Ideas and information travel fast. Internet’s pervasiveness makes us ever more receptive to multiple sources of information that we arrive at and are presented to us in an ostensibly ubiquitous fashion. In a context where our screen-time is on the rise and the attention economy driving social media demands an increasing user engagement, it is only expected that the information we find has to engage with us immediately. As the radical potentialities of the early Internet recede into the distance, we are left with the delirious outpouring of content customized to us by black box algorithms. Under a handful of social media platforms, an unsoundly large amount of users are informed—their ideas, opinions and concerns—through what is fed to them in the timeline. A silent war is being fought in all politically relevant fronts for who establishes the dominant narrative. What is the purpose of the seemingly infinite barrage of content whose covert purpose is to keep us staring into our screens?
In line with this, through continuous, decontextualized, and easily processed messages, social media incentivizes short-attention spans. Although the shortening of people’s attention cycles by an increasing glut of information flows is a fact, details about this phenomena are out of the scope of this text and can be found elsewhere . Information comes to us in “bite-sized” rationing, preferably, in a visual format, keeping text to the essential. These fragments are elements of culture that are passed on; language, customs, trends and ideas that are adopted, often by imitation. Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” (1976) calls these information units “memes”.
Memes are cultural artifacts that evolve in time and can be thought of as the building blocks of culture, in a similar way as genes are the building blocks of biological organisms. Memes mutate through time much like our genes evolve through time. Similarly, as a virus moves from body to body, memes move from mind to mind as transmissive elements of culture. The memes an individual possesses forms the basis of his artifacts and behaviors.
Some memes transmit more successfully as a related set than as individual elements. As genes organize themselves in larger aggregates (cells, organs and organisms), memes organize themselves correspondingly into larger clusters called “memeplexes”, such as cultural or political doctrines and systems (Christianity, communism and Tik-Tok skits). Memeplexes comprise groups of memes that replicate, co-adapt and evolve, allowing new memes to fit within that memeplex.
Although memes are naturally occurring cultural artifacts constantly in a process of evolution, they can also be designed to intentionally influence an audience. Recently, a brief history of propaganda was offered in The Outpost, setting forth that, in many respects, propaganda can be thought of as applied memetics . Propaganda is thus a utilitarian approach towards memes, especially under a political and military setting. The methods of indoctrination (or brain-washing) through exposing individuals exclusively to certain memes or memeplexes is a military intelligence endeavor that is crucial to Hancock’s proposal of memetic warfare . The effectiveness of such strategies is evident, for example, in the 2014 rise of Daesh or ISIL whose army consisted mostly of foreign youth radicalized through the Internet. Novel phenomena such as this have encouraged western militaries to adopt aggressive communication tactics through trolling and memes.
Pertinent to this analysis are the concepts introduced in “Lemurian Time War” (LTW) by the CCRU. Based upon the short story “The Ghost Lemurs of Madagascar” by William Burroughs, LTW deals mainly with a critique of linear, sequential notions of time. In doing so, it introduces key concepts that expand the scope and possibilities of applied memetics. LTW defines the neologism “hyperstition” (combining “hyper” and “superstition”) to refer to fictional ideas that are transmitted from host to host until they turn into realities—“fictions that make themselves real”. In the framework constructed in LTW, “fiction is not opposed to the real. Rather, reality is understood to be composed of fictions—consistent semiotic terrains that condition perceptual, affective and behavioral responses”. Correspondingly, the circulation of fictions—or, for our purposes, memes—and the level of traction they acquire is a magical work—“magic defined as the use of signs to produce changes in reality” .
Similar to memes, LTW posits that the cultural assimilation dynamic of hyperstitional fiction begins through its introduction as innocuous elements of fiction, as aesthetic exercises in style. The distinction between fiction and reality is to be understood as a matter of “degrees of realization”. The hyperstitional process of “entities «making themselves real» is precisely a passage, a transformation, in which potentials—already-active virtualities—realize themselves” ; of transmuting fictions into truths. Memes operate not as passive representations but as an active agency of transformation and a gateway through which realities can emerge.
