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meme war

The global uprising happening right now – World War IV – is, as Marshall McLuhan predicted, “a guerilla information war” in which the decisive battles are being fought not in the sky, nor in the streets, nor in the forests, nor on the high seas, nor even on the battlefields of the Middle East, but rather in the mediums of the mental environment: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the Internet. In this visceral war of ideas there is no longer any distinction between civilian and soldier. Each of us is a partistan, a meme warrior, in a dirty, no-holds-barred propaganda offensive of competing narratives, worldviews, and alternative visions of the future.

Right now, corporations control much of the means of meme production and propagation. They wield that power to devastating effect, foisting a few thousand ads, logos, marketing concepts and political slivers into our brains each day. In a sense, however, their meme is flat and fragile because it boils down to a single, increasingly shrill, exhortation: “You must consume.” This commercial message has altered everything from the foods we eat to how our democracies function, to the way we love and the way we lust, to how we frame the big issues that surround us and what we consider to be politically possible.

The question now is whether or not we, the people, can rise to the challenge of reimagining activism. Can we build our own insurgent meme factory? Can we train a new breed of activists in the post-clicktivist art of meme warfare? Can we constantly innovate until we’ve beat the megacorps at the game they’ve dominated for too long?


Maverick philosopher Guy Debord proposed détournement as a way for people to take back the spectacle that had kidnapped their lives. Literally a “turning around,” détournement involved rerouting spectacular images, environments, ambiences and events to reverse or subvert their meaning, thus reclaiming them. With its limitless supply of ideas ranging from rewriting the speech balloons of comic-strip characters to altering the width of streets and the heights of buildings and the colors and shapes of doors and windows, to radically reinterpreting world events such as the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, the Internationale Situationniste – the journal the Situationists published between 1958 and 1969 – was a sometimes profound, sometimes absurd laboratory of provocation and détournement. Once, Debord altered a famous drawing of Lenin by placing a bare-breasted woman on his forehead with the caption “The Universe Turns on the Tips of Breasts.” Debord had his book Mémoiresbound in heavy sandpaper so that when it was placed on the shelves of libraries, it would destroy other books. One famous détournement happened in the Notre Dame cathedral on Easter Sunday in 1950. With thousands of people watching, a Lettrist provocateur dressed as a Dominican monk slipped onto the altar and delivered a sermon accusing the Catholic Church of “the deadly diversion of the force of life in favor of an empty heaven,” and then solemnly proclaimed that “God is dead.” It was with this spirit of détournement that the Situationists invaded enemy territory and tried to “devalue the currency of the spectacle.” And it was with this defiance that they intended to pull off a cultural revolution, “a gigantic turning around of the existing social world.”


A century ago, Mahatma Ghandi asked the people of India to boycott British salt and cloth, and instead to make their own. It was the beginning of the end for the British Empire. Can we borrow a page from the past and boycott the corporate capital system into submission?

It would have to be like no other boycott in history. We know that a company’s most valuable – and vulnerable – asset is its brand image. We also know that a brand crisis can bring a company swiftly to its knees. So here’s the big question: can uncooling be one way for civil society to bring recalcitrant corporations to heel? It would take politicizing every purchase we make, constantly looking for opportunities to jam and having the courage to take them. We’d have to learn to live anew because our target, corporate cool, is a powerful force that surrounds us all the time.

First thousands, then millions of people would need to start living viscerally … strategically … like a cat on the prowl. Imagine each of us coming up with our personal boycott strategy, our own bag of tricks and then adjusting our lifestyles in sometimes painful ways: learning to live without foods and drinks we’ve loved since we were kids; finding local, indie alternatives to brands we consume every day without a second thought; shutting out familiar corporations that we’ve dealt with for years.

Can we do this? Can we play cat and mouse games with megacorps? Outwit and outmaneuver them? Can we then get millions of people, simultaneously, to ditch or switch brands? Can we, in a nutshell, learn to live lives of spontaneous, playful resistance?

cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance – a high-tension state between two opposing beliefs – is the meme warrior’s most indispensable tool. It works like a pie in the face, first inducing confusion, then anger, and finally an intense desire to correct the imbalance – to rediscover the consonance that has been lost.

Cognitive dissonance is old hat in the marketing world, where it’s used to manipulate people into making decisions that they wouldn’t normally make. Take the classic foot-in-the-door technique, for example. You ask your mark for a tiny favor, or get him to answer in the affirmative to some innocuous question (“Do you ever worry about your children’s safety?” or “Would you say that most people don’t smile enough?”). Then you make your pitch. Since your mark has already said yes to you once, he finds it harder to refuse the pitch.

Culture jammers, meme guerillas and design anarchists use cognitive dissonance in an entirely different and thoroughly less predictable way. They take a cherished or mundane image and turn it on its head – make it seem grotesque or repulsive or bizarre – and force people to radically reconsider what they hold dear and what they take for granted. Whether spread via a stickering campaign or a big-budget TV campaign, design dissonance provides the jolt that gets people making their own life-altering choices.

Kalle Lasn, Design Anarchy

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