May you live in meme-ingful times.
Gallery: "Casually Pepper-Spray Everything Cop" meme. Endless pics. (Well, as of last count, 502.)
This collection of images is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Let's get the obvious ones out of the way first — sort of clear the quad of the passive resisters, as it were:
1. Holy Hell! There must be a LOTTA people out of work, or slagging off while AT work! (Duh.)
2. Humans are creative things, once given a fun theme to riff on.
3. Humans demonstrate a persistent need to distance themselves from the heinous.
4. Gee, that cop's had his share of donuts.
5. Lotta art majors among the out-of-work creatives mashing photos up...
At this moment I'm wishing I had actually read more than summaries of Susan Sontag's ON PHOTOGRAPHY because I am positive there are some salient thoughts there that apply to this situation. To "appropriate the thing photographed" doesn't begin to cover the ground of the thesis I'm trying to pull together here. Photography as an "aggressive act?" Aggression meets aggression, and ideas get hurt...
But the act of taking the original photograph, and the event of a public university cop hosing down some sitting students with a chemical weapon is not really the point I'm after, noteworthy as it is. I admit, my first reaction on witnessing the various accounts of that moment brought up some violent feelings, as well as a resolve to never allow my child to enter the University of California system, without some comprehensive and meaningful changes in that institution's policies for policing students (for a start). No, what concerns and fascinates me is the sheer volume and range of variation in the internet meme the photograph has inspired, and in less than a week's time.
The 'burning-monk' variation was one I imagined before I saw someone else had done it. Ditto the 2001: A Space Odyssey mashup, although I had planned to use the scene of the apes caressing the monolith, (delete monolith; insert cop) before it struck me that the result might send the message that having the apes tacitly stand in for student protesters = dehumanizing of protesters. But the actual message of the mashup doesn't matter in this day and age, I realized upon wading through the over 500 images collected at just the links, above. More on this discovery, after the jump.
One week later, the Photoshopping has gone viral. The first riff I saw was the Seurat, and it impressed me due to the riffer's skill in setting, scale and above all, lighting; it's tight like that. (Not to mention the sly comment on the painter's style, Pointillism—the atomized image in first full flower.) It also conveys a complex message, if I can unpack it succinctly: peaceful scene + at-leisure young people + pepper-spray cop = How times have changed; the homeland-security state is everywhere; violence strikes at random; the students were peacefully sitting; the cop's nonchalance is the really outrageous thing. (Don't forget, they're trained to keep cool. Seems in this instance, however, "keeping cool" while ramping up the confrontation level didn't, uh, work out.)
Wading through the collection, one starts to pick up on themes within the meme. The most obvious is the 'Founding Fathers' setting, of which the above is a particularly well-crafted example. No mystery about what we're being told there: The current paradigm for policing dissent in this country is seriously at odds with the founding myth of America. That theme's popularity is followed close upon by a pack of Jesus and Last-Supper variations:
This one stands out due to the author's superior image filtering and cropping. We don't even need the cop anymore; just the gloved fist of authority and its shiny can of technological torture make the point, and still connect our associations to the original. The rhetorical case against heavy-handed authority quashing peaceful protest is most pungent when the Prince of Peace himself is getting the spicy chemical eyewash.
|Look, this rug I had. It really tied the room together.|
Iconic Hollywood images are prolific, and may even be further broken down into further subphyla, such as Kubrick, Wizard of Oz, hippies vs. 'the man,' and The Matrix, just to name a few. The image above from A Clockwork Orange is direct: cops = thugs. Kubrick is famed for his dissections of violence, particularly of the organized kind we call war. The single 2001-derived image I spotted in the collection, however, depicts the Star-Child getting blasted from a disembodied arm emerging from, or attached to, the Earth: clearly, We Are Not Evolving. Loss of childhood innocence is poignantly highlighted in the Oz spraydowns, with the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy and the childlike Munchkins all getting blasted with millions of Scoville units. Last in this trio (from The Big Lebowski, in case you've been on another planet the last 12 years) shows The Dude and his rug getting the treatment. The icon of Abidingness meets the icon of zero tolerance for not-law-abiding. Old meme, meet new meme.
|Mean Mister Mustard Gas?|
The Beatles are another favorite among the photomashers, not just because of the strength of Beatle iconography in our media-saturated brains, but also due to John Lennon's cultural standing as a martyr for peace (John & Yoko bed-in + pepper-spray cop, etc.). Sure, it's Paul who's getting the facial, above, but that's a weakness of the original photograph: John's in the front. At least, that's what the masher seems to have thought. Cop out of frame, right, shooting John? Not so good: the Beatles are all walking and shown full-figure, so it works best to put the whole cop in the shot. Paul may be getting hosed, but Ringo? He's erased; or worse, he's become the enforcer. No crossing against the light, gentlemen.
