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Game Changer

Scrap Mental

by 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.

Pepper Spray Meme

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.

Pepper Spray Meme

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?

Pepper Spray Meme

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.”

Pepper Spray Meme

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.

Pepper Spray Cop Meme

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.”

Pepper Spray Cop Meme

Pepper Spray Cop Meme

Pepper Spray Cop Meme

Pepper Spray Cop Meme

Pepper Spray Cop Meme

*Opening illustration © Rico.

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  1. SihleMthembu says:

    “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,” very important

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  2. Anonymous says:

    First it was real life. Then it was a meme. Then it was mahala content fodder so you really know its dead.

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  3. Andy says:

    how about some virtual pepper spray for anonymous douche bag commenters?

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Andy you try too hard.

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  5. Brandon's Lawyer says:

    @anonymous It’s value was further deteriorated by an ignorant comment from an indivudual who hates analysis, questioning and critical thinking. It is now being cremated.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    You have lost touch. Your little midlife crises is mahala. Age gracefully.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Critical thinking??? Oh no, its a meme! This used to be about something.

    Yeah, we really needed Brandon to pull that wool from our eyes. Was so blind praise Jesus.

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  8. Brandon's Lawyer says:

    make yourself useful and get me some Doritos

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  9. cnut says:

    Day in and day out the ‘Mahala-high-5-brigade’ getting into dissing matches on the comments thread rather than ‘listening’… hilarious!

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  10. Benjamin says:

    The NIA should quit spying on rival ANC politicians and grassroots activists and focus on the real enemy TROLLS! Hell the protection of information act gives us enough power to put them away…

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  11. cnut says:

    “Hell the protection of information act gives us enough power to put them away…”

    Nothing ‘state secret’ about the ‘Mahala-high-5-brigade’ in the slightest…

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  12. Benjamin says:

    state security is a faaaaar-reaching pretty abstract concept open to loose interpretation…

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  13. Anonymous says:

    “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”

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  14. Chris says:

    Great piece.
    Thank you.

    CNUT please fuck off. You are tedious and predictable.
    Start a blog that nobody will read

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  15. Onan the ambidextrous says:

    I don’t get it. What are these cunt lice actually complaining about?Why should they object to a writer trying to make sense of what’s going on out there? It could be some kind of denial ism at work. Or maybe they’re angry because the words ‘revolution in our time’ made them shat themselves so embarrassingly.

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  16. cnut says:

    Everybody is entitled to my opinion…

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  17. Kwik says:

    @SihleMthembu, agreed. Jeez okes, it’s just Edmonds’ opinion, it’s not written in stone. Relax.

    Cnut, you have not added anything relevant to the comment boards for a long time. As I said before, it is blatantly obvious that you dislike Andy, Roger and the rest of the so-called conspiratorial “High-5-brigade.” Either stop bleating about it or just piss off and read articles that you enjoy on other websites. Seriously, if you think they are such arseholes, then why do you bother with Mahala? Then again, everyone can create a “celebrity” persona for themselves on the internet, hey?

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  18. getoffthelawn says:

    The commenting policy on this site needs serious attention Andy. You’re always going on about how you can check IPs. Why not use it constructively and silence consistent asshats like cnut who detract from every article they comment on? It brings the whole site down. All this freeforall does is encourage idiocy.

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  19. cnut says:


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  20. Eh? says:

    “Did it “raise awareness” of police brutality, anti-capitalism, us and them?”

    You funny Brandon, as always. So a burgeoning police state – ie burgeoning government power – is, to you, capitalism at work.

    Or maybe I’ve just got it wrong. The guy in question isn’t working for a government which is systematically eroding individual rights, he’s actually owns a liquor store down the street and dresses up like an officious douche on the weekend and tazes people for fun. Okay makes sense now. Damn capitalist!

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  21. Brandon's Lawyer says:

    @Eh? The “anti-capitalism” sentiment refers to the reason why the people were protesting in the first place,

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  22. cnut says:

    “You’re always going on about how you can check IPs”

    Are you new to the interweb my esteemed and inexperienced friend?

    Good luck with that…

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  23. Eh? says:

    @ Brandon’s Lawyer

    Because those who are protesting capitalism have a very poor understanding of who/what is responsible for the problems that are causing them discomfort?

    That they can protest capitalism and be abused by government employees paid with their tax money and fail to understand that the problem runs a bit deeper than big bad capitalists doesn’t inspire much confidence in that particular section of the OWS movement (I believe the movement isn’t strictly anti-capitalist, many people in it actually do get it and are protesting the unholy and dangerous marriage between big government with global monopoly capital).

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  24. Tim says:

    “Everyone agrees that we’re getting screwed, we just disagree about who’s doing most of the screwing,”
    -Robert Anton Wilson

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  25. another perspective says:

    it’s very concerning to see a lot of middle-aged people insult each other like bitchy high school girls…

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  26. Anonymous says:

    Memes hey? IS NOTHING SACRED ANYMORE?? What is next, jokes about AIDS?
    The internet used to be a pure and sacred place of respect.

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  27. Derek Rossa says:

    Good read, however the casually pepper spray meme is just another example of internet humor. Why not write up an article about the Russian elections plenty memes about the 140% voter turnout.

    A meme is there to make fun of a serious situation even if taken completely out of context, in fact the context is separate from the humor. I use the internet look at a meme laugh and that’s it. Why ruin a good joke with serious pondering about social media and its affect on human nature? If we rely on a meme to provide a serious political and social then there’s something wrong.

    Plus there’s always the Cape Times if I feel like sinking into depression.

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  28. Onan the ambidextrous says:

    To get back to Scrap Mental. Is it possible to engineer a meme? I doubt it, because if the Internet citizenry found out who was behind it they would immediately parody the shit out of them and it would backfire. The Internet doesn’t like dogma and gets rid of it by making it look ridiculous. And ridicule is fatal for authoritarianism, nationalism, fundamentalism and a whole lot of other -isms.

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  29. cnut's lawyer says:

    leave cnut alone high five brigade!

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  30. cockhorser says:

    @ cnut – hey man,why don’t you and that big chip on your shoulder go get AIDS or cancer and die on a fucken heap.

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  31. Just 4 Brandon says:

    “Under Capitalism, man exploits man while under Socialism, it’s the other way round.”

    Russian saying.

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  32. starfish says:

    “Everything the Comunists said about Comunism was a lie.
    Everything they said about Capitalism was the truth.”

    Popular Russian saying post-1989

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