Reading between the memes
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 10:15 AM
If you’re the kind who ventures out on foot after dark,
you’ve almost certainly noticed a hypnotic blue glow flashing inside windows throughout
the neighborhood. And when you see people held captive by a box of moving
light, you can’t help but think that humans seem complicit in their own
capture—even if you’re no stranger to a great episode of Planet Earth or Arrested
Development yourself. Does it matter whether they’re watching American Idol, Mad Men, or Real Housewives?
For decades, people have worried that television and movies
would take away the public’s agency, the collective drive to do anything but
work and buy things advertised on TV. It’s a justifiable fear. People do seem
pretty entrenched in a lifestyle that revolves around working, eating, and
Of course, there’s also a history of resistance to this
prescribed lifestyle, and not just among academics. Ray Bradbury wrote his 1953
novel, Fahrenheit 451,to caution
against “the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news and
the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids.” In 1967, Timothy
Leary urged a gathering of 30,000 hippies to “turn on, tune in, drop out” (a
phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan). Such messages urged audiences to avoid a
lifestyle of shallow entertainment and consumption in favor of unmediated
experience and action toward positive change.
But money has a way of rendering its critics useless. Now
the hippies’ peace sign is converted into profits at big box stores, where
workers are underpaid and money
is funneled to warmongering presidents. And the purchase of a tie-die
rainbow dress from a popular bohemian concept shop might well further
the career of a dogmatist politician. From hippie to hipster, attempts at
cultural overhaul have been bought, sold, and used against those trying to
change the system. What’s a rebel to do?
Some have attempted to fight fire with fire. While punks,
hip-hop kids, and culture jammers didn’t invent the art of the remix, they
popularized it. On the surface, remixing seems pretty innocent. Take a sample
of culture—an instrumental hook, an image, or word from a magazine—cut, paste, and
make it your own. Most memes (and their variants) do this for a laugh, but it
can be seen as an act of defiance. Those who remix refuse to passively consume.
They insist on answering the nebulous assertions of mass media, however small
their voices may be. It’s a fine line, though, between remix and copyright
The group has emerged as a leader in defense of democratic control of information threatened by corporate copyright and money’s influence on Capitol Hill. Anonymous
understands the value of open-source culture and has fought to protect it. In its own gesture of
sampling, the group turned a mask worn by the fictional protagonist in V for Vendetta into a real-world icon of
rebellion. The mask has a complex
history of evolving meaning, explains Molly Sauter on HiLobrow, beginning with Guy Fawkes’ involvement in a failed plot
to assassinate King James in 1605. Though Fawkes was killed, his legend lived
on through folk tradition, a comic book series, and that series’ Hollywood film adaptation. The popularity of the Guy
Fawkes mask sold in costume shops post-film was waning when an internet forum playfully
revived it to serve as the face of Epic Fail Guy, “a stick figure who failed at
everything,” writes Sauter. “It’s unclear whether this association had anything
to do with the historical story of Guy Fawkes (whose Gunpowder Plot was, in fact,
an EPIC FAIL), or whether it was due simply to the marketing blitz for V
for Vendetta. Either way, the initial popularity of the mask within the
Anonymous community was directly due to its association with Epic Fail Guy, and
only indirectly (if at all) to political sympathy with either the historical
Guy Fawkes or V for Vendetta.”
When Anonymous began its sidewalk protest of the Church of Scientology, the mask was worn mockingly
to expose the religion as an “epic fail,” suggests Sauter. However, as Anonymous’
actions gained recognition, offline embrace of the mask caused its meaning to
“The symbolism of the mask itself,
adopted by anti-authoritarian protesters from [Occupy Wall Street] to the Arab Spring,
seems to have reverted to more closely embody the meaning in the V for
Vendetta comics and film. Rather than overtly mocking those targeted by
the protesters, the mask (an anarchic folk hero with a smile and curved
mustache) serves as a political identifier. The wearer is identified as anti-authoritarian,
a member of an online generation that values the freedom of communication and
assembly that the internet has so powerfully enabled.”
