Modern World

Memes, Magic and Mysticism: Singing Animism Electric

News feeds these days—often for good reason—are 24 hour presidential outrage machines. Like many “progressive” folks just trying to stay active after the election, I found myself feeling the burnout. But I was intrigued by a certain headline, sputtering up from the Facebook dross—“Anti-Trump Witches and 4chan Magicians are Battling for the Future of America”—around the end of February.



A war of witches? There was, indeed, a planned “binding ritual”—a type of spell intended to stop someone from harming others—against Donald Trump for February 24th. A Facebook event page was created for it. Thousands of witches all over the country pledged to participate. Christian organizations responded by pledging to “pray for our president.” Still other witches and magic practitioners warned against the dangers of a binding spell, citing the threefold rule: when you perform magic against someone, it comes back to you threefold. The “magicians” at 4chan, however, expectantly laughed off these efforts. Their own “meme magic” was so wildly successful, and their own deity, “Kek,” so powerful (they claimed), that they had nothing to worry about. If you’re lost, or wondering what magic, memes, and the presidential election have to do with one another, that’s OK. Let me explain.

I’ll need to start from the top. You see, the electric age has always been spooky.

Alchemical Sparks for the Electric Age

Since the earliest days of modernity, electricity has continued to retain a sense of enchantment unlike any other natural force. Figures in the popular imagination—Nikola Tesla standing stoically amidst a lightning storm in his laboratory—come to mind. Early writings on the subject retained their occult terminology: the “quintessential fire” sought after by alchemists. Like the quicksilver movements of mercury, electricity appears alive. So it’s no wonder many thinkers from antiquity associated it with sparks cast off the Anima Mundi, or World Soul. Electricity recalled a vitalist worldview where the Earth was alive and all things were vibrating—humming—in sympathetic interdependence with each one another. Philosophers like Schelling, or early novelists like Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus knew this association all too well.

Franz Mesmer, an early physician from whom we can thank for the word mesmerize, put forward just such a vitalist science. According to Mesmer, coursing through the material world was a force, “animal magnetism,” that was transferrable through all things. It could be used to heal the body and mind. Mesmer was debunked, but electricity only got spookier. New technologies in the 19th century, like the telegraph, were met with a kind of euphoric utopianism similar to the Silicon Valley techno-optimism of our day, and only further amplified the metaphors that could be adapted by occultists, spiritualists, and Theosophists.

The latter group—founded by Madame Blavatsky—borrowed freely from theories of electromagnetism and evolutionary biology alike to describe invisible spectrums of spiritual energies and a kind of evolutionary mysticism that continues in the New Age and countercultural currents to this day. (Note, here, my use of amplified, and currents. The language is simply unavoidable!) Adapting a bricoleur of ideas from Neo-Platonism and Eastern spirituality, Theosophy claimed that it was thought, not the material world, that came first. Thought could create reality. In the classic book on technological mysticism, Techgnosis, Erik Davis writes that Theosophy, “represents a gnostic drift away from the body, a dematerializing tendency.” We’ll revisit both of these ideas when we arrive at meme magic.

These examples I’ve provided at the outset in order to paint a picture of Marshal McLuhan’s “electronic culture”—the age where electricity is the central means of communication—as one thoroughly primed for a resurgence of magical and animistic thinking. “Electricity feeds modernity; it is our profane illumination,” writes Erik Davis. Electricity engenders animism. When it comes to the 20th century, first with the invention of television and then computers, the internet and New Media, our language has evolved. We have become imagistic thinkers again, moving away from the written word as a dominant language and into images to express our emotional and psychological landscapes. “We return to the electric age of the icon,” McLuhan writes, and when millennials message each other with emoticons, or Facebook chat GIFs to express themselves in an entire conversation, they’re doing exactly that.




When we begin to recognize the weird, arguably magical and vitalist dimensions present in New Media, its stranger phenomena begin to make more sense—the funny forms of electronic divination that crop up in the noetic bowels of cyberspace. Memes retrieve the medieval icon as a form of profane illumination. Trolls cozy up in cyberspace. But it all begs the question: where there are icons, are there also gods?

Memetic Drift

“Memes” were around before the internet—at least, in the head of Richard Dawkins in 1976. He wrote about them in The Selfish Gene, applying the science of genes to the evolution of ideas. A unit of self-replication is more important than its basis in chemistry, and ideas are subject to the same kinds of pressures you’d find in biological evolution. “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases,” Dawkins writes, “clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches… 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 have also come to mean a lot more than that on the internet, but to Dawkins point, their main characteristics only seem to have intensified. You’ll commonly find links to videos and articles listing the “Greatest Memes of 2016” and so on. If you’re on the internet, it is nearly guaranteed you’ve shared, liked, or retweeted countless memes yourself. Memes are funny, often containing self-referential humor. Note that they are nearly always imagistic, relying on a single panel with text. They are highly creative, syncretic, and even combinatory with other memes. Very often, as we know, they involve cats.

