced freedom to be whoever one wants to be:
We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.
Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.
The outtake of this would be: given limitless freedoms, human beings would, instead of using the freedom to be themselves, be versions of themselves.
This is not to say that the world has become a monoculture. It is to say that memes have created this alternative world, this cyberspace, where we are slowly, prodded to become part of a monoculture. To create a space where we shed our truths to congeal on a greater, unifying aesthetic of humour, politics, and colour. Where we can cut our hands, and find out that we are cake. Where we can use all sorts of Instagram filters to make us look like a kitten, a dog, or another gender, while we struggle with our own bodies. Where we can use filters of Paris, Jakarta, Oslo and New York, while not even being able to use local transportation in lockdown. The disjunct is jarring, while the simplicity is reassuring.
Robert Parry, a news reporter noted in the brilliant 2016 documentary HyperNormalization, “Reality becomes something to play with. Reality is something you can twist, can handle.” This is certainly true of the meme-scape, where identities are reduced to their quirks that can be bartered on the internet for some self-worth.
Amitav Ghosh said this with respect to the earth in his essays in The Great Derangement, "I suspect that human beings were generally catatrophists at heart until their instinctive awareness of the earth’s unpredictability was gradually supplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism.” The memes are thus, an antidote to the struggles of reality, while they posit themselves as a representation of it. To create this alternative realm of aesthetic decay that we can experience, but that in no way mirrors the decay we find ourselves in.
So, someone in India, someone in America, and someone in Brazil can all look at Khing Hnin Wai shimmying her hips in front of a coup-causing motorcade and think, “Wow, we are all living in the same world.” But darling, you’re sitting in an air-conditioned room.
If you like what you read, tell others. If you don’t, tell me. You can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram.
There is an alternative way to think of this meme as something exotic, and exaggerated, but whose whose essence remains “relatable”. Then too, I think, the argument that the West and East are slowly coalescing holds, because it is the essence, stripped of the aesthetics, that still holds value and humour.