Benevolent Edgelords

Spectres of Benjamin and Memetic Ambiguity

This text was first published in The Critical Meme Reader II edited by Chloë Arkenbout and Laurence Scherz.

The Taliban in Disneyland

By the time this text is published, the USA’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of 2021 will be a fading entry in the catalogue of geopolitical and humanitarian disasters. Whatever formal inquiries may be ongoing, they are sure to pay attention to the corruption of the fleeing Afghan government, the naivete of the US Army command, and the human rights aftermath. They are far less likely to consider the aesthetics of regime change and the role of the iconic image in marking the transition. This is not because the end of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel failed to produce the customary images of troops and military equipment juxtaposed with bewildered civilian faces, but because the most remarkable images were produced by the Taliban.

The Taliban’s entry into Kabul was not accompanied by the sound of gunfire or footage of armed struggle. Instead, we saw the Taliban command in an impromptu photo-op in the presidential palace.[1]‘Photos: Taliban Takes Control of Afghan Presidential Palace’, News, Al Jazeera, 15 August 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2021/8/15/in-pictures-taliban-fighters-enter-afghan-presidential-palace In the city, the fighters explored an amusement park, filming themselves on a children’s merry-go-round and riding around in bumper cars.[2]Taliban Fighters Play on Dodgem Cars at Amusement Park in Kabul, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdjEwqzveos Later, they marveled at the facilities of a gym.[3]Mulhak – ملحق [@Mulhak], ‘عناصر “#طالبان” يمارسون الرياضة في قاعة جيم بالقصر الرئاسي في #كابل’, Tweet, Twitter, 16 August 2021, … see more Some ate ice-cream.[4]Abdulhaq Omeri, ‘#Taliban Eat Ice-Cream #Kabul #Afghanistan.’, Tweet, Twitter, 17 August 2021, https://twitter.com/AbdulhaqOmeri/status/1427715238464561154 More LARP (Live Action Role Play) than war.

The Taliban eating ice-cream in Kabul, August 2021. twitter/@AbdulhaqOmeri

When the news cameras turned to the harrowing scenes of crowds gathered at Kabul airport, the Taliban image-makers had gained the first-mover advantage. So much so that the Western public consciousness registered the dramatic scenes as though they came from disaster movies in which the US Air Force was the antagonist.[5]Shania Wilson, ‘Twitter Compares World War Z Plane Scene to Kabul Evacuation – Eerie Similarities Explained’, HITC, 16 August 2021, … see more Back in the Taliban-controlled city, no statues were toppled, no blood was (visibly) shed, and no buildings were destroyed.

Why did these frivolous images have such an impact on the Western world? Their novelty partially explains their power to outcompete traditional war reportage, but there is more to it: the Taliban fighters’ wonder at the civilization they inherited makes them eerily relatable. Even more relatable are the symbols of that civilization which the Americans tried to instill in Afghanistan. Fairground rides, ice-cream, and treadmills: Disneyland. 

These images represent the retreat into a version of reality in which we, from thousands of miles away, no longer need to be troubled by the symbols of conflict, not even those hackneyed cyphers such as bombed-out ruins, crying mothers, or starving children that have become so easy to ignore on Western TV screens. The Taliban fighters’ penchant for ice-cream bypasses the tormenting reality of war and offers proof that, as Jean Baudrillard proposed already in 1991, the war never took place at all.[6]Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. P Patton (Indiana University Press, 1995) Except that this time, it’s not because we have lost the ability to tell reality and fiction of war images apart, but because the fiction is so compelling that we prefer it to reality.

Billboard in North Carolina showing Joe Biden eating ice-cream. Instagram/@donaldtrumpjr

This is the stuff that memes are made of. If the Taliban wanted to lord their effortless entry into Kabul over the outgoing peacekeepers, they did so with the complicit aid of the very targets of their trolling. Ice-cream images quickly began circulating whether they had anything to do with 2021 or not.[7]Dilip Kumar Sripada, ‘Old Photo of an Afghan Citizen Falsely Shared as Recent Visuals of a Taliban Fighter Enjoying Ice Cream’, Factly, 26 August 2021, … see more The Joe Biden ice-cream meme which shows the President licking gelato against a backdrop of the Kabul evacuation took flight not in Kandahar, but in North Carolina.[8]Donald Trump Jr, ‘This Is Apparently a Billboard in Wilmington, North Carolina’, photo, Instagram, 18 August 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CSsufeWjSRP/ Even the restaging of the 1945 Iwo Jima flag photograph with Taliban colors, supposedly produced to strike at the heart of American pride, appears not to have been deliberate.[9]Dan Evon, ‘Did Taliban Recreate Iwo Jima Photo?’, Snopes.com, 23 August 2021, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/taliban-iwo-jima/ For each of these images and their endless clones, it was the American and Western audiences that made it possible for the memes to gain any currency at all—on 4chan, Twitter, and the news. Compare the success of these aesthetic outputs with the Taliban’s more ‘traditional’ efforts to mock the US with Pepe and Wojak memes,[10]OpIndia staff, ‘Taliban Accounts Mock USA with Pepe the Frog and Other “edgy” Memes’, OpIndia (blog), 31 August 2021, https://www.opindia.com/2021/09/taliban-leader-accounts-mocks-usa-with-pepe-the-frog-and-other-edgy-4chan-memes/ and it becomes clear that the bumper cars and ice-cream images are in a league of their own.

