Each man kills the thing he loves
The fisherman caught in his own net
It’s frightening that you deserve
The audience that you get
— TISM, ‘Play Mistral For Me’
Hell is empty, all the devils are here, and most of them are making memes. Even if dat boi Bill didn’t quite unicycle into Parliament, the Australian 2016 Meme War election demonstrated for all and sundry that the meme had become a fairly fungible and central tool of contemporary politicking, and an effective one too. After that, the rise of the alt-right—all Pepe frogs, outraged 4chan masculinity, and irascible cap-wearing—over the course of the Trump election cemented it as a fait accompli whenever we now consider our brave new political world. The meme is now a serious site for and of political discussion and formation, as when we meme, we do a lot of things: we form groups, we identify targets of scorn, and in turn we share our competing notions of what the present is and what the future should look like. It’s not just ALP interns scouring Reddit for meme formats to shoehorn Shorten, our preeminent empty cipher, into. Throughout the sprawling, spelunking Australian danksphere, litanies of meme pages work to catalyse together extremely dispersed niche interest groups, reifying them into communities of laughter, ranging from Thirsty Merk to Monstrous Metaphysics Memes to I Wish I Was At Home Listening To Swans, to the ultimate key to my heart, Abstract Cricket Memes – all communities that work by a kind of self-selecting sort of inclusion, in the same way. Identify with the laugh, and you’re in. But of course, in implies an out. Therein lies the rub.
At a time when the notion of ‘just having a laugh’ and that a joke is ever merely a joke is due for a fuckload of close reading—between “locker room banter”, the Triple M voidheads drowning Caroline Wilson, the towheaded tinny-swilling sexual terrorism of Yeah the Boys (as explored by Cameron Colwell here), FriendlyJordies going after a thesis student for no discernible reason except the fact that she knows more than he does, which does not appear to be much – what the reigning memelords in our national memesphere produce and share gets us right down to the coalface of popular Australian joke-making, in a fashion far more direct than our TV comedies. Even as TV makes immense leaps in representation, the nature of the medium is that it can never hope to reflect a society back to itself in real time: we look to it to catch up with reality, the distribution of where the middlebrow sits, like reading The Australian and hoping for the best-worst. Progress on TV is a slow, hard-won march: many of us look to it to see victories or backsliding, to find out if society is becoming more inclusive from the top-down or not yet. TV and mass media lead or define what we think the lay of the land is. Memes, on the other hand, are the frame by frame, the photo-finish of our political culture, as we collapse into the precarious present.
Having watched in real time Pepe the Frog morph weirdly into a horrific symbol for the alt-right, it’s important to take a step back to think about how memes, even those seemingly blase and benign, skirt into uglier forms of humour, and how they—and their defences—are slippery, always fugitive and in motion. Where once the key anxiety was how avant-garde art could corrupt the youth hypodermic needle fashion (cheers McCarthy!), we have now entered the realm of unknown unknowns, wondering how the most accessible and reproducible form of contemporary digital folk art—memes—slip into and reproduce the preconditions and intolerances that beget fascism. In the work of our dankest memelords, ugly things lurk below and above water.
Considering his pre-election support for Trump (on the Super Chill basis that it might hasten the revolution), Slavoj Žižek isn’t the best person to defer to when it comes to analyse the present, the same way that Sartre was a flailing mess by the early ’70s (even though most of Nausea still holds up). However, in Violence, Žižek makes the prescient point that without language, we couldn’t hate our enemies, since all communication carries the risk of excluding someone in more or less egregious ways. This is especially true with communities that form around jokes, whereby people identify something as a source of amusement (or bemusement). Sociologist Michael Billig contends that ridicule actually lies at the core of communal social life, as it “ensures … members of groups routinely comply with the customs and habits of the social milieu.” In contrast to liberal ideas of progress and an endless march towards civility and progress, the purpose of ridicule has only increased in importance, seeing as we now live in a society where (Billig suggests) “fun has become an imperative and humour is seen as a necessary quality for being fully human.” The deference to the importance of the joke—from the ubiquity of humour as a device in advertising (a field that was once completely arid and pragmatic in its appeals), to the rather cultural-cringey recurrence of the notion that Australia ‘needs’ a Jon Stewart figure – a good sense of humour is now an essential personality trait, not only in terms of getting invited to parties, but politically too.
When you chime with this the distinctly Australian right to laughter—preferably loud enough that it drowns out sexism, genocide, the anthropocene (that is, the things people who defend the right as a first principle are either complicit with or responsible for)—the position of the memelord becomes more complex. The most important thing about having privilege is being able to eat it too.
