Memes and Training Regimes

Last year, I found a blogger named Egeiros who posted an article called “Memes Do Not Exist: Memetics as Anthropotechnics and the Zero-Entendre.” (Scroll down to the end of the page–this is archived.) They* identified as a philosopher, and I found some of their insights useful in a project I was doing on memes as global texts. Toward the start of this semester, I visited the blog and found that the entire domain had vanished. After a bit of sweating, I was able to locate the contents of the blog in the Wayback Machine; however, it seems to be missing a few chunks of texts.  I can’t help but speculate why someone who obviously spent a good deal of time and care on this blog would allow it to vanish from the internet. There could be all sorts of reasons. Illness, workload, lack of funds to keep the domain, for example, or perhaps they are publishing it somewhere with a press, a shift in interests, or…this one worries me…perhaps it was getting enough traction so that the author felt overexposed and/or harassed by the groups being discussed? There is no way of knowing.

It was this post that introduced me to Peter Sloterdjk’s You Must Change Your Life, which I read over the summer.  He is a professor of philosophy and media theory at the University of Art and Design Karlsruhe, and became president of the State Academy of Design at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe in 2001. He also co-hosted the German television show Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartett (source). Sloterdjk’s premise is that the resurgence of religion in the 20th century is a myth, and that what we have instead is training regimes/practices that reinforce or reinscribe our definitions of ourselves as humans. Rather than a distinction between believers and non-believers, there is a distinction between practicers and the non-trained. I was immediately reminded of an incident a while back when I was involved with Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist sect, and was learning the rituals of chanting which are central to its practices; the leaders told us that it did not matter what we believed, only that we practiced–good things and progress would come of practice, but we did not need to believe in it. Practices are central to most religions, but few are so open about the elevation of practice over faith.  One of the most striking examples in the book is Scientology, a admittedly completely invented religion by L. Ron Hubbard which is a training regime for clearing humans of “old programs” and replacing them with new ones.

What does this have to do with memes? Egeiros proposes that it has plenty to do with them.  Explaining the title of his post:

That is not to say that there are no cultural units that spread by vaguely selective processes – far from it. But just as Sloterdijk said of religion, wherever we see a meme, or a meme complex (memeplex), we truly discover a deformed anthropotechnic structure. That is, a structure for the training of humans to act in a particular manner. What is necessary here is to shift our perspective further out to discover the set of exercises. Memes are seeds for anthropotechnic structures of exercises for transforming human activity. The way that memes are currently understood in the general consciousness leads to behavior somewhat like trying to understand trees by only focusing on the seeds. This is ignoring the fact that a discrete unit of culture cannot really be located. Wherever we find a meme, we find a memeplex, and this memeplex can be better understood as a training regime for shaping human beings. The problem with the genetic analogy is that, rather than adapting to its environment, what we typically call the culture gene, a meme, creates an environment. This is why a meme is not a meme, but an anthropotechnic mechanism: an exercise.

The references to “culture gene” hearken to Richard Dawkins’ coining of the word in The Selfish Gene (see this article for a summary of this turn).  Dawkins’ “meme” was prior to the internet and focused on cultural transmissions in a more general way–memes were units of culture passed through performance, language, ritual, and countless forms of human practices. Earworms, for example, are memes; symbols like the cross or the swastika are memes, as might be grandma’s chicken soup recipe.  Meme studies blossomed in the 70s-90s but began to fade a bit as scholars realized that there were problems with the “biologizing” of culture on this level–there was no one-to-one corollation between genes and memes, and psychologists and sociologists felt that the memetics discipline was “pseudo-scientific” (a label that has at various times been ascribed to both of those fields by “hard” sciences). In other words, memetics was very low on the “rigor” scale of academia. Dawkins speaks more about the relationship of his idea to internet memes here. Also, like any good public intellectual, he talks about playing musical instruments.

The origin of Kek is the focus of Tara Burton’s article “Apocalypse Whatever,” quoted by Egeiros. Suffice it to say that the rise of Kek in 4chan’s /pol board (a “politically incorrect” haven for racist and sexist views and, according to Poe’s

law, their indistinguishable “jokey” counterparts) fits in quite well with the profile of an invented religion, such as Scientology. “Believing in” Kek, the Eypgtian chaos deity turned Pepe the Frog variation, didn’t require so much belief as a willingness to acknowledge it with memetic variations.  Kek worship is more Kek practice than faith–if anything, it is a repudiation of sincere faith in anything. In a way, this brings to mind Sloterdjk’s first important exemplum in You Must Change Your Life–Nietzche, who is usually referred to by people who need to categorize him as a nihilist, but whom Sloterdjk sees as a paradigm shifter to the practice lifestyle. 

The paradigm of practice also fits with Ryan Milner’s study of the logic of lulz if one associates this practice with the antifeminist qualities cited in his essay. This practice, say, of saying “go make me a sammich” or “show your tits” to a self-identified female who questions the practices of a board like Reddit or 4chan does not hinge on the intent of the poster, but on the effect of the post to support default white maleness in the online environment.