313 Bardi Battalion; Joe Rosenthal, 1945/AP

The IRL LARP

These events vindicate Jean Baudrillard’s pronouncement that signs no longer need to refer to real events at all and that their meaning is predetermined by the entropy of war that produces them. We are producing images of war without war itself, a situation that seems a given in the memesphere. The images also correspond with another one of Baudrillard’s declarations that underlined Disneyland’s crucial role to the American psyche: ‘Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland’.[11]Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. S F Glaser, Body, in Theory (University of Michigan Press, 1994), 12–14 What happens when images of amusement parks and festive snacks become synonymous with war, when there is nowhere outside of Disneyland to go? If the Taliban have occupied Disneyland, will we ever again make images of anything other than war? Is Mickey Mouse one step away from subbing as a warlord? 

Perhaps all of this—the war, its end, the coup—has been an all-absorbing LARP that got out of hand. The way out of the Baudrillardian dead-end is to abolish the meme as a category that is synonymous with predetermined political outcomes and to consider its aesthetics as separate from ideology. Perhaps the Taliban were just eating ice-cream and playing games and we simply got duped. Perhaps, in Afghanistan, war is a form of theater we didn’t notice was scripted.[12]The journalist Sarah Chayes suggest that theater is a significant part of Afghan war culture. ‘Afghanistan’, Thinking Allowed (BBC Radio 4, 11 October 2011), https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00108bj Perhaps going to the gym is what 20-something males do between popping slot machines at the arcade. Is it any wonder that the first tweeted reply to the video of the Taliban at the presidential palace gym was the pitch-perfect ‘dudes rock’?[13]Andre Ramos, ‘@Mulhak Dudes Rock’, Tweet, Twitter, 18 August 2021, https://twitter.com/andybong/status/1427791427942092805

Maybe this is what life and war look like anywhere, and the memefication of IRL war images is a coping mechanism. But who is memeing whom? How many meme-makers can the Taliban demobilize knowing full well that we, as recipients, would fill in the shortfall? And, if we recognize that the meme is often in the eye of the beholder, what kind of responsibility do we ourselves bear for its political outcomes? If the Taliban weren’t in charge of this meme operation, why did it end up serving their aims? There are, of course, plenty of precedents of deliberate memetic terrorism, but if this wasn’t one, we have been waging meme war all wrong.

There may be multiple reasons for this, as well as for the politically unbalanced outcomes of meme politics. The violence of war is almost as present in the everyday meme as racism, misogyny, or various flavors of fascism. No wonder, then, that much of the critical attention that memes have received dwells on their supposedly inevitably right-leaning nature. The media scholar Bogna Konior, for example, follows the Baudrillardian thread to explain why many meme-producing communities have an apocalyptic, end-of-days ethos.[14]Bogna M. Konior, ‘Apocalypse Memes for the Anthropocene God: Mediating Crisis and the Memetic Body Politic’, PDF, in Post Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production, ed. Alfie Bown and Dan Bristow (punctum books, 2019), 45–76, … see more The theorist Tom Holert, meanwhile, proposes that digital algorithmic media are rigged to favor fascist messages, regardless of their truth values.[15]Tom Holert, ‘Transfixing the Fascist Episteme’, in Deserting from the Culture Wars, ed. Maria Hlavajova and S Lütticken (Utrecht: MIT Press, 2020), 53–76 Such explanations are alluring in a post-Trump, post-truth era, yet they remain troubling considering that image and politics are the key variables in meme algebra.

The politics-aesthetics equation has been a site of contestation for artistic production and theory in recent decades, during which the cultural field has turned to politically and socially engaged practices. Such practices have had their keen theorists and critics such as Grant Kester and Gregory Scholette, and favorite philosophers like Jacques Rancière. For all political art’s popularity within the cultural industries and its claims of utility, however, meme aesthetics hardly get a passing glance in galleries and museums, perhaps because memes are assumed to be a priori incompatible with those institutions’ liberal politics.[16]Holert, for example, cites the 9th Berlin Biennale curated by the collective DIS which featured plenty of what was then referred to as post-internet art as an example of the algorithmic right-turn. The political space between DIS and 4-chan, … see more

