Jurassic Park II
The simulation of langue and parole or phonemes and morphemes presupposes the unquestionable presence of a human subject. However, in our Jurassic park not all the inhabitants are humans. New monsters (e.g. trolls, avatars, hoaxes, anonymous profiles) introduce hybrid forms of subjectivity into the circuit of contemporary— mostly digital—historical culture. Codes and automations like text-feeding mechanisms and sharing applications replicate pieces of historical information within different texts and webpages, reducing the possibility of identifying a particular human subject (author, narrator or memory holder) behind any particular verbal, visual or sonic trace of the past. In the Jurassic park of contemporary historical culture, any attempt to draw clear-cut distinctions between the human and the non-human or the organic and the code is rendered peculiarly difficult.
Richard Dawkins, the author of the very influential The Selfish Gene, coined the term meme, which is the equivalent of the gene for cultural systems. According to him:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation ... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. (Dawkins, 2006: 192)
So, in order to understand when and how dinosaurs acquire new life and become shadow creatures that live among us, we should enquire what molests old relics and living minds, what reactivates the dead, and obtains life from the living.
This is a post-humanist approach, which pays attention to the multitude of cultural bits and bytes and to memetic processes which form historical culture. These processes speed up or slow down the emigration of memes, and that depends on the historical condition societies inhabit. A historical crisis can break up consensus about the past, and open graves to allow historical memes to contaminate present conflicts (e.g. Spain and the debate on the civil war, Cyprus and the debate on the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the conflict between the two communities, see Kovras, 2008). Contemporary enmities acquire a historical dimension by attracting memes regarding the past. Historical culture is not at the margins of history. We experience history through historical culture and we obtain a variety of experiences of the past.
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Recognizing the vagueness and the shapelessness of the field, there is a need to draw paths for mapping the memetics of historical culture, that is, to further elaborate on the morphology of historical memes as well as to test the mechanisms which enable the propagation of these minimal “units of (historical) culture”. This requirement becomes even more of a challenge when the particularities of contemporary historical culture are taken into consideration. If historical culture could be seen in a broader sense as a Jurassic park, then contemporary digital historical culture looks more like the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World.2 In this second filmic version, the creatures of the past are no longer disassociated from the visitors’ present through certain technologies of separation and decontamination (borders, fences, gates, passwords, closed vehicles, uniforms and gloves, even chemical toilets). On the contrary, humans and non-humans were closely interlinked: twentieth-century men and women marched alongside prehistoric animals, canceling any possibility of a temporal distinction between them. Furthermore, it was established from the beginning of the film that the whole setting had become extremely aggressive: the theme park had already been commercialized and it was ready to host hunters from around the world in order to enjoy shooting the creatures of the past. Within this violent “regime of simultaneity”, the past turned out to be the catch of the day. The resurrected species of the past were claimed by human creatures of the present, fully equipped with digitalized weaponry and participants in an aggressive, safari-like exploitation of the past.
Hence, what would memes in such an aggressive historical culture look like? How could we think of the tiny units through which the past is transported in a safari-like setting? What could be the constituent parts of our timeless, violent, deeply affective and intensively privatized digital historical culture?
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In order to deal with the abovementioned questions, we have to broaden our understanding of meme. The word virus could serve toward this end. Yet, what we are suggesting at this point is the employment of another metaphor, still stemming from biological langue. But, how could this second metaphor facilitate our investigation of digital historical culture?
Surprisingly, viruses and genes have a lot in common. In terms of biology, they could both be perceived as minimal living (or quasi-living) entities, aiming exclusively at their reproduction. But there are also essential differences. Viruses, for example, cannot replicate their own tiny biological content (DNA or RNA), unless they come into contact with other species. This contact is realized through a protein coat, properly designed to facilitate the injection of the biological material of the virus into the host body, forcing the latter to reproduce almost unconsciously the viral content. Moreover, viruses are more than “selfish”. They are ontologically aggressive, since the aggressive invasion of alien bodies is their only survival strategy.
Not surprisingly, meaning is circulated within contemporary digital networks in a similar way. A simple click on the various sharing, commenting or embedding thumbnails (such as the textual or visual commands “share”, “like”, “comment”, “embed” on a YouTube or Facebook account) “forces” an already existing digital page to automatically host and reproduce, within its own content, informational units from other pages in cyberspace.