Much of the postmodern culture wars is over whom exactly is entitled to the ridiculous cultural and economic surplus of late capitalism, and, more specifically, who is entitled to pleasure and comfort, and what kind (think of Tony Abbott’s notion of being ‘uncomfortable’ about homosexuality being a way into rejecting the civil rights of the non-het). Over the last few decades humour has become inseparable from ideas of freedom, of rebellion, of the puckish rejection of authority. Of course, this is as true for the left as it is for the right. The tendency immanent to Western sorta-middle-class liberalism—from SNL’s teary eyed Hillary impersonations, hot take culture, everyone from Junkee to New Matilda tumbling over themselves to satirise the Turnbull-Trump-Trumble phone call, and the endless celebration of protest-sign-wit—that a joke is ‘good’, necessary even, insofar as it challenges what leftists perceive to be oppression is a conviction. This also jibes neatly with the turn away from militant protest and the focus on language as the field of dispute: the tacit, subconscious acceptance of Fukuyama’s end of history thesis in discursive terms. Win the argument, you win the war. But the liberal joke is sort of like the staircase wit of the apocalypse as the argument is now not simply with other actors: it’s against physics, it’s against time.
At the same time, the alt-right have been hailed as making conservatism fun again, pulling the right out of the post-Obama crisis (where even the GOP thought it was time to make a rapport with black voters) by emerging out of the most fervent and fervid radical training ground for radicalism on the web: 4chan. After all, as thin-skinned as Cory Bernardi and Ross Cameron are, they’re also trolling, and they’re laughing at anyone who disagrees. The thing is that in in calling for violence through jokes, the laughter itself engenders harm. The common denominator remains, though. Fun, be it watching The Outsiders or Last Week Tonight, has become central to political messaging, so any idea that any humour is somehow ‘post-ideology’ or existing outside of it, let alone in opposition to ideology, has to go gently in the bin right about now. Fun is increasingly the problem.
Sociologist Anthony Giddens suggests we’re in ‘discursive late modernity’, a time where everything is mediated in text and images. As such, what is laughed at is a kayfabe and a presage, of the actual battle being fought (and won) offscreen. At a time when everything is at risk, anything is possible, and the potential of manmade calamities has passed from potential to ineradicable, the cultural role of the laugh as an tool-cum-anaesthetic now trumps most others. To borrow from Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, our current moment is one of a glacial, global, societal mental collapse due to the dehumanising, defamiliarising and deterritorialising constancy of the frissons and fissures of neoliberal capitalism. After all, the most humanising moment of the Trump election came as an alcoholic late night hack comedian like Jimmy Fallon, that symbol of the couch-collapsing renouncing of dull care, of vanishing into a dark night and rejecting the world’s problems as a fait accompli, ruffled the tyrant’s hair.
But more to the point, as the cultural power and relevance of the joke increases, to get a joke is more important than ever before, especially if it’s circulating with some like/share heat behind it. If you don’t get it, you’re left out. Viral Twitter is predicated on the humour of posts: of being able to signal one’s cultural capital, and validate it by getting the joke. But by virtue of being necessarily polysemic—involving multiple interpretations, contradictory positions, ambivalence or ambiguity—the ‘true’ meaning and target of jokes and memes can be hard to pin down, as eager as we are to pin (or post) them up. With Hot Online Content, the target of scorn can be indeterminate: research into the polysemy of humour shows that audiences tend to diverge along class, race and gender lines to who the butt of a joke is, even in seemingly simplistic jokes.
The problem with ridicule—and the nature of the socially reproducible power relationship it creates—is that you can often lose control of the joke. An object lesson comes with Till Death Do Us Part, the iconic nadir of the BBC’s retinue of sixties television comedy. Johnny Speight, the show’s creator, had modelled the lead character Alf Garnett on his own father’s bilious East London xenophobia, intending to highlight—through satire—how new racial relationships and tensions shaped everyday life in London during the Windrush migration from the Caribbean of the post-war period. Yet, much to Speight’s dismay, Alf—a moribund and savage couch-bound bigot—became a hero figure quicksmart for many white working class Brits disenchanted by diversity, his hectically vicious misogynist and racist cant a rallying point around which their own prejudices could harden. Emboldened by Alf’s proud crassness, Till Death inadvertently kicked off a revolution in British joke-spinning and opened the door for the explicit racism of ’70s Working Men’s Club comedy, which arguably played its own part in foreshadowing the bigoted retrograde darkness of Thatcherite Britain. It’s bewildering to watch now: how could this have been anything but racist? Reflecting years on, Speight appreciated that the subtlety one needs to skewer racism didn’t exist in his work.That is, any straight depiction of bigotry can make it seem heroic to those who want it to be.
