(Written for the Language and New Media class blog network)
Excited to say – people on the Internet are always excited, aren’t they – that I have contributed to a meme for the first time in my life – that is, I’ve made a new image that is an instance of a meme. I am no longer a passive consumer of memes! I am a producer!
The kernel image of course is Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate, at the inauguration with coat, mittens and envelope, which is going to be by far the longest-lived image from this historic event. (Sorry, President Biden, Madam Veep, Poet Laureate Junior, Gaga from District 10022, and the rest.) The memes began exploding on my Facebook yesterday – someone had already assembled a thread of 40+ images – and rolled throughout the day there and on Twitter. Related materials as well – a news piece on the crafter who makes the mittens from recycled plastic bottles, a pattern for the mittens, an embroidered version of the image – but mainly this meme.
A meme, as Limor Shifman writes in a book that is available where fine course readings are stored, is a text that’s repeated with modifications. A fixed element is recombined with other elements, creating incongruity and humor. Several different photographs were put out on the newswires and modified or contextualized by memers, but the most popular is the one where Bernie is sitting in a folding chair with his arms crossed impassively. This was inserted in situations including a snow-covered public parking space (in US cities these are regularly squatted with folded chairs), the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, the Yalta summit with Stalin Roosevelt & Churchill, the Muppet Show balcony with Statler & Waldorf, a Marina Abramovic installation where visitors sit with her while she does nothing, the tympani line in a symphony orchestra (waiting for that one drumroll in the fourth movement), and so on. My own was the 2018 world chess championships with Magnus Carlsen.
I posted it on my socials, but there was no agreed hashtag or crowd site it could be attached to so that it could be circulated and appreciated, so only a few people have liked it on FB and none on Twitter. I realized, as I had not before making an instance, that memes like this spread in a decentralized way, and they need to be passed up to people with large followings in order to become popular exemplars. (Not that this is a brilliant work of synthesis, either – I wasn’t willing to spend more than 15 minutes on it using this image and Microsoft Publisher.) There is a hashtag now, #mittenmemes, but I think the wave may be past its peak.
Now why was this meme so appealing – what did Bernie Sanders stand for? Some suggestions from looking at the images and comments on them: As a famously uncompromising far-left Democrat, he represents adherence to one’s principles. (“I love that he’s so true to himself.”) He represents old-fashioned rabble-rousing Workmen’s Circle American socialism, and a stand with AOC against New Labor tendencies. (“Medicare for all – change my mind.”) Resistance to mainstream politics is translated visually into resistance to peer pressure to wear a fashionable cloth coat and gloves, instead of his practical heavy parka. (I am reminded of Naomi Alderman’s observation somewhere in the 328 episodes of The Cultures podcast that in Jewish culture it is considered morally bad to judge someone on their appearance – and also of old-world superstitions about not attracting the evil eye.) He looks isolated and tense – the impatient guest at the party that nobody knows what to do with. Some commenters were concerned about him and others identified with him.
But he isn’t completely drab: there’s a peacock element to the intricate mittens, from a Vermont crafter, and they match his parka at least as well as the women’s leather gloves match their colorful coats. For many he represents a kind of marginalized, edgy patriarch who is instantly familiar and may be approachable (“Zayde Bernie,” “America’s Grouchy Jewish Grandpa”). The mittens make him childlike. His bedded-in upper body configuration can be interpreted as a kind of patience, even stoicism. Thus there are both memes of irascibility (often a professor) and of impassivity (vampires and zombies, listening to the Arctic Monkeys on the New York subway). The image suits this long freeze-frame when so many of us are wrapped up and waiting for lockdown to be relaxed, for the pandemic to recede, patiently-impatiently because we don’t know how long it will take. Meanwhile everything is a little surreal.
Then there are the mashup memes, the meta-memes – the guy catcalling a woman while his girlfriend starts in horror (Bernie is the object of the male gaze here), Bob Ross painting Bernie. The Wellerman. I think there’s one out there with the impassive white cat being yelled at. In his impassive guise Bernie is the new white cat. At some point we’ll probably see a triple mashup of doge Bernie. Contributing to a meme is just one step in the hierarchy of production, of course. The next level, barely visible, is being the first to recognize that an image is memeable, and coming up with the first instance that others will recognize as something that can be repeated. This is for the future. One must have goals.
Side point: I have been railing for years about the habit of referring to politicians by their first names – “Boris” is not my friend or family. Yet somehow “Bernie” is.