Clicks Out for Harambe: Death, Race, and Memes



On May 28th, 2016 a three-year-old black boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.  As a result a 17-year-old gorilla inside the pen, Harambe, was shot, as the zoo argued, for the boy’s protection. Nearly three months later, on August 22nd the director of the zoo, Thane Maynard, issued a plea for an end to the ‘memeification’ of Harambe, stating, “We are not amused by the memes, petitions and signs about Harambe…Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us.” By the end of October, however, despite turgid proclamations to the contrary, the use of Harambe seems to be waning.

The six-month interim marked a significant transition in the media presence of Harambe, from symbol of public uproar and cross-species sympathy to widely memed Internet joke. The death and affective trajectory of Harambe, therefore, represents a unique vector in analyzing intersections of animality, race, and the phenomenon of virality. Harambe, like Cecil the Lion before him, became a widely appropriated Internet cause, one with fraught ethical implications.

At first, much of the outcry concerning Harambe centered on the question of responsibility, or the circumstances that led to his death. One Scientific American articleraised concerns about the ethics of zoos, decrying the systemic and immoral circumstances, which brought Harambe and the boy together. More prevalent, however, was public outcry about the boy’s parents. A petition, entitled “Justice for Harambe” garnered 500,000 supporters seeking prosecution against the boy’s parents, Michelle Gregg and Deonne Dickerson, for negligence leading to Harambe’s death (charges were never brought). The petition called for the parents to “be held accountable for lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life.” Other responses expressed a less-veiled form of racism. The hashtag #Justice4Harambe was one such site, in which white supremacists charted the ‘similarities’ between people of color and gorillas.

The juxtaposition of race and animal imagery has an extensive and horrific history. In the U.S., colonialist racism that depicted people of color as ‘less than human’ was used to justify slavery. Blacks were similarly demonized in the post-reconstruction era through associations with bestial or unbridled sexuality, particularly in the image of the ‘sex crazed negro.’ This trope has not disappeared today, however. Under the auspices of a newly invigorated politics of respectability, the character of young black men gunned down by the police is constantly in question. They are commonly called criminals, thugs, and animals. Through this lens, it is impossible to divorce the responses to Harambe’s death from those to the manner in which many young black men lose their lives. Moreover, the widespread denigration of the young boy’s parents, and the celebration of Harambe’s life, act against similar movements around the loss of black lives, and is particularly evident in the antipathy towards #BlackLivesMatter.

It was with this in mind that many Twitter users began reconfiguring the outpouring of sympathy for Harambe, highlighting the hypocrisy of caring for a gorilla at the expense of black lives. The resultant viral meme #DicksOut4Harambe showcased the seeming cognitive dissonance many express when alternatively presented with the deaths of young black men and a gorilla.

The hashtag has, however, like many other iterations of Black social media presence (and in true meme form), taken on a (racialized) life of its own. While espousing a subversive reconfiguration of what lives matter to whom, the memeification of Harambe has also largely become a breeding ground for racist and sexist rhetoric, as can be seen in the hack and doxxing of comedian Leslie Jones. The viral possibilities of of the meme seemingly cut both ways, then, providing a medium to challenge white supremacy on a large-scale while remaining vulnerable to cooptation and appropriation.

This, I believe, is tied to the temporal mechanisms of that which goes viral. As thisinsightful essay by Britney Summit-Gil reminds us, the contemporary ‘meme market’ metaphorizes an (often self-aware) economics of invested time in cultural objects. In this way, memes have a peculiar shelf-life. Any medium has trends that come and go, but few others offer the opportunity for ‘democratic’ (I use that word very cautiously here) participation in that life cycle. The meme economy gives internet users the power to briefly dictate what images circulate the most, not TV executives, fashion moguls, or politicians. In a way the aesthetics of the meme acknowledge this transience, as well as the tenuous grasp on cultural power that they wield. The memes that arise from Me_irl, 4chan, or otherwise, at least in their contemporary iterations, don’t always seek ironic reapproriation or chase authenticity, but often cleave the image entirely from anything but the possibility of its transience. That which replicates the most wins out. Memes in this way seem doomed to their Dawkinsian ‘roots,’ masquerading as a democratic and objective means of quantifying success, while inscribing that very ideology in their users.