Memes are the clearest example of the kind of participatory, collectivist, and imagistic consciousness so emboldened by the internet. There is a kind of trickster humor, even play, involved with all of them. Perhaps no other place on the internet is as notorious as 4chan—the anonymous online community—for their nihilistic and at times bizarre trolling. (Note the return of the folkloric term “troll”.) 4chan enacts a kind of “chaotic-evil” caricature on the internet, fully embracing the disembodied, chaotic hive mind that New Media consciousness amplifies. Their signature form of instigation is the promotion of memes in the form of rumors, misinformation, and pranks—which we’re all on the laughing end of—spread virally through the hive mind. The more mainstream media attention these pranks get, the better. The more serious you take them, the more the joke is on you.

The Theosophists, as we mentioned, believed thought could influence reality, or rather that reality itself was more like thought than matter. 4chan is a prime example of a community that has taken advantage of that idea, tossing memes around like noetic stink bombs, invading the “real world” like a band of merry pranksters (or terrifying, sometimes bizarre, alien invaders). The internet’s disembodiment effect lends itself to Theosophical idea of an “astral” plane—a dreamlike dimension of reality dovetailing somewhere with Henry Corbin’s “imaginal world”—where the person’s mind is free to drift, take on new avatars, and sometimes enact buried aspects of their own psyche. Cultural critic and philosopher John David Ebert, in his book New Media Invasion, argues that the internet has retrieved the kind of consciousness present from the medieval world, the “world-as-cavern,” in which the mythological consciousness of antiquity—with its gods, devils, and saints—shined through all things. “Online, we are all present everywhere…we are disembodied, figures floating without grounds. All the limitations associated with embodiment in a material world.” This would go a long way to explain 4chan. But I digress. Meme magic is what you came to hear about.

4chan coined the term, perhaps to their own surprise. It involves a divination system. Let me explain.

4chan posts—being a discussion forum—generate a series of numbers, eight digits, that users can identify them with. The last digits few are random. Like playing a slot machine, sometimes users will get double digits, or even triple digits at the end of the number. These are called “Dubs,” Trips,” “Quads,” and so on. When you “win”, it’s called a “GET.” Sometimes users will make a post and get favorable numbers—say, for example, a user on /pol/ making a post “Trump FTW!” and receiving “777.”

When Germanwings Flight 9525 went down in 2015, 4chan made a post drawing a series of bizarre parallels between the real flight and the fictional plane crash in The Dark Knight Rises. There are quite a few odd coincidences, including a real life person named “Bruce Robin,” and even a town in the French alps nearby called “Bane.” 4chan users began joking that it was their forum posts that were somehow responsible for the crashed flight. For a brief moment of synchromysticism, virtuality and actuality collapsed into one event, and through the ontological vertigo, “meme magic” was born. It might be easier to simply watch this video taken from the Know Your Meme page.

Synchromysticism is another term coined by 4chan to describe this weird, sympathetic resonance between the internet and the real world. So what does this all mean, so far? 4chan seems to have intuited the kind of metaphysics they’re playing with here, defining “memetic magic” in one post as the “manipulation of the root social matrix and the fabric of reality.” Root social matrix. Fabric of reality. The kind of pop metaphysics they’re promoting here is one where reality is more like the kind of “mind stuff” of Theosophy, or in the description of religious studies author Jeffrey Kripal, as he writes in Authors of the Impossible, “hermeneutical.” What if reality is more like an idea, or a text, thought-stuff rather than rock-stuff? The hidden “pop” esotericism starts bleeding through.

Thought-Entities

“Creepypasta” is yet another term coined by 4chan, is best described as a kind of new, digital, urban folklore. Enter Slender Man. Originating on the Something Awful forums in the late 2000s, Slender Man soon took on a life of his own. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new stories, photoshopped images, and pseudo historical records of the faceless, tall, thin suited man cropped up everywhere. He got his own horror games. Slender Man became like Bloody Mary of yesteryear. He seemed to creep out into the real world. Synchromysticism came into play here when people began drawing connections between Slender Man and real life folklore. Did the internet dream up Slender Man, or did it simply resurrect him? (We’ll revisit this later with a certain Pepe the frog.) Some of the earliest images show him standing with schoolchildren, and whether or not he is an old folk tale, he certainly retrieves the stories of goblins and faerie folk kidnapping children in the dark wood.

