Joshua Citarella Speaks To Us From The Inescapable Gutter Of Art And Tech
If you were online between 2018 and 2022 and at least marginally interested in politics, odds are you've encountered a meme about Mark Fisher’s book “Capitalist Realism.” If so, you’ve already experienced the work of artist and researcher Joshua Citarella and his many accomplices at donotresearch.net, the online community and journal.
Citarella, a former academic who made the switch to full-time online content creation across Twitch, his podcast and Discord, has become increasingly prominent in discussions about what memes do and could mean for our politics and future. Meme Insider spoke with him over Zoom about his recent essay “How to Plant a Meme,” available on donotresearch.net, describing the seeding of the Capitalist Realism meme, what the youth are doing on the web and how we can reach out to one another from our “precarious islands of content.”
Meme Insider: Who are you and what do you do?
Joshua Citarella: My name is Joshua Citarella. I’m an artist, I’m an internet culture researcher, I am the author of two books now on the subject, short books, but very unique research projects into online Gen-Z radical political internet subculture type communities. The first of those is titled “Politigram and the Post-left,” which I released in 2018 and re-released in 2021, the full completed version. There’s a second book called “20 Interviews” which is from 2020 and interviews people between the ages of 15 and 22 from the left, right, up, down and sideways, all across the political spectrum, asking about their ideas, the memes they post on Instagram, the content they listen to and how their political ideas were shaped through various forces and influences and content they encounter online.
Meme Insider: Why do you do what you do?
Joshua Citarella: I come from a background of the art world and I was a professional artist. I still am, I show in museums and galleries and I have an ongoing studio practice for ten years at the intersection of art and tech, in the inescapable gutter of art and tech. I feel like there was a tremendous amount of internet attention devoted to the influence of memes and online culture at a very heated political moment that we still are in, clearly – but a lot of the analysis was just really bad; it was confused, it was unclear, it was biased. It needed someone who had aesthetic expertise, it needed the perspective of an artist, someone who had a bit of a political framework but also a framework of being familiar with online aesthetics and network culture and all of these things that find themselves oddly located at the intersection of art and tech. A lot of my analysis has circulated a lot online and developed a pretty dedicated following and now we have this public facing blog called donotresearch that has 143 posts by 110 contributors in 11 months. There’s a lot of people who are interested to do this work and talk about it in the context of artistic practice. I guess the reason why I do it is it didn’t feel like anyone else was going to and now I feel compelled to continue with it.
Meme Insider: What happened with the Capitalist Realism meme?
Joshua Citarella: Okay, so, I published “Politigram and the Post-left” in October of 2018 and there was always this looming question at the end that I accidentally through this research bore witness to young people being radicalized to – we should not underemphasize this– really extreme nihilist terrorism. The level of radicality is something that is totally beyond the pale and is inexcusable and is not part of radical politics in any civilized, acceptable society. Advocating murder of citizens who are apolitical and… it’s indefensible.
So the question I was never able to answer is when you bear witness to something that you are opposed to is, do you just sit on the sidelines or do you try to do something about it? I was worried for a very long time that if I revealed what I tried to do about the situation, it would undermine the rehabilitative work of the influence I wielded in that space.
After publishing the book, I began an 18-month-long project where I attempted to nudge and influence over time and to de-radicalize in a very soft kind of way. I would slowly introduce them to a slightly less radical reference, another slightly less radical reference and try to bring them back to a window of acceptable politics where you could affect something in the real rather than just be in a nihilist Discord where everything’s going to end in doom and gloom and fire which(chuckles) given the climate scenario, may not be totally unfounded.
I didn’t talk about the project for a long time until I reached the end of that. I then started a podcast and on episode eight of that podcast, I told this whole story. So the essay people are reading now, which has caused such endless flame wars and comment threads and insane messages in my inbox and DMs, is actually from 2019 and is talking about a project that was over 18 months before that. So this is really ancient history that has gone viral again — soft-viral, you know, among dedicated people who are into these topics, it’s not a tremendously wide reach.