Egeiros concludes their article by offering examples of counter-training memetic “regimes” such as shit4chansays. This board, they say, makes a practice of acting nice through a process they call “post-irony.” The niceness is conveyed through what they call zombie memes, memes which seem to be completely devoid of meaningful messages but are endlessly repeated by the denizens of the board.

While ironic memes can create a downward spiral of hate and loss of identity, /s4s/ embraces the diversity of meaning in its variety of memes which tell nothing. Furthermore, the lack of definite meaning or mechanism turns these into a sort of projective test. The memes here are empty; they don’t carry an exercise of their own. They are a call to apply an exercise. They are zombie memes that disembowel things that once had meaning, and instead of refilling them, they leave them filled with an emptiness that decries being filled. One merely sees a nice girl saying “this is a nice board.” How do you respond? With niceness in return, but the exact form of the exercise is always interpretative. Even on recurring threads where the same thing is posted over and over again, there is a kind of manic freedom in that there is not a single shred of irony. People legitimately fine-posting “lol” over and over again on this board to be hilarious.

For a time, I saw something like this being carried forth by the “Poppy project” of Poppy (formerly Moriah Rose Pereira) and Titanic Sinclair (formerly Corey Mixter) on a fairly grand scale outside of the boards, although Reddit at least played a substantial role in carrying out the memetic transmission of the project. However, recent developments (ie within the last six months) seem to be moving away from this dynamic a bit as they attempt to break into the mainstream.

It provides a model for a kind of counter-memetics. The post-ironic meme, when understood in the scheme of anthropotechnic structures of training, is an exercise that, rather than cynically destroying other regimes for its own agenda, presents itself innocently and crafts simulacra of other structures – ones that can overtake the originals and bring back the dead. Not for some ulterior motive, for there can be no motive without definite message, but for enjoyment.

In the Poppy project, research has dug up Sinclair’s previous project, Mars Argo. While this has its own fascinations and a host of theories as to the relations between the two projects, it may be that Mixter’s own past will come back to haunt the nice, cute zombification of Poppy  (although he tries very hard to rewrite it without the presence of Mars Argo). However, Titanic Sinclair also might be one of the greatest examples of Poe’s Law in practice that ever existed.

*I’m using “they” as a singular pronoun in instances where I do not know the gender of the author. It is not necessarily the author’s choice of pronoun.

7 Replies to “Memes and Training Regimes”

  1. I could not stop thinking about the Poppy video. It is almost haunting the way she speaks and sings. I wanted to find a connection between technology and Japanese culture and found this (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/421187/why-japanese-love-robots-and-americans-fear-them/). According to Lancianese, Poppy’s music has elements of “Japanese kawaii culture.” It seems she has also taken the Japanese opinion of robots as well (that robots can be people too). When the robot Charlotte interviews Poppy, Charlotte is worried and anxious about Poppy’s wellbeing (ironically Charlotte is the actual robot, but is reacts in a more human fashion). Poppy is not concerned with addressing Charlotte’s concerns because, to Poppy, nothing is wrong. Or maybe Charlotte “cannot handle the truth” at the moment. Just some Poppy thoughts…

    1. I should have picked up on the Japanese “love of robots” at some point. Good call, Caterina. Poppy is an odd project built specifically for YouTube, although I don’t think her music career is (although it’s definitely built for a kawaiian-appreciative audience). That’s the direction they decided to take after “Lowlife” and her EP, which was pop but more musically diverse. I do like most of her music and Poppy.Computer is listenable to me. The videos have liveliness, unlike the shorts. Charlotte figures prominently in the pilot for YouTube Red, I’m Poppy. They seemed to be trying for a highly stylized melodrama/satire/comedy but it doesn’t have the odd David Lynchian vibe of the short videos, and I wonder if anyone will pick it up.

  2. I’d be really interested to see how performance and affect theory might interact with these ideas. If you’re repeatedly performing a practice as part of a group, isn’t it possible that you’d eventually start to believe in it, even if the “religion” was practice-based rather than faith-based? I think the outside-inside method of acting might be helpful here (I was a theatre major as an undergrad). The outside-inside method dictates that, by physically engaging in an activity or emotion (ie: frowning, laughing, etc.), the actor will eventually feel these feelings inside, making the performance true. Through repeatedly creating memes or posting comments on boards, couldn’t a Kek cult-member eventually become a true believer? I guess theories regarding the hive-mind might also be helpful here…

    1. Excellent, Caitlin! Media theory is, at least in part, performance-related, and some version of performance theory would work very well in tandem with some textual approaches. It’s not what Sloterdjk focuses on but affect theory could provide a “horizontal” perspective to his “verticality” theory of human practice-toward-becoming.

  3. Hi, Cynthia! Your comment on how the domain for Egeiros’ blog vanished made me think of the Tumblr article where Reeve commented on how Pizza’s Tumblr page disappeared shortly after they reached a substantial amount of visitors. What Pizza’s visitors went through is what you went through while trying to find any piece of Egeiros’ blog left and trying to figure out WHY is disappeared. I wonder why it did….

    1. Ryan, agreed! I felt very anxious, as if I’d misplaced something valuable. And delighted to be able to retrieve it through detective work. I still feel bad for Pizza–imagine the stress of such highs and lows on top of the usual ups and downs of being sixteen.

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