View from
The Left

Review: “Can the Left Learn to Meme? Adorno, Video Gaming, and Stranger Things” by Mike Watson

(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, Pool)

“Despite the majority of voters aged 18-39 resisting the smear campaigns and voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Britain’s aging population overwhelmed the voice of its youth to take the landslide victory.”

In the aftermath of U.K. General Election, the arrival of Can the Left Learn to Meme? Adorno, Video Gaming, and Stranger Things (2019) could simply not feel timelier. Through the bluster of Boris and Brexit—and amid the residual desperation and heartache—author Mike Watson finds reprieve and optimism through the incessant cultural production of millennials.

On the morning of December 13th, the Left woke up to find that their filter bubble had been burst and—in spite of their best efforts—the Conservative Party had secured a majority government. With the battleground of social media playing its most prominent role in a U.K. election to date, this victory could not only be considered a win for the Tories’ far-right agenda, but also for Donald Trump, Leave EU, and all the other “mouth-breathers” complicit in the ongoing Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Despite the majority of voters aged 18-39 resisting the smear campaigns and voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Britain’s aging population overwhelmed the voice of its youth to take the landslide victory. This “shock” result has subsequently left the millennial generation marginalized and facing another five years of living under a government to which it is fervidly ideologically opposed. In foretelling this result, Watson has conceivably penned this intriguingly hopeful yet realistic call to arms just for them. 

In Culture Industry, Adorno proposed that pop culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods (such as radio and tv programs) to be used for top-down manipulation of the masses by inducing passivity.

Through an array of cultural references from the contemporary art world, to Stranger Things (2016-2020) and cat memes, Watson looks to recuperate and reimagine Theodor W. Adorno’s 1974 essay Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception for his contemporary audience. In Culture Industry, Adorno proposed that pop culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods (such as radio and tv programs) to be used for top-down manipulation of the masses by inducing passivity. In modernizing Adorno’s critique, Watson considers how, with the advent of the readymades (à la Marcel Duchamp and later Andy Warhol), high art—the very tool formerly used to critique such bourgeois oppression—has become so heavily commodified that it lacks any real political value. Devoid of this medium as a means of useful protest, Watson considers the power of new media (such as memes, online gaming and social media) as offering boundless opportunity for expression, advocating the utilization and abstraction of it through persistence production in a rally against apathy and cynicism. This evolution of Adorno’s work is deftly condensed in Watson’s anecdote where he no longer considers apathetic media receptacle Homer Simpson as an accurate model of the media consumer. Rather, he upholds Simpson’s daughter Lisa and her free form jazz licks as a more fitting account of the new media audience-producer. 

Of course, the idea of relentlessly posting and gaming as protest in a hyper-hopeless system that permits political leaders spending $1 million per week on targeted Facebook advertisements to “influence” perspective voters may seem somewhat frivolous, if not entirely absurd. However, while memes, online gaming, and social media are all entrenched within the very data economy that seeks to manipulate us, Watson poetically considers that they offer a unique means for perpetual creation and dissemination, one capable of conjuring the odd moment of critical incisiveness, causing a shudder. And, as readers approach the last few pages, they will find themselves energized, embracing Adorno’s concept of negative dialectic: “We have no hope, let’s keep on hoping!”.

Al Binns is the author of The Incredibly Strange Creatures: Or How I Learned to Stop Being a Mixed-Up Zombie and Survive Modern Work!!? (2020) forthcoming with Zer0 Books.

8
Leave a Reply

avatar
4000

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest oldest most voted
C M
Guest
C M

If this article is any indication the answer to the question is a resounding no.

ABI
Guest
ABI

Missing a cat meme as the lead photo?

C M
Guest
C M

Missing any indication that the author can form a message that will appeal to or keep the interest of anyone outside a narrow set of individuals who already hold his views.

ABI
Guest
ABI

Nice review. Interested in reading this now!

Darren Iversen
Guest
Darren Iversen

The meme “The Left can’t meme” is very strange. The left memes like nothing before in history. They get injected straight into the mainstream. Where to begin? LGBT, LGBTQ (note reuse), MeToo, cultural appropriation, patriarchy, white supremacy, diversity, inclusion, your truth, antifa, pay gap, survivor, privilege, fragility, climate change, climate denial, problematic, deplorables, far right …. I’ve barely scratched the surface. And the other side had a frog.

Mike Watson
Guest
Mike Watson

l guess the thing is, when one talks of a political persuasion being able to meme, they mean able to use memes to gain power or agency. There is no clear indication that the left have been able to swing an election via memes, whereas arguably right memes have had an impact in at least the US and Italian political environments. The list of left groups that meme includes some examples that have been prominent in some online spaces… but are attitudes to  LGBT, and LGBTQ changing throughout society as a result? ls greater diversity enabled by memes? Perhaps among… Read more »

David Cockayne
Guest
David Cockayne

The identity politics in this article is poisonous and profoundly anti-democratic. It implies that the votes of those under 40 are somehow morally superior to those above that age. The former are regarded as now marginalised having been overwhelmed bythe latter, who are aging mouth-breathers.

In a democracy all are equal, irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity etc. Anything else is tyranny.

Al Binns
Guest
Al Binns

I would argue that the recent data hacking by Trump and Leave EU amongst others has entirely undermined our democracy. We are not talking about people being brainwashed into voting for a particular party. We are talking about personal data being unethically mined (if not illegally stolen) and being used to target specific voting groups with outright lies and smear campaigns. For me, this book is about the younger generations finding agency through the very media that is being used to manipulate them. Glad the review has sparked discussion and drawn some attention to this great book.