I encountered the above image through the Facebook post by Michael Weinman, contributing editor at Public Seminar and a former professor of mine, who was greeted by this advertisement at London Gatwick. The image itself is nonsensical — a boy in a wizard’s outfit is somehow meant to advertise for HSBC ‘advance’. Someone has then drawn a Hakenkreuz on top of the boy’s head. Two facebook commentators on the image downplayed its potential explosive impact — one by arguing that the Hakenkreuz is an old Buddhist symbol and not the same as the Nazi swastika, which to me is disingenuous and implies historical denial, as anyone drawing the Hakenkreuz in this form (arms reversed) in a post-1945 European culture cannot escape evoking the Nazis. The other answer was more nuanced, because the commentator said that the graffiti might not have been in itself fascist, but instead suggested it could have been a kind of blunt, vulgar humor specific to English people.
This second interpretation is what I want to focus on. I want to show that instead of being a form of humor the graffiti in this image is representative of a strain of urbane, ironic detachment that has become pervasive in Anglophone cultures over the past decades. I want to show how this development is problematic because it occludes the reference to actual historical meaning. Then I will briefly consider what a humanistic response to this image might have looked like, before complicating this answer by posing a question regarding the limits and pitfalls of an image-dominated culture.
Anglo-influenced cultures (such as the Australia I come from) are very used to using confrontative forms of humor in order to show that “nothing is sacred.” I suppose one could argue this is a provocative symptom of free speech, or even a democratic action, which tries to show that nothing, including historical processes, is above humor. But it is unimaginable to think that an English person in the 1960s or 1970s — even after the absurdist humor of Spike Milligan and Monty Python, which dealt with the war — would have ever blindly drawn a Hakenkreuz and found it funny. Instead, I want to suggest that such humor, if that is what it is, is revealing of a kind of ironic detachment that is also dangerously ahistorical. Drawing on Frederic Jameson’s work I also want to suggest that the roots of this ahistoricity have to do with globalization, post-modernism and (some, not all, kinds of) internet culture.
The advantage of ironic humor is also the problem I have with it. By using irony, a speaker splits themselves into both a person connected to the event they ironize and a person above the event or detached from it. Irony provides a great intellectual refuge in situations that seem beyond one’s personal control, because it is a non-interventionist stance which still admits of some insight and intelligence; when successful, it can even engender a complete reversal away from the ironized-object. However, irony or irony-based humor also works because we can call to mind the absent object that is ironized. One of David Foster Wallace’s examples of irony — Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? — only works if you grew up with the 1950s sitcom Leave it to Beaver and imbibed its family mores. However, the image at Gatwick airport doesn’t even come close to stimulating reflection on the present by ironically referencing a past object. Instead, all it pronounces is: I drew the Hakenkreuz on this ad because I could, and not because I thought it would mean something in connection with a boy wizard and HSBC advance — although it might piss a few people off — but because such symbols don’t really have the power to shock or mean anymore. It is such a worldview, in which signs are disabused of their original, historical meaning, which I want to connect to the influence of globalized and commercialized online media.
In an analysis that echoes my concern for the diffusion of the potential of irony, Frederic Jameson (in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism) makes a very useful distinction between parody and pastiche, saying that the latter has replaced the former but jettisoned any of its political-historical awareness or intention. In pastiche the “past as ‘referent’ finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts” (Postmodernism, p. 18). In such a situation of discourse immanence, in which the validity of a claim (including humor) is secured by internal and not external criteria, objective reality is the loser, because only other internal criteria are successful in combatting the claim. One can see this theoretical point play out in an online medium such as Facebook, which both homogenizes and relativizes its content. To put it more simply, Jameson is pointing to the fact that once the texts themselves become the ultimate carrier of meaning then the truth of things can only be judged from within these texts and not according to the things they refer to, which diminishes and ultimately removes the idea of objective history.
Because the above image appeared in the same scrolling format as my aunty’s holiday pictures, a new recipe, someone’s birthday and an online petition to save Gaza, it is somehow equated with them, even though their content is not at all connected; and the fact that they either precede or succeed one another suggests a relative (although not concrete) connection. To give an example: if my response to the initial image had been to post an article discussing the symbolic use of the Hakenkreuz post-1945, I think this would have been evaluated according to the internal criteria of the medium and not the objective reality referenced by such an article, and therein lies the danger when pastiche prevails.
If, instead, I had put forward the argument that we should all pay more attention to the meaning of the symbols in the world around us, that the people who noticed but did not speak out against the public Hakenkreuz were ignoring their own responsibility for public space, or complicit in the symbol, or any other argument about paying more attention to media and acting accordingly, I would certainly be earnest in my appeals, but I would be ignoring their efficacy within communicative mediums as they currently are. I would also, probably, be ignored by the other people for whom it was “just a joke” or even more inconsequential.
In Postmodernism Jameson critiques our fascination with a stylized present as the ultimate goal of capitalism and makes a call for a return to historicity. The problem with such a “stylization” of the present, as I understand it, is that the past is presented in such a way that its meaning is subsumed under the prevailing aesthetic modes (in our society, consumerist ones) in a way which leaves no room for the past to be past: different, other, alternative, suppressed, incipient, inherited, borne. Within the terms of the debate around the image provided above, I think a return to historicity would also mean a return to sincerity. I also think that some forms of media, like memes, are actually great ways of breaking down the ahistoricity of pastiche and provoking historical meanings that lie outside of such a ‘stylized’ present. So the — admittedly quite complicated — question I would like to pose, and discuss, and try to find an answer to is: Given the current predominance of the image, given the political potential and (mis-)use of mass-market forms of online communication, what forms of historical truth-telling are possible within these media?
Lindsay Parkhowell is the Secretary for Propaganda and Poetics at the Avtomoni Akadimia, an adisciplinary, democratic arts university in Athens. He is also the head copyeditor of the ERC Project Early Modern Cosmology at the Ca’ Foscari University, Venice.