I don’t know an associate professor of sociology at Macquarie University called Amanda Wise, but she knows me. She knows me so well, in fact, that she’s not only able to tell me what my cartoons mean, but she’s also able to tell me what I was thinking while I was drawing them.
Why do we laugh? In writing about the history of standup comedy in Britain, Michael Cotter provides a fairly useful triangle we can use in trying to explain where a laugh comes from: Thomas Hobbes, Sigmund Freud, and the surreal. For Hobbes—he of the nasty, brutish and short —laughter is a nakedly violent act: we do it to express superiority and cruelty, for the “sudden glory” of triumphing over someone we’ve deemed inferior. Freud, as is his wont, went to the unconscious, writing of the “tendentious” joke: that we laugh to express desires that we cannot straightforwardly admit to, things we are ashamed of feeling or aren’t able to recognise in ourselves, things we have repressed. Then, there is the kind of humour that arises from the surreal, from language games, from juxtaposition. In 1778, James Beattie (perhaps contemplating the impossibility of a frog on a unicycle) wrote that “laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage.” This is the comedy of the meme in its uncut form:
While any history of the meme is long and complex (fuck Hitchens), as containers for jokes they are powerful largely for their slipperiness: memes are often about incongruity, but the more they collide with reality, the more these laughters of oppression and repression leak in, both in the telling and the hearing. A meme migrates across borders of language and context, but also across sensibilities, across meanings, beneath consciousness. Residing in the power of the image to signify a meaning across (sub)cultures, you can smuggle things in that aren’t clear straight away, perhaps without even meaning to. With memes, we’re tickled, and potentially in the darkest places; behind the laugh, things get foggy, strange, complex. Ultimately, a meme is a symbol of the breakdown of barriers between semiotic knowledge, the same leakages that have ushered in late capitalism, Trump and the eerie, horrifying polysemy of racism and Harambe. In a post-truth environment to see is not just to understand – it is to know. To paraphrase Mark Twain (and as anyone with a few boomers in their timeline might well have realised), a meme travels around the world before truth gets her shoes on.
To start with a pretty Hobbesian Australian memelord, there’s The Bell Tower Times. The fre$h content is exceedingly unambiguous; each meme takes the same forma, profiling (literally) a Perth stereotype and then tearing them to shreds, pushing the portrait to the very limit of coherence. Women are always some combination of vain, stupid and ugly, anyone from the lower socio-economic area that banks the Armadale trainline (where I grew up, full disclosure) is a recidivist meth-smoking arsehole. Everyone is a cunt for some reason, Kevin Bloody Wilson style. While the defense is more or less exactly, Well, everyone’s a dickhead, the gaze it produces is one that singles out difference in society for the purpose of sticking a skewer right in, with the community formed in the comments, one where prejudice is assented as in the eye of the beholder, something to revel in: it’s a pile in, and hyper-specified stereotyping is roundly clapped as profound insight into the human condition. Libertarianism conflates the ability to speak with the impact of speech—to speak is necessarily to express difference, and some are harmful—and on the Bell Tower Times comment feeds, things grow ugly, gang-like, dismal, despairing. The Facebook page, at the time of writing, has 80k likes.
In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud posited that we all share a self-deceptive human condition we wish to conceal from ourselves as well as the dangerous forces that guide our conduct: that “the joke is seldom ‘just’ a joke, but it hides secrets” that are even more discreditable, things we cannot admit to. He went on to suggest that “jokes make possible the expression of abuse in the face of the obstacles raised by social proprieties and conventions.” We want to deceive ourselves, because life is truly too much for us, and the pleasure of the laugh dissolves that complexity, like a Zyrtec, into joy. Naked as all the blasé classist, sexist and racist bigotry is, there’s isn’t much in the way of Freudian repression of unacceptable desires to be detected at The Bell Tower: it’s undisguised bigotry and proud of it, vituperatively glad to run around with a pin pricking balloons, even if there wasn’t any air to let out in the first place.
The screen is the key to understanding contemporary life. Say, I’d probably never just walk into someone’s kitchen and call them poor, or diss the food they’re microwaving, but once I was a long-time scroller of the iconically savage ‘internet food police’ blog Cook Suck, which lets you (though less regularly now) gawk at others’ ostensibly poorly-made meals, while functioning as a conveniently literal demonstration of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about taste and class. Cook Suck, as an obviously erudite character, would recognise that taste for Bourdieu is associated with symbolic violence: by drawing and redrawing the boundary of distinction between what is ‘fine’ and what is not, those with less capital are kept in their place. As Cook Suck anonymises the accounts it profiles and obscures the faces of those targeted while providing hectoring rants about the deficiencies of their food, and by extension, character, it provides a free space to mock people based on what they think a good meal is, something generally shot through with an overwhelming amount of classism: bogan appetit, basically.