The outlandishness of such an attitude should be obvious on the face of it: it’s not as if artists have ever shied away from appropriating aesthetic forms and turning them into expressions of their political desires. If Duchamp got his hands dirty on a urinal,[17]The irony here being that Duchamp possibly ‘stole’ the idea itself. Ariel Rodriguez, ‘How The Artwork That Started Conceptual Art Was Actually Stolen’, 27 March 2018, https://culturacolectiva.com/art/duchamp-stolen-fountain/ why wouldn’t left-wing artists play with memes? To borrow a question from the theorist Mike Watson: can the left learn to meme?[18]Mike Watson, Can the Left Learn to Meme? Adorno, Video Gaming, and Stranger Things (Zero Books, 2019)

Benjamin’s Dictate

Watson’s recent book The Memeing of Mark Fisher[19]Mike Watson, The Memeing of Mark Fisher: How the Frankfurt School Foresaw Capitalist Realism and What to Do about It (Zero Books, 2022) brings the analytical focus of meme theory squarely to the Frankfurt School. But in the art school, it is perhaps Walter Benjamin who bears the greatest responsibility for today’s aesthetic paralysis. At the very end of The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin considers the role of art aesthetics in war:

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says fascism, expecting from war […] the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind […] has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.[20]Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility [First Version]’, trans. Michael W Jennings, Grey Room, Spring 2010, 36

Walter Benjamin

This manifesto has long circulated in the artistic spheres in a paraphrased form: the right aestheticizes politics, so the left responds by politicizing aesthetics.[21]This idea is so ingrained in art practice and criticism that it has its own Wikipedia entry: ‘Aestheticization of Politics’, in Wikipedia, 6 March 2022, … see more For anecdotal evidence to back up Benjamin’s thesis, one need not look further than the Nazis’ desire to leave behind ‘beautiful ruins’[22]K Ishida, ‘Albert Speer’s “Theory of Ruin Value”’, J. Art Res. Center 1, no. Art Research Special Issue (2020): 35–43 on the one hand, and the liberal art institutions’ claim of prioritizing social justice principles on the other. The implication of this wisdom received from Benjamin is profound: the right can pursue its politics knowing that it can adorn it with appropriate aesthetics, but the left can only make political claims over an aesthetics that precedes them. This is hardly an optimal condition for the left’s practice of political art, unless one wanted such a practice to be entirely and inescapably led by politics, all the while remaining in denial of its aesthetic potential to drive meanings of its own. For the right political artist, this challenge is, however, absent: it is always possible to make adequate aesthetic representations of and for their politics.

Walter Benjamin’s library card. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin’s dictate thus partly explains the often aesthetically dry nature of the left’s political art initiatives.[23]See, for example, Claire Bishop’s critique of the lack of aesthetics in ‘relational aesthetics’. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012) The dictate also demands that the political takes on an increasingly enlarged role in the project of political art; Jean-Luc Godard’s move from ‘making political film’ to ‘making films politically’, for example, signals the conviction that the circumstances of artistic production matter more than the art’s reception.[24]See, for example, Jeremy Spencer, ‘Politics and Aesthetics within Godard’s Cinema’, in Marxism and Film Activism: Screening Alternative Worlds, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Lars Lyngsgaard Fjord Kristensen (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015), … see more And this drift is never-ending: the critic Keller Easterling observes that mere ideological declarations are not reliable indicators because they are easily corruptible.[25]Cited by Holert. Keller Easterling, ‘Activism in the Age of the Superbug’, Frieze, 2019, https://www.frieze.com/article/keller-easterling-where-activism-fails-and-how-we-can-reformat-it This means that, eventually, left art becomes entirely subjugated to the practice of politics, so much so that it need not sully itself with aesthetics anymore.

Beware of Art Bearing Political Gifts

Benjamin does not imply that the art practices of the right are aesthetically superior, but he does draw a veil over the political effectiveness of the right’s aesthetics. The long-term result is that a growing plethora of symbols, subjects, and styles, from the Celtic cross to Pepe, are assumed to be aesthetically efficacious because of the politics that they support, rather than because they make for ‘good’ visuals. Consider, for example, the outrage over the 2020 exhibition People of Colour in an Auckland project space, which attracted accusations of hate speech because it displayed the flags of a variety of right-wing political organizations (including the Polish far right and the SS), alongside those of politically acceptable actors (New Zealand’s United Tribes and, bizarrely, South Korea). On the wall, the exhibition looked like a grid of 3D meme chess brought to life to invite scrutiny and consideration. Yet it received neither: the curators were accused of harboring fascist views and forced to apologize.[26]Amal Samaha, ‘Swastikas off K Road: How the Worst Art Show in New Zealand Came to Be’, The Spinoff, 12 November 2020, https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/12-11-2020/swastikas-off-k-road-how-the-worst-art-show-in-new-zealand-came-to-be