Finally, I salute the ingenuity and skill displayed in this Escher variation. Not sure what message it's trying to convey, but as I said before, the message doesn't matter. What seems to rise to the top, now that we've had a brief stroll through this grand island of images, is the feeling that... I have no feelings left about Lt. John Pike spraying down sitting student protesters at UC Davis with a pain-and-nausea-inducing (and in some cases, actual chemical burns) aerosol-based agent that, according to one informed source, is not even legal to use by California prison guards against inmates.
Does a meme trivialize its generative subject? Is the endless reposting of LOL-inducing imagery a sign of mass denial, of erasure of feeling and meaning? I say yes. Even the well-intentioned, more politically pointed mashups remove us from that moment, the moment of first exposure to the photos and videos of the event. (Except for the participants, none of us were ever "in" that moment.)
Start with the original image; it provides the associative emotional content that drives the meme. Re-contextualize it inside an already-recognized piece of cultural iconography. Apply Photoshop. Proliferate. Propagate. It's almost as if internet culture has atomized the image itself, packed it into a high-pressure vessel and sprayed it back in our faces. Except, perhaps, without the sting. The sheer number of these images is, to some, their strength: People are outraged! They can't get enough of this fat cop and his spray can! It doesn't work that way, for this viewer. Each successive variation on a meme is one step further from my outrage.
This perspective from a prestigious journalism school proposes a counter-argument: that the Occupy 'movement' (I have to put those single-quotes there because I'm still not sure it is a movement—and I mean that in the most positive way.) has been refreshed, re-energized by the explosion of Pepper Spray Cop. The argument is well posed inside the larger one that the mediasphere demands such "spikes" of dramatic witnessing, or otherwise it will turn away and move on to The Next Kitten In A Tree. This short-attention-span afflicted dynamic is contrasted with the old-media paradigm they call The Epiphanator: "A key feature of the Epiphanator, the mechanism of press-mediated storytelling that defined our sense of the world for so long, is its impulse to organize time itself into discrete artifacts. This is how we make sense of things. What’s notable about the Lt. Pike image, though, is how dynamic its path has been — this despite the defining stillness of still photography — by way of the complementary filters of social media and human creativity." The still image moves. But does it still have the power to move? Indeed yes, says neimanlab.org: "[The] implicit narrative — one of struggle, one of outrage — offers viewers a kind of ethical, and tacitly emotional, participation in Occupy Wall Street. A moral drama that the protestors clearly won." (emphasis in original) Salon.com calls it "The geeky triumph of Pepper Spray Cop."
The Salon article argues that parody diminishes the power of the cops and their pepper spray cans. The trouble is, a lot — I would argue most — of the images created in the aftermath don't really parody anything. True parody has to engage the viewer in "a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice." The "Pepper Spray Cop" images don't address the issues of police brutality, the militarization of police forces in general, the problems inherent in the Occupy movement and the limitations of nonviolent protest. This slice of self-parody is far more powerful and revealing.
They parody memes! These crude P'shop one-liners celebrate their author's cleverness and alacrity. (And I know what I'm talking about, there! See captions, above) They give Adobe.com a little boost in revenue. Without a doubt, they remove us from the horror, each by each and en masse. You could spend a morning down the rabbit hole at peppersprayingcop.tumblr.com and still be in the dark as to the larger struggle symbolized by the students' actions and what was revealed in the reaction of the powerful. Maybe the message in the Escher reflecting ball is: we can't escape this self-regarding sphere.
But is it fair to expect more from Generation ADHD? That's a question that heads down yet another rabbit hole, one that raises more questions about the future of OWS and nonviolent protest in this age of meaning-dispersal. Maybe the act of creating these images is where the power resides.
As for me, I don't have time to go there. I gotta get back to looking for work.