Cook Suck appears to write from a position of exhaustion and despair with Our Times, specifically the age of Masterchef, where culinary expertise is beamed into everyone’s house (despite remaining narrow in depicting diverse food practices). So it’s not hard to imagine that our own anxieties about culinary inferiority, our place in the cultural pecking order, form some part of the laugh when observing Cook Suck’s subjects: it’s a blend of Hobbesian cruelty with the Freudian repressed desire to assert ourselves as better, more refined, and more up to par foodwise, without having to actually do anything about it. To horizontalise and fetishise the ability to whip up a three-Michelin monkfish with kohlrabi and dates after an 8–6 at the childcare centre is to export the mental strain and pressure of neoliberal difference and aspiration into every kitchen in the country. CEOs are soft fellas who sell Big Issues, and you really ought be learning how to cook a quail. So while shows like that create a false idea of where the middle is and ought be, Cook Suck lets us know where the bottom sits, and to boot, makes room for heckling. Taste difference entails class difference, and leaving aside the fact that brunch is a savage institution in the first place, taste is, as Bourdieu noted, inherently expensive. Cook Suck would have us deem it a necessity if we’re to feel good about ourselves.
Yet the really crushing thing is not the disdain: it’s the dismissal of aspiration itself, of aiming to survive and find joy in this increasingly uncromulent world. In a quote-unquote classless society where boundaries between the haves and have-nots are hardening at a clip, the culinary ambitions of the latter are mocked mercilessly for their lack of taste. At a time when what we eat is so intimately tied with who we are judged to be, no one in the posts Cook Suck attacks seems to be disappointed with the meal they’re posting. Whatever target Cook Suck takes the searer to, it’s a post that usually comes from pride, of people trying to succeed on their own terms, and doing so until they’re under the periscope of the blogosphere. As many of Cook Suck’s intended audience might lack the means to sustain this idealised diet—amid the $22 smashed avos that bizarrely form The Australian’s view of the middle range of millennial existence—the blog plays off the anxiety of keeping up appearances in the gentrifying boomerocracy of Australia, while dissolving that anxiety into the warm reminder that some people—poor people, and those with money but without culinary ‘class’—don’t get it, and never will.
There are deeper anxieties that come with the ol’ Cook Suck click ’n’ share, though. Not unrecently Cook hit the streets to investigate the two-star “dwindling durry den[s]” of Sydney, including a piece on Club Redfern. As an old institution in a historically Indigenous and housing commission suburb that is now rapidly gentrifying, the Club came in for a shellacking, with the food savaged and an old man in some despair at the bar described in terms that are pretty chillingly detached. To be sure, a caricature is a caricature, but despite the page’s protestations of not having done any harm, Cook Suck’s review criticises old-Redfern for failing to live up to the new-Redfern standard, a stark example of a class judgment inherent when different ways of knowhow slide up against up each other. At the end of the Club Redfern review, Cook Suck heads “home for a well-needed shower.” If only everything bad came out in the wash.
The locals, maybe, still love Club Redfern, or at least it’s home. After all, tourism starts as soon as you walk out the door in the morning. Cook Suck’s decision to choose a target with what Emmanuel Levinas would call ‘a face’—the thing which inspires empathy for the Other, an actual location, a fellow too depressed to move, perched on a barstool—some parts of the internet called bullshit pronto. Other public encounters—like a review of IKEA—with groups who are faceless, middle class as hell, and deserving of scorn didn’t cop the same blowback.
But beneath the Club Redfern job lies the heart of the problem with humour through the memegaze: Cook Suck says it’s just a joke, others say it’s punching down, and Cook Suck responds that they’re morons and not reading it properly. A million roads diverge. Either it’s hilarious, or it’s cruel, or it’s not great but it’s well-written, or what’s with the typos, whatever. But the questions nag. Is Cook Suck the locker room banter of the Sydney dining scene? Is laughing at Cook Suck the payoff from the anxiety amongst those with the social capital to know better than serving Veuve with eggs because, for all intents and purposes as the Coalition enters a second term, all that finely cultivated taste of the middlebrow aesthete thousands of dollars beneath The Australian’s target income bracket doesn’t actually translate into anything in terms of political power? That the RSL, maybe the Australian storefront where conservative and commercial interests collide more than any other, is still more representative of the ‘average’ Australian? That the possession of taste, in Australia, is synonymous with the impossibility of effecting lasting social change? By the way, the Redfern restaurants Cook Suck deigns to suggest instead of Club Redfern in that TwoThousand piece both charge $20 for a main.
