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 psychopathic 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!’
Here I would say that the millennial has basically experienced an accelerated version of what all generations experience. That is a basic disappointment at the world not living up to early dreams. And here it is worth pointing out that even the cynicism of Generation X, embodied by the punk slogan ‘no future’, was voiced in reaction to the feeling that a promised utopia had been robbed from us. All the modernist dreams of freedom and welfare had come to nothing.
The millennial in contrast did not even begin from the sense of the loss of a promised utopia, or job security, or a cradle to grave welfare state. They began from the point of no hope. In this sense the millennial is the everyman, or everywoman, only they reached the point of cynicism quicker than earlier generations. From here, the cynicism of dating apps and friendships built online, of selfies and the Kardashians seems less illogical. Aside from being convenient, it’s a riding of the base nihilism of existence, and the ‘meme’ – unpredictable and resistant to interpretation – is its unit.
The key philosophical figure in the book is Theodor Adorno, and you explore his critical theory in relation to the millennial experience. How does Adorno become particularly relevant again in the second decade of the 21st century?
MW: In so many ways Adorno is of course the last thinker one should turn to. He is best known for three things: his elitism, his complexity and his pessimism. I could go along with the first two to some extent (though more on the elitism later), but what interests me most is the third element, which for me has parallels with Millennial and Generation Z or ‘Zoomer’ negativity, despite their widely divergent experiences.
Central to Adorno’s bleak vision is the idea that nothing can resist capital and what he calls ‘identity thinking’, or the tendency to categorise things as a means of control. For Adorno the only thing that might in some way escape identity thinking is art, as art is by nature irrational and therefore can at least ostensibly escape domination by the auspices of science and capital.
However, for Adorno the tendency to industrialise artistic production rids even art of its ostensible distance from the machinations of capital, meaning that only an extreme abstract art can reveal the false conditions of identity thinking and humanity’s linkedness with nature. And here the pessimism that Adorno held for jazz music was really a pessimism for mass produced culture, which he saw as essentially designed to numb the minds of the masses by offering them a false choice between very similar Hollywood films, magazine products, TV shows, etc.
Adorno sets up his bleak vision of modern culture, both in a fascist and a democratic state, in part so that his argument for some sliver of hope can withstand accusations of wishful thinking. In short, he’s not offering a miracle cure, but rather grounding some possibility of reprieve within the nihilistic system of capital we inhabit, which he in any case considers a residue of the chaotic state of nature. So we live in a controlling human made system because we never actually escaped the red in tooth and claw tendencies of nature, and no amount of scientific or financial calculation will help us to escape it as we carry nature within us.
So Adorno says life is void and chaotic and it is only in the brief moment that we succumb to that fact that we really live, and we can do that by listening to dark abstract music, watching abstract theater, or reading Kafka, for example. For Adorno, this experience jolts us out of the rigid everyday way of thinking that capital imposes on us.
For me this embrace of negativity as a means of countering it via creativity is precisely what the Millennial and Zoomer generations are doing on a continual basis with their meme and audio visual output. That is to say, that neither Adorno nor the younger generations today believe art will save us somehow from the worst aspects of capitalism, but as Adorno argues in his 1962 essay, ‘On Commitment’, we must continue to make art, rather than surrender to cynicism.
One major contrast between the present and Adorno’s cultural theory is how the ‘culture industry’ he defined, centred on the effects of passive media such as TV and radio, is now replaced by the ‘democratisation’ of online and social media production. But given that a lot of what is created, and certainly what becomes popular, still resembles the ‘dumbed-down’ entertainment of older media, does this democratisation represent a real shift in political possibility?
MW: Well, I guess judgments on what represents a shift in political possibility depend on what one sees as desirable. While there has unfortunately been no overthrow of capitalism, there has been a shift from neoliberalism to right-wing populism recently, and the internet is widely credited with having brought that about. So certainly new media is having an impact and it is one that would appear to disorient via what could be called an inherent abstraction, given the sheer number of contrary images we process daily.
Certainly this is not what Adorno had in mind as he favoured modernist classical composers such as Schoenberg and authors such as Beckett, but I think we have to be able to selectively take what we want from him, so long as we are aware of doing so. One thing he did say in The Dialectic of Enlightenment – co-written with Max Horkheimer – is that mass media made people both dumber and smarter at once. This is often overlooked as a statement but I think it is hugely relevant as it mirrors what Marx wrote about capitalism giving the worker the means to overthrow capitalism itself, if only they hijack the means of production.
Today we are to some degree hijacking the means of communication and I’d argue we are becoming exponentially smarter and dumber at the same time. It’s very difficult to know where this will all lead, yet there are a number a factors relating to new media culture that give some hope. Above all, in terms of interactivity and choice, online culture has to be seen as a corrective to mass media as one-way and non-interactive. We have a level of choice and abstraction that is unprecedented in popular culture.