The meaning of the mask was influenced by many, but
controlled by none. It became a sign, a word in the language of resistance. Far
from simple imitation, this transformation seems to have happened almost by
Though the mask signifies rebellion, it has not escaped the
constructs of copyright and consumption. Nick Bilton of The New York Times points out that every time a mask is purchased, protesters
of the world’s largest media companies, Time Warner. There is no denying
this claim, but Bilton misses the point. Rather than inventing a new icon of resistance,
which would in time be packaged for the masses and sold à la peace signs, Che
Guevara, and the Obey Giant,
protesters have reclaimed an item that media companies had rendered all but
meaningless. It’s a product, sure, but it gives dissidents something no advertisement sells: temporary anonymity. In freeing its wearers from identity,
the mask also frees them from their individuality, allowing them to be
subsumed, for a fearless moment, by a greater cause. It’s almost the reverse of
Bilton’s argument—critics of corrupt capitalist practices have found a way to exploit
the system, which distributes the face of their protest.
The Guy Fawkes mask is not the only example of this leap from mass media to
the streets. In an article for Guernica Rebecca Solnit wrote that a friend arrested at an Occupy protest had posted“Max
gave me the Hunger Games salute in jail today. It was awesome,” in a status update on Facebook. “In
this way,” writes Solnit, “do fiction and reality meld in misery and triumph
[…].” It seems people are expanding the vocabulary of the 99 percent, and symbols
spread wide by mass media make for a convenient starting point.
The messages contained within film, television, and books
inevitably infiltrate public thought and discussion. The more aware we are of
their influence, the more control we have over it. In the hands of engaged
audiences, mass media have the potential to contribute to a broad language of
protest. By using the internet and streets as a public forum, people create and
change this language, and the gap between citizen and consumer narrows. Rebellion
can be co-opted by consumerism, but the reverse might also be true.
Images, top to bottom: "televisión lado A" by Ángel Raúl Ravelo Rodríguez
licensed under Creative Commons;
Epic Fail Guy; Anonymous crop, from a 2008 photo with Graham Berry at the Hamburg conference on Scientology, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012 9:24 AM
Since the dawn of the internet age, activists have been
talking about going digital. Some of them even pioneered tactics for electronic
civil disobedience. But it wasn’t until a subculture of hackers became
politicized that a popular movement took off. The result is a subversive,
unapologetic, and surprisingly powerful activism. Anonymous may have a
reputation for pranks and crime, but by early 2011 the group’s reputation as an
influential, if loosely organized, hacktivist collective was solidified.
Read Quinn Norton’s history of
Anonymous in Wired, and Molly
Sauter’s background on the Guy
Fawkes mask at HiLobrow.
Keep up with Anonymous at AnonNews.org
NYU Media professor Gabriella Coleman on Anonymous
Zuccotti Raid Footage shot by NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU)
Monday, April 16, 2012 10:55 AM
What would happen if the government had access to information you share on Facebook and could access it without you knowing? For now, the Orwellian question remains hypothetical. But if a bill before Congress is approved, it might enable that very thing.
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing Protection Act, or CISPA, boasts bipartisan support and the approval of many high-profile businesses, notably Facebook. Its creators claim it will prevent “catastrophic attack to our nation’s vital networks - networks that power our homes, provide our clean water or maintain the other critical services we use every day.”
But the bill has received harsh criticism from groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), and Anonymous. Now, get ready to put all those acronyms to use. The EFF accuses Congress of using fear of cyber threats to distract the public from the bill’s infringements on free speech. To that, CDT adds encroachment on Americans’ fourth amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. According to CDT, “CISPA has a very broad, almost unlimited definition of the information that can be shared with government agencies […] is likely to lead to expansion of the government’s role in the monitoring of private communications [… and] is likely to shift control of government cybersecurity efforts from civilian agencies to the military.”
It's scary stuff, and groups like Free Press, Demand Progress, and Avaaz.org have jumped to action. Their “Stop CISPA” petitions are currently circulating through social media channels, including Facebook. The response has been extensive enough to warrant a response from Facebook’s Vice President of U.S. Policy, Joel Kaplan. On Friday, Kaplan wrote a letter assuring users that Facebook would not betray their trust. The comments below the letter are overwhelmingly negative, with many using the space to share information about the bill and others threatening to move to Google+.
