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At the Border with Reality: the Coronavirus in Italy and Memes

(Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy, the first European country to close its links with China, also became the first nation in Europe in terms of the numbers infected. With this development came the tragic counterbalance of being transformed in one fell swoop from repellers to rejected.”

After being used euphemistically for years, the term “virality” comes back to shatter our lives, taking us traumatically away from the virtual realm we have been referring to for some time, to the more tragic real that escapes us and which we cannot manage. Since “the viral” had turned from adjective to noun (to refer to that video or memo, rather than an actual infection), we came to forget the restlessness, anxiety, and panic that real virality—or, rather, biological virality—can cause, and which is, itself, amplified by the media and social virality. The pre-pandemic crisis around Covid-19, which has shut down Italy, has made the domestication of consumption that I call “isolation” even more evident, as Amazon’s suggestions pair searches for bleach with condoms; supermarkets are being looted, and delivery services and online dating apps are experiencing record surges. The virus hacks into the functioning of expert systems, offices, institutions, and consumption, while prompting us to reflect on each of their nature and function.

There is little to do but take advantage of the situation, entering smart working mode in anticipation of the virus’ ability to jump the conventional barriers of nation-states. (Those borders which have enormous geopolitical power and which, variously, encourage or inhibit the global circulation of goods, people, capital, ideas, and technologies.) Viral propagation is in itself paradoxical because it stretches the boundaries that define nations, cities, or communities. These boundaries tend to resist the forcing of viral transmission precisely because of the strong bonds that fence off the community from the invasion of the external enemy. However, once the virus has pierced the border by exploiting the weak links and penetrating the homogeneous space of the community, it begins to sow panic there. Precisely because of what was previously a defensive element—namely, the closure and homogeneity of the community—there now comes an element of cultivation and multiplication of the infection. This is what happened in Japan and South Korea, especially in Daegu, where the religious sect of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus became a virus incubation cluster and super-spreader of the disease.

Italy, the first European country to close its links with China, also became the first nation in Europe in terms of the numbers infected. With this development came the tragic counterbalance of being transformed in one fell swoop from repellers to rejected. This overturned empirically the common alarm sounded by Matteo Salvini’s right-wing populist Lega party, who usually warns of the virus arriving on immigrant boats. Coronavirus is considered a Sovranist virus because it blurs all the boundaries built by the populist vision: us against the “other” (and now we become the other), the people against the technocracy (and now we pray the technocratic system will save us from the infection spread by the people), charisma against competence (and now we are grateful to be saved by the skills of doctors, notwithstanding the chaotic unpredictability of the populist leaders). 

Following Jean Baudrillard’s reflections on code, it is from the discovery of DNA that biological discourse crosses and integrates with discourse around communication. This is akin to what William Burroughs meant when he put forward his theory of language as a virus. The Word, Burroughs elaborated, infected the biological organism of pre-alphabetic man, determining his expulsion from GOD (the “Garden of Delights”). The history of human civilization is, therefore, read as a tremendous reversal of the relationship between body and thought—in the sense that thought is read as an entity alien to the body that acts almost conspiratorially with respect to it. Like all the most famous viruses, the main function of the Word is to reproduce itself by exploiting the metabolism of the host organism to replicate itself—and to produce syntagmatic chains that have the sole purpose of perpetuating this submission. Burroughs invokes an electronic revolution that—through the deconstruction transformation of the verb into an image (“since the written word is an image”)—brings the Word back to its archaic and magical status. Much more than Burroughs’ “devolutionist” ideal, geneticist Richard Dawkins’ cultural evolutionism with its “meme theory” uses genetics as a communicative metaphor. Just as the gene is a basic unit of genetic theory, so the meme represents the basic concept on which Dawkins’ mechanics is built. Contrary to the perspective of advertisers and scholars, viral propagation is not a dependent variable of technological innovation. Its original nature is linked to the community dimension of “word of mouth,” as it propagates along social tissues that are composed of strong and weak links. However, today, virality is remedied by emerging media.  

Andrew McStay’s book Emotional AI. The Rise of Empathic Media examines not only platforms and devices that develop forms of “emotional artificial intelligence” but also all those innovations that have been able to enhance the emotionality of the human being in mercantile terms. This has been true at least since the 1881 invention of the hedonometer, a device used to gauge happiness, following the long wave of Benthamian reflection on capitalism and happiness. Since then, we could almost argue that all media has tried to be empathic in some way, even if the real empathic turning point comes with the advent of digital media and artificial intelligence later. Among the empathic, the “meme,” which circulates virally thanks to the algorithmic functions of profiling and ranking, is a prime example. The #iosonogiorgia challenge (from “Io Sono Giorgia,” or “I am Giorgia”) was probably the most powerful meme in Italy last year, both in terms of proliferation and user involvement. It involved people remixing a speech made at a rally in Rome by right-wing populist politician Giorgia Meloni’s as she declared, “I am a woman, I am a mother I am a Christian,” in what one might see as a confused simultaneous support for both women (as a gender) and traditional family values.