What I explain in the essay is, I tried to bring people through this reference chain of different authors, thinkers and philosophers to get them really interested in Mark Fisher. And one of those successful memes was just introducing the book Capitalist Realism to this audience that for whatever reason had not yet heard of it. They’re just atomized, siloed-off communities that do not overlap – and so the work was to introduce the concept of Capitalist Realism and political imaginaries to a group that was really in need of a new political imaginary. So, in that degree, it was successful.
Where it really took off was after I became a content producer and told the new community in the Discord this story about nudging and reference and influence. And then they made hundreds upon hundreds of capitalist realism memes and it’s been a tremendous outpouring of… yeah, really exciting, fun, weird stuff. Then it took on another life where people saw those memes who were not a part of the community seeding this project and they started to reproduce them on their own.
So it had this feedback loop type effect where just by seeing something that becomes popular and recurs on your newsfeed, it gets stuck in your head, it’s memetic and then you end up reproducing it yourself, it passes person to person like a narrative like a story. And as people got further and further into the memes they’d slowly uncover this backstory. So, now we are, four years later, doing an interview about it – so it’s still percolating. The meme references never fully go away. There’s always something that kicks it up.
Meme Insider:_ It feels like it’s a piece of bread that’s been thrown out and we’re all pigeons trying to grab at it. Thanks for letting me be one of those pigeons._
Joshua Citarella: Can I also throw in here, that, I think this is… people post to wield influence. And I think what the essay says and the project testifies to is that influence is real and posting does matter, posting wields influence. And for some reason that has a lot of people very upset. I think they don’t like the possibility that they're posting what they feel is transgressive and gives them a sense of autonomy and freedom in a world where there is increasingly little freedom and autonomy; I don’t think they like the idea that that could have been instrumentalized by any actor — even if it’s someone they politically agree with.
But clearly the last few years are evidence of this, that there were a lot of people who were more or less apolitical, encountered a bunch of radical content online and then got into pretty extreme politics as a result. So if this story becomes part of that, I think it is mostly evidence that online influence is real and it can shape peoples’ view of the world in positive ways. And that’s an argument to get involved because abstaining from it will allow the worst actors to take advantage of that chess game.
Meme Insider:If abstaining from it would be somehow ethically irresponsible, do you think that in order to study it (and just to be a moral online person) you have to throw yourself in there and be involved, be posting and sharing your life and your opinions – is it possible to take a position on the internet where you’re just observing and a third party, or is it always a first-person, in the ring kind of thing if you’re actually, really engaging?
Joshua Citarella: Right. This is a question of ethics and ethnography that is complex and for different projects there may be different rules. But, answering for this particular instance, the idea of having an objective analysis of political messaging or a political scenario in general is… I don’t think that’s real. To view something in a non-ideological way – and I’m borrowing a lot of this from Frederic Jameson – that has been the core worldview of postmodern capitalism. That there is, at all, a non-ideological way to view things. Capitalism is very resilient and can have all sorts of beliefs that contradict each other at different points in time.
But in the world we live in now – which I think seems to be coming to an end, the post-political era of 1989 up until, really cracking at 2016 and now we’re in this fracturing Overton window where fascism is back on the right and socialism is back on the left – the idea that you could do an “objective” political analysis is itself tinged with the problem of postmodernity and the problem of late capitalism. So I think you do have to be explicit about having an ideological position when you’re giving a political analysis. If you’re doing a straight ethnography or whatever, I’d bring a different calculus. But if you’re talking about how political messaging impacts people, I think it’s impossible to be non-ideological.
Meme Insider: It seems a lot of your research and a lot of your artwork is with and for people who are a lot younger than you. What role do you think age plays and do you ever feel like the Steve Buscemi "How do you do, fellow kids?" meme?
Joshua Citarella: It’s funny because I’m 35 now and my whole career in the art world was being the young emerging artist that was explaining technology and networked culture to an older generation. Being a 24-year-old artist and talking to people your senior, you always felt like the youngest person in the room. But I guess in terms of the most recent work, it feels very much the other way around where, what I discovered by investigating these meme communities (which was not so much a surprise to me because I was on tumblr and saw the age that people were and you would see these tweens that would post to audiences of hundreds of thousands of people anonymously) is there’s no barriers of entry on the internet.
