Ideas and virality, social movements and jokes: how are they constructed and where do they spring from? Load up your ghost, plug into The Net, and begin to wonder if it’s all so simple.
The internet meme has been around for long enough that the average person could probably name at least one that they’ve encountered in the wild: Rickrolling, Doge, Trollface—or if not, they’d have at least seen its likeness. Ask them it’s origin however, and you’d be lucky to receive a less than definitive response—if any.
Given the sheer size of the web and its legion forums, chat services, and social networks, all producing more content than any archivist or historian could reasonably poke a stick at, it’s hardly surprising that the origins of these memes are, if not provenancially inscrutable, then at least ripe for some serious myth-making. Original posts and images that spark inspiration are quickly replicated, modified, and buried beneath the weight of their own replicants.
Adding to this complexity is the shared cultural knowledge of the groups from which these units of culture emerge and draw their meaning—but rarely is tangible evidence of that knowledge exhibited by the meme its self. They exist as much as a fleeting cultural moment as in the pixels themselves, but the root does still exist.
So, culture with murky origins and opaque definitions: fairly standard folklore—but what if we double down on complexity and hidden connections? Then we might arrive at something like the idea of a ‘Stand Alone Complex’, a phenomenon similar to a meme but lacking a literal or metaphorical center.
This concept of the ‘Complex’ finds its origins in one of the preeminent examples of Cyberpunk committed to screen: the seminal 1995 animation Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii. Following the Public Security Division through the political, cultural, and physical morass of an un-named asian megalopolis, the original feature meditates upon trans-humanism, identity, consciousness, and artificial intelligence—not to mention a surprising prescience regarding the evolution of the internet, digital privacy, and security. The 1995 movies is just one of several adaptations of the 89’-97 manga series of the same name by Masamune Shirow, all of which remix and explore its ideas through its setting and characters.
The animated series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex receives the most time run-time in which to explore the properties’ concerns (52 episodes across two seasons), structuring its seasons around the concept of the ‘Complex’ and using it to explore societal dynamics though ubiquitous technology and governmental systems of control. Each season revolves around the Public Security Division’s investigation (lead by the enigmatic Mokoto Kusanagi, known as ‘The Major’) with ‘Complex’ episodes interspersed by ‘Stand Alone’ episodes that flesh out the future society and reflect issues and concepts connected with historical and contemporary Japan.
The titular Complex is a concept slowly explored within the series, with the first season centering around the ongoing investigation into the ‘Laughing Man Incident’: an act of terrorism in which the perpetrator attempts to force a confession of corporate criminality from a medical executive at gun-point on live tv. By hacking the ‘Cyber Brains’ and cameras of those in the vicinity (almost everything is networked and can be accessed wirelessly, an Internet of Things before its time) he censors his face in the memories and vision of bystanders, overlaying it with a laughing face pictogram (complete with rotating The Catcher in the Rye quote) to mask his identity.
As the ramifications of the Incident are explored, the show comes to loosely define the Complex as a social meme (although it never directly calls it as such) in which actions or events carried out by individuals bear the trappings of an original, appearing to be related but in fact bearing little-to-no relation to either the origin or each-other. In other words, many copycats claim authenticity and legitimacy by hiding behind a symbol, appearing as a group, but in fact having no uniting ideology.
This image of a laughing face combined with the ‘political action’ of exposing corporate white-collar crime captures and sticks in the public imagination, becoming a symbol of resistance and rebellion, appearing everywhere from patches on bags, to street art, to acts of domestic terrorism. The instigating act spawns a raft of imitators and copycats, some believing they are in concordance with the original, but many simply co-opting a symbol that has caught the popular imagination for their own ends.
A complete understanding is slowly revealed during the course of the investigation, explicating the workings of the Complex to the characters and audience. What at first appeared as the concerted actions of an individual or organized group is revealed to merely be a front.
For the purposes of the story the originator does matter, as it drives the show’s main storyline, but as an idea the larger phenomenon transcends the original and is demonstrated to have deep cultural penetration—it is also a prime example of Second-order Simulacra.