The difference between memes and hyperstition is that on the one hand, like propaganda, memes want to influence an audience over already existing conditions and, if successful, effect over people’s actions. On the other hand, hyperstitions are elements in the realm of fiction (which can count as memes) which are subject to a transformation into reality, bringing about their reality. The fictionality of a meme doesn’t mean it won’t be real at some point in the future. And once it’s real, in a sense, it’s alway been. Human agency is a mere incubator through which intrusions are directed against the order of historical time.
Nick Land commented in an interview that capitalism is particularly susceptible to hyperstitions . This is because the symbiosis capitalism establishes with science and technology generates consequently a particular type of fiction; a cultural component in a positive feedback circuit. Capital brings into reality, through technology and science, what science fiction previously prophesized. As J.G. Ballard said “the future is a better key to the present than the past” . For example, Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis presciently forecast the breakthroughs of Honda’s Asimo or Boston Dynamics’ Atlas. Or the way corporate vision was exercised in the 1939 New York World Fair in order to portray what would the post-war suburbia consumer paradise be: a powerful paragon and framework for urbanization and commodity production, not only in the USA but in most developed and aspiringly developed countries.
Towards a Conclusion
The fact that social media directs so much effort towards maximizing screen-time in users, posits such kind of space as the terrain for waging war for memetic supremacy. The shots fired (i.e., memes) in this political combat exploit the hyperstitional power of stealth fictions through meme weaponization. The past decade’s rise to prominence by far-right ideologies was won over the internet and testifies the potential in the sorcerous, partisan action of applied memetics. While left-wing narratives focused on denouncing moral transgression, emphasizing identity politics and recognition of victimhood, right-wing narratives, through trolling and ridiculizing its enemies, deployed a highly virulent yet simplistic imagination around tradition, as well as a fringe dangerously embracing techno-fascism.
In this respect Mark Fisher correctly notes the hegemony of capital over the collective imagination. The term he proposes for this is “capitalist realism”. In the most abstract sense, it proves the prevalence of Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument. The capitalist neoliberal form, by effectively metabolizing the radical desires of the late 60’s student revolts, subverted most substantial critiques transforming them into consumer identities or spectacle (i.e., memeplexes). Consequently, mainstream cultural production, especially during the past two decades, became characterized by a regression and involution into “pastiche, recapitulation and a hyper-oedipalised neurotic individualism”. That fact it became “the dominant cultural trend is not a contingent error, but it points to a fundamental misjudgment about the dynamics of capitalism”. The future as such has succumbed to retrospection: a simulation of innovation and newness that cloaks inertia and stasis .
Memes therefore are a powerful vehicle for hyperstitionally conjuring into existence underlying libidinal signifiers. It should be an indispensable element in any collective endeavor for constructing an utopian vision. Such collective articulation should be not just a reaction towards capital—as it has been so far—, but rather it has to rival capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality. Which entails abandoning the politics of victimhood, but to do so, a new political subject must coalesce. Mark Fisher’s incomplete theorization of acid communism must be a starting point. The liberation of human consciousness from the norms of capitalist society as a desirable, achievable and pleasurable objective must be instigated through virulent memeplexes that, in their simplicity, can hyperstitionally reinstantiate a politics to come. A project for seeking “the outside” of sociopolitical hegemony means undertaking a disturbance of normality. A collective transformation that, simultaneously, implies a desire for individual experimentation and transformation. A collective subject that has long been desired but still resists instantiation. A collective subject that does not yet exist, but every crisis we’re now facing demands it to be constructed.
Ballard, J.G., 1971, “Fiction of Every Kind” in Mackay, R., Avanessian, A., eds., 2014, “#Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader”, Urbanomic: p. 536.
Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), 2004, “Lemurian Time War” in “Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization” eds., Schneiderman, D., Walsh, P., Pluto Press: Ch. 16, p. 274 – 289.
Fisher, M., 2012, “Terminator vs Avatar” in Mackay, R., Avanessian, A., eds., 2014, “#Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader”, Urbanomic: p. 536.
Lorenz-Spreen, P., Mønsted, B.J., Hövel, P., Lehmann, S., 2019, “Accelerating dynamics of collective attention”, Nature Communications, vol. 10, num. 1759: p. 1-9 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09311-w
Hancock, B.J., 2010, “Memetic Warfare: The Future of War”: Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, Vol. 26, num. 2, p. 41-46.