In a horrific, real life attempted murder, two teenage girls assaulted a third with a knife, leaving her in the woods for dead. They credited Slender Man, telling the authorities that they were his proxy. This real world seemed to confirm the urban legend that Slender Man was somehow very real, capable of stepping out of meme-space like Samara reaching out from a TV in The Ring. This event effectively tossed kerosene on an already well fueled internet legend.

Now let’s tie it all together. In occult literature, there is a concept called the egregore, a thought-form dreamed up by a group. In a sense, it is willed into being by acts of ritual, intention, and emotion. We are, of course, talking about a magical act. Some would call Slender Man an egregore, a semi-autonomous thought form imagined into being by millions of people on the internet. The very ambiguity of Slender Man and other “Creepypasta” lends to their believability. “Is this real, or not?” That quicksilver, trickster trait lends to the appearance of their reality, regardless of whether we actually believe in them.

In Chaos Magic, a similar idea is developed through the sigil. A sigil is a highly charged symbol, drawn by the practitioner, to represent their will or intention. Typically, it is “activated” by an emotional state, with the idea that it will help bring your desire into being. Taking this further, a hypersigil is a more complex sigil. It could have many meanings, perhaps even a kind of life of its own. Slender Man might be considered a hypersigil. Then again, so could Pepe.

Now we talk about the frog.

Electric Deities

Pepe began as an innocent enough meme, created in the comic strip Boys Club by Matt Furie back in 2008. He was picked up by 4chan for the “Feels Good Man” and “Sad Frog” memes. But there was also “Angry Pepe” and “Smug Frog.” He was a popular enough meme, with celebrities like Katy Perry harmlessly tweeting an image of him to describe her jet lag, or Nicki Minaj using him for her Instagram in 2014. But then things began to change. In a 4chan thread, a user posted an image of Pepe overlooking the US-Mexican border. Pepe started getting attention by the alt-right and 4chan trolls, who, by this point, started seeing Trump as the ultimate internet troll. (Many friends of mine were circulating the comment that Trump himself was a troll incarnated from the internet.) Then, in 2015, Donald Trump tweeted an image of himself as Pepe the Frog with the headline: “You can’t stump Trump.” It only gets more convoluted from here.

It might be worth mentioning that 4chan isn’t exactly the alt-right. If you’ve taken anything that I’ve said to heart, you’d notice the disturbing concept that communities like 4chan aren’t interested in politics, exactly. They’re far stranger. “Far more chaotic,” the author of “Meme Magic is Real, You Guys,” says. 4chan is “so deep into trolling that nothing is one-sided.”

Now a few words on “Kek”. You may have seen this word tossed around. It actually originates from a game I played the good part of a decade ago—World of Warcraft. Players on opposing factions couldn’t chat with each other. Their text got garbled into another language. One faction, the Horde, when they typed “LOL,” the chat box translated it to the opposing faction as “KEK.” And there KEK was born—forever associated with the chuckle of an online troll. (The opposing side, the Alliance, was read as “BUR”, but that doesn’t seem to have caught on for whatever reason.)

Through another act of synchromysticism, the 4chan trollers made a post in November of 2015 connecting “Kek” with an ancient Egyptian frog deity, “Kek,” a god of chaos. Yes, that’s right: a frog deity who ruled over the chaos and was a “bringer of light.” Suddenly their meme was 5000 years older. Other images surfaced, though with more dubious historical accuracy (like this statue of a person using a personal computer). Thus, the “Cult of Kek” was born, with Pepe the frog, troll-meme extraordinaire, as its central deity. The combinatorial mythology tacked together here resulted in Pepe as the return of the ancient god Kek, whose representative—or proxy—was Donald Trump, ushering in a new age of light. Their mission? Use meme magic to get Trump into office. They perceived Pepe as a kind of hypersigil, or egregore, which already was gaining momentum. They would go on to take advantage of any damning information on Hillary Clinton, actively promote conspiracies along with Alex Jones (think: Pizzagate), the “spirit cooking” hysteria, and even a kind of arch-nemesis deity emerging through Marina Abramovic (the horned god).

Everything seemed to confirm meme magic and the momentum of Pepe as a hypersigil was working for them when Hillary Clinton published an article on Pepe the frog on her campaign site (missing the trolling nuance entirely), and later on that day—on the 9/11 Anniversary—made the news by fainting. 4channers, of course, believed this was no mere coincidence. It was Kek. It was meme magic at work. Kek, via Pepe, was stepping out of cyberspace and pushing reality around.

