Archive | May 2023

Object in Focus: The Lewis Chessmen

I’ve never paid much attention to the Lewis Chessmen, despite their prominence in British Museum gift shops. However, one of my reading quests is to read all the books in the Objects in Focus series, so here we are.

The Lewis Chessmen, by James Robinson, takes an in-depth look at both the chessmen themselves and the intriguing story of what happened after they were discovered in the early 19th century.

There are enough of the chessmen to indicate at least four (incomplete) sets, but there is also some indication that individual pieces were sold off before the hoard left the isle of Lewis and came on to the antiquities market. How and exactly where the hoard was found is shrouded in some mystery and the book examines the gaps in the stories, the rumours, and the possible events that might explain what happened.

The chessmen are made from walrus ivory and the book looks at the difference between walrus and elephant ivory and what that means for craftwork. It also explains the economics behind using walrus ivory, a more difficult material to work. Examining the styles of clothing the chessmen wear and the motifs on the thrones of the kings and queens show that the chessmen were likely made in Scandinavia in the 12th century. And finally. the book takes a look at the history and spread of the game of chess.

These little books are always a delight and this one was surprisingly engaging.

Meme Wars

Meme Wars by Joan Donovan. Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg is an analysis of the memes that have flourished in online subcultures in the 21st century and their impact on real world events.

Memes are units for the transmission of ideas, behaviours and styles, usually images or phrases with highly symbolic content, that move from person to person through a culture, or between cultures. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in the The Selfish Gene but he acknowledged that it was not a new idea. Indeed, the use of visual and written imagery and oral storytelling traditions were consciously used ways to transmit ideas throughout human existence. An example is the way Roman Emperors used mass-produced statuary of their likeness to support their authority across a large, multi-cultural empire.

I don’t think the internet has changed people’s behaviour. There’s nothing new about the worst aspects of us online. What the internet has done is make it more visible, and make the transmission of ideas much quicker.

Meme Wars looks at how people and groups in America who hold fascist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi views used online memes to influence the electorate and media and shift the political consensus to the right, culminating in the storming of Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021. The authors look at the origin of the use of memes in this way with the Occupy Movement and it’s subsequent adoption by the alt-right and evolution through Gamer Gate and conspiracy theories to its deployment to elect Donald Trump. They examine some of the ideas that are being transmitted and to what extent they are rooted in genuine beliefs or used to undermine trust in established authorities.

The influence of phrases and images which started out in the dark corners of the internet has had on the mainstream ‘real-world’ media is analyzed. This is a combination of public figures using the phrases on shows and in speeches and of media outlets following their commercial imperative to provide content attractive to their viewers. The recent case around Fox News and its promotion of ‘Stop the Steal’ despite knowing that it was factually unsound demonstrates those pressures. Other impacts, such as the Charlottesville rally and the Republican party are also discussed.

Of course, the US isn’t the only country in the world that has seen a political shift towards nationalism, intolerance and regressive politics in the last twenty years and the causes of these trends are far bigger than internet trolls. Meme Wars is an excellent analysis of the mechanisms by which the ideas and beliefs generated by those bigger trends are spread through cultures in an online era. It’s very good. The images and phrases examined in this book are probably familiar, but like me, you may not fully understand the symbolism. This book will lift the veil and, disturbing as it might be, it is always better to see clearly.