People of Colour at Mercy Pictures, Auckland, installation view, 2020

More recently, and in contested circumstances,[27]Dorian Batycka, ‘Poland Just Replaced a Top Museum Director With a Drummer and Painter in a Move Critics Say Is Politically Motivated’, Artnet News, 3 December 2021, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/poland-replaces-zacheta-director-2043595 the exhibition Political Art at Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art[28]‘Political Art’, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, 2021, https://u-jazdowski.pl/en/programme/exhibitions/sztuka-polityczna was condemned and boycotted by the mainstream art world because it ‘platform[ed] antisemitic, racist, and Islamophobic messages under the guise of freedom of expression.’[29]Dorian Batycka, ‘Crowds Gather to Protest Warsaw’s Leading Contemporary Art Museum, Which Just Mounted an Anti-“Cancel Culture” Art Show’, Artnet News, 27 August 2021, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/ujazdowski-castle-exhibition-2003364 The presence of one or two taboo ideas was enough to spark a boycott—Max Uwe Jensen’s remake of the 1945 Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, which could have been taken straight from the Taliban Iwo Jima portfolio, condemned the show to the ‘basket of deplorables’.[30]Interestingly, even though Jensen has been a candidate of a right-wing political party, he appears to be as opposed to state support of the arts as he is to the existence of Islam in Denmark. ‘Uwe Max Jensen’, in Wikipedia, den frie … see more

Uwe Max Jensen, Rainbow Warrior – We Fought for This, 2021

But whatever the curators’ intentions in staging the provocations in the Auckland and Warsaw exhibitions were, their effect has been to reinforce the left-leaning art world’s resolve to treat any aesthetics associated with the right wing, however tenuously, with suspicion and thus never to examine the aesthetic function of its images lest they cause harm. How can the left learn to meme if it refuses to even look at the aesthetics of its political enemies or to take on the ambiguity of rainbow flags and ice-cream?

Anything Can Be Fascist if You Want It to Be

In the imaginary illiberal museum, Benjamin’s dictate is no longer a guarantee of success for the right-wing artist: aestheticizing politics does not turn artistic practice into an ideological weapon the way it may have done, in our idealized view of the past, for Leni Riefenstahl. The self-proclaimed right-wing artist, writer, and frog-Twitter inhabitant Gio Pennacchietti, for example, bemoans the fact that even for the right-leaning artist (for whom the political should be simply another task of the work of art), the political has overtaken the aestheticization of life.[31]Thaddeus Russell, ‘Gio Pennacchietti’, Unregistered with Thaddeus Russell, accessed 31 May 2022, https://sites.libsyn.com/407174/unregistered-213-gio-pennacchietti; Gio Pennacchietti, ‘Right-Wing Art, An Impossibility?’, Gio’s Content … see more

Some of the responsibility for this stalemate may be laid at Benjamin’s feet, but it was Max Horkheimer who, in republishing his colleague’s essay, substituted ‘the totalitarian doctrine’ for the original ‘fascism’ and ‘the constructive forces of mankind’ for ‘communism’, in an attempt to make the dictate appealing to American audiences.[32]Thanks to Mike Watson for highlighting this.,[33]Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (Verso Books, 2016), chap. 9 Given that Benjamin’s essay has been an art school favorite on account of its conceptualization of the artwork’s aura, it may be Horkheimer’s mistranslation, rather than Benjamin’s intent, that gave rise to the idea that left and right-leaning politics require radically different aesthetic approaches. The net effect is that the art world, when thinking about the relationship between aesthetics and politics, is drawn to making polarizing, Manichean distinctions between a narrow range of acceptable progressive politics and a whole gamut of questionable ideas that need to be denounced as fascist.

One may reasonably wonder why Benjamin’s concern for the mass reproducibility of the image should still be relevant when as many images are produced every day as Benjamin could have imagined in his lifetime. Desmond Manderson is one of the scholars who suggest that Benjamin’s observation is historically contingent, and that the disjunction between art and politics is specific to the 20th century of the Frankfurt School:

Benjamin’s essay on mass movements and modern art does not identify the birth of an alliance [between politics and art], so much as detect its resurgence under the altered conditions of twentieth century life. What distinguishes his analysis is the recognition that the constitution of mass publics and collective interests changes both the forms this alliance takes and the functions it fulfills. At stake is none other than the implications of thinking of aesthetics as the handmaiden of politics.[34]Desmond Manderson, ‘Here and Now: From “Aestheticizing Politics” to “Politicizing Art”’, in Sensing the Nation’s Law (Springer, 2018), 4

Desmond Manderson

Following this, one returns to Horkheimer’s predicament: is Benjamin’s definition of fascism still meaningful, and is communism still a relevant counterpoint in the age of 4-chan and TikTok? Benjamin’s interest in fascism is rooted in the choices that societies of the 1930s made concerning class and property relations: ‘The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged.’[35]Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, 35 Fascism’s aesthetics, therefore, provided a mere illusion of liberty while actually acting to constrain it. 