dat boi
Figure 1: dat boi

What is it, then, to speak of the death of a meme (or its resurrection)? The answer I believe is twofold. First, as previously mentioned, memes are a point of access in the process of cultural production. By killing off and resurrecting particular memes, users play at dictating what is seen as relevant (a useful parallel can be found in the ‘grassroots’ campaigns to resurrect dead cultural products, successfully done in the case of MST3K and Veronica Mars and still a pipe dream for Firefly fans). In doing so, they reify capitalist market ideology. Second, and concomitant with the first, is the connection between circulation and ontology. Michel Foucault argues in The Order of Things, “What makes economics possible, and necessary, then, is a perpetual and fundamental situation of scarcity…It is no longer in the interplay of representation that economics finds its principle, but near that perilous region where life is in confrontation with death.” In this, the finitude of life is that which invigorates capital. Foucault continues, however, “From Smith onward, the time of economics… was to be the interior time of an organic structure which grows in accordance with its own necessity and develops in accordance with autochthonous laws – the time of capital and production.” Foucault demonstrates the humanity of market time. The irreality of economy, evidenced in the meme economy, isn’t problematic to the reproduction of its logic, but a key component of its contemporary cultural reorientation. As a means of capture, memes can seemingly never arrest the motility of capital, regardless of their reconfigurations of life and death precisely because they are an actant of it.

To this, in writing of her concept of the poor image, Hito Steyerl re-envisions the object aura that Benjamin defines in his essay “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” To Steyerl, “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original,” but instead “about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities… about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.” In doing so, Steyerl moves us away from an aesthetics of a self-contained object, wrapped up in its own essence and hermetically sealed against the tide of replication. The aura of the poor image, instead, is a product of its transience, of its virality. As Steyerl asserts, “The poor image thus constructs anonymous global networks just as it creates a shared history. It builds alliances as it travels, provokes translation or mistranslation, and creates new publics and debates. By losing its visual substance it recovers some of its political punch and creates a new aura around it. This aura is no longer based on the permanence of the “original,” but on the transience of the copy.” This is why memes take on an almost preposterously low fidelity aesthetics, they are quickly made, circulated, and reappropriated.

But if meme circulation is predicated on a need for replication (perhaps a la capital’s insistence on perpetual growth?) it still has to make headways with users right? Architectures of power still affect how images are circulated and how we feel about them. Steyerl explains that the brilliance of the poor image is the cooptation by which its operate, making cultural production a mutually constitutive process. This in itself is nothing new, cultural studies is practically founded on the ideas of Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault, in which media ‘consumers’ are actually active participants in the becoming of culture. What Steyerl highlights, however, is a technic through which that contribution is made explicit (a post-cultural studies moment where cultural production is dispersed and “egalitarian”). Thus, the poor image “is also permeated by the most advanced commodification techniques. While it enables the users’ active participation in the creation and distribution of content, it also drafts them into production. Users become the editors, critics, translators, and (co-)authors of poor images.” To use a poor analogy: prospective child soldiers are made complicit in the production of heinous violence through their forced participation, they are in effect severed from one community and affectively bonded to those who are similarly ‘guilty.’ The logic, to a different degree of course, applies in a similar way to the nascent meme economy that Steyerl is expounding. In becoming ‘producers’ we have no reason to antagonize, to disrupt, or to question those mechanisms of power that wield cultural artefacts towards hierarchical ends.