This process of “viralization” was initiated in the last two decades of the twentieth century. More specifically, it was in the five years before the millennium that the virus metaphor began to circulate widely within different, non-biological discursive frameworks. Marketing was one of them, where the term signaled the advent of new advertising techniques, imitating virus propagation. During the first decade of the next century, the metaphor expanded beyond marketing. Currently recognized under the broader term “viral sharing”, the virus metaphor has already become the dominant paradigm for sharing information in the digital domain. Nowadays, “going viral” is a flashy catchphrase, indicating a very effective, virus-like mode of production, distribution and consumption of meaning. In a more general sense, virality seems to be able to alter the “politics of meaning” within extended areas of digital networks (Sampson, 2012). To put it differently, within contemporary digital culture substantial areas have already emerged where meaning is intensively produced, disseminated and perceived in a “viral” manner. It depends more and more on distribution technologies and digitalized practices of imitation.
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Therefore, virality could be perceived as a dominant cultural trend, enforcing significant mutations during the production of meaning in our digital present. Let us then try to focus on virality as a defining element of contemporary historical culture as well (Bilalis, 2014). In that manner, the minimal units constituting this particular historical culture would be better represented not as memes but rather as viruses: parasitic entities that aim to reproduce themselves in as many copies as possible within alien areas of content.
From this point of the view, the Jurassic park of our digital historical culture appears different. The most aggressive creatures are no longer the huge dinosaurs but some rather tiny, invisible microorganisms. They constantly attempt to hijack the bodies of different species and to replicate themselves, taking control of the host “genetic” material and finally manipulating the gigantic creatures of the past. As we have already mentioned, these tiny units should not be confounded with historical information. Following Henry Jenkins et al., they would rather be perceived as producerly or spreadable texts, that is, texts which:
ha[ve] an intent and a set of preferred meanings, but in the end [they are] left ambiguous enough, with enough open-ended details, that it could be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on the contexts into which [they are] spread and the ways [they are] deployed. (Jenkins, Xiaochang, Domb Krauskopf, & Green, 2008:81-82)
The minimal constituents of contemporary historical culture would literally be texts, even reduced, as we have already seen, to a simple word. Furthermore, they could be set out in a visual or audible form (images, poems, scientific terms as well as technologies, buildings, systems of thought, lyrics, flags, catchphrases, etc.) (Rushkoff, 1994). They circulate through the multilayered surfaces of contemporary historical culture (papers, books, screens, video game consoles, webpages, virtual reality and augmented reality installations, exhibitions, etc.). By being disseminated, they articulate different pieces of historical information in different constellations of meaning. Nevertheless, what they all have in common is their repetitive ontology, in order to be spreadable, these tiny vehicles of the past have to generate copies of themselves in as many pages, screens or pixels as possible.
In our digital historical culture, repetition seems to be a more urgent priority than definition. Terms like “nationalism” or figural entities like “Hitler” go viral when they manage to disassociate themselves from certain historiographical definitions and are repeated within many different and even contradictory contexts. This imperative for endless repetition seems to alter contemporary politics of the past. It highlights the emergence of a viral historical culture no longer based on a “performative repetition with a difference” but rather on a “replication without reproduction, without fidelity, without durability” (Clough & Puar, 2012: 14).
Furthermore, increasing the historiographical indeterminacy of a certain carrier of the past also increases its chances of becoming a viral “unit” of contemporary historical culture. Let us return to the example of the “resurrection” of the Second World War during the Greek financial crisis. In August 2013, a set of photographs appeared in the printed Sunday edition of Proto Thema.3 They captured Ilias Kasidiaris, spokesman for the Golden Dawn party, in a swimming suit, enjoying an intimate moment with his partner. The photographs were clear enough to show the large swastika tattoo on his left shoulder.
They were posted online and soon they went viral. In the course of the following weeks, the still images of this photo with the Nazi symbol spread across innumerous Greek webpages. By the end of the summer, digital screens had become inundated with statements, critiques, comments and even parodies, but primarily with swastikas. This particular symbol stemming from Germany’s Nazi past found a way to occupy the cyberspace of a country where the presence of visual manifestations of the Nazi past was extremely marginal from 1950 to 2000.
Yet, the most striking issue raised during the heated debates on the swastika tattoo was the figural ambiguity of the spreadable images. After the photos went viral, most discussions focused on whether the tattoo actually represented a trace of the Nazi past. It was stated—mostly by Golden Dawn followers— that the tattoo did not depict a German swastika but some sort of ancient Greek meander. Internet followers of Nazism and racism emphatically rejected the accusations that the tattoo had a Nazi genealogy. At the same time, their “opponents” accused them of ideological inconsistency.
Nevertheless, the case of the swastika tattoo was indeed a matter of inconsistency, but a viral rather than an ideological one. It was exactly this sort of ambiguity about the “real” meaning of a fragment of the past, accumulated during its countless repetitions within contemporary networks, which “encourages people to seek out further information ... This search for authenticity, origins, or purpose can be seen as yet another way of actively constructing the meaning of content, another type of gap that encourages ... engagement” with the past (Jenkins et al., 2008, 93-94).
