Abstract

Memes are an increasingly omnipresent political technology in the age of Trump, weaponized by troll armies, while at the same time reviving oppositional genres of caricature and satire that are in turn conducive to new forms of political literacy. As a medium, the meme is a mechanism of transliteration, translating affects into icons that read out visually and orthographically, as alphabet, cipher, rebus, anagram, tag, GIF, secret message. In their antidepressant function, memes are salves for solitary souls. They are community-builders connecting solo agents to social networks and political causes. They engender an implicit trust among the users who co-produce and distribute them (modeling a sharing economy dubbed “platform cooperativism” by Trebor Scholz). And yet, because of their predication on impersonal intimacy, memes shift the ground of the political, from an ethics of direct responsibility to an ethics of limited liability and indirect consequence in moral action. This essay examines some key episodes in the political life of memes, examining works by Jenny Holzer, Mary Kelly, Lutz Bacher, Slavs and Tartars, Tony Cokes, and Silvia Kolbowski, as well as anonymous meme-makers.

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