Memes and Strange Politics

Emerging from the tension between the political and politics is a form of aesthetic expression that renews the debate in the public sphere.

Prince Carnival Wannes I. Bergen, 1963

Prince Carnival Wannes I. Bergen, 1963 | Nationaal Archief | Public Domain

It is precisely in that indeterminate space between politics and the political, i.e., between society’s discontent and political issues, where memes are cooked up. Memes, generally made of an image with a short and witty text, an animated gif or a manipulated photo, have gone from being an Internet phenomenon to become an element that is omnipresent in our digital and media imaginary. Thus, we are witnessing the creation of a parallel debate, that reflects current affairs events and that is renewing the public sphere, allowing for more active civic dialogues.

The relationship between memes and politics is no minor thing, or to put it another way, is a major thing. To understand its significance, firstly we need to stop and reflect on a reality of the utmost importance: the tension that emerges between politics and the political. What might seem to be a mere linguistic diversion, a play on words, is not. With Chantal Mouffe in her book On The Political,[1] we learned that “politics” and “the political” are two very different concepts that imply very different spheres of action and power games. Politics is a very well articulated technology. Votes, ballot boxes, campaigns, microphones, parliaments, elections, reports, statistics, institutions, suits, lecterns, etc., are all clustered together to produce the sphere of politics. This is the standardisation of political debates. Politics has mechanisms for validation, for recognition and for exclusion. Standards and public institutions. In contrast the political is a little more wild. The political is everything that affects us, the tensions and antagonisms that cross our lives. Concerns, discontent, desires that cross the social field and determine our lives. The political is the raw material of politics. The political is the tensions that politics gathers together in order to channel them into debates, spaces, regulations and languages. The political has to do with bodies, politics with words.

We can venture that a democracy is not in very good health when the drive belt that links politics with the political ceases to function. When it breaks down. When the tensions and antagonisms crossing through people’s bodies do not reach the ears of the political classes. When the discontent is not detected or is simply ignored. When the issues of the political are not taken on board by politics. Knowing how to transform this discontent, this antagonism, into concerns or into issues for politics is one of the most complex tasks for the political. Knowing how to raise what might seem to be private problems to a problem issue that affects the whole of society. There is no method or single formula for translating the political into issues for politics. How many women have to be murdered per year to make the phenomenon of gender violence a real concern for politics? How many tourists have to urinate in the street for tourism to become an issue to be dealt with? What is the exact number of unemployed people that turns the unemployment phenomenon into a concern for politics? In the following article we are going to stop to explore that liminal space that emerges between politics and the political. Between the discontent and the issues of politics. Between the social movements and the political parties. Between the desire and the institution. It is in that indeterminate space where memes are cooked up.

Barcelona, 1976

Barcelona, 1976 | From the book “Pintades: De Puig Antic al Referéndum”. La Gaia Ciencia, Barcelona 1977 | © Col·lectiu Foto-FAD (1974-1977)

Spaces for mediation or mechanisms of translation of the political into matters for politics are varied and do not always work. Historically, different devices have fulfilled this function: lobbies, signature petitions, civil disobedience actions, demonstrations, poetic actions, ribbons on lapels, occupations of spaces of representation, etc. All of these constitute strategies and devices that may contribute towards transforming the forms of antagonism and discontent that cut through the political into issues for politics. Unfortunately they do not always work. Tensioning politics is not easy. In his book, Culpables por la literatura, Germán Labrador tells us that during the transition, when the democracy of the Spanish state was still being forged, it was not very clear which were the mechanisms for elevating social concerns in order to convert them into issues for politics. For this reason, fences and walls took on such an important role in this mediation exercise. They were places where individual discontent could become a public matter. According to this author, “graffiti was a place of representation for the emerging citizenship”.[2] “NATO No, Bases Out”; “Freedom, Amnesty, Statute of Autonomy”; “Less King, More Culture”; “Flats Yes, Shanties No”; “Political Parties Are the Condoms of Freedom”.[3] Thus graffiti could be understood as a “direct means of expression of a citizens’ opinion, which has been excluded from the development of political events that will lead in spring to the first democratic elections”.[4] When the channels that link the political and politics are not clear, someone invents them. When they are saturated, they overflow.

Mariano Rajoy is not wrong when he states that “I have been prevented from fulfilling my electoral programme by reality”. The political sometimes manages to condition politics. Today we see how a set of new spaces, mechanisms or social movements have arisen that explore new tactics and methods to achieve this goal. The PAH (Platform for Mortgage Victims) and escraches, the digital trolling campaigns against application of the Sinde Law orchestrated by the old EXGAE, the appearance of numerous social syndicates that are made visible via the social media networks, the actions of the “graphic liberation movements” that accompanied the first wave of municipalist movements, etc. All of them have contributed towards tensing the politics agenda. Towards bringing the concerns of the social agents closer to a political class that, if not distracted, is at least deaf to citizens.