To put it differently, in order for a trace ofthe past to become a meme in contemporary historical culture, the restoration of its figural as well as its historiographical consistency is no longer an issue. Quite the contrary: what seems to be critical is to expose its content to even more contradictory interpretations, to deny already given historiographical accounts and to endlessly repeat these through digital automations. In such a viral conceptualization of contemporary historical culture, what really matters is to speed up the dissemination of past materialities; to turn these materialities into spreadable or viral memes; to secure their mobility as well as their access to different discursive systems (public history, academic literature, journalism and even lifestyle and entertainment); to replicate these tiny units in any possible textual or visual form (article, statement, comment, gossip, still image, graffiti, caricature, video, etc.); to criticize, reject, deconstruct or even ridicule them, further increasing, in this way, their spreadability.
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In this chapter, we had attempted to put forward an understanding of historical culture as Jurassic park. We employed this particular metaphor in order to describe the interrelation between the academic and the public dimension of history as an open-ended process, during which a whole set of dualistic constellations are problematized. Our attempt was to investigate how clear- cut distinctions such as, for example, professional historian/ “the public”, his- tory/memory, past/present, use/misuse, human/non-human, code/matter, langue/parole, structure/subjectivity, humanities/sciences of life, et cetera, are blurred. The Jurassic park metaphor represents the need for a critical reassemblage of the diversity concerning the possibilities to confront, avoid or imagine the past. It describes historical culture as a liminal equilibrium: human subjects, material links to the past, ways of historical thinking and reasoning, disciplines, emotions, affects, values, codes as well as dynamic arrangements of historical time are engaged in unstable interaction. Furthermore, imaging a theme park full of dangerous creatures, mutated networks and timeless phantoms suggests a post-humanist approach to historical culture. This approach is more committed to mimetic processes and intermediations than to normative, deeply anthropocentric interpretations of historical culture.
Moreover, we stated that Jurassic park has its own history. Since antiquity, different historical cultures have been inherent in the formation of different cultural and intellectual categories. During this long “history of historical culture”, different “passwords” were developed in order to regulate access to the Jurassic park(s). Nevertheless, as we have attempted to show in this chapter, the “passwords” we use to unlock contemporary historical culture still reinforce established modern dichotomies (structure vs. performativity, langue vs. parole, human subject vs. materialities of the past, etc.). At this point, we tried to think about contemporary historical culture beyond dualistic limitations. We suggested that overcoming the abovementioned dichotomies represents an urgent priority. Within the Jurassic areas of contemporary digital historical culture, no one can afford to avoid the coexistence of human and non-human, monstrous hybridities, that have emerged in the liminal spaces between the analogue and the digital, the past and the present, between generated codes and affective desires for consuming history.
In an attempt to come to terms with post-anthropocentric contemporary historical (techno)culture, in the last part of our chapter we focused on the tiny entities through which this culture is constructed. In search of a metaphor capable of describing these material structures, we turned to memes and viruses. This choice was not arbitrary. Both metaphors, with their origins in the natural sciences, could represent critical transformations in contemporary historical culture that occurred in recent decades: the emergence of passionate and even aggressive practices for claiming the past, interpretations of the past based on the spreadibility of historical information, and the transformation of certain traces of the past into viral informational units.
The virus, in particular, could prove to be a very efficient conceptual tool, depicting the multiple ways in which the past is conceptualized by our networked present. Comprising the most tiny surface on which affective potentialities could be traced, situated at the frontier between life and inorganic presence, capable of intruding into different (and even hostile) living networks, mocking our modern, anthropocentric dualisms and being extremely aggressive and unpredictably repetitive, the virus could be a key metaphor in understanding contemporary historical culture, that is, a culture becoming more and more affective, post-human, repetitive, passionate and networked; an aggressive historical culture, constituted not exclusively by human subjects and material traces of the past but also by generic computational functions and mechanisms for endless repetition of historical information; a viral historical culture where the past (as well as the present) tends to be perceived in terms of its own interconnectivity, mediality and spreadibility.
In sum, we would like to suggest that if the layers of our identities are formed through a relationship with the past, this relationship is conditioned not only by the burden of history on the living people, from the past within us, or from our curiosity and joy from exploration. Usually it has to do with an unstable environment where the dead could resurrect and the living could associate with the dead, and where the players are not only humans, but also non-human entities. What we would like to highlight is the contingency and the unpredictability of historical culture, of history conflicts and wars. The past, more than a geological stratigraphy resembles boiling water. You cannot predict what past will prevail in the future, but you can learn how to be resilient, by understanding historical culture not as a depiction of historical knowledge and representation of the past, but on the basis of its own terms and complexity.