I have, recently, been trying to understand the concept of a ‘meme.’ Its only necessary characteristic seems to be the activity of self-replication—a characteristic that it shares appropriately with a virus. I have one ‘meme’ that really fucks me off, and despite (or maybe because of) its deceptively quaint exterior, I think particularly virus-like. And I mean that in the most pejorative sense.
It is everywhere. Reassuring, trite and retro, spreading and mutating since its rediscovery in 2000, the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phenomenon is officially ubiquitous. Festooning everything from baby clothes to the officers’ mess in Basra, slicing through social factions and divisions, it unites all in its wake of contagion, as has been explained by its ability to “tap directly into the country’s mythic image of itself: unshowily brave and just a little stiff, brewing tea as the bomb’s fall.”
As is widely known, the original was an uncirculated propaganda poster created by the Ministry of Information in 1939, in which the pacifying dictum stands under the symbolic crown of King George VI.
Subsequent to its exhumation, the image has spread like a chintzy pandemic, and been capitalized on in every conceivable form. And people, all people it seems, love it. They can’t get enough.
Why am I not in love with this twee and supposedly inoffensive meme? Why pour scorn on this particular one?
The jaunty title of an insipid article in The Guardian can begin to explain: ‘What Crisis? It’s the pin-up of our age, gracing homes, shops – even a US embassy. Jon Henley on the poster we just can’t stop buying‘
As The Guardian article notes with an astounding dearth of irony, it’s ‘the poster we just can’t stop buying.’ That ‘we’ are literally compelled to buy anything, let alone a commodified form of an image (that let me reiterate, was to have served as war time propaganda,) is normally a cause for concern, or at least a moment’s thought about why that might be, rather than the occasion for celebration.
Paradoxically concealed by and testified to in the Keep Calm and Carry On phenomenon is a cultural and collective amnesia, that is so desired that people will voluntarily use propaganda as decoration, and pay for it. The message commands us to forget problems, questions, stress etc.
In part it achieves this by an appeal to a fabricated continuity with some essential ‘Britishness’ of the past. simultaneously however it facilitates the forgetting of the difference(s) between 1939 and our own situation. The image’s circulation through different mediums, and its individuation in various forms makes it applicable across the spectrum of experiences and situations. Consequently it can be understood as what Fredric Jameson terms ‘Pastiche’ in his diagnosis of the symptoms of postmodernity. For ‘pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter…’
The joke of Keep Calm and Carry On is that it’s imperative is completely serious, and the majority of its various spin-offs involve no ironic critique of the original message, as parody would entail. Instead, through its repetition it acts as a pastiche of a de-historicized mythic British spirit, that is supposedly as alive today as in the situation of emergency of 1939.
However, this does not fully explain why this particular pastiche has struck a nerve in the body politic with particular strength / power / success. to return to The Guardian headline, we see it begins with the revealing phrase: ‘What Crisis?’
Situations of crises are what links the present moment to 1939. The contemporary crisis – to which the resurgence of the poster would seem to refer —is that of the economy. Both situations of emergency seem to require the necessary toleration of privation and hardship, and the chorusing of the mollifying mantra that ‘We are all in this together,’ so that the only option is to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’
However, what if the thing that links the present climate to that of WWII is not so much the equivalent gravity of the crises, but rather the exceptional powers that the respective coalition governments assumed in both situations? As is noted in a piece for The Economist, the unofficial appropriation of the slogan by the current government is a bid to legitimise the radical structural changes that are currently taking effect, through the appeal to a ‘Churchillian pastiche,’ so that the reign of austerity ‘appears as a campaign of necessity rather than political choice. It implies that opposition to it is unpatriotic, or at least extreme.’
This apparently nostalgic and neutral image serves as a symbol of the zeitgeist, one in which the references to martial emergencies is particularly telling. Without wanting to totalise the situation, I think it can be suggested that this image, quotidian to the extreme, is the manifestation of a contemporary form of what Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben have termed the state of exception.
The state of exception may be understood as the suspension of the law during a time of siege or military emergency. However, as Benjamin argued ‘the state of exception… has become the rule,’ for what appeared as a provisional and exceptional measure, justified by a threat, is transformed into a technique of government. Agamben suggests that: ‘the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics’.
Attention given to this topic has focused considerably on the War on Terror, in such examples as the US Patriot act of 2001. However, a critical murmur has begun to surround the current activities of the UK government that places them within this paradigm. Cases such as the illegal closure of a children’s Heart surgery unit in Leeds, or the workfare ‘Poundland Case,’ in which the government hastily drafted new regulations after the High Court found that the Secretary of State had acted unlawfully, or the forceful quashing of the student movement, fit Schmitt’s definition of sovereign power with a disturbing snugness, as the operation of one ‘who is above the law.’
Let’s turn back to the jolly propaganda, understood by The Guardian as a rejoinder to forget the present economic crisis. It seems that what it helps us to forget is not so much the problems of the recession etc., but the constitutional crisis that we face by living in and carrying on in a state of exception, for which the economic crisis is in fact the justification. In drawing a visual parallel with WWII, Keep Calm and Carry On acts as a mnemonic device that reminds us of the apparent state of emergency, perpetuating a climate of fear that simultaneously compels us to forget that those in power should or have deferred to a legal order that is increasingly superfluous for them.
We must remember that the Keep Calm and Carry On was one of only three propaganda posters made in a series in 1939. One of which proclaims that ‘Freedom is in Peril.’ What interests me is why this slogan has been all but forgotten, especially when compared with the renaissance of the one-dimensional injunction to Keep Calm and Carry On. As The Economist article concludes: ‘Keep calm, by all means. But the coalition does not want to carry on as before.’
There is clearly a deep and necessary desire to forge a national identity and tradition that fits the present crises. Please, let it be something other than a humourless slogan of compliance, so easily reduced to fit on a tea towel.