Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Is "Meme Magic" a Thing?

Suffice it to say I'm not a Trump supporter. Can you tell?

Memes have been a staple of Internet culture for almost two decades now. The term was originally coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, referring to ideas that propagate themselves along the same lines as the natural selection of genes. In Internet parlance, a meme generally consists of an image or images combined with a text phrase of some sort. Those with wide appeal "go viral," and are copied and shared everywhere.

This article from Vice was published back in November, a week after Donald Trump's election win that surprised everyone but the psychic animals. Apparently, a group of online Trump supporters credited "meme magic" for Trump's victory. Meme magic appears to be a mixture of usual Internet meme culture and the chaos magick practice of sigilization. But does it really work?

On the morning of November 9, Théodore Ferréol sat in front of his computer in Paris and wondered what had just happened. Ferréol is not an American citizen and so hadn’t voted for Donald Trump personally. But as an occult researcher, he knew about those who claimed responsibility for Trump’s upset election victory: an online group that spreads images of a cartoon frog.

This group largely identifies with the so-called “alt right”, a white nationalist group, and believes the frog, named Pepe, is imbued with a magical power to bring Trump into office—as long as devotees plaster the frog’s image everywhere, like a flyer for takeout food.

“I've been observing [this phenomena] first hand for quite some time now,” Ferréol told me. “And I'm fascinated at the way internet folklore is turning into something new—not exactly activism, not exactly religion, but something close to a new form of magic and animism in an era when communities have transformed into tribes. And they are savage, creative and, as we now know, really powerful,” he added, referring to the online communities where Pepe is literally considered a god.

Ferréol is detailing what he calls “memetic warfare.” The technique involves charging a symbol, which will then act as a proxy for a clandestine plan. In occult tradition, this is known as chaos magic. The image could be something as abstract as a hieroglyphic doodle, which a group decides will bring them, say, jobs or food or spouses. The image just has to be widely seen, even subliminally, so that it can seed the minds of the larger population and bring about real world results. (If you think this sounds a bit like hypnotism, you’re right.)

In the case of Trump’s victory, though, the supposedly responsible image is Pepe, who’s widely seen on social media. This is a new era of chaos magic, fueled by viral sharing: enter the world of meme magic. According to this occult online army, Trump is set to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States thanks to their viral efforts. Not the economy. Not voter psychology. Not Paul Horner, purveyor of fake Trump news. But a frog meme.

Trump did win, so the short answer to my question is "yes," at least so far. After all, success is your proof. At the same time, I'm curious whether there is any real magical power behind the method, or if it simply works like garden variety advertising propaganda. There is little doubt that the meme sharing in question motivated those Trump supporters who are part of the movement described as "alt-right," and Trump did win the three key states to his victory by very small margins.

Many pollsters noted that even though Trump still appeared to be behind on election day, his supporters were overall much more enthusiastic than Clinton's. Enthusiasm drives turnout, and the "get-out-the-vote" effort that was expected to help push Democrats over the top turned out to be far less organized than anyone expected and basically fizzled in the Midwest. In fact, in the leadup to the election, Clinton's campaign offices in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had been requesting resources for weeks that never came.

But then again, that's how real occult magick works - by arranging circumstances in such a way that the desired outcome is produced. Perhaps without magical influence, the Clinton campaign would not have made some of those serious strategic errors, such as ignoring the Midwest. Maybe James Comey would have thought better of releasing that second Clinton letter - though as a Republican partisan, I expect he probably would have done it anyway. And so forth.

One of the reasons that I'm so interested in this idea is that back in the late 1990's, I watched it fail - a lot. Back before the web became all-consuming, there was a Usenet forum called alt.magick.chaos. The late 1990's were also the heyday of chaos magick, with Peter Carroll's Liber Kaos published in 1991. Unsurprisingly, the convergence of sigilization and digital technology proved too tempting for "cybermages" to resist.

I watched members of the Usenet group do experiments with various approaches to online magick for years, and as far as I could tell every single one of them failed to produce any measurable results. So if the "meme magic" brigade really has worked out a functional method, it would be kind of a big deal - regardless of my personal opinion of their politics. Obviously, for the method to be worthwhile it needs to be repeatable, but if it does work, I might have an idea why.

Late-1990s chaos magick operated on the assumption that in order to get a sigil to work, you had to embed it into the "unconscious mind" and, if possible, completely forget your operation. This is based on Austin Osman Spare's ideas about the nature of the unconscious. Spare believed that people have a "psychic censor" that blocks the conscious mind from working magick, which had to be bypassed in order to produce any significant effect. Carroll incorporated this idea into his system.

From a personal standpoint, I have found the whole framework to basically be nonsense. When you do an operation, you most certainly do not need to forget performing it. I have an eidetic memory, so if Spare was right about how the mind works, I would never be able to do magick of any kind. It is true that once you've performed an operation, obsessing about the results will often mess it up for some reason. But that's about as far as it goes.