Through the course of both seasons (2002, 2005) The Major interacts with various corners of The Net, encountering features and systems that bear surprising resemblance to our current interactions with the internet. Fan theory chatrooms that obsesses and assign interpretive meaning to topics in popular culture, secured corporate and governmental servers, live networked maps for tracking and navigation, video calls, and abundant server logs. It’s easy enough to see where these things came from in 1992 and were at in 2002, but still surprising to see their prescience.1
As the investigation proceeds, The Major begins to notice a proliferation of the iconic Laughing Man face appearing in places unrelated to it’s original context. Brought about by intense media scrutiny, the popularity of the aesthetics of the image surpass the original in the popular consciousness. In reaching this apotheosis and becoming ‘cool’ it ceased to be defined or rooted in its actual inception and instead became a shared cultural unit—it becomes a meme.
Perhaps the most infamous real-world analogue to this is the Slenderman. Birthed from an online photoshop competition, it went on to develop a life of it’s own on the internet, spawning countless visual evolutions and derivations and slowly accumulating its own lore.2 This particular instance is perhaps most famous as it eventually crossed-over, resulting in a real-life stabbing (or at least the meme was given as justification).
In an appropriately ouroborosian manner, the Laughing Man logo—an idea and symbol within Ghost’s universe—became a meme outside the show, being used as a symbol for anonymous groups or individuals with questionable motives. To understand—at least vaguely—how some of this works, and why it might be worth pondering, it’s worth taking a brief detour though capital-M Dawkensian Memes.
The Selfish Gene(1976), Richard Dawkins’ book positing human life as survival vehicles for self-interested genes, also explored the notion of culture and ideas being subject to the same laws as traditional evolution. Postulating the Meme as a unit of culture, he argued for cultural evolution as the current human project. Specifically, that cultural ideas and norms spread themselves between individuals and people groups much as genes seek to spread and diversify themselves in the interests of self preservation.
Dawkins’s book uses religion3 as his prime example of these self-perpetuating ideas, presenting belief systems as containing those vital elements that cause ideas to spread and act out of self-preservation. It may not be entirely surprising then that online communities produce many ideas and notions that operate in similar ways. Internet memes have their own fluid form of dogma and doctrine that is re-asserted and re-interpreted at every replication; the lens of an individuals experience and creativity is layered onto an idea to form an amorphous cultural unit. These ideas contain a virality that promotes mental rewards for recognition and inclusion—in much the same way you experience the joy of recognition in an allusion to something you personally value, memes offer a similar reward structure in their encouragement of knowing and belonging. The level of access, number of participants, resources at hand, and willingness to appropriate anything and everything means memes are also something of an analog for art movements in miniature: explorations within a theme or ideology using cultural artifacts to re-interpret and create meaning—seemingly from whole cloth.
As memes (and Memes) are decentralized by nature—having no formal organizational structure—they can be thought of as taking the form of a survival mechanism for their participants; just as artists may elect to associate themselves with a school or movement, or people associate themselves with a religious creed, they are automatically availed of the legitimacy of a recognised cultural institution. By thinking of these Memes as essentially self-interested they can be thought of as impartial and without bias, simply wishing to spread and grow themselves. Thus they can be used both in good faith with a popular conception, or in bad faith as a guise for ulterior motives, but neither instance requires little or any relation to a ‘true origin’.
The birth of a meme is—surprisingly—more of a concrete event than that of a social meme since there is a definitive event that, in all likelihood, is preserved somewhere on the internet and is able to be pointed to: e.g. an original post on a message board containing an idea or image from which the rest can be traced (however tenuously). The Major’s investigation finds that the originator is easily found and examined, but that as subsequent instances branch out they become increasingly inscrutable.
Where a meme has an origin and many replicators, the Complex has an origin that is collectively misread or willfully wrong in it’s interpretation, shifting its locus. The Laughing Man Incident from Ghost’s first season is this center, but it is a misinterpreted center that had warped under media scrutiny and subsequent imitations.
The possibilities of cybernetics, specifically those of the network-connected brain offering direct and unlimited access to The Net is born out though the concept of the Complex; the science fiction setting explores the possible ramifications of a society in which every experience can be recorded and shared through digital eyes, and memories are nothing more than data waiting to be modified. Limitless access to experiences and memories as simple data sources in Ghost give rise to greater shared understanding, but also allow for greater information manipulation and divergence of interpretation.