Unfortunately, Adorno scholars don’t want to see this, probably as they have too much vested interest in Adorno remaining an obscure thinker who requires special skills to understand. As such they try to keep him far from popular culture when he was actually one of the first thinkers to consider it deeply. That’s one thing I like to address in my work.
The other issue here is that this democratised production still takes place on commodified platforms, which generate profit regardless of content. Do we simply have to accept that creating and disseminating alternative ideas in current conditions means contributing to dominant systems? Does that undermine the power of those ideas?
MW: It’s a good question, though I’d return to the last answer, in that we are becoming both freer and less free, more intelligent yet stupider, all at once. For sure, it is difficult to do anything now in terms of expression without feeling monitored, and our every action online feeds into the data economy. Though here it is worth bearing in mind that Adorno – ever careful to avoid over wishful solutions – actually claimed that the abstract artwork could feign autonomy from capitalist society precisely as it mimicked the commodity fetish.
That is to say, where commodities claim to have something that goes in excess of their material properties, the artwork claims to transcend commodification itself, all the while belonging to a system of exchange. For this reason one can’t assume that more commodification means less opportunity for its temporary feigned transcendence, at the least!
In terms of high art specifically, and the abstract forms which Adorno saw as able to at least create a sense of estrangement, in the book you explain how the art world today has effectively nullified any such possibility through its commodification. What is it about the way fine art is commodified in particular that makes it especially ineffective?
MW: As you can see from the prior question this is not that clear cut. Though essentially for an artwork to transcend commodification it has to be free enough from the mechanisms of identification, which often manifest as a monetary value appended to an object. In today’s art world, which I describe in the book as essentially an appendage to financial speculation, this becomes more and more difficult.
I would argue that even though all internet memes and online videos are inseparable from the data economy, their production and consumption is not always knowingly related to capitalist profit making. It’s easier to overlook the profit motive when looking at dank memes than when looking at an artwork in a gallery or museum, or even in an artist’s studio.
When you talk about the value of memes and online games in the book, you mainly emphasise how their creativity and playfulness reveal a potential for alternative thought and expression. You also contrast this with the alt-right use of memes, which attempt to reinstate some clear social order. In terms of the left learning to meme, then, is the potential a purely negating one, to open up spaces to make the concept of something different appear feasible? Or is the specific content important as well, in terms of including clear left-wing political messages and intellectual critique?
MW: In terms of the alt-right, it’s worth bringing in Bannon here, who I discuss alongside Peterson as figures who aim to use the millennial generation for their own ends. Ultimately, I think Bannon is the more sinister of the two, as he has tried to utilise the millennial as a wrecking ball to aid in the destruction of neoliberalism’s permissiveness and openness to global trade and immigration.
He has done this by harnessing the raw energy he saw in disillusioned gamers as director of a company that made money from selling online treasures to fans of the online game World of Warcraft in the ‘00s. From there he applied his knowledge of the millennial at Breitbart magazine before running Trump’s successful presidential campaign, entering the White House as President Trump’s personal adviser, keen to use his influence to reign in an over-free global political and economic situation.
For Bannon, too much freedom could only be countered by a resurgent nationalism, with its quasi-fascist undertones, hence the stirring up of far right sentiment on online message boards. As with Peterson, ultimately he believes that more control is a remedy to our social ills.
For me, the opposite path will deliver us from disaster. It is our attempt to ward off chaos that results routinely in calamity as systems developed to tame nature have resulted in the control of people by other people. We are doomed to repeat the oppressions of the past if we do not cede ‘control’ of the world, something that yielding to the senseless of abstraction can prepare us for by example.
To an extent the sum of all internet production goes some way to challenging a rationality gone awry and I do see something in the negativity of Vaporwave music tracks, for example, which refuse to find false solace in the world. It is this refusal, along with a perpetually sustained level of production in meme culture generally that for me offers some hope. Though in reality this does not require specifically ‘left’ memes.
I actually don’t think it is possible to strategise a meme campaign for the Left, or indeed the Right, and the book Can the Left Learn to Meme? does not purport to be a manual on memes or even a book on singular leftist memes or meme campaigns as such.
Rather, it basically urges the reader to ride the wave of digital memetic and gaming culture as a means of countering the over rigid aspects of capitalist culture and particularly the authoritarian tendencies of the new right or alt-right, which I portray as embodied by the thought and political program of, respectively, Peterson and Bannon.
Do you see a utopian element in the creativity of memes and, by extension, as some small part of the millennial experience?
MW: No, I think it’s much more nuanced and interesting than that! I think what is mistaken for psychopathy and apathy in millennials may actually be a refusal to take the easy way out, or to find comfort in messianic systems.
Whatever is thrown up out of the arising image culture may take us to better or worse places. So far it seems worse, if we take into consideration Brexit, Trump, Johnson, Salvini and so on. Yet we’re in the very early stages of an unprecedented era of creative production. Above all, I see this creative production in spite of so much negativity as being Adornian, even if on so many counts he’d seriously dislike what’s being produced.