Melanie’s Thoughts on Memes, Protest, and Marxist Philosophers
Seems par for the course that I would start out 2015 blogging about the use of jargon-y words and then jump right in the following week using words like “meme-ification” and “authenticity” and referencing “Walter Benjamin” (pronounced Ben-ya-mean because, of course, Germany,) but here goes nothing.
I had never heard of #BlackBrunch until someone brought it up in the office the other day. This particular form of protest is simple, non-violent, and (I think) packs a punch. A group of African American protesters walk into a restaurant during peak brunch hours and read off the names of victims of police brutality, those we’ve heard of before and those we haven’t. In between each name, the group will say “ashe” (ah-SHAY), a Yoruba term that translates loosely as “amen” or “so be it.” They then called on patrons to stand in solidarity (to varying degrees of success, I imagine). This ritual from start to finish takes four-and-a-half minutes; this time is specific to reflect that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for four-and-a-half hours in Ferguson, MI.*
This phenomenon appears to have started in either Oakland, CA or New York City, NY — which came first is unclear and probably not important. What is of note is that due to Twitter presence, this #BlackBrunch protest/ritual has been copied, even “gone viral” (the byline that the LA Times wants you to tweet out) and has already been seen in DC, as my friend was explaining.
The conversation that ensued in the office became one about authenticity. When an act of protest like that is replicated so many times, does it reach the intent of the proto-action, the very first time it was enacted? Does it echo it? Does it honor it?
One hand of the argument would say it doesn’t, and with each imitation it loses a level of sophistication, the complexity involved with the action itself. Like taking a picture of the Mona Lisa, which will not, and never be, the real live Mona Lisa with its two-hundred-plus year old paint on canvas and dust and all of that.
The other hand of the argument would say it does and it can.
I managed to catch the end of a morning program on NPR, listening to some folks talk about Hashtag Activism, which I feel like is coming up more and more in conversation as of late with #JeSuisCharlie — the women on this program were speaking specifically on the tag #BringBackOurGirls. “What is hashtag activism really doing?” the host inquires. It is no surprise that a hashtag won’t make the Boko Haram return kidnapped young girls, but it will, one expert mentioned, “make (Boko Haram) a name that can be said in households.” It raises consciousness.
Meme-ification has its perks. It means that the thing (the idea, behavior, or style [x]) being replicated or imitated can easily be replicated, and therefore has a shot at becoming a widely adopted belief.
This idea of meme-ification got me thinking on the subject of authenticity and art, which I explored a lot in a Visual Anthropology course in undergrad. We read “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (remember: Ben-yah-mean) which you are welcome to read all of here if you have an afternoon.
So, following the logic that ritual is the root of performance, which would then make the #BlackBrunch protest a kind of art…. what would our BFF Benjamin have to say about meme-ification of protests/rituals like #BlackBrunch?
In this article, Benjamin’s big theory is, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” I’m just going to include this excerpt from section two of this essay for you:
“The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated… In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.”
He goes on to refer to this sensitive authenticity nucleus as an art object’s “aura.”
So it sounds like #BlackBrunch is screwed, right? “…the historical testimony rests on the authenticity (…) what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” Yikes. Authority jeopardized doesn’t sound great. Until he starts talking about performance.
Describing the reproduction of an actor’s performance in film (which to him, film is one big mechanical reproduction) he sums it up:
“This situation might also be characterized as follows: for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it.”
Okay, so, “aura” tied to the “sensitive nucleus” of authenticity… this could then substantiate an argument that #BlackBrunch is an authentic, meaningful form of protest, yeah? I think Benjamin would agree (and Brecht would probably love it too, as a concept.)
I think I land on the side of Benjamin here. As long as live human beings are connected to the center of the protest, they will be authentic. They will be heard, even if they are dismissed, ignored, or stood up with in solidarity. I think as far as non-violent and meaningful protests go, this one is beautiful.
*Thanks LA Times for breaking down what happens during #BlackBrunch so simply, since I’ve not witnessed it yet myself. You can read their article here.
Melanie Harker is a conspirator with dog & pony dc, as well as Rachel Grossman’s sidekick. You can see her musings @MelanieGwynne on twitter.