It’s 2017: Adele won the Grammy, Malcolm Roberts is in the Senate, Eddie McGuire is still employed. We all know reason has its limits, and they’re being rapidly foreshortened. None of us can obtain a monopoly on meaning, but Cook Suck’s defences on their comments are hard to swallow. If you’re thinking about other people as being humans, how can they? Whenever utterances don’t seem or feel unambiguously classist or racist or sexist, they can still remain in what sociologist Simon Weaver has called a zone of ‘liquid prejudice’: a kind of gaze that combines racism and anti-racism in a way that means no single reading can win out as dominant, leaving discrimination simmering beneath the surface of the text. Adopting Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity to the ways in which we speak to each other and haggle over social capital, Weaver suggests that our texts today offer so many different interpretations, generated by ambiguous cultural signs, to the point that we are encouraged to lean even harder on our “entrenched socio-discursive positioning.“ As things become blurrier, old prejudices harden and suggest fundamentalist reactions, "alongside those of political and social issues that are not necessarily” prejudiced. That is, we can see what we want to see, and ignore what’s right in front of us.
To take an example, Weaver suggests that there are so many overlapping questions of race in Ali G that it’s almost impossible to tell if it is actually, finally racist. But like with Cook Suck’s retrograde approach to class, the ambiguity doesn’t magic away the complexity and presence of the racial content, as a multiplicity of racisms criss-cross beneath the chuckle: is this a Cambridge-educated and wealthy actor appropriating housing estate culture for his own gain? Is Ali G an Asian man failing to ingratiate himself within black culture? To use last decade’s term, is he a ‘wigger’? Racism or sexism might sit within a text, but it’s not exclusively racist or sexist, not the only thing there. In other words, for the most part, this digital, liquid generation of audiences no longer possesses your bad uncle’s bigotry; discourses are buried, available and accessible, but just beneath the surface of the text, and always slipping out of reach, a stowaway in the hold of the joke.
Writing on the response to the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Weaver contended that when we are confronted with “ambiguous cultural signs” like these jokes, we are encouraged to develop “entrenched socio-discursive positioning the ambiguity … leading to fundamentalist reactions” – in that case, everything from the staunch free-speechers to threats of violence. It’s something we saw, and see, with Charlie Hebdo. Ambiguity, rather than being central to images themselves, tends to be hurriedly explained away or fervently insisted on, as if it was something as obvious as bongsmoke in a bedroom.
Which brings us to the the big fish: Brown Cardigan. “Not for dmb cunts; dumb cnts please unfollow” reads Brown Cardigan’s Instagram bio: the site positions itself as a shitkicking contrarian Joker, one of the I’m-not-racist, I-hate-everyone-equally variety, but one which is also dominant, swaggering, In Charge and Smarter Than You. Unlike Cook Suck or The Bell Tower Times, nothing’s so blatant as to be just a diss, and its rabid shifting cult essence remains somehow still intact despite passing 283k followers on Instagram. (At the time of writing, half as many as Warnie.) I don’t know who runs the site. I haven’t tried to find out, and I do not honestly care: let us take their spicy content at their word, on sight. If the death of the author got us into this mess, let us float down to the bottom of the cenotaph.
Giving it the widest possible berth, the site can be simply read as a postmodern response to the exhaustion we all feel, the exhaustion that comes from the overload in which we’re all amidships. By throwing together wild juxtapositions of imagery, Brown Cardigan massages it all into something approaching relief – a reassemblage of contemporary dissembling, making no-sense resolve into plain nonsense, along the lines of that third, neutral kind of humour: a fresh infinity of curated user-supplied content that’s bizarre and unresolving individually, and overwhelming when taken together, scrolling down a feed on a sleepless work night, a reassuring island in our sad, weird bardos of unknowing. To get some tasty user-generated content uploaded, I’ve observed, is a badge of cred unlike anything else in the Australian memesphere.
But as the headline of their webpage tells you straight away, Brown Cardigan always somethings you – it is pure verb the way a bully is, dictating the terms of the engagement. Scrolling down the white background or flicking through the Instagram, you’re strangely impelled to want to identify with the gaze it produces, be onside, and why not: much of the site presents as unambiguous humour of the surreal kind, the goofy recycle bin of postmodernity, but with a whip-smart collective intelligence that, with the conniving bin-fishing ibis sense for trash, picks from everywhere it can stick its beak. Memes from abroad are recycled, recontextualised, events are narrated in real time. There are detours to themes and leitmotifs: to travel back through Brown Cardigan is to read an alternate history of the present by scrolling through the reappropriated and joked-up (therefore sanctified) metalanguage of the news that hits us, we who are the hollow cyborgs, leaning together in the breeze. Not to mention that figures of popular political ridicule—politicians like Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull, Derryn Hinch, Pauline Hanson, Donald Trump—pop up frequently as targets of mockery, and who wants to be on the wrong side of history there? The further you scroll down, it gets overwhelming: creating the sense that all of this is just ridiculous, towards the point where ‘just’ shades into simply, exclusively, flatly, only.
