The coronavirus has infected over 1.3 million people in the world and forced the rest to seek shelter in self-isolation, although there remains a disturbingly large number of people like the refugees in Greece or the migrant laborers in India who cannot afford to do so in a world where self-isolation is a privilege. The world is now experiencing an unprecedented lockdown which has affected not only the way we live, but also our economy and infrastructure.
People around the world can be found saying that the very way in which they live has changed under self-isolation. As for the first time the world’s millennial generation finds itself isolated in its home, there has been an increase in the proliferation of memes circulated on social media on how to survive the lockdown. In fact, the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 has led to a wave of memes on living in lockdown, many of which carry a political meaning.
Emily Apter, a Comparativist at NYU, says that memes have an antidepressant function. She writes that “memes are salves for solitary souls. They are community-builders, connecting solo agents to social networks and political causes”. By working through recognition and repetition, memes create a community between viewers and readers who understand and ‘like’ a meme. It is like being on the inside of a joke. Apter observes that a political critique is initiated by memes and hence calls them “omnipresent warriors”.
The Indian philosopher Shaj Mohan states that memes are “explosive in their circulation, creating no regularity other than their own circulation”. This insight is interesting when we examine the circulation of memes with a black background which say “Dear World, How is the Lockdown? Sincerely, Gaza” or “Dear World, How is the Lockdown? Sincerely, Kashmir”.
In this meme, a political critique is coded in an imagistic language of memes which the millennials understand. The meme has become a vehicle for the circulation of a political critique of the lockdown and how the lockdown has now come full circle. Both Kashmir and Gaza have been in lockdown like conditions for years. For Kashmir it was particularly since the abrogation of Article 370 in India which abolished Kashmir’s special status last summer, and for Gaza is has been 13 years since Israel instituted the blockade of Gaza in 2007. By coding their critique of the lockdown in the language of humor, satire and memes, Kashmiris and Palestinians have ensured that their critique can circulate and be understood.
Hence, memes are being used for a pedagogical intervention. They intend to educate the millennial audience how difficult it is to live under lockdown. Millennials have been joking that their grandparents saved the world by fighting in wars, while they are saving the world by lying on their couches.
Now, the Kashmiri and Palestinian memes joke that for the first time, the world is experiencing what they experienced. This is why Emily Apter calls memes the “cryptocurrency of micropolitics”. She means that memes are coded in a certain way to enable an understanding of a political situation.
It was tragicomic when Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, tweeted that perhaps he should start a blog on how to live in a 21-day lockdown as he had been imprisoned for 236 days in his house by the Indian Government since the abolition of Article 370.
His misery became something which Indian millennials could relate with, even though they joked that shortly after exiting a 236 day lockdown, Abdullah had to enter a 21-day lockdown imposed by the Indian Government on the entire nation because of COVID-19.
While internet in Kashmir remains restricted to the stone-age 2G, it is important to ask if millennials truly understand what Kashmir and Gaza have been experiencing indefinitely. While most millennials get 4G internet on their phones with a minimum speed of 10 mbps, can they truly imagine what it means to live without the internet to the extent that medical institutions and educational facilities suffer? Apter says that “mobilized as a comic medium, memes test the conceptual boundaries of existential belonging and political community and critically reboot the venerable tradition of political satire for an era of micropolitics”.
Memes could be considered ‘paradigmatic’ in the sense defined by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (PDF). A paradigm helps the viewer create an analogy between two situations which were previously uncompared. It creates a new way of seeing since it is an example which can be repeated. It is tempting to argue that memes can be paradigmatic because they make the previously unrelatable phenomenon of the Kashmir or Gaza lockdown intelligible.
However, memes actually show the limit of the comparison by showing the limits of empathy. While the average millennial has enough internet bandwidth to circulate memes during the lockdown and survive self-isolation, Kashmir and Gaza have been surviving with little or no internet services and a lockdown far worse than that the millennial is capable of imagining, let alone surviving.
The estimated population of Kashmir is 12 million and the population of Gaza is 1.8 million. For the first time, billions of people over the world are experiencing the harsh conditions of confinement, isolation, depleting rations and the ensuing depression and trauma that are routinely experienced by those in Kashmir and Gaza.
Memes actually show the limits of analogy because even though they ask the millennial to empathize with Gaza and Kashmir, they imply that the millennial perhaps cannot comprehend the difficulty of living under a political lockdown that goes on for years. Memes are interventionist—they help us draw parallels through their incessant circulation. However, memes are most insightful when they show the limit of the comparison that appears to be made: between a political lockdown imposed on the freedom of people occupied in Kashmir and Gaza, and the luxury of self-isolation that can be afforded by the millennial.