This description is fitting for a range of contemporary right-wing movements, from the UK Independence Party to MAGA (Make America Great Again), but it can just as easily be applied to other aspects of contemporary property and aesthetic relations. Consider, to take a trivial example, the ‘freedom’ offered by the WeWork office, where spaces are designed to encourage workers’ individual interests to surface in the form of aesthetic relations. ‘Do what you love’, the WeWork slogan goes: you too can spend your days in a ‘creative’ environment where your ‘expression’ will be encouraged—but only to be exploited. By Benjamin’s standards, WeWork and all of 21st-century capitalism are steeped in fascism.

Image: GoToVan/flickr

Much of contemporary art practice can be so categorized: the sheer volume of social art interventions aimed at giving voice to marginalized communities that fail to measurably empower their subjects should, by Benjamin’s account, make today’s art institutions blush. Take, for example, the participatory ‘talking shop’ produced by the engagement department of a contemporary art museum, in which communities not previously engaged with art are invited to express their ideas through aesthetic participation. Does such a project not serve to capture the symbolic capital of the masses in return for an unrealistic promise of a better future? Is the artist-facilitator here not the ultimate fascist?

That Benjamin’s distinction between the left and right is no longer fit for its purpose should have been obvious to aesthetic practitioners at least since the advent of neoliberalism which places individual expression above all else. This expressive illusion of freedom offered by WeWork and the museum may have distinct political outcomes but these are not determined by their aesthetic hallmarks any more than they are guaranteed by their statements of intent. Might it, therefore, be time to reject the notion that there is a distinct progressive aesthetics which is in conflict with a right-wing one? The first step out of this predicament is to embrace ambiguity.

Aestheticizing Ambiguity

Mainstream progressivism and ambiguity do not mix, particularly when conservative factions are ready to embrace the latter.[36]Pennacchietti, for example, suggests that ambiguity is the right-wing artist’s way out of the Benjaminian stalemate. Thaddeus Russell, ‘Gio Pennacchietti’, Unregistered with Thaddeus Russell, accessed 31 May 2022, … see more For example, any account of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan that left the effects of the meme campaign to chance would be rather difficult to swallow. Was the ice-cream selfie as likely to land in the pro-democracy camp as it was to deliver a critique of the retreating regime? If such aesthetics come with 50-50 odds of favoring either side of politics, then what determines the outcome? Could it be simply that the extreme political factions expend their energies on making memes opportunistically while the progressive opposition retreats? Simpler still, is it not true that ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’? Given that images are produced at a ridiculous pace, with or without political intent, is it not the responsibility of the political artist to harness their aesthetic ambiguity and cultivate, or rather, meme them, so that the balance of probabilities is swayed in one direction or another?

Aesthetic ambiguity is at play in Monira Al Qadiri’s video work Behind the Sun, which brings together the footage of the burning oil fields in Kuwait set alight by Iraqi troops retreating at the end of the first Gulf War with a soundtrack of nature-themed, religious Arabic poetry from contemporaneous TV programs.[37]Monira Al Qadiri, Behind the Sun, 2013, video, sound, 10’, 2013, https://www.moniraalqadiri.com/behind-the-sun/ The combination of this vintage lo-fi imagery, which Western audiences may remember as the beginnings of televised perma-war, with incomprehensible sounds that news bulletins have conditioned them to mistrust is bewildering. The images of fire and destruction are as iconic of the Gulf War as Albert Speer’s ‘beautiful ruins’ were of World War II. Yet Al Qadiri’s use of them says nothing of her politics and does not align her with any school of extremism. A recent exhibition in Ottawa, for example, interpreted the video work as being ‘of particular significance in Canada, where traditional territories have been expropriated by the settler-colonial state.’[38]‘Monira Al Qadiri: Behind the Sun at DARC’, Digital Arts Resource Centre (Formerly SAW Video)(blog), 23 March 2022, https://digitalartsresourcecentre.ca/monira-al-qadiri-behind-the-sun/,[39]Al Qadiri is Kuwaiti, was born in Senegal, educated in Japan, and lives in Berlin, but has no discernible connection to Canada.

Without suggesting that Al Qadiri courts controversy with her juxtaposition of fire and religion, it is fair to observe that a very similar set of aesthetic choices could be employed, in another context, to inspire religious fervor or promote violent dissent. Context matters, and even more so when one considers that comparable imagery twinned with meditative readings of Koranic poetry has accompanied ISIS ‘battle porn’[40]Brendan I. Koerner, ‘Why ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War—And How to Fight Back’, Wired, April 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/03/isis-winning-social-media-war-heres-beat/ and several beheading videos.[41]Jessica Auchter, Global Corpse Politics: The Obscenity Taboo, Cambridge Studies in International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2021), chap. 3

What, then, separates an artist such as Al Qadiri from a 4-chan meme poster experimenting with edgelord assemblages of images, music, and text? If it isn’t aesthetics alone, does the validation of Al Qadiri’s work by mainstream art institutions guarantee the ‘propriety’ of the artist’s politics, thus limiting the work’s possible applications beyond the sanitized confines of the curatorial text? The relationship between the work and its exhibition context becomes difficult to ascertain here because, in practice, the curatorial-critical machine works to remove the last remnants of ambiguity, thus undermining the very idea of aesthetic judgment.

