You Can't Kill Meme


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

You Can't Kill Meme
"It does its subjects the courtesy of letting them speak for themselves, but this often the equivalent of handing them enough rope." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Much sociological dialogue over the past few years has focused on the damage done to our society by a growing sense of powerlessness within large sections of the population. It has long been predicted that late stage capitalism and escalating environmental crises would lead to the emergence of cults at around this stage in our history, but barely anyone engaged in academic discourse raised the possibility that they would turn to magic. Most people like to imagine that our civilisation is past that – that we’ve progressed to a point where we prioritise the application of scientific method and are cautious in our reasoning – but in retrospect it ought to have been obvious. It’s what powerless people have always turned to. R Kirk Packwood was one of the first to identify this in his 2004 book Memetic Magic. In this documentary, Hayley Garrigus picks up the subject and examines it further, meeting some of those who practice it, probing its origins and opening up a conversation about its future.

The film, which screened as part of Fantasia 2021, has already proven controversial. On the one hand, supporters of the far right object to its examination of some of their favourite tropes. On the other, a not inconsiderable number of moderates and left wingers have equated Garrigus’ journalistic openness with sympathy for the far right, or suggested that it is dangerous to present their ideas without explicit criticism. It’s an odd state of affairs. Yes, the film encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions, but not without highlighting the absurdities of extremist thinking. Yes, it does its subjects the courtesy of letting them speak for themselves, but this often the equivalent of handing them enough rope.

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So what is memetic magic? Essentially, it begins with the observation that internet memes can influence people’s thinking, and, like numerous occult systems of thought in history, extends from there to the belief that there is innate power in sigils or images. Confirmation bias helps to build up the illusion that magicians can change the world through their will alone, with failures often going unnoticed or being written off as meaning only that it wasn’t done properly. This isn’t so much a lack of self-awareness as naivety about the human brain’s inbuilt flaws and tendency towards irrationality.

Taking into account how easy it is to get lost when bombarded with information and unaware of how to process it sensibly, Garrigus strives to show her subjects as intelligent, otherwise capable people who have simply gone astray. The problem, of course, is that the internet makes it easy for any such person to find others who have strayed in the same way, resulting in the emergence of communities where erroneous thinking is reinforced. These are endlessly fascinating, but we can observe some of them directly online, so she doesn’t spend too much time on the more familiar ones. Pepe the Frog comes up, of course, notably in relation to the Ancient Egyptian god Kek, as she examines the way that history and ancient mysticism can also provide a resource for those compelled to see patterns in everything, but there is no attempt here to compete with Arthur Jones’ Feels Good, Man – this film is covering different ground.

More interesting in – ironically – their obscurity, are the lightworkers, a group centred around Las Vegas but with followers far and wide. By contrast with those who use their powers aggressively (whether in pursuit of personal gain or simply for the lols), these people have devoted themselves to doing good in the world. They attempt this primarily through esoteric practice, using crystals and spells. Does this make them the good guys? Nothing is quite that simple; and whilst they’re easy enough to like, they do have some odd ideas, not all of them harmless. We are reminded that the people who attacked the US Capitol building on 6 January of this year included a man who saw himself as a shaman. Here, one of their number talks earnestly about her certainty that Barack Obama is part of a secret cabal which took him to the Moon, then smiles lightly and offers Garrigus a cup of tea.

The version of the film which I saw at Fantasia may not have been fully finished. There were some curious little errors in the subtitling, with ‘fact free’, for instance, transcribed as ‘face free’ – the sort of accident which is easily interpreted as having secret significance, and which feeds conspiracies. It’s a reminder of the role played by chaos in all this. Nothing here is really new in terms of human behaviour, but the film is one of the first serious attempts to observe such pattern of thinking n the modern age, in connection with the magnifying and the distorting effect of the internet. It is, in the end, not a film about individuals – most of whom are quick to surrender any agency they might attain – but about communities and the emergence of new societal structures straining to accommodate philosophically aberrant groups. As such, it’s a fascinating, urgent piece of work with much to contribute to the developing public conversation.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2021
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A filmmaker asks how we make sense of things when we collapse the infinite fidelity of information down into pithy sentences laid over ominous imagery.

Director: Hayley Garrigus

Year: 2021

Runtime: 78 minutes


Fantasia 2021

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