Now it is true that I grew up in kind of an unusual household. Neither of my parents were magical practitioners, but some of my relatives were and I never was indoctrinated with the idea that magick was stupid, or that it was evil. So maybe that's why my "psychic censor" never turned on. Going further, if that's true, it means that the "psychic censor" is just garden variety cultural conditioning that we should work at undoing, rather than reifying by cultivating our ability to "forget."

At any rate, in order to make their sigils more "forgettable," the general practice among chaos magicians was to make them as divorced from any apparent magical intent as possible. So what generally happened is that you would wind up with something that looked like a bland corporate logo with a few more squiggly lines than usual. It would provoke no reaction at all when viewed, and on its own was entirely devoid of any symbolic meaning or emotional content.

The meme magic folks went in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of a bland symbol, they went with a cartoon that already provoked a strong reaction among those sharing their views. Among members of the so-called "alt-right," the Pepe image is basically unforgettable. So this flies in the face of Carroll's principle - but it does line up with my own experience of how effective magick works. Also, Aleister Crowley recommended that magicians "enflame themselves in prayer," which sounds like cultivating a strong emotional state to me.

My understanding is that modern chaos magick books like Gordon White's Chaos Protocols downplay the "forgetting" angle, whereas Carroll along with many of his proponents back in the 1990s swore by it. In addition, the effectiveness of a viral image as a sigil supports the concept of "shoaling" - using a bunch of small sigils, or a bunch of copies of a central one, that work together to accomplish a single objective - another of White's ideas that he shared with the blogosphere years ago.

So what to do? I'm an occultist, but as I've made pretty clear for months, I am not a Trump supporter. I was convinced throughout the campaign that he would be a terrible president, and since his election he has given me no reason to think otherwise. Maybe, if we're really going to take the fight to his supporters and oppose his agenda, we need to create some magical meme warfare of our own. With that in mind, I propose the following:
  1. We need to identify a proven meme that already carries with it the emotional effect that we who oppose Trump's agenda want.
  2. We need to empower it with our magical intent, by whatever means work best for each of us. The meme itself, not the methodology used to empower it, becomes what ties the whole operation together.
  3. The meme should be distributed far and wide on the Internet. As we will be using a proven meme, it should already have som significant distribution. We should strive to increase that as much as we can.
  4. Then, we observe the effects by whatever metrics we can. It's possible that the meme magic folks will have trouble keeping their operation going, since it may very well have just been focused on Trump winning the election. If so, it means that the operation would have concluded upon a successful outcome.
Do I have any idea whether or not this will work? Of course not. It's just a working hypothesis at this point based on my observation of many attempts at online magick by a number of different groups. I also am not a very prominent blogger, and I may not have a big enough following to mobilize a large group of "meme magicians." On the other hand, data is data, and it can't hurt to try, whether we succeed or fail.

I would also suggest adopting the #unpresidented hashtag like I did in the meme above. It originated as a misspelling of "unprecedented" in one of Trump's tweets, and didn't turn out to be anywhere near as popular as I expected, since it struck me as absolutely hilarious. But it has layers, and can cut both ways. Truly, Donald Trump is the unpresident. He's a transformational figure who defies politics-as-usual to his supporters, and to his detractors is the least-prepared, least-knowledgeable, and least-presidential candidate ever elected.

Personally, I highly doubt that the former will turn out to be the case. All I see when I look at Trump is a slick salesman who tells his audience whatever they want to hear, and I suspect that it's only a matter of time before everybody who thought he was on their side will be profoundly disappointed by his actual policies. I could be wrong, of course, and Trump might turn out to be willing to oppose the worst excesses of the Republican Party - but suffice it to say, I'll believe that when I see it.

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Imperator David Griffin said...

May Kek guide you on your quest!

Ade said...

Hey, Scott! Well, you've probably seen the footage of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face (and its countless variations). Maybe with this we have finally been gifted the meme you were waiting for, the "proven meme that already carries with it the emotional effect" that we want, especially considered Spencer himself absolutely hated it going viral:

(see the last couple of paragraphs)


Scott Stenwick said...

We will have to see how it propagates, and if it has real staying power. One of the reasons that I am not sure how well it will work long-term is that it's not really that funny without the context. It also depends on you knowing who Spencer is for it to have much resonance.

Better would have been Spencer being hit with something like a pie or a shoe, because those are funny in and of themselves. People could share it because "watch this asshole get hit with a pie/shoe" and laugh about it no matter what their politics were, and even if they knew nothing about who said asshole was.

But we'll see. It's often pretty difficult to predict what will stick in peoples' minds and what won't.

Scott Stenwick said...

Sean Spicer seems to be going the way of the Iraqi information minister, and it's just his first day on the job. I'm seeing many similar memes proliferating around the whole "alternative facts" nonsense.

And that has some resonance because as far as I could tell, there were a lot of people out there during the campaign who thought Trump was honest because he "told it like it is" - even when all the fact checkers said he was lying.

Trump needs to track down Ari Fleischer. Remember him? The smoothest Press Secretary I've ever seen, whether he was telling the truth or not.