The strength of Behind the Sun is precisely its ability to evade the Canadian exhibition’s shoehorning of ‘Indigenous Peoples’ land rights’[42]‘Monira Al Qadiri at DARC’ into the interpretative apparatus, and to retain the slippery relationship between aesthetic markers and political alignment. The video is a powerful anti-war hymn, made even more potent by the possibility that it could just as easily be a battle cry. However, one would search in vain for an acknowledgement of this ambiguity in accounts of Al Qadiri’s work because acceptance within the art world comes at the cost of swearing allegiance to Benjamin’s dictate. In return, the museum renders the artefact inaccessible to anyone who hasn’t already subscribed to the liberal ideologies of the institution. As if to prove this point, Al Qadiri withdrew her permission to reproduce a still from her video on being presented with a draft of this text.

Platform Ambiguity

How can an artist choose to practice ambiguity in pursuit of political outcomes? The example of Al Qadiri’s work suggests that this is possible within the art institution, but only within the narrow confines of pre-approved political and aesthetic codes. Ambiguity is more easily pursued outside of the museum or at its edges. Recent years have brought multiple examples of exodus and exile from the museum in the manner of ‘exit not escape’ as advocated by the theorist Suhail Malik.[43]Exit Not Escape, lecture, vol. 1, 4 vols, On The Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art (New York: Artists Space, 2013), … see more Artists of the Millennial generation such as Daniel Keller or Brad Troemel, who came of age aesthetically and politically just as the gallery had its brief romance with post-internet art, have since found that to continue their work they had to take their allegiances into spaces still unpolluted by the art institution or market. The beneficiaries of this exit have been a plethora of quasi-independent outlets powered by Twitter, Patreon, and Discord, as well as artworld-adjacent structures like the political edutainment video art platform DIS, or experimental schools Foreign Objekt and Exploding Appendix.[44]‘Dis’, accessed 5 June 2022, https://dis.art/; ‘Foreign Objekt’, accessed 5 June 2022, https://www.foreignobjekt.com; ‘Exploding Appendix’, accessed 5 June 2022, http://www.explodingappendix.com/diagnosis/

The New York artist Joshua Citarella is one of the cultural producers whose work is as likely to be found in the gallery as it is on anonymous virtual forums. Until 2020, his practice followed the usual trajectory of group and solo exhibitions, artist-curating, residencies, and teaching. Since then, Citarella has taken his online presence far beyond the Instagram (32k) follow-for-follow customary of the art world, so much so that he now describes himself as a ‘content producer’ as well as an artist.[45]Pierre d’Alancaisez, ‘Politigram & the Post-Left, Interview with Joshua Citarella’, New Books Network, accessed 6 June 2022, https://petitpoi.net/joshua-citarella-politigram-and-the-post-left/ He runs a weekly Twitch stream (3.9k) with topics such as Monday Night Memes or Ideology Iceberg, the podcast Memes as Politics, and the collaborative publishing platform Do Not Research. He also hosts a community (1.5k) on Discord and Patreon, with whom he recently staged an IRL exhibition.[46]‘Do Not Research’, lower_cavity, 23 April 2022, https://www.lowercavity.space/donotresearch Citarella has self-published books that engage with meme-making, including a series of interviews with meme creators,[47]Joshua Citarella, 20 Interviews (Blurb, 2021), https://www.amazon.com/20-Interviews-Joshua-Citarella/dp/1034279270/ and notes on the relationship between the memesphere and online political factions of the post-left.[48]Joshua Citarella, Politigram & the Post-Left (Blurb, 2021), https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1006610197

Such varied activity is not unusual in the art world, but much of what Citarella does remains invisible to mainstream institutions. Parts are obscured by the Patreon paywall, parts are co-branded or collaborative, and others, we are led to believe, are performed covertly and without attribution. Where he is visible, Citarella takes on the role of a meme ethnographer, online influencer, community organizer, and lecturer. In the stream, he maintains the charisma of a benevolent edgelord or cult leader. Within his research documents, he relies on memes and graphs that do as much to explain his project as to disorient an outsider. In the press, he displays a commitment to shaping political activism in ways alien to the art world. 