The current instantiation of it, these Web 2 platforms, is pretty explicitly libertarian and they have some interesting ideas about what children should and should be allowed to do. But that is the weird reality we’re living in. Young people can get on the internet and have a tremendous input into political discourse and aesthetics. You will very often find that in online political communities, their internal census data skews way, way younger than most people expect. And that’s just the reality of the terrain. It creates a weird ethical dilemma where there are people who are honestly too young to have these political opinions, who don’t have the prerequisite knowledge or historical awareness. They’re very vulnerable to influence. And that’s the reality.
So my version of responding to that has been to create contested spaces and create friction, where people can encounter a counter-narrative where they otherwise wouldn’t have got one. So you very often find instances where radical groups are putting out propaganda and the people susceptible to it are very young and those narratives need to be interrupted and complexified. Otherwise you end up with the unfortunate situation we’ve had the past few years where we have teenagers who are too young to drive but are involved in terrorist organizations. And that has been the unfortunate reality of the past few years: there’s a level of extremism in youth that is just uncomfortable for people to deal with, but needs to be addressed.
Meme Insider: You were saying earlier one of the reasons why you do this work is that no one else was doing it and you felt there was a need for an aesthetic approach. I think most people would hear about that problem – of very young people being radicalized – and think ‘”that’s a policy problem,” or “that’s a platform problem.” But how did you come to believe it was an “aesthetic problem?”
Joshua Citarella: When you interview these people about how they got to their radical ideas, they will quote a meme. It’s literally that. So people have encounters with art as, like, meaningful art in museums, but also as a 600-pixel jpeg on their phone screen. Aesthetics can move you intellectually and emotionally and can really shape your understanding of the world. So the cumulative consumption of these memes is very influential. My project has been to talk to people over, now, the course of four to five years and watch how they politically drift and how their view of the world is informed and shaped by content, podcasts, YouTube videos, memes PDFs, everything they encounter in online spaces.
I always give this example, but there was a researcher trying to divide TikTok into two categories: liberal and conservative. And this person’s ability to parse the different aesthetic references that would put something in one category versus another, say something as simple as red versus blue, was just… not sufficiently complex. And so this needed a level of analysis that took more into account and could break down what an image means at all the various levels. So you end up with these lengthy essays about how to interpret and gradations of something being radical to humorous and it gets quite complex. Aesthetics is playing a pretty big role in this and I think that is a unique point where artists should be involved in shaping the narrative about how these things are interpreted.
Meme Insider: One of the things that interested me about your work was that it seems you’re working from within academia and donotresearch is in its own way a little bit of an institution. But you’re also studying and creating in this medium that is kind of countercultural, chaotic, anonymous, anti-institutional. So how do you see the role of institutions like government, academia, even donotresearch and Know Your Meme, dancing with the meme world?
Joshua Citarella: I used to teach at the School of Visual Arts and RISD, which are two prestigious art schools in the US and I’ve spoken at I can’t even count how many art schools and classes around the country at a graduate and undergraduate level. So my whole background is being in academia and in institutional structures. So it’s been a weird move to now literally leave my job at the university to become a content creator where I have a podcast and a Twitch stream and I am funded primarily through Patreon and I write articles and I make weekly content. I’ve made a weekly post every day for two years which is a very different schedule than working in academia. I think we’re at a particular moment where institutions have really been captured by elite interests which are preventing institutions from doing the wonderful things they’ve done in previous eras and decades. And the alternative to that is the platform where you can say whatever you want and you don’t need an editor and you can go against the trends and dissent and be radical – but platforms also introduce these terrible incentives that have just driven discourse and meaningful interaction and cultural production in the worst state it’s ever been in, basically.
I think culture now feels more meaningless and it feels like there’s an endless onslaught of cooking videos and prank videos and porn – things that people enjoy, but I don’t think have this… potential for transcendental experience the way that art did. And we’ve kind of lost what museums and universities and institutions did in a previous era. So my sense is that platforms are a bad alternative to institutions and what we need now is to exit the platforms and rebuild new institutions because the old ones are not fixable. So donotresearch takes together a few hundred people, bundles together their creative output and creates a wealth of expertise concentrated on a specific subject. It’s about not atomizing people into individual precarious islands of content and opinions but bringing them together to have knowledge sharing and creative potential.
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