Steyerl’s poor image is dexterously re-sculpted by Aria Dean, who argues in her fantastic essay “Poor Meme, Rich Meme” on the ontological implications of meme circulation. Dean states, “Relatability helps memes sustain a kind of cohesion in “collective being,” a collective memory that can never be fully encompassed; one can never zoom out enough to see it in its entirety.” What Dean recognizes is the sticky temporary accumulation of affects that bridge how we see ourselves, as well as those formative images out of which identity emerges and to which sociality and community are beholden. Dean argues that blackness is one particularly charged site, stating, “There is no articulable ontology of blackness, no essential blackness, because blackness’s only home is in its circulating representations: a network that includes all the bodies that bear its markers, the words produced by such bodies, the words made to appear to have been produced by such bodies, the flat images that purport to document them, and so forth.” To Dean we occupy a world in which the constructedness of identity is self-evident, but also through which it is also evacuated of any subversive politics. BlackPeopleTwitter is one such site in which the messiness of constantly un/becoming signification up for grabs has been oriented towards a kind of puppeteering, a meme mimetics. If identity is free circulating and subject to anonymous capture online, it can be easily occupied (as we have seen) in service of racialized, sexist, speciesist, and transphobic dogma. The trap of liberation that Foucault famously outlined early in The History of Sexuality reoriented,

What sustains our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportu­nity to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss, to link together enlightenment, liberation, and manifold pleasures; to pronounce a discourse that com­bines the fervor of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of earthly delights.

In this, capital has coopted even the constructedness of being, allowing you to purchase bits and pieces of identity not with any standard currency but by participating in the reification of its own logic of liberation. “It me” “Me_irl” and other memes are a tacit acknowledgement of this.

We have come a long way from the opening salvo on Harambe. But where have we ended up? Are there any subversive possibilities of the meme? While Sanjay Sharma argues that ‘Blacktags,’ or racialized hashtags, “have the capacity to interrupt the whiteness of the Twitter network,” Aria Dean counters that appropriation is an inevitability. Dean asserts that “memes — even when produced by black users — cannot be viewed as objects that once authentically circulated in black circles for the enjoyment of the black collective but instead are always already compromised by the looming presence of the corporate, the capitalist.” To move beyond a politics of authenticity, however, is not to accept the status quo, but to embrace the messiness of being, its hybrid possibilities and its concomitant wonkiness in time and space. If as Dean says, “The meme’s structure is at once its potential energy, its possibility, and its limit” it does not seek some transcendental infinite, but more.

Figure 2: Google Search Trends for ‘Harambe’ (May 1, 2016 – October 29, 2016)

Much of the debate around Harambe has taken on this either/or mentality and run with it, in which celebrations of Harambe are opposed to anti-racist efforts against systems of oppression that make black lives precarious. And yet, it is seemingly more complex than that. The conditions that manufacture normalized violence against people of color are very much in line with those that objectify/commodify animals for their use-value (as well as along lines of ability, gender, sexuality). More than this, the public outcry about the deaths of Harambe, Cecil the Lion, and other celebritized animals is not extended to the billions of animals slaughtered for food each year. In order to engage with an anti-racist animal rights politics, therefore, we must remember the history of racial oppression built on dehumanization, whilst simultaneously combatting the very real violences waged against humans and non-humans alike. The meme is just that, possibility. Any solutions to the aforementioned violences, therefore, will not emerge from attempts to capitalize on it.

Justice need not be an us or them binary. As we can see the dispersal of media control (still beholden to gatekeepers like Reddit, Facebook, etc.) has not lessened the abhorrent practice of racism, only mutated it. This is because racialization is not a problem of immanent to any given medium. It may be exacerbated through an increased ability to connect, but yelling racial slurs is problematic whether one does it angrily on the street, over the phone, on TV, or on the internet.

In Swahili ‘Harambee’ means to pull together. By assailing the hierarchies of power that oppress humans and animals alike we can engage in a more radical form of ethics, one of justice and solidarity.

Stephen is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark where he advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. He can be found on Twitter @mcnultyenator 


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