Citarella speaks of being too radical for the museum. There is a modicum of truth to this claim: the art world’s interest in online communities does not reach deep, and the followers that he commands are captured by platforms who are unlikely to want to release them to the museum for free. But what makes Citarella an odder fit still is his aesthetics whose political alignment is difficult to pin down for the casual observer. His Instagram feed features Wojak as often as Bernie Sanders, and some of the hype surrounding his ‘community’ evokes crypto-libertarianism.[49]Citarella is one of the founding partners of channel.xyz, a crypto-powered content and NFT platform bringing together his podcast with New Models, and Interdependence. At the time of writing, the project has not launched, and it is … see more

His key interest in the past few years has been ‘Politigram’, the nexus of politics and Instagram, the fringe of social media where ‘autistic teenagers’ LARP at ‘nonsensical ideologies’[50]The single-page wiki entry defining Politigram could have been created by Citarella. ‘Politigram’, Politigram Wiki, 1 September 2020, http://politigram.wikidot.com/wiki:politigram that blend fascism, communism, and anarchism (with the seemingly random compounds of ‘monarcho-syndicalism’ and ‘goth-right’ being some of the more baffling positions). Add to this some overt references to anarcho-primitivism, Nick Land, and Ted Kaczynski, plus Citarella’s obsession with his physique that would put Bronze Age Pervert to shame, and you’ve long turned the friendly liberal curator into a political foe.[51]Citarella hasn’t quite given up on mainstream institutional validation. The launch of a print edition of his Do Not Research blog platform in June 2022 took place at New York’s New Museum.

A meme on Citarella posted by Citarella. Instagram/@joshuacitarella, February 2022

This practice of ambiguity must be no less confusing for Citarella’s Discord insiders than it is for the ‘normie’ art historian. Except that what he does is common online: pseudonymous followers float in and out of Telegram group chats, watch Twitch streams while eating pizza, and shitpost according to their own schedule. Citarella, like any content creator, needs in equal measure to impress his audiences and pander to them. To keep their attention, he LARPs at constantly being close to getting shadow-banned or de-platformed,[52]Citarella was suspended from Twitch in June 2022, for showing nudity… in a Renaissance painting that was part of John Berger’s 1970s TV series ‘Ways of Seeing’ which Citarella streamed. all in the manner of an expert edgelord.

In his practice manifesto summarized in a Guardian op-ed ‘influencers are not [political] organizers yet, but they might soon be’,[53]Joshua Citarella, ‘Are We Ready for Social Media Influencers Shaping Politics?’, The Guardian, 24 April 2021, sec. Opinion, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/24/social-media-influencers-shaping-politics Citarella proposes that the audience of American Gen-Z teens, the demographic most strongly represented among his followers, is highly susceptible to political capture: the internet is where kids get radicalized, right? These Zoomers are now just as likely to take their political education in the online mainstream of YouTube and Twitch as their elders did in the lawless 4-chan forums because big tech platforms have since captured the political fringes wholesale. Also, ‘When Guys Turn 20’, as the title of Citarella’s recent video series suggests, their allegiances are just as confused and their minds as open to new ideas as they were for the bumper car-racing Taliban recruits in Afghanistan. Who determines which ride in Disneyland they will queue up for?

Here, Citarella proposes, is the left artist’s opportunity to make their mark: rather than watch the depressed, lonely, incel-in-the-making teen slide down the radicalization funnel towards the alt-right, why not lead them from the nihilistic void to early Nick Land[54] Land holds a peculiar status in communities like Citarella’s: he is known for being a heavy influence on the neoreactinary movement, but his early alignment with the left means that references to him can be ambiguous. and Gilles Deleuze, and eventually Mark Fisher? To do this, the artist must adopt the ever-changing language of the shitposter and go hard on irony. There’s no telling if what Citarella is suggesting is a LARP and whether he is prepared to take the responsibility for his audience’s ability to evaluate aesthetic clues that may stand in for socialism or fascism with equal credibility. But does any artist, ever?

The radicalization funnel. A meme posted by Citarella. Instagram /@joshuacitarella, November 2020

Perhaps the best political memes are born precisely out of such an art-life practice because they imitate the ambivalence, nonchalance, and desperation felt by every other Zoomer online. The artist-influencer need not offer more than the odd counterpoint, but to increase his chances of success, Citarella has developed some strategies for infiltrating online communities. His edutainment video The Slow Red Pill, made for DIS, analyzes the process of quiet escalation by which innocuous conservative meme accounts can be used to introduce extremist content to unsuspecting audiences: win their trust, hit them hard, retreat, repeat.[55]Joshua Citarella and Jocob Hurwitz-Goodman, The Slow Red Pill, 2022, video, 4’43″, 2022, https://dis.art/the-slow-red-pill

If this technique works for the right, why shouldn’t the left try it? In his essay How to Plant a Meme, Citarella describes his experiments in infiltrating right-wing groups and seeding them with pointers to resources that could, in principle, drag their members towards the left. The process involves building rapport with radical-right communities and becoming ‘embedded […] in the culture and demonstrat[ing] a deep knowledge of its codes’.[56]Joshua Citarella, ‘How To Plant A Meme’, Do Not Research (blog), 11 April 2022, https://donotresearch.net/posts/how-to-plant-a-meme This is a cost that many artists on the left will find exorbitant, particularly since the process requires aesthetic investment without recognition (‘influence comes from anonymity’) and involves abdication of control (‘you’re not even really planting an idea, you’re nurturing an existing one’).