One of the characteristics of all these processes is that they have been accompanied by some strange digital objects called “internet memes”. Memes, generally an image with a short and amusing text, an animated gif or a manipulated photo, went from being an Internet phenomenon to becoming an omnipresent element of our digital and media imaginary. All debate or expression of the political has been accompanied by a multitude of small memes that gradually accumulate around issues of relevance. Thus we see the creation of a debate that takes in current affairs events or expressions of social discontent that the traditional outlets – media, news programmes, etc. – have not known how to reflect. It is in this sense that the authors Ryan M. Milner and Limor Shifman defend that the public sphere is being renovated, thus picking up on the concept elaborated by Jürgen Habermas. Milner is of the opinion that “If more people can log onto reddit or Tumblr and engage in political discussion from more perspectives, democracy benefits”.[5] The author situates within this context the phenomenon of memes, which he defines as elements that make up a kind of expanded public sphere that goes from forums, social media networks to WhatsApp groups or posters that appear in the office. Milner verifies his hypothesis by analysing the role of memes in the constitution of the phenomenon like Occupy Wall Street (OWS). In his own words: “Assessing the relationship between image memes and OWS can test the proposition that participatory media broaden the public sphere by affording more active civic talk”.[6] This means placing value on places that appear where political current affairs can be debated with new instruments and languages, such as memes. The political overflows through memes that, through accumulation, end up reaching the ears of politics.

Occupy Wall Street | Know Your Meme
Occupy Wall Street | Know Your Meme

Conversation through images enables the perspectives of debates to be expanded and new agents to participate in the conversations. Images circulate faster and are decoded with greater ease than texts or political pamphlets. It is easier to produce an image that incorporates an opinion or point of view than to write up a text summarising your political positioning. It is for this reason that memes are becoming predominant in contemporary political battles. The humorous element of the meme helps it to circulate with greater ease. As sustained by Metahaven: “The joke has the capacity to resist and overturn the frame of reference imposed by any political status quo (…) The joke has an untapped power to disrupt – a power far greater than we thought. On the internet, jokes may ‘scale” quickly and reach hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people in the course of a few minutes”.[7] In this way they contribute towards facilitating access to debates around politics; humour opens the door to discussions of greater depth. Shifman also stresses how memes facilitate political participation: in her own words: “Meme creation is an expressible, cheap and enjoyable route for expressing political opinions”.[8] It is in this sense that she considers that memes favour citizen empowerment and contribute towards creating spheres of participation in which agents who up to now had been excluded from certain debates can find a voice. From here I endorse this idea; memes have enabled an aesthetic form of expression for political concerns to be found.

Today, battles of the memes occur,[9] in other words, debates between multitudes of agents that make use of memes to produce public opinion. Opinions are constructed based on images that will have a greater or lesser acceptance and therefore circulation, depending on how ingenious or funny they are. If a meme works well, it will jump platform, passing from “specialised” forums to social media networks or devices such as mobile telephones. Its capacity to jump from one platform to another will define its area of influence. There are memes that never leave their original forum, others circulate around Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp or Tumblr, reaching televisions or more traditional media, parading in front of a growing audience and thus contributing to establishing viewpoints. It is not unusual for television programme teams to employ people to create memes, thus adopting both the forms and the aesthetics of denunciation that have emerged in the digital sphere.

Memes do not produce institutions or political structures nor do they articulate a clear view of a current issue. In contrast, they hover above and raise private conversations to public debates. The humour that characterises them helps members of disaggregated communities to recognise and detect their peers. Memes do not institute, but they do overflow the habitual channels that link the political with politics. They give a voice to people who are not used to talking by making use of traditional political codes. They are presented like a strange sphere of politics. They allow the troll that lives inside all of us to express itself. They throw punches left and right. They make us feel less alone, they remind us that humour is a political weapon. They saturate our WhatsApp groups and enable us to recognise the mansplainer hiding among our friends. Memes, like Catalans, do things. They remind us that sometimes politics equals bugging people and memes do that really well. Memes score goals against us when we don’t see them coming. They remind us that outside the channels of official thought there is a flow of collective idiocy from which marvellous, cruel, reactionary, funny, disrespectful or rude memes can emerge that are sometimes going to make us change our opinion. On occasions, they are simply going to help us make current affairs more tolerable, something that in this day and age is no bad thing… and you know it.


[1] Mouffe, C. (2007). En torno a lo político. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

[2] Labrador, G. (2017). Culpables por la literatura (p. 512). Madrid: Akal. The translation is ours.

[3] For more painted graffiti, see the exhibition “De mur a mur”.

[4] Labrador, G. (2017). Culpables por la literatura (p. 432). Madrid: Akal. The translation is ours.

[5] Milner, R. M. (2013). “Pop Polyvocality: Internet Memes, Public Participation, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement” (p. 2361). In International Journal of Communication, 7 (2013), p. 2357-2390.

[6] Milner, R. M. (2013). “Pop Polyvocality: Internet Memes, Public Participation, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement” (p. 2361). In International Journal of Communication, 7 (2013), p. 2357-2390.

[7] Metahaven (2014). Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Amsterdam: Strelka Press. Epub version.

[8] Shifman, L. (2014). Memes in digital culture (p. 123). Cambridge: The MIT Press.

[9] Adbusters (2012). Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics. London: Penguin Books.

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  • Mario Forero | 02 May 2018

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