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Re: <nettime> Can the Left Meme?
t byfield on Sun, 18 Jun 2017 21:50:58 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Can the Left Meme?


On 16 Jun 2017, at 13:25, Gabriella "Biella" Coleman wrote:

Lots of bad bits too. No amount of theory can paper over basic flaws
in analysis.

Thanks for your points below. But I am just not seeing the connection
between your analysis of left vs right language politics and the basic
flaws in the analysis. Could you elaborate?

The analysis seems fine as far as it goes — the problem (IMO, natch) is that it doesn't go far. For example:

A word, here, about “novelty”: Fascist and racist ideas are, to be sure, not new . However, these ideas – like a tired consumer product given Wi-Fi connectivity and a contemporary veneer – have been repackaged and rebranded by the contemporary Right in ways that have rendered them as exceptionally novel .

No. The rise of racist and increasingly murderous forces that are intently and inventively seeking to destabilize and/or hijack civil institutions internationally isn't 'like' wifi-enabled and rebranded consumer dreck. That passage is just one example: throughout, the essay systematically sidesteps the problem of violence in favor of diffuse aesthetic theory. That's fine — violence is coercive, and its aim is often to radicalize a situation by displacing other discourses, so the author may have good reason for his focus. But if anyone needs to justify or elucidate how they address violence in discussions of turbo-rightism, I think it's those who'd avoid it not those who'd place it front and center.

Others (Tilman/Florian) have raised historical examples that might
contradict Matt's arguments and I can't speak for Matt (who maybe will
speak up?) but his piece seems concerned with the contemporary moment
not with making an argument about the whole of the historical left
and transgressive imagery. Some of his own work has even looked at
the transgressive practices of the avant garde artistic left. Nagles
book (http://www.zero-books.net/books/kill-all-normies), which I have
not yet read but am keenly waiting for, traces how the left's recent
obsession with the politics of language purity has helped embolden
certain transgressive strains among conservatives (if I am reading the
reviews corrently), so it's directly relevant to some of the points
Matt makes and the discussion around language.

I appreciate the examples that Tilman and Florian brought up, but they're marginal. John Heartfield was almost entirely forgotten until an exhibition at the Kent Gallery in NYC in the early '90s (I still regret not buying one before it opened). His work was stunning, but — basically — so what? Various flavors of Situationism, too, had very limited impact as such in aesthetic circles before Greil Marcus's "Cowboy Philosopher" essay appeared in Artforum in '86 — at which point the subject became an academic cottage industry.

Tilman's argument is stated in terms very different from my own, but I think we mostly agree that leftism as its constituted now is antithetical to the easy conflation of language and violence. Florian's argument is much trickier. OT1H, he argues — like a steamroller 'argues' — for a broad historical continuity ("just like," "a 1:1 continuation of," "can be seamlessly applied to"). I agree that Bakhtin can be very helpful now, but I get impatient when people jump to his work on Rabelais while somehow ignoring the fact that he was a precise LITERARY historian/theorist, not an all-purpose pocketknife that takes apart images too. OT0H, Florian seems to argue that a particular moment in punk aesthetic is categorically different from current alt-right meme-mongering whereas Reformation pamphlets are somehow the same. There's real insight to be found in that gist, as well as in his general points about how pervasive image/text combinations have been, and the materiality of their production. But that should be an injunction to discover and appreciate historical and discursive differences, not to burn it all down with the "same" match.

Leftoids can "counter-mirror" (IOW, parrot or even ape) rightist
techniques as much as they want, but it won't work very well because
the left has a fundamentally different view of the relationship
between speech and violence. The mainstream left, and even most of the
radical left at this point, has completely forsworn violence as a
legitimate political strategy.

Agree, many, likely most quarters do reject violence but you seem to be deliberately excluding Antifa, which may not be experiencing a surge of
popularity but they are quite visible now, even featured in the
mainstream news recently thanks to their battles with the Alt-right.
They may not be dominant but they are a long standing radical strain
popular in parts of Europe that have certainly not forsworn violence as
a legitimate political strategy. The literal punching of Nazi's after
all became both a much beloved viral video and flash point to debate
some of the issues you raise around language and violence.

I said "the mainstream left, and even most of the radical left," which precisely leaves room for a slice of the left that admits violence. However, it's one thing to use physical force in countering rightist violence on the level of a street protest, it's quite another to embrace it as a strategy. It's not *that* long ago that leftist extremists across Europe, and to a much lesser extent in the US, advocated it. Those forces were crushed mercilessly, and sympathy for them is not tolerated in polite society or even most impolite society. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who'd risk their status by openly stating, except in the most impenetrably academic meditatio on 'implications,' that the RAF or Red Brigades had a valid point and we should really reconsider it. Making fun of pocket-square nazis is easy, making fun of death squads not so much — so paint me skeptical about the value of fun-loving tweets about "nazi-punching" etc for countering the rise of the right. US social media was alive with #resist hashtaggery, but within a few weeks most of that energy petered out: the huge marches stopped, "not my president" became SCROTUS, president-with-an-asterisk, and fatigue-fatigue set in. If anything is 'like' wifi-enabled and rebranded consumer dreck, it's the resistance — most of which is waiting for a bunch of TLAs to swoop in, Magnificent Seven–style, and fix things. That
says a lot about the historical imagination across much of the left, which,
as I said, is limited because it refuses to use direct force.

The main reason anyone cares about rightist memes is the role they play in threats to political stability. Asking whether the left can meme without considering that larger aspect seems awfully naive.

Cheers,
T

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