The assignment of base meaning to an idea or concept where either none exists, or is not representative of the whole bears striking resemblances to the ideas found in Jacques Derrida’s 1967 essay Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences in which ideas of structuralism and meaning in ideas are explored. Structuralism posits a web of relation between units of culture in which significance and meaning is not intrinsic to the unit, but interstitial. That is to say, meaning is created between the signified and the signifier, where the former is the idea of a thing (e.g. an act of corporate terrorism) and the latter the tangible representation of that idea (e.g. the Laughing Man logo).
Once the meaning of a thing is questioned (or in this case, the disconnect between what is said and what is meant), the next logical step is to question the author, which is precisely the arena in which post-structuralism would like to engage. The idea it advances is that meaning (the signified) is created and assigned by individuals or groups of individuals from symbols or works (the signifier), rather than by the originator (what would usually be called the Author of a work). Thus, in this interpretation, a text has no canonical meaning or purpose other than those gained or assigned from it’s relation to other pieces of culture.
This fits rather nicely with the nature of memes, cyberpunk themes, and the concept of the Complex specifically. The Major determines the intent and action of the original are wholly subsumed by the Complex as it is understood by society and popular culture through strong misreading and appropriation. The result being that while the Incident matters as an individual act or artifact, it matters or bears little on the Phenomenon as a meme.
The signifier here is the original act: a forced confession on live-tv to corporate criminality, edited and hacked to mask the identity of Laughing Man with his symbol. It is this image that captures the public imagination and becomes a meme (and a Meme), appearing everywhere from patches on clothes to street art. The signified is the sum total of what comes to be represented by the Laughing Man symbol. Much as memes are endlessly malleable and repurposable, many appropriate the Laughing Man’s symbol and ethos to serve their own activist ends, even being coopted by the very corporations the originator sought to expose to further conceal and distract from their crimes.
While the concept of the Stand Alone Complex does have its real world analogues, the fictional ‘Net’ of Ghost presents technological and social processes as wholly opaque to all but the technological elite (and by proxy the political and economic elite). The Complex of the show emerges from a system treated with near mysticism, whose inner-workings are occluded from the public much as the Internet of today is to non-technical users. Ghost’s Net is either represented as augmented reality overlays seen directly by a user’s ‘Cyber Eyes’, or virtual reality representations of servers, connections, users, artificial intelligences, and security systems—abstractions experienced in a virtual reality while ‘jacked in’ by hard-wiring to the brain stem.
Because an easy majority of modern internet users do not and will never have technical knowledge of the underlying systems governing the social networks and websites they frequent, the informational abstraction in the form of interfaces and graphics are a sensible feature for the public majority. Ghost’s Net abstractions act—in effect—in much the same way as our Apps and Websites do: low-level sources of information (server logs, databases) organizing and displaying information in accessible chunks. This democratization of accessibility is a net boon, but they do often skip granular details and dialectic nuance in favor of high-level narratives and bullet-point-style chunks of information, lending themselves to narratives that obscure the underlying nuance informing those conversations.
In the case of memes, the space between obscure detail and accessible overviews helps to foster something of a mystical air in which the surface simplicity occludes the underlying complexity. Similarly, social movements can be tracked readily enough by following a Twitter hashtag or with a cursory search, but gaining a comprehensive knowledge is near impossible.
The sheer speed at which networked conversations progress all but insures that attaining a birds-eye view is a sisyphean task that is only truly achievable after the fact. The Major manages simply manages to grasp the shape of the movement and phenomenon through her investigations and proximity to the technocratic elite and personal relation to the origin, but never entirely understands the multivalent Complex.
While real-world incarnations can be hard to follow, the Stand Alone Complex presents a situation in which origins, meaning, and ‘truth’ cease to matter in comparison to a hegemonic discourse, but is this so different from the experience of a modern internet-connected world? Networked technology provides opportunity to connect and understand only rivaled by an equal and opposite opportunity for misinterpretation—willful or otherwise.
Somewhat mean-spiritedly I feel, as while Dawkins position as a public intellectual/atheist necessitates arguing his position in public forums, he does seem intent on denigrating his opponents which seems entirely unnecessary ↩