Facebook isn’t the only one responding. To combat negative press, “House Intel Comm” launched a Twitter account on April 11th. The tweets were composed in glowing Newspeak. “Rogers-Ruppersberger #cyber bill keeps the federal govt’s hands off the Internet, & doesn’t allow the govt to stop access to websites.” Spin this fine would give George Orwell a run for his money. Fortunately, such tweets only show how out-of-touch its authors are with people who actually use the internet. A “best of” collection has been immortalized by the bloggers of Techdirt, where the comment section shows that few have been fooled by the propaganda campaign.
If anything, it is the comment areas of these sites that should give us hope. Americans are not the passive, blundering fools we have been made to seem in the past. When given room to voice our opinions, we’re a feisty bunch (no wonder they’d like to keep tabs on us). The major thing missing from discussion in the comments section is that CISPA is not the only option. The CDT supports a bill proposed by Dan Lungren (R-CA) called the PRECISE Act, calling it “a strong alternative to CISPA by balancing cybersecurity, industry and civil liberties concerns.” This is the bill we should be talking about, in Congress and comments sections alike.
Sources: Congressman Mike Roger’s press release, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy & Technology,Techdirt, Facebook, CISPA homepage
Image: "A New Method of Macarony Making, as practised at Boston in North America," satirical illustration depicting two American colonists tar and feathering an English customs agent at Boston, Massachusetts. Mezzotint, 152 mm x 113 mm. Courtesy of the British Museum, London. This work is in the public domain in the United States.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011 5:09 PM
Given the corruption that crashed the American economy (again), and the current administration’s unwillingness to seriously address class issues or corporate greed, it’s hard to find fault with Occupy Wall Street.
The “leaderless resistance movement,” which started in New York City on September 17 and continues to attract protesters to Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, is viewed by many, including Noam Chomsky, as courageous and honorable.
“Anyone with eyes open knows that the gangsterism of Wall Street—financial institutions generally—has caused severe damage to the people of the United States and the world. And should also know that it has been doing so increasingly for over 30 years, as their power in the economy has radically increased, and with it their political power,” Chomsky says. “[The protests] should serve to bring this calamity to public attention, and to lead to dedicated efforts to overcome it and set the society on a more healthy course.”
On the Washington Post’s editorial page, staffer James Downie concludes that “as long as the sluggish economy continues to hit Americans—and especially young Americans—hard, expect more and bigger demonstrations like Occupy Wall Street—unfocused, sometimes excessive, but fundamentally justifiable.”
Not everyone who agrees with the protesters’ principles is impressed, however. In an essay posted on Ted Rall’s website on September 26, the political cartoonist, commentator, and author says that “for me and other older, jaded veterans of leftist struggle, [Occupy Wall Street’s] failure was a foregone conclusion”—and that “yet another opportunity to agitate for real change was being wasted by well-meant wankers.”
This is not to say Rall doesn’t believe in the cause. The author of Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back from the Right, acknowledges in the first sentence of his critique that Occupy Wall Street “is and was important.” If only because it represents the first major repudiation of the Obama administration by the American left. But, he argues, good intentions are not enough, especially when the stakes are so high.
“Michael Moore complained about insufficient media coverage, but this non-movement movement was doomed before it began by its refusal to coalesce around a powerful message, its failure to organize and involve the actual victims of Wall Street’s perfidy (people of color, the poor, the evicted, the unemployed, those sick from pollution, etc.), and its refusal to argue and appeal on behalf of a beleaguered working class against an arrogant, violent and unaccountable ruling elite—in other words, to settle for nothing less than the eradication of capitalism.”
Rall desperately wants the protesters to be better organized, and points out that a number of those who did get interviewed by the mainstream media lacked a central message and the ability to articulately unpack key issues. To hammer home his point, he implores the kids in the park to “lose the clown clothes.”
“It’s not the early 1960s; you don’t have to wear a suit like the civil rights marchers did,” he writes. “But how about showing up on national TV looking decent, like it’s Casual Friday?”
Rall is a provocateur, and a few progressives have already taken him to task both for his hyperbolic prose and for his failure to support the troops. Fair enough. There’s a lot to chew on in this tirade, however, and when everyone goes back to their lives and Wall Street continues its run toward ruin, it demands a dispassionate revisitation.
Sources: Occupy Wall Street, Ted Rall, Washington Post
Image by Carwil, licensed under Creative Commons.
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