The meme’s simplicity (involving a pre-existing speech laid over techno music and paired with existing film or television footage) played on an essential formula: that of “I am…” This is a format which is present in times of crisis and, at the same time, gives focus to the new narcissistic obsession with ego. It is an identity claim that relaunches the role of the subject, now shattered by postmodernity, and then extends the discourse to other more general and collective identities (again: woman, mother, Christian). It refers precisely to those identities that the advanced phase of globalization has attempted to distort, including “transgender,” “postcolonial,” and “post-human.” This is the claim of the solidity of contemporary sovereignists that starts from the modern subject, the very one that paradoxically founded the Enlightenment and the universalist vision against which sovereign neo-communitarianism hurls itself.

We are not here to resume the debate between those who see in the multiplication of the message a possibility of contrast to the advance of the new right and those who think that it is only a further publicity for the sovereignist vision (halfway between Oscar Wilde and Culture Jamming). The thing that most impresses—and which we could elect as the axial principle of contemporary communication—is the strategic role of contradiction or, rather, self-contradiction. The sovereign meme is, in fact, almost metrically marked by the obsessive centrality of the ego, acquiring communicative power precisely by virtue of its negation. And so, it is that the fragments of Giorgia Meloni’s discourse in Piazza di San Giovanni in Rome—set to 90’s techno-rave music—that give rise to a creative and participatory challenge that crosses the entire contemporary imagination.

It’s impossible to list every single version of the meme in circulation—from that featuring the Red Army, to a group of bearded Muslims, to the guard Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, to Laurel and Hardy, to the familiar Viking techno dancer, himself already a meme. Many on social media have shared a version of the meme by Italian singing star Myss Keta, as she punctually fulfills her fans’ wish, intoning the words of the meme in concert in Bologna. There are a myriad of subjects that—despite themselves—reinterpret the score of Meloni, leader of the party Fratelli d’Italia or (Brothers of Italy), thus creating a detournement in its meaning, transforming it into pure form. This is a signifier that has nothing more to communicate than the emptiness of infinite repetition, together with a hysterical hilarity traced on the user’s face—and a continuous overturning of that strong identity that was to be built in the many, unlimited interpretative (and performative) possibilities offered by the form of the meme.

The success of the meme in politics rides the long wave of “politainment” and popular culture on the Internet, which is seen as distinct from earlier television popular politics. The power of the meme lies in its spreadability, through which connected audiences not only visualize and transpose content but also appropriate, modify, reinterpret, and re-launch it through new viral processes. This is why the new politics seeks to disseminate in the form of the meme, waiting to be framed in a given format and relaunched in processes of spontaneous, creative, and informal sharing.

We are faced with a distorted use of participatory culture, animated by so-called “spreadable media.” We have an open, creative, and recreational grassroots culture that is born in online communities and employs a value system orbiting around leftist countercultures. With lo-fi politics, we have witnessed participatory culture from the Right, with enormous and unpredictable success. Following the success of Salvini’s online campaign in the 2018 Italian General Election, leading to his becoming Interior Minister for three months, a leftist response grew up in the form of the Sardines movement. (The Sardines is a grassroots movement that organizes flash mobs and protests—and which was credited with containing the Salvini tsunami in the regional elections in the Northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna, thanks to a 15,000-strong flashmob in Bologna in November, 2019.)

This flashmob action itself went viral as the crowd sang the popular partisan song “Bella Ciao,” making it clear that empathic, participative, and viral media could be recovered from the Left to compete against the new cultural hegemony supported by the populist right. To this end, it is worth reading Mike Watson’s book Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming, and Stranger Things. The text dusts off the tools of critical theory to reflect on the contemporary relationship among art, cultural industry, and politics. Watson describes how the only difference is that while for German Philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, “mid-twentieth century capitalism was a form of abstraction that posed as rational…today there is no longer any pretense of rationality…so that selfie, meme, YouTube videos and indie videos perhaps represent our attempt to deal with the madness of our mediatized world, while interacting with its absurdity and temporarily moving away into a safe (and entirely fabricated) space within it.” Watson continues to suggest that “the inability of the left to see both the bad and the good in the development of the internet and the particular culture of image production and reception that accompanies it.”

Watson’s book has, somehow, anticipated a question posed later by the political initiative of the Sardines, who wanted to respond to the hyper-activism of Salvini’s party with a mimetic and polemical counter-activism. The new virality of the Sardines is a late but very effective response to the problem of today’s passivity of the Left. In this way, the desire to bring imagination to power (wedding it to the rationality of abstract systems) can find new lifeblood in the tactical virality of the new political communication (of which the Sardines represent a possible transitional phase). What the Left can learn from memes is perhaps to develop new tactical and viral modes of communication, at the same time avoiding the permanent exploitation of grassroots phenomena made by neoliberal institutions, parties, companies and mainstream media.

Nello Barile is Associate Professor in Media studies and Sociology of Culture at IULM University of Milan where he coordinated the Master program in Creativity Management. He holds a PhD in Communication at University of Rome La Sapienza. He has published several books in Italy and articles and short essays in France, Brazil, Russia, Germany, Spain and UK and USA.
This article was adapted from a text originally appearing on, entitled Il meme come virus, il virus come meme, and has been translated from the Italian and edited to account for recent developments in the spread of Covid-19.

2 thoughts on “At the Border with Reality: the Coronavirus in Italy and Memes

  1. Interesting ideas about memes, but seen only through the lens of adversity with the right. The text is full of unexplained assumptions about what’s right. Should have just stuck with the theory on memes.Therefore I’m not sure what conclusions should be reached. Pretty confusing overall.

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