You can read more about meme magic and synchromysticism examples in Theodor K. Ferreol’s article.

More recently, “Pek” has emerged. Yet another innocent meme, this pigeon—or “trash dove” if you will—was created for Facebook messenger, but quickly coopted by 4channers and transformed into a version of the Reichsalder, or “Imperial Eagle.” “Pek” made an instant link with “Kek”—after all, Kek is the deity who brings the light, and Pek, the bird-headed god, looked like Ra—the light. 4chan’s image explains: “through Pepe the prophet of Kek (Bringer of Light) we have a new prophet of the God of Light, Ra.”

“Keku and Kauket”, male and female, were the original deities borrowed by 4chan—both frog-headed gods of primordial chaos and darkness. Keku, as we mentioned, was more of a god of liminal twilight—those dark moments just before the sun rises. In a moment of personal synchromystic interpretation, I’d like to think that Trump’s nativism and all this alt-right business, including Pepe, is simply the darkest hour before the day—the swan song, to borrow another bird image, of nativism and fascism—before a brighter era of Teilhard de Chardin’s planetization.

Evolution of the Esoteric

The strangest thing about all of this is the very idea that other intelligences might be using New Media to speak to us, maybe even through us. That spooky thought-forms might be whispering in our hapless ears, psychic tendrils tugging at the back of our minds, demanding we become their proxies. The website admin for Pepe the Frog Faith says, “If you believe it too much, consider yourself trolled… It’s a prank, but it’s not a joke.” Ambiguity is right where the power of these ideas live, perhaps where the paranormal has always lived. The shapeshifter, the trickster, quicksilver Mercury. (Remember that Mercury, or Hermes, is the god of communications and crossroads. A fitting deity for the internet.) “A memetic magicians power is bolstered by laughter. Humor is a high-energy wavelength.”

Esotericists and occultists wouldn’t be surprised by many of these ideas—after all, a magical worldview embraces a kind of ecology of consciousness. Traditional societies have consistently, arguably universally, embraced the existence of the non-human world—the faerie folk, goblins, trolls, the genius loci, and so on. Reality is awash with other beings, sentient or otherwise. In liminal states, induced by ritual, intuition, revery, or psychedelic states, we might encounter the Other for ourselves. Who is to say that they aren’t plugging into our technological surround, our cerebral and virtual spaces friendlier to their disembodied natures? Is there really something happening with the Cult of Kek? If so, what are they drumming up from the depths? Historian William Irwin Thompson, in The American Replacement of Nature, offers an esoteric interpretation of our modern technological extensions. Our virtual surround, he suggests, is a kind of literal appropriation of our subtle, spiritual bodies. VR, video games, and, since his writing this in the early 90s, smart phones and the internet act as technological replacements for the etheric and astral bodies of Theosophy. In the “commons of the electronic media,” the astral body gets appropriated, and with it come flooding all the mischievous sprites, trolls, and demons. “This literalization of the esoteric doesn’t actually have the original esoteric function.” The effect is a kind of technological incarnation of the astral plane, where these kinds of entities get to tug and play in human affairs in ways they arguably couldn’t before—if not in degree, then in novelty.

When we look at Kek and 4chan as one of many, recent examples, the esotericist can’t help but wonder. The problem with all this, Thompson warns, is that the majority of us aren’t yogis. We aren’t mystics who know how to navigate the astral sea for the deeper, divine waters. Too easily are we snagged by the faeries, or what Patrick Harper calls the “daemonic reality.” But perhaps there is hope through all this. Forgive the spatial metaphors, but as we reach up with our technology, spiritual worlds reach back down. We should be prepared for the kind of worlds we might unleash. Thompson closes a passage from Coming into Being with a more optimistic, and prescient view our predicament: “when something is about to disappear, it has its most brilliant sunset.” So perhaps on our way to greater forms of sublimation we must first pass through a kind of illuminative phase—releasing the astral plane and burning it up in one bright and glorious folly. Perhaps the ocean of memes and pseudo-deities shining through our “electronic stained glass” are merely the imaginal night before a brighter tomorrow, after all.

Sources

Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, William Irwin Thompson

The American Replacement of Nature, William Irwin Thompson

Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information, Erik Davis

Anti-Trump Witches and 4Chan Magicians are Battling Over the Future of America

Meme Magic is Real, You Guys

Meme Magic, Know Your Meme

Featured artwork by Matt Furie

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