There is no way of knowing if Citarella and his followers are indeed steering others from Nick Fuentes to Hasan Piker[57]Joshua Citarella, ‘Radical Content’, 2021 or merely nodding at the possibility. Between expressions of anonymous angst and ennui, the Do Not Research Discord chatrooms are filled with references to Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, as though this book represented the pinnacle of political thought.[58]This interest in Fisher gave rise to the group’s conflict with Mike Watson who was a one-time party to Citarella’s activities. A member of the Do Not Research community self-published a book bearing the same title as Watson’s, … see more Reading lists with the likes of Villem Flusser, Metahaven, Suhail Malik, and Benjamin Bratton circulate.[59]Citarella, Joshua, ‘[Do Not Research] Super Secret Syllabus v.2022 — Spring’, 2022 Presumably, someone is getting an education.

But can any art practice substantiate its claims of political impact? Given the amount of attention, research, and funding expended on traditional forms of art activism,[60]See, for example, ‘The Center for Artistic Activism’, accessed 7 June 2022, https://c4aa.org/ Citarella’s project is refreshingly DIY and aspects of it bear an uncanny resemblance to the Afghan war theater. And that ‘war theater’ is not the same as the ‘theater of war’: one of the features of this performance is the relegation of combat to other disciplines.[61]‘Afghanistan’, Thinking Allowed (BBC Radio 4, 11 October 2011), https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00108bj In August 2021, the Taliban did not need to shed blood because they knew that the mere notion of combat—the ice-cream LARP—would likely yield the same outcome. Memes, whether the Taliban’s or Citarella’s, can transact power at arm’s length.

On the Political Compass

Closer to home, Citarella boasts of having turned some of his followers into IRL political activists for the left.[62]d’Alancaisez, ‘Politigram & the Post-Left, Interview with Joshua Citarella’ Within the context of the liberal mainstream’s delusional belief that a youth progressive politics will spontaneously bring about salvation (any generation now!),[63]David Swift, The Identity Myth: Why We Need to Embrace Our Differences to Beat Inequality (London: Constable, 2022), chap. 10 acknowledging that the bulk of the teens online may identify with the post-left (but not necessarily the post-right) seems a significant first step towards mobilizing political actors of the future. If right-wing radicalization is an infrastructurally-conditioned network effect,[64]Keller Easterling, for example, suggests that the radicalization of the teenage girls from London’s Bethnal Green to ISIS was structurally determined. Keller Easterling, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World (Verso Books, … see more then the left should welcome any attempts to renew its own frayed grassroots structures, too. Granted, we may never find out if Citarella is motivated more by the cult of personality that he has built around himself than by the prospect of political change, but the mainstream art world is no better. It may be that Citarella simply knows his audience better, both parasocially and algorithmically, than the museum does, and that his mixture of participation and politicization lands better. Or perhaps, he simply serves a non-political social function that Web 2.5 platforms service better than the 20th century institution could. In a recent Twitch stream, he quipped that in ‘all this time [the community] spent researching pedophilia rings and the deep state’, the things that mattered most were ‘the friends [they] made along the way.’[65]Joshua Citarella, ‘Monday Night Memes’, Twitch, 30 May 2022, https://www.twitch.tv/videos/1313572538

Mark Fisher memes proliferate on the Do Not Research Discord server

None of Citarella’s political success guarantees that the aesthetics at hand does not land them in undesired places. The exiled meme edgelord is never more than a Telegram chat away from non-ironic Holocaust denial or garden-variety misogyny. But, putting the final nail in the coffin of Benjamin’s dictate, the only proof is in the practice, which Citarella describes as being mired in ‘infinite slippages.’[66]Pierre d’Alancaisez, ‘Politigram & the Post-Left, Interview with Joshua Citarella’, New Books Network, accessed 6 June 2022, https://petitpoi.net/joshua-citarella-politigram-and-the-post-left/ The work of the revolution is no dinner party and there is a cost to every attitude. The left’s rejection of the aesthetic potential for politics may make for more harmonious, internally consistent institutional discourses, but it also leaves the door open for political ‘outlaws’ to take over what the institutions purport to hold: art. And the usurpers’ views may prove to be one shock too many for the liberal bubbles. The ambiguity, in the end, gets the artist, too.


Main image: Joshua Citarella and Jocob Hurwitz-Goodman, The Slow Red Pill, 2022, screenshot

Suggested citation: d’Alancaisez, Pierre. ‘Benevolent Edgelords: Specters of Benjamin and Memetic Ambiguity’. In Critical Meme Reader II: Memetic Tacticality, edited by Chloë Arkenbout and Laurence Scherz, 32–51. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2022. https://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/critical-meme-reader-ii-memetic-tacticality/.

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