In the cynicism and hopelessness of the 21st century, it can be increasingly difficult to imagine any political possibility beyond the existing order. And when so much of art and cultural expression is governed by value and marketability, it has little opportunity to challenge affirmative thinking. But does the online culture of the millennial generation contain a potential to disrupt order? Can memes and video games open a space to entertain the possibility of a different future? In his recent book, Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming and Stranger Things (Zero, 2019), Mike Watson discusses the current cultural conditions, and how the art of the meme may resist co-optation by the alt-right for more radical ends. I talked with him about some of the core ideas in the book.
Mike Watson (PhD from Goldsmiths College) is a theorist, critic and curator who is principally focused on the relation between culture, new media and politics. He has written for Art Review, Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic and Radical Philosophy and has curated events at the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale, and Manifesta 12. In November 2019 he published his second book with ZerO Books, Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming and Stranger Things.
You discuss in the book how we experience political possibility in the present, especially from the perspective of millennials, or those who have reached adulthood in the 21st century. How does the millennial relationship to political possibility differ from that of the previous generation?
Mike Watson: A key difference between the generations would be in their respective use of communications technology during the formative years of their socialisation and dating. Generation X did not have access to the internet or mobile phones as they grew up. This means they have a vastly different mentality in comparison to the millennial generation, which navigated the realm of pre-adult bond making via social media interfaces.
Clearly one can’t apply a precise cut off point to this shift, and social media came via the intermediary of text messaging. In any case, what one finds is a very different attitude towards human interaction between the generations, which can leave the millennial generation looking somewhat nihilistic, or even psychotic in their aversion to personal bonds in ‘terraspace’ or ‘meatspace’.
Carried over to politics there is a misperception of the millennial as socially aloof and by extension inherently cynical. Now, to say “millennial” is in any case a huge generalisation. We are talking about everyone between about 18-20 and 38-39 years old, depending on the dates followed… so I can’t speak for all of them. But what I can say is that the reluctance I’ve found in students to engage with enthusiasm with Marx’s theory – or Adorno, or Benjamin, etc. – is less due to a failure to agree with the basic Marxist assumption regarding the need for solidarity as a means to redistribute opportunity, and more a recognition that all of the efforts of their forebears to challenge inequality have clearly failed.
This may sound extreme, but the millennial in my experience works on the logical assumption that everything that occurred prior to today resulted in us getting to today. Hence any plea by their elders to pay more attention to certain key texts meets with an eye roll and maybe then an ‘OK, Boomer!’ READ MORE