But for all the kicking at Hanson and the overprivileged twerps of Bondi, Brown Cardigan subtly signifies where the laugh itself comes from. After all, sheer absurdity aside, much of the feed is also concerned with negotiating forms of social capital, laying surreal humour with Freudian suppression of hating the other, be it hippies, surfers, bogans. As I look now, there are bygone posts that involve ukuleles, bad Instagrammers, surfers with shit tattoos, low hanging fruit for the roasting. But then there’s the extremely disturbing regular feature of making light of the ostensibly homeless or mentally ill, always in some late stage of hilarious and quirky distress and despair. If you’re looking for the gaze: in one recent video, a bunch of very Gucci dressed dudes up the top of some kind of tower—Sydney, I’m going to guess—make fun of someone older and not so media-savvy trying to take a selfie of themselves with the panorama etherised before them all. It’s a vivid illustration of what the page does: that no matter how high you’re up the ladder, even at a cocktail party overlooking the city, Brown Cardigan will be there to take you down a peg. Put simply, they are the top, and if you’re at the top, you can spit on anyone. And they invite the viewer to perch with them. Worst is how easily they confer and proliferate that desire, of wanting to, the relief of sudden glory.
Satire kicks upwards: laughing at someone in power is a means to laughing at something more general about society, like lionising womanising durrylords or the sad spooky action at a distance of Brexit. Brown Cardigan, in toto, is not satire. The way Brown Cardigan kicks down reveals the ideology of the platform, the site, the brand, the collective brain: that it’s all funny, not so much the levelling of the playing field but the defenestration of it. And in the same step that everything in juxtaposition must be funny, we’re never invited to think about why. The page, scrolling idly down, confers an equality of absurd contraposed abjection, such is the authority of the page and the nature of the content.
The libertarian approach to comedy isn’t very nuanced: it says we all suck, so there’s something to laugh at everywhere. This is fine, maybe it even works with someone like Doug Stanhope. While not being libertarian in his views, Louis C.K.’s whole-aw-shucks-the-trouble-with-everyone everyman shtick functions in not too dissimilar a fashion. But in this form, it really evolves out of South Park, the philosophy of humour that turns aggression into a virtue, whereby liberty is the right to laugh, the view of identity as a collective concatenation of foibles waiting for the roasting, regardless of your vulnerability to them. If it’s Cartman, you can roll your eyes and get on with your life. The problem is that, when you combine the ideology of a blatantly polemical TV program with the polysemic ambiguity of a feed of memes, the world doesn’t stop at the screen.
Brown Cardigan argues, since we’re all already equal, that we can pass things off into funny/not funny, wanker/not wanker. Easy. But with its hands-off gaze of superiority and distinction, Brown Cardigan encourages us to identify with it, against whatever the target is, lest we be off the tip of postmodern imagistic superiority. From there, a free hand to the reader. This is especially important, because the content itself here is only one of the fifty shades of brown: the community of laughter that the community forms, and the gaze that community reproduces, is just as influential, and has In Real Life effects. It’s not just tasty memes: to use a Žižekian turn, nothing is no longer tasty after it is digested and excreted – it becomes a part of the world in a new form. Brown Cardigan’s gaze is a Hobbesian way of seeing the world where everything is ripe for savagery and absurdism, and the page’s ubiquity means it lives offline too. Streets become zones for the generation of content, the compounding of the flâneuese’s gaze into content, and cultural capital, at the expense of whatever’s being captured. My brother, upon seeing a dead bird in a shopping trolley, pointed at it and said, “that’s pretty Brown Cardigan.”
In a country missing the Western Mails of old, the tabloid newspapers that would name and shame—media organs basically designed to call out socially undesirable behaviour—Brown Cardigan has cheerfully and ambiguously taken up the cudgels of doling out cultural censorship and ridicule. It’s an increasing trend, spottable on Instagram, in which both the editorialising in the captioning, and the comments section from those who share the gaze of this community (replete with tags, pile on insults, slurs and mockery) multiply in real time, and allow us to read who is excluded from the in-crowd. More to the point, the practice of ‘tagging’ Brown Cardigan to highlight the risible absurdity of someone outside the imagined gaze has begun to spread to Facebook rent network pages, where users have been mocked for asking for queer or disabled friendly or safe houses.
