Scrap Mentalby Brandon Edmonds / Illustration by Rico / 12.12.2011
Late November past, a campus cop pepper sprayed some seated protestors at a university in California and it went viral. The protest, alligned with the Occupy movement, was chiefly against massive fee hikes and the callously offhand way the cop sprayed these defenceless, passive demonstrators provoked enough users to make the image circulate until it “rapidly” (does the web have another speed?) became The Casually Pepper Spraying Everything Cop meme. A meme, it must be said, whose moment has already passed. Nevertheless John Pike, or Sergeant Pepper Spray’s, insouciantly cruel gesture is now a leitmotif of repression. It spawned a sudden archive plundering, via Photoshop, bits of the visual culture of the West. The casually pepper spraying cop was serially inserted into instantly recognizable imagery traversing hundreds of different cultural and historical contexts. He is a staple of year-end lists of memorable images and could well become as iconic as the iconography he sprays.
Pike now appears in the work of Da Vinci, Goya and Magritte. He pepper sprayed Bella from Twilight and Lady Liberty. He blasts God and Britney Spear’s vagina, or vice versa. Forest Gump and Keanu Reeves. Banksy, Gandhi and the Vietnam War Memorial. He hits Yoda, Bambi and Jackie Kennedy. Bernie from “A Weekend at Bernie’s”. The lone heroic tank guy from Tiananmen Square. Even the sacred grave of Anne Frank and a falling 9-11 body. The Bill of Rights and Bigfoot. Some instances of the meme are better than others. He really works in Edward Hopper paintings and anything by the Impressionists while wedging his head onto Godzilla seems redundant.
I liked the meme. It made me laugh a few times. But I wonder what it’s for? What it’s creation and circulation means? Did it “raise awareness” of police brutality, anti-capitalism, us and them? Is that what it’s for? Or was it just a visually repeated punchline, data being processed, the same tired online rabbit out of the same tired online hat? Another meme. More evanescent scrap mental. As Net populist, Clay Shirky, puts it, memes have “the social value of a whoopee cushion and the cultural life span of a mayfly.” But aren’t some memes better than others? Surely this one is more substantive than another cute lolcat, the really high guy or photo bombing celebrities?
What was really being circulated, beyond the chain-letter impulse to circulate which the internet never stops encouraging, is a gesture that reveals a cop’s shocking indifference to others. A gesture that illuminates power relations. A transgressive indifference we’ve seen before. A report in the Guardian suggests “Pike’s dissonantly casual body language in the context of violence brings to mind the photos of Abu Ghraib.” The article points out that “in a fit of macabre recursion, some of the casually pepper-spraying cop meme images reference those very photos.” Both the soldiers who piled up naked prisoners and now Officer Pike are the ‘bad apples’ standing in for “systemic problems with the institutions each represent.”
That’s certainly true but we might go further. It misses the default setting of the meme machine which is the hunt for snark, the offbeat, anything strange and funny and immediate. The visual pun reigns. Pike’s casualness, the incongruity of it, as if he’s hosing down a Subaru instead of stomping out dissent, is what went viral. Memes do what’s necessary to be replicated. That’s their logic. The content doesn’t matter. In this case, so much got left out the meme became meaningless. Turning a political event into lolcats.
What’s missing, you’ll notice, removed from the gesture, allowing it to float free in the infosphere, is the response of the protestors, if not the protesters themselves. They stayed in place and held the line during Pike’s assault. They didn’t run away. Watch the video. They withstand the spray and stay where they are. And then the crowd begins to chant “Shame on You! Shame on You!” It’s stirring stuff.
Why didn’t the courage of the protesters become a meme? Why did the internet have to fixate, in its puerile ADD way, on the casualness of the brutality, choosing that, and memes are choices, scattershot, distributed, dynamically aggregated choices, reflective of passing associations and attitudes holding momentary sway across a wide range of sites and platforms, over the solidarity and moral force of those assembled? Is the internet afraid of us? Or rather, since we are the internet, as Time magazine once told us, putting a mirror on its cover so we might look upon ourselves; are we, the users, unaware of the moral force of our own solidarity? Missing the bigger picture with our puerile WTF boom and bust meme cycles and narcissistic social media? The bigger picture being revolution in our lifetimes.
Obviously the internet massively enables social dissent. Facilitates co-ordination, gets the word out, connects groups, relays developments instantaneously etc. This year of protest relied heavily on communication technology. My point is that these momentous developments have left organic expressions of the internet (memes are the internet’s jazz – as authentic and original an expression of itself – its swarming and clouding and hive mind – as it can muster) looking laughably inadequate as an expression of culture.
There’s something in the nature of the internet that chops us up into gestures and punchlines. That reduces events and us to easy scanning fit for replication. As Jodi Dean puts it, in her book Blog Theory, “communicative capitalism fragments thought into ever smaller bits, bits that can be distributed and sampled, even ingested and enjoyed, but that glut of multiple, circulating contributions tend to resist recombination into longer, more demanding theories… that might aid us in understanding, critically confronting and politically restructuring the present.” The Pepper Spray Cop meme reveals the cost of the meme machine. It leaves people out in their solidarity. People at their best. “React and forward,” Dean writes, “but don’t, by any means, think.”
*Opening illustration © Rico.