Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poetry, Memes and John Pike

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Poetry, Memes and John Pike

Most people with a Facebook account or one eye on the Internet have by now seen the infamous and viral-in-nothing-flat video of campus police "officer" Lt. John Pike pepper-spraying non-violent, silent protestors sitting on the ground at the University of California at Davis. Pike, a swaggering couch potato of a rent-a-cop with an unfortunately pubic red beard, is all decked out in tactical riot gear, and so "threatened" by the protestors that his visor is up.

Since said protestors have ignored his order to move on, he's showing them who the Big Man is in control. Make no mistake, real police officers and soldiers who remember that their mission is to serve and protect their citizens do not behave like this. They will neutralize a threat, especially an armed one, but they don't target people who simply irritate them. They also have enough situational awareness to know that, if you are going to step over the bounds of decent (and lawful) behaviour, you don't do it in the most litigious country on earth, with hundreds of people toting video and still cameras, and smartphones.

But the purpose of this blog is not to continue the debate on "reasonable force" and how out of line Lt. Pike may have been. It's rather to comment on the proliferation of edited images that take his nonchalant, self-inflated likeness and apply it to other visual contexts. So far, I've seen Pike digitally induced to pepper spray:

* the Declaration of Independence

* Andrew Wyeth's young girl sprawled on a grassy hill

* Seurat's upright pleasure-seekers on the banks of a French river

* a Buddhist priest who has set himself on fire

* and yes, Yoda himself.

If you're wondering about the term "meme", it refers to a unit of meaning -- often a photo, but sometimes a phrase ("I can haz cheezburgerz?") -- that captures the attention of Net users and is rapidly posted in many contexts and on many different kinds of site The availability of imagee-modifying software and Net access nearly everywhere make memes the cultural massage of today.

The subtle and always ahead-of-the-curve poet Adeena Karasick wrote in her book Meme Wars:

"A Meme is an irrecoverable and slightly innacurate self-replicating (id)entity with almost limitless power.
Memetics is concerned with how the message is translated.
MEME "a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation" .

Pike, the unopposed aggressor, is suddenly the victim of a meme-attack. Each new replication of his image in an alien visual context further problematizes his decision-making ability, and extends the questions that arise from his behaviour: if he would spray the passive and seated Occupy UC protestors, how about children? self-immolating monks? the signers of the Declaration of Independence?

There is no logical limit to illogical behaviour, as Spock would tell us. The meme-ing of Lt. Pike both confirms and questions this, reducing his riot-geared, portly menace to a transitory, and mutable, image no more threatening than Paris Hilton, and definitely less cute.

Thus, the Yoda version shown at the top of this blog reminds us that, for those who incur the Netizens' displeasure, the Meme-pire will strike back.

For further examples of the Meme-ing of, visit here.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page