Having ticked off an intense level of ableism and a real disdain for anyone who can’t afford a jetski (or possess the savvy to use it properly), Brown Cardigan’s relationship with race is, at the very least complex. The site has had some ‘wins’ in ‘calling out’ racism, but it’s always been in the service of taking down some other target, like the BunBoys: down down down. In other words, much like early-2000s pre-social justice branding VICE, or the brief period where we hadn’t realised Joaquin Phoenix was only pretending to have lost his marbles, Brown Cardigan always keeps a free hand, even as it spits out vile shit.
Interestingly, the limits of Brown Cardigan’s tolerance come when non-white races try on what whiteness often does without thinking about it.
It’s not just a matter of old-fashioned stereotyping-is-bad: Brown Cardigan rules in and rules out. Dropping ‘thot’ and ‘thicc’ – fine, funny. Ostensibly nerdy Asians dabbing – bad funny. Taking photos of the old and homeless and infirm: superb. Crispy, spicy. The walls keep collapsing.
Blackness in Brown Cardigan especially occupies an awkward polysemic spot, embodying, at its heart, the worst of white cosmopolitan-ambitious socially mobile Australia. Liberally and indiscriminately appropriated AAVE patters through constantly for joke value, instantiating the lexicon as something to be picked up and passed around, to be dehistoricised for the faux-passive purpose of fun. Many of the meme templates on Brown Cardigan emerge from Black Twitter, before being twisted into #oz content. We all know that the life of a meme, after all, is to be a ship of fools condemned to sail around an ocean of meaninglessness, always glimpsed from a far horizon but never docking at any port, the nomadic holding place for the unquestionably questionable. But where they come from and where they sail to is important. Twitter comedian Desus partially attributes Drake’s ubiquity as meme to racialised homophobia: instead of conforming to image-cliches of him being a novel, sensitive black man, Drake presents as a lint-rolling fella, which in turn—naturally—operates as a site for risibility. This dichotomy holds in Brown Cardigan, with 2Chainz and Chief Keef standing in with what are generally hogwild antics, and Drake being the inverse. Mediating Blackness as a vocabulary to lift from in a nation where Blackness is constantly punished, and using a small constellation of major actors to exploit as objects of humour, could easily be described as a regressive kind of image-making. Yet, at other times you don’t have to think about it all: what is the joke here, except something obviously and flatly racist?
In the flow context of Brown Cardigan, where you cascade and roll through the lols, the idea is to laugh and move on and not consider where the laugh comes from, which is more or less the problem that makes such an image possible as a joke. If one laughed and had to explain the above image to someone blind, would one have to mention the person’s race to explain their response? And what would we call a community of people who found that image unambiguously funny?
Having constructed for itself a space where agreeing with everything that goes on is ‘common sense’, and where to do otherwise is to be a ‘dumb c*nt’, it’s the murk and grime of Brown Cardigan that reveals its true nature, the exceptions that prove the rule of the libertarian laugh. What is anarchic on BC is also amoral, operating as if the death of the author was total, as if the absence of a name means anything goes. Eduardo Bonila-Silva, in his book Racism Without Racists, states that whether actors express “resentment” or “hostility” toward minorities is largely irrelevant for the maintenance of white privilege: that is to say, out-and-proud bigots are not the only racists. When so many images are just people of colour just doing things, fetishing blackness in a seemingly limitless array of ways, and when the appearance of a tattoo stands in for classism, when the appearance of a mentally ill person stands in for ableism – the ambiguity is poison in disguise, hiding behind the surreptitious thrill of the scroll. Like, what is the joke in this post?
That’s just one reading. I could not claim to write this and believe everything I said. It’s a game of possibilities, the risk that comes with the joke. To interpret any of this discussion as simply calling Brown Cardigan any kind of -ist or whatever would be to miss the point of this entirely: the point is that meme pages exist in and rely on this polysemic world of ambiguity, and this ambiguity enables rougher and cruder interpretations to snake out of and sneak into the real world, where power is the ability to keep laughing. But Simon Weaver asks us an important question: “if liquid prejudice is genuinely more open, then the argument surely suggests itself that it is not racism at all, or is a weakened and challenged residue of racism?” Things are, necessarily, more complex than ever: we kid ourselves if we pretend our responses to the world around us aren’t complex, and we delude ourselves if our actions don’t attempt to take all of them into account before we act. Smuggling racism, classism, ableism, any -ism you name into the ambiguous shape of the feed as it does, can we regard Brown Cardigan as really a step removed from older forms of popular comic racism? Perhaps it is worse for the fact it plays upon—through the desensitising medium of the feed—the desire to understand and manage complexity, and the desire for group acceptance and cultural savvy in a postmodern whirl of Content? We are deluding ourselves to think that a meme feed that simply offers juxtapositions is free of or outside politics, or political responsibility. Memes are culture, memes are interpretation, memes are power, and increasingly, memelords manage all three, all in the black measure of pleasure. If the right to laugh unambiguously at the ambiguous is given credence over the complexity of the problems themselves, we are scrolling past the point. Brown Cardigan obscures all.
Things are not the same as they ever were in comedy, even if Adam Sandler continues to pocket on the large from Netflix to be himself. We are at a point where turning back the gaze of lazy, misogynist and racist comedy is in swing, what with the femme fromage of Broad City, the deconstruction of late night with The Eric Andre Show, and here in Australia, programs like the pathbreaking Black Comedy. But fresh memes should be thinking on these lines too: the most egregious thing about any form of bigotry is how much fun it is for those wearing the boots, and how much they start kicking when they lose what they’ve come to expect. In Brown Cardigan we have the same old gaze, just in a new structure, hiding. In many instances, because of its structural ambiguity, the impact may not be taken seriously because it is invisible from certain perspectives, those untrained, or unwilling, to admit polysemy. This continues the development of immunity to criticism, exhibited in the shift to postwar, postcolonial, cultural racism.
Ah, this is good. The mixed blessing of the enlightenment is over: appeals to reason are like carrying a Phillips in a world of flatheads. As TISM suggests, polysemy is a roll of the dice with your eyes closed without knowing what the numbers even mean: if you’re being a dickhead, even vaguely, invisibly, secretly, you will enlist dickheads to what they read as the cause. If people are harassing others online in the name of Brown Cardigan—because it’s a way to capture social capital—that’s a problem. Is it Brown Cardigan’s fault? Probably. But if a community of humour is asserting cultural authority by prizing facile and vacant callouts of localised broish egregiousness—exactly the kind of North Sydney stuff the site also seems to come from—making it easy for audiences to identify with the gaze and making any challenge to it infantile, stupid, over-serious, surveilling difference on its own terms, without ever having to confront its own bigotries and biases, then the responsibility sits with where the joke comes from. Freud, in suggesting that we’re never entirely certain about what we want and need, suggests that “jokes are the black market of pleasure”: the joke short-circuits investigation into our deeper feelings and gives us “what we’re not supposed to want, as criticism keeps desire at bay.” We can be aggressive towards something we find ridiculous—or indulge our most transgressive desires because what is permissible is not sufficiently fun—all because there are no restrictions to evade in the safety of ‘it’s just a joke’.
Ugly farces are now cultural currency, power, force, verve: the argument is dead, the feeling is the thing. 4chan advocated a literal politics of abjection, where deplorability is a point of pride, where cruelty and intolerance became badges of resistance to a broken order and of the loss felt by white males as neoliberalism broke down old orders. The drawing room comedy was the eschatological forebear of World War I: the comedy of manners perfected to a point of completely transparent irrelevance for anyone unable to grab every nod and wink. Australian memelordery whistles the same apocalyptic tune of cultural difference, supremacy and silence, focusing on increasingly abstruse contortions and refinements of a form of wit, as the ship goes down.
As the welfare state collapses—the thing that arguably made the mass consumption of popular works of humour possible in the first place, by levelling the kinds of cultural capital that entail access to jokes—and humour and fear, the appeal to relief, trounce reason and the discomforts of empathy, meme pages are where this pitched battle plays out on the day by day, shaping our image-repertoire of what reality is, or should be, under the guise of the laugh. Maybe to someone, something is just a laugh, but wondering why one is actually laughing, sifting through the complex parts of the exchange is maybe more important than getting the pleasure of the laugh. Sure, maybe something is just funny to you, but increasingly, as our episteme shifts gears into post-truth, nothing will ever be simply so. Fun is probably what got us all into this mess. In the post-fact, post-truth era, complicity with the erasure of meaning when it’s right there begins on the macro-level, from the radicalisations of 4chan and Reddit, all the way up to the ‘controversial’ Steven Bannon, the ‘alt-right’ neo-nazi right, and the ‘fake news’ of Donald Trump. Everything is tied together by pleasure and the wish for it. With our Australian memelords, we’re confronted with a question: not just why laugh, but, what is this laugh doing?
Alex Griffin is a critic and researcher. His work has appeared in